Category Archives: Critical thinking

Tiredness, Truth, and Mockery: the American Way


Early rendition of Alfred E. Neuman, 1908.

Today, I wonder whether I should re-think some of my ultra-liberal biases and attendant leftist news consumption.  This is good.  But, man, I’m beat.

The alt-right (and the radical religious right) to me seems like a uniquely American expression of deep stupidity but, of course, I would say that. Look at my demographic: college educated, democrat, fiction writer, from Southern California, who’s been an expat for almost a decade. Of course, I think Trump is the worst thing that could have possibly happened to the world. Of course, I wanted Bernie but voted Hillary. Of course, I want net neutrality. Of course, I support many (but not all) positions taken by the ACLU. Of course, I believe that, in an earlier era, Obama would have been considered a moderate republican. Of course, I have a problem with drones, civilian casualties, the terrific scope creep of the Patriot Act, and the “war on drugs.” Of course, I care about my country.

If I didn’t think the Green Party was run by bumblers, I would probably join. I’m pro-choice, pro-Planned Parenthood, and I support gay marriage. I think many of these things should not even have to be controversial in a liberal democracy. I dream of a day when there will be universal healthcare and free college tuition. I think climate change is one of the most, if not the most, serious issues we face today. But the truth is that most of these biases and beliefs can be (and are) predicted by an algorithm. The even sadder truth is that I only have so much energy I can devote to fact checking and being outraged. This is a problem. Tiredness is a problem.

The problem is not that there is a right answer we have to find. The problem is that uncertainty and complexity are exhausting over time, especially when you’re necessarily engaged in other things. Most Americans are not, actually, stupid. They’re invested in certain areas–mostly job and family–and in most other respects have a general (superficial) understanding of the world, including political issues and identifying yellow journalism, confirmation bias, and what passes for fear mongering click-bait. I have also seen this in European and Asian countries, relative to various cultural differences and levels of education. The USA doesn’t own “stupid.” Every country with a powerful media has a horse as a proconsul somewhere. The difference is that the States likes to put its toga-wearing horses on display, whereas other countries have not. But this is changing.

In an enormous post-industrial society, you will have many levels of political, historical, and economic awareness and many opinions emerging constantly in the news media. You will also have crackpot theories; secessionism; separatism based on race, religion, and / or gender biases; conspiracy paranoia; multi-directional shaming; late night talk show infotainment; social justice fanatics; religious absolutists; new age hucksters; ambulance chasers; a continuous horde of cynics; doom-saying historians looking for their 15 minutes; the resurgence of failed orthodoxies (like Nazism, ethno-nationalism, and whatever Steve Bannon happens to be reading); and the all-encompassing opportunism that feeds off these things. What you won’t have is a simple black-and-white truth. You will have truthiness.

To live in an information society infected with truthiness is extremely taxing. But just as there is no black-and-white truth, there is no easy solution. A friend of mine has suggested “slow news” as opposed to internet news feeds. It seems like there are some merits there. But slow news does not necessarily safeguard against yellow journalism, which has been around since newspapers could fold. In many ways, the 24-hour news cycle and its problematic presence on social media makes it harder for governments and corporations to spin interpretations in their favor. We should be grateful for the ineptitude of Sean Spicer and the alacrity with which he and his boss are covered by the press corps.

I don’t have answers. I don’t think there is a single version of what is true—at least not one that can be had through the media. But I also don’t think the cross-eyed chants of “burn it down” and “fuck your feelings” have done any good. They helped Trump get elected as president, and he has thus far made a mockery of America. The left understandably wants him gone. The GOP wants him to calm down and let them get on with the kleptocracy. His base supporters are currently upset because he bowed 5 inches to receive an award in Saudi. Some of his supporters are no doubt upset that the Reich hasn’t yet emerged in all its glory. I suspect they will still be upset when he gets impeached.

“Nothing is an absolute reality; all is permitted” – Hassan-i Sabbah

Realpolitik and Kittens

I have been reading about pro-Nazi exiles recruited and paid by the CIA. I can never read such things without feeling powerfully upset. But I also keep in mind Ludwig von Rochau’s idea that “the law of power governs the world of states just as the law of gravity governs the physical world.” Rochau supposedly coined the term, “realpolitik,” which originally had to do with achieving Enlightenment ideals in a world that didn’t operate according to those ideals. Reading about the CIA’s support of the Svoboda Party in the Ukraine led me back to Rochau, someone I haven’t thought about since my undergraduate years.

