What Should Philosophy Do (Part 2)

Last week, we outlined four answers to this question, provided examples of each, and following a brief discussion of Comte’s Law of Three Stages and the rise of materialism as a philosophical dogma, brought our discussion to a tentative conclusion: philosophy should attempt to identify, clarify, and critically evaluate worldviews as it finds them in society. Whether it should construct new ones is a different question. This suggestion is surely as reasonable as anything presently available. Among the factors that prompted Horgan’s discussion (cf. links in Part 1) is the fact that while philosophy may be institutionalized in academia (although there are institutions where it is in peril) as a cultural force it is arguably on life support. The idea, repeated by John Horgan and dating to early positivism (Comte) that philosophy shouldn’t presume itself able to compete with science to find truth is, in great part, what led to its current low standing. For when you give up the idea that philosophy ever finds, or should seek, truth, what happens?

Horgen’s ensuing discussion (Part 2, “Maybe It’s a Martial Art”) begins by noting the passionate mental combat which animates philosophers: how they go after each other, sometimes not merely vigorously but almost viciously, to defend their views as “the right ones.” He cites some revealing examples, if from outside philosophical literature (academic journals) per se, in, e.g., the exchanges between John Searle and Daniel Dennett over the existence of consciousness in The New York Review of Books (NYRB). If he’d wanted to look at an exemplar in academic literature, he could have cited the comments which followed Searle’s original presentation of his Chinese Room thought experiment in his infamous article “Minds, Brains, and Programs” (Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 1980), later expanded into the short book Minds, Brains and Science (1984). Although Searle’s argument was aimed at “Strong AI” (the idea that a properly programmed computer really would have a mind in any reasonable sense of that term), many commenters took strong exception, in a few cases becoming surprisingly, shall we say, unfriendly. Horgan somehow missed the acrimonious exchanges between Searle and French deconstructionist Jacques Derrida over speech acts during the 1970s and later. The two, obviously, had vastly different methods for doing philosophy–so different, in fact, that each one questioned the legitimacy of the other. In the mid-1990s Searle described Derrida’s infamous “nothing exists outside texts” as “preposterous.” Finally, as a non-APA member Horgan was not in a position to see the fight over “gender feminism” that erupted near the end of the 1980s and continued on into the early 1990s, that fight’s ground zero being a paper by “first wave” equity feminist Christina Hoff Sommers paper “Feminism Against the Family” which exposed the Marxist roots of “gender feminism” as well as its authoritarian tendencies, especially over women.

Someone arguing that philosophy is a form of mental combat, the intellectual equivalent of a martial art, thus has some material to work with. There are many exchanges in the philosophical literature, often as book discussions, that display such tendencies in much more modest forms. But this begs us to ask, What, in the larger scheme of things, is such mental combat good for? Its participants eventually walk away (sometimes in the above cases with a distinct sense of needing a bath) each thinking he/she is right and has “fought the good fight” or however else rationalized, but (1) such events, even at the modest level, tend to be atypical; and (2) even were they not atypical, why should anyone doing this be paid for doing it, or receive tenure because he or she has proved to be very skilled at it?

With a somewhat strained argument, Horgan compares the mental combat inherent in philosophy to martial arts, where top practitioners have higher aims than merely winning contests. In winning an honorably fought contest, they seek to become better humans. Becoming better humans suggests ethics. It can suggest other things including mere power-playing, but let’s concede this one. For whether philosophers should eschew truth claims in favor of ethical ones as a key to improving their own or their students’ or others’ conduct in life is surely a reasonable suggestion.

My response has three parts.

(1) Elsewhere I’ve surveyed modern ethical theories and why I believe they do not merely fail but fail miserably, assuming their aim is to provide reasoned guidance in determining what to do, how to solve genuine ethical dilemmas, how to evaluate actual human conduct. My context was a critique of the materialism that underwrites much of the philosophy of the past century and a half, via efforts to stay out of the way of science, although humanistic ethical theories–theories, that is, that begin with some aspect of our nature as human beings–had put in their appearance well before.

(2) It is one of the dogmas of philosophy within modernity that the factual and the ethical are logically decoupled and therefore in separate domains: Hume’s fork (“ought” cannot be derived from “is”). But one’s worldview surely involves commitments to specific claims about reality, about what the world is like, and what we are like, in ways that have implications for what is possible for us and therefore for what ethical system(s) we might adopt. A Christian will look to God’s commands. A “third stage” atheist, having made the metaphysical judgment that God does not exist, will look possibly to Mill or to Rawls or to the Non-Aggression Principle: humanism in one form or another. My point is, he will start somewhere, with something akin to a factual claim (that, e.g., as a matter of fact it is wrong to initiate physical coercion against others) and derive from it what constitutes morally acceptable conduct, Hume notwithstanding.

But (3) Where can we look for evidence of genuine progress in ethics that has impacted on the world of modernity–as opposed to a better understanding of how ethical language works (that we have that, I don’t think anyone will question)? Yes, we’ve abolished slavery. Or have we? We’ve abolished the chattel slavery of the Ante-Bellum South, but have we not reinvented it in other forms? There’s room for a conversation here! Yes, attitudes that were once acceptable, such as unabashed expressions of race-based hatred, no longer are. Oh, wait a minute. Are we sure about that? Just the other day, I encountered this. While not intending to suggest that such contentions are common, given that they happen at all, how much progress have we made?

The real world, however we define it, is full of horrendously cruel, inhumane practices, some of which we need not go outside Western civilization to see. The U.S. federal government supports a war machine that has displaced hundreds of thousands of people in the Middle East just since 2003, the year Bush the Younger began the disastrous Iraq War, most likely without consulting just war theory much less principles of non-aggression. The U.S. “justice” system incarcerates a larger percentage of its population than any other advanced nation, including for non-violent offenses. Arguably, the practice of solitary confinement is a form of torture, as we now know what prolonged isolation from human contact does to a person’s mind. We know physical tortures ranging from brutal beatings, so-called waterboarding, and sleep-deprivation, have occurred in CIA “black sites” in foreign countries, out of sight from prying eyes. Government is not the sole agency of organized cruelty. International sex traffickers have raked in billions of dollars. The practice does not just occur in foreign countries. Finally, the biggest money-maker on the Internet is–wait for it–pornography, in which men as well as women are physically degraded for money.

It is thus amazing how easy it is for philosophers–or other academics or intellectuals–to convince themselves that we’ve made moral progress! They should review the Milgram Experiment; or realize that as they read about an event such as the Holocaust, that Hitler himself never raised a hand against a single Jew. Nor did Josef Stalin kill anyone personally (that we know of). Nor did Mao. Such events would not have been possible absent the cooperation and collaboration of thousands of people in chains of command and obedience who would have rationalized their behavior by saying, “I was just following orders.”

All of which suggests an improvement to the suggestion for the aim of philosophy offered at the conclusion of Part 1, and at the outset above. In addition to whatever it has to say about worldviews and their influence, philosophers can surely provide a public service, and a service to humanity, if their subject can serve as a basis for criticizing authority and blind obedience to it–blindly following, en masse, the commands of supposed leaders, political or otherwise. What kinds of worldviews encourage or enable blind, thoughtless, unreflective obedience to authority? How are such worldviews maintained? How do they use language? I don’t claim that such queries are new. But obviously they are needed. We’ll pursue them, and how they fit with Horgan’s summation and call for “negative philosophy,” in our third and final installment (hopefully) early next week.

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What Should Philosophy Do (Part 1)

Inspiring this series of posts (I’m thinking there might again be three) is John Horgan’s series on “What Is Philosophy’s Point?” in Scientific American (five installments, here, here, here, here, and here). I should begin by saying that I am delighted to see Horgan’s writings, whatever specific agreements or disagreements I may have. Scientific American has a fairly wide readership, much of it outside the confines of academia. At least that readership will see that the subject still exists, that it hasn’t been defunded by misguided university administrators, absorbed into so-called cognitive science, or buried under an avalanche of identity-politics.

Modern philosophy as an endeavor, enterprise, discipline, or whatever we want to call it, has never ceased to agonize over its identity — especially after the sciences came to dominate intellectual culture. Even philosophers who maintain they have found the perfect identity for their field, have not managed to convince even a majority of other philosophers, though they may have achieved a substantial following. Ask 20 different philosophers What Should Philosophy Do?, and you might not get 20 different answers but you will doubtless get several. This won’t happen, it goes without saying, with physics, or chemistry, or biology. It might happen with art, if Brian Eno can be believed.

When lecturing students at the very beginning of an Intro to Philosophy course, noting that many would find the subject rather mysterious, I used to identify four distinct answers to the question, yielding four distinct approaches to philosophical activity. Without implying that the four are hermetically isolated schools of thought, none touching the others:

(1) Philosophy seeks to develop, or articulate, a comprehensive theory or account of the world and everything in it, including our place in it, (often) some account of what the good life consists of, and (often) a diagnosis of the difference between what the philosophical ideal and the socially real. Some might call this a worldview. Philosophy is theoretical system-building, in other words. Exemplars from the history of philosophy are aplenty: Plato and Aristotle; St. Thomas Aquinas; Descartes, Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Kant, and Hegel; in the twentieth century, someone such as Whitehead. Before going on, we should note the immediate problem that “progress in philosophy” usually seemed to mean each philosopher crossing out most of what previous systems had to offer and substituting his own, validated as it were from inside. We should also distinguish among philosophers the system-builders from the system-smashers. Each of the above were system-builders. System-smashers included (indirectly) the Sophists whom Plato and Aristotle despised; early modern writers such as Montaigne (to whom Descartes was responding, at least in part); Hume when dealing with natural theology (not in his broader epistemological and ethical views); Kierkegaard, Nietzsche; the later Wittgenstein in his anti-essentialism; and in the late twentieth century, Thomas S. Kuhn (however reluctantly), Paul Feyerabend (enthusiastically), and all those identified with postmodernism (Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida; on our side of the Atlantic, Richard Rorty with his “neopragmatism”).

