Irreparable Damage, Voting Subjects, & Direct Action

I get the feeling that Barack Obama has done irreparable damage to the political left. So many Americans genuinely believed in and were excited by his message of hope and change. I bet even many people from the political right voted for him.

There was such a profound sense of disappointment and betrayal once he had been in office for a while. It turned out he was just another professional politician and that the hype had meant very little. He continued many of the same policies from the Bush administration. Worse still, he passed healthcare reform that was originally a Republican idea which favored insurance and drug companies, rather than the leftist single payer reform most Americans wanted.

Obama’s presidency has made many Americans far more cynical than they’ve been in a long time. No one expects Republicans to genuinely care about the poor and needy, to fight for the rights and opportunities of the lower classes. But many do expect this from Democrats, however naïve that might be.

I know of those who supported Obama in 2008. Some of them now support Clinton, Obama’s nemesis back then. The heir of hope and change is Bernie Sanders. Yet many have lost faith that hope and change is possible. It’s not just fear of Trump. These Clinton supporters, in many cases, have simply resigned themselves to the notion that Clinton is the best that the Democratic party will ever offer. It’s either take that pathetic choice or get nothing at all, so it seems from this jaded mindset.

Older voters, in particular, feel wary about trusting that genuine progress and reform is possible. They don’t want to be betrayed again. They’d rather go for the cynical choice because at least that way they’ll know what they’re getting. When cynicism overtakes the citizenry, that is the most dangerous moment for a democracy.

That is what Sanders is fighting against.

* * *

For US citizens, voting is a right. But it is also a privilege.

For one thing, not all US citizens have the right to vote, besides the young. Convicts and many ex-cons don’t have the right to vote. Many others who technically have the right to vote are politically disenfranchised and demoralized in various ways, by both parties in elections and in the presidential nomination process.

Another issue is that, for all intents and purposes, the US is an empire. Most of the people directly and indirectly effected by US policy aren’t voting US citizens. Who and what you support with your vote impacts not only non-voting Americans but also billions of people around the world.

This includes millions harmed, millions made homeless refugees, millions starving, and millions killed. Those impacted, mostly innocent victims, come from wars, including wars of aggression, proxy wars, and drug wars; CIA covert operations, such as inciting of governments coups, propped-up puppet dictators, US-backed authoritarian regimes, arming of paramilitaries, and School of the Americas military training; post-colonial resource exploitation, unfree trade agreements, US-aligned IMF-enforced austerity policies, and harmful sanctions; et cetera.

As a subject of the empire, you benefit greatly from US policies. It is other people, mostly poor and brown people, mostly in other countries that have to pay the full costs of these imperial benefits.

You are never making merely a personal decision when you vote. You are part of a privileged class of people on this planet. Your vote matters and the results are powerful. This is true, even as the system is rigged against American voters. The last thing you should ever do is support a candidate who supports the corrupt status quo of neoliberalism and neoconservatism.

We Americans should take all of this much more seriously. For those who have personally experienced US power, this isn’t idle campaign rhetoric. What is at stake is their lives, their families, and their communities. This isn’t about your party or candidate winning. It’s about morality and justice. Be sure you’re on the right side of history. You are complicit in what you support. Choose wisely.

* * *

When I was a child, I played soccer. My main talents were that I could run fast and take pain. I often played defense because I was good at stopping things. I demonstrated this talent during one game when in elementary school. I was probably playing halfback that day, as it requires a lot of running around. A halfback’s purpose is to be a go-between, to go where and do what is needed. It requires adaptability to the situation, whether defense or offense is required.

Anyway, in whatever position I was in, it was further up the field. The game had just begun. The other team had the ball. One of their players dropped it back and got out of the way. A giant girl came forward and kicked the ball all the way down the field. She was their one great weapon. It forced everyone on my team to immediately run back down the field. After a second time of this, many on my team were already running before the ball went flying. After observing this predictable situation, a brilliant idea popped into my mind. Why not simply stop the ball before it goes flying? So, at the next opportunity, I ran full speed right at that girl and took a body blow. Every time they did it again, I took another body blow. It stopped the ball and allowed my teammates to push the play forward, instead of backwards.

It was a proud moment of my childhood. But I’ve always wondered what the life lesson was from this incident. Well, besides the willingness to take a hit for the team. A few things come to mind. A basic lesson is to look for the obvious. Another is that direct action can be a good thing. Also, it’s much easier to prevent something than to react to it once it has already happened.

I’d apply these lessons to the entire society I live in. Politics most of all. I’ve come to realize how rare it is for people to see the obvious. Partisan politics shows the power of groupthink. Everyone sees the situation as inevitable and then reacts to it. This feels justified, as every0ne else is reacting as well. Strategy usually consists of trying to react more effectively. It doesn’t occur to many people that, if there is an obvious problem, maybe we should do the obvious thing to stop the problem.

Our society is full of obvious problems. The solution or prevention to these problems is often just as obvious. Yet we seem stuck in a mentality of endless reaction, always chasing the ball down the field. But what if we simply threw ourselves in front of that ball. Would it hurt? Yes. Would it stop the problem and make life easier for all involved? Yes, a thousand times over.

If we want to reform our society and make the world a better place, then we should do it. In the simplest, most direct way possible. We’ve already wasted enough time tiring ourselves out by running the wrong direction down the field, again and again and again. One would think that we as a society would finally grasp the obvious.

Let’s stop the problem first. Then we can act as a team to move forward.

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Note to Cynical Liberals and Useful Idiots

“Cynicism is nothing but intellectual cowardice”.
~ Henry Rollins

“Cynicism is not realistic and tough. It’s unrealistic and kind of cowardly because it means you don’t have to try.”
~ Peggy Noonan

“A cynic is a coward …. Cynicism always takes the easy way out. It is a form of laziness that provides someone with an excuse for not making any attempt to change the world …. Cynicism is a way to hide …. Cynics are afraid …. So, instead, they pass judgment on anyone who is trying to make a difference. They ridicule the efforts of individuals and organizations that are working hard under incredibly difficult circumstances …. Being cynical is often thought of as being composed and detached. It is considered to be a sign of sophistication. Cynics are mistakenly given credit for possessing a deep awareness regarding the limits of what humans can accomplish which is somehow lacking in those who spend their time in passionate efforts to change the world …. Being filled with cynicism is indeed a cowardly and sad way to go through life. ”

~ Michael Crawley

I came across one of the best examples I’ve seen of what is wrong with US politics and the American public. It’s a blog post by someone who calls himself the Rude Pundit.

He theoretically is for Bernie Sanders, but in the end he is a blind ignoramus partisan Democrat. As a Sanders supporter, he said to someone who voted for Hillary Clinton in the Tennessee primary that he should tell those feeling the Bern that, “Oh, tell them to shut the fuck up. They’re gonna vote for Hillary and they fuckin’ know it.”

This guy is the Rude Pundit. And he lives up to the name. But I’d just call him a clueless asshole. The motto of his blog states, “Proudly lowering the level of political discourse.” Well, mission accomplished! Not just the level of discourse, reading his blog will also lower your level of intelligence.

Explaining a bit of where he is coming from and the swell kind of guy he is, he writes:

Look, this here blogger is a future Bernie Sanders voter when the primary rolls around. He’s not a slavering Bernie whore, ready to take all the Bernie chowder he can handle the way he was with Obama in 2008. But, as the Rude Pundit’s said before, Bernie’s beliefs line up with his own better than Hillary’s, so logic would seem to dictate that he vote his heart here. However, he is well aware that Hillary Clinton may end up winning the Democratic nomination for president. In that case, he’ll go to the middle school down the street in the fall and hit a button for Hillary. How is this even a question?

Jesus Freakin’ Christ! Did he really admit to being an Obama knob gobbler? I saw right through Obama’s bullshit in 2008. That didn’t take a genius. Sanders is pretty much just a moderate progressive, somewhat in the New Deal tradition, although nowhere near as far left as Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Compared to Sanders, Obama looks like a right-winger. I never thought Obama was going to particularly change anything and I wasn’t disappointed. Anyway, because the Neutered Pundit was stupid and gullible in 2008, he has learned his lesson and so will vote for Clinton if she is nominated. WTF!?!

This is why I despise Democrats and all partisan politics. I barely can get excited by Sanders’ campaign. The only reason I support him at all is because he is broadening the range of possible issues to be discussed in this campaign season. But for damn sure I’m not behind him because he is a Democrat. As far as I care, the Democratic Party and all of the lame liberals who suck on its teats can go to Hell, riding along on their road paved of good intentions.

I’m not a Democrat. And I’m not a welfare cutting, corporatist deregulating neoliberal. Nor for that matter am I a war hawk, tough-on-crime neocon. I don’t particularly favor oligarchy, plutocracy, crony capitalism, big money special interests, or any other such crap. So, why would I be so idiotic and masochistic as to vote for the likes of Clinton? To be honest, Trump is more of a progressive than entire Clinton dynasty combined. The Donald might end up reforming government just by accident.

To continue with the Clueless Pundit:

Everyone pretends like there is some Rosetta Stone to understanding some aspect of Hillary Clinton’s putative corruption or criminality, some email that says she personally ordered the Benghazi attack, some document that says she killed Vince Foster to protect her lesbian cocaine affairs, some speech where she explicitly promised endless golden whores to Wall Street executives. This shit is like searching for Bigfoot. You see something move in the forest and instead of being satisfied chasing a deer, it’s gotta be a giant, mythical man-beast. Except it’s always just a deer unless you are delusional or full of shit.

Apparently, he is both delusional and full of shit. Wanting information to be released so that voters can make an informed decision is what is called democracy. He is pretending to be obtuse about why this matters.

‘Cause, see, this Sanders voter understands the motherfucking system as a shitstorm of mindless, violent jingoism competing with people who are trying to keep the whole fucking place from falling apart. The Rude Pundit wants Sanders to be the nominee. But he wants Donald Trump or Ted Cruz not to be president even more. Like his support of Sanders over Clinton, it’s just that simple, logical an equation. And if his vote for Clinton in the general will prevent the nation from being ass-raped by the cruel nativism and brutalist capitalism of the GOP, then he has a moral and ethical obligation to do it, even if we take every negative thing said about Clinton as true. It’s still not as bad as Trump running the joint.

