Archive for the ‘Idealism’ Category

Let me first restate axioms developed in previous blog posts. Narrative is the essential outward form of consciousness. Cognition has many preverbal and nonverbal subtleties, but the exchange of ideas occurs predominantly through narrative, and the story of self (told to oneself) can be understood as stream of consciousness: ongoing self-narration of sensations and events. The principal characteristic of narrative, at least that which is not pure fantasy, is in-the-moment sufficiency. Snap-judgment heuristics are merely temporary placeholders until, ideally at least, thoughtful reconsideration and revision that take time and discernment can be brought to bear. Stories we tell and are told, however, often do not reflect reality well, partly because our perceptual apparatuses are flawed, partly because individuals are untrained and unskilled in critical thinking (or overtrained and distorted), and partly because stories are polluted with emotions that make clear assessments impossible (to say nothing of malefactors with agendas). Some of us struggle to remove confabulation from narrative (as best we can) whereas others embrace it because it’s emotionally gratifying.

A good example of the reality principle is recognition, similar to the 1970s energy crisis, that energy supplies don’t magically appear by simply digging and drilling more of the stuff out of the ground. Those easy-to-get resources have been plundered already. The term peak oil refers to eventual decline in energy production (harvesting, really) when the easy stuff is more than half gone and undiminished (read: increasing) demand impels energy companies to go in search of more exotic supply (e.g., underwater or embedded in shale). If that reality is dissatisfying, a host of dreamt-up stories offer us deliverance from inevitable decline and reduction of lifestyle prerogatives by positing extravagant resources in renewables, hydrogen fuel cells, fusion (not to be confused with fission), or as-yet unexploited regions such as The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. None of these represent plausible realities (except going into heretofore protected regions and bringing ecological devastation).

The relationship of fictional stories to reality is quite complex. For this blog post, a radically narrow description is that fiction is the imaginary space whereas ideas can be tried out and explored safely in preparation for implementation in reality. Science fiction (i.e., imagining interstellar space travel despite its flat impossibility in Newtonian physics) is a good example. Some believe humans can eventually accomplish what’s depicted in sci-fi, and in certain limited examples we already have. But many sci-fi stories simply don’t present a plausible reality. Taken as vicarious entertainment, they’re AOK superfine with me. But given that Western cultures (I can’t opine on cultures outside the West) have veered dangerously into rank ideation and believing their own hype, too many people believe fervently in aspirational futures that have no hope of ever instantiating. Just like giant pools of oil hidden under the Rocky Mountains (to cite something sent to me just today offering illusory relief from skyrocketing gasoline prices).

Among the many genres of narrative now on offer in fiction, no better example of sought-after-power is the superhero story. Identifying with the technological and financial power of Ironman and Batman or the god-powers of Thor and Wonder Woman is thrilling, perhaps, but again, these are not plausible realities. Yet these superrich, superstrong, superintelligent superheros are everywhere in fiction, attesting to liminal awareness of lack of power and indeed frailty. Many superhero stories are couched as coming-of-age stories for girls, who with grit and determination can fight toe-to-toe with any man and dominate. (Too many BS examples to cite.) Helps, of course, if the girl has magic at her disposal. Gawd, do I tire of these stories, told as origins in suffering, acquisition of skills, and coming into one’s own with the mature ability to force one’s will on others, often in the form of straight-up killing and assassination. Judge, jury, and executioner all rolled into one but entirely acceptable vigilantism if done wearing a supersuit and claiming spurious, self-appointed moral authority.

There are better narratives that don’t conflate power with force or lack plausibility in the world we actually inhabit. In a rather complicated article by Adam Tooze entitled “John Mearsheimer and the Dark Origins of Realism” at The New Statesman, after a lengthy historical and geopolitical analysis of competing narratives, a mode of apprehending reality is described:

… adopting a realistic approach towards the world does not consist in always reaching for a well-worn toolkit of timeless verities, nor does it consist in affecting a hard-boiled attitude so as to inoculate oneself forever against liberal enthusiasm. Realism, taken seriously, entails a never-ending cognitive and emotional challenge. It involves a minute-by-minute struggle to understand a complex and constantly evolving world, in which we are ourselves immersed, a world that we can, to a degree, influence and change, but which constantly challenges our categories and the definitions of our interests. And in that struggle for realism – the never-ending task of sensibly defining interests and pursuing them as best we can – to resort to war, by any side, should be acknowledged for what it is. It should not be normalised as the logical and obvious reaction to given circumstances, but recognised as a radical and perilous act, fraught with moral consequences. Any thinker or politician too callous or shallow to face that stark reality, should be judged accordingly.

I had that dream again. You know the one: I have to go take a final test in a class I forgot about, never attended or dropped from my schedule. Most higher-ed students have this dream repeatedly, as do former students (or for those who take the educational enterprise seriously as a life-long endeavor, perpetual students). The dream usually features open-ended anxiety because it’s all anticipation — one never steps into the classroom to sit for the test. But this time, the twist was that the final test transformed into a group problem-solving seminar. The subject matter was an arcane post-calculus specialty (maybe I’ve seen too many Big Bang Theory whiteboards strewn with undecipherable equations), and the student group was stumped trying to solve some sort of engineering problem. In heroic dream mode, I recontextualized the problem despite my lack of expertise, which propelled the group past its block. Not a true test of knowledge or understanding, since I hadn’t attended class and didn’t learn its subject matter, but a reminder that problem-solving is often not straight application of factors easily set forth and manipulable.

