Bias About Bias

A common and contentious issue is accusations of bias, often in the media but more interestingly in science. But those making perceiving bias can’t agree what they are. Some even see biases in how biases are understood. An example of this is how ideologies are labeled, defined, framed, and measured. I’m specifically thinking in terms of opinion polling and social science research.

A certain kind of liberal oddly agrees with conservatives about many criticisms of liberalism. I can be that kind of odd liberal in some ways, as complaining about liberals is one of my favorite activities and I do so very much from a liberal perspective. But there are two areas where I disagree with liberals who critique their fellow liberals.

First, I don’t see a liberal bias in the social sciences or whatever else, at least not in the way it is often argued. And second, I don’t see human nature as being biased toward conservatism (nor, as Jonathan Haidt concludes, that conservatives are more broadly representative and better understanding of human nature).

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Let me begin with the first.

I agree in one sense, from a larger perspective, and I could go even further. There is a liberal bias in our entire society and in all of modern Western civilization. Liberalism is the dominant paradigm.

As far as that goes, even conservatives today have a liberal bias, which is obvious when one considers how most of conservatism is defined by the liberalism of the past and often not even that far into the past. Conservatives in the modern West are more liberal than liberals used to be — not just more liberal in a vague relative sense, as contemporary conservatives in historical terms are amazingly liberal (politically, socially, and psychologically). Beyond comparisons to the past, the majority who identify as conservative even hold largely liberal positions in terms of present-day standard liberalism.

Being in a society that has been more or less liberal for centuries has a way of making nearly everyone in that society liberal to varying degrees. Our short lives don’t allow us the perspective to be shocked by how liberal we’ve all become. This shows how much Western society has embraced the liberal paradigm. Even the most reactionary politics ends up being defined and shaped by liberalism. We live in a liberal world and, to that extent, we are all liberals in the broad sense.

But this gets into what we even mean by the words we use. A not insignificant issue.

This insight about the relativity of liberalism has been driven home for me. In the context of our present society, using the general population as the measure, those who identify as and are perceived as liberals (specifically in mainstream politics and mainstream media) are really moderate-to-center-right. Sure, the average ‘liberal’ is to the left of the political right, by definition. Then again, the average ‘liberal’ is far to the right of most of the political left (or at least this is true for the liberal class that dominates). Those who supposedly represent liberalism are often neither strongly nor consistently liberal, and so I wonder: In what sense are they liberal? Well, beyond the general fact of their living in a liberal society during a liberal age.

This watered-down liberalism defined by the status quo skewed rightward becomes the defining context of everything in our society (and, assuming the so-called liberals are somewhere in the moderate middle, that still leaves unresolved the issue of what exactly they are in the middle of — middle of elite-promoted mainstream thought? middle of the professional middle-to-upper class?). If social science has a liberal bias, it is this bias of this ‘moderate middle’ or rather what gets portrayed as such. And put that way, it doesn’t sound like much of a bias as described, other than the bias of ideological confusion and self-confirmation, but certainly not a bias toward the political left. As far as leftists go, this supposed liberalism is already pretty far right in its embrace or at least tolerance of neoliberal corporatism and neocon oligarchy. Certainly, the ‘liberals’ of the Democratic Party are in many ways to the right of the American public, with nearly half of the latter not voting (and so we aren’t talking about a ‘liberalism’ that is in the middle of majority opinion).

The question isn’t just what words mean but who gets to define words and who has the power to enforce their definitions onto the rest of society. Liberalism ends up being a boundary, a last line of defense. This far left and no further. Meanwhile, there seems to be no limit to how far our society is allowed to drift right, often with the cooperation of ‘liberal’ New Democrats, until we teeter on the edge of authoritarianism and fascism, although always with liberal rhetoric playing in our ears. The liberal paradigm so dominates our imaginations that we can’t see the illiberal all around us. So, liberalism dominates, even as it doesn’t rule, at least not in a direct and simplistic sense.

With all this in mind, the mainstream may have a ‘liberal’ bias in this way. But it obviously doesn’t have a leftist bias. There is the problem. Leftism has been largely ignored, except for its usefulness as a bogeyman since the Cold War. Mainstream liberalism is as far (maybe further) away from leftism as it is from conservatism. And yet to mainstream thought, leftism isn’t allowed to have an independent identity outside of liberalism, besides when a scapegoat is needed. Ignored in all this is how far leftist is the American public, the silenced majority — an important detail, one might think.

Social scientists, political scientists, and pollsters all the time include nuanced categories for the political right, distinguishing conservatives from libertarians, authoritarians, and reactionaries. But what about nuanced categories for the political left? They don’t exist, at least not within mainstream thought. There is little if any research and data about American social democrats, socialists, communists, Marxists, anarchosyndicalists, left-libertarians, etc; as if such people either don’t exist or don’t matter. It’s only been in recent years that pollsters even bothered to ask Americans about some of this, discovering that the majority of certain demographics (younger generations, minorities, etc) do lean left, including about the terms and labels they favor, such as seeing ‘socialism’ in a positive light.

In social science, we know so little about the political left. The research simply isn’t there. Social science researchers may be ‘liberal’, however we wish to define that, but one gets the sense that few social science researchers are left-liberals and fewer still are leftists. It would be hard for radical left-wingers (or those who are perceived as such within the mainstream) to get into and remain within academia, to get hired and get tenure and then to do social science research. As hierarchical and bureaucratic institutions often run on a business model and increasingly privately funded, present day universities aren’t as welcoming to the most liberal-minded leftist ideologies.

Anarchists, in particular, are practically invisible to social science research. Just as invisible are left-libertarians (many being anarcho-syndicalists), as it is assumed in the mainstream that libertarian is by definition right-wing, despite the fact that even right-libertarians tend to be rather liberal-minded (more liberal-minded than mainstream liberals in many ways). It’s almost impossible to find any social science research on these ideologies and what mindsets might underlie them.

Let’s at least acknowledge our ignorance and not pretend to know more than we do.

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This brings me to the second thing.

Among some liberals (e.g., Jonathan Haidt), it’s assumed that human nature is inherently conservative. What is interesting is that this is, of course, a standard conservative argument. But you never hear the opposite, conservatives arguing human nature is liberal.

The very notion of a singular human nature is itself a conservative worldview. A more liberal-minded view is that human nature either doesn’t exist, not in a monolithic sense at least, or else that human nature is fluid, malleable, and shaped by the environment. The latter view is becoming the dominant view in the social sciences, although there are some holdouts like Haidt.

Mainstream thought changes slowly. The idea of a singular human nature was primarily held by the liberal-minded in centuries past. This is because it was used to defend universal human rights and civil rights, often in terms of inborn natural rights. The Enlightenment thinkers and later revolutionary pamphleteers helped spread the notion that everyone had a human nature and that it was basically the same, no matter if European or otherwise, rich or poor, free or slave, civilized or savage.

As opposed to today, the conservative-minded of that earlier era weren’t open to such thinking. Now conservatives have embraced this former ideologically and psychologically liberal position. Classical liberalism, radical in its opposition to the traditionalism of its day, is now seen by even conservatives as the bedrock tradition of our liberal society.

The very notion of a human nature is the product of civilization, not of a supposed human nature. Prior to the Axial Age, no one talked about a human nature nor is it obvious that they ever acted based on the assumption that such a thing existed. The invention of the idea of a ‘human nature’ was itself a radical act, a reconception of what it means to be human. All of post-Axial Age civilization is built on this earliest of radical visions that was further radicalized during the Enlightenment. Without the Axial Age (and one might argue the breakdown of the bicameral mind that made it possible), there would have been no Greco-Roman democracy, republicanism, philosophy, and science; and so no Renaissance that would have helped inspire the European Enlightenment.

The question isn’t just what is human nature, such as conservative or liberal, individualistic or social, etc. First and foremost, we must ask if such a thing exists. If so, what exactly does it even mean to speak of a ‘human nature’? Those are the kinds of questions that are more likely to be considered by the most liberal-minded, at least in the context of present Western society.

When certain liberals argue for a conservative human nature, I suspect an ulterior motive. The implication seems to be that conservatism is the most primitive and base, uncultured and uncivilized layer of the human psyche. As liberals we must contend with this conservatism and so let’s throw the conservative wolf a bone in hopes of domesticating it into a dog that can be house-broken and house-trained.

This could be seen as turning liberalism into an advanced achievement of modern civilization that transcends beyond a base and primal human nature, as if the difficulties and weaknesses of liberalism prove its worth. Sure, conservatism may be the foundation, but liberalism is the penthouse on the upper floors decked out with the finest of modern conveniences. Liberalism is to conservatism, from this perspective, in the way modern civilization is to ancient tribalism. Whatever one may argue about those earlier societies in relation to human nature, I doubt many want to return to that kind of social order, not even among the most nostalgic of reactionaries.

This is an argument made by Jonathan Haidt in promoting a Whiggish narrative of capitalism, despite his at other times bending over backwards to praise conservatism. Using conservatism as a broad base upon which to build the progressive liberal dream is not exactly what conservatives are hoping for from their ideological movement. This is why Haidt doesn’t grasp that most conservatives don’t want to just get along, for egalitarian tolerance isn’t a conservative-minded attitude.

One might suspect that calling human nature fundamentally conservative is a bit of a backhanded compliment. A wary conservative likely would assume a hidden condescension or else an attempt to butter them up for some ulterior motive. Even with the best of intentions, this seems like a wrong way to think about the ideological situation.

Here is a central problem. Anthropological accounts of tribal societies, I’d argue, don’t confirm the hypothesis of a conservative human nature. Outside of the modern Westernized world, I doubt it makes much sense to use a modern Westernized frame like liberal vs conservative. The approach used by theorists of Darwinian psychology has too many pitfalls, misguiding us with cultural biases and leading to deeply unfalsifiable just-so stories. As John Gray stated so clearly, in The Knowns and the Unknowns (New Republic):

“There is no line of evolutionary development that connects our hominid ancestors with the emergence of the Tea Party. Human beings are not amoebae that have somehow managed to turn themselves into clever primates. They are animals with a history, part of which consists of creating cultures that are widely divergent. Using evolutionary psychology to explain current political conflicts represents local and ephemeral differences as perennial divisions in the human mind. It is hard to think of a more stultifying exercise in intellectual parochialism.

“Like distinctions between right and left, typologies of liberalism and conservatism may apply in societies that are broadly similar. But the meaning that attaches to these terms differs radically according to historical circumstances, and in many contexts they have no meaning at all.”

For example, in thinking about the Pirahã, I don’t see them as being fundamentally conservative, at least as Daniel Everett portrays them. It appears they don’t particularly care about or, in some cases, even comprehend the worldview of what we call conservatism: need for control and closure, ideological dogmatism and rigid belief systems, natural law and universal morality, family values and the sanctity of marriage, organized religion and religiosity (much less literalism and fundamentalism), rituals and traditions, law and order, social roles and authority figures, overtly enforced social norms and community-sanctioned punishments, public shaming and harsh judgment, disciplinarian parenting and indoctrination of children, strict morality and sexual prudery, disgust about uncleanliness and protection against contagion, worry about injury and death, fear-ridden anxiety and heightened threat perception, dislike toward a lack of orderliness and clear guidelines, etc.

Within their society, they don’t have any kind of hierarchies or privileged positions. They have no chiefs, respected committee of elders, governing body, or political system. Any person could be a temporary leader for a particular activity, but the need for a leader is merely pragmatic and rare. Their society is loosely organized with no formal or traditional roles, such as shaman or medicine man. They lack anything resembling a social institution or social structure. They don’t even have such things as initiations into adulthood, traditions of storytelling, etc. The communal aspects of their tribalism are quite basic and mostly in the background. What holds their society together is simply a cultural identity and personal relationships, not outward rules and forms.