It’s pure cynicism, realpolitik all the way. It’s lesser evil voting, no matter how evil it gets. So, if Hitler and Mussolini were the two main choices for president, the Cynical Pundit would be forced to hold his nose while voting for the latter because at least Mussolini didn’t send a bunch of Jews to death camps. How about not voting for either?

I’m not joking. It’s lesser evil voting that pushes the US ever closer to all out authoritarianism. It’s decades of lesser evil voting by Democrats that has made possible the rise to dominance of the reactionary right-wing and has made inevitable someone like Trump.

Like nearly every Bernie voter, he’s gonna line the fuck up, shut the fuck up, and punch that touch screen for Hillary. Or he deserves whatever fucking hell awaits on the other side.

He should wake the fuck up instead of lining the fuck up. Democracy really does matter. We either defend democracy or it dies a horrible death.

People like this, I just don’t understand. Did they ever care about democracy? Heck, do they even understand what democracy is and why it matters? Or have they simply given up on everything but fear, endless fear? This guy expresses no sense of hope. If the Democratic Party is the best we’ve got going for us, then we’re doomed anyway. What’s the point?

It’s like being in prison. There are all these dangerous and violent criminals surrounding you. Knowing you’re a wimp, you fear for your life. So, you look for the biggest, meanest looking goon around and you offer yourself up to be his personal bitch to take his big cock up your ass, in exchange for protection. You don’t fight the system, you don’t challenge why you were imprisoned in the first place, you don’t try to escape. No, you accept this horrible, unjust fate and try to make the best of it. Hey, maybe decorate your cell to make it feel more like home.

I came across the Rude Pundit’s post because a person I know posted it on social media. It seems this expressed their own views. In the comment section, my acquaintance wrote:

Resolved: Many of the Bernie supporters who would never, ever sully themselves with a Hillary vote are hipster dudebros trying to get laid.

This guy is smart. He is politically informed. Way above average. He is even a professional writer and makes a living publishing his own magazine—small and independent alternative media, I might add. But, Lordy Lordy!, that comment is beneath him… or so I hope. It’s just snarky and condescending, not to mention trying too hard to be clever or something. The sad part is, in making a statement like that, he comes off sounding like a hipster dudebro.

I’m familiar with this kind of person. They are liberals of a particular variety. It’s what happens to liberals when cynicsm comes to rule their minds. Their souls have shriveled up like a man’s ding-a-ling in icy cold water.

There are few things more sad and pathetic than a liberal turned cynical. Such cynicism easily becomes intellectual cowardice. That is what makes it dangerous, for a liberal under the influence of cynicism has no limit beyond which they won’t descend. Like a beaten dog the come cowering back. Like Charlie Brown, they think this time Lucy will let them kick the football.

Let me be clear. I’m not in the mood to be tolerant of intellectual cowardice. Democrats have been dismissing me for my entire adult life, telling me that I’m wasting my vote or else blaming me for the failure of the two party system. I’m plain tired of the endless bullshit. I can’t take it anymore… and I won’t.

If you want to criticize Sanders in favor of third party candidates, then I’m listening. If you think that the corporatist duopoly is beyond being saved, I’ll nod my head in agreement. There are reasonable arguments to be made. People have a right to be angry, maybe even a moral responsibility. But don’t give me hipster cynicism, an ironic stance of being too cool and above it all. Don’t hide behind intellectual cowardice and clever words. Get mad and get righteous, rant and scream. Just don’t be led quietly along. Don’t keep in line, never questioning where it leads. Take a stand and hold your ground.

Here is where I stand. My fight isn’t for a particular candidate nor for a particular party. Rather, my fight is against ignorance, apathy, and cynicism. I’m not a Bernie knob gobbler. But I am a slavering democracy whore.

No one will ever convince me to vote against democracy. I won’t compromise democracy, for without democracy there is nothing left to fight for other than the coming revolution. I’m one of those weirdos who would like to prevent revolution. But there will be no preventing revolution if worthless liberals remain lapdogs of power, rolling over at any potential threat.

Bernie Sanders isn’t a step too far. If we are to be honest, he is nowhere near far enough. We need a stronger political left and grassroots movement to keep liberals honest. Don’t get me wrong, though. We can’t dismiss anyone in our seeking change. The last great American populist movement cut across ideological lines, not just the divide between left-wingers and liberals, but reached far even into the political right. Liberals who think they can go it alone are delusional. Then again, the same goes for left-wingers and right-wingers that hope to force change from the fringe.

We need a new vision, one radical enough to inspire and yet broad enough to bridge ideological chasms. What we don’t need is yet more of the same cynicism that brought us to this point of crisis.

* * *

 

VIDEO: Chris Hedges: In Extreme Times, ‘Liberals Are a Dead Force’ (Part 1 of 3)
interview by Paul Jay, Truthdig

But Paine understood power in a way that Benjamin Franklin, Jefferson, all of the leaders leaders, Adams, didn’t, because if you go back and look, when they began their revolt, they were hoping to make an accommodation with the British Crown. And Paine said, you don’t understand how imperialism works, you don’t understand the hubris that comes with that kind of power, you don’t understand that these people are not interested in making an accommodation with you. And so he served many vital functions, not least of which was articulating the call for revolution, not only in Common Sense, but in the Crisis papers. He was by far the most read author of the 18th century, both in Britain and the United States.

Hedges Laments The ‘Death Of The Liberal Class’
interview by Neal Conan, Talk of the Nation, NPR

Economic collapse almost certain to spiral into violence and totalitarianism, environmental disaster. Writer Chris Hedges argues that he knows who’s responsible for that bleak future: the Democratic Party.

Churches, unions, the media, artists and academia, the liberal establishment, as he calls them. Whether the motive was fear, careerism or self-preservation, Hedges argues that timid liberals marginalized themselves, purged the radicals in their own ranks and sold out.

Without a powerful liberal class to check the excesses of capitalism and corporate power, global warming and class warfare could inaugurate centuries of barbarism, he writes.

Liberals Are Useless
by Chris Hedges, Truthdig

Liberals are a useless lot. They talk about peace and do nothing to challenge our permanent war economy. They claim to support the working class, and vote for candidates that glibly defend the North American Free Trade Agreement. They insist they believe in welfare, the right to organize, universal health care and a host of other socially progressive causes, and will not risk stepping out of the mainstream to fight for them. The only talent they seem to possess is the ability to write abject, cloying letters to Barack Obama—as if he reads them—asking the president to come back to his “true” self. This sterile moral posturing, which is not only useless but humiliating, has made America’s liberal class an object of public derision.

I am not disappointed in Obama. I don’t feel betrayed. I don’t wonder when he is going to be Obama. I did not vote for the man. I vote socialist, which in my case meant Ralph Nader, but could have meant Cynthia McKinney. How can an organization with the oxymoronic title Progressives for Obama even exist? Liberal groups like these make political satire obsolete. Obama was and is a brand. He is a product of the Chicago political machine. He has been skillfully packaged as the new face of the corporate state. I don’t dislike Obama—I would much rather listen to him than his smug and venal predecessor—though I expected nothing but a continuation of the corporate rape of the country. And that is what he has delivered.

“You have a tug of war with one side pulling,” Ralph Nader told me when we met Saturday afternoon. “The corporate interests pull on the Democratic Party the way they pull on the Republican Party. If you are a ‘least-worst’ voter you don’t want to disturb John Kerry on the war, so you call off the anti-war demonstrations in 2004. You don’t want to disturb Obama because McCain is worse. And every four years both parties get worse. There is no pull. That is the dilemma of The Nation and The Progressive and other similar publications. There is no breaking point. What is the breaking point? The criminal war of aggression in Iraq? The escalation of the war in Afghanistan? Forty-five thousand people dying a year because they can’t afford health insurance? The hollowing out of communities and sending the jobs to fascist and communist regimes overseas that know how to put the workers in their place? There is no breaking point. And when there is no breaking point you do not have a moral compass.”

I save my anger for our bankrupt liberal intelligentsia of which, sadly, I guess I am a member. Liberals are the defeated, self-absorbed Mouse Man in Dostoevsky’s “Notes From Underground.” They embrace cynicism, a cloak for their cowardice and impotence. They, like Dostoevsky’s depraved character, have come to believe that the “conscious inertia” of the underground surpasses all other forms of existence. They too use inaction and empty moral posturing, not to affect change but to engage in an orgy of self-adulation and self-pity. They too refuse to act or engage with anyone not cowering in the underground. This choice does not satisfy the Mouse Man, as it does not satisfy our liberal class, but neither has the strength to change. The gravest danger we face as a nation is not from the far right, although it may well inherit power, but from a bankrupt liberal class that has lost the will to fight and the moral courage to stand up for what it espouses.

An Interview with Chris Hedges
interview by David Barsamian, The Progressive

The press doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s one of the pillars of the liberal establishment. So I decided to write about all of the traditional pillars of the liberal establishment—not just the press, but liberal religious institutions, higher education, culture, labor, and, of course, the Democratic Party—and show how the foundations of the liberal state have been degraded or destroyed.

