Archive for the ‘Ethics’ Category

Continuing (after some delay) from part 1, Pankaj Mishra concludes chapter 4 of The Age of Anger with an overview of Iranian governments that shifted from U.S./British client state (headed by the Shah of Iran, reigned 1941–1979) to its populist replacement (headed by Ayatollah Khomeini, ruled 1979–1989), both leaders having been authoritarians. During the period discussed, Iran underwent the same modernization and infiltration by liberal, Western values and economics, which produced a backlash familiar from Mishra’s descriptions of other nations and regions that had experienced the same severed roots of place since the onset of the Enlightenment. Vacillation among two or more styles of government might be understood as a thermostatic response: too hot/cold one direction leads to correction in another direction. It’s not a binary relationship, however, between monarchy and democracy (to use just one example). Nor are options between a security state headed by an installed military leader and a leader elected by popular vote. Rather, it’s a question of national identity being alternatively fractured and unified (though difficult to analyze and articulate) in the wake of multiple intellectual influences.

According to Lewis and Huntington, modernity has failed to take root in intransigently traditional and backward Muslim countries despite various attempts to impose it by secular leaders such as Turkey’s Atatürk, the Shah of Iran, Algeria’s Ben Bella, Egypt’s Nasser and Sadat, and Pakistan’s Ayub Khan.

Since 9/11 there have been many versions, crassly populist as well as solemnly intellectual, of the claims by Lewis and Huntington that the crisis in Muslim countries is purely self-induced, and [that] the West is resented for the magnitude of its extraordinary success as a beacon of freedom, and embodiment of the Enlightenment’s achievements … They have mutated into the apparently more sophisticated claim that the clash of civilizations occurs [primarily] within Islam, and that Western interventions are required on behalf of the ‘good Muslim’, who is rational, moderate and liberal. [p. 127]

This is history told by the putative winners. Mishra goes on:

Much of the postcolonial world … became a laboratory for Western-style social engineering, a fresh testing site for the Enlightenment ideas of secular progress. The philosophes had aimed at rationalization, or ‘uniformization’, of a range of institutions inherited from an intensely religious era. Likewise, postcolonial leaders planned to turn illiterate peasants into educated citizens, to industrialize the economy, move the rural population to cities, alchemize local communities into a singular national identity, replace the social hierarchies of the past with an egalitarian order, and promote the cults of science and technology among a pious and often superstitious population. [p. 133]

Readers may recognize this project and/or process by its more contemporary name: globalization. It’s not merely a war of competing ideas, however, because those ideas manifest in various styles of social and political organization. Moreover, the significance of migration from rural agrarian settings to primarily urban and suburban ones can scarcely be overstated. This transformation (referring to the U.S. in the course of the 20th century) is something James Howard Kunstler repeatedly characterizes rather emphatically as the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world. Mishra summarizes the effects of Westernization handily:

In every human case, identity turns out to be porous and inconsistent rather than fixed and discrete; and prone to get confused and lost in the play of mirrors. The cross-currents of ideas and inspirations — the Nazi reverence for Atatürk, a gay French philosopher’s denunciation of the modern West and sympathy for the Iranian Revolution, or the various ideological inspirations for Iran’s Islamic Revolution (Zionism, Existentialism, Bolshevism and revolutionary Shiism) — reveal that the picture of a planet defined by civilizations closed off from one another and defined by religion (or lack thereof) is a puerile cartoon. They break the simple axis — religious-secular, modern-medieval, spiritual-materialist — on which the contemporary world is still measured, revealing that its populations, however different their pasts, have been on converging and overlapping paths. [p. 158]

These descriptions and analyses put me in mind of a fascinating book I read some years ago and reviewed on Amazon (one of only a handful of Amazon reviews): John Reader’s Man on Earth (1988). Reader describes and indeed celebrates incredibly diverse ways of inhabiting the Earth specially adapted to the landscape and based on evolving local practices. Thus, the notion of “place” is paramount. Comparison occurs only by virtue of juxtaposition. Mishra does something quite different, drawing out the connective ideas that account for “converging and overlapping paths.” Perhaps inevitably, disturbances to collective and individual identities that flow from unique styles of social organization, especially those now operating at industrial scale (i.e., industrial civilization), appear to be picking up. For instance, in the U.S., even as mass shootings (a preferred form of attack but not the only one) appear to be on the rise at the same time that violent crime is at an all-time low, perpetrators of violence are not limited to a few lone wolves, as the common trope goes. According to journalist Matt Agorist,

mass shootings — in which murdering psychopaths go on rampages in public spaces — have claimed the lives of 339 people since 2015 [up to mid-July 2019]. While this number is certainly shocking and far too high, during this same time frame, police in America have claimed the lives of 4,355 citizens.

And according to this article in Vox, this crazy disproportion (police violence to mass shootings) is predominantly an American thing at least partly because of our high rate of fetishized civilian gun ownership. Thus, the self-described “land of the free, home of the brave” has transformed itself into a paranoid garrison state affecting civil authority even more egregiously than the disenfranchised (mostly young men). Something similar occurred during the Cold War, when leaders became hypervigilant for attacks and invasions that never came. Whether a few close calls during the height of the Cold War were the result of escalating paranoia, brinkmanship, or true, maniacal, existential threats from a mustache-twirling, hand-rolling despot hellbent on the destruction of the West is a good question, probably impossible to answer convincingly. However, the result today of this mindset couldn’t be more disastrous:

