Archive for the ‘Idealism’ Category

Societies sometimes employ leveling mechanisms to keep the high and mighty from getting too, well, high and mighty or to pull them back down when they nonetheless manage to scale untenable heights. Some might insist that the U.S. breakaway from the British crown and aristocratic systems in the Revolutionary Era was, among other things, to establish an egalitarian society in accordance with liberal philosophy of the day. This is true to a point, since we in the U.S. don’t have hereditary aristocratic titles, but a less charitable view is that the Founders really only substituted the landed gentry, which to say themselves, for the tyrannical British. Who scored worse on the tyranny scale is a matter of debate, especially when modern sensibilities are applied to historical practices. Although I don’t generally care for such hindsight moralizing, it’s uncontroversial that the phrase “all men are created equal” (from the U.S. Declaration of Independence) did not then apply, for instance, to slaves and women. We’re still battling to establish equality (a level playing field) among all men and women. For SJWs, the fight has become about equality of outcome (e.g., quotas), which is a perversion of the more reasonable and achievable equality of opportunity.

When and where available resources were more limited, say, in agrarian or subsistence economies, the distance or separation between top and bottom was relatively modest. In a nonresource economy, where activity is financialized and decoupled from productivity (Bitcoin, anyone?), the distance between top and bottom can grow appallingly wide. I suspect that an economist could give a better explanation of this phenomenon than I can, but my suspicion is that it has primarily to do with fiat currency (money issued without sound backing such as precious metals), expansion of credit, and creation of arcane instruments of finance, all of which give rise to an immense bureaucracy of administrative personnel to create, manage, and manipulate them.

The U.S. tax structure of the 1950s — steep taxes levied against the highest earners — was a leveling mechanism. Whether intentionally corrective of the excesses of the Jazz Age is beyond my knowledge. However, that progressive tax structure has been dismantled (“leveled,” one might say), shifting from progressive to regressive and now to transgressive. Regressive is where more or disproportionate tax responsibility is borne by those already struggling to satisfy their basic needs. Transgressive is outright punishment of those who fail to earn enough, as though the whip functions as a spur to success. Indeed, as I mentioned in the previous blog post, the mood of the country right now is to abandon and blame those whom financial success has eluded. Though the term debtor’s prison belongs to a bygone era, we still have them, as people are imprisoned over nonviolent infractions such as parking tickets only to have heavy, additional, administrative fines and fees levied on them, holding them hostage to payment. That’s victimizing the victim, pure and simple.

At the other end of the scale, the superrich ascend a hierarchy that is absurdly imbalanced since leveling mechanisms are no longer present. Of course, disdain of the nouveau riche exists, primarily because social training does not typically accompany amassing of new fortunes, allowing many of that cohort to be amazingly gauche and intransigently proud of it (names withheld). That disdain is especially the prerogative of those whose wealth is inherited, not the masses, but is not an effective leveling mechanism. If one is rich, famous, and charming enough, indulgences for bad or criminal behavior are commonplace. For instance, those convicted of major financial crime in the past decade are quite few, whereas beneficiaries (multimillionaires) of looting of the U.S. Treasury are many. One very recent exception to indulgences is the wave of people being accused of sexual misconduct, but I daresay the motivation is unrelated to that of standard leveling mechanisms. Rather, it’s moral panic resulting from strains being felt throughout society having to do with sexual orientation and identity.

When the superrich ascend into the billionaire class, they tend to behave supranationally: buying private islands or yachts outside the jurisdiction or control of nation states, becoming nominal residents of the most advantageous tax havens, and shielding themselves from the rabble. While this brand of anarchism may be attractive to some and justified to others, detaching from social hierarchies and abandoning or ignoring others in need once one’s own fortunes are secure is questionable behavior to say the least. Indeed, those of such special character are typically focal points of violence and mayhem when the lives of the masses become too intolerable. That target on one’s back can be ignored or forestalled for a long time, perhaps, but the eventuality of nasty blowback is virtually guaranteed. That’s the final leveling mechanism seen throughout history.

