Friday, September 29, 2017

The Grammar of Fitness A Boring Lesson To Explain Our American Failure

Though it has been said from the outset and can't be said too often, Trump is unfit for the office.  Alabama Republicans just nominated for the Senate a malignant ingrate and religious extremist, but even worse, someone who possesses a fundamental disrespect for the rule of law.  This willful ignorance and rejection of the tasks of government comes from the people who elect them.  It is the people who are demanding that our leaders need not  respect nor understand the grammar of democracy.  Americans are refusing to meet the basic requirements of citizenship.  Let's call that requirement the grammar of civics.  Have I bored you yet?  Wanna read more?

Professor Krugman makes the case in some detail this morning for the evidence of unfitness for governance, as if we needed more.  But let us be just as candid about what it takes to be a republic, to elect our leaders.  It requires a populace that is also fit, one that is responsible enough, informed enough, and committed enough to respect the underlying structures and institutional formations.  The idiotic "drain the swamp" meme is another excuse to reject the tasks of fitness.  And that, my fellow Americans, is not only America, and it's not just the Trump voters, it's the issue too among non-voters and non-participants.  We have no commitment to the requirements of fluency in the language of democracy.

That our President is a narcissist incapable of any response but to his own autocratic impulses tells us how ill-equipped America is right now for this century ---or any.  We have reduced "civics" to a dirty word or, more likely, an incomprehensible word.  I would venture to say that most Americans could not define it.  So understanding civics becomes much like studying grammar: a subject nearly all of us hate, refuse to do, but need far more than we believe.  We need not all become grammarians but we all need some.  Just enough to diagram the sentences that create fluency.  Usually we get fluency without any work because grammar is too natural and implicit.

In a natural language like English, we all use a grammar no matter what dialect we speak.  There is no "standard" English but that of the group in power demanding we conform.  We manage some kind of understanding because in a natural fluency we recognize the meanings within structures that demand only the minimum effort.  In every ordinary encounter we listen to understand the sounds, the syntax, the organization of the words ---and that means that we apply grammar reaching into the rules even when we are not aware we are doing it.  This is because we don't need to be _too_ aware, we can just do it.  We already know what to do because we do it adequately and we do it instinctively.  Of course, the more we think about this, the more we grasp that understanding another is going to require a lot more than understanding the words that are spoken.   So even when the underlying grammar is implicitly coherent to us, we are going to have to work for meaning.

But being a citizen is not like speaking a natural language.  We are treating democratic citizenship as if it were just something we know how to do.  But the evidence is in.  We are failing.  John Stuart Mill wrote about this and he was right: there are requirements of the populace if the democracy is to survive and flourish.  So why do we need to know the grammar of democracy if we are instinctively capable as we are when we are fluent in our mother tongue?  We need a different kind of language to make the point.

Sanskrit has the same requirement that comes with living in a democracy: it demands the study of its deeper structures, it requires attention to grammar in ways that other spoken languages do not.  When we speak fluently our mother tongue it is not because we have learned its grammar from any formal study.  Rather it is that we have reached into an instinct that is human and developed an innate ability (see Steven Pinker on this).  But no one has spoken Sanskrit as a first language since around the time of the historical Buddha ---and don't believe any political propaganda that makes this claim.  You cannot learn Sanskrit without  a requisite study of the rules of its grammar.  Yeah, yeah, and it's hard.

Similarly, it's not natural or instinctual to be fluent in democratic citizenship.  We are not naturally given to working within contrived structures of representative leadership, we are not instinctually charged to be responsible to the history of institutional forms, or demanding of our leaders that they be.  It's going to require some tedious, unwanted, and serious effort to be up to the tasks of democracy.

Democratic citizenship's grammatical requirements are hardly Sanskrit but they are real enough: left to our own devices, complacencies, indifference, and lack of awareness the results will be the election of Trump or Moore.  We have elected people unfit for the tasks of rule of law, disrespectful of institutions and structures, and willfully ignorant of all of the other basics of civic grammar. We Americans don't want to do the work.  Who does?  It's grammar!  It may not be fun to pay attention to grammar when you think you are fluent in the language of democracy.  But this is no natural language.  It is an invention as magnificently artificial, contrived, and unconventional as, say, Sanskrit.

Friday, September 15, 2017

The Lying Strategy or the Merits of a Good Idea, Because Winning Isn't Cynical, It's Necessary.

