On Truth and Bullshit

One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit.

This is how Harry Frankfurt begins his essay, “On Bullshit“. He continues:

“Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share. But we tend to take the situation for granted. Most people are rather confident of their ability to recognize bullshit and to avoid being taken in by it. So the phenomenon has not aroused much deliberate concern, or attracted much sustained inquiry. In consequence, we have no clear understanding of what bullshit is, why there is so much of it, or what functions it serves. And we lack a conscientiously developed appreciation of what it means to us. In other words, we have no theory.”

So, what is this bullshit? He goes through many definitions of related words. A main point is that it’s “short of lying” and this leads him to insincerity. The bullshitter isn’t a liar for the bullshitter isn’t concerned about either truth or its contrary. No intention to lie is required.

“Someone who lies and someone who tells the truth are playing on the opposite sides, so to speak, in the same game. Each responds to the facts . . . the response of the one is guided by the authority of the truth, while the response of the other defies that authority and refuses to meet its demands. The bullshitter ignores these demands altogether. He does not reject the authority of truth, as the liar does, and oppose himself to it. He pays no attention to it at all.”

Bullshitting is more of a creative act that dances around such concerns of verity:

“For the essence of bullshit is not that it is false but that it is phony. In order to appreciate this distinction, one must recognize that a fake or a phony need not be in any respect (apart from authenticity itself) inferior to the real thing. What is not genuine need not also be defective in some other way. It may be, after all, an exact copy. What is wrong with a counterfeit is not what it is like, but how it was made. This points to a similar and fundamental aspect of the essential nature of bullshit: although it is produced without concern with the truth, it need not be false. The bullshitter is faking things. But this does not mean that he necessarily gets them wrong.”

Bullshit is, first and foremost, insincere. In Frankfurt’s essay, that is some combination of an observation, premise, and conclusion. It is the core issue. But as with bullshit, what is this insincerity? How are we to judge it, from what perspective and according to what standard?

His answer seems to be that bullshit is to sincerity as a lie to the truth. This implies that the bullshitter knows they are insincere in the way the liar knows they are being untruthful. And as the bullshitter doesn’t care about truth, the liar doesn’t care about sincerity. This assumes that the intention of a speaker can be known, both to the presumed bullshitter and to the one perceiving (or accusing) them as a bullshitter. We know bullshit when we hear it, as we know porn when we see it.

After much analysis, the ultimate conclusion is that, “sincerity itself is bullshit.” Bullshit is insincere and sincerity is bullshit. How clever! But there is a genuine point being made. Frankfurt’s ideal is that of truth, not sincerity. Truth and sincerity aren’t polar opposite ideals. They are separate worldviews and attitudes, so the argument goes.

Coming to the end of the essay, I immediately realized what this conflict was. It is an old conflict. It goes back at least to Socrates, although part of larger transcultural changes happening in the post-bicameral Axial Age. Socrates is simply the standard originating point for Western thought, the frame we prefer since Greece represents the earliest known example of a democracy (as a highly organized political system within an advanced civilization).

Socrates, as known through the writings of Plato, is often portrayed as the victim of democracy’s dark populism. The reality, though, is that Plato was severely anti-democratic and associated with those behind the authoritarian forces that sought to destroy Athenian democracy. His fellow Athenians didn’t take kindly to this treasonous threat, whether or not it was just and fair to blame Socrates (we shall never know since we lack the details of the accusation and evidence, as no official court proceedings are extant).

What we know, from Plato, is that Socrates had issues with the Sophists. So, who were these Sophists? It’s a far more interesting question than it first appears. It turns out that the word has a complicated history. It originally referred to poets, the original teachers of wisdom in archaic Greek society. And it should be recalled that the poets were specifically excluded from Plato’s utopian society because, in Plato’s mind, of the danger they posed to rationalistic idealism.

What did the poets and Sophists have in common? They both used language to persuade, through language that was concrete rather than abstract, emotional rather than detached. Plato was interested in big ‘T’ absolute Truth, whereas those employing poetry and rhetoric were interested in small ‘t’ relative truths that were on a human scale. Ancient Greek poets and Sophists weren’t necessarily untruthful but simply indifferent to Platonic ideals of Truth.

This does relate to Frankfurt’s theory of bullshit. Small ‘t’ truths are bullshit or at least easily seen in this light. The main example he uses demonstrates this. A friend of Ludwig Wittgenstein’ was sick and she told him that, “I feel just like a dog that has been run over.” Wittgenstein saw this as careless use of language, not even meaningful enough to be wrong. It was a human truth, instead of a philosophical Truth.

Her statement expressed a physical and emotional experience. One could even argue that Wittgenstein was wrong about a human not being able to know what a hurt dog feels like, as mammals have similar biology and neurology. Besides, as far as we know, this friend had a pet dog run over by a car and was speaking from having a closer relationship to this dog than she had to Wittgenstein. Reading this account, Wittgenstein comes off as someone with severe Asperger’s and indeed plenty of people have speculated elsewhere about this possible diagnosis. Whatever is the case, his response was obtuse and callous.

It is hard to know what the relevance of such an anecdote might have, in reference to clarifying the meaning of bullshit. What it does make clear is that there are different kinds of truths.

This is what separated Socrates and Plato on one side and the poets and Sophists on the other. The Sophists had inherited a tradition of teaching from the poets and it was a tradition that became ever more important in the burgeoning democracy. But it was an era when the power of divine voice still clung to the human word. Persuasion was a power not to be underestimated, as the common person back then hadn’t yet developed the thick-boundaried intellectual defensiveness against rhetoric that we moderns take for granted. Plato sought a Truth that was beyond both petty humans and petty gods, a longing to get beyond all the ‘bullshit’.

Yet it might be noted that some even referred to Socrates and Plato as Sophists. They too used rhetoric to persuade. And of course, the Platonic is the foundation of modern religion (e.g., Neoplatonic Alexandrian Jews who helped shape early Christian theology and Biblical exegesis), the great opponent of the Enlightenment tradition of rationality.

This is why some, instead, prefer to emphasize the divergent strategies of Plato and Aristotle, the latter making its own accusations of bullshit against the former. From the Aristotelian view, Platonism is a belief system proclaiming truth all the while willfully detached from reality. The Platonic concern with Truth, from this perspective, can seem rather meaningless, maybe so meaningless as to not even being false. The Sophists who opposed Socrates and Plato at least were interested in practical knowledge that applied to the real world of human society, dedicated as they were to teaching the skills necessary for a functioning democracy.

As a side note, the closest equivalent to the Sophists today is the liberal arts professor who hopes to instill a broad knowledge in each new generation of students. It’s quite telling that those on the political right are the most likely to make accusations of bullshit against the liberal arts tradition. A traditional university education was founded on philology, the study of languages. And the teaching of rhetoric was standard in education into the early 1900s. Modern Western Civilization was built on the values of the Sophists, the ideal of a well rounded education and the central importance of language, including the ability to speak well and persuasively, the ability to logically defend an argument and rhetorically to make a case. The Sophists saw that to have a democratic public what was needed was an educated public.

Socrates and Plato came from more of what we’d call an aristocratic tradition. They were an enlightened elite, born into wealth, luxury, and privilege. This put them in opposition to the emerging democratic market of ideas. The Sophists were seen as mercenary philosophers who would teach or do anything for money. Socrates didn’t accept money from his students, but then again he was independently wealthy (in that, he didn’t have to work because slaves did the work for him). He wanted pure philosophy, unadulterated by the coarse human realities such as making a living and democratic politics.

It’s not that Socrates and Plato were necessarily wrong. Sophists were a diverse bunch, some using their talents for the public good and others not so much. They were simply the well educated members of the perceived meritocracy who used their expertise in exchange for payment. It seems like a rather normal thing to do in a capitalist society such as ours, but back then a market system was a newfangled notion that seemed radically destabilizing to the social order. Socrates and Plato were basically the reactionaries of their day, nostalgically longing for what they imagined was being lost. Yet they were helping creating an entirely new society, wresting it from the control and authority of tradition. Plato offered a radical utopian vision precisely because he was a reactionary, in terms of how the reactionary is explained by Corey Robin.

Socrates and Plato were challenging the world they were born into. Like all reactionaries, they had no genuine interest in a conservative-minded defense of the status quo. It would take centuries for their influence to grow so large as to become a tradition of its own. Even then, they laid the groundwork for future radicalism during the Renaissance, Protestant Reformation, and Enlightenment Age. Platonic idealism is the seed of modern idealism. What was reactionary in classical Greece fed into a progressive impulse about two millennia later, the anti-democratic leading to the eventual return of democratization. The fight against ‘bullshit’ became the engine of change that overthrew the European ancien régime of Catholicicism, feudalism, aristocracy, and monarchy. Utopian visions such as that of Plato’s Republic became increasingly common.

Thinking along these lines, it brought to mind a recent post of mind, Poised on a Knife Edge. I was once again considering the significance of the ‘great debate’ between Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine. It was Paine who was more of the inheritor of Greek idealism, but unlike some of the early Greek idealists he was very much putting idealism in service of democracy, not some utopian vision above and beyond the messiness of public politics. It occurred to me that, to Paine and his allies, Burke’s attack on the French Revolution was ‘bullshit’. The wardrobe of the moral imagination was deemed rhetorical obfuscation, a refusal of the plain speech and the plain honest truth that was favored by Paine (and by Socrates).

Let me explain why this matters. As I began reading Frankfurt’s “On Bullshit”, I was naturally pulled into the view presented. Pretty much everyone hates bullshit. But I considered a different possible explanation for this. Maybe bullshit isn’t more common than before. Maybe it’s even less common in some sense. It’s just that, as a society that idealizes truth, the category of bullshit represents something no longer respected or understood. We’ve lost touch with something within our own human nature. Our hyper-sensitivity in seeing bullshit everywhere, almost a paranoia, is an indication of this.

As much as I love Paine and his vision, I have to give credit where it is due by acknowledging that Burke managed to catch hold of a different kind of truth, a very human truth. He warned us about treading cautiously on the sacred ground of the moral imagination. On this point, I think he was right. We are too careless.

Frankfurt talks about the ‘bullshit artist’. Bullshitters are always artists. And maybe artists are always bullshitters. This is because the imagination, moral or otherwise, is the playground of the bullshitter. This is because the artist, the master of imagination, is different than a craftsmen. The artist always has a bit of the trickster about him, as he plays at the boundaries of the mind. Here is how Frankfurt explains it:

“Wittgenstein once said that the following bit of verse by Longfellow could serve him as a motto:

“In the elder days of art
Builders wrought with greatest care
Each minute and unseen part,
For the Gods are everywhere.

“The point of these lines is clear. In the old days, craftsmen did not cut corners. They worked carefully, and they took care with every aspect of their work. Every part of the product was considered, and each was designed and made to be exactly as it should be. These craftsmen did not relax their thoughtful self-discipline even with respect to features of their work which would ordinarily not be visible. Although no one would notice if those features were not quite right, the craftsmen would be bothered by their consciences. So nothing was swept under the rug. Or, one might perhaps also say, there was no bullshit.