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Here’s the last interesting bit I am lifting from Anthony Gidden’s The Consequences of Modernity. Then I will be done with this particular book-blogging project. As part of Gidden’s discussion of the risk profile of modernity, he characterizes risk as either objective or perceived and further divides in into seven categories:

  1. globalization of risk (intensity)
  2. globalization of risk (frequency)
  3. environmental risk
  4. institutionalized risk
  5. knowledge gaps and uncertainty
  6. collective or shared risk
  7. limitations of expertise

Some overlap exists, and I will not distinguish them further. The first two are of primary significance today for obvious reasons. Although the specter of doomsday resulting from a nuclear exchange has been present since the 1950s, Giddens (writing in 1988) provides this snapshot of today’s issues:

The sheer number of serious risks in respect of socialised nature is quite daunting: radiation from major accidents at nuclear power-stations or from nuclear waste; chemical pollution of the seas sufficient to destroy the phytoplankton that renews much of the oxygen in the atmosphere; a “greenhouse effect” deriving from atmospheric pollutants which attack the ozone layer, melting part of the ice caps and flooding vast areas; the destruction of large areas of rain forest which are a basic source of renewable oxygen; and the exhaustion of millions of acres of topsoil as a result of widespread use of artificial fertilisers. [p. 127]

As I often point out, these dangers were known 30–40 years ago (in truth, much longer), but they have only worsened with time through political inaction and/or social inertia. After I began to investigate and better understand the issues roughly a decade ago, I came to the conclusion that the window of opportunity to address these risks and their delayed effects had already closed. In short, we’re doomed and living on borrowed time as the inevitable consequences of our actions slowly but steadily manifest in the world.

So here’s the really interesting part. The modern worldview bestows confidence borne out of expanding mastery of the built environment, where risk is managed and reduced through expert systems. Mechanical and engineering knowledge figure prominently and support a cause-and-effect mentality that has grown ubiquitous in the computing era, with its push-button inputs and outputs. However, the high modern outlook is marred by overconfidence in our competence to avoid disaster, often of our own making. Consider the abject failure of 20th-century institutions to handle geopolitical conflict without devolving into world war and multiple genocides. Or witness periodic crashes of financial markets, two major nuclear accidents, and numerous space shuttles and rockets destroyed. Though all entail risk, high-profile failures showcase our overconfidence. Right now, engineers (software and hardware) are confident they can deliver safe self-driving vehicles yet are blithely ignoring (says me, maybe not) major ethical dilemmas regarding liability and technological unemployment. Those are apparently problems for someone else to solve.

Since the start of the Industrial Revolution, we’ve barrelled headlong into one sort of risk after another, some recognized at the time, others only apparent after the fact. Nuclear weapons are the best example, but many others exist. The one I raise frequently is the live social experiment undertaken with each new communications technology (radio, cinema, telephone, television, computer, social networks) that upsets and destabilizes social dynamics. The current ruckus fomented by the radical left (especially in the academy but now infecting other environments) regarding silencing of free speech (thus, thought policing) is arguably one concomitant.

According to Giddens, the character of modern risk contrasts with that of the premodern. The scale of risk prior to the 17th century was contained and expectation of social continuity was strong. Risk was also transmuted through magical thinking (superstition, religion, ignorance, wishfulness) into providential fortuna or mere bad luck, which led to feelings of relative security rather than despair. Modern risk has now grown so widespread, consequential, and soul-destroying, situated at considerable remove leading to feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, that those not numbed by the litany of potential worries afflicting daily life (existential angst or ontological insecurity) often develop depression and other psychological compulsions and disturbances. Most of us, if aware of globalized risk, set it aside so that we can function and move forward in life. Giddens says that this conjures up anew a sense of fortuna, that our fate is no longer within our control. This

relieves the individual of the burden of engagement with an existential situation which might otherwise be chronically disturbing. Fate, a feeling that things will take their own course anyway, thus reappears at the core of a world which is supposedly taking rational control of its own affairs. Moreover, this surely exacts a price on the level of the unconscious, since it essentially presumes the repression of anxiety. The sense of dread which is the antithesis of basic trust is likely to infuse unconscious sentiments about the uncertainties faced by humanity as a whole. [p. 133]

In effect, the nature of risk has come full circle (completed a revolution, thus, revolutionized risk) from fate to confidence in expert control and back to fate. Of course, a flexibility of perspective is typical as situation demands — it’s not all or nothing — but the overarching character is clear. Giddens also provides this quote by Susan Sontag that captures what he calls the low-probability, high-consequence character of modern risk:

