Stories: Personal & Collective

I came across various things this past month that taken together created a thought-web in my mind. For anyone who cares, let me explicate (or, if you prefer, skip to the end for my summarization).

– – –

The first thing was an interview on The Diane Rehm Show from a few weeks ago. The guest was Meredith Maran and she was talking about her book, My Lie. When she was younger, she got caught up in the repressed memory obsession of decades past. Therapists at the time were taught to look for signs of childhood molestation and trauma in adults. Her therapists convinced her that her psychological issues were caused by repression and she came to believe her father had done something to her as a child.

Years later after much conflict, she started questioning that there was any repressed memory there at all. She realized she had no clear memories and that she had made false allegations. The response of many callers (and commenters on the internet) was to scapegoat the author similar to how the author had scapegoated her own father.

I was too young at the time to remember that time of our culture. I did, however, get a taste of it having been a child during that time. When I went to college in the mid 90s, my parents warned me about cults which seems a bit silly in retrospect. Through study I’ve come to understand better why my parents and many people had such fears. The 80s was when the Cold War era was coming to an end. Decades of fear-mongering were coming home to roost. Before that time, people were paranoid of commies among us. The commies were gone as a serious threat but the culture of fear remained. The religious element that fueled much of the fear against the Godless commies now fueled fear about child molesters and satanic cults.

There was mass hysteria as our culture shifted into a new era. Mass hysteria is hard to understand from the outside and it’s easy to criticize with 20/20 hindsight. We can look back at people such as the author and wonder how she could’ve been so naive, so easily misled by others. But this mass hysteria included not just people like the author. It included the entire mainstream media and the entire community of psychotherapists and psychiatrists. It’s not called mass hysteria for nothing.

Fears always feel real because they are real even when what they get projected upon is innocent. In the future, people will look back upon our present terrorist fear-mongering in the same way we look back at other eras. Also, what makes fears real is that there usually is a kernel of truth. People do sometimes repress memories, but it’s very hard to know the truth about what is repressed especially when it happened in childhood. I have no doubt that child abuse is more common than it should be. The Catholic priest molestation issue is just the tip of the iceberg. As a society, we are only beginning to come to terms with this uncomfortable problem. The repressed memory hysteria was simply a part of this process of society dealing with what it would rather ignore. When something has been denied and dismissed for so long, it tends to manifest in rather negative ways.

The story of Meredith Maran reminded me of Derrick Jensen. He many books dealing with his personal experiences of childhood abuse and with victimization cycle in our society. I have no reason to think that Jensen’s memories of childhood are false. Unlike Maran, he has clear memories of specific events. It really doesn’t matter to me. The larger truth of victimization in our society is true whether or not any given case is true.

– – –

My thoughts temporarily stopped there. I meant to think more about the connection to Derrick Jensen and write a post about it, but I got distracted with other things. Last night, two things brought my mind back to the subject. I was sitting at work listening to the radio while playing around with my new Kindle.

On Coast to Coast AM, the guest was Daniel Pinchbeck who is an author I’m somewhat familiar with. Near the beginning of the interview, Pinchbeck briefly mentioned Terrence McKenna which made me happy.  McKenna used to be a regular guest on C2CAM. Like Philip K. Dick, McKenna had a way of expressing wonder about the world.

On the Kindle, I was looking at books I might want to purchase. Out of curiosity, I looked at the reviews of some of Derrick Jensen’s newer books. I wasn’t thinking about Jensen because of my previous thoughts from some weeks past. Jensen just often comes up in my thoughts because his views have strongly influenced my own views. I’ve been wondering for a long time whether or not I wanted to buy Jensen’s two volume Endgame. I felt uncertain because I have the sense that Jensen’s views changed somewhat from his earliest books. Part of what made me become a fan was how he combined a sense of wonder with a sense of compassionate understanding of suffering (which is also the same combination in different form that made me a fan of Philip K. Dick), but it seemed that his later writings had lost some of the wonder that made A Language Older Than Words so beautiful and moving.

This is where the web of my thinking becomes a bit convoluted. One of the connections is that I had in mind is that of nature. Pinchbeck and McKenna discuss nature in terms of wonder. Jensen also shows his sense of wonder when he writes about nature. The difference is that Pinchbeck and McKenna seem to have an endless sense of wonder (McKenna’s enthusiasm was always contagious), whereas Jensen’s sense of wonder too often becomes eclipsed by the suffering of the world. A favorite middle position between these two attitudes is Philip K. Dick who expressed wonder and suffering as inseparable facets of the same reality.

As I was looking at the reviews of Jensen’s books, my inkling about Jensen was strengthened by two reviews I read. The first reviewer (of Endgame, volume 1) wrote about his mixed response to the book and to the author with whom he claims to have had an e-mail exchange. The reviewer’s personal experience was that Jensen was defensive about his personal trauma which made him question the author’s work:

Now I need to question the entire thesis of the book, since I find I now question the mental and emotional stability of the author. Now I look at the long screeds (rants), the repetition, the extreme focus on abuse and victimhood at every turn, the utter lack of humor, it all starts to add up to something that I frankly have second thoughts about putting much stock in. Yes, the world is in trouble, no doubt about it. Should I look at it all through a lens of abuse, violence, slavery and victimhood just because Derrick Jensen has personal issues which he projects onto everything he sees or comes into contact with? Maybe not. It’s been interesting, but the search for a sane approach to our problems continues, I’m afraid.

A commenter who claimed to know Jensen gave a defense of the author:

I will say that despite my immense gratitude to Derrick for his great work and despite my friendship with him, I sympathized with your post… up to a certain point. I do think Derrick can be harsh, often harsher than I would be in a similar circumstance. Of course, that hardly makes me right… he has experienced abuse on a level I cannot imagine.