Outside of the dream, in my morning twilight (oxymoron alert), I mused on the limitations of tackling social issues like there were engineering problems, which typically regards materials, processes, and personnel as mere resources to be marshaled and acted upon to achieve a goal but with little consideration — at least in the moment — of downstream effects or indeed human values. The Manhattan Project is a prime example, which (arguably) helped the allied powers win WWII but launched the world into the Atomic Age, complete with its own Cold War and the awful specter of mutually assured destruction (MAD). Borrowing a term from economics, it’s easy to rationalize negative collateral effects in terms of creative destruction. I object: the modifier creative masks that the noun is still destruction (cracked eggs needed to make omelets, ya know). Otherwise, maybe the term would be destructive creation. Perhaps I misunderstand, but the breakthrough with the Manhattan Project came about through synthesis of knowledge that lay beyond the purview of most narrowly trained engineers.

That is precisely the problem with many social ills today, those that actually have solutions anyway. The political class meant to manage and administer views problems primarily through a political lens (read: campaigning) and is not especially motivated to solve anything. Similarly, charitable organizations aimed at eradicating certain problems (e.g., hunger, homelessness, crime, educational disadvantage) can’t actually solve any problems because that would be the end of their fundraising and/or government funding, meaning that the organization itself would cease. Synthetic knowledge needed to solve a problem and then terminate the project is anathema to how society now functions; better that problems persist.

Past blog posts on this topic include “Techies and Fuzzies” and “The Man Who Knew Too Little,” each of which has a somewhat different emphasis. I’m still absorbed by the conflict between generalists and specialists while recognizing that both are necessary for full effectiveness. That union is the overarching message, too, of Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and His Emissary (2010), the subject of many past blog posts.

Ask parents what ambitions they harbor for their child or children and among the most patterned responses is “I just want them to be happy.” I find such an answer thoughtless and disingenuous, and the insertion of the hedge just to make happiness sound like a small ask is a red herring. To begin with, for most kids still in their first decade, happiness and playfulness are relatively effortless and natural so long as a secure, loving environment is provided. Certainly not a default setting, but it’s still quite commonplace. As the dreamy style of childhood cognition is gradually supplanted by supposedly more logical, rational, adult thinking, and as children become acquainted with iniquities of both history and contemporary life, innocence and optimism become impossible to retain. Cue the sullen teenager confronting the yawning chasm between desire and reality. Indeed, few people seem to make the transition into adulthood knowing with much clarity how to be happy in the midst of widespread travail and suffering. Instead, young adults frequently substitute self-destructive, nihilistic hedonism, something learned primarily (says me) from the posturing of movie characters and the celebrities who portray them. (Never understood the trope of criminals hanging at nightclubs, surrounded by drug addicts, nymphos, other unsavory types, and truly awful music, where they can indulge their assholery before everything inevitably goes sideways.)

Many philosophies recommend simplicity, naturalness, and independence as paths to happiness and moral rectitude. Transcendentalism was one such response to social and political complexities that spoil and/or corrupt. Yet two centuries on, the world has only gotten more and more complex, pressing on everyone especially for information processing in volume and sophistication that does not at all come naturally to most and is arguably not part of our evolutionary toolkit. Multiple social issues, if one is to engage them fairly, hinge on legalistic arguments and bewildering wordplay that render them fundamentally intractable. Accordingly, many waive away all nuance and adopt pro forma attitudes. Yet the airwaves, social media, the Internet, and even dinner conversations are suffused by the worst sorts of hypercomplexity and casuistry that confound even those who traffic regularly in such rhetoric. It’s a very long way from “I just want to be happy.”


What if everyone showed up to an event with an expectation of using all their tech and gadgets to facilitate the group objective only to discover that nothing worked? You go to a fireworks display but the fireworks won’t ignite. You go to a concert but the instruments and voices make no sound. You go to a sporting event but none of the athletes can move. Does everyone just go home? Come back another day to try again? Or better yet, you climb into your car to go somewhere but it won’t start. Does everyone just stay home and the event never happens?

Those questions relate to a new “soft” weapons system called Scorpius (no link). The device or devices are said to disrupt and disable enemy tech by issuing a narrowly focused electromagnetic beam. (Gawd, just call it a raygun or phaser. No embarrassment over on-the-nose naming of other things.) Does the beam fry the electronics of its target, like a targeted Carrington event, or just simply scramble the signals, making the tech inoperable? Can tech be hardened against attack, such as being encased in a Faraday cage? Wouldn’t such isolation itself make tech nonfunctional, since electronic communications between locations is the essence of modern devices, especially for targeting and telemetry? These are a few more idle questions (unanswered, since announcements of new weaponry I consulted read like advertising copy) about this latest advance (euphemism alert) in the arms race. Calling a device that can knock a plane (um, warplane) out of the sky (crashing somewhere, obviously) “soft protection” because the mechanism is a beam rather than a missile rather obfuscates the point. Sure, ground-based technologies might be potentially disabled without damage, but would that require continuous beam-based defense?

I recall an old Star Trek episode, the one with the Gorn, where omnipotent aliens disabled all weapons systems of two spaceships postured for battle by superheating controls, making them too hot to handle. Guess no one thought of oven mitts or pencils to push the “Fire!” buttons. (Audiences were meant to think, considering Star Trek was a thinking person’s entertainment, but not too much.) Instead of mass carnage, the two captains were transported to the surface of a nearby planet to battle by proxy (human vs. reptile). In quintessential Star Trek fashion — imagining a hopeful future despite militaristic trappings — the human captain won not only the physical battle but the moral battle (with self) by refusing to dispatch the reptile captain after he/it was disabled. The episode posed interesting questions so long as no one searched in the weeds for plausibility.