When you have a liberal class that no longer functions, when those people who traditionally defend and care about a civil society no longer do so, then you cede power to very frightening, deformed figures, all of which we are watching leap up around the fringes of our political establishment—this lunatic fringe, which has largely taken over the Republican Party. And the legitimate rage on the part of working men and women is directed not only towards government but, I think quite correctly, towards liberals, who speak in a very hypocritical language about caring for their interests and yet support institutions that carry out an assault against working men and women. […]

The disappointment with Obama comes from people who don’t understand the structure of power. The charade of politics is to make voters think that the personal narrative of the candidate affects the operation of the corporate state. It doesn’t really matter on the fundamental issues whether the President is Republican or Democratic. The imperial projects will continue, Wall Street will be unimpeded in its malfeasance and criminal activity, social programs will continue to be cut, maybe not at the same speed as under a Republican Administration, but it’s all headed in the same direction. […]

He never presented himself as a peace candidate, to be fair to him. This was just wishful thinking on the part of the left. He talked about downsizing in Iraq. But, remember, at the time he was saying that Afghanistan was the war we really have to fight. So the failure was not Obama but the fecklessness of the left, which was seduced by the propaganda. People believed somehow that he didn’t really mean what he was saying, that once in office he would carry out a progressive agenda. But if you look at the two-year voting record he had in the Senate, it’s awful. It’s one corporate giveaway after another. There wasn’t a bill he supported that wasn’t an embrace of corporatism. I got the voting record, I read it, and I made my decision to vote based on that voting record. And that’s what we all should have done. […]

I think that it was an understanding that the two-party system, the corporate duopoly, no longer functions to further the rights or interests of citizens, and that the longer we’re fooled by this belief that reform can come through these formal structures of power, the more disempowered we’re going to become.

If we don’t hold fast to our moral principles, nobody’s going to. We don’t have to have a majority, but once ten, fifteen, twenty million people start voting left, we’ll scare the piss out of the Democrats, and they’ll have to respond. But they’re not going to respond to us until that happens.

We are facing another economic meltdown. The ecosystem, on which the human species depends for life, is being destroyed at a rate that has not even been anticipated by climate scientists. We don’t have a lot of time left. So either we get out and fight or we’re finished. Fear is the only thing the Democratic Party has to offer—fear that the Republican Party is worse.

The question is, how do you stop the power elite from doing as much damage to you as possible? That comes through movements. It’s not our job to take power. You could argue that the most powerful political figure in April of 1968 was Martin Luther King. And we know Johnson was terrified of him. We have to accept that all of the true correctives to American democracy came through these movements that never achieved formal political power and yet frightened the political establishment enough to respond.

The last liberal President we had was Richard Nixon. He signed the Mine Health and Safety Act, and he agreed to create OSHA and the EPA, not because he was a liberal but because we still had the remnants of movements that scared him.

So it’s time to turn your back on the Democrats and begin to regain a new kind of democratic militancy. If we don’t do that, if we remain fearful, then we will be further stripped of power as we barrel towards this neofeudalistic state where there is a world of masters and serfs, a kind of permanent underclass. That’s what’s happening; that’s what’s being created. Rapacious corporate business interests have shattered all kinds of regulations and controls. They have carried out a coup d’etat in slow motion. And it’s over; they’ve won.

Liberal Pundits Aren’t Amused By Bernie Sanders’ Campaign Anymore—They’re Terrified
by Kevin Gosztola, In These Times

Democrats, along with President Obama’s administration, have spent the last eight years protecting capitalism from populist calls for reform, which would diminish the power and influence of corporations. The Affordable Health Care Act was a prime example, where Medicare for All was immediately taken off the table, and the political party manipulated citizens into believing requiring private insurance companies to offer insurance to all consumers was the best that could be accomplished.

It is one thing to vote for Hillary Clinton and other Democrats, who are more than happy to serve the moneyed elite, if you actually believe in what she stands for as a presidential candidate. But it is quite another thing to delude people into voting for her simply because it is your view that Bernie Sanders’ vision is difficult to make a reality. That position accepts the status quo and embraces a politics of low expectations, where the best elected officials can do is triage the effect of wealth and power becoming more and more concentrated in the hands of the few.

Is Bernie Sanders an American Empire Denier?
by Steve Weissman, Reader Supported News

Setting himself up as a one-man vanguard to define socialism on behalf of the benighted and brainwashed masses, Hedges preaches with the certainty of those who have seen the light and know the way to secular salvation, whether in Athens, Barcelona, or Peoria. But he loses himself in a sectarian wilderness, offering no way to get from where we are to where we want to go.

Welcome to the old-time religion. In nearly every American election, purists like Hedges push the left into the same sterile debate. Should we fight within the Democratic Party, where we will likely be co-opted? Or should we create a third party, where we will likely be ineffective? Both are usually dead ends, convincing many of us to put the majority of our energy into organizing and direct action outside the electoral and Congressional arena, as we did in the civil rights, free speech, and anti-war movements of the 1960s.

But that was then, this is now. Thanks primarily to the energy and common-sense proposals of Bernie Sanders, millions of Americans have opened their minds to the possibility of a democratic and egalitarian control of the economy, which is not a bad working definition of socialism for the 21st century. We need to talk to, work with, and learn from these Americans, and most of them will vote in the Democratic primaries.

A Response to Chris Hedges Concerning Bernie Sanders
by Vincent Emanuele, ZNET

Without doubt, a lot of smart and talented organizers are working on Sanders’ campaign. It would be useful to challenge these folks. The Left can do so, but only by approaching these activists and organizers with respect, not by mocking or dismissing their efforts.

If the Left consistently isolates itself during election cycles, or sits on the sidelines, making armchair critiques, while offering very limited alternatives like voting for the Green Party/Jill Stein, how can we expect people to become radicalized? Moreover, why should people even pay attention to us?

Leftists can formulate devastating critiques, but we can’t organize for shit. And that is the Left’s primary dilemma: the inability to provide alternatives to the dominant political parties and institutions of our time. When people are exposed to the Left, they are often turned-off by the experience. Until the Left can provide serious alternatives, we’ll be relegated to the sidelines.

In the end, the Left should spend more time looking in the mirror, and less time critiquing liberals.

Liberalism and the Millennials
by Corey Robin

The only reason Clinton and her supporters on Twitter can so reflexively attack Sanders over this issue—not his support for the Sandinistas or Castro, but his opposition to US intervention—is that, thanks to two decades of liberal support for regime change and humanitarian intervention, the whole discourse of liberal anti-interventionism has practically disappeared from the scene. Today, the only solid and reliable anti-interventionists you can find are either left-wing anti-imperialists, paleo- or other brands of conservative at outlets like The American Conservative, or an ever narrowing circle of IR realists like Steve Walt.

Which brings me to the millennials. I know a number of young leftists, in their 20s or early 30s, who have no experience or memory of this liberal anti-interventionism that I’ve been describing here. When they think liberal, they think of the Clintons and their allies, who are not only terrible on the issue of US power around the world, but also terrible on the question of economic justice and equality at home. They have no memory of a generation of left liberals who fought firmly for labor unions, who pushed hard for universal health care, public housing, and the like. They have no memory of a young Arthur Schlesinger rejecting Communism but nevertheless affirming that “class conflict is essential if freedom is to be preserved, because it is the only barrier against class domination.”

For liberals or leftists of my generation, or for even older liberals and leftists, the discourse of anti-liberalism on the left has a resonance. It calls to mind some of the most bruising battles of the 20th century—Communists against parliamentary socialists, Popular Fronters and Henry Wallace Progressives against the Americans for Democratic Action, Irving Howe-style socialists against the New Left, and so on. For someone like myself, who identifies with the left but who nevertheless has a great deal of respect for the tradition of liberalism, it is imperative that there be a good and productive tension between liberalism and the left.

So I can imagine when liberals and leftists of my generation, or those who are even older, hear the flat refusal of millennials on the left to even entertain the possibility of a dialogue with liberalism, it can seem scary, like a return to some of the worst moments of intra-liberal/left fratricide. But this is where history can get in the way. For the millennials, the bankruptcy of liberalism is not Walter Reuther or Hubert Humphrey or A. Phillip Randolph or Bayard Rustin; it’s Clinton, Clinton, and Clinton.

The gulf today between liberalism and the left is not of the millennials’ or even of the left’s making; it’s the product of a liberalism that has been moving right for decades and that, whatever feints to the left it has been making more recently, still has some way to go before there can be a useful and productive dialogue of difference.

 

Game Theory and the Truce of the Ruling Elites

If you’re in the mood for a dark view of the world and of humanity, then boy oh boy I have the article for you: The Clash of the Civilizations. Some are content with mere pessimism. That isn’t enough for the author, W. Ben Hunt. He aims for the apogee of cynicism.

“Lots of quotes this week, particularly from my two favorite war criminals – Sam Huntington and Henry Kissinger.”

Such casual disregard about war crime and those who commit it. I’m impressed right from the start.

I’m not a Christian, but I find myself automatically putting something like this into a Christian context. I don’t just mean the mention of war crime. I’m talking about the entire article that follows it. The war crime comment just sets the tone. There are a number of reasons for my thinking of Christianity, both in terms of morality and history.

First and foremost, what brought Christianity to mind was the simple fact that the person who recommended the article to me is a practicing Christian. That person isn’t just any Christian. He is my father who not only raised me in Christianity but raised me to take Christian values seriously. I don’t know how my father would square Hunt’s views with Jesus’ teachings, assuming he would even want to try. I do know my father deeply struggles with his faith and how it applies to the larger world, but in the end my father is in the impossible position of any other conservative Christian. Simply put, Jesus wasn’t a conservative, not to say Jesus was a liberal, but he certainly wasn’t conservative in any sense of the word (politically, socially, or attitudinally).

My own values have a Christian tinge. I don’t care one way or another if Jesus ever actually existed, but the radicalism of the message itself has stood out to me for a long time (far more radical than can be allowed for by either mainstream conservatism or liberalism). Jesus was always on the side of the powerless, not the powerful (on side of the victims of such things as war crimes, not the purveyors of it). I was thinking about this lately in context of the Ferguson protests and, more importantly, in the context of the words of Martin Luther King Jr.

You can agree or disagree with someone like MLK, but what is clear is that his view is in line with a Christian worldview. He was a Christian preacher, after all. Hunt’s philosophy, on the other hand, is just as clearly not in line with a Christian worldview. Hunt is advocating for something that is un-Christian or even anti-Christian.

I wanted to note that upfront. Hunt, as with those he quotes, seeks to defend Western society. But his interest seems to be more a desire to protect a particular power structure and social order, rather than any substance of the culture itself. Huntington and Kissinger were both advocates of American imperialism where mass violence was used to enforce the will of the American ruling elite (e.g., the Vietnam War). He is invoking American imperialism by relying on two major figures who have been the focus of serious accusations of war crimes, as he acknowledges.

