On Truth and Bullshit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

Short of Lying
by Heinz Brandenburg

Bullshit as the Absence of Truthfulness
by Michael R. Kelly

Democracy is not a truth machine
by Thomas R. Wells

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

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

Rhetoric and Bullshit
by James Fredal

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Truth about Postmodernism

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

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

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

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

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

Rhetoric and Bullshit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

pp. 152-3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Probability of Reality as We Know it

Jogging this morning, a pebble got into my shoe. I was on a sidewalk that wasn’t covered in rocks. The shoes I had on have high tops and were tied tightly. The thought occurred to me about probability, considering all the perfect conditions that have to come together to lead to even such a simple result as a pebble in my shoe.

I had to step on one of the few tiny rocks that happened to be in the right spot. Somehow the rock got kicked up about 6 inches where it caught the back edge of my shoe. It had to land perfectly right in order to lodge in the slight space between my foot and the shoe. Then it had to make its way down my shoe without first getting kicked back out.

It just got me thinking. For any given person at any given moment, a rock getting in their shoe is highly improbable. I run and/or walk numerous times every single day. And I can go years without getting a rock in my shoe. Even when it does happen, it would usually be because I was walking on a gravel road or alley, not on a standard sidewalk. Yet for all of the billions of people who are out and about every single day, the probability of numerous people getting rocks in their shoes at any given moment is quite high.

A more exciting example is getting struck by lightning. The vast majority of people go through their entire lives without getting hit. Still, there is a miniscule minority of the world’s population that gets hit on any day. Some rare people even get struck by lightning multiple times in their lifetime. Lightning directly hitting any single person is extremely improbable, while lightning directly hitting some person somewhere is extremely probable.

Most people don’t go around worrying about lightning, but right at this moment multiple people in the world are probably getting struck. Someone somewhere inevitably will get struck. It could be you, right now where you are. And sometimes lightning comes seemingly out of nowhere with no storm in sight, even on occasion hitting people in their houses.

Probability is dependent on context. So it depends on our perspective, on how we look at the data and how we calculate the probability. Our view of probability tends to be biased by the personal, of course. So it tends to be biased by what we know and have experienced, what is familiar to us. It is hard to think about probability in purely rational terms.

Given the right perspective, almost anything can be seen as improbable.

The entire existence of the universe, if one thinks too much about it, starts to seem improbable. Also improbable is life emerging on a particular planet, then that life leading to consciousness, intelligence, and advanced civilizations. Even so, because of the immense number of planets in the immense number of solar systems in the immense number of galaxies, it is probable to the point of near inevitability that there are vast numbers of planets with conscious, intelligent lifeforms and advanced civilizations.

Heck, we might be surrounded by lifeforms on our planet and in our own solar system while being unable to perceive and recognize them. We think of the probability of life, along with all that goes with it, in terms of the life we know immediately around us. But the actual probability is that other lifeforms would be bizarre to us, even if we could even discern them. Other lifeforms might simply be beings of energy or fluids, might be too small to detect with our senses or too large to comprehend with our minds. If a gut microbe gained intelligence and you were able to ask it what the probability was that their world was a giant ambling creature, the response would probably be amused laughter or else they’d look at you as though you were crazy. Maybe our own imaginations toward that which is beyond us is as relatively limited as that of the gut microbe.

Another aspect is cultural bias. People living in a society that wears sandals would have a different view of the probability of rocks in their ‘shoes’ than those in a society that wears tall boots. Societies that don’t wear any footwear at all wouldn’t even comprehend the issue of rocks in shoes. The same thing for beings that can’t be seen, as in some societies it would be common belief that such beings are all around us (ghosts, spirits, demons, elves, supernatural creatures, etc), and they may claim to know how to interact with them.

How do we determine the probability of bicameral societies having existed in the ancient world? Some say it isn’t even plausible, much less probable. I was reading Hearing Voices by Simon McCarthy-Jones and the author was in this doubting camp. He basically argued that, interpreting ancient non-Western texts based on modern Western preconceptions, it is highly improbable that ancient non-Western societies could exist that contradicted modern Western preconceptions. Uh, well, yeah, I guess. Within that circular logic, it indeed is a coherent opinion. But obviously others disagree based on the possibility of other ways of interpreting the same evidence. For example, unlike McCarthy-Jones, some people would point to the anthropological record to see possible examples of bicameralism or something akin to it, such as the Ugandan Ik and the Amazonian Pirahã.

My point isn’t whether or not bicameral theory is the best possible explanation of the data. But even ignoring the theory, the anthropological record makes absolutely clear there are societies that seem very strange to our modern Western sensibility. Then again, to those other societies, we would appear strange. Considering how perfect conditions have had to be, all of modern Western civilization is highly improbable. If it were possible to re-create the entire world in a vast laboratory, you could run an experiment numerous times and probably never be able to repeat these same results. Supposedly strange societies like the Ik and Pirahã are immensely more probable than our own strange society. Some other societies have lasted for thousands of years and we might be lucky to last the coming century.

Although it’s possible that the world perfectly matches our present beliefs and biases, it is ridiculously improbable that such is the case. Future generations surely will look back on us as we look back on the ignorance and barbarity of ancient societies. So, who are we to hold ourselves up as the norm for all of humanity? And who are we to use our cultural biases to judge all of reality?

We have no way to determine the probability of most things or often even their plausibility. All we know is what we know. And we don’t know what we don’t know. Usually, we don’t even know that we don’t know what we don’t know. Our state of ignorance is almost entirely self-enclosed, as what we know or think we know is inseparable from what we don’t know. As it has been said: The world is not only stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine.

The world is full of kicked-up pebbles and lightning strikes, strange lifeforms and even stranger cultures. Everything is improbable from some perspective, until it happens to you or is experienced by you and then it’s the most probable thing in the world. Then it simply is the reality you know.

Curiosity and Imagination

There are two central factors to life. There is curiosity or its lack. Also, there is imagination and its power over us, whether conscious or unconscious. This is a step back from even first principles. With curiosity and imagination, we are probing the depths of human nature itself, the ground of our being. That is the foundation of any and all society, no matter the kind of political and economic system.

There is the additional insight about how curiosity and imagination are closely aligned. Curiosity is always an act of imagination, even if only to imagine that there is something to possibly be known. As imagination increases, so does curiosity. And the further one follows curiosity down the rabbit hole, the more fodder there is for imagination.

However, a given social order will always constrain this process. It is extremely difficult to think outside of a social order, to probe its boundaries and peak beyond the veil. If it were easy, the social order would be weak and not last long. It is the rare person with the ability and motivation to step out of the allegorical cave and venture beyond the known, to question oft-repeated stories and challenge the  dominant worldview.

It’s freaking hard. And there is little reward an individual will get for the effort. If anything, they’ll be punished and sometimes severely at that or else simply made a pariah. Down this path, one does not make many friends, although one will quickly learn who are one’s true friends. Curiosity and imagination aren’t for the faint of heart.