We’re confronted now, and again, with many of these same questions, some technical, some strategic, but more importantly, others moral and ethical. Thousands of years of (human) history have already demonstrated the folly of war (but don’t forget profitability). It’s a perennial problem, and from my vantage point, combatants on all sides are no closer to Trekkie moral victory now than in the 1960s. For instance, the U.S. and its allies are responsible for millions of deaths in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and elsewhere just in the last two decades. Go back further in time and imperial designs look more and more like sustained extermination campaigns. But hey, we came to play, and any strategic advantage must be developed and exploited, moral quandaries notwithstanding.

It’s worth pointing out that in the Gorn episode, the captains were deprived of their weapons and resorted to brute force before the human improvised a projectile weapon out of materials handily strewn about, suggesting perhaps that intelligence is the most deadly weapon. Turns out to have been just another arms race.

A quick search revealed that over 15 years of blog posts, the word macrohistory has been used only once. On reflection, macrohistory is something in which I’ve been involved for some time — mostly as a dilettante. Several book reviews and three book-blogging series (one complete, two either on hiatus or fully abandoned) concern macrohistory, and my own several multi-part blogs connect disparate dots over broader topics (if not quite history in the narrow sense). My ambition, as with macrohistory, is to tease out better (if only slightly) understandings of ourselves (since humans and human culture are obviously the most captivating thing evar). Scientists direct similar fascination to the inner workings of nonhuman systems — or at least larger systems in which humans are embedded. Thus, macrohistory can be distinguished from natural history by their objects of study. Relatedly, World-Systems Theory associated with Immanuel Wallerstein and The Fourth Turning (1997 book by William Strauss and Neil Howe) take similarly broad perspectives and attempt to identify historical dynamics and patterns not readily apparent. Other examples undoubtedly exist.

This is all preliminary to discussing a rather depressing article from the December 2020 issue of Harper’s Magazine: Rana Dasgupta’s disquieting (ahem) essay “The Silenced Majority” (probably behind a paywall). The subtitle poses the question, “Can America still afford democracy?” This innocuous line begs the question whether the U.S. (America and the United States of America [and its initialisms U.S. and U.S.A.] being sloppily equivalent almost everywhere, whereas useful distinctions describe the United Kingdom, Great Britain, and England) actually has or practices democracy anymore, to which many would answer flatly “nope.” The essay is an impressive exercise, short of book length, in macrohistory, though it’s limited to Western cultures, which is often the case with history told from inside the bubble. Indeed, if (as the aphorism goes) history is written/told primarily by the victors, one might expect to hear only of an ongoing series of victories and triumphs with all the setbacks, losses, and discontinuities excised like some censored curated Twitter or Facebook Meta discussion. One might also wonder how that same history reads when told from the perspective of non-Western countries, especially those in transitional regions such as Poland, Ukraine, Turkey, and Iran or those with histories long predating the rise of the West roughly 500 years ago, i.e., China, Japan, Egypt, and the lost cultures of Central America. Resentments of the Islamic world, having been eclipsed by the West, are a case in point. My grasp of world history is insufficient to entertain those perspectives. I note, however, that with globalism, the histories of all regions of the world are now intimately interconnected even while perspectives differ.

Dasgupta describes foundational Enlightenment innovations that animate Western thinking, even though the ideas are often poorly contextualized or understood. To wit:

In the seventeenth century, England was an emerging superpower. Supremacy would come from its invention of a world principle of property. This principle was developed following contact with the Americas, where it became possible to conjure vast new English properties “out of nothing”—in a way that was impracticable, for instance, in the militarized, mercantile societies of India. Such properties were created by a legal definition of ownership designed so that it could be applied only to the invaders. “As much land as a man tills, plants, improves, cultivates, and can use the product of,” John Locke wrote in 1689, “so much is his property.” When combined with other new legal categories such as “the savage” and “the state of nature,” this principle of property engendered societies such as Carolina, where Locke’s patron, the first earl of Shaftesbury, was a lord proprietor.

Obvious, isn’t it, that by imposing the notion of private property on indigenous inhabitants of North America, colonialists established ownership rights over territories where none had previously existed? Many consider that straightforward theft (again, begging the question) or at least fencing the commons. (Attempts to do the same in the open oceans and in space [orbit] will pick up as technology allows, I surmise.) In addition, extension of property ownership to human trafficking, i.e., slavery and its analogues still practiced today, has an exceptionally long history and was imported to the Americas, though the indigenous population proved to be poor candidates for subjugation. Accordingly, others were brought to North America in slave trade that extended across four centuries.

Dasgupta goes on:

From their pitiless opposition to the will of the people, we might imagine that British elites were dogmatic and reactionary. (Period dramas depicting stuck-up aristocrats scandalized by eccentricity and innovation flatter this version of history.) The truth is that they were open-minded radicals. They had no sentimentality about the political order, cutting the head off one king and sending another into exile. They could invent financial and legal structures (such as the Bank of England, founded in 1694) capable of releasing unprecedented market energies. Even their decision to exploit American land with African labor demonstrated their world-bending pursuit of wealth. Their mines and plantations would eventually supply the capital for the first industrial revolution. They loved fashion and technology, they believed in rationality, progress, and transparency. They were the “founding fathers” of our modern world.

