Thursday, June 30, 2016

And Then a Step to the Right

The other day I saw one of those memes about Nazis and the "Big Lie," which typically and conveniently ignored the fact that the Nazis accused other people -- the Jews, the English -- of using the Big Lie; they of course claimed to be honest. (Hahaha.) So I was interested by this post by emptywheel on Brexit, answering someone who claimed (a Big Lie? a Little Lie? a Noble Lie?) that "we now live in a post-factual democracy." Emptywheel asked:
Still, what does it mean that we live in a post-factual democracy? I thought, at first, that the US is just ahead of its cousin, in that we’ve had WMD and birther lies for over a decade. But the UK had the very same WMD lies. Indeed, both countries have proudly lied about national security secrets for decades, centuries in England.

Plus, as I thought back in US history, I couldn’t get to a time when democracy didn’t depend on some key, big lies. Remarkably, they’re still some of the very same lies mobilized in the Brexit vote. You don’t get a United States, you don’t get a British Empire, without spewing a lot of lies about the inferiority of black (brown, beige, continental) men. You don’t get America, as it currently exists, without the myth of American exceptionalism, the unique national myth that has served to root an increasingly diverse former colony. You don’t get Britain without certain beliefs, traced back to Matthew Arnold and earlier, about the ennobling force of British culture.

Those myths are precisely what have driven the democracy of both countries for a long time. They were a way of imposing discipline, privilege, and selective cohesion such that less privileged members of those included in the myth would buy in and tolerate the other inequities without undue violence.
But then, you don't get any empire, any nation, any tribe, any family without lies to impose discipline, privilege, and selective cohesion.  One commenter replied:
What I think is the tipping point of a post-factual democracy is that there’s no fear of being held accountable for deliberate lies and for simply making things up on the fly. There’s an irony that in a day and age when every word a public figure says is recorded for playback, they no longer seem to care. In this post-factual democracy, the complex issues aren’t only being compressed into sound bites, they are being reduced to undetectable puffs of breath in speeches that nothing but crowd pleasing gibberish.
This is fantasy.  Was there ever really any "fear of being held accountable for deliberate lies and for simply making things up on the fly"?  I can't remember such a time.  Emptywheel had suggested that "[p]erhaps we’re moving closer to a fact-based democracy. Access to rebut sanctioned lies is more readily accessible," and I agree.  Contrary to the popular cliche that it's harder to verify quotations (and other information) in the age of the internet, it's actually much easier than it used to be.  Of course you have to apply critical thinking to your findings, and nobody likes that.

(By the way, I happened on this tweet today:

Tyson really should stick to astrophysics.  But look at that: five thousand retweets, ten thousand likes.  Someone like Donald Trump would probably get more, but still.  Tyson's popularity [notoriety] has litle to do with science, rationality, or evidence.)

But I divagate.  The right-wing reactions to Brexit have been as revealing as the liberal ones.  My Right Wing Acquaintances were pleased of course.  RWA1 linked to an article from National Review, and exulted that the "unaccountable bureaucrats in Brussels" had been given notice.  RWA3 and others posted similar sentiments.  Which is funny, because as Etienne Balabar wrote a few days ago,
As we know, comparisons aren’t everything. But how could we fail to note that in the recent history of European politics national or multi-national referendum results have never been put into effect? Such was the case in 2005 and 2008 with the "European Constitution" and the Lisbon Treaty, and even more clearly in 2015 with the memorandum imposed on Greece. Very probably the same will be the case here, too. Above and beyond the personal conflicts that led to a difference of tactics, the British ruling class is manoeuvring to push back the deadlines and negotiate the terms of "exit" as best as possible.
RWA1, like most right-wingers (including the Democratic Party leadership) holds voters and accountability in contempt when they want the Wrong People to be accountable.  He's posted a lot of hostile material about Donald Trump, for instance, who like Brexit represents a lot of people who are hostile to "unaccountable bureaucrats" in Washington (a position RWA1 also holds as long as the Right People will be left in charge).  He has been eager to see the mutinous rabble of Venezuela and other Latin American countries crushed for daring to reject the dictatorships that had ruled them for the benefit of multinational corporations.  He seems to have been ambivalent about the 2015 Greek referendum, linking favorably to a National Review article that warned against "Greeks casting blame," attacking the "grand project of an increasingly centralized and integrated European super-state" and the "outrageous" "rhetoric of Greek's [sic] far-left leaders", quoting "Seyed Kamall, the British leader of the euroskeptic wing of the European Parliament" to the effect that Greece should "take advantage of devaluation and become a more attractive destination for investment and tourism." RWA3 doesn't have RWA1's intellectual pretensions, but she too celebrated the outcome as a victory for self-determination -- for the right white people, of course.  Self-determination for the Brits, but not for the Arabs and Pakis; they should go back where they came from, though we have to control their countries too because they're sitting on top of our oil.

RWA1's the guy, you may recall, who posted outside his store:
Nor should we listen to those who say, "The voice of the people is the voice of God," for the turbulence of the mob is always close to insanity
--Alcuin, ca. 800 A.D.
But then the turbulent mob vents its insanity in a direction he approves, it's fine with him.  Which is typical of both parties and probably most peole: the wisdom of the People must not be denied -- until you don't like the candidate or question they voted for.