(2) The second answer: philosophy is analysis, not synthesis. The absence of agreement on whose philosophical system is the most defensible is a problem, as we mentioned. So philosophers turned in large numbers to efforts to clarify their own problems or questions. How can we expect to make progress if we’re not clear what we’re talking about? Sometimes logical-linguistic clarification concluded that a given problem, such as free will versus determinism, or the mind-body problem, is based on linguistic confusion and should be given up. Whereas a systematic philosopher of the first school may try to prove that the will is free, someone doing analytic philosophy wants to know what it means to say the will is free. Does it mean acting outside the causal structure of the universe? Whatever can this mean?! Or are we merely ignorant of the causes of our behavior (as behaviorists insisted). Or does acting freely just mean the modest and commonsensical notion of acting without another person or institution compelling us to do so? Acting freely in this sense is compatible with determinism (hence the term compatibilism). Philosophical analysis began to develop in the 1800s. It was not, of course, invented in the 1800s. Socrates was doing very basic analysis when he asked Euthyphro to define piety; or Meno, to define virtue as a precondition to answering whether it can be taught. The founder of sociology Auguste Comte questioned whether theoretical, system-building “second stage” philosophy had any place in a scientific world. He was not a system-smasher, though. His answer was “third stage” positivism, which hands the questions philosophy had hitherto dealt with over to the hierarchy of the sciences. Comte set the stage for philosophy as the logical analysis and clarification of language. And as they had newly-developed and very powerful formal-logical techniques to work with, major nineteenth century thinkers starting with Göttlob Frege led to Bertrand Russell across the English Channel, whose articles and treatises (along with those of his colleague G.E. Moore) defined the early course of analytic philosophy — and also its “third stage” mindset. Despite its Continental roots, analytic philosophy soon became dominant in the English-speaking world. Every student who pursues academic philosophy soon realizes this. Ludwig Wittgenstein (both Wittgensteins!) and Viennese logical positivism led the way to A.J. Ayer, P.F. Strawson, and J.L. Austin in the U.K., and in the U.S. the leading thinkers (e.g., Carl Hempel, Ernest Nagel) called themselves logical empiricists. Their primary goal was clarifying explanation and justification in science, which included extensive explorations into inductive logic, Bayes theorem, and so on. Eventually analytic philosophy evolved under withering criticism of some of its own products, leading to major figures like W.V. Quine, Wilfred Sellars, and later, John Searle, Saul Kripke, Donald Davidson, and Michael Dummett among others (these being the names I typically think of first). I spend more time on this answer to, What Should Philosophy Do? because its techniques prove powerful when used outside of philosophy. I am unsure this power is truly appreciated — even by many of its own practitioners who often leave themselves open to criticism for the insularity of their activity (although in fairness, insularity became a comfortable path to academic tenure and financial stability long ago).

(3) The third answer to, What Should Philosophy Do? was offered by the existentialist / phenomenological tradition that took root primarily in twentieth century Germany and France. Philosophy, in this view, should set out to describe the human condition—perhaps standing in isolation before a God none of us truly understands (Kierkegaard, who might be regarded as this tradition’s founder), or in a world without God (Heidegger, Sartre, etc.). This tradition engaged in its own form of analysis; one thinks of the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl and figures like Maurice Merleau-Ponty — even linguistic analysis (Ferdinand de Saussure). In my humble opinion, contributors to this tradition expressed their generally dark assessments far more effectively in fiction and plays than formal philosophy. I find Heidegger’s and Sartre’s formal treatises to be unreadable, but the latter’s Nausea is guaranteed to disturb anyone who finds himself experiencing what Sartre was getting at, regarding the “for-itself” confronting the “in-itself.” Much the same can be said for Albert Camus’s works, especially The Stranger. Although existentialism was primarily a European phenomenon, I would argue that existentialist themes permeate American novelist Ernest Hemingway’s works. Meursault, the lead character in The Stranger, and Krebs, from Hemingway’s short story “Soldier’s Home,” are virtually interchangeable in a world each experiences as meaningless and vaguely hostile, absent an anchor-point of value and confirmation such as God.

(4) Finally, we get to the idea that philosophy should not merely describe but rather change the human condition. Paraphrasing Karl Marx (from his “Theses on Feuerbach”), philosophy has only described the world; the point is to change it. Philosophers, in this view, should see themselves as obligated to use whatever skills they have to expose power relationships and provide critiques of power while allowing marginalized voices to be heard. Relevant here is whether those of us who do philosophy, do it as an end in itself or as a means to other ends. Marx would have disdained the former as a bourgeois luxury, contributing nothing to class analysis or the coming struggle between those who own the means of production and those with only their labor to sell. The idea, which has its roots in Hegel’s distinction of the differences in perception between the master and the slave, has animated Marxian philosophy and also the various late twentieth century developments such as race-conscious philosophy, radical feminism, queer theory, and so on. However much identity-politics may be seen as a wrong direction (to be bluntly honest, I see it as such), the idea of producing critiques of power survives such a criticism. This answer to, What Should Philosophy Do? can easily incorporate philosophical analysis by exposing how language can be weaponized and used as an instrument of thought control and domination in institutions, or in society at large, by whichever groups with agendas. It can, for that matter, incorporate elements of the systematic approach by noting the kind of worldview or theory of reality in which exercising power is most at home, “legitimizing” itself by nothing more than a capacity to wield deadly force if challenged.

These, then, are the major answers to the question, What Should Philosophy Do? (I am not asserting that there are no others; I am only saying they are the prevailing ones. Anyone truly educated in philosophy is at least aware of all four even if he or she rejects all but one of them.)

Turning our attention to reviewing Horgan’s series, then, his main title, “What is Philosophy’s Point?” is surely a variation on our, What Should Philosophy Do? 

At first glance, in light of the above, the series might not look exactly impressive. Part I, (“Hint: It’s Not Discovering Truth”) repeats a refrain that has become familiar in the past few years since Stephen Hawking declared philosophy to be dead in the introduction of his The Grand Design (2010). (For whatever it’s worth, I meditate on and attempt an extended answer to philosophy is dead claims here.)  The refrain, as we see from the above, though, is hardly new. Above we mentioned Comte and referenced two of his three “stages.” The Law of Three Stages, he called it (or States or Conditions, terms he uses interchangeably) is as follows: the first is the “religious or fictitious” state; the second, the “metaphysical or abstract”; the third, the “scientific and positive.” The first, using a somewhat different metaphor, might be thought of as our intellectual childhood. The second, as our adolescence — somewhat reckless, its reach exceeding its grasp. The third, in that case, is our mental and cognitive adulthood as we stand on our own, without gods, myths about intellectual certainty, etc.

Comte believed inquiry was converging on this final third stage.

I am at work on an extended tract arguing at length that Comte had the germ of a sound idea in his “stages” view of inquiry, but that he was wrong about the his “third stage” being the final one as well as the sort of progress made in reaching it. That, though, is a conversation for another time.

The point to make here: Horgan’s first installment is permeated with third stage thinking, I will call it — as is the bulk of the philosophical work he has to draw on, which he tells us inspired him to write these pieces: fascination with the mind-body problem which has produced easily the largest literature of any single issue in modern and recent analysis. Is it really a problem? For whom? Some, such as Gilbert Ryle (of the post-Wittgenstein “ordinary language” school) believed it mired in linguistic confusion. Rorty, much more recently, argued that the sense of there being a mind-body problem was nothing more than our use of a special vocabulary, one that drew on obsolete (seventeenth century) notions; what can be done to dissolve the mind-body problem is to get rid of the sense that this (or any other) vocabulary represents or “mirrors” reality and that it is the job of philosophy to find and justify the vocabulary that does.

The sense of a real, live problem about mind and body has survived Rorty’s efforts, though. What has seemed to create a problem has come down to a single question, visible in the work of the brilliant Australian philosopher David J. Chalmers: how can we make sense of the existence of consciousness (i.e., our individual consciousness as a kind of private, inner stage, important to us, from which each of us views the world) in a material universe in which all configurations of “matter” are, in the final analysis, of equal “value”? Most readers will recognize this as one way of describing “hard problem” of consciousness which has loomed large in philosophical conversation since the 1990s.

One answer to that question is taken by the Daniel Dennetts of the philosophical world, who deny that a reifiable “private inner stage” really exists as such, that it is any more than an illusion created in our brains and central nervous systems. Truth be known, I find this kind of denial to be very strange. Its counterintuitiveness does not refute it, of course, but surely ought to give us pause, having left us with a sense that something essential is being left out. This brand of hard materialism seems paradoxical at best and incoherent at worst. If consciousness really does not exist as such, then how can Dennett undertake the (presumably conscious) action of denying or affirming anything? How can you be reading this — if you are — and presumably processing mentally (in some sense of that term) what you are reading? What is it that makes our utterances — and the inscriptions we see on paper or online — more than strings of random-seeming noises or meaningless markings?