Anyhow, the point at which I started to lose sympathy with your situation was when you actually quoted from your email to Derrick. I feel confident that I know what offended him, and I think he’s right. It may have been poor word choice on your part, I do not know. One thing you wrote is, “It strikes me that this trauma seems to be a primary “personal issue” that you are projecting onto the rest of the world.” Now, this is something Derrick has heard a lot, as have most activists who openly acknowledge that they have suffered from abuse, and he has responded to this kind of critique in his work. Derrick’s father, who raped and beat him and his siblings and mother, was an unusually extreme manifestation of the broader culture of objectification, exploitation, control, nihilism, and abuse which is civilization itself. Derrick is not “projecting” his abusive father onto the dominant institutions of the culture when he sees them obliterating life on Earth. 1% annual species extinction is real. 90%+ extirpation of large fish is real. Global deforestation is real. The BP spill and the endless spills in the Niger Delta are real. Global toxification is real. Resource wars and genocide and patriarchy and systematic rape are real. And so on, as infinitum, or as Derrick says, ad omnicidium, which is more to the point. This is not “projection.” Projection is when a battered child acts out toward neutral or compassionate elders because that child has learned to hate and fear all adults, or all men, or all men with beards, or something like that. It is not when a battered child learns the nature of batterers and fights to stop them. Projection is manifesting one’s hatred and fear of a particular abuser irrationally onto others who bear no actual relation to the abuser. This is profoundly different from Derrick’s analysis and activism, and I agree with Derrick that it is offensive to call we he does “projection.”

My own response was halfway between these two. I understand both views, but I think the commenter is incorrect in simply dismissing the power of projection. Any self-aware person knows that everyone projects their personal issues… well, everyone except maybe those who are enlightened. The reviewer probably was lacking a bit of tact and so was Jensen in his response. Both were probably feeling defensive.

Ignoring the issue of tact, I’ve often felt that Jensen has made a mythology out of his personal trauma… which I don’t mean as a criticism per se. Mythologizing of this sort is powerful and can be an effective way of creating a transformative vision of reality (e.g., Philip K. Dick’s Exegesis), but there are obvious dangers. In Jensen’s earliest work, there was a profound sense of wonder that blew me away and awoke me to the suffering in the world like few other authors. However, in Jensen’s later work, my perception is that the rage and frustration has tarnished some of that wonder.

To be fair, I don’t doubt that I’m projecting as well. It’s easy for everyone to get weighed down by life’s frustrations and lose our sense of wonder. Jensen has written about the attempt to regain that sense of wonder after having lost it and that inspired me. For that reason, it would sadden me if the ideology of anarcho-primitivism began to trump that regained wonder. I somehow doubt that any action taken without that sense of wonder will lead to positive results.

This reminds me of another reviewer who was reviewing another of Jensen’s books, What We Leave Behind:

While Jensen is clearly passionate and energizes people towards activism, I agree with Bill McKibben who is quoted on the back cover of Jensen’s book that he is “…occasionally unfair….” I know McKibben’s judgment is accurate because of what Jensen writes about Buckminster Fuller, in which he completely misinterprets Fuller. Fuller was not a “technotopian.” Fuller considered a tree or a dragonfly as the most exquisite technology, so when he uses the word technology he is not suggesting some future machine world; he’s talking about our entire physical environment. Fuller simply shows that by reforming our physical world we can bring out the best in every individual. That’s why Fuller embraced the ideas of Maria Montessori, for example. Fuller’s ideas begin and end with a reverence and awe of nature. Fuller’s roots go back to the transcendentalists of Emerson and his great aunt Margaret Fuller who celebrated enlightenment ideas not divorced from their spiritual underpinnings. When Jensen writes, “If the ultimate Fullerian future did exist, it wouldn’t include humans.” Or, “In short, technotopians are insane: out of touch with physical reality,” he is so wrong about Fuller that it calls everything else he writes into question.

I don’t recall Jensen’s opinions on Fuller. I’m assuming the reviewer is correctly quoting Jensen. Going by the reviewer’s commentary, I find myself in agreement with criticizing Jensen on seemingly misunderstanding Fuller. However, I don’t agree with the conclusion of calling “everything else he writes into question.” I understand Jensen’s biases and I share them to a large degree. I’m wary of technophilia that often is disconnected from the larger world, but I’m also wary of technophobia in that it can imply a lack or constraint of open-minded wonder.

Yes, I see all the destruction of civilization. I hate it. And I can feel that hate in the marrow of my bones. Civilization is unbelievably cruel. There is something fundamentally sick about our society, but I don’t know that it’s inevitable as Jensen believes. I don’t see as clear of a distinction between nature and technology. I find myself resonating with both the views of Jensen and of Fuller. I want to feel the rage at all that is wrong , but I don’t want to lose my sense of wonder in the process. As I wrote in a post once:

Yes, Jensen is correct about how humans victimize one another, is correct about how civilization is destroying all life on earth. And, yes, Ligotti is correct about how humans are paralyzed by suffering, is correct that all of human culture arose as a distraction from this primal horror. Yes, yes, yes. Even so, there is something beyond all of that.

– – –

What all of these authors (Maran, Jensen, Pinchbeck, McKenna, and PKD) share is some understanding of how humans create (collectively and individually) the world we live in.

Maran’s story is a morality tale about what can happen when someone gets lost in their own confused experience of suffering and fear. When Maran tried to make sense (give a story to) her experience, she accepted the story that society offered her. It took her a long time to question this culturally approved story and to explore again her own direct experience.

Jensen’s story of childhood trauma may be true, but that isn’t what matters. The significant aspect is that it has been made into a story, a story writ large creating a cultural mythology of all of civilization. Jensen started off questioning the story society gave him by exploring his own direct experience, but his retelling of childhood experiences made his past into something greater than mere memory.