Racism wasn't the only factor driving the Leave vote, and I'm as disturbed by the liberals and leftists who could see only racism in it as I am by the racist conservatives who denied that it played any role at all.  The denial is usually couched in familar dog-whistle terms, that the Leave voters were just simple English country folk who don't recognize their country anymore because of all these immigrants, they just want to preserve the England they know -- i.e., racists.  Fussing about culture and language is nothing new for the English: they've been demonizing each other on grounds of accent, vocabulary, and class for centuries before all the Pakis and Poles arrived.

The vaunted right-wing concern about secure borders and immigration is probably funnier in the US than in the UK, but the US exists because Britannia scattered its sons and daughters across the sea.  Building an Empire also meant violating other countries' borders.  New immigration has always inspired nativist fury among the children of previous immigrants in the US, and not entirely without reason, because business interests push for more immigration to drive wages down.  Again, though, within the US there has been hostility to migration by Americans within our borders, encouraged by business to drive wages down, and the fury directed at African Americans and poor whites isn't that different from the fury directed at immigrants.  The same is true elsewhere: for example, the Taiwanese writer Pai Hsaio-Hung's Scattered Sand: The Story of China's Rural Migrants (Verso, 2012) tells the stories of people desperately looking for work in their own country; they could easily be the Okies of The Grapes of Wrath.

Anti-immigrant sentiment tends to confuse "legal" and "illegal" immigrants, as I've noted before.  A common line is "My grandparents came here legally!  They entered the country according to the rules!" and so on. This is open to question if we ask "'Legal' according to whom?"  At first the pre-Columbian peoples weren't opposed to the arrival of Europeans, but when it became clear that Those People Were Taking Over, as they pressed west and claimed ever more territory, driving the Indians off their land by violence, the Indians would no doubt have liked to close and secure their borders, but by then it was too late.  The immigration standards weren't set by the Indians but in Washington, D.C., by the same people who were stealing their land.  Imagine that Mexican Americans, descendants of the people whose land was stolen from them by the Anglos in the nineteenth century, set up their own immigration bureaus along the border and claimed the authority to decide who would come over.  It's certainly fair to ask how legitimate was Washington's claim to the land, and to flood it with more Europeans to further displace the indigenous people.

But that was then, this is now.  The immediate fuss over Brexit seems to be dying down, replaced by an attempt by right-wing Labour leadership to remove Jeremy Corbin from his post as party leader -- a coup so laughably bungled as to discredit the rightists all over again -- and by more discussion and negotiation about what in fact is going to happen.  Another acquaintance of mine had a comment printed in today's newspaper, complaining that his investments had already suffered because of Brexit.  That's a fair complaint of course, since he's about my age and probably relies on those investments for much of his income.  But it's also fair to ask on whose backs his dividends are being earned.

Monday, June 27, 2016

An Ill Omen

Uh-oh.  This indicates that Trump may win:

As Sam Rosenfeld tweeted last week, "There must be some mistake, didn't John Oliver EVISCERATE  #Brexit on Sunday? I assumed they would just cancel the vote entirely after that."

It's not all that relevant, but I've never really taken to John Oliver.  He seems like the liberal/progressive version of Rush Limbaugh that liberals/progressives have long dreamed of.  He may be more factually accurate than Limbaugh, I haven't bothered to check, but that's not really the appeal of such people, is it?  It's the gladiatorial spectacle with the audience howling, cheering, and turning thumbs down on their guy's opponent; the advantage to TV commentary is that the opponent doesn't even know he's down and has been EVISCERATED.  Unfortunately, Brexit voters didn't realize that they should have just stayed home that day.

I worry sometimes that I'm getting old, because the use of "fuck" by trendies like Oliver annoys me.  As a teenager I would have been thrilled by it.  But my objection is that throwing the word into every other sentence doesn't make your argument any stronger.  (This would come as news to Brexit voters as well, I imagine.)  Since Oliver supposedly traffics in fact and logic in contrast to the conservatives he owns, destroys and eviscerates, and smacks down, his spittle-flecked expletives should be unnecessary.  But it's hard to be a supergenius in a world full of idiots.

When I clicked through to the article itself, I noticed something that I think is significant.  The author of the article says that Oliver "compared both British leaders to former Donald Trump, noting their similarities for lying, bombast and nativism."  The reference is to Boris Johnson, the former mayor of London, and Nigel Farage, leader of the UK Independence Party.
“Basically, it seems like whoever the next U.K. prime minister is going to be, whether it’s [former London mayor] Boris Johnson or a racist tea kettle, they are going to be in for a rough few years, because once they invoke what’s known as Article 50, they’ll have just two years to negotiate their withdrawal and future relationship with the EU,” explained Oliver. “On top of which, they’ll have to settle outstanding bills with the EU, hammer out new trade bills with dozens of countries, sift through thousands of EU regulations and decide which ones to keep, and figure out how migration will work—and all the while, lives hang in the balance.”
Now, "leaders" wasn't Oliver's word, but I realized that Oliver was overlooking something.  Farage is the leader of a marginal political party; Johnson is a celebrity politician and journalist who campaigned for Brexit.  But there's a lot more to political leadership in England than these two, and most of the elites, both Tory and Labour, including Jeremy Corbin, urged voters to vote for Remain rather than Leave.  The outcome of the referendum was a shock to them, and if nothing else was a salutary lesson to believers in media brainwashing that the masses aren't as easy to brainwash as the media hope. 

