Posts Tagged ‘rhetoric’

rant on/

Authors I read and podcasters to whom I listen, mostly minor celebrities of the nonentertainment kind, often push their points of view using lofty appeals to reason and authority as though they possess unique access to truth but which is lacking among those whose critical thinking may be more limited. Seems to be the special province of pundits and thought leaders shilling their own books, blogs, newspaper columns, and media presence (don’t forget to comment and subscribe! ugh …). The worst offender on the scene may well be Sam Harris, who has run afoul of so many others recently that a critical mass is now building against him. With calm, even tones, he musters his evidence (some of it hotly disputed) and builds his arguments with the serene confidence of a Kung Fu master yet is astonished and amazed when others don’t defer to his rhetoric. He has behaved of late like he possesses heroic superpowers only to discover that others wield kryptonite or magic sufficient to defeat him. It’s been quite a show of force and folly. I surmise the indignity of suffering fools, at least from Harris’ perspective, smarts quite a bit, and his mewling does him no credit. So far, the person refusing most intransigently to take the obvious lesson from this teachable moment is Harris himself.

Well, I’m here to say that reason is no superpower. Indeed, it can be thwarted rather handily by garden-variety ignorance, stupidity, emotion, superstition, and fantasy. All of those are found in abundance in the public sphere, whereas reason is in rather short supply. Nor is reason a panacea, if only one could get everyone on board. None of this is even remotely surprising to me, but Harris appears to be taken aback that his interlocutors, many of whom are sophisticated thinkers, are not easily convinced. In the ivory tower or echo chamber Harris has constructed for himself, those who lack lack scientific rigor and adherence to evidence (or even better, facts and data) are infrequently admitted to the debate. He would presumably have a level playing field, right? So what’s going on that eludes Sam Harris?

As I’ve been saying for some time, we’re in the midst of an epistemological crisis. Defenders of Enlightenment values (logic, rationalism, detachment, equity, secularism), most of whom are academics, are a shrinking minority in the new democratic age. Moreover, the Internet has put regular, perhaps unschooled folks (Joe the Plumber, Ken Bone, any old Kardashian, and celebrities used to being the undeserved focus of attention) in direct dialogue with everyone else through deplorable comments sections. Journalists get their say, too, and amplify the unwashed masses when resorting to man-on-the-street interviews. At Gin and Tacos (see blogroll), this last is called the Cletus Safari. The marketplace of ideas has accordingly been so corrupted by the likes of, well, ME! that self-appointed public intellectuals like Harris can’t contend effectively with the onslaught of pure, unadulterated democracy where everyone participates. (Authorities claim to want broad civic participation, as when they exhort everyone to vote, but the reverse is more nearly true.) Harris already foundered on the shoals of competing truth claims when he hosted on his webcast a fellow academic, Jordan Peterson, yet failed to make any apparent adjustments in the aftermath. Reason remains for Harris the one true faith.

Furthermore, Jonathan Haidt argues (as I understand him, correct me if I’m mistaken) that motivated reasoning leads to cherry-picking facts and evidence. In practice, that means that selection bias results in opinions being argued as facts. Under such conditions, even well-meaning folks are prone to peddling false certainty. This may well be the case with Charles Murray, who is at the center of the Harris debacle. Murray’s arguments are fundamentally about psychometrics, a data-driven subset of sociology and psychology, which under ideal circumstances have all the dispassion of a stone. But those metrics are applied at the intersection of two taboos, race and intelligence (who knew? everyone but Sam Harris and Charles Murray …), then transmuted into public policy recommendations. If Harris were more circumspect, he might recognize that there is simply no way to divorce emotion from discussions of race and intelligence.

rant off/

More to say on this subject in part 2 to follow.

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Long again this time and a bit contentious. Sorry for trying your patience.