Their way of relating to the larger world is casual as well. They don’t have an inordinate amount of worries and concerns about outsiders or hatred and aggression toward them. They don’t seem to obsess about perceived enemies nor foster a worldview of conflict and danger. The worst that they do is complain about those they think treated them unfairly, such as trade deals and land usage, but even that is talked about in a personal way between individuals. Otherwise, their attitude toward non-Pirahã is mostly a casual indifference and the tolerant acceptance that follows from it.

In some key ways, the Pirahã are less conservative-minded and authoritarian than Western liberals. On the other hand, their society is basically conformist and ethnocentric in a typical tribalistic fashion. And they do have some gender role patterns, including in their language. But their pedophilia is gender neutral, not privileging men, as everyone is permitted to participate in sexual play.

Even within the conformity of their group identity, they strongly disapprove of one individual telling another individual what to do. No Pirahã will tell another Pirahã how to be a Pirahã. And if a Pirahã was unhappy being a Pirahã, I doubt another Pirahã would be bothered or try to stop them from leaving. They appear to have a rather live and let live philosophy.

Pointing out a specific area of social science research, I’m not sure how boundary types would be applied to the Pirahã, in that they don’t think about boundaries as modern Westerners do. They live in such a small world that what exists outside of the boundaries of their experience is simply irrelevant, such that they wouldn’t even recognize a boundary as such. Where their experience of the world stops, that is the edge of their world. There is just what they personally know and then there is everything else. Boundaries are explicitly acknowledged liminal spaces and so extremely fuzzy in their worldview, including boundaries of consciousness and identity. The worldviews of either individuality or group-mindedness would likely seem meaningless to them.

Even pointing out the few areas that could be interpreted as ‘conservative’, I wouldn’t think that would be all that helpful. It doesn’t really say much about human nature in a broad sense. What anthropology shows us, more than anything, is that human societies are diverse and human nature contains immense potential.

Consider all of this from the perspective of the outsider.

Jonathan Haidt came to his understanding partly because of an early experience among another traditional culture, India with its ancient Hinduism and caste system. That gave him a contrast to his liberal view of individualism and convinced him that individualism was lacking in something key to human nature.

I agree, as far as that goes. But I’d simply point out that in the United States the political right is often more obsessed with individualism than is the political left.

It’s American liberals who go on and on about community, the commons, social capital, social responsibility, concern for future generations, externalized costs, environmental protection, natural resource conservation, public parks, public good, public welfare, universal healthcare, universal education, child protection, worker protection, labor unions, public infrastructure, collective governance, group rights, defense of minority cultures, Native American tribal autonomy, etc. And a typical response by American conservatives is to accuse progressive liberals of being collectivists (maybe they’re right about this) while declaring the abstract rights and simplistic individualism of classical liberalism, often mixing this up with fundamentalist religion as though the Christian soul was the basis of Enlightenment individualism and the Biblical God the inspiration for the American Revolution.

Ironically, it is liberals in promoting tolerance who so often end up defending traditional religions and cultures against the attacks by modern-minded conservatives. The latter group, through internalizing libertarian and Objectivist ideologies, have become the fiercest advocates of classical liberalism and hyper-individualism.

Comparison between societies doesn’t necessarily tell us much about comparisons of ideologies within a society. If Haidt had instead spent that time in the Amazon with the Pirahã, he probably would have come to very different views. Plus, it always depends on your starting point, the biases you bring with you. Daniel Everett, who did spend years with the Pirahã, was coming from a different place and so ended up with a different view. Everett was a conservative missionary seeking to convert the natives, but instead they deconverted him and he became an atheist. My sense is that meeting a traditional society left Everett way more liberal than he began, causing him to embrace an attitude of cultural relativism, as inspired by the epistemological relativism of the Pirahã.

What Haidt misses is that Western religious conservatives, especially in the United States, tend to be individualistic Protestants (even American Catholics are strongly individualistic). It’s not that Everett necessarily lost his Evangelical individualism in being deconverted for the traditional society that he met was in some ways even more individualistic, even as it was less individualistic in other ways. The fundamental conflict had little to do with individualism at all. A religious conservative like Everett had been lost in abstractions, based on an abstract religious tradition, but he was blind to these abstractions until he met the Pirahã who found his abstractions to be useless and irritating.

American conservatism, religious and otherwise, can tell us nothing about traditional societies. As Corey Robin convincingly argues, modern conservatives aren’t traditionalists. Modern conservatism was created in response to the failure of the ancien régime. Conservatives came to power not to revive the old order but to create a new and improved order. It wasn’t a movement to conserve but a reaction to what had already been lost. This was clear even early on, as observed by the French counter-revolutionary Joseph de Maistre when he pointed out that people identifying as conservatives only appeared after revolution had largely destroyed what came before.

Also, keep in mind that individualism and liberalism didn’t appear out of nowhere. Incipient forms of both, as I pointed out earlier, came on the scene back in the Axial Age. Even the India Haidt visited was a fully modern society that had seen millennia of change and progress. Hinduism had long ago fallen under the sway of varying forms of influence from the Axial Age to British Imperialism. And if we are to speculate a bit by considering Julian Jaynes’ bicameral theory, even the hierarchical social orders of recent civilizations were late on the scene in the longer view of vast societal development beginning with agriculture and the first settled communities.

To claim we know the ideological substructure of our humanity is to overlook so many complicating factors, some of which we know but most of which we don’t.

This has been a difficulty in our attempt to understand our own psychological makeup, in how our minds and societies operate. The ultimate bias isn’t political but cultural. Most social science research has been done on the WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, And Democratic), primarily white middle class college students. It turns out that very different results are found when other populations are studied, not just countries like India but also tribes like the Pirahã. What we know about ideological groupings, as with human nature, might look far different if we did equally large numbers of studies on the poor, minorities, non-Westerners, independent societies, etc.

It’s not just a matter of what kind of human nature we might be talking about. More importantly, the question is exactly whose human nature are we talking about and who is doing the questioning. WEIRD (Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic) researchers studying WEIRD subjects will lead to WEIRD results and conclusions. That is not exactly helpful. And it is even worse than that, as the biases go deep. Our very approach to human nature, identity, and the mind are shaped by our culture. In a WEIRD culture, that has tended to mean the assumption of an autonomous, bounded individual. As Robert Burton explained it (A Skeptic’s Guide to the Mind, pp. 107-108):

“Results of a scientific study that offer universal claims about human nature should be independent of location, cultural factors, and any outside influences. Indeed, one of the prerequisites of such a study would be to test the physical principles under a variety of situations and circumstances. And yet, much of what we know or believe we know about human behavior has been extrapolated from the study of a small subsection of the world’s population known to have different perceptions in such disparate domains as fairness, moral choice, even what we think about sharing. 16 If we look beyond the usual accusations and justifications— from the ease of inexpensively studying undergraduates to career-augmenting shortcuts— we are back at the recurrent problem of a unique self-contained mind dictating how it should study itself.

“The idea that minds operate according to universal principles is a reflection of the way we study biological systems in general. To understand anatomy, we dissect one body as thoroughly as possible and draw from it a general grasp of human anatomy. Though we expect variations, we see these as exceptions to a general rule. It is to be expected that we see the mind in the same light. One way to circumvent this potentially misleading tendency to draw universal conclusions whenever possible is to subdivide the very idea of a mind into the experiential (how we experience a mind) and the larger conceptual category of the mind— how we think about, describe, and explain what a mind is. What we feel at the personal (experiential) level should not be confused with what a mind might be at a higher level— either as a group or as an extended mind.”

The very belief that the mind can be explained by the mind is a particular worldview. In the context of WEIRD populations being biased toward such a belief, Burton brought up an interesting point (pp. 50-51):

“If each of us has his/ her own innate ease or difficulty with which a sense of causation is triggered, the same data may generate different degrees of a sense of underlying causation in its readers. Though purely speculative, I have a strong suspicion that those with the most easily triggered innate sense of causation are more likely to reduce complex behavior to specific cause-and-effect relationships, while those with lesser degrees of an inherent sense of causation are more comfortable with ambiguous and paradoxical views of human nature. (Of course, for me to make any firm argument as to the cause of the authors’ behavior would be to fall into the same trap.)

“Unfortunately for science, there is no standard methodology for objectively studying subjective phenomena such as the mind. One investigator’s possible correlation is another’s absolute causation. The interpretation of the cause of subjective experience is the philosophical equivalent of asking every researcher if he/ she sees the same red that you do. The degree and nature of neuroscientists’ causal conclusions about the mind are as idiosyncratic as their experience of love, a sunset, or a piece of music.

“There is a great irony that underlies modern neuroscience and philosophy: the stronger an individual’s involuntary mental sense of self, agency, causation, and certainty, the greater that individual’s belief that the mind can explain itself. Given what we understand about inherent biases and subliminal perceptual distortions, hiring the mind as a consultant for understanding the mind feels like the metaphoric equivalent of asking a known con man for his self-appraisal and letter of reference.”

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Here are some further thoughts about liberalism and such.

Maybe our very view of liberal bias has been biased by the ‘liberal class’ that dominates, defines, and studies liberalism. I don’t doubt that there are all kinds of biases related to our living in a modern liberal society as part of post-Enlightenment Western Civilization. But this bias might be wider, deeper, and more complex than we realize.

This class issue has been on my mind a lot lately. We live in a class-obsessed society. Sure, we obsess about class differently than the Indian caste system, but in some ways we are even more obsessed by caste for the very reason that it stands in for so much else, such as how castes include factors of ethnicity, religion and social roles. Class, in American society, has to do so much more ideological work to accomplish the same ends of maintaining a social hierarchy.

Maybe this is why class ideology gets conflated with political ideology, in a way that wouldn’t be seen in a different kind of society. Calling oneself a liberal in our society only indirectly has anything to do with liberal politics and a liberal mentality, as many who identify as liberal aren’t strongly liberal-minded about politics while many who are strongly liberal-minded about politics don’t identify as liberals.

The word ‘liberal’ doesn’t actually mean what we think it means. The same goes for ‘conservative’. These words are proxies for other things. To be called liberal in America most likely means you are part of the broad liberal class, which typically means you’re a well-educated middle-to-upper class professional, no matter that your politics might be moderate-to-conservative in many ways. A poor person who is liberal across the board, however, will unlikely identify as a liberal because they aren’t part of the liberal class. This is why rhetoric about the liberal elite has such currency in our society, even as this so-called liberal elite can be surprisingly more conservative than the general public on a wide variety of key issues.

What we forget is that our society is highly unusual and not representative of human nature, not in the slightest. The American liberal class is the product of a society that is based on Social Darwinian pseudo-meritocracy, late capitalism, plutocratic cronyism, and neoliberal corporatism. As I argued earlier, even American universities are hierarchical, bureaucratic institutions. And the Ivy League colleges still use class-based legacy privileges, which is important for maintaining the American social order as most politicians are Ivy League graduates as are many who are recruited by alphabet soup agencies (e.g., CIA). The larger history of Western universities precedes Enlightenment liberalism by centuries, not having been designed with leftist ideologies in mind.

Yet we consider universities to be refuges for the intellectual elite of the liberal class. That is only true in terms of the class social order. The majority of the liberal-minded, of the socially and politically liberal won’t find a refuge in such a place. In fact, the most strongly liberal-minded would rarely fit into the stultifying regimented lifestyle of a university. To be successful in a university career would require some strong personality traits of conservative-mindedness, although some have argued that was less true decades ago.

As such, liberalism in the United States has taken on so much meaning that has directly nothing to do with liberalism itself, specifically when talking about the role of liberalism within human nature. Consider other societies. In feudal Europe or the slave American South, being liberal (psychologically, socially, and politically) would have had nothing whatsoever to do with class; and if anything, being too liberal in such societies would have been harmful to your class status and class aspirations.

