One of the strangest revolutionary problems, is how to broaden the membership enough to give the movement political weight, without overly diluting, or even completely losing the original principles and message.
Considering how complicated and intellectual many revolutionary theories are, this has always been a difficult puzzle. Simplify and emotionalize your message too much, and you recruit a whole pile of members who are really there for the same reasons people used to enjoy going to a witch burning or public hanging in the square – that creepy age old pleasure of group bloodsport.
The second order problem is that of course – you can’t possibly convince the reasonable middle that your ideas are reasonable, when you brand your group with an overemotional emphasis. One classic solution for revolutionaries is to say “There is no middle – everyone neutral is complicit” which idea sounded a whole lot more heroic and romantic in the days before we had repeated experience of self-actualizing terrorists. Now that we do have this evidence we can say with confidence – no, that cannot possibly be sound reasoning, folks. That path takes you straight into crazy territory.
So what are we (now massively dumbed-down and overemotional on every side by long habit) left to work with? Somehow it always comes down to rallying over the other guy being evil, and the story is never about us being foolish, or having been ignorant before, but learning from it. Unlikely enough on the odds – much closer to impossible when we think about patterns of human self deception.
In simplest terms, this episode is all about untangling simplified ideas that feel certain from actions that do great harm. Only, there’s nothing simple about this stuff – not unless a huckster is telling you a twisted version, to steal your power.
Humble and fallible honesty isn’t some idealist position, nor is it a weak basis around which to gather. I am convinced that openness and honesty is the only sound way that all kinds of sincere people and ideas can meet and have a decent chance of making more sense together.
This piece, from my collection Night Song for Cigar-Box Banjo fits rather perfectly with this episode. And for my friends who are curious about sources, the fine rare advice came from Rumi’s dad.
I came across some great
eight hundred year old advice
about how to deal with a furious mob
when they all have things wrong
You can’t say “Don’t be mad”
mad is the point of a mob
you could only say that to an
individual human being
Instead say, “Yes, I agree with you,
if this was the right person,
and they really had done what you think,
this fury would indeed be righteous
I wish this observation was not still
so relevant today. We do not like to
think that we are much like the people of
the thirteenth century
But mob is the format of our age
our discussions are competing furies –
most every statement an exaggeration
expressing frustration, imbalance
The all-consuming secular individualists
and the all-subsuming religious zealots
each forever accusing the other of the most
evil vanity, ignorance, and avarice
Lightly passing-over the similar sins of those
who they like more and know better and
magnifying those of others, so as to always
have something to hand to blame
“Acknowledge a higher power” is a true and
good suggestion, but a lousy accusation to make
So few who wave their symbols high, live their
own lives as if they believed in love and humility
God can be a right cause – and so can humanity
Anger, violence, hatred and selfishness cannot
I say – were they both correct about each other
If the colour of our team-jersey, or the sign on our lawn
truly did say everything about what we were inside
If a mob really was the only social unit that we,
in our infinite self-absorption and laziness
were still capable of forming, we might
very well all deserve this mess we’re in
I wanted to think aloud a bit about some of the issues you raise, as much for the benefit of clarifying my thoughts on matters by setting them down in print as to open myself up to correction. (I know it can be labor-intensive to correct any misinterpretations I may have; don’t ever feel obligated to do so – but know that I appreciate the effort!)
Early on you say: “I am in no way an intellectual speaker”. Sometimes too much is made of that word, “intellectual”, and it’s unfortunate, because it can refer to status, or to substance. The expression “anti-intellectual” usually means “opposed to debate, analysis or challenge”. Hence it is more often used by a subversive, whose sense of “intellectual” is not limited to: educated, well-versed in a particular canon, or precocious. Elitist intellectuals often insist on some combination of these as a pre-requisite for productive debate, science, philosophy, etc. Their definition of serious has more to do with “Did you do your homework?” than “What do you think of x?” A condition above and beyond context that tends to earn them the “ivory tower” epithet. Perhaps they forget that, despite what we can say about history being cyclical, it is still being written. And it ought to be clear by now that absolutely no one’s perspective can be written-off.
So, depending on what standard you’re comparing yourself to, Paul, you are a legitimately intellectual speaker. Unless you’re seeing the role of intellectuals in society in a way meaningfully distinct from what you’re doing: sharing research and insights, engaging in public debate (with others and yourself) and thinking aloud. In some contexts, intellectuals are treated as – and see themselves as – speakers of a kind of gospel. Inevitably this market arose to meet the demand for a certain kind of stimulation after people had left school to lead lives of production and procreation, with fairly little contemplation. But some see their role as providing mollifying myths to a segment of society that threatened to make real change if they knew that history wasn’t over. While you don’t engage in the same kind of performances they do, your content is entertaining as well as meaningful.