Having watched a few hundred Joe Rogan webcasts by now (previous blog on this topic here), I am pretty well acquainted with guests and ideas that cycle through periodically. This is not a criticism as I’m aware I recycle my own ideas here, which is more nearly thematic than simply repetitive. Among all the MMA folks and comedians, Rogan features people — mostly academics — who might be called thought leaders. A group of them has even been dubbed the “intellectual dark web.” I dunno who coined the phrase or established its membership, but the names might include, in no particular order, Jordan Peterson, Bret Weinstein, Eric Weinstein, Douglas Murray, Sam Harris, Jonathan Haidt, Gad Saad, Camille Paglia, Dave Ruben, Christina Hoff Sommers, and Lawrence Krauss. I doubt any of them would have been considered cool kids in high school, and it’s unclear whether they’re any cooler now that they’ve all achieved some level of Internet fame on top of other public exposure. Only a couple seem especially concerned with being thought cool now (names withheld), though the chase for clicks, views, likes, and Patreon support is fairly upfront. That they can usually sit down and have meaningful conversations without rancor (admirably facilitated by Joe Rogan up until one of his own oxen is gored, less admirably by Dave Ruben) about free speech, Postmodernism, social justice warriors, politics, or the latest meme means that the cliquishness of high school has relaxed considerably.

I’m pleased (I guess) that today’s public intellectuals have found an online medium to develop. Lots of imitators are out there putting up their own YouTube channels to proselytize their own opinions. However, I still prefer to get deeper understanding from books (and to a lesser degree, blogs and articles online), which are far better at delivering thoughtful analysis. The conversational style of the webcast is relentlessly up-to-date and entertaining enough but relies too heavily on charisma. And besides, so many of these folks are such fast talkers, often talking over each other to win imaginary debate points or just dominate the conversational space, that they frustrate and bewilder more than they communicate or convince.

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First, a few reminders:

  • The United States has been in an undeclared state of war for 15 years, the longest in U.S. history and long enough that young people today can say legitimately, “we’ve always been at war with Oceania.” The wars encompass the entirety of both terms of the Obama Administration.
  • The inciting events were attacks on U.S. soil carried out on September 11, 2001 (popularly, 9/11), which remain shrouded in controversy and conspiracy despite the official narrative assigning patsy blame to al-Qaida operating in Afghanistan and Iraq.
  • On the heels of the attacks, the Bush Administration commenced a propaganda campaign to sell invasion and regime change in those two countries and, over widespread public protest, went ahead and launched preemptive wars, ostensibly because an existential threat existed with respect to weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) possessed by Iraq in particular.
  • The propaganda campaign has since been revealed to have been cooked up and untrue, yet it buffaloed a lot of people into believing (even to this day) that Iraq was somehow responsible for 9/11.
  • Our preemptive wars succeeded quickly in toppling governments and capturing (and executing) their leaders but immediately got bogged down securing a peace that never came.
  • Even with an embarrassing mismatch of force, periodic troop surges and draw downs, trillions of dollars wasted spent prosecuting the wars, and incredible, pointless loss of life (especially on the opposing sides), our objective in the Middle East (other than the oil, stupid!) has never been clear. The prospect of final withdrawal is nowhere on the horizon.

Continuous war — declared or merely waged — has been true of the U.S. my whole life, though one would be hard pressed to argue that it truly represents an immediate threat to U.S. citizens except to those unlucky enough to be deployed in war zones. Still, the monkey-on-the-back is passed from administration to administration. One might hope, based on campaign rhetoric, that the new executive (45) might recognize continuous war as the hot potato it is and dispense with it, but the proposed federal budget, with its $52 billion increase in military spending (+10% over 2016), suggests otherwise. Meanwhile, attention has been turned away from true existential threats that have been bandied about in the public sphere for at least a decade: global warming and climate change leading to Near-Term Extinction (NTE). Proximal threats, largely imagined, have absorbed all our available attention, and depending on whom one polls, our worst fears have already been realized.