During the American Revolution, it was actually among the lower classes that were found the most liberal-minded radicals and rabblerousers. Thomas Paine, a self-taught working class bloke and often dirt poor, was on of the more liberal-minded among the so-called founding fathers. The more elite founding fathers were too invested in the status quo to go very far in embracing liberalism and many of them became or always were reactionaries and counter-revolutionaries. The working class revolutionaries who fought for liberalism didn’t tend to bode well, either before or after the revolutionary era. It took many more generations before a liberal class began to develop and, even then, the most strongly and radically liberal would often be excluded.

This is the point. A liberal class hasn’t always existed, despite liberal-minded traits having been part of human nature for longer than civilization has existed. The status quo ‘liberalism’ of the liberal class in a modern capitalism of the West is the product of specific conditions. It’s a social construct, as is ‘conservatism’. The entire framework of liberal vs conservative is a social construct that makes no sense outside of the specific society that formed it.

Environments are powerful shapers of the psyche, of attitudes and behavior, of worldviews and politics. All of Western civilization has become increasingly liberal and large part of that has to do with improved conditions for larger parts of the population, such as improved health and education even for the poor. In direct correlation with rising IQ, there is increasing liberalism. How class plays into this is that the upper classes see the improvements before the lower classes, but eventually the improvements trickle down or that is what has happened so far. The average working class American today is healthier, smarter, better educated, and more liberal than the middle class was in centuries past.

So, even class can only be spoken of as a comparative status at any given point in history because it isn’t an objective reality. The liberalism of the American liberal class, as such, can only be meaningfully discussed within the context of its time and place. This is more about a social order than about political ideologies, per se. That is most obvious in how conservatives embrace the liberalism of the past, for conservative and liberal have no objective meaning and there is no objective way to measure them.

Environments effect us in ways that involve confounding factors, and most of us inherit our environments along with other factors from our parents (epigenetics connecting environmental influences to new generations, even if a child was raised in another environment). Think about cats. For whatever reason, cat ownership is much more common in the Northeast and the Northwest of the United States. And as these are colder regions, people are more likely to keep cats inside. But this habit of having cats as indoor pets is a recent development. It has led to a rise in toxoplasmosis, a parasitic infection — as I’ve discussed before in terms of psychology and ideology:

“When mapped for the US population, there is significant overlap between the rate of toxoplasma gondii infections and the rate of the neuroticism trait. Toxoplasmosis is a known factor strongly correlated with neuroticism, a central factor of personality and mental health. When rates are high enough in a specific population, it can potentially even alter culture, which is related to ideology. Is it a coincidence that liberals have high rates of neuroticism and that one of the areas with high rates of toxoplasmosis is known for its liberalism?”

Are New Englanders a particular kind of liberal simply because that is the way they are? Or if we corrected for the confounding factor of cats and toxoplasmosis, would we find for example that there is no causal relation between liberalism and neuroticism?

Environments aren’t always inherited, as it can change quite easily. Will a New England family that moved to the South still show increased rates of neurotic liberalism several generations later? Probably not. Most of this isn’t intentional and parents are often perplexed about why their children turn out differently, oblivious to the larger conditions that shape individuals.

My conservative parents raised me in a liberal church and in some liberal towns. And maybe more importantly, they raised me with cats in the house. It wasn’t genetic determinism and inborn nature that made me into a neurotic liberal. Still, the potential for neuroticism and liberalism had to be within me for environmental conditions to make it manifest. And indeed I can see how my neurotic liberalism is just an exaggerated variation of personality traits I did inherit from my conservative parents who are mildly liberal-minded.

Then again, I did inherit much of my broader environment from my parents: born in the United States, spent my formative years in the Midwest, grew up during the Cold War, went to public schools, encouraged to respect education from a young age, my entire life shaped by Western culture and capitalism, etc. So, my parents’ conservatism and my liberalism probably has more in common than not, as compared to the rest of the world’s population and as compared to past societies. Parents and their children share a social order and the way that social order shapes not just people but all the world around them. And in many cases, parents and their children will share the same basic position or place in society.

That is the case with my family, as contact with the broad liberal class has influenced my conservative parents as much as it has influenced me. The same goes for the Midwestern sensibility I share with my parents. My parents’ Midwestern conservatism seemed liberal when our family moved South. And my liberalism is far different than what goes for liberalism in the South. Had various lines of my family remained outside of the Midwest, the following generations would probably have been far different. Choices to move that were made by previous generations of non-Midwesterners led to my parents and I being born as Midwesterners.

Then, even later on living in the South, my parents and I couldn’t shake how growing up in the Midwest had permanently altered us, more powerfully than any political ideology (although less so for my dad, maybe because his mother was a Southerner). This is why it is often easier for me to talk with my conservative parents or to conservative Iowans than to talk to the liberals of the liberal class from other parts of the country.

Context is everything. And this gets me wondering. If all confounding factors were controlled for, what would be left that could be fairly and usefully identified as political ideology?

When feudalism was the dominant paradigm and ruling social order, it simply seemed like reality itself. It was assumed that social and class position were built into human nature. This is one of the earliest sources of racial thinking. The aristocracy and monarchy assumed (based on pseudo-scientific theories and observations of class, ethnicity, and animal husbandry) that feudal serfs were a separate race, i.e., a sub-species. It turns out that they were wrong. But if they had had the ability to measure various factors (from personality to ideology, from physiology to health), they would have noted consistent patterns that supported the belief that the social order was based on a natural order. It was a dogmatic ideology that was systematically enforced and so became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

What if our own society operates in a similar way? Class-based opportunities and disadvantages, privileges and punishments socially and physically construct a shared experience of reality. A cultural worldview then rationalizes and encloses this in a mythos of ideological realism. The sense of identity is framed by this and those who inquire into human nature already have their sense of human nature constrained accordingly. Unless they are confronted by a truly foreign society, their worldview will remain hermetically sealed.

* * *

How many in our society, even among the well-educated, ever manage to escape from this blindered habitus? Not many. Only as the culture itself shifts will more people within the culture be able to explore new undestandings. This will then lead to new biases, but one could hope those biases will be more expansive and flexible.

Bias is inevitable. But we have the added problem of being biased in our perception of bias. It’s impossible to fully discern one’s own biases while under their influence, although we can gain the awareness of our predicament. The fact that we are beginning to question the biases of our culture indicates that we are beginning to shift outside of them. It will take at least a few more generations, though, before we can understand this shift and what it means.

Give it some time and liberalism will mean something entirely new. And the conservatives of the future will embrace the liberalism of our present. Some of what we now consider radical or even unimaginable will eventually be normal and commonplace. There will be different sets of biases framed in a different worldview and dominated by a different paradigm.

Most people in the future likely won’t even notice that a shift happened, as it likely will be gradual. They’ll assume that the world they know is in some sense how the world has always been. That assumption will shape their sense of human nature, how they think about it and study it, probably in ways that would surprise us. But one thing is for sure. They’ll look back on our debates about ideological natures and biases in the way we look back on the simplistic and misguided rhetoric of feudalism that defined the classes as separate races.

One thing that is safe to assume is that our society is wrong about most things we’ve taken as obvious truth. The realization of such uncertainty is a step toward new understanding.

Poised on a Knife Edge

“To make any thing very terrible, obscurity seems in general to be necessary. When we know the full extent of any danger, when we can accustom our eyes to it, a great deal of the apprehension vanishes.”
~ Edmund Burke

I spent much of the day looking back at old posts. My purpose was to find my various writings on the revolutionary era, specifically in relation to the American Revolution. I was doing so in order to link to them in the post I just wrote, about democratic republicanism in early America.

In my search, I came across a post from several years ago. It is sort of a rambling book review of Yuval Levin’s The Great Debate, the topic being the relationship between Thomas Paine and Edmund Burke. What caught my attention was the comments section. I sometimes put more into the comments section than I do in the post itself. A longtime friend and reader of the blog left a comment, which is partly what led me to go off on some tangents there.

As one of my responses, I quoted at length from Corey Robin’s writings. One quote came from the first book I read by him, The Reactionary Mind:

Earlier than most, Burke understood that if violence were to retain its sublimity, it had to remain a possibility, an object of fantasy— a horror movie, a video game, an essay on war. For the actuality (as opposed to the representation) of violence was at odds with the requirements of sublimity. Real, as opposed to imagined, violence entailed objects getting too close, bodies pressing too near, flesh upon flesh. Violence stripped the body of its veils; violence made its antagonists familiar to each other in a way they had never been before. Violence dispelled illusion and mystery, making things drab and dreary. That is why, in his discussion in the Reflections of the revolutionaries’ abduction of Marie Antoinette, Burke takes such pains to emphasize her “almost naked” body and turns so effortlessly to the language of clothing—“ the decent drapery of life,” the “wardrobe of the moral imagination,” “antiquated fashion,” and so on— to describe the event. 68 The disaster of the revolutionaries’ violence, for Burke, was not cruelty; it was the unsought enlightenment.

Robin explains what Burke meant by the moral imagination, explains why such power exists and what nullifies it. That is why I began this post with the quote by Burke. Here is the fuller context from the 1759 text (“A philosophical enquiry into the origin of our ideas of the sublime and beautiful”, Part Two, Section III – Obscurity):

To make any thing very terrible, obscurity seems in general to be necessary. When we know the full extent of any danger, when we can accustom our eyes to it, a great deal of the apprehension vanishes. Every one will be sensible of this, who considers how greatly night adds to our dread, in all cases of danger, and how much the notions of ghosts and goblins, of which none can form clear ideas, affect minds, which give credit to the popular tales concerning such sorts of beings. Those despotic governments, which are founded on the passions of men, and principally upon the passion of fear, keep their chief as much as may be from the public eye. The policy has been the same in many cases of religion.

It’s not just the power of the mind. Moral imagination is what extends power over people, the emotional grip of distant or hidden authority, human or otherwise. Sublimity and fear, awe and terror.

But this misses the subtlety of this power. Moral imagination is everpresent, the pervasive force that puts blinders on our vision, hypnotizing us into a reality tunnel and sometimes full epistemic closure. As Burke puts it, this forms the wardrobe of our moral imagination, from which we clothe our experience of the world. This wardrobe holds the social constructs of the mind, the ideologies and narratives of society, the customs and norms of culture. It is just there, all around us, enclosing us, a familiar presence, and yet near impossible to see directly, most often barely glimpsed at the periphery of our awareness. It’s power is in its simultaneous obscurity and presence, the unseen depths of unconsciousness with an undertow that can be felt.

Also in the comments section, I pointed to the connection to another writer: “I noticed in these passages that ‘horror’ was mentioned a few times. Corey Robin even made reference to horror movies/films and “delightful horror.” What came to my mind is something that Thomas Ligotti said in an interview. He was discussing monsters. He explained that no story can ever have a monster as the protagonist, for then the sense of monstrosity would be lost. The monster has to remain other and the evil vague. That is what gives a horror story its power to horrify.” That stood out to me most of all. There is a simple reason for this, as I had just recently mentioned Ligotti (in relation to True Detective) to this same friend when he came to visit me. I had forgotten about these comments. Reading them again, I saw them in new light. That involves a more important reason for these comments interesting me. Ligotti was making a deeper point than mere commentary on horror fiction. The most horrifying other is that which is unseen and that is its power over us.

This all connects back to the ongoing development of my own theory, that of symbolic conflation. But I forgot about an earlier post where I brought Burke into the context of symbolic conflation. It was for a different reason, though.

In that post, I explained Burke’s role as an outsider and how that positioned him as a purveyor of symbolic conflation. The moral imagination is all about this, as symbolic conflation is the beating heart, the meeting point of the imagined and the real. The centrality of the outsider status also brings into play the reactionary mind, according to Corey Robin, for the outsider sees most clearly the threat of boundaries being transgressed and all boundaries are ultimately boundaries of the mind. A symbolic conflation is a wall that both marks and establishes the boundary. It makes the boundary real and, in doing so, defends the authority of claims about what is real.