My point is that Oliver sided here with the same rotten elites who've done so much harm over the past several decades, the centrists and neoliberals whose policies led to the economic crash of 2008, to endless and escalating wars that waste trillions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of lives, as the rich get richer and the poor get poorer and there's less and less space in the middle.  In the US, such elites were blindsided by Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, who in different ways have shown just how little legitimacy the respectable political, business, and media leaders have anymore.  The 2016  Presidential campaign was supposed to pit Hillary Clinton against Jeb Bush, but Trump and Sanders threw a monkeywrench into that assumption.  The respective party hierarchies have done their best to block these rebellions, with more success in Sanders's case; Trump, a wealthy celebrity and media star, was aided by the media who couldn't resist giving him vast amounts of free publicity.  And the reaction among the self-styled meritocracy has been panic.  Brexit just threw fuel on the fire.

True, Trump's campaign, like Brexit, has been fueled by racism and bigotry, but then so has Clinton's (if more genteelly), and now that Sanders and other great liberal hopes like Alan Grayson have embraced "no fly no buy" -- as a response to the Orlando massacre, it's not likely that a Democratic victory in November will be any better for religious and racial minorities than a Trump victory -- or indeed, than Obama's victories were.  But Clinton will be nicer about it.  No embarrassing vulgarity (or less of it, anyway), but Muslims and Mexicans and blacks will be quietly harassed and silenced and jailed and deported and (especially outside our borders) killed.  It's been profoundly dispiriting to see so many liberals and leftists join with the Right in revealing their contempt for civil liberties and due process, but I'd rather know than not know.  Amanda Marcotte claims that the Dems are just pretending to support "no fly no buy" in order to embarrass the Republicans, which I might find more persuasive if 1) Bernie Sanders hadn't supported it months before Orlando and 2) if Democrats like Diane Feinstein didn't have such a record of indifference to civil liberties and due process, dating back to the Bush II regime and beyond.  Like so many liberals, Marcotte thinks that the Democratic leadership is only playing eleven-dimensonal chess with the Republicans, instead of with their base. 

It's the panic among liberals and centrists that has been most revealing, I think.  Look at Oliver's rant for a sympomatic example, a sort of lefty Brit-accented equivalent to Limbaugh or Trump fearmongering.  But the stock markets' reaction to the result of the vote hardly counts as a liberal let alone Left phenomenon, nor as a humanitarian response to racist tribalism.  The economist Dean Baker just pointed out against a New York Times Op-ed that "a high stock market is not an economic good. It is a distributional measure. It means that the owners of stock have more claim on society’s income. There is very little direct relationship between the stock market’s value and investment. (In the US, the investment share of GDP peaked in the late 1970s, when the stock market was in the doldrums.)"  Stock speculators don't care whether "lives hang in the balance"; their interests are at odds with those of most people, and it's a great mistake to see the Dow Jones and other indices as readouts of economic health -- except insofar as falling stock prices are used as an excuse for making most people suffer.

A good article at the Intercept pointed out that, contrary to the alarmism of the respectable mainstream opinion makers, an actual exit of the UK from the EU wasn't going to happen soon -- if ever.  In the first place, the referendum wasn't binding, and made nothing happen by itself:
... as the legal blogger David Allen Green has explained clearly, the measure Britons just voted for “was an advisory not a mandatory referendum,” meaning that it is not legally binding on the government. No matter who the prime minister is, he or she is not required by the outcome to trigger Article 50. And, despite what senior figures in the EU and its other states might say, there is no way for them to force the U.K. to invoke Article 50.

What all this means in practice is that, while it would be political suicide for any leader to try to avoid acting to satisfy the popular will expressed at the ballot box, there is some wiggle room for a new government to try to find a compromise arrangement that would satisfy a larger share of the population than just the slim majority of voters who demanded separation.
In the second place,
Then there is also the fact that, as Matthew Parris notes in a column on the bizarre politics of what comes next in London’s Times, “About 160 of the 650 MPs elected last year want Britain to leave the EU. The overwhelming majority of Westminster MPs believes that leaving would be a mistake. Many believe it would be a very grave mistake. Not a few believe it would be calamitous.” Because of that, Parris observes, “Our experiment in direct democracy is hurtling towards our tradition of representative democracy like some giant asteroid towards a moon.”

Given that a two-thirds majority of the current Parliament opposes leaving the EU, Parris suggested, a new general election next year was almost inevitable, further delaying even the start of the process.
With most of Parliament opposed to Brexit, a mere non-binding referendum isn't going to have the final word.  But what infuriates respectable opinion leaders is the thoughtcrime, and the rejection of their benign guidance.