The 20th and 21st centuries (so far) have been a series of “hot” wars (as distinguished from the so-called Cold War). Indeed, there has scarcely been a time when the U.S. has not been actively engaged fighting phantoms. If the Cold War was a bloodless, ideological war to stem the nonexistent spread of communism, we have adopted and coopted the language of wartime to launch various rhetorical wars. First was LBJ’s War on Poverty, the only “war” aimed at truly helping people. Nixon got into the act with his War on Drugs, which was punitive. Reagan expanded the War on Drugs, which became the War on Crime. Clinton increased the punitive character of the War on Crime by instituting mandatory minimum sentencing, which had the side effect of establishing what some call the prison-industrial complex, inflating the incarceration rate of Americans to the point that the U.S. is now ranked second in the world behind the Seychelles (!), a ranking far, far higher than any other industrialized nation.

If U.S. authoritarians hadn’t found enough people to punish or sought to convince the public that threats exist on all sides, requiring constant vigilance and a massive security apparatus including military, civil police, and intelligence services comprised of 16 separate agencies (of which we know), Bush coined and declared the War on Terror aimed at punishing those foreign and domestic who dare challenge U.S. hegemony in all things. It’s not called a national security state for nuthin’, folks. I aver that the rhetorical War on Poverty has inverted and now become a War on the Poverty-Stricken. De facto debtors’ prisons have reappeared, predatory lending has become commonplace, and income inequality grows more exaggerated with every passing year, leaving behind large segments of the U.S. population as income and wealth pool in an ever-shrinking number of hands. Admittedly, the trend is global.

At some point, perhaps in the 1960s when The Establishment (or more simply, The Man) became a thing to oppose, the actual Establishment must have decided it was high time to circle the wagons and protect its privileges, essentially going to war with (against, really) the people. Now five decades on, holders of wealth and power demonstrate disdain for those outside their tiny circle, and our the government can no longer be said with a straight face to be of, by, and for the people (paraphrasing the last line of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address). Rather, the government has been hijacked and turned into something abominable. Yet the people are strangely complicit, having allowed history to creep along with social justice in marked retreat. True threats do indeed exist, though not the ones that receive the lion’s share of attention. I surmise that, as with geopolitics, the U.S. government has brought into being an enemy and conflict that bodes not well for its legitimacy. Which collapse occurs first is anyone’s guess.

Continuing from my previous post, Brian Phillips has an article, writing for MTV News, entitled “Shirtless Trump Saves Drowning Kitten: Facebook’s fake-news problem and the rise of the postmodern right.” (Funny title, that.) I navigated to the article via Alan Jacob’s post at Text Patterns (on my blogroll). Let me consider each in turn.

After chuckling that Phillips is directing his analysis to the wrong audience, an admittedly elitist response on my part, I must further admit that the article is awfully well-written and nails the blithe attitude accompanying epistemological destruction carried out, perhaps unwittingly but too well-established now to ignore, by developers of social media as distinguished from traditional news media. Which would be considered more mainstream today is up for debate. Maybe Phillips has the right audience after all. He certainly gets the importance of controlling the narrative:

Confusion is an authoritarian tool; life under a strongman means not simply being lied to but being beset by contradiction and uncertainty until the line between truth and falsehood blurs and a kind of exhaustion settles over questions of fact. Politically speaking, precision is freedom. It’s telling, in that regard, that Trump supporters, the voters most furiously suspicious of journalism, also proved to be the most receptive audience for fictions that looked journalism-like. Authoritarianism doesn’t really want to convince its supporters that their fantasies are true, because truth claims are subject to verification, and thus to the possible discrediting of authority. Authoritarianism wants to convince its supporters that nothing is true, that the whole machinery of truth is an intolerable imposition on their psyches, and thus that they might as well give free rein to their fantasies.