A permanent modern scenario: apocalypse looms — and it doesn’t occur. And still it looms … Apocalypse is now a long-running serial: not ‘Apocalypse Now,’ but ‘Apocalypse from now on.’ [p. 134]

Commentary on the previous post poses a challenging question: having perceived that civilization is set on a collision course with reality, what is being done to address that existential problem? More pointedly, what are you doing? Most rubes seem to believe that we can technofix the problem, alter course and set off in a better, even utopian direction filled with electronic gadgetry (e.g., the Internet of things), death-defying medical technologies (as though that goal were even remotely desirable), and an endless supply of entertainments and ephemera curated by media shilling happy visions of the future (in high contrast with actual deprivation and suffering). Realists may appreciate that our charted course can’t be altered anymore considering the size and inertia of the leviathan industrial civilization has become. Figuratively, we’re aboard the RMS Titanic, full steam ahead, killer iceberg(s) looming in the darkness. The only option is to see our current path through to its destination conclusion. Maybe there’s a middle ground between, where a hard reset foils our fantasies but at least allows (some of) us to continue living on the surface of Planet Earth.

Problem is, the gargantuan, soul-destroying realization of near-term extinction has the potential to radicalize even well-balanced people, and the question “what are you doing?” is tantamount to an accusation that you’re not doing enough because, after all, nothing will ever be enough. We’ve been warned taught repeatedly to eat right, brush our teeth, get some exercise, and be humble. Yet those simple requisites for a happy, healthy life are frequently ignored. How likely is it that we will then heed the dire message that everything we know will soon be swept away?

The mythological character Cassandra, who prophesied doom, was cursed to never be believed, as was Chicken Little. The fabulous Boy Who Cried Wolf (from Aesop’s Fables) was cursed with bad timing. Sandwich-board prophets, typically hirsute Jesus freaks with some version of the message “Doom is nigh!” inscribed on the boards, are a cliché almost always now understood as set-ups for some sort of joke.

It’s an especially sick joke when the unheeded message proves to be true. If one is truly radicalized, then self-immolation on the sidewalk in front of the White House may be one measure of commitment, but the irony is that no one takes such behavior seriously except as an indication of how unhinged the prophet of doom has gotten (suggesting a different sort of commitment). Yet that’s where we’ve arrived in the 21st century. Left/right, blue/red factions have abandoned the centrist middle ground and moved conspicuously toward the radical fringes in what’s being called extreme social fragmentation. On some analyses, the rising blood tide of terrorists and mass murders are examples of an inchoate protest against the very nature of existence, a complete ontological rejection. When the ostensible purpose of, say, the Las Vegas shooter, is to take out as many people as possible, rejecting other potential sites as not promising enough for high body counts, it may not register in the public mind as a cry in the wilderness, an extreme statement that modern life is no longer worth living, but the action speaks for itself even in the absence of a formal manifesto articulating a collapsed philosophy.

In such a light, the sandwich-board prophet, by eschewing violence and hysteria, may actually be performing a modest ministerial service. Wake up and recognize that all living things must eventually die that our time is short. Cherish what you have, be among those you love and who love you, and brace yourself.

The scandal surrounding Harvey Weinstein and all the people he harassed, bullied, assaulted, molested, and raped has provided occasion for many who had dealings with him to revisit their experiences and wonder what might have been (or not been) had things gone differently, had they acted otherwise in response to his oafish predations. I judge it’s nearly impossible for those outside the Hollywood scene to understand fully the stakes involved (and thus the distorted psychology), but on the other hand, nearly everyone has experience with power imbalances that enable some to get away with exploiting and victimizing others. And because American culture responds to tragedies like a bunch of rubberneckers, the witch hunt has likely only just begun. There’s a better than average chance that, as with icebergs, the significantly larger portion of the problem lies hidden below the surface, as yet undisclosed. Clamor won’t alter much in the end; the dynamics are too ingrained. Still, expect accusations to fly all over the industry, including victim blaming. My strong suspicion is that some folks dodged (actively or passively) becoming victims and paid a price in terms of career success, whereas others fell prey or simply went along (and then stayed largely silent until now) and got some extra consideration out of it. Either way, it undermines one’s sense of self-worth, messing with one’s head for years afterwards. Sometimes there’s no escaping awful circumstance.

