I just solved our political impasse

I’d like to announce my non-candidacy for a some office either too insubstantial to make any actual difference, or too high-ranking to stand a remote chance of attaining ten votes nationwide. I’m doing so because I believe in feelings and beliefs, and feel that my feelings and beliefs are sufficient to both not win, and to not risk causing any sort of actual change that will improve anyone’s actual life at all.

My platform is really quite simple.

Let us resolve the abortion and gun culture wars by implementing one simple measure once and for all. Allow people to continue owning guns, and allow others to use them in the commission of abortion. Problem solved.

Support folks in building their favored socialist or survivalist utopia within the context of our present economic structure. There are no shortage of co-ops and suburban enclaves, no shortage of gutter punk houses and Amish communities, no shortage of Costcos that will outfit your commune with bulk pickles and entire pallets of toiletries at a low, low price.

Indeed modern capitalism enables a voluntary socialist community to outfit itself at a tax rate of approximately 0.01%, so long as they can endure itchy buttocks and occasional constipation. Substantial amounts of land can be purchased in the backcountry for about $5 per acre, and Amazon.com will soon deliver to these remote areas by drone.

Universal healthcare can be implemented overnight by resorting to inexpensive and well-founded medical products, like crystals and shots of apple cider vinegar. Climate change can be addressed through the clever use of geodesic domes. Income inequality can be curtailed by using a cryptocurrency available at a sharp discount to commune members. College tuition can be eliminated by hosting free local workshops, teaching people to code but also to weld. When people learn that welding will enable them to earn five times as much as a person with a degree in the classics, the people will rise up and choose to weld shit together.

Keeping these innovative and entirely realistic proposals in mind, I hope I won’t earn your vote in the relevant and tedious celebration of our lack of essential liberties that occurs every so often and leaves all of us miserable and disappointed.

Learning other political languages

Lately I’ve been reading The Three Languages of Politics, a fine little book by Arnold Kling that argues there are three primary axes according to which we think politically.

While these axes can be coextensive, and if one is thinking clearly each will come to bear on their political thinking, in practice we often keep to our preferred axis. In so doing, we limit our political imaginations and transform political conversation into a petty feat of demonstrating our allegiance to some political tribe. This is a primary process by which polarization occurs, of course, and is only compounded further by the geographic and social segregation of our political tribes.

So, what are the axes and which is preferred by each tribe?

Kling argues that conservatives tend to frame their views along the civilization-barbarism axis, progressives prefer the oppressor-oppressed axis, and libertarians appeal to the liberty-coercion axis.

One may find this all very simplistic, but that’s part of the point. These are thought to be the primary, not sole, axes by which we render our political judgements (or at least, by which we talk about politics). In practice, almost everyone uses a combination of all axes. Nevertheless, most of us are prone to underweight one or two of these axes in our thinking due to our partisan blinders.

Let’s suppose a person is mugged at gunpoint. This model would hold that a progressive is more likely than others to consider society’s complicity in producing muggers. A conservative is likely to appeal to the mugger’s lack of virtue or self-reliance, in turn a consequence of social degradation. In contrast to these, a libertarian is more likely to focus on the actual instance of coercion by the mugger, and perhaps discount the more distal causes as speculative and unnecessary.

We can disagree about how to weigh the relative importance of these, but all three perspectives (at least) are required to gain insight into mugging. Because we’re often inclined toward the perspective that predominates in our tribe, we should pay special attention to those we’re predisposed to discount, and ask if that’s justified or if our dismissal of another perspective is merely a product of our ideological bias.

Let’s reinforce the distinction with a more controversial issue: abortion.

On this model, when discussing the morality and legality of abortion, a progressive will typically appeal to the oppressive circumstances leading one to choose abortion in the first place, such as poverty. A conservative will tend to argue it’s a question of moral character, or an unwillingness to sacrifice oneself in order to raise the child. A libertarian view emphasizes the autonomy of the woman, her right to a kind of bodily integrity, provided the fetus does not have a similar claim to liberty. Whether it has such a claim is largely shaped by our scientific understanding, and therefore subject to evolve as the science evolves, rather than an a priori (and often speculative) moral principle.

One interesting aspect of this minimal framework is how it can be used to predict how one partisan will respond to another partisan’s view as well.

The progressive might suggest the conservative is uncaring and ignorant to social injustices, at best, or actively seeking to dominate women’s bodies at worst. Talk of moral character is perceived as evidence of the conservative’s oppressor nature, seeking to impose their values onto others. This is in line with the regular mailings I receive from Planned Parenthood’s political front, claiming that pro-lifers are waging war on women. (A strange view, given roughly half of women are pro-life, and the sexes hold just about the same views on the topic. In my view, the rhetoric is on a par with that of the “Abortion Holocaust” people.)

The conservative may claim the progressive holds callous views with respect to human life, and are evidence of society’s moral degradation. They may acknowledge the unfortunate circumstances of the pregnant woman, while insisting on the importance of self-sacrifice. They may champion the possibility of giving the child up for adoption, or similar alternatives that they find more morally prudent.