And yet they presided over a political system as brutal as it was exclusive. Why? The answer is simple. They could not afford democracy, but also, crucially, they did not need it. [emphasis in original]

So much for the awe and sacred respect in which Enlightenment philosophers and the Founders are held — or used to be. Statues of these dudes (always dudes, natch) are being pulled down all the time. Moreover, association of liberal democracy with the 17th century is a fundamental mistake, though neoliberalism (another poorly defined and understood term) aims to shift backwards to a former or hybrid state of human affairs some are beginning to call digital feudalism.

The article goes on to discuss the balancing act and deals struck over the course of centuries to maintain economic and political control by the ownership class. It wasn’t until the 1930s and the postwar economic boom in the U.S. that democracy as commonly understood took root significantly. The labor movement in particular was instrumental in forcing FDR’s New Deal social programs, even though populism and socialism as political movements had been successfully beaten back. Interestingly, the hallowed American nuclear family (limited in its scope racially), an ahistorical formation that enjoyed a roughly 30-year heyday from 1945 to 1975, coincides with the rise of the American middle class and now-aged democratic institutions. They’re all connected with widely distributed wealth and prosperity. But after the oil crisis and stagflation of the middle 1970s, gains enjoyed by the middle class have steadily eroded and/or been actively beaten back (again!) so that dominant themes today are austerity imposed on the masses and inequality coughing up hundy-billionaires with increasing frequency. Estimates are that 30-40% of the American citizenry lives in poverty, bumping up against failed state territory. Inequality has returned to Gilded Age levels if not exceeded them. Dasgupta fails to cite perhaps the major underlying cause of this shift away from affordable democracy, back toward the brutal, world principal of property: falling EROI. Cheap foreign labor, productivity gains, and creation of a giant debtor society have simply not offset the disappearance of cheap energy.

Dasgupta’s further discussion of an emerging two-tier economy along with the Silicon Valley technocracy follows, but I’ll stop short here and encourage readers instead to investigate and think for themselves. Lots of guides and analyses help to illuminate the macrohistory, though I find the conclusions awful in their import. Dasgupta drives home the prognosis:

The neoliberal revolution aimed to restore the supremacy of capital after its twentieth-century subjugation by nation-states, and it has succeeded to an astonishing degree. As states compete and collude with gargantuan new private powers, a new political world arises. The principle of labor, which dominated the twentieth century—producing the industrious, democratic society we have come to regard, erroneously, as the norm—is once again being supplanted by a principle of property, the implications and consequences of which we know only too well from our history books.

Guy McPherson used to say in his presentations that we’re all born into bondage, meaning that there is no escape from Western civilization and its imperatives, including especially participation in the money economy. The oblique reference to chattel slavery is clumsy, perhaps, but the point is nonetheless clear. For all but a very few, civilization functions like Tolkien’s One Ring, bringing everyone ineluctably under its dominion. Enlightenment cheerleaders celebrate that circumstance and the undisputed material and technological (same thing, really) bounties of the industrial age, but Counter-Enlightenment thinkers recognize reasons for profound discontent. Having blogged at intervals about the emerging Counter-Enlightenment and what’s missing from modern technocratic society, my gnawing guilt by virtue of forced participation in the planet-killing enterprise of industrial civilization is growing intolerable. Skipping past the conclusion drawn by many doomers that collapse and ecocide due to unrestrained human consumption of resources (and the waste stream that follows) have already launched a mass extinction that will extirpate most species (including large mammals such as humans), let me focus instead on gross dysfunction occurring at levels falling more readily within human control.

An Empire of War

Long overdue U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan has already yielded Taliban resurgence, which was a foregone conclusion at whatever point U.S. troops left (and before them, Soviets). After all, the Taliban lives there and had only to wait. Distasteful and inhumane as it may be to Westerners, a powerful faction (religious fanatics) truly wants to live under a 7th-century style of patriarchy. Considering how long the U.S. occupied the country, a new generation of wannabe patriarchs came to adulthood — an unbroken intergenerational descent. Of course, the U.S. (and others) keeps arming them. Indeed, I heard that the U.S. military is considering bombing raids to destroy the war machines left behind as positions were so swiftly abandoned. Oops, too late! This is the handiest example how failed U.S. military escapades extending over decades net nothing of value to anyone besides weapons and ordnance manufacturers and miserable careerists within various government branches and agencies. The costs (e.g., money, lives, honor, sanity) are incalculable and spread with each country where the American Empire engages. Indeed, the military-industrial complex chooses intervention and war over peace at nearly every opportunity (though careful not to poke them bears too hard). And although the American public’s inability to affect policy (unlike the Vietnam War era) doesn’t equate with participation, the notion that it’s a government of the people deposits some of the blame on our heads anyway. My frustration is that nothing is learned and the same war crimes mistakes keep being committed by maniacs who ought to know better.

Crony and Vulture Capitalism

Critics of capitalism are being proven correct far more often than are apologists and earnest capitalists. The two subcategories I most deplore are crony capitalism and vulture capitalism, both of which typically accrue to the benefit of those in no real need of financial assistance. Crony capitalism is deeply embedded within our political system and tilts the economic playing field heavily in favor of those willing to both pay for and grant favors rather than let markets sort themselves out. Vulture capitalism extracts value out of dead hosts vulnerable resource pools by attacking and often killing them off (e.g., Microsoft, Walmart, Amazon), or more charitably, absorbing them to create monopolies, often by hostile takeover at steep discounts. Distressed mortgage holders forced into short sales, default, and eviction is the contemporary example. Rationalizing predatory behavior as competition is deployed regularly.