“It does seem fitting to construe carelessly made, shoddy goods as in some way analogues of bullshit. But in what way? Is the resemblance that bullshit itself is invariably produced in a careless or self-indulgent manner, that it is never finely crafted, that in the making of it there is never the meticulously attentive concern with detail to which Longfellow alludes? Is the bullshitter by his very nature a mindless slob? Is his product necessarily messy or unrefined? The word shit does, to be sure, suggest this. Excrement is not designed or crafted at all; it is merely emitted, or dumped. It may have a more or less coherent shape, or it may not, but it is in any case certainly not wrought.

“The notion of carefully wrought bullshit involves, then, a certain inner strain. Thoughtful attention to detail requires discipline and objectivity. It entails accepting standards and limitations that forbid the indulgence of impulse or whim. It is this selflessness that, in connection with bullshit, strikes us as inapposite. But in fact it is not out of the question at all.”

This is logos vs mythos. In religious terms, it is the One True God who creates ex nihilo vs the demiurgic god of this world. And in Platonic terms, it is the idealistic forms vs concrete substance, where the latter is a pale imitation of the former. As such, truth is unique whereas bullshit is endless. The philosopher and the poet represent opposing forces. To the Philosopher, everything is either philosophically relevant or bullshit. But to the poet (and his kin), this misses the point and overlooks the essence of our humanity. Each side makes sense, according to the perspective of each side. And so each side is correct about what is wrong with the other side.

If all bullshit was eliminated and all further bullshit made impossible, what would be left of our humanity? Maybe our very definition of truth is dependent on bullshit, both as a contrast and an impetus. Without bullshit, we might no longer be able to imagine new truths. But such imagination, if not serving greater understanding, is of uncertain value and potentially dangerous to society. For good or ill, the philosopher, sometimes obtuse and detached, and the artist, sometimes full of bullshit, are the twin representatives of civilization as we know it.

* * *

“I had my tonsils out and was in the Evelyn Nursing Home feeling sorry for myself. Wittgenstein called.”
by Ann Althouse

Short of Lying
by Heinz Brandenburg

Bullshit as the Absence of Truthfulness
by Michael R. Kelly

Democracy is not a truth machine
by Thomas R. Wells

Our ability as individuals to get to true facts merely by considering different arguments is distinctly limited. If we only know of one account of the holocaust – what we were taught in school – we are likely to accept it. But whether it is true or false is a matter of luck rather than our intellectual capacities. Now it is reasonable to suppose that if we were exposed to a diversity of claims about the holocaust then our opinions on the subject would become more clearly our own, and our own responsibility. They would be the product of our own intellectual capacities and character instead of simply reflecting which society we happened to be born into. But so what? Holding sincere opinions about whether the holocaust happened is all very well and Millian, but it has no necessary relation to their truth. As Harry Frankfurt notes in his philosophical essay On Bullshit, sincerity is concerned with being true to oneself, not to the nature of the world: from the perspective of truth seeking, sincerity is bullshit.

Knowing this, we can have no faith that the popularity of certain factual claims among people as ordinary as ourselves is any guide to their truth. Democracy is no more equipped to evaluate facts than rational truths. We can all, of course, hold opinions about the civilisational significance of the holocaust and its status as a justification for the state of Israel, and debate them with others in democratic ways. Yet, when it comes to the facts, neither the sincerity with which individuals believe that ‘the holocaust’ is a myth nor the popularity of such beliefs can make them epistemically respectable. 90% of the population denying the holocaust is irrelevant to its truth status. And vice versa.

Rhetoric and Bullshit
by James Fredal

Frankfurt is also indebted (indirectly) to Plato: Phaedrus is as much about the bullshitter’s (Lysias’s or the non-lover’s) lack of concern for (or “love” for) the truth as is Frankfurt’s brief tome. From the perspective of Plato, Lysias’s speech in praise of the non-lover is just so much bullshit not simply because it is not true, but because Lysias is not concerned with telling the truth so much as he is with gaining the affection and attention of his audience: the beloved boy, the paying student or, more to the point, that lover of speeches, Phaedrus himself.

The non-lover described by Lysias in Phaedrus is best understood as Plato’s allegory for sophists who reject any “natural” truth and who remain committed to contradictory arguments as the practical consequence of their general agnosticism. For Lysias’s non-lover, language is not for telling the truth, because the truth is inaccessible: language is for finding and strengthening positions, for gaining advantage, and for exerting influence over others. Richard Weaver offers a similar reading of Phaedrus that sees the non-lover as representing an attitude toward language use (though for Weaver the non-lover is not a sophist, but a scientist).

Others interested in the bullshitter apply a different, more favorable lens. Daniel Mears, for example, draws on Chandra Mukerji’s study of bullshit among hitchhikers, and more generally on Erving Goffman’s study of self-presentation in the interaction order (for example, “Role Distance” and Interaction Rituals) to highlight bullshit as a form of impression management: what, as Mears notes, Suzanne Eggins and Diana Slade call a “framing device” for the “construction and maintenance of our social identities and social relationships” (qtd. in Mears 279). For Mears, bullshit is the deliberate (albeit playful) creation of possible but ultimately misleading impressions of self or reality, whether for expressive or instrumental reasons (4).

Like Frankfurt, Mears locates the source of bullshit in the speaker herself and her desire to craft a creditable self-image. But whereas Frankfurt sees bullshitting as a species of deception worse than lying (because at least liars have to know the truth if only to lead us away from it, whereas bullshitters have no concern at all for the truth), Mears understands bullshit as a significant social phenomenon that serves several prosocial functions.7 For Mears, we engage in bullshit for purposes of socialization and play, for self-exploration and self-expression, for the resolution of social tensions and cognitive dissonance, and for gaining an advantage in encounters.

Like Mukerji, Mears emphasizes the playful (though often nontrivial and highly consequential) quality of bullshit, much as the ancient sophists composed speeches as “play”: as exercises and exempla, for enjoyment, for display and impression management, and for study separate from the “real world” of politics and law.

Rhetoric Is Not Bullshit
by Davd J. Tietge
from Bullshit and Philosophy
Kindle Locations 3917-4003

The Truth about Postmodernism

One issue that helps obscure the universality of rhetoric, and thus promotes the pejorative use of ‘rhetoric’, is the popular tendency to oversimplify the “truth-lie” dichotomy. In The Liar’s Tale: A History of Falsehood, Jeremy Campbell reminds us that the reductionistic binary that separates truth from falsity is not only in error, but also that the thoroughly unclear and inconsistent distinction between the true and the false has a long, rich cultural history.180 Those doing much of the speaking in our own era, however, assume that the dividing line between truth and untruth is clear and, more significantly, internalized by the average human. Truth, however, is an elusive concept. While we can cite many examples of truths (that the sky is blue today, that the spoon will fall if dropped, and so forth), these depend on definitions of the words used. The sky is blue because ‘blue’ is the word we use to describe the hue that we have collectively agreed is bluish. We may, however, disagree about what shade of blue the sky is. Is it powder blue? Blue-green? Royal Blue? Interpretive responses to external realities that rely on definition (and language generally) always complicate the true-false binary, especially when we begin to discuss the nature of abstractions involved in, say, religion or metaphysics. The truth of ‘God is good’ depends very heavily upon the speaker’s understanding of God and the nature of goodness, both of which depend upon the speaker’s conceptualization, which may be unique to him, his group, or his cultural environment, and thus neither clear nor truthful to other parties.

Is this rampant relativism? Some might think so, but it is perhaps more useful to suggest that the Absolute Truths that we usually embrace are unattainable because of these complexities of language. Some cultures have seen the linguistic limitations of specifying the Truth. Hinduism has long recognized that language is incapable of revealing Truth; to utter the Truth, it holds, is simultaneously to make it no longer the Truth.

Note here the distinction between capital ‘T’ truth and lower-case ‘t’ truth. Lower-case truths are situational, even personal. They often reflect more the state of mind of the agent making the utterance than the immutable nature of the truth. They are also temporally situated; what may be true now may not be in the future. Truth in this sense is predicated on both perception and stability, and, pragmatically speaking, such truths are tran-sitional and, often, relative. Capital ‘T’ Truths can be traced back at least as far as Plato, and are immutable, pure, and incorruptible. They do not exist in our worldly realm, at least so far as Plato was concerned. This is why Plato was so scornful of rhetoric: he felt that rhetoricians (in particular, the Sophists) were opportunists who taught people how to disguise the Truth with language and persuasion. Whereas Plato imagined a realm in which the worldly flaws and corruption of a physical existence were supplanted by perfect forms, the corporeal domain of human activity was saturated with language, and therefore, could not be trusted to reveal Truth with any certainty.

Contemporary, postmodern interest in truth and meaning turns the tables on Plato and studies meaning and truth in this shifting, less certain domain of human activity. Campbell cites many thinkers from our philosophical past who helped inaugurate this development, but none is more important than Friedrich Nietzsche. For Nietzsche, humans have no “organ” for discerning Truth, but we do have a natural instinct for falsehood. “Truth,” as an abstraction taken from the subjectivity of normal human activities, was a manufactured fiction that we are not equipped to actually find. On the other hand, a natural aptitude for falsehood is an important survival mechanism for many species. Human beings have simply cultivated it in innovative, sophisticated, ways. As the rhetorician George A. Kennedy has noted, “in daily life, many human speech acts are not consciously intentional; they are automatic reactions to situations, culturally (rather than genetically) imprinted in the brain or rising from the subconscious.”181 Our propensity for appropriate (if not truthful) responses to situations is something nourished by an instinct to survive, interact, protect, and socialize. Civilization gives us as many new ways to do this as there are situations that require response.

This is why Nietzsche carefully distinguished Truth from a belief system that only professed to contain the Truth. Ken Gemes notes that Nietzsche co-ordinated the question of Truth around the pragmatics of survival,182 an observation echoed by Kennedy, who provides examples of animals that deceive for self-preservation. Camouflage, for example, can be seen in plants and animals. Many birds imitate the calls of rival species to fool them to distraction and away from their nests or food sources. Deception, it seems, is common in nature. But Nietzsche took doctrinal Truth (note the “T”) to be one of the most insidious deceptions to occur in human culture, especially as it is articulated in religions. It is not a basic lie that is being promulgated, but rather a lie masquerading as the Truth and, according to Nietzsche, performing certain functions. Truth, that is, is a ritualized fiction, a condition manufactured for institutions and the individuals who control them to maintain their power.

Rhetoric and Bullshit

Truth, deception, control over others. This survey of rhetoric thus brings us close to the territory that Harry Frankfurt explores in On Bullshit. For Frankfurt, however, bullshit has little to do with these complexities about truth and Truth that rhetoric helps us identify. Indeed bullshit, for Frankfurt, has little do with truth at all, insofar as it requires an indifference to truth. Does this mean, then, that language that is not bullshit has settled the matter of truth and has access to truth (or Truth)? Does this lead us to a dichotomy between truth and bullshit that is similar to the dichotomy between truth and falsity that postmodernism criticizes? It may seem that postmodernism has little place in Frankfurt’s view, insofar as he rejects “various forms of skepticism which deny that we have any reliable access to objective reality, and which therefore reject the possibility of knowing how things truly are” (p. 64). Indeed, postmodernism is often vilified as the poster child of relativism and skepticism.