Consider: those of us with exposure to a foreign language we don’t understand may listen as closely as we can to speakers of that language in conversation and hear nothing but unintelligible noises. But it should be evident from direct observation that the speakers understand each other and are providing appropriate responses! The material constitution of language just being sounds emitted from one’s mouth and received via one’s ears, each speaker is mentally adding something that I cannot add in listening because I do not understand or speak their language. The same is true if I try to read, e.g., written Arabic. I see nothing but curvy lines and dots. An Arab speaker recognizes the words and sentences of the language he grew up with. This “understanding,” this “recognition,” I submit, is lost by materialism. Somewhere in here, obviously, is Searle’s absolutely brilliant “Chinese room” thought experiment from the 1980s, which — frustratingly! — Searle himself never drew the most straightforward consequence, which is that materialism as a theory of reality and of the human person is simply wrong!

Dennett would doubtless call these responses question-begging and wrong-headed. But is there an alternative? More interestingly, is there some neutral vantage point from which to survey and judge, from which to construct a non “question-begging” approach to consciousness? Are we not undertaking mental actions in any reasonable sense of this phrase when we even raise the question, much less undertake it?

Eventually, our reasoning must reach the point of realizing that consciousness is, in some sense yet to be spelled out, very, very basic, and must be built into our very understanding of how the world works, or we end up with incoherence!

Another way of saying this will doubtless offend every third stage thinker (Dennett being an example; not to single him out, as there are many others) who has science / scientific method (as they see it) on a pedestal. This is to not be a materialist. This was the option chosen by Thomas Nagel, who has proven to be alone with his “teleological naturalism,” motivated by the apparent failures of materialism in combination with his own resistance to theism. But the failures of materialism open the door to a variety of other worldviews, Christian theism included. They open the door to the likelihood that there are other phenomena, likely to be dismissed as illusory but easily seen as real and incorporated into our account of our experience if we stop trying to shoehorn everything into a worldview in which everything must be either reduced to laws or propensities discovered by physics and chemistry, or eliminated as unreal products of our imaginations or a “folk psychology” (“eliminative materialism”).

How good are the reasons for being a materialist? has for years now seemed to me a perfectly valid question. How well argued is the materialist stance? To use a Feyerabendian ploy, has materialism won out not just in much of philosophy but in science itself not because of the superiority of its arguments but because it was able to bully alternatives out of the way? Given the clear absence of a consensus on the status of such problems as mind-body (not that the presence of one would necessarily decide the matter for all time), it doesn’t seem to me materialists are entitled to assume so without much more work. That a Colin McGinn, another of those rare leaders in the post-Rorty world of academic philosophy, finds the mind-body problem “intractable” (whether that is McGinn’s word or Horgan’s) is telling.

By reflecting on the seeming failures or lapses of materialists, and their willingness to “eliminate” what doesn’t fit a worldview to be distinguished from the actual methods and findings of modern science, surely we have found a “point” to doing philosophy, and therefore an answer to, “What Is Philosophy’s Point?” Maybe there is an answer to, What Should Philosophy Do? which combines all four of the above answers in recognizing, clarifying, evaluating, and if necessary, constructing alternatives, to the worldview(s) that prevail in Western civilization.

To be continued …

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Brian Eno Mix

I noticed a week or so back that the masthead on this blog includes, as one of our topics, “a little music.” There hasn’t been any music on here, though, or any discussions of it, not that I recall. I am thinking that should change.

Nothing I would write about Brian Eno would be short. Let’s just say that I discovered his work my freshman year in college (I was 18) when he had just two vinyl records out, had appeared on a handful of other records (e.g., the first two Roxy Music releases), and was clearly someone to watch. Now, over 40 years later, I’ve no fully reliable count of all his releases official and unofficial, some of them extremely difficult to obtain (not to mention expensive). His latest is called Reflection, and was released on January 1, 2017. Although his name has never exactly been a household word, he’s produced significant groups such as the Talking Heads and U2, shaping their sound in new ways, and has become the subject of biographies and even academic studies. It was clear, back when I was an undergraduate, reading his interviews, that I’d encountered a keen intellect who was always pushing the envelope.

His thoughts about the nature of art are as interesting as how he came by them. David Sheppard, in his biography On Some Faraway Beach: The Life and Times of Brian Eno (2008), records a definitive incident in Eno’s life that happened when he was 18 and about to enter art school. The mother of his then-girlfriend had dismissed the idea, telling him he would be “wasting his time” and wondering why someone as obviously bright as he was would want to be an artist. Eno said later, “it set a question going in my mind that has always stayed with me, and motivated a lot of what I’ve done: what does art do for people, why do people do it, why don’t we only do rational things, like design better engines? And because it came from someone I very much respected, that was the foundation of my intellectual life” (Sheppard 2008, p. 45).

It struck me, when reading those words (variations on them have been circulating since the 1970s), that the same questions could be posed about philosophy. It’s hardly “rational” in the sense that designing better engines is “rational.” But for some of us, it became an obsession practically on the day we encountered it. We knew it wasn’t the world’s obsession. But neither is art the world’s obsession. At the same time, would a society without both art and philosophy seem fully civilized? So what does philosophy do for us? Why does it do whatever it is that it does? Why can those of us captured by this obsession not leave it alone, and not just do other things (especially those of us who have left academia, the one place in the world where philosophers are at home, kind of, sort of). What should philosophy do? and should it do the same thing for all of us who do it? These all seem like questions worth exploring.

But back to Eno. I’ve learned to appreciate his work on at least two levels. One is that of a mind hard at work, conscious of what he is doing, the media in which he is working, and exploring its possibilities. He’s a trained artist who is comfortable with technology and able to use it to generate sound. He’s studied systems thinking and made use of it, having composed pieces illustrating how very simple repetitive systems can be used to generate seeming great complexity — in visual art as well as music. He (more or less) invented “ambient music,” drawing on antecedents such as Terry Riley and John Cage and influencing the atmospheric “chill out” music we began to hear in the 1990s. He’s also invented “generative music,” played with software instead of regular CD players, as it consists of multiple randomized tracks that never play the same way twice.

Eno’s body of work opens quite a number of listening possibilities, as “ambient” tracks like Discreet Music, Thursday Afternoon, and Neroli are perfectly suitable as backing material on which other things can be laid. One has to be careful in doing this. Knowing what not to do, which tracks not to use, is clearly as important as knowing which ones to use. I don’t know who Tamás Károly Tamás is (the name is Hungarian, which may or may not be obvious) or if he has any connections to Eno, but he clearly knew what he was doing when he assembled this. Recommended listening for a quiet Sunday evening.

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And So It Begins. Thoughts on What Might Happen Next

Two days ago, Donald J. Trump was sworn in as the 45th President of the United States. His inauguration speech was unique (read it here; there are a few errors, all minor). It may go down in history as one of the more significant inaugural speeches, even if (as I suspect will be the case) Trump has made promises he won’t be able to keep.

Trump’s speech has been described (commentaries too numerous to cite individually) as “dark,” or “dystopian.” It was “populist” insofar as that term is thrown around today. “Populism” is not a systematic philosophy of political economy, beyond the idea (common to all conceptions of democracy) that political and other elites should answer to the people. “Populism” is reactive. It is suspicious of elites and rejects elite control, real or imagined. What it is rejecting, given the present environment, is quite real. There is a superelite, as I’ve called them in my book Four Cardinal Errors (2011). Advanced civilizations are basically plutocracies. Various authors have used other terms for the world’s ruling class: globalists, global elites, the one percent (a misnomer, since we’re talking about a group that would fit into a large university auditorium and so does not quite rise to being the point-zero-zero-one percent). Perhaps if rejection of globalism by a substantial fraction of a nation’s population is considered “dark” and “dystopian,” then from the globalist standpoint that might be where we are going.

What we’ve just seen is the end of one era of U.S. history and the beginning of a new one, a new era that could go in more than one direction.

The previous era, which arguably began when the Soviet Union collapsed leaving just one superpower, could be called the neocon-neoliberal era, because it represented the rise to global power of these ideologies, flipsides of one another. Neoconservatism was concerned primarily with establishing the Indispensable Nation as the world’s ruling power, while neoliberalism focused primarily on economics, establishing the dominance of global corporate actors and describing this as the “triumph of the free market.” We saw the catchphrases “liberal democracy” and “market capitalism” — more recently, the “global liberal order” as the term capitalism is again leaving a sour taste in some mouths — even if these were forced on peoples at gunpoint (and they often were, with the price tag of refusing to participate being death and destruction: ask the Iraqis, the Libyans, the Syrians).

This era, which also witnessed the rise of “free trade” deals starting with NAFTA (which Trump has promised to renegotiate or scrap), enriched a very few who sat at the helm of global corporate empires but was a disaster for nearly everyone else — especially the U.S. middle class, many of whose members had become former middle class by the time the Meltdown of 2008 had run its course. At best, the common family’s income flatlined during this era. Employment gravitated towards the part-time and the precarious. I hardly need observe that it made very little difference which party controlled either Congress or the White House. From Bush #41 to Bill Clinton to Bush #43 to Barack Obama, essentially the same agendas of globalism and war went forth into the world from Washington, D.C. While supposed pundits of the “left” have offered one set of diagnoses for rising inequality all over the world while those of the “right” have offered another, to my knowledge no one questions the basic fact of rising inequality in a world where your social mobility was dictated by your ability and/or willingness to “monetize yourself.”

