Dark Matter of the Mind

The past half year has been spent in anticipation. Daniel Everett has a new book that finally came out the other day: Dark Matter of the Mind. I was so curious to read it because Everett is the newest and most well known challenger to mainstream linguistics theory. This is only an interest to me because it so happens to directly touch upon every aspect of our humanity: human nature (vs nurture), self-identity, consciousness, cognition, perception, behavior, culture, philosophy, etc.

The leading opponent to Everett’s theory is Noam Chomsky, a well-known and well-respected public intellectual. Chomsky is the founder of the so-called cognitive revolution — not that Everett sees it as all that revolutionary: “it was not a revolution in any sense, however popular that narrative has become” (Kindle Location 306). That brings into the conflict issues of personality, academia, politics, and funding. It’s two paradigms clashing, one of the paradigms having been dominant for more than a half century.

Now that I’ve been reading the book, I find my response to be mixed. Everett is running headlong into difficult terrain and I must admit he does so competently. He is doing the tough scholarly work that needs to be done. As Bill Benzon explained (at 3 Quarks Daily):

“While the intellectual world is rife with specialized argumentation arrayed around culture and associated concepts (nature, nurture, instinct, learning) these concepts themselves do not have well-defined technical meanings. In fact, I often feel they are destined to go the way of phlogiston, except that, alas, we’ve not yet discovered the oxygen that will allow us to replace them [4]. These concepts are foundational, but the foundation is crumbling. Everett is attempting to clear away the rubble and start anew on cleared ground. That’s what dark matter is, the cleared ground that becomes visible once the rubble has been pushed to the side. Just what we’ll build on it, and how, that’s another question.”

This explanation points to a fundamental problem, if we are to consider it a problem. Earlier in the piece, Benzon wrote that, “OK, I get it, I think, you say, but this dark matter stuff is so vague and metaphorical. You’re right. And it remains that way to the end of the book. And that, I suppose, is my major criticism, though it’s a minor one. “Dark matter” does a lot of conceptual work for Everett, but he discusses it indirectly.” Basically, Everett struggles with a limited framework of terminology and concepts. But that isn’t entirely his fault. It’s not exactly new territory that Everett discovered, just not yet fully explored and mapped out. The main thing he did, in his earliest work, was to bring up evidence that simply did not fit into prevailing theories. And now in a book like this he is trying to make sense of what that evidence indicates and what theory better explains it.

It would have been useful if Everett had been able to give a fuller survey of the relevant scholarship. But if he had, it would have been a larger and more academic book. It is already difficult enough for most readers not familiar with the topic. Besides, I suspect that Everett was pushing against the boundaries of his own knowledge and readings. It was easy for me to see everything that was left out, in relation to numerous other fields beyond his focus of linguistics and anthropology — such as: neurocognitive research, consciousness studies, classical studies of ancient texts, voice-hearing and mental health, etc.

The book sometimes felt like reinventing the wheel. Everett’s expertise is in linguistics, and apparently that has has been an insular field of study defended by a powerful and entrenched academic establishment. My sense is that linguistics is far behind in development, compared to many other fields. The paradigm shift that is just now happening in linguistics has been for decades creating seismic shifts elsewhere in academia. Some argue that this is because linguistics became enmeshed in Pentagon-funded computer research and so has had a hard time disentangling itself in order to become an independent field once again. Chomsky as leader of the cognitive revolution has effectively dissuaded a generation of linguists from doing social science, instead promoting the hard sciences, a problematic position to hold about a rather soft field like linguistics. As anthropologist Chris Knight explains it, in Decoding Chomsky (Chapter 1):

“[O]ne bedrock assumption underlies his work. If you want to be a scientist, Chomsky advises, restrict your efforts to natural science. Social science is mostly fraud. In fact, there is no such thing as social science.[49] As Chomsky asks: ‘Is there anything in the social sciences that even merits the term “theory”? That is, some explanatory system involving hidden structures with non-trivial principles that provide understanding of phenomena? If so, I’ve missed it.’[50]

“So how is it that Chomsky himself is able to break the mould? What special factor permits him to develop insights which do merit the term ‘theory’? In his view, ‘the area of human language . . . is one of the very few areas of complex human functioning’ in which theoretical work is possible.[51] The explanation is simple: language as he defines it is neither social nor cultural, but purely individual and natural. Provided you acknowledge this, you can develop theories about hidden structures – proceeding as in any other natural science. Whatever else has changed over the years, this fundamental assumption has not.”

This makes Everett’s job harder than it should be, in breaking new ground in linguistics and in trying to connect it to the work already done elsewhere, most often in the social sciences. As humans are complex social animals living in a complex world, it is bizarre and plain counterproductive to study humans in the way one studies a hard science like geology. Humans aren’t isolated biological computers that can operate outside of the larger context of specific cultures and environments. But Chomsky simply assumes all of that is irrelevant on principle. Field research of actual functioning languages, as Everett has done, can be dismissed because it is mere social science. One can sense how difficult it is for Everett in struggling against this dominant paradigm.

Still, even with these limitations of the linguistics field, the book remains a more than worthy read. His using Plato and Aristotle to frame the issue was helpful to an extent, although it also added another variety of limitation. I got a better sense of the conflict of worldviews and how they relate to the larger history of ideas. But in doing so, I became more aware of the problems of that frame, very closely related to the problems of the nature vs nurture debate (for, in reality, nature and nurture are inseparable). He describes linguistic theoreticians like Chomsky as being in the Platonic school of thought. Chomsky surely would agree, as he has already made that connection in his own writings, what he discusses as Plato’s problem and Plato’s answer. Chomsky’s universal grammar are Platonic in nature, for as he has written such “knowledge is ‘remembered’” (“Linguistics, a personal view” from The Chomskyan Turn). This is Plato’s ananmesis and alethia, an unforgetting of what is true, based on the belief that humans are born with certain kinds of innate knowledge.

That is interesting to think about. But in the end I felt that something was being oversimplified or entirely left out. Everett is arguing against nativism, that there is an inborn predetermined human nature. It’s not so much that he is arguing for a blank slate as he is trying to explain the immense diversity and potential that exists across cultures. But the duality of nativism vs non-nativism lacks the nuance to wrestle down complex realities.

I’m sympathetic to Everett’s view and to his criticisms of the nativist view. But there are cross-cultural patterns that need to be made sense of, even with the exceptions that deviate from those patterns. Dismissing evidence is never satisfying. Along with Chomsky, he throws in the likes of Carl Jung. But the difference between Chomsky and Jung is that the former is an academic devoted to pure theory unsullied by field research while the latter was a practicing psychotherapist who began with the particulars of individual cases. Everett is arguing for a focus on the particulars, upon which to build theory, but that is what Jung did. The criticisms of Chomsky can’t be shifted over to Jung, no matter what one thinks of Jung’s theories.

Part of the problem is that the kind of evidence Jung dealt with remains to be explained. It’s simply a fact that certain repeating patterns are found in human experience, across place and time. That is evidence to be considered, not dismissed, however one wishes to interpret it. Not even most respectable nativist thinkers want to confront this kind of evidence that challenges conventional understandings on all sides. Maybe Jungian theories of archetypes, personality types, etc are incorrect. But how do we study and test such things, going from direct observation to scientific research? And how is the frame of nativism/non-nativism helpful at all?

Maybe there are patterns, not unlike gravity and other natural laws, that are simply native to the world humans inhabit and so might not be entirely or at all native to the human mind, which is to say not in the way that Chomsky makes nativist claims about universal grammar. Rather, these patterns would be native to to humans in the way and to the extent humans are native to the world. This could be made to fit into Everett’s own theorizing, as he is attempting to situate the human within larger contexts of culture, environment, and such.

