Post by Category : Rhetoric

The Inability to Think

The ideal subject of a totalitarian state is not the convinced Nazi or Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (that is the standards of thought) no longer exist.


Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism

There is a new horror show on HBO called “Years and Years”. Set in the U.K. in a near term future, it appears that a Trump like figure (played by Emma Thompson) is on the political horizon. Below is a rough transcription of an exchange between a young married couple. In recent years Daniel (a public housing manager) and Ralph have grown apart. Daniel works long hours finding shelter for refugees. Ralph, a school teacher, has taken refuge in the Internet.

Ralph: (The link I sent you),,,proves that germs don’t exist..the whole germ thing was faked by big pharma…there’s no such thing.

Daniel: Thats bollocks! You’ll be joining the Flat Earth Society next.

Ralph: Now THAT stuff is fascinating!

Daniel: You’re kidding!

Ralph: Have you read it?

Daniel: No…and I never will!

Ralph: Well that’s ignorance..isn’t it? How is that going to help anyone by not reading?

Daniel: For god’s sake….you are not saying the Earth is flat are you? You teach children for godssake? We have been in an airplane…we have seen the horizon curve!

Ralph: I am not saying it is flat. It is an option….I’m not saying I am absolutely right so you can’t say I am absolutely wrong.

Poor Daniel is gobsmacked. His partner can no longer think. Ralph is at sea in an eternal present of information that is all of the same value. Unsuprisingly, Ralph is intrigued by the Trump-like leader. Daniel is repelled by her.

As Hannah Arendt also noted, Adolf Eichmann was the banal monster who lost to the ability to think. I have only watched the first episode. I may not be able to watch any more. Too close to home. I’ll take Freddie Kruger any day.

With whom do you believe?

The Irish sociologist Kieran Healy reminds us that rituals do not have to arrive dressed in costume or accompanied by swinging censers to create bonds between people. But they do have to allow people to find a place to do their part and do so amongst other people who will also do their part.

Crucially, those involved all see one another participating in the event. By doing so, they enact their collective life in view of one another, demonstrating its reality, expressing its meaning, and feeling its pulse in their veins. That, Durkheim thought, is at root what a society is.

Healy goes on to observe that mass shootings have become an American ritual:

The United States has institutionalized the mass shooting … preparation for a shooting is a part of our children’s lives as soon as they enter kindergarten. The ritual of a Killing Day is known to all adults. It is taught to children first in outline only, and then gradually in more detail as they get older. The lockdown drill is its Mass. The language of “Active shooters”, “Safe corners”, and “Shelter in place” is its liturgy. “Run, Hide, Fight” is its creed. Security consultants and credential-dispensing experts are its clergy. My son and daughter have been institutionally readied to be shot dead as surely as I, at their age, was readied by my school to receive my first communion. …This ritual of childhood is not a betrayal of “who we are” as a country. It is what America has made of itself, how it worships itself and how it makes itself real.

Kieran Healy, here

Ritual and religion. Healy’s insight helped crystallize my thoughts about how our home grown mass murderers arise out of the same basic religious impulses that also fertilize the Taliban. Men (generally, young men) struggling with social isolation, looking for a narrative to give their lives meaning and a community of people who buy the same storylines; these are the acolytes. The internet is their church. In their church, they can click on text sacralized by which ever community of fear mongers, white supremacists, xenophobes and misogynists most suits them. With every thumbs-up they click, with each screed they post, they are participating in rituals of togetherness and feeling the pulse of solidarity with fellow travelers. They are in their basements singing with the choir, fondling their guns and making themselves real to themselves.

They are free to think what they want and they are free to acquire an arsenal with which to exercise their religious impulses. The rest of us are “free” to be randomly shot at any time.

A Thousand Words

A Thousand Words

I can’t unsee this photograph. I really wish I could.  To be honest, it fills me with dread. It documents the end of discourse.

I feel like I should be able to understand this countryman of mine. I still feel like I should try to understand him

Is this man economically insecure? Probably:  seventy eight percent of all Americans live from paycheck to paycheck. (Though among white voters who voted for Trump nearly 60 percent were in the top half of the income distribution). Nevertheless, perhaps he feels like he is running on a hamster wheel. He runs and runs and still can’t achieve the financial security he feels he should have (or that his parents had). He works his ass off and he imagines that people with different colored faces from different places are getting something they haven’t earned.  Maybe he has moved from home more than once in his life to find work or maybe he has never left his small Western Pennsylvania town though his children have left. His high school buddies who left and occasionally come home seem to be living in foreign lands.

