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Patriots and Revolutionaries

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I don’t want to sound like a snob, a luddite, or a weirdo, but I sometimes feel like the only person around who isn’t addicted to television. People get mad at me for my strong objection to hate powered factionalism, but to me, they look like raving junkies, mainlining something very dangerous to their sanity. I’m not saying I don’t watch and enjoy television – I definitely do, and yes, I also know that plenty of younger people do all of their viewing online – but that’s a fussy and technical, rather than a substantial argument. The one thing about that which is sharply relevant to our historical moment, is that this fast shifting viewership makes the old media companies very nervous.

This is understandable, too – in the old days, there were just a few huge companies which controlled almost all of the information people saw. For the early part of this century in particular, the internet threatened to turn that established model of profit and social narrative control on its head. A million soapboxes arose.

But you can’t mess with the feeding trough of a bunch of century old billion-dollar hogs, without expecting some pushback.

Right now, there is massive pressure to require internet media companies to censor speech on their platforms, or else face anti-trust legislation. This is double wrong. They absolutely are classic monopolies on their platforms, and responsible legislators would break them up for the public good, and as a public service.

The deal they are trying for instead, is a way to save the new media monopolies from being broken up into true public service utilities, and simultaneously save the old print and television news outlets from utter extinction, by doing something that looks tough, but is intended one hundred percent as political corruption. Removing or reducing the legal protection for data carriers, from third party lawsuits over content created by their users.

At one extreme, we all understand that we wouldn’t have telephones, if the phone company could be sued, every time someone used their phone to say something illegal, threatening or slanderous. People use phones freely to communicate, and we value this free communication so much that we don’t want the phone company listening-in and checking up on us. Whether we are good or not is simply not Ma Bell’s business.

Social media is a little different, because we can talk to people who we didn’t know were listening – or sometimes at a much later date in time. There are also a whole range of funny quirks with the way information spreads. Part of it is gossip psychology, part boasting to look informed, part fear mongering to excuse one’s own inaction – people will be writing dissertations about all of this nonsense for decades, and my guess is that like most historical periods, we’ll understand the deepest truth of ours only when we are entering the next, and the insights are of more scholarly than practical use.

The thing about the modern day social media giants is that they are the richest companies which have ever existed on earth. So if they were required by law to face lawsuits over user content, they could fight them for awhile, and then lay down a big heavy net of censorship – “Forced on them by the courts”. But in the meantime, what happens to the little guys? Independent platforms with huge readerships are not giant corporate profit engines, they don’t have a full time staff of top priced legal sharks to deploy, in case of emergencies. These are serious reporters talking directly to their readers. The majors want them silenced.

I don’t want to start an extra argument, but it reminds me a lot of the Cathars. A group of millions of people in Southern France who thought they could relate to god directly without depending on the guidance (heavy handed control) of a Catholic priesthood at all. The slaughter ordered by the Pope – of these sincere (albeit heretical) Christians, went beyond even the worst atrocities of the crusades. Millions of civilians killed. Power acts like that when it feels control slipping, folks. Death on wheels.

Step away from the pocket watch – and punch that hypnotist in the face. Splash some water on your face, snap out of it! Read a book, meet a friend for lunch. Laugh so hard you cry! Prepare yourself.
We have serious work to do.

 

I haven’t read a daily newspaper in decades, (and actually, I find it hard to believe we still do that to trees at his late stage – though paper flyers are an even more stupid use of wood pulp, so they do retain some cover in terms of priority at least, if not morality).

We also haven’t got cable, just an antenna. We get about three dozen channels for free that way, and can choose from plenty of news programs, but we didn’t have an all day news station harassing us until just last week, when one of the majors added a piggyback channel for twenty four hour news “Service”.

What I do do is read, voraciously. Books, articles, papers, poems – you name it. I also talk to people in an unusual way. I’m an imbecile for pleasantries, but I can go deep with you as if we’ve been friends for twenty years, in about twenty minutes. I want to share substance, not trivia, and I’ve been blessed with many friends from around the world who feel the same way. Direct heartfelt testimony is the most important component of my understanding of the world, because I know that the people who I speak to, understand the balance of forces in that situation which is relevant to those who live there.

After human beings, books probably get closest. Articles used to, sometimes, but especially in the cutthroat modern market, the pressure to sensationalize a story to make it more profitable is too great to allow for quiet humble witness. Also – editors don’t want to send a writer out for months anymore, to really learn about a thing. They want results while the subject is still in fashion. The way public interest flits about nowadays, months might as well be centuries.

Though many fewer people spend their time on it, some radio programming still has a genuine audience connection. I know a few people who work in the medium, and they listen very carefully to what their listeners say to them. This is good for their humility – and they often find it surprisingly inspiring.

But OMG folks – twenty four hour “News” programming (and its various soulless official media and internet tinctures) is a dangerous and poisonous drug.

I’ve been trying for a couple of years now, to figure out why so many people who are upset, are turning to vicious attacks on others, based on pride in indignation and really shocking ignorance. Suddenly I see the source laid out clearly before my eyes. There are plenty of smiles and sincere looks – snarls, too – as if news is supposed to be a sermon, rather than a description of events – but the sum total effect is a malign hypnotic trance. “I am very concerned, I am informed, I am very concerned, I am very…”

Forty years ago, I used to be able to rely on my chums on the left to take great pains to source their news differently, so as to always be skeptical of the narrative favoured by the system itself – even though they definitely took that to ridiculous extremes sometimes (I still can’t forget a Spartacist friend repeatedly hailing the glorious gains the Soviet Army made for women in Afghanistan in the eighties).