Consider an example from psychedelic studies. It has been found that people under the influence of particular psychedelics often have similar experiences. This is why shamanic cultures speak of psychedelic plants as having spirits that reside within or are expressed through them.

Let me be more specific. DMT is the most common psychedelic in the world, it being found in numerous plants and even is produced in small quantities by the human brain. It’s an example of interspecies co-evolution, plants and humans having chemicals in common. Plants are chemistry factories and they use chemicals for various purposes, including communication with other plants (e.g., chemically telling nearby plants that something is nibbling on its leaves and so put up your chemical defenses) and communicating with non-plants (e.g., sending out bitter chemicals to help inform the nibbler that they might want to eat elsewhere). Animals didn’t just co-evolve with edible plants but also psychedelic plants. And humans aren’t the only species to imbibe. Maybe chemicals like DMT serve a purpose. And maybe there is a reason so many humans tripping on DMT experience what some describe as self-replicating machine elves or self-transforming fractal elves. Humans have been tripping on DMT for longer than civilization has existed.

DMT is far from being the only psychedelic plant like this. It’s just one of the more common. The reason plant psychedelics do what they do to our brains is because our brains were shaped by evolution to interact with chemicals like this. These chemicals almost seem designed for animal brains, especially DMT which our own brains produce.

That brings up some issues about the whole nativism/non-nativism conflict. Is a common experience many humans have with a psychedelic plant native to humans, native to the plant, or native to the inter-species relationship between human and plant? Where do the machine/fractal elves live, in the plant or in our brain? My tendency is to say that they in some sense ‘exist’ in the relationship between plants and humans, an experiential expression of that relationship, as immaterial and ephemeral as the love felt by two humans. These weird psychedelic beings are a plant-human hybrid, a shared creation of our shared evolution. They are native to our humanity to the extent that we are native to the ecosystems we share with those psychedelic plants.

Other areas of human experience lead down similar strange avenues. Take as another example the observations of Jacques Vallée. When he was a practicing astronomer, he became interested in UFOs as some of his fellow astronomers would destroy rather than investigate anomalous observational data. This led him to look into the UFO field and that led to his studying those claiming alien abduction experiences. What he noted was that the stories told were quite similar to fairy abduction folktales and shamanic accounts of initiation. There seemed to be a shared pattern of experience that was interpreted differently according to culture but that in a large number of cases the basic pattern held.

Or take yet another example. Judith Weissman has noted patterns among the stated experiences of voice-hearers. Another researcher on voice-hearing, Tanya Luhrmann, has studied how voice-hearing both has commonalities and differences across cultures. John Geiger has shown how common voice-hearing can be, even if for most people it is usually only elicited during times of stress. Based on this and the work of others, it is obvious that voice-hearing is a normal capacity existing within all humans. It is actually quite common among children and some theorize it was more common for adults in other societies. Is pointing out the surprisingly common experience of voice-hearing an argument for nativism?

These aspects of our humanity are plain weird. It was the kind of thing that always fascinated Jung. But what do we do with such evidence? It doesn’t prove a universal human nature that is inborn and predetermined. Not everyone has these experiences. But it appears everyone is capable of having these experiences.

This is where mainstream thinking in the field of linguistics shows its limitations. Going by Everett’s descriptions of the Pirahã, it seems likely that voice-hearing is common among them, although they wouldn’t interpret it that way. For them, voice-hearing appears to manifest as full possession and what, to Western outsiders, seems like a shared state of dissociation. It’s odd that as a linguist it didn’t occur to Everett to study the way of speaking of those who were possessed or to think more deeply about the experiential significance of the use of language indicating dissociation. Maybe it was too far outside of his own cultural biases, the same cultural biases that causes many Western voice-hearers to be medicated and institutionalized.

And if we’re going to talk about voice-hearing, we have to bring up Julian Jaynes. Everett probably doesn’t realize it, but his views seem to be in line with the bicameral theory or at least not in explicit contradiction with it on conceptual grounds. He seems to be coming out of the cultural school of thought within anthropology, the same influence on Jaynes. It is precisely Everett’s anthropological field research that distinguishes him from a theoretical linguist like Chomsky who has never formally studied any foreign language nor gone out into the field to test his theories. It was from studying the Pirahã firsthand over many years that the power of culture was impressed upon him. Maybe that is a commonality with Jaynes who began his career doing scientific research, not theorizing.

As I was reading the book, I kept being reminded of Jaynes, despite Everett never mentioning him or related thinkers. It’s largely how he talks about individuals situated in a world and worldview, along with his mentioning of Bordieu’s habitus. This fits into his emphasis on the culture and nurture side of influences, arguing that people (and languages) are products of their environments. Also, when Everett wrote that his view was there is “nothing to an individual but one’s body” (Kindle Location 328), it occurred to me how this fit into the proposed experience of hypothetical ancient bicameral humans. My thought was confirmed when he stated that his own understanding was most in line with the Buddhist anatnam, ‘non-self’. Just a week ago, I wrote the following in reference to Jaynes’ bicameral theory:

“We modern Westerners identify ourselves with our thoughts, the internalized voice of egoic consciousness. And we see this as the greatest prize of civilization, the hard-won rights and freedoms of the heroic individual. It’s the story we tell. But in other societies, such as in the East, there are traditions that teach the self is distinct from thought. From the Buddhist perspective of dependent (co-)origination, it is a much less radical notion that the self arises out of thought, instead of the other way around, and that thought itself simply arises. A Buddhist would have a much easier time intuitively grasping the theory of bicameralism, that thoughts are greater than and precede the self.”

Jaynes considered self-consciousness and self-identity to be products of thought, rather than the other way around. Like Everett, this is an argument against the old Western belief in a human soul that is eternal and immortal, that Platonically precedes individual corporality. But notions like Chomsky’s universal grammar feel like an attempt to revamp the soul for a scientific era, a universal human nature that precedes any individual, a soul as the spark of God and the divine expressed as a language imprinted on the soul. If I must believe in something existing within me that pre-exists me, then I’d rather go with alien-fairy-elves hiding out in the tangled undergrowth of my neurons.

Anyway, how might Everett’s views of nativism/non-nativism been different if he had been more familiar with the work of these other researchers and thinkers? The problem is that the nativism/non-nativism framework is itself culturally biased. It’s related to the problem of anthropologists who try to test the color perception of other cultures using tests that are based on Western color perception. Everett’s observations of the Pirahã, by the way, have also challenged that field of study — as he has made the claim that the Pirahã have no color terms and no particular use in discriminating colors. That deals with the relationship of language to cognition and perception. Does language limit our minds? If so, how and to what extent? If not, are we to assume that such things as ‘colors’ are native to how the human brain functions? Would an individual born into and raised in a completely dark room still ‘see’ colors in their mind’s eye?

Maybe the fractal elves produce the colors, consuming the DMT and defecating rainbows. Maybe the alien-fairies abduct us in our sleep and use advanced technology to implant the colors into our brains. Maybe without the fractal elves and alien-fairies, we would finally all be colorblind and our society would be free from racism. Just some alternative theories to consider.

Talking about cultural biases, I was fascinated by some of the details he threw out about the Pirahã, the tribe he had spent the most years studying. He wrote that (Kindle Locations 147-148), “Looking back, I can identify many of the hidden problems it took me years to recognize, problems based in contrasting sets of tacit assumptions held by the Pirahãs and me.” He then lists some of the tacit assumptions held by these people he came to know.