It is now clear that the post-9/11 policies of pre-emptive war, massive retaliation, regime change, nation-building and reforming Islam have failed — catastrophically failed — while the dirty war against the West’s own Enlightenment [the West secretly at war with itself] — inadvertently pursued through extrajudicial murder, torture, rendition, indefinite detention and massive surveillance — has been a wild success. The uncodified and unbridled violence of the ‘war on terror’ ushered in the present era of absolute enmity in which the adversaries, scornful of all compromise, seek to annihilate each other. Malignant zealots have emerged at the very heart of the democratic West after a decade of political and economic tumult; the simple explanatory paradigm set in stone soon after the attacks of 9/11 — Islam-inspired terrorism versus modernity — lies in ruins. [pp.124–125]

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A potpourri of recent newsbits and developments. Sorry, no links or support provided. If you haven’t already heard of most of these, you must be living under a rock. On a moment’s consideration, that may not be such a bad place to dwell.

rant on/

I just made up the word of the title, but anyone could guess its origin easily. Many of today’s political and thought leaders (not quite the same thing; politics doesn’t require much thought), as well as American institutions, are busy creating outrageously preposterous legacies for themselves. Doomers like me doubt anyone will be around to recall in a few decades. For instance, the mainstream media (MSM) garners well-deserved rebuke, often attacking each other in the form of one of the memes of the day: a circular firing squad. Its brazen attempts at thought-control (different thrusts at different media organs) and pathetic abandonment of mission to inform the public with integrity have hollowed it out. No amount of rebranding at the New York Times (or elsewhere) will overcome the fact that the public has largely moved on, swapping superhero fiction for the ubiquitous fictions spun by the MSM and politicians. The RussiaGate debacle may be the worst example, but the MSM’s failures extend well beyond that. The U.S. stock market wobbles madly around its recent all-time high, refusing to admit its value has been severely overhyped and inflated through quantitative easing, cheap credit (an artificial monetary value not unlike cryptocurrencies or fiat currency created out of nothing besides social consensus), and corporate buybacks. The next crash (already well overdue) is like the last hurricane: we might get lucky and it will miss us this season, but eventually our lottery number will come up like those 100-year floods now occurring every few years or decades.

Public and higher education systems continue to creak along, producing a glut of dropouts and graduates ill-suited to do anything but the simplest of jobs requiring no critical thought, little training, and no actual knowledge or expertise. Robots and software will replace them anyway. Civility and empathy are cratering: most everyone is ready and willing to flip the bird, blame others, air their dirty laundry in public, and indulge in casual violence or even mayhem following only modest provocation. Who hasn’t fantasized just a little bit about acting out wildly, pointlessly like the mass killers blackening the calendar? It’s now de rigueur. Thus, the meme infiltrates and corrupts vulnerable minds regularly. Systemic failure of the U.S. healthcare and prison systems — which ought to be public institutions but are, like education, increasingly operated for profit to exploit public resources — continues to be exceptional among developed nations, as does the U.S. military and its bloated budget.

Gaffe-prone Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden cemented his reputation as a goof years ago yet continues to build upon it. One might think that at his age enough would have been enough, but the allure of the highest office in the land is just too great, so he guilelessly applies for the job and the indulgence of the American public. Of course, the real prize-winner is 45, whose constant stream of idiocy and vitriol sends an entire nation scrambling daily to digest their Twitter feeds and make sense of things. Who knows (certainly I don’t) how serious was his remark that he wanted to buy Greenland? It makes a certain sense that a former real-estate developer would offhandedly recommend an entirely new land grab. After all, American history is based on colonialism and expansionism. No matter that the particular land in question is not for sale (didn’t matter for most of our history, either). Of course, everyone leapt into the news cycle with analysis or mockery, only the second of which was appropriate. Even more recent goofiness was 45’s apparent inability to read a map resulting in the suggestion that Hurricane Dorian might strike Alabama. Just as with the Greenland remark, PR flacks went to work to manage and reconfigure public memory, revising storm maps for after-the-fact justification. Has anyone in the media commented that such blatant historical revisionism is the stuff of authoritarian leaders (monarchs, despots, and tyrants) whose underlings and functionaries, fearing loss of livelihood if not indeed life, provide cover for mistakes that really ought to lead to simple admission of error and apology? Nope, just add more goofs to the heaping pile of preposterity.

Of course, the U.S. is hardly alone in these matters. Japan and Russia are busily managing perception of their respective ongoing nuclear disasters, including a new one in Russia that has barely broken through our collective ennui. Having followed the U.S. and others into industrialization and financialization of its economy, China is running up against the same well-known ecological despoliation and limits to growth and is now circling the drain with us. The added spectacle of a trade war with the petulant president in the U.S. distracts everyone from coming scarcity. England has its own clownish supreme leader, at least for now, trying to manage an intractable but binding issue: Brexit. (Does every head of state need a weirdo hairdo?) Like climate change, there is no solution no matter how much steadfast hoping and wishing one into existence occurs, so whatever eventually happens will throw the region into chaos. Folks shooting each other for food and fresh water in the Bahamas post-Hurricane Dorian is a harbinger of violent hair-triggers in the U.S. poised to fire at anything that moves when true existential threats finally materialize. Thus, our collective human legacy is absurd and self-destroying. No more muddling through.

/rant off

For readers coming to this blog post lacking context, I’m currently reading and book-blogging Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger. It explores Western intellectual history that gives rise to feelings of radical discontent over injustices that have not been addressed or remedied successfully for the entirety of the modern era despite centuries of supposed progress.

Continuing from part 1, the case of Voltaire is a curious one. A true child of the Enlightenment, my inference is that he came along too late to participate in the formulation of foundational Enlightenment ideals but later became one of their chief proponents as they diffused throughout Europe and into Russia and elsewhere. He joined many, many others in a belief (against a preponderance of evidence) in human progress, if not perfectibility. (Technical progress is an entirely different matter.) One of the significant aspects of his ideology and writings was his sustained attack on Christianity, or more particularly, Catholicism. More than three centuries later, the secularization of Europe and diminished influence of medieval church dogma stand out as part of the same intellectual tradition.