Now, even when willfully contrarian, they still subscribe to that same basic hypnotic mantra, through whichever sources best flatter their existing worldview.

Sure, you’re concerned – but so is everyone else on earth, so stop acting as if that makes you special, instead of whiny. As for informed – no damn way. Informed is something which is reflected in wise action – and there is no more lonely constituency on earth in this moment. Everyone is upset, off balance, foolish.

The question is – how much evil are we going to allow to be done in our name, in our moment of panic, before we come to our senses and realize it is too late to go back? Hate to be the rude one to actually go and mention it out loud, but as a map lover from way way back, I can’t help pointing out – that was the freakin’ Rubicon already, fifty miles back!
¯\_(ツ)_/¯

6 Comments

  1. Just off the top’o’me’ed:
    I’m thinking that, at the very least, we need something like “The Fairness Doctrine” put back in service to the thinking public – however such a thing might be applied to the “social media airwaves” (and somehow serve the UNthinking public), as it were. I can only assume that even Ronnie Raygun himself is rolling in his grave (if not violently clawing at his casket!) at the recognition of what his ignorant legacy has so painfully-for-functioning-democracy wrought.
    Meanwhile, regarding your aforementioned, “serious work to do,” I attended [a local] Women’s March for Reproductive Rights (a week and change ago, with my mother-in-law) was very disappointed in the quality of the speeches given by selected attendees. While fully embracing the Organizer’s expressed notion that, “I can’t believe that we still have to do this [protesting]”, both my M-I-L and I are very much feeling that, next year, WE will come up with the Speech to end all Speeches. But, alas, “talk is cheap”*. : o (
    *Hmm. I wonder if a clever fellow such as you could come up with a concise turn of phrase regarding how, because “money talks”, and the sort of talk that money supports is WAY too cheap – particularly for those at the top with unlimited funds – the importance of heeding the sad fact of the classic phrase is underscored (or something like that).

    Cheers!

    • Hi Peter

      Lovely to hear from you – hope all is well for you and Nita both. Couldn’t agree with you more about “How can we possibly still be on square one, with so many basic arguments?” (Not just basic access for women to health care, but also basic rights for many minorities that seemed settled thirty years ago and more). This is a big part of why I can’t take the Dems at face value any more (though I’ll concede without argument that the Trump wing of Republicans remain even less balanced when taken AT face value).

      When I visited my friend in the states who worked in a women’s clinic all the way back in the eighties, it was quite obvious to everyone on the left that nailing down Roe V Wade as hard legislation was a key priority, as soon as the first break in Reaganism presented. You don’t leave something that important hanging on a legal technicality. Sixteen years of Democratic administrations since, and somehow they are always too busy to risk their political capital on what they claim to recognize (as we do) to be key principle. Believe me, I haven’t forgotten about good old Guderian quoting Gingrich and all of the attendant nonsense, but it still feels like a stage-show to me. “We really wanted to, but those nasty brutes prevented us” meanwhile, big business gets its K-street powered agenda seen to without delay, and always on it’s terms (why the hell has no one gone after Amazon for inhumane labour practises?).

      Al Gore is perhaps the best example – you ask most people today, they’ll tell you he cares a lot about global warming. I say he’s trying to expiate his guilt, because he (really and truly and historically) was the scumbag hatchet-man who killed Kyoto – which would have kept us all out of this dire crisis, and given us a quarter century advantage in terms of organizing and coordinating international carbon reduction efforts.
      Seems to me that the use of Trump as universal boogeyman was effective in scaring way too many on the left who should be more serious and skeptical into misplaced faith in the worst con men (and con-women, lets be fair) on the democratic side. Sincerely hope I’m proved wrong on that one.

      With respect to media censorship – I submit that the widespread contention on the left that “Those other people” can’t handle free speech, is itself a huge component of the ongoing support for Trump. I know it “feels” right when everyone is scared, but I honestly don’t believe it is true. More specifically, I don’t think uncensored communication is causing the problem, but rather, our abandonment of responsibility for persuading one another (my repeated theme of responsible stake-holding citizen or infantile demanding consumer).

      This is why I love your Kindness Considered initiative so very much – and why I keep trying to advocate for respect and principle. If we can’t even stand to be in the same room with one another, we can’t really call ourselves adequate to the moment. Aspiring to be relevant, at best. ;o)

      Love and hugs to you both. Thanks so much for checking in with keen ideas and hopeful action both!

      -Paul

      ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

  2. I found this an especially fertile episode. Worth a couple of listens. Keeping the right things in focus is the definition of principle, and the ability to let setbacks inform, rather than incapacitate, this focus is crucial. You are a consistently motivational voice for the intersection of practicality and optimism. (Hence the name of the podcast, I suppose.)

    The belief / principle distinction seems to come down to a question of what type of knowledge can be immediately (or conveniently) justified to others, and what can’t. But those who share the “same” belief(s) seem to be able to gloss over the need for justificatory dialogue. In effect, they speak with one voice. Perhaps they can be said to share the same experience, at least insofar as their cognition takes a similar form. The question is, are they capable of evolution, or have they got it all figured out and are just waiting for the rest of us to catch up?

    The neoliberal consensus is: stability is job # 1, and likewise, the false partisanism and contrived conflicts calculated to pacify the public with ebbs and flows of “in your face”, are traitorously exploitative. But often of the very starry-eyed cast members as much as anyone who cares about truth.