Life is messy, right? We all have episodes from our past that we wish we could undo. Hindsight makes the optimal path far more clear than in the moment. Fortunately, I have no crimes among my regrets, but with certain losses, I certainly wish I had known then what I know now (a logical fallacy). Strange that the news cycle has me revisiting my own critical turning points in sympathy with others undoubtedly doing the same.

As I generalize this thought process, I can’t help but to wonder as well what might have been had we not, say, (1) split the atom and immediately weaponized the technology, (2) succumbed to various Red Scares scattered around 20th- and 21st-century calendars but instead developed a progressive society worthy of the promise our institutions once embodied, (3) plunged forward out of avarice and shortsightedness by plundering the Earth, and (4) failed to reverse course once the logical conclusion to our aggregate effects on the biosphere was recognized. No utopia would have arisen had we dodged these bullets, of course, but the affairs of men would have been marginally improved, and we might even have survived the 21st century. Such thinking is purely hypothetical and invites a fatalist like me to wonder whether — given our frailty, weakness, and corruption (the human condition being akin to original sin) — we don’t already inhabit the best of all possible worlds.

Isn’t that a horrible thought? A world full of suffering and hardship, serial rapists and murderers, incompetent and venal political leaders, and torture and genocides is the best we can do? We can’t avoid our own worst tendencies? Over long spans of time, cataclysmic earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, superstorms, and meteor strikes already make life on Earth rather precarious, considering that over 99% of all species that once existed are now gone. On balance, we have some remarkable accomplishments, though often purchased with sizeable trade-offs (e.g., slave labor, patriarchal suppression). Still, into the dustbin of history is where we are headed rather sooner than later, having enjoyed only a brief moment in the sun.

I saw something a short while back that tweaked my BS meter into the red: the learning pyramid. According to research done by The NTL Institute for Applied Behavioral Science in the 1960s (… behaviorists, ugh) and reported here (among other places), there are widely disparate rates of knowledge retention across different passive and active teaching methods:

learning-pyramid-synap-2

Let me state first something quite obvious: learning and retention (memory) aren’t the same things. If one seeks sheer retention of information as a proxy for learning, that’s a gross misunderstanding of both cognition and learning. For example, someone who has managed to memorize, let’s say, baseball statistics going back to the 1950s or Bible verses, may have accomplished an impressive mental task not at all aligned with normal cognitive function (the leaky bucket analogy is accurate), but neither example qualifies someone as learned the way most understand the term. Information (especially raw data) is neither knowledge, understanding, nor wisdom. They’re related, sure, but not the same (blogged about this before here). Increasing levels of organization and possession are required to reach each threshold.

The passive/active (participatory) labels are also misleading. To participate actively, one must have something to contribute, to be in possession of knowledge/skill already. To teach something effectively, one must have greater expertise than one’s students. Undoubtedly, teaching others solidifies one’s understanding and expertise, and further learning is often a byproduct, but one certainly can’t begin learning a new subject area by teaching it. Information (input) needs to come from elsewhere, which understandably has a lower retention rate until it’s been gone over repeatedly and formed the cognitive grooves that represent acquisition and learning. This is also the difference between reception and expression in communications. One’s expressive vocabulary (the words one can actually deploy in speech and writing) is a subset of one’s receptive vocabulary (the words one can understand readily upon hearing or reading). The expressive vocabulary is predicated on prior exposure that imbues less common words with power, specificity, and nuance. While it’s possible to learn new words quickly (in small quantities), it’s not generally possible to skip repetition that enables memorization and learning. Anyone studying vocabulary lists for the SAT/ACT (as opposed to a spelling bee) knows this intuitively.