Like the rest of us, he lives in a world that floods him with information. What to believe? Who to believe? With whom should he believe?  He is awash with technologies that are useful but operate by a magic he does not understand. He resents his ignorance and his dependence.  Maybe he resents people who appear comfortable with the new technologies. Maybe he feels useless to himself.

He has a legion of consumables available to him but no control over the array that he is offered. His only agency is the choice of what to buy with his hamster wheel earnings. His only choices are not really “choices”, they are merely features of the wheel.  He understands himself as the individual surrounded by the goods he has purchased.  This is how he shows himself to the world.  Very possibly he resents those who seem to denigrate the “life style” his purchases advertise. Maybe it is not Mexican immigrants he hates but other smug “white” people. Many of these are the same people who tell him that the plain truths he is holding onto about gender and sexuality are “prejudiced”.

It’s bad enough  that he can’t seem to “get anywhere” economically but then he hears from too many sources that he shouldn’t even be proud to be an American. He really doesn’t want to hear that shit. Everything for which he feels  pride (or took for granted)  seems to make him defensive these days. He is an “old white American”. The “old” is problematic because he is running out of time to become a millionaire. The “white” is just normal for him; he has never hurled a racial epithet and he resents being called a racist. That the “American”  part of his identity is called into question is the last straw. If America is not the “shining City on the Hill”, if America is not “exceptional”, where does that leave him?

He has not misplaced his gratitude about his birthright. What he can do is find himself a congregation of folks who also want to Make America Great Again. Now he is part of something larger.  Once  America is made great again, economic insecurity will depart  and we will all be on the same team once more. His team. You are either on the team bus or you are not . Your choice. Fuck your feelings.

I find myself imagining that the message on his t-shirt is meant specifically for me as my feelings of dread are simultaneously incited and dismissed.

I don’t know this person.  My attempts to understand him are probably overly reductive. But if I don’t care to try to understand the other person, where does that leave me?

Less than fully human?

Thus Spake the Zeitgeist

Zombies?

What does this photo tell you?

Roland Barthes would see the crowd, the signs being waved and the t-shirt logo as the “studium” of this photo; the physical, cultural and historical details of the photo that teach us something about the context of a frozen moment. What Barthes would call the “punctum” of this photo – the detail that compels your eye and skewers you – is the defiant and indifferent stare of an old white man.

My first reaction was that I need to jettison the rest of my lingering Socratism (the fanciful notion that if you marshal enough rational arguments you can bring anyone around to your vision of the truth). This old white guy is basking in belligerence; he is not beckoning anyone to civil discourse. I can see no political utility in trying persuade this man (and the portion of the electorate he represents) of anything. Instead, we must see this man and his ilk as the most visible symptoms of an underlying disorder.

I am listening for the politicians who speak directly to the root causes of this disorder; what Bernard Stiegler calls our culture’s “symbolic misery”. So far in this run-up to the 2020 elections, two candidates have impressed me. Elizabeth Warren when asked if she was a socialist replied, “I believe in markets…but capitalism without rules is theft”. The billionaire Sacklers get us hooked on oxy, hoover up as much money as they can from hapless victims and for the pittances they give back to museums are called “philanthropists”. Pillars of American society.
Peter Buttigieg said this:

To the folks on the other side, freedom means ‘freedom from.’ Usually, freedom from government, as if government were the only thing that could make you unfree. That’s just not true. Your neighbor can make you unfree. Your cable company can make you unfree. If they get into the business of telling you who you can marry, your county clerk can make you unfree. Let’s talk about what freedom really means. Freedom means being able to start a small business because you know that when you leave your old job, that doesn’t mean you have to lose your healthcare. Freedom means that your reproductive health is up to you. Freedom means that when you have paid your debt to society, you get to re-enter society and become a productive, tax-paying, voting citizen. Freedom means you can organize for fair day’s work, a fair day’s pay, and a fair day’s conditions.

