Monday, December 28, 2020

Other people

“My protectors had departed, and had broken the only link that held me to the world. For the first time the feelings of revenge and hatred filled my bosom.” 
- Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley 

"All those eyes intent on me. Devouring me. What? Only two of you? I thought there were more; many more. So this is hell. I’d never have believed it. You remember all we were told about the torture-chambers, the fire and brimstone, the 'burning marl'. Old wives’ tales! There’s no need for red-hot pokers. HELL IS OTHER PEOPLE!"
- Huis Clos, by Jean-Paul Sartre 

"He's lived there a long time and he sort of kept to himself," Schmoldt told CNN of Warner. "All we knew him by was Tony. He was kind of a hermit." 

Early on Christmas morning, in an historic section of downtown Nashville Tennessee, someone committed self-immolation in a fiery blast that destroyed or damaged many buildings. In the process of killing himself this person took extraordinary efforts and planning to spare the lives of innocent bystanders, which left more than a giant hole in the pavement. It left a lot of questions. A suicide-bombing, but one designed meticulously to cause massive material destruction but no human destruction? It was obviously meant to get attention, but was it politically motivated? Domestic terrorism? Why on Christmas day? Is there a religious message? And what of playing the song 'Downtown' by Petula Clarke on a loudspeaker? Did he just have a morbid sense of humor? What about the white RV? Was it chosen because it would appear non-descript parked on a downtown street, or was some other cultural symbolism intended? And what about the apparent target, an AT&T communication building where very few people worked that housed technical facilities and fiber optics?  

Thus far, the only bit of personal information that has come out about the Christmas Day bomber from interviews with his neighbours is that he was 'a hermit'. Kept to himself. That's typical for people who are suicidal, and also for people who commit lone wolf attacks, but who are not associated with a political organization. This case however is unique in many aspects, as mentioned. It's hard to understand it as anything other than primarily a public statement, and one apparently replete with all kinds of strange religious, cultural and perhaps political resonance, but mostly nihilistic irony: A final act that was meant to be a meticulously planned effort at communication by a person who shunned communication, and that was aimed at destroying a facility built to provide communication services, during a pandemic characterized by people in isolation. 

On that last important point: If there is one thing that we've learned from the pandemic it's how much we need each other. How much we rely on one another, whether family, friends or even total strangers, for our health, happiness and sanity. I can't help but understand the Christmas day bomber's extraordinary efforts to spare people, as connected to this. I worked from home for about two months at the beginning of the pandemic, and ended up hating it. After an initial period, about a week, of enjoying the novelty of the experience, working online became a major chore. Every task seemed to take twice as long, partly due to persistent and frequent technical difficulties even after I was forced to  upgrade our home Wifi. Meetings on Zoom took way too long and were only minimally productive. So much was lacking from interaction through the screen and it was having unexpected impacts on me. I found myself becoming intolerant and short-tempered with my co-workers. They often annoyed me for no particular reason, and I frequently had to restrain unmerited overreactions. It was as if the filter of the screen had made them less worthy of common decency and respect, as if they had become, in a way, less 'human' to me. 

When we re-opened the office, and I saw my co-workers for the first time in two months, I felt like hugging each one of them, which of course I could not. It was strangely thrilling. I told each one how much I missed them. Just existing in their presence, sharing space with them, experiencing the way they took up three-dimensions, for the first time in a couple of months was actually exciting. I've heard it said that when people share space there are subtle chemicals that are imperceptibly exchanged, hormones, or scents, or as we are now ominously attuned to thanks to the pandemic, microscopic aerosol particles. When we communicate it's not just in words, it's on many other subconscious levels. I suppose when you find yourself inexplicably attracted to another person, a total stranger perhaps, that's why we call it chemistry, because it actually is chemistry. Whatever the reason, one thing is undeniable, when you are with another person in the same space, you feel their presence, and it's profoundly validating of your own physical existence. Virtual communication facilitated by new technologies, although useful, simply doesn't cut it. 'Real' life means connecting with other people in the flesh. They are the link we have to the world. I may be reading too much into it, but the Christmas day bombing targeting a technical communications building in holiday-deserted downtown Nashville, with all its nihilistic peculiarities and symbolism, summed that up for me. 