I find this fascinating. Philip K. Dick did something similar with a bit more imaginative flair. He took his twin sister who died in infancy and his experience of Nixon era California and through his Exegesis and stories he created a sprawling Gnostic narrative of suffering and salvation sought.

So, I’m far from being entirely critical of this kind of mythologizing, but not all mythologizing is equal. Despite Jensen’s profound insights, I prefer PKD’s vision of the world. There is the imagination, but also even with all the suffering expressed PKD seems to take himself less seriously than Jensen. PKD never became a True Believer even of his own mythology. Although he wanted to believe, questions compelled him more than any answer. I’m more like PKD in this regard. However, I do have a bit of Jensen in me. I tend to take myself too seriously. I wish I had an ounce of PKD’s imagination.

I was just now reminded of a previous post of mine (The Elephant That Wasn’t There) where I covered similar territory. The first point I made was about the unreliability of memory:

None of us really knows how much of our memories are correct. Few of us are ever motivated or capable of fact-checking most of our memories. Stories we’ve encountered over our lifetimes (especially when young) can become incorporated into our own personal story… Science has proven that we literally re-member every time we recall something. The more often we recall something the less reliable the memory becomes. We don’t remember the thing itself. We remember our own retellings.

My concluding point was about the significance of this on the collective level:

In enacting our social rituals and retelling our social myths, what kind of reality are we collectively creating? When I look upon a structure like an ugly parking ramp, what kind of world am I looking upon? Why are we creating such a world? What is the motivation? If we stopped enacting these social rituals and stopped retelling these social myths, what would happen to this consensus reality of civilization we’ve created and what would replace it? Or what would be revealed?

If we aren’t careful, we can end up creating self-enclosed stories that become self-fulfilling prophecies.

– – –

Okay… now for the last strand of my thought web.

I saw two videos that used the same phrase: epistemic closure. The first video surprised me because it’s not the type of phrase I usually come across when watching the mainstream media. The clip is from a CNN discussion and the person who used the phrase is Andrew Sullivan (in the last part of the video):

“The only answer is empiricism. You ask what the facts are and you do your best to find out what the truth is. And sometimes the truth is truly weird. It really is. And sometimes the truth is the truth. So, I think that is all you can do. I think the other thing I think you can do is constantly ask yourself whether you are trapped in your own, what they call, epistemic closure.”

Andrew Sullivan is talking about the media bubbles that can form, but he points out that we can always choose to step outside of any particular bubble. I think this relates to why people don’t trust institutions (especially media institutions) as much as they used to. It’s not that media is necessarily less trustworthy than it used to be.  It’s just that people can more easily escape media bubbles than they used to be able to back when a few networks controlled nearly all of collective reality in this country. Epistemic closure used to be the normal mode of functioning, but new generations are growing up in a permanent state of epistemic openness and some of the older generations feel their world(-view) is threatened.

The second video is about epistemic closure in terms of philosophy versus science… with philosophy being idealized as the opposite of epistemic closure and science in the form of scientism being criticized.


The latter video is a bit dry compared to the first, but the two caught my attention as I randomly happened to watch them around the same time. I don’t normally come across ‘epistemic closure’ being mentioned in YouTube videos. This serendipity caused me to consider ‘epistemic closure’ in terms of the thought web that my mind has been tangled in.

Science in it’s most extreme form (as scientism) and in it’s manifestation as respected institution is an example of epistemic closure… or, in other terms, the bureaucratization that creates Max Weber’s Iron Cage… which, of course, always reminds me of PKD’s gnostic description of this world as the Black Iron Prison – Wonder vs the Wonder-Killers: two related thought experiments:

Our idealizing and rewarding sociopathic behavior has created modern bureaucratic civilization. Maybe this alters our very experience of reality. In terms of Robert Anton Wilson’s reality tunnels, maybe we get trapped in a specific worldview. It could be the world isn’t as we think it is or rather that the world becomes as we think it is. The Iron Cage not only destroys the ancient societies of superstition but also destroys the very experience of the supernatural. Research shows that thin boundary types claim to have more supernatural experiences. Research also shows that most people in general have supernatural experiences. The Iron Cage not only disconnects us from a larger context of the supernatural. It disconnects our personal experience from society and often disconnects the individual from their own experience. Maybe there is some truth to the supernatural worldview, but we simply can’t see it because we are trapped in a reality tunnel, trapped in the Iron Cage, in the Black Iron Prison.

This subject is discussed in immense detail in Hansen’s book (The Trickster and the Paranormal). Hansen explains why science has such difficulty grappling with the fundamental issues of our experience of reality. I should point out that neither Hansen nor PKD perceives science as the enemy. However, science is just one viewpoint and when we hold too tightly to one model of reality we become blind to other perspectives, other experiences.

I want to add that I’m wary about criticizing science. Between scientism and anti-intellectualism, I suspect the latter is the greater problem. Besides, I doubt most scientists subscribe to scientism. There is an important distinction between scientific method and scientism. Also, there is an important distinction between scientific research and scientific application. Technology, of course, has many problems which someone like Jensen is correct in criticizing… but I generally think of technology in and of itself as being value neutral (although I understand Jensen would argue the opposite). I don’t think Jensen’s luddite anarcho-primitivism is any more helpful than the anti-intellectualism of certain types of right-wingers.

There is some similarity between anti-technology and anti-intellectualism. Both show a suspicion of modernism, of modern civilization… but, in Jensen’s case, one aspect saves him from complete epistemic closure – Playing for Keeps:

“PEOPLE WHO READ MY WORK often say, “Okay, so it’s clear you don’t like this culture, but what do you want to replace it?” The answer is that I don’t want any one culture to replace this culture. I want ten thousand cultures to replace this culture, each one arising organically from its own place. That’s how humans inhabited the planet (or, more precisely, their landbases, since each group inhabited a place, and not the whole world, which is precisely the point), before this culture set about reducing all cultures to one.”