Yet postmodernism is far subtler than a mere denial of “objective reality.” Postmodernism claims, rather, that reality is as much a construct of language as it is objective and unchanging. Postmodernism is less about rejecting beliefs about objective reality than about the intersection between material reality and the human interpretations of it that change, mutate, and shift that reality to our own purposes—the kind of small-t truths that Nietzsche addressed. The common complaint about post-modernism, for example, that it denies “natural laws,” forgets that humans noticed and formulated those laws. Postmodernism attempts to supply a vocabulary to describe this kind of process. It is not just “jargon,” as is so often charged; it is an effort to construct a metalinguistic lexicon for dealing with some very difficult and important epistemological questions.

And, not surprisingly, so is rhetoric. Constructing language that deals with the nature of language is a unique human problem. It is meta-cognition at its most complicated because it requires us to use the same apparatus to decode human texts that is contained in the texts themselves—that is, using words to talk about words, what Kenneth Burke referred to in The Rhetoric of Religion as “logology.”183 In no other area of human thinking is this really the case. Most forms of intellectual exploration involve an extraneous phenomenon, event, agent, or object that requires us to bring language to bear upon it in order to observe, describe, classify, and draw conclusions about its nature, its behavior, or its effect. For example, scientific inquiry usually involves an event or a process in the material world that is separate from the instruments we use to describe it. Historical analysis deals with texts as a matter of disciplinary course, yet most historians rarely question the efficacy or the reliability of the language used to convey an event of the remote (or, for that matter, recent) past. Even linguistics, which uses a scientific model to describe language structure, deals little with meaning or textual analysis.

Law is one of the closest cousins of rhetoric. Words are very much a part of the ebb and flow of legal wrangling, and the attention given to meaning and interpretation is central. Yet, even here, there is little theoretical discussion about how words have meaning or how, based on such theory, that meaning can be variously interpreted. Law is more concerned with the fact that words can be interpreted differently and how different agents might interpret language in different ways. This is why legal documents are often so unreadable; in an attempt to control ambiguity, more words (and more words with specific, technical meanings) must be used so that multiple interpretations can be avoided. If theoretical discussions about how language generates meaning were entered into the equation, the law would be impossible to apply in any practical way. Yet, to understand legal intricacies, every law student should be exposed to rhetoric—not so they can better learn how to manipulate a jury or falsify an important document, but so they understand how tenuous and limited language actually is for dealing with ordinary situations. Moreover, nearly every disciplinary area of inquiry uses language, but only rhetoric (and its associated disciplines, especially philosophy of language and literary /cultural criticism, which have influenced the development of modern rhetoric considerably) analyzes language using a hermeneutical instrument designed to penetrate the words to examine their effects—desired or not—on the people who use them.

What, then, qualifies as “bullshit”? Certainly, as I hope I have shown, rhetoric and bullshit are hardly the same thing. They are not even distant cousins. When a student begins a paper with the sentence, “In today’s society, there are many things that people have different and similar opinions about,” it’s a pretty good guess that there is little of rhetorical value there. About the only conclusion a reader can draw is that the student is neither inspired nor able to hide this fact. This is the extent of the subtext, and it could conceivably qualify as bullshit. In this sense, Frankfurt’s characterization of bullshit as “unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about” (p. 63) is a useful differentiation.

But aside from these rather artificial instances, if bullshit does occur at the rate Frankfurt suggests, we have an arduous task in separating the bullshit from more interesting and worthy rhetorical situations. We have all met people whom we know, almost from the moment of acquaintance, are full of bullshit. It is the salesman syndrome that some people just (naturally, it seems) possess. In one sense, then, poor rhetoric—a rhetoric of transparency or obviousness—can be construed as bullshit. For the person with salesman syndrome is certainly attempting to achieve identification with his audience; he may even be attempting to persuade others that he is upright or trustworthy. But he fails because his bullshit is apparent. He is a bad rhetorician in the sense that he fails to convince others that he should be taken seriously, that his words are worthy of attention and, possibly, action.

Bullshit is something we can all recognize. Rhetoric is not. My remedy for this situation is simple: learn rhetoric.

 

The Sociology of Intellectual Life
by Steve Fuller
pp. 147-8

Harry Frankfurt’s (2005) On Bullshit is the latest contribution to a long, distinguished, yet deeply problematic line of Western thought that has attempted to redeem the idea of intellectual integrity from the cynic’s suspicion that it is nothing but high-minded, self-serving prejudice. I say ‘problematic’ because while Plato’s unflattering portrayal of poets and sophists arguably marked the opening salvo in the philosophical war against bullshit, Plato availed himself of bullshit in promoting the ‘myth of the metals’ as a principle of social stratification in his Republic. This doublethink has not been lost on the neo-conservative followers of the great twentieth century Platonist Leo Strauss. […]

The bullshit detector aims to convert an epistemic attitude into a moral virtue: reality can be known only by the right sort of person. This idea, while meeting with widespread approval by philosophers strongly tied to the classical tradition of Plato and Aristotle, is not lacking in dissenters. The line of dissent is best seen in the history of ‘rhetoric’, a word Plato coined to demonize Socrates’ dialectical opponents, the sophists. The sophists were prepared to teach anyone the art of winning arguments, provided you could pay the going rate. As a series of sophistic interlocutors tried to make clear to Socrates, possession of the skills required to secure the belief of your audience is the only knowledge you really need to have. Socrates famously attacked this claim on several fronts, which the subsequent history of philosophy has often conflated. In particular, Socrates’ doubts about the reliability of the sophists’ techniques have been run together with a more fundamental criticism: even granting the sophists their skills, they are based on a knowledge of human gullibility, not of reality itself.

Bullshit is sophistry under this charitable reading, which acknowledges that the truth may not be strong enough by itself to counteract an artfully presented claim that is not so much outright false as, in the British idiom, ‘economical with the truth’. In stressing the difference between bullshit and lies, Frankfurt clearly has this conception in mind, though he does sophistry a disservice by casting the bullshitter’s attitude toward the truth as ‘indifference’. On the contrary, the accomplished bullshitter must be a keen student of what people tend to regard as true, if only to cater to those tendencies so as to serve her own ends. What likely offends Frankfurt and other philosophers here is the idea that the truth is just one more tool to be manipulated for personal advantage. Conceptual frameworks are simply entertained and then discarded as their utility passes. The nature of the offence, I suspect, is the divine eye-view implicated in such an attitude – the very idea that one could treat in a detached fashion the terms in which people normally negotiate their relationship to reality. A bullshitter revealed becomes a god unmade.

pp. 152-3

The bullshit detector believes not only that there is a truth but also that her own access to it is sufficiently reliable and general to serve as a standard by which others may be held accountable. Protestants appeared prepared to accept the former but not the latter condition, which is why dissenters were encouraged – or perhaps ostracized – to establish their own ministries. The sophists appeared to deny the former and possibly the latter condition as well. Both Protestants and sophists are prime candidates for the spread of bullshit because they concede that we may normally address reality in terms it does not recognize – or at least do not require it to yield straight ‘yes-or-no’, ‘true-or-false’ answers. In that case, we must make up the difference between the obliqueness of our inquiries and the obtuseness of reality’s responses. That ‘difference’ is fairly seen as bullshit. When crystallized as a philosophy of mind or philosophy of language, this attitude is known as antirealism. Its opposite number, the background philosophy of bullshit detectors, is realism.

The difference in the spirit of the two philosophies is captured as follows: do you believe that everything you say and hear is bullshit unless you have some way of showing whether it is true or false; or rather, that everything said and heard is simply true or false, unless it is revealed to be bullshit? The former is the antirealist, the latter the realist response. Seen in those terms, we might say that the antirealist regards reality as inherently risky and always under construction (Caveat credor: ‘Let the believer beware!’) whereas the realist treats reality as, on the whole, stable and orderly – except for the reprobates who try to circumvent the system by producing bullshit. In this respect, On Bullshit may be usefully read as an ad hominem attack on antirealists. Frankfurt himself makes passing reference to this interpretation near the end of the essay (Frankfurt 2005: 64–65). Yet, he appears happy to promote the vulgar image of antirealism as intellectually, and perhaps morally, slipshod, instead of treating it as the philosophically honorable position that it is.

A case in point is Frankfurt’s presentation of Wittgenstein as one of history’s great bullshit detectors (Frankfurt 2005: 24–34). He offers a telling anecdote in which the Viennese philosopher objects to Fania Pascal’s self description as having been ‘sick as a dog’. Wittgenstein reportedly told Pascal that she misused language by capitalizing on the hearer’s easy conflation of a literal falsehood with a genuine condition, which is made possible by the hearer’s default anthropocentric bias. Wittgenstein’s objection boils down to claiming that, outside clearly marked poetic contexts, our intellectual end never suffices alone to justify our linguistic means. Frankfurt treats this point as a timeless truth about how language structures reality. Yet, it would be quite easy, especially recalling that this ‘truth’ was uttered seventy years ago, to conclude that Wittgenstein’s irritation betrays a spectacular lack of imagination in the guise of scrupulousness.

Wittgenstein’s harsh judgement presupposes that humans lack any real access to canine psychology, which renders any appeal to dogs purely fanciful. For him, this lack of access is an established fact inscribed in a literal use of language, not an open question answers to which a figurative use of language might offer clues for further investigation. Nevertheless, scientists informed by the Neo-Darwinian synthesis – which was being forged just at the time of Wittgenstein’s pronouncement – have quite arguably narrowed the gap between the mental lives of humans and animals in research associated with ‘evolutionary psychology’. As this research makes more headway, what Wittgenstein confidently declared to be bullshit in his day may tomorrow appear as having been a prescient truth. But anyone holding such a fluid view of verifiability would derive scant comfort from either Wittgenstein or Frankfurt, who act as if English linguistic intuitions, circa 1935, should count indefinitely as demonstrable truths.

Some philosophers given to bullshit detection are so used to treating any Wittgensteinian utterance as a profundity that it never occurs to them that Wittgenstein may have been himself a grandmaster of bullshit. The great bullshit detectors whom I originally invoked, Nietzsche and Mencken, made themselves vulnerable to critics by speaking from their own self-authorizing standpoint, which supposedly afforded a clear vista for distinguishing bullshit from its opposite. Wittgenstein adopts the classic bullshitter’s technique of ventriloquism, speaking through the authority of someone or something else in order to be spared the full brunt of criticism.

