Sunday, September 23, 2018

The Fix is In, Democracy and the Sham of Democracy

There are any number of articles in the past few days and, given it's Sunday, there will be more today in which reasonable people will say reasonable things about the Kavanaugh nomination, Rothstein, and Trump's madness. All of these presume we as Americans are playing the same game. Unless we all pretend we're in this game, that is, as those resisting the Republican objective, there may be nothing left. But let's first clarify why this is a game and why that is not a trivial way of putting it.  Fans of democracy need to take note.

By "game" I mean the rule of law as well as the traditions and ideals that are supposed to protect the rule of law and the function of our democracy---however incomplete, corrupt, hypocritical, and craven that project of government is both now and historically. Do Democrats in power really suffer this misconception that the current Republicans and "conservatives" are playing by the same rules or mean to?

Republicans are interested in the game only insofar as it is a means, an excuse, a pretext for their objectives of power. The Democrats mouth the words of the game (i.e., the rule of law, democratic institutions, etc.) and the press follows with the revelation of facts, analysis, and the hope that someone like Robert Mueller "still" stands for the law as such. They repeat how this or that is some really big deal because the abyss of tyranny is real and far too grim for most to accept.  We live in a surreal mockery of democracy built on the strength of differences that must be treated with respect and addressed in ways that allow us to live with slightly less than tyranny.  Unless Democrats participate in their own self-deceptions about American democracy's functionality they are left with nothing but the facts of tyranny upon us.  Tyranny is upon us.  It's a tough one to admit.

The irony that Republicans (and Democrats on the left) claim that Hillary was the fix is a treacle of Orwellian doublespeak worthy of, well, Orwell.  Secretary Clinton proved that America is not ready for seriousness, whether or not you agree with her ideas or believe she represented corruption.  Politics is always corrupt, can we admit this? How else does one answer to all that money and all that power and all that it entails? We must measure in quantities, not only qualities.  We must understand that the best democracy involves compromising to your adversaries and finding a way to live.  Perhaps it could be less corrupt?  But let's not digress from the moment.

Democrats and the press may _have to_ act like this because it is the _pretense_ of democracy that is all that may be holding us together. What you will witness this week in the Senate---and have over the course of the Kavanaugh hearings--- is something more craven and more honest. You see, Republicans don't care anymore, if they ever did. Trump has given them license to come out, to show their hand. The game is now for all to see. It is not a game at all. The fix is in. McConnell counseled patience because, well, they have the votes and the power and whatever they want will come to pass. The rest is all show. Republicans believe they are _entitled to rule_.  Governance by compromise, by shared interests, governance that demands we live by imperfect accommodations of difference, that is not their agenda.  Not. One. Bit.

What Republicans know is that government is professional wrestling: it's there to entertain, at best, the mob and create a pretext for cashing out and working their will. The Court is simply the most explicit example of their patriarchy and their claims to power, entitlement, and _rule_. Put another way, governance by democracy is a pretext, a sham because Republicans mean to _rule_. Not just Trump, not at this point. It cuts more deeply. And they will do or say _anything_ to do that. Nothing is beneath them. Nothing will stop them. There is nothing to persuade. To bring this to fruition requires the affected, adulterated, spurious appearances of democracy. But they care not a fig for that or anything else but their entitlement to power.

This is their moment. An election could (temporarily) thwart them. But they will not relent and for as long as they maintain their power, they will do anything to keep it. This is why even an election may not function any longer; they have help from their authoritarian allies, the big money, and theirs dupes who long to be led, to be _ruled_ and to rule over those they despise.  That would be us.  Clear?

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Pure Power at Any Cost

It's Power, Just Power
Kautilya and Machiavelli Commingled

There's a classic of Sanskrit law attributed to Kautilya called the Arthashastra. It makes Machiavelli look like a kitten playing with string. But put the two together and we have some chance of understanding what is going on with the Kavanaugh hearings. It's about power.  There's nothing else in the picture.  No image available.