I don’t think anyone willingly chooses that path of seeking and challenging. It is simply that some people find themselves on this path and it is the only path they see before them. Certain things once known can’t be unknown, once imagined can’t be unimagined. After being awakened, it can be hard to fall back asleep again, especially when it becomes apparent there is something lurking in the dark.

On some level, most people are aware of this. And, for that reason, most avoid that path. When given the choice, it’s not hard for most people to choose the blue pill, rather than the red one. It really isn’t even a conscious choice, as they’ve been given the blue pill their entire life. They would have to actively refuse the blue pill and actively go looking for the red pill, which would require them to imagine a red pill existed. The blue pill is just the the job they go to every day, the family they come home to at night, tv they watch before bed, the party they support every election, and simply the life they know and the society all around them.

For whatever reason, my mind is obsessed with imagination and curiosity. I can’t take credit for it, any more than I can take credit for my severe depression or introverted nature. I have no idea why I’m the way I am and I have no idea how to be otherwise. Someone must have slipped a red pill into my bottle when I was a baby. As I see it, all the world is a buffet of ideas and knowledge, possibilities and visions. Even looking at reality around me is an act of questioning and wondering. The world just seems like a strange place to me. I can’t help but see all the different ways to look at the world, to interpret things, and to sense what it all means and where it could could lead. I’m a possibility thinker, whether positive or not-so-positive possibilities.

Both the distant past and distant future seem real to me, as real as the present. We exist on a massive spectrum of space and time. And, speck of dust though I am, I go on thinking about my place in the grand scheme of things. But I’m never sure what to do with my contemplations, as I live in a society that seems rather indifferent to them. What’s the point of being curious about knowledge that is ignored and dismissed by mainstream society? What’s the point of imagining possibilities that few others will ever entertain? I don’t know.

On the imagination front, my mind flows along two broad grooves. They represent parallel universes and potential futures.

There is the dark vision of what might be grounded in a dark understanding of what already is. Many things we see in our society are what one would expect if it were already being ruled by authoritarianism.

My dad pointed to the correlations of other data to Fed monetary policy. And I pointed out that is what one would expect to see with fascism, where the economy follows policy. Such correlations are the imagining of reality, because without an act of imagination one never sees such correlations in one’s daily life experience. From this act of imagination, one can extrapolate a number of possible futures of growing authoritarianism.

My mind was in this funk because I started a couple of books about how fascism relates to American society: Right Out of California by Kathryn S. Olmsted and American Fascism and the New Deal by Nelson A. Pichardo Almanzar and ‎Brian W. Kulik. They are both scholarly books, but they are far from boring. In their own way, they are more fear-inducing than a horror movie, as American-style fascism is so ordinary that few even recognize it for what it is. At least with Freddie Krueger, you hear his claws scratching on metal before he comes for you.

On a lighter note, I was reminded of hopeful possibilities. A new Star Trek show is coming out. Star Trek was the last tv show I watched that offered a positive vision of the future. I have particularly fond memories of watching Star Trek TNG in high school back in the simpler times of the 90s.

I like thinking about positive visions of the future. It make me happy to imagine a genuinely free society. Star Trek portrays a full-fledged social democracy that could even be described as socialist, far greater than present Scandinavian countries with their cultures of trust and happy and healthy populations. In the Star Trek Federation, an individual’s achievements isn’t limited by birth, class, wealth, or any other social constraints. Each person is allowed to develop as fully as they are able and in whatever direction they desire. Everyone has resources, opportunities, and guidance available to them.

Compared to our society, it sounds like a utopia. But in the Star Trek world it is presented as so plausibly normal.

I see so much potential in society and in the larger world. Yet humanity seems to have tunnel vision. All we see is what is right before us and even that we see it in the way a near-sighted person looks for their glasses, hoping not to step on them. In this metaphorical scenario, the glasses being looked for stands for the vision of democracy. If we could just find those glasses, the world of possibilities we might be able to see all around us.

Just imagine what if. Doesn’t it make you curious?

Seeing What Is, Imagining What Might Be

“The politics of fear has delivered everything we were afraid of.”
~ Dr. Jill Stein, Green Party

This is how future generations will think about this era. It will be remembered as an age of endless fear-mongering and self-defeating lesser-evilism. It will be described as the time when the Democrats became the party of mainstream conservatism and Republicans became the party of right-wing populism, reactionary lite and reactionary full flavor.

Historians will point to this odd moment of the 2016 election when the main Republican candidate, Donald Trump, had a mixed up campaign platform—sometimes campaigning on positions far to the left of of the establishment Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton. For example, there is Trump’s support of universal healthcare. The only other candidate supporting it is the supposed ‘socialist’ Bernie Sanders whose support of such things, the establishment Democrats claim, is why he isn’t ‘electable’—despite most Americans also supporting universal healthcare.

Sanders is the most trusted and well liked candidate. Comparing his positions to public polling, it is obvious he represents majority public opinion. He is the only moderate candidate running for the presidency, not even close to being as far left as old school Democrats like Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Yet present establishment Democrats and the mainstream media mischaracterize him as a ‘radical’.

We live in strange times. We are watching a campaign season where a large number of supposed ‘liberals’ and ‘progressives’ in the Democratic party are fighting against strong positions on liberal and progressive policies. The political left doesn’t need an enemy party when they have the Democrats to rig the political process and undermine any hope of a functioning democracy. We have an anti-democratic Democratic party—just think about that. The sad irony of it is mind-numbing.

I have lost faith in the political system, to say the least. Like so many others.

Research shows that the political elite of both parties are disconnected from and unresponsive to the vast majority of Americans. The political elite even ignore the middle class, which makes it all the more sad how the middle class betrays the lower class majority by sucking up to the political elite in being good soldiers in partisan politics. Class war trumps all else, and even for Democrats class war is mired in a legacy of racism (e.g., the decades of dog whistle politics from the Clinton New Democrats).

I want to make clear, though, that I haven’t lost faith in the American public, even as the public has lost faith in America. For one, there isn’t much of a public to speak of, as we are so divided and disconnected from one another. Second, I really don’t see the majority as having many realistic options available to them. The political system is so controlled and the MSM so propagandistic. The only way the citizenry could force change is by taking to the streets and threatening revolution, but that is a major step to take. Most people would like to believe there is still hope for reform within the system, no matter how all attempts at reform have continuously failed.

If we had a functioning democracy that engaged and inspired, that represented and was responsive to voters. If majority public opinion mattered and politicians weren’t corrupt. If there was an effective education system and news media that led to an informed public. If the Democratic party was actually democratic and the Republican party actually republican. If there was a genuine progressive liberal movement and a genuine libertarian conservative movement. If all of this, then we’d be living in a very different country and we’d have very different kinds of elections.

