“Three billion years ago, life was then a community of cells of various kinds, sharing their genetic information so that clever chemical tricks and catalytic processes invented by one creature could be inherited by all of them.
Evolution was a communal affair.
But then, one evil day, a cell resembling a primitive bacterium happened to find itself one jump ahead of its neighbors in efficiency. That cell separated itself from the community and refused to share.
Fascism sees its salvation in giving people not their rights, but instead a chance to express themselves. — Walter Benjamin
Richard Boone is one bad hombre
As a kid, I loved Westerns.
When I stayed with my grandparents, the big treat was being allowed to stay up and watch them. They featured exciting heroes doing manly deeds in a bland world of Laurence Welk variety shows and Father Knows Best sitcoms. In addition, as adult fare, they were shown past my official bedtime, and (bonus!) my mom didn’t like them. (Not sure why…probably her instinct against semi-toxic nonsense.)
Each show was a slow build to a quick resolution.
The Bad Guys telegraphed their Evil nature early, generally by bullying townspeople and disrespecting women, and then the show proceeded to reveal deeper menace and a counterforce of reaction and resistance with each character claiming their spot on the Good-To-Evil Continuum.The climax was always a Shootout in which Good triumphed, Evil received its due (death!), and the morally compromised were wounded or died heroically throwing in with Good in The End.
I’m certainly not in favor of bullying townspeople or disrespecting women but there are some problems with The Shootout as a template for conflict resolution or political action. Nonetheless, it seems to be one — as American as apple pie.
The objective of this piece is to work towards an operational definition of ‘smart’ and ‘stupid’. We’ll get philosophical about that in a bit.
We are in a crisis where great need seems to lead to stupid rather than smart action — as if we’re striving to break some surface but can’t tell up from down.
In this article, I will be analyzing one way things go astray — how emotional truth can become ensnared in political nonsense.
Before it became a drug name, the term ecstasy referred to an emotional state with religious overtones. An online definition, ‘powered by Oxford’, is “an emotional or religious frenzy or trancelike state, originally one involving an experience of mystic self-transcendence.”
Religious authors frequently reframe the word into ‘ex-stasis’ highlighting the break of stepping out of one’s static self and returning changed.This resolution of conflict through cinematic violence is a peculiarly American ecstasy. It embodies an archetype of change or conversion through a story of ‘action adventure’ in which a stand-out ‘liminal’ moment of violence resolves the conflict and gives all their due.
It’s an apocalypse that delivers utopia in a blaze of glory.
Revolution Is No Tea Party
Norman Cohen, in his classic The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages, traces the appearance and development of ‘revolutionary millenarianism’ in the 14th century when the common people were set adrift by the crumbling authority of the Church in a world ravaged by the plague and famine.Millenarianism can be defined as a movement powered by the vision of a new order — specifically an egalitarian utopia — and the belief that there can be a glorious and immediate transformation to that state. (Cohen draws out some important distinctions between the different types of revolts and insurrections. We’ll return to that below.)I remember being puzzled when I first read Cohen some decades ago by the frequent jumps from imagined utopia to inter-communal violence. The egalitarian utopia wasn’t going to be equally distributed. Apparently, the route to a better future leads through the murder of Jews, or of a different variant of Christians, or the nobles, or some other flavor of not-us.
Time has clarified this for me. It’s central to the whole impulse:
Things are bad.
Someone must be responsible.
We are good people; we’re acting right; our intentions are pure.
Therefore (part 1), since the someone responsible isn’t Us. It must therefore be Them acting as a poison to the body politic.
Therefore (part 2), if we purge the poison, there will be a dramatic, sudden transformation to the good.
The psychodynamics and biochemistry of this are interesting and we’ll dig into that more in a future article. For now, we’ve pretty much described the underlying mental architecture of QAnon and the Capitol Insurrection: utopia delivered in an ecstasy of violence.
Back to Amerika
But before we go further, I’ll have to admit to having more than just a theoretical knowledge of this type of thinking.