Other historical economic systems had similarly skewed hierarchies, but none have reached quite the same heartless, absurd levels of inequality as late-stage capitalism. Pointing to competing systems and the rising tide that lifts all boats misdirects people to make ahistorical comparisons. Human psychology normally restricts one’s points of comparison to contemporaries in the same country/region. Under such narrow comparison, the rank injustice of hundred-billionaires (or even simply billionaires) existing at the same time as giant populations of political/economic/climate refugees and the unhoused (the new, glossy euphemism for homelessness) demonstrates the soul-forfeiting callousness of the top quintile and/or 1% — an ancient lesson never learned. Indeed, aspirational nonsense repackages suffering and sells it back to the underclass, which as a matter of definition will always exist but need not have to live as though on an entirely different planet from Richistan.

Human Development

Though I’ve never been a big fan of behaviorism, the idea that a hypercomplex stew of influences, inputs, and stimuli leads to better or worse individual human development, especially in critical childhood years but also throughout life, is pretty undeniable. As individuals aggregate into societies, the health and wellbeing of a given society is linked to the health and wellbeing of those very individuals who are understood metaphorically as the masses. Behaviorism would aim to optimize conditions (as if such a thing were possible), but because American institutions and social systems have been so completely subordinated to capitalism and its distortions, society has stumbled and fumbled from one brand of dysfunction to another, barely staying ahead of revolution or civil war (except that one time …). Indeed, as the decades have worn on from, say, the 1950s (a nearly idyllic postwar reset that looms large in the memories of today’s patrician octogenarians), it’s difficult to imaging how conditions could have deteriorated any worse other than a third world war.

Look no further than the U.S. educational system, both K–12 and higher ed. As with other institutions, education has had its peaks and valleys. However, the crazy, snowballing race to the bottom witnessed in the last few decades is utterly astounding. Stick a pin in it: it’s done. Obviously, some individuals manage to get educated (some doing quite well, even) despite the minefield that must be navigated, but the exception does not prove the rule. Countries that value quality education (e.g., Finland, China, Singapore, Japan, South Korea) in deed, not just in empty words trotted out predictably by every presidential campaign, routinely trounce decidedly middling results in the U.S. and reveal that dysfunctional U.S. political systems and agencies (Federal, state, municipal) just can’t get the job done properly anymore. (Exceptions are always tony suburbs populated by high-earning and -achieving parents who create opportunities and unimpeded pathways for their kids.) Indeed, the giant babysitting project that morphs into underclass school-to-prison and school-to-military service (cannon fodder) pipelines are what education has actually become for many. The opportunity cost of failing to invest in education (or by proxy, American youth) is already having follow-on effects. The low-information voter is not a fiction, and it extends to every American institution that requires clarity to see through the fog machine operated by the mainstream media.

As an armchair social critic, I often struggle to reconcile how history unfolds without a plan, and similarly, how society self-organizes without a plan. Social engineering gets a bad rap for reasons: it doesn’t work (small exceptions exist) and subverts the rights and freedoms of individuals. However, the rank failure to achieve progress (in human terms, not technological terms) does not suggest stasis. By many measures, the conditions in which we live are cratering. For instance, Dr. Gabor Maté discusses the relationship of stress to addiction in a startling interview at Democracy Now! Just how bad is it for most people?

… it never used to be that children grew up in a stressed nuclear family. That wasn’t the normal basis for child development. The normal basis for child development has always been the clan, the tribe, the community, the neighborhood, the extended family. Essentially, post-industrial capitalism has completely destroyed those conditions. People no longer live in communities which are still connected to one another. People don’t work where they live. They don’t shop where they live. The kids don’t go to school, necessarily, where they live. The parents are away most of the day. For the first time in history, children are not spending most of their time around the nurturing adults in their lives. And they’re spending their lives away from the nurturing adults, which is what they need for healthy brain development.

Does that not sound like self-hobbling? A similar argument can be made about human estrangement from the natural world, considering how rural-to-urban migration (largely completed in the U.S. but accelerating in the developing world) has rendered many Americans flatly unable to cope with, say, bugs and dirt and labor (or indeed most any discomfort). Instead, we’ve trapped ourselves within a society that is, as a result of its organizing principles, slowly grinding down everyone and everything. How can any of us (at least those of us without independent wealth) choose not to participate in this wretched concatenation? Nope, we’re all guilty.

I have observed various instances of magical thinking in mainstream culture, especially here, which I find problematical. Although it’s not my ambition to disabuse anyone of magical thinking, which extends far beyond, say, religious thought, I was somewhat taken aback at the suggestion found in the comic at this link (not embedded). For those not familiar with Questionable Content (one of two online comics I read regularly), the comic presents an extended cast of characters, mostly in their early 20s, living in a contemporary New England college town. Those characters are supplemented by a few older parents and lots of AIs (in robot bodies). The AIs are not particularly futuristic but are simply accepted as a normal (if curious) part of the world of the comic. Major story arcs involve characters and AIs (the AIs are characters, I suppose) in the process of discovering and establishing themselves as they (the humans, anyway) transition into early adulthood. There are no great political themes or intrusions into life in a college town. Rather, the comic is largely about acceptance of difference. Often, that means washing away meaningful difference in the name of banal tolerance. Real existential struggle is almost entirely absent.

In the linked comic, a new character comes along and offers advice to an established character struggling with sexual attractions and orientation. The dialogue includes this exchange:

Character A: If tarot or astrology or religion halps you make sense of the world and your place in it, then why not use them?
Character B: But they’re not real. [emphasis in original]
Character A: It doesn’t matter, if you use them constructively!