Enlightenment canon includes aspirational faith in the ability of reason, mechanisms, systems, and administrative prowess to order the affairs of men properly. (How one defines properly, as distinct from equitably or justly, is a gaping hole primed for debate.) In the course of the last few centuries, history has demonstrated that instrumental logic spawned by this ideology has given rise to numerous totalitarian regimes that have subjugated entire populations, often quite cruelly, in modernizing and Westernizing projects. Voltaire found himself in the thick of such projects by willingly aligning himself with despots and rulers who victimized their own peoples in pursuit of industrialization and imitation of urbane French and British models. Russians Peter the Great (reigned May 7, 1682 to February 8, 1725) and Catherine the Great (reigned July 9, 1762 to November 17, 1796) were among those for whom Voltaire acted as apologist and intellectual co-conspirator. Here’s what Mishra has to say:

Voltaire was an unequivocal top-down modernizer, like most of the Enlightenment philosophes, and an enraptured chronicler in particular of Peter the Great. Russian peasants had paid a steep price for Russia’s Westernization, exposed as they were to more oppression and exploitation as Peter tried in the seventeenth century to build a strong military and bureaucratic state. Serfdom, near extinct in most of Western Europe by the thirteen century, was actually strengthened by Peter in Russia. Coercing his nobles into lifetime service to the state, [effectively] postponing the emergence of a civil society, Peter the Great waged war endlessly. But among educated Europeans, who until 1789 saw civilization as something passed down from the enlightened few to the ignorant many, Russia was an admirably progressive model. [pp. 98–99]

and slightly later

… it was Voltaire who brought a truly religious ardour to the cult of Catherine. As the Empress entered into war with Poland and Turkey in 1768, Voltaire became her cheerleader. Catherine claimed to be protecting the rights of religious minorities residing in the territories of her opponents. The tactic, repeatedly deployed by later European imperialists in Asia and Africa, had the expected effect on Voltaire, who promptly declared Catherine’s imperialistic venture to be a crusade for the Enlightenment. [p. 102]

No doubt plenty of rulers throughout history understood in the proverbial sense that to make an omelette, a few eggs must be broken, and that by extension, their unpopular decisions must be reshaped and propagandized to the masses to forestall open revolt. Whose eggs are ultimately broken is entirely at issue. That basic script is easily recognizable as being at work even today. Justifications for administrative violence ought to fail to convince those on the bottom rungs of society who make most of the real sacrifices — except that propaganda works. Thus, the United States’ multiple, preemptive wars of aggression and regime change (never fully declared or even admitted as such) have continued to be supported or at least passively accepted by a majority of Americans until quite recently. Mishra makes this very same point using an example different from mine:

… cossetted writers and artists would in the twentieth century transfer their fantasies of an idea society to Soviet leaders, who seemed to be bringing a superhuman energy and progressive rhetoric to Peter the Great’s rational schemes of social engineering. Stalin’s Russia, as it ruthlessly eradicated its religious and evidently backward enemies in the 1930s, came to ‘constitute … a quintessential Enlightenment utopia’. But the Enlightenment philosophes had already shown, in their blind adherence to Catherine, how reason could degenerate into dogma and new, more extensive forms of domination, authoritarian state structures, violent top-down manipulation of human affairs (often couched in terms of humanitarian concern) and indifference to suffering. [pp. 104–105]

As I reread the chapter in preparation for this blog post, I was surprised to find somewhat less characterization of Voltaire than of Rousseau. Indeed, it is more through Rousseau’s criticism of the dominant European paradigm that the schism between competing intellectual traditions is explored. Mishra circles back to Rousseau repeatedly but does not hesitate to show where his ideas, too, are insufficient. For instance, whereas pro-Enlightenment thinkers are often characterized as being lost in abstraction and idealization (i.e., ideologically possessed), thus estranged from practical reality or history, Rousseau’s empathy and identification with commoners does not provide enough structure for Rousseau to construct a viable alternative to the historical thrust of the day. Mishra quotes a contemporary critic (Joseph de Maistre) who charged Rousseau with irresponsible radicalism:

… he often discovers remarkable truths and expresses them better than anyone else, but these truths are sterile to his hands … No one shapes their materials better than he, and no one builds more poorly. Everything is good except his systems. [p. 110]

The notion that leaders (monarchs, emperors, presidents, prime ministers, social critics, and more recently, billionaires) ought to be in the business of engineering society rather than merely managing it is tacitly assumed. Indeed, there is a parallel hubris present in Rousseau as a thought leader having questionable moral superiority through his vehement criticism of the Enlightenment:

His confidence and self-righteousness derived from his belief that he had at least escaped the vices of modern life: deceit and flattery. In his solitude, he was convinced, like many converts to ideological causes and religious beliefs, that he was immune to corruption. A conviction of his incorruptibility was what gave his liberation from social pieties a heroic aura and moved him from a feeling of powerlessness to omnipotence. In the movement from victimhood to moral supremacy, Rousseau enacted the dialectic of ressentiment that has become commonplace in our time. [pp. 111–112]

This is a recapitulation of the main thesis of the book, which Mishra amplifies only a couple paragraphs later:

Rousseau actually went beyond the conventional political categories and intellectual vocabularies of left and right to outline the basic psychological outlook of those who perceive themselves as abandoned or pushed behind. He provided the basic vocabulary for their characteristic new expressions of discontent, and then articulated their longing for a world cleansed of the social sources of dissatisfaction. Against today’s backdrop of near-universal political rage, history’s greatest militant lowbrow seems to have grasped, and embodied, better than anyone the incendiary appeal of victimhood in societies built around the pursuit of wealth and power. [p. 112]

Does “the incendiary appeal of victimhood” sound like a potent component of today’s Zeitgeist? Or for that matter “militant lowbrow” (names withheld)? At the end of the 18th century, Voltaire and Rousseau were among the primary men of letters, the intelligentsia, the cognoscenti, articulating competing social views and values with major sociopolitical revolutions following shortly thereafter. The oft-observed rhyming (not repetition) of history suggests another such period may well be at hand.

