Sincere Bullshit

I didn’t speak out for a long time but hearing the Skinheads speak was like thunder coming to my brain. And I said ‘Sonia this is why you have to speak out for the people who didn’t make it.’

Those are the words of Sonia Warshawski, a Holocaust survivor and subject of a documentary (Big Sonia). Now 92 years old, she was 13 years old when World War II began. Her father and brother were taken away and her young sister escaped while she and her mother were sent to a concentration camp. All of her family was killed except her sister who hid with others in the forest.

It would be shocking to have someone deny that reality, not only because it is so personal but as history goes there are few events more well documented. This is the territory explored by Kurt Andersen in Fantasyland. And as he makes clear, this isn’t a new phenomenon. America has always been this way, a land of dreams, of fantasies and fictions, a vast canvass to project upon. Europeans were looking for utopian societies, Edenic savages, and demonic wilderness in America before they even got here. “But did it matter whether it was authentic or not?”, asks Karl Ove Knausgård (as quoted by Andersen). “Hadn’t this country been built on the promise of avoiding this very question?”

When I hear alt-righters, Trump supporters, and other similar types, I suspect they don’t believe or disbelieve much of what they claim. Most people want to be told a story, specifically a story that makes sense of the world. For some, the Holocaust is too immense to be made sense of and so it must be denied. It isn’t an issue of true or false, rather sincerity or bullshit. In On Bullshit, Harry Frankfurt makes this distinction and explains that sincerity is unconcerned with truth in the world or what is true for others for it is about being true to yourself, being true to your belief system and ideological worldview, true to the story that you tell yourself. It’s about belief disconnected from all else, the cozy and comforting constraints of the moral imagination.

We live in a society overflowing with bullshit, not to say this is a new state of affairs. What has changed, as far as I can tell, is simply we’ve become overly sensitive to it. Travel and media have forced us into contact with more diverse people, cultures, and stories. With so many claims of truth, the war of rhetoric is won through sincerity of belief and story. It is a psychological defense against the onslaught of an overwhelming and dangerous world, as we perceive it in our fear-ridden condition. This phenomenon of bullshit is most blatant among reactionaries. That is because the reactionary by nature is more sensitive, that is what turned them reactionary in the first place. The liberal-minded have more tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty, stress and anxiety, but we all have our limits. It’s useful looking at extreme examples, though, for it clarifies the dynamic. So, let me share such an example.

I struggled to make sense of this when I spent a long period visiting the human biodiversity (HBD) blogosphere. As alt-right reactionaries go, racist HBDers present themselves as rational and factually-oriented, as if they were a part of the reality-based community. But it quickly becomes apparent how narrow is their knowledge, how limited their curiosity. It was impossible to have a meaningful debate because I knew the basis of their claims while they didn’t know the basis of mine. Hence, it was a continuous one-sided interaction. HBD ends up being nothing more than a series of just-so stories. The point is that HBDers feel conviction in what they believe or at least act as if they have conviction, a difference that might not make a difference. The point is to make a story feel real by performing the role of a true believer. But it goes beyond this, since they don’t want to be taken as just another group of true believers.

There is one particular HBDer who I had some respect for. She is the cream of the crop among HBDers. And she has a certain amount of intellectual humility or so I thought, until I came to realize that it too was probably a pose to throw off critics. I eventually got the sense that she doesn’t take seriously even her own doubts and hedging, as it is a way of avoiding responsibility for what she promotes. She presents herself as merely speculating, offering morally neutral scientific hypotheses, implying that she can’t be blamed for any consequences of her beliefs in the real world. Others do take her beliefs seriously and she has been a highly influential person. It is because people like her online that we have powerful people like Robert Mercer, Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, etc. When I confronted her about this, she defended herself by denying she supports or promotes any specific policy. She pretends to be an apolitical, objective researcher and so she can’t be blamed for what others do. I doubt she believes this nor that she is necessarily lying either. It is irrelevant to the role she plays in being sincere. The story told is the important part and that story takes on a life of its own.