There it is in a nutshell: believe whatever you want if it, um, halps. I’ve always felt that being wrong (i.e., using unreal or make-believe things) was a sufficient injunction against anchoring oneself to notions widely known to be false. Besides, isn’t it often remarked that the biggest fool is one who fools himself? (Fiction as a combination of entertainment and building a worldview is quite normative, but it’s understood as fiction, or to a lesser degree, as life imitating art and its inverse. Exceptions abound, which are regarded as psychopathy.) The instruction in that dialogue (part object lesson, part lesson in cognition) is not that it’s OK to make mistakes but that knowingly believing something false has worthwhile advantages.

Surveying examples where promulgating false beliefs have constructive and destructive effects is too large a project. Well short of that, nasty categories include fraud, gaslighting, and propaganda, which are criminal in many cases and ought to be in most others (looking at you, MSM! — or not, since I neither trust nor watch). One familiar benevolent category is expressed in the phrase fake it til you make it, often recommended to overcome a lack of confidence. Of course, a swindle is also known as a confidence game (or by its diminutive, a con), so beware overconfidence when asked by another to pay for something (e.g., tarot or astrology readings), take risks, or accept an ideology without question.

As philosophy, willful adoption of falsity for its supposed benefits is half-baked. Though impossible to quantify, my suspicion is that instances of positive outcomes are overbalanced by negative ones. Maybe living in a constructed reality or self-reinforcing fantasy is what people want. The comic discussed is certainly in line with that approach. However, while we dither and delude ourselves with happy, aspirational stories based on silliness, the actual world around us, including all the human institutions that used to serve us but no longer do, falls to tatters. Is it better going through life and eventually to one’s grave refusing to see that reality? Should childlike wonder and innocence be retained in spite of what is easily observable just by poking one’s head up and dismissing comforting lies? Decide for yourself.

I simply can’t keep up with all the reading, viewing, and listening in my queue. Waking hours are too few, and concentration dissipates long before sleep overtakes. Accordingly, it’s much easier to settle into couch-potato mode and watch some mindless drivel, such as the Netflix hit Bridgerton binged in two sittings. (Unlike cinema critics, I’m not bothered especially by continuity errors, plot holes, clunky dialogue, weak character motivation, gaps of logic, or glossy decadence of the fictional worlds. I am bothered by the Kafka trap sprung on anyone who notices casting decisions that defy time and place — an ill-advised but now commonplace historical revisionism like editing Mark Twain.) As a result, blog posts are less frequent than they might perhaps be as I pronounce upon American (or more broadly, Western) culture, trying vainly to absorb it as a continuously moving target. Calls to mind the phrase Après moi, le déluge, except that there is no need to wait. A deluge of entertainment, news, analysis, punditry, and trolling has buried everyone already. So rather than the more careful consideration I prefer to post, here are some hot takes.

The Irregular Aphorist. Caitlin Johnstone offers many trenchant observations in the form of aphorisms (some of which I’ve quoted before), all gathered under the subtitle Notes From The Edge Of The Narrative Matrix. The modifier irregular only means that aphorisms are a regular but not constant feature. Her site doesn’t have a tag to that effect but probably ought to. Here’s one in particular that caught my attention:

Everything our species has tried has led us to a dying world and a society that is stark raving mad, so nobody is in any position to tell you that you are wrong.

Twin truths here are (1) the dying world and (2) societal madness, both of which I’ve been describing for some time. Glad when others recognize them, too.

Piling on. Though few still are willing to admit it, nonpharmaceutical interventions (NPIs, e.g., distancing, masks, and lockdowns) to stall or reduce the spread of the virus failed to achieve their objectives according to this study. Instead, NPIs piled on suffering no one could forestall. I read somewhere (no link) that the world is approaching half of total, cumulative deaths/infections predicted had nothing been done to impede the pandemic running its course. Adding in deaths of despair (numbers not entirely up to date), we’re using the wrong tools to fight the wrong battle. Of course, interventions opened up giant opportunities for power grabs and vulture capitalism, so the cynic in me shrugs and wonders half aloud “what did you expect, really?”

Growth of the Managerial Bureaucracy. A blog called Easily Distracted by Timothy Burke (never on my blogroll) publishes only a few times per year, but his analysis is terrific — at least when it doesn’t wind up being overlong and inconclusive. Since a student debt jubilee is back in the news (plenty of arguments pro and con), unintended consequences are anticipated in this quote:

When you set out to create elaborate tiers that segregate the deserving poor from the comfortable middle-class and the truly wealthy, you create a system that requires a massive bureaucracy to administer and a process that forces people into petitionary humiliation in order to verify their eligibility. You create byzantine cutoff points that become business opportunities for predatory rentiers.

Something similar may well be occurring with stimulus checks being issued pro rata (has anyone actually gotten one?), but at least we’re spared any petitionary humiliations. We get whatever the algorithms (byzantine cutoff points) dictate. How those funds will be gamed and attached is not yet clear. Stay alert.

No Defense of Free Speech. Alan Jacobs often recommends deleting, unsubscribing, and/or ignoring social media accounts (after his own long love-hate relationship with them) considering how they have become wholly toxic to a balanced psyche as well as principal enablers of surveillance capitalism and narrative control. However, in an article about the manorial elite, he’s completely lost the plot that absolutism is required in defense of free speech. It’s not sufficient to be blasé or even relieved when 45 is kicked off Twitter permanently or when multiple parties conspire to kill Parler. Establishing your own turf beyond the reach of Silicon Valley censors is a nice idea but frankly impractical. Isn’t that what whoever ran Parler (or posted there) must have thought? And besides, fencing off the digital commons these very entities created has catapulted them into the unenviable position of undemocratic, unelected wielders of monopolistic power and co-conspirators to boot. That’s what needs to be curtailed, not free speech.

