Saturday, August 24, 2019

Leviathan Revisited

When Thomas Hobbes published Leviathan or The Matter, Forme and Power of a Common-Wealth Ecclesiasticall and Civil in 1651 I was still a lad. I jest. But I was assigned The Vast Work at least five times in college for classes in both philosophy and political science. I have reread it countless times, a privilege born of my Sinecure that I mean to Use for Good even as I Acknowledge its Potential Abuses of Privilege. (<---hint, hint...). Hobbes is no Cartoon Tiger.
Hobbes argues for an autocrat, one both brutal and beneficent. His title comes from the Book of Job, of course, and refers to a sea monster (more than any whale as such, fie on King James and His Bible, I say). It likely refers to the unruly and composite enormity of the project of the universe, of human nature, and the power of political force. God spare us. God notwithstanding Scrutiny for Existing at All.

While Hobbes' theories of government are far from enlightened, his understanding of human nature is as trenchant and provocative as ever. He argued, for example, that there is no faculty beyond the human mind to determine our nature and that good and evil are constructs based on sentiments rooted in desire. Downright Buddhist of him there, I'd say, and good on 'im.

When Hobbes writes about memory, which is a section to which I often return, the work points centuries forward, even towards modern cognitive theory. What is ever-present is Hobbes' 17th century style, which poses threats to our comprehension and sometimes to our sanity. 

You see, there is a prodigious and often indiscriminate use of capitalization. I think it has much to do with the carry overs from Germanic languages into English, that is, that nouns are by default capitalized. But the matter is hardly consistent. Spellings are conventional for his period but unfamiliar to our modern eye. Diction is complex and challenging as much for expression as for comprehension of difficult ideas.

In short, it's a Big Thing involving Compelling and Strange Matters that not only made lasting impact on me but warrants a short Comment for the sake of Comparative Metonymy. I have in mind our own Leviathan, the Beast in Orange and so Hereby Decree as He Himself would that Tweet Storms filled with Arbitrary Capitalization are only Hobbesian insofar as his penchant for Brutal Autocracy is, in addition to so much else, a Lethal Feckless Calumny and Assault on Modern Grammatical Dignity. It may appear Trivial to cite this Offense given the Magnitude of the Monster himself.

I do note this as an Occasion of Value to consider Further how certain words from Hebrew, in this case, liwyāthān have made their way into Late Latin leviathan then to Middle English levyathan, and so to Hobbes's English but let us Not Toil further since We all know that Trump cannot Read much less consider Etymology. Furthermore, this is not 1651 though We might be Confused by the BiglyNess of the Crimes.

Trump has Jobbian Delusions, no doubt: Non est potestas Super Terram quae Comparetur ei. Iob. 41 . 24" or as We say in the Modern Tongue: "There is no power on earth to be compared to him." Job 41.24. Let there be No Doubt. But Trump is no Hobbes, even if he is a Monster of Vast Girth, Authoritarian Imbecility, Anarchistic Predilections, and Wholly Incapable of Getting This Joke. On Him.

Friday, August 23, 2019

Listen closely, Pandemonium is Optional

Can You Hear Over the Whirl of Marine One?
Listen closely, Pandemonium is Optional

His level of unhinged really has taken on new dimensions, hasn't it? We currently live in a failing reality TV show and desperation for ratings is the tawdry underbelly of the current leader of the "free" world. The Amazon (the real one) burns, Greenland melts (can you buy it on Amazon?), and of course many people are talking about it, like you've never seen before, because fake news. Nevertheless, we must persist.  The way out of this is through this.

Chauncey Gardener meets King Lear? The malignancy and mental illness this insinuates would not be nearly as dangerous if we weren't talking about an imbecilic anarchist who is also the current President of the United States. We'd have many of the same problems but we'd feel a whole lot differently about them. So, are we doomed?

We might be but don't fret. Not that help is on the way. Democrats running for president have a plan for that or know that it's all just an abberation soon to resolve in bi-partisan fealty. If you doubt both, that would make sense to me. We can hope that the candidates' circular firing squad does not resort to live ammunition. That might be asking too much given all the abundance and availability of things we don't need and perhaps too little of what we do. If you think we need a dose of truth, that might be asking too much. We're going to need something far more potent.

You see, things that are true are not necessarily as helpful as you think. I'm not advocating solipsistic narcissism even if that's the current fad. There is an alternative and to put it in the vulgar it goes something like this: try not to lose your shit. At least for the next 515 days, some 17 hours, etc. If things go south before then, well, feel free to lose your shit.

But let's return to the problem in the meantime. Wittgenstein always helps in a pinch. I kid you not. Well, maybe a little.