    We have gotten to the point where many seem to have it so good (call these the “winners”) that “democracy” means whining your way into the winner’s circle. This whiner’s circle is an instance of the fundamental denialism of the system, a thin sort of idealism predicated on organized petulance and ritualized self-congratulation. Different from real co-operation and encouragement, because the latter leaves room for constructive criticism.

    Our strange modern meritocratic assumptions, make many think they will achieve comfort simply by endorsing improvements of the “general” condition, as it were. This is the craven clubbiness of many successful and prominent people – and not only the true “elites”. It isn’t even usually conscious. People work hard, to maintain their station; but some of that’s just manning the ramparts. Many covid policies are a case in point – a combination of incompetence, ass-covering cowardice, authoritarianism, and good ol’ stigmatizing callousness. Many are now well-aware that the virus doesn’t justify these mandates, but they’re willing to suspend the right of individual bodily autonomy and civil liberties writ large, to maintain lock-step. They don’t have a clue about sacrifice on principle.

    I know we’ve all been taught to assume that credible, scientific, “fact-based” and objective – even rational – opinions are more commonly found among adherents of one political tribe than another, but this is itself a partisan untruth. It’s the worst kind of untruth – one with plenty of warrant. One citing numerous objective facts, offering a compelling alternative to a threatening other, and bringing with it the consolation of moral superiority for the “true” believer. Particularly hard to dig out of, without digging deeper.

    Those disobeying the mandates are sound in their thinking. Honesty truly is the best policy, and the mandates (stigmatization) are the worst policy. What’s most remarkable to me is that droves of decent and thoughtful people are being alienated from their co-workers (and of course, their managers, and much of the wider society). In some places it will take time for a reasonable balance to be achieved, and I hope it can be done, but we see how backward everything is – you’re guilty until proven innocent. This atmosphere of suspicion is absolutely tragic.

    This is driven by blind trust in scientific authority, whereby citizens aren’t “allowed” to 1) assess the evidence for themselves – and the evidence is more nuanced than the establishment will admit – and 2) make their own decisions. (I’ve sometimes wondered what’s more destructive – liberals’ blind trust of science, or conservatives’ blind distrust of it?) Any way you slice it, a huge and dominant portion of the public is in lock-step with this agenda. They have been given the story that they’re on the side of what is good and right, and those not co-operating are bad and wrong.

    The ONLY way forward is open criticism, debate, and dissent. In other words, principle. Embracing that sometimes awkward challenge has massive positive effects for others. Courage is the flipside of the tragedy of stigmatization we are now witnessing.

    If we look at the cultural rationales for this, we see that dominant neoliberal “globalist” agenda. Is it reasonable to want to ground culture in the scientific principle of falsifiability? We ought to know that culture has several non-material aspects, as does consciousness. The material world always has tremendous significance for ethics, but the practice and vocabulary, rhetoric, etc. of ethics must go beyond. The goal of ethics – the exercise of principle – is not merely to achieve some physical state of harmony / balance, and as such merely referring to this (or to its putative or possible lack) is not ethically persuasive.

    In the rhetorical context, belief gets bogged-down. Put on the defensive, rather than being acknowledged and respected, even if held in abstract skepticism. People in this mode often avoid subject matter that is too serious. The unspoken agreement – the new social contract – being to humor one another’s infantile insecurities – to not reopen for debate matters that are settled. Rhetorical understanding is useful, but semantics and emotions don’t mix. There needs to be a recognition of ethics, i.e. the realm of principle, above and beyond the realm of morality, i.e. belief as obedience to norms. The bargain of obedience is that a measure of emotional stability ensues from this adherence to norms. For ethics, a keen understanding and articulation of agency is required. One who is emotionally centered can think clearly and act ethically (which includes being able to consider ethical implications and arguments, provide justifications, consider objections with empathy, etc.). They know that games of emotional blackmail and superstition are dead-ends, whether at the level of a single interaction or culture or society itself, because they override agency.

    So how do we avoid such preoccupation? We must recognize the tendency towards obedience, and the need for de-escalation of bad conflict, which can entail the necessity of good conflict. And recognizing the fundamental step of othering by false categorization. Stigmatization is the first step down a very dark path. Painting our neighbours as harbingers of evil has always been the accompanying rationalization for actual evil. Likewise, much evil is avoided by speaking out against such characterizations.

    Authority may be employed to signal / establish patterns of adherence to desired norms. By “adherence” I generally mean obedience. And I definitely don’t conflate state authority in any way with the parental type. That may be one of our era’s defining delusions.

    By what moral metric should we judge others in other historical periods? Particularly if morality – norms of good and bad – are presumed to be universal? They can’t speak for themselves. We need to pay attention to the function of morality and remember that it is not a system to be obeyed, whether for spiritual, emotional, or aspirational authoritarian aims; it is rather an expression of our highest aims and visions – and as you have taken such pains to emphasize, that “our” is crucial, and badly misunderstood, due to the wide misapplication of categorical vivisection.

    You’re quite right to explicate the profoundly problematic relationship so many have with those they see fit to call “leaders” and “representatives”, and how the emotions in play tend to divide us. Politics has come to be a toxic drug pushed to keep people’s expectations of both themselves and others at rock bottom. The heady, highly critical optimism and utopianism of the 20th century has largely faded, and given way to a pall of resigned, embubbled self-indulgence. Cowardly New World.