Set the Wayback Machine to 1970: we’re in a world where our amazing planet is being destroyed by a system built on the systematic exploitation of everyday people and rooted in the genocide of First Peoples and the kidnapping and enslavement of Africans. We are being fed into the grinder in a war to satisfy some sort of tit-for-tat fantasy of Henry Kissenger’s. The deep state has infiltrated and disrupted resistance movements…even lowly food coops. Our leaders are being assassinated by lone gunmen or police raids. Our compatriots have been killed at Jackson State and Kent State. Old men posture with nuclear weapons when their use would clearly be insane in a “we found it necessary to destroy this village in order to save it” sort of way.
From this perspective, a small but intensely committed subset of the 60s/70s American left argued for acts of violence — not primarily because they would themselves have an impact but because they would crystalize awareness, show that resistance is possible, and lead to a mass uprising. This manifesto from the Weather Underground is worth a quick scan if only to note what has changed and what hasn’t: Prairie Fire (sds-1960s.org.)
Not everyone agreed that violence made sense, but the intensity of emotion created a pounding demand for some sort of action…not endless talk or compromise with the effing Hubert Humphrey liberals! Our lives were on the line. Things had to change. Now!
Hence, the idea of slow and steady progress seemed a slow and steady path to nowhere. Revolution seemed the only answer. Okay, Stalin was a bit iffy but Che or Lenin provided a beacon. And then along came Mao talking of ‘permanent revolution’. What could be cooler than that!Like John Lennon, you could count me out (and in) but the intent here is not to argue strategy. Certainly, uprisings and rebellions have led to progressive change and, certainly, they have backfired horribly.What I want to highlight, though, is the strong fantasy undercurrent of Revolution as the zipless fuck of progress. Transformations are quick; impact is unambiguous; consequences are as intended; evil is dispatched and good ascends. This constellation of ideas is a strange attractor in American politics.
That brings us to the modern American right.
What Were They Thinking
Followers of QAnon…believe that there is an imminent event known as the “Storm” when thousands of members of the cabal will be arrested and possibly sent to Guantanamo Bay prison or to face military tribunals, and the U.S. military will brutally take over the country. The result will be salvation and utopia on earth – WikipediaI’m now officially the dumbest guy in my whole family -QAnon follower on 1/21/21
There’s been enough ink on QAnon. QAnon’s theory in short: an evil deep-state cabal controls the country; Trump will lead a massive reset; time was running out so it had to happen on Inauguration Day, 2021.
If you’ve been out of the loop for the last 6 years, Wikipedia has it detailed for your reading enjoyment.
Since it involves less than a dozen specific well-chronicled individuals, the plot to kidnap Michigan Governor Whitman provides better grist for analysis. In short: the Wolverine Watchmen Militia consisting of less than a dozen members, meeting in secret at Adam Fox’s temporary living quarters in the cellar of the Vac Shack vacuum shop, planned to kidnap the Governor (because?), blow up a bridge to delay police pursuit (until?), and hole up somewhere (and?).
From there it gets a little vague:-) Missing were specific demands or a manifesto or a political program or tactics to connect the kidnapping to any sort of change. Various members railed against everything from gun laws (gun laws?— some of Wolverines had already shown up at the State Capitol with legal assault weapons), to COVID precautions, to deep state control, to motor vehicle laws. (Reform the DMV or the Governor gets it!)
As the reports of the plot continued to come in, I could only shake my head and keep asking, ”What were they thinking?”
Let’s see what one of the leaders of the Wolverine Watchman, Adam Fox, had to say (source Wikipedia):
In all honesty right now … I just wanna make the world glow, dude…. That’s what it’s gonna take for us to take it back
Snatch and grab, man. Grab the fuckin’ Governor. Just grab the bitch. Because at that point, we do that, dude — it’s over.
Smart vs Stupid: Party Like It’s 1299
Norman Cohen pointed out a critical distinction between ineffective and effective social movements:
It is characteristic of this kind of movement that its aims and premises are boundless. A social struggle is seen not as a struggle for specific, limited objectives, but as an event of unique importance, different in kind from all other struggles known to history, a cataclysm from which the world is to emerge totally transformed and redeemed.
… in contrast…
How did the movements we have been considering stand in relation to other social movements? They occurred in a world where peasant revolts and urban insurrections were very common and moreover were often successful. It frequently happened that the tough, shrewd rebelliousness of the common people stood them in excellent stead, compelling concessions, bringing solid gains in prosperity and privilege.
Cohn, Norman. The Pursuit of the Millennium. Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.