Lastly, where exactly is most prospective knowledge and skill located, inside the self or outside? One doesn’t simply peel back layers of the self to reveal knowledge. Rather, one goes out into the world and seeks it (or doesn’t, sadly), disturbing it from its natural resting place. The great repositories of knowledge are books and other people (especially those who write books — whoda thunk?). So confronting knowledge, depending on the subject matter, occurs more efficiently one-on-one (an individual reading a book) or in groups (25 or so students in a classroom headed by 1 teacher). The inefficiency of a 1:1 ratio between student and teacher (a/k/a tutoring) is obviously available to those who place a high enough value on learning to hire a tutor. However, that’s not how education (primary through postgraduate) is undertaken in most cases. And just imagine the silliness of gathering a classroom of students to teach just for one person to learn with 90% retention, as the learning pyramid would suggest.

Reading further into Anthony Giddens’ book The Consequences of Modernity, I got a fuller (though still incomplete) sense of what is meant by his terms disembedding mechanisms, expert systems, and symbolic tokens, all of which disrupt time and space as formerly understood in traditional societies that enjoyed the benefit of centuries of continuity. I’ve been aware of analyses regarding, for instance, the sociology of money and the widespread effects of the introduction and adoption of mechanical clocks and timepieces. While most understand these developments superficially as unallayed progress, Giddens argues that they do in fact reorder our experience in the world away from an organic, immediate orientation toward an intellectualized adherence to distant, abstract, self-reinforcing (reflexive) mechanisms.

But those matters are not really what this blog post is about. Rather, this passage sparked my interest:

… when the claims of reason replaced those of tradition, they appeared to offer a sense of certitude greater than that provided by preexisting dogma. But this idea only appears persuasive so long as we do not see that the reflexivity of modernity actually subverts reason, at any rate where reason is understood as the gaining of certain knowledge … We are abroad in a world which is thoroughly constituted through reflexively applied knowledge, but where at the same time we can never be sure that any given element of that knowledge will not be revised. [p. 39]

Put another way, science and reason are axiomatically open to examination, challenge, and revision and often undergo disruptive change. That’s what is meant by Karl Popper’s phrase “all science rests upon shifting sand” and informs the central thesis of Thomas Kuhn’s well-known book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. It’s not the narrow details that shift so much (hard sciences lead pretty reliably to applied engineering) as the overarching narrative, e.g., the story of the Earth, the cosmos, and ourselves as revealed through scientific inquiry and close examination. Historically, the absolute certainty of the medieval church, while not especially accurate in either details or narrative, yielded considerable authority to post-Enlightenment science and reason, which themselves continue to shift periodically.

Some of those paradigm shifts are so boggling and beyond the ken of the average thinker (including many college-educated folks) that our epistemology is now in crisis. Even the hard facts — like the age and shape of the Earth or its orbital relationship to other solar bodies — are hotly contested by some and blithely misunderstood by others. One doesn’t have to get bogged down in the vagaries of relativity, nuclear power and weapons, or quantum theory to lose the thread of what it means to live in the 21st century. Softer sciences such as psychology, anthropology, economics, and even history now deliver new discoveries and (re-)interpretations of facts so rapidly, like the dizzying pace of technological change, that philosophical systems are unmoored and struggling for legitimacy. For instance, earlier this year, a human fossil was found in Morocco that upended our previous knowledge of human evolution (redating the first appearance of biologically modern humans about 100,000 years earlier). More popularly, dieticians still disagree on what sorts of foods are healthy for most of us (though we can probably all agree that excess sugar is bad). Other recent developments include the misguided insistence among some neurobiologists and theorists that consciousness, free will, and the self do not exist (I’ll have a new post regarding that topic as time allows) and outright attacks on religion not just for being in error but for being the source of evil.

I have a hard time imagining other developments in 21st-century intellectual thought that would shake the foundations of our cosmology any more furiously than what we’re now experiencing. Even the dawning realization that we’ve essentially killed ourselves (with delayed effect) by gradually though consistently laying waste to our own habitat is more of an “oops” than the mind-blowing moment of waking up from The Matrix to discover the unreality of everything once believed. Of course, for fervent believers especially, the true facts (best as we can know them, since knowledge is forever provisional) are largely irrelevant in light of desire (what one wants to believe), and that’s true for people on both sides of the schism between church and science/reason.

As Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” So it’s probably wrong to introduce a false dualism, though it has plenty of historical precedent. I’ll suggest instead that there are more facets and worldviews at play in the world that the two that have been warring in the West for the last 600 years.

