A Story of Walking Away

Back during the early Bush era, American imperialism was rearing its ugly head. I was in a group at the time where I met a guy who would become a close friend. The group read a story by Ursula K. Le Guin. It was “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” a story written a in 1973 which was a couple of years before I was born. Those were the waning days of Nixon’s reign, another dark time right before his fall from power. I had forgotten about Le Guin’s story, until my friend mentioned it the other day. We are once more at a moment of societal angst. And the story remains relevant.

As told by the narrator, there is a utopian world, a supposedly wonderful and perfect society in all ways but one. A single innocent child must suffer alone as the price to be paid for the greater good. “The central idea of this psychomyth,” Le Guin explains in a preface, is “the scapegoat.” In giving the story further thought, my friend suggested: “I considered the central idea could be empire–that some would live very well off the misery of others (only 1 other in the story, but could be any number). Is one basis of empire, scapegoating?” I suspect Le Guin would accept that as a background influence to the central idea, if not the central idea itself. She says the inspiration came from William James (“The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life“):

“Or if the hypothesis were offered us of a world in which Messrs. Fourier’s and Bellamy’s and Morris’s utopias should all be outdone, and millions kept permanently happy on the one simple condition that a certain lost soul on the far‑off edge of things should lead a life of lonely torture, what except a specifical and independent sort of emotion can it be which would make us immediately feel, even though an impulse arose within us to clutch at the happiness so offered, how hideous a thing would be its enjoyment when deliberately accepted as the fruit of such a bargain?”

This story is about the belief in substitutionary sacrifice, a narrative frame that gives meaning and purpose. It has ancient roots and took its present form by way of Judeo-Christian theology. The scapegoat is at the heart of our civilizational project. Ultimately, it’s a form of dark magic. And its power comes from telling a compelling story. But the exact details of the story are a distraction, pointing away from whatever is the real issue.

The real issue, one way or another, is always the social order. To anchor a social order, a story has to be viscerally embodied within collective experience. It’s not enough that someone is sacrificed for it must be known and accepted, must be felt as real and necessary by those within the social order. It makes them complicit and so binds them to the social order. It is a social contract written in blood. Dark magic is blood magic.

Le Guin is using counter-magic by telling her own story. It appears as mere fiction to allow it to slide below our psychological defenses. By doing so, she slips in a seed of potential awareness. The story isn’t about some other place. It is about our own society. The belief in substitutionary sacrifice as having magical power is what makes this kind of society possible, the shining city on a hill of corpses. Imperialism or any such authoritarian regime comes at great costs and those must be rationalized as necessary for the greater good. Le Guin describes that the young people of Omelas, upon learning of the suffering child, are moved by compassion as any good person would be in a good society:

“Their tears at the bitter injustice dry when they begin to perceive the terrible justice of reality, and to accept it. Yet it is their tears and anger, the trying of their generosity and the acceptance of their helplessness, which are perhaps the true source of the splendor of their lives. Theirs is no vapid, irresponsible happiness. They know that they, like the child, are not free. They know compassion. It is the existence of the child, and their knowledge of its existence, that makes possible the nobility of their architecture, the poignancy of their music, the profundity of their science.”

Let me bring this into present realities of our own society. This ritualized suffering of the condemned is why even rich, powerful white men can occasionally be sacrificed in order to maintain the status quo. Anyone can be sacrificed, as long as the system itself is protected and unquestioned. The one thing that can’t be sacrificed is the social order itself.

That is what makes spectacles of publicly shaming individuals a safe outlet, whereas the greater and more pervasive realities of collective victimization must remain unspoken. This is why the overwhelming problems of lead toxicity and pollution, primarily harming poor dark-skinned people, has never led to the same level of moral outrage and media judgment as has the sexual scandals. And this is why those sexual scandals mostly focus on well off white victimizers and well off white victims. Millions of the poor and powerless being harmed far worse would never get the same amount of attention and concern.