This is the moral imagination of fear. It is a visceral fear, the embodied imagination. A symbolic conflation requires a grounding within bodily experience, fight and flight, pain and illness, pleasure and guilt, punishment and death. It relates to what I call the morality-punishment link. It also offers possible insight into the origins of the reactionary mind. The conservative, as I argue, is simply a liberal in reactionary mode. The conservative is a liberal who has been mugged by their own moral imagination. Their minds have been wrapped in chains of fear and locked shut by symbolic conflation, the visceral experience of a story that has become their reality.

This is a potential existing within everyone, not just those on the political right. But this potential requires specific conditions to become manifest. Liberalism and the conservative reaction to it is an expression of modernity. This dynamic isn’t found in all societies. It is a cultural product and so there is nothing inevitable about it. Other cultures are possible with other ideological mindsets and other social dynamics. For us moderns, though, it is the only reality we know, this endless conflict within our collective psyche.

Maybe unintentionally, Edmund Burke offers us the key to unlock the modern mind. Knowing this key existed is what he feared the most, for then the human mind and its potential would be laid bare. Yet this fear is what gives the reactionary mind its sense of power and purpose, an existential threat that must be fought. Modernity is continuously poised on a knife edge.

The near cosmic morality tale of ideological conflict is itself a symbolic conflation. There is always a story being told and its narrative force has deep roots. Wherever a symbolic conflation takes hold, a visceral embodiment is to be found nearby. Our obsession with ideology is unsurprisingly matched by our obsession with the human brain. The symbolic conflation, though moral imagination, gets overlaid onto the brain for there is no greater bodily symbol of the modern self. We fight over the meaning of human nature by wielding the scientific facts of neurocognition and brain scans. It’s the same reason the culture wars obsess over the visceral physicality of sexuality: same sex marriage, abortion, etc. But the hidden mysteries of the brain make it particularly fertile soil. As Robert Burton explained in A Skeptic’s Guide to the Mind (Kindle Locations 2459-2465):

our logic is influenced by a sense of beauty and symmetry. Even the elegance of brain imaging can greatly shape our sense of what is correct. In a series of experiments by psychologists David McCabe and Alan Castel, it was shown that “presenting brain images with an article summarizing cognitive neuroscience research resulted in higher ratings of scientific reasoning for arguments made in those articles, as compared to other articles that did not contain similar images. These data lend support to the notion that part of the fascination and credibility of brain imaging research lies in the persuasive power of the actual brain images.” The authors’ conclusion: “Brain images are influential because they provide a physical basis for abstract cognitive processes, appealing to people’s affinity for reductionistic explanations of cognitive phenomena.” *

The body is always the symbolic field of battle. Yet the material form occludes what exactly the battle is being fought over. The embodied imagination is the body politic. We are the fear we project outward. And that very fear keeps us from looking inward, instead always drawing us onward. We moderns are driven by anxiety, even as we can never quite pinpoint what is agitating us. We are stuck in a holding pattern of the mind, waiting for something we don’t know and are afraid to know. Even as we are constantly on the move, we aren’t sure we are getting anywhere, like a dog trotting along the fenceline of its yard.

* * *

* D. McCabe and A. Castel, “Seeing Is Believing: The Effect of Brain Images on Judgments of Scientific Reasoning,” Cognition, 107( 1), April 2008, 345– 52.
(For criticisms, see: The Not So Seductive Allure of Colorful Brain Images, The Neurocritic.)

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?

Denying the Agency of the Subordinate Class

I’ve thought about the abortion issue in terms of social control, the morality-punishment link, and symbolic conflation. It’s been on my mind for much of my adult life. The culture wars began just as I started high school, as my thinking about the larger world began to develop. Abortion was always the most potent of the culture war issues.

Corey Robin brings in another perspective—What Donald Trump Can Learn From Frederick Douglass:

If the goal is simply to constrain the agency of the subordinate class, the simplest thing to do is to punish the disobedient so that she doesn’t act disobediently again. But in doing so, you implicitly recognize her agency, particularly if your punishment is tied to a set of laws and rules you expect her to learn. […]

If the goal is not simply to constrain the agency of the subordinate class, but to deny it altogether, the far better move is not to hold the disobedient accountable all but instead to blame her disobedience on some external force: Satan, the serpent, the doctor. She then becomes a vessel, the implement of another’s will (preferably a man’s will), which is precisely what so many in the conservative movement want women to be.

I’m not sure what to think of that theory. It’s interesting. I wonder if that in any way fits into some of my own prior thoughts on the matter. I sense some possible connections.

Symbolic conflation is about shutting down awareness and narrowing thought, and as such agency is central to it. The main insight I had early on was that the obsession with abortion never had anything directly to do with abortion itself. I’ve struggled ever since in trying to understand what it actually is about.

* * *

The following is a comment left at Corey Robin’s post—Chris G wrote:

That is the perfect rejoinder to this interview with a pro-lifer on NPR this morning – http://www.npr.org/2016/03/31/472501022/reaction-to-donald-trumps-abortion-comments

An excerpt: “Well, because the pro-life movement has never, for a very good reason, promoted the idea that we punish women. In fact, we believe that women are being punished before the abortion ever occurs. In other words, the early feminists believed this was the ultimate exploitation of women.”

A Liberalism That Dominates

Why do people think they can vote for a politician to represent them and then not be morally responsible for what that politician does in their name?

I’m specifically thinking of politicians with known political records. In such cases, voters can’t reasonably plead ignorance. One has to assume that they approve of the choices made by their preferred political representative. If that is the case and it is hard to interpret it otherwise, this speaks badly for most voters across the political spectrum.

Do these people honestly wonder why politicians do bad things when they vote for politicians known for doing bad things? Or are these people simply disconnected from reality, disconnected from the larger world of consequences where real people are harmed?

That last question points to a real possibility. Those who are most harmed by our government are those who don’t or can’t vote: the poor who are shut out of the political system, minorities who experience voter suppression, felons who are disfranchised, undocumented immigrants who never had voting rights, and foreigners who have no influence over our government. But those aren’t the people I’m focused on here. It remains to explain those who can and do vote.

I’m unconvinced that the voting public doesn’t know they are supporting politicians who harm so many other humans, large numbers of them being their neighbors and fellow citizens. I know ignorance is rampant. But with internet and social media, knowledge of government actions and political records is hard to avoid. To not know this kind of thing at this point requires a particularly virulent form of willful ignorance. Even then, in order for that ignorance to be willful what is being ignored has to be acknowledged at some level of awareness, even if subconsciously.

Another explanation is lesser evilism. I have considered that in great detail as of late. It is the rationalization often given for why people vote the way they do. I don’t doubt that people are easily manipulated by fear-mongering. And I don’t doubt that political campaigns and PR companies are highly advanced in the techniques they use to manipulate voters. Still, that isn’t a fully satisfying explanation.

What if we take at face value how people vote? Maybe they aren’t voting for a lesser evil. Maybe it is no mere unintended side effect the harm done by the politicians who represent them. Maybe, just maybe voters really do get exactly what they want. I’ve resisted that conclusion for a long long time. It is the most demoralizing possibility that I can imagine. But it is starting to seem compelling.

My thoughts here have been largely elicited by listening to supporters of Hillary Clinton. Her political record is well known and widely discussed. It is easy to find out all the details of her political career. What bothers me is that much of what she has supported over the years and decades has led to horrific results, both in terms of decisions she has made in official political positions she has held and what she helped promote in working with her husband in his political career.

Clinton has been extremely active in promoting a particular worldview and social order. And to be honest one has to admit that it isn’t entirely inspiring: cutting welfare, mass incarceration, tough-on-crime policies, war hawk policies, promoting the overthrow of governments, etc. All of this corresponds to the money she gets from speaking fees and donations to campaigns and to the Clinton Foundation—from: prison industry, corporations, particular foreign governments, etc. She does the bidding of those who pay for her services. All of this is out in the open.

Maybe people who support her (and politicians like her) know fully well what she stands for. Maybe these voters completely understand what they are buying with their vote. Maybe they are intentionally aligning themselves with certain powerful interests. Maybe they want politicians who, from their perspective, will do what needs to be done.

It might seem like hypocrisy. Supporters of Hillary Clinton often claim to be liberals and progressives. So, how can they support her illiberal and reactionary policies? Yet maybe this misses the point.

The purpose of politicians in a democracy is to represent voters. If we take this as being genuinely true, then it indicates politicians are doing what voters want them to do. The confusion comes from there being a difference between what people say they want and what they actually want. That is what politicians are for, as they will do what voters want them to do, even though voters can’t admit that is what they want them to do. Politicians allow for plausible deniability, a disconnect between the voting public and government action.

We live in a liberal age. But we rarely think about what this means. What really is liberalism? Why do conservatives speak the rhetoric of liberalism and invoke liberal values? And why do liberals so often act like conservatives? Considering this, what exactly is this liberal order that dominates our minds and lives?

There are no conservatives.

There are no conservatives.

Someone can choose to be a regressive, rather than a progressive. A reactionary, rather than a radical. A right-winger, rather than a left-winger. But it is impossible to be a conservative in the world today.

We live in a liberal era. It is what frames our entire sense of reality, at least since the Enlightenment, although the basic framework has its roots in the Axial Age. There are many varieties of liberalism, and at this point all of us are liberals of some kind.

One of the most radical liberal ideas ever implemented is capitalism. So-called conservatives have embraced it, even though there is nothing conservative about it. That is because they aren’t conservatives, no matter what they claim.

We live in a world where there is nothing left to conserve. We’ve had continuous ‘progress’ and creative destruction for a very long time. Nothing has remained untouched and unmoved. Even fundamentalist religion is a modern invention. Tradition is an empty word, a talisman we shake to fend off the monster lurching out from the future’s shadow.

We can embrace this brave new world or fight it. Either way, conservatism isn’t an option. Change is inevitable, like it or not. Fantasies about the past are simply a form of entertainment, as the world collapses around us… and becomes something else.

* * *

If one reads carefully what I wrote and thinks carefully about what it means, it becomes obvious that this isn’t a paean to liberalism. It is simply noting the world we live in. Liberalism must accept the blame as much as the praise for where we find ourselves.

The past is gone. It won’t be saved or revived. I don’t think that is necessarily a good thing. Part of my motivation for writing this is that I wish I lived in a world where conservatism was possible, where there was something capable and worthy of being conserved. But the changes we are making to society and environment are permanent.

There is no turning back. We are past the point of no return.

* * *

“If Homo sapiens survives the next millennium, it will be survival in a world unrecognizably different from the one we have known for the last 200,000 years.

“In order for us to adapt to this strange new world, we’re going to need more than scientific reports and military policy. We’re going to need new ideas. We’re going to need new myths and new stories, a new conceptual understanding of reality, and a new relationship to the deep polyglot traditions of human culture that carbon-based capitalism has vitiated through commodification and assimilation. Over and against capitalism, we will need a new way of thinking our collective existence. We need a new vision of who “we” are. We need a new humanism— a newly philosophical humanism, undergirded by renewed attention to the humanities.

“Admittedly, ocean acidification, social upheaval, and species extinction are problems that humanities scholars, with their taste for fine-grained philological analysis, esoteric debates, and archival marginalia, might seem remarkably ill-suited to address. After all, how will thinking about Kant or Frantz Fanon help us trap carbon dioxide? Can arguments between object-oriented ontology and historical materialism protect honeybees from colony collapse disorder? Are ancient Greek philosophers, medieval poets, and contemporary metaphysicians going to save Bangladesh from being inundated by the Indian Ocean?