Which is basically what Noam Chomsky says:

Political anarchism is only ever respectable when it includes some element of self-questioning epistemological anarchism. There are no easy answers. And any easy answer that is given by society is probably wrong and possibly dangerous. That also goes along with any narrative offered by any authority, whether a media pundit or a therapist. Answers must come from within one’s experience rather than be forced onto one’s experience. This attitude needs to be taught at a young age. Unfortunately, our education system teaches the opposite which destroys the natural joy of learning, the natural curiosity and wonder about the world. It’s easier to teach kids to be obedient and rote memorize factoids.

– – –

So, that’s that. I just had all of that jumbling around in my head and needed to express it.

The basic point is this:

1) People want an explanation for the world and for their personal experiences.
2) The most powerful form of explanation is that which is told as a story.
3) Stories can induce wonder, but they can also stunt it.
4) Stories become most dangerous when we forget they are stories.
5) We should respect the power of stories even as we question them.

Real Americans: Political Narrative & Public Opinion

I keep noticing a particular schizophrenic divide in the minds of Americans. It’s hard to grasp what most people actually believe. I try to stay informed with various data from polls and other research, but the overall pattern isn’t always clear. In this post, I’m going to point out a pattern I’ve seen before and have written about before. I’m going to do this by connecting it to the recent issue of immigration. My sense is that this pattern extends beyond any single issue.

Let me lay out the data first.

More Americans identify as conservative than identify as liberal.
But more Americans support or lean toward many of the major liberal positions.

According to some polls, most Americans were against the “socialist” Obamacare.
But it supposedly was based on a proposal made by Republicans in the 1990s.
And, when asked about specific items in the health insurance bill, most Americans supported them.
In particular, most Americans supported public option.

Most Americans support the Arizona immigration law in requiring immigrants (and those who look like immigrants) to carry identification.
But most Americans are against Americans carrying national identification cards and against racial profiling.
And most Americans support civil rights.

Let me dissect the immigration issue. Basically, many Americans are fine with treating latinos differently than other Americans. Of course, majority white Americans don’t like latinos because latinos are threatening their majority position, but I’ve seen videos of blacks who claimed latinos were a threat as well. It’s easy to argue for this kind of law when the person doesn’t think it will apply to them or people like them. Most whites and blacks who support the Arizona law assume that if they visited Arizona they wouldn’t be jailed if they didn’t have their papers on them.

For argument’s sake, let’s turn this situation around. What if all the states along the northern border passed similar laws which said all Canadian immigrants had to carry identification at all times? What if this hypothetical law said that it was legal to ask any person who looked Canadian (i.e., white) to show their identification? Would Sarah Palin support whites being treated in the same way latinos would be treated under the Arizona law? In terms of blacks, the charge is often made that blacks are pulled over for DWB (Driving While Black). What if it became legally required for police officers to pull over all black people because they might be illegal immigrants from Africa?

I see several aspects to this confused thinking of the American people. There is the us vs them mentality. That isn’t specifically what interests me at the moment, but it relates. Seeing latinos as different is a failure to generalize, a failure to see all humans as being considered equal under the US Constitution. Also, it’s a failure to see certain specifics. The person who supports the Arizona law apparently lacks the imagination to see how it could apply to people like themselves. People often forget that, when one person or group has their rights undermined, it undermines the foundation of the rights for all (“when they came for the…”). So, in that sense, the failure is in not generalizing enough. But getting lost in generalizations can also be dangerous… which brings me to another point.

Generalizations make for useful talking points and useful political narratives. I’ve noted in the past that conservatives have been very effective in controlling the narrative. Take my first example of how most Americans identify as conservative despite the liberalism on specific issues. Even the mainstream media often repeats the conservative narrative that America is a center-right country; this is interesting in light of the other conservative narrative about the mainstream media being liberal… which the mainstream media often repeats as well.

I kept hearing the mainstream media (not just Fox News) repeat over and over again that most Americans support the Arizona immigration law. However, they rarely go beyond this talking point. Where are the polls that break down the specific issues of the Arizona law, of immigration reform and of immigration in general? Why isn’t the media looking at the broader context of issues? Why isn’t the media looking at other aspects? Why continually bash the American public over the head with the same limited set of info?

Yes, the GOP probably has won the narrative war as they often do. Most Americans may support the Arizona law. But how many Americans actually understand the Arizona law? How many Americans understand the history of immigration? How many Americans understand the history of US relations with Mexico? How many Americans know that undocumented immigrants cause less crime than the average American? How many Americans have seen the data showing that the War on Drugs is failing an is causing Mexicans to try to escape the violence in their own coutnry that the US government is helping to cause? How many Americans understand that undocumented workers come to the US because business owners hire them and because US and state governments don’t stop nor penalize business owners from hiring them?

I’m willing to bet if you informed the American public and asked them about specific issues related to immigration, a very different public opinion would become evident.

So, what does it mean to be a conservative or liberal in the US? Why, in a country built on immigration, is being anti-immigrant (or having anti-immigrant sentiments/suspicions) a conservative position? What does ‘conservative’ mean if the majority of Americans both identify as conservative and support liberal positions? What does ‘liberal’ mean when, according to Pew data, those who identify as liberals show the strongest support for fiscal conservatism?

In the broad view, Americans are mostly conservatives who are against socialism and for nationalism.
In the more detailed view, Americans are mostly liberals who love their socialist services and are increasingly embracing multiculturalism.

Which represents the real American?