They don’t appear to have any concepts, language, or interest in God or gods, in religion, or anything spiritual/supernatural that wasn’t personally experienced by them or someone they personally know. Their language is very direct and precise about all experience and the source of claims. But they don’t feel like they’re spiritually lost or somehow lacking anything. In fact, Everett describes them as being extremely happy and easygoing, except on the rare occasion when a trader gives them alcohol.

They don’t have any concern or fear about nor do they seek out and talk about death, the dead, ancestral spirits, or the afterlife. They apparently are entirely focused on present experience. They don’t speculate, worry, or even have curiosity about what is outside their experience. Foreign cultures are irrelevant to them, this being an indifference and not hatred of foreigners. It’s just that foreign cultures is thought of as good for foreigners, as Pirahã culture is good for Pirahã. Generally, they seem to lack the standard anxiety that is typical of our society, despite living in and walking around barefoot in one of the most dangerous environments on the planet surrounded by poisonous and deadly creatures. It’s actually malaria that tends to cut their lives short. But they don’t much comparison in thinking that their lives are cut short.

Their society is based on personal relationships and “do not like for any individual to tell another individual how to live” (Kindle Locations 149-150). They don’t have governments or, as far as I know, governing councils. They don’t practice social coercion, community-mandated punishments, and enforced norms. They are very small tribe living in isolation with a way of life that has likely remained basically the same for millennia. Their culture and lifestyle is well-adapted to their environmental niche, and so they don’t tend to encounter many new problems that require them to act differently than in the past. They also don’t practice or comprehend incarceration, torture, capital punishment, mass war, genocide, etc. It’s not that violence never happens in their society, but I get the sense that it’s rare.

In the early years of life, infants and young toddlers live in near constant proximity to their mothers and other adults. They are given near ownership rights of their mothers’ bodies, freely suckling whenever they want without asking permission or being denied. But once weaned, Pirahã are the opposite of coddled. Their mothers simply cut them off from their bodies and the toddlers go through a tantrum period that is ignored by adults. They learn from experience and get little supervision in the process. They quickly become extremely knowledgeable and capable about living in and navigating the world around them. The parents have little fear about their children and it seems to be well-founded, as the children prove themselves able to easily learn self-sufficiency and a willingness to contribute. It reminded me of Jean Liedloff’s continuum concept.

Then, once they become teenagers, they don’t go through a rebellious phase. It seems a smooth transition into adulthood. As he described it in his first book (Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes, p. 99-100):

“I did not see Pirahã teenagers moping, sleeping in late, refusing to accept responsibility for their own actions, or trying out what they considered to be radically new approaches to life. They in fact are highly productive and conformist members of their community in the Pirahã sense of productivity (good fishermen, contributing generally to the security, food needs, and o ther aspects of the physical survival of the community). One gets no sense of teenage angst, depression, or insecurity among the Pirahã youth. They do not seem to be searching for answers. They have them. And new questions rarely arise.

“Of course, this homeostasis can stifle creativity and individuality, two important Western values. If one considers cultural evolution to be a good thing, then this may not be something to emulate, since cultural evolution likely requires conflict, angst, and challenge. But if your life is unthreatened (so far as you know) and everyone in your society is satisfied, why would you desire change? How could things be improved? Especially if the outsiders you came into contact with seemed more irritable and less satisfied with life than you. I asked the Pirahãs once during my early missionary years if they knew why I was there. “You are here because this is a beautiful place. The water is pretty. There are good things to eat here. The Pirahãs are nice people.” That was and is the Pirahãs’ perspective. Life is good. Their upbringing, everyone learning early on to pull their own weight, produces a society of satisfied members. That is hard to argue against.”

The most strange and even shocking aspect of Pirahã life is their sexuality. Kids quickly learn about sex. It’s not that people have sex out in the open. But it’s a lifestyle that provides limited privacy. Sexual activity isn’t considered a mere adult activity and children aren’t protected from it. Quite the opposite (Kindle Locations 2736-2745):

“Sexual behavior is another behavior distinguishing Pirahãs from most middle-class Westerners early on. A young Pirahã girl of about five years came up to me once many years ago as I was working and made crude sexual gestures, holding her genitalia and thrusting them at me repeatedly, laughing hysterically the whole time. The people who saw this behavior gave no sign that they were bothered. Just child behavior, like picking your nose or farting. Not worth commenting about.

“But the lesson is not that a child acted in a way that a Western adult might find vulgar. Rather, the lesson, as I looked into this, is that Pirahã children learn a lot more about sex early on, by observation, than most American children. Moreover, their acquisition of carnal knowledge early on is not limited to observation. A man once introduced me to a nine- or ten-year-old girl and presented her as his wife. “But just to play,” he quickly added. Pirahã young people begin to engage sexually, though apparently not in full intercourse, from early on. Touching and being touched seem to be common for Pirahã boys and girls from about seven years of age on. They are all sexually active by puberty, with older men and women frequently initiating younger girls and boys, respectively. There is no evidence that the children then or as adults find this pedophilia the least bit traumatic.”

This seems plain wrong to most Westerners. Then again, to the Pirahã, much of what Westerners do would seem plain wrong or simply incomprehensible. Which is worse, Pirahã pedophilia or Western mass violence and systematic oppression?

What is most odd is that, like death for adults, sexuality for children isn’t considered a traumatizing experience and they don’t act traumatized. It’s apparently not part of their culture to be traumatized. They aren’t a society based on and enmeshed in a worldview of violence, fear, and anxiety. That isn’t how they think about any aspect of their lifeworld. I would assume that, like most tribal people, they don’t have high rates of depression and other mental illnesses. Everett pointed out that in the thirty years he knew the Pirahã there never was a suicide. And when he told them about his stepmother killing herself, they burst out in laughter because it made absolutely no sense to them that someone would take their own life.

That demonstrates the power of culture, environment, and lifestyle. According to Everett, it also demonstrates the power of language, inseparable from the society that shapes and is shaped by it, and demonstrates how little we understand the dark matter of the mind.

* * *

The Amazon’s Pirahã People’s Secret to Happiness: Never Talk of the Past or Future
by Dominique Godrèche, Indian Country

Being Pirahã Means Never Having to Say You’re Sorry
by Christopher Ryan, Psychology Today

The Myth of Teenage Rebellion
by Suzanne Calulu, Patheos

The Suicide Paradox: Full Transcript
from Freakonomics

The Chomsky Problem

Somehow I’ve ended up reading books on linguistics.

It started years ago with my reading books by such thinkers as E. R. Dodds and Julian Jaynes. Their main focus was on language usage of the ancient world. For entirely different reasons, I ended up interested in Daniel L. Everett who became famous for his study of the Piraha, an Amazonian tribe with a unique culture and language. A major figure I have had an interest in for a long time, Noam Chomsky, is also in the linguistics field, but I had never previously been interested in his linguistic writings.

It turns out that Everett and Chomsky are on two sides of the central debate within linguistics. That debate has overshadowed all other issues in the field since what is known as the cognitive revolution. I was peripherally aware of this, but some recent books have forced me to try to make sense of it. Two books I read, though, come at the debate from an entirely different angle.

The first book I read isn’t one I’d recommend. It is The Kingdom of Speech by Tom Wolfe. I’ve never looked at much of his writings, despite having seen his books around for decades. The only prior book I even opened was The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, a catchy title if there ever was one. Maybe he is getting old enough that he isn’t as great of a writer as he once was. I don’t know. This latest publication wasn’t that impressive, even as I think I understood and agreed with the central conclusion of his argument posed as a confused angry rant.