Here’s a familiar inspirational phrase from The Bible: the truth shall set you free (John 8:32). Indeed, most of us take it as, um, well, gospel that knowledge and understanding are unqualified goods. However, the information age has turned out to be a mixed blessing. Any clear-eyed view of the the way the world works and its long, tawdry history carries with it an inevitable awareness of injustice, inequity, suffering, and at the extreme end, some truly horrific epaisodes of groups victimizing each other. Some of the earliest bits of recorded history, as distinguished from oral history, are financial — keeping count (or keeping accounts). Today differs not so much in character as in the variety of counts being kept and the sophistication of information gathering.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics, a part of the U.S. Department of Labor, is one information clearinghouse that slices and dices available data according to a variety of demographic characteristics. The fundamental truth behind such assessments, regardless of the politics involved, is that when comparisons are made between unlike groups, say, between men and women or young and old, one should expect to find differences and indeed be rather surprised if comparisons revealed none. So the question of gender equality in the workplace, or its implied inverse, gender inequality in the workplace, is a form of begging the question, meaning that if one seeks differences, one shall most certainly find them. But those differences are not prima facie evidence of injustice in the sense of the popular meme that women are disadvantaged or otherwise discriminated against in the workplace. Indeed, the raw data can be interpreted according to any number of agendas, thus the phrase “lying with statistics,” and most of us lack the sophistication to contextualize statistics properly, which is to say, free of the emotional bias that plagues modern politics, and more specifically, identity politics.

The fellow who probably ran up against this difficulty the worst is Charles Murray in the aftermath of publication of his book The Bell Curve (1994), which deals with how intelligence manifests differently across demographic groups yet functions as the primary predictor of social outcomes. Murray is particularly well qualified to interpret data and statistics dispassionately, and in true seek-and-find fashion, differences between groups did appear. It is unclear how much his resulting prescriptions for social programs are borne out of data vs. ideology, but most of us are completely at sea wading through the issues without specialized academic training to make sense of the evidence.

More recently, another fellow caught in the crosshairs on issues of difference is James Damore, who was fired from his job at Google after writing what is being called an anti-diversity manifesto (but might be better termed an internal memo) that was leaked and then went viral. The document can be found here. I have not dug deeply into the details, but my impression is that Damore attempted a fairly academic unpacking of the issue of gender differences in the workplace as they conflicted with institutional policy only to face a hard-set ideology that is more RightThink than truth. In Damore’s case, the truth did set him free — free from employment. Even the NY Times recognizes that the Thought Police sprang into action yet again to demand that its pet illusions about society be supported rather than dispelled. These witch hunts and shaming rituals (vigilante justice carried out in the court of public opinion) are occurring with remarkable regularity.

In a day and age where so much information (too much information, as it turns out) is available to us to guide our thinking, one might hope for careful, rational analysis and critical thinking. However, trends point to the reverse: a return to tribalism, xenophobia, scapegoating, and victimization. There is also a victimization Olympics at work, with identity groups vying for imaginary medals awarded to whoever’s got it worst. I’m no Pollyanna when it comes to the notion that all men are brothers and, shucks, can’t we all just get along? That’s not our nature. But the marked indifference of the natural world to our suffering as it besets us with drought, fire, floods, earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, tornadoes, and the like (and this was just the last week!) might seem like the perfect opportunity to find within ourselves a little grace and recognize our common struggles in the world rather than add to them.

I often review my past posts when one receives a reader’s attention, sometimes adding tags and fixing typos, grammar, and broken links. One on my greatest hits (based on voting, not traffic) is Low Points in Education. It was among the first to tackle what I have since called our epistemological crisis, though I didn’t begin to use the epistemology tag until later. The crisis has caught up with a vengeance, though I can’t claim I’m the first to observe the problem. That dubious honor probably goes to Stephen Colbert, who coined the word truthiness in 2005. Now that alternative facts and fake news have entered the lingo as well (gaslighting has been revived), everyone has jumped on the bandwagon questioning the truthfulness or falsity behind anything coughed up in our media-saturated information environment. But as suggested in the first item discussed in Low Points in Education, what’s so important about truth?