“Perhaps not. But the conceptual and existential problems that the Anthropocene poses are precisely those that have always been at the heart of humanistic inquiry: What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to live? What is truth? What is good? In the world of the Anthropocene, the question of individual mortality— What does my life mean in the face of death?— is universalized and framed in scales that boggle the imagination. 21 As environmental philosopher Dale Jamieson puts it, “The Anthropocene presents novel challenges for living a meaningful life.” 22 Historian and theorist Dipesh Chakrabarty has claimed that global warming “calls us to visions of the human that neither rights talk nor the critique of the subject ever contemplated.” 23 Whether we are talking about ethics or politics, ontology or epistemology, confronting the end of the world as we know it dramatically challenges our learned perspectives and ingrained priorities. What does consumer choice mean compared against 100,000 years of ecological catastrophe? What does one life mean in the face of mass death or the collapse of global civilization? How do we make meaningful decisions in the shadow of our inevitable end?

“These questions have no logical or empirical answers. They cannot be graphed or quantified. They are philosophical problems par excellence. If, as Montaigne asserted, “To philosophize is to learn how to die,” then we have entered humanity’s most philosophical age, for this is precisely the problem of the Anthropocene. 24 The rub now is that we have to learn to die not as individuals, but as a civilization.”

Learning to Die in the Anthropocene
By Roy Scranton
Kindle Locations 141-166

 

Trump’s Populism, Something For Everyone

Yeah, Trump.

Over at the Wall Street Journal, Peggy Noonan claims in the title of a recent article that, America Is So in Play. She writes that, “Mr. Trump’s supporters aren’t just bucking a party, they’re bucking everything around, within and connected to it.” And that, “Something is going on, some tectonic plates are moving in interesting ways.”

On the subject of elites, I spoke to Scott Miller, co-founder of the Sawyer Miller political-consulting firm, who is now a corporate consultant. He worked on the Ross Perot campaign in 1992 and knows something about outside challenges. He views the key political fact of our time as this: “Over 80% of the American people, across the board, believe an elite group of political incumbents, plus big business, big media, big banks, big unions and big special interests—the whole Washington political class—have rigged the system for the wealthy and connected.” It is “a remarkable moment,” he said. More than half of the American people believe “something has changed, our democracy is not like it used to be, people feel they no longer have a voice.”

Mr. Miller added: “People who work for a living are thinking this thing is broken, and that economic inequality is the result of the elite rigging the system for themselves. We’re seeing something big.”

I would agree that there is something interesting going on and has been for some time.  Populism is in the air! From Occupy to the Tea Party.

This is why outsiders are making waves on both sides. Trump and Sanders even have overlap on some major issues: immigration reform to protect American jobs, campaign finance reform to eliminate bribery and corruption, tax reform with progressive taxation, etc. Trump is conservative on some issues, but on others he is more liberal than the Democratic Party establishment.

By the way, Trump said of the last four presidents that Bill Clinton was his favorite and has supported Hillary Clinton throughout her political career. About a decade ago, he stated that “Republicans are just too crazy right” and that “If you go back, it just seems that the economy does better under the Democrats than the Republicans.” Near the end of Bush jr’s presidency, Trump strongly denounced him as “possibly the worst in the history of this country.” He thought it “would have been a wonderful thing” if Pelosi had impeached Bush for the 2003 Iraq invasion. He actually praised Saddam Hussein for killing terrorists. On the opposite side, he has strongly supported many of Obama’s policies and appointments. He has also changed his party affiliation at least four times in the last 16 years.

Both Trump and Sanders are populists with progressive tendencies. It’s good to keep in mind that in the past there was great ideological diversity in populist and progressive movements, including strong support from the political right and religious right. Populism and progressivism have no consistent history in terms of the mainstream left-right spectrum, although economic populism has often had a strong nativist strain.

Trump’s views are rather mixed. Some might say they are ideologically inconsistent. Certainly, he has flipped his views on many issues. He sure likes to keep it interesting.

  • for progressive taxation and higher taxes for hedge-fund managers
  • wanted to get rid of the national debt with a one time massive tax on the wealthy
  • not for cutting funding to Planned Parenthood, Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security
  • praises single payer healthcare as working in other countries, but thinks it is past the point of implementation for the US
  • previously stated wanting guaranteed healthcare for the poor paid by an increase in corporate taxes
  • has used unionized labor for construction projects, but has criticized teacher unions
  • supports using eminent domain for private gain
  • no longer supports abortion rights, and yet sees no constitutional argument for banning it
  • has supported stricter gun laws, including bans of some guns
  • used to support amnesty, but obviously has changed his mind
  • favors trade protectionism and wouldn’t mind starting a trade war with China
  • talks about campaign finance reform and sees big money as essentially bribery
  • spoke out against the Iraq War, but says he is now for strong military responses
  • wants to neither raise nor get rid of minimum wage

It’s not just GOP insiders who dislike Trump. Libertarians, of course, don’t care much for him. But also strong critics of liberalism, from Glenn Beck to Jonah Goldberg, really can’t stand him.

You could say that Trump is just confused. But if so, the American public is also confused.

When you look at public polling, there is a wide range of views toward ideological labels, depending on the demographic. Many those who identify as conservative support liberal policies, especially in terms of economic populism. And during the Bush administration, many on the political left became patriotic war hawks in support of the War On Terror. Conservatism is a more popular label than liberalism, but progressivism is more popular than both, including among Republicans.

Most Americans have a more favorable view of capitalism than socialism, although the opposite is true in some demographics: those under 29, African Americans and Hispanics, and those making less than $30,000 a year. Then again, more Americans have a favorable view of socialism than the Tea Party. Even a large percentage of Tea Partiers have a favorable view of socialism. Strangely, more Democrats than Republicans have a positive view of libertarianism and fewer Democrats than Republicans have a negative view.

Sea Change of Public Opinion: Libertarianism, Progressivism & Socialism

Little Change in Public’s Response to ’Capitalism,’ ’Socialism’

‘Liberal’ unpopular, but newer ‘progressive’ label gets high marks in poll

“Socialism” Not So Negative, “Capitalism” Not So Positive

Just 53% Say Capitalism Better Than Socialism

Socialism Viewed Positively by 36% of Americans

Section 2: Occupy Wall Street and Inequality

Poll: 26% of tea partiers are okay with socialism

NEW POLL: 42 Percent of Americans Think Obama Has Expanded Presidential Power Too Much; 53 Percent Want the US Less Involved in Israel-Hamas Peace Talks

It is hard to know what any of that means.

People change their opinions depending on current events, framing of questions, and on the basis of who is asking. Polls have shown that Republican support for some of Obama’s policies increase when it is stated that Trump supports them. Democrat views changed depending on whether or not they early on saw video of the 9/11 attack or heard about it on the radio or in the newspaper. People are easily influenced by external conditions.

Anyway, here are various articles from across the political spectrum tackling Trump’s brand of populism:

Sanders and Trump: Two peas in a pod?

Republicans are way more likely to support single-payer when you tell them it’s Donald Trump’s idea – AMERICAblog News

Is Donald Trump still ‘for single-payer’ health care?

That Time When Donald Trump Praised Single Payer Health Care in a GOP Debate

Trump Calls Himself a ‘Conservative With a Heart’ Because of His Controversial Stance on This Issue

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A Conservative Trend, To Where?

I was sitting at work and thinking too much, again. On such occcasions, my thoughts naturally drift toward particular topics. I got to thinking about government, as I’m a government employee, albeit a mere minion. How government operates in the practical sense is a personal preoccupation.

I’ve been with the local city government for more than 15 years now (along with having lived in this town off and on since the mid-1980s). My civil service position offers perspective on certain issues. It forces me to think about local community a bit differently. I regularly see my coworkers and I know people who work in other departments. Most of my coworkers are union members. I even work along side my union steward a couple days a week. In talking to various people, I get a bit of the inside scoop on what is going on in the department and in city government (plus, I get a sense of what is going on in the community in general). This is fodder for my mind.

Right now, the parking department is doing repairs to the ramps. Another coworker told me that the ramps were only built to last a couple of decades. Some of them are now several decades old. They’ve built new ramps over the years, but the old ones remain. To get an idea about how old they are, as one of these ramps has been worked on, a large chunk of concrete came loose in a different section of the ramp and it landed on a car. If that had landed on a person, that would have been a quite the lawsuit. Obviously, repairs are needed and have been needed for a long time… or maybe entirely new ramps built to replace the old, but that would cost even more money.

Not being privy to the decision-making process, I’m left curious about what goes on behind the scenes, beyond what little info I’m able to gather. Many changes have been happening in recent years and it is sometimes concerning or simply perplexing.

Like in many other cities, a particular kind of conservativism has taken hold here, in spite of it outwardly being a liberal college town. The city council, from what I can tell, has always been dominated by local business interests, most especially the Downtown Business Association. It’s certainly not the left-wing university professors and other intellectual elite running this town. Then again, local business owners around here don’t seem to be as right-wing as you’d expect in some places. This is still a liberal town and, as data shows, liberals have high rates of small business ownership. The conservatism that has taken hold has a vain of liberalism running through it (or is it the other way around, that this liberal town has a vein of conservatism running through it?). Besides, conservative-minded liberals aren’t all that rare, especially in a fairly small town in a rural Midwestern state, but that is another issue.

One aspect of this conservatism has been seen downtown. That is where can be found the pedestrian mall, the main public space. It has a permanent stage, a fountain, playground, and adjoining public library. It’s a popular gathering place, the heart of the community. But the idea of the public, all of the public, not just shoppers, freely using this public space has bothered many of the downtown business owners.

Through the Downtown Business Association, their voices get heard by local officials and their demands often get heeded. They helped push through a number of changes to discourage the low class people from hanging out too much downtown (by “low class” I mean average people, the common folk; not just bums, punks, and “ped rats”). They banned smoking in the pedestrian mall, banned people from setting their belongings down around them, and for a while banned dogs as well. They constricted the areas where panhandlers could do their thing. They made it illegal to lay down on a bench.

Still, that wasn’t enough. They removed a large number of the benches and picnic tables where the low class people convened and ‘loitered’ about. The place where that seating used to be is called the People’s Park because some decades ago, before the pedestrian mall was built, it was created by the public having demanded public space downtown (now it is part of the pedestrian mall). A new expensive, TIF-funded I might add, highrise was built and the People’s Park is now basically the front yard for rich people. That was also where a drum circle had met weekly for decades, but one of the rich people complained about the noise and the police made them leave, never to come back. I half expect to discover homeless spikes around one of these new fancy highrises popping up around downtown.

So, that is the mood right now of the local economic and political ruling elite. I should note that none of these changes were protested by any of the local liberal activists, and they have been known to protest about many other things (I’ve occasionally joined them, radical that I am). I suspect it’s the boiling frog scenario. These changes were put into place in a slow process stretched out over a number of years, many of them done covertly. For example, the seating was removed during some construction work and they were conveniently never put back. My brother at the time was working in the CBD department (Central Business District) and, according to him, management said this was done on purpose.

That gives you the context for my thinking. My direct focus at the moment, however, is on fiscal conservatism. It’s a strange beast. Most people are familiar with it at the federal level, i.e., big government. Reaganomics used the rhetoric of fiscal conservatism. But what is that rhetoric supposed to mean? It’s hard to take it at face value.

In the eighties, Republicans had plenty of control (with a majority in the Senate for the first 6 years of the Reagan administration) and the Democratic Party wasn’t being obstructionist (some key Democrats were Southern conservatives who later became Republicans, which meant that Reagan began with a “working conservative majority” in the House). The Reagan administration was able to act according to their own vision and agenda. Many cuts were made to taxes, only to later raise taxes again. Some government funding was slashed, while other government funding was increased massively. All of this was done according to Reagan and his advisors. Republican budgets were passed and Reagan basically got the spending he requested; actually, slightly less. The national debt almost tripled in Reagan’s eight years in office. This is how the Reagan administration created the permanent debt that we still have. Worse still, along with a bigger military, big government in general grew bigger still, including an increase of public sector jobs.