I don’t think Mayor Buttigieg read my post “The Shallow Freedoms of Neo-Liberalism” but given his education I cannot help but believe that he is channeling Isaiah Berlin as he zeroes in on a primary feature of the neo-liberal pathology- the reduction of the concept of freedom to retail choice. We are free to buy anything we want at the grocery store but our children are not “free” to attend school without active shooter drills. If you are an African American teenager you are “free” to buy a hoodie but you are not free to run down the street in it. If you are a poor American, you are “free” to stay poor and so are your children. You are “free” to go to college and “free” to be indentured to a student loan thereafter.

I am listening for candidates who will tell us that things are backward; that we are all the “government” and our life values must supersede the transactional values of the marketplace. I want to hear that we can collectively decide what constitutes a just distribution of wealth; that we are free to create the social and economic conditions in which everyone can flourish.

I am listening.

Reality Bares its Teeth, Postscript

During the post screening discussion of Grizzly Man, the anthropologist in the room asked “What kind of society produces a person like this?” Indeed…where is “self-invention” most valorized? Where is the mythology of the “rugged individual” still a folk notion with sway? Almost two hundred years ago, America’s radical individualism greatly concerned De Toqueville. He observed of Americans that:

Such folk owe no man anything and hardly expect anything from anybody. They form the habit of thinking of themselves in isolation and imagine their whole destiny is in their own hands.

The atomism of American society that so bothered De Toqueville in 1735 has only grown more pronounced as industrialization eroded social bonds and lately neo-liberalism has conflated economic choices with “freedoms” (See my post here.) . Without communal resources to shape and limit self-determination, the American self coexists with a gnawing spiritual hunger the cure for which is often sought in bizarre self-invention, the blandishments of the charlatan or the fantastical pursuit of wealth or fame. Timothy Treadwell is a very American creation.

We have turned out a rich, a capitalist nation, a nation of worshipers of Mammon and hypocrites to all other Gods. . . . When our moneyed classes, especially during the Secession war and the great tidal wave of immigration of European laborers, found out that living and gathering riches on the half-paid toil of workers was a pleasant thing they had no further scruples. . . . They seemed as one man to adopt Vespasian’s famous maxim, “ill-gotten gains do not stink.” . . .

Even those of the disinherited class who gathered no capital, did not give up the hope that they might become capitalists… No one seemed to entertain for a moment the thought: who, is to furnish half-paid labor, if all are to be capitalists?… Our press, our pulpits, our popular orators are so utterly ignorant of real political economy that, whenever an Astor, Stewart, Vanderbilt or Stevens dies, they preach the gospel that every young man may, by following their shining examples, become a millionaire. This superstition dies hard, and this reason alone sufficiently accounts for the slow progress of our new scientific and practical efforts at organizing a labor party on just principles.

Source: “Facts to be Considered,” unsigned editorial, Labor Standard (New York) 16 June 1877.

Avert Your Eyes

Caravaggio's Narcissus

Caravaggio’s Narcissus


Trump’s first month has been a disorienting spectacle. Here are some points to keep in mind as you decide how you are going to bear the days ahead:

1) Trump has no skin in the game of being President. Though the rest of us may be at economic risk, he will not. When you start with millions it’s hard even for a businessman like Trump to go backwards. He has made it clear that he and his family will continue to prosper no matter what the obstacle (the Emoluments clause, for example).
2) He has no reputation to worry about because he will always be a legend in his own mind. His fanbase, his family, and his flunkies will mirror back what he needs to see.
3) Don’t bother listening to him because he will never explain anything (certainly not himself):

If Obama often seemed an image of deliberation without appetite, Trump has always been the reverse. For him, there is no time to linger: from the first thought to the first motion is a matter of seconds; the last aversion or appetite triggers the jump to the deed. And if along the way he speaks false words? Well, words are of limited consequence. What people want is a spectacle; they will attend to what you do, not what you say; and to the extent that words themselves are a spectacle, they add to the show. The great thing about words, Trump believes, is that they are disposable


4) His narcissism is protean. He is the ideal content generator for our media. He dominates the news like a fart dominates a car (thank you, John Oliver). Resist the temptation to click on Trump’s latest idiocy. In so refraining, you are reducing the positive feedback loop upon which Trump surfed to the Presidency. (See my September 3 post)
5) Shame is what we feel when our limitations become excruciatingly visible or when we fall short of our self-image. This President cannot tolerate shame. He is missing some of the internal checks and balances of the psychologically stable.