    While I always appreciate your work, sometimes I wonder if idealists like us – idealists in the good sense, who want to foster a culture of boundless learning, love and gratitude – are trying too hard to think of ways to engineer insights that can only be gleaned through experience. (The old fine line between knowing your audience and preaching to the converted.) Discovering where our humanity lies means overcoming the joyless grind of competition, hoarding of consumer goods, and triumphant laziness. Yet people rightly feel that the same system that gave them this, and that has come to define so much of their worldview and identity, also threatens to take away their hard-won gains – or even simply to limit their opportunities for achievement.

    I don’t want to say that I endorse a kind of asceticism, but we also can’t deny that old saying that you don’t know what you have until it’s gone, and that gratitude seems to have been buried underneath our abundance. No, that’s the wrong word – affluence. The abundance is always there, for the grateful. The affluence is parceled out by our masters. One is a healthy relationship, the other slavery. So in this sense yes, a certain kind of asceticism is more dignified and far preferable. It is also, in the eyes of our rabid economic system, a non-starter.

    This also pertains to the old question of whether wisdom can be taught. On the one hand, if it can’t be taught, we might as well resign ourselves to the work-a-day world of drudgery and shallow affiliation and empty materialism. On the other hand, if it can be taught (“in principle”), who is qualified to teach it? This seems to be an ambiguity you recognize early on. Knowing thyself is a reflection of our habits of knowing the world in general. And this certainly has a day-to-day dimension as well as a more protracted and intuitive one. The problem is that we take the everyday stuff and assume it to be the whole truth, the perspective providing us with maximum descriptive resolution, when it is just this transactional urgency that is causing us to overlook a whole other side of our being. We want definitions – a stable identity, with which we can represent ourselves and our interests (and those of our buddies), and that is “empowering”.

    Another aspect of the question as to whether wisdom can be taught is the matter of whether history must repeat itself. Perhaps there is something incommensurable about different eras’ norms. This suggests that wisdom is only a product of direct experience. It might entail knowing how history repeats itself – what the universals are in experience, or what the universals in experience are – but also, via the latter distinction, how creatures like us can alter our destiny. How the possible becomes actual.

    For me, language is inherently and devilishly ambiguous, and even such familiar words as “principle” are tricky. Depending on how it is used, it is easily conflated with “belief”. I “stick to my principles,” etc. And despite believing something “in principle”, a premature compromise may be made simply because conditions aren’t ideal.

    To the extent that principle is this activity of elevated discourse and deliberation, it might seem to require a pre-existing social contract consisting of norms that provide the ideal conditions for agreement. This makes the deliberative process a formality.

    Belief needs to know when to compromise (de-escalation of commitment, to establish or maintain communication or goodwill). This knowledge is principle. It recognizes the validity of the other’s beliefs, even without “knowing” / agreeing with them. (The elephant in the room here is human nature.) It can be quasi-contractual, as in a tacit agreement made among people to adhere to certain norms or goals, rather than being something enabling the negotiation of constant exceptions to this. I guess what I’m saying is that it’s nice to have a metric of commitment that is inclusive and empowering, without also being enabling of exceptionalism / selling out.

    Part of your point seems to be that the conditions are never ideal (as Doris Lessing had it: “The conditions are always impossible”), but you undertake it anyway, because you recognize the seriousness of the situation, and want earnestly to improve conditions. Today, many are stuck at a stage of intellectual immaturity, and as such may be more likely to see anyone taking things seriously as “putting on airs” (my conservative friends often make this error, triggered as they are by social – and some “independent” – media), or as simply duplicitous and two-faced agents of the enemy tribe. Conditions are never ideal, but some of them are actual.
    Principle is about de-escalating at the interpersonal level, as well as having the discipline to limit opportunities for escalation (/ provocation) at the personal level. And consequently maximizing opportunities for genuine affiliation (where the personal / interpersonal distinction tends to blur, because it doesn’t represent a polarity). Some consider themselves heroes, of this sort. Well-meaningly rational. Humble help-mates. And as such, God’s bloody gift. And as you can see, my characterization illustrates the other tendency of humans’ humble heroism: the notion that anyone not exhibiting salivatory blood-lust is putting on airs, and that civilization could only have had such a painful beginning as it did.

    When people feel antagonized rather than supported, they are more likely to form subcultural alliances. (Maybe this describes a common distinguishing aspect of Americans.) In the absence of genuine support, the individual’s identity becomes subsumed in the group, and an “othering” process takes place to strengthen group cohesion. The tragedy of this of course is that it further alienates the participants. It’s hard to think of there being any principle in such a cycle of sheer polarization.

    You often seem to be addressing “the left”, at least because you long identified as a (non-partisan, principled) leftist. But in today’s world, what does leftism really amount to? I confess I don’t know anymore. The attitudes often don’t match-up with the issues. Probably because issues got too much “identity” attached to them. The real “identity politics” is lifestyle capitalism: posturing and signaling and cliquiness, not the politics of discrete groups defined by their exclusion from white heteronormative yadda yadda. Needless to say, the current mainstream (and even radical) left’s reluctance to speak in defense of bodily autonomy, journalistic and scientific integrity (“truth”), and against vaccine mandates is a deafening silence.

    If leftists only identify as such because it gives them a warm and fuzzy feeling inside, and aren’t able to hold themselves to higher standards without also petulantly holding others to those standards, then they are in effect allowing apology to become a license for corruption. Which is exactly what has happened.