For the next five days we will hear the continuing voices of reason regarding due process, fairness, and decency that should be the real issues involving Kavanaugh and the wholly credible voice of Professor Ford. Editorials, TV pundits, and the _majority_ of the country will demand a fair reckoning, a call to the rule of law, and urge a bipartisan effort to uncover the truth. This fails to understand the Republican pathology, its determination, and strategy. Democracy is a ploy, an inconvenient obstacle that has no bearing on the end game.

Kavanaugh is precisely the justice that Trump promised his electorate: he is the frat boy right-winger they have voted for time and again. Grassley, Hatch, and the rest of the white men who were there for Clarence Thomas are not about to let this crowning "achievement" slip away. Kavanaugh will be on the bench come hell and high water. He will vote to overturn Roe, make sure Citizens United remains the law, and do the bidding of their extremist agenda like the partisan hack and ideologue he is. Republicans will do _anything_ to complete this task.

Their base demands it and their money men require it. Every hope of remaining in power requires they do whatever is necessary to give both their religious fanatics and oligarchs their man. That Kavanaugh is a proven liar is of exactly zero consequence. That Trump is a dangerous narcissist unfit for office has no bearing on them. To think any of this talk about due process or serious investigation means anything to the Republican leadership is pure delusion. Collins and Murkowski and the lot of them will fall in line. Their careers depend on it. Money, power, it's plain as day. They will say and do anything to make sure this happens.

We can rightly criticize Democrats for living in some alternative universe of laws and ideals but that, in fact, doesn't matter. They don't have the power to stop this and Republicans know it. It's only about power. And everyone knows that.

Nothing can slow the Republican Party's advancing authoritarianism but removal by election. They must have the court on their side and this guarantees it for the next thirty years. But even if an election slows them down, their Republican pathology of patriarchy, oligarchy, and religious fanaticism remains. Eric Cantor, Ryan, and McConnell proved that when President Obama was elected and they committed to his failure at _any_ cost. Trump is merely an inconvenient and embarrassing tool who they can ignore so long as he gives them their agenda. He will. Trump knows what it takes to feed the mob.

The entire Republican establishment will continue to tolerate him because he's the red meat that feeds their circus of low information voters and presses their single issue buttons: guns, god, bigotry, sexism, and the rest of their needs when faced with failure in a changing world. The wealthy just want the money and Republicans make sure they get it.

When Trump delivers Kavanaugh he is half way or more to reelection. "Conservatism" in America is a disease rooted in our long history of authoritarianism, bigotry, racism, sexism, oligarchy, and religion that will remain, win or lose come this November. It may be a dying ideology in blue States and for the _majority_ of Americans but white power, patriarchy, and money will do _anything_ to remain in complete domination. Democracy is only a minor inconvenience when there is this much at stake.

Our hope lies in electoral decimation, sending them to the margins. That's still quite a long ways off. They know it and so should we. The long game is nothing but the short game. That's how they will play it and that's how they can continue to hold power, win or lose at the polls.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

My Heart Aches, My Reason Seethes with Rage

Roe is obviously about far more more than a woman's right to make her own health choices or abortion. It is as much about those who seek to control women, who seek to shame, manipulate, or use people for their own purposes, and who would impose their will and values on others. It is a test of decency, a matter that cuts to the core of liberty and probity, and its weakening or overturning poses a threat that brings us closer to tyranny, oppression, and an imperiled life determined by the will of the minority. What is clearer to me than ever is that nothing will stop those who seek this power and that there is nothing that can persuade them of their error and their evil.

The irony is rich: the deciding voice will be not only another white male with far beyond mainstream religious beliefs but one appointed by a president who boasts of sexual assault, elected without the majority of female voters, and in need of this justice on the bench if he is to retain power. This phony president is empowered to proffer a lifetime Supreme Court appointment that will endure for _decades_ and produce decisions that will deeply affect the course of public life and the country---all as a gift to the ex-frat boy now credibly accused of attempted rape.