The “American character,” if one can call it into being merely by virtue of naming it (the same rhetorical trick as solutionism), is diverse and ever-changing. Numerous characterizations have been offered throughout history, with Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America (1835 and 1840) being perhaps the one cited most frequently despite its outdatedness. Much in American character has changed since that time, and it’s highly questionable to think it was unified even then. However, as a means of understanding ourselves, it’s as good a place to start as any. A standard criticism of American character as seen from outside (i.e., when Americans travel abroad) is the so-called ugly American: loud, inconsiderate, boorish, and entitled. Not much to argue with there. A more contemporary assessment by Morris Berman, found throughout his “American trilogy,” is that we Americans are actually quite stupid, unaccountably proud of it, and constantly hustling (in the pejorative sense) in pursuit of material success. These descriptions don’t quite match up with familiar jingoism about how great America is (and of course, Americans), leading to non-Americans clamoring to emigrate here, or the self-worship we indulge in every national holiday celebrating political and military history (e.g., Independence Day, Veteran’s Day, Memorial Day).

I recently ran afoul of another ugly aspect of our national character: our tendency toward aggression and violence. In truth, this is hardly unique to Americans. Yet it came up glaringly in the context of a blog post at Pharyngula citing a Tweet comparing uneven application of law (and indignation among online chatterers?) when violence is committed by the political left vs. the political right. Degree of violence clearly matters, but obvious selection bias was deployed to present an egregiously lop-sided perspective. Radicals on both the left and right have shown little compunction about using violence to achieve their agendas. Never mind how poorly conceived those agendas may be. What really surprised me, however, was that my basic objection to violence in all forms across the spectrum was met with snark and ad hominem attack. When did reluctance to enact violence (including going to war) until extremity demands it become controversial?

My main point was that resorting to violence typically invalidates one’s objective. It’s a desperation move. Moreover, using force (e.g., intimidation, threats, physical violence — including throwing milkshakes) against ideological opponents is essentially policing others’ thoughts. But they’re fascists, right? Violence against them is justified because they don’t eschew violence. No, wrong. Mob justice and vigilantism obviate the rule of law and criminalize any perpetrator of violence. It’s also the application of faulty instrumental logic, ceding any principled claim to moral authority. But to commentators at the blog post linked above, I’m the problem because I’m not in support of fighting fascists with full force. Guess all those masked, caped crusaders don’t recognize that they’re contributing to lawlessness and mayhem. Now even centrists come in for attack for not be radical (or aggressive, or violent) enough. Oddly silent in the comments is the blog host, P.Z. Myers, who has himself communicated approval of milkshake patrols and Nazi punching, as though the presumptive targets (identified rather haphazardly and incorrectly in many instances) have no right to their own thoughts and ideas, vile though they may be, and that violence is the right way to “teach them a lesson.” No one learns the intended lesson when the victim of violence. Rather, if not simply cowed into submission (not the same as agreement), tensions tend to escalate into further and increasing violence. See also reaction formation.

Puzzling over this weird exchange with these, my fellow Americans (the ideologically possessed ones anyway), caused me to backtrack. For instance, the definition of fascism at dictionary.com is “a governmental system led by a dictator having complete power, forcibly suppressing opposition and criticism, regimenting all industry, commerce, etc., and emphasizing an aggressive nationalism and often racism.” That definition sounds more like totalitarianism or dictatorship and is backward looking, specifically to Italy’s Benito Mussolini in the period 1922 to 1943. However, like national characters, political moods and mechanisms change over time, and the recent fascist thrust in American politics isn’t limited to a single leader with dictatorial power. Accordingly, the definition above has never really satisfied me.

I’ve blogged repeatedly about incipient fascism in the U.S., the imperial presidency (usually associated with George W. Bush but also characteristic of Barack Obama), James Howard Kunstler’s prediction of a cornpone fascist coming to power (the way paved by populism), and Sheldon Wolin’s idea of inverted totalitarianism. What ties these together is how power is deployed and against what targets. More specifically, centralized power (or force) is directed against domestic populations to advance social and political objectives without broad public support for the sole benefit of holders of power. That’s a more satisfactory definition of fascism to me, certainly far better that Peter Schiff’s ridiculous equation of fascism with socialism. Domination of others to achieve objectives describes the U.S. power structure (the military-industrial-corporate complex) to a tee. That doesn’t mean manufactured consent anymore; it means bringing the public into line, especially through propaganda campaigns, silencing of criticism, prosecuting whistle-blowers, and broad surveillance, all of which boil down to policing thought. The public has complied by embracing all manner of doctrine against enlightened self-interest, the very thing that was imagined to magically promote the general welfare and keep us from wrecking things or destroying ourselves unwittingly. Moreover, public support is not really obtained through propaganda and domination, only the pretense of agreement found convincing by fools. Similarly, admiration, affection, and respect are not won with a fist. Material objectives (e.g., resource reallocation, to use a familiar euphemism) achieved through force are just common theft.