But Phillips is too clever by half, burying the issue in scholarly style that speaks successfully only to a narrow class of academics and intellectuals, much like the language and memes employed by the alt-right are said to be dog whistles perceptible only to rabid, mouth-breathing bigots. Both charges are probably unfair reductions, though with kernels of truth. Here’s some of Phillips overripe language:

Often the battleground for this idea [virtue and respect] was the integrity of language itself. The conservative idea, at that time [20 years ago], was that liberalism had gone insane for political correctness and continental theory, and that the way to resist the encroachment of Derrida was through fortifying summaries of Emerson … What had really happened was that the left had become sensitized to the ways in which conventional moral language tended to shore up existing privilege and power, and had embarked on a critique of this tendency that the right interpreted, with some justification, as an attack on the very concept of meaning.

More plainly, Phillips’ suggestion is that the radical right learned the lessons of Postmodernism (PoMo) even better than did the avant-garde left, the latter having outwitted themselves by giving the right subtle tools used later to outmaneuver everyone. Like other mildly irritating analyses I have read, it’s a statement of inversion: an idea bringing into existence its antithesis that unironically proves and undermines the original, though with a dose of Schadenfreude. This was (partially) the subject of a 4-part blog I wrote called “Dissolving Reality” back in Aug. and Sept. 2015. (Maybe half a dozen read the series; almost no one commented.)

So what does Alan Jacobs add to the discussion? He exhibits his own scholarly flourishes. Indeed, I admire the writing but find myself distracted by the writerly nature, which ejects readers from the flow of ideas to contemplate the writing itself. For instance, this:

It turns out that the children of the ruling classes learned their lessons well, so when they inherited positions in their fathers’ law firms they had some extra, and very useful, weapons in their rhetorical armory.

In precisely the same way, when, somewhat later, academic leftists preached that race and gender were the determinative categories of social analysis, members of the future alt-right were slouching in the back rows of their classrooms, baseball caps pulled down over their eyes, making no external motions but in their dark little hearts twitching with fervent agreement.

Terrific capture of the classroom culture in which teachers are steeped. Drawing identity politics more manifestly into the mix is a fairly obvious extrapolation over Phillips and may reflect the results of the presidential election, where pundits, wheeling around to reinterpret results that should not have so surprised them, now suggest Republican victories are a repudiation of leftist moral instruction. The depth of Phillips’ and Jacobs’ remarks is not so typical of most pundits, however, and their follow-up analysis at some point becomes just more PoMo flagellation. Here, Jacobs is even more clearly having some fun:

No longer did we have to fear being brought before the bar of Rational Evidence, that hanging judge of the Enlightenment who had sent so many believers to the gallows! You have your constructs and we have our constructs, and who’s to say which are better, right? O brave new world that hath such a sociology of knowledge in it!

This goes back to the heart of the issue, our epistemological crisis, but I dispute that race and gender are the determinative categories of social analysis, no matter how fashionable they may be in the academy. A simpler and more obvious big picture controls: it’s about life and death. My previous post was about geopolitics, where death is rained down upon foreign peoples and justifying rhetoric is spread domestically. Motivations may be complex and varied, but the destruction of people and truth affects everyone, albeit unevenly, without regard to race, gender, religion, nationality, etc. All are caught in the dragnet.

Moreover, with the advent of Western civilization, intellectuals have always been sensitive to the sociology of knowledge. It’s a foundation of philosophy. That it’s grown sclerotic long precedes PoMo theory. In fact, gradual breaking apart and dismantling of meaning is visible across all expressive genres, not just literature. In painting, it was Impressionism, Cubism, Dada and Surrealism, and Abstract Expressionism. In architecture, it was Art Deco, the International Style, Modernism, Brutalism, and Deconstructivism. In music, it was the Post-Romantic, the Second Viennese School, Modernism, Serialism, and Minimalism. In scientific paradigms, it was electromagnetism, relativity, quantum mechanics, the Nuclear Era, and semiconductors. The most essential characteristics in each case are increasingly dogmatic abstraction and drilling down to minutia that betray meaningful essences. Factoring in economic and political perversions, we arrive at our current epistemological phase where truth and consequences matter little (though death and destruction still do) so long as deceits, projections, and distractions hold minds in thrall. In effect, gravity is turned off and historical narratives levitate until reality finally, inevitably comes crashing down in a monstrous Jenga pile, as it does periodically.