It would be obvious and easy yet futile to argue in favor of high-fidelity appreciation of the world, even if only within the surprisingly narrow limits of human perception, cognition, and memory (all interrelated). Numerous fields of endeavor rely upon consensus reality derived from objectivity, measurement, reason, logic, and, dare I say it, facticity. Regrettably, human cognition doesn’t adhere any too closely to those ideals except when trained to value them. Well-educated folks have better acquaintance with such habits of mind; folks with formidable native intelligence can develop true authority, too. For the masses, however, those attributes are elusive, even for those who have partied through earned college degrees. Ironically worse, perhaps, are specialists, experts, and overly analytical intellectuals who exhibit what the French call a déformation professionelle. Politicians, pundits, and journalists are chief among the deformed and distorted. Mounting challenges to establishing truth now destabilize even mundane matters of fact, and it doesn’t help that myriad high-profile provocateurs (including the Commander in Chief, to whom I will henceforth refer only as “45”) are constantly throwing out bones for journalists to chase like so many unnourishing rubber chew toys.

Let me suggest, then, that human cognition, or more generally the mind, is an ongoing balancing act, making adjustments to stay upright and sane. Like the routine balance one keeps during locomotion, shifting weight side to side continuously, falling a bit only to catch oneself, difficulty is not especially high. But with the foundation below one’s feet shaking furiously, so to speak, legs get wobbly and many end up (figuratively at least) ass over teakettle. Further, the mind is highly situational, contingent, and improvisational and is prone to notoriously faulty perception even before one gets to marketing, spin, and arrant lies promulgated by those intent on coopting or directing one’s thinking. Simply put, we’re not particularly inclined toward accuracy but instead operate within a wide margin of error. Accordingly, we’re quite strong at adapting to ever-changing circumstance.

That strength turns out to be our downfall. Indeed, rootless adjustment to changing narrative is now so grave that basic errors of attribution — which entities said and did what — make it impossible to distinguish allies from adversaries reliably. (Orwell captured this with his line from the novel 1984, “Oceania was at war with Eurasia; therefore Oceania had always been at war with Eurasia.) Thus, on the back of a brazen propaganda campaign following 9/11, Iraq morphed from U.S. client state to rogue state demanding preemptive war. (Admittedly, the U.S. State Department had already lost control of its puppet despot, who in a foolish act of naked aggression tried to annex Kuwait, but that was a brief, earlier war quite unlike the undeclared one in which the U.S. has been mired for 16 years.) Even though Bush Administration lies have been unmasked and dispelled, many Americans continue to believe (incorrectly) that Iraq possessed WMDs and posed an existential threat to the U.S. The same type of confusion is arguably at work with respect to China, Russia, and Israel, which are mixed up in longstanding conflicts having significant U.S. involvement and provocation. Naturally, the default villain is always Them, never Us.

So we totter from moment to moment, reeling drunkenly from one breathtaking disclosure to the next, and are forced to reorient continuously in response to whatever the latest spin and spew happen to be. Some institutions retain the false sheen of respectability and authority, but for the most part, individuals are free to cherry-pick information and assemble their own truths, indulging along the way in conspiracy and muddle-headedness until at last almost no one can be reached anymore by logic and reason. This is our post-Postmodern world.

Nick Carr has an interesting blog post (late getting to it as usual) highlighting a problem with our current information environment. In short, the constant information feed to which many of us subscribe and read on smartphones, which I’ve frequently called a fire hose pointed indiscriminately at everyone, has become the new normal. And when it’s absent, people feel anxiety:

The near-universal compulsion of the present day is, as we all know and as behavioral studies prove, the incessant checking of the smartphone. As Begley notes, with a little poetic hyperbole, we all “feel compelled to check our phones before we get out of bed in the morning and constantly throughout the day, because FOMO — the fear of missing out — fills us with so much anxiety that it feels like fire ants swarming every neuron in our brain.” With its perpetually updating, tightly personalized messaging, networking, searching, and shopping apps, the smartphone creates the anxiety that it salves. It’s a machine almost perfectly designed to turn its owner into a compulsive … from a commercial standpoint, the smartphone is to compulsion what the cigarette pack was to addiction