It’s hard to wrap one’s mind around this. Debates and rhetoric are games to be played, but they are serious games to be played with the seriousness of a child playing make-believe. Trump has immense power, but what gives him persuasive influence obviously has nothing to do with truth. Even his own supporters admit that he is a liar and won’t actually do much of anything he promised. That isn’t the point. What Trump does do is tell a story that makes sense of the world, to be a wrecking ball of outrage that smashes against the facade of politics, a better story to replace what came before. It isn’t mere anarchism but the force of declaring something with all sincerity. Trump was raised in the church of Norman Vincent Peale, the famous positive thinking minister. For Trump, he learned from an early age to assert whatever comforting story made himself look good and feel good, no matter the evidence to the contrary and the consequences to others. Then he made sure to surround himself by people who would never contradict him. He is the ultimate confidence man. The con-man has to first con himself.

Let me be clear, though. I want to emphasize that this can be found across the political spectrum. One of the greatest bullshitters who has gained power was Bill Clinton (with the financial support from Trump, by the way). He did more than any other president in United States history to push the political spectrum toward the far right. And having learned from him, Hillary Clinton has always played to the crowd telling them whatever they want to hear. No rational, informed person can take the Clintons seriously in most of what they say. The same goes for Barack Obama, the affable false prophet of hope and change.

The only point that matters to the true believers is that the rhetoric, the stories make them feel good. It is of no concern the millions of people (mostly poor brown people, US citizens and foreigners) oppressed and harmed, imprisoned and killed by the policies promoted and supported by the Clinton Democrats and the Obama administration. Those people simply aren’t real in the moral imagination of the (pseudo-)liberal class. And the moral imagination never has to do with anything so minor as objective facts. All that is required is to be told stories from an authority figure, inspiring speeches about the good that is being done or will be done. People want to be told that they are good people, that they are on the right side of history. Story trumps all else and, in America, story runs deep.

If everyone who claimed to know the Holocaust was real took it seriously, it really never would happen again — yet the reality is that multiple genocides have happened since and these good people have continued to do nothing. Even the Jews in Israel persecute and ghettoize the Palestinians, as happened to them in the buildup toward the Holocaust, with no lesson learned or insight gained. The story of Holocaust, if anything, justifies all else and so the victim becomes the victimizer. But if the majority of Israelis believed their own Holocaust story, they would be overwhelmed with a sense of shame and hypocrisy. A story is to be told and believed, whether to expose or hide the truth.

As people deny the Holocaust, there are also those who deny climate change. But even for those who claim to believe the truth, they don’t act as though they genuinely believe. The majority, when asked by pollsters, state that climate change is real. Yet the looming devastation threatens an unimaginable apocalypse. We don’t have the psychological and cognitive capacity to deal with it and so we don’t. We go on living our lives as though nothing has changed or ever will change. The dominant narrative of our society, that of progress is too powerful for it to be contradicted by mere facts. We know and don’t know, the very soul of our humanity ripped apart in a collective state of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

It’s not about believing in any particular truth claim. The power underlying the moral imagination is belief in belief itself. We seek to ‘will’ our preferred reality into existence. No story gains a hold on the collective psyche without the force of sincerity behind it. We live in a world of bullshit, but utterly sincere bullshit. We tell ourselves what we believe we must. Otherwise, we fear we would fall into despair. And maybe we are right about that. But we need to fall into despair, to admit the dark truths all around us. If there is any possibility of hope, it passes first through darkness.

Driven by fear, our sincerity is insincere, our pose is pretense. Ever more sincerity won’t save us. As Harry Frankfurt puts it, “sincerity itself is bullshit.” We don’t need another inspiring speech, pep talk, or story told with full confidence. What we need is harsh truth and the courageous persistence of those who will speak it.

12 thoughts on “Sincere Bullshit

  1. timely and important. We never talk about this enough. I suppose a big part of what’s missing is scholars getting into Frankfurt’s work and explicitly breaking down pieces of it, without versions of ‘it’s all bullshit’ smear creeping into our world view to act as a proxy for all we see and experience in, say, the political or personal spheres.