In the meantime, I suppose Phillips and Jacobs can issue more gaseous noise into the fog bank the information environment has become. They can’t get much traction (nor can I) considering how most of the affluent West thinks at the level of a TV sitcom. In addition, steps being considered to rein in the worst excesses of fake news would have corporations and traditional news media appointed as watchers and censors. Beyond any free speech objections, which are significant, expecting culprits to police themselves only awards them greater power to dominate, much like bailouts rewarded the banks. More fog, more lies, more levitation.

rant on/

Monastic pursuit of a singular objective, away from the maddening and distracting rush of modern life, is a character attribute that receives more than its rightful share of attention. In its salutary forms, monastic pursuit is understood as admirable, visionary, iconic (or iconoclastic), and heroic. In creative endeavors, seclusion and disengagement from feedback are preconditions for finding one’s true voice and achieving one’s vision. In sports, the image of the athlete devoted to training for the big event — race, match, tournament — to the exclusion of all else is by now a tired trope. Indeed, in this Olympics season, athlete profiles — puff pieces of extraordinary predictability — typically depict competitors in isolation, absolutely no one else at the gym, in the pool, on the track, etc., as though everyone goes it alone without the support or presence of coaches or teammates. Over-specialization and -achievement are such that spectators are conditioned to expect successful individuals, champions, to bleed (quite literally) as a mark of devotion to their respective fields.

At some point, however, monastic pursuit morphs into something more recognizably maniacal. The author retreating to his cabin in the woods to write the great American novel becomes the revolutionary hermit composing his political manifesto. Healthy competition among rivals turns into decidedly unsportsmanlike conduct. (Lance Armstrong is the poster boy not just for doping but also for the sociopathy he displayed mistreating teammates and perpetuating the lie as vehemently and as long as he did. Further examples compound quickly in sports). Business leaders, discontented with (sometime obscene) profitability, target others in their market sector with the intent of driving them out of business and establishing monopolies. (This contrasts markedly with the ideology of self-correcting markets many CEOs falsely espouse.) In politics, high-minded campaigns and elected politicians formed around sound policy and good governance lose out to such dirty tricks as character assassination, rigged and stolen elections, partisanship, and reflexive obstructionism of projects that enjoy popular support. In journalism, fair and balanced reporting inverts to constant harping on preferred talking points to control narratives through sheer force of repetition. You get the idea.

It’s difficult to say from where this intemperate impulse arises, but we’re undoubtedly in a phase of history where nearly every field of endeavor manifests its own version of the arms race. Some might argue that in a cost-benefit analysis, we’re all better off because we enjoy fruits not obtainable without (some folks at least) taking a scorched-earth approach, raising the bar, and driving everyone to greater heights. The willingness of some to distort and disgrace themselves hideously may be a high price to pay, especially when it’s for simple entertainment, but so long as we aren’t paying the price personally, we’re willing spectators to whatever glory and train wrecks occur. I would argue that, ultimately, we’re all paying the price. Routine competition and conflict resolution have grown so unhinged that, just to be in the game, competitors must be prepared to go all in (poker lingo) at even modest provocation. As a result, for just one example, the spirit of America’s erstwhile pastime (baseball) has been so corrupted that balanced players and fans (!) stay away and are replaced by goons. A true level playing field probably never existed. Now, however, whoever can muster the most force (financial, rhetorical, criminal) wins the trophy, and we’re each in turn encouraged to risk all in our own monastic pursuit.

rant off/

I’m not paying close attention to the RNC in Cleveland. Actually, I’m ignoring it completely, still hoping that it doesn’t erupt in violence before the closing curtain. Yet I can’t help but hear some relevant news, and I have read a few commentaries. Ultimately, the RNC sounds like a sad, sad nonevent put on by amateurs, with many party members avoiding coming anywhere near. What’s actually transpiring is worthy of out-loud laughter at the embarrassment and indignities suffered by participants. The particular gaffe that caught my attention is cribbing from Michelle Obama in the speech delivered on Monday by Melania Trump. The speech writer, Meredith McIver, has accepted blame for it and characterized it as an innocent mistake.