Such media spectacle maintains the focus on those in power and privilege, their suffering and their wrongdoing. And so this keeps the public mind locked within the ideological structure of power and privilege. The rest of us are supposed to be spectators sitting silently in the dark as the actors entertain us on the stage. A few people will be sacrificed and then, as a society, we can fall back into unconsciousness. With substitutionary sacrifice, our collective sins once again are atoned for.

The only thing most of us have to do is passively submit to the public ritual. So we watch in silence. And the story being told is burned into our psyche, our soul. To tell a different story, as does Le Guin, is a danger to the world as we know it. And to read such a story threatens to break the magic spell, invoking a state of anxiety and discontent by reminding us that our way of life (and way of death) is and always has been a choice.

We are reminded that there are those who choose to walk away. What they walk away from isn’t only that society but, more importantly, the story of that society. They can only do that by walking toward a different story, even if another society hasn’t yet fully taken form. First, a story has to be told about the walking away:

“At times one of the adolescent girls or boys who go to see the child does not go home to weep or rage, does not, in fact, go home at all. Sometimes also a man or woman much older falls silent for a day or two, and then leaves home. These people go out into the street, and walk down the street alone. They keep walking, and walk straight out of the city of Omelas, through the beautiful gates. They keep walking across the farmlands of Omelas. Each one goes alone, youth or girl, man or woman. Night falls; the traveler must pass down village streets, between the houses with yellow-lit windows, and on out into the darkness of the fields. Each alone, they go west or north, towards the mountains. They go on. They leave Omelas, they walk ahead into the darkness, and they do not come back. The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible that it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.”


A Compelling Story

“A year after that very popular novel came out I read an article summarizing a study about that novel conducted by scholars at a well-known university. The study documented that the vast majority of people who bought and read this popular book believed it was not a novel, but an absolutely true story, though the book was marketed as a work of fiction, and nowhere on or in the book did the publisher or author claim the story was true. The study further reported that when people who loved this book were informed that the story was not true, they reacted with either tremendous anger or enormous disappointment, or both.”

This is Todd Walton discussing an interesting phenomenon, from Know Your Audience. And it is something he has personally experienced with his own fiction writing:

“I became aware of this phenomenon—people believing fiction is true—some years before this mass delusion about a popular novel swept the nation. In those long ago days, I frequently gave public readings of my fiction; and it was during the mid-1980s that more and more people began to experience my stories as true rather than as fiction. In response to this phenomenon, I would preface my reading of each story by declaring that the tale was not autobiographical, not inspired by supposedly true events, and was most definitely a work of fiction.

“Even with this disclaimer, many people in my audiences continued to assume my stories were recollections of things that had really happened to me, regardless of how preposterous that possibility.”

It’s not only that people were adamant about believing his fiction was real. They would get quite upset when told once again that it was fiction, even though they already had this explained to them before the reading. Some of them accused the author of lying to them. And a few left the room in protest.

From a slightly different perspective, here is an anecdote shared by Harlan Ellison:

“He told me– and he said this happened all the time, not just in isolated cases– that he had been approached by a little old woman during one of his personal appearances at a rodeo, and the woman had said to him, dead seriously, “Now listen to me, Hoss: when you go home tonight, I want you to tell your daddy, Ben, to get rid of that Chinee fella who cooks for you all. What you need is to get yourself a good woman in there can cook up some decent food for you and your family.”

“So Dan said to her, very politely (because he was one of the most courteous people I’ve ever met), “Excuse me, ma’am, but my name is Dan Blocker. Hoss is just the character I play. When I go home I’ll be going to my house in Los Angeles and my wife and children will be waiting.”

“And she went right on, just a bit affronted because she knew all that, what was the matter with him, did he think she was simple or something, “Yes, I know… but when you go back to the Ponderosa, you just tell your daddy Ben that I said…”

“For her, fantasy and reality were one and the same.”

I quoted that in a post I wrote about a similarly strange phenomenon. It’s how people are able to know and not know simultaneously (a sub-category of cognitive blindness; related to inattentional blindnesscontextual ignorancehypocognition, and conceptual blindness). With that in mind, maybe some of those people in Walton’s various audiences did know it was fiction, even while another part of them took it as real.