The libertarian will tend to discount these background matters and focus on the act itself. They will perhaps argue that scientific understanding is paramount, helping us to assess whether the fetus can feel pain, or otherwise has characteristics that may lead us to recognize it as an entity with natural rights. That somewhere between conception and eight months twenty-nine days, the entity becomes a person, and that science can help inform us when that roughly takes place. Otherwise, the entity should be regarded as a form of private property, and the woman’s liberty to choose abortion must be defended.

Naturally, these axes can be applied to most any political or social question. It is most constructive – to the ends of persuading others, and enhancing our own understanding – when we accept the (at least partial) relevance and validity of each axis, and aim to synthesize the axes we’re instinctively apt to disregard into our understanding.

For the mugger, we can accept their lack of moral character, while also maintaining that their circumstances played some role in this. We can hold these conclusions, while also finding them a bit speculative. As a result, we may seek to weigh more heavily the essential fact that the mugged person was violated, and that the mugger is likely to harm others.

If one is conservative and hopes to make inroads with a progressive, they may validate the concern about the mugger’s upbringing and impoverished circumstances, while emphasizing that many virtuous people come from miserable conditions, and that ultimately we are defined by our decisions. A progressive hoping to make inroads with a conservative on this topic may concede that we are responsible for these decisions, but argue that the range of possible decisions is narrowed when one is subject to adverse circumstances.

Similarly, even with highly contentious matters as abortion, it is possible – indeed vital to our understanding – to synthesize these perspectives accordingly.

We can respect the woman’s claim to exercising control over her body, while finding it unsettling and abstractly even a bit degrading to terminate potential human life. We can help address this tension by determining what factors lead us to attribute rights to some entity, and decide when an entity deserves protection, as informed by our scientific understanding. If we have a strong moral view, we can advocate for a sort of “harm reduction”, advocating for conditions that enable women to choose to give birth if it’s what they desire. These concerns or views are not fundamentally incompatible, and there’s plenty of room for productive compromise.

For virtually any political or social question, each axis should play some role in our thinking, and it is likely that we all underweight the axes that other tribes follow. When we do not correct for this, we participate in toxic polarization, reinforce and deepen it, and allow our minds to be colonized by the loudest partisans.

That is a tragedy for our understanding, for finding productive compromise, and for our relationships with those who think differently and have something to teach us.

Dangerous knowledge

Paul Goodman reflecting1 on a group of campus hecklers in 1967:

I realized that they did not believe there was a nature of things. [To them] there was no knowledge but only the sociology of knowledge. They had learned so well that physical and sociological research is subsidized and conducted for the benefit of the ruling class that they were doubtful that there was such a thing as simple truth, for instance that the table was made of wood—maybe it was plastic imitation.

To be required to know something was a trap by which the young were put down and co-opted. Then I knew my guests and I could not get through to them. I had imagined that the worldwide student protest had to do with changing political and moral institutions, and I was sympathetic to this. But I now saw that we had to do with a religious crisis. Not only all institutions but all learning had been corrupted by the Whore of Babylon…

  1. From New Reformation, p. 70-71

On the purported oppression of writers

Chris Weigl on why being a writer is dreadful:

There are times where being a writer sucks. In fact, tell me when I get to the good part. You struggle your whole life to fight for an idea that needs validation from someone in a position of authority to succeed. It’s nearly impossible for writers to earn a living and by that I mean earn a mediocre living wage so we can live in some of the most expensive cities in the world. You can’t get a job because just about every job feels unfulfilling compared to writing. In essence one cannot get a job because they would lose their will to keep on writing. That’s where society’s values are at. […]

If you believe the right-wing lie about makers vs. takers though writers would be the worst offenders as most of us can’t afford to pay our bills, can’t afford health insurance, and depend on government services to be doing things that corporations should be paying us for. The issue isn’t makers vs. takers at all. If it were writers would be sitting on the upper triage of society along with teachers, engineers, architects and construction workers. We’re the people who really make shit. Yet, most writers are at the mercy of corporate America and we get screwed every time. Our skills are de-valued for reasons passing understanding while those who prop up said corporations decry America’s moral decay. […]

Journalists are viewed as parasites, but it’s their job to keep people in power honest because passive voters sure as hell aren’t doing it.

As much as I appreciate “creative” people, and fully support a guaranteed minimum income, I’m weary of the kinds of arguments that “creatives” often make with respect to their work and its devaluation.

My uneasiness stems from two facts: The simple truth that all people are profoundly creative, and that designating a particular class of individuals as “creative”, only serves to devalue the great majority who don’t have the luxury of living a life of the mind—a luxury despite the financial difficulties of “creatives”. One who has a couple children, a mortgage, and a car or two isn’t necessarily living high on the hog, yet for them the option to join this “creative” class essentially doesn’t exist. Presumably they are to be considered deficient in some way.

The second reason resembles the first in its arrogance: Even if we accept that “creatives” are a distinct class of people, virtually every difficulty that Weigl mentions applies doubly to many people in the United States, let alone the forgotten non-people stuck in the Third World.