Maybe someone else has already said or written this, but I suspect innocent plagiarism is probably true precisely because that’s the standard in quite a lot of academe these days. Students get away with it all the time, just not on a national stage. Reworking another’s ideas is far easier than coming up with one’s own original ideas, and Melania Trump has no reputation (near as I can tell) as an original thinker. The article linked to above indicates she admires Michelle Obama, so the plagiarism is from a twisted perspective an encomium.

The failure of Trump campaign officials to review the speech (or if they did review it, then do so effectively) is another LOL gaffe. It doesn’t rise to the level of the McCain campaign’s failure to vet Sarah Palin properly and won’t have any enduring effects, but it does reflect upon the Trump campaign’s ineptitude. My secret fear is that ineptitude is precisely why a lot of folks intend to vote for Trump: so that he can accelerate America’s self-destruction. It’s a negative view, and somewhat devil-may-care, to say “let’s make it a quick crash and get things over with already.” Or maybe it’s darkly funny only until suffering ramps up.

Events of the past few days have been awful: two further shootings of black men by police under questionable circumstances (Louisiana and Minnesota), and in response, a sniper killing five police officers (Texas) and injuring more. Everything is tragic and inexcusable; I offer no refuge for armed men on both sides of the law using lethal force against others. But I will attempt to contextualize. Yes, issues of race, guns, and public safety are present. The first two are intractable debates I won’t wade into. However, the issue of public safety seems to me central to what’s going on, namely, the constant beat of threatening drums and related inflammatory speech that together have the effect of putting everyone on edge and turning some into hair-triggers.

I’ve read news reports and opinion columns that subject these events to the usual journalistic scrutiny: factual information strung together with calm, measured assurance that what occurred was the result of intemperate individuals not representative of the public at large. So go ahead and worry, but not too much: those guys are all outliers — a few bad apples. As I take the temperature of the room (the country, actually), however, my sense is that we are approaching our boiling point and are frankly likely to boil over soon, perhaps in concert with party nominating conventions expected to break with convention and further reveal already disastrous operations of the federal government. The day-to-day,  smooth surface of American life — what we prefer in times of relative peace and prosperity — has also been punctuated for decades now with pops and crackles in the form of mass shootings (schools, theaters, churches, clubs, etc.) and a broad pattern of civil authorities surveilling and bringing force to bear against the public they’re meant to protect and serve. How long before it all becomes a roiling, uncontrollable mess, with mobs and riots being put down (or worse) by National Guardsmen just like the 1960s? Crowd control and management techniques have been refined considerably since that last period of civil unrest (I wrote about it briefly here), which is to say, they’re a lot creepier than water cannons, tear gas, and pepper spray (nothing to laugh about if one has been on the receiving end of any of those).

My question, to anyone with the equanimity to think twice about it, is this: aren’t these outcomes a rather predictable result of the bunker mentality we’ve adopted since being instructed by the media and politicians alike that everyone the world over is coming to take away our guns freedom? Further, aren’t the vague, unfocused calls to action spouted constantly by arch-conservative demagogues precisely the thing that leads some unhinged folks to actually take action because, well, no one else is? Donald Trump has raised diffuse threats and calls to action to an art form at his rallies, with supporters obliging by taking pot shots at others at the mere whiff of dissent from his out-of-tune-with-reality message. (Don’t even think about being nonwhite in one of those crowds.) He’s only one of many stirring the pot into a froth. Moreover, weak minds, responding in their lizard brains to perceived threat, have accepted with gusto the unfounded contention that ISIS in particular, terrorism in general, represents an existential threat to the U.S., and thus, generalizing the threat, are now calling for curtailing the practice of Islam (one of three Abrahamic religions arising in the ancient world with over 2 billion adherents worldwide) in the U.S. Apparently, the absolutism of freedom of religion (can also be interpreted as freedom from establishment of a state religion) enshrined in the 1st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is lost on those whose xenophobia erases all reasoned thought.