This kind of dissociation is probably more common than we might suspect. The sometimes antagonsitic responses he got could have been more than mere anger at having their perception denied. He was going beyond that in challenging their dissociation, which cuts even deeper into the human psyche. People hold onto their dissociations more powerfully than maybe anything else.

There is another factor as well. We live in a literal-minded age. Truth has become conflated with literalism. When something feels true, many people automatically take it as literal. This is the power of religion and its stories, along with politics and its rhetoric. But some argue that literal-mindedness has increased over time, starting with the Axial Age and becoming a force to be reckoned with in this post-Enlightenment age of scientism and fundamentalism. That is what leads to the black-and-white thinking of something either being literally true or absolutely false (a blatant lie, a frivolous fantasy, etc). Iain McGilchrist describes this as the brain dominance of the left hempisphere’s experience and the suppression of right hemisphere’s emotional nuance and grounded context.

This mindset isn’t just a source of amusing anecdotes. It has real world consequences. The most powerful stories aren’t told by fiction writers or at least not by those openly identifying as such. Rather, the greatest compelling storytellers of our age work in news media and politics. The gatekeepers have immense influence in determining what is real or not in the public mind. This is why there is a battle right now over fake news. It’s a battle among the gatekeepers.

This connects to the smart idiot effect. It’s interesting to note that, according to studies, the least educated are the most aware of the limits of their knowledge and expertise. It requires being well educated to fall into the trap of the smart idiot effect (hence why it is called that). This is the reason media personalities and politicians can be so dangerous, as they are people who talk a bit about everything while often being an expert in nothing or, at best, their expertise being narrowly constrained. This is fertile ground for storytelling. And this is why attention-grabbing politicians like Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump first became famous as media personalities — their being experts only in entertainment and egotism. Those like Reagan and Trump are storytellers who embody the stories they tell. They pretend to be something they are not and their audience-supporters take the pretense for reality.

This is seen in many areas of society but particularly on right-wing media. Interestingly, according to research, it is most clearly evidenced among the most well informed audience members of right-wing media who simultaneously are the most misinformed. The average Fox News viewer does know more factoids than the average American (maybe no great accomplishment), but they also know more falsehoods than the average American. What they don’t know very well is how to differentiate between what is true and not true. To be able to make this differentiation would require they not only be able to memorize factoids but to understand the larger context of knowledge and the deeper understanding of truth — the subltety and nuance provided primarily by the right hemisphere, according to Iain McGilchrist. Otherwise, factoids are simply fodder for talking points. And it leads to much confusion, such as a surprising percentage of conservatives taking seriously Stephen Colbert’s caricature of conservatism. Isn’t that interesting, that many conservatives can’t tell the difference between supposedly authentic conservatism and a caricature of it? The election of Donald Trump, an apolitical demagogue posing as a conservative, emphasizes this point.

It is maybe no accident that this phenomenon manifests the strongest on the political right, at least in the United States. It could be caused by how, in the US, authoritarianism is correlated to the political right — not so in former Soviet countries, though. So the main causal factor is probably authoritarianism in general (and, yes, authoritarianism does exist within the Democratic Party, if not to the extreme seen within the GOP; but I would note that, even though Democratic leaders are to the left of the far right, they are in many ways to the right of the majority of Americans… as observed in decades of diverse public polling). Research does show that authoritarians don’t mind being hypocritical, assuming they even comprehend what hypocrisy means. Authoritarians are good at groupthink and believing what they are told. They are literal-minded, as for them the group’s ideology and the leader’s words are identical to reality itself, literally. One could interpret authoritarianism as an extreme variety of dissociation.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Todd Walton’s most offended audience members would test as higher on authoritarianism. Such people have a strong desire to believe in something absolutely. Self-aware use of imagination and the imaginal is not an area of talent for them nor the trait of openness upon which it depends. This is because they lack the tolerance for cognitive dissonance, a necessary component of suspension of disbelief in the enjoyment of fiction. It makes no sense to them that a story could be subjectively true while being factually false (or factually partial). Hence, the sense of being deceived and betrayed. The fiction writer is an unworthy authority figure to the authoritarian mind. A proper authoritarian demagogue would tell his followers what they wanted to hear and would never then tell them that it was just fiction. The point of storytelling, for the authoritarian, is that it is told with utter conviction — it being irrelevant whether or not the authoritarian leader himself believes what he says, just that he pretends to believe.