Trump claims to speak for those left behind by globalism. The “carnage,” he called it, stops now.

So what happens next? I am not thinking of policy specifics, such as what will likely be the dismantling of the (Un)Affordable Care Act; those are important but this is not the time or place to discuss them. I am thinking of the broader and longer tendencies that may define the next 30 years, just as the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of the neocon-neolib axis defined the past era, just short of 30 years in length.

It could go two ways, and it depends both on if Trump is who he says he is and is as sincere as he sounded in yesterday’s inaugural speech.

For the past year and a half, he’s confounded the so-called “experts” and helped bring on what could be called as the crisis of “expertism”: the sense that whatever the reason, the “experts” no longer know what they’re talking about, especially on political-economic matters. Perhaps the Kuhnian paradigms governing their bailiwicks are no longer functioning; perhaps they simply can’t see the forest for the trees. In any event, at first, back in Summer 2015 when Trump first announced his candidacy, no one took him seriously, including me. This was a joke; it would go nowhere. But then it did. Trump seemed to command the media, getting away with things no other candidate could have gotten away with (e.g., the comment about Megyn Kelly having “blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever”). I’ll return to this point below.

His growing legion of supporters loved what they saw!

One by one, Trump’s GOP opponents fell by the wayside as he racked up delegates. Two things were clear, or should have been: Trump’s messages on jobs, on immigration, on trade, and on political correctness, were resonating with the GOP base. The second: the other candidates, with the sole exception of Ted Cruz, were empty suits. They had nothing to say, and often just embarrassed themselves.

Still, Trump would never win the GOP nomination. The “experts” said so. Even I thought the nomination would be taken from him at the last minute, even if it precipitated a civil war within the GOP that practically handed the election to Hillary Clinton, by then the presumptive Democratic Party nominee.

And then Trump won the GOP nomination, giving a firebreathing “populist” speech that had both left-liberals and “movement conservatives” nearly wetting their pants.

I considered Trump’s victory over his empty-suited rivals to be evidence that “movement conservatism” had collapsed. It was not just that the GOP had lost touch with its base, although that much is true. There was nothing left in the culture to conserve. This was empowering the Trump insurgency. “Movement conservatives” weren’t engaging in constructive discussion of how to take the culture back, or even how to develop a parallel culture via new media and other institutions and raising the money to support them. Instead (just read the constant stream of articles in the Washington Post) they whined about their party’s “uneducated” rabble out in flyover country, those who rejected a worldview steeped in globalism, war, and political correctness. There had been discussion of culture in the 1990s, however inadequate. “Movement conservatism” had kicked out its Pat Buchanans, not to mention its Ron Pauls. Neither neocons nor neolibs had any interest in the culture. Common people did. They encountered it daily. When they saw an alternative to someone on the increasingly despised neocon-neolib axis, someone who spoke to their concerns in their language, they turned towards him. In the end, there was nothing left at the GOP center except for corporate donors and the war machine. The former knew only money as influence; the latter knew only brute force.

Surely Trump wouldn’t defeat Hillary, though! The “expert” pollsters said not. Even when James Comey reignited the debate over her emails just days before the election, Hillary didn’t drop beneath The Donald in the “expert”-run polls.

And then Donald Trump won the election!

He won in the Electoral College, the “experts” reminded us. Hillary won the “popular vote.” In the American electoral system, as everybody knows, it is the Electoral College victory that counts.

Trump’s march into the White House would not be derailed — not by the feeble reports about “fake news” on the Internet, not by the evidence-free allegations about “Russian hackers” coming from an intelligence community that had distrusted Trump from the start, not even by those Democrats, e.g., John Lewis of Georgia, who openly denounced his presidency as “illegitimate” (as if their shouting this made it so).

Trump said that unlike his predecessors, he would return government to its people. Imagine that!

Trump wants a peaceful working relationship with Russia! Fancy that!

His speech contained what could be a call for an end to the U.S. imposing its will on other nations of the world by force: “We will seek friendship and goodwill with the nations of the world — but we do so with the understanding that it is the right of all nations to put their own interests first. We do not seek to impose our way of life on anyone, but rather to let it shine as an example, for everyone to follow.”

The repudiation of globalism in statements like America First could not be more evident.

The problem, however: the globalists and those working for them — including the “useful idiots” making mayhem in the streets of Washington and elsewhere, possibly still, even as I write — are not going to go away.

No one in his right mind believes that because of one rogue billionaire, they are simply going to relinquish a project they’ve been at work on for longer than I’ve been alive: undermining and destroying the very concept of national sovereignty, first economically and then politically, in order to build a global state or world government answering to private corporations. This is, I think, a fair statement of the primary long term goal of globalism.

So what follows from this? A number of questions, surely.

How was it that Trump was able to get away with those attacks on Megyn Kelly and other incidences of political incorrectness that would have felled any other GOP candidate in a heartbeat? Was his ownership over corporate media, based on ratings, that total? Surely there were people in media smart enough to realize that even when attacking him, they were giving him hours of free publicity, and that not just he but his supporters were actually relishing these attacks! His base was growing, not shrinking! Many of his supporters later “reclaimed” the deplorables label, after all!

So why didn’t mainstream media simply black him out, as they did Ron Paul?

And, what was really behind Comey’s 11th-hour announcement of new interest in Hillary Clinton’s emails, just days before the election? However one interprets this, Hillary was made to look very bad. The Democrats had already been made to look utterly corrupt, if only by their treatment of the Bernie Sanders insurgency. This was extremely unusual for someone powerful people wanted to win!

Unless those powerful people didn’t want her to win!

Which brings me to the final segment of this piece, doubtless its most disturbing segment. Is Trump the rogue he’s led us to believe he is? Or is either working for the globalists behind the scenes, or being used by them as a kind of Plan B, as they’d realized that had they rigged a Clinton victory they might have had an American Spring on their hands ready to start right about now?

Brandon Smith thinks Trump has been a tool all along, and offers some compelling reasons (here, here, here, here, here, here, and here). His claim to credibility is that he predicted not just the Trump victory but the outcome of the Brexit vote, the timing of the first Federal Reserve rate hike, the inclusion of China in the IMF’s Special Drawing Rights, and the Fed’s tapering of QE. He has the most interesting superelite-conscious analysis of recent events I’ve encountered this past year.

For our purposes here Smith’s most important warning is that the “populist” movement is being set up to take the fall for what the globalists have orchestrated and are preparing for: the worst economic crash of all time, the result of decades of governments, corporations, and individuals living beyond their means on unbacked, central bank created money, made readily-available via a brand of “capitalism” based on financialization instead of production. Financial author Bill Bonner has pointed out (numerous videos) that the amount of money that exists electronically in the U.S. alone, in bank accounts, in stocks, in derivatives, etc., created by what amounts to nothing more than data entered into computers, now exceeds the amount of physical wealth in the entire world, several times over. We are talking about a sum of perhaps one quadrillion dollars (that’s one thousand trillion dollars) in derivatives, on the electronic books of very large banks like Deutsche Bank, Bank of America, HSBC, CitiBank, Credit Suisse, and so on! An appearance of “recovery” has been created and is currently maintained via central bank activity alone (as Smith also notes). Anglo-European civilization is sitting atop the largest bubble in human history, a Dow just narrowly missing 20,000 absent any actual economic fundamentals being just one example.

Donald Trump has not, to my knowledge, said a word about this aside from noting the favorable “market response” to his victory, a response very much aligned with the idea that his victory was something the superelite had wanted and planned for, and while he’s criticized Barack Obama’s policies, I do not recall his having said anything about the elephant in the front living room of the present decade: that under Obama’s watch the national debt nearly doubled, going from around $11 trillion to almost $20 trillion. Much of this went to create the sense or appearance of an economic recovery that would not otherwise exist. Many on Main Street voted for Trump, after all, partly because they no longer trusted “expert” pronouncements on the economy. They hadn’t seen any evidence of the supposed Obama-era recovery.

Now Donald Trump could conceivably continue to confound the “experts” by setting the country on course for a jobs renaissance ­ — the “experts” having written a gigabyte-sized quantity of material from their academic and journalistic cubicles about how “protectionism does not work,” that tariffs are a bad idea, that Smoot-Hawley caused the Great Depression, etc., etc. The “experts” contend, and they appear to be right about this, that Trump ignores present and future technological change as a cause of unemployment, as corporations embrace robotics and similar technology to do more with less. Jobs are eliminated, but profits soar.

Be that as it may,  Trump won’t be able to enact a whole new set of, e.g., trade policies overnight, and he won’t be able to control what foreign governments do regarding their corporations (this translates into the real danger of a trade war with China). Following what now seem to me the likely victories of Geert Wilder in the Netherlands and Marine Le Pen in France, in those countries’ looming elections, the globalists, their ideological foes the economic nationalists right where they want them, may decide to blow down the financialized, house-of-cards economy they have erected. They will do what they did in 2008 on a much larger scale: pull billions out of the system all at once, threatening a massive collapse of banking and credit systems. With credit frozen, everything that depends on credit will stop almost overnight. Deflation (not hyper-inflation) will ensue. This will happen not just in the U.S. but all across Europe. Via their control over corporate (“mainstream”) media, globalists will regale a panicked public with the contention that the debacle is the fault of the “populists,” as evidence that “populism and protectionism do not work.” These are Brandon Smith’s suggestions, in any event.