The mood is turning quite ugly. A quick survey of history probably reveals that it’s always been that way. Many of us (by no means all of us) understand calls to “make America great again” as coded speech advocating return to a white male Christian dominated culture. So much for our vaunted freedom.

I already updated my original post from 2009 once based on Tom Engelhardt’s analysis, adding a few of my own thoughts. I want to revisit the original, provide an addendum to my review of Oliver Stone’s Untold History, and draw attention to Andrew Bacevich’s alternative narrative titled “American Imperium.” This is about geopolitics and military history, which fall outside my usual areas of interest and blogging focus (excepting the disgrace of torture), but they’re nonetheless pretty central to what’s going on the world.

Having now watched the remainder of Untold History, it’s clear that every administration since WWII was neck deep in military adventurism. I had thought at least one or two would be unlike the others, and maybe Gerald Ford only waded in up to his knees, but the rest deployed the U.S. military regularly and forcefully enough to beggar the imagination: what on earth were they doing? The answer is both simple and complex, no doubt. I prefer the simple one: they were pursuing global American hegemony — frequently with overweening force against essentially medieval cultures. It’s a remarkably sad history, really, often undertaken with bland justifications such as “American interests” or “national security,” neither of which rings true. I’ve likened the U.S. before to the playground bully who torments others but can never be psychologically satisfied and so suffers his own private torments on the way to becoming a sociopath. Why does every American president resemble that profile (war criminals all), so afraid to look weak that he (thus far in U.S. history, always a he) must flex those muscles at the expense of ordinary people everywhere? Women in positions of authority (e.g., Sec. of State, National Security Advisor), by the way, exhibit the same behavior: advising striking at weaklings to prove they can wear pants, too.

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Caveat: this review is based on viewing only half uhposterof the DVD version of Oliver Stone’s Untold History of the United States, which also exists as a book and audio book. It’s also available on the Showtime cable channel, as downloadable media, and in excerpts on YouTube (and probably elsewhere). Stone put his name above the title, but I will refer to the documentary as simply Untold History.

Disclaimer: Stone has a long personal history of retelling political history through a cinematic lens, which by necessity introduces distortions to condense and reshape events and characters for storytelling. Untold History purports to be documentary and (alert: intentional fallacy at work) shares with Howard Zinn’s somewhat earlier A People’s History of the United States an aim to correct the record from official accounts, accepted narratives, and propagandist mythologies misinterpretations. I’ve always been suspicious of Stone’s dramatic license in his movies, just as with Steven Spielberg. However, I wanted to see Untold History from first learning about it and am just now getting to it (via a borrowed library copy). Without indulging in conspiratorial fantasies about Stone’s arguments, I find myself pretty well convinced (or an easy mark).

Whereas Zinn begins People’s History with the discovery of North America in 1492, Stone commences Untold History with World War Two. Thus, there is little or no discussion of Americans’ pacifism and isolationism prior to entry into WWII. There is also little direct cultural and social history to which I typically grant the greater part of my attention. Rather, Untold History is presented from military and political perspectives. Economic history is mixed in with all these, and the recognition that a wartime economy rescued the U.S. from the grip of the Great Depression (leading to nearly permanent war) is acknowledged but not dwelt upon heavily.

Based on the first half that I have viewed (WWII through the Eisenhower administrations and the early decades of the Cold War), it was clear that the U.S. experienced rapid and thoroughgoing transformation from a lesser power and economy into the preeminent political, military, and industrial power on the globe. Thus, activities of the U.S. government from roughly 1940 forward became absorbed in geopolitics to a greater degree than ever before — just at a time when the U.S. acquired immense power of production and destruction. Untold History never quite says it, but it appears many became more than a little drunk with power and lacked the composure and long historical view of leaders whose countries had more extended experience as principal actors on the world’s stage.