Monday, December 21, 2020

Trigger warning

Is feeling the same as meaning? When we want to express something that we are thinking we often begin by saying "I feel that ...," which suggests that thinking and feeling are linked to the point of being indistinguishable. In today's science, thinking and feeling tend to be lumped into the same basket, both part of brain function, neurological chemical exchanges, or as some have called them in hipper computer lingo, organic algorithms. But they are very different. 

What I feel, no one actually feels. When I say that I am feeling sad, I can describe the feeling to someone else and they may have a sense of what I am talking about by relating it to their own experience. But everyone's feeling is unique to oneself alone. Feeling just happens, seemingly of its own accord. We don't ask to feel something, it arrives unbidden. Feeling is unpredictable and arbitrary. The situations that make one person feel something may make another person feel the exact opposite or nothing at all. Feeling is like water, liquid and without shape. We need to make efforts to contain it - by making sense of it. 

Meaning implies context. A knife in the hand of a diner means one thing. A knife in the hand of a mugger means quite another. And a knife in the hand of a sculptor means something else entirely. The artist Marcel Duchamp famously posed the question if a urinal was just a piece of ordinary plumbing or a work of art by submitting one for an art exhibition in 1917. Meaning is incomprehensible without context, and context changes meaning. And if that's the case, meaning by itself is arbitrary. Nothing inherently possesses a certain meaning, but rather possesses the possibilities of many meanings. What do we understand from the above example? The context is a necessary and determinant factor. And so if I told you that I saw a man with a knife, you might not be sure what to think, or you might presume. But to truly understand the meaning of the statement you would ask me other questions. Who was he? What was he doing? Where was he? And based on the answers I provided you could understand the meaning of the statement.

Feeling is a predicate to meaning, in fact it is the predicate to meaning. When we feel something what we naturally and instinctively do immediately afterward is ask ourselves what it means. But we don't do the reverse. We can not command someone to feel, but we can persuade them what their feeling means. We can also try to convince them to ignore or distrust their feelings, and since there is nothing as intimate and personal as our feeling, it is the distrust or denial of one's feeling that factors into the origin of anxiety (and its more serious variants, neurosis, depression, etc.) It is our willingness and capacity to make sense of our feelings that determines the scope of our responses. And that's tricky business, like taming and training a horse. The popular word of the day for our emotional responses is 'trigger'. People say that they get triggered by situations or by things people say, which is shorthand for having an immediate, strong and uncontrollable emotional reaction. The implication of being 'triggered' is that the people around you should avoid saying or doing certain things, a kind of warning that ones feelings are the responsibility of others and not oneself. It's a way of saying, watch what you say or do because I might explode. When I think of the word 'trigger', Roy Roger's horse (look him up) comes to my mind. That Trigger was a magnificent Palomino stallion, a movie star of the late 1930s to the early 1950s, who was said to be the most perfectly trained animal in the world. He knew 150 'tricks' including sitting in a chair and signing his name with an 'X'. He was also apparently housebroken, since as a movie star he spent so much time in hotels, theaters and hospitals (visiting sick kids). I am reminded that there was a time when audiences revered a horse who exercised grace and self-control in public. 

Okay, yes, in the end this post was about social media. And also about the cry babies in the White House and on Fox news, CNN too. We live in the era of whiners. People feel entitled to air their unfiltered feelings freely, but don't want to be responsible for the consequences. In fact they become offended when they are confronted with the consequences. There is no sense of shame, embarrassment or dignity. And because feeling trumps all other determinants of meaning (norms, ethical standards, values), there is a resistance to compromise. So to answer my first question feeling is not the same as meaning, and it shouldn't be.

Friday, December 18, 2020

The Big Lie - and lots and lots of little ones too

One side stands for voter expansion, the other for voter suppression.

One side stands for strengthening democratic institutions, the other for undermining them.

One side stands for promoting democratic values, the other for holding onto power.  

One side stands for integrity, the other side for conspiracy and lies.