It’s possible that such a book might serve a purpose, if reading it led one to read better books on the topic. Tom Wolfe does have a journalistic flair about him that makes the debate seem entertaining to those who might otherwise find it boring — a melodramatic clashing of minds and ideas, sometimes a battle of wills with charisma winning the day. His portrayal of Chomsky definitely gets one thinking, but I wasn’t quite sure what to think of it. Fortunately, another book by an entirely different kind of author, Chris Knight’s Decoding Chomsky, takes on a similar understanding to Chomsky’s linguistics career and does so with more scholarly care.

Both books helped me put my finger on something that has been bothering me about Chomsky. Like Knight, I highly respect Chomsky’s political activism and his being a voice for truth and justice. Yet there was a disconnect I sensed. I remember being disappointed by a video I saw of him being asked by someone about what should be done and his response was that he couldn’t tell anyone what to do and that everyone had to figure it out for themself. The problem is that no one has ever figured out any major problem by themselves in all of human existence. Chomsky knows full well the challenges we face and still, when push comes to shove, the best he has to offer is to tell people to vote for the Democratic presidential candidate once again. That is plain depressing.

Knight gives one possible explanation for why that disconnection exists and why it matters. It’s not just a disconnection. After reading Knight’s book, I came to the conclusion that there is a dissociation involved, a near complete divide within Chomsky’s psyche. Because of his career and his activism, he felt compelled to split himself in two. He admits that this is what he has done and states that he has a remarkable talent in being able to do so, but he doesn’t seem grasp the potentially severe consequences. Knight shows that Chomsky should understand this, as it relates to key social problems Chomsky has written about involving the disconnect of the knowing mind — between what we know, what we think we know, what don’t know, and what we don’t know we know. It relates to what Knight discussion of Orwell’s problem and Plato’s problem:

He shows no appetite for dwelling on contradictions: ‘Plato’s problem . . . is to explain how we know so much, given that the evidence available to us is so sparse. Orwell’s problem is to explain why we know and understand so little, even though the evidence available to us is so rich.’[36]

How do we know so little? That’s Orwell’s problem. How do we know so much? That’s Plato’s. Chomsky makes no attempt to reconcile these two problems, leaving the contradiction between their flatly opposed assumptions unresolved. Which problem is chosen depends on who is speaking, whether activist or scientist. Chomsky’s ‘two problems’ seem not only different but utterly unconnected with one another, as if to deliberately illustrate the gulf between the two compartments of his brain.

I’m not sure I fully understand what this division is and what the fundamental issue might be. I do sense how this goes far beyond Chomsky and linguistics. Knight points out that this kind of splitting is common in academia. I’d go further. It is common throughout our society.

Dissociation is not an unusual response, but when taken to extremes the results can be problematic. An even more extreme example than that of Chomsky, as used by Derrick Jensen, is the Nazi doctors who experimented on children and then went home to play with their own children. The two parts of their lives never crossed, neither in their experience nor in their minds. This is something most people learn to do, if never to such a demented degree. Our lives become splintered in endless ways, a near inevitability in such a large complex society as this. Our society maybe couldn’t operate without such dissociation, a possibility that concerns me.

This brings my mind back around to the more basic problem of linguistics itself. What is linguistics a study of and what is the purpose toward what end? That relates to a point Knight makes, arguing that Chomsky has split theory from meaning, science from humanity. Between the Pentagon-funded researcher and the anti-Pentagon anarchist, the twain shall never meet. Two people live in Chomsky’s mind and they are fundamentally opposed, according to Knight. Maybe there is something to this.

Considering the larger-than-life impact Chomsky has had on the linguistics field, what does this mean for our understanding of our own humanity? Why has the Pentagon backed Chomsky’s side and what do they get for their money?

Re: The Roaming Noam by R.M. Price

http://www.robertmprice.mindvendor.com/zblog/2011/09/the-roaming-noam/

Come on, Mr. Price. I expect more from you. I normally respect your ability to analyze, but this is weak sauce. The problem with this essay is that it’s obvious that you know almost nothing about either anarchism or Chomsky. Your arguments here are so simplistic as to almost be entirely meaningless.

“Yet I can’t help thinking he is seeing a conspiracy where none exists. He is an anarcho-syndicalist and therefore despises any form of government (and all give plenty of reasons to do so!), and this is inevitably going to mean he is going to barrage them with criticism no matter what they do, for existing at all.”

Chomsky backs every single fucking claim with endless cited facts. That is the precise reason he is so impressive. The same reason that impresses me about you in terms of biblical criticism is what impresses me about Chomsky’s views on politics. The guy knows in vast detail what he is talking about. Chomsky never theorizes in the abstract. He is almost boring in his absolute dependence on often tediously careful explanation of facts. Chomsky’s brain is a virtual library of historical and political facts.

No, he won’t criticize the government no matter what they do. Only someone completely ignorant of Chomsky’s political views could make that statement. He isn’t an anti-statist in the way some anarchists are, especially anarchists on the right. In fact, I’ve heard anarchists on the right claim he isn’t an anarchist because he doesn’t advocate the absolute and immediate revolutionary abolishment of the state. Chomsky is a gradualist. He believes the government is necessary in our present situation. He thinks that social democracy, especially democratic processes and institutions, needs to be strengthened first. After that happens, he thinks people can begin to experiment with alternatives. The more our government can be made into a democracy then the closer we as a people can move toward implementing direct democracy. Ultimately, that is all that anarchism means: direct democracy, i.e., active civic participation of all citizens within their communities (and workers within their places of work).

“He aims his thunderbolts from an empty heaven of pure theory that is never sullied by no-win situations and lesser evils. He does not propose an alternative type of government, but merely wishes there were a vacuum, and he would try to prevent human nature from filling it, as it did in the beginning and would do again.”

It’s almost as if you are describing someone who is the complete opposite of Chomsky. It’s true that Chomsky doesn’t propose a single alternative to our present government. If he did so, he wouldn’t be an anarchist. The very core idea of anarchism (or, at least, anarchism at its best) is that there is no single solution for all people in all situations. Instead, he proposes many possible alternatives. Read more of or listen more to Chomsky and you’ll learn about some of these alternatives he has proposed. He talks, for example, about anarcho-syndicalism and worker-controlled factories which is an alternative that has been successfully implemented in different places.

Anyway, as another commenter pointed out, arguments based on ‘human nature’ tend just to be projections and rationalizations. I would, however, not dismiss all such arguments. It’s just I would only trust arguments about human nature that are based on a very detailed analysis of all available research on psychology, sociology and anthropology (such as Fukuyama’s ‘The Origins of Political Order’). Anarchists’ argument against state governments is based on the fact that humans have spent most of their evolution in conditions that didn’t involve state governments, i.e., state governments aren’t the natural environment in which human nature evolved. Just because humans can be forced to submit to state governments by destroying all other alternatives isn’t a very good argument for it being ‘human nature’.

“I found it remarkable that Chomsky admitted both that this is the freest society in the world and that it had been necessary to sacrifice that freedom temporarily to survive during WW2. Doesn’t that tell him anything? Like maybe that government isn’t necessarily so bad? And that occasional control over human behavior (which is what any government is, after all) isn’t necessary only when Hitler looms?”

You’re setting up a very strange double standard. If you perceive Chomsky as having not considered the complexity of human society, he is righteously judging from an attitude of abstract theory. And if you perceive him as admitting to the complexity of human society, he is wrong because you perceive he has hypocritically betrayed his supposedly pure theory position. Chomsky can’t win for losing.