    Let me dwell on what amounts to a quibble a moment, in that spirit. Part of the problem we’ve shunted into the world of Frankfurt’s bullshit, I think somewhat unfairly, is handling sincerity and truth. It feels cavalier to conjoin the two, and the current theory level of expertise allows and encourages that.

    The same goes for Barack Obama, the affable false prophet of hope and change.
    We don’t need another inspiring speech, pep talk, or story told with full confidence. What we need is harsh truth and the courageous persistence of those who will speak it.

    That Barack Obama, and myself, can be summarized as bullshit spew is both true and highly amorphous. Very useless in specific situations. Many things can summarize mankind- weak, unintelligent, and lazy, say. But one can also use words like heroic, careful, and intelligent and be partially right. The danger I see with this broad-brush treatment of morality when we wedge bullshit into the picture is that Frankfurt doesn’t point to nuance, doesn’t dwell on how bullshit fits into a pattern of daily heroism and the other confounds of the human experience. In my own case, as you and I have batted about through the years, I think dumbing down Obama as literally anything specific, in the context of wielding bullshit, is roughly as useful and dangerous as doing so for myself. It makes me nervous, because it elides too much between the horrible-sounding and -seeming notion of spewing bullshit for questionable ends (sincere or not), and trying one’s best to serve the world by respecting and chasing truth. It’s neither appropriate nor useful to confuse motivations by throwing all of mine into a bullshit bucket, or any other bucket.

    I don’t specifically disagree with your attack on inspiring speech at the end, which really seems a claim, in your context, that we need accuracy much more than more brilliant bullshit or (perhaps feigned) sincerity right now. I’d suggest a kind of opposite anyway, as a reminder. We have a greater need for inspiring speech than we ever have, and we quite properly long for stories that will enact courage within us to do the right thing. I believe it dangerous and impractical to place all inspiring speech in the bullshit bucket and assume one has done something useful. It’s just a conflation, one that assumes no greys (Obama is, Scott is), that appropriate logic (whatever that is) is all that matters, and that sincerity shouldn’t be trusted in our quest to be useful. Humans act through inspiration to do good and ill, just as they use other tools outside of the logic clarity and compromises emphasized as the implied gold standard of interaction by Frankfurt. No amount of bullshit studies can or I think should change that, though bullshit studies can help us do inspiration more carefully, perhaps, more usefully.

    • I don’t agree with Frankfurt about everything. But he constructed a useful frame. Truth and sincerity do seem to exist at an angle to one another, rather than in opposition. Truth can be spoken sincerely or used as part of an agenda of bullshit, as sincerity can invoke fictions and lies as easily as truth. So, truth and sincerity must be judged separately on their own terms.

      The problem I was imperfectly trying to clarify is that maybe it is much harder to differentiate sincerity and insincerity than we normally are willing to admit. I’m not sure how often we take our own sincerity seriously or to what extent we are capable of doing so. This is personally felt as sincerity is a core issue I was raised on and has become a core aspect of my identity. But I sense something chameleon-like about it.

      That isn’t to say truth or claims of truth can’t also be problematic. Nor was I implying a reduction of truth to mere logic or rationality, some sincere Enlightenment dream of Truth. This post was an initial attempt to formulate an inkling at the edge of my mind. You can disagree with any given example I use. Some would say I was being dismissive of Democrats while others would say I was being unfair to HBDers.

      In the past, I defended the sincerity of that particular HBDer, but I came to the conclusion that sincerity is irrelevant or impossible to discern; she might or might not believe what she says and I will never know nor maybe will she ever know. Then again, in the past, I was also more likely to defend than criticize liberals. I’ve changed my mind about many things or simply shifted my perspective a bit, coming to a state of less confidence than I once held.

      I’m not only doubting the sincerity of others. This goes to a longtime query of mine into consciousness, human nature, individuality, and social identity. A touchstone is imagination, both moral and radical, the Althusserian ideological (i.e., worldview) framing in relation to metaphor and metonymy. Ever lurking in the background is my theory on symbolic conflation, specifically about the stories we tell, identify with, and embody.

