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The Full Package

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There are a lot of people out there, far better studied and credentialed than I, who are eager to tell you emotionally engaging tales about what’s wrong with the world and who is to blame for our problems. But when I think about my life, I find myself most grateful to those who taught me how to try harder and more effectively.

Anger is easy – and justified also – but staying with anger for a political motive is like still playing music just to try to get dates, when your hair and teeth are falling out! Somewhere along the line we are supposed to transmute our original naive passionate driver into a purer more purposeful thing.

 

All world-craziness aside, this is the holiday season, so for this episode I thought I would look at hope – and not in some feel-good ‘wishingist’ way. I mean the sort of sensible rigorous and rational stuff that everyone can test for themselves and believe in together, even if they might be skeptical about a whole lot of things – because it really is not only objective but has also proven useful to people across a wide range of experience.

Nothing theoretical about changing the world. Nothing mystical either, unless you count cooperation, humility, compassion, skill, spirit and will as mystical. Yes, enchanting and transformative forces they most definitely are, especially in combination – but they are also bread and butter, every day, right in our face, and simple as can be.

¯\_()_/¯

7 Comments

  1. As a fellow romantic who fancies himself practical, I too often wonder what sane and genuine hope would look like in today’s world. And I wonder despite having a feeling that I will recognize it when I see it – I just want to see it “more”. This makes me think it might already be there, and I need to be more grateful to see it.

    The question pops up repeatedly, of where humanity resides in that old game of balancing individual rights and the greater good. I tend to think that the principle of free speech requires a fuller appreciation here. But there is much obfuscation surrounding that term nowadays. Online mediums of interaction are disembodied, highly unnatural (far less reciprocity, overall), and largely anonymous. These are liabilities rather than assets, and lend themselves to fake news, fake identities, propaganda, and misunderstanding. They have re-shaped society, in ways we have only begun to see. Without being overly reductive, the case can be made that the net effect has been to increase cynicism and insularity.

    Those invoking the ideal of free speech are often doing so in order to continue pedaling their intellectually dishonest nonsense. At the same time, in a fragmented media-scape, without clear authority or established norms, there is an even more pressing need to remember the value of free speech. That state of postmodern multiplicity absolutely does not guarantee that anyone is adequately expressing themselves – or being heard, or seen, or “represented”. It can mean that false forms of that fundamentally individual mind-speaking and mind-opening are exerting intrusive influence on people’s lives. The anarchy sharpens our sense of hopelessness, emboldening the worst among us. However, I think that the best – the truly hopeful – can be found and shared if we adhere to this sometimes difficult principle. I don’t know what other principle could take its place.

    In the context of “cultural politics”, I think genuine hope would look less hyper-vigilant. Despite the validity of many righteous causes, the psychological issues you raise are persistent roadblocks to their wide discussion and acceptance. Not to oversimplify the overcomplicated (although that might feel like justice), but the forces of postmodernism seem to have divided us into 1) the privileged, now subject to interrogation about the legitimacy of their worldviews and identities – innately prejudiced people we must keep a suspicious eye on – and 2) victims / the oppressed, who have every justification for evening the score, taking whatever they want without regard for others’ humanity (because humanity resides in them only). An odd template for empowerment, full of absurd implications. Citizenship, a political concept, is often ignored in such apolitical, cultural discourse (even while the latter talks of “systemic” oppressions). Objections to this framework are dismissed as self-serving opportunism, a capitulation to the state whose history of exploitation and cruelty speaks for itself.

    It’s also strange that the notion that “You’re not special – no one’s special” can confer so much advantage on “the individual”. As much as some embrace that, and others treat it with derision, the desperation – the hopelessness – of that perspective often escapes our notice.

    At the heart of ideologies of selfishness seems to be an undercurrent of fetishization of poverty. By the same token, hope extended to others – to the strangers, foreigners, the unknown – must come from a position of gratitude, a sense of abundance even when abundance isn’t abundantly clear. I propose that we need to make our abundance abundantly clear, and that means sharing it – with special regard to avoiding waste.

    Conservatives can fetishize poverty even more than leftists. Whereas the left tends to do so in a context of solidarity toward the end of social justice / revolution, the right frames it as the pure origin, motive force, and ultimate validator of the notion of meritocracy (however conceived). Whereas the left elevated government to a position of ultimate responsibility, making it an agent capable of superseding individual perspective, desires or priorities (and allowing some abrogation of free speech in the process, as a natural corollary of seizing power at the systemic scale), the right elevated a simplistic idealization of the individual above government, making the individual purely free, ostensibly responsible, and government an unwelcome obstacle to freedom – an embodiment of the corruption of irresponsible, parasitic individualism, easily vilified. In many instances this also led to the right being more ardent supporters of free speech than the left. (Albeit imperfectly, inconsistently, and certainly not always on principle.)

