Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Decades ago, I read Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy trilogy. Lots of inventive things in those books have stayed with me despite not having revisited them. For instance, I found the SEP (Somebody-Else’s-Problem) Field and the infinite improbability drive tantalizing concepts even though they’re jokes. Another that resonates more as I age is disorientation felt (according to Adams) because of dislocation more than 500 light-years away from home, namely, the planet of one’s origin. When I was younger, my wanderlust led me to venture out into the world (as opposed to the galaxy), though I never gave much thought to the stabilizing effect of the modest town in which I grew up before moving to a more typical American suburb and then to various cities, growing more anonymous with each step. Although I haven’t lived in that town for 25+ years, I pass through periodically and admit it still feels like home. Since moving away, it’s been swallowed up in suburban sprawl and isn’t really the same place anymore.

Reading chapter 4 of Pankaj Mishra’s The Age of Anger brought back to me the idea of being rooted in a particular place and its culture, and more significantly, how those roots can be severed even without leaving. The main cause appears to be cultural and economic infiltration by foreign elements, which has occurred many places through mere demographic drift and in others by design or force (i.e., colonialism and globalization). How to characterize the current waves of political, economic, and climate refugees inundating Europe and the smaller migration of Central Americans (and others) into the U.S. is a good question. I admit to being a little blasé about it: like water, people gonna go where they gonna go. Sovereign states can attempt to manage immigration somewhat, but stopgap administration ultimately fails, at least in open societies. In the meantime, the intractable issue has made many Americans paranoid and irrational while our civil institutions have become decidedly inhumane in their mistreatment of refugees. The not-so-hidden migration is Chinese people into Africa. Only the last of these migrations gives off the stink of neocolonialism, but they all suggest decades of inflamed racial tension to come if not open race wars.

Mishra cites numerous authors and political leaders/revolutionaries in chapter 4 who understand and observe that modernizing and Westernizing countries, especially those attempting to catch up, produce psychic turmoil in their populations because of abandonment and transformation of their unique, local identities as they move, for instance, from predominantly agrarian social organization to urbanization in search of opportunity and in the process imitate and adopt inappropriate Western models. Mishra quotes a 1951 United Nations document discussing the costs of supposed progress:

There is a sense in which rapid economic progress in impossible without painful adjustments. Ancient philosophies have to be scrapped; old social institutions have to disintegrate; bonds of cast, creed and race have to burst; and large numbers of persons who cannot keep up with progress have to have their expectations of a comfortable life frustrated. [p. 118]

Thus, men were “uprooted from rural habitats and condemned to live in the big city,” which is a reenactment of the same transformation the West underwent previously. Another insightful passage comes from the final page of Westoxification (1962) or Weststruckness (English transliteration varies) by the Iranian novelist Jalal Al-e-Ahmad:

And now I, not as an Easterner, but as one like the first Muslims, who expected to see the Resurrection on the Plain of Judgment in their lifetimes, see that Albert Camus, Eugene Ionesco, Ingmar Bergman, and many other artists, all of them from the West, are proclaiming this same resurrection. All regard the end of human affairs with despair. Sartre’s Erostratus fires a revolver at the people in the street blindfolded; Nabokov’s protagonist drives his car into the crowd; and the stranger, Meursault, kills someone in reaction to a bad case of sunburn. These fictional endings all represent where humanity is ending up in reality, a humanity that, if it does not care to be crushed under the machine, must go about in a rhinoceros’s skin. [pp. 122–123]

It’s unclear that the resurrection referenced above is the Christian one. Nonetheless, how sobering is it to recognize that random, anonymous victims of nihilistic violence depicted in storytelling have their analogues in today’s victims of mass killings? A direct line of causality from the severed roots of place to violent incidents cannot be drawn clearly, but the loss of a clear, stabilizing sense of self, formerly situated within a community now suffering substantial losses of historical continuity and tradition, is certainly an ingredient.

More to come in pt. 2.

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

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

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

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

and slightly later

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sounds quite contemporary, no? Driving the point home:

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

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

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

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

Profile of Voltaire to follow in part 2.

First, a bit of history. The U.S. Constitution was ratified in 1788 and superseded the Articles of Confederation. The first ten Amendments, ratified in 1791 (rather quickly after the initial drafting and adoption of the main document — oops, forgot these obvious assumptions), are known as the Bill of Rights. The final amendment to date, the 27th Amendment, though proposed in 1789 along with others, was not ratified until 1992. A half dozen additional amendments approved by Congress have not yet been ratified, and a large number of other unapproved amendments have been proposed.