In that case, past elections would have pitted those like Ralph Nader and Ron Paul as the two main party candidates, along with some viable third party candidates having forced wide spectrum of public debate. And, in that case, the present campaign season would have entirely excluded heavily disliked and mistrusted candidates such as Clinton and Trump—instead, the main competition would be between moderates like Sanders and principled challengers like Jill Stein.

That is what a functioning democracy would look like. Such a world wouldn’t have endless obstructionism and corruption. Imagine it. Imagine a world of continuous progress where every generation had a better life than the last, where instead of cynicism and defeatism most people felt engaged and hopeful. Imagine a political system that instead of demoralizing with lesser evilism inspired with the greater good. Imagine such a basic thing as a government that the American people trusted.

Simply put, imagine if we actually had democracy. Not just the rhetoric and appearances of democracy but the real thing. And not just a democratic government but a democratic society and economy, democratic in all ways and at all levels. Just plain democracy.

Imagine… a new era.

Our Shared Imagination

Imagination. It’s such a simple thing. Yet so easily misunderstood and forgotten about. We take it for granted because most of time it operates unconsciously.

I try to remind myself of it, so as to avoid falling into a rut of thinking. The society we live in does shape our imaginations, individual and collective. But we must not forget that our imaginations also shape the world around us. This is true for all societies and even more obvious for modern society. We directly shape the world around us. Maybe I have a clear sense of this because I live in the state that has the highest percentage of developed land in the country.

When we claim the power of our own imaginations, it can be empowering. History is full of examples of how imagination leads to great innovations and changes. At the same time, to have an active imagination can be frustrating because it allows for a larger perspective while also allowing for one to more easily switch perspectives.

We live in a time when imagination has become constrained to the most powerful paradigm in human existence, a paradigm that has come to rule minds around the world. It’s not any single ideology in the political sense. We could try to give it names and I have done so at times, but that might end up distracting from the thing itself.

This has been apparent this campaign season. The dominant paradigm remains immensely powerful, even as it is being challenged. More Americans are beginning to feel frustrated and imagination is awakening in response. The challenge for the American public is how to direct imagination toward something positive. It’s easy to tear down the dreams of others, especially for those who stand back refusing to offer anything themselves. Some attack the hopeful for challenging the status quo while others attack them simply out of, I don’t know what it is… fearful reaction? cynicism?

There are many forms of imagination. There is this standard expression of imagination as positive and active envisioning of possibility. I call this radical imagination. It is what fueled many of the revolutions of the past, including the American Revolution. Thomas Paine is my favorite advocate of this radical imagination.

Paine was also a practitioner of a second form of imagination—one might call it critical imagination. It’s the ability uncover what is hidden, to open one’s eyes to what is in front of one’s face. We typically think things are obvious, after we’ve perceived them and made them part of our conscious sense of reality. Yet what later on is considered obvious can go unnoticed and unacknowledged for generations and even centuries. With critical imagination, we step back and hold something at arms length. It allows us to investigate and scrutinize something. It creates space for curiosity and questioning. As a result, we are more able to reinterpet and reframe, to make the familiar unfamiliar.

Critical imagination is necessary, but it can become dysfunctional if that acts in isolation from other forms of imagination. In that case, imagination can become a slave to skepticism and doubt. It is hard to get from this to radical imagination. What is needed is something to draw the psyche back into the world, attract the individual into relationship with what is being confronted. It is to touch and feel, not just to see from a distance.

This is what has been referred to as sympathetic imagination. It’s the ability to imaginatively enter the experience and worldview of others. It isn’t just to understand the way people are but also how they could otherwise be. It means to take people seriously and, in the process, remember the common humanity that connects the individual to society.

This can be the most challenging of imaginative capacities. I’ve struggled with this immensely. It’s no small task to get past differences of culture, religion, political ideology, or whatever else. Instead, we most often fall into generalizations and stereotypes.

One example I came across recently was that of Kenan Malik arguing that Islamic terrorists in Europe had no reasons, that they were nihilists. He made this argument, despite the fact that some of these people had stated their reasons. It is hard for us to imagine that such people who turn to extreme actions are human just like us. To imagine that would mean, under certain circumstances, we too could be pushed to extremes. That is a scary thought, to imagine the dark potentials within our own human nature.

Another recent example is how the supporters of Sanders and Trump have been portrayed in the mainstream, not only by the media but also by the public. It is easier to dismiss people who point out the problems of our society and demand changes. It is easier to shoot the messenger than to listen to the message. To listen, though, would require an act of imagination by stepping outside of the dominant paradigm. Maybe these people who are speaking out in frustration aren’t mere dogmatic ideologues, political purists, impractical idealists, angry malcontents, and cultish followers. Just for a moment imagine they are normal humans who are dealing with difficult situations.

The data supports this. To focus on Sanders’ camp, they aren’t middle class activists complaining that the world doesn’t conform to radical ideologies. Quite the opposite. They are the lowest income group of any supporters among present candidates. And they are an ideologically diverse group that is motivated by a simple desire for reform and they feel inspired by the only major candidate imagining a positive compelling vision of the future.

Even though I’m critical of Donald Trump, I’ve come around to not wanting to criticize his supporters. There are those who falsely portray them as mere ignorant poor whites—actually, they aren’t particularly poor and uneducated compared to the general population. I don’t want to dismiss these people as bigots and proto-fascists. I’m tired of that kind of negative use of imagination. It ends up being a way of avoiding the very problems that frustrate these people, which inevitably makes the problems worse leading to ever greater frustration. It is the mainstream dismissal of such people that, if anything, will set the stage for fascism.

I see this in general with demographics, public opinion, and various labels. Most Americans are far to the left of the political and media elite, but of course the political and media elite present themselves as the social norm that defines any deviation as radical or dangerous. Many average Americans get taken in by this narrative that constrains the public imagination.

Even many people far outside the mainstream get taken in by this. They’ll conflate the so-called liberal class with all liberalism, despite the silenced majority being to the left of this liberal class and much more diverse as well. I hear left-wingers and right-wingers alike, often self-portrayed grim realists, make vague and overgeneralized accusations of ‘liberals’. Much petty nitpicking is involved. I don’t get the sense that many of them even know what liberalism is. It’s just a bogeyman to them, a useful scapegoat as much for the failures of their own ideological thinking. There is no great courage, no profound wisdom in merely attacking others and tearing them down.

This isn’t a failure of a single group. It’s not about a conflict between left vs right. Nor is it even exactly mainstream vs alternative. It’s a collective failure of imagination. We are all complicit.

I’m not sure what is the helpful response to all of this. I struggle with these challenges like anyone else. More times than I’d like to admit, I’ve fallen into these traps of failed imagination. Yet I never give up on imagination. To envision something new is powerful beyond measure. I have this sense that the most destructive claim that can ever be made in a society aspiring to freedom is that something is ‘unrealistic’ and ‘impractical’. That is the death knell of imagination. This is not a time to sell ourselves short.