Smith accuses Trump of lying about “draining the swamp,” and it’s true: he’s almost exclusively appointed fellow billionaires to cabinet posts, some with ties to Goldman Sachs — after the Federal Reserve probably the most important superelite-controlled entity in the U.S. Ties to Goldman Sachs don’t necessarily translate to insider status, but they both do and ought to raise red flags. Once we peer behind the curtains of Trump’s rhetoric, it is easy to believe that the superelite is going to remain in control, even if they are taking some temporary lumps and portraying themselves as under attack (see, e.g., this). Trump has also put a lot of military men in positions of great authority: positioning them perfectly in case the administration has to deal with bouts of the sort of unrest likely to erupt if the economy really does go into a tailspin.

So who is Donald Trump, really? And does “populism” portend change — or the setting of the stage for something magnitudes worse than the past 30 years have been?

I don’t have answers to these conundrums. I could be wrong about the upcoming elections in Europe. If I’m wrong, I’m wrong. But if I am right, and by the second half of 2017 we see “populist” governments settling in and getting comfortable all around the West, what I would not do is get too comfortable right alongside them. The financialization bomb is still there! Dozens of contrarian economists have been arguing for years that we have been in the “eye of the hurricane” since 2008. We might not reenter the storm until 2018 or even 2019, but it could be as soon as September 2017.

As that storm exacts its effects, which will be the literal disappearance of trillions of dollars back into the thin air from which they came, the probable end of the dollar as the world’s reserve currency, a massive decline in the U.S. standard of living outside elite-owned enclaves and gated communities, and the likely appearance of globalist-sponsored political saviors with a worldview to contrast with Trump’s, all bets are off. The globalists will be in a position to dictate terms to hungry populations. Get with the program, or die in poverty! We may not see a return to the neocon-neoliberal order. More likely, we’ll be looking at a future headed toward of de facto or de jure world government, rapid progress toward a “global union,” whatever they decide to call it, answering to global corporations — its supportive media filling airwaves and bandwidth space with attacks on “populism” in all its stripes. These will ensure that real conservatism and national sovereignty are dead as doornails. The solution to the problem of “blue” versus “red” cultures may be had through the extinction of the latter, even if the former is also under a de facto tyranny of technocrats. The “experts,” in that case, will be back!

Posted in Culture, Donald Trump, Election 2016 and Aftermath, Political Economy | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Pivotal Western philosophers no longer welcomed by students at this British university because of their color.

Plato? Descartes? Kant? Pivotal figures, all, who irreversibly changed the direction of what Richard Rorty called the conversation of the West. But to the up-and-coming generation of students, there’s a problem.

Weren’t they all white males?

With Plato it might be hard to tell. He was whatever ethnicity the ancient Greeks who lived on the Mediterranean Sea could be classified as, assuming it different, and he might have one redeeming feature among today’s students. He was gay.

Read all about it here.

I find it interesting that the “prestigious British university” is not named until very late in the article. Presumably the author didn’t want to embarrass the institution too badly.

This is coming primarily from students, and one has to wonder what the dickens is going on at the secondary level these days. (Although we see similar stuff occurring in U.S. institutions.)

The motivation seems to be an effort to “decolonize” Western philosophy: to “address the structural and epistemological legacy of colonialism.” I have to place this in the same category with those “scholars” who are attacking the very idea of “whiteness.” I have no idea what they mean. Somehow, I don’t think it’s my ignorance at fault.

To their credit, there is pushback from the faculty, and from British philosophers worth listening to. Roger Scruton, for example, said, “You can’t rule out a whole area of intellectual endeavour without having investigated it, and clearly they haven’t investigated what they mean by white philosophy …  If they think there is a colonial context from which Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason arose, I would like to hear it.”

So would I, including what a phrase like white philosophy could conceivably refer to that is specific enough to give it content. Need I observe that Western nations and peoples, however we classify their ethnicity, have produced many different philosophies and kinds of philosophy?

Professional philosophers should resist this nonsense, although the generational tide being what it is, and the phenomenon being international, and not limited to the U.S. or probably even to the Anglophone world, I imagine resisting the increasingly irrational demands of Generation Snowflake will be easier said than done. With “populism” on the rise within the larger culture as a countervailing force, it is hard not to envision major conflicts ahead, especially if those of us who defend essentially traditional approaches to doing philosophy and teaching it decide we are going to stand our ground, and that Generation Snowflake’s anxieties about “whiteness” and other irrational feelings are their problem, and not ours.

Posted in Academia, Academic Politics, Culture, Higher Education Generally, Where Is Philosophy Going? | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The “Two Americas”: Further Reflections

Last month’s lengthy post received some worthy feedback. I’d discussed the clash of two cultures in America (and elsewhere, but America was my focus). They both claim legitimacy for themselves but deny it to the other.  There is a distinct power-asymmetry, as the “blue” culture of the cities, the corporations (especially the banks), the centralized federal government, etc., has far more of it than the “red” culture outside the cities and suburbs. My suggestion was that these two cultures are not just incompatible but incommensurable, and that they cannot exist indefinitely under a single governing structure without eventually pulling that structure apart. Hence we need to begin thinking about the forces and factors that will eventually partition and dismantle the U.S. Empire, with an eye to its happening as peacefully as possible; although in a lot of cases it is clear, peaceful separation won’t happen, as no one obsessed with power gives it up willingly.

A friend of mine posted a lengthy response on Facebook. I invited him to copy and paste it here, but he never did. I’m not assuming he wants to be identified over here, so I’ll respect his privacy by not doing so. His response still seems to me worth discussing, a month later:

… [w]hat about those of us who seem to be crossovers, or some fractional combination thereof, of your diametrically opposed Blue and Red people?

We get left out of the equation, most of the time. We drink whatever tastes best to us, our drug of choice is reality after having decided to give up drugs entirely years ago in order to raise families, we have degrees as well as work with our hands, we embrace diversity, we fight racism, sexism, and whatever the hell you call fear of LGBT and poly people. We are legion, we are neither blue nor red, but we blend the best virtues of both while rejecting utterly the hate one may have for the other. And we are ignored, largely, by both blue and red as outcasts, lepers, unclean because we have no hate to bring to the table.

The first thing worth noting: dichotomous thinking is a philosopher’s occupational hazard. The history of the discipline is full of dichotomies, and any good dissection of them and of their dangers would require a separate post that would probably be longer than anything I’ve done so far! And so no, it wasn’t my intention to imply an absolute dichotomy between “red” and “blue” cultures, or that there aren’t people who mix and meld aspects of each according to their own judgment, tastes, proclivities, and so on. There are, of course, people who live in cities and embrace its values who work well with their hands; and people who enjoy small town life who reject what they see as unconscionable intolerance. They are embracing aspects of both cultures, that is. There are large swaths of the American population that fit my original description, especially those associated with universities and large mass media corporations, but there are also people who don’t fit completely into either camp.

I probably don’t, either, when you get right down to it.

I tend to identify with the ideals of independence and self-reliance championed by those in the “red” culture, but to me this doesn’t warrant whatever “hatred” they may bear for those in the “blue” culture. I certainly don’t want homosexuals persecuted or beaten up, as some in the “red” culture might well do. And when some deranged soul like Dylann Roof walks into a black church and murders nine innocent people, we are as horrified as anybody! Those in the “blue” culture surely mean well in rejecting discrimination, intolerance, hatred; and likewise; but this doesn’t translate into an endorsement of their implicit belief that they know what is best for those in the “red” culture in any general way. One of the features of the  “reds,” after all, is weariness at being told what to think and what to do.

But too many of them would describe me as “too intellectual” or simply “too educated” (or maybe “overeducated” or just “too longwinded” for them). Many of the “blue” people would reject my thinking as too unconstrained for them, as I have no problem entertaining and sometimes experimenting with (without actually endorsing) ideas they reject out of hand, in some cases as horrifying. Their professors would describe my approach to the world of ideas as undisciplined and irresponsible; I would answer that it reflects healthy pluralism and an awareness that I at least am aware, I don’t have all the answers. But like a curmudgeon, I don’t mind barbecuing an occasional sacred cow!

Finally, I certainly did not mean to imply that all or even most members of either culture have a “drink of choice” or a “drug of choice.” Again, there are enough members of each to make the idea meaningful, but there are also plenty of others who, as this gentleman put it, “decided to give up drugs entirely years ago in order to raise families …” which, I happen to know in his case, he has done so with great success, and in my response to his post I told him so.

He’d continued:

Politics embraces hate for whatever other the red or blue sees in their fantasy opponents. The world is neither red or blue, black and white value judgements strictly enforced by whatever temporal power that happens to have control from moment to moment. The world is infinite shades of whatever elitist color wheel the political hacks deem most useful to obtain power. And we are not amused by the antics of global power elites, or racist elites, or any pseudo-populist elites who wish to decide what is best for us “cattle.”