Self-Enclosed Stories, Self-Fulfilling Prophecies

I often watch the videos of Stefan Molyneux. I highly admire some of his insights, but I’m also highly critical of the conclusions he bases on these insights. Here is a very high quality video he just made to which I have a mixed response.

He tells a compelling story. It’s not unlike the story told by Alex Jones and other right-leaning libertarians. Stefan is essentially an intelligent conspiracy theorist which I don’t mean as an insult. It’s just an apt description.

I have a cynical nature with a bit of intelligent paranoia thrown in. I’m quite fond of criticizing the government and the established system of modern civilization. So, I resonate with the general attitude of questioning as seen with Alex Jones or in a less bombastic way with Stefan Molyneux. I resonate, but I also feel repulsed by a tendency towards fear-mongering. At worst, this kind of fear-mongering leads to a dark sensationalism as portrayed in the above video.

My own sensibility is not any less dark, but I lean leftwards away from this rightwing way of portraying a cultural narrative. I’m not sure exactly what the difference is. Liberals seem less prone to use overt emotional persuasion/manipulation. A particular kind of right-leaning libertarian makes progressive leftwingers such as Michael Moore seem like moderates.

Noam Chomsky is no less critical of the government than Molyneux, but Chomsky would never make a video like the above. As another example, Derrick Jensen easily competes with Molyneux on the level of cynical analysis of our present society… and, yet, there is a difference. What is this difference?

Both Chomsky and Jensen have a more open-ended analysis. They’re less likely to come to an absolute conclusion, less likely to tell an ideological narrative. Derrick Jensen explicitly says that no ideology is right, no single answer will solve our problems. Molyneux, however, is selling a specific ideology: anarcho-capitalism. So, the story Molyneux is telling leads to a specific ideological vision of how society should be.

In this, I sense something like naivette. Molyneux believes in his ideological vision. He has faith in the theory of anarcho-capitalism even though there is no real-world evidence supporting it.

The story told by Stefan Molyneux and by Alex Jones could be true. I have a strong suspicion that parts of it are true. My worry is that there are elements of truth mixed in with massive amounts of speculation. Alex Jones is particularly bad about ungrounded speculation, but even the more moderate Molyneux dangerously courts with the paranoid vision. The specific danger I see is that stories have a way of becoming self-enclosed worldviews which can lead to self-fulfilling prophecies.

Political Jiu Jitsu

I liked the last point made in the video below.

Various corporations, media & political groups are constantly trying to control the narrative. The narrative that would be most financially beneficial to powerful corporations is that of voter apathy & disenfranchisement. Riling people up & then misdirecting them away from real problems inevitably leads to a sense of helplessness. If this is repeated enough, the entire lower class develops an attitude of learned helplessness where they just give up entirely.

Combine this with the slow destruction of the middle class then you a combination punch. In the US, the middle class always aspired to be part of the upper class. This aspiration has caused many Americans to identify with the wealthy class. We like to watch rich people live their lives on tv and the middle class will fight for tax cuts for the rich (even though it personally harms their own class). Instead, middle class anger gets directed at the working class (i.e., worker unions), the working class anger gets directed at the poor, and the poor class anger gets directed at everyone who is at the very bottom (welfare receipients, homelesss, immigrants, etc).

Controlling the Narrative: Part 2

I just posted about a discussion I’m involved with. In the post, I shared some of my comments from the discussion and explained some introductory thoughts about controlling the narrative.

Controlling the Narrative: Part 1

I had no clear intentions when I first posted in that discussion, but once I was engaged I wanted to follow it to the end. I don’t easily give up on a discussion or a topic when something catches my curiosity, when something gets caught in my craw.

The discussion thread is interesting for a number of reasons. It’s a textbook example of how to deal with different kinds of commenters. I’ve been in online discussions for years now and I know how to play any game anyone wants to play. I know how to handle the trolls, the ideologues, the apologists, the ranters, the nitpickers, the name-callers or what ever else. I’m not above anything. If I deem it necessary (or if I’m just irritated), I’ll call names and be rude, I’ll ridicule and cajole. But I’ll also provide data and make extensive arguments, be objective or share personal anecdotes. It’s important to always be ready to shift gears and meet any person on their terms or else force them to meet you on your terms.

  • One of my strengths is that I have stamina. Few people can outlast me in a discussion, few will do more research than I will. That isn’t a boast. It’s a fact.
  • Another important ability is to be clever (if only to keep the discussion lively and entertaining). I almost always can turn around any personal attack or intellectual argument. No mercy! Take nothing personal.
  • Last but not least, try to gain control of the rules of the game, try to enforce your own narrative. Don’t necessarily hijack a thread, but don’t be afraid of hijacking a thread if it serves some purpose.

The rules are very much different if you have regular discussions with the same people (assuming you want to remain friends), but dealing with random strangers on the internet demands guerilla warfare. I’m not in that discussion to make friends. I fully realized the people in that discussion were a mix. Some more smart, some less so. Some willing to play fair, some not. I was mostly just attacked and called names. My arguments were mostly just dismissed. But I did finally force a couple of people to take my view seriously once they realized I couldn’t be scared away or ridiculed into silence.

I had my ducks in a row and not even those arguing against me could deny that. I usually begin a discussion with by listening respectfully and gaging the atmosphere. I then present my view fairly and hopefully I get a fair response. If that fails…

I pull out the big guns and I bludgeon my opponent. I will offer fact after fact, source after source, argument after argument. As long as I’m dealing with someone above the level of idiot, I will persist. And if they start treating me fairly…

I’m more than happy respond in kind. Depending on my mood, I might even apologize. If I read negative intentions that weren’t there or that they claim weren’t there, then I’ll let it go and try to seek civil discussion. I’d always rather look for common ground just as long as the other person is willing to cooperate in this endeavor.