If we were to let loose the reigns of our minds, where might new possibilities lead us. Yes, have the vision to see clearly what’s wrong, but then take that same vision to see our common fate and our shared potential. It’s not only that we should dare to imagine. We must not forget that imagination is as necessary as the air we breathe. We are always imagining. The trick is to learn to dream while awake.

A Curious Superpower

If I were a superhero, my superpower would be to make people irresistibly curious.

Anyone within my vicinity would have their minds forced wide open, the doors of perception blown to smithereens by psychic dynamite. All the fears and doubts, prejudices and habits would disappear. They would be filled with a sense of wonder and awe. They would viscerally know their own ignorance and hunger for knowledge, an infinite and endless hunger.

They would look at the world as a place of immense possibility and potential. All the things that could be learned. All the places to be explored. An immensity of paths and directions, some well-trodden while others not yet taken. A restlessness would overtake them. All of the universe would be vast compelling mystery, like a lover beckoning them. Anything could be around the next bend, over the next hill, through the next door. Adventure!

Anyone who met me would be overwhelmed with heart-bursting wonderment and their minds would be lost in the infinity of existence, ideas and questions simultaneously spinning off in a million directions. They would be absorbed, pulled into the flow. Their imaginations would be unleashed, no longer constrained by what they’ve known or thought was true. Knowledge would be made ignorance and the familiar alien. A joyous uncertainty, as if anything could happen.

The cup of their mind would be emptied. Then filled to overflowing. It would feel like trying to get a drink of water by standing at the bottom of Niagara Falls, the water crashing down on you until you’re beaten senseless.

For some, this would be an awe-inspiring experience. For others, it would be terrifying. My superpower would open their minds, but it wouldn’t control what spilled out. It would simply reveal what was hidden away in their psyche, their secret longings and hungers, the thoughts they never before dared to entertain.

This superpower would defeat all supervillains. They would be so absorbed in curiosity that they’d forget about trying to defeat me, taking over the world, or whatever evil scheme they had in mind. And the more they sought to resist it the more powerful would its hold take on their psyche, an ache and compulsion that if not embraced would drive them beyond the bounds of sanity, like a full blown psychedelic trip. Their sense of self would dissolve in maniacal laughter.

I would be the anti-Borg: Resistance is futile. You will be disassimilated!

Of course, to all the stable-minded folk of the world, to all those defending the social order, to those contentedly dwelling in their collective reality tunnels, my superpower would be the ultimate threat. They would see me as the supervillain, even though I would harm no one. As I passed along, the people I left behind would eventually return to their humdrum existences, fondly remembering that strange man or else futilely trying to forget the whole thing happened, although the ache of discontentment would never fully leave them.

My end would probably come like the Midwich Cuckoos. The governments of the world would quickly realize the threat I posed, once they understood my superpowers couldn’t be used for their nefarious purposes. One way or another, they would find a way to eliminate me, even if it meant dropping a nuclear bomb.

Yet the world would never quite be the same again. The wake of my passing would ripple for generations. Wild new innovations and brilliant art would be produced by those who had come into contact with me. It would take time for the surge of creativity to be bottled again and order re-established, although some almost imperceptible shift would never be undone.

Seeds of my superpower of curiosity would be planted. Then these seeds would sprout with new generations, an evolutionary contagion, a mind virus. A new age would begin, curiosity spreading across the global populations. Centuries ago began the Age of Paine, an age of revolutions. What followed now would be the Age of Wonder, a new revolution of the mind.

I’d like to think this is what would finally inspire humanity to new heights. And the world that came to be would the vision of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Humanity, freed from all the ancient restraints, would become explorers of the universe.

And it all would have began with mere curiosity.

“How awful for you! By the looks of it, you’ve developed a soul.”

From the boundless green ocean behind the Wall, a wild tidal surge of roots, flowers, twigs, leaves was rolling toward me, standing on its hind legs, and had it flowed over me I would have been transformed from a person—from the finest and most precise of mechanisms—into . . .

But, happily, between me and this wild, green ocean was the glass of the Wall. Oh, the great, divinely bounding wisdom of walls and barriers! They may just be the greatest of all inventions. Mankind ceased to be wild beast when it built its first wall. Mankind ceased to be savage when we built the Green Wall, when we isolated our perfect, machined world, by means of the Wall, from the irrational, chaotic world of the trees, birds, animals . . .

That is from We by Yevgeny Zamyatin (pp. 82-83). It’s a strange novel, an early example of a futuristic dystopia. The author finished writing it in the 1921, but couldn’t get it published in Russia. An English translation was published years later.

In the above quote, the description is of the Green Wall that encloses the society called One State. It is an entirely independent and self-sustaining city-state, outside of which its citizens do not venture. The government is authoritarian and social control is absolute. The collective is everything, such that people have no sense of individuality and have no souls. They don’t even dream, not normally, for to do so is considered a symptom of mental illness.

There was a global war that killed most of the human population. The citizens of One State are aware that human society used to be different. They have no experience of freedom, neither social freedom nor free will. But they have a historical memory of what freedom once meant and, of course, it is seen as having been a bad thing and the source of unhappiness.

Like Julian Jayne’s theory of bicameralism, these people are able to maintain a complex society without an internalized sense of self. The loci of identity is completely outside. But unlike bicameralism, there are no command voices telling them what to do. The society is so ordered that few moments of the day are not occupied by scheduled activity. Even sex is determined by the system of authority. Mathematical order is everything, including how citizens are named.

What fascinated me about the novel is when the protagonist, D-503, gains a soul. It is an imagining of what this experience would be like, to gain a sense of individuality and interiority, for long dormant imagination to be awakened. Having a self means the ability to imagine other selves, to empathize with what others are thinking and feeling, to be able to enter into the world of another.

If bicameral societies did exist, this would have been similar to how they came to an end. A bicameral society would have required a tightly ordered society where the social reality was ever-present and all-consuming. For that to breakdown would have been traumatic. It would have felt like madness.

* * *

by Yevgeny Zamyatin
pp. 79-81

With effort, a kind of spiral torque, I finally tore my eyes away from the glass below my feet—and suddenly the golden letters “MEDICINE” splashed in front of me . . . Why had he led me here and not to the Operation Room, and why had he spared me? But, at that moment, I wasn’t thinking of these things: with one leap over the steps, the door solidly banged behind me and I exhaled. Yes: it was as though I hadn’t breathed since dawn, as though my heart hadn’t struck a single beat—and it was only now that I exhaled for the first time, only now that the floodgates of my chest opened . . .

There were two of them: one was shortish, with cinder-block legs, and his eyes, like horns, tossed up the patients; the other one was skinny and sparkling with scissor-lips and a blade for a nose . . . I had met him before.