    And I don’t get the impression that you’re trying to rehabilitate / reconstitute “the left”, as much as this might be a letdown for some. The notion that should not only still be a priority, but that crafting better messaging toward this end should be the main priority for genuine idealists, rather than something to be aborted post-haste, is the definition of foolishness. The truth is right there for people to see, and always will be. But it takes courage to speak it.

    Meanwhile, the right not only has a large and growing number of legitimate grievances with the adherents of the new order – their rationalizations wearing as thin as many people’s patience – but they already believe the precepts of their reactionary fantasy sound, having been proven “in reality” prior to being shrouded in a haze of corruption and sin. They view themselves as keepers of the historical memory, against a toxic tide of revisionism. (And who am I to argue?)

    But the question will always be: where is the accountability? This is the thrust of politics and ethics – the critical orientation toward what is otherwise called “morality”. All we can do is discuss and signal our willingness to recognize harms and pursue remedies to those harms. If we aren’t true to our word, we might as well stop talking. And trying to gain compliance via shaming or coercion (threat of cancellation, or unemployment) is in essence an admission of failure. This more or less describes a breakdown of the foundations of civility.

    But I realize that some of this is structural, whereas some is very idiosyncratic. One thing I would emphasize is that blame might indeed feel good, and provide a sort of “liberating” self-exoneration, but its only legitimate function is for accountability – determining responsibility for harm.

    “Telling the truth” and “lying” is a foundational normative distinction in any rational community. But it would itself be stating an untruth to say that all lies are harmful. Perhaps this is because accounting for such vanishingly minor harms would be so impractical as to introduce greater harm. But the other way of looking at it is: lying per se isn’t harmful, if the net effect of some lies is discernibly “good”, indicating a preferable outcome, i.e. one of lesser harm.

    I think the latter line of reasoning (or something like it) is applicable to much of the mainstream normalization of lying we have seen. CRT and covid are two era-defining scandals that come to mind. Toxic, irresponsible, and irredeemably corrupt if you take the long-term view and “consider the precedents” as I do; but totally justified if you see yourself as doing everything you can to reduce harm.

    But these aren’t even the (arguably) biggest issue – environmental devastation. Having said that, we have to drill down into the antecedents of what we see fit to call corruption. It’s more complex than just greed, or ignorance, or something called selling-out / lack of principle. It’s structural, cultural, metaphysical, semantic, etc. etc.

    Unity is not a precondition for rebellion. On the contrary, rebellion can be unifying, even among quite distinct political (concentration) camps. So maybe this is how principle functions (or what it means, which comes to the same thing): different people discover their unity of purpose in the moment of application. I won’t say they become one person – although that is clearly the religious corollary of this, encapsulating as it does purpose and destiny. The ideologue sees both a tragedy and an opportunity in this. But again we see how the most intransigent falsehoods are the most self-evident. Judgements seem to coalesce around them. We are not members of categories, but individuals. And this very recognition is inherently liberating, for it only puts us in the “category” of “individual” insofar as it facilitates co-operation. Now why would co-operation be a rebellious thing?

    It’s not only easy to pick fights when there’s so much more categorization than commonality, it actually can seem productive to some. This is especially true in digital contexts, which, while being a subset of the actual (public) reality, tend to collapse space and time, and thus principle. The jury’s still out on the overall effect these are having on human evolution. Few have bothered to ask. However, while you can say that we are “spread thin” nowadays, due to a highly social media-networked existence, there is also arguably a higher breadth of exposure to people of different origins and backgrounds. It’s interesting to consider how social media enables the best aspects, and exacerbates the most difficult aspects, of multiculturalism. (Partly by putting a sunny face of assumed consensus on intransigently exploitative systems.)

    Many of those engaged in tribal politics like the sport. It’s the sport of rhetoric, actually, and you can probably think of a few examples of sly and slippery masters of mental ju-jitsu, who needed no formal training whatsoever. Once encircled by their harsh interpretations, every opponent ends up choking on his own words. And of course, no one has ever pinned them down – to hear them tell it. In this atmosphere of suspicion, principle wavers to its breaking point, where people don’t want to risk saying something that will get their performance “cancelled”. Likewise, the only thing that principle consists of is the courage of the truth-telling individual.

    At some point, people see the inanity of both extremes, representing as they do not principled opposition, but extremism itself. Much like calls to defund the police, the 2nd amendment makes much more sense to the disenfranchised, and governments validate this concern regularly, as do the masses of compliant and complacently enabling citizens who take democracy for granted. May they realize that the contrast is merely the penmanship of understanding – and look closer.

  3. Hi Ian

    Again, my apologies for taking so long to answer. So much there of value, and also a few areas where I think I can help you up your game. I hope you won’t mind if I riff a bit about some themes which I struggled with a long while, because they ultimately improved my ability to communicate and persuade a great deal. Share a few tools which cost me a lot to pick up, but I haven’t found reason to put down since. And please do not take any of this as patronizing – I’m writing also here to my younger readers who have writerly aspirations (no one should have to pay full price for these lessons).

    Right now absolutely everybody is very upset, confused and frustrated. This has literally never once in my lifetime been so general a feeling in society.

    When we are making points to other people, we can be communicating our upset, we can offer from our special experience and perspective, or we can offer an analysis of information based upon our expertise and training. North Americans are so habituated to argumentation (adversarial being our dominant mode) that we almost always tend to do all three at once, without noticing. But this mode works against itself importantly. The game becomes – find one flaw and dismiss the whole.