Authoritarians aside, it should be noted that most people appear to be able to distinguish between truth and falsehood, between non-fiction and fiction. People will say they believe all kinds of things to be true. But if you give them enough of an incentive, they will admit to what they actually believe is true (priming them for rational/analytical thought would probably also help, as various studies indicate). And it turns out most people agree about a lot of things, even in politics. Dissociation has its limits, when real costs and consequences are on the line. But most storytelling, whether fictional or political, won’t effect the concrete daily life of the average person. People want to believe stories and so will take them literally, especially when a story has no real impact. For example, believing in the literal reality that bread and wine becomes the body and blood of Christ is an attractive story for it being largely irrelevant, just a pleasant fiction to create a social bonding experience through ritual (and evidence indicates that many ancient people perceived such things metaphorically or imaginally, instead of literally; the mythical being a far different experience from the literal). Literal-minded people forget that something can have truth value without being literally true. That is what stories are about.

So, it’s possible that if there had been some concrete and personal incentive for self-aware honesty (at least some of) those seemingly naive audience members would have admitted that they really did know that Todd Walton’s readings were fictional. It’s just that, under the actual circumstances with little at stake, their only incentive was their own emotional commitment in being drawn into the story. To be told it is fiction is like being told their experience is false, which would be taken as a personal attack. What they are missing, in that situation, is the willingness to separate their experience of the story from the story itself. It feels so real that they it would ruin their experience of it to imagine it not being real. That is a successful story.

(By the way, this helps explain why Plato so feared the poets, the storytellers of that era. See some context for this in an earlier post of mine, On Truth and Bullshit: “Frankfurt talks about the ‘bullshit artist’. Bullshitters are always artists. And maybe artists are always bullshitters. This is because the imagination, moral or otherwise, is the playground of the bullshitter. This is because the artist, the master of imagination, is different than a craftsmen. The artist always has a bit of the trickster about him, as he plays at the boundaries of the mind.”)

* * *

For some further thoughts from Iain McGilchrist:

The Master and His Emissary
pp. 49-50

“Anything that requires indirect interpretation, which is not explicit or literal, that in other words requires contextual understanding, depends on the right frontal lobe for its meaning to be conveyed or received. 132 The right hemisphere understands from indirect contextual clues, not only from explicit statement, whereas the left hemisphere will identify by labels rather than context (e.g. identifies that it must be winter because it is ‘January’, not by looking at the trees). 133

“This difference is particularly important when it comes to what the two hemispheres contribute to language. The right hemisphere takes whatever is said within its entire context. 134 It is specialised in pragmatics, the art of contextual understanding of meaning, and in using metaphor. 135 It is the right hemisphere which processes the non-literal aspects of language, 136 of which more later. This is why the left hemisphere is not good at understanding the higher level meaning of utterances such as ‘it’s a bit hot in here today’ (while the right hemisphere understands ‘please open a window’, the left hemisphere assumes this is just helpful supply of meteorological data). It is also why the right hemisphere underpins the appreciation of humour, since humour depends vitally on being able to understand the context of what is said and done, and how context changes it. Subjects with right brain damage, like subjects with schizophrenia, who in many respects resemble them, cannot understand implied meaning, and tend to take conversational remarks literally.”

pp. 125-126

“Metaphor is the crucial aspect of language whereby it retains its connectedness to the world, and by which the ‘parts’ of the world which language appears to identify retain their connectedness one to another. Literal language, by contrast, is the means whereby the mind loosens its contact with reality and becomes a self-consistent system of tokens.”

p. 332

“Metaphorical understanding has a close relationship with reason, which seems paradoxical only because we have inherited an Enlightenment view of metaphor: namely, that it is either indirectly literal, and can be reduced to ‘proper’ literal language, or a purely fanciful ornament, and therefore irrelevant to meaning and rational thought, which it indeed threatens to disrupt. It is seen as a linguistic device, not as a vehicle of thought. What the literalist view and the anti-literalist view share is that, ultimately, metaphor can have nothing directly to do with truth. Either it is simply another way of stating literal truth or else it undermines any claim to truth. But as Lakoff and Johnson have shown, ‘metaphor is centrally a matter of thought, not just words’. 2 The loss of metaphor is a loss of cognitive content.”