I’ve written about this phenomenon plenty of times (see here for instance) and recommended that wizened folks might adopt a practiced media ecology by regularly turning one’s attention away from the feed (e.g., no mobile media). Obviously, that’s easier for some of us than others. Although my innate curiosity (shared by almost everyone, I might add) prompts me to gather quite a lot of information in the course of the day/week, I’ve learned to be restrictive and highly judgmental about what sources I read, printed text being far superior in most respects to audio or video. No social media at all, very little mainstream media, and very limited “fast media” of the type that rushes to publication before enough is known. Rather, periodicals (monthly or quarterly) and books, which have longer paths to publication, tend to be more thoughtful and reliable. If I could never again be exposed to noise newsbits with, say, the word “Kardashian,” that would be an improvement.

Also, being aware that the basic economic structure underlying media from the advent of radio and television is to provide content for free (interesting, entertaining, and hyperpalatable perhaps, but simultaneously pointless ephemera) in order to capture the attention of a large audience and then load up the channel with advertisements at regular intervals, I now use ad blockers and streaming media to avoid being swayed by the manufactured desire that flows from advertising. If a site won’t display its content without disabling the ad blocker, which is becoming more commonplace, then I don’t give it my attention. I can’t avoid all advertising, much like I can’t avoid my consumer behaviors being tracked and aggregated by retailers (and others), but I do better than most. For instance, I never saw any Super Bowl commercials this year, which have become a major part of the spectacle. Sure, I’m missing out, but I have no anxiety about it. I prefer to avoid colonization of my mind by advertisers in exchange for cheap titillation.

In the political news media, Rachel Maddow has caught on that it’s advantageous to ignore a good portion of the messages flung at the masses like so much monkey shit. A further suggestion is that because of the pathological narcissism of the new U.S. president, denial of the rapt attention he craves by reinforcing only the most reasonable conduct of the office might be worth a try. Such an experiment would be like the apocryphal story of students conditioning their professor to lecture with his/her back to the class by using positive/negative reinforcement, paying attention and being quiet only when his/her back was to them. Considering how much attention is trained on the Oval Office and its utterances, I doubt such an approach would be feasible even if it were only journalists attempting to channel behavior, but it’s a curious thought experiment.

All of this is to say that there are alternatives to being harried and harassed by insatiable desire for more information at all times. There is no actual peril to boredom, though we behave as though an idle mind is either wasteful or fearsome. Perhaps we aren’t well adapted — cognitively or culturally — to the deluge of information pressing on us in modern life, which could explain (partially) this age of anxiety when our safety, security, and material comforts are as good as they’ve ever been. I have other thoughts about what’s really missing in modern life, which I’ll save for another post.

This past Thursday was an occasion of protest for many immigrant laborers who did not show up to work. Presumably, this action was in response to recent executive attacks on immigrants and hoped to demonstrate how businesses would suffer without immigrant labor doing jobs Americans frequently do not want. Tensions between the ownership and laboring classes have a long, tawdry history I cannot begin to summarize. As with other contextual failures, I daresay the general public believes incorrectly that such conflicts date from the 19th century when formal sociopolitical theories like Marxism were published, which intersect heavily with labor economics. An only slightly better understanding is that the labor movement commenced in the United Kingdom some fifty years after the Industrial Revolution began, such as with the Luddites. I pause to remind that the most basic, enduring, and abhorrent labor relationship, extending back millennia, is slavery, which ended in the U.S. only 152 years ago but continues even today in slightly revised forms around the globe.

Thursday’s work stoppage was a faint echo of general strikes and unionism from the middle of the 20th century. Gains in wages and benefits, working conditions, and negotiating position transferred some power from owners to laborers during that period, but today, laborers must sense they are back on their heels, defending conditions fought for by their grandparents but ultimately losing considerable ground. Of course, I’m sympathetic to labor, considering I’m not in the ownership class. (It’s all about perspective.) I must also admit, however, to once quitting a job after only one day that was simply too, well, laborious. I had that option at the time, though it ultimately led nearly to bankruptcy for me — a life lesson that continues to inform my attitudes. As I survey the scene today, however, I suspect many laborers — immigrants and native-born Americans alike — have the unenviable choice of accepting difficult, strenuous labor for low pay or being unemployed. Gradual reduction of demand for labor has two main causes: globalization and automation.

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