Richard Seymour, who apparently was as surprised by the outcome as anyone, has written some useful pieces on Brexit.  He doesn't scant the role of racism and bigotry that motivated Leave, but:
There is a lot of finger-wagging on Twitter and elsewhere about how the exit voters have just triggered economic self-destruction. House prices will fall, savings will be diminished, the pound will weaken, jobs will dry up. Well, that's all true. Except. Not everyone benefits from the insane property market. Not everyone has savings. Not everyone benefits, as the City does, from a strong pound. Manufacturing has suffered from that priority. Large parts of the country have been haemorrhaging jobs for years. 'The economy' is not a neutral terrain experienced by everyone in exactly the same way. And some of the votes, coming in core Labour areas, not necessarily strongly racist areas at first glance, indicate that. So people have voted against an economy that wasn't working to their benefit. (That doesn't mean the practical alternative will not be worse. I suspect it will be a great deal worse.)
The vindictive anticipation with which so many liberals (e.g., this guy, and see some of the reactions quoted here) have greeted Brexit reminds me of the liberals I know who've expressed hope that the government of North Korea would collapse, cheerfully indifferent to the vast human cost of such a development; and North Korea isn't even close to being a democracy despite its name: its citizens don't have the responsibility for their repressive government that Americans or Brits have.  It's worth stressing that it was a "slim majority" that voted Leave; those crowing over the cataclysm to come seem to be ignoring that cost to the many millions of people who'll suffer as Britannia sinks beneath the waves.  Not that I'm at all surprised.  "Lives hang in the balance" is a gloat, not a warning.  There's considerable racism and "tribalism" in the liberal response to Brexit and Trump: those who made the wrong choices are Others, not like Us.

Friday, June 24, 2016

The Argument from Design
A friend linked to this story today, gushing:
When I think of Love and Compassion... this is what i imagine. These are the good folks and the Christians who SHOULD be getting media time.
I'm not going to let Christians claim the copyright on helpfulness and compassion. They're universal human traits and practices.

In fact, now that I've read the story, I don't see a notable amount of "love and compassion" in it. The kid, a sixteen-year-old in Memphis, Tennessee, offered to help out in exchange for some food -- which is a perfectly legitimate thing for him to do. The man he offered to work for bought Chauncy a bunch of groceries and drove him home, where he got a look at the conditions he and his disabled mother were living in; that's a good thing, and fits "love and compassion."  He then started a crowdfund for them, which was nice, but it wasn't a gift: the idea was to buy him a lawnmower so he could mow lawns and earn money.  Again, perfectly legit, but not a shining example of love and compassion. I just looked at the GoFundMe page, which is up to more than $74,000 now. And that's very encouraging, and I wish Chauncey well.

Still, a loving and compassionate (not to mention cranky and tired) person might ask: why should any kid be living in poverty? Why should a sixteen-year-old have to support his family? (Yes, that often happens, but is it an ideal to strive and work for?) Does focusing on a story like this to make oneself feel good distract from all the other children and families and single adults who are living in poverty, thanks to an economic and political system that is meant to create large numbers of people at the bottom?  Or does it just make you feel different from all those Christians you disapprove of?

Just before I saw this post I was reading Richard Seymour's blog, and he had this to say about the mindset of those who believe in competition:
If competition is to be the law of all social life, if there are to be winners and losers, if we are to scorn and diminish losers, if we need an 'underclass', a lower-down onto whom to pile the humiliations that are visited on us - well, then, at least let Britain come first. And if we are going to be punished for all our minor transgressions during the boom, for having a little bit of debt, for not saving enough, for not buying enough, for not having a better job, for not working harder, then at least punish them more.
Remember, as a young, poor, black male, Chauncy is just an eye-blink away from being demonized as a superpredator by our respectable leaders and many of the nice older white people I know on Facebook.  It's easy to celebrate an exemplary, hard-working, straight-A student like Chauncy, but you shouldn't have to be a paragon to have a roof over your head or enough to eat.

Even worse, on the GoFundMe page the guy who started the page writes: "last week, by God's beautiful design, he met me." So, all the other kids in poverty who didn't luck out are going hungry "by God's beautiful design." (Remember, Jesus said we will always have the poor with us, so slather on that ointment, baby, for great is your reward in heaven.)

He goes on: "I've never felt so overwhelmed with compassion and faith and joy. I've never felt so good as this moment... What followed was perhaps one of the most cherished experiences of my life." See, it's all about him. And God. Chauncy is just a pawn in the game. Love and compassion? Not by my standards, but I'm an atheist. That's why I get all pissy when people talk about "karma" and "you're in my prayers and thoughts."  If Chauncy and his mother were poor and hungry, that was their karma; who are we mere mortals to judge the Universe?

I really should consider taking a sabbatical from Facebook; it's not good for me.  And it's all about me.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Fair and Balanced

I was surprised to see a link on Facebook to a review of a new book by Noam Chomsky in the New York Review of Books.  Chomsky used to write regularly for the NYRB in the Sixties and early Seventies, but at some point he faded from their pages, and even his most serious political writings are rarely reviewed there, so this review is a nice gesture. It's not even the kind of transparent hatchet job that's typical of liberal media like the Guardian, the New York Times, or the Nation (which, I admit, has improved somewhat). The reviewer catches Chomsky in a minor error or two but on the whole concedes the validity of his "case against America." Still, I had to chuckle at this passage:
Yet Who Rules the World? is also an infuriating book because it is so partisan that it leaves the reader convinced not of his insights but of the need to hear the other side.
I know, right? Where could most American readers possibly "hear the other side"? If only a newspaper, or perhaps a TV network, or a politician or two would take up the defense of America's supreme goodness, so citizens could get get a fair and balanced view!

