Here are free links to things I’ve written over the last quarter. I always appreciate your thoughts and getting a critique of mine…best if you leave them on Medium but whatever works.
I’ve sorted them by topic. They are, alas, weighted towards political coverage. That was not my plan when I started writing on Medium but the topics won’t let me go. Things are just two effing weird. Someday we’ll get back to quantum theory, evolutionary biology, Carl Jung, sex, drugs, and rock & roll. Lighter stuff, you know.
Thanks for reading, Al
PS, Medium is weird. You can Follow me and it does pretty much nothing. Subscribe to get a note when I publish. That’ll be about once a month averaged out. Also, the Medium Clap button is not like Like. If you Clap, please hold it down and turn it up to 11!
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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.
Thanks for reading.
My mailing list and various projects can be found at altabor.org.
I’ve been trying in this essay to stay carefully neutral on the Right / Left thing although I’ll cheerfully admit to being on the Left.
One has to ask why Russia supports alt-right movements not just in the US but across a broad range of Western democracies?
Russia, which views open societies and functioning democracies as a threat.
A point of interest is the easy alignment between Russian oligarchs and Republican operatives. (Although, I’m not sure both sides have the same level of insight into what it is they’re doing.)
Quite frankly, when the Soviet Union went away and Bush the First declared a peace dividend, I figured Republican Party would dissolve and that most Democrats and Republican’s would peel off into some center right party leaving me and those of like mind happily occupying the fringe Left. Having to be moderate is really not much fun.
I underestimated the Republican big wigs.
If the core mission of your party is making the rich richer, you need tricks to get elected. Fear and sowing division are the most effective tricks. I watched in amazement as the Republicans, post Soviet Union, pulled boogie after boogie out of their hat starting with gay guys in San Francisco and ending now apparently with an UN/US secret agreement to round up patriots and take their AK-47s.
Well, the GOP should be happy. The Rooskies are back, big time…but they seem to be on the side of the Republicans. Life is weird.
PS, not all Republicans are big wigs, of course, particularly in South Dakota where I grew up.
30 years ago I considered the Republicans the party of choice for folks I enjoyed arguing with about the appropriate role and size of public sector.
At this point, given their more or less complete capture by the oil industry, the GOP has morphed into an existential threat to the human species. I’m hoping my friends on the right are noticing that.
Peter Turchin’s War and Peace and War is one of my favorite sort of books: those that dig into my thoughts and continues to influence them by providing a perspective to work with…or sometimes against. I find his analysis of the patterns of history intriguing and I believe he throws a light on our political landscape.
This will take on much of the flavor of a book report. In fact, it will look much like a bad book report in which I substitute long quotations for my own reactions and analysis. So be it. There is a direction. I am building to an open ended point…some questions I find interesting… which does contain the seeds of a thesis but tries not to narrow down to too fine a point. My format will be to add a skeleton of an outline to frame up material from the book and then add some observations that spark off Turchin’s work.
The anchor for Turchin’s analysis is social cohesion.
“Following the fourteenth-century Arab thinker Ibn Khaldun, I call this property of groups asabiya. Asabiya refers to the capacity of a social group for concerted collective action. Asabiya is a dynamic quantity; it can increase or decrease with time. Like many theoretical constructs, such as force in Newtonian physics, the capacity for collective action cannot be observed directly, but it can be measured from observable consequences
Social cohesion => successful societies. Essentially, the groups that do the best job of cooperating are the most successful in competing with other groups. Turchin’s interest is in the creation and collapse of historical empires and he proceeds in his analysis by gathering case histories.
“Generally, in a struggle between two groups of people, the group with stronger norms promoting cooperation and the most people following such norms has a greater chance of winning.
Inequality erodes social cohesion. Successful societies have, in the past, built empires which then erode social inequality leading to the eventual collapse of the empire.
“The phase of the secular cycle also determines the trend in social and economic inequality—whether it increases or decreases. This aspect is of particular interest because of the corrosive effect that glaring inequality has on the willingness of people to cooperate, which in turn underlies the capacity of societies for collective action
Turchin uses history as his laboratory and makes the following points about contemporary politics:
One can’t necessarily generalize his pattern of empire going forward. We may be in a post Imperial world (witness the EU vs historically warring states in Europe.)
But one can understand the development of historical societies and something about current societies since they are the result of their history.
Turchin uses Italy as an example because it provides two matching societies:
North Italy vs South Italy – He makes the point that, if Italy was divided between north and south, we would have one of the best and worst performers in Europe.
“The disparity in economic development between the Italian north and south is striking. Today the south is rural and poor, whereas the north is urban, industrialized, and wealthy. Few people realize just how well off the Italian north is, because when we see economic statistics for Western Europe, they are typically broken down by country, rather than by regions. Italy as a whole is in the middle of the pack, but its northern regions, such as Lombardia and Emilia-Romagna, are at the very top of the list. The overall rank for Italy is pulled down by its poor Mezzogiorno.
He sees this disparity as rooted in societal function vs dysfunction
First, he cites a study that took a sustained look at possible measures of social cohesion
“In 1993, Robert Putnam published Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy. “Social capital,” as Putnam explains, “refers to features of social organization, such as trust, norms, and networks that can improve the efficiency of society by facilitating coordinated actions.”