As I said, Chomsky is a gradualist. He accepts that our present society isn’t perfect. So, he understands that imperfect solutions are required as we move toward better solutions. If someone attacks you, then sure defend yourself. But once the immediate threat is taken care of, then try to change the situation that created and/or allowed the threat to happen. The problems caused by state governments sometimes have to be taken care of by state governments, but that isn’t in anyway a justification for why state governments are supposedly a good thing and why they should continue indefinitely.

“I loved what Chomsky said about the Superbowl and other popular idiotic entertainments, how they are mere distractions to give the cows some cud to chew on instead of thinking about anything important. And yet I think Dostoyevsky rings truer: people want such bread and circuses, because they shun the burden of real thought, responsibility, and decision. There is not some secret cabal that keeps them hypnotized. No such thing is necessary (alas!).”

You didn’t present any real argument here. I suppose from an anarchist view that a society is healthier when people play sports rather than watch others play. This is similar to how anarchists think it’s better to democratically make our own decisions than to watch other people make decisions for us, better to participate in politics than watch politics as if it were a spectator sport. All societies have sports, but not all societies have spectator sports. Most societies throughout history, in fact, had participatory sports rather than spectator sports.

So, it’s not about bread and circus. The theory of bread and circus was invented by the Romans. The Romans only needed to do that because they had an oppressive military empire which required a submissive population. Societies that don’t require submissive populations also don’t require bread and circus. This isn’t an issue about people shunning burdens. If you give people freedom to make their own choices, most people are glad to make their own choices. But if you oppress and propagandize people enough (along with bread and circus), you can make them passively accept your making decisions for them. It comes down to a choice of authoritarian rule of an elite or democratic participation of all. You apparently prefer the former and Chomsky the latter. I agree with Chomsky’s preference.

“My guess is rather that the choice of news has more to do with the Family Feud model–what do the average viewers want to hear about? Surely that is the reason there is time wasted with sports “news” daily. In other words, I suspect a lot of what Chomsky attacks comes from the ground up, from the grassroots, not from the top down. And that is far more depressing.”

Your argument fails because it is based on a guess rather than on evidence. Anyone who has studied the mainstream media in any detail knows that it doesn’t operate on grassroots bottom-up model. All you have to do is compare public opinion to what is seen on mainstream media.

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2010/01/23/us-demographics-increasing-progressivism/

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2010/04/04/black-and-white-and-read-all-over/

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2011/06/07/npr-liberal-bias/

“Conspiracy theories are the most optimistic theories around! They centralize and simplify our problems. They are demythologized versions of the Christian belief in Satan. […} The problem is much more complex than that, and so is any possible solution. Same thing with secular conspiracy theories. They are imaginative schemes to find a scapegoat with a single face. They tend to absolve us of collective guilt and the complicity of our institutions as a whole. If you blame the Ku Klux Klan for our race problems, you are avoiding the much, much larger problems of institutional racism. (Not that the KKK deserves any mercy or even patience!)”

The problem is you haven’t even begun to understand the complexity of Chomsky’s position. You criticized him for not having a simple alternative solution and now you criticize him because you think he does have a simple answer. It’s that strange double standard again.

Chomsky doesn’t need to imagine any schemes or scapegoats. Everything he talks about is backed up with facts which is more than can be said about your arguments here. Chomsky is doing the complete opposite of trying to absolve us of collective guilt and complicity of our institutions as a whole. It’s you who have defended such institutions against Chomsky’s criticisms. As for collective guilt, you’ve proposed that society always is or should be run by a ruling elite. How can there be collective guilt if the average person is just a sheep going with the herd? Dealing with collective guilt would require individuals to take responsibility in their participation in society, a possibility that you consider impossible or undesirable.

Chomsky is the type of person who sees there is plenty of blame to go around. He would blame the KKK, institutional racism, and all the rest of society as well (including himself and everyone else). But he would make sure that any blame given is based on actual evidence of responsibility. Chomsky has absolutely no desire to blame just for the sake of seeking a scapegoat.

“You might wonder what Noam Chomsky thinks about 9/11. Surprisingly, he does not believe there is anything to the conspiracy theories. But this turns out to be the exception that proves the rule, since he suspects the Bush administration purposely fueled such conspiracy theories in order to distract the public from other nefarious actions the administration was performing! Nevertheless, the “Truther” movement seems Chomsky-esque to me.”

It would seem you are being paranoid in seeing conspiracy theories where there are none. Presidential administrations that use conflict to distract the public, you don’t say!?! Surprise, surprise. That isn’t exactly a conspiracy. I think it’s what is called commonsense. Politicians like to distract and manipulate people with rhetoric and emotional persuasion. Why does this common everyday political behavior seem like a conspiracy theory to you?

Chomsky-esque, huh? WTF! You’d first have to know what Chomsky stands for before you could make intelligent claims about what is ‘Chomsky-esque’.

“And it reveals the peculiar perversity of hate-America conspiracy theories. This is one of those rare instances where we do have an actual sinister conspiracy: Al Qaida”

Well, I’d say that your comment reveals the peculiar perversity of love-America ignorance. This demonstrates how simple your political understanding is compared to Chomsky. Chomsky knows more about Al Qaida and the history behind it than you will ever know in your entire life.

“I was interested to hear from Chomsky, in answer to a simple question, that he gets his information about what is really going on in the world, not from the sold-out propaganda mills of the American news media, but rather from newspapers in other countries—which, presumably, are as objective as the day is long. Somehow, though working within societies that are anything but free, whose newspapers are not just de facto but de jure propaganda arms of the controlling juntas, these papers and broadcasts tell the unvarnished truth.”

Now that is just plain beyond stupid. I’ve nearly lost all respect for you at this point. Maybe you should stick to biblical criticism, Lovecraft and comic books.

You really just don’t get it.

Chomsky reads a little bit of everything. He checks out the mainstream media and the alternative media, US media and foreign media. He obsesses over the diversity of journalism in a way that verges on obsessive-compulsive behavior. The reason he reads so much from so many diverse sources is because no single source or single country can be trusted to present the whole truth. That is the fucking point. If you only read US newspapers, you are no better than the French person who only reads French newspapers. It is true, as I understand it, that Chomsky ignores tv reporting because it is so mindlessly superficial and usually empty of information. He prefers reading newspapers and other sources of articles that present more detailed and factual views.

Also, he doesn’t just read all of this. He cuts out the important articles and he files them. He does this every single day and has been doing it for decades, endless files of categorized facts. This is why the guy is able to back up his arguments with so many facts.

“It reminds me of the college freshman who learns just enough anthropology to become convinced of Cultural Relativism, which he construes to mean: everybody is right except for the United States. “My country, wrong or wrong.””

My God, you didn’t actually just compare Chomsky to a college freshman. You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.

Anyway, Chomsky has never *NEVER* claimed that America is always wrong. That is why I appreciate and respect Chomsky. He doesn’t make black/white arguments based on empty speculation and simplistic analysis.

“Don’t get me wrong: I am far from trying to pretend everything is right with America, especially with her government and her policies. Far from it! I am by now pretty cynical. But nobody (e.g., Ron Paul, Pat Buchanan) is going to get me to believe that theocratic, nuke-toting Iran is harmless and that America ought to be spelled with a “k.””

That is fine as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go very far. Chomsky doesn’t argue that Iran is harmless any more than he argues America is always wrong. Did you actually listen to Chomsky or did you just make up all this bullshit after smoking a bunch of pot?

You are free to have your own opinion. However, as I’m fond of saying, you aren’t free to have your own facts. If you’re going to criticize someone like Chomsky who has been writing detailed analyses for decades, you should at least try to understand his basic position before dismissing him.

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.