It’s not as if this happened on accident. They knew what they were doing. No one was forcing their hand. The question is why did they want to do this. Obviously, Reganomics was the opposite of acting fiscally responsible. If fiscal conservatism doesn’t mean fiscal responsibility, then what does it mean? I’ve read about suggested theories. For example, some see it as Starve the Beast. It’s seen as a way of attacking government by forcing it into debt. In reality, this just means attacking the social safety net and public services. It certainly hasn’t led to the shrinking of big government, as that was unlikely ever its real purpose.

It’s not just an issue of big government at the federal level. Even small local government is attacked using this same rhetoric and the same tactics. I’ve seen this firsthand in this town where I live and work. Although a liberal town, the business-friendly city council hired a fiscally conservative city manager. He has been the city manager for a while now, long enough to implement his policies. This includes a number of things:

1) They’ve been decreasing city employee numbers through attrition. However, at the same time in the department I work in, the number of office and management positions has increased. Also, one of the problems in the parking department is that they even decreased the number of the parking enforcement attendants (AKA “meter maids”) who actually bring in money, and so they are bringing in less money through tickets while also having less presence in enforcing the parking laws, the latter of which (parking enforcement) one presumes is or should be the main purpose of the parking department.

2) Decreasing employees has been made possible through several means. Unsurprisingly, they’ve privatized much of the work city employees used to do.* I’m not sure this actually saves money, but it sure helps to weaken the labor union. It really just seems like the city is doing less, rather than being more efficient or whatever. The contracted workers don’t do a lot of the work that city employees used to do and neither do the remaining city employees. All the workers are stretched more thin. So, basic maintenance often goes undone. Here are a few examples: the stairwells in the ramps are dirtier, parking lines get painted less often, weeding is low priority, large areas of green space are no longer mowed, and some of the multi-use trails weren’t plowed this past winter; not to mention repairs such as to the ramp were long overdue. It’s all very basic work that isn’t getting done.

They’ve sought to get rid of employees through other means as well. One method has been to mechanize particular jobs, such as putting an expensive (both expensive to buy and maintain) automated system with pay stations in the ramps to replace cashiers, but the system is too unreliable and so they still need to keep some of the cashiers around. I assume that the main justification for the new system was to save money. Did it save money? It is far from clear, as the financial investment in this new system is massive. Basic parking for a smaller town like this easily could be operated with a much smaller budget than is required for these high tech improvements. Parking cars doesn’t require some of the most advanced and expensive technology around. Such things can be nice, but they are far from necessary. There is nothing fiscally conservative about investments so large that they may never pay for themselves in savings.

* Let me offer some interesting backstory.

There is a company that does the contract work in the former departments of Parking, Transit, and Central Business District—all combined into a single department now. It might be the same company that also is contracted by the Parks and Recreation department. The company was hired by Parking/Transit management before there was ever any bidding. Then bidding took place, but management said it decided to go with that company because they were already doing the job. So, basically, it was a no-bid contract and the bidding was just a legal formality.

I don’t know that anything fishy was going on behind closed doors, but it is quite suspicious. It makes one wonder if there was cronyism going on. Of course, at the federal level, they often don’t even have to pretend to go through a bidding process and blatantly give contracts to cronies. More covert behavior is maybe required at the local level… or maybe I’m just being paranoid.

3) They have consolidated a number of departments.* This means there are fewer departments and so fewer department heads. However, in practice, this just means the remaining departments are much larger with more responsibilities and more staff (along with more expensive computers and other technology; specifically why they need more office and tech staff to operate/maintain it and more supervisors to oversee it all). Plus, this makes the remaining department heads all the more powerful in their greater authority and territory, especially as they are working closely with the city manager in making these decisions and implementing them. Isn’t it interesting that fiscal conservatism ends up growing the size of government departments and further concentrating power in the hands of a few? How does this shrink government or necessarily even save money?

* By the way, one coworker told me the best theory for some of the recent department consolidations.

The guy who was the head of the Parking Department is still the head of the new consolidated department, which is now called Transit, the former name of the separate department for buses and vehicle maintenance that was incorporated into Parking. Now, Refuse has also been brought into the fold, which is truly bizarre. Neither this department head nor any of the Parking/Transit staff below him knows anything about Refuse. Plus, going by what I’ve heard, it seems there may have been a number of occasions in the past when OSHA regulations were broken in management’s dealing with chemicals and waste disposal, although no investigation ever occurred. It doesn’t inspire confidence.

The only explanation that made sense of this departmental consolidation is that there was one commonality between Parking, Transit, and Refuse. They all receive major federal funding. I was told that the department head is highly skilled in getting federal funding, one of the most important skills of all for a bureaucrat.

4) The issue people in the local area are most familiar with are TIFs (Tax Increment Financing). It’s a way of giving temporary tax cuts to builders for specific building projects in order to incentivize development where it is needed. It’s original purpose was for blighted neighborhoods, but Iowa City has no blighted neighborhoods. Nor does Coralville, the adjoining town (essentially, the suburb for Iowa City) that has used TIFs to an even greater degree. All the TIFs go to major projects, such as upscale highrises (for expensive apartments and expensive stores). Also, a recent upscale grocery store also got a TIF. My father is the president of the local chapter of Kiwanis. He recently heard a city official speak (I think it was the assistant city manager or something like that). The city official admitted that every major project (i.e., big biz) expects a TIF to build anything. It’s become an expectation. Of course, no small business owner or lowscale builder received a TIF in this town. It’s become yet another form of cronyism via big biz subsidies.*

* This is odd and irritating for more than the obvious reasons.

If you give it a sleight amount of thought, you realize this means that these TIF-funded developers aren’t paying the taxes that pay for the services that the local government provides. Someone has to pay for them. So, already established businesses and smaller developers end up footing the bill, and in doing so essentially subsidize their competition.

This is at a time when the city government has lost revenue from other tax sources, because of a change in Iowa tax laws. This is the whole reason for tightening the public belt by reducing services, eliminating staff, privatizing work, etc. From the perspective of fiscal responsibility, this makes no sense. These TIF subsidies are in essence the giving away of money that will have to be offset somehow… or else the city will go into debt.

Furthermore, it’s not even that this TIF-funding is going to all big biz developers in a neutral fashion, as a favoritism has formed where TIFs have mostly gone to one particular developer. The city council says it gives TIFs to this developer because he is reliable, but few other probably reliable developers even bother because they know they’re systematically being excluded.

My father told me about one guy who wasn’t local and so had no crony connections. He wanted to build a hotel here. After dealing with endless red tape and other bureaucratic obstructionism, he gave up and decided not to build at all. Developers who have connections get TIFs and those who don’t have connections can’t even get their plans approved, much less get massive tax breaks through TIFs.

I suppose all of this is standard politics in this plutocratic and corporatist era. I’m used to hearing about this on the national level or even the state level. But it is so much more disheartening to see it with my own eyes at the local level, in my own community. This isn’t even a big city. It’s just a little college town surrounded by rural farmland.

The point I’m trying to make here isn’t to argue for cynicism. I’m genuinely curious what it all means. Where is this coming form? What is motivating it? Why is fiscal conservatism so fiscally irresponsible in practice and it seems intentionally so? What is the link between fiscal conservative rhetoric and social conservative rhetoric? Furthermore, what is the close tie between conservatism and cronyism or even outright corporatism?

It feels like there is some larger force or vision behind all of this, transcending any single place and government. Particular policies and government actions don’t seem all that significant taken in isolation. Yet when put all together, it points toward something. What exactly?

None of this is necessarily intended as a criticism toward those who genuinely believe in conservatism, and certainly not intended as criticism toward those who genuinely believe in fiscal responsibility and good governance. My point is that conservatives themselves should be mad most of all. Even ignoring the fiscal irresponsibility, actual functioning conservatism so often seems unconservative and anti-traditional, especially in its embrace of laissez-faire capitalism with its privatization of the commons and undermining of the public good. If that is conservatism, then conservatism has nothing to do with traditional values and social order.

To be fair, some conservatives are bothered by all of this or at least parts of it. My father has complained about what he sees here locally. We both live in the same town at present and so it comes up in discussions on a regular basis. Although my father fully supports fiscal conservative objectives, he doesn’t see this town as a shining example of fiscal conservative success. It doesn’t bother him that city employees are eliminated or that work is contracted out. Still, even he can’t shake the feeling of a cronyism that runs this town.

This is something that should bother all local citizens, across the political spectrum. Where is the outrage? Where are the protests? Heck, where is the local media to report on any of this?*

* One coworker I know well has wondered about that last question, in particular.

He has noted some of the close personal ties between city officials and those who run the local newspaper. He has also observed that the employees of the local newspaper get a special parking permit that no one else has, not even other permit holders from downtown businesses. The best coverage, for example, of local TIFs came from a small alternative publication and not from the main local newspaper.

But that is me being paranoid again.

It would be simple to see this as good versus bad, as evil cronies against the common man. But that misses the point. All of the people I’ve met who work in city government, including management, seem like nice people and many of them are quite dedicated to their jobs. I’d say the same thing about local business owners I’ve met, some of whom are part of multigenerational family businesses.

I think it is more of a systemic problem. It’s how our society functions. It’s how present capitalist systems are designed, especially as they transition into brutally competitive globalization. It’s a particular social darwinian worldview that is built into our culture, but is taking over many other societies as well. One could argue that most people are simply acting in the way that makes sense under these conditions and according to these biases.

Maybe most of the people involved really do hope to shrink government, lessen costs, and cut taxes. If so, why does that rarely materialize? Neither Reagan nor any other conservative has accomplished any of these things. It’s not clear that they even seriously tried. Still, I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt for the moment. As these policies don’t lead to what conservatives claim to want, then why do they keep pushing them? Is this really a failure? Or is there some other purpose? If so, what and whose purpose? Do conservatives even understand their own motivations? Do they know the master they serve? What is this vision and what is driving it? Also, why do so many Democrats and liberals seem to go along without any fight?

More importantly, what kind of society is being built in the process? What will the end result look like? Is it a world that I’d want to live in? Is it a world most people would want to live in? Do any of these changes make the nation and local communities better in any way?

The most problematic part of all this is that almost none of this has been part of public debate. No plans were presented to be considered and voted upon. No reasons were given for what they are hoping to accomplish. There is obviously some vision or agenda, but apparently only insiders know what it is. Even in the department I work in, management rarely explains much of anything. Changes just happen.

All of this is being forced onto an unwitting public. Maybe it’s the public’s fault for not paying enough attention, but still that isn’t much of an excuse for those who take advantage of this state of affairs. Certainly, there is nothing democratic or even libertarian about any of this. It’s simply people with power doing whatever they want without transparency or accountability.

What is happening in my town is a microcosm of what is happening all across the United States and in many other countries as well. The changes are too wide-ranging and concerted to be dismissed lightly as just politics as usual. Many have argued that the culture wars have been an intentional distraction, for all Americans across the political spectrum. No matter which side wins on the social issues, the monied elite will always win on the fiscal issues.

This is why it is in a sense irrelevant what people think about gay marriage, marijuana legalization, or whatever else. It doesn’t matter that the town I live in is socially liberal (nor that my state was one of the few to legalize gay marriage before it became a federal decision). It doesn’t matter that the entire country is becoming ever more socially liberal. None of that touches upon the fundamental social order or challenges the entrenched power within the system.

On top of that, fiscal issues are harder to grasp and to use for rallying people, even though most Americans are also rather liberal on many fiscal issues (e.g., most believe that the distribution of wealth is unfair and something should be done about it). Despite its importance, it is rare for a straightforward public debate to happen about fiscal issues and hence few seem to notice what is happening and what it all adds up to.