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Brain

One benefit, if that's the right word, of using social media is that they bring me into fairly direct interaction with people who are ignorant, misinformed, and don't think very well.  Over the years I've been rather spoiled by reading the work of people who work hard to inform themselves, do their best to think critically, and do a pretty good job of it, at least within the pages of their published writing.  I've also exposed myself to media from a variety of positions, so while I'd hardly claim to be the most informed person on the planet, I'm better informed than most people I talk to.

So it's not surprising that when I've had a discussion with people who not only haven't read much or thought much or ranged beyond the corporate media for news, but who have actively sought to shut out of their awareness anything but Fox News or or WorldNewsDaily (or Occupy Democrats or Daily Kos), I've been baffled.  I've been asking myself just how much thinking it's fair to demand from people.  As much as I demand of myself, I suppose, but that seems to set the bar much higher than I thought for a long time.

I remind myself that I've arranged my life so as to leave plenty of room for reading and thinking and learning.  People who chose to raise families, who've had demanding jobs that took time away even from spending time with their families, have a legitimate excuse for not pasturing their souls.  Still, I don't think I (or anyone else) is obligated to respect or take seriously the opinions of people who haven't bothered to inform themselves or consider alternatives.

It's a popular notion that people aren't equally gifted intellectually, and I try to bear that in mind.  The doctrine "All men are created equal" is dismissed lightly, mostly it seems by people who assume themselves to be in the superior ranks; again, they don't seem to have reached that conclusion by examining evidence, they just take it for granted.  Yet I find that if I dismiss such people's misinformed, irrational opinions, they indignantly appeal to egalitarianism: Everybody's entitled to their opinion!  My opinion is as good as yours! You're just a smart-aleck know-it-all, you think you're better than everybody else!  It's not really elitism. however, to say that some opinions are worth less than others, and indeed many aren't worth a damn.  (This is where I part company with someone like Noam Chomsky when he says "It is not possible to respond to opinions," especially when he then proceeds to discuss how you can respond to opinions.  Yes, debating opinions is messy and difficult, but so is debating arguments, which Chomsky thinks is possible.)  I think it's significant that people who insist that every opinion is as good or another don't extend that dogma to other people's opinions (mine, for example). 

Politics and religion are probably the most vexed areas for this.  I've come to realize that partisans, whether of Obama or Clinton or Trump, don't care about reasons or factual accuracy where their heroes are concerned.  It's probably not a complete waste of time to show why Donald Trump is a liar, a racist, or a corrupt thug, but it won't have much effect on his supporters, who mostly like his lies, racism, and corruption.  The same is true of Hillary Clinton's supporters.  (And of Obama, but he's old news now.)  On one hand they prefer to be uninformed about her record, but when it gets right down to it they mostly agree with her destructive, warmongering foreign policy history, her corporatist economic policy, and her support for structural racism in the drug war and the private prison system.  Dishonesty and irrationality go with electoral politics like a horse and carriage.  Besides, half of the population is below average, so we must have a meritocracy: our elites have never led us wrong before.

There are other takes on the problem, and all this is preamble to one of them.  Someone I know shared this meme on Facebook yesterday.
He remarked, "... sorry about my many deeply bigoted friends. i suppose they're doing the best they can to get by in a deeply crazy time and place."

I commented, "I can love my neighbor while disapproving strongly of her religion or other beliefs. I disapprove of all religions. This meme reeks of 'Some of my best friends are,' which is one of the Seven Warning Signals of Bigotry."

He responded, "on disapproving of religions. i hate their hierarchies... not their believers (the sin, not the sinner, as one tires of hearing). the believers generally seem to be honestly trying to tell me something about their lives with what they think will be the most effective tools-at-hand. when all they have to say is some stuff i've known about since grade-school, it can... it does... become tiresome very quickly. but, with some good faith on both sides, sometimes i can get something out of such a discussion (namely, a chance to tell them something about my life; nothing in social life with one's clothes on can match the feeling of being listened to with attention)."

I replied:
"Hierarchies" are only part of religion, and they are not limited to religion anyway. My objection to religions is that they are false, hierarchies or no. And I didn't say anything about "hate," which is a meaningless buzzword and a sign of bad faith.

"the believers generally seem to be honestly trying to tell me something about their lives with what they think will be the most effective tools-at-hand." Sometimes yes, sometimes no, but once it becomes clear that they are not interested in discussing in good faith, I tune them out. There's nothing wrong with that; life is short. Bad faith and dishonesty are part of human nature, but I'm not obligated to pretend that they're anything but spinach, and I say the hell with it.