Take, for example, the following indisputably true sentence: If pandas eat fish, then pandas eat fish. You don't have to know anything about pandas to know that this _sentence_ is true. It looks like fake news of the real variety. That is, If you know anything about real pandas then you've likely already stopped reading.

But logical propositions are true no matter the content. (Think about that for a moment.) And what your experience tells you about pandas tells us nothing about the truth of the proposition, which may be empirically vacuous---as it is in this case. The lesson from your Pedantic Professor is this: we need truth, we gots to have it. But it's more than truth that is at stake. We need sanity in these utterly insane times. Never mistake logic for experience. Things can be true and still meaningless in the world that tests your sanity. The task to sustain sanity never abates.

But just because true sentences can be as ridiculous as current presidents of the United States, doesn't mean that you are entitled to a reality wholly of your own making. That too, technically speaking, is called "losing your shit." Everything is not just _your_ opinion. Don't do that. Don't go there. Reverting to "that's my experience" or "that's just someone's opinion" is giving in to the fake news just as much as believing in fish eating pandas that eat fish.

This means that when it comes to experience make sure you don't rely solely on _your own_. You can be mistaken even if you aren't mad as a hatter or dumb as Trump. A more honest strategy---and forgive me for getting all serious about this at this late stage in the game---is to remind yourself that, yes, we really are in this together. We're going to need each other's sanity to use both logic and experience to keep us from _feeling_ too crazy, too distraught, or too traumatized to act. Think but be wise. Feel but don't give in.

Now you can ask sanely, what happens to America if the market crashes, the Russians decide the Balkan states are theirs, or ISIS manages to do some hurt on the homeland, and we still have The Chosen One as President? Yeah, we're screwed, fersure. I am not the paranoid sort unless there is reason to be and we should resist doomsaying to honor the language even when it fails us logically. Thank you, Wittgenstein.

But we should not forsake pandas, our best assessments, and how we make them _together_. Now is not the time to double face palm unless you are as wise as Jean-Luc Picard and have someone watching while you take that break. We've 515 days of this nightmare left, if we are lucky enough to break the spell. Pay attention. Or enough to get through it.

Like you, I don't underestimate the stupidity of the people who did this to us in the first place, including those who decided not to participate in preventing it. But let us not distract ourselves with the near-past. Any viable future (okay, okay, let's assume) depends on embracing this paradox: we're going to have to stay the course of sanity to change the course we're on.

It does seem like the madness is winning. We can be mad about that. But we can't lose the plot, pandas do not eat fish, and we gotta trust enough in goodness to be good. There is no goodness but what we make. That means the whole mess is up to us. You're worse on your own, you know that. There may be irredeemable and incorrigible stupidity and evil in the world. Personally, I have no doubt about that. But we can be good, do good, and survive this. Whether or not we ever truly flourish as we could, that might have to wait for better days.

Monday, August 5, 2019

Why Honest Journalists Take the Bait, Or What the Actual Fuck?

It's so easy to snooker the "objective" media. It's as if they can't not take the bait. And of all the candidates and voices who understand this, I think Beto really called it out best. I'll get there in a second but let's understand first how the non-Fox world of the True Fake Media plays rope a dope with itself. In the process they fail America miserably.

The news that's fit to print is supposed to be honest and so look to create a non-partisan representation of points of view. They are there to report different opinions. However, the press is also supposed to declare what it understands to be the facts. This creates a self-destructive stupidity that gives Republicans exactly what they want.

Because Republicans are shameless liars frauds and liars, they understand perfectly how to wind this first idea around the second. First, they make their declarations---sometimes willfully ignorant, sometimes dissimulating purposefully, and always with an eye on their audience so they will nod, wink, and grasp their real intention. Enter racist white supremacy politics, including efforts to suppress and gerrymander the vote, intimidate people of color, and pass every kind of law that puts non-white men at some disadvantage.

The establishment racist Republicans don't want the violence to interrupt their policy objectives, which are overtly racist. The list goes on. The evidence that Trump has emboldened, encouraged, and _fed_ the racist delusions of his white nationalist followers is indisputable. Shall we add to that the entire ecosphere of Fox, particularly Carlson and Hannity who have repeatedly asserted that immigrants make the country "dirtier" and express their own anxieties about "multiculturalism"?

The Party of White People is rallied to "conservative" causes that legitimize their bigotries using whatever cover-ups and dog whistles they need. Trump just feeds them the red meat. The press takes the bait because there are so many racists, so many pathological Republicans that they have to "normalize" their views. It's like talking about Mormon theology _as if_ it weren't insane. Have you read the Book of Mormon? Even a little? But because they own the State of Utah and act like Romney, we don't say to them What the Actual Fuck?! Legitimacy is the facade that disallows honest questions.