One key indicator of the difference is the ‘atemporality’ of misguided solutions. The aims are ‘boundless’ and the solution is a ‘cataclysm’ from which the world emerges ‘totally transformed and redeemed.’
A second indicator: there is no ambiguity. The vision is pure and complete; unintended consequences will be non-existent.
Thus, making change is not a process that unfolds like growing crops, or building a house, or baking a pie. It doesn’t require domain knowledge, or trial and error, or sustained focused work over months or years. We ‘ex-stasis’ out of a complicated world of brick-by-brick construction and fix it all in ‘cataclysm’ of ‘redemption.’As a story, this resonates. As a strategy, it fails spectacularly.
It’s worth noting that, since we’re working with myth, that we’re in some weird variant of the hero‘s story. The Wisconsin Wolverines clearly felt themselves to be defenders and protectors. But where Hercules had his dozen labors or, as Joeseph Campbell describes, a hero goes through stages of progressive struggle through time, here the whole story is collapsed. Everything gets fixed in a ‘blaze of glory.’
And that, in a sense, is what this series is all about: the disconnect between a deeply felt emotional impulse and an effective political program.
Emotional truth; political lies.
The Economic Truth
Life flows along the commonplace. – Carl Jung
Our current economy seems defined by the loss of a ‘meaningful commonplace’ for a huge swath of the population.
After Trump’s election, I did a deep dive into popular and academic literature trying to understand what had driven a result I did not understand…particularly the voting patterns in the upper Midwest and particularly where Obama voters that had become Trump voters.There are lots of ‘sufficient’ explanations for why Trump won. Many of them are correct. The result was ‘overdetermined’ — any of a variety of factors could explain the few votes that swung the election. Even non-voting by regular voters…the relative proportion of those too turned off to vote in this election but not in the previous…was enough to explain the result.
This doesn’t ignore the impact of evangelicals or the baleful influence of misogyny or White supremacy, but a few vote switches in just a very few states would have taken the election in a different direction. There were sufficient non-evangelical, non-misogynist, non-supremacist Trump voters to make the difference.
My finding: it wasn’t all that complicated. By and large, we’re fairly simple creatures. What folks wanted could be summarized pretty easily: a decent life — agency, respect, and a fair shake. Fifty years ago much of the White working-class could obtain that in the combination of occupation and their social capital rooted in their relationships in the church, club, union, etc.This good-enough commonplace has been steadily disrupted by the loss of jobs that might support a family and increasing economic polarization and disdain for those excluded from an economy that steadily distributes wealth upward. This has been exacerbated by disruptive technologies, globalization, and ever-accelerating ‘future shock’.
As in the times described by Norman Cohen, times of economic uncertainty, plague, and the collapse of normal meaning generation are steadily tightening the screws on everyday people. People suffer with increasingly lethal consequences. As a result, people can get a little crazy.
The Political Lies
But that craziness is being shaped and shaped in a way that directly mitigates against changing the conditions causing it. Instead of a meaningful program for change, we get ‘cosplay revolution with real bullets’. Neither the Capitol Insurrection nor kidnapping Gov Whitmer had a plan that would have created good jobs or a more inclusive economy. Our distress has been short-circuited into theater.
The call to action from the political podium, the pulpit, and Fox News ups emotional intensity but blurs focus on the material processes that underly our distress so that folks are tipped into a strange attractor of self-referential cathartic but ineffective action.
The number one factor breaking families is money…economics…but try telling that to Focus on the Family.
True and False; Smart and Stupid
Post-truth is pre-fascism…. When we give up on truth, we concede power to those with the wealth and charisma to create spectacle in its place. – Timothy Snyder, Levin Professor of History, Yale
In part 1 of this series, we started to tally up what’s being spent to make us stupid. Here we define stupid operationally and quite simply.
Smart works toward an effective solution. Stupid action produces a non-solution or even mitigates against effective action.Telling them apart is occasionally difficult but sometimes simple. If you have a flat tire and you’re looking under the hood or you’re on a jihad to discover the evildoer who cursed your car, you’re going nowhere.
I’ll argue stupid action is clearly stupid if it has all 3 elements:
1) There’s a disconnect from facts on the ground.
One clue: an accurate analysis of any biological system, human behavior included, is always complicated. A story that refuses ambiguity or counter-evidence is at the very least incomplete.