There is something about fiscal issues that makes people feel so powerless and apathetic. Part of the problem is that fiscal issues often seem boring and maybe are intentionally portrayed by the corporate media in boring ways. I don’t know. It seems strange that all of society can be transformed before our eyes and most people act as if they don’t notice or can’t be bothered to care.

* * * *

Public Good & Democratic Government (pt. 2)

The Mechanized City

TIFs, Gentrification, and Plutocracy
(more on local gentrification)

Shame of Iowa and the Midwest

Paranoia of a Guilty Conscience

John Bior Deng: R.I.P.

Officer Shoots Homeless Man: Comments

Iowa Biking & Rural Politics

Old Forms of Power

* * * *

Bonus article:

‘By the People’ and ‘Wages of Rebellion’
by George Packer

Cranky Conservatives and Hypocritical Liberals

I’ve slowly been adjusting my view on many topics. The most obvious example has to do with politics and political labels, specifically that of conservatism and liberalism.

I’ve written about this for years, because it endlessly fascinates me and confounds my thinking. Mainstream political labels, at first glance, seem to be simple and straightforward. Those who identify with these labels do tend to portray themselves in standard ways. However, if you look deeper, you  begin to realize there is more going on. I’ve explored many other angles previously, and so let me explore a new angle.

The other day, I read a dual review by Kenan Malik. The two books he reviewed were Julian Baggini’s Freedom Regained and John Gray’s The Soul of the Marionette. The topic uniting the two was that of free will.

I’m not familiar with Baggini’s writings and politics, but from the review I got the sense that he is probably more or less a mainstream progressive liberal. His general approach in defending free will, in relation to the Enlightenment project, seems fairly typical for a well-educated liberal. That is fine, as far as it goes. However, what I’d love to see is Baggini (or Malik) attempt to take on something like Thomas Ligotti’s The Conspiracy against the Human Race. Then such a writer would have my full attention.

My own view is that of agnostic. I’m agnostic about so much in life, from God to free will. Such issues are of the same quality, whether overtly theological or not. They are about beliefs, not scientific knowledge, and so I feel wary about those who seek to politicize such debates.

Both Baggini and Gray are doing that very thing (and so is Malik in his review). Their beliefs about free will are inseparable from their beliefs about human progress and hence of political progressivism. I’m not sure where that leaves my agnosticism, but I certainly don’t find myself neatly taking sides.

As far as I’m concerned, it is a pointless debate, as neither side can prove they are right and that the other is wrong. Free will can’t be formulated as a falsifiable scientific hypothesis and so can’t ever be tested. Beliefs are just beliefs, even when they are based on powerful personal experiences of perceived reality. I have nothing against beliefs in and of themselves, but they should be kept in proper context.

Nonetheless, I found John Gray’s view more interesting, because his mind seems more interesting. A proper label for him might be that of a cranky conservative, having shifted from Thatcherite neoliberal to a captialism-criticizing paleoconservative. What makes his view worthy of serious consideration is that he is a wide reader and a deep thinker, which is probably what allowed his views to shift to such an extent.

I call Gray a cranky conservative as a term of endearment. He is what I think of as the prototypical INTJ (MBTI type: Introverted, iNtuition, Thinking, Judging). In my experience, INTJs have minds that spiral inwards toward what to others seem like a mysterious sensibility or odd perspective. They love the idiosyncratic and obscure, which is what can make them interesting, at the same as it can make them perplexing or even frustrating and irritating.

INTJs have ever curious minds, but it is of a particular variety. It’s definitely not that of a linear-focused, analytical intellect (some readers complain that many of Gray’s books feel like a jumble of thoughts with important issues overlooked and useful connections not made). This kind of curiosity is also not of the endlessly expansive and exploratory tendency, as seen with the strongly extraverted intuition types.

This is demonstrated by Gray’s interest in Philip K. Dick, of which he writes in great detail in The Soul of the Marionette. Both are intuition types, but of opposing attitudes (introverted versus extraverted). Gray, in his recent book, sees PKD as having in a sense failed because his attitude of intuition just goes on and on, ever searching for what can’t be found. Gray rightly notes that this made PKD crazy at times. Still, that partly misses the beauty of PKD’s view.

Nonetheless, the fact that Gray takes PKD seriously at all is what I appreciate. I doubt I’ll ever see the likes of Malik and Baggini writing in detail about PKD, although the latter does one time briefly mention him in Freedom Regained but only then in reference to a movie based on a PKD story (I discovered this one instance by doing a search on Google Books). For this reason, I’m reading Gray’s book and not a book by either of those others, despite my being politically closer to them.

I first heard of John Gray many years ago. I never gave him much thought until I read Corey Robin’s The Reactionary Mind. Robin has a chapter of that book where he discusses Gray as a reactionary conservative, similar to that of Edmund Burke, both holding positions as partial outsiders (although not too far outside, for otherwise the political right would never pay them any attention). Robin makes the argument that this is the basis of all conservatism, but I think distinctions need to be made. Even Robin sees Gray as being a unique figure on the right, as he explained elsewhere:

“There is a large discourse on the left of intellectuals and activists trying to come to terms with their erstwhile support for Stalinism and revolutionary tyranny. Indeed, a great deal of 20th century intellectual history is driven by that discourse, with entire literatures devoted to the Webbs in Russia, Sontag in Vietnam, Foucault in Iran. Yet where is the comparable discourse on the right of intellectuals coming to terms with their (or their heroes’) support for Pinochet, Salazar, and the like? With the exception of John Gray, I can’t think of a single apostate from—or adherent of—the right who’s engaged in such a project of self-examination: not breast-beating or mea culpas, but really looking at the relationship between their ideas and their actions. Now there’s a road to serfdom that’s yet to be mapped.”

He is, as I put it, a cranky conservative. He is a pessimist and highly critical at that. He isn’t going to be easy on even former allies. If anything, he is likely to be more harsh toward those with whom he once shared a view. He seems to place a high standard on both himself and others, and based on that he points out failures and hypocrisy.

I respect that more than I respect, for example, what I too often see among mainstream liberals. I particularly have in mind what I call conservative(-minded) liberals. I’ve become ever more aware of, to put it lightly, the inconsistency of so many liberals. Behind the facade of rhetoric, there is so much of the biases and prejudices as found everywhere else in our society. Simply put, I’d vote for John Gray before I’d vote for Hilary Clinton, for at least he criticizes some of the worst aspects of capitalism, not to mention neo-imperialist war-mongering.

There are surprising number of liberals who are, for example, highly race and class conscious. They are willing to talk about helping the unfortunate, as long as it doesn’t personally effect them. In their own lives, they’d rather not interact with minorities and poor people, and they will sometimes complain about such people behind closed doors. It’s one thing to support welfare or affirmative action for the underprivileged, but it is a whole other thing to have one of those perceived low class people living in your neighborhood or community.

There is at least an upfront honesty with a cranky conservative. As for free will, someone’s personal beliefs are the least of my concern.

A Phantom of the Mind

Liberalism often gets defined narrowly. This is true at least in mainstream American politics, by which I mean the present dominant society with its dominant frame.

It isn’t just conservatives and right-wingers misrepresenting liberalism, as seen with the arguments of Russel Kirk (also, consider Thomas Sowell, whose view of conservative constrained vision is similar to Kirk’s conservative claim of balance, both arguing against the imbalance supposedly expressed by liberal and left-wing extremism). Even certain kinds of liberals will fall into the same trap. Take for example the strange views of Jonathan Haidt.

This wasn’t always the case. In earlier 20th century, liberalism was praised widely by major politicians (including presidents) in both of the main parties. What this implies is that liberalism was seen more broadly at the time.

Consider Eisenhower’s words when he stated that, “Extremes to the right and left of any political dispute are always wrong,” and that “The middle of the road is all of the usable surface. The extremes, right and left, are in the gutters.” Yet, in speaking of extremes, he saw liberalism as part of the moderate and moderating middle:

So that here we have, really, the compound, the overall philosophy of Lincoln: in all those things which deal with people, be liberal, be human. In all those things which deal with the peoples money or their economy, or their form of government, be conservativeand dont be afraid to use the word. And so today, Republicans come forward with programs in which there are such words as balanced budgets, and cutting expenditures, and all the kind of thing that means this economy must be conservative, it must be solvent. But they also come forward and say we are concerned with every Americans health, with a decent house for him, we are concerned that he will have a chance for health, and his children for education. We are going to see that he has power available to him. We are going to see that everything takes place that will enrich his life and let him as an individual, hard-working American citizen, have full opportunity to do for his children and his family what any decent American should want to do.

Even in his brand of fiscal conservatism, he advocated for the wildest fantasies of progressives (unions, social security, etc) and defended a top income tax bracket at 91%. It is obvious that what he considered conservative back then would be considered liberal today. He was much further to the left than today’s Democratic Party. So, his moderate middle was also much further to the left than it is at present.

What stands out to me in Ike’s worldview is how he perceives liberalism. Political ideologies in the US get defined by governance and economics, which he sees as the territory of conservatism but not of liberalism. Instead, liberalism is at essence about people. Liberalism expresses the human quality of a good society. In that society is created by and for people, liberalism is an atmosphere that permeates the concerns for the public good. It is the broader guiding vision, the moral standard for our shared humanity.

* * * *

Let me return to the narrow view of liberalism. I came across a Clark L. Coleman who argued for the position of Russel Kirk. He writes that,

Kirk’s point is that conservatism is based on a balancing of numerous principles that society accepts as social goods. For example, we balance the need for law and order with the desire for individual liberty. We balance the desire to propagate our Christian heritage, and the benefits of having a religious populace, with the desire for religious freedom and the wariness of the problems of having an established state church. We seek equality under the law, but temper that with the recognition that institutions (church, marriage, military, et al.) must be exclusive to some degree to accomplish their missions. We desire the strength that nationalist feelings produce, but recognize that they lead to a warlike nation if untempered by other concerns, etc. A kind of Aristotelian moderation is central to conservatism.

Whatever that may describe, it isn’t the actual existing tradition of mainstream American conservatism. So, what is he describing? I really don’t get the argument being made. Obviously, this conservatism is envisioned as an ideal state, rather than the mundane reality of politics as it is. But what purpose does that serve? If this conservatism doesn’t accurately describe most self-identified conservatives, then whose conservatism is this? Is it just a conservatism for detached intellectuals, such as Kirk?

Anyway, Coleman goes on to offer the other side. He explains what forms the basis of everything that isn’t conservatism, most especially liberalism:

In contrast to conservatism, liberalism is an ideology in which a particular concept of “fairness and equality” is the principle that trumps all others; libertarianism is an ideology in which “individual liberty” is the principle that trumps all others; and Marxism is an ideology in which a certain definition of class struggle is at the center of all policy decisions and all analyses of the world. Empirical evidence to the contrary means nothing to ideologues; telling them that their One True Principle is insufficient to analyze all public policy would require them to undergo a complete change of world view.

I’m not familiar with the details of Kirk’s views. I don’t know if this is a fair and accurate presentation. But I do know it is a common view among conservatives, specifically more well-educated conservatives. It is even found among conservative-minded liberals such as Jonathan Haidt, who sees conservatism as a balance of values in contrast to liberals as inherently imbalanced and hence prone to extremism.

This argument is a rhetorical trick, so it seems to me. It’s a strategy of the Cold War. The 20th century was a conflict of ideologies. Those ideologies can be labeled and categorized in various ways, but this version of conservatism gets safely removed from the entire ideological debate. It is a declaration that conservatism is above and beyond all discussion and disagreement. This is a stance of refusal to engage.

I felt irritated by that argument. It felt dishonest. In response to Coleman, I expressed my irritation by saying that, “If conservatism isn’t an ideology, then neither is liberalism. Only an ideologue would make an argument that one is an ideology and the other not. That would be a classic case of projection. It isn’t helpful to make caricatures of and straw man arguments against opposing views, attitudes, and predispositions.”