The problem with the discussion in question is that apparently no one wanted to seek common ground with me. I entered the disucssion in the middle of it. Another commenter had linked my blog and so I went to check it out, but already my views were being attacked. So, I immediately felt on the defensive. It didn’t seem that anyone actually wanted to have a rational debate of ideas and facts. Instead, it was an ideological attack-fest with most of the people on the opposite side of my own view.

Since I couldn’t force anyone to take my view seriously, the main thing I decided to do was to seek control of the narrative and so shift the power imbalance.  I pointed out this issue of narrative in my post about the movie Avatar (Avatar: Imagination & Culture). Conservatives have in the past been very good at controlling the narrative. Even now, Fox News has dominated political discourse by various means (Fox News Channel controversies). They don’t just report the news but actively create it. They promoted the Tea Party movement by (besides Beck’s 9/12) having Fox employees cheer on crowds as they filmed or even by using footage from entirely different events to make the crowd look larger. They’ve also been so devious as to alter pictures of Democrats and liberals by, for example, yellowing teeth or broadening the nose (to make the person look like a minority).

Fox News best strategy is latching onto a story and repeating it relentlessly until the rest of the media picks it up. For example, ACORN was given the Fox News treatment and by doing so they destroyed ACORN. Later on, it was investigated and it turned out to have been a fake scandal made up out of thin air, but ACORN was still destroyed and so mission accomplished. Even now, if you ask many people, they still think the ACORN scandal was real because innocence doesn’t make for as exciting of news as does scandal.

It’s all about controlling the story. I personally prefer truth, but I respect the power of story. Truth is great and story is powerful. Combined, they can lead to new visions of society.

This is where liberals come in. Conservatives are starting to lose control of the narrative. The culture wars have lost clarity and momentum. The faux patriotism from the Bush years has soured. This is why there has been a mass exodus from the Republican party. This past year Republicans have become the party of No and nothing else. Obama’s relentless preaching of bipartisanship (even if fruitless on the practical level) led to his controlling the narrative.

Liberals have an opening here. There are many narratives that can be chosen. In the discussion I’m involved with, I was using the narrative of shifting demographics and of generational cycles. Strauss and Howe are the guys who first told this story which they’ve titled The Fourth Turning and it has gained a fair amount of traction in the media and culture. Another narrative I like to use is that of Spiral Dynamics which presents an evolutionary view of human culture and it’s a very potent vision of what society can become (Bill Clinton was familiar with it).  George Lakoff has spent a lot of time putting forth his ideas about framing and politics which are insightful, but I don’t know that they’re ultimately compelling. Michael Moore has been one of the greatest proponents of the story about working class progressivism which has struck a major blow to the self-identity of the conservative movement.

Another area of liberal narrative is the New Age (which has incorporated many narratives into its own meta-narrative). I was raised in New Thought Christianity (which was a precursor of the New Age) and I’ve been delighted to see how New Thought theology has slipped into both evangelical Christianity and even into the mainstream culture in general by way of the New Age. Oprah has been a great proponent of the New Age vision (and I suppose she can be seen as a manifestation of the feminist narrative). A bit earlier than Oprah, Joseph Campbell helped introduce a new vision of religion and culture (his Hero’s Journey having inspired Star Wars).

Avatar is, of course, a great narrative and goes along with liberal narrative of many other movies (Star Wars, The Matrix, etc). In this time of burgeoning technology (3-d, internet, etc), movies are becoming more powerful and more widespread. Some other liberal narratives come from the comic book tradition (which was oppressed by the rightwing comic books code for decades). Some notable examples are X-Men and Watchmen. The greatest narrative of any entertainment might very well be Star Trek: The Next Generation which portrayed a future liberal utopian society.

Liberals have an opening here. The conservative narrative has been slowly waning and the liberal narrative has been slowly waxing. With Obama’s message of hope and change and his vision of bipartisanship (which the Millennials resonate with), liberals finally have the upper hand. The story that gets heard now will be the story that dominates for the next few decades (as the culture war narrative dominate the last few decades). I base that prediction on the narrative of The Fourth Turning. In a 1997 interview (Strauss’ Prophetic Words), Strauss forecast that:

“What could happen right at the start of the Fourth Turning is whichever dominant cultural view is in power when the emergency strikes that group could be out of power for a whole generation.”

Controlling the Narrative: Part 1

Below are some comments from a discussion thread I’m involved in at the moment. I thought it interesting because my purpose in participating has two parts.

On the surface, I’m just having a debate. I’m not all that concerned about winning the debate per se, but I am trying to make a good argument and clear up misinformation. My original purpose was merely to defend the research I had done since someone linked to my blog in the discussion (which is what made me notice the discussion).

However, once fully invested, my central motive switched to gaining control of the narrative. The whole discussion is an experiment of sorts. Those involved don’t quite grasp my real agenda and so they don’t know how to counter it. The reason I chose to seek control of the narrative is because, at first, no one wanted to fully engage the facts of my argument.

In more recent comments, one commenter in particular is trying to persuade me to play the opinion game. That is a fair game to play, but it isn’t the game I want to play. The reason I don’t want to play it is because it generally is a fruitless game which sometimes is the point. This commenter isn’t presenting any compelling narrative and so his best strategy is to distract me from my narrative… not that I think he is consciously strategizing. 

The opinion game is not too dissimilar from how Republicans have been playing the obstructionist game. This past year, Republicans were obsessing over and complaining about every little nitpicking detail. It’s the game one plays when one is out of power, when one isn’t in control of the narrative.