And then no less than Anderson Cooper will ask with a straight face if the president is a racist and then _follow up_ with "Why do you believe that?"---to satisfy his own (and the network's need) for the objective performance media bias. The right wing has so cowed, so intimidated the mainstream with accusations of being biased that matters of _fact_ must be treated _as opinion_. Cooper knows, he's not stupid. But he gives the "both sides" nod _in spite of the facts_ and just to hear it out. This is a serious mistake.

It is a _fact_ that Trump has demonstrated in his long history of racist behaviors that he has passed the test. It waddles, it quacks, it's got the right feathers and looks like all the rest of them: it's a duck. So asking if the racist is a racist is either a kind of professional self-soothing so as to meet their own emotional standards of professional objectivity or it's just being used by those who know that the reporters and their networks are stupid enough and effectively bullied and brow-beaten to do their bidding.

So on Saturday a reporter asked Beto O'Rourke as he was walking to his car Sunday: "Is there anything in your mind that the president can do now to make this any better?" Really. This was a question. Beto replied, "Members of the press, what the fuck? It's these questions that you know the answers to." Yes, what the actual fuck: can we instead ask questions about how to respond Republican complicity in racism, or just anything a little more honest? Does this reporter believe that after three years and a lifetime of racism that Trump, who owes his entire career to these vile sentiments and uses them everyday to create discord, to fear-monger, and inspire hate, is somehow going to change?

These reporters are smart people, well some of them, and so it's more interesting to ask why they act in these reprehensible ways that pander to the needs of their misinterpreted professional "responsibilities." Such horseshit but in fact it's actually worse than that. You see, most Americans have no attention span, don't read, and have been taught for more than a generation to distrust and hate their government, especially "Washington." No one gets elected as an insider professional, that being a sure way to lose. Notwithstanding, the press by failing to _start_ with the facts does the Average American a very serious disservice.

You see, all Average American will hear is "both sides do it," "it's ALL just partisan the SAME partisan bullshit," and that there are NO facts. They have been taught and deeply encouraged by the Right to deny ALL facts but the propaganda because the Right can count on the press to "report", "ask fair questions" for both "points of view," and NOT go to the facts first. Average American thinks it's a food fight when it's really the press giving the Goebbels-Fox Team the win. The same thing happens with guns. As if the idea that weapons suited for _war_ can be brought OPENLY into Walmart LEGALLY so long as they are not used---and this IS the law, normal then for America. We are okay with that?

One side wants to question that, the other wants to make sure this remains exactly the way it is. There are not two sides. There is a right side and a wrong side. Of course, NOTHING will happen in Congress because one side will make sure nothing will happen. But the press will report that "Congress has done nothing" and Average American hears that it's just partisan bickering. The press participates wholly in the delusion and the Right laughs all the way to the gun show.

Thoughts and Prayers, Or Why Power Defines Ideology and Actions

We know what everyone is going to say before they say it. I make no claim to illumine so much as attempt to further the human pursuit of understanding. "Understanding" is one of the ways we try to make "order" in a world that refuses to give what what we believe we want.

In a world of powers our ability to use power defines human success and failure. Greatness as the question of value---is it worth it? That will have to wait for now. We must come to terms with the instruments of power and that means violence must come first.

We want security, pleasure, and above all meaning because we suspect in a deeper sense that the world could be meaningless when we know there is no way to sustain order.
Order means what we think it means: our needs, desires, and interests are addressed. And since there is no way to maintain all we want we often resort to supernatural claims like God knows or the more nondescript spiritual "mystery" and use whatever we can to console, bypass, or just hold on for one more minute.

Modernity complicates the problem because we can no longer force everyone to agree that our God is the one true God: the ultimate is no longer as coercive or as compelling a source of stability as it once was. We are plural now but no less factionalized about who _should_ be in charge of what we know cannot be managed by mere human efforts.

Religion always asks for the impossible and demands it. Enter the Right. "Spirituality' admits a measure of impossibility and claims its understanding leaves us to ponder further as we sort it out or "wake up" to a "deeper truth." Enter the Left. Both predicate solutions to the irresolvable, which is why both invoke in some way the need for "thoughts and prayers."

We want what life will not offer but as humans will insist upon. Ambiguity and uncertainty is the greater threat to order that both sides abhor for fear that it is the deeper truth. It may be the unholy truth that we having only as much certainty as being human allows. However uncomfortable that makes us feel we must learn to be uncomfortable if we are to come to human terms.