Hunt shows no concern for Christian values, except maybe as they offer a contrast with non-Christian societies. He is not making a moral argument, at least not in the straightforward sense, or rather the morality he is proposing not of an inspiring variety. It’s more in line with might makes right, rather than love thy neighbor.

“Everyone has heard of Kissinger, fewer of Huntington, who may have been even more of a hawk and law-and-order fetishist than Kissinger”

I might point out that the Pharisees and Pontius Pilate were also law-and-order fetishists. They were likely hawks as well.

“But Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” argument is not just provocative, curmudgeonly, and hawkish. It is, I think, demonstrably more useful in making sense of the world than any competing theory, which is the highest praise any academic work can receive. Supplement Huntington’s work with a healthy dose of Kissinger’s writings on “the character of nations” and you’ve got a cogent and predictive intellectual framework for understanding the Big Picture of international politics.”

Basically, the author is arguing that the best way to understand the world is by listening to those who advocate for cynical realpolitik. Huntington and Kissinger are favorite thinkers of those in power. They speak for power and justify power. They are giving voice to those who rule the world. So, of course, they best explain the actual way the world is being presently ruled or at least how that rule is being rationalized in the minds of the ruling elite, whether or not the rationalization explains much of anything.

Hunt is going even further, though. He thinks that Huntington and Kissinger were speaking for reality itself. It is a cynicism so deep that it blinds him to genuine alternatives. It isn’t just the way the world is because how those in power have made it to be. He is going far beyond that. The claim is that it could be no other way.

“Huntington and Kissinger were both realists (in the Thucydides and Bismarck sense of the word), as opposed to liberals (in the John Stuart Mill and Woodrow Wilson sense of the word),”

By admiring them as realists, he is advocating realism. There is capitalist realism that has been dissected by others (e.g., Mark Fisher). The criticisms of capitalist realism parallel the criticisms of communist realism. But the view here isn’t using the Cold War rhetoric of either the freedom of markets or the freedom of workers. And it denies liberalism as being valid, liberalism both as progressivism and neo-liberalism. This is pure neo-conservatism. Ruthless power as its own justification.

That is the ‘reality’ Hunt lives in, and so it is the ‘reality’ he would like to enforce on all of the world. He can’t imagine the world any other way.

At the beginning of the article, the author included this quote:

“The West won the world not by the superiority of its ideas or values or religion … but rather by its superiority in applying organized violence. Westerners often forget this fact; non-Westerners never do.”
– Samuel P. Huntington (1927 – 2008)

Many people would interpret a statement like that as an admonishment of Western imperialism. But one gets the sense that Huntington and Hunt takes that as a point of pride. We are the winners! Bow down and submit!

The above was the second quote. It immediately followed this:

“In the emerging world of ethnic conflict and civilizational clash, Western belief in the universality of Western culture suffers three problems: it is false; it is immoral; and it is dangerous.”
– Samuel P. Huntington, “The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order” (1996)

Combining those two quotes, what is implied is twofold.

First, the West is intrinsically unique and fundamentally different from all the rest of humanity. We are the pinnacle of civilization, at least for now (and, for many hereditarian reactionaries, we are also the pinnacle of human evolution).

Second, what keeps us at the pinnacle is nothing more than being better at maintaining power through “organized violence” (i.e., brute oppression and military imperialism). This is to say we are better at keeping everyone else down and in their place where they can’t challenge us. And by saying ‘we’ and ‘us’, I mean the Western ruling elite, specifically those who aspire toward an authoritarian oligarchy or paternalistic plutocracy. Actually, their aspiration is greater still, as is made clear in this article. They want to be part of a transnational ruling elite, not just in the US or even the West but across the entire globe.

To continue with what the author was saying about Huntington and Kissinger, he stated this,

“basically just means that they saw human political history as essentially cyclical and the human experience as essentially constant.”

Right there, that is what I zeroed in on. I just happened to be reading a book that I’ve had for some years, but only now got around to looking at in detail. It is Circle and Lines by John Demos. The subtitle is “The Shape of Life in Early America”.

There was a cultural transition and psychological transformation that had been going on. Demos sees it as a centuries-long shift, but I would identify it’s having begun much earlier with the breakdown of the bicameral mind and the ensuing developments during the Axial Age, during which linear theologies came to dominance (temporal existence as a one-way trip, a cosmic narrative with a conclusive and final ending; the prime example in the West being Christianity which is from the late Axial Age, having been built on preceding expressions and influenced by concurrent expressions of the Axial Age such as Alexandrian Judaism, neo-Pythagoreanismm, Greco-Roman Mystery Schools, Egyptian Isis worship, etc).

One might point out as an example, specifically a Christian example, MLK’s preaching that, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” This arc extends from the past into the future, as progress toward something. It is not a pagan cycle of return that repeats endlessly, ever coming back to what is, has been, and always will be.

The linear style of thinking had particularly taken hold in the West because of the Hellenistic tradition that was spread through the joint effort of the Roman Empire and the Catholic Church. It was reintroduced during the Renaissance, became a real force during the Enlightenment, and then violently disrupted the social order during the early modern revolutionary era. It was a slow process over millennia for it to take hold. It still hasn’t fully taken hold, as is shown by the ease of Hunt’s dismissing it out of hand. Hunt, instead, harkens back to an ancient cyclical view of humanity and the world, not only still fightng againt the Enlightenment Age thinkers but also the Axial Age prophets.

“Life is fundamentally “nasty, brutish, and short”, to quote Thomas Hobbes, and people band together in tribes, societies, and nation-states to do something about that.”

It is unsurprising that the author seeks support from a pre-Enlightenment thinker. But I doubt Hunt would accept Hobbes’ belief that all humans are equal, for the very reason that death makes life “nasty, brutish, and short” (any person could kill any other person). I’m also not sure how the cyclical view could be fit into Hobbes’ ideas about society (in Hobbes and Human Nature, Arnold Green argues that, “In short, stasis was the goal. Cyclical theories do not deny development, as Hobbes essentially did.”), since Hunt doesn’t seem to be denying development in his own cyclical theorizing, just denying progress as a fundamental force of transformation and improvement. Anyway, Hobbes is a weak foundation upon which to base a post-Enlightenment modern view of global society and cross-cultural social order (see Beyond Liberty Alone by Howard Schwartz).

“As such, we are constantly competing with other tribes, societies, and nation-states, and the patterns of that competition – patterns with names like “balance of power” and “empire” and “hegemony” – never really change across the centuries or from one continent to another. Sure, technology might provide some “progress” in creature comforts and quality of life (thank goodness for modern dentistry!), but basically technology just provides mechanisms for these political patterns to occur faster and with more devastating effect than before.”

In a nutshell: Competition between powers is the only constant. Nothing fundamentally ever changes or can change. There is no such thing as improvement. That is a stark worldview.

Besides moral criticisms, a main problem I have with it is that it doesn’t fit the evidence. Humanity has vastly changed over the centuries and millennia. The neighboring towns around where I live are not separate competing tribes or city-states that are in constant battle with my town. I can travel in most places in the world with relative ease and relatively little fear. For an increasing number of people, life no longer is “nasty, brutish, and short”.

These changes aren’t superficial, but have fundamentally altered how human nature has been expressed (possibly even at a genetic level to some degree, as research shows evolutionary changes can happen over shorter periods of time). John Demos speaks of this psychological level of change at the heart of social change, but even more profoundly it has been analyzed by the likes of Julian Jaynes and the Jaynesian theorists.

“The central point of “Clash of Civilizations” is that it’s far more useful to think of the human world as divided into 9 great cultures (Huntington calls them civilizations, but I’ll use the words interchangeably here) rather than as 200 or so sovereign nations.”

I agree that cultures are important, but this view lacks much depth. If you look very far into this topic, you quickly realize that dividing populations up into clearly delineated and broadly sweeping ethno-cultural categories is about as meaningful as doing the same with races, which is to say not particularly meaningful. These cultures are fluid and constantly shifting. They have porous borders and syncretistic pasts.

Democracy has become associated with the West, but it originated at a time when Greeks had more culturally in common with other Mediterranean people (including Near Easterners and North Africans) than with what we today think of as Westerners. Many of the major building blocks of Western Civilization originated from elsewhere. There was nothing inherently democratic, imperialistic, and colonial about Western cultures prior to these ideological systems having been introduced into the West. The West was utterly and quickly transformed in its process of becoming what it is today. Hunt is being plain ignorant in ignoring this fact.

“Marxism and liberalism are inherently optimistic visions of human society. Things are always getting better … or they will be better just as soon as people wake up and recognize their enlightened self-interest … as ideas of proletariat empowerment (Marxism) or individual rights as instantiated by free markets and free elections (liberalism) inexorably spread throughout the world.”

My sense is that Hunt is missing something centrally important. I’ve wondered if optimism isn’t actually the defining feature of liberalism and leftism. Maybe optimism at best is just a side result of a particular worldview. Liberals and leftists don’t necessarily see everything as progress. Rather, they primarily see it as irreversible, both the good and the bad. Not just irreversible, but also unstoppable. Hunt wants the world to stop so that he can get off. That just isn’t possible.

“For realists like Huntington and Kissinger, on the other hand, this is nonsense. Free markets and free elections are good things (as is proletariat empowerment, frankly), but these central concepts of liberalism only mean what we Westerners think they mean if they exist within the entire context of Western culture.”

These aren’t Western ideas in the first place. They evolved over a complex history that extends way beyond the West. The narrowness and superficiality of Hunt’s view is staggering.

“The West may very well want to impose the practices and institutions of free markets and free elections for its own self-interest, and China may want to adopt the practices and institutions of free markets (but not free elections) for its own self-interest, but the logic of self-interest is a VERY different thing than the triumphalist claim that the liberal ideas of Western free markets and free elections are “naturally” spreading throughout the world.”

I have no desire to impose anything on anyone. But if I did want to impose my own version of Western values on particular people, I’d begin with those who agree with Huntington and Kissinger. I would argue that it is Hunt who is dismissing Western tradition, not just as it might apply to non-Western societies but more importantly as it applies to the West. A linear view of change has become a central tenet of Western thought at this point. He wants to defend some abstract notion of the West by cutting out its beating heart.