“How can one measure “institutional performance,” that is, how well regions are governed? Asabiya (or social capital) is the key. However, capacity for collective action is a complex, multifaceted property of society, and therefore we cannot expect a single way to measure it perfectly. Putnam and his co-workers, however, came beautifully close. They chose 12 indicators, ranging from measures of operation efficiency such as bureaucratic responsiveness and budget promptness to a quantification of services provided to the public, such as the number of daycare centers and family clinics.
“When Putnam and co-workers finished estimating the institutional performance for each Italian region, they saw a remarkable pattern. There was very strong north-south gradient in how well regions were governed. The regions in the Po Valley such as Emilia-Romagna and Lombardia were consistently at the top of rankings in institutional performance, whereas southern regions, such as Campania (the region around Naples), Calabria (the “toe” of the Italian boot), and Sicily were at the bottom.
Putnam’s study is a picture of effective function but the flip side is a picture of dysfunction
“Well before Putnam, and even before the Italian experiment in devolution of powers to regional governments, anthropologists knew that something was wrong with the society of the Italian south—the Mezzogiorno, as it is known in Italian. A particularly interesting study is that by the American anthropologist Edward Banfield, who spent a number of years in a southern Italian village during the 1950s and 1960s. In 1967, he published a book detailing his findings, The Moral Basis of the Backward Society. Banfield describes the extreme atomization of the southern Italian society, in which all cooperative efforts are limited to the smallest possible societal unit, the family. Relations even to such kin as cousins, and sometimes even grown-up siblings, are rife with distrust and lack of cooperation. Community-level cooperative efforts are virtually impossible. Banfield called this type of society “amoral familism,” and defined its basic philosophy as this: “Maximize the material, short-run advantage of the nuclear family; assume that all others will do likewise.”
Turchin believes the root of this society lies in the far past in Roman slavery.
“Millions of slaves, captured during the wars of conquest, flooded Italy during the second century B.C. Because slaves had no human rights, and legally could hold no property (in practice, some masters allowed them to accumulate funds to buy themselves out of slavery), their presence in massive numbers made the Roman society during the late Republic even more unequal than is usual in pre-industrial states
“The distinction between slaves and freemen is perhaps the most extreme form of social inequality. Thus, widespread slavery must be a very corrosive influence on the society’s asabiya. In fact, empirical evidence shows slavery has a deep, and lasting, negative impact on “social capital.”
“It was, thus, the rise of inequality and especially of its ugliest form, slavery, that began corroding Roman asabiya during the second century B.C.
“…southern Italy—the core region of the defunct Roman Empire—was an asabiya black hole. <> Peninsular Italy, including Sicily, remained an asabiya black hole from the collapse of the Roman Empire to this very day
He does not, of course, believe that southern Italy remained a static society. He believes that it is a damaged and ineffective one. One that has never managed to heal itself from a persistant legacy of poverty, feud, and bad government.
With the issues phrased this way, it’s hard not to draw some parallels to the US. That will be the topic of contemplation next post. For now, here’s something that caught my eye recently and sparked this whole train of thought
You are looking at a map of violence based on an analysis from an NGO, the Institute for Economics and Peace, based in Sydney Australia. Red is bad. Blue is the best. The rest range in between, color coded as you’d expect.
I’m taking the week off to do some writing, work on side projects, and generally try to get organized (an ongoing but quixotic project of mine.) I thought I’d limber up by posting something from the archives.
Here’s something I found last week while digging through old files. High school buddy, Denny, was asked to give the Commencement Address at our old high school. He sent out a call to some of us to send in our advice. Here was mine:
Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, and sometimes you get rained out
Everything I needed to know I learned during freefall.
We all graduated in 1970. That might make you think that we were in high school during the 60’s. In actual fact, South Dakota went directly from the 1950’s to the 1970’s and skipped the 60’s almost entirely with the except of a few short months allowed for transition.
Although those months were short, they were intense and we were there.
The main thing about the 60’s was that all the Big Truths about God, America, and Western History were called radically into question. All the stuff we were taking for granted became so suspect that I found it necessary to clear everything off the table and start over. My theory was that I’d examine the Big Truths one by one and let the valid ones back on. Unfortunately, none of them made it back and I’ve been forced to rely on a collection of smaller truths instead. I offer some for your consideration.
1. Life’s too short to live anybody else’s but you own.
2. Never try to psychoanalyze a cop while he’s arresting you.
3. It’s a good idea not to be any stupider than absolutely necessary.
4. Truth itself is an attempt to use limited tools to describe an unlimited reality and therefore all truths are necessarily wrong.
5. Some truths are much more wrong than others.
6. Reality doesn’t sit there waiting to be described like a mackerel on a plate. It’s a tiger that might get up at any given moment and thoroughly kick your ass.
7. Love and affection are more important that sex.
8. Sex is important.
9. The statement “If he’s so smart, why isn’t he rich” is the logical equivalent of “If he’s so smart, why isn’t he fat”. It takes a lot less money to get fat, however.
10. After reading Kant, Nietzsche, Freud, Jung, Husserl, Tillich, and numerous others in search of a approach to life, the best I’ve been able to figure is that sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, and sometimes you get rained out. All three, when they happen, have their attendant problems and it’s wise to be emotionally prepared to deal each of them.
Denny, this may need a quick edit. I didn’t have time to let it sit then read it over again. Also, the order of the above might could use rearranging.