Regarding those myths, I have found that with many issues, someone can always make a “utilitarian” case that, if the benefits outweigh the drawbacks of something, and more are lifted up than pushed down, it’s “just”. This shrugging, innocent indifference might be the defining conceit of our technological, information-saturated age. We now live through screens, and reality is the distraction from that mediated, calculated dimension. But Kant’s categorical imperative (which is often contrasted with utilitarianism) made an important point about precedent: If something can’t be universalized, it isn’t reliable as a principle in human ethics. Once you’re managing exceptions to your golden rules, you’re dealing in a toxic kind of currency.
So the issue is not that anyone requires the state to advance their rights. That promise will always be profoundly problematic, even if you have 100% confidence in yourself and your buddies. The issue is always whether we are willing to continually re-affirm our belief in dignity universally, and see the danger of any precedent that makes an exception to this. As someone who has profound gratitude for many western institutions, without being the least bit elitist about them, I am disturbed to see some of those in positions of power and influence allowing such precedents to be established, and wonder how we’ll get back to a more hopeful situation. Who sets a legitimate tone for serious discourse, that which is necessary for correction? Or should I just give a postmodern shrug here and tell myself that chaos is really the best expression of diversity?
I believe we are 99% in agreement about affairs of primary importance – a ratio that any reasonable person should find acceptable. Where we might diverge, it is more a matter of emphasis than principle or definition. One thing I must admit I find occasionally troublesome is your framing of emotionality. Emotionality per se is not the issue. Much cruelty and bigotry is done with cold, bureaucratic (or political) rationality. And sometimes people becoming emotional is when you see their true selves, and when they actually manifest less ego. They get out of the 3rd (semantic) circuit, and into 4th circuit moral judgement. It isn’t that emotions were misleading them, it’s that their emotional connections to their models meant that they had to transcend their labels in order to find an emotional center. That said, it is entirely accurate to say that the more exercised we are about an apparent injustice, the less rigorous we are in our approach to tackling it. At a large scale, especially. Combine solutions under an umbrella “-ism” that people can adopt religiously, without learning about the context of their inception and application, and there is often a spiral of out-group vilification, antagonism and despair.
This suggests that the mind is on some level unable to easily distinguish between justice as the good – the highest and best state – and justice as a resolution of conflict or opposition (justice as “balance”). In the latter case, it is an affirmation of the familiar. (We are creatures of attachment and habit. – Another aspect of “emotionality”?) To the extent that we seek justice, we must have some success criteria for its achievement; at the same time, if we have misconceived it in the first place, success will be either too easy (we will gratefully accept band-aids for boo-boos), or it will be eternally elusive, a handy metaphysical justification for power and violence.
So glad you delved more deeply into feminism in this episode. As a feminist myself, as well as a proud member of Team Ambiguity, I find that area an inexhaustible resource for discovering how people talk past one another, often seeing only the bad in the name of advancing the good. There is certainly still a lot of misunderstanding, confusion, and outright misinformation about the word “feminism” – perhaps as much as there ever has been.
In my experience, there are two quite distinct approaches to feminism practiced by female feminists. (Note: I’m specifying their gender to avoid begging the question as to whether male feminism might be meaningfully distinct in some way. But I’m not making a firm distinction between “educated, well-read and thoughtful feminist woman” and “woman who holds views, expressed or unexpressed, opposing patriarchy and misogyny”.) One approach sees the inequality between men and women in a vacuum, as the fundamental inequality to be “balanced”, and tends to overlook how any such balance is conceived as a reproduction of many unquestioned assumptions arising from humans’ problematic relationship with nature. The other approach recognizes women’s subjugation as a manifestation of that relationship, and seeks a balance that is at once higher (transcendental, if that’s not too new-agey for you) and more fundamental or primal. In this latter sense, feminism should rightly be understood not only as an “expression” of humanism, but also an integral aspect of it. Likewise, and even more confusing still, the former view gives us “capitalist feminism”, whereas the latter rejects capitalism as a means to ending exploitation (and may in fact see it as fundamental to it), and we could call this “socialist feminism”. Each approach has valid arguments and data to back up its claims.