The same is true of science cultists and conspiracy theory mongers. They too are trying to tell me something about their lives with that they think will be the most effective tools-at-hand, but I'm not obligated to pretend that they're either right or honest. We're not children anymore, and there's no obligation to pretend that the crayon scrawl that's supposed to be a superhero looks like anything but random lines. For a five year old, of course; for a thirty-year-old and up, no.
I hadn't really thought about the condescension in his remarks about his "deeply bigoted friends," but it's definitely there.  For whatever reasons, he sees them with a patronizing contempt.  I added that he should extend the same indulgence to the shadowy overlords who control our thoughts with their media machine (my allusion to "conspiracy theory mongers" was directed at him).  Of course the same accusation might be directed at my analogy to children's drawings, but I don't think it's just.  It's my friend who was infantilizing his "deeply bigoted friends."  I -- we all -- expect adults to do better than random crayon scrawls.  There's certainly no reason I can see to pretend that their misinformed, wildly irrational opinions are as good as anyone else's.

One point that I consider revealing is his bit about "their hierarchies... not their believers (the sin, not the sinner, as one tires of hearing)".  The believers are beside the point for me: it's their beliefs.  In practice it's not so easy to distinguish between them, since people are apt to identify themselves with their beliefs, and contrary to "generally seem to be honestly trying to tell me something about their lives with what they think will be the most effective tools-at-hand," many believers revel in their bad faith.  I'm not talking only about your schlub in the street, but about educated and sophisticated thinkers.

I can see that my acquaintances, both far-right wing and center-right plus not a few of the lefties, have no idea how to proceed when someone disagrees with them.  From both positions I've been attacked for criticizing what they post.  For them to post something racist, inflammatory, or generally dishonest is exercising their sacred First Amendment rights; for me to disagree with them is to violate their freedom.  I've also been accused semi-teasingly (presumably a "microaggression"), usually by liberals, of "stirring the pot," of just saying what I say to "stir things up."  This is flagrantly patronizing, and I've slapped those people down without compunction.

Are my acquaintances, most of whom are in their fifties at least, too old and set in their ways to learn to think critically?  I don't know how to answer that question.  I don't believe one is ever too old to learn; age is not an excuse.  Be that as it may, I'm old and set in my ways too.  But at least aged bigots, having apparently led sheltered lives, need to be confronted with opposition when they blurt out their bigotry.  Their families may have to let their poisonous views pass, but I don't have to.

I've long suspected that many people love social media because they can jeer at people they think they hate from a safe distance; that their targets might talk back is unthinkable to them.  (Has anyone else noticed how many people will respond to material about a celebrity by stating their love and devotion to the celebrity directly in comments, though the material wasn't posted by the celebrity or her spokespeople?  It's like yelling at your TV in the belief that Dumpf or Hitlery will hear you.)  When one of their targets does talk back, they're flummoxed.  Like most people, they have no idea how to proceed from the point of disagreement.  Come to think of it, since they're not interested in questioning their loyalties and beliefs anyway, I guess there is no way to proceed.  And where would they have learned to think critically in the first place?  The Right has always treated the teaching of critical thinking in school as a threat to civilization, along with the Jews and gay marriage.

The question of 'media brainwashing' is important too.  The media would like to think they can affect opinion, even to manufacture and control it, but this is false advertising much of the time.  Sometimes they pander to opinions already held (jingoism, religion, partisanship, racism) and can intensify them somewhat, but rarely for long; giving them credit for the opinions seems like giving them credit for the rising of the sun because they printed the time of sunrise in advance.  It's a less persuasive claim now of all times, when Trump and Sanders have confounded our wise rulers in politics and the media.  Despite a relentless flood of apocalyptic propaganda, it appears that English voters mostly favor leaving the European Economic Community.  And so on.  Nothing inspires panic in an elite like the realization that the proles are disobeying orders, and they often do, for better and worse.  I often ask those who talk about media brainwashing how they managed to resist it; I've yet to get an answer.

In the end, shadowy overlords or no shadowy overlords (I don't think they're shadowy at all, if you bother to pay attention, but it's comforting to think of yourself as one of the few who can see what the Sheeple can't), we are responsible for what we take from the media, the pronouncements of our politicians.  No one can know everything, of course, but it's possible to apply the basics of critical thinking (summaries by Deborah Meier and Walter Kaufmann quoted in this post) and start asking sensible, relevant questions.  Then it's necessary to recognize that one might be wrong, and to pay attention to differing views until you've evaluated them.  (Whining that someone is making a career out of picking on your beliefs, that they're just a smart-aleck trying to stir things up, is not an acceptable substitute.  I don't believe I've ever done that myself, at least not since the age of six; when someone corrects me, I check the correction, and admit my error if I have made one.  Most of my friends do not.)  What to do from there is another problem, harder to answer, but the same critical tools can help.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

My Latest Failure in Critical Thinking

Just as I wondered, as a child, whom my mother went to when she was frightened or had bad dreams, I sometimes wonder how someone like Noam Chomsky deals with feelings of discouragement and hopelessness after half a century of apparently indefatigable contending with the depressing state of the world.  Like Chomsky, I try to remember the good things that happen, the independence and resistance of ordinary people in their day to day lives.  So, in the wake of the Orlando massacre and the tremendous brabble it inspired, I was totally ready to be moved by this story posted to Facebook.  So was Glenn Greenwald, whose retweet led me to it.  I shared the link to my page too.
Just now, on my way to work, a man got on my train yelling as he came onto an incredibly packed train for the "two terrorist foreigners to go back to where they came from." These two "terrorist foreigners" were two (understandably terrified) hijabi Muslim women. Before I could say anything, the entire train erupted in anger. A black man, a Romanian, a gay man, a bunch of Asians, and a score of others came to their defense demanding that this man leave these women alone and get off this train. The man insisted that the two women go back home and take their bombs with them.