You can’t easily jack yourself up to crazy action if there’s a chance your story might be wrong. A storyteller that gets more and more insistent without introducing additional analysis or evidence is likely heading down some rabbit hole (or running a con).
2) There’s a disconnect from effective action.
This can be caused by a misunderstanding or refusal of facts or simple political naivety. Without an informed political program, you’re simply flailing. Atemporal blaze-of-glory solutions with ‘boundless’ objectives are an invariant red flag.
3) There’s a call to action that highlights self-referential emotion release. In the cases we’re looking at here, that consists of a call to violence as transformative catharsis.
Gimee Some Truth
After decades of thinking about evolution, cognitive psychology, a few strains of philosophy, and the history of science, I increasingly believe that the closest we can get to Truth is the ability to take an action and have it achieve the predicted result.
Our politics is collapsing through the lack of it.
Effective action grounds itself in connection to what is actually there.
Make It Glow
Like a moth to the flame, Adam Fox had an image in his head. 100% intense; 100% ineffective. Emotional truth; political nonsense.
He didn’t arrive there by accident.
I don’t know that the path that led him astray was mapped in advance. Trump, for example, would fish for emotional responses and then build his narrative through iteration at repeated rallies.
A story just had to be ‘good enough’ to achieve the desired result: to tip us from effective action that might alter the current structures of power and oppression into an ineffective self-referential fugue.
Our stories of shootouts — violent cathartic transformations — provide archetypal draw… a strange-attractor into which an unmoored Adam Fox can be tipped to his and all our detriment.
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Over the past few months, I’ve added a fairly rigorous discussion of Free Will and a two-part rant on Consciousness to Medium. During the process, I made a point of reading what others had posted on the topics, adding Claps and trading comments with a variety of interesting folks.
I did notice a certain muddiness in some of the discussions…not surprising when words like Free and Consciousness are involved.
Asking questions of other writers and, even more so, being asked questions led me to isolate a series of ‘pivot point questions’ that seem to distinguish the different stances. I’m offering them here in hopes of making a contribution to clearer thinking about it all.
I’ll editorialize with my own conclusions but I think the questions are useful even if you break the other way on them.
But first, what am I talking about here? Conscious Free Will?
I’m going to ground it like this:
My lab rat, or thought-experiment core, is the conscious consideration of at least two options and a conscious choice between them.
Pivot Point 1: Does what is experienced have agency?
There’s a view that choices happen ‘off-stage’ and what we experience as ‘free choice’ is epiphenomenal, or color commentary, or even some sort of post hoc tale we tell ourself so as not to appear inexplicable to ourself.
The commonality is a belief that agency lies somewhere outside the experience itself.
My view: in many cases agency is precisely where it presents itself to be.
Discussion: There can, of course, be unconscious contributing factors but… notwithstanding the braid of physical, cultural, conscious, and unconscious processes that set up a decision point…a conscious decision is made. Sometimes it’s proceeded by weeks of research filling out a checklist. Sometimes it’s making a list of 6 options and rolling a dice. Regardless, a decision is made — and the thing that causes the results of the decision is precisely consciously making the decision.
That seems like a pretty clear statement but I’ve found that it isn’t. A mental image may help. Folks would tell me, “oh yeah, I agree but the real decision has already been made, right?”
When I was in middle school and a Boy Scout, we specialized in construction: towers, bridges, that sort of thing. We made our own rope out of bailing twine. The twine was of varying thicknesses with fibers sticking out in all directions. We used it because the twine was cheap and, although the appearance of the end result was bristly and funky, it was a very sturdy rope.
Here’s how I imagine the intertwined and overlapping systems that make up our mental and behavioral processes.
Imagine 12 strands of the twine woven together into a bristly rope and dyed splotchily on a continuum from dark grey to bright white. The strands are intertwined paths of causality. The bright white is when that causality proceeds via a conscious process; the various greys are processes outside of consciousness to varying degrees. Consciousness is not an observer of a non-conscious process. It is a process.
Pivot Point 2: Is what is experienced a completely material and, hence, predictable process?
Some, of course, believe it is not.
My View: I’m with the materialists.
Discussion: Descartes split the human experience into two components: the body and higher abilities, the two connected through the pineal gland. Some phenomena attached to the material body and others…thought, belief and doubt, choice…are of the mind and immaterial. Our ‘higher’ nature here is the classic Ghost in the Machine
Note that this is fundamentally a religious perspective. There are things outside the world…God, angels, souls…and we participate in that transcendent plane.