      What I’m suggesting is that there is a split or multiple splits in our minds. Our beliefs, stories, and ideologies may serve purposes that our conscious minds don’t understand. Sincerity would require we have an insight into our own nature that maybe we are incapable of having. So, rather than worrying about sincerity, I was suggesting we speak what truth we are able to grasp to the best of our ability. When it comes to certain matters such as climate change, I’m not sure sincerity matters.

      Still, I’m not making a sweeping dismissal of the power of stories and inspiring speech. In some ways, I’d say we need to take it all more seriously than we already are. My interest in such theories as Julian Jaynes’ bicameralism points to a far deeper inquiry to what power and potential lies hidden within us.

      Stories are never mere stories. What is dangerous is how stories (in general or at least certain kinds) control us unconsciously. It’s not that my stories are better than your stories. My attitude is more in line with Robert Anton Wilson: Let us choose our illusions carefully. The stories we tell determine what we become, most often in ways we never imagine. We have to discern the underlying structure and import of stories we take for granted, that we take for reality.

      I’m just throwing out my thoughts. Feel free to disagree and criticize, as long as it is fruitful or interesting. This post was written quickly. It doesn’t represent fully settled ideas or a clearly formulated theory. I saw that documentary, Big Sonia, less than 24 hours ago and it got the gears in my brain clacking along. There was something in it that needed to be expressed. I might add that the documentary told a great story, a bit inspiring in fact.

    • I’m not sure why that documentary inspired this post. Initially, it was just a minor niggling thought. I didn’t even think about Frankfurt’s On Bullshit until I started writing the piece. My original thought was about the oddity of how someone could and why someone would deny the Holocaust.

      But I know enough about the world to realize there are similar and related examples. As people simultaneously know and don’t know all kinds of things, maybe they also simultaneously believe and disbelieve much as well. This line of thought quickly connected back to another piece I was in the middle of writing about Trump and positive thinking, as the latter is the Christian tradition I grew up in (specifically New Thought of Unity Church).

      So, there were several things in my skull bumping into each other.

      The worry some have, myself included, is that there is far less distance than is desirable between the sincere bullshit of Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, of Barack Obama and Donald Trump. All of this sincere bullshit, no matter its specific form and intention, no matter if anyone really believes it or not, seems to keep pushing us to the political right with ever increasing dysfunction and authoritarianism.

      Denialism is a major concern. But so is the will to believe.

      • The worry some have, myself included, is that there is far less distance than is desirable between the sincere bullshit of Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, of Barack Obama and Donald Trump.

        Without positing that reality has a liberal bias as explicitly as you and I commonly do, I must agree with the above enthusiastically. This is really the main value of Frankfurt’s work for me, to make us question whether our heroes’ versions of truth, whatever the gradient of sincerity, is really magically apparent as a conduit to truth simply because we’re sensitive, or brilliant, or well raised, or just (perhaps the most common assumption) better people than average.

        A necessary, key implied correlative to Frankfurt’s points is that our favorite versions of bullshit and perceived truth can be overwhemlingly objectively true, but can be turned into evil through a turn or phrase, a slight emphasis, that takes context and sets it aside, or that uses ends-justifies-the-means approaches to manipulate around something that shouldn’t be manipulated around. Coarse versions of this are like the 1992 crime bill, where healthy concern over crime turns into whatever restorative justice stands vigorously opposed to. More subtle versions happen all the time by de-emphasizing budgeting, minority or offset voices, implementation details, controversial or unknown portions of the problem, or other “details”. Real good works, if I may posit such a bucket of human activities, have a kind of holistic gestalt that’s hard to define, but that we notice in its absence. At least in our political enemies.

        So: two addendums to your post, then: that discounting sincerity can be deadly wrong in some contexts; and that psychic immaturity and inappropriate context will inevitably out, potentially ruining what may easily appear perfectly true and useful, what came down the assembly line clothed in perfect sincerity and vast swaths of truth. Both of these complicate things horribly, which can have lots of advantages when wading through reality together.