After some back and forth, one man said, "This is New York City. The most diverse place in the world. And in New York, we protect our own and we don't give a fuck what anyone looks like or who they love, or any of those things. It's time for you to leave these women alone, Sir."

I couldn't have said it better. Sure enough, our train was stopped. This royal douche got off the train to the sound of cheering.

I say all this to say that in light of all the bad happening around us, remember that there's so much good and so much love.

I'm late to work, but it was for the best reason.
Several of my friends liked it too.  But one commented:
Duncan..... why do I have an uneasy feeling that this story was made up? A ...."Romanian, a gay man..." - did they wear labels? And who stops the train over a brawl in one of the cars? Sure, it's a feel-good story, and we need more of those, but maybe without details that make them appear suspect. Because if people are making up good stories, it means there are not enough of them in real life.
Abashed, I replied:
You have a good point. I should have thought about that. You may well be right. You're definitely right about the lack of good stories in real life. In real life, as we see on Facebook and elsewhere, it's more likely that anyone who spoke up about a racist incident on the subway would be shouted down: "Why do you want ISIS to destroy us? Take your political correctness somewhere else! I don't want to get involved, it's their problem. There's so much evil in the world, we can't do anything about it except vote for Donald Trump. (The more evil, the better!) And pray -- it's always fixed things before."
I don't mean to dismiss the story completely.  Something of the kind may well have happened.  I believe that my friend was right, however, about suspicious details in the story.  I've been in some "packed," even "incredibly packed" subway cars, and I wonder how everyone could become aware of something that was going on one spot, let alone react as one ("the entire train" - I presume she meant "the entire car," which strains credulity enough, not every car in the train).  Compare the stories in the gospels in which large crowds, even "multitudes," speak to Jesus like a Greek chorus, in apparent unison.

As my friend (also a city dweller with experience of crowded subways) noted, the narrator's ability to identify the ethnicity and sexual orientation of every individual involved is also suspect.  I don't know whether a train would be "stopped" to remove a "douche" (!), as "cheers" sound in the background.  I feel sure that the narrator at least embellished her tale in the telling, in ways that will be familiar to anyone who's encountered folklore before. Which -- to repeat -- doesn't prove the whole story a fabrication, though that's also possible; I hope not.  As my friend said, we need good stories, and it's important that they be true as well; maybe that's too much to ask.  The Internet is clogged with feel-good and feel-bad stories, and those who debunk them are dismissed lightly: Well, I don't care if it's true, I liked it.

(For comparison, see this story, which attempts to shoehorn a [gay? Muslim?] ex-Marine bouncer's escape from Pulse during the massacre as a heroic rescue of an unknown number of patrons, despite his insistence that it was nothing of the kind.  I don't mean to demonize him; he behaved totally reasonably, and his actions did allow others to escape with him.  If anything I want to honor him for his determined honesty.  I only want to point out the way that stories are shaped by people's, and organizations' in this case, desire for heroes and happy endings.)

The crowning irony, for me, is that I'm constantly being reproved for being, allegedly, too cynical and skeptical.  Once again I find I'm not cynical enough.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

But Enough About You

The advice columnist Miss Manners made a curious and, I think, revealing misstep in answering a question on Sunday.  The questioner asked what to say on "learning that a friend has stage 4 cancer," if not "You will be in my prayers."  What if you're dealing with a selfish, unfeeling cancer patient who is "not of the same religious beliefs or is an atheist"?

Miss Manners suggested a good alternative -- "I am terribly sorry.  I'll be hoping for the best.  I hope you know how much I care for you" -- but framed it oddly.
There is the religious angle that you raise, though Miss Manners would think that a nonreligious person could appreciate a religious person's seeking the solace in which he or she believes.
I've read this and its context several times to try to be sure I understand it.  So, when a religious person's friend is terminally ill and the religious person promises to pray, it is for his or her own solace, not for the solace or benefit of the sick person?  I wouldn't be surprised, but I thought that there was usually at least a pretense that the prayer is offered on behalf of the other, not for oneself.  You learn something new every day!

Another of my Facebook friends and I have been disputing something related.  She's about my age, we went to the same high school, she's nominally liberal politically, she hates Trump and likes Hillary.  She likes to post feel-good memes, and last Saturday night she posted one that said "Do good and good will come to you."

We've had some exchanges about karma and related doctrines before.  I commented that I disagree. There are no payoffs, there is no karma. If you do good hoping to receive good in return, you'll soon be embittered. If you don't expect it, you'll often be pleasantly surprised. (And this leaves aside the very difficult question of what "good" is.)

My friend initially replied, "Oh, there IS karma, but you shouldnt liken karma with a fairy doesnt work that way, but there are times when there is such karma with others that its a delight to know about."  This was odd, because the whole point of the meme she'd posted is that karma (or whatever) is like a fairy godmother: do good, and you'll receive good.