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I don’t watch political debates. Being of sound mind and reason, I’m not part of the target audience. However, I do catch murmurs of the debates from time to time. Because torture is a sore subject with me, this excerpt (full transcript here) from the Feb. 6 debate moderated by World News Tonight anchor David Muir perked up my ears:

MUIR: … we’re going to stay on ISIS here and the war on terror, because as you know, there’s been a debate in this country about how to deal with the enemy and about enhanced interrogation techniques ever since 9/11.

So Senator Cruz, you have said, quote, “torture is wrong, unambiguously, period. Civilized nations do not engage in torture.” Some of the other candidates say they don’t think waterboarding is torture. Mr. Trump has said, I would bring it back. Senator Cruz, is waterboarding torture?

CRUZ: Well, under the definition of torture, no, it’s not. Under the law, torture is excruciating pain that is equivalent to losing organs and systems, so under the definition of torture, it is not. It is enhanced interrogation, it is vigorous interrogation, but it does not meet the generally recognized definition of torture.

MUIR: If elected president, would you bring it back?

CRUZ: I would not bring it back in any sort of widespread use. And indeed, I joined with Senator McCain in legislation that would prohibit line officers from employing it because I think bad things happen when enhanced interrogation is employed at lower levels.

But when it comes to keeping this country safe, the commander in chief has inherent constitutional authority to keep this country safe. And so, if it were necessary to, say, prevent a city from facing an imminent terrorist attack, you can rest assured that as commander in chief, I would use whatever enhanced interrogation methods we could to keep this country safe.

Cruz is obviously squirming to avoid answering the simple questions directly and unambiguously. Whose definition has Cruz cited? Certainly not one of these. Another page at the previous link says plainly that waterboarding is “torture plus” precisely because of its ability to inflict “unbearable suffering with minimal evidence” repeatedly. Relying on some unsubstantiated definition to keep waterboarding among available interrogation options and then invoking the ticking time bomb scenario is callous and inhumane. Cruz is unfit as a presidential candidate for lots of reasons, but his stance on torture is an automatic disqualification for me.

Muir then turns the same question(s) over to Trump:

MUIR: Senator Cruz, thank you. Mr. Trump, you said not only does it work, but that you’d bring it back.

TRUMP: Well, I’ll tell you what. In the Middle East, we have people chopping the heads off Christians, we have people chopping the heads off many other people. We have things that we have never seen before — as a group, we have never seen before, what’s happening right now.

The medieval times — I mean, we studied medieval times — not since medieval times have people seen what’s going on. I would bring back waterboarding and I’d bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.

Trump, in contrast to Cruz, doesn’t squirm at all (though he does struggle to complete a sentence, resorting instead to a stammering, repetitive word salad no one seems to mind). Instead, he goes full war criminal without hesitation (though at this point in time it’s only postulated). Trump’s polarizing, inflammatory style has earned him both severe disapprobation and earnest support. Like Cruz, Trump has a variety of automatic disqualifications as a presidential candidate. My thinking is that, even though I can’t peer into his mind and guess his true motivations (which may be as obvious as they appear) or anticipate his behavior should he attain office, his moral judgment vis-à-vis torture (and frankly, most other topics as well) is so impaired that I don’t trust him as a playground monitor.

In narrative, there are four essential types of conflict:

  1. man against man
  2. man against society
  3. man against nature
  4. man against self

One might argue that Cruz, Trump, and their supporters who applaud “get tough” rhetoric (add Hillary Clinton to this group) fall into the first category, ever battling enemies like besieged heroes. I would argue they fall into the fourth as well, battling their own inhumanity, though there is a notable lack of wrestling with anything approaching a conscience. But in truth, debate over torture might better be categorized as man against everything, considering who and what is destroyed even by entertaining the fantasy of torturing others. Some still argue that a strategic advantage can be retained using torture, whereas Trump (always the extremist) merely relishes the possibility of obliterating others. However, we become monsters by keeping the option alive.