If you’re simply interested to read more about my views on controlling the narrative and how it relates to public/political discourse, here is the link:

Controlling the Narrative: Part 2

And below are my comments from the discussion:

http://www.topix.net/forum/source/kdvr/TA3MUPB6NGSBEJ7QK/post195

cjrian wrote:
Media Matters as an unbiased reference?
NPR ?
Air America (now defunct)??
Media Matters recieves its funding indirectly from George Soros via the Tides Foundation, the Arca Foundation, the Peninsula Community Foundation, and the San Francisco Foundation. MM is a total tool of the Left, willing to push-poll, lie, and consults OganizingforAmerica (Obamas info site) for so-called “truth”.
NPR has a VERY Left leaning bent and always has. Garrison Keillor, “All Things Considered”, Daniel Schorr.
Air America was ONLY formed to counter Rightwing talk radio. It was so far Left, it was falling off the edge of the Earth.
These are not unbiased sources!!

Still with the liberal bias? I showed you the study about NPR. You just deny the study based on no counter evidence. Show me a study that shows NPR has a strong liberal bias. NPR may once have been liberal because it used to do real investigative reporting, but ever since it began to get large corporate funding it hasn’t been liberal beyond a few minor exceptions of moderate liberals.

Air America was a response to rightwing media. That was part of my argument. Rightwing media is very powerful. Air America and other liberal radio have shown high ratings in certain markets, but radio stations are mostly now owned by large conservative corporations rather than by local people and community groups. I’m surprised you didn’t notice this explanation as it was in the blog post I linked earler.

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2010…

Part of the problem is definition of terms. What conservatives call “liberal” would be considered moderate, centrist or even slightly conservative in European countries. I’m willing to concede that, according to your conservative definition of liberal, most of the media migth be liberal, but that doesn’t really mean much of anything. It’s similar when conservatives call Obama a progressive, a socialist and/or a communist. Sure, according to the conservative worldview, almost everything is to the left. However, real progressives, socialists and communists are probably more critical of Obama than most conservatives.

Some of the media has a liberal bias and some of the media has a conservative bias. According to mainstream US political ideologies, I don’t think mainstream media overall is biased in any particular direction. But, relative to Europe, US media probably has a conservative bias. More importantly, I’d look at the biases in different markets. I don’t know about tv and cable, but Fox News has been very successful in controlling the narrative. Radio of course is dominated by conservatives and one study shows op-ed columns are dominated by conservatives.

The only place where liberals have a clear and strong dominance is on the internet. Liberals use the internet for news more than any other demographic and so you find liberal news sources online. A favorite “liberal” news source of mine is The Young Turks which is hosted by Cenk Uygur who is a former Republican who voted for Obama and yet is constantly critical of Obama for not being progressive enough. Cenk started his independent news company online and has remained online. His show is one of the most popular on the web. He doesn’t accept advertising money and relies entirely on subscribers.

It’s true that reporters and journalists lean left, but not radically left. On the other hand, editors, management and owners of news organizations lean right. The reporters and journalists are employees who are hired and fired by those who lean right. Pew shows the most strong Republican demographic has the highest rates of business ownership and highest rates of those who trade stocks and bonds.

http://www.topix.net/forum/source/kdvr/TA3MUPB6NGSBEJ7QK/post197

cjrian wrote:
Now, if Conservatives dominate newspapers how was their reporting so sympatheric towards Obama/Biden and negative towards McCain/Palin?

Why did the media focus on Obama? Many reasons. He was young, photogenic, energetic, charismatic, inspiring, great speaker, first black candiate, etc. Most importantly, the American public liked him more which was demonstrated by his winning the popular vote. I was just looking at poll data that shows that at the time even Libertarians liked Obama.

So, the media focuses on what happens to be popular. During Bush’s administration, when patriotism and war-mongering was popular, the media focused on that. Initially, the media didn’t strongly questione or criticize the reasons for the war in Iraq or the constitutionality of the Patriot Act. Any liberal who stepped out of line, such as Bill Maher, was attacked and vilified. This is just the way mainstream media operates.

http://www.topix.net/forum/source/kdvr/TA3MUPB6NGSBEJ7QK/post209

raysmom wrote:
Crier, that was a good one about the “Madoff numbers”, hehehe. But I think when you take the number of registered voters, the Dem & Republican numbers, and weigh them with certain variables it comes out pretty even in undergraduate education, the Dems having more advanced degrees.
But frankly, I don’t even think that formal education means more politically knowledgable. Take my neighbors (please, lol). A nice cross section of educated people. The liberal Christian psychologist, the liberal “spiritualist” MBA, the moderate IV specialist nurse, the liberal ex-Catholic pharmacist married to an ex-Army doc who now works for Kaiser, the uneducated King Soopers lifer. They all have strong opinions about Obama and ObamaCare, two for and three against. But NONE of them read the local paper in it’s entirety, let alone the WSJ or any diversity of publications, and none of them know the first thing about the bill or about any political issues, really, just stuff they pick up along the way, mostly from their peers who are equally ignorant! This is for both sides of the issue, remember. I think most people vote the way they do more from basic ideology, party politics, and personal experience/situation than from knowledge of the issues, no matter how educated they are.
The whole “I’m smarter than you are” thing is way overblown in estimating who the “better” party is. And there is no real way to prove it. Just as there is no real way to prove that someone’s intentions are bad becuase of ideology. A useless and divisive endeavor, in my mind.

There are several reasons why I think it matters. Conservatives have attacked climatology scientists because 97% of them support anthropogenic global warming. It’s rather meaningless considering only 6% of scientists are Republican. Since Republicans lack higher education and professional experience in the scienes, then who cares what most Republicans think about science.

Most professors and most with graduate degrees are liberal. So, liberals and Democrats are generally more well-educated. That is important. Some counter with, “But they don’t have real world experience.” Pew shows Liberals as having the second highest rate (after Enterprisers who are approximately equivalent to Neocons) of business ownership and second highest rate of trading stocks and bonds. Liberals are well educated and they’re well informed in that they follow the news closely.