When I think about what makes this era so unsettling, I don't think it can be boiled down to one person, trump for example, or one economic factor, globalization and the growing disparity between the super wealthy and the very poor, or widespread ignorance and civic disengagement. I do think, however, it can be summarized in one big lie, or rather our willingness and propensity on a broad scale to accept lies being told, even ones that collapse under the most superficial scrutiny. And in America, I'm thinking about one particular big lie, so-called "Birtherism" - the blatantly racist and obviously false contention that launched trump's political career, which promoted the notion that Obama was an illegitimate president because he was not born in America. What makes this lie so interesting to me is that it performed a wide-ranging and multifaceted litmus test of both people, and the informational eco-system in which politics is played out. When trump saw how easily the lie of Birtherism spread, and how readily people were willing to entertain and embrace it, he and those who supported him began to understand how far the cultural, racial and political boundaries had shifted. Birtherism also tested the way the media responded to misinformation. What they learned was that the advent of social media and personalized news feeds allowed lies to be mainlined directly into the body politic without inter-mediation or filter. More than the silo-ing effect, people having their preexisting notions and prejudices being constantly reinforced by curated informational sources (legitimate journalism and conspiracy mongers presented on an equal footing), but Twitter, more than any other single factor, I believe is what accounts for trump's ability to lie with impunity, control the attention of the media, and also for his iron-clad cult-like hold on his followers. 

Of course, trump himself has played an important role. His attention-addicted enthusiasm for amplifying lies has made the fragility of the conventional system even more glaring. The one major difference between trump and other traditional politicians is the degree to which they feel tethered, as opposed to him, to the truth. While most politicians have played footsy with lies, often twisting their oratory into verbal concoctions to avoid outright lies because it would be unseemly, beyond the pale, dishonorable or politically costly. Trump made no bones about lying, in fact he embraced and reveled in it. He lied flagrantly and without limits, and when his lies were disclosed, he either repeated them louder, doubled down on them, or lied about lying. And he was rewarded for lying. The transparency of his lying was celebrated as being authentic. Lying repeatedly and unapologetically was lauded as a show of strength. In this respect he was truly unprecedented. The difference between trump and other politicians could be seen most starkly in 2015 during the Republican nomination debates. His opponents on stage came off as timid and hamstrung by their desire to stick to policy, boxed in by a wish to maintain a level of dignified public discourse, while trump was carefree and unbounded in his rantings, ravings and insults. Any other politician at any other time would not have survived trump's vulgar obnoxious performances during the Republican debates. But not only did he survive, he thrived, eliminating his 15 more educated and experienced rivals, one by one, on his way to winning the nomination. 

What trump understood and demonstrated is that people were not interested in hearing the truth. They were interested in being indulged, enraged or placated. They were interested in blaming others rather than taking responsibility themselves. They cheered his most delusional, ridiculous promises like "I'll build a wall and Mexico will pay for it!" With every outlandish statement trump stress-tested the electorate's tolerance for his duplicity, and found it to be extremely robust. Trump used lies in another way during his presidency: as a loyalty test. He would lie publicly to see who backed him up and who didn't. The more you defended his lies the more loyal you were. It's an old Soviet Communist party strategy according to Garry Kasparov. 

Trump never paid a political price for his lies in four years as president. His approval rating hardly budged. In fact, he was continually rewarded for lying - through the Russia probe, through impeachment, through scandal after scandal. Fittingly perhaps, it was one unassailable, undeniable, and inconvenient truth that ended his presidency: Covid. A truth that he could not obscure with lies, not for lack of trying. After his lies about the pandemic failed to help him win the election, he tried stealing the election with more lies. He has no other game plan. But as I said earlier, trump is not the illness, he is only the most pronounced exponent of a poisoned informational ecosystem. A deficit of trust in the government and media preexisted him, he just exploited it.