Kavanaugh will find his ally in the irredeemable mendacity of the all-male all-white Republican Judiciary Committee. His goal is to join with the likes of Clarence Thomas, who we know now not only for his sexual misconduct, his proven lying, and moral debasement but for his dangerously out of touch judgments on the law. He will find a true colleague in Thomas since both will demand our respect by virtue of their office but stand apart for their vacuous moral character. The highest court in the land will have then a majority determined to vote against the court’s three women and gleeful to impose the will of their patriarchy.

How much more of America's future will be further decided by men beyond the pale of decency and without the slightest respect for a future that no longer tolerates their privileged claims to power?

I reject every last bit of this horror and I will fight however possible this tyranny but the facts are undeniable, bitter, and deeply saddening. I want to live in a world in which these forces of regression and patriarchy are in retreat, not in power and gaining power.

We can only hope these rancid men are crushed under the weight of their own venality and our good efforts to see them fail. Where the future lies depends on who will care to reverse the horror they insist we accept as law.

Monday, September 3, 2018

Loving Life Invites Truth: Deconstruction, “Fake News,” and Making Meaning

One of the more compelling elements of the yoga tradition are sources that suggest we change the world when we understand more about it. Our actions, intentions, feelings are driven by feelings and impressions, and often incomplete and lazy arguments. The tasks that demand rigor, seriousness, a conscientious appeal to facts---best we can discern---and arguments---organized to insist we must all play by some of the same rules to communicate---are not easy or welcoming. It’s gonna take time, effort, a willingness to ask very uncomfortable questions as well as a deep intention that demands a willingness to change your mind in the face of changing evidence. Are we asking honest questions or just the ones that we feel we can ask?

Careful here. We can put ourselves in peril with too much candor. Candor might be asking too much. It’s unlikely adults will be persuaded or dissuaded of much of anything that they regard as hard won conviction or tribal dogma. The best we might hope for is a budge, some listen and learn and maybe bend, some move just a slight from where we started. But I digress. The issue here is to distinguish the messenger and the message, the explanation from the implication of advocacy.

In a recent Washington Post piece philosophy professor Aaron Hanlon makes an insightful argument about the uses of meaninglessness for political purposes. Here’s the link:

I think he’s got this bit right, “…the real enemy of truth is not postmodernism but propaganda, the active distortion of truth for political purposes. Trumpism practices this form of distortion on a daily basis. The postmodernist theorists we vilify did not cause this; they’ve actually given us a framework to understand precisely how falsehood can masquerade as truth.” One of the more mordant ironies expressed here is that those claiming “fake news” are not only propagandists actively distorting truth---they can claim with a straight face that “truth is not truth” and at the same time claim reliance on absolute religious truths. Whateveris said is manipulated to further any given agenda or just as easily ignored when some other goal is expedient. Because their God abhors abortion, shameless lying and other “sins” can be summarily dismissed. This isn’t mere hypocrisy, it’s an authoritarian artifice meant to maintain power at any cost without the slightest nod to conscience, integrity, or care.

At the outset Hanlon captured the meaning of “post-modernism” in a few clear sentences. How ironic is that, eh? Gotta’love that. Clarity about a world that we now know can’t ever be made clear? A world that we can reasonably argue has no inherent purpose, natural objective, or meaning because it doesn’t need any of those things---much less a God---to continue to do what it does. But Hanlon does a fine job here explaining the honest purpose of deconstruction and it’s worth quoting at some length (so here we go, read on, please), “Jacques Derrida’s concept of “deconstruction” sought to understand language as a system capable of constantly hiding and deferring meaning, rather than a simple conduit for conveying it. Another thinker, Jean Baudrillard, developed the concept of the “simulacrum,” a copy without an original, that leads to the “hyperreal,” a collection of signs or images purporting to represent something that actually exists (such as photos of wartime combat) but ultimately portraying a wild distortion not drawn from reality. Each of these concepts was an attempt to identify trends that, according to postmodern theorists, were changing our understanding of language, truth and knowledge.”