    Many years ago, when I was trying to turn myself into a cartoonist, I came across a brilliant insight from Sergio Argones, one of the most prolific contributing cartoonists to MAD magazine. He said that when he was starting out, he would just draw everything from his imagination, but when he talked to his fans he found people got highly offended when he depicted their favourite interest or hobby too casually. Which is why even when he draws a scuba diver with just twenty lines – he goes and does his research – so the aqualung looks functional.

    After twenty years behind a repair counter I have my own version of that, People who approached me pretending to know what was wrong already, always pissed me off. “My friend who knows electronics says it’s the resistor” was typical. But the particular nugget of knowledge actually proved their ignorance. That is – that they were lacking a comprehensive, functional and practical command of the terms of the argument. What the customer was really saying was – I bet you’ll try and rip me off, but don’t, ’cause I’ll know. But they were saying it in a way which proved they had no clue! The message was actually that they thought I was a rip-off artist. Pure (and incorrect) paranoia-based insult. Often as not based upon their (very common) and outright bigoted idea that all repair people are crooks! (Plumbers and electricians get this the worst – but are at least well paid for their special quotient of unfair abuse).

    I had several smackdown lectures for that occasion (depending on how much I liked them), all designed more to keep them from offending the next technician (who might have less integrity than me, and screw them over on principle as punishment for their hostile approach), than for my personal satisfaction – though again, as with my point about arguments above – there was definitely some of both in the mix! ;o)

    I don’t know if I told you about this – but I actually spent a couple of years (over two hour full English fry-ups with bottomless coffee) writing out my own philosophy of life and politics as best I could, and trying to clearly and honestly answer all of the arguments I could anticipate. The result was absolutely useless for communicating to others (both meandering and overly complicated), but a very helpful exercise for me, in terms of checking the structure I build my ideas atop, and updating my areas of fair doubt.

    I also had a rather hard break some time ago. A huge cluster of my most important mentors and teachers all died in a very short period of time. Emotionally, I went from feeling like a waif who had worked hard to overcome, and whose special qualities were recognized and respected by a few accomplished men who I had enormous respect for, to feeling like a lonely misunderstood freak again. Forty-five and seventeen, simultaneously.

    The strangest thing is that this tidal wave of grief ended up having an incredibly productive impact on me. I finally saw that the frustrations and insanities I was trying to write about were neither unsaid, nor the best I had to offer. Stranger still, when I turned my pen toward gratitude, and tried to share some of what these teachers had given me, I found all of my important larger themes entering in naturally, because they appeared within the structure of an emotionally engaging story. Without even meaning to, I had finally turned from writing to express myself, to writing in order to share with my readers some of my own gratitude and important learning experience. This was almost forced on me, because I was writing as an act of tribute for my old heroes, keeping them alive and teaching in the world longer. No other way to make them live, but to try to make my readers love them also. But of course, in trying to make my readers fall in love, I am making love to them myself. A huge departure from my old axe grinding and score settling polemics, which has enriched all of my writing (angry stuff included) ever since.

    Now – you’ve known me for many years, so you know I have at various times held a lot of political ideas of high strength – and I’ve learned the hard way that it is almost impossible to do that, without also carrying the anger freight of their implications. I have complete empathy for the fury behind BLM, because I know what it is to be sensitized and constantly aware of harm being done to others in silence. But I have also seen group anger cause great harm, to kids especially. While I may seem just a “white boy” in the argument to some – what I am is a kid who was raised in an extremely radical environment filled with adults thinking more about their idealisms, than the emotional needs of children – so I understand the reality and the frightening implications of quite a few things that millions still consider untested and promising theory.

    I cannot possibly win anything speaking about this subject – but I am absolutely obligated by the rarity of my own witness, and also my awareness that some wounds inflicted in childhood, do not EVER heal.

    You know the real reason Russia got a man in space first? They had to work harder. The American launch site was so much further south – and thus had such an advantage from the extra speed of the earth itself (fatter toward the equator) that they began their rocket research with much lighter vehicles. The Russians had a much bigger velocity problem to solve, and so began to build bigger more useful rockets, right away.

    You and I share a weird curse and enablement which works much the same way. The old phrase is working class intellectuals, but considering the dissolving of skilled trades and the job market in general, underclass intellectuals might be more accurate. We see things which people who are comfortable and busy do not ever notice, and we also see all kinds of cruelty and exclusion which others overlook or deny with great vigour.

    That old line about the rich and the poor being equally forbidden to sleep under bridges comes to mind! It is shocking how casual, middle class people remain, when talking about compromising the rights of those on the margins. Special interventions for the most messed up categories cannot do it. The whole idea that homelessness and marginal living on the scale we now see is in any way acceptable, is itself a barbaric assertion.

    So we have witness and perspective which is powerful and important. It is also a potential part of how we get the working class and other angry groups talking and showing mutual respect once again, to form unstoppable majorities for genuine advance. Underclass really does know underclass – it is the bourgeois gatekeepers who make millions by stoking division and strife at every possible chance, who attack our common understanding, challenges and path toward progress.

    The fact that both the left and the right now feature grotesquely inhumane, bourgeois, and quite shockingly irresponsible celebretroids as their official “Speakers for the underclass” is, in a way, the most horrifically Orwellian thing about this moment. Silencing, bullying and corporate coopting, all in one. Sort of makes one want to grab a soapbox and a megaphone and just scream for days on end (I have dreams like that sometimes).