I use ‘adopts’ advisedly, since the deliberateness of Wittgenstein’s rhetoric remains unclear. What was he trying to do: to speak modestly without ever having quite controlled his spontaneously haughty manner, or to exercise his self-regarding superiority as gently as possible so as not to frighten the benighted? Either way, Wittgenstein became – for a certain kind of philosopher – the standard-bearer of linguistic rectitude, where ‘language’ is treated as a proxy for reality itself. Of course, to the bullshitter, this description also fits someone whose strong personality cowed the impressionable into distrusting their own thought processes. As with most successful bullshit, the trick is revealed only after it has had the desired effect and the frame of reference has changed. Thus, Wittgenstein’s precious concern about Pascal’s account of her state of health should strike, at least some readers today, as akin to a priest’s fretting over a parishioner’s confession of impure thoughts. In each case, the latter is struck by something that lies outside the box in which the former continues to think.

If Wittgenstein was a bullshitter, how did he manage to take in professed enemies of bullshit like Frankfurt? One clue is that most bullshit is forward looking, and Wittgenstein’s wasn’t. The bullshitter normally refers to things whose prima facie plausibility immunizes the hearer against checking their actual validity. The implication is that the proof is simply ‘out there’ waiting be found. But is there really such proof? Here the bullshitter is in a race against time. A sufficient delay in checking sources has salvaged the competence and even promoted the prescience of many bullshitters. Such was the spirit of Paul Feyerabend’s (1975) notorious account of Galileo’s ‘discoveries’, which concluded that his Papal Inquisitors were originally justified in their scepticism, even though Galileo’s followers subsequently redeemed his epistemic promissory notes.

In contrast, Wittgenstein’s unique brand of bullshit was backward-looking, always reminding hearers and readers of something they should already know but had perhaps temporarily forgotten. Since Wittgenstein usually confronted his interlocutors with mundane examples, it was relatively easy to convey this impression. The trick lay in immediately shifting the context from the case at hand to what Oxford philosophers in the 1950s called a ‘paradigm case’ that was presented as a self-evident standard of usage against which to judge the case at hand. That Wittgenstein, a non-native speaker of English, impressed one or two generations of Britain’s philosophical elite with just this mode of argumentation remains the envy of the aspiring bullshitter. Ernest Gellner (1959), another émigré from the old Austro Hungarian Empire, ended up ostracized from the British philosophical establishment for offering a cutting diagnosis of this phenomenon as it was unfolding. He suggested that Wittgenstein’s success testified to his ability to feed off British class anxiety, which was most clearly marked in language use. An academically sublimated form of such language-driven class anxiety remains in the discipline of sociolinguistics (Bernstein 1971–77).

Yet, after nearly a half-century, Gellner’s diagnosis is resisted, despite the palpable weakening of Wittgenstein’s posthumous grip on the philosophical imagination. One reason is that so many living philosophers still ride on Wittgenstein’s authority – if not his mannerisms – that to declare him a bullshitter would amount to career suicide. But a second reason is also operative, one that functions as an insurance policy against future debunkers. Wittgenstein is often portrayed, by himself and others, as mentally unbalanced. You might think that this would render his philosophical deliverances unreliable. On the contrary, Wittgenstein’s erratic disposition is offered as evidence for his spontaneously guileless nature – quite unlike the controlled and calculated character of bullshitters. Bullshit fails to stick to Wittgenstein because he is regarded as an idiot savant.

Confused Liberalism

Here are some thoughts on ideological labels and mindsets in the United States. I had a larger post I was working on, which I may or may not post. But the following is bite-sized commentary. Just some things to throw out there.

These views are not exactly new to my writing. They are issues my mind often returns to, because I’m never quite satisfied that I fully understand. I can’t shake the feeling that something is being misunderstood or overlooked, whether or not my own preferred interpretations turn out to be correct.

The two thoughts below are in response to this question:

What do we mean when we speak of liberalism?

* * *

We live in a liberal society, in that we live in a post-Enlightenment age where the liberal paradigm is dominant. But what exactly is this liberalism?

What I find interesting is that conservatives in a liberal society aren’t traditionalists and can never be traditionalists. They are anti-traditionalists and would be entirely out of place in a traditional society. These conservatives are forced to define themselves according to the liberal paradigm and so their only choice is to either become moderate liberals or reactionaries against liberalism.

Even if they choose the latter, they still don’t escape liberalism because our identities are shaped as much by what we react to as by what we embrace. In some ways, we become what we react to, just in a distorted way. That is why reactionary conservatives use liberal rhetoric, often unconsciously.

Ironically, the illiberalism of such reactionary politics is only possible in a liberal society. And, sadly, that reactionary politics has become the dominant ideology in a liberal society like this. The liberal and the reactionary are two sides of the same coin.

This is quite the conundrum for the liberal and reactionary alike. Both are chained together, as they pull in opposite directions.

* * *

There are a large number (how many?) of self-identified liberals who aren’t strongly liberal-minded and maybe a bit conservative-minded, aren’t consistent supporters of liberal politics, are wary of liberal economic reforms, are unsure about the liberalism of human nature, and/or doubt a liberal society is possible. These kinds of ‘liberals’ are their own worst enemies. They make it easy for the political right to dominate, for the authoritarians and social dominance orientation types to gain and maintain power.

I’ve come to a suspicion. It’s not just that many of these supposed liberals aren’t particularly liberal. I’d go further than that. Some of them, possibly a large number of them, could be more accurately described as status quo conservatives. But this isn’t to say that some liberals aren’t strongly liberal-minded. My thought goes in a different direction, though. Maybe the crux of the matter isn’t self-identified liberals at all.

Self-identified liberals have proven themselves easily swayed by the rhetoric of reactionaries, authoritarians, and social dominance orientation types. Because of this, the label of ‘liberal’ has become associated with weakly liberal positions and what are sometimes illiberal attitudes. Liberalism has become identified with the liberal class and bourgeois capitalism, with mainstream society and the status quo social order, with a waffling fence-sitting and Washington centrism.

My thought is that most liberal-minded people (specifically in the US) don’t identify as liberals and never have. Instead, the strongly liberal-minded have taken up other labels to identify themselves: independents, non-partisans, social democrats, progressives, leftists, left-wingers, socialists, democratic socialists, communists, communalists, communitarians, Marxiststs, unionists, anarchists, anarcho-syndialists, left-libertarians, etc. Pretty much anything but ‘liberal’.

This is where mainstream thought goes off the rails. The most liberal-minded tend to be ignored or overlooked. They don’t fit into the mainstream framework of ideological labels. These strongly liberal-minded people might be a fairly large part of the population, but they can’t be seen.

We don’t have the language to talk about them, much less study them. We have nuanced language to distinguish people on the political right and this nuanced language is regularly used in collecting and analyzing data. Pollsters and social scientists are often careful to separate conservatives from libertarians, authoritarians, and social dominance orientation types. Such nuance is rarely seen in mainstream thought about the political left.

It seems, in the mainstream, that it is assumed that ‘liberals’ can be taken as mostly representative of the entire political left. This is based on the assumption that leftists in the US are so small in number and therefore insignificant and irrelevant. But if we define leftists as all those who are to the left of the liberal class found in the Democratic Party establishment and the mainstream corporate media, we might discover there are more leftists than there are so-called liberals. And if many of those leftists are far more liberal-minded than the self-identified liberals, then how useful is the social science research that uses self-identified liberals as a proxy for all liberal-mindedness?

Gravy, the Elixir of Youth!

We’re in the holiday season. It’s the time of year when there are lots of deserts and delicious foods. Many struggle against gaining weight.

Let me share Stella Blue’s dieting tip. She is my calicao cat, about 18 years old now. She has always maintained her girly figure.

How does she do it? Like anyone else, she enjoys food. She prefers tasty wet food multiple times a day. But she has a trick to not letting the weight creep up.

Here it is: Only eat the gravy. Fill your plate with turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes, and whatever else. Pour gravy over it all. And then lick the gravy off the top, leaving the rest on your plate.

All the gravy you want and that trim figure you’ve always dreamed of!

I’m going to try it out this year. I’ll have to make sure there is plenty of extra gravy for the coming week. I might need to carry around my own personal supply of gravy when family is around.

Maybe I’ll keep a flask of gravy in my pocket, for those moments of temptation. That piece of pie or candy is looking tasty. Well, just pour gravy on it. Problem solved.

Thanks, Stella! Your wisdom is neverending. I guess she should be wise at this point, since she is entering her 90s in human years. May we all be equally as wise when we reach that that ripe old age. And may we all still be able to run up cat trees as if we were still wee kittens.

Gravy, the elixir of youth. Eat up and enjoy the holidays!

On Being a Bachelor

My dad told me that I live like a bachelor. I’m not sure exactly what he meant by that. But I suspect he really wasn’t talking about my marital status or rather lack thereof.

Partly my lifestyle is different because I’ve spent around three quarters of my life severely depressed along with some cognitive deficits (e.g., learning disability). That relates to my having dropped out of college and now have a working class job, even though I’m smart enough to do a higher-skilled job. In thinking about the bachelor lifestyle, my dad might have been talking more about class. I’m fairly sure that, if I were either a rich bachelor or a poverty-stricken bachelor, I’d be living a far different lifestyle than I do as a working class bachelor with a unionized government job. Other than my inhabiting a small apartment, the way I live is probably more similar to the average working class married couple than to bachelors as a general category.

My parents grew up in working class communities. They spent their early years in smaller houses that weren’t up to middle class standards, which is to say a bit cluttered and not pristinely clean. As my parents moved up into the world, they both sought to escape the world they grew up in. I’m not sure what it is, maybe a slight sense of shame of where they came from. I know my mom was embarrassed to bring childhood friends home because of the condition of her family’s house.

I, on the other hand, grew up middle class. My childhood house, because of my mother, was always perfectly clean. And some of the family houses from my younger years were fairly nice, such as our South Carolina home (built for a judge) which was a stately two-story brick structure with a large front porch, balcony, and walled garden. My parents have gone to great effort to become not just middle class but upper middle class, and they’ve succeeded.

For whatever reason, I haven’t exactly inherited this upward mobile aspiration of good living and class respectability, although my brothers are more middle class in their sensibilities. I dress working class and my living space would look working class, if not for the walls being covered in shelves of scholarly and literary books. I have no desire to act or appear middle class. Despite raising me middle class, my mom instilled in me a working class attitude about life and apparently I took it to heart.

Class is such a strange thing. As my dad’s comment implied, class is often spoken of indirectly. More than anything, class is an attitude. If it was important to me, I could dress middle class, act middle class, and maintain a house to a middle class standard. I’m not poor and I’m intimately familiar with what it means to be middle class (proper manners, how to set a formal table, etc). I just don’t care to try, maybe simply because of depression or whatever. I’m content being working class, as it’s a simpler and more comfortable way of living. For example, I like my Carhartt clothing because it’s practical and, on a basic level, I’m all about practical (as my mom raised me). I didn’t grow up on a farm or in a factory town. I’ve never gone hunting, much less owned a gun, and I’ve never driven a pickup truck. I just look like that kind of person.

Here is where the issue of marriage vs bachelorhood fits in. It used to be that marriage was most closely identified with working class. But that has changed. Marriage rates are now higher with the middle class or what is left of the middle class. As the economy has gotten harder, there have been fewer advantages for the working class to get married and more stress driving working class marriages apart.