In this age of short attention spans, virtual facts, and lowered denominators, let me ask: when is it important to exaggerate, lie, and cynically promise the moon when you know that leveling with people is a loser?  Do good ideas need to be lied about or surrounded with misleading, unfinished, and incomplete truths just to get an airing?  Do we have to promise the moon just to deliver a pizza?  How do exaggeration and untenable promises play a role in creating the necessary memes?  Does all that just set you up for failure, berated eventually as a sell out when you can't make it happen?

The right wing in America has a _machine_ set up to allow their lies to go unchecked and repeated.  It's called Fox, Breitbart, Rush, Hannity, etc.  The left has no such mechanism and then goes on mainstream media shows only to be legitimately interrogated, forced to take the facts seriously, and get creamed because, well, when THEY lie, they get busted.  The right's false equivalences go largely untouched or the right dismisses the MSM and honest journalism is deemed fake.  It's lose lose here.  But we persist with the same necessary question: do we lie to _get the right idea on track_ OR do we level with people?

Religion, I will also remind you, has a long, storied history of promising everything and delivering little.  And these religions have a way of WINNING, if by that we mean, they are still around spewing their nonsense.  It's not about leveling with people, it's about selling them something they _want_, and if that involves nonsense, so be it!  Jesus is coming.  Said the 1st century evangelist.  Okay.  Continue to LOOK BUSY.  I  assure you.  He's still coming. Umm, sooner or later.  Right.  You get the point here.

But the issue isn't only religious fantasies.  There's something far more practical I have in mind.  I'm asking about how to reach into people's hearts and minds and PLANT A GOOD IDEA that otherwise will just wilt or fail.  I'm asking with seriousness if it is actually necessary to go through this process of dissimulation FOR GOOD REASONS, that is, to get something eventually that is more honest.  Let's be plain: without the bullshit, no one pays attention and no one buys the story they _want to hear_.  Turn it around: too much honesty, same problem only worse.

Now, one could argue precisely the opposite: that a good idea needs no exaggeration or false sell because, well, it stands on its own, it's a _good idea_.  (If this were true Rajanaka wouldn't be, you know, just us...)  So this strikes me as patently false, at least for the majority and not-us.  We live in a country where people regularly and routinely ignore their interests, vote against them, and fail to take seriously almost everything that is important because they would rather watch reality TV and believe it.  There are people who think Obama was born in Kenya and lefties who think Bernie's healthcare plan could pass a Congress.

So the good idea I currently have in mind is universal healthcare and some sort of single-payer system, which is currently being sold as "Medicare for all."  Here's why I think it's a good idea being lied about: math and fear.  The math problem isn't that it can't be solved.  There is no reason why the richest country in the world can't afford healthcare for all: we know the oligarchs and their politicals will oppose it and work tirelessly to convince the low information American.  Since most Americans get their healthcare from employers, which doesn't mean they get good care, they will be reluctant to change when they find out that premiums, deductibles, and other costs are now called "taxes."  The word "taxes" will be enough to scare them to no.

What's left then is _how_ to get to healthcare for all and some or another single payer?  Do we go with the Bernie talk, which has zero chance of winning unless there is a complete Democratic take over of every branch of government including 60 votes in the Senate?  OR do we tell the truth about that?  I'm not kidding.  We NEED to get people onto OUR meme, which is healthcare for all MUST happen.  So do we knowingly tell them exaggerated bullshit, the way Republicans do _all the time_ (e.g., repeal and replace with NO REAL PLAN)?  Or tell people the truth about incremental change and real costs, you know, LEVEL with people?

This week, among the 17 Senators siding with Bernie's Medicare for All, are serious Democratic Presidential candidates.  The question is this: are they honest AND should they be?  Not so much.  So I'm thinking that Harris, Booker,, are taking a play from the Republicans: promise the moon and work the facts _later_.  Why not tell the truth?  Because it's too hard for Americans to accept what's real and, more importantly, they _need_ a hype to hear _anything_, they need a team, a cause, something BIG to root for.

So we're left with two strategies: lie big to try to make the meme take hold or use acidic candor to try to deal with practical facts.  The latter tactic ---cool honesty--- has not served us any better than lying big.  And it has the added disadvantage of believing that people, our fellow citizens, the American people are adults and will act accordingly.  I seriously doubt that is possible given both attention spans and the hard to swallow facts.  Should we lie big to get the point across or keep to the hard facts?  I wonder.