    BUT – I come back again to some of the lessons which cost me most. Am I writing because I have to get things out of me? Or am I writing to make friends with my reader, invite them into my own witness, and show them some things which they will take and keep with them gratefully? (and then come back to me again for more) ;o)

    Screwiest thing for a righteously angry outcast to say – but we have to be standing on love first. Many other through lines can be justified, and feel compelling as we write – but we have to step back and ask – what will actually have the effect we seek, upon the world? Not just catharsis (first order satisfaction), but that genuine reverberation of one stone well placed in the walls of the new city we know we all must build.

    You have a ton of well considered, important and useful things to say about society – but you haven’t got a good fluent command of biochemistry or medicine, so when you reach out to brace your points on specifics in that area, you end up making your strongest and most useful ideas much weaker. We always have to remember this epistemological level. Mixing ideas of direct witness and deep thought, with ideas of “This interpretation appeals to me” isn’t even fact plus anecdote – but looks to our most suspicious critics as if we don’t clearly distinguish between fact and rumour (my friend says it’s the resistor) – and makes it too easy for them to reject the parts of our arguments which are important, irrefutable, and most importantly outside their previous awareness (that is, the contribution we can make most uniquely). In trying to say what we don’t understand comprehensively enough to be expert-convincing, we compromise our ability to persuade where we can be of greatest particular use to others.

    I can lean on electronics just fine, but if I try to talk about contemporary programming (a thing I was pretty good at, back in 1984) I get letters from friends who know, making fun of me. So now half of my tech writing is actually based on nostalgia – by which sneaky trick I can once again speak sincerely and authoritatively! ;o)

    I really do appreciate that a whole lot of unfair demonizing and bullying rhetoric is being used in this crazy-making moment, and boy can I relate to the way people with safety and options confiscate the margins which those without rely upon, with almost psychotic grinning certainty, but we will always persuade others best when we are standing on our clearest vision, offering our ideas with the most generous and practical spirit, and least emotional weighting possible (always allowing that this is an objectively difficult ask for all of us, under these “asteroid in five minutes” circumstances).

    Cheers man. Love you so much. All strength to your keen mind, good heart and fast pen!

    Paul

    PS – I suppose a good writing teacher might have summarized all of that with that old gem – “Show them, don’t tell them.”
    But then, most teachers didn’t cut their teeth being paid by the word!
    ¯_(ツ)_/¯

  4. I too am replying “late”, simply because I wasn’t aware of your reply. (I don’t always set the notification, but I check the site.) Of course I am thankful for your input, and I have some output about your input.

    I suppose there’s a short-form and a long-form reply, and I’ll include them both. The short one is “Yeah, aren’t we glad cooler heads prevailed in 1930s Germany?” The long one, edited for length, follows.

    There’s always talk about “knowing your audience” and crafting your message and so on. At a certain point, the epistemological issues need to fall away and reveal the simple fact of a human being with a subjective perspective and biases and limitations and so on, discussing features of the world in which they live. You can think of this as social media before social media. Just people shootin’ the shit. Again we can circle back to the issue of catharsis; but some of this is the messy nature of the public square. A certain level of decorum is preferable, and you should seek others who abide by it; but confusing it with content or message or meaning (or indeed efficacy) seems constraining.

    What I’ll say is this. I try always to make good-faith arguments, which may include various rhetorical appeals or approaches. But I don’t make a special effort to win over those who are already making bad faith arguments. I’m not that sophisticated. We’re all expressing interpretations that appeal to us – maybe that is an ingredient of “truth” that is often overlooked. But I’m also deeply cynical about the reality “on the ground” – massive numbers of people are entrenched in their bad-faith mode of reasoning, and I regard them with a mixture of defensive posture and open disdain. Don’t want to enable them. Nor is rescuing them my mission.

    As a brief aside, I’m not sure that your evaluation of your lengthy exercise in building a coherent philosophy is fair, to yourself or to others. Personally, I’m doing that sort of thing all the time, and sharing it with others if they seem interested, and expressing interest if they share the products of similar endeavours. Sometimes the most meaningful things are both meandering and complicated – although we try not to be overly so. You might think this is folly, but some of us find it fun. And it is also a critical faculty to nurture in oneself and throughout society. This isn’t the definition of expertise (which may be why people get turned off by it), but it can liberate us from the confines of disciplines.

    Now, a lot of folks don’t think you’re entitled to an opinion unless you have a degree in the subject area. They think you’re putting on airs if you do. The key thing that you’ve helped me realize is that in either case, i.e. whether one is or isn’t openly critical of expertise and experts, we mustn’t compromise our humanity. I think this depends more on the attitude you have than how you ostensibly appear to others. If the conversation can’t take place to begin with, you’ve got bigger problems (and we shouldn’t trust the experts to solve them for us).

    The customer you cite may well have been defensive about being ripped-off, but they were trying to signal that they had recourse to “their friend” who also had relevant subject-matter knowledge. An implied threat perhaps, but they probably also resented having to rely on experts. They don’t have to prove that they’re experts; they only need to disprove the experts’ omniscience. It’s only natural that experts, who possess advanced functional knowledge of an area, resent this – after all, they’ve seen their knowledge “work” on a regular basis, while seeing how it works.

    I’ve been an open critic of covid policies only for about the last eight months – about when they started taking a visible turn into authoritarianism. You might ask, Visible to who? And indeed, MANY things about the origins and implications of these policies and their variations are not self-evident, although people often have strong feelings about them. I consider myself well-informed on the topic, which should be understood as relatively well-informed. We’re tyrannized enough by experts. Splitting hairs and equivocating is a game they can play better, and it’s not good-faith. Likewise, I’ve taken great care to remember the sensitive nature of the subject.