We need to avert our eyes from his tacky reality TV show. We must be willing to miss the next train wreck. We need to consider Trumps’s predictable narcissism as misdirection. The real action is elsewhere.“It doesn’t matter what he says, it matters what he signs.” We must encourage our office holders and 2.8 million Federal employees to provide him with checks and some balance. If they do the right thing, they will shine a light on his limitations and he will dehisce.

Fruit of the Scarlet Pimpernel Dehiscing

Fruit of the Scarlet Pimpernel Dehiscing

Part the Final-The Shallow freedoms of Neoliberalism

Image by L.J. Whitsitt

Image by L.J. Whitsitt

Driving home from work during the Republican convention, I heard an NPR interview with a Young Republican who was asked how she would explain the basic Republican philosophy to other young people in a way that they would understand. She replied immediately that a smart phone is the ideal metaphor: it is the product of entrepreneurs and it empowers each person to make choices and connect with the world. Hers was a very “normal” American take on reality: the small “freedoms” of the marketplace are wedded to the American veneration of a self-seeking individualism.

In his seminal 1958 essay, Isiah Berlin contrasts the small “freedoms” I have been talking about with another kind of “Freedom” which is more generative. A capital “F” freedom is not just freedom from an external constraint, but the liberty to affect the context of one’s choices and in so doing exercise positive control over your own life. Having the “Freedom” to achieve ones own ends has both an internal, personal aspect and an external, collective dimension.

Personally, I must have the “Freedom” to contend with my own self…my fears, my passions and the state of my education… in order realize my own potential and get where I want to go. In the social and political sphere, I may need to become an actor upon the world rather than just a passive consumer. If so, I will need the larger “Freedom” to participate in collective decision making. Do I have the “Freedom” to help generate a social or political context that is more favorable to my self-realization? Am I “Free” to start my own political party? Can I join a union and improve my workplace? Or, are these larger “Freedoms” foreclosed to me? Am I, or are my fellow citizens, hindered in our efforts to realize our individual potential because of the color of our skins? the crushing weight of student debt? the dearth of middle class jobs where we live?

A key difference between the two “freedoms” is that one requires a longer attention span than the other. Going with the smart phone metaphor, it requires little expenditure of attention to log on to a cell and compare college web sites. You have the “Freedom” to acquire an education and the “freedom” to become an indentured servant as a result. Though you are also “Free” to campaign for affordable education, that entails politics; the messy and time consuming practice of bumping into other people with different ideas of what “F(f)reedom” should look like.

We now live in a new kind of market-created culture that fights to capture every shift of our attention; however fleeting. A new bright and shiny object is always available to bait our attention because there is a market creating that bait and tailoring that bait ever more precisely to each user’s tastes. I am a grandfather who earned a degree in Anthropology 35 years ago. A recent ad on my Facebook page offered me a t-shirt that reads “Always trust a Grandpa with an Anthropology degree”. What you will look at tomorrow on the Internet has already been predicted and sold.

At one level, all of these bright shiny objects are the same, they are all potential clicks. Most of us know (at some level of consciousness) that Donald Trump is where he is today because he is clickbait. He knows how to be clickbait. He didn’t need Jeb Bush’s advertising war chest because he knew how to propagate exabytes of self-exposure for free. Thoughtfully considered and detailed public policy plans are not bright and shiny objects. A click on Trump, Kardashian or U.S. trade policy are all the same to the click-market. Content or the meaning of the content does not matter; merely the number of clicks. The algorithms didn’t judge Donald Trump, they merely propelled him to our attention. The more attention Trump got, the more of him we were offered; a feed back loop that had the result of giving him an illusory dimensionality.

I am hardly the first person to notice that Donald Trump is particularly suited to be where he is today. Trump doesn’t need multi-dimensional policy statements because there is really only one bright and shiny ornament on his policy tree; America is no longer great. It matters little that blaming trade agreements and immigration is simplistic and panders to ignorance and racism. The fear and dissatisfaction he is tapping into is very real.