Many liberals and leftists are the opposite of triumphalist about Western cultural imperialism. In fact, it is Hunt and those like him who are trying to create a new kind of Western cultural imperialism. He doesn’t actually mind imposing his ideas onto the rest of the world. What he fears is that the influence might be two-way. He wants near total Western dominance where we can protect the West with some utopian hope of cultural isolation.

Even his understanding of game theory is Western. He never explains why non-Westerners would want to submit to his game theory model of a truce among ruling elites. If non-Westerners refuse his desire that they play by Western rules as they inevitably would, what does he advise? No doubt, he would agree with Huntington and Kissinger in their advocacy of military force. Despite the rhetoric, it will always come back to violent power.

“A brief aside here on the distinction between personal beliefs and useful models. I’m not saying that I believe that authoritarian regimes and jihadist despots have some sort of moral equivalence to liberal governments, or that human rights don’t matter, or any of the other tired bromides used to tar realists. On the contrary, I personally believe that everyone in the non-Western world would be better off … MUCH better off … if their governing regimes gave a damn about individual rights and liberties in the same way that ANY governing regime in the West does.”

If that were true, Hunt better get up to speed. His ignorance of world history and world events is massive. The non-Western world is the way it is largely because of Western actions: wars, invasions, occupations, assassinations, coup d’etats, arming and training militant groups, alliances with authoritarian regimes (dictatorships, theocracies, etc), promoting fascism, military-imposed resource extraction, total control of trade routes, and on and on. If we don’t like the world we have helped to create, maybe Western governments need to start acting differently.

“But what a realist recognizes is that our personal vision of how we would like the world to be is not an accurate representation of The World As It Is, and – as Huntington wrote – it’s false, immoral, and dangerous to pretend otherwise.”

A genuine realist would acknowledge our social and moral responsibility for the world we helped create. Hunt is arguing for a vision of a Western society that doesn’t exist, except in his mind and in the propaganda of imperialists.

“Is a realist happy about any of this? Is a realist satisfied to shrug his shoulders and retreat into some isolationist shell? No, of course not. But a realist does not assume that there are solutions to these problems. Certainly a realist does not assume that there are universal principles like “free and fair elections” that can or should be applied as solutions to these problems. Some problems are intractable because they have been around for hundreds or thousands of years and are part and parcel of the Clash of Civilizations.”

Does this guy know anything about history?

The original Clash of Civilizations in Europe was between Greco-Roman culture and the tribal indigenous cultures. The memory of that clash was still so fresh that Thomas Jefferson could cite the pre-Norman English as an inspiration for American liberty (Normans having been the first serious introduction of Roman culture into Enlgand). Jefferson saw a free American society having its roots in the Germanic-Celtic people, not the imperial Roman tradition. There is no and never has been a singular unified Western culture.

“I think the crucial issue here (as it is with so many things in life) is to call things by their proper name.We’ve mistaken the self-interested imposition and adoption of so many Western artifices – the borders between Syria and Iraq are a perfect example, but you can substitute “democracy in Afghanistan” if you like, or “capital markets in China” if you want something a bit more contentious – for the inevitable and righteous spread of Western ideals on their own merits. This is a problem for one simple reason: if you think Something happened because of Reason A (ideals spreading “naturally” and “inevitably” within an environment of growing global cooperation), but it really happened because of Reason B (practices imposed or adopted out of regime self-interest within an environment of constant global competition), then you will fail to anticipate or react appropriately when that Something changes.”

I would agree with one basic component of that assessment. We should be clear in what we speak about. The failure of Hunt is that he lacks genuine understanding. Someone like Noam Chomsky would make mincemeat of his pathetic attempt at international analysis.

“And here’s the kicker: change is coming… It’s going to get worse.”

Sure. Liberals and leftists would be the first to say that. The difference is whether one accepts change or fights against it and tries to deny it. Hunt wants to defend the West against all change, to make sure all change is externalized along with all the costs.

Following that, Hunt goes on for quite a while about economics. That demonstrates the superficiality of his understanding.

There is a certain kind of person that sees everything as economics. To this thinking, all of the social order, all power, all culture comes down to economics. This is unsurprising for someone like Hunt. His career is in finance. That is his hammer by which all the world looks like a bunch of nails. Because of this, he is unable to look deeper into the historical and social forces that have made and are still making the world we live in.

This is an inevitable outcome of his worldview. He sees all change as superficial, which is to say nothing fundamentally changes. His attempt is to understand the change going on in the world. But since all change to his mind is superficial, it forces him to offer a surface level analysis. Economics are just the chips in the poker game, to be won or lost, but the players play on. There is only one game in town and that is the game of power.

The following is part of what interested my father:

“No, the existential risk is that the great civilizations of the world will be “hollowed out” internally, so that the process of managing the ten thousand year old competition between civilizations devolves into an unstable game of pandering to domestic crowds rather than a stable equilibrium of balance of power.”

Hunt supports his view with a quote from Kissinger. In that quote,

“Side by side with the limitless possibilities opened up by the new technologies, reflection about international order must include the internal dangers of societies driven by mass consensus, deprived of the context and foresight needed on terms compatible with their historical character. As diplomacy is transformed into gestures geared toward passions, the search for equilibrium risks giving way to a testing of limits. …

“Because information is so accessible and communication instantaneous, there is a diminution of focus on its significance, or even on the definition of what is significant. This dynamic may encourage policymakers to wait for an issue to arise rather than anticipate it, and to regard moments of decision as a series of isolated events rather than part of a historical continuum. When this happens, manipulation of information replaces reflection as the principal policy tool.”
– Henry Kissinger, “World Order: Reflections on the Character of Nations and the Course of History” (2014)

Hunt wants a ruling elite who will paternalisticaly manage Western civilization and will manage the balance of power with the ruling elites of non-Western civilizations. This is a natural worldview for Hunt, as he manages a financial company.

He wants the world managed in the way a transnational corporation is managed. This relates to why he doesn’t think the center of power should be in nation-states. He envisions a transnational ruling elite that would somehow have greater power and influence than even the elected officials of governments.

This would also be an element that resonates with my father. He was a business manager for many years and then taught business management. My father’s entire worldview is steeped in the experience and attitude of the management model of solving problems.

Unlike Hunt and my father, I actually want a functioning democracy, not just in form but also in substance, a culture of democracy and an entire democratization of every aspect of life and governance. What they want is in reality an increasingly privatized technocracy, with maybe some outward forms of democracy by way of a paternalistic ruling elite that would use superficial rhetoric to make claims of representing the people (no different than any other ruling elite in all of history, as even kings claimed to represent the people). Hunt would also want that technocracy to be transnationalized. My father has a slight libertarian tendency and would be more wary of such transnationalization, but still not wary enough for my taste.

Here is where the author goes into detail about game theory.

“I’ll just introduce two key game theoretic concepts at the core of Kissinger’s warning.

“First, the proliferation of the most dangerous game of all – Chicken. […] Chicken is such a dangerous game because it has no equilibrium, no outcome where all parties prefer where they are to where they might be. […]

“Second, the dumbing-down of all political games into their most unstable form – the single-play game.When Kissinger writes about how political leaders come to see “moments of decision as a series of isolated events”, he’s talking about the elimination of repeated-play games and shrinking the shadow of the future. Most games seem really daunting at first glance. For example, the Prisoner’s Dilemma is famous for having a very stable equilibrium where everyone is worse off than they easily could have been with some very basic cooperation. But there’s a secret to solving the Prisoner’s Dilemma – play it lots of times with the same players. Cooperation and mutually advantageous equilibria are far easier to achieve within a repeated-play game because reputation matters. The shadow of the future looms large if you’re thinking not only about this iteration of the game and the moves ahead, but also about the next time you have to play the game, perhaps for larger stakes, and the next, and the next.”

The author is seeking a stable and unchanging balance of power. He doesn’t want a shared human society nor does he want progress, for free democratic societies are inherently unstable and constantly changing. He wants to create or return the world to some ideal holding pattern between superpowers. The game he speaks of is between elites. He doesn’t care about the rest of us. Democracy and freedom are of secondary concern to him, at best. What he is focused on is stability at all costs, a repeating game between the same players with the same results, an agreement among the powerful to keep the game of power going, a mutual understanding and respect among the world’s ruling elites.

I want to end by noting that, while in the middle of writing this piece, I did talk to my father about the article. He, of course, saw it through a different lens. All that I noticed didn’t occur to him.

He focused on the game theory aspect, apparently to the exclusion of all else (I doubt Hunt’s war crime comment even registered in his awareness to any great extent or, if it did, he probably just took it as humor). The likely reason for this is that my father shares many of the same assumptions and biases as Hunt, specifically the right-wing reactionary mistrust of “the people” along with a desire for an enlightened, meritocratic, and paternalistic ruling elite. The premises of Hunt’s argument didn’t stand out to my father as something to question and doubt. His offering the article to me was just a passing thought, just an expression of mild curiosity about how game theory might apply to international politics. The worldview itself was just background.

For me, game theory seemed like a small part of the argument, and the argument seemed like a small part of a larger worldview. Game theory was more just supporting evidence than the heart of the matter. My attention was caught by how it was being framed.

What to my father just seemed a bit pessimistic to me felt outright cynical. That is because Hunt and my father are conservatives, as contrasted with the liberalism that I espouse and they criticize. Much of conservatism, to my mind, has a disturbingly cynical bent and a fatalistic tendency, but to conservatives it is just being ‘realistic’. That is a ‘reality’ I’d rather avoid.

Let me wrap up with a couple of things about Hunt’s use of game theory.

First, game theory is inherently amoral. What I mean is that it can be applied to and used to justify various moral and immoral purposes. I’m not entirely sure about the universal applicability of game theory. To return to Christianity, I don’t see Jesus as advocating a game theory worldview. I’m thinking that game theory leaves a lot out, at least in a simplistic interpretation as Hunt is using it. However, if we weren’t to interpret it simplistically, how might game theory apply toward morality, rather than just toward self-interest of power and profit?