So what is Antifa doing? It’s forcibly silencing others. It’s doing the work of fascist government operatives by proxy. It’s fighting fascism by becoming fascist, not unlike the Republican-led U.S. government in 2008 seeking bailouts for banks and large corporations, handily transforming our economy into a socialist experiment (e.g, crowd-funding casino capitalism through taxation). Becoming the enemy to fight the enemy is a nice trick of inversion, and many are so flummoxed by these contradictions they resort to Orwellian doublethink to reconcile the paradox. Under such conditions, there are no arguments that can convince. Battle lines are drawn, tribal affiliations are established, and the ideological war of brother against brother, American against American, intensifies until civility crumbles around us. Civil war and revolution haven’t occurred in the U.S. for 150 years, but they are popping up regularly around the globe, often at the instigation of the U.S. government (again, acting against the public interest). Is our turn coming because we Americans have been divided and conquered instead of recognizing the real source of threat?

Returning to Pankaj Mishra’s The Age of Anger, chapter 2 (subtitled “Progress and its Contradictions”) profiles two writers of the 18th-century Enlightenment: François-Marie Arouet (1694–1778), better known by his nom de plume Voltaire, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778). Voltaire was a proponent and embodiment of Enlightenment values and ethics, whereas Rousseau was among the primary critics. Both were hugely influential, and the controversy inherent in their relative perspectives is unresolved even today. First come Rousseau’s criticisms (in Mishra’s prose):

… the new commercial society, which was acquiring its main features of class divisions, inequality and callous elites during the eighteenth century, made its members corrupt, hypocritical and cruel with its prescribed values of wealth, vanity and ostentation. Human beings were good by nature until they entered such a society, exposing themselves to ceaseless and psychologically debilitating transformation and bewildering complexity. Propelled into an endless process of change, and deprived of their peace and stability, human beings failed to be either privately happy or active citizens [p. 87]

This assessment could easily be mistaken for a description of the 1980s and 90s: ceaseless change and turmoil as new technological developments (e.g., the Internet) challenged everyone to reorient and reinvent themselves, often as a brand. Cultural transformation in the 18th century, however, was about more than just emerging economic reconfigurations. New, secular, free thought and rationalism openly challenged orthodoxies formerly imposed by religious and political institutions and demanded intellectual and entrepreneurial striving to participate meaningfully in charting new paths for progressive society purportedly no longer anchored statically in the past. Mishra goes on:

It isn’t just that the strong exploit the weak; the powerless themselves are prone to enviously imitate the powerful. But people who try to make more of themselves than others end up trying to dominate others, forcing them into positions of inferiority and deference. The lucky few on top remain insecure, exposed to the envy and malice of the also-rans. The latter use all means available to them to realize their unfulfilled cravings while making sure to veil them with a show of civility, even benevolence. [p. 89]

Sounds quite contemporary, no? Driving the point home:

What makes Rousseau, and his self-described ‘history of the human heart’, so astonishingly germane and eerily resonant is that, unlike his fellow eighteenth-century writers, he described the quintessential inner experience of modernity for most people: the uprooted outsider in the commercial metropolis, aspiring for a place in it, and struggling with complex feelings of envy, fascination, revulsion and rejection. [p. 90]

While most of the chapter describes Rousseau’s rejection and critique of 18th-century ethics, Mishra at one point depicts Rousseau arguing for instead of against something:

Rousseau’s ideal society was Sparta, small, harsh, self-sufficient, fiercely patriotic and defiantly un-cosmopolitan and uncommercial. In this society at least, the corrupting urge to promote oneself over others, and the deceiving of the poor by the rich, could be counterpoised by the surrender of individuality to public service, and the desire to seek pride for community and country. [p. 92]

Notably absent from Mishra’s profile is the meme mistakenly applied to Rousseau’s diverse criticism: the noble savage. Rousseau praises provincial men (patriarchal orientation acknowledged) largely unspoilt by the corrupting influence of commercial, cosmopolitan society devoted to individual self-interest and amour propre, and his ideal (above) is uncompromising. Although Rousseau had potential to insinuate himself successfully in fashionable salons and academic posts, his real affinity was with the weak and downtrodden — the peasant underclass — who were mostly passed over by rapidly modernizing society. Others managed to raise their station in life above the peasantry to join the bourgeoisie (disambiguation needed on that term). Mishra’s description (via Rousseau) of this middle and upper middle class group provided my first real understanding of popular disdain many report toward bourgeois values using the derisive term bourgie (clearer when spoken than when written).

Profile of Voltaire to follow in part 2.

The Judaeo-Christian dictum “go forth, be fruitful, and multiply” (Genesis 1:28, translations vary) was taken to heart not only by Jews and Christians but by people everywhere resources allowed. Prior to the modern era, human population remained in check because, among other things, high rates of infant and child mortality, pandemics, and famine were commonplace. Now that modern medicine, hygiene, and health deliver far more children into adulthood (and thus their breeding years) and our fossil fuel energy binge allows us to overproduce and overreproduce, population has spiked. While some herald human flourishing (mere quantity, not quality) as an unmitigated good, our massive human population beggars the question: what to do with all the extra people? The American answer is already known: if they’re not productive citizens (read: labor for someone else’s profit), lock ’em up (ironically transforming them into profit centers using tax monies) or simply abandon them to live (and shit) on the streets of San Francisco or some other temperate, coastal city. If they’re foreigners competing for the same resources we (Americans) want for ourselves, well, just kill ’em (a different sort of disposal).