Indeed, one can quite literally replace “writers” with “people” in Weigl’s post, and achieve a fairly accurate picture of the world. The failure of many writers to acknowledge this or engage with ordinary people—people often ridiculed as “passive”, members of the teeming masses, the bewildered herd, and so on—can’t be discounted as a source of their financial woes. More importantly, however, such egoism is perfectly compatible with the social stratification and oppression that Weigl regrets.

One way to oppress others is to stomp them with your boot. Another is to form a kind of vanguard, anointing oneself to lead the ignorant masses to salvation. Both should be avoided.

Three stupid words

From L. Susan Stebbing’s Thinking to Some Purpose (1939):

We should not allow our habits of thought to close our minds, nor rely upon catch-words to save ourselves from the labour of thinking. Vitamins are essential for the natural growth of our bodies; the critical questioning at times of our potted beliefs is necessary for the development of our capacity to think to some purpose.

I’ve noticed three words becoming more prevalent in political discussions. These are words that tend to promote “potted beliefs”, and I think it’s worth examining them, so that we may avoid them or use them more carefully. These words are “problematic”, “narrative”, and “offensive”.

Each of these words has a more literal meaning, which is frequently unused as it carries little of substance. Suggesting that something is “problematic”, a “narrative”, or “offensive” doesn’t really say very much. At best, each creates a very superficial kind of distinction, such as when people say that such-and-such apples are “real” apples, without suggesting that “fake apples” actually exist beyond the familiar plastic replicas you might keep in a basket. When used in this manner, they’re perfectly fine words. The problem is, they’re seldom used this way in fashionable discussion.

Rather, the way in which they’re often used is quite different. “Problematic” is often used apparently as a substitute for “untrue”, which as Bertrand Russell puts it has all “the advantages of theft over honest toil”1. Once something is said to be “problematic”, any further discussion is to immediately cease, or else one is liable to be summarily executed as a counter-revoluntary. To explore just why something might be untrue is an unnecessary complication that would only put a damper on breathtaking rhetoric.

It’s a rather strange notion, assuming that pursuing just why something appears untrue aids one in forming compelling arguments about the matter, which is presumably desirable by those who disagree with something. Therefore, I can only assume that those who find something “problematic” do so because they do not know why they believe something is untrue, and have merely inherited their views from others. If they were born in another era, perhaps they might believe that extending labor rights to children would be “problematic”.

“Narrative” is a word that’s used by people who have been so successfully abused by advertising that they believe the world is merely an arena in which competing fictions duel for the prize. Coca-Cola says they’re the best, while Pepsi says they’re the best, and so one must embrace intractable confusion surrounding matters of soda.

On such a view, “truth” is merely a construct formed by the powerful, rather than (say) lies mislabelled by the powerful. It’s unclear on what basis one should choose to propagate their favorite “narrative”, except for perhaps their chance membership of one insular group rather than another.

As for “offensive”, it is a word that can be used sensibly, but it can also be used in a vacuous manner similiar to “problematic”. When in doubt, a person should simply replace the word with the reasons for which they find something offensive. Sometimes they are quite reasonable. Otherwise, to state that something is “offensive” without much elaboration is to merely suggest that something stimulates a particular response in you, as if by reflex, and that others should share your response. Religious fundamentalists surely find all manner of fun offensive, as uncritically as pets yield to our commands. However, the question remains, “Why should we share your response?”

These are only a few words of many that are often used foolishly, and I don’t know the extent to which they actually shape our worldview. On the contrary, I tend to think their peculiar usages simply reflect some pre-existing stupidity which we all share. Nevertheless, after ridding yourself of them you may find yourself once again, as Stebbing puts it, “thinking to some purpose”.

  1. From Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy, 1919.

The ritual performance of democracy

From Lewis H. Lapham’s Feast of Fools, a fiery and honest essay on the “ritual performance of the legend of democracy”:

On political campaigns:

They stay on message with their parsing of democracy as the ancient Greek name for the American Express card, picturing the great, good American place as a Florida resort hotel wherein all present receive the privileges and comforts owed to their status as valued customers, invited to convert the practice of citizenship into the art of shopping, to select wisely from the campaign advertisements, texting A for Yes, B for No.

On faux-dissent:

The cable-news networks meanwhile package dissent as tabloid entertainment, a commodity so clearly labeled as pasteurized ideology that it is rendered harmless and threatens nobody with the awful prospect of having to learn something they didn’t already know. Comedians on the order of Jon Stewart and Bill Maher respond with jokes offered as consolation prizes for the acceptance of things as they are and the loss of hope in things as they might become. As soporifics, not, God forbid, as incitements to revolution or the setting up of guillotines in Yankee Stadium and the Staples Center.

On the most expensive dramatic productions ever:

Happily, at least for the moment, the society is rich enough to afford the staging of the fiction of democracy as a means of quieting the suspicions of a potentially riotous mob with the telling of a fairy tale. The rising cost of the production—the pointless nominating conventions decorated with 15,000 journalists as backdrop for the 150,000 balloons reflects the ever-increasing rarity of the demonstrable fact. The country is being asked to vote in November for television commercials because only in the fanciful time-zone of a television commercial can the American democracy still be said to exist.