How did lies become more attractive than the truth? And how can we ensure that the truth and those who doggedly pursue it win out in the end? Politically-speaking I think these are the central questions of our era. And not just this era but every era, which is why press freedom is constitutionally protected - it's simply that critical to the functioning of society. Because when we cannot or will not distinguish between lies and truth, when we can not agree on the importance of established facts, when the pursuit of truth is not our core value, then there is no foundation for governance, justice or social peace. Social media is here to stay. Like all technologies, it has good and bad impacts on people's lives. Any solution to the problem of pervasive, unchecked lies will likely include regulation of social media platforms by authorities, but also the self-regulation that comes with taking personal responsibility. The one thing I do know is that people will embrace the truth only when the cost of accepting lies becomes intolerable to them. If this pandemic we are living through in which hundreds of thousands of fellow citizens have died is any indication, the price we are willing to pay for accepting lies is appallingly shamefully high. 

Monday, December 14, 2020

Should we be worrying about violent sedition?

Should we really be worried about sedition? Is this really the most dangerous period in the US since the civil war? Or is that just hyperbole? The media being overly dramatic, because it generates ratings? 

The first question to ask is what accounts for the 74 million people who voted for trump? Who are they? Are they supporters committed to him as cultists are to their leader (and would die for him) or are they voters of convenience. My guess is that diehards account for about 50% of his electoral support. Since the country's founding a significant percentage of Americans has despised government of any sort. I see that number as being about 25-30% of the general electorate, largely centralized in the rural (frontier) states. This is trump's base. He successfully sold himself as their champion, an anti-politician who would disrupt and dismantle the government from within. There is no doubt that trump succeeded in doing something no one has done in living memory: He activated a segment of the electorate that has not voted in the past, people who hate the government because they think the government is illegitimate or the system is rigged against them. They are rock solid for trump because he's a maverick who doesn't really have any fidelity to party. In fact, they voted only because of him. Likewise, they don't ascribe to traditional party affiliation (although if they did it would be Republican) because the parties are part of the illegitimate establishment system. They already believe the narrative of a malign 'Deep State' so they cheered trump's narrative of victimization, and celebrated his every move to undermine the institutions of governance and law enforcement. 

The next question: Is this segment of the population more dangerous without a champion in the White House or less dangerous? For the answer I turn to something I learned in graduate school. The so-called Theory of Rising Expectations, also called the J-curve. Essentially the theory states that political violence is more likely when the expectations of success for groups are on the rise. Revolution never happens within a population that has been so completely repressed that they have neither the means nor the hope of success. People become radicalized when their expectations have been raised. So let's apply the theory to trump's base of support. Here was an anti-government segment of the population that has existed on the margins of society with very little chance of success. Success in this instance is defined as minimizing and undermining if not entirely overthrowing the government. Then for a time they had a champion in the White House who was accomplishing their objectives from within the government. The expectations of the group were on the rise. Their champion was then summarily turfed out in an election that he called 'fraudulent' because he did not win it. How are his followers likely to respond? First, they would certainly believe that the election was fraudulent because it fits with their view of government in general. The theory would say that their rising expectations have been dashed and therefore the likelihood of political violence is significantly increased. The answer then is that trump's seditious followers are more dangerous with him out of the White House.

So what is likely to happen next? trump and his base will increasingly become marginalized as Biden's victory becomes reality and GOP members of Congress admit publicly that trump lost the election. Trump will shit talk the members of the GOP on Twitter ad nauseum and continue to insist that the election was a fraud. He will announce that he is running again in 2024, but not as the leader of the GOP, rather as the leader of the 'trump party' because that's what he does, he brands everything under his own name. His post-election grift that raised over $200M was all about consolidating his base of support and underwriting his political future. And what about the GOP? It will break apart, with the anti-government trumpist faction leaving to support their dear leader and his family (Ivanka will seek a Senate seat representing Florida, Don Jr. will also pursue a relatively safe congressional seat.) Now rid of its more radical anti-government elements, the traditional GOP will re-constitute under a new leader and a new banner as a centrist party. Okay I'm not sure about this last part, but wouldn't it be something.

Thursday, December 3, 2020

The Circle

The motto of my great grandparents was 
"Our children will be safer" 
The motto of my grandparents was 
 "Our children will live better" 
The motto of my parents was 
"We will live better" 
My motto is 
 "I will live better" 
The motto of my children is
"Our children will be safer"