US: Republic & Democracy (pt 2)

The other day, I wrote a post about the rightwing assertion that the US is a republic and not a democracy (US: Republic & Democracy). The basic confusion is that rightwingers are using a narrow definition of democracy that was used by some of the founding fathers.

“Hence it is that democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and in general have been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths… A republic, by which I mean a government in which a scheme of representation takes place, opens a different prospect and promises the cure for which we are seeking.” (James Madison, Federalist Papers, the McClean Edition, Federalist Paper #10, page 81, 1788)

What the founding fathers meant by republic is what modern scholars mean by representative democracy. When you get right down to it, rightwingers don’t like ‘democracy’ because it shares the same letters in the same order as the ‘Democratic’ party. Anyways, it’s obvious that the founding fathers weren’t arguing against the democratic process of voting and representation. I don’t think most rightwingers are arguing against that either. So, it all comes down to semantics.

There is no inherent conflict between a republic and a democracy. To clarify, here is the Wikipedia definition of a Republic:

republic is a form of government in which the people or some portion thereof retain supreme control over the government,[1][2] and in which the head of government is not a monarch.[3][4] The word “republic” is derived from the Latin phrase res publica, which can be translated as “a public affair”

Both modern and ancient republics vary widely in their ideology and composition. The most common definition of a republic is a state without a monarch.[3][4] In republics such as the United States and France, the executive is legitimized both by a constitutionand by popular suffrage. In the United States, James Madison defined republic in terms of representative democracy as opposed to direct democracy,[5] and this usage is still employed by many viewing themselves as “republicans”.[6] Montesquieu included bothdemocracies, where all the people have a share in rule, and aristocracies or oligarchies, where only some of the people rule, as republican forms of government.[7]

I noticed someone even dedicated a webpage to this issue, titling it: The “Not a Democracy” Gnomes. The author states he has noticed this rhetoric going back to 2000, but I’m sure it goes back further. It’s just the internet (especially in its growth this past decade) has been a useful medium for popularizing and spreading such viral memes. Here is the first point the author makes:

The Gnomes Rely on an Absurdly Narrow Defnition of “Democracy”: as absolute, direct, simple and immediate majoritarian authority on matters of policy. Wonder of wonder, miracle of miracles, they find problems with “democracy” so defined. They then depend on the reader to assume that their narrow definition of democracy matches the much broader common definition of democracy, and that therefore their criticism applies to that broader definition.

That is the same argument I’ve been making. These rightwingers use a definition so narrow that they make it seem ridiculous. Meanwhile, they ignore the long history of democracy in the real world. It reminds me of a conservative I once debated about the meaning of ‘socialism’. It turns out that this person had such a wide definition of ‘socialism’ that it involved all forms of government. Since he was a anti-statist conservative, it was convenient for him to define all state government as socialist. This is a weird way to win an argument, either over-simplifying or over-generalizing the terms of the debate.

Like me, the author goes on to give the actual, rather than imagined, definition of ‘democracy’:

The ridiculous nature of that argument is clear with the knowledge that a republic (the gnomes’ contrast to democracy) is actually itself one variety of democracy. Let’s look at the Oxford Modern English Dictionary definition of the word:

democracy. 1a) a system of government by the whole population, usually through elected representatives. b) a State so governed….

A “republic“, which provides for governance indirectly through elected representatives, is covered as a possibility under this definition.

The definition of “democracy” stretches back much further, of course, to the Greek, in which demos refers to “the people” and “cracy” to rule or authority. The broadest definition of “democracy” is therefore simply “the rule of the people,” the ideal of a citizenry engaged in civic life and enfranchised to take part in some meaningful fashion in politics, the exercise of decision-making in a sphere of authority (see Oxford here as well). Now why would some parties have a problem with this democratic ideal? Any ideas?

And the second point the author makes:

Proponents of democracy recognize it is an ideal. We do not live in a full democracy, since it has not yet been achieved. Especially after the latest election debacle, we’re all too aware of that. But the pursuit of the democratic ideal in the United States is a righteous quest with a long history, involving an ever-broadening emancipation of citizens. It is an overwhelmingly popular quest, and one which, in my opinion, should continue.

The democratic quest requires for its support a thoroughly educated and informed public, a tolerance for the questioning of authority and the spirit of community. For those who are opposed to these conditions and to their ultimate end, sending out the “not a democracy!” gnomes is a pleasant diversion. But the more educated, the more questioning, and the more civic we become, the more clear it is that the gnomes’ verbal minuet is trivial and therefore irrelevant.

I was wondering about the origin of this rightwing ploy to dismiss democracy. It sounds more like rhetoric than an argument. Somehow it’s being spread which makes me think it’s either a talking point in the rightwing media or else some particular group is using it for an agenda. Whatever the origin or motivation, there is certainly a memetic quality about this simple idea.

I suspected that one source would be Glenn Beck or someone like him. I was correct.

That isn’t surprising, but Glenn Beck isn’t the originator. What Beck preaches has been preached before by many others. So, I wasn’t surprised to see a video by the John Birch Society arguing against democracy.

I also shouldn’t have been surprised to see a video making the same argument in an interview by Alex Jones (interviewing Aaron Russo).

I did find it interesting that Milton Friedman was also spreading the same rhetoric.

If I had to guess, it’s probably the John Birch Society (or other similar groups) who have spread this rhetoric the most. The John Birch Society has been around for a very long time. As I recall, Cleon Skousen had some connection to that group. And, of course, people like Glenn Beck have been heavily influenced/inspired by the tradition of thought that includes Skousen and the John Birch Society. It’s the same tradition of thought that included the KKK back when it was a part of respectable society. This tradition of thought includes very specific beliefs and attitudes: patriotic nationalism, anti-immigrant sentiments, traditional family, white culture/supremacy, and Christian fundamentalism. These are the people who argue that America is a Christian nation. Instead of a democratic republic, they’d prefer to have a theocratic republic.

[…] the society we have which remember is not a democratic society and wasn’t intended to be. If you take a course in political theory here, I’m sure they’ll teach you that the United States is not a democracy. It’s what is called, in the technical literature, a polyarchy. […] Polyarchy is a system in which power resides in the hands so those who Madison called the ‘wealth of the nation’, the responsible class of men; and the rest of the population is fragmented, distracted, allowed to participate… every couple of years, they’re allowed to come and say ‘yes, thank you, we want you to continue another four years’ and they have a little choice among the responsible men, the wealth of the nation. That’s the way the country was founded. It was founded on the principle, explained by Madison in the Constitutional Convention, that the primary goal of the government is to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority.

Reading the Wikipedia article on polyarchy, it’s not clear to me why Chomsky makes this distinction between democracy and polyarchy. Apparently, the originator of the term ‘polyarchy’ didn’t define it as excluding ‘democracy’. In fact, polyarchy would seem to be a specific form of representative democracy. As an anarcho-socialist libertarian, I understand that Chomsky would prefer a more direct form of democracy. It’s interesting that, for different reasons than the rightwinger, Chomsky also wants to narrow the definition of democracy. Whatever the reasons for Chomsky’s argument, Gore Vidal makes a similar assessment about the motivations of the founding fathers (On Europe and why the U.S. is not a democracy):

Many of us are descended from Cromwell’s men. That’s how we became to be such vicious Protestants. Well, if you want to see any of the founders, read the federalist papers. Any one of them looks like he’s near apoplexy, he’s about to have a stroke when he’s talking about the people. They hate the people. They want the people out of government. Their idea of bad government is Pericles in Athens. And that’s just, you know, forbidden country for our founders. They were Republicans, and they wanted a republic based on Rome, secretly based on slavery and based on imperial progress elsewhere in the world.