    According to the philosopher Richard Rorty, the 60s saw the left cease to be a pragmatist political movement, becoming defined instead as an anti-modernist cultural one. Some benefits of its anti-establishment stance: multiculturalism became part of the national psyche(s) of the west, and huge advances were made in rights for ethnic minorities, women and homosexuals. But there was also a more individualist-consumerist framing of progress, easily conflated with “lifestyle” and upward mobility.

    A Vox article from 2019 about Rorty’s take on this states: “During the same period in which socially accepted sadism diminished, economic inequality and economic insecurity have steadily increased. It’s as if the American Left could not handle more than one initiative at a time — as if it either had to ignore stigma in order to concentrate on money, or vice versa.”

    How we conceive of stigma is interesting, because we begin to see how noble attempts to erase stigma are often more about making us more comfortable with the existence of unfairness – sometimes even with our own stigmatizing practices. But this means that we might be overlooking the conditions that gave rise to it in the first place.

    And did “socially accepted sadism” diminish? Or is there actually more now? The answer isn’t self-evident. The social itself is differently constituted, so various forms of this denigration are given legitimacy. This form of death is given life by the online world, where ideology, fake news, and anonymity rule. The reciprocity that is essential for organizing and principled political commitment to take place is absent from most online interaction.

    We don’t know what the “correct” way to transmit, accept, and share meaning is, until we do it. Although we will tinker with the framing of priorities, work on improving rigor, and dream about the future, it’s coming anyway, fast. We can make the perils of the past our focus, or accept this encounter with the present as the adventure that it truly is.

    Funky solstice to you and yours, Paul – and all. Brighter days ahead.

    • Hi Ian – Thank you so much for this!

      My hopeful point (as I know you saw) was just that we actually have a huge number of our needed tools, and many practical approaches which we’ve abandoned for ideas that don’t work as well. A lot of the stuff which makes us feel hopeless is just that the ship has been pointing in the wrong direction so long we’ve forgotten what dry land even looks like – but we do have feet – which suggests we actually were made for it! Your insightful comments and referents add to that beautifully.

      That link and the article to which it leads are especially appreciated – indeed, Rorty’s thinking is very useful and clear, on important and much under-appreciated subjects – I will have to keep my eyes out for his full book. Looks very much worth a read.
      My own current simplest capsule WTF about the split is – how can you even try to call it ‘the left’ when it has complete contempt for the working class (and vice versa).
      However that happened it has resulted in many “Rotten in the state of Denmark/Not in Kansas anymore Toto” surreally screwed up consequence, to be sure!
      Their inflection point is the Vietnam war – but that applies to America only, and American myopia and self-importance distorts both Rorty and the article’s author, Illing. Studying politics around the world we can see similar breaks in most of the great (and not so great with pretensions) western countries (one struggles over whether to use “Nation states” “Cultures” or “Economies” here – which points to some of the apples and oranges difficulties with many popular (and entirely fruitless) so called debates).
      Culture, in the very particular sense of the individual’s sense of self and role seems a far more likely common factor than conflict, to me – though there were critical flashpoints also in many other places.

      I actually agreed more with Rorty than the author’s criticisms of him in a few places, and so read further into Illing’s work only to see what I suspected – he is very intelligent and a great writer, but he suffers from the same problem as I do – he writes with more subtlety and precision about the times to which he has personally borne witness (a humility problem we all suffer from – especially when we pursue social critique). Which is to say, there are unrecorded things about ‘tone’ he can’t factor in, but I did see.
      The book I am most interested in right now (and will dig for, as soon as I can again enter a bookstore safely) is “The Sibling Society” by the absurdly controversial poet, Robert Bly – in which he contends that the problem is that no one wants to be an adult anymore, transcend their simple desires for complex and more powerful duty – not even for the sake of their children. I say absurdly, but I should also say informatively. Bly was interested in expanding men’s level of compassion and self understanding, and also concerned with our society’s lack of ritual and affirmation for the higher potentials of masculinity. He was attacked ruthlessly for years, just for the idea of ‘men’s groups’ even though, as I say – his intention was always compassion and understanding. The idea being, one supposes – that as inherently evil creatures, men are undeserving of compassion. Which completely misses the point that for men to best participate in female empowerment, they also need to build and share the sort of integrities and emotional abilities which women have been much better at, for as far back as anyone has looked at the question.
      Anyhow – Bly is a truly fantastic poet and so resplendently loving a human being, that the critiques of his work (in ignorance of its content and intent) refuted their own critics. The way in which Jordan Peterson is so elaborately despised (almost entirely for things he never said) seems similar, somehow. I actually don’t think it is his famous resistance to the idea of indeterminate pronouns being made legally compulsory. I think the left just instinctively recoils from his basic (and correct) Jungian awareness that our denial of our own evil is the greatest possible fuel and strength to the distributed forces of evil in the society at large. My bullying point, made a different way.