Those observations are really quite enough, ugly and obvious as they are. However, history isn’t yet done with us. Futurists warn that conditions will only worsen (well, duh!) as technological unemployment (robots and software soon to perform even more tasks that used to be handled by people paid money for their effort and expertise) causes more and more people to be tossed aside in venal pursuit of profit. Optimists and cheerleaders for the new technological utopia dystopia frequently offer as cold comfort that people with newfound time on their hands are free to become entrepreneurial or pursue creative endeavors. Never mind that basic needs (e.g., housing, food, clothing, and healthcare) must come first. The one thing that’s partially correct about the canard that everyone can magically transform themselves into small business owners or content creators is that we have become of nation of idlers fixated on entertainments of many varieties. That’s a real bottomless well. Some percentage (unknown by me) actually produces the content (TV shows, movies, music, books, blogs, journalism, YouTube channels, podcasts, social media feeds, video games, sports teams and competitions, etc.), all completing for attention, and those people are often rewarded handsomely if the medium produces giant subscription and revenues. Most of it is just digital exhaust. I also judge that most of us are merely part of the audience or have failed to go viral hit it big if indeed we have anything on offer in the public sphere. Of course, disposable time and income drives the whole entertainment complex. Doubtful folks living in burgeoning American tent cities contribute anything to that economic sector.

It’s sometimes said that a society can be measured by how it treats its weakest members. The European social contract (much derided in the U.S.) takes that notion seriously and supports the down-and-out. The American social contract typically blames those who are weak, often by no fault of their own (e.g., medical bankruptcy), and kicks them when they’re down. Consider just one common measure of a person: intelligence. Though there are many measures of intelligence, the standard is IQ, which is computational, linguistic, and abstract. It’s taboo to dwell too much on differences, especially when mapped onto race, gender, or nationality, so I won’t go there. However, the standard, conservative distribution places most people in the average between 90 and 110. A wider average between 81 (low average) and 119 (high average) captures even more people before a small percentage of outliers are found at the extremes. Of course, almost everyone thinks him- or herself squarely in the upper half. As one descends deeper into the lower half, it’s been found that IQ deficits mean such a person is unsuitable for most types of gainful employment and some are flatly unsuitable for any employment at all. What to do with those people? With U.S. population now just under 330 million, the lower half is roughly 165 million people! How many of those “useless eaters” are abandoned to their fates is hard to know, but it’s a far bigger number and problem than the ridiculous, unhelpful advice “learn to code” would suggest. The cruelty of the American social contract is plain to see.

/rant on

Yet another journalist has unburdened herself (unbidden story of personal discovery masquerading as news) of her addiction to digital media and her steps to free herself from the compulsion to be always logged onto the onslaught of useless information hurled at everyone nonstop. Other breaking news offered by our intrepid late-to-the-story reporter: water is wet, sunburn stings, and the Earth is dying (actually, we humans are actively killing it for profit). Freeing oneself from the screen is variously called digital detoxification (detox for short), digital minimalism, digital disengagement, digital decoupling, and digital decluttering (really ought to be called digital denunciation) and means limiting the duration of exposure to digital media and/or deleting one’s social media accounts entirely. Naturally, there are apps (counters, timers, locks) for that. Although the article offers advice for how to disentangle from screen addictions of the duh! variety (um, just hit the power switch), the hidden-in-plain-sight objective is really how to reengage after breaking one’s compulsions but this time asserting control over the infernal devices that have taken over life. It’s a love-hate style of technophilia and chock full of illusions embarrassing even to children. Because the article is nominally journalism, the author surveys books, articles, software, media platforms, refusniks, gurus, and opinions galore. So she’s partially informed but still hasn’t demonstrated a basic grasp of media theory, the attention economy, or surveillance capitalism, all of which relate directly. Perhaps she should bring those investigative journalism skills to bear on Jaron Lanier, one of the more trenchant critics of living online.

I rant because the embedded assumption is that anything, everything occurring online is what truly matters — even though online media didn’t yet exist as recently as thirty years ago — and that one must (must I say! c’mon, keep up!) always be paying attention to matter in turn or suffer from FOMO. Arguments in favor of needing to be online for information and news gathering are weak and ahistorical. No doubt the twisted and manipulated results of Google searches, sometimes contentious Wikipedia entries, and various dehumanizing, self-as-brand social media platforms are crutches we all now use — some waaaay, way more than others — but they’re nowhere close to the only or best way to absorb knowledge or stay in touch with family and friends. Career networking in the gig economy might require some basic level of connection but shouldn’t need to be the all-encompassing, soul-destroying work maintaining an active public persona has become.

Thus, everyone is chasing likes and follows and retweets and reblogs and other analytics as evidence of somehow being relevant on the sea of ephemera floating around us like so much disused, discarded plastic in those infamous garbage gyres. (I don’t bother to chase and wouldn’t know how to drive traffic anyway. Screw all those solicitations for search-engine optimization. Paying for clicks is for chumps, though lots apparently do it to lie enhance their analytics.) One’s online profile is accordingly a mirror of or even a substitute for the self — a facsimile self. Lost somewhere in my backblog (searched, couldn’t find it) is a post referencing several technophiles positively celebrating the bogus extension of the self accomplished by developing and burnishing an online profile. It’s the domain of celebrities, fame whores, narcissists, and sociopaths, not to mention a few criminals. Oh, and speaking of criminals, recent news is that OJ Simpson just opened a Twitter account to reform his disastrous public image? but is fundamentally outta touch with how deeply icky, distasteful, and disgusting it feels to others for him to be participating once again in the public sphere. Disgraced criminals celebrities negatively associated with the Me-Too Movement (is there really such a movement or was it merely a passing hashtag?) have mostly crawled under their respective multimillion-dollar rocks and not been heard from again. Those few who have tried to reemerge are typically met with revulsion and hostility (plus some inevitable star-fuckers with short memories). Hard to say when, if at all, forgiveness and rejoining society become appropriate.