The Stories We Tell

[W]ithin each of our individual introcosms we are always “seeing” ourselves as the central characters in the drama of our lives. However, a certain selectivity to this inner theater is apparent, since we choose those images of ourselves that fit into our favored scripts and ignore those that do not. This attribution of causes to behavior or “saying why we did a particular thing is all a part of narratization. Such causes, as reasons, may be true or false, neutral or ideal.” An interiorized self is “ever ready to explain anything we happen to find ourselves doing,” and a “stray fact is narratized to fit with some other stray fact.” We are not “consciously aware of all the information our mind processes or of the causes of all the behaviors we enact, or of the origin of all the feelings we experience. But the conscious self uses these as data points to construct and maintain a coherent story, our personal story, our subjective sense of self.”
~Brian J. McVeigh, A Psychohistory of Metaphors (Kindle Locations 2736-2743)

I’ve lost what little faith I have in rational public debate, democratic process, and the liberal dream. The stories we tell about ourselves and our society.

We don’t live in a free society. I’m not sure what a free society would look like in a country such as this. I simply know it would not be this way. In a free society, corrupt power-mongers would not become leading candidates in elections and certainly not elected into positions of power. A free people wouldn’t tolerate it. But we aren’t a free people in a free society.

Freedom is an odd notion. It is an ideal, a social construct that is reified through repetition. We talk about it so much that we take it for granted without understanding what we’re talking about. It relates to other notions, such as free will—the ability to act freely. The term ‘free’ etymologically goes back to a basic meaning of being among friends, which is to say being treated by others as they would treat themselves. As such, it actually has more of a connotation of mutual relationship than of independent individuality. To be free, in the oldest sense, is to belong among those one knows and trusts.

Our modern sense of freedom is rather abstract. It’s become entirely disconnected from the concrete reality of human bonds within a specific community. We know freedom from the stories we tell or rather from the media we consume, not so much from our lived experience. American communities aren’t locations of freedom, in any sense of the word. And we don’t have a culture of trust.

When I observe people in American society, I don’t see freedom of thought and action. What I notice most of all is how blindly and unconsciously people act, the dissociation and ignorance that rules their minds, how trapped people are in the life conditions that have shaped them, the persuasive rhetoric of media and politics, and the reactions to emotional manipulations. Even the ruling elite who love to play their games of power aren’t any more free than the rest of us, maybe even less so as they exist within the echo chambers of a self-enclosed establishment, based on the demented belief that they make their own reality.

The entire society forms a near hermetically-sealed reality tunnel. That is what it means to be in a society like this, to be a subject of the most powerful empire the world has ever seen. We can’t see out, much less see beyond to other possibilities.

I keep coming back to a basic insight. We humans are a mystery to ourselves. I mean that profoundly but also simply. We don’t know why we are the way we are or why we do what we do. We know so little about the very things that matter the most, specifically our own nature. The ideals of a liberal society are the light glinting off the surface of deep waters, indicating mere ripples while leaving the currents beneath unseen. That nice-sounding rhetoric does not make the world go round nor does it tell us where the world is heading.

It’s pointless to expect a functioning democracy under these conditions. We are like children at play, knowing not what any of it means. Asking for democracy from an American politician is like asking for healthcare form a child playing doctor. Games, endless games. We are better able at imagining than in acting, for our imaginings are but daydreams and fantasies. As for voters, they only demand one thing, to be told comforting lies and entertaining stories. Our political system is a spectacle of lights that blinds us to the darkness around us, as we stumble along, more likely over a cliff than out of Plato’s cave.