People seem shocked when they first learn that American Imperialism (like all imperialism no matter what costume it currently happens to be wearing) involves propping up murderous dictators, victimizing the weak, and destabilizing the social order of disobedient nations. Every nation that reaches a certain level of power becomes amoral. This is not to say it’s alright from an ethical standpoint. This is just the nature power politics–inherently pragmatic and opportunistic.

The inherent viciousness of such governments is held in check by two closely related things: the press and public opinion. Laws have nothing to do with it. Laws can be changed or ignored–as we see happening in the UK and the USA. But look at what has happened at the town hall meetings across the States. Those are a large part of what caused the lack of GOP support for Trumpcare. Fear of an angry mob gets things done in Congress, yessir.

Exposing a government’s essential Machiavellianism will not change the imperative for realpolitik in the world, but it can blunt the essential cruelty of decision makers, opening up a space for the weak and poor to evacuate to the hill country. Get grandpa dressed and fire up the sampan while there’s still time, why don’t you.

Picture an enormous rock rolling down the side of a mountain. The rock is moving in accordance with universal law. If you’re smart, you get out of the way. If you’re not so smart, you try to argue with gravity. I propose the wise course is to pay attention to what’s going on, know when to get out of the way, and live to read more books, complain about the murderers in power, and play with more kittens in your hut. Then maybe you can write political pieces on the inherent nastiness of the rulers and live to see them published.

Alternately, you can die for your beliefs. That is very heroic, but gravity will keep the boulders rolling down the mountains and there will always be bullets flying through the air. There will also always be empires and bloody strongmen and fools wearing crowns. It’s up to us to accuse them, argue for reform, and cast blame where it belongs. But we can’t do that face down in the canal.

And it’s alright to say, “But who will look after my cats?”

Nobody Knows It But Me

classroomLong ago, I was an English teacher at a private high school in central California. It was a good, if demanding, job and unlike many of my colleagues, I seemed to manage occasional moments of non-misery in the workplace. In fact, the two years I spent working there taught me more about human nature than two decades of university teaching, freelance writing, and working abroad ever did.

Without a doubt, teaching over 100 adolescents each semester schooled me not only in how people will behave when going through some of the worst years of their lives but the extent to which many parents are feverishly inadequate when it comes to raising kids. With respect to family, no one wants to admit they have no clue what they’re doing. Everyone must pretend things are running smoothly and they’re in complete control.

I found this pretense interesting, particularly during parent-teacher conferences when ashamed, bewildered parents would whisper, “What do you think I should do?” as if my ability to manage large groups of adolescents somehow qualified me to give them advice. At first, I would explain that my two degrees in English plus minor gifts in speaking in front of people and writing did not mean I had a solution to why Jimmy couldn’t sit still or why Leticia cried through every class and felt compelled to layer everything around her in Purell, or why Leo circulated pictures of his girlfriend’s vagina. Over time, I developed a less draining response: “I do not know.” All Quiet on the Western Front may prepare us to think about the meaning of war, but it will not prepare us for Leo’s girlfriend’s vagina.

I suspected then, as I still do, that confronting such situations is not within the job description of a high school English teacher. But maybe, in the hundreds of outrageous situations in which I found myself in that job, I could have done more. The questions I ask myself now are the questions many parents asked me then: what should I have done? Was there anything to be done at all? There must be an expert somewhere, a veteran administrator or someone with a PhD in education theory, who can speak to this. Maybe a prison psychologist.

I wish I could believe that. In spite of my lingering questions, I think I’ve come to believe the opposite: there actually are no rules—not just for teaching or parenting, but for any area of human experience. A friend once said to me when we were going through our own high school torment: “This is the meaning of life: we all suck and we’re nothing.” I don’t think he fully appreciated how profound that statement was when he said it. 27 years later, I’m still seeing it prove out.

We all suck: no one—and I mean this in the broadest, most inclusive, most general sense—actually knows what they’re doing to the extent that assumptions and judgment calls are unnecessary. Perfect human understanding does not exist and human error is ubiquitous. Even our attempts at artificial intelligence are subject to our limited assumptions about what intelligence actually is (or can be). What can we know beyond a shadow of a doubt? The truth is: nothing, unfortunately.