        • There is a point of caution. It is easy to go from idealism to cynicism. Such is how rhetoric jumps the gap from sincerity to bullshit and back again. In how I was raised, I’m a creature of sincerity and so this scenario is salt to a wound. The salt indicates there is a wound, important knowledge to have, but maybe it also keeps the wound from healing.

          Linked as they are, concern for sincerity rises as does the overflowing profusion of bullshit. Sincerity can only be taken as an ideal long after something else has been lost, this having to do with Beebe’s view on integrity. Our society lacks integrity and sincerity is the attempted response to that lack, although it inevitably is defined by that lack and so can’t overcome it.

          Many moderns, specifically on the left, seek to fill that void with the value and aspiration of truth (however defined and sought). My own motivations are somewhat atypical, as my secular and liberal truth-seeking is fueled by the religious sincerity and conservative-minded conscientiousness I was raised in. This is an attitude I can’t shake, despite how far I’ve ranged from my origins.

          I’m highly sensitized to expressions, claims, and poses of sincerity. When I was younger, I remember coming to what I considered an insight, I didn’t know how to always be honest (i.e., truthful) but it felt within my grasp to be sincere, that is to say I could always mean well. Yet as I’ve aged, I’ve come to see what kind of world is created by so many who mean well. The well-intentioned actions of good liberals stings for how seriously and sincerely I’ve taken the liberal dream.

          I expect the worst from the political right, which means I expect the endless flow of bullshit from the right-wing rhetoric machine and from the fundy and fascist groupthink. Maybe I’m wrong for doing so but I can’t help myself in holding liberals to a higher standard and so I take constant liberal failure as a personal betrayal.

          The liberal dream has sustained America from the start. And so what do we do when the dream has come to feel like a nightmare? What of sincerity then? What about the sincerity of despair and horror, anger and outrage? That is a sincerity that the comfortable class denies, as it threatens the good life they’ve grown attached to.

          And worse still, as you describe, what do we do when even truth itself is abused or corrupted and this action treated with all sincerity? That is what partisan politics and public debate has become, truth and lies equally serving less than sincere agendas but taken at face value with all sincerity, hence bullshit upon bullshit, sincerity is bullshit.

        • I came across a depressing observation. As I recall, it was made by someone writing about the Nazis. The observation was that the larger and more bold the lie by a strong leader (or I suppose by any social dominator) the greater respect and submission earned in the eyes of authoritarian followers.

          The supporters of Trump admit that he is a liar but it doesn’t lessen their support, if anything strengthening it. But this began long ago, as erosion of truth has been going on in both parties has been going on for a long time. The notion of an honest politician seems quaint.

          But this isn’t true in all societies. In social democracies with strong cultures of trust, there is little tolerance for lies in service in bullshit. Also, in reading Sebastian Junger’s Tribe, I’m sure many indigenous people with traditional cultures would be even less tolerant.

          American cynicism in portraying lies and bullshit as inevitable human nature is unjustified. There is no moral excuse or justification for the realpolitik that has come to dominate both parties

    • There are a number of things I was getting at. I was returning to the notion that sincerity can be bullshit and, maybe more interestingly, that bullshit can be sincere. I was drawing this out in order to see what it means. But I felt it necessary to point out that, fallible humans as we are, it is always the other side that gets blamed for being full of bullshit. But maybe the bullshit gets on all of us, in ways that would disturb us if ever took notice.

      I know it disturbs me. To see my beloved liberalism put to the service of bullshit toward dangerous ends is rather disheartening for it means that my own ideological inclinations aren’t above it all. The liberal story I’ve so often told is inspiring for people like us. Even so, stories can hide inconvenient truths and mislead us into dead ends or worse. The inspirational part is not in itself bad, no more than how a spoonful of honey can either make the medicine or the poison go down.

      As a fool for liberal idealism, I feel duty-bound to defend what is good in liberalism from those who would misuse and abuse it, whether in manipulating and deceiving others or in conning themselves to avoid awareness of their own moral culpability. In the end, I want a liberalism worth sincerely believing in (rooted in my New Thought idealism that never quite goes away). That isn’t the liberalism that is being sold to us by the Democratic Party.