/rant off

Throughout human history, the question “who should rule?” has been answered myriad ways. The most enduring answer is simple: he who can muster and deploy the most force of arms and then maintain control over those forces. Genghis Khan is probably the most outrageously successful example and is regarded by the West as a barbarian. Only slightly removed from barbarians is the so-called Big Man, who perhaps adds a layer of diplomacy by running a protection racket while selectively providing and distributing spoils. As societies move further away from subsistence and immediacy, various absolute rulers are established, often through hereditary title. Call them Caesar, chief, dear leader, emir, emperor (or empress), kaiser, king (or queen), pharaoh, premier, el presidente, sultan, suzerain, or tsar, they typically acquire power through the accident of birth and are dynastic. Some are female but most are male, and they typically extract tribute and sometimes demand loyalty oaths.

Post-Enlightenment, rulers are frequently democratically elected administrators (e.g., legislators, technocrats, autocrats, plutocrats, kleptocrats, and former military) ideally meant to be representative of common folks. In the U.S., members of Congress (and of course the President) are almost wholly drawn from the ranks of the wealthy (insufficient wealth being a de facto bar to office) and are accordingly estranged from American life the many different ways most of us experience it. Below the top level of visible, elected leaders is a large, hidden apparatus of high-level bureaucratic functionaries (often appointees), the so-called Deep State, that is relatively stable and made up primarily of well-educated, white-collar careerists whose ambitions for themselves and the country are often at odds with the citizenry.

I began to think about this in response to a rather irrational reply to an observation I made here. Actually, it wasn’t even originally my observation but that of Thomas Frank, namely, that the Deep State is largely made up of the liberal professional class. The reply reinforced the notion who better to rule than the “pros”? History makes the alternatives unthinkable. Thus, the Deep State’s response to the veritable one-man barbarian invasion of the Oval Office has been to seek removal of the interloper by hook or by crook. (High office in this case was won unexpectedly and with unnamed precedent by rhetorical force — base populism — rather than by military coup, making the current occupant a quasi-cult leader; similarly, extracted tribute is merely gawking attention rather than riches.)

History also reveals that all forms of political organization suffer endemic incompetence and corruption, lending truth to Winston Churchill’s witticism “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.” Indeed, recent rule by technocrats has been supremely awful, leading to periodic market crashes, extreme wealth inequality, social stigmatization, and forever wars. Life under such rule is arguably better than under various other political styles; after all, we gots our vaunted freedoms and enviable material comforts. But the exercise of those freedoms does not reliably deliver either ontological security or psychological certainty we humans crave. In truth, our current form of self-governance has let nothing get in the way of plundering the planet for short-term profit. That ongoing priority is making Earth uninhabitable not just for other species but for humans, too. In light of this fact, liberal technocratic democracy could be a far worse failure than most: it will have killed billions (an inevitability now under delayed effect).

Two new grassroots movements (to my knowledge) have appeared that openly question who should rule: the Sunrise Movement (SM) and the Extinction Rebellion (ER). SM is a youth political movement in the U.S. that acknowledges climate change and supports the Green New Deal as a way of prioritizing the desperate existential threat modern politics and society have become. For now at least, SM appears to be content with working within the system, replacing incumbents with candidates it supports. More intensely, ER is a global movement centered in the U.K. that also acknowledges that familiar modern forms of social and political organization (there are several) no longer function but in fact threaten all of us with, well, extinction. One of its unique demands is that legislatures be drawn via sortition from the general population to be more representative of the people. Further, sortition avoids the established pattern of those elected to lead representational governments from being corrupted by the very process of seeking and attaining office.

I surmise attrition and/or replacement (the SM path) are too slow and leave candidates vulnerable to corruption. In addition, since no one relinquishes power willingly, current leaders will have to be forced out via open rebellion (the ER path). I’m willing to entertain either path but must sadly conclude that both are too little, too late to address climate change and near-term extinction effectively. Though difficult to establish convincingly, I suspect the time to act was in the 1970s (or even before) when the Ecology Movement arose in recognition that we cannot continue to despoil our own habitat without consequence. That message (social, political, economic, and scientific all at once) was as inert then as it is now. However, fatalism acknowledged, some other path forward is better than our current systems of rule.

As I reread what I wrote 2.5 years ago in my first blog on this topic, I surmise that the only update needed to my initial assessment is a growing pile of events that demonstrate my thesis: our corrupted information environment is too taxing on human cognition, with the result that a small but growing segment of society gets radicalized (wound up like a spring) and relatively random individuals inevitably pop, typically in a self-annihilating gush of violence. News reports bear this out periodically, as one lone-wolf kook after another takes it upon himself (are there any examples of females doing this?) to shoot or blow up some target, typically chosen irrationally or randomly though for symbolic effect. More journalists and bloggers are taking note of this activity and evolving or resurrecting nomenclature to describe it.

The earliest example I’ve found offering nomenclature for this phenomenon is a blog with a single post from 2011 (oddly, no follow-up) describing so-called stochastic terrorism. Other terms include syntactic violence, semantic violence, and epistemic violence, but they all revolve around the same point. Whether on the sending or receiving end of communications, some individuals are particularly adept at or sensitive to dog whistles that over time activate and exacerbate tendencies toward radical ideology and violence. Wired has a brief article from a few days ago discussing stochastic terrorism as jargon, which is basically what I’m doing here. Admittedly, the last of these terms, epistemic violence (alternative: epistemological violence), ranges farther afield from the end effect I’m calling wind-up toys. For instance, this article discussing structural violence is much more academic in character than when I blogged on the same term (one of a handful of “greatest hits” for this blog that return search-engine hits with some regularity). Indeed, just about any of my themes and topics can be given a dry, academic treatment. That’s not my approach (I gather opinions differ on this account, but I insist that real academic work is fundamentally different from my armchair cultural criticism), but it’s entirely valid despite being a bit remote for most readers. One can easily get lost down the rabbit hole of analysis.