Second, Hunt is applying game theory only to the ruling elite. He is assuming that the ‘masses’ of the general public won’t be allowed to play, as long as people like him can control the playing field and the rules of play. But if Hunt were to be honest, he would have to confront this inconsistency. He claims that game theory fits human nature the best. In that case, why doesn’t it also apply to all humans, not just the ruling elite? Why not apply game theory to democracy, to freedom and liberty, to social responsibility and public accountability, to moral hazard and externalizations?

Hunt assumes that he is writing to an audience that either is part of the ruling elite, who aspires to be part of the ruling elite, or who sees their interests in line with the ruling elite. The related assumption he is making is that the rest of the population is too stupid, too indifferent, and too powerless to care or be able to do anything about it. Why does he make these assumptions? What if the average person refuses to play by the rules of the ruling elite? Should we expect that the violence committed against foreigners, as neocons recommend, will also be turned against us, the local citizenry?

What does game theory tell us will happen when the ruling elite gets too oppressive?

A Dangerous Pragmatism

How often pragmatism leads to or belies shortsightedness and narrowmindedness. Or rather how often claims, justifications and rationalizations of realism undermine greater pragmatic results, capitalist realism allied with realpolitik cynicism often being the worst.

The question as always: Pragmatic toward what?

In education, what is sought to be achieved and created? Not just for the individual. Not just for the workforce and economy. But for all of society. What makes a morally and intellectually well-rounded human being? What makes a good citizen, both of a nation and of the world? What makes for the public good?

These questions are even more important in a democracy. When democracy is given short shrift, when democracy is devalued or made secondary, if not tertiary, that bodes not well for the long-term survival of a democratic society. Nor does it offer much hope for moral results of any kind. Freedom of the individual, freedom of markets, freedom of all of society is dependent on how each generation is raised and acculturated, trained and educated.

Every society seeks pragmatic results, as defined by their political structure and cultural traditions. The Nazis and Stalinists all sought to be pragmatic toward achieving their desired end. They were as caught up in their fascist realism and communist realism as we are caught up in our capitalist realism. How about some plain old civic-minded democracy instead?

Let us be pragmatic about something that truly matters, something that can inspire and benefit everyone. Let us be pragmatic about democracy in all of its forms.

Let us create and sustain a democratic system and citizenry. Let us create and sustain a democratic economy and democratic markets. Let us create and sustain a democratic education system.

Let us do all of this pragmatically, not just with rhetoric and propaganda, but with real world results. Let us finally for the first time in history take democracy seriously, both on the large-scale and for the long-term. Let us together build the practical infrastructure and the grassroots culture of democracy.

Let us begin with a new generation by preparing them for a new era of democracy. Let us fulfill the democratic promise of education for all.

Illiberal Arts
‘Is College Worth It?’ and ‘College (Un)bound’
By Andrew Delbanco
The New York Times
Published: June 21, 2013

The colleges that survive will be those, in Selingo’s words, that “prove their worth.” Fair enough. But there’s a problem with this formulation, which presumes a narrow definition of worth that can be captured in data like rates of early job attainment or levels of lifetime income.

In times of economic stress, it’s entirely reasonable for students and families to demand evidence that paying for college makes sense. Bennett construes college as a business proposition, but Selingo allows himself to reflect on what’s sacrificed in such a view: “I worry at times about what might be lost in an unbound, personalized experience for students. Will they discover subjects they never knew existed? If a computer is telling them where to sit for class discussions, will they make those random connections that lead to lifelong friends? Will they be able to develop friendships and mentors if they move from provider to provider?”

These are the right questions. In striving to “prove their worth,” America’s colleges risk losing their value as places young ­people enter as adventurous adolescents and from which they emerge as intellectually curious adults. Such a loss could never be compensated by any gain.

Cynicism and Trust

Cynicism and trust are competing forces.

These are mutually exclusive factors where the increase of one causes or contributes to the decrease of the other. With a cynical attitude, people withdraw from social relationships based on a larger sense of trust. As people withdraw their sense of trust, they lessen their commitment to acting trustworthy toward others and are less willing to put themselves on the line to help promote an environment of trust. Thus, cynicism replacing trust, society becomes atomized leading to the dominance of Social Darwinism and hyper-individualism.

Social trust exists in concentric circles: family, church, community, region, country, ethnicity/race, etc. Some societies have high trust cultures and others low trust cultures. All things remaining stable, high trust cultures are concomitant with and sustaining of high trust social organization. The same with low trust cultures and social organization. It’s a reciprocal relation. However, not all things remain unchanging.

The United States has a relatively high trust culture, although not as high as Japan and many Northern European countries. On the other hand, the US has some clear dysfunctions related to low trust. I think this conflict has to do with it being a large and diverse society, but fortunately with many citizens of ancestries from countries that are high trust (such as Germany). Certain US regions (such as those with low rates of German ancestry) have cultures of low trust, the Deep South being the prime example. This regionalism has created clear dysfunction on the federal level of government, but at the same time a high trust form of democracy continues to operate within certain local communities and governments.

The conditions in the US have changed greatly. This has shifted the level and extension of trust. These changes involve various balances of power – between: South and North, federal and states, elites and non-elites, left and right, etc.

Many Americans have lost a wider sense of trust. Partly, it’s just the inevitable atomizing destruction of community that results from globalized capitalism. But there is more to it. Modernity, in general, is about societal change: secularization, multiculturalism, urbanization, suburbanization, and many other factors. Humans have evolved to adapt to change, but this is more change than humans can collectively deal with in a healthy way.

This hits certain groups harder than others. The lower classes, of course, get the brunt of it and they also have the least resources to soften the impact. For reasons of psychological traits, conservatives deal with it the worse or maybe it’s that conservatives become the worst in dealing with it. There is nothing in the world that even comes close to the cynicism of a conservative turned reactionary.

We moderns so often take trust for granted, except when there is societal tumult or breakdown. Human nature is built on group cohesion which necessitates trust. Civilization magnifies this requirement of social capital. At the same time, the development of civilization has undermined what makes trust possible as an expression of human nature and human communities. Humans didn’t evolve in large, concentrated societies and so human nature isn’t adapted well to these conditions.

Some societies apparently have maintained their cultures of trust over the centuries, but modernization has made this increasingly difficult. The exceptional countries are those that have maintained some basic level of cultural (often ethnic) isolation, economic independence, and societal autonomy. This has mostly applied to Northern societies such as Germany and Scandinavia.

The US is somewhere in the middle on the scale of trust. We have many citizens who have ancestries from countries of high trust cultures, but we also have many citizens who have ancestries from countries of low trust cultures. This is one of the divisions underlying the regionalism of North/South. Germans and Scandinavians mostly settled the North. Scots-Irish, Barbadoans, etc mostly settled the South.

It’s interesting that early capitalism favored the high trust culture of the North and more recent capitalism has shifted increasingly to the low trust culture of the South. Capitalism is an odd system in that it needs a high trust culture to develop into large-scale international corporations, but capitalism seeks out low trust cultures to exploit for profits. So, capitalism uses high trust cultures for its own ends which ultimately undermines those very high trust cultures. The only exceptions to this seems to be extremely well developed cultures of trust that enforce massive regulation and social/moral control over the economic sector. The US mixed culture of trust/mistrust makes a perfect location for modern exploitative capitalism.

Of course, this is problematic for democracy in the US and many other countries.

Anti-Science in Academia?

There is a phenomena I came across again: anti-science.

I wouldn’t feel compelled to write about it again, though, if it didn’t frustrate me so much. The reason I feel frustrated in this moment is because of three different interactions I’ve had this past week or so. What stood out to me is that these interactions weren’t entirely typical in that it demonstrated how widely spread this problem is.

I should first explain that the issue frustrating me isn’t precisely an anti-scientific attitude, but something that nearly approximates it in specific contexts.

Several interactions I had were all well-educated people who have spent much time in academia. I know at least some of them have worked in the capacity of teaching. All of them are typical intellectual types who are well informed about the world and are certainly way above average in IQ. Also, they also seem like people who are more than capable of independent thinking and rational analysis. Basically, they aren’t anti-intellectual and, of course, wouldn’t think of themselves that way. Nonetheless, the doubts they express about certain scientific issues is so strong that it comes close to the doubts expressed by people who are more obviously anti-intellectual.

One commonality is that all of them have spent time outside of the country of their birth, at least one of them having lived significant part of his life in another country. A couple of them even speak another language besides English. So, these are relatively worldly people.

Besides the commonalities, my attention was caught by the fact that they are ideologically and academically quite diverse. Between them all: They run the entire ideological spectrum from left to right. And they include a diversity of academic knowledge and experience. They are even diverse in their religious proclivities or lack thereof.

I should point out that all of these people are intellectually respectable. In fact, I personally respect them for their intellects. It’s because of their general knowledgeablity and rationality that I enjoy discussing issues with them on occasion, although only one of them did I meet directly through such a discussion.

It is for this reason I felt so disheartened by my feeling the need to defend science against people who should know better… or maybe that isn’t quite the right way of saying it. It’s not that I think all of them are wrong in their views per se, except for one of them who I think is obviously wrong about the data. More basically, it’s just frustration at trying to communicate. Science is one of those topics that brings up a lot of ideological baggage which gets in the way, myself included. It seems odd to me that science is so often one of the most polarizing of issues. It makes me aware of how much views on science can diverge when even well educated people can disagree so widely. On top of that, it has become clear to me how much we are divided simply because of the powerful role of media.

These interactions involved a variety of scientific issues, all related to research: psychology of ideologies, IQ testing, global warming, etc. Fundamentally, all of these people felt some variation of mistrust about potential bias in various aspects: the researchers themselves, the limitations of research, the agendas of scientific institutions, how data was being interpreted or reported, etc.

The specifics aren’t all that important. In some cases, the doubts they shared were to some degree within reason. What didn’t seem reasonable to me was how strongly they held onto those doubts, how resistant they were to treat as trustworthy the scientific method and scientific community. Of course, my own biased opinions about science played into my own sense of conflict and frustration. It’s hard to discuss neutrally many of these kinds of issues, especially when they seem very important in how they touch upon many other issues (global warming being a particularly clear example of this).