The received wisdom is that, by virtue of its lengthy service as the supreme law of the land, the U.S. Constitution has become sacrosanct and invulnerable to significant criticism and further amendment. That wisdom has begun to be questioned actively as a result of (at least) two factors: (1) recognition that the Federal government serves the common good and citizenry rather poorly, having become corrupt and dysfunctional, and (2) the Electoral College, an anachronism from the Revolutionary Era that skews voting power away from cities, handed two recent presidential elections to candidates who failed to win the popular vote yet won in the Electoral College. For a numerical analysis of how electoral politics is gamed to subvert public opinion, resulting in more government seats held by Republicans than voting (expressing the will of the people) would indicate, see this article by the Brookings Institute.

These are issues of political philosophy and ongoing public debate, spurred by dissatisfaction over periodic Federal shutdowns, power struggles between the executive and legislative branches that are tantamount to holding each other hostage, and income inequality that pools wealth and power in the hands of ever fewer people. The judicial branch (especially the U.S. Supreme Court) is also a significant point of contention; its newly appointed members are increasingly right wing but have not (yet) taken openly activist roles (e.g., reversing Roe v. Wade). As philosophy, questioning the wisdom of the U.S. Constitution requires considerable knowledge of history and comparative government to undertake with equanimity (as opposed to emotionalism). I don’t possess such expert knowledge but will observe that the U.S. is an outlier among nations in relying on a centuries-old constitution, which may not have been the expectation or intent of the drafters.

It might be too strong to suggest just yet that the public feels betrayed by its institutions. Better to say that, for instance, the U.S. Constitution is now regarded as a flawed document — not for its day (with limited Federal powers) but for the needs of today (where the Federal apparatus, including the giant military, has grown into a leviathan). This would explain renewed interest in direct democracy (as opposed to representative government), flirtations with socialism (expanded over the blended system we already have), and open calls for revolution to remove a de facto corporatocracy. Whether the U.S. Constitution can or should survive these challenges is the question.

As a student, practitioner, and patron of the fine arts, I long ago imbibed the sybaritic imploration that beauty and meaning drawn out of sensory stimulation were a significant source of enjoyment, a high calling even. Accordingly, learning to decode and appreciate the conventions of various forms of expression required effort, which was repaid and deepened over a lifetime of experience. I recognize that, because of their former close association with the European aristocracy and American moneyed class, the fine arts (Western genres) have never quite distanced themselves from charges of elitism. However, I’ve always rejected that perspective. Since the latter part of the 20th century, the fine arts have never been more available to people of all walks of life, as crowds at art galleries attest.

Beyond the fine arts, I also recognize that people have a choice of aesthetics. Maybe it’s the pageantry of sports (including the primal ferocity of combat sports); the gastronomic delight of a fine meal, liquor, or cigar; identification with a famous brand; the pampered lifestyles of the rich and famous, with their premium services, personal staffs, and entourages; the sound of a Harley-Davidson motorcycle or a 1970s American muscle car; the sartorial appointments of high fashion and couture; simple biophilia; the capabilities of a smartphone or other tech device; or the brutal rhetoric and racehorse politics of the campaign trail. Take your pick. In no way do I consider the choice of one aesthetic versus another equivalent. Differences of quality and intent are so obvious that any relativist claim asserting false equivalence ought to be dismissed out of hand. However, there is considerable leeway. One of my teachers summed up taste variance handily: “that’s why they make chocolate and vanilla.”

Beauty and meaning are not interchangeable, but they are often sloppily conflated. The meaning found in earnest striving and sacrifice is a quintessential substitute for beauty. Thus, we’re routinely instructed to honor our troops for their service. Patriotic holidays (Independence Day, Memorial Day, Veterans Day, and others) form a thematic group. Considering how the media reflexively valorizes (rarely deploring) acts of force and mayhem authorized and carried out by the state, and how the citizenry takes that instruction and repeats it, it’s fair to say that an aesthetic attaches to such activity. For instance, some remember (with varying degrees of disgust) news anchor Brian Williams waxing rhapsodic over the Syrian conflict. Perhaps Chris Hedges’ book War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning provides greater context. I haven’t read the book, but the title is awfully provocative, which some read as an encomium to war. Book jacket blurbs and reviews indicate more circumspect arguments drawn from Hedges’ experience as a war correspondent.