We are all stuck in this mire and sinking deeper, even those who claim to be outside of it. The critics, left and right, are simply hypnotized by other scripts. Genuinely original thought and deep insight is so rare as to be practically irrelevant. Nothing will change, until conditions force change, and when it happens no one will be able to predict where those changes will lead.

At some point, the stories we tell ourselves stop making sense, as the world refuses to conform. What then?

* * *

The Elephant That Wasn’t There

The Stories We Know

Imagined Worlds, Radical Visions


PKD vs the American Mythos

I’ve been listening to audio versions of PKD’s books, mostly his novels but some of his short stories and his Exegesis. The last two books I listened to are Eye in the Sky and Counter-Clock World, both of which I have read previously. I find myself, as usual, amused with the worlds created by PKD’s unique mind.

Those two novels (EITS & CCW) have been part of the background noise, for the past week or so, to the foreground focus of my thinking about culture. A recent blog post of mine was about the linguistic history of liberty, freedom, and fairness. It’s even more fun to think about such ideas with a PKD spin.

What really got my brain juices going is how PKD’s characters grapple with the realities they find themselves in. Some of his characters are more aware and others less so. To speak in the terms of culture is to already be standing part way outside the frame of the culture(s) in question. If a cultural paradigm is truly dominant, it is simply taken as reality itself and so not easily seen for what it is.

The less aware characters in a PKD fictional world don’t question the strange nature of their reality. It is similar in our world. Every world is a fiction of sorts, but of course a world is compelling only to the extent it isn’t seen as a fiction.

Culture is in particular closely related to the storytelling predisposition of humanity. Politics as well and we can’t leave out economics. It’s easy to think about religion as involving stories. What differentiates religion from most other areas of life is how obviously mired it is in the narrative mentality. However, I suspect religion just makes obvious what otherwise can go unnoticed.

Economics is a good example. What makes economics powerful in organizing society is the same thing that makes religion compelling to the believer. The compelling quality is belief itself, especially considering the often theoretical nature of both economic and religious ideologies.

Money or even gold as a symbol of value might be the greatest fiction ever created. This is most evident with gold which has very little practical application. Paper money at least has some very basic uses in that paper is one of the most useful things ever created. Despite all the hording, no one knows what to do with all of the massive piles of gold all over the world. People have sacrificed their lives and taken the lives of others, empires have risen and fallen, all based on gold being pretty and shiny.

Any monetary system is ultimately symbolic… but symbolic of what? The US dollar is backed by two things: the brute force of a global military empire and “In God We Trust”. As such, the US monetary system is backed by power of two (some might say closely related) varieties. It’s not just the physical power that matters. US currency with its invocation of God is a magical talisman. Only God and the banking system can create something out of nothing (whether in terms of the federal reserve printing money or private banks gambling with wealth that doesn’t actually exist in the real world).

The economic systems of other countries aren’t fundamentally different. Money never represents anything tangible or else money wouldn’t be necessary at all. Relationships or rather the perception of relationships is what money is about. All of the wealth and all of the debt in the world is an imaginary agreement. It is all ephemeral. The entire scheme could shift dramatically or disappear in a blink of an eye.

If the global economy collapsed, nothing objectively would have changed. The gold in vaults would continue to sit in piles. The natural resources would remain as they were before. The human capital would still be where it always was.

The reason there is starvation and malnutrition in the world has no objective cause. There is plenty of food to feed the entire world’s population and there is no lack in our ability to transport the food where it is needed. It’s like the Irish potato famine which was an intentionally created catastrophe. Capitalists couldn’t make much if any profit by selling or giving potatoes to poor starving people, and so they sold Ireland’s remaining potatoes to less hungry people elsewhere who had money. The same basic dynamic continues today with global capitalists who are even wealthier and more powerful.

We live in a corrupt system that is rotten to the core, but we collectively can’t imagine it being any other way. This is what some people call capitalist realism. Those who point out the problems get called commies or worse.

But it goes beyond mere economics. It’s our reality tunnel.