The mainstream capitalist feminism holds gender inequality to be a discrete, interpersonal injustice – belied by its enigmatic usage of “systemic” – rather than a manifestation of a more fundamental injustice, and which can only be effectively addressed when the more fundamental one is. Dismissing this concern – thinking you can have it both ways – works for some and definitely not for others. It shows they don’t really understand the crux of the issue. It’s an impasse. Real solidarity requires honesty and integrity. Justice that takes the form of fatalism isn’t justice, but a denial of exactly that dignity.
While my own views generally comport well with those who affirm the need for more basic respect and equality – regardless of whether they can use big words, or have read Simone de Bouvoir – I encourage them to go farther in examining the geneses of exploitation, and developing a higher standard of justice than a tokenistic equality can provide. Such a standard not only renders one easier to placate on an intellectual level, it also isolates one, alienating potential friends and allies by making their association conditional on their subscribing to the same simplistic narratives they do. That this provides the appearance of social cohesion, solidarity and humanity is all the more disconcerting. The same kind of ill-placed trust that, in the case of religion, turned so many people off spirituality itself.
To those who have been historically oppressed or marginalized, appeasement is itself familiar, and a direct component of their oppression. Hence any apparent cynicism and even hostility on their part may be quite understandable. But as folks like yourself, Paul, are often at pains to explain, just because something is inevitable doesn’t make it progress. In a sense, progress should actually be impossible. (I believe the old saying is “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp”. But it goes for the lady-folk too.)
That said, I don’t blame many women one bit if they’re thoroughly disgusted with the entire male sex, for ever. But they’re more the cautionary tale than the authority on anything. In the spirit of running through trip-wires, I’ll go further myself and ask: we’ve had several decades of one sort of feminism, and things have gotten steadily worse, as the decadence of identity politics clearly shows. Throwing gasoline on that fire isn’t progress, it’s regress. It hasn’t advanced anything like real social cohesion – the thing that actually empowers people – and on the contrary has actively normalized toxicity while overall inequality has increased. Many feminists have become convinced that they’re “holding the line” and keeping a stiff upper lip and all that, but you don’t hear much productive engagement among fellow-feminists who disagree. The habitual tolerance of petty bigotry in the name of solidarity with those viewed as essentially victims is an especially sad spectacle, patronizing on several levels. (Not least because it is “anti-intellectual”; it’s also cynically anti-male and classist.)
To your point about the more – essential? – differences between male and female, I tend again to see culture and economic forces being… how shall I put this – obstacles that we learn to treat as enabling? I said in a previous post that I support permissive parenting. To the extent that I need to hedge that statement, it’s to say that there is a massive difference between permissiveness and neglect. The latter is on full display in today’s world, and it is a form of widely accepted abuse. Some have caught on to that, and have swung in the other direction with helicopter parenting, something which can also qualify as abuse in my view. My point is that neither is optimal. Incidentally, the jury’s still out on the role that the internet and mobile devices play in children’s lives. I wouldn’t say I support permissiveness regarding them. Or the way that helicopter parents often use them.
Kids need a natural structure that is supportive of growth rather than deterministic. Load-bearing, and without ideological encumbrances that rip them off, insult their intelligence and insult their dignity. Yes, I take the radical position that parents and teachers neither own, nor have the right to bully “their” children. I’m also agnostic about marriage / monogamy as absolute goods. In many cases, to paraphrase one of this episode’s wittier comments, collapse does indeed constitute an improvement.
Some of the trends we’re seeing around political correctness in the US and elsewhere are indicative of earlier parenting “trends”, as well as changes in family structures. You ask about the left’s / liberals’ tendency to endorse broad monitoring and sanitization of any context they see as too unpredictable especially in the “online world” (which sets all kinds of precedents for the real world). Once again, I think it’s an elaborate cop-out and a refusal to take responsibility for a deteriorating society. It’s part of how we reaffirm our commitment to order, peace, and truth, by disassociating ourselves from the spectre of insanity – mental illness, anarchy. By saying those people are ugly and violent and unhinged, whereas we are peaceful and kind, and in control. Saved. Again, an appearance of humanity. Civilization as normalization.
Don’t apologize too much for hitting the emotional trip-wires. That’s part of the point. It’s up to your audience whether you’re viewed as a button-pushing sadist, or someone who wants passion to be meaningfully articulated, rather than a passing catharsis. It’s tricky, because we often love our catharsis and resent it when it’s exposed as actually consequential. We thought accountability was only a rumour! But that would only be the case if duty was.
All the same, it’s well to see and feel beyond the rigid trappings of justice. We must not forget what many insist upon reminding us of anyway: It’s not just what you say, it’s also how you say it. The hope is always that those you’re speaking to hear the implied big hug, along with the hard truth. Call me sentimental, but I suspect that, in the long run, that’s the most important part.