Truth that depends on the provisional and the incomplete and yet nonetheless capable of taking us to the moon and beyond is not what we _really_ want. Giving up the delusion of what is impossible is felt to be defeatist (the Left) or heretical (the Right), depending on how you deal with the facts of human limitation.

The Left will now tepidly suggest reasonable gun measures with some qualification about "supporting" the 2nd Amendment. The Right will, of course, talk about threats to the 2nd Amendment, invoke the thoughts and prayers distraction, and claim anyone deviating from the talking points is unseemly. We can't talk about taking human actions when God is involved and the dead are still being actively mourned. It's all too familiar and insidious. The irony that not talking about the sources and instruments of violence is political is ignored on the Right. God is a reason for whatever they want.

On these same matters I would suggest too that a modern trope works like emblem for Left and Right both. This appears as the "spiritual" vs. "religious" claim for meaning-making. The Left wants to be "spiritual" about the issues, appealing to feelings of commonality and then turn as quickly as possible to some practical, humanist solution. What are we going "to do" comes post haste. The Right finds this unseemly at best but in fact heretical.

So we find the Fox meme that Democrats are "already" politicizing another mass shooting and insure that their do-nothing strategy gains its own momentum again. Their aim is to make sure they control the narrative such that the narrative cannot change: it is what "conservatives" want, they want to impress upon us that "order" comes from appeals to the orderly and thus to the Order Maker. "Religion" depends on claiming moral superiority, be that "freedom," "truth," or "patriotism." It's all about legitimizing the claim to power, that is, maintaining authority.

Thus, we humans are incapable of knowing the right thing and our actions need to defer to the Almighty. The mechanisms of human manipulation and control are never far from their agenda and when you decide God must first and last decide you have weaponized the ultimate in the service of the agenda. The agenda here is to maintain power, use the threat of power, and so invoke authority however possible to create the outcomes of power.

What that power seeks is control and when it spirals into anarchy it will use the claims of authority: the law, the heroic law enforcers, God, freedom conferred by God (in this case particularly the 2nd Amendment), and other claims to God-given, God-sanctioned power. That power is of course used to serve some social and political end because religion is not about individualizing feelings---that is the "spiritual"---it is always about putting them in structures of power and order such that people will do the bidding of the powerful.

The masks of religion have been temporarily torn off or perhaps not so temporarily. But the masks are real. Religion understands structural power and its manipulations and so the Right knows that control can be maintained with appeals to the supernatural and obedience.

When obedience fails then violence can be used to maintain order but violence as a threat and a tool is never far from the objectives of power. Those who disobey will be called "mentally ill" and the problem reduced to "derangement." When violence "breaks out" it disrupts the smooth claims of power: to enrich itself and maintain control.

The violence endemic to the structure must not be investigated because their God with wrath for the disobedient is one of "mercy" for the compliant. The threat of violence, like actual violence, is foundational to the structure of power itself, ultimate power is ascribed to God who is little more than those who wield it. Thus, the Republican politicians have preferred the threat of violence and, of course, don't fancy what happens when their sycophants assume the role of God which they assign to themselves.

At this point their religion is also nationalist, racist, and misogynist, and the goal is to keep power in the hands of white men---where it has "always" been. This is not only historically true but is part of the deeper purpose of religion itself: to _maintain_ order in a world that promises nothing because God's "mystery" includes the fact that all manner of unwanted things happens even to the God-fearing "compliant." Doing God's work means rooting out the cause and the sources of "evil "who are none other than those who threaten their white power. 

The "real" cause of evil, which is disorder not attributable to their "just" God, are those those who would take their power and rearrange the power to their disadvantage. Violence is the common recourse to those who prefer to make money from such threats to power---think McConnell, Trump, the NRA, the grifters, those who imagine themselves the stewards and keepers of order, that is particularly young white men with guns fueled by the threat of the other as the emblem of change, undermining their power, and so order itself.

Interestingly America as an ideal is built on values that treasure evolution and progress---we claim to pursue a "more perfect union."

If we can suspend for just one moment the venal hypocrisy that has always been the nation's shadow and its real sins then we can claim that our desire for order can take up imperfect means too. This is itself a threat to In God We Trust order because it places the burden of truth in reason and humanism.
We will have to allow truth to be on-going, flush with a greater awareness of what threatens us, and a recognition that our human desires must contend with being incomplete. But that will not happen if we fail to understand that power---white male power--will not relinquish its claims to absolute and ultimate control without violence as a threat.

Our ideals of plurality depend not on thoughts and prayers but on the recognition that power must serve conflicting values that may not recognize or reconcile with each other. The stakes are sustainable difference as a model of plurality in a society that makes access to violence as simple as ordering on the internet or shopping at Walmart.