    I’m not sure how much of what I’ve written and said about covid policies you’re familiar with, but with very few exceptions, I stand firm on all of it – including my interpretations of the hard data. (I have no delusions of having anything beyond superficial knowledge of epidemiology and virology; but I have seen how delusional these disciplines can be precisely when they don’t know their limits.)

    And for what it’s worth, because I’ve had lots of time to reach well-beyond the mainstream news (what the hell else were unemployed intellectuals doing during “quarantine”????), I know that there’s a vibrant community of critics and supporters – many of them experts in their fields. To the degree I identify with this community, I don’t go tribal. But just knowing there are others out there having the right conversations is supremely encouraging to me. Similarly, I think that the continued silencing and marginalization of such voices (and even themes of discourse) has a stultifying effect, causing otherwise intelligent people to be more tentative than they should be about matters of great urgency. There’s only one “side” that is okay with that silencing, because their ideology genuinely requires it to remain dominant.

    I’ve had some advice about how to approach this broad subject from a few people, but they seem to have missed the point of my approach. I’m not writing a master’s thesis in public health or medical ethics, I’m trying to appeal to people’s humanity and courage – that can see worldly threats for what they are, and recognize that reactions to those threats can make things so much worse. In other words, to encourage real responsibility and forethought. Not to do anyone’s thinking for them. So I am trying to “do ethics”, without having people nod off.

    Humanity is normative, not a given. (I mean, we’re barely even a species at this point.) I’ve always seen more divisions than points of agreement or common values. Part of the problem is that people crave such reliability the more they think it will benefit them. (They “have a stake in” the status quo.) Breaking from this consensus is terrifying on several levels, and usually requires a level of discomfort and desperation they aren’t acquainted with.

    Every day, the public’s awareness of the scandal(s) related to the management of the pandemic is growing. The official narrative is breaking down, and the extent of the deception is becoming clearer. We – underclass intellectuals – should be helping people develop a healthy and critical language with which to express this (out-)rage. But we also can’t explain it away – or make it purely political. I have never seen the point in focusing on specific individuals, like Fauci, Trump, etc. Too easy to distract people from what’s really going on. And indeed, it might be that the only thing that brings these scandals to a close is another scandal. Only, they won’t be “closed”; in the midst of the pandemic, CRT and media centralization has gained traction. (For an example of this double-whammy, see Glenn Greenwald’s recent discussions of the media’s woeful mischaracterizations of the Rittenhouse trial in the US.)

    Combined with forced participation in clinical trials, things begin to look pretty dark. Unprecedented in my living memory, and if people seem cranky (whatever their vaccination status), it could be because of a subconscious awareness of this. But a lot of people know and recognize this. They (we) will just have to get used to the fact that we don’t have all the facts, and there’s a limited window to bring relevant ones to the fore. Otherwise, we’re just sitting ducks being force-fed propaganda.

    Demonizing and bullying I steer clear of, and always will. It’s a central objection of mine, and thus resorting to such tactics – such “evil ingredients” as you put it – wouldn’t sit right with me or my readers. You know as well as anyone the need to combine nutritional value with pleasure and joy.

    My sense is that, although it may appear we’re all unhappy and frustrated, a great many of us are processing an extremely alienating experience. All at once, we have been terrorized by media sensationalism and offered a plethora of Orwellian solutions as “our only hope”. I am reaching out through a cloud of madness to people who need to be reassured that their intuitions that we are badly off-course are correct. In the midst of such a sadistic ordeal, we have exactly two options: accept our fate, or fight.

    • Hi Ian – apologies this didn’t auto-flag you. I logged-in oddly that day.

      My friend – my subject was writing, and my purpose was to help you realize your own goals more effectively. Zero hostility, not meant to hurt or slam.

      But I was presumptuous. If you are just trying to express yourself, or get stuff which is inside of you outside (both completely legitimate goals) then carry on. I wrote passionate stuff like that for an audience of mostly crickets for many years, before I finally turned my attention away from the push inside me, to the draw outside. That is – not so much what I had to say, but how to be heard in this (especially stressed and depressed) din, with everyone talking and almost no one listening (even those who would really like to). Sweetly prying open skulls!

      I learned a few things along that path which I have found helpful, and would always be happy to share with you. You know I have great faith in you, and have for three decades now. I just want you to find more reach and satisfaction with your efforts, so your sense of purpose doesn’t hurt you quite so much (and I speak from direct personal experience on that one).

      Anyhow – my point was not a diss, and I am very sorry if I hurt your feelings. Just trying to offer up the best I have for a fellow writer.

      Cheers man

      PS – You missed the point about the customer also. The friend who knows resistors is also an ignorant idiot – every single time (or they wouldn’t be at your counter). My point is that I begin as their ally – and their false attempt at knowledge and assumption of hostility are against their interests, every bit as much as they are a (constant) irritant and unnesscessary disrespect for the tech. People who don’t know stuff usually fill it in with paranoia, which is humorously obvious for those who actually do understand. But if we want to share our best (and hear others’) respect is non-optional.

      PS – I noticed and expressed this (very understandable) form of creative misunderstanding in a poem awhile ago. Might make it clearer.

      https://www.largeesssmallpress.com/2021/09/20/wrong-in-what-sense/

I am always curious about what you are thinking

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