The Taxonomic Apocalypse. Although drawn from fiction and thus largely hypothetical, a new book (coming late 2021) by Adam Roberts called It’s the End of the World: But What Are We Really Afraid Of? surveys doomsday stories and categorizes different versions of how it all ends. Alan Jacobs (yeah, him again — must have an advance copy of the manuscript) recommends it as “a delightful and provocative little book” but fails to grok two things: (1) these stories are rehearsals-cum-preparations for the real thing, and (2) the real thing really is bearing down on us implacably and so is no longer a mere hypothetical to contemplate and categorize for shits and grins. Despite acceptance of the eventualities that await all of us, reading Roberts’ taxonomy is not something I would expect to find delightful. Skip.

Narrative Collapse. Ran Prier (no link) sometimes makes statements revealing an unexpected god’s-eye view:

[45] is a mean rich kid who figured out that if he does a good Archie Bunker impression, every lost soul with an authoritarian father will think he’s the messiah. We’re lucky that he cares only about himself, instead of having some crazy utopian agenda. But the power, and the agency, is with the disaffected citizens of a declining empire, tasting barbarism.

This is all about people wanting to be part of a group that’s part of a story. Lately, some of the big group-stories have been dying: sky father religion, American supremacy, the conquest of nature, the virtue of wealth-seeking. In their place, young and clumsy group-stories struggle and rise.

Collapse of certain fundamental stories that animate our thinking is at the core of The Spiral Staircase (see About Brutus at top), though it’s often couched in terms of consciousness in transition. Getting through the transition (only temporarily, see previous item in list) probably means completion of the Counter-Enlightenment historical arc, which necessarily includes further descent into barbarism.

Hail Mary for Individualism. I always take special notice when someone cites Allan Bloom. Alan Jacobs (um, yeah, he’s prolific and I’m using his ideas again — sue me) cites Bloom to argue that individualism or the sovereign self, a product of the Enlightenment, is already dead. No doubt, the thought-world described so ably by Bloom no longer exists, but individualism has not yet died out by attrition or been fully dissolved in nonduality. Many of us born before the advent of the Internet retain selfhood and authenticity not yet coopted by or incorporated into mass mind. Moreover, ongoing struggles over identity (e.g., gender, sexual orientation, and race that are often used improperly to define the self) result from an inchoate sense that individualism is eroding precipitously, not that it’s already passé. Defiant attempts to (re)establish an authentic self (contravening all logic and becoming critical theory of one sort or another) in the face of this loss may well be a last-ditch effort to save the self, but it’s failing.

I’ve been holding in mind for five months now the article at this link (an informal interview with neuroscientist and psychologist Oliver J. Robinson), waiting for conditions when I could return to forms of media consumption I prefer, namely, reading books, magazines, and long-form journalism. When I try to read something substantive these days, I find myself going over the same paragraph repeatedly, waiting in vain for it to register. Regrettably, the calm, composure, and concentration needed for deep reading has been effectively blocked since March 2020 as we wait (also in vain) for the pandemic to burn itself out. (I could argue that the soul-destroying prospect of industrial collapse and near-term human extinction is having the same effect for much longer.) So my attention and media habits have been resignedly diverted to crap news gathering, mostly via video, and cheap entertainments, mostly streaming TV (like everyone else, though others may complain less). The lack of nourishment is noticeable. Considering we’re only weeks away from the U.S. presidential election, stress levels are ratcheting up further, and civil authorities prepare for “election riots” (is that new term?), which I can only assume means piling violence upon violence under the pretense of keeping-the-peace or law-and-order or some other word string rendered meaningless now that the police are widely acknowledged to be a significant contributors to the very problems they are meant to address. These unresolved issues (pandemic, police violence, civil unrest) give rise to pathological anxiety, which explains (according to Robinson, disclaimers notwithstanding) why it’s so hard to read.

To say we live in unprecedented times is both obvious and banal. Unique stresses of modernity have led multiple times to widespread madness and conflict, as well as attempts to recapture things lost in previous shifts from other styles of social organization. Let me not mince words regarding what’s now happening: we’re in an era of repudiation of the Enlightenment, or a renewed Counter-Enlightenment. I’ve stated this before, and I’m not the only one making this diagnosis (just learned it’s a rather old idea — I’m always late to the party). For instance, Martin Jay’s essay “Dialectic of Counter-Enlightenment” appears to have been floating around in various forms since 2011. Correlation of this renewal of Counter-Enlightenment fervor with literacy seems clear. Despite basic literacy as a skill being widely improved worldwide over the past two centuries, especially in the developing world, deep literacy is eroding:

Beyond self-inflicted attention deficits, people who cannot deep read – or who do not use and hence lose the deep-reading skills they learned – typically suffer from an attenuated capability to comprehend and use abstract reasoning. In other words, if you can’t, or don’t, slow down sufficiently to focus quality attention – what Wolf calls “cognitive patience” – on a complex problem, you cannot effectively think about it.