Hi Ian – thank you again for your always interesting and thoughtful feedback!
Yes, intellectual is a curious and multi-faceted designation. I am even more opposed to anti-intellectualism than I am to pseudo intellectualism, but in this case I was really going for the idea that there is specialized rigour, and then there is explorative and unifying thought that tries to bring pieces from many separate realms and stimulate new insight with the combo. I’m way better at that than at idea-sparring (much as I enjoy that also, though even there, far less often than I am taken to by competitive types, who usually overlook my emphasis on the playful joy of ideas – especially enabling tool-style notions).
The question of credentialism is a different thing (though oft conflated) which has driven me nuts my entire life. Some of the advice I am proudest to have offered was to young working class intellectuals, who do indeed face several strange extra challenges not well understood by the professional and professorial (our mutual friends aside, of course). Anyhow – I meant no false modesty or self-denigration, only to say that I’m a dedicated enthusiast and generalist, and am most honest (an even better generalist) when I freely admit my limits within the many specialties I draw from. (Got to model principles everyplace possible – humility above all others).
The intellectual “Class” (such as it is) is perhaps the single most actively self-deluding segment of society – which it is the tragedy of working class intellectuals to see most clearly, and often enough be blamed for by other lowly miscreants, though they enjoy none of the traditional rewards of status or lucre, and a host of extra stressors. As a side note – you know I am crazy for music of every kind – classical, traditional, jazz, modern, experimental – you name it. But I still think my favourite song of all time is “La Chanson De Jackie” by Jaques Brel – he lists an absolutely wild scope of imaginative and exotic accomplishments – but what he wishes for most of all – even if it could only be for a few minutes a day, is to go back to the time when they called him Jackie – and he was young, handsome and dumb! ;o)
Thank you for kindly seeing what I do as distinct from the mollifying albeit brainy entertainment market – such thinkers are often fun and stimulating, but I do indeed have a different purpose in mind. Helps to be creative-obsessive, instead of hard-rational reward-driven. Beautiful point about universalization – appreciated! Indeed, I challenge several popular ideas not because they are without any useful insight, but instead because they are too often taken to be complete and immaculate truths, rather than valuable new lenses, to be added to many others of proven worth. The displacing of one tested truth or principle by something with emotional appeal and novelty is especially distressing to me. We can’t possibly be capable of a popular front that way – respect is the key ingredient – and we’ve more or less lost that skillset to unrestrained narcissism and petulance. Understandable (end of the world, after all), but also horrible. Voluntary disability on a large scale – mostly because they haven’t been shown how functional long-arc purpose (always beyond self) works.
Yes – you perfectly understand what I’m after when I say emotionality (though I will seek to broaden my referent there, so it gains at least poetic clarity with extra associations as I go). Also right to distinguish between institutional and individual problems – though the line often blurs with a rising popular movement.
Less sense and more harm is the exact problem. When we’re upset we’re not listening to the people who are even more hurt than we are – because they can’t raise their voices. One reason middle class victims often end up diverting help away from poor who are at least as hurt (usually more so), and always far more under-resourced for recovery. “Getting over yourself” isn’t a snarky power trip from some authority to be heroically resisted (as so many public psychotics now imply) but the essential bit of wisdom required, if you want to learn to responsibly steer your own ship true. (instead of taking orders from some self-styled idiot admiral).
YES – distinctions in feminism beautifully drawn here – and indeed the capitalist emphasis of some trends is utterly disheartening. Merciless leftism really is a form of fascism that must be confronted in all forms and cases, and capitalism has never had anything to do with humane values (or indeed as you say connection to nature). Divorcing the concerns of feminism from nature, caring and generational cycles is creepy in the extreme. Not healthy stuff. I also have a very rare perspective on this, having personally experienced (and seen the consequences of) toxic matriarchy writ large. The “goddess” of our cult made it her personal mission to destroy every family she could, quite horribly. Compassion-first feminism is indeed best represented for me by progressive leftist (really community centred) feminists. I have many female heroes from the eighties in particular, in my personal pantheon. Courageous and brilliant – and yet relentlessly growthful and caring also. Dogma haters, full of mischeivous humour and fantastic hugs!
Alienation – key word for you to invoke – and also key to understanding what I am most upset by, and hope to provoke discussion of. So many of the angry ideas which are popular offer us lazy reasons to hold others who we do not know well in low regard, or with outright contempt. Not because we have deep insight, but because we can categorize them with a weird vague grouping who have some negative historical or statistical tendencies. Again, you can only put ideas this dumb together when you don’t understand human character, history OR statistics – but since we’re there now, this stuff flies easily and appeals to many. (Trignorance?)