I flung myself at him as though he were kin, straight into the blade, and said something about being an insomniac, the dreams, the shadows, the yellow world. The scissor-lips flashed and smiled. How awful for you! By the looks of it, you’ve developed a soul.

A soul? That strange, ancient, long-forgotten word. We sometimes said “heart and soul,” “soulful,” “lost souls,” but a “soul”

“This is . . . this is very grave,” I babbled.

“It’s incurable,” incised the scissors.

“But . . . what specifically is at the source of all this? I can’t even begin . . . to imagine.”

“Well, you see . . . it is as if you . . . you’re a mathematician, right?”


“Well, take, for instance, a plane, a surface, like this mirror here. And on this surface—here, look—are you and I, and we are squinting at the sun, and see the blue electrical spark in that tube. And watch—the shadow of an aero is flashing past. But it is only on this surface for just a second. Now imagine that some heat source causes this impenetrable surface to suddenly grow soft, and nothing slides across it anymore but everything penetrates inside it, into that mirror world, which we used to look into as curious children—children aren’t all that silly, I assure you. The plane has now become a volume, a body, a world, and that which is inside the mirror is inside you: the sun, the whirlwind from the aero’s propeller, your trembling lips, and someone else’s trembling lips. So you see: a cold mirror reflects and rejects but this absorbs every footprint, forever. One day you see a barely noticeable wrinkle on someone’s face—and then it is forever inside you; one day you hear a droplet falling in the silence—and you can hear it again now . . .”

“Yes, yes, exactly . . .” I grabbed his hand. I could hear the faucet in the sink slowly dripping its droplets in the silence. And I knew that they would be inside me forever. But still, why—all of a sudden—a soul? I never had one—never had one—and then suddenly . . . Why doesn’t anyone else have one, but me?

I squeezed harder on the skinny hand: I was terrified to let go of this lifeline.

“Why? And why don’t we have feathers or wings but just scapulas, the foundation of wings? It’s because we don’t need wings anymore—we have the aero; wings would only be extraneous. Wings are for flying, but we don’t need to get anywhere: we have landed, we have found what we were seeking. Isn’t that so?”

I nodded my head in dismay. He looked at me, laughed sharply, javelinishly. The other one, hearing this, stumpily stamped through from out of his office, tossed the skinny doctor up with his hornlike eyes, and then tossed me up, too.

“What’s the problem? What, a soul? A soul, you say? Damn it! We’ll soon get as far as cholera. I told you”—the skinny one was horn-tossed again—“I told you, we must, everyone’s imagination— everyone’s imagination must be . . . excised. The only answer is surgery, surgery alone . . .”

He struggled to put on some enormous X-ray glasses, and walked around for a long time looking through my skull bone at my brain, and making notes in a notebook.

“Extraordinary, extraordinarily curious! Listen to me, would you agree . . . to be preserved in alcohol? This would be, for the One State, an extraordinarily . . . this would aid us in averting an epidemic . . . If you, of course, don’t have any particular reasons not . . .”

“You see,” the other one said, “cipher D-503 is the Builder of the Integral, and I am certain that this would interfere . . .”

“Ah,” he mumbled and lumped off to his cabinet.

And then we were two. A paper-hand lightly, tenderly lay on my hand. A face in profile bent toward me and he whispered: “I’ll tell you a secret—it isn’t only you. My colleague is talking about an epidemic for good reason. Think about it; perhaps you yourself have noticed something similar in someone else—something very similar, very close to . . .” He looked at me intently. What is he hinting at—at whom? It can’t be that—

“Listen . . .” I leapt from my chair. But he had already loudly begun to talk about something else: “. . . And for the insomnia, and your dreams, I can give you one recommendation: walk more. Like, for instance, tomorrow morning, go for a walk . . . to the Ancient House, for example.”

He punctured me again with his eyes and smiled thinly. And it seemed to me: I could clearly and distinctly see something wrapped up in the fine fabric of his smile—a word—a letter—a name, a particular name . . . Or is this again that same imagination?

I was only barely able to wait while he wrote out my certification of illness for today and tomorrow, then I shook his hand once more and ran outside.

My heart was light, quick, like an aero, and carrying, carrying me upward. I knew: tomorrow held some sort of joy. But what would it be?


Of Dreamers and Sleepwalkers

“Most men are not wicked. They are sleepwalkers, not evildoers.”
~ Franz Kafka

Lesser evil voting is mostly knee jerk groupthink, not rational decision-making and strategic thinking. If it was rational and strategic, Sanders would be guaranteed the nomination.

Sanders is the only candidate that the polling data has regularly shown to have any chance to defeat any of the Republican candidates. And he is the only candidate with both high popular support and low negative public opinion. On top of that, he is the only candidate of either political party whose politics aren’t some combination of neoliberalism and neoconservatism.

It’s about the narrative, the frame of how people think and what they can imagine. Lesser evil voting tends to mean backing the establishment and the status quo, no matter what. Some people use lesser voting strategically as a tactic, but these people are probably such a tiny fraction of a percentage of the voters as to be insignificant for elections. For most, lesser evil voting is simply about fear of the alternatives, even when their actions make the feared alternatives more likely.

Besides, so much of the argument seems pointless. Hillary Clinton has won most of the delegates even in states that have a majority supporting Sanders. The same happens in elections. What most Americans want is irrelevant to the system, especially considering how constrained is the election process, how controlled and manipulated and undermined is the pseudo-democracy. In a fully functioning democracy, neither Clinton nor Trump would make it very far in the process—both offering oppressive authoritarianism. Candidates like that don’t represent what most Americans support, as polls show. Despite how the MSM dismisses Sanders, he actually represents what is majority opinion.

None of this is charade is rational. It doesn’t matter what is proven to be true in polls, political records, released e-mails, historical documents, etc. It’s not about the issues. It’s not about what the American public supports and wants. This isn’t an actual democracy we live in. This is an open secret. Social science research has gone into this in great detail. It’s a favorite topic on the internet. Even the mainstream every so often throws up a piece on either asserting or questioning whether the US is still a democracy; and if not, what is it—military-industrial complex, banana republic, shadow government, deep state, inverted totalitarianism, corporatism/fascism, plutocracy, dark money, police state, or what exactly? The only place you don’t hear this kind of thing is in mainstream politics.

Yet everything goes on as if normal. We live in this dissociated state. We know it all is a charade or at least have strong suspicions. But we can bring ourselves to fully acknowledge this and act rationally in response to it. Rationality seems impotent when confronted by such horrific possibilities. Thinking along these lines would lead to radical notions and questions, and so we expunge them from our consciousness. It’s best not to think too much about it all. One might start feeling unacceptable impulses toward protesting in the streets, marching on the capitol, or God Forbid! starting a revolution. All of a sudden, the choice between Coke and Pepsi might be understood as meaningless as it always was. Such thoughts make people unhappy. If you confront people with this, they will get upset and angry. You can lose friends that way.