In the past, it was common for a man to have a good farm, factory, railroad, or mining job. This might even have included job security and good benefits. This often paid well enough that his wife didn’t have to work, instead her staying at home taking care of the house and kids. It was the traditional American family and, for generations, it was standard for the working class. But hard economic times, along with more opportunities, caused an entire generation of working class women to look for employment to help offset costs.

The traditional family came to have less value, as people had less time to spend with family and were less economically dependent on one another. Being married has increasingly become a luxury of class privilege. For the working poor, it can be cheaper for an individual to live alone or easier to get on welfare, especially in poor communities where most potential spouses are unemployed. The incentive structure at the bottom of the economic ladder doesn’t encourage marriage, as it once did.

So, bachelorhood and bachelorettehood, along with single parenting, has become more common among the lower classes. It’s a survival strategy or simply a hard fact of life. If you’re poor with a job, you have little reason to marry a poor person without a job. And if you are a poor person without a job, there is little reason for someone with a job to marry you. As for two unemployed poor people, even if they weren’t feeling desperate and with no future prospects, marriage would have little meaning or purpose, not even offering comfort in sharing misery with another. In communities with low employment rates, marriage has become rather pointless.

Being a lower class single person has a similar stigma to being lower class single parent, just without the kids. If I were rich and someone said I had a bachelor lifestyle, they’d mean I was living in a large empty mansion or upscale penthouse, living the high life involving vacations and traveling the world, parties and dating beautiful women who presumedly wanted me for my money, not to mention a maid to clean my house. But if I were a severely poor unemployed bachelor, my lifestyle would likely involve at best living in a single bedroom eating Ramen noodles and at worst living under a bridge drinking myself to an early grave. As I’m not either of those extremes, that isn’t what my dad meant when he brought up my bachelor status. But the implication was that my lifestyle was closer to the latter than to the former.

My aspiration is to one day live under a bridge. And with the economy going as it is, my dream may eventually come true. Maybe I’ll meet a nice homeless lady to shack up with and keep me warm at night. Oh, to dream…

Hillary Clinton’s Laugh

 

Why is Hillary so often laughing? What is so funny?

It doesn’t seem to matter the topic nor how inappropriate the response. Even when discussing death and war, she’ll laugh. It’s usually in response to a question, seemingly as a way to either avoid or dismiss having to honestly answer. But at other times, it is plain bizarre, often following a longish pause when her face is completely unexpressive.

It’s not a new phenomenon. There are videos of her laughing at various things going back many years. Maybe she is just a manically happy person with a dark, sometimes demented sense of humor. Or maybe she is on some really good drugs.

I have absolutely no idea what all that laughing means. It probably says something about the kind of person she is. But the heck if I know what it indicates. I’ve never seen someone who laughs so much and at such odd times. It’s particularly strange coming from a professional politician.

If she had been elected president, would she just start laughing while talking to foreign leaders? I don’t think Putin would appreciate feeling like he was being laughed at. Or can she control when she does and doesn’t laugh? But if she can control it, why does she laugh at inappropriate moments?

After watching the videos below, I can’t get her laugh out of my head.

* * *

Hillary’s Laugh Track
from The Daily Show

But Then It Was Too Late

“This separation of government from people, this widening of the gap, took place so gradually and so insensibly, each step disguised (perhaps not even intentionally) as a temporary emergency measure or associated with true patriotic allegiance or with real social purposes. And all the crises and reforms (real reforms, too) so occupied the people that they did not see the slow motion underneath, of the whole process of government growing remoter and remoter. […]

“The dictatorship, and the whole process of its coming into being, was above all diverting. It provided an excuse not to think for people who did not want to think anyway. I do not speak of your ‘little men,’ your baker and so on; I speak of my colleagues and myself, learned men, mind you. Most of us did not want to think about fundamental things and never had. There was no need to. Nazism gave us some dreadful, fundamental things to think about—we were decent people—and kept us so busy with continuous changes and ‘crises’ and so fascinated, yes, fascinated, by the machinations of the ‘national enemies,’ without and within, that we had no time to think about these dreadful things that were growing, little by little, all around us. Unconsciously, I suppose, we were grateful. Who wants to think?

“To live in this process is absolutely not to be able to notice it—please try to believe me—unless one has a much greater degree of political awareness, acuity, than most of us had ever had occasion to develop. Each step was so small, so inconsequential, so well explained or, on occasion, ‘regretted,’ that, unless one were detached from the whole process from the beginning, unless one understood what the whole thing was in principle, what all these ‘little measures’ that no ‘patriotic German’ could resent must some day lead to, one no more saw it developing from day to day than a farmer in his field sees the corn growing. One day it is over his head.

“How is this to be avoided, among ordinary men, even highly educated ordinary men? Frankly, I do not know. I do not see, even now. Many, many times since it all happened I have pondered that pair of great maxims, Principiis obsta and Finem respice—‘Resist the beginnings’ and ‘Consider the end.’ But one must foresee the end in order to resist, or even see, the beginnings. One must foresee the end clearly and certainly and how is this to be done, by ordinary men or even by extraordinary men? Things might have. And everyone counts on that might.

“Your ‘little men,’ your Nazi friends, were not against National Socialism in principle. Men like me, who were, are the greater offenders, not because we knew better (that would be too much to say) but because we sensed better. Pastor Niemöller spoke for the thousands and thousands of men like me when he spoke (too modestly of himself) and said that, when the Nazis attacked the Communists, he was a little uneasy, but, after all, he was not a Communist, and so he did nothing; and then they attacked the Socialists, and he was a little uneasier, but, still, he was not a Socialist, and he did nothing; and then the schools, the press, the Jews, and so on, and he was always uneasier, but still he did nothing. And then they attacked the Church, and he was a Churchman, and he did something—but then it was too late. […] It is clearer all the time that, if you are going to do anything, you must make an occasion to do it, and then you are obviously a troublemaker. So you wait, and you wait.

But the one great shocking occasion, when tens or hundreds or thousands will join with you, never comes. That’s the difficulty. If the last and worst act of the whole regime had come immediately after the first and smallest, thousands, yes, millions would have been sufficiently shocked—if, let us say, the gassing of the Jews in ’43 had come immediately after the ‘German Firm’ stickers on the windows of non-Jewish shops in ’33. But of course this isn’t the way it happens. In between come all the hundreds of little steps, some of them imperceptible, each of them preparing you not to be shocked by the next. Step C is not so much worse than Step B, and, if you did not make a stand at Step B, why should you at Step C? And so on to Step D.

“And one day, too late, your principles, if you were ever sensible of them, all rush in upon you. The burden of self-deception has grown too heavy, and some minor incident, in my case my little boy, hardly more than a baby, saying ‘Jewish swine,’ collapses it all at once, and you see that everything, everything, has changed and changed completely under your nose. The world you live in—your nation, your people—is not the world you were born in at all. The forms are all there, all untouched, all reassuring, the houses, the shops, the jobs, the mealtimes, the visits, the concerts, the cinema, the holidays. But the spirit, which you never noticed because you made the lifelong mistake of identifying it with the forms, is changed. Now you live in a world of hate and fear, and the people who hate and fear do not even know it themselves; when everyone is transformed, no one is transformed. Now you live in a system which rules without responsibility even to God. The system itself could not have intended this in the beginning, but in order to sustain itself it was compelled to go all the way.

“You have gone almost all the way yourself. Life is a continuing process, a flow, not a succession of acts and events at all. It has flowed to a new level, carrying you with it, without any effort on your part. On this new level you live, you have been living more comfortably every day, with new morals, new principles. You have accepted things you would not have accepted five years ago, a year ago, things that your father, even in Germany, could not have imagined.

Suddenly it all comes down, all at once. You see what you are, what you have done, or, more accurately, what you haven’t done (for that was all that was required of most of us: that we do nothing). You remember those early meetings of your department in the university when, if one had stood, others would have stood, perhaps, but no one stood. A small matter, a matter of hiring this man or that, and you hired this one rather than that. You remember everything now, and your heart breaks. Too late. You are compromised beyond repair.

What then? You must then shoot yourself. A few did. Or ‘adjust’ your principles. Many tried, and some, I suppose, succeeded; not I, however. Or learn to live the rest of your life with your shame. This last is the nearest there is, under the circumstances, to heroism: shame. Many Germans became this poor kind of hero, many more, I think, than the world knows or cares to know.”

~ Milton Mayer, They Thought They Were Free (ch. 13)

Bicameralism and Symbolic Conflation

I wanted to share some passages from the book that has been preoccupying me lately, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (1976). Quite the mouthful. The book is still in print or can be bought as an ebook, but the entire text can be found various places for free online as a PDF.

The passages below get at the strangeness that Jaynes was exploring and attempting to explain. It involves: shared belief, collective imperative, authorization, induction, focusing and narrowing of consciousness, etc. And it would also connect to: authoritarianism, propaganda, brainwashing, etc. I’m not entirely sure what to think about it all. There is something profound involved, touching on the foundation of our humanity. It’s hard to grasp what it means. I’ve been sitting with it and contemplating it. It’s as perplexing as it’s fascinating.

I sense that this overlaps with my own thinking. I’ve had this idea of symbolic conflation. It’s a theory I came up with to explain some of my own observations of human oddity. Hypnosis might be a perfect explanation. A symbolic conflation involves storytelling, framing, rhetoric, and persuasion. And I can see how metaphor is related, as with Jaynes’ view of consciousness. A symbolic conflation creates not just a particular worldview but a particular mentality and identity, and then it anchors it in place.

That is a good word to describe this process, anchor. This reminds me of neruolinguistic programming. It was partly based on hypnosis. One of the NLP techniques that always interested me, along with rapport, is anchoring. It is establishing a link to something (experience, memory, etc) in order to be able to elicit it later on. That is what a symbolic conflation is, a collective anchoring of the individual mind.

I just wanted to throw this out for the time being. It’s just something rumbling around in my brain.

* * *

The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind
by Julian Jaynes (1990 edition)

p. 325

The application of this general bicameral paradigm to the oracle at Delphi is obvious: the elaborate induction procedures, the trance in which consciousness is lost, the ardently pursued authorization of Apollo. But it is the collective cognitive” imperative or group belief or cultural prescription or expectancy (all of these terms indicating my meaning) which I wish to emphasize. The immensity of the cultural demand upon the entranced priestess cannot be overemphasized. The whole Greek world believed, and had for almost a millennium. As many as thirty-five thousand people a day from every part of the Mediterranean world might struggle by sea through the tiny port of Itea that snuggles the receptive coast just below Delphi. And they, too, went through induction procedures, purifying themselves in the Castalian spring, making offerings to Apollo and other gods as they persisted up the Sacred Way. In the latter centuries of the oracle, more than four thousand votive statues crowded this 220-yard-long climb up the side of Mount Parnassus to the temple of the oracle. It was, I suggest, this confluence of huge social prescription and expectancy, closer to definition than mere belief, which can account for the psychology of the oracle, for the at-once-ness of her answers. It was something before which any skepticism would be as impossible as for us to doubt that the speech of a radio originates in a studio that we cannot see. And it is something before which modern psychology must stand in awe.

p. 345

What was learned, I suggest, was a state approaching the bicameral mind as a response to the induction. This is important. We do not ordinarily think of learning a new unconscious mentality, a whole new relationship between our cerebral hemispheres, as we think of learning to ride a bicycle.