Coleman responded in turn with a defense that touches on the heart of our disagreement. He writes that, “Your comment does not engage my explanation at all. Kirk’s definition of ideology was standard until the common usage became fuzzy. It is not a caricature or straw man.” He is accusing me of not engaging because I don’t accept his premise, but I don’t accept his premise because it is an unproven assumption.

That is intriguing. Coleman is so confident that his view is right. He claims that it was only later that “common usage became fuzzy”. Even many other conservatives would disagree with that claim. This would include Eisenhower, who began his presidency the same year Kirk published The Conservative Mind. Of course, the likes of Kirk and Coleman would simply assert that anyone who disagrees with them aren’t True Conservatives, a pointless assertion to make but it sure does end debate.

* * * *

Both Eisenhower and Kirk were arguing for balance and against extremism. It was something in the air at the time. Across the political spectrum, many Americans were seeking  a new vision  to unify the country in the post-war era. For certain, conservatives like Kirk didn’t have sole proprietorship of this early Cold War attitude. It was the frame of mainstream debate at that time, rather than simply being one side of the debate.

For a while now, I’ve been trying to disentangle the mess of American political ideologies and labels. It’s been on my mind going back at least to the early Bush administration, at a time when I was studying the social science research on personality types and traits, but my questioning has grown stronger in recent years. I began to articulate a new understanding of what liberalism and conservatism mean, both attitudinally and historically (also demographically). I was forced to think more deeply and challenge my own previous assumptions, because the data I was looking at indicated a much more complex social reality.

It is because Coleman and Kirk take a dogmatically ideological stance that they can’t deal with this complexity that refuses to conform to narrow categorical boxes. I didn’t want to fall into the same trap. I want to fully understand various positions on their own terms, even if not on their own rhetoric.

My own views have shifted a lot over time. More recently, I’ve been moving toward the almost the mirror opposite of the Kirkian position, without even knowing that was what I was doing (as I have little direct familiarity with Kirk’s writings):

It seems to me that liberalism isn’t inherently or inevitably opposite of conservatism, at least in American politics. Conservatism has become conflated with the right-wing in a way that hasn’t happened on the opposite side of the spectrum. There is still a clear sense of distance and disconnection between liberalism and the left-wing for the Cold War turned the left-wing into a scapegoat that liberals felt compelled to disown or else be attacked as commies and fellow-travelers. Liberals have instead for the most part embraced the role of the middle, the moderate. I’ve even sensed that liberals have taken up the role of the traditionalists in defending the status quo which is what traditionalists did in the past. I’ve speculated that conservatives or at least reactionary conservatives attack liberals for the same reason they attacked traditionalists in earlier times. Left-wingers are the revolutionaries and conservatives have become the counter-revolutionaries, meanwhile liberals have sought to moderate between the two.

Much of my thought has been driven by social science research. I’ve sought to make sense of the insight that, “It is much easier to get a liberal to behave like a conservative than it is to get a conservative to behave like a liberal” (Skitka et al). That indicates an aspect of the broadness of liberalism. The ease of the liberal-minded to switch ideological positions points to something fundamental to liberalism itself and hence something lacking in conservatism. The liberal worldview is able to cover a larger area of ideological terrain. This isn’t necessarily a good thing, but it demonstrates how little conservatives understand the real weaknesses of liberalism.

One political philosopher that has forced me to rethink even further in this direction is Domenico Losurdo. He is a Continental European left-winger and a critic of American liberalism. His book on the counter-history of liberalism is challenging for any American, for the framework of his thought can feel alien and perplexing.

In my first analysis of his views, I ended up conjecturing that, “Maybe liberalism is more of a worldview than an ideology, a worldview that happens to be the dominant paradigm at the moment. As such, everything gets put into the context of and defined by liberalism.” I elaborated on this point later on, in a discussion with C. Derick Varn (AKA skepoet), the person who introduced me to Losurdo’s work:

In response to Losurdo, I’ve played around with a broader definition of ‘liberalism’ than even he offers. I see ‘liberalism’ in some ways as the ultimate product of the Enlightenment, the basis upon which everything else is built, the ideology everything else is defined according to or against.

Liberalism isn’t an ideology in the way conservatism, libertarianism, Marxism, etc is an ideology. No, liberalism is the ideological framework for all of those ideologies. It is the paradigm of our age.

This connects to why I don’t see conservatism as the opposite of liberalism. Instead, I see conservatism as the opposite of leftism. Liberalism is both the center and periphery of modern politics.

I’m not sure any ideology has yet fully challenged the liberal paradigm. So, I’m not sure any ideology has yet freed itself from liberal taint. We’ll need something even more radical than the most radical left-wing politics to get the thrust for escape velocity.

Now, that is turning Kirkian thought on its head. And I did so without even trying. My purpose was simply to make sense of evidence that had been perplexing me for years. This conclusion emerged organically from a slowly developing line of thought or rather web of thoughts. It makes sense to me at the moment. It has great explanatory power. Yet like anything else I offer, it is a tentative hypothesis.

* * * *

It is now more than a half century since Kirk wrote about his views on conservatism.

It is true that back then, prior to the Southern Strategy, conservatism was a more moderate political movement and may have played more of a moderating role. However, that is most definitely no longer the case, which implies that Kirk’s view of conservatism was historically contingent, at best. He failed to find the heart of conservatism, whatever that may be.

Still, even in the context of the 1950s, it would be hard to take conservatism as some genuinely non-ideological framing of and balance between the ideological extremes. Conservatism, as Corey Robin argues, has always had a central element of reactionary extremism. Or, as I’ve often said, there is a good reason American conservatism is linked to, rooted in, and identified with classical liberalism rather than classical conservatism or classical traditionalism.

My approach is influenced by a larger view. Both larger in terms of historical time and larger in terms of spectrum of positions. The historical is particularly important to my understanding, and I find myself pairing the historical with the etymological. In a comment from a discussion about liberal bias and the meaning of liberalism, I explored some of the background:

If we look at the history of the word ‘liberal’, it didn’t originally relate to an ideology. The original meaning was related to freedom (liber). The earliest use of it was in terms of “liberal arts”, i.e., free inquiry. Another early use was in terms of a free person, i.e., not a serf or slave or indentured servant. In modern history, the main meaning of ‘liberal’ has always directly referred to being liberal-minded: not literal or strict; not bound by authoritarianism, orthodoxy, or traditional forms; etc.

Even in its earliest use, ‘liberal’ meant the same as we mean it today such as being free from restraint, the main difference being that only after the Enlightenment did it take on a more clearly positive interpretation. In the 18th and 19th centuries, people would use liberal in the sense of being free of bigotry or prejudice which has the exact same meaning today. All of these basic meanings haven’t changed over the past centuries since it was first used in 1375. It was only in the mid 19th century that liberalism became a politicized term, long after classical liberalism had become a defined ideology. Limiting liberal to a single ideology is a very recent phenomenon and one that has never been agreed upon since a number of ideologies have been labeled as ‘liberal’.

Conservatism, as a descriptive word applied to people, is a much more recent term. It is for this reason that conservatism has a much more narrow context of meaning than liberalism. So, conservatism always has been defined in contrast and reaction to liberalism, specifically within the parameters of Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment thought.

* * * *

An issue that has been gnawing at mind for longer than almost any other single issue is a particular inconsistency in conservative thought. I’ve come to call it symbolic conflation, which is just to say that conservative identity uses symbolic rhetoric that obscures its own real meaning and purpose.

This isn’t meant as a dismissal, but more as a sociological assessment. As I argue about symbolic conflation, it plays a far different role in society than does the liberal approach. I tend to see conservatism and liberalism as psychological predispositions and social phenomena. They are patterns of cognitive behavior, both individual and collective. “Liberals,” in challenging conservatives, “want to loosen up the social order, but they don’t want to pull out the lynchpin.” As I further explain:

This is why liberals can be more conservative than even conservatives, moderating the extremes. The reason conservatives rule to the extent that they do so is because liberals allow them.

Social order is a strange thing. It would seem even stranger that conservatives take social order for granted more than do liberals. I suppose this is the case because for conservatives social order always has to largely play out on the level of unconsciousness.

None of this is meant directly as a criticism of conservatism. Conservatism can be used in the service of beneficial social orders just as easily with destructive social orders. The deal conservatives and liberals have is the following. Liberals won’t do an all out assault on the symbolic conflation that holds social order together and conservatives will incorporate liberalism into the social order so as to strengthen it. Whether this is a good deal, whether this is symbiosis or codependency (certainly not opposing ideologies in a simplistic sense) is another matter. I offer it just as an observation and analysis of how society seems to operate.

In thinking about this inconsistency, I realize how it connects back to the Kirkian theory of conservative balance. It also occurs to me that this goes back to Edmund Burke. The critics of Burke complained about his inconsistency, something I’ve discussed before. That is important since many conservatives, Kirk included, have seen the Anglo-American conservative tradition as having its roots in Burkean politics. Kirk is using Burke’s claim of balance as a defense against inconsistency:

[O]ne who wishes to preserve consistency, but who would preserve consistency by varying his means to secure the unity of his end, and, when the equipoise of the vessel in which he sails may be endangered by overloading it upon one side, is desirous of carrying the small weight of his reasons to that which may preserve its equipoise.

I guess Kirk isn’t necessarily offering anything new.

* * * *

Going by Coleman’s explication, there are two basic ways of thinking about ideology.

The first definition is as a system of beliefs (or ideas). But that isn’t what Kirk’s conservatism is concerned with.

That brings us to the second definition which, “roughly, is a set of one or two principles from which an adherent attempts to see all of life, and which he refuses to broaden even when empirical evidence indicates that his one or two principles are insufficient for deciding correctly all the great matters of life.” Ideology, in this second sense, is directly related to the ideologue as in a true believer who is dogmatic, narrow-minded, and rigid.

The problem with that view is that what is being described is precisely liberal-mindedness. By definition, liberalism is generosity of mind and spirit. Conservative’s are being haunted not by some dark shadow cast by liberal ideals, but by their own imaginings. They project their own fears onto all other ideologies, while denying their own ideological culpability.

If one thinks too long on all of this, conservatism begins to seem like smoke slipping through one’s fingers. Burke was a progressive reformer who belonged to the party on the political left, but was remembered by most for his reaction against the French Revolution. He never settled into principled position that defined his politics. By his own admission, his politics was the shifting of a boat on an ocean.

All in all, Burke was more like a mainstream Cold War liberal reacting to (real and perceived) enemies of the state and of the status quo. Maybe Kirk himself was just another one of those liberals being pulled by fear. Maybe that is what Anglo-American conservatism has always been about.

That reminds me of the quote by Irving Kristol. He said that a neo-conservative, the central form of modern American conservatism, is “a liberal who has been mugged by reality.” There are a number of things interesting about that.

First, he defines neo-conservatism using the same Burkean argument as Kirk, as here described:

an ideology but a “persuasion,” a way of thinking about politics rather than a compendium of principles and axioms.[12] It is classical rather than romantic in temperament, and practical and anti-Utopian in policy.

Second, I sense genuine insight in the admission that conservatism has its origins in liberalism. The liberal in reacting to fear becomes a conservative, but conservatism as such only exists in the reaction. That fits the social science research about liberalism.

It’s possible that, as Corey Robin theorizes, all of conservatism is defined by reaction. The supposed mugging could be literal or metaphorical. The point is that the conservative is responding to something with fear, even if it is only in their own imaginings. Some people find themselves temporarily in reaction while others get permanently stuck. The latter are what we call conservatives.

Permanent reaction is a strange way to live one’s life, for reaction isn’t anything in itself. An independent non-ideological conservatism is a phantom of the mind.