It’s understandable. There was something I think Franz Kafka said that has stuck with me—to paraphrase: Don’t destroy someone’s world, unless you have something better to offer them. That’s a tough standard to hold oneself to. It’s hard to imagine something new until the old has been cleared away. It might not be a matter of destroying someone’s world when they are acting self-destructively toward their own world.

In this situation, do you wait for full destruction to be complete before suggesting the consideration of alternatives? Why do we wait for problems to almost be past the point of any solution before even trying to figure out what those problems are?

None of this was inevitable. It was a series of choices made, the results accumulating over time.

Imagine if we had taken a different path. Imagine decades or even generations of greater good voting. Imagine for the past century that elected presidents included the likes of Eugene V. Debs, McGovern, Nader, Sanders, Jill Stein, etc. We wouldn’t even be facing the problems we now face. It’s not just about the lesser evil of this or that election, but endless kneejerk groupthink and fearmongering defense of the status quo.

Pointing this all out to people just irritates them. They have no way to make sense of it. The old narratives no longer explain much of anything and yet there is no compelling narrative to take their place. To imagine something new and different, people need to be told a story that draws them in and suspends their disbelief. One moment of envisioning an alternative could lift the cloud of cynicism and apathy.

That is one hell of a challenge. But maybe it doesn’t need to be as daunting as we make it. By nature, humans are talented at imagination. We are all dreamers. The trick is to learn how to dream while awake. Maybe this is not unlike, as Douglas Adams suggested, learning to fly by throwing yourself at the ground and missing. So, let’s throw ourselves at the dystopian fears before us and hope we miss.

* * *

The Logic of Lesser Evilism
by Andrew Levine, CounterPunch

The Reflective Voter’s Fear
by Andrew Levine, CounterPunch

75% in U.S. See Widespread Government Corruption

Banana Republic Level of Inequality Is Undermining America’s Geopolitical Power
by Washingtons Blog

America the Banana Republic
by Christopher Hitchens, Vanity Fair

10 ways America has come to resemble a banana republic
by Alex Henderson, Alternet

Our Banana Republic
by Nicholas Kristof, The New York Times

The Permanent Militarization of America
by Aaron B. O’Connell, The New York Times

The Danger of American Fascism
by Henry A. Wallace, New York Times

When Fascism Was American
by Joe Allen, Jacobin

Have The American People Accepted Corporate State Fascism?
by Ray Pensador, Daily Kos

Deep state in the United States
from Wikipedia

Deep State America
by Philip Giraldi, The American Conservative

The Deep State
by Peggy Noonan, The Wall Street Journal

The War on Democracy: The Deep State
by Bob Burnett, Huffington Post

The Quiet Coup: No, Not Egypt. Here.
by John Tirman, Huffington Post

Controlled by shadow government: Mike Lofgren reveals how top U.S. officials are at the mercy of the “deep state”
by Elias Isquith, Salon

“Every president has been manipulated by national security officials”: David Talbot exposes America’s “deep state”
Liam O’Donoghue, Salon

Vote all you want. The secret government won’t change.
by Jordan Michael Smith, Boston Globe

National Security and Double Government
by Michael J. Glennon, Harvard National Security Journal

Examining Who Runs the United States
by Anand Giridharadas, The New York Times

Sheldon Wolin and Inverted Totalitarianism
by Chris Hedges, Truthdig

Inverted Totalitarianism
by Sheldon Wolin, The Nation

Nick Hanauer: Beware, fellow plutocrats, the pitchforks are coming
TED Talk video

How Gilded Ages End
by Paul Starr, The American Prospect

The Political Roots of Widening Inequality
by Robert Reich, The American Prospect

Plutocrats Against Democracy
by Paul Krugman, The New York Times

America slouches toward plutocracy
by Sean McElwee, Al Jazeera America

A Study in Plutocracy: Rich Americans Wield Political Influence, the Rest of Us Don’t
by John Light, Moyers & Company

We are Becoming a Plutocracy No Matter What Obama Proposes Tomorrow
by Robert Lenzner, Forbes

5 signs America is devolving into a plutocracy
by Tom Engelhardt, Salon

Radical Moderates, Depressive Realism, & Visionary Pessimism

Depression is an odd thing. It is one of the most debilitating ‘diseases’ that mostly goes unseen.

A depressed person can appear normal and even someone in a severe depressive state can hide how bad it is. This is why suicides can surprise so many people, sometimes as if it came out of nowhere. Some depressives can hide their depression from their own awareness, burying themselves in work or distracting themselves with addiction.

It is also one of the least sexy of the mental illnesses. It’s not as fascinating as schizophrenia or multiple personal disorder. It only reaches the level of melodrama if depression is of the bipolar variety. But unipolar depression is actually rather boring. The only time it becomes romanticized is in the writings of famous authors, especially if they are alcoholics who kill themselves.

As for normal people, depression is more likely to increase one’s invisibility, because the depressive withdraws from the world, sometimes to the point of becoming unemployed or even homeless. The depressive, when pushed to the extreme, can become an isolated non-entity. The depressive rarely commits suicide in direct fashion (surprisingly difficult to achieve), instead preferring to slowly kill themselves through lack of taking care of their own basic needs. Sustaining bodily existence isn’t always a central concern for the severe depressive, whether or not they commit self-harm.

Still, for someone familiar with depression, there are some aspects of it that fascinate. The withdrawl from the world isn’t just social but also psychological. Experience loses meaning and emotion. The world can feel empty and lifeless. The sense of self shrinks, sometimes to the point of disappearing. At the lowest of low points, depression swallows the person whole. It can be a truly stark state of mind, everything cut down to its minimal essence, even the voice in one’s head gone silent and no outside voice able to reach into that silence.

As one person described it, “Because I had no self. No safe space inside. Just despair.” The self ultimately can’t function in isolation, as relationship is the lifeblood of our humanity. It is utter alienation, disconnection between self and other, and so disconnection within the self, an implosion of one’s existence: “Alienation—feelings of estrangement from some aspect of a person’s existence (nature, others, and self)—results in loneliness, emptiness, and despair and is the antithesis of Heidegger’s being-in-the-world.” One then inhabits a dead world.

This seems the opposite of something like schizophrenia. In schizophrenia there is a conflation of or blurring between self and world. Rather than loss of meaning, there is an explosion of meaning. Voices don’t stay contained to self or other. It’s true that schizophrenics can experience depressive symptoms. But I suspect it it is a far different kind of experience. Interestingly, treating schizophrenia can lead to depressive-like symptoms as side effects:

“Also, the antipsychotic medications used to treat schizophrenia may produce side effects which are very similar to depressive symptoms. These side effects may include limited spontaneity in the person’s speech and movements, restlessness, and a negative mood.”