We’re currently in the so-called season of giving. No one can escape anymore marketing harangues about Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, and Cyber Monday that launch the season. None of those days have much integrity, not that they ever did, since they bleed into each other as retailers strain to get a jump on one or extend another. We’re a thoroughly consumer society, which is itself an aesthetic (maybe I should have written anesthetic). Purchasing decisions are made according to a choice of aesthetics: brand, features, looks, price, etc. An elaborate machinery of psychological prods and inducements has been developed over the decades to influence consumer behavior. (A subgenre of psychology also studies these influences and behaviors.) The same can be said of the shaping of consumer citizen opinion. While some resist being channeled into others’ prescribed thought worlds, the difficulty of maintaining truly original, independent thought in the face of a deluge of both reasonable and bad-faith influence makes succumbing nearly inevitable. Under such condition, one wonders if choice of aesthetic even really exists.

From time to time, I admit that I’m in no position to referee disputes, usually out of my lack of technical expertise in the hard sciences. I also avoid the impossibility of policing the Internet, assiduously pointing out error where it occurs. Others concern themselves with correcting the record and/or reinterpreting argument with improved context and accuracy. However, once in a while, something crosses my desk that gets under my skin. An article by James Ostrowski entitled “What America Has Done To its Young People is Appalling,” published at LewRockwell.com, is such a case. It’s undoubtedly a coincidence that the most famous Rockwell is arguably Norman Rockwell, whose celebrated illustrations for the Saturday Evening Post in particular helped reinforce a charming midcentury American mythology. Lew Rockwell, OTOH, is described briefly at the website’s About blurb:

The daily news and opinion site LewRockwell.com was founded in 1999 by anarcho-capitalists Lew Rockwell … and Burt Blumert to help carry on the anti-war, anti-state, pro-market work of Murray N. Rothbard.

Those political buzzwords probably deserve some unpacking. However, that project falls outside my scope. In short, they handily foist blame for what ills us in American culture on government planning, as distinguished from the comparative freedom of libertarianism. Government earns its share of blame, no doubt, especially with its enthusiastic prosecution of war (now a forever war); but as snapshots of competing political philosophies, these buzzwords are reductive almost to the point of meaninglessness. Ostrowski lays blame more specifically on feminism and progressive big government and harkens back to an idyllic 1950s nuclear family fully consonant with Norman Rockwell’s illustrations, thus invoking the nostalgic frame.

… the idyllic norm of the 1950’s, where the mother typically stayed home to take care of the kids until they reached school age and perhaps even long afterwards, has been destroyed.  These days, in the typical American family, both parents work fulltime which means that a very large percentage of children are consigned to daycare … in the critical first five years of life, the vast majority of Americans are deprived of the obvious benefits of growing up in an intact family with the mother at home in the pre-school years. We baby boomers took this for granted. That world is gone with the wind. Why? Two main reasons: feminism and progressive big government. Feminism encouraged women to get out of the home and out from under the alleged control of husbands who allegedly controlled the family finances.

Problem is, 1950s social configurations in the U.S. were the product of a convergence of historical forces, not least of which were the end of WWII and newfound American geopolitical and economic prominence. More pointedly, an entire generation of young men and women who had deferred family life during perilous wartime were then able to marry, start families, and provide for them on a single income — typically that of the husband/father. That was the baby boom. Yet to enjoy the benefits of the era fully, one probably needed to be a WASPy middle-class male or the child of one. Women and people of color fared … differently. After all, the 1950s yielded to the sexual revolution and civil rights era one decade later, both of which aimed specifically to improve the lived experience of, well, women and people of color.

Since the 1950s were only roughly 60 years ago, it might be instructive to consider how life was another 60 years before then, or in the 1890s. If one lived in an eastern American city, life was often a Dickensian dystopia, complete with child labor, poorhouses, orphanages, asylums, and unhygienic conditions. If one lived in an agrarian setting, which was far more prevalent before the great 20th-century migration to cities, then life was frequently dirt-poor subsistence and/or pioneer homesteading requiring dawn-to-dusk labor. Neither mode yet enjoyed social planning and progressive support including, for example, sewers and other modern infrastructure, public education, and economic protections such as unionism and trust busting. Thus, 19th-century America might be characterized fairly as being closer to anarcho-capitalism than at any time since. One of its principal legacies, one must be reminded, was pretty brutal exploitation of (and violence against) labor, which can be understood by the emergence of political parties that sought to redress its worst scourges. Hindsight informs us now that reforms were slow, partial, and impermanent, leading to the observation that among all tried forms of self-governance, democratic capitalism can be characterized as perhaps the least awful.