So from the beginning, we’ve been imperial. From the beginning, we’ve missed the whole point of the republican effort to create a republic in this brave new world.

People argue against the US being a democracy for various reasons. Some, on both the far right and far left, argue that the founding fathers didn’t intend democracy. Others might argue against our government being a democracy but that it includes democratic processes. Some counter that the democratic processes are failing or never existed.

Let me give my analysis. I would argue that our political system is either a type of democracy or, if you’d rather not call it a democracy for ideological reasons, it certainly contains democratic processes going back to the beginning of the country. Yes, these are imperfect, but the point is that they exist even if only in minimal form. I would, furthermore, argue that we don’t need to defend our republic against democracy. There are dangers in both republics and democracies, and I think the two systems balance eachother. I truly doubt it would be possible for a republic to exist entirely without any democratic elements and vice versa. Using the general definition of a republic as being other than a monarchy, a direct democracy would be the most extreme form of a republic. A direct democracy can and has existed on the local levels. Many communities have formed based on direct democracy, but a community would have to remain very small to maintain direct democracy. As an absolute ideal, direct democracy is an abstraction (and so is republicanism).

The founding fathers feared both monarchy and direct democracy…. or, to put it another way, a political system where the select elite has most of the power or a political system where the masses have great power. The founding fathers weren’t against the elite having power as they saw themselves as the elite, but they just wanted to guarantee that the power was evenly or meritocrously spread among all of the elite. They intentionally didn’t want to guarantee the average person (non-whites, females, working class, etc) had access to political power. Mostly, power was held by rich, white landowners (plutocracy). They believed in meritocracy and they assumed, as many Republicans do today, that the upper class men have earned or otherwise deserve their power. You have to at least give them credit for believing the idealistic role of disinterested aristorcracy that they saw themselves playing.

The founding fathers were scared of the average person for good reason. The French revolution demonstrated that the average person was a threat to rich people like them. I think similar reasons explain why modern Republicans are also afraid of what average Americans would do if given political power through direct democracy. It’s obvious, of course, why rich, white males continue to fear democracy. Beyond that, whites in general no longer hold the monopoly on political power they once had and whites are quickly losing their majority position. If you’re someone who identifies with being white and/or identifies with ‘white culture’, then democracy is a very real threat to you. Yes, just like you, the founding fathers were white. Many white conservatives like to take credit for what past white people did and claim the problems of society today are the erosion of traditional ‘white culture’. If you’re a conservative white person who fears what is becoming of the country, it is only natural to idealize the founding fathers who were white and idealize early America when whites had absolute power. It’s true that, if it weren’t for democracy, whites would probably still have all the power.

Since the time of the founding fathers, direct democracy has increased. From Republicanisn in the United States:

Over time, the pejorative connotations of “democracy” faded. By the 1830s, democracy was seen as an unmitigated positive and the term “Democratic” was assumed by the Democratic Party and the term “Democrat” was adopted by its members. A common term for the party in the later 19th century was “The Democracy.” In debates on Reconstruction, Senator Charles Sumner argued that the republican “guarantee clause” in Article IV supported the introduction by force of law of democratic suffrage in the defeated South.

As the limitations on democracy were slowly removed, property qualifications for state voters were eliminated (1820s); initiative, referendum, recall and other devices of direct democracy became widely accepted at the state and local level (1910s); and senators were made directly electable by the people (1913).

Women can vote. Non-whites can vote. The working class can vote. Not only can all of these people vote but they can also hold political offices. For our modern standards, a democracy where only rich, white men can vote and be elected doesn’t seem like much of a free society. Even most conservative white males who defend the good ol’ days have to admit that such a state of affairs was far from ideal. But, to be honest, that is exactly what a republic was prior to the increase of direct democracy. Democracy is messy and inefficient. It’s much easier to have a republic without democracy. Most fascist and communist governments are technically republics and many of them even identified themselves as such, but the founding fathers understood that having at least some democracy, however limited, was a good thing even for rich, white males such as themselves.

In conclusion, I’ll let Thom Hartmann have the last word. I’ll share a video where he argues the founding fathers were truly seeking egalitarianism and so were actually betraying their social class . It’s a much more positive vision of America’s beginnings. After the video, is a transcript from Thom Hartmann’s show. He summarizes perfectly the issue of republic vs democracy in American history.

(See here for full video.)

Thom Hartmann’s show, March 29, 2010:

If you want the most technical term, our country is aconstitutionally limited representative democratic republic. Our form of government, the constitution limits the power of government. We elect representatives, so it’s not a pure democracy. But we do elect them by majority rule so it is democratic. And the form of, the infrastructure, the total form of government, is republican, it is a republic.

In the early days of this country, James Madison basically created a distinction that didn’t exist before this, and this was in 1787. The, it used to be, if you look at dictionaries pre 1787, the words democracy and republic were interchangeable. The Roman republic was referred to as a democracy, the Greek democracy was refereed to as a republic. The words were interchanged. And in one of the Federalist papers, and I forget which one it was, I think 14 maybe, but it’s been a long time since I read them, in one of the Federalist papers in an effort to, which were put into the newspapers by Hamilton and Madison, and John Jay wrote a couple of them, to sell the constitution to people, because we were operating under the articles of Confederacy in 1787.

To sell the constitution, Madison created this artificial distinction. And what he said, basically, was that democracy, that we weren’t creating a democracy in the United States, and in a technical sense it is not a pure democracy, because like Greece, you had to have at least 6,001 people show up for a decision to be made. It had to be real majority rule. And so Hamilton, excuse me, Madison made the point that democracy could arguably be considered a form of mob rule, whereas a republic imposed, you know, an infrastructure of laws and prevented mob rule.

Now, what he omitted, intentionally, because he was trying to sell the constitution, he was trying to basically reinvent language, what he omitted was that we democratically elect our representatives. And later in his life, in the 1830s, after his presidency was over, keep in mind this was in the 1770s or 1780s, in the 1830s when he was an old man, when he was writing his memoirs, he came out and said, and there’s a whole, if you go to buzzflash.com and look at my book reviews, the very first book review that I ever did for BuzzFlash, which was like five years ago, it’s the oldest one on the list, is all about this topic, or it has several chapters on this topic. And I forget the title of it now, but it’s a great book and it’s written by a guy who’s a constitutional scholar [“How Democratic Is the American Constitution?” by Robert A. Dahl.] And Madison in 1834 said, you know, after all these years, we can, you can use the words interchangeably. And that was about the time that the Democratic Republican party that Jefferson created dropped the word “republican” from its name. And that was about the time that Madison, who was one of the early founders of the Democratic Republican party started again using the word democracy.

So from the 1830s, so from the founding or in the mid 1780s until the mid 1830s we referred to America as a Republic. From the 1830s until the modern era we referred to it as a democracy, but then when Joe McArthur came along he started, he and some of his advisors, and Karl Rove really got on this big time, said, “wait a minute, calling this a democracy sounds too much like the Democratic Party. We should call it a Republic because that sounds more like the Republican Party.” And so the talking point on right wing radio has been, and Limbaugh’s been pushing this for 20 years now, has been that we don’t live in a democracy, we live in a republic, and that you shouldn;t call it a democracy, it’s a republic. And the reason why is because they like the word republic because it sounds like republican and they hate the word democracy because it sounds like democratic. And … that’s the bottom line, we live in a democratic republic.

– – –

US: Republic & Democracy (pt 3)

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.

Noam Chomsky: An Interview with Barry Pateman

 I always enjoy hearing Chomsky talk on almost any issue. In this interview, Chomsky discusses: anarchism, community, technology, class warfare, wealth transferral, taxation, free market, outsourcing, command economy, totalitarianism, Marxism, neoliberalism, and globalization.