Since this is the learning of a now difficult neurological state, so different from ordinary life, it is not surprising that the cues of the induction had to be wildly distinctive and have an extreme difference from ordinary life.

And they certainly were different: anything odd, anything strange: bathing in smoke or sacred water, dressing in enchanted chitons with magical girdles, wearing weird garlands or mysterious symbols, standing in a charmed magic circle as medieval magicians did, or upon charakteres as Faust did to hallucinate Mephistopheles, or smearing the eyes with strychnine to procure visions as was done in Egypt, or washing in brimstone (sulphur) and seawater, a very old method which began in Greece, as Porphyry said in the second century A.D., to prepare the anima sfiritalis for the reception of a higher being. All these of course did nothing except as they were believed to do something — just as we in this latter age have no ‘free wil’ unless we believe we have.

p. 378-380

The modern poet is in a similar quandary. Once, literary languages and archaic speech came somehow to his bold assistance in that otherness and grandeur of which true poetry is meant to speak. But the grinding tides of irreversible naturalism have swept the Muses even farther out into the night of the right hemisphere. Yet somehow, even helplessly in our search for authorization, we remain “the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration.” And inspiration flees in attempted apprehension, until perhaps it was never there at all. We do not believe enough. The cognitive imperative dissolves. History lays her finger carefully on the lips of the Muses. The bicameral mind, silent. And since

The god approached dissolves into the air,
Imagine then, by miracle, with me,
(Ambiguous gifts, as what gods give must be)
What could not possibly be there,
And learn a style from a despair.

IF I ASK YOU to taste vinegar as champagne, to feel pleasure when I jab a pin in your arm, or to stare into darkness and contract the pupils of your eyes to an imagined light, or to willfully and really believe something you do not ordinarily believe, just anything, you would find these tasks difficult if not impossible. But if I first put you through the induction procedures of hypnosis, you could accomplish all these things at my asking without any effort whatever.

Why? How can such supererogatory enabling even exist?

It seems a very different company we enter when we go from the familiarity of poetry to the strangeness of hypnosis. For hypnosis is the black sheep of the family of problems which constitute psychology. It wanders in and out of laboratories and carnivals and clinics and village halls like an unwanted anomaly. It never seems to straighten up and resolve itself into the firmer proprieties of scientific theory. Indeed, its very possibility seems a denial of our immediate ideas about conscious self-control on the one hand, and our scientific idea about personality on the other. Yet it should be conspicuous that any theory of consciousness and its origin, if it is to be responsible, must face the difficulty of this deviant type of behavioral control.

I think my answer to the opening question is obvious: hypnosis can cause this extra enabling because it engages the general bicameral paradigm which allows a more absolute control over behavior than is possible with consciousness. […]

I shall even go so far as to maintain that no theory other than the present one makes sense of the basic problem. For if our contemporary mentality is, as most people suppose, an immutable genetically determined characteristic evolved back somewhere in mammalian evolution or before, how can it be so altered as in hypnosis? And that alteration merely at some rather ridiculous ministrations of another person? It is only by rejecting the genetic hypothesis and treating consciousness as a learned cultural ability over the vestigial substrate of an earlier more authoritarian type of behavioral control that such alterations of mind can begin to seem orderly.

p. 383-384

That the phenomenon of hypnosis is under the control of a collective cognitive imperative or group belief system is clearly demonstrated by its continual changing in history. As beliefs about hypnosis changed, so also its very nature. A few decades after Mesmer, subjects no longer twisted with strange sensations and convulsions. Instead they began spontaneously to speak and reply to questions during their trance state. Nothing like this had happened before. Then, early in the nineteenth century, patients spontaneously began to forget what had happened during the trance,2 something never reported previously. Around 1825, for some unknown reason, persons under hypnosis started to spontaneously diagnose their own illnesses. In the middle of the century, phrenology, the mistaken idea that conformations of the skull indicate mental faculties, became so popular that it actually engulfed hypnosis for a time. Pressure on the scalp over a phrenological area during hypnosis caused the subject to express the faculty controlled by that area (yes, this actually happened), a phenomenon never seen before or since. When the scalp area over the part of the brain supposedly responsible for “veneration” was pressed, the hypnotized subject sunk to his knees in prayer!3 This was so because it was believed to be so.

A little later, Charcot, the greatest psychiatrist of his time, demonstrated to large professional audiences at the Salpetriere that hypnosis was again quite different! Now it had three successive stages: catalepsy, lethargy, and somnambulism. These “physical states” could be changed from one to another by manipulating muscles, or various pressures, or friction on the top of the head. Even rubbing the head over Broca’s area produced aphasia! And then Binet, arriving at the Salpetriere to check on the findings of Charcot, promptly compounded the problem by returning to Mesmer’s magnets and discovering even more bizarre behavior.4 Placing magnets on one side or the other of the body of a hypnotized person, he could flip-flop perceptions, hysterical paralyses, supposed hallucinations, and movements from one side to the other, as if such phenomena were so many iron filings. None of these absurd results was ever found before or since.

It is not simply that the operator, Mesmer or Charcot or whoever, was suggesting to the pliant patient what the operator believed hypnosis to be. Rather, there had been developed within the group in which he worked a cognitive imperative as to what the phenomenon was ‘known’ to be. Such historical changes then clearly show that hypnosis is not a stable response to given stimuli, but changes as do the expectations and preconceptions of a particular age.

What is obvious in history can be shown in a more experimentally controlled way. Previously unheard-of manifestations of hypnosis can be found by simply informing subjects beforehand that such manifestations are expected in hypnosis, that is, are a part of the collective cognitive imperative about the matter. For example, an introductory psychology class was casually told that under hypnosis a subject’s dominant hand cannot be moved. This had never occurred in hypnosis in any era. It was a lie. Nevertheless, when members of the class at a later time were hypnotized, the majority, without any coaching or further suggestion, were unable to move their dominant hand. Out of such studies has come the notion of the “demand characteristics” of the hypnotic situation, that the hypnotized subject exhibits the phenomena which he thinks the hypnotist expects.5 But that expresses it too personally. It is rather what he thinks hypnosis is. And such “demand characteristics,” taken in this way, are of precisely the same nature as what I am calling the collective cognitive imperative.

Another way of seeing the force of the collective imperative is to note its strengthening by crowds. Just as religious feeling and belief is enhanced by crowds in churches, or in oracles by the throngs that attended them, so hypnosis in theaters. It is well known that stage hypnotists with an audience packed to the rafters, reinforcing the collective imperative or expectancy of hypnosis, can produce far more exotic hypnotic phenomena than are found in the isolation of laboratory or clinic.

Old School Progressivism

It will be as exciting as the 1930s.
~ Stephen K. Bannon, Donald Trump’s chief strategist

Here is a small history lesson.

It appears that many Americans, across the ideological and demographic spectrum, are quite confused by this seeming new species of politics we’re seeing. But the fact is that it isn’t new. And it isn’t just hidden prejudices surfacing from the deep like Moby Dick, the great white whale that destroys the ship. There is some racism and misogyny being churned up, and it is blatant in a way not seen in a long while. But the question is what is churning it up.

I’ve had a suspicion for a while and some statements by Trump’s adviser, Steve Bannon, seem to confirm it. Bannon said that he isn’t a white nationalist, rather an American nationalist and economic nationalist, and that if they do things right even minorities will support them. He talked about concrete policies like a trillion dollar infrastructure project. The Trump administration apparently is trying to revive old school progressivism. I find it interesting that liberal Democrats no longer recognize it, even as it smacks them upside the head — they viciously attacked economic populism as if it were a dangerous invader when it showed up in their own party.

So, what is old school progressivism?

Progressivism of the past did tend to be socially conservative in some ways and comfortable with certain kinds of prejudices. The old school progressive leaders were fine with making alliances with racists, if that was needed to accomplish their goals. The religious right has historically loved old school progressivism, when it comes to power, and old school progressives tend to find common cause with the religious right. Populist reform mixes economic reform with social and moral reform.

Progressive leaders like the Roosevelts, also coming from inherited business wealth, were strongly nationalistic and promoted patriotism. They were all for a strong military and strong borders, leading to a mistrust of perceived foreigners and restrictions on immigration. And if you were seen as not being in the national interest for the moment, as happened with certain minorities during WWII (Japanese-Americans, German-Americans, and Italian-Americans), you just might find yourself thrown into a internment camp. They were law and order presidents who didn’t mind using force when necessary, not always worrying about political correct niceties. But when possible, they were more than happy to use a carrot rather than a stick… or to walk quietly while carrying a big stick.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt came into power and cleaned house. He basically told everyone that they’d play nice together… or else! When unions tried to assert their power, he responded by being the most union-busting president seen in US history. Yet when big biz got out of hand in being overtly oppressive and even violent toward workers, he stepped in to demand that workers were treated with basic decency and fairness. The interests of both workers and capitalists were forced to fall in line with national interests. It was a progressive corporatism that only later became reactionary corporatism. And he raised the taxes on businesses and on the rich like never seen before or since to help fund those national interests.

He used that tax money to build the middle class with aid to veterans, cheap college and housing, a strong welfare state, and worker protections. If you were willing to work hard and work within the system, you felt secure in knowing you’d probably do well. This was the foundation of what many came to see as the American Dream. He also used that tax money to build infrastructure and modernize the entire country, bringing the national economy into position as part of the country’s new global power, so that American businesses had the power of the US government behind them in the boom years as US military and economy became a global force following the aftermath of WWII.

We haven’t seen an old school progressive elected to the presidency since that time. And so we’ve forgotten what it looks like… or at least what it sounds like. We have no idea if Trump will follow through on this political vision that is still in the process of being formulated. But that also fits into the uncertainty that is felt by many when progressivism comes to power, bringing along with it a tinge of radicalism and risk-taking, putting everything on the line to create a new order.

I’m not saying you should support Trump and feel inspired by his vision. I’ve never thought he necessarily meant anything he has said. And I’ve never trusted his motivations. I’d apply the same caution toward Bannon, of course. Even so, you should understand what it is that’s being said and why it is so powerful at times like these. This kind of populist rhetoric leading to this kind of populist movement is far from unknown in American history. And it doesn’t easily fall into simple left/right categories. Even if you want to fight it, you better understand what you’re fighting. Old school progressivism is a powerful beast.

* * *

There is another aspect of old school progressivism. It just occurred to me. The aspect is that of technocratic management, sometimes associated with modern liberalism but with its origins in early Progressivism.

The clear example of it was FDR’s administration. He saw society and the economy as something to be managed and, of course, it was assumed that those who would manage it were the technocratic experts. It wasn’t just that there needed to be central management. That had existed before. The difference was that it was an overt and direct management.

That is what justified forcing both organized labor and the capitalist class to work together. Prior to that, the labor wars were often violent, sometimes erupting into gunfights between workers and corporate goons, often the Pinkertons. The Progressive vision was in response to a violent and lawless time in US history, what felt like social breakdown with the rise of gangs and organized crime, along with the privatized police forces like the Pinkertons.