      One of my deepest desires is to save liberalism from the reactionaries, in both parties. Or if liberalism has become damaged goods, to find something that might replace it. Or at the very least, to understand why it all went so terribly wrong, that beautiful liberal dream that modernity was built upon. Like anyone else, I want to be told a good story. But I don’t want to be put to bed with a fairytale only to wake up the next morning with a hangover and realizing I had been drugged into unconsciousness.

  2. Maybe this would have been a more effective post if I had explored the issues from a personal angle. Donald Trump was raised in positive thinking Christianity. And I was raised in new thought Christianity. They are basically the same worldview, not entirely but some strong resemblances (my dad was also a big fan of Peale). That means that I share an ideological kinship with Trump. That is more than a bit disturbing. I had an extremely happy childhood growing up in that form of religiosity. Trump probably could say the same thing.

    This is where comes in the issue of belief. This general Christian tradition that formed both Trump’s identity and my own is as American as it comes. It’s a tradition that not only emphasizes belief but puts the specific spin on it of an attitude of belief in belief, a very personal ideology that in the case of Trump allows for full expression of narcissism. That maybe helps me understand the elusive quality of belief in general. Most people deny the status of their beliefs as beliefs. But in the positive thinking and new thought ideology, belief is put center front. Having been raised with this view helps me see belief on its own terms, not dressed up as something else.

    The personal angle is what makes this resonate so deeply for me. And causes me to have a strong opinion. It’s related to my heavy criticism of liberalism at times, as I was raised in one of the most liberal varieties of Christianity that exists in a a highly Christian population. It’s my intimate familiarity with liberalism that makes it unsurprising to see that Trump, also raised in that liberal-minded religiosity, could turn to reactionary politics. Even Peale dabbled in right-wing Republican politics during the 1950s, although he quickly pulled back from that as he didn’t want to politicize his message, but the political element remains whether spoken or not.

    There is a secret link between the liberal and the reactionary, a bond that is taboo to mention in respectable company. Almost everyone pretends to not know that Trump spent many years as a Democrat aligned with and personal friends with with the Clintons helping to fund their political campaigns and agendas. My insight is that maybe this has something to do with his religious upbringing (paralleling how many right-libertarians are or were raised as fundamentalists). It requires a good dose of liberalism to make a powerful reactionary, as was the case with Andrew Breitbart, having started on the left before suffering ideological psychosis. One might note that Ronald Reagan, his presidency a turning point for the reactionary mind, spent much of his career as a union leader and progressive New Dealer.

    I’m not sure what all of this means. But I’m confident that it has significance. Ideology isn’t what people think it is. This is why my parents raised in conservative Christianity could raise their children in liberal Christianity. And this is why Trump raised in liberal Christianity could become a reactionary politician with the support of conservative Christians. This is the dynamic at the heart of American dysfunction. It’s all of one piece. We Americans are idealists, as our country was founded on ideals. We lack a stable traditional culture and so, in its place, we prize our beliefs. And belief unmoored from centuries-old tradition becomes Fantasyland.

    • Those on the political right like to say that a conservative is a liberal who was mugged by reality. I see it as their having been traumatized by their own dark fantasies and haunted imaginations. And we live in a society that offers many choices of nightmares and delusions to be consumed by.

      In Middle Earth, captured elves were tortured until they became orcs. That is a similar process to how reactionaries are made. Liberal elves brought down by cthonic forces of earthly existence easily turn into dark monsters of ideological perversity. This is why we speak of the liberal class, those liberals who remain safely isolated within their elf kingdoms, their creative class hubs and gentrified neighborhoods. Fearing attack from both the left and right, the detached elves hide in idealistic purity like neutered children who never grow up.

      (That said, Tolkien did portray a small number of elves who chose to remain behind as the others retreated to distant lands. These few elves essentially sacrificed themselves to join with mere mortals in the battle against evil, the battle for the fate of the world. Still, most of the elves didn’t choose this fate.)