So yeah, the U.S. came a long way from 1890 to 1950, especially in terms of standard of living, but may well be backsliding as the 21st-century middle class is hollowed out (a typical income — now termed household income — being rather challenging for a family), aspirations to rise economically above one’s parents’ level no longer function, and the culture disintegrates into tribal resentments and unrealistic fantasies about nearly everything. Ostrowski marshals a variety of demographic facts and figures to support his argument (with which I agree in large measure), but he fails to make a satisfactory causal connection with feminism and progressivism. Instead, he sounds like 45 selling his slogan Make America Great Again (MAGA), meaning let’s turn back the clock to those nostalgic 1950s happy days. Interpretations of that sentiment run in all directions from innocent to virulent (but coded). By placing blame on feminism and progressivism, it’s not difficult to hear anyone citing those putative causes as an accusation that, if only those feminists and progressives (and others) had stayed in their assigned lanes, we wouldn’t be dealing now with cultural crises that threaten to undo us. What Ostrowski fails to acknowledge is that despite all sorts of government activity over the decades, no one in the U.S. is steering the culture nearly as actively as in centrally planned economies and cultures, current and historical, which in their worst instances are fascist and/or totalitarian. One point I’ll agree on, however, just to be charitable, is that the mess we’ve made and will leave to youngsters is truly appalling.

Caveat: Rather uncharacteristically long for me. Kudos if you have the patience for all of this.

Caught the first season of HBO’s series Westworld on DVD. I have a boyhood memory of the original film (1973) with Yul Brynner and a dim memory of its sequel Futureworld (1976). The sheer charisma of Yul Brynner in the role of the gunslinger casts a long shadow over the new production, not that most of today’s audiences have seen the original. No doubt, 45 years of technological development in film production lends the new version some distinct advantages. Visual effects are quite stunning and Utah landscapes have never been used more appealingly in terms of cinematography. Moreover, storytelling styles have changed, though it’s difficult to argue convincingly that they’re necessarily better now than then. Competing styles only appear dated. For instance, the new series has immensely more time to develop its themes; but the ancient parables of hubris and loss of control over our own creations run amok (e.g., Shelley’s Frankenstein, or more contemporaneously, the surprisingly good new movie Upgrade) have compact, appealing narrative arcs quite different from constant teasing and foreshadowing of plot developments while actual plotting proceeds glacially. Viewers wait an awful lot longer in the HBO series for resolution of tensions and emotional payoffs, by which time investment in the story lines has been dispelled. There is also no terrifying crescendo of violence and chaos demanding rescue or resolution. HBO’s Westworld often simply plods on. To wit, a not insignificant portion of the story (um, side story) is devoted to boardroom politics (yawn) regarding who actually controls the Westworld theme park. Plot twists and reveals, while mildly interesting (typically guessed by today’s cynical audiences), do not tie the narrative together successfully.

Still, Westworld provokes considerable interest from me due to my fascination with human consciousness. The initial episode builds out the fictional future world with characters speaking exposition clearly owing its inspiration to Julian Jayne’s book The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (another reference audiences are quite unlikely to know or recognize). I’ve had the Julian Jaynes Society’s website bookmarked for years and read the book some while back; never imagined it would be captured in modern fiction. Jaynes’ thesis (if I may be so bold as to summarize radically) is that modern consciousness coalesced around the collapse of multiple voices in the head — ideas, impulses, choices, decisions — into a single stream of consciousness perhaps better understood (probably not) as the narrative self. (Aside: the multiple voices of antiquity correspond to polytheism, whereas the modern singular voice corresponds to monotheism.) Thus, modern human consciousness arose over several millennia as the bicameral mind (the divided brain having two camera, chambers, or halves) functionally collapsed. The underlying story of the new Westworld is the emergence of machine consciousness, a/k/a strong AI, a/k/a The Singularity, while the old Westworld was about a mere software glitch. Exploration of machine consciousness modeling (e.g., improvisation builds on memory to create awareness) as a proxy for better understanding human consciousness might not be the purpose of the show, but it’s clearly implied. And although conjectural, the speed of emergence of human consciousness contrasts sharply with the abrupt ON switch regarding theorized machine consciousness. Westworld treats them as roughly equivalent, though in fairness, 35 years or so in Westworld is in fact abrupt compared to several millennia. (Indeed, the story asserts that machine consciousness sparked alive repeatedly (which I suggested here) over those 35 years but was dialed back repeatedly. Never mind all the unexplored implications.) Additionally, the fashion in which Westworld uses the term bicameral ranges from sloppy to meaningless, like the infamous technobabble of Star Trek.