This is what fascinates me, anyway. I don’t know schizophrenia on a personal level. But I do know depression. The problem of depression is the opposite of not knowing how to differentiate the real from the imaginary—the mundane reality feeling all too real to the point of being stifling, a sense of unavoidable and irresolvable actuality, just is. If anything, imagination gets shut down or submerged into the background. Some have argued that this is depressive realism, most specifically in terms of self-awareness and self-assessment, what is and has been, although the evidence is mixed. Even an optimism proponent like Martin Seligman, in The Optimistic Child (p. 296), discussed the merits of pessimism:

Supporting evidence for depressive realism can flooding in: Depressed people are accurate judges of how much skill they have, whereas non-depressed people think they are more skilful than others think them to be (80% of American men think they are in the top half of social skills). Non-depressed people remember more good events than actually happened and forget more of the bad events. Depressed people are accurate about both. Non-depressed people are lopsided about their beliefs about success and failure: if rewards occur – they claim the credit, the rewards will last and they’re good at everything; but if it was a failure, you did it to them, it’s going away quickly, and it was just this one little thing. Depressed people are even handed about success and failure.

The unipolar depressive has fewer extremes of emotional affect (i.e., emotional numbing and flattening) and so maybe fewer other extremes as well, which could express as ‘moderate’ (i.e., emotionally detached) views and opinions, the unipolar depressive simply not getting all that excited about and emotionally invested in externalities, a pervasive disinterest and indifference. This may have something to do with why political moderates are less happy than political extremists, the latter tending toward partisanship and dogmatism (the loyal followers and true believers). In turn, this might be why liberals are less happy than conservatives, as liberalism (specifically as liberal-mindedness) predisposes one to questioning the status quo, doubting social norms, challenging authority, and pushing boundaries.

In a world dominated by a status quo of extremists (extreme in attitude and demagoguery, not in breadth of political spectrum), the moderate liberal will be the least happy person around. Or is it the least happy will simply turn to moderate and liberal views, not out of ideological principle but just basic psychological bias? Either way, when extremists are in power, moderation becomes a radical act and so moderate in that case doesn’t mean centrist and mainstream. The problem, as always, is the loudmouthed and sometimes violent extremists get all the attention, and they are more zealously motivated to take power and enforce social norms. The moderate too often remains silent or is silenced, because to speak out is to become a target of extremists and those who will openly support moderation and defend moderates are unfortunately too few.

In this context, there is an insightful commentary about depression and autism, in the context of nerd identity:

“Communal belief – social reality – and the sacrednesses that it produces are precisely the powerful layers of distortion that we are likely to notice (and hence have a chance at seeing through). We are less able than normal humans to perceive social/sacredness reality in the first place, and to make matters worse, we are addicted to the insight rewards that come from trying to see through it even further. Autism is overrepresented in our community; depression, too. Autism is associated with a reduced ability to model other brains in the normal, social way; this failure carries even into modeling the mind of God, as autism is inversely linked to belief in God. The autistic person is more likely than the neurotypical to notice that social reality exists; we might say the autistic person gets a lucid dreaming reality check for the great social dream with every inscrutable (to him) human action he witnesses.

“Mild depression removes pleasurable feelings from everyday life; it interferes with a mechanism for sacredness-maintenance distinct from the theory of mind path autism blocks. Meaning is deconstructed in depression; social connection is weakened. Ideas and things that for normal individuals glow with significance appear to the depressed person as empty husks. The deceptive power of social and sacredness illusions is weakened for the depressed person (as are certain other healthy illusions, such as the illusion of control). This is not necessarily a victory for him, as self-deception is strongly related to happiness; the consolation of insight may not make up for the loss of sacredness in terms of individual happiness. The characteristic that distinguishes us is not necessarily a good thing. Our overdeveloped, grotesque insight reward seeking is likely maladaptive, and is probably not even doing our individual selves any good. Extremists – those most capable of perceiving social/sacred reality – are happiest.

This relates to defensive pessimism. It isn’t just about an attitude but also behavior. Depending on the task and context, defensive pessimists can be as or more effective than strategic optimists. But it is true that optimists will be more successful specifically in fields where selling oneself is a priority to success. A pessimist will be honest and accurate in their self-appraisal, not always a recipe for success in a Social Darwinian (pseudo-)meritocracy.

As such, optimists are better able to make positive change from within the system. They have a less antagonistic relationship to the status quo and to the ruling authorities that maintain the status quo. They look on the bright side of the way things are, looking for opportunities to exploit rather than fundamental problems to explore. So, they are more likely to be successful in socially acceptable ways. They’re less likely to rock the boat.

Major changes that challenge the entire social order and dominant paradigm, however, would require a different kind of mindset. That is where depressive realism might have the advantage. Many radical and revolutionary thinkers were highly critical and often antagonistic. They saw what was wrong with the present, which motivated them to imagine alternatives.

This could explain someone like Thomas Paine—he came to be hated by so many, even as he was proven correct in his visions and fears of the fate of the United States. His critical attitude was too demanding and uncompromising. He cut right through the bullshit and so had a way of making many people feel uncomfortable and irritated. In common parlance, he was an asshole with a sharp tongue.

Nothing ever seemed to quite work out for Paine in his personal life, with much unhappiness from early on and into his old age, a failure by mainstream accounts. He was profoundly dissatisfied with the way the world was. This is what fueled his outrage and made him a visionary, not a mere optimist. But, oddly, I don’t think he ever wanted to be a radical—like John Dickinson who also was Quaker raised, Paine spent his life trying to moderate a world of destabilizing and often horrific extremes. Such moderation is rarely taken kindly and, by both extremes, is seen as extreme. Religious and atheists, reactionary right and Jacobin left— they all attacked him with equal fervor.

Depressive realism can shut down imagination. But not always. Sometimes depression opens up the vista of imagination by forcing one to question hidden biases and assumptions. It forces one to stand back, which allows the opportunity to see a greater view. Seeing reality in the present more clearly can lead one to see reality in entirely new ways.

Seeking the first kind of change will tend toward happiness. The second kind less likely so. But there is more to life than happiness.

Trolling the Public Mind

Sometimes extremes can be a useful prod for one’s thinking. That has been the case with the troll I came across earlier this month. I can’t help but wonder what motivates such people. I could just dismiss them, not that it is likely once my curiosity gets going.

The question that comes to mind is: Does this troll actually believe in the position he promotes? I don’t have any reason to doubt it. He seems like a true believer who has become a committed activist to his cause, whether or not there is some kind of financial incentive behind that commitment. I doubt he is stupid and uneducated. In fact, he seems clever enough and that indicates some intelligence.

My suspicion is that he is like many people. He is probably a divided person, knowing and not knowing all kinds of things. Dissociation is a survival strategy in the complex modern world. It sometimes can be clear when someone goes to great effort to not know something that they are capable of knowing. Psychologists have studied this and shown how people can purposely not look at what they don’t want to see, while looking all around it.