It was also a time of corruption with many politicians being openly bribed. The idea of Progressivism was to create a professional bureaucracy that eliminated cronyism, favoritism, nepotism, and all other forms of corruption. The idea was to create a meritocracy within the government. The most qualified people would be put into official positions and so this decision-making taken out of the control of party leaders.

It would be a well managed government.

So, it was interesting when I heard Trump use similar rhetoric, from something he said a year ago. The specific issue he was talking about is irrelevant, as he walked back his support immediately afterward. It was the way of talking itself that matters most, as it shows the kind of attitude he will bring to politics. In explaining how he would accomplish something, he stated that:

“It would be just good management. What you have to do is good management procedures and we can do that… it’s all about management, our country has no management.”

The issue that he was talking about is relevant in one particular way. It was about law and order. That is what management meant in old school progressivism. A well managed society was an orderly society based on the rule of law and enforced by a professional bureaucracy. There is a paternalism in this worldview, the heart of progressivism. The purpose of a government was seen as taking care of problems and taking care of the citizenry.

I’ll be curious to see what this kind of language means for the Trump administration.

Democracy: Rhetoric & Reality

The federal bureaucrats, think tank leaders, and congressional staff members they surveyed, Ginsberg said in an interview with VICE News, “have no idea what Americans think and they don’t care. They think Americans are stupid and should do what they are told.”
~ Alex Thompson

The US political system is functioning as designed. From early on, the Federalists envisioned a government controlled and operated by a paternalistic ruling elite of rich white men — some combination of plutocrats, technocrats, bureaucrats, and disinterested aristocracy.

The ‘People’ was intended to be a meaningless abstraction to placate the dirty masses. When the general population actually tried to assert their authority, they were violently put down. Over time, the ruling elite found less violent ways to keep the public in line, such as the increasing spectacle of elections.

If we are to take democracy seriously, we need to understand the kind of system we have. Then we should consider the alternatives.

The following includes two passages from a book. Below that are numerous links to articles. I wanted to share some views on democracy, elections, sortition, representation, oligarchy, technocracy, etc.

* * *

Democracy Denied: The Untold Story
by Arthur D. Robbins
Kindle Locations 492-523

In addition to participating in the debates occurring in the Assembly (the ekklesia), the Athenian citizen could be called upon to serve as a juror in one of the many legal actions involving private or public suits, to serve in an administrative capacity as magistrate overseeing some government function (such as water or grain supply, building projects, or trade), or to serve on the Council (the boule). The boule was a body of five hundred members and was responsible for drafting preparatory legislation for consideration by the Assembly, overseeing the meetings of the Assembly, and in certain cases executing legislation as directed by the Assembly.

The members of the boule were selected by a lottery held each year among male citizens over thirty years of age. Fifty men would be chosen from each of the ten Athenian tribes, with service limited to twice in a lifetime. There were ten months in the Athenian calendar, and one of the ten tribes was in ascendancy each month. The fifty citizen councilors (prytanies) of the dominant tribe each month served in an executive function over the boule and the ekklesia. From that group of fifty, one individual (the epistates) would be selected each day to preside over the boule and, if it met in session that day, the ekklesia.

The epistates held the keys to the treasury and the seal to the city, and he welcomed foreign ambassadors. It has been calculated that one-quarter of all citizens must at one time in their lives have held the post, which could be held only once in a lifetime. Meetings of the boule might occur on as many as 260 days in the course of a year.

The third element of the Athenian democracy was the system of jury courts known as the dikasteria. Jurors were selected by lot from an annual pool of 6,000 citizens (600 from each of the ten tribes) over the age of thirty. There were both private suits and public suits. For private suits the minimum jury size was 201; it was increased to 401 if a sum of more than 1,000 drachmas was at issue. For public suits there was a jury of 501. On occasion a jury of 1,001 or 1,501 would be selected. Rarely, the entire pool of 6,000 would be put on a case. No Athenian juror was ever subjected to compulsory empanelment, voir dire, or sequestration, nor was any magistrate empowered to decide what evidence the jury could or could not be allowed to see.

Jurors could not be penalized for their vote— unless it could be shown that they had accepted bribes. But the practice of selecting juries randomly on the morning of the trial and the sheer size of the juries served to limit the effectiveness of bribery. The Athenian court system did not operate according to precedent. No jury was bound by the decisions of previous juries in previous cases. This is a striking difference between Athenian law and more familiar systems such as Roman law or English common law. Such a system of justice was consistent with the Athenian opposition to elitism and the oppressive effects of received wisdom in matters of justice. Each citizen used his own common sense to make judgments based on personal belief and prevailing mores.

Some crimes had penalties predetermined by law, but in most cases the choice was left up to the jury.

Kindle Locations 2960-3046

Choosing by lot is the most democratic procedure of all. It establishes political equality by allowing anyone to govern, based on a chance event. There is no opportunity to buy the election or manipulate votes. However, the pool of candidates itself can be open-ended, as it was in Athens, or, for the most part, confined to the upper elements of society, as it tended to be in Florence. The same applies to elections. The pool of candidates can be open to anyone or it can be restricted by membership in a particular party, by property qualification, or by wealth. Voting itself can be restricted— by race, sex, social status, wealth, and so on— or suffrage can be universal. But, no matter, because the means of selecting the governors is independent of the form of government. A society can elect an aristocracy or an oligarchy or even a monarch.

At the height of his career, Napoleon Bonaparte was probably the most powerful person in Western Europe. He enjoyed great popularity at home, if not elsewhere. In 1804, he had himself crowned emperor. He held a plebiscite to confirm his authority and received the enthusiastic support he was seeking. In other words, Napoleon held an election to determine if he would be supreme ruler. Let us imagine that there was universal suffrage and that the election was scrupulously fair. Let us also imagine, just for the sake of argument, that the choice was unanimous, that not a single vote was cast to deny Napoleon the title of emperor. Thus we have a completely democratic, honest election with a unanimous outcome. What kind of government do we have the day after this democratic election? Clearly, an autocracy.

Charles V— who made his home in Spain— presided over an empire that was ten times the size of the Roman Empire. He ruled over the Burgundian Netherlands. He was King of Naples and Sicily, Archduke of Austria, King of the Romans (or German King), and Holy Roman Emperor. It was his empire upon which “the sun never set.” “Spain” was not the Spain of today, but many separate “Spains,” something like the city-states of northern Italy. Charles needed to be declared King in Navarre, Valencia, Aragon, Castile, and Catalonia. In 1516, at the age of sixteen, he was elected King of Aragon, a “republic” with an elective king. The assembly gave notice that “we who are as good as you, make you, who are no better than we, our king. And we will bear true allegiance if you observe our laws and customs; if not, not” (Barzun, 93). Despite these noble sentiments and stipulations, the day after the election the people of Aragon lived under a monarchy.

Thus, there is no causal relation whatsoever between the means of selecting one’s governors and the form of government that results from the selection process. In fact, for obvious reasons, any time you have an election as a means of selecting the governor( s), you automatically will have an oligarchy/ aristocracy or an autocracy/ monarchy. Why? Because the many select the few or the one. Thus, voting in which elections are fully democratic and fair is in fact anti-democratic. One cannot have voting and have a democracy at the same time.[ 140] Remember, it’s a numbers game. The many choose the few. It is the few who govern, even if we choose them at election time.

“But,” you may say, “we choose them. They are beholden to us.” Neither one of these propositions is necessarily true. In his book The Ruling Class, Gaetano Mosca [141] observes:

The fact that a people participates in electoral assemblies does not mean that it directs the government or that the class that is governed chooses its governors.[ 142] It means merely that when the electoral function operates under favorable social conditions it is a tool by which certain political forces are enabled to control and limit the activity of other political forces. (Mosca, 98).

In other words, it seems as if we choose and control, but we don’t.

As Mosca points out, the deck is always stacked. “When we say that the voters ‘choose’ their representative, we are using a language that is very inexact. The truth is that the representative has himself elected by the voters … that his friends have him elected” (italics in the original). We end up voting for those who are preselected by virtue of their “moral, intellectual and material means to force their will upon others, take the lead over the others and command them” (ibid., 154) (italics in the original).

Thus, in practice, in popular elections, freedom of choice, “though complete theoretically, necessarily becomes null, not to say ludicrous.” The voter, for his vote to have meaning, ends up having to choose from among a very small number of contenders, the two or three who have a chance of succeeding, “and the only ones who have any chance of succeeding are those whose candidacies are championed by groups, by committees, by organized minorities” (Mosca, ibid.) (italics in the original).[ 143]

The relative handful who are selected to speak for the citizenry are rarely, if ever, a random selection. They are rarely, if ever, demographically representative of the population at large. And they are rarely, if ever, open to the wishes of their constituency. Instead, those selected to represent speak not for their constituency but for the organized minorities who put them in power, minorities with certain values in common, “based on considerations of property and taxation, on common material interests, on ties of family, class, religion, sect or political party”( ibid., 155). Thus, the preselected minority speaks for an even narrower minority who sponsored their candidacy based on a specific set of goals at odds with the needs and wishes of the vast majority. Mosca was writing in the 1930s. What would he say if he knew that it now takes millions of dollars to get elected to the House of Representatives, tens of millions to be elected senator or governor, and close to a billion to be elected president? He would probably say, “I told you so.”

“But,” you may argue, “we in the United States have a Constitution and a Bill of Rights that protects our civil liberties.” Yes, true. However, the Constitution simply guarantees that we live under an oligarchy,[ 144] one that seems to be drifting toward monarchy. As for the first ten amendments, the Bill of Rights, they are critical to our civic democracy (C.D. +)— our rights to self-expression and freedom of movement— but, as important as they are, they do not determine the form of political government we live under.

“Yes, but,” you may ask, “didn’t Madison say that the people had the last word, that they were sovereign?” Yes, he did say that. On several occasions he said that power is derived from the people (F.P., No. 37, 227; No. 39, 241; No. 49, 314). He also said that the “ultimate authority … resides in the people alone” (ibid., No. 46, 294), that the people are “the only legitimate fountain of power”( ibid., No. 49, 313), and that they are “the fountain of authority” (ibid., No. 51, 321). These are examples of what I call rhetorical democracy (R.D. +, P.D.–)— democracy of words, not deeds, the most frequently encountered kind of democracy in a world dominated by those who oppose true popular government.[ 145]

Once we clear away the mist of myth and rhetoric, we discover that the American government was established by men who needed to placate the people while setting themselves up as arbiters of the new nation’s destiny. In a 1991 book entitled The Rise and Fall of Democracy in Early America, 1630– 1789, Joshua Miller speaks of “the ghostly body politic” and declares that “despite the explicit anti-democratic statements of the Federalists, Americans persist in describing the government they designed as a democracy” (Miller, 105). This confusion, he maintains, was deliberately created by the Federalists, who used “pseudodemocratic rhetoric” (ibid., 106) to make it appear as if “popular sovereignty” was the same thing as “popular government.” “The Federalists ascribed all power to a mythical entity that could never meet, never deliberate, never take action. The body politic became a ghost” (ibid., 113). By ascribing all power to “the people”— an empty abstraction— and transferring that power to a strong central government, the Federalists were able to assume power for themselves while appearing to do just the opposite. “Popular sovereignty would give the new government the support of the people and, at the same time, insulate the national government from the actual activity of the people”( ibid., 121).