In many respects, politics is a Grand Illusion. Iconoclastic libertarian psychologist Thomas Szasz distinguished between work which “pushes matter around” and politics which “pushes people around.” Sin comes in many manifestations, which affect the sinner differently: some, as I’ve noted in multiple places, are obsessed with power and drawn to it. They sometimes use ideas to rationalize what they want to do; sometimes just symbols such as waving a flag or other symbol.

Although I’m not a theoretical anarchist, I understand why some philosophers are. The theoretical anarchist believes there is no rational or moral justification for a special institution to be invested with a monopoly on the exercise of force: the state. The theoretical anarchist believes governance — order (social, economic, etc.) — can be had without any such institution. If he’s erred, it’s in looking for some universal justification for the state which numerous philosophers claim to have found: some obvious statists such as Plato or Hobbes but others well within the proto-libertarian pantheon of thinkers such as John Locke or John Stuart Mill, finding that such absolutist views fall short, and condemning the whole project. For better or for worse, in practice as opposed to theory, states tend to have the legitimacy we give them.

Even so, there may be reasons for not giving them or their appendages any legitimacy! Our remote ancestors made a horrendous discovery we have been paying for ever since. As toolmakers able to use an ever-widening variety of tools to build agrarian communities, they discovered they could do more than use tools to move matter around. They could turn people into tools to be used:

http://topdocumentaryfilms.com/engines-domination/

They could invent institutions devoted to turning people into tools: educational, corporate, and so on. That way lies the development of the corporate state, which merges corporate power derived from an obsession with obtaining wealth as an end in itself into the state derived from an obsession with power as an end itself. And as twentieth century political philosopher Leopold Kohr observed, the larger such orders get, the more they tend to turn to bullying to accomplish their goals. The more they can assume their victims have no means of organizing and retaliating, the more abusive they get.

But in fact, no abusive state has ever ruled easily, and nor do their heirs. Populations do have breaking points, as King Louis XIV of France learned the hard way. Our gentleman’s post ends ominously:

Do whatever you wish. Boost the economy, or ruin it for your own mere score-keeping dominance games. We find your power games boring. You elitists have lost track of the larger vision, the proverbial Big Picture. Once you have “ultimate power,” what will WE allow you to do with it? Best case scenario for you? We, the people, ignore your existence and your power-mad bloviating. Worst case scenario for you? Study the French Revolution, then multiply that by 300 million pissed off “cattle” who can reach out and touch you from miles away. You want to rule? Uneasy rests the head which wears a crown. And if you kill us, just whom would you have to lord it over during your rule? Think carefully. Choose wisely. A cash cow can be milked for it’s entire lifetime, but if it is butchered for meat? It provides only a limited number of steak dinners before the meat is forever gone.

I have elsewhere written about rising global technofeudalism as the most plausible name for the system of political economy the globally-minded elite that has greatly (and deleteriously) influenced the “blue” culture is working to advance. I note, in that place, that like any form of empire, technofeudalism would have a distinct life span. It would be vulnerable to all the weaknesses of its creators and maintainers (and their over-indulged offspring). Their corruption could bring it down from within, as factions unavoidably begin to appear and start quarreling amongst themselves. Or the system’s downfall could be its rulers’ inability to respond effectively as a natural disaster destabilizes some region. Or, finally, the sense of massive inequity between rulers and ruled over could simply undermine the willfulness of the latter to continue producing for it. If they find their own leaders, which they will invariably do even under conditions of surveillance, and their situation is made clear to them, that is when the pitchforks will come out. Only in the future, they may take the form, e.g., of hackers able to compromise and torpedo telecommunications systems from great distances away.

Some believe this last is what happened to the Democrats prior to this past election. While I won’t go into my reasons here for thinking the Russians weren’t involved, it is clear that this mindset has enemies able to subvert from within, which saw the Clinton campaign as worth subverting. Clinton drew her main support from the “blue” culture. But Trump, whose main visible support came from the “red” camp, has hardly proven himself to be free of elite influence. His proposed cabinet is filled with former Goldman Sachs employees. Goldman Sachs is as “blue” as “blue” gets! A pseudo-populist? We’ll have to wait and see, although to prove he’s the real deal, here is a good list of goals Trump will need to begin pursuing during 2017 to prove it. Otherwise he’ll be the one to deal with the  “300 million pissed off ‘cattle’ …”

Posted in anarchism, Culture, Election 2016 and Aftermath, Political Economy, Political Philosophy, Where is Civilization Going? | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Two Cultures, Two Americas — Post-Election 2016 Edition (Philosophical Reflections on an Empire In Decline)

Part of me is still reeling: one of the reasons I haven’t posted on the topic yet. While I certainly was not pulling for Hillary Rodham Clinton to win the election, I believed she would win. I believed she was the favorite of the globalist elites or the Establishment or the international financial oligarchy or whatever you want to call it, and that they had engineered her path to the White House. I began to doubt that judgment when James Comey reopened the FBI investigation against her practically one week before the election. She dropped in the polls. But not to a spot beneath Trump. I still thought she would win.

I was wrong. Many of us were wrong. A minority, from across the political spectrum, from leftist Michael Moore to conservative (sort of) Brandon Smith, called it right. Respected musician, experimental composer, visual artist and occasional commentator Brian Eno also got it right. So did economist and former Syriza finance minister Yanis Varoufakis. Donald Trump would win, all said. These are intelligent people. Except for Moore, who seems to me a blowhard extraordinaire, I hadn’t encountered their views earlier. While one may not agree with all their assumptions or conclusions, their considerations are worth a look. Hence the links.

Trump won, and will be the next U.S. president. I am working under the assumption that attempts to overturn the results of November 8 via lobbying the Electoral College or via a revolt within the Electoral College itself will fail, as surely it is obvious that so unprecedented an action would open a legal and constitutional Pandora’s Box, not to mention potential civil unrest that could lead to violence. I sincerely hope that I am not wrong again!!

I’d stayed up on November 8 until past midnight, watching election returns. I thought I remembered Hillary getting ahead in the electoral vote count. My friends say she didn’t. I look back at my live journal notes from that night and cannot find where I actually wrote down that she’d gotten ahead. I am not sure what happened. Maybe I dozed off at my computer and dreamed it. In any event, I went off to bed, still sure Hillary would win. I awakened with a jolt at around 6:30 am (these are all Santiago, Chile times, by the way). It was light outside. The sky hadn’t fallen. I made my way to my computer.

The U.S. had elected Donald Trump President.

Later I saw the electoral map, broken down county by county. It showed geographically small areas of blue, clustered around big cities and larger population centers mostly on coastal regions … surrounded by vast seas of red elsewhere. The latter, of course, elected The Donald president, when denizens of the former who had polled, broadcasted, and predicted from their safe havens (or are they echo chambers?) said Hillary would be a shoe-in, in some cases by a landslide. Even some mainstream Republicans preferred her to Trump, thinking they could make some kind of a comeback for 2020. Dream on. It wouldn’t have happened.

Trump did not win by a landslide. He did not win the popular vote, assuming his claims about millions of illegal aliens voting for Hillary Clinton are groundless. This has a lot of people up in arms. They do not appear to accept that the Electoral College elects the president, not the popular vote. They believe it should be the popular vote. In fairness, Trump inveighed against the Electoral College in the past; after the election he conveniently decided he approved of it. The Founders designed the Electoral College because they did not trust the popular vote. An irony is that Trump came under attack for his ambiguous remark about accepting the results of the election should he lose. He didn’t lose. Those who did are the ones trying to resist the outcome. Not My President say their signs.

The implications of the stark contrast between those who voted for Hillary Clinton and those who voted for Donald Trump are what I wish to discuss. Two cultures. Two Americas. Unequal, unyoked, mutually hostile, and — other things being equal — on collision course. A philosopher should have something to say about this situation, especially a philosopher with a sense of history and its relevance, as well as one aware of the existence of contrasting worldviews. That would be a philosopher such as myself, schooled in the work of Thomas S. Kuhn and Paul Feyerabend, long aware of the incommensurability problem (it was my dissertation topic, after all!), and thus aware not just of the philosophical problems created by accounting for vast divides but the dicey practical problems involved in communicating across them.

These sorts of events are not limited to the U.S., obviously. The British voted for Brexit on June 23, which many pundits also thought would fail. Nigel Farage, one of the most visible Euro-skeptics, was one of the brains behind Brexit. The French might well put National Front president Marine Le Pen in charge of their country when the time comes. At this point, it wouldn’t surprise me. What some call “populism” and others, “economic nationalism” (and still others, simply racism and xenophobia) is on the rise around the world. What it is, is a mass rejection of globalism / globalization. Many common people have figured out that what globalism / globalization has done is enrich a tiny elite, destroying middle classes in its wake in places like the U.S., and destabilizing their communities without bringing them tangible benefits. In Europe, much anti-globalism is in response to the flood of Middle Eastern migrants, primarily Muslims, from third world countries, and the rising tides of terrorist attacks, sexual assaults, and other violent crimes they’ve brought with them. Eurocrats, CEOs, and bankers may think open borders are a good idea, but they don’t have to wipe up the blood!