The “free market” has failed to deliver. It has failed in rural America where economic opportunity is decreasing and opioid use is increasing. The “free market” has failed the Rust Belt where the human dislocation from 30 years of globalization and technological change has been allowed to fester. The “free market” has kept real wage growth stagnant for decades. The gloom of living paycheck to paycheck is pervasive in America.

But this is our brave new neoliberal world. The ephemeral can be monetized-“That’s only natural!” . We need not bother our pretty little heads thinking about “Freedom”- “Let the market sort it out!”. But when the free market’s outcomes are shitty, where do we turn? To a bright and shiny strongman who will let us keep our shallow freedoms (our smart phones, our guns, our Social Security). He will tell us what to do thereby relieving us of the fundamental Freedom to think for ourselves and shape our own political and social destinies.

Neoliberalism, Part 3, I’m gonna buy me a Mercedes Benz!

As Americans we are awash in the ‘freedom’ to choose; retail opportunities abound. We can select from a teeming cornucopia of entertainment options. We find it difficult to imagine life without the shallow but narcotic ‘liberty’ of channel surfing. We revel in the niche markets created for us because we have the ‘liberty’ to adopt the styles (of life, of clothes, of self expression) that we use to individuate ourselves; to create our personal brand. Thanks to an innovative, entrepreneurial ‘free’ enterprise system, we are deluged with what I will gloss as lower case ‘freedom’ (I will get to ‘Freedom’ later). As long as there are no barriers, we have ‘freedom’. We are free to buy cigarettes (if we are older than 18) and we are free to smoke them (in someplaces and not in others).

Because we have come more and more to define ourselves in terms of these narrow (and primarily commercial) ‘freedoms’, Americans are wont to object strenuously when we encounter any abridgement of our liberty. This very second, some Americans somewhere are outraged about a liberty denied or circumscribed: that they are required to purchase health insurance or can’t smoke in bars or can’t buy pot legally or can’t graze their cattle for free on public land or can’t take their AR-15 to the supermarket. Any political decision abridging a ‘freedom’ can be seen as an embarkation down the slippery slope to statism and slavery.*

The rhetoric of neoliberalism equates the freedom of shopping choice with political freedom; capitalism is talked about as economic democracy. Even a brief look at recent history and the world around us should disabuse of this naive view. The Bush administration and its avatar Paul Bremer were dumbfounded that the laissez faire “free enterprise zone” they created in Iraq failed to unleash Iraqi entrepreneurialism and provide the backbone for Iraqi democracy. A “free” market does not a polity make. The Chinese now have many of the economic ‘freedoms’ that Americans enjoy. No one is stopping the Chinese from buying a Biagio bag or a Mercedes Benz. But the Chinese people do not live in a democracy and do not have a soupcon of the political liberties that Americans or most Europeans enjoy. Capitalism does not a democracy make.

While I am “free” to buy a Meredes Benz, this freedom exists in a particular social, political and economic context. All Americans are ‘free’ to travel around the world; but how many Americans can afford this ‘freedom”? Much of the support that Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump and the Brexiters mustered, comes from the dawning recognition that the government does not care that most of us live from paycheck to paycheck. Of what value is ‘freedom’ if your society has not fostered the kinds of social and economic conditions that allow “freedom” to be meaningful. If you are a poor American you are ‘free’ to stay that way and so are your children:

If you are born into a middle-class family in the United States, you have a roughly even chance of moving up or down the ladder by the time you are an adult. But the story for low-income Americans is quite different; going from rags to riches in a generation is rare. Instead, if you are born poor, you are likely to stay that way. Only 35 percent of children in a family in the bottom fifth of the income scale will achieve middle-class status or better by the time they are adults; in contrast, 76 percent of children from the top fifth will be middle-class or higher as adults.

To borrow a trope from Yeats, surely there is a greater “Freedom” at hand?

*This is a long lived American political meme that Richard Hofstadter dubbed the “paranoid style” of American politics and my Dad used to call “fluoride libertarianism”.

Neoliberalism, part the Second, Where is my “free market”?