It seemed to me that they didn’t want give scientists their due. Despite their being well educated, they were all speaking about science as laypeople. As a layperson myself, I tend to want to put more trust in scientific experts until I discover very good reasons to doubt; for certain, I feel annoyed when an entire scientific field is dismissed or devalued without any seeming good reason besides the consensus of that field not fitting the person’s worldview.

More specifically, it seemed that they didn’t want to acknowledge the fact that scientists are more aware of and careful about such potential problems than anyone outside of the scientific fields. I would point out some of these scientific researchers (specifically the soccial scientists) are experts in bias and in some cases experts in the biases of science itself. If you want to know what are the reasonable doubts to have about science, you just need to ask scientists. Science works by trial and error. If there is bias or limitiation to some type of testing, scientists will be the first to point it out and fix the problem. The scientific method is a self-correcting system.

Doubt within the scientific method is essential and necessary. But doubt about the scientific method itself is a direct attack on the very ideal that puts knowledge above belief or opinion. That said, I’m sure none of these people meant to attack such an ideal and probably would see themselves defending it in their own way. It’s  just that it felt like their criticisms weren’t all that helpful coming from the sidelines of science.

Here is my response to all of this:

If we can’t trust that the best experts on bias can deal with potential problems of bias, then we lesser mortals are beyond any hope of non-scientifically dealing with biases. Attempting to dismiss or discredit a particular field of science is the opposite of helpful. As long as even well-educated intellecuals end up undermining science and the scientific method, whether intentionally anti-scientific or not, we are going to have a hard time advancing as a society. Considering the possibility of losing our collective faith in the ideal of knowledge, do most people realize what we would be giving up?

These interactions demonstrate the apparent failure of the non-scientific fields of academia… or maybe just failure of science education in general (I know the science education I received from the public school system was probably a bit lacking). I would imagine that even many of those working in higher education need to be better educated about science. Our entire society needs to be better educated all around, and I have no doubt that the people I speak of would agree with me on that.

My emotional response to these interactions might have less to do with the interactions themselves. Instead, it might just be that these interactions helped clarify my sense of the problem we face. My perception of science being undermined not only saddens me, it makes me fear for our future. This isn’t about any individual person or any individual doubt. We could argue about the specifics endlessly. What I’m pointing out is much more insidious, the undermining of scientific authority itself where any doubt almost automatically trumps even the vast knowledge accumulated by decades of experts, where scientific peer-review and consensus becomes a reason for doubt of expertise instead of a reason for trust… worst still, where the science itself and the scientists who do it seem to get lost in the cloud of conflict and the whole media charade, where we no longer even have a shared set of facts to work from, much less a shared set of values.

The line between questioning doubt and nihilistic denialism may be thinner than many realize. It’s a line that might be easy to cross. As individuals ocassionally going a little too far over the line isn’t necessarily problematic, but if such a crossing is done on a society-wide scale it may not be easily undone. Nothing good can come of this. We seem to be livng in a an era ruled by mistrust that dangerously verges on collective cynicism. We should tread very carefully.

Bashing My Head Against a Brick Wall: Love of Truth or Masochism?

I’ve come to a point of frustration. Let me explain.

A conclusion I’ve flirted with for many years is that humans are fundamentally NOT rational (which isn’t necessarily to say humans are irrational; a better word is ‘arational’). Humans have some minimal capacity for rationality, but I suspect most of what is considered ‘rational’ is too often largely just rationalization. This is no grand insight per se. Still, I’ve resisted it. I want to believe that humans can be persuaded by facts. I want to believe that truth matters. However, I think it ultimately comes down to the fact that people don’t change much once set in their ways (which tends to happen early in life). As such, people don’t usually change their minds even when confronted with new facts and new ways of interpreting the facts. It’s just that people die and new generations come along (with new biases). The best hope one has of changing another’s mind is to meet them when they are a small child. After that point, there is little hope left for any further change.

Debating most people is about as worthwhile as bashing your head against a brick wall. Even worse, the people most interested in ‘debate’ tend to be the very people who are least interested in truth. It’s rather ironic. People tend to seek out debate because they want to ‘prove’ themselves right, not to explore possibilities, not to learn something new. There are exceptions, but they are few and far between. You might bash your skull to a bloody pulp before you find them.

And, no, I’m not excluding myself from my own criticisms. I know from my own experience how challenging it is to try to be ‘rational’ (objective, emotionally neutral, self-critical, aware of cognitive biases, being on guard for logical fallacies, genuinely trying to understand different viewpoints, being fair toward another’s argument, considering all the data instead of cherrypicking, and on and on). It’s hard enough for me to deal with all this within myself. It’s just too much to have to try to deal with it in other’s as well, especially when those others in most cases don’t want to (or don’t have the capacity to) deal with it in themselves. Spending so much time online, I end up interacting with many people who don’t bring out the best in me and who put me in a generally combative, irritable mood. And it’s my fault for being so easily effected. I’m the way I am. People are the way they are. There is nothing that can be done about that. In this post, I merely wish to explain my frustration.

– – –

I’ll give some examples.

I recently wrote about the differences between Southern and Northern cultures. There are two ways of treating these differences. The standard liberal view is that cultures are different with both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ aspects. The standard conservative view is that some cultures are inherently or fundamentally superior. The problem with the conservative view is that conservative states and societies don’t rank well on many factors most people consider worthy (education, health, economic equality, etc). The conservative will often dismiss this data outright or rationalize it away. And, of course, a lot of (most?) conservatives have little interest in conceding to the liberal view of openminded and tolerant multiculturalism. As a liberal, how do I win or how do I find a win/win middle ground of understanding? I often can’t.

When I was writing about the Southern/Northern culture issue, I also brought up the related issue of race and IQ because it’s a favorite discussion of conservatives. As a liberal, I have a bias toward believing in egalitarianism. It bothers me on a fundamental level that conservatives are always seeking to prove others (usually those different than them) are inferior. Nonetheless, I’m inclined to defer to science on these kinds of issues. Facts are more important than my beliefs and preferences. I take it seriously when conservatives reference studies suggesting a correlation between race (i.e., racial genetics) and IQ. Because I take facts so seriously, I’ve researched the subject extensively by looking at all the studies I could find along with meta-analysis of the studies. It’s true there are some studies that suggest a possible correlation between race and IQ. But what these conservatives don’t wish to acknowledge is that there are also many studies showing no correlation between race and IQ and also many studies correlating IQ to many other factors. Simply put, the data is complex and the research is inconclusive. There is no scientific consensus, as far as I can tell.

I find odd this conservative attitude. These conservatives will cite research that supports their preconceived conclusions while ignoring all the research that contradicts their views. They completely ignore the issue of scientific consensus. I’ve found conservatives quite suspicious of scientific consensus. Conservatives like science when it agrees with them, but they realize scientific authority is a two-edged sword. Once you accept scientific consensus, you eliminate your ability to cherrypick the data. As a comparable example, most conservatives utterly despise the fact that most scientists in all fields and vast majority (98% as I recall) climatology experts who are active researchers agree that the data supports the theory of anthropogenic global warming (AGW). It took decades for conservatives to accept global warming was even happening, but seemingly most still don’t accept that humans contribute to global warming. So, despite the strong scientific evidence and strong scientific consensus, conservatives are wary about science when it disagrees with their beliefs. They’ll ignore what most scientists conclude about AGW and instead they’ll find the small minority of studies and scientists who agree with them.

Accordingly, science is just there to be referred to when convenient and ignored when inconvenient. I don’t understand this attitude. I just don’t get it. If the majority of experts agree about something, I won’t be so presumptuous as to claim that I know better nor will I simply cherrypick the data that agrees with me. Why would I do this? What is to be gained by such anti-intellectual tactics?

One last example. I was looking at reviews of some books by Jim Wallis. One reviewer (in reference to God’s Politics if I remember correctly) mentioned the abortion issue. The person was criticizing the ‘moderate’ position that Wallis was proposing. As I understand it, Wallis is against abortions except when they are absolutely necessary (such as to save the mother’s life) and so is against banning abortions entirely. This position is ‘moderate’ in two ways. First, it strikes a balance between the practical and the moral and seeks a middle ground between two extremes (of pro-life and pro-choice). Second, it is the view held by most Americans and so is the ‘center’ of public opinion. The critical reviewer was promoting the common conservative view that abortions are bad and so compromising principles is to let liberals win. In a sense this is true because compromise is a liberal principle but not a conservative principle. Polls show that liberals support and conservative don’t support compromise. Even independents, although more supportive than conservatives, don’t have a majority that supports compromise. So, when Wallis is promoting a ‘moderate’ position he is by default promoting the ‘liberal’ position. Also, on many issues, most Americans hold positions that are ‘liberal’ (even though Americans don’t like to label themselves as ‘liberals’).

It just seems like liberals in America always lose even when they win. The liberal can have facts and public opinion on their side… and, yet, liberals are treated like an elitist minority to be dismissed and distrusted. It’s understandable that conservatives are wary about science considering most scientists identify as ‘liberals’.

– – –

All of this has made me increasingly pessimistic. I grew up among idealistic liberals which rubbed off on me a bit, but I’ve over time become cynical in response. What is the point in bringing up facts and analyzing the data? Those who agree with me probably already know what I know or are at least open to learning. And those who disagree with me probably won’t accept the facts no matter what.

My frustration isn’t entirely limited to those on the right. I often find a simplemindedness in the idealism and egalitarianism on the left. Even so, I rarely find the same radical anti-intellectualism on the left as I described above. Plenty of liberals don’t understand science and misrepresent scientific research, but they tend to do so out of an admiration (albeit a confused admiration). There are, for example, the New Age type liberals who want to turn science into a pseudo-religion about the beauty of nature and the wonder of the universe. It’s well intentioned even if naive. From my view, this liberal simplemindedness is mostly harmless. Liberals generally aren’t interested in trying to use science against some race or culture. This isn’t to say I don’t feel frustrated by the liberal New Age woo, but it doesn’t usually make me angry and it won’t make me lose all hope in humanity. Even if a liberal dismisses out of hand scientific studies suggesting a possible correlation between race and IQ, they do so because of worthy ideals of egalitarianism. Liberals want to make the world better for everyone, not just better for one group. Liberals are correct that many conservatives will use any scientific research, with or without scientific consensus, against those they perceive as ‘other’. Yes, we should be wary of ulterior motives when scientific research is being cited.