Hanlon suggests that these ideas are meant to explain our modern situation, not loose chaos, nihilism, and meaninglessness upon us. So even if the world is more chaos than comprehension and order little more than a distorting consolation, even if life has no inherent purpose, meaning, or goal, we need not be captive or victims of nihilism. These are interpretationsof what is happening rather than efforts to change the world further into such vagaries of being. He argues these philosophers offer insights and interrogations and have forsaken Marx’s plea: “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” On the contrary, the effort here is to fathom something about the world first and what's left to change can only follow from that effort. I think there are Indian philosophers who would admit as much: understand what you can first, even if it’s just māyā, and do what you can because that’s true enough. That there’s no effort on the part of deconstructionists to change the world with meaninglessness, well, for that I think we can be grateful.

I want to side with Hanlon on this and say that true deconstructionists demur nihilism as a way of life, they're here merely explain it. An inherently meaningless world need not be made into meaninglessness and so it spares us the cost to our sanity that Marx would extract if the philosopher’s agenda is to change the world into personal vision. I want to live with believable explanations, however rife with limitations and complaints of incomplete, unfinished understanding. I also want to invent some meaning and try to live by those principles and values, no matter how contrived they may be. I can live without morenihilism in my life, there’s plenty. I’m pretty sure I don’t need more help feeling more desperate about the mortal condition. But I’m sure I don’t want any more consolations that demand more “faith” or belief than this storm of reality seems to offer.

I never tire of reminding my students that Charles Darwin withheld the findings and averred the implications of the theory of natural selection for twenty odd years before he was compelled to reveal his place in the history of ideas. After Alfred Russel Wallace came to much the same ideas about evolution and natural selection, the truth needed to find a way forward. Wallace was a good sod about it because Darwin got the credit he deserved. But they both came, more and less, to the same theory: a theory that really does explain how we got here as living beings. Truth can do that: it can appear without consultations or conspiracies because human minds can discern from evidence things worth knowing. I confess my own bias in this matter since I would regard Darwin’s idea as the single most important insight in the history of human thought. But both Darwin and Wallace understood how unready we humans are for truth.

Before Darwin we had no explanation of human existence that wasn’t mere religious assertion; after Darwin we found out that these meaning-making efforts were at best consolations and, more truthfully, memes of historical recursion imposed upon us by traditions, by the kind of authority that can use them to direct and dictate our behaviors and control our interrogations of human nature. The outcome of this Single Best Idea Ever is eventually the explaining deconstructionist.

When we can explain the world without gods, the specious excuses of mysticism, or some or another fanciful assertion of supernatural ineffability, the world becomes more believably ineffable: it really is more than we can fathom and daunting in all of its prospects. If we want a life that is more than mortal we’re asking for something that we’ll never all agree is real. The Buddhists, like their Hindu brethren, seem to have captured the problem of suffering correctly: we suffer, things will go amiss from whatever benchmark of happiness we desire, and what we want is often the cause of further suffering. In the spirit of Darwinians and deconstructionists we might stop right there---we can admit the first two “noble” truths, ignore the third about nirvana, and then query what’s all that’s “right” about any path’s claims to right this and right that. Buddhas are supposed to know, supposed have solved the problematics of this human condition but then we find ourselves tripping again over religious claims. Can we make peace with our condition when, after all, no one is reallyin charge of anything or really knows what’s going on? How could they? Who would that be?

Darwin understood that his theory left out god, buddhas, siddhas, the whole lot of them, anyone claiming to having all the answers. And so did Hawking more recently when he declared in print that the physical universe was well enough understood without a god and that what we do seemto know doesn’t require any such claims to omniscience or omnipotence. Leave out the fantasies, stick with what we can try to prove with our human tools, like math and imagination. We are indeed left to our human devices however incomplete, provisional, and co-dependent they are upon our merely human agreements and perceptions. It would appear that Nagarjuna was right after all when he told us that the Buddha we experience as our experience is not at all the Buddha. That there is something more ineffable than our experience is now self-evident. The “problem” is that this ineffability is no consolation and provides nothing better than our very human achievements. But do we need better? I think we being slightly more attuned to being mortal might suffice.