If indeed it’s mere words and rhetoric that transform otherwise normal people into criminals and mass murderers, then I suppose I can understand the distorted logic of the far Left that equates words and rhetoric themselves with violence, followed by the demand that they be provided with warnings and safe spaces lest they be triggered by what they hear, read, or learn. As I understand it, the fear is not so much that vulnerable, credulous folks will be magically turned into automatons wound up and set loose in public to enact violent agendas but instead that virulent ideas and knowledge (including many awful truths of history) might cause discomfort and psychological collapse akin to what happens to when targets of hate speech and death threats are reduced, say, to quivering agoraphobia. Desire for protection from harm is thus understandable. The problem with such logic, though, is that protections immediately run afoul of free speech, a hallowed but misunderstood American institution that preempts quite a few restrictions many would have placed on the public sphere. Protections also stall learning and truth-seeking straight out of the gate. And besides, preemption of preemption doesn’t work.

In information theory, the notion of a caustic idea taking hold of an unwilling person and having its wicked way with him or her is what’s called a mind virus or meme. The viral metaphor accounts for the infectious nature of ideas as they propagate through the culture. For instance, every once in a while, a charismatic cult emerges and inducts new members, a suicide cluster appears, or suburban housewives develop wildly disproportionate phobias about Muslims or immigrants (or worse, Muslim immigrants!) poised at their doorsteps with intentions of rape and murder. Inflaming these phobias, often done by pundits and politicians, is precisely the point of semantic violence. Everyone is targeted but only a few are affected to the extreme of acting out violently. Milder but still invalid responses include the usual bigotries: nationalism, racism, sexism, and all forms of tribalism, “othering,” or xenophobia that seek to insulate oneself safely among like folks.

Extending the viral metaphor, to protect oneself from infectious ideas requires exposure, not insulation. Think of it as a healthy immune system built up gradually, typically early in life, through slow, steady exposure to harm. The alternative is hiding oneself away from germs and disease, which has the ironic result of weakening the immune system. For instance, I learned recently that peanut allergies can be overcome by gradual exposure — a desensitization process — but are exacerbated by removal of peanuts from one’s environment and/or diet. This is what folks mean when they say the answer to hate speech is yet more (free) speech. The nasty stuff can’t be dealt with properly when it’s quarantined, hidden away, suppressed, or criminalized. Maybe there are exceptions. Science fiction entertains those dangers with some regularity, where minds are shunted aside to become hosts for invaders of some sort. That might be overstating the danger somewhat, but violent eruptions may provide some credence.

Several politicians on the U.S. national stage have emerged in the past few years as firebrands of new politics and ideas about leadership — some salutary, others less so. Perhaps the quintessential example is Bernie Sanders, who identified himself as Socialist within the Democratic Party, a tacit acknowledgement that there are no electable third-party candidates for high office thus far. Even 45’s emergence as a de facto independent candidate within the Republican Party points to the same effect (and at roughly the same time). Ross Perot and Ralph Nader came closest in recent U.S. politics to establishing viable candidacies outside the two-party system, but their ultimate failures only reinforce the rigidity of modern party politics; it’s a closed system.

Those infusing energy and new (OK, in truth, they’re old) ideas into this closed system are intriguing. By virtue of his immediate name/brand recognition, Bernie Sanders can now go by his single given name (same is true of Hillary, Donald, and others). Supporters of Bernie’s version of Democratic Socialism are thus known as Bernie Bros, though the term is meant pejoratively. Considering his age, however, Bernie is not widely considered a viable presidential candidate in the next election cycle. Among other firebrands, I was surprised to find Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (often referred to simply as AOC) described in the video embedded below as a Democratic Socialist but without any reference to Bernie (“single-handedly galvanized the American people”):

Despite the generation(s) gap, young adults had no trouble supporting Bernie three years ago but appear to have shifted their ardent support to AOC. Yet Bernie is still relevant and makes frequent statements demonstrating how well he understands the failings of the modern state, its support of the status quo, and the cult of personality behind certain high-profile politicians.

As I reflect on history, it occurs to me that many of the major advances in society (e.g., abolition, suffrage, the labor movement, civil rights, equal rights and abortion, and the end of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War) occurred not because our government led us to them but because the American people forced the issues. The most recent examples of the government yielding to the will of the people are gay marriage and cannabis/hemp legalization (still underway). I would venture that Johnson and Nixon were the last U.S. presidents who experienced palpable fear of the public. (Claims that Democrats are afraid of AOC ring hollow — so far.) As time has worn on, later presidents have been confident in their ability to buffalo the public or at least to use the power of the state to quell unrest (e.g., the Occupy movement). (Modern means of crowd control raise serious questions about the legitimacy of any government that would use them against its own citizens. I would include enemy combatants, but that is a separate issue.) In contrast with salutary examples of the public using its disruptive power over a recalcitrant government are arguably more examples where things went haywire rather badly. Looking beyond the U.S., the French Reign of Terror and the Bolsheviks are the two examples that leap immediately to mind, but there are plenty of others. The pattern appears to be a populist ideology that takes root and turns virulent and violent followed by consolidation of power by those who mange to survive the inevitable purge of dissidents.

I bring this up because we’re in a period of U.S. history characterized by populist ideological possession on both sides (left/right) of the political continuum, though politics ought to be better understood as a spectrum. Extremism has again found a home (or several), and although the early stages appear to be mild or harmless, I fear that a charismatic leader might unwittingly succeed in raising a mob. As the saying goes (from the Indiana Jones movie franchise), “You are meddling with forces you cannot possibly comprehend,” to which I would add cannot control. Positioning oneself at the head of a movement or rallying behind such an opportunist may feel like the right thing to do but could easily and quickly veer into wildly unintended consequences. How many times in history has that already occurred?