Ye slaves, find yer own ways

Below is a video of Noam Chomsky. I’m simultaneously intersted and irritated by his message. There is a strength in this attitude, but also a weakness.

It’s interesting because the view expressed is so representative of the liberal attitude. A conservative pundit would feel no wariness about telling people how to live their lives. Limbaugh fans proudly call themselves Dittoheads because they see Limbaugh as a hero to be parroted and Limbaugh encourages this Dittohead attitude of his followers, but Chomsky says he doesn’t even tell his kids what they should do.

This is such a simple distinction in how people think and behave. Still, it’s profound in its implications on the societal level. It’s why the apparent hypocrisy of some rightwingers can confuse liberals. To the far right mindset, consistency isn’t necessarily inherent to the system of thought but to the authority or tradition that is the foundation of the system of thought. As such, strange as it seems to liberals, patriotic fervor and secessionist paranoia aren’t mutually exclusive in the minds of many conservatives.

Furthermore, if a rightwinger considers a source of data as not valid according to some principle or dogma (which comes from a source they trust), then it’s dismissed even if it’s accepted by many respectable people in society. For example, climatology research is dismissed because scientists are liberal elites. It’s not that the rightwinger has alternative data of equal weight and merit, but what they do have is a collective mindset that sees the liberal elite as the enemy.

Social conservatives would criticize Chomsky’s attitude as moral relativism. Chomsky is essentially saying that there is more than one way to be in the world, more than one way to understand the world. To the liberal, this means offering someone else respect in the hope of gaining at least mutual tolerance. Chomsky is saying that there are no easy answers, nothing is black and white. Like Michael Moore, Chomsky motivated by a moral sense that makes him resistant to judge others even if he thinks they’re wrong or misinformed. Moore said he would never say he hated Bush and similarly Chomsky chastised his fellow liberals for being critical of Tea Party protesters.

My criticism is that this liberal reticence (and the conservative lack thereof) has often led conservatives to dominate the political and cultural dialogue. On the positive side, liberals prefer more subtle means of communication such as art and entertainment. In the longterm, I do think the liberal method is very effective, but it demands great patience.

Chomsky: Anarchism, Socialism, Libertarianism

Noam Chomsky

Libertarian socialism

Who’s Afraid of Noam Chomsky?

Noam Chomsky, Libertarian Socialist

Libertarians Against Capitalism

The Real Threat: Dialogue between the Left and Right

Transcript of Noam Chomsky on Ron Paul

Chomsky on libertarianism and Murray Rothbard

UNDERSTANDING POWER THE INDISPENSABLE CHOMSKY
Edited by Peter R. Mitchell and John Schoeffel

Beck vs Moore & other examples

I heard Michael Moore interviewed on NPR the other day. It was the best interview of him that I’ve come across. He spoke about his personal life which gave the background for what motivates him. He was raised in a politically active family, but fairly conservative. His grandfather was a Republican politician who taught him the values of conservatism such as conserving the environment. He grew up Catholic and still goes to church. He has been married to the same woman for something like 3 decades. He tries to be a good person and live by the principles that Jesus taught. Moore is one of those social justice Christians that Beck thinks are the worse of the worse.

I bring up Beck for a reason. Beck often uses violence as a theme in his show. One particular example was when he was talking about killing Michael Moore and he wondered if he should kill Moore himself or hire someone. I think that is an extreme statement to make on mainstream tv. Conservatives don’t seem offended by such hate-filled language, but if a liberal said something like that conservatives would go batshit crazy. Moore has never made a statement like that. Moore even said he wouldn’t even say he hated Bush even though he strongly disagreed with him. From Moore’s Christian perspective, hatred and violence aren’t Christian values. Also, he believes religion is a personal matter and shouldn’t be used as a talking point or a wedge issue. Moore chooses to live his values rather than righteously preach down at others.

Moore is considered by rightwingers as the most loony of the leftwingers. So, if Moore is the worst kind of liberal, that is a compliment to liberalism. Compared to the worst kind of conservative, Moore comes off as a moderate. Even if you disagree with Moore’s claims or arguments, at least he doesn’t threaten violence and spout hate speech.

This distinction isn’t limited to Moore and Beck.

There was an interview Buckley did with Chomsky. Buckley threatened to punch Chomsky in the face and it wasn’t the first guest he had threatened in this manner. It’s a rather odd response to have in a televised interview especially with someone like Chomsky who is as cool-headed of an intellectual as you can find. Chomsky is very easygoing and quite understanding of those different from himself. Chomsky even defended Tea Party protesters saying that they shouldn’t be criticized by liberals but instead that liberals should try to understand their perspective. Understand the perspective of someone you disagree with? Why does it take a liberal to point out that sympathetic understanding is better than righteous hatred?

Let me provide two other examples.

Compare Bill O’Reilly and Jon Stewart. Stewart is fairly easygoing although not the intellectual that Chomsky is. Like Chomsky, Stewart doesn’t come off as mean-spirited and always gives people the opportunity to speak and he actually listens to others. O’Reilly, on the other hand, often yells at people, tells them to shut up and talks over them. O’Reilly isn’t always that way, but my point is that he acts that way quite often and Stewart never acts that way. I truly doubt that Stewart has ever told a guest to shut up.

And compare Ann Coulter and Bill Maher. Maher also lets anyone to state their opinion. He has strong opinions, but he doesn’t bludgeon people with them. He for some strange reason even considers Coulter a friend of sorts and has had her on his show. Coulter is very different. She is the most rude and bigoted person I’ve ever seen on mainstream tv. She either intentionally makes offensive statements or she is almost entirely oblivious, but she doesn’t seem stupid enough to be that oblivious.

Obviously, this isn’t limited to the behavior of people on tv. I’ve discussed this topic before and I mentioned the differences between conservative and liberal activists. A clear example are the two sides on the abortion issue. Pro-life activists have committed decades of a wide variety of violence, but I never hear of violence by pro-choice activists. I’m not saying that all conservatives are violent. What I am saying is that the conservative mindset seems to make one more prone to violence. As a contrasting example, I like to bring up the Weather Underground which is considered the most violent liberal activist group in US history. The difference is that the Weather Underground never killed anyone nor tried to kill anyone. In fact, they went out of their way to avoid killing anyone.

Another example is that of guns. Conservatives bring guns to rallies and protests. Liberals don’t. If asked, many liberals support the right to own guns or even carry guns. But, for whatever reason, the threat of violence bothers liberals more… maybe because the violence is typically turned towards liberals. And yet it’s conservatives who feel the most defensive when violence is used against the country.

There are many explanations for why this difference exists. I tend to favor psychological explanations based on personality research, but there are cultural reasons that could be considered as well. Anyways, the reason for this difference isn’t my concern in this post. I was partly just noting the difference as I just heard the interview with Michael Moore. But what ultimately concerns me or rather what makes me wonder is: Why do liberals notice this difference but conservatives don’t? When I’ve seen this brought up with conservatives they tend to explain it away. If a liberal used violence, even liberals would condemn it. But when conservatives use violence, conservatives often will defend it or try to find some kind of rationalized justification. For example, Palin said a conservative who killed some liberals wasn’t a terrorist even though the killing was politically motivated. Even a conservative politician can defend violence and not be held accountable.

As a liberal, I fear violence by American conservatives more than I fear violence by Islamic extremists. And my fear is reasonable. A large percentage of recent acts of violence have been committed by conservatives and often directed at liberals. It’s a fact of life in the US that conservatives are prone to violence. Maybe it’s a fact of life in all countries.