We went back and forth a bit on whether "there IS karma," and a mutual FB friend admonished us that no one knows with 100% certainty what happens to us after death.  First, we weren't talking about what happens after death: the meme promises reward in this life.  Second, and more important, we do know with close to 100% certainty that bad things happen to good people and vice versa, because we can see it in the world around us.  That's what's known in philosophy as the Problem of Evil.  People have been grappling with it for thousands of years. To promise blandly "Do good and good will come to you" is to lie.  Even my friend recognizes this on some level, since she tried to backtrack a bit with the "fairy godmother" move.  But she continued to insist that karma is real, and that it works.  Maybe I should press her more to explain how karma works, if it's not a "fairy godmother," but I don't think she could articulate it; her idea of reasoned discussion is to report evidence what a distinguished psychic told her.  Maybe I should press her on it anyway.  

After all, the Buddha is reported to have told a professional soldier who consulted him "that if the latter were to die on the battlefield he could expect to be 'reborn in a hell or as an animal' for his transgressions" (Brian Victoria, Zen War Stories, Routledge, 2003).  The Buddha took the safe path by threatening post-mortem punishment; Jesus of Nazareth, less cautiously, warned that "All who take the sword will perish by the sword" (Matthew 26:52), which is as transparently false as "Do good and good will come to you."  Many professional soldiers have died in bed, and many if not most people who've been killed in war were non-combatants.  But both of these teachers presented karmic justice as a "fairy godmother," if a highly punitive one.

That good people do sometimes flourish and bad ones sometimes suffer isn't evidence for the meme's truth.  The distribution of good and bad fortune could just as easily be random.  I think it probably is, once you look beyond face-to-face personal relations, and even in that very restricted realm, there are no guarantees.  What this means is that pointing to "karma" or "You reap what you sow" (to which I'll return presently) or similar doctrines is not a fact about the world, but a person's interpretation and judgment about the world.  This is of course true of everything we say about the world, but I'm stressing it here because my friend, like so many people who share her attitude, loves to invoke karma when she's feeling Schadenfreude because someone she dislikes has taken a pratfall.

A few months ago while I was among a small group of people waiting for a bus, a young woman began talking to no one in particular about a former boss who'd treated her badly (I don't remember the details). After she left that job she saw in the newspaper that her former boss had been physically attacked for being Muslim. "I guess it was her karma," said the young woman complacently.  No one said anything.  I considered suggesting that working for that woman was her karma, but I chickened out.

Since then I've begun commenting when people on Facebook invoke karma in connection with other people's misfortunes.  None of them have done a good job of justifying their highly selective use of the concept; as with Christian belief in Hell, they don't seem to like to think about the possibility that bad karma might catch up with them, or with people they like, and they consider it very bad form to remind them of it.  Like Hell, karma is for other people, bad people, for Donald Trump -- not for good, nice people like them.

But if "there IS karma," it is no respecter of persons.  But as I've said before, it would be highly offensive to apply it to the drowned Syrian toddler who washed up on a Turkish beach last year.  Or to the victims of the massacre at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, the morning after my friend posted her meme.  Which wouldn't mean that bad karma wasn't involved, only that people are often unwilling to follow their own logic to its unpleasant conclusion.  And there's nothing unusual about that.  I think that people talk about karma or "You reap what you sow" (and Texas Lt. Governor Dan Patrick did just that when he quoted Galatians 6:7 on his Twitter account on Sunday morning after the massacre) or other similar proverbial bullshit, less because they mean it than as a warding-off of the evil eye, to try to distract karma from their own doorsteps.  It's often women who sniff "What was she doing out alone at that hour anyway?" when a woman is raped, for example.  (The Stanford rape victim must have had bad karma too.  But then so did her rapist, whose apologists whine that his life is ruined by the notoriety he received and the judicial slap he was given on his lily-white wrist.)  My mother used to harumph, "Where are their parents?" when juvenile delinquency was reported on the evening news; if my brothers and I misbehaved, though, it wasn't her fault, she'd done her best with us, etc.

Magical thinking is something we fall back on in situations we can't control or make sense of, as Bronislaw Malinoswki found of Trobriand Islanders who had rigorous, practical, rational lore for sailing in the relatively safe inner lagoons, and magic for sailing on the more dangerous open sea.  But I think we must challenge magical thinking when it takes inhumane forms like karma and "You reap what you sow."  I don't think that the Problem of Evil, insoluble though it is, is too complex for msot people to understand.  Sometimes I feel a bit guilty for expecting my less-intellectual friends to inform themselves and learn to think about these matters.  Critical thinking is not just for academic elites; I once disputed with a nice liberal fellow who said that ordinary people don't need to learn to think critically.  Excuse me, I replied, but ordinary people are expected to vote, which requires critical thinking to be done responsibly; even to go shopping at the supermarket, let alone for a car or a house, involves considering and weighing alternatives.  Ordinary citizens cultivate some thinking skills in dealing with spectator sports; as Noam Chomsky has observed, they are often very well-informed and won't defer to the authority of coaches and team owners.  This is permitted because such knowledge and skill has no real social consequences, while thinking about politics and morality might lead to restiveness and rebellion against the legitimate rulers of society.  I don't know how well most people can learn to think critically, but I don't trust the elites who prefer that the proles leave the thinking to the.  After all, the elites have shown consistently that they aren't smart or rational either.