Anything which interferes with the unique and irreplaceable joy of getting to know other human beings – or promotes the ideas that most strangers represent threat and hostility, instead of our community, neighbours and unmet friends, is harmful unwise and also more or less insane. This is the kind of abuse of theories which makes me scream. No justice is ever won by increasing alienation. Many lives are harmed by projecting egotists who never brought their own issues into scale.
Also important – I can’t respect any variant of feminism which shows complete contempt for all the women of history up until right now. The ignorance of history and general reality involved in this sort of assertion is a special brand of infantilizing anti-intellectualism which cannot ever make people happier, more creative, more independent, or stronger, though it (anger) absolutely will contribute to stress, heart disease and early death. This stuff is not to be invoked lightly, or for sport!
About kids – so much to say (a whole future show, to be sure). But thank you so much for saying the main thing, which I sometimes wonder if anyone else can see. Our modern ideas of acceptable approaches to child-rearing really do include a ton of abuse, both in neglect and in over-supervision. One of the educational repudiations which our society has avoided learning from, mostly because of demographics, is that helicopter parenting is an over-reaction by the children raised in this neglectful boomer pioneered style (falsely labelled by many to this day as ‘freedom’). Freedom isn’t neglect, as you say, but enablement – an altogether subtler and more care intensive thing. Above all, it requires the key maturity ability to set aside self for other – and of course, every aspect of parenting always should have this prerequisite. That this quality is so often absent, is an ongoing tragedy for young kids everywhere who are achingly desperate for care and balance.
My as yet unfinished “third-rail” episode encompasses all of this along with the most contentious issue of all – abortion. I know I can definitely shock everyone and make them think in a new way about both kids and not-kids – but how to work a hug into that theme as yet eludes me. Working on it (like I say, NOT rewards driven) ;o)
Which itself reminds me – yes, this episode was a bit light on the hugs – but it’s worth saying clearly, the biggest hug I personally get from any media is the feeling that someone else is thinking about things that interest and concern me. The sense that we are not alone, not crazy to be doubting the new or old orthodoxy – that the universe has room for good natured questioning and also hard-nosed realism when it comes to the basics – like principle and compassion.
I sometimes look up at the stars for a very long time, and ever since I was small, I’ve found that vista helpful for scaling. Wordless proof that the very worst thing that ever happened to me actually is very very small, even if it reverberates in my head in a big way. The distinction between subjective and objective has never been so flimsy – this may have something to do with the modern absence of faith and/or connection to nature, coupled with the destruction of all models of merciful functional judgement (theoretically corruptible now means presumed evil) – leaving only that most manichaean compulsory authority of law itself. (I say MAY) ;o)
A lot of our modern upsets are about our upset itself – and this rising trend really is dangerous as hell. Especially the increasing suggestion that words are a form of violence. What makes this assertion outright psychotic is that when we are subject to violence, we are authorized to do violence in self-defence, in a way that almost no other situation will ever afford us. We adjust to a mode where we can set aside morality, responsibility and restraint completely.
So not only are we not saying “I can’t control you, but I can control my own reactions to you, so that you can’t manipulate me.” (Sticks and stones). We’re now saying, “I might just attack you like a rabid maniac and destroy your entire life, if you say the wrong thing. I reject proportionality outright, while also defending my right to complete and continued ignorance about you and your situation. My feelings uber alles!”
(Arguably) good intentions leading us into purest gangsterism again (you gotta love it when cycles like that sneak up on you, right?)
And oh-wow yes – “It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it” may just be the greatest philosophical contribution of the chaotic twentieth century. Though the also lovely “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing” adds the perfect eye-sparkle to the same basic (and all important) message. Korzybski we can dance to!
Cheers man. And thank you so much for listening and for thinking!
Love and hugs (from both of us).
Here’s a fascinating and super-relevant interview with Mark Rudd, who went from being an especially effective leftist (SDS leader) to a highly counterproductive one (weatherman), and has found the modestly, courage and good sense to analyze and understand some of the key errors so many late sixties radicals made, and share them with us. Must-read stuff!
And on the “If it don’t have that swing” side of the same discussion, here’s an interview (also from the usually excellent Jacobin) with my absolute top art-crush of the last couple of decades – the brilliant documentary film-maker Adam Curtis. Can’t possibly face the reality of a situation like this without humour – great music too! If you only know his work, you’ll enjoy the warmth of the man.