Surely an engineer will feel confident that, say, as energy is transformed or transferred, an increasing amount of it is wasted. Surely something as dependable and consistent as a physical law (in this case, the Second Law of Thermodynamics) is immutable, absolute, not a matter for interpretation. But even something as ironclad as a law of physics is not without its exceptions. Some things are givens within the parameters of a particular knowledge paradigm, but those givens are always relative to and dependent upon the parameters themselves.

For example, within the agreed-upon bounds of thermodynamic theory, basic laws obtain as a reliable set of rules for the behavior of energy, entropy, and temperature at thermal equilibrium. But we also know that even within that theoretical framework, an empirical finding like the Second Law is subject to exceptions. In 2002, researchers at the Australian National University, in a paper entitled, “Experimental Demonstration of Violations of the Second Law of Thermodynamics for Small Systems and Short Time Scales,” found that “systems can undergo fleeting energy increases that seem to violate the venerable law.” And while this is only one small example, it is by no means isolated or anomalous to the extent that we could dismiss all such exceptions out of hand.

In fact, our entire narrative of scientific progress is predicated on discoveries which alter existing assumptions about how the world works. As Thomas Kuhn observes in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, “though the world does not change with a change of paradigm, the scientist afterward works in a different world.” The scientific narrative changes. Because it was always a narrative, never an unassailable, omniscient catalogue.

Nothing is beyond interpretation, not even the bedrock assumptions of our most materialistic sciences. Rather, ways of knowing amount to best possible premises always subject to discourse and development over time (to say nothing of the complexities of the information technology we rely on to document and transmit that discourse). We do the best we can. We develop and codify optimal principles for a given field. And then we work with those principles until we encounter a paradigm-disruptive discovery that forces us to revise our theories.

But we’re nothing: Even the most qualified and intellectually responsible claims are part of a conversation (discourse) which is grounded in work that came before and which will be superseded by discoveries and realizations that follow. In many cases, an individual contribution to any field is no greater than a minuscule inch forward with vastly disproportionate implications.

Still, there are careers to develop and Cessnas to purchase and grants to chase and colleagues to slander and books to write and mistresses to support and students to convince. In Polishing the Mirror, the guru Ram Dass—then a social psychology professor named Richard Alpert—describes what he felt was a hollowness at the center of western academia:

In 1961, I was thirty and at the height of my academic career. I had a PhD from Stanford University, and I was a professor of social relations at Harvard. I had arrived at a pinnacle of life as I thought it should be, professionally, socially, and economically. But inside there remained an emptiness—a feeling that, with all I had, something was still missing. Here I was at Harvard, the mecca of the intellect. But when I looked into the eyes of my peers, wondering “Do you know?” I saw in their eyes that what I was looking for was nowhere to be found. In a social or family setting, people looked up to me and hung on my every word because I was a Harvard professor, and they clearly assumed that I knew. But to me, the nature of life remained a mystery.

In Ram Dass’ use of the term, we “do not know” much about the world in any absolute sense. We cannot know because our intellectual tools are as finite as the time we have in which to use them. This is not to argue that we should be content with ignorance. But it is a way to foreground a simple suggestion: speculation is absolutely necessary when it comes to developing knowledge.

Assumptions are necessary. Ultimately, belief is necessary. Kuhn, at least, seems to agree: “Normal science, the activity in which most scientists inevitably spend almost all their time, is predicated on the assumption that the scientific community knows what the world is like.” This seems reasonable not just in science but in any field of human activity.

So what remains to be done if we can never fully know our world and ourselves? Everything! Our inability to attain perfect understanding is no reason to abandon the pursuit of outer and inner knowledge. Rather, it leads us to an acceptance of our limitations as individuals and as a species and, in that acceptance, a very personal yet very real sense of freedom.

Maybe the right answer to those parents who wanted advice should have been: you already know how to raise your kids because what you think is best will be the best you can possibly do. Maybe, as my high school friend seemed to imply back in 1989, we are not static, monolithic, isolate objects. We are no thing.

Instead, we are dynamic, dialectic, fluid collaborations—living syntheses of what was known in the past and what will be discovered in the future. Maybe “discourse” is the most accurate metaphor for human experience. If so, all we can do is try to engage in life’s conversation as robustly as possible. Maybe there are no rules beyond that.

“Baby,” I said, “I’m a genius but nobody knows it but me.” 
― Charles Bukowski, Factotum