That Ghost still hovers over this discussion and, even when unacknowledged, has left an unrehabilitated bit of religious sensibility…an unconscious assumption that if Free Will and Consciousness aren’t somehow immaterial and unpredictable then they aren’t really what they present themselves to be. (My workout on the topic is here.)
To sharpen this up, I’d like to propose a ‘Turning test’ for conscious experience:
If we materially recreate all the processes leading into a conscious moment then the output will be precisely what we experience.
To rephrase, if consciousness and choice are fully material processes, what could prevent their replication? To return to the rope metaphor, current fMRI research should let us tease out all the threads — all the systems activated — and model them in some material substrate that isn’t an actual human nervous system.
That should totally recreate our experience. If it can’t, then something else is going on and I’ll happily back up and take the other fork:-) And, either way, this will move us into serious sci-fi territory!
Of course, given the architecture and number of connections in a human nervous system, there will be some significant challenges getting to this point.
Pivot Point 3: What do we mean by consciousness?
This is the tricky one with roughly three continually evolving schools of thought.
My view: heck if I know precisely. However, I don’t find it useful to approach the question in the abstract, ie primarily by thinking more and harder. This is a topic to approach empirically.
Discussion: Evolutionary biology, broadly defined, provides a better path in.
We are not simply embodied consciousness. We are part of an evolutionary history and connected to a web of species. Each species is the current exemplar of a different branching at some point over the last three billion years.
On the paths from bacteria to complex animals, there are points where decisions are clearly all instinct — another somewhat muddy term but let’s use bugs as an example.
At some point, Sapiens, and most likely a few other species, developed ‘planning depth’ best conceptualized in game terms as the ability to think some number of moves ahead. (In the case of Homo Sapiens, we have developed sophisticated tools to add complexity and reach to our planning depth but our starting base depth is just a few moves ahead of what’s observed in our closest Chimp relatives.)
Our consciousness is so intertwined with rehearsing the next few steps or replaying the last few, that it’s hard to separate basic awareness from the ongoing planning chatter. Sorting out the threads in all this will be difficult but essential to eventually grasping what consciousness is. Perhaps transcranial magnetic stimulation or brain lesion research can give some clues. Perhaps cross-species comparisons of fMRI scans can as well.
I’d like to note that Carl Jung and members of his school believe that myth, e.g. Prometheus’ story, encodes and even channels the emergence of ego-centered consciousness.Myths, to them, aren’t merely a chronicle of changes in human culture and consciousness but are the vehicle for those changes. What is described in many of our myths is the wresting of deployable energy from the type of unconscious impulse that directs most behavior. ‘Conscious free will’ is an accomplishment, still tenuous. There’s a chance that some of the tools out there in Carl Jung / Joseph Campell land may prove helpful. I think so, but I’ll save more discussion on all that for another story.
The rope of darkened threads is a mythic tangle
Pivot Point 4: How can we tell if anyone else shares what we experience as consciousness?
My view: Technically we can’t but cmon!
Discussion: First, there’s the above: our evolutionary history. We are members of a species and an evolutionary lineage and share most of our genotype and most all of our morphology with the other Sapiens present and past and, in fact, a couple of our chimp cousins to boot.
Second, taking that as a given, the argument for any individual’s uniqueness is weak. What exactly would make you different from any other member of our species in this respect or, in fact, different than a number of other fellow inhabitants of our wonderful but imperiled biosphere?
In point of fact, I may not be able to tell if we’re seeing the same red but I can test to see if you’re color blind. I’m not privy to your decision-making process but we can experimentally determine the impact of a wide variety of cognitive biases. I don’t think it’s all that opaque. Frankly, I hear shards of the Ghost’s sheets flapping around this question and assume it will join Xeno’s Paradox in the annals of temporarily useful but ultimately irrelevant questions.
Pivot Point 5: Without truly ‘free’ conscious choice is there any basis for morality?
I’m going to leave this one alone. Not that it’s irrelevant, but it’s not something I’ve spent much time thinking about beyond a simple heuristic that specifies that one’s responsibility extends to the range of one’s awareness of the impact of one’s actions.