I’ve previously commented on the so-called “alt-right” in the U.S. which has little use for a “movement conservatism” it sees as impotent, and which clearly was already dead in the water: one of the most basic reasons Trump rose to the top despite attacks from within his own party. One wonders how much soul-searching will go on within the upper echelons of the GOP to figure out that Trump, with his media-savvy and ability to use even media hostility to his advantage, had very little to compete with. There wasn’t much in the way of ideas discussed in the GOP debates, because Trump’s competitors didn’t have any! Had Trump not run, however, issues such as globalism, immigration, trade agreements, and border controls wouldn’t have been on the table! Everyone with a functioning brain knows this!

Be this as it may, the open antagonism that developed over Trump’s candidacy, and now over his victory, are indicative of more going on. One could argue that the culture war has just gone to the next level. The left thought it had won hands down (largely because of the collapse of “movement conservatism”). But that was before Donald Trump, and now we are seeing a rising clash between the two cultures, two Americas, both pre- and post-election 2016?

How can we best characterize these two cultures?

The “blue” culture of the big cities and population centers is sophisticated-appearing and sounding, urban and urbane, and accepting of anonymity as its members pass hundreds of (like-minded?) people in crowded city streets or in traffic or on subways they have never seen before and may never see again. Typically they are well educated in the formal sense (advanced degrees; Ivy League credentials are best). They work in banks or in other big businesses or for government agencies or in the professions, usually full-time and sometimes more. They are career- and money-oriented, investment-savvy, and on top of the latest technology. Cosmopolitan and secular, they have little use for religion. They tend to trust government and technocratic expertise. Globally-focused, multicultural, valuing diversity (of faces that is, at least on paper), they are tolerant of any and all lifestyle choices, and committed to “equal rights.” They easily affect a casual sense of superiority, perhaps a natural product of their formal educations and urbaneness. Late children of the Enlightenment, one might call them, the walls of their offices feature their diplomas; those of their condos are adorned with sometimes expensive classic paintings. Knick-knacks brought back from that trip to Europe stand on bookshelves displaying trendy bestsellers they probably haven’t read, like Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time and Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs.

The “blues” tend to move around, whether renting or buying and then selling McMansions or upscale condos with multiple guest bedrooms; there is always something bigger and fancier, after all. Unless they are inside gated communities, however, they lock their doors and throw deadbolts at night because of fear of crime: this despite the “experts” telling them violent crime has been falling for years. They have no cognitive dissonance about this.

They do not like guns. Basically, they are afraid of guns, associating them with violent crime and criminals because of what they see on TV. What they know about their groceries is that they come from grocery stores, and that if they want to shop for “health food” there is always Whole Foods. A few can perhaps change the oil in their car or change a tire or do basic household repairs, but it’s easier to hire some marginally visible flunky to do it so they can go back to TV or video games when not at work. Their favorite drinks are wine, foreign beers, and perhaps Scotch; their drug of choice (for those who indulge) is likely to be cocaine (a few may deign to smoke marijuana, because it should be legal, you know). Their musical tastes run to jazz, reggae, so-called world music, maybe some classical, or just the classic rock they grew up with — or whatever is trendy.

The “red” culture of rural regions — such as so-called “flyover country” — is locally oriented, filled with people who have lived in one place and known each other most if not all of their lives. They live with far more green and open space than do city-dwelling “blues,” the latter accustomed to concrete and asphalt and steel. Their pace of life is slower and more relaxed. Ability to work with their hands is something they prize, whether in farming or in assembly-line manufacturing. Earning one’s living solving practical problems with your hands is a badge of manhood, in their view. Their preferred method of education, were they allowed to choose it, would be the apprenticeship, learning a trade by doing, from someone who has already mastered it. “Reds” are family-focused, with extended family dwelling in small towns or on farms (or what is left of them) or down in “the holler.”

They are Christian in a broad sense which can include all sorts of denominations or none at all; what they can’t fathom is a world without a God of some kind in it to provide a basis for salvation and morality. While few will think about the matter much, if they did they might tell you that the hardships and sufferings of this world only derive meaning through insight into some other existence. They don’t tend to trust button-down bureaucrats and other so-called professionals from outside their personal orbits: whether rightly or wrongly, we aren’t here to judge this just now. “Reds” prefer a smaller government that provides basic services such as keeping the streets and roads maintained, delivering the mail and also jailing the handful of troublemakers; but is not otherwise meddlesome, telling them what to do, who to hire in their workplaces, who they must do business with, where they can place Nativity scenes at Christmas, or otherwise micromanaging their lives and communities. A reason they disdain workplace meddling was once stated to me: “Nothing big city liberals do ever works!”

Government bureaucrats and professionals with no callouses on their hands are one thing: aware of vaster differences, “reds” have even less trust for strangers or people who do not look, speak, or act like them; this is akin to indigenous cultures of the past who did not know if gestures from newly-arrived strangers in large ships from elsewhere were overtures of friendship or preludes to an invasion. (Ask Native Americans about this.) “Blue” city-dwellers condemn this as racist or xenophobic, not realizing they are condemning what has been the norm for almost all of human history, the past couple of centuries or so in the West being an anomaly. They haven’t studied history in any depth, though, because it doesn’t make them money.

“Reds,” unlike them, grew up with guns, have known how to use them from childhood, and so are comfortable with them. Seeing guns as a source of protection and safety, as they swill down Miller Lite they find themselves making fun of the “blue” culture’s fear, hidden behind city-bound superiority. They worry, however, that the big city mindset is spreading uncontrollably, like weeds or insects. Their parents and grandparents could leave their doors unlocked at night, but they cannot anymore because of the sense that their surroundings are changing and their culture is under attack. Crime is definitely worse than it used to be, and there are too many people around they don’t know anymore. Some, building the houses, mini-malls, fast-food franchises, and other signs of the “blue” invasion along the interstate highway, don’t speak or understand English.

Since the factories closed and went to Mexico, the “reds” don’t have ready cash to spend, as Walmart and the fast food franchises don’t pay as well. The drying up of local clientele has forced local shops and generations-old restaurants to close, turning once-vibrant areas of downtown into boarded-up structures in front of vacant lots: increasingly run down, dark, quiet, and vaguely frightening. The “reds’” children used to take for granted the availability of work in farming or manufacturing but cannot anymore, and so are forced to leave home and move to the cities or suburbs to go at least to community college to have any hope of finding work. All have a distressing sense of having lost control over their lives. Walmart is full of cheap Chinese crud that breaks or falls apart after a few months or even weeks, as opposed to the products of those skilled craftsmen who, now unable to earn their livings, are drinking themselves into oblivion.

The “reds,” whose living room walls may be adorned with posters featuring local sports teams or NASCAR scenes, turn on their televisions (networks programmed by “blues” in the big cities) and watch facsimiles of themselves being ridiculed or degraded, while lifestyles they find depraved are promoted openly. “Are there no sitcoms without lesbians kissing in public anymore, and where the characters can speak three sentences without swearing?” one such person might ask out of frustration? Then, following the recent election coverage and still smarting somewhat from Barack Obama’s description of them a few years past as “bitter clingers” (to their guns and their God), they hear Hillary Clinton dismiss them as the “deplorables.” Most of them are now on the Internet and increasingly tech-savvy themselves, and so they know about Hillary’s long list of scandals from “alternative” sites. They have to laugh at her description of them, but find their distrust of what the city people have to say having gone up one more notch. Their favorite drinks, lest we forget, are the above-mentioned Miller Lite or Bud (“Beer’s beer!” I once heard one such person say dismissively of imported foreign brands like Becks or St. Pauli Girl); their drugs of choice are marijuana or meth. They don’t care whether these are legal or not; they are readily available, and with all the corruption it is clear: the big city people don’t respect the law, so why should they? Their music is Country & Western, obviously, as it tells hardship stories they can relate to. Some will listen to gospel for the same reasons; many of their youth prefer hard rock cranked up to earsplitting levels because it expresses what they feel inside. Rates of substance abuse and suicide are higher than ever before.

These descriptions are stereotypical, of course, and I don’t claim they apply to any one person or community or everyone in those environments. There are, after all, the construction workers and other common laborers in the cities, all but invisible to the sophisticates unless they need someone to fix that leak. Plus, there are the countless waiters and waitresses who, they will quietly remind you if you ask them, accept tips especially as you look like you can afford it. There are bound to be people with a few characteristics of both. Out in the “boonies” there is the occasional professional who may be fairly liberal in his political leanings but moved there because he thought he could make money more easily: perhaps he’s the only optometrist or podiatrist in town, or the only gastroenterologist at the local hospital. Finally, somebody had to be assigned to manage that Walmart, or oversee the hiring of surly teenagers in that Waffle House or McDonald’s out by the highway.

The “blues” with their formal educations, their secular cosmopolitanism, their respect for “diversity” and their global sensibilities, look down their noses at the tieless and unshaven rural rabble. They casually use words and phrases like redneck, trailer trash, white trash, and so on. Their affect says, “We know what’s best for you and your world, and we’re going to do it whether you like it or not.” Their candidate in this election was Hillary Clinton. With her Yale law degree and her six-figure Goldman Sachs speaking engagements, she was one of them. They might not like everything about her, but — her experience, her wonkish mastery of policy specifics, her superb qualifications generally, as opposed to that toad-faced, abrasive alpha male, that racist, xenophobic, woman-molesting, authoritarian proto-fascist who once spoke of how his celebrity allowed him to grab women’s … er, you know. And on top of that, he has no grasp of the economics of a global economy; he’s a nationalist and a protectionist, and we know what terrible things those are to be.