The ‘liberal’ in neoliberal has nothing to do with US political labels but instead refers to the Enlightenment underpinnings of Western culture. The political progenitors of the United States were deeply influenced by Locke, Hume, Adam Smith, Voltaire and Rousseau. Creatures of the Reformation all, they rejected the divine right of kings and the divine conduit of the abbotts and elevated the sovereignty of each person’s reason. Free from the arbitrary rule of prince and priest, they enshrined the political principles by which we govern ourselves; the freedoms of speech, religion, press and markets. These original ‘liberals’ (among others) developed;

a vision of liberty and freedom that came to underpin a self-regulatory structure of governance that placed limits on the abitrariness of state power at the same time as it led and enabled individuals to regulate their own conduct to the rules of a market society.

Building upon this historical base, the rhetoric of neoliberalism has made good use of our American fetish for the word ‘freedom” . Markets must be ‘free’; deregulated and allowed to operate without the state impinging upon them just as we individual economic actors must be ‘free’ to purchase whatever smart phone we wish to buy. This is the basic conflation of market and individual “freedoms” which now undergirds American discourse; it simply feels like common sense.

But let’s begin with “freedom” as it applies to the market. It is also a common sense notion in America that pre-tax economic activity is the domain of the “market”. The State is seen to step in after the fact to impose its taxes and and regulations…making the market less ‘free’. (True neoliberals believe that “market” based economic distribution of income will be “just” whereas taxes are a form of theft by the State). In point of fact, no market is “free”. Modern markets (in particular) are creations of the state. The state creates the conditions whereby “property” can be created and protected and whereby commercial relations can be made relatively predictable. Who gets what marginal tax rates, who has access to the judicial system, how much transactional transparency is provided to investors and central banks that control currencies and interest rates are all ways that the State sets the stage for who is going to be successful. The marketplaces in Singapore, China, the U.S. and Sweden are as different as their political systems but the winners and losers in any marketplace are to a great extent, already “baked into the cake” by the State.

No only do markets not start out “free”, they are subject to the inexorable cupidity of economic actors trying game the system and put a thumb on the scale. The crash of 2008 is a case study of a financial system being gamed; by mortgage lenders, rating agencies and huge financial institutions playing casino with the money of widows and orphans. Just last month, our planetary big banks got caught trying to rig the international currency market.

Next up: If the ‘market’ is not truly ‘free’, if the system (to use Bernie’s term) is rigged, what does that say about my own ‘freedom’ as an individual economic actor?

Neoliberalism, Part the First

I think this election is turning out to be an inchoate plebiscite on neoliberalism.

What is “neoliberalism” you ask?

It is a political economic belief system that deifies “the market”. Planetary prosperity will rise and fall with “the market”. If this phrase – “the market will decide” – does not raise your hackles, you have digested some neoliberal ideology yourself. Because “the market” is a transcendental source of wisdom, neoliberalism demonizes government as too big, too inefficient, too likely to “distort” the pure signals sent to us by the market and too likely to make the markets less “free”. It follows then that the best path to prosperity for all is too keep government small and make “the market” bigger. We should cut taxes (starve the government) and privatize governmental functions (give “the market” greater sway). Any social entity that impedes the free flow of capital (unions) or is not viewed as enabling to entreprenuers (the social safety net) is viewed as retarding our common progress to market utopia.

The spawn of economists like Frederich Hayek and Milton Friedman, neoliberalism’s early adopters were Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. They lowered taxes, “deregulated” markets, weakened unions, assured the global flow of capital, stepped away from any concern about full employment and attenuated the social safety net for the poorest citizens. The social and economic policies they inspired have resulted in the hollowing out of the middle class and near catastrophic levels of economic inequality. Friedman and Hayek devotees aside, neoliberalism as a planetary force is neither a single school of economic thought nor is it a coherent ideology. Rather, its has slowly become “common sense”. It is a tissue of internally inconsistent myths and notions which can be ascribed to in bits and pieces by people of all political persuasions (i.e., Bill Kristol and Bill Clinton).

Here in America, the canards of neoliberalism have been tilled into our native soil of racism, sexism, xenophobia and know-nothingism. The result is the rich loam of political and economic confusion in which Donald Trump is growing. Central to the rhetorical misdirection of neoliberalism is the use and misuse of the word “free”. More to follow.

(Other brief summaries of neoliberalism are available here, here and the first two chapters here.)