It’s hard for me to grapple with my frustration or to fully understand it. It’s my own personal issue (which relates to the depression I’ve experienced for a couple of decades), but it’s obviously not just about me. I’m a liberal in a society that is dominated by a conservative ruling elite. I see the polls showing most Americans agree with liberals like me on many issues, but none of that seems to matter. Those with the most power and those who are loudest aren’t generally the liberals. It’s rare for the majority public opinion to become visible such as with the protests in Wisconsin. The liberal majority is largely a silent majority. Most ‘liberals’ (whether or not they identify themselves as such) are ‘moderates’ and so they aren’t radicals who want force their opinion onto others. Anyway, polls showing what most Americans believe or support is quite likely irrelevant to most conservatives. Either they just know most Americans agree with them (no matter what the polls may show) or else the general masses isn’t to be trusted (any more than the intellectual elite).

I’m just frustrated. I have many non-fiction books that interest me and many posts I’d like to write if I had the time… but what is the point? Time is a precious commodity. I could be spending it on activities less frustrating. Yes, I enjoy learning new things, but the process of learning can be less than enjoyable at times because of those I run into while doing research online. I think I just have to accept that what interests me isn’t what interests most others, including in many cases most other liberals. I can get obsessive when my curiosity is piqued. It’s not unusual for me to spend weeks or months doing research and thinking about some subject before writing about it and it can take equal amount of time to gather my thoughts into the form of a post. After all that, very few people typically will ever read what I write. I largely do it for my own reasons and so this shouldn’t matter, but it does matter. It just makes me feel isolated. Truth matters to me in the same way God matters to a religious believer. Truth is my religion. There I said it. I know it sounds silly. I know most people don’t idealize truth in this way and to this extent. It’s because truth matters to me that I want to communicate my own understanding of truth. I want truth to matter to other people. I want to live in a society that values truth above all else. But that isn’t the world I live in.

Honestly, does truth matter? Why should it matter? Why should anyone care about truth?

My frustration makes me feel cynical, but I don’t want to be a cynic. Still, I do understand the attraction of ‘giving up’. As Thomas Ligotti once wrote, in response to superficial optimists (which can apply to all the superficialities of human society): “Once you understand that, you can spare yourself from suffering excessively at the hands of ‘normal people’, a pestilent confederation of upstanding creatures who in concert keep the conspiracy going by rehashing their patented banalities and watchwords.” I can’t begin to explain how much I sympathize with Liotti’s words, but he presents a conclusion of radical pessimism that goes far beyond even my own frustration. What I like about his advice is that bashing one’s head against a brick wall becomes unnecessary and avoidable once one realizes the brick wall for what it is. The brick wall ain’t going to move, not easily anyway. Even the best of us can only bash our heads against a brick wall for so long. I can’t say I’ve given up on my ideal of truth. I just need to let my fractured skull to mend a bit for the time being. Maybe I should read some fiction.

Bankrupt Liberalism & Disappointed Idealism

I’ve heard a number of interviews with Chris Hedges (and am now in the middle of reading his book, Death of the Liberal Class). In the above video, he said (from transcript):

And when you, within a society, have a bankrupt liberalism—it’s something Dostoevsky wrote about in Demons and Notes from the Underground at the end of the 19th century—you descend inevitably into a period of moral nihilism, you remove that capacity for change, that mechanism by which change is possible, and so that this legitimate rage, which is being expressed by huge numbers of the dispossessed within the United States, has no outlet through traditional political mechanisms and finds its expression in these proto-fascist movements like the militias or tea parties. And that’s essentially what’s happened. So the tragedy of the liberal class is that it was destroyed and it destroyed itself. And you can’t maintain a civil society in those kinds of circumstances.

There are two issues that this reminded me of.

First, it makes sense to me what George Carlin once said: “Scratch a cynic and you’ll find a disappointed idealist.” I don’t know if this is always true. Some cynics may have been born as psychopaths and simply lack empathy. Nonetheless, I definitely think this insight applies to liberals.

Second, I think idealism is inherently a liberal trait. Many conservatives consider liberals naive for their idealism. They often may be right, but I think that misses the point. Even though idealism can and does fail, it’s those striving for the impossible that help make the world a better place. I don’t think democracy would be possible without unrealistic idealists challenging the status quo. (As always, it must be kept in mind that my use of liberalism and conservatism are on a spectrum rather than absolute categories.)

There is a different kind of cynicism that is a failure of conservatism, but it’s just the failure of liberal idealism cuts to the heart of democratic society. Anyway, as a liberal, the failure of liberal idealism hits more of a nerve with me. I agree with Chris Hedges that the liberal movement has become disempowered and many liberals have given up on striving for worthy ideals. I’m one of those cynical liberals and that saddens me. There are few liberal politicians who represent my ideals and there is no populist liberal movement that is capable of forcing politicians to represent liberal ideals. It’s hard not to be cynical in a world controlled by people who, at best, see ideals as nothing more than useful rhetoric.

A Disappointed Idealist is Still an Idealist

For anyone who reads my blog, please take my criticisms with a grain of salt.

I’m a cynic, but my cynicism is rooted in idealism.  As George Carlin said (I presume in reference to his own cynicism), “Scratch a cynic and you’ll find a disappointed idealist.”  If it weren’t for my depression, I suppose I might be a contented idealist.  But years of struggling with depression has a way of beating one down.  I don’t have much confidence in myself and I don’t have much faith in the goodness of others.  I sometimes sense that such a thing as goodness might exist, but this sense is far from my everyday experience.

My ideal of truth keeps me going, but barely because at the same time my desire for truth makes me constantly discontented.  And in general my dour moods make me easily irritated.  To be honest, I don’t like life.  If I had been given a choice in the matter, I would rather not have been born.  I try my best to accept my fate of having been born, but life is tough… endlessly tough and it just gets worse and worse as I age.

My criticisms don’t come from a moral high ground.  I simply feel critical and so that is what I express.  But at least I’m somewhat fair in that I’m as critical of myself as I am of others (actually, I’m probably more critical of myself).  I would share on this blog more of my self-criticisms, but they’re in some cases too personal and in other cases they would just be boring to most people.  It’s not that I’m necessarily afraid of writing about my own failings, although there are definite fears of being judged.  Moreso, it’s just that I journalled for years about my personal issues and for the most part I don’t want to use my blog in that way.

My critical tendencies are tied up with my identity as an intellectual.  I always try to give good arguments for my criticisms, but these arguments are secondary to that which motivates my criticalness in the first place.  My reasons may be logical and I may have relevant facts to back them up.  Still, my cynicism/idealism is what is most central to me.  Even as a disappointed idealist, I’m still an idealist.  I want to believe in something.  I want to believe that life matters.  And often I think about this in terms of my ideal of truth.  But I don’t just want to believe.  I want to know, to feel that there is something worthy in this world.  But I’m tormented by doubts.

I’ve at times tried to be a good person, but I feel like a failure in that regards.  If you were to meet me as a stranger, I probably wouldn’t come off as one of the more friendly people you’ve ever met.  I try to be at least civil, but that civility is often a facade hiding my unhappiness.  I want to be understanding and compassionate towards others.  I have tried and I do try, but all of that trying has tired me out.  I feel frustrated and angry.  I’ve been struggling for years.  Even during periods of my life when I was doing relatively well, I still struggled.  Struggle is the one thing in my life that has remained unchanging.  When I was young, I struggled with learning.  As I grew up, I struggled with fitting in.  As I started living on my own, all of my early struggles transformed into full-blown depression.

I don’t see much to hope for in my life.  I’m pretty much stuck in survival mode.  Just getting by is good enough, has to be good enough because I don’t have much else to show for myself.  I hold down a job and pay the bills on a semi-regular basis.  That is all I can expect of myself.  But this isn’t a good place to be stuck in.  I constantly fear that my life will fall apart, that depression will really hit me hard, or just some unexpected event wil shatter my precarious existence.  I try not to think about it.  I have plenty to worry about without worrying about endless future possibilities.

Instead, I try to focus on what interests me.  This blog is my way of expressing myself, a way of maintaining a sense of purpose instead of giving into just drifting along.  Plus, it just gives me something to do, something to occupy my mind during my free time (which is often spent alone in my apartment).  And the fact that some people read what I write makes it seem worthy in some basic sense.

In certain ways, I often feel like I’ve been dealt a bad hand in life.  There are certain things I’m very appreciative of, but other things have made my life very hard.  I don’t wish to describe the details of the difficulty of being me.  The details don’t really matter.  Some have had harder lives and others have had easier lives, and I couldn’t really say where I fit in the spectrum.  All that I know is life sucks.  All that know is that I’ve struggled immensely at times putting my heart and soul in my endeavors… and yet nothing ever seems to work out, I somehow always fail or give up.  There is just something lacking in me or somehow things never quite click.  I feel jaded.  I hold onto my hopes despite their having been dashed again and again.  Some people do seem to manage to attain what they desire, but maybe it’s just that their desires happened to coincide with their fates.  Whatever it is, I admit to being slightly envious.

I want to understand and be understood.  But I’m just a confused lost soul and who could possibly understand me other than other confused lost souls.  It makes me feel rather pathetic.

To wrap this all up, I don’t know why my opinion matters… but opinions I have a’plenty.  My only hope for this blog is that my opinions, even when overly critical, are at least moderately intelligent and insightful.  Or, failing that, I hope they’re mildly amusing and not too mean-spirited.

* As a note, I’ve been having a discussion about nihilism as it relates to personal experience in a blog post by Quentin S. Crisp entitled No Future.