      I am convinced the left actually had won the broad culture war about individual expression and identity right up until political correctness betrayed it utterly, by turning progressivism into a framework for lunkheads to bully people, just for questioning dogma they’ve never even heard about before.
      At the same time, I think the transparently false rebel pose of the boomers has done incalculable harm to the idea of legitimate rebellion – that is – focussed defiance which is directed at broad general benefit, by making it look like nothing but infantile selfishness. Almost a post modernist reduction of it’s most critical distinctions.

      Which reminds me – Illing’s own blog page was a great find too – and his piece about post-modernism is excellent – pointing out that the creator of the term actually meant it as a warning about an already existing condition of danger to the idea of collectively held truths and beliefs – rather than a recommendation that we destroy those values wholesale! I’ve been thinking about this question for a long long time. Adam Curtis’ brilliant series “The Century of the Self” is almost painful about the extent to which Freud, with only the best intentions for all mankind, accidentally fuelled the modern media manipulation game which now routinely turns entire populations against their own interests for commercial purposes. This pattern repeats all through history – someone trying to help with a radical new insight and or technique, is heard not by the people they hoped to reach and richly endow, but by people with intentions outside of the creator’s more humane imagination, who twist it to do whole new categories of harm.
      This question should be a serious and constant matter of consideration for the left – especially the identitarian version which seems to believe that the only solutions to the problems of our society involve a theoretical government which they aren’t persuasive or well organized enough to actually elect, achieving things which no government ever has in all of history, without any unintended and horrific consequences. It is conceivable that such a thing might be done, but I’d want to see the blueprint first, before wasting any energy on such fanciful whimsy (better confined to the realm of comics and limericks, where it can still enlighten and amuse us helpfully).

      Cheers, man! Funkiest of all possible Solstii(?) (and apologies for sketchy pluralization!)
      And thank you so much for your contribution – always genuinely energizing stuff!
      ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

  2. And since you offered me such an engaging stimulating and inspiring link – allow me to volley back with same.
    Here are two of the last people left who understand what principle is really worth (everything), not only debating in intelligent and highly relevant terms – but also smiling and LAUGHING! Hooray!
    Snowden and Greenwald are flat out heroes of conscience. An exceedingly rare breed nowadays.
    (and as for the laughing – Goldman’s “dance to” point simply cannot be made often enough, IMHO) ;o)

  3. Hey Paul! Just a couple quick thoughts and a couple of links you might enjoy.

    One: I can tell you the Toronto Sparts were up to these same tricks in the late 90s/early 00s. That’s when I was an earnest young socialist & wound up in those same meetings of half a dozen people in a university attic telling each other how everyone else is wrong, making sure we use the right labels for the USSR (degenerated workers’ state) and the PRC (deformed workers’ state). And the big meetings (two dozen people in a church) were sure to bring up old wounds: I know more than I should about the 1984 split over calling the protest bus going down to DC the “Yuri Andropov Brigade”. No idea why the revolution still hasn’t arrived. It’s the darndest thing.

    Two: This is a quibble, because I agree with the overall point, but for what it’s worth, I don’t think the swipe at John Nash is a great way of making your point. He was a mathematician, not a social scientist; it’s the folks who apply the mathematics to real actual people as if they can “prove” that such-and-such behaviour is inevitable or obviously rational who make the mistakes. And Nash’s mathematical results aren’t undermined by his mental health. Analogy: the Pythagoreans thought some crazy stuff about numbers, but their proof that $\sqrt{2}$ is irrational is still a proof. (Let’s see if WordPress turns that into math. In case it doesn’t and it’s opaque, that’s supposed to be the square root of 2.)