Democracy is a form of government in which political power is equally distributed among the citizen population. The people are sovereign not just in principle, but in fact. Aristotle declares, “Private rights do not make a citizen. He is ordinarily one who possesses political power” (McKeon, 550). In other words, our civic rights (C.D. +) do not make us citizens. Our direct participation in government (P.D. +) makes us citizens. “A citizen is one who shares in governing and being governed,” according to Aristotle (ibid., 604). “What, then, is democracy?” asks Max Weber. “In itself it means simply that no formal inequality of political rights exists between the classes of the population” (Weber, 275). In a democracy, political equality prevails.

I believe that for those of us living in the Western “democracies” the concept of political equality, as opposed to social equality, has simply disappeared from our lexicon, from our thoughts, from our utterances, from our struggles. We want a better deal for ourselves and our neighbors. Perhaps we even want social justice. But it never occurs to us that without political equality, our wishes cannot be fulfilled.

This was not always true. Once independence had been declared and fought for in the United States, just about everyone was aware of the issue of power and its distribution. Political equality represented a conscious choice for many. This was the case, as well, in the early Italian city-states, to a degree in the Roman Republic, and, of course, in ancient Athens.

Currently, as governments abandon even the pretense of serving the common good, there is a resurgent interest in political equality as a means to gaining some degree of control over the affairs of state. In the process of learning to govern we begin to unfold as individuals in ways that we didn’t know that were possible. We begin to understand that government shapes us just as we shape it.

* * *

Sortition: Democracy
Wikipedia

Election is not synonym of democracy
Le Message

A Citizen Legislature
Stretching our thinking about how we govern ourselves

by Ernest Callenbach & Michael Phillips, Context Institute

A Real Democracy Would Use Sortition
by Virtually Yours, Disinfo

Sortition and Direct Democracy
by Yavor Tarinski, New Compass

Against elections
by Davd Van Reybrouck, Policy Network

Anxieties of Democracy
by Hélène Landemore, Boston Review

Democracy without Elections
by Brian Martin, University of Wollongong

Imagine a Democracy Built on Lotteries, Not Elections
by  Terrill Bouricius, et al, Zócalo Public Square

How Selecting Voters Randomly Can Lead to Better Elections
by Joshua Davis, Wired

Is It Time to Take a Chance on Random Representatives?
by Michael Schulson, The Daily Beast

Why elections are bad for democracy
by David Van Reybrouck, The Guardian

And the lot fell on… sortition in Ancient Greek democratic theory & practice
by Paul Cartledge, Oxford University Press

Allotment and Democracy in Ancient Greece
by Paul Demont, Books & Ideas

Ancient Athens didn’t have politicians. Is there a lesson for us?
by Tom Atlee, P2P Foundation Wiki

Ancient Greeks would not recognise our ‘democracy’ – they’d see an ‘oligarchy
by Paul Cartledge, University of Cambridge

The Sortition Option
by Jon Roland, Constitution Society

* * *

They don’t like you.
by Alex Thompson, Vice

Washington ‘insiders’ snub their noses at US public
by Jill Rosen, Futurity

Study: Washington officials see public as largely uninformed
U.S. Capitol Dome
by John Fritze, The Baltimore Sun

Washington’s ‘governing elite’ think Americans are morons
by Jeff Guo, The Washington Post

How dumb does Washington think we all are?
by Kyle Smith, New York Post

The political clout of the superrich
by Chrystia Freeland, Reuters

Surprising Studies Find DC Does What Wealthiest Want, Majority Opposes
by Dave Johnson, OurFuture.org

Stark New Evidence on How Money Shapes America’s Elections
by Yves Smith, Naked Capitalism

Stacked Deck
by Lauren Strayer, Demos

The Political Roots of Inequality
by Nolan McCarty, The American Interest

Is America an Oligarchy?
by John Cassidy, The New Yorker

Testing Theories of American Politics:
Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens

by Martin Gilens & Benjamin I. Page, Princeton University

First Chapter: Affluence and Influence
by Martin Gilens, Ash Center

Under the Influence
by Martin Gilens, Boston Review

Economic Inequality and Political Power (Pt. 2 & 3)
by Martin Gilens, Monkey Cage

Critics argued with our analysis of U.S. political inequality. Here are 5 ways they’re wrong.
by Martin Gilens & Benjamin I. Page, The Washington Post

A new study says politicians don’t favor the rich. That’s debatable.
by Dylan Matthews, The Washington Post

Trans-Pacific Trade Pact Highlights the Political Power of the Affluent
by Brendan Nyhan, The New York Times

One Big Reason for Voter Turnout Decline and Income Inequality: Smaller Unions
by Sean McElwee, The American Prospect

Why U.S. Politicians Think Americans Are So Conservative When They’re Not
by Philip Bump, The Wire

* * *

Political Elites Disconnected From General Public

Wirthlin Effect & Symbolic Conservatism

The Court of Public Opinion: Part 1

US Demographics & Increasing Progressivism

The Reactionary Mind in a Reactionary Age

The reactionary mind has interested me as much, if not more, than the bicameral mind. Corey Robin was my introduction to the former, although maybe that credit should be given to Richard Hofstadter. Robin’s book on the topic was enlightening. But soon after reading it, I wished someone had also written book like it about liberals.

I’m not sure it matters, though. I’ve since come to the conclusion that conservatives and liberals are kin, existing on a continuum and even of the same essence, together forming a shared dynamic. I’ve even gone so far as to argue that we live in an all-encompassing liberal age and that, therefore, conservatism is just another variety of liberalism. Conservatism, for sure, is a particularly reactionary variety of liberalism. That doesn’t let liberalism off the hook. The reactionary mind is inherent within the liberal paradigm, a necessary consequence. Or here is another thought: Maybe the reactionary mind precedes both. That is a much more interesting line of thought.

The impulse to categorize people, according to ideologies or otherwise, goes back to the post-bicameral Axial Age. That era was when reactionary politics, such as among the Greek philosophers, first became apparent—and when rhetoric began to develop. Bicameral societies (and other pre-Axial societies), on the other hand, would have had no place for the reactionary mind.

Just some ideas rolling around in my head. My inspiration came from perusing some articles and blog posts about reactionary politics, specifically in terms of Corey Robin and one of his critics, Mark Lilla. I haven’t yet read any books by the latter.

I might note that Robin is a leftist of some kind who is critical of liberals as well as conservatives while Lilla is a (former?) conservative who dislikes what he perceives as the mob of Tea Party libertarians. So, as Lilla longs for the supposed moderate conservatism of yesteryear, Robin strongly argues that no such thing ever existed. On the other hand, someone noted that Lilla’s views may have shifted in his latest writings, undermining some of his past criticisms of Robin’s theory of reactionary conservatism.

It should be pointed out that Robin is in good company in making his argument. There was a right-winger during the French Revolution who observed that conservatism only comes into existence after traditionalism is on the wane. That is to say conservatism isn’t traditionalism but a response to its loss, but then again liberalism is also a response to the same thing. The issue, in that case, being what is the difference between response and reaction.

It’s interesting to see these learned thinkers grapple with such issues. But my recent preoccupation with Jaynesian theory (and related views) has led me down other pathways. I wonder if the likes of Robin and Lilla aren’t probing deep enough or going back as far as they should (Lilla, though, might be looking at some earlier origins). Also, maybe they are constrained by their focus on political history and their omission of the truly fascinating research done in classical studies and the social sciences. There seems to be a particular worry and wariness about dealing with the messiness of psychology, i.e., the basic level of human nature that precedes and permeates all ideologies.

My basic sense, in reading some of the analyses and responses by and to Robin and Lilla, is that there is much confusion about the reactionary mind. What exactly is it? What causes it? And what purpose does it serve? The main confusion being its relationship to conservatism. Is there anything to conservatism besides reaction? For that matter, does or can conservatism exist outside of the liberal paradigm (and if not what does that say about liberalism in its relationship to the reactionary mind)?

The latter brings me to some thoughts from this past year, in watching the campaign season spiral into standard American psychosis. Why are liberals so prone to falling into reactionary thought, either temporarily or permanently? And when liberals permanently get stuck in a reactionary mindset, why it they so often if not always become conservatives or right-wingers (or else anti-leftists)? Just look back at liberals during the Cold War when liberals were among the harshest critics and most dangerous opponents of left-wingers. Or look at the study done on liberals after 9/11, those who saw repeated video of the attack became more supportive of Bush’s War on Terror. If liberals aren’t liberal when it really matters, then what is liberalism?

I’m also brought to questions about the moral imagination, the social construction of reality, symbolic conflation, and much else. I have no clear conclusions. Just wondering about what it all means and what it says about the world we find ourselves in, how we got here and where we might be heading.

More than anything, I wonder what all the reaction is about. We are dominated by reaction. Why is that? What is being reacted to? Reasons that reactionaries give change over time, from generation to generation, century to century, and yet the basic reactionary mindset remains unchanging, maybe for millennia. Is reaction inevitable? Or have earlier societies found other ways of dealing with change and uncertainty?

* * *

Roads Not Taken: Mark Lilla on Political Reaction
By Daniel McCarthy, The New York Times

LILLA’S FORTHCOMING SHIPWRECK
By Gabriel Sanchez, Opus Publicum

How Does the Mind of the Political Reactionary Work?
By Hans Rollman, Pop Matters

The Flight 93 Election
By Publius Decius Mus, Claremont Institute

“What’s it all about, boy? Elucidate!” – or – How To Avoid Huge, Shipwrecked Minds
by John Holbo, Crooked Timber

Here’s the most powerful (and chilling) case for Trump you’ll ever hear
By Damon Linker, The Week

Reactionaries In Our Time
By Rod Dreher, The American Conservative

Republicans for Revolution
By Lilla, The New York Review of Books

‘The Reactionary Mind’: An Exchange
By Corey Robin, reply by Mark Lilla, NYB

Contraception and Counterrevolution
By David V. Johnson, interview w/ Corey Robin, Boston Review

Wrong Reaction
By Alex Gourevitch, Jacobin

Lilla v. Robin
by Henry, Crooked Timber

Online Fracas for a Critic of the Right
By Jennifer Schuessler, The New York Times

Mark Lilla’s Truly Awful Review of Corey Robin’s Book
By Andrew Hartman, S-USIH

Redefining the Right Wing
By Daniel Larison, The New Inquiry

Reactionary Minds
By Ari Kohen, blog

Conservatives and reactionaries
By John Quiggin, Crooked Timber

Why Conservatives Are Still Crazy After All These Years
By Rick Perlstein, Rolling Stone

The Reactionary Libertarian
By A. Jay Adler, the sad red earth