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I caught the presentation embedded below with Thomas L. Friedman and Yuval Noah Harari, nominally hosted by the New York Times. It’s a very interesting discussion but not a debate. For this now standard format (two or more people sitting across from each other with a moderator and an audience), I’m pleased to observe that Friedman and Harari truly engaged each others’ ideas and behaved with admirable restraint when the other was speaking. Most of these talks are rude and combative, marred by constant interruptions and gotchas. Such bad behavior might succeed in debate club but makes for a frustratingly poor presentation. My further comments follow below.

With a topic as open-ended as The Future of Humanity, arguments and support are extremely conjectural and wildly divergent depending on the speaker’s perspective. Both speakers here admit their unique perspectives are informed by their professions, which boils down to biases borne out of methodology, and to a lesser degree perhaps, personality. Fair enough. In my estimation, Harari does a much better job adopting a pose of objectivity. Friedman comes across as both salesman and a cheerleader for human potential.

Both speakers cite a trio of threats to human civilization and wellbeing going forward. For Harari, they’re nuclear war, climate change, and technological disruption. For Friedman, they’re the market (globalization), Mother Nature (climate change alongside population growth and loss of diversity), and Moore’s Law. Friedman argues that all three are accelerating beyond control but speaks of each metaphorically, such as when refers to changes in market conditions (e.g., from independent to interdependent) as “climate change.” The biggest issue from my perspective — climate change — was largely passed over in favor of more tractable problems.

Climate change has been in the public sphere as the subject of considerable debate and confusion for at least a couple decades now. I daresay it’s virtually impossible not to be aware of the horrific scenarios surrounding what is shaping up to be the end of the world as we know it (TEOTWAWKI). Yet as a global civilization, we’ve barely reacted except with rhetoric flowing in all directions and some greenwashing. Difficult to assess, but perhaps the appearance of more articles about surviving climate change (such as this one in Bloomberg Businessweek) demonstrates that more folks recognize we can no longer stem or stop climate change from rocking the world. This blog has had lots to say about the collapse of industrial civilization being part of a mass extinction event (not aimed at but triggered by and including humans), so for these two speakers to cite but then minimize the peril we face is, well, façile at the least.

Toward the end, the moderator finally spoke up and directed the conversation towards uplift (a/k/a the happy chapter), which almost immediately resulted in posturing on the optimism/pessimism continuum with Friedman staking his position on the positive side. Curiously, Harari invalidated the question and refused to be pigeonholed on the negative side. Attempts to shoehorn discussions into familiar if inapplicable narratives or false dichotomies are commonplace. I was glad to see Harari calling bullshit on it, though others (e.g., YouTube commenters) were easily led astray.

The entire discussion is dense with ideas, most of them already quite familiar to me. I agree wholeheartedly with one of Friedman’s remarks: if something can be done, it will be done. Here, he refers to technological innovation and development. Plenty of prohibitions throughout history not to make available disruptive technologies have gone unheeded. The atomic era is the handy example (among many others) as both weaponry and power plants stemming from cracking the atom come with huge existential risks and collateral psychological effects. Yet we prance forward headlong and hurriedly, hoping to exploit profitable opportunities without concern for collateral costs. Harari’s response was to recommend caution until true cause-effect relationships can be teased out. Without saying it manifestly, Harari is citing the precautionary principle. Harari also observed that some of those effects can be displaced hundreds and thousands of years.

Displacements resulting from the Agrarian Revolution, the Scientific Revolution, and the Industrial Revolution in particular (all significant historical “turnings” in human development) are converging on the early 21st century (the part we can see at least somewhat clearly so far). Neither speaker would come straight out and condemn humanity to the dustbin of history, but at least Harari noted that Mother Nature is quite keen on extinction (which elicited a nervous? uncomfortable? ironic? laugh from the audience) and wouldn’t care if humans were left behind. For his part, Friedman admits our destructive capacity but holds fast to our cleverness and adaptability winning out in the end. And although Harari notes that the future could bring highly divergent experiences for subsets of humanity, including the creation of enhanced humans to and reckless dabbling with genetic engineering, I believe cumulative and aggregate consequences of our behavior will deposit all of us into a grim future no sane person should wish to survive.

YouTube ratings magnet Jordan Peterson had a sit-down with Susan Blackmore to discuss/debate the question, “Do We Need God to Make Sense of Life?” The conversation is lightly moderated by Justin Brierley and is part of a weekly radio broadcast called Unbelievable? (a/k/a The Big Conversation, “the flagship apologetics and theology discussion show on Premier Christian Radio in the UK”). One might wonder why evangelicals are so eager to pit believers and atheists against each other. I suppose earnest questioning of one’s faith is preferable to proselytizing, though both undoubtedly occur. The full episode (47 min.) is embedded below: (more…)