    Three: This is a bit of a tangent, but have you encountered Thi Nguyen and Bekka Williams’s notion of “moral outrage porn”? I think it’s related to some of your thoughts here & a very useful way of thinking about unproductive uses of our energy. They had a NYT op-ed a little while ago about it: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/26/opinion/sunday/porn.html And now their paper is published (open access, and I’d say pretty readable, at least as academic philosophy goes): http://jesp.org/index.php/jesp/article/view/990

    Four: This is REALLY tangential, but Thi Nguyen also has some really cool stuff on the aesthetics of games–not sure if that’s something you’d find interesting, but I wouldn’t be surprised if you did, so here you go. He’s got a recent book on the topic (subtitle: Agency as Art) https://global.oup.com/academic/product/games-9780190052089?cc=gb&lang=en& Or there are some podcast interviews he’s done. I’d recommend this one; there are shorter ones out there, but he’s more transparently having fun talking about the ideas here: https://newbooksnetwork.com/games

    Enjoyed the episode as usual!

  4. Hey Roger – thank you so much for the engagement (and patronage also).

    You are absolutely right about the John Nash reach being a weak and in some ways unfair discrediting referent. My only excuse is brevity and dynamics – and to be clear, he did himself say that in retrospect, he was sure his mental illness had an impact on his work. But your point is entirely correct – and I make a similar point about misuse of broad concepts by observing how many (less common now, but once startlingly widespread) refer to “Lord of the Flies” as if it was a scientific paper about unsupervised child behavior, rather than a work of dystopian allegorical fiction. Sigh. ;o)

    Pythagoreans are such a cool referent – multiply so to me. I do the Plato/Aristote thing in my head constantly (honestly believe it is a cheat not to apply BOTH forms of reasoning to every case), but I go Pythagorean for my Platonic source – the music hookup is just too good (as close to objectively verifiable magical line of inquiry as one can find – as many alchemists will attest). Where their insight ends and weirdness begins moves on me from year to year, depending on other studies. (Julian Jaynes especially reverberant).

    Can’t tell you how delighted I am that you had the cool and idea-sharpening experience of “Getting the word out” with some leftist partisans yourself. Even if ultimately futile (this is probably the most counter-revolutionary culture ever seen on earth), the training is valuable in all sorts of ways and situations. Reminds me of the way my odd cult upbringing make it very easy for me to talk to and understand scientologists, in ways they don’t usually find themselves effectively heard. Everyone likes to be understood! ;o)

    Also – damn don’t you just love the idea of an “irrational proof?” The first deep laugh we encounter in math, which doesn’t go away (though Euclid definitely tickles) It is a linguistic rather than a substantive paradox, but has a Carrol level of wackiness all the same.

    Game theory in the abstract and sociological/economic realm – and also in the application to actual games both fascinate me! Thank you for some up to date reading ideas there. It has been decades since I delved deep – and that’s too economically fertile a field not to have seen some significant learning since then. I’ve even been working on a piece about digital literature – so this hits just right.

    Thank you for the links to Thi Nguyen and Bekka Williams (even though the Times won’t let me open them). Indeed, the emotional aspect of our perception is one we ignore at our peril. Our infotainment-driven paranoia about crime – far more fear over far lower numbers these days, is a great example of emotional distortions we choose for our own stimulant reasons (healthy or not) which then turn around and affect policy changing lives in the world – largely without reference to actual conditions. (The value of the harshness is political, thanks to the fear-fantasy which is chosen and stoked, voluntarily).

    Most of my calls for reaching past our pre-judgement to look again (and if possible, connect across a line that used to stop us) are based upon this key understanding. We aren’t what they “feel” we are, they aren’t what we “feel” they are – so why not find out what we all actually are and see what concerns we have in common, and what we can learn from where our perspectives differ?

    Not being naive – just asking if anyone really has a more practical plan than getting on with it and doing the necessary work?
    (“Getting the word out” itself having proven just a tad inadequate – astonishingly – as you say!) ;o)

    Cheers man. Funky Solstice and Groovy new year – hugs also.
    ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

    • Oh yeah – and also – I think Nash is over-discussed for his actual impact, largely because his games have such shockingly elemental story value (rather like the poetry of RD Laing). IMHO, the actual Machiavelli of the modern age is Norbert Weiner (“The Human use of human beings” – being his “The Prince”). Individual cruelty interactions like Nash’s “F@ck you buddy” game seem exciting to us, but aren’t actually significant – only vast faceless indeterminate aggregates count now (and since about ’45) Quantum theory for the economics department, really. ;o)

I am always curious about what you are thinking

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