The (further) good news is that these hard truths about life don't make life harder. They will require us, as Darwin foresaw, that we change our very stubborn opinions inherited from history, culture, and habit. No one likes that. It’s important, I think, not to get all angry the facts, even if they’re grim or disappointing. Nothing about a world that made us from physics, chemistry, and the accidents of biology cooked in a crucible of time, space, and luck tells us that our human accomplishments, ideals, or values are nonsense or pointless.

Despite the conspiracy theorists and wingnut deniers, we humans have been to the moon and back, we’ve cured some terrible diseases and we can make mortal life more pleasant and tolerable because we have understandings and the means to do as much. We can’t stop death and it’s likely we’ll never knock human evil off its perch but we are capable of amazing things, some even wonderful. Our prospects for venality and abilities to cause pain may be beyond attenuation but there’s plenty about what we have invented that brings joy to our individual embodied and oh so brief tenure in this world. Is death as a finality really that gruesome? Hume joked that because he didn’t miss the world before he got here how could he miss it once he left.

The deconstructionist reminds us that meaning isn’t merely hidden and deferred, it must be invented and imposed if it is to be believed at all. Belief doesn’t make things true or real but it’s part of how we function in a world that will otherwise annihilate us, with alacrity. Rather than deny us our need for character, the argument for a meaningless world invites human beings to acknowledge that they are creating worlds of human invention and distorting them to suit their needs and desires. We tell ourselves the stories that please us, even if those stories cause us pain. While we can’t control what we need, we can dream and want and imagine in ways that really do soothe and animate and encourage us to keep doing things we value. Those things don’t have to bevaluable prove, the proof is that we value.

There’s something here quite like the many versions of māyā theory that inhabit Buddhist and Hindu traditions: the world we are measuring may be little more than a measure of ourselves and that often turns out poorly, with all the limitations and terms imposed upon us by a world that makes us from itsprocesses of measurement. But not all māyā takes us to pain or worse; there’s plenty of māyā, no matter how illusory or invented or contrived that gives us reason to live life a bit more audaciously and love what we do. Even if all we cando is fool ourselves, we need not think ourselves fools.

The Sanskrit verb here that takes us to māyā is /ma, to measure, and is obviously cognate to our English words “measure,” “meter,” you get the idea. We measure in worlds defined by our experiences of difference and its values. When we do this māyā “well” then things like technology “work” in the natural world and we become socially capable of virtue, acting both for and against immediate self-interest’s measurements. Things will break, after all “things fall apart; the centre cannot not hold,” but that is precisely what the deconstructionist tells us could never have been true and won’t be, not matter what we do.  Is that really so awful?  It doesn't have to be.  We can decide for that.

When we insist on measuring poorly---or when we give up caring about what we know we do not control---we seem capable of doing nearly anything without regard for conscience or consequences, to ourselves and to others. Humans can be deplorable in ways no other living creature could warrant such description. But we’re capable of inventing better and it doesn’t have to be more real than temporal and ephemeral, composed of the limited terms of a human life. We can be good and we can do good, even imperfectly, incompletely, with all the failure and shadow included.  Pay that measure forward and we might even have reason for hope. Give freely what you love and others might come to respect you for your commitments.

Just because the world doesn’t provide meaning doesn’t mean we can’t construct some, deconstruct what we’ve constructed, or commit further to efforts to understand what we want and what we are prepared to do about it. What we understand about life may preclude any greater certainty but what’s more dangerous to ourselves and others than being certain? I’ll tell ya’: it’s the propaganda that denies that meaning has meaning even if we’re only just human. We will be better humans when we decide to create from a deeper commitment to our mutual joys. There’s just not enough time (or anything else) to ever get it “right,” so let’s try to make things work a bit better for everyone.