      Meanwhile, the radical dreamer and disgruntled critic watching the whole shit show isn’t allowed a part to play in the dominant narrative. In this liberal age, the spectacle of melodrama is monopolized by an ideological hegemony. Everything is defined by liberalism, even the reactionaries. But feeling like a passive spectator is no better, as the audience is as important as the actors on the stage. No one is in a position for the righteousness of the innocent.

      Uncertain with the reality we are dealing with, we instead argue over our preferred stories. Without giving into cynicism, what role might truth play? And if not on the present stage, what other stage might be erected for truth to play a role? Then what stories might be told and enacted?

  3. We Americans are idealists, as our country was founded on ideals. We lack a stable traditional culture and so, in its place, we prize our beliefs. And belief unmoored from centuries-old tradition becomes Fantasyland.

    It’s a bold assertion, but there’s much about it that is difficult to repute. The whole world watches us aghast, confused. The country that saved them from various forms of fascism a couple of generations ago is now attempting to abuse the global environment, for narrow, direct business interests.

    I don’t think I’m bioengineered to give you any faith or useful insight: for me, it’s all stories all the way down. Hopefully one gets close enough to swipe at the truth occasionally as it passes by, but I don’t see myself as having amazing senses of truth when it smacks me on the face. You seem to chafe at the notion of ideologies as a kind of balancing act, that no one could possbily have all the truth, and so on. While I sympathize, as a fellow ideologue, I don’t see any way out of just explaining what we see as truth, and hope that our sense of it will prevail. The world is never going to turn around and admit that the liberals were right: as I understand it, liberal impulses eventually dilute some o fthe negative impulses of conservatives, until some of those liberal impulses get integrated in conservative outlooks. Perhaps that’s an extrapolation of history, more than an explanation. But that’s no overarching, helpful condemnation of rightists as asymmetrically weak in terms of acquiring truth, though that seems obvious to us. Part of the answer, I’m sure you’d agree, is that them being 10% right can be important enough to require their involvement. But that’s a weak gruel to take home and live on. No. I’m not feeling helpful, just sympathetic.

    • For all my dour mood and critical attitude, I’m not yet full on world weary. I’m not so far gone as to be beyond feeling insulted by the spin and propaganda, outraged by corruption and failure, shamed by how my country is seen by others in the world, and betrayed by those who I keep thinking should be on the same side of the fight.

      I might add that I’m not necessarily far off from your position. Part of me would nod in agreement — stories all the way down. My conclusion here isn’t a dismissal of your stated position, so much as it is a stepping back to question what the various stories mean or indicate. Chafed as I might be, I’m not entirely sure what is chafing me. It’s the raw sense of irritation that is like a splinter that can be felt but not seen.

      Another part of me is simply fascinated. We are alive in a moment when a new era is being born. What we see before us, yes, does tell us about America and also it points toward something within human nature. That is why I always return to thoughts on such matters as Julian Jaynes’ bicameral theory — specifically relevant in this case being authorization in terms of authoritarianism. The stories we tell have deeper meanings than most of us would care to ponder. The surface meaning might be more of a distraction than anything else.

      A post like this doesn’t end in mere critique or complaint. It’s a jumping off point. What may come next won’t necessarily follow the exact pattern of what came before. Even when history rhymes, it could do so while playing a new tune. This is not optimism, per se, rather an openness to the unknown. Interesting things can happen when social orders are pushed to extremes. Ultimate conclusions can be points of leverage and juncture leading to other paths and possibilities.

      The breakdown before breakthrough… or maybe not. Even a glimpse of an alternative as happened during the American Revolution would be heartening, even when as then happened it led to a new oppressive hierarchy of the slave state and industrial corporatism. For a brief moment, humanity catches its breath and is able to dream freely.

      We are presently in a collective dark night of the soul. And I suppose that is fine, assuming we survive and come out the other side. But historical moments of darkness can last centuries. So, not exactly a moment to embrace hope for our own lifetimes. Then again, we’ve always known that radical transformation and societal progress is a long term strategy. The bend of the moral arc and all that.

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