If our world was part of a story, a reader looking in on us would think he was reading dystopian science fiction. The fictions that we live and breathe on a daily basic don’t seem ludicrous because we have no equivalent comparison and so no larger perspective. A reader from the future would find the historical accounts of our period very perplexing. They would wonder why we couldn’t see the obvious immorality that our society is built upon and why we didn’t revolt, the same kinds of things we wonder about those who lived in early America with its slavery (or revolutionary era England with its socioeconomic caste system or any other number of examples). Slavery like capitalism is just another fiction that gains its power from those who believe in it or accept it or submit to it or become fatalistically resigned to it (not to say that some of the oppressed didn’t try to resist or revolt at times).

Like many PKD protagonists, I feel confused by the world I’m in. Things are a certain way and that is just the way it is. I don’t have any more rational understanding of why time flows forward than do the characters in Counter-Clock World understand why time flows backwards. We could quickly solve all of humanity’s problems if we wanted to, but it’s beyond me why we don’t want to or, to put it another way, why there isn’t a collective will to do so.

To be cynical, one could argue that the story of human misery apparently satisfies something in human nature. It’s all about compelling stories. The story of human misery is compelling because it is part of a mythos of compelling stories: the American Dream, meritocracy, free markets, entrepreneurial progress, cultural superiority, white man’s burden, manifest destiny, spreading democracy, etc.

Human misery is just the flipside of the Devil’s Bargain that the US was founded upon. There has to be losers for there to be winners, so the story goes. It’s a Manichaean battle between the makers and the takers, between the job-creators and the welfare mothers, between the hard-working meritocracy and the lazy slaves/workers. The worse off the losers must mean that we are experiencing some serious progress.

That is the thing with stories. You can say they aren’t real, yet they certainly have real consequences. The stories we live are real to the degree we force them onto reality and hence force them onto others. For those of the less powerful persuasion, we can participate in the story of power by submitting to some role within it that might allow us to have greater power than someone, just as long as we aren’t on the very bottom… and even the bottom has its narrative-justified comforts and contentments as there is always something further below us (animals, nature, etc).

Storytellers like PKD attempt to recast our collective narratives and offer a new symbolic context. Just being able to imagine something different is a power not offered by the status quo storyline.


Trinity In Mind: Rhetoric & Metaphor, Imaginal & Archetypal

Story. Culture. Knowledge.

Two elements: pattern and communication. What are the patterns of our communications along with the patterns of cognition and experience underlying them? How do we communicate these patterns when our very attempt is enmeshed in them?

It’s not just an issue of rhetoric and metaphor. It’s a stepping back and looking for a pathway to higher ground. A meta-language maybe is needed, but not meta in a way of making language abstract and detached. Death can’t speak for life.

I’ve never been in love with language. This could be seen as a flaw of mine as a self-identified writer. Admittedly, language is sort of important to writing. What I appreciate is communication, the essence and the impetus thereof, the desire to express, to be heard and possibly understood.

I have nothing against language. It just is what it is. My lack of love isn’t a hate; it’s a wariness. I’ve often found too superficial writers who’ve fallen in love with language. There can be a trap in linguistic narcissism. Even great writers can get caught up in their own cleverness. In these cases, it’s not always clear they’ve fallen in love with language itself or just the sound of their own voices.

Compelling language takes more than catchy phrasing and aesthetic sensibility. A writer or any other user of language has to first and foremost have something worthy of being shared and to be given voice. Language, however rarely, can touch something deeper. Then language isn’t just language.

It’s not the writer that matters, but the Other that is speaking through the writer. This deeper level is the imaginal and archetypal, the creative source.

Along with my lack of verbal romance, I have other ‘failings’ as well.

I’m prone to anti-climactic conclusions. This is because most of life feels anticlimactic to me. What can I say, I write what I know. The anti-climactic relates to another ‘failing’.

I’m also prone to a passive voice. Every writing manual I’ve read warns against this, but good advice never stopped me. It seems to me that a passive voice communicates something an active voice can’t, and that something obviously isn’t readily accepted by modern mainstream society or at least the English-speaking portions.

An active voice requires someone or something that takes action, but as I see it not all or even most of life involves action that is willed, directed or otherwise caused by actors. Still, the active voice is rooted in traditional storytelling. The question is: Are there other stories to tell and/or other ways to tell stories?