Stronger Together, Hillary’s slogan, resonated with the “blue” mindset, especially as she was the only real alternative to that nasty piece of alpha-male work who connived his way into the Republican nomination. Gary Johnson wasn’t going to get elected, nor was Jill Stein, not that any city-dwellers outside university campuses took either one seriously.

The rural people — the “reds” — in their “uneducated” fashion, lacking the sensitivities of the city dwellers, respond when they can, “Leave us the hell alone!” In the past, when this kind of response fell on deaf ears, they sucked it up, seeing as they had very little choice. Lose your good-paying factory job; go to work waiting tables in that Waffle House or flip those burgers in the McDonalds, or find a job in that slick new mall three exits down. Their parents had been card-carrying Democrats, but there’s nothing clearer to them now than that the Democratic Party kicked them to the curb years ago.

In 2016, however, they saw a champion and voted for him in record numbers both in the primaries and then in the general: Donald Trump, a businessman instead of a member of the political class, a known quantity from his television appearances, who they saw as speaking their language which isn’t politically correct, and representing their interests even if he is a New York real estate billionaire, and should therefore be a “blue.” Instead he told them, in effect, “your enemies are my enemies,” and gave them back hope for the future. They responded by attending his rallies by the thousands, even at the risk of being physically assaulted by “blue” troublemakers outside.

Make America Great Again resonated with their sense of living in a society with government run amuck, the local economy destroyed, the culture being trashed, the younger generation leaving for the cities out of sheer boredom and coming back from its universities with humongous debt, their heads filled with “socialist” pap from their left wing “blue” professors. America, that is, had stopped being great and the time had come to take their country back!

These two cultures, these two Americas, are incommensurable. What does it mean to say this? The word is tricky to define. The concept behind it is borrowed from basic mathematics: the relationship between rational and irrational numbers is one of incommensurability because the latter cannot be expressed in the form a/b, and so there is no single formal number system able to contain both without residue, a quantity left hanging and unaccounted for. Keeping the technicalities to a minimum, the same basic principle applies to contrasting conceptual systems (as Kuhn and Feyerabend both claimed were illustrated during scientific revolutions) or forms of life (the later Wittgenstein, a major influence on both) and their vocabularies, and to larger cultural systems and the values underwriting them. I would define it thus: two cultural systems are incommensurable if and only if they are unable to be subsumed under a single set of shared norms or values, or expressed within a single shared and larger vocabulary, or brought within a single consensus defined by a single set of rules for resolving conflicts, without residue or a sense of something important not properly accommodated. Were this a journal article we’d need more clarification and specification, but since this is a blog post this will do for now.

It should be clear: the two Americas are incommensurable in their basic outlooks. For starters, one is secular, therefore sees all values as products of this world, and focused primarily on economics (from a globalist standpoint). The other is basically Christian, sees values as rooted outside this world, and is more focused on family and culture, even if this means restricting the economic freedom of corporations to do as they please, such as shipping jobs to cheap-labor countries. Neither one sees as real what is most important to the other. The “blue” culture dismisses the “reds” as uneducated, but worked out, their views of what it means to be educated have almost nothing in common. The former trusts formal university classroom education, credentialing, and technocratic expertise, that which the Ivy Leagues produce being the concept’s center of gravity. It sees knowledge in global or universal terms, which justifies applying it everywhere, including to the recalcitrant “reds” tiny worlds. The “reds,” meanwhile, trust their collective eyes and ears as well as tradition — what has “worked” in the sense of maintaining stability and civility in the past — and otherwise go off immediate experience. They do not understand, much less trust or value, abstract formulations, economic or otherwise. There is a sense in which (although no one in the “red” culture would express matters this way) they see knowledge, apart from Biblical revelation, as local and tactile, based on what can be done with one’s hands by those one knows and trusts, as opposed to what is supposedly universal and abstract. Such ideas shouldn’t be all that unfamiliar: anthropologists such as Clifford Geertz worked out versions of them when investigating undeveloped cultures — undeveloped in the Western Enlightenment sense, of course.

The “blues” value “diversity” which is somehow always a diversity of faces; “conservative” ideas are not allowed in its Halls of Ivy because of their ties to tradition and religion. The “reds” see a diversity of faces as vaguely threatening because of its potential disruptiveness, and because they can view it as having been forced on them. Donald Trump, in this case, represents pushback. If they thought to do so, they could point to the disruptions Muslim migrants are causing all across the open-bordered and increasingly dysfunctional European Union, and which are doubtless contributing to the rising nationalism there: Greece’s Syriza Party was pushback against EU-imposed “austerity” even if it failed. Brexit was pushback which succeeded, as might Marine Le Pen.

The two cultures, the two Americas, are not just incommensurable, they are on collision course. Trump, the most visible product of the “red” culture, hasn’t even been officially elected president; this will not occur until December 19. His enemies in “blue” city civilization know this. I have never seen this level or hostility directed towards an Electoral College winner. Some, as I noted near the outset, are taking the unprecedented step of trying to thwart the Electoral College vote which is needed to officially place Trump in the White House on January 20, 2017. A few Electoral College members themselves are toying with the idea of a revolt. Doing anything this reckless and irresponsible, as I also noted, could bring the two cultures, the two Americas, into open and potentially very dangerous confrontation.

One of the most troublesome features of contrasting incommensurable spheres I haven’t yet mentioned: neither sees the other as legitimate, because each brings its own sense of legitimacy to the table. The “blues” see the “reds” (to use Obama’s phrase again) as “bitter clingers” whose world is doomed to its downward spiral, especially as demographics continue changing and if the manufacturing jobs do not come back. The “reds,” however they came by the conclusion, see the “blues” as bearing primary responsibility for these changes; they didn’t just happen by accident! Their view is indeed unacceptably (to “blue” sophisticates) paranoid and conspiratorial. They see the “blues” as having disrupted their world in the name of their secular gods, money and power, which authorized them to bully, insult, and humiliate because they can. Every time a “blue” columnist or commentator calls Trump a bully or an authoritarian proto-fascist, the “red” who reads or hears this wants to tell her that if she wants to see a bully or an authoritarian or a proto-fascist, she should go look in the mirror.

The problems created by two cultures, two Americas, will not go away, however we see them originating (that is a separate blog post). Existing commentary on both sides of the divide clearly indicates how little either side truly understands, or wants to understand, the other. Clearly, of course, the bulk of money and power lies with the “blues” who control the big banks and other corporations: many of whose footsoldiers surely want essentially the same things from life as the “reds”: a sense of achievement; meaning and purpose, of being somebody and not nobody; connection, companionship, and love. Despite the population concentrations in big cities and urban areas, the “reds” have plenty of numbers on their side; time will tell whether this matters. They are also sufficiently fed up that, having voted for Donald Trump and electing him, they could turn on him and his administration in a heartbeat if for any reason he fails to deliver!

I might as well just say it. The two cultures, the two Americas, cannot reconcile, and cannot exist indefinitely under the same governing roof. That means one of two things, or possibly both. The first: this election cycle has already seen the brewing of a cold civil war, which could turn hot if the “blues” continue with their efforts to impose their values and agendas on the “reds” by force, especially if this includes the continued destruction of their local economies by outsourcing, immigration, and replacing human workers with technology. The other: separation, with the formation of new and autonomous governments, outside each other’s immediate spheres of political authority. Secession stirrings in various states such as Texas and in the Southeast were described as malicious when not dismissed as nuts; but now that “progressive” Californians have floated the idea in the wake of the Trump victory, all of a sudden it isn’t malicious or nuts.

I predict we will see more such talk in the future, probably from both cultures, both Americas. Initially it may go nowhere, of course. But gradually, it will cease to be mere talk as moves are made by secessionists to gain seats in legislatures and then governorships, or perhaps in the form of efforts to partition states when, for example, the “red” hinterlands of Washington State and Oregon decide they want nothing further to do with the “blue” Seattle area, or Portland. Separatists will gain support in many of the same ways Trump has: by appealing to the frustration and anger of those who see themselves as having been thrown to the curb by those with money, power, and a will to humiliate. Their message to the city dwellers won’t be, Make America Great Again, but rather, We Want Out of Your Empire. To be sure, there will be huge hurdles to be crossed in any such move. What happens to Social Security, Medicare, etc.? Whether, and to what extent these will continue to be obstacles, will be an index of how costly it will seem to remain in the “blue” dominated Union, which after all includes Washington, D.C. even as many “reds” now openly sarcastically call it the District of Criminals.

Bottom line: the U.S. is indeed an empire, and it is doomed. It is in decline. Trump will not reverse this in four years, or even in eight, or in 20 if he had that long. The division between the “blues” and the “reds” has been allowed to develop and fester too long, is now too deeply rooted, and doubtless other divisions will emerge into the light of day once the right subjects are broached. Trump’s overriding platform, meanwhile, has been largely economic, so that even he is only partly responding to the concerns of the “red” culture which include myriad social and moral issues in which he has shown, when all is said and done, little interest.

Eventual peaceful partition of states, parts of states, or regions seeking independence and self-governance would be the logical choice. But human nature being what it is, and those who love money and power being who they are, I doubt very much that the coming break-up of the U.S. empire will be peaceful.

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