Even though Democrats include the poorest and least well educated, they still on average have higher IQs than Republicans. That is important considering that during the Reagan years Republicans had the highest average IQ, but that was the only period that Republicans have ever shown a higher average IQ. It was the high point of the GOP. No wonder conservatives like to reminisce about the glory of the Reagan era. So, why did a majority of the most intelligent and well educated people stop joining the GOP and instead became Democrats?

If I were a Republican or independent conservative, I’d be a bit concerned. This isn’t just an abstract idea. Polls show that Fox News viewers are the least well informed about health reform. Maybe there is a connection here. Also, the Millennials are the most liberal, most well educated and largest generation in US history. When you look at the Millennials, you’re looking at the future.

http://www.topix.net/forum/source/kdvr/TA3MUPB6NGSBEJ7QK/post210

cjrian wrote:
<quoted text>
Undoubtedly, some of that is true, but that doesn’t explain the chills up their leg(s). One of the PRIMARY tenets to good reporting to to remain objective. The Press behaved in more of a rah-rah squad fashion. This also does not explain the uproarious cheering when Obama was nominated and when he won the election. The Press was highly Partisan.

There was a brief period earlier last century when the Fairness Doctrine forced the news business to be fair and ethical. Over the decades, newsrooms lost independent control of their reporting. Upper management and ownership began meddling in the news business. Advertisers started to have great influence and news became more about entertainment and telling people what they want to hear. Straight news reporting never made much money and so the financing of it was cut which led to reporters doing less investigative journalism.

Obama was popular. At the time, everyone loved Obama, loved to hear him speak, loved the very idea of him. News corporations are primarily concerned about making money and reporting on what is popular is how money is made.

Everyone was swayed, the whole nation, including reporters. It’s no different than how the whole nation was swayed including reporters after 9/11. Humans are social animals. We’re like a school of fish who sway together in the same direction. Those working for news media (reporters, journalists, op-ed columnists, editors, management, owners, etc) are all just human like the rest of us.

Besides, the media is like an echo chamber. The story that becomes popular gets reported more and becomes more popular. News people listen to other news people. It goes across the ideological divide. It’s humorous to watch the back and forth between Fox News and those on the left (or what is considered the left in the US mainstream). Climategate, ACORN, Swiftboat… all of those started with a single report somewhere and then all the media jumped on the bandwagon. It turns out, for example, that the entire ACORN scandal was made up out of thin air.

This is why I don’t watch mainstream news to any great degree. I occasionally catch a video of mainstream news on Youtube or some other random site. But, like a good Liberal, I prefer sources outside the mainstream such as The Young Turnks. The young generation doesn’t watch mainstream news hardly at all. I suppose it’s older Democrats who watch the mainstream left-leaning media.

http://www.topix.net/forum/source/kdvr/TA3MUPB6NGSBEJ7QK/post212

Becky wrote:
Also I would not talk so much about the younger generation. I am a part of it and even I admit there is a lot of ignorance in the liberally brainwashed people of our younger generation.
Difference is I have lived on my own since I was 18, put myself through school, and don’t just blindly take whatever the news or some narcissistic presidential candidate said without looking beyond the smoke screens and crap.

I’m less interested in these ups and downs. Instead, what I try to understand are the larger trends. If you were familiar with the writings of Strauss and Howe (The Fourth Turning, Millennials Rising) or Spiral Dynamics as explained by the likes of Wilber, you’d understand what I’m talking about. It’s the broader context that matters the most when speaking about where the country (and society in general) is heading. This is why it’s a fairly safe bet to claim that Obama’s health reform and Millennials liberalism aren’t just flukes that will disappear.

During the last cycle of progressivism, there were paranoid pundits like Beck (Father Coughlin), communist fear-mongering, race-baiting, promotion of “white culture”, anti-immigrant sentiment (“Hyphenated Americans” which always makes me think of Palin’s opposite notion of “Real Americans”), patriotic fervor, Christian fundamentalism, preaching of family values, etc. It’s proof, when the rightwingers become loud, that a new progressive era has begun.

This is where my interest in health reform comes in. It is an important issue on its own terms, but it’s hard to understand it’s relevance in isolation. Only in the beginnings of a progressive era could a president spend a year fighting (using the 3d chess of bipartisandship) for health reform and get a bill passed. Obama may be fairly mild on the scale of progressivism, but he does understand the progressive vision and he knows how to preach it. In doing so, he has creating the ideological vision of an entire generation. All Obama has to do is pass a bill, any bill and there is no turning back. The first steps will be akward, but resistance will fade away.

During the Fourth Turning, the new institutions are implemented and established for the rest of the following cycle. This is why the New Deal programs are mostly still with us after all this time. Even Republicans won’t try to take away farm subsidies or medicare. You can later on bust the unions, but the victories of the unions remain (child labor laws, 40 hr week, minimum wage, overtime, safe working conditions, unemployment, disability, etc). Once put into place, all of society embraces the progressive policies and they then become the new status quo (which conservatives will defend in the next cycle).

So, the specifics of the health bill do matter, but not as much as the act of passing reform. One thing is clear is that if McCain had been elected no reform would’ve happened or even have been considered. By Obama being elected, the coming progressive era gets an early push.

First, the Republicans played hard ball by trying to obstruct all progress.

Second, when progress was becoming inevitable, Republicans started scrambling with their own hobbled together “proposals”.

Third, Republicans try to save face by pretending to still fight even when it’s clear that Obama will pass a bill.

Fourth, Republicans become resigned their loss and try to get some of what they want into the bill.

Fifth, Republicans accept Obama’s health reform and turn their attention elsewhere.