Our language determines our reality. So, what consensus reality is being reinforced by writing manuals? I’m not arguing against standard English writing. Certainly, I’m not arguing against compelling language and the active voice is more compelling; rather, I’m considering what we are being compelled by and toward.

The standard of compelling shouldn’t be its own justification. A soap opera is compelling. In fact, the average soap opera is more compelling to the average person than the greatest of art. Most people are compelled, usually mindlessly, by ideas and beliefs, metaphors and narratives that aren’t necessarily of much worthiness.

How do we judge worthiness? What is good writing versus what is great art? Does ‘good’ writing imply communication that is moral and true, whatever that might mean? What exactly is good and bad about the active versus the passive voices?

The most dangerous part about rhetoric is that we forget it’s rhetoric and mistake it for reality.


Trinity In Mind: Story, Culture, Knowledge

Story. Culture. Knowledge.

These three are the Trinity of my mind, of my personal reality.

I always return to these, but not usually at the same time. They all connect, though.

Culture and knowledge are how we typically speak of story without realizing it. Story interests me the most, in some ways. It’s because story can so easily be dismissed as mere entertainment that it has so much power.

Knowledge and story are at the heart of culture. They give form and expression. Culture is an ephemeral thing by itself. It’s normally invisible, until we seek out our sense of identity. Maybe more than anything, culture encapsulates our reality tunnel.

Story and culture determine what we consider to be knowledge and how we go about looking for it. They frame our sense of truth and reality. As such, they mediate the complex relationship between belief and knowledge.

I love knowledge, or rather I love truth, more than anything. I always have. I don’t know why truth matters, but I just know it does, know in my heart more than in my mind. I want to know the truth of everything  just because I do. It’s not so much the knowledge itself, but the sense of knowing; or else, when lacking, the ache to know, the intuition of something to be known.

I’ve come to realize, however, that story gets at truth like nothing else. Truth can feel impotent at times.  Truth needs story in the way lungs need air. People are convinced by story, not truth. A story that expresses truth is a force to be reckoned with.

I’m less clear about culture. It’s such a strange thing. I don’t know that I care about culture in and of itself, but I’ve come to understand that culture is what makes it all happen on the collective level. We don’t have culture. We are culture. It’s the whole fish in water scenario. We live and breathe culture.

I feel like I can never fully explain why these three things are so compelling to my mind. I’m not sure why it is so difficult to speak about all of this. Story becomes mere entertainment or otherwise a personal interest. Culture is simplified to notions about race and nationality. Knowledge gets reduced to factoids and data points. The profound nature behind them gets lost.

I wish I could write about these in a way that conveyed the depth of my sense of them… but you either grok them or not, I suppose.


A Useless Wrapper

Mike loved candy. He always had a stash of sweets at hand, and it was a short distance from hand to mouth.

More than anything, Mike liked to indulge his sugar addiction with hard candy, letting the sugar form a thick layer of deliciousness upon his teeth. Years of this activity caused his teeth to slowly decay and in their place grew new teeth of crystalized sugar.

Mike’s sugar-based diet had taken a toll on his health. He now lay dying, too weak to even lift another piece of candy to his mouth. Still, he felt no repentance for his gluttony. His last breath escaped him like a belch after a long gulp of pop.

God reached down into his stash of humans. ‘This one is ripe’, God said as he latched onto Mike’s limpid form.

God plucked the sugary teeth from Mike’s mouth. ‘No use for the wrapper’ God muttered, crumpling the now useless corpse and tossing it down toward hell. Mike’s discarded flesh dropped through the heavenly regions, a lonesome soul on a lonesome journey, downward and further down.

A passing angel took notice, swooped in on mighty wings, and used its talons to grasp the curious object falling from above. With a single thrust of wings, the angel returned to its perch among the clouds.

The angel added this new find to its nest, placing it with great care just in the right spot alongside some moss and a piece of string. Before the angel nestled down, Mike looked around and thought to himself, ‘The clouds look like cotton candy’.


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.


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.


Controlling the Narrative: Part 2

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

Controlling the Narrative: Part 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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