The conflict isn’t between two sides of a debate, not fundamentally. The divide exists first and foremost within the human psyche. In trying to shut down debate and obfuscate the issue, the troll (or denialist or reactionary, whatever one wishes to call them) is trying to purge the feared content from their own mind. In order to undermine the science itself, these people have to understand the science, at least at a basic level. Their rhetoric is fairly often carefully structured in response to the known data. People know much of what they pretend to not know—as Cass R. Sunstein explained:

True, surveys reveal big differences. But if people are given economic rewards for giving the right answer, the partisan divisions start to become a lot smaller. Here’s the kicker: With respect to facts , there is a real difference between what people say they believe and what they actually believe. […]

When Democrats and Republicans claim to disagree, they might be reporting which side they are on, not what they really think. Whatever they say in response to survey questions, they know, in their heart of hearts, that while they are entitled to their own opinions, they are not entitled to their own facts.

I definitely got the sense from that troll that he saw it as a game, a team sports competition. He was simply focused on getting his team to win. Still, I’m sure there is more going on than that. The competitiveness interpretation feels a bit superficial, even if it is an important factor.

This isn’t just about social behavior. It goes deep into human nature and collective reality. I had a bit of a strange thought, along these lines. What if there is something about public debate and social competition that easily elicits areas of non-rational thought that we would otherwise dismiss? I was specifically wondering about sympathetic magic. Let me explain.

Some people act like winning a debate and defeating an opponent, by fair means or not, is to prove they are right. Of course, for this mindset, defeating an opponent is winning a debate. In the ancient henotheistic worldview, when two societies went to war, it was perceived as a fight between the two ruling deities of those societies. So, it wasn’t just a people who won but a worldview that won, and it defined an entire reality. That worldview was reality, the reality of a particular culture and social order.

Those who deny the climatology science do so because they see the worldview it represents as a threat. It must be defeated, at any cost, because it isn’t just a threat but an existential threat. Naomi Klein understands this, and she argues that the denialists understand it as well. They realize that it goes way beyond mere science. If the climatologists are right, this very well may be the end of the world as we know it, collapse at worst and revolution at best. Either way, that means the end of the status quo and many people are heavily invested in the status quo.

Even most people on the political left feel wary about the challenge this forces upon us, and that is why so few on the political left put up much of a fight. Fighting for the reality of climate change is hardly inspiring. No one wants it to be true. Denial and dissociation is a normal human response to something so immense and overwhelming, something that is terrifying in its proportions and possibilities. We argue about it so that we won’t have to face the stark reality. This is a problem that our clever monkey minds can’t deal with. There is no positive outcome, no solution. No matter what we do, the world will change.

That is an uncomfortable truth for all of us, but it is most challenging to the political right. It simply doesn’t matter that they deny climate change, for it won’t stop climate change.

This got me thinking about Trump, the greatest troll America has ever produced. He is the king of trolls. He doesn’t even need the anonymity of the internet. He is pure arrogant bullying. It isn’t exactly anything new, just brought to its most extreme form. As Josh Marshall explained:

This is why Trump has so shaken up and so dominated the GOP primary cycle, at least thus far. As I’ve said, this kind of dominance symbolism is pervasive in GOP politics. It’s not new with Trump at all. Most successful Republican politicians speak this language

Trump will control, not be controlled. He will mock others ruthlessly. And he will destroy his enemies. One almost expects him to start thumping his chest.

He is just a variant of someone like Karl Rove. It’s a dominance mindset. These are powerful men who know they are powerful and aren’t afraid to use it. They have no shame because they consider no one else to be in a position to judge them. They are above it all. Take what Rove supposedly said back in the bad ol’ days of the Bush regime:

The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. “That’s not the way the world really works anymore.” He continued “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

Power determines reality. Not the other way around. This is the attitude of someone who is used to getting their way and punishing those who get in their way. It is win at all costs. It matters not if this is an expression of Rove’s imperialism or Trump’s egotism—six of one, half a dozen of the other.

Rove’s comment connects back to my earlier point. There is something akin to sympathetic magic in this mindset. It is an almost magical belief in willpower. It is an assertion of one’s mastery.

This is seen in how religion relates to the political right. The rhetoric of dominance connects the tactics of apologetics to the behavior of reactionary trolls, bullies, egotists, and demagogues. To willfully assert one’s belief is to believe in the power of one’s will or simply in Will itself. Whether or not religion is directly involved, there is a god-like attitude in this.

It’s why apologists are so interested in history. And that is related to why right-wingers are so concerned about controlling what students are taught in history classes. Who controls the history books and textbooks will control the world. And, of course, it is the victors who get to write the history books, to determine what is taught.

The traditional Western worldview is built on a God of history. It doesn’t matter what the facts say but how the story is told and sold.

Reactionaries project their own mindset onto all of the world. They assume everyone is like them. As such, they can’t understand climatology as anything other than as a conspiracy of power and propaganda. In this worldview, there isn’t a clear distinction between the climate science and climate scientists. Reality has no independent existence and facts no objective validity. It makes one think of the relationship between postmodernism and fascism.

The sympathetic magic angle led me back to my ongoing thoughts about symbolic conflation. There is great power in this, and it continually amazes me.

Symbolic conflation requires issues that are visceral and emotional, socially relevant and politically potent, imaginatively compelling and symbolically multivalent. Simply put, what is needed is something that can’t be easily pinned down. This is the dark side of the mercurial spirit. The Trickster knows how to manipulate and con others, but he just as easily ends up fooling himself. The mercurial is about change, both transformation and destruction. But there are those who attempt to use this dark power for their own gain. Symbolic conflation is how this power gets bottled up. The con man gets taken in by his own con.

In this sense, I doubt the troll understands his own motivations. The greatest con of all is convincing yourself that you are more powerful than you are. But when one worships naked power, one becomes its servant, not its master. All attempts at social control are traps of the mind.

This isn’t about mere rhetoric. It touches deep into our psyche, far below the conscious mind. The stories we tell we eventually come to take as reality itself. And there is no more powerful force behind a story than that of fear.

I wonder if that is the Gordian knot of symbolic conflation, the cancerous lump on the collective imagination. It may seem like a lynch pin that could be easily removed, but what is interesting is that few people dare to tug at it to see if it will budge. Just because you can point to it doesn’t mean much. Fear of its undoing even makes the most radical of left-wingers reluctant to touch that raw nerve.

Whether climate change or war or abortion, such contentious issues open us up to a primal sense of fear. These are stark existential issues of life and death, of self and other. It’s not the ‘reality’ of these issues that matters. Sure, we can rationally discuss them, at least to some extent. Yet they remain political footballs thrown at the voter’s gut. They aren’t problems to be solved. They are psychological terrorism, their purpose being to enrage and divide… and ultimately to distract.

This is why Trump is no more interested in fair debate than is the internet troll and denialist. It is all spectacle, be it on the stage of mainstream media or the battleground of social media. It is ritualized drama, an emotional purging of our collective fears.