Considering deep literacy is absolutely critical to clear thinking (or critical thought, if you prefer, not to be confused with the The Frankfurt School’s critical theory discussed in Jay’s essay), its erosion threatens fundamental institutions (e.g., liberal democracy and the scientific method) that constitute the West’s primary cultural inheritance from the Enlightenment. The reach of destruction wrought by reversing course via the Counter-Enlightenment cannot be overstated. Yet many among us, completely unable to construct coherent ideas, are rallying behind abandonment of Enlightenment traditions. They’re ideologues who actively want to return to the Dark Ages (while keeping modern tech, natch). As with many aspects of unavoidable cultural, social, environmental, and civilizational collapse, I have difficulty knowing quite what to hope for. So I won’t condemn retrograde thinking wholly. In fact, I feel empathy toward calls to return to simpler times, such as with German Romanticism or American Transcendentalism, both examples of cultural and aesthetic movements leading away from the Enlightenment.

Long before these ideas coalesced for me, I had noted (see here, here, and here) how literacy is under siege and a transition back toward a predominantly oral culture is underway. The Counter-Enlightenment is either a cause or an effect, I can’t assess which. At the risk of being a Cassandra, let me suggest that, if these times aren’t completely different from dark episodes of the past, we are now crossing the threshold of a new period of immense difficulty that makes pathological anxiety blocking the ability to read and think a minor concern. Indeed, that has been my basic assessment since crafting the About Brutus blurb way back in 2006. Indicators keep piling up. So far, I have a half dozen points of entry to process and digest by other cultural commentators exploring this theme, though they typically don’t adopt wide enough historical or cultural perspectives. Like the last time I failed to synthesize my ideas into a multipart blog series, I don’t have a snazzy title, and this time, I don’t even have planned installment titles. But I will do my best to roll out in greater detail over several blog posts some of the ways the Counter-Enlightenment is manifesting anew.

A Dog’s Life

Posted: October 15, 2020 in Culture, Idealism, Idle Nonsense

From my earliest memories growing up, my large, Catholic family kept a series of pets. Most of the time it was a dog, only one at a time, usually a German shepherd. Later on, it was a cat. The pet belonged to no one in particular but to the family as a whole. And because this was before leash laws became commonplace, the dogs had plenty of exercise and range off-leash. As an adult, I’ve never had a dog but often wanted one. What I understand as a nonnegotiable commitment to a dog is not really possible for me. Moreover, I have never lived in a location amenable to the needs of a dog. Yet in my condo building, many of my neighbors keep rather large dogs, who are dutifully trundled outside to a small, enclosed space where they can be let off leash for 10 to 20 minutes every morning and evening to pee and poop (owners often face-planted in their phones during these intervals). Whether the dogs are eventually taken to a park or dog run to socialize with other animals or just be free to roam and play is unknown to me. I don’t witness it.

In rather stark contrast, I was fortunate to spend most of a recent weekend visiting Winged Elm Farm operated by fellow blogger The South Roane Agrarian (a superlative blogger, host, and chef, BTW), and the very first impression upon arrival was being greeted by his three dogs. Rather than being hemmed in by the city and limited by their master’s availability and willingness to grant outdoor time, these amiable dogs were free to move around and be dogs independent of the master. All of their time during my visit was spent outdoors. Of course, they were also tuned in, vigilant to all goings on around the farm and hyper-vigilant to any possibility of food or affection offered by one of the humans. They were introduced to me as “mostly useless,” which was unexpected because, to my way of thinking, all pets are essentially useless (as distinguished from useful or productive). That’s part of their charm. However, it was relayed that the oldest of three had been quite useful in her day corralling farm animal as they were moved from pasture to pasture. Alas, age and infirmity has made her less useful except for a reputed intimidation factor other farm animals still respect. Another dog was described as moderately useful as a ratter. The third enjoyed no encomium and had a habit (slightly unnerving to me) of standing with its muscled body pressed against my legs whenever possible. All three ventured without hesitation or apparent complaint into the rain that persisted most of the weekend.

Aside. With surprisingly superfluous regularity (maybe not so surprising in hindsight), nouns were accompanied by the modifier farm: farm dogs, farm animals, farm truck, farm tools and implements, farm life, etc. Eggs and veggies were farm fresh. Meat and fish were farm sourced, or as was jokingly admitted with respect to the crawfish etouffee we enjoyed for dinner, farm sourced but maybe not this farm.

Further aside. The farm was described as organic, meaning chemicals and unnatural fertilizers are not used and animals are mostly grass fed rather than raised in feed lots or stuck in crates. Indeed, chickens had access to the yard, goats sheep has access to pastures and barns, and pigs had access to the woods where they searched the understory relentlessly for anything remotely edible. The organic quality was reinforced as we sampled directly from the garden and orchards. Each farm product seemed to have a bit of dirt on it, which I ingested without first washing.

On the whole, these dogs enjoy a life on the farm most of us would envy. Their rootedness and sense of belonging to the farm, notwithstanding the occasional, cherished ride in the farm truck, is a condition few of us humans can claim. For instance, my own family, raised in the heart of the American Midwest, has now scattered to all four coasts/boundaries (East, West, North, and South), leaving only one behind in the center. Home may be where we hang our hats, but we don’t belong anywhere in particular anymore, and it’s difficult to say convincingly that any of us belong to that same family from my childhood, either. We live in flux, moving from place to place in search of opportunity, reforming many of our social attachments with each move, some of us forming new families in the process. Of course, this characterization fails to describe all Americans. Many stay their entire lives within, say, 100 miles of their birthplace and keep vital connections with an extended family all situated within one small region. Still, I can’t help but to admire the life provided to those dogs, something now denied to many of us humans.