Friday, November 18, 2016

The (very approximate) state of things

I really want to work on my novels, but I keep getting sucked into the vortex of political discussion. And yes, we have taken some first steps for practical political action here in our little farm county.

Then the voice that I had heard from heaven spoke to me again and said: “Go, take the scroll that lies open in the hand of the angel who is standing on the sea and on the land.”

So I went up to the angel and told him to give me the small scroll. He said to me, “Take and swallow it. It will turn your stomach sour, but in your mouth it will taste as sweet as honey.”

-Revelation 10: 8-9
Then Jesus entered the temple area and proceeded to drive out those who were selling things, saying to them: "It is written. My house is a house of prayer. But you have made it a den of thieves."

-Luke 19:45-46

A karate master does not kill people with his bare hands . . . The person who kills is the person who has no discipline, no restraint, and who has purchased his power in the form of a Saturday night special.

-Ian Malcolm, chaos theorist, Jurassic Park (the book), by Michael Crichton

I have two facebook pages (don’t tell young Zuckerberg), one where my friends are predominantly Christians (I am one), many of them scholars, theologians, and clergy. The other, larger one is mostly people active to various degrees in social and political movements. The latter is a fractious mix of anti-capitalists, feminists, folks with roots in black nationalism, ‘progressives’, antiwar veterans, Christian radicals, and several other heterodoxies, as well as a few family members who fit none of these categories.

On both pages, the election of Donald Trump and a bicameral Republican majority has had the effect of a ten-year-old kid picking up a stick and smacking a hornets’ nest.

I write these posts and send them to both pages, usually to work out arguments that become confused and tedious in facebook comment-exchanges. Afterwards, as I invariably encounter versions of the same arguments, instead of saying the same things over and over, I can just pop in the link, have my say, and leave it at that.

My longer, critical posts seldom get the attention of snarky posts, feel-good posts, cutesy posts, ‘memes’ (I hate that word!!!), and short posts ridiculing the enemy-of-the-day.

My Christian page, honestly, has people on it who will read longer, more critical posts, because many of those folks have backgrounds in philosophy, ethics, and theology. Most of my lefty facebook friends, including those who have actually been friends in the flesh, are comparatively unschooled in the philosophical genealogies of their own thought, though many are well-rehearsed in the controversies between ‘right’ and ‘left,’ so to speak, and totally unaware of how much, philosophically and ethically, they share with their presumed enemies. I speak as someone who was a committed communist not that long ago, and once felt pretty satisfied that I could describe the main difference between Marx and Hegel, or between liberalism and Marxism; which, it is true, is still a far deeper engagement with philosophical questions than the overwhelming majority of people.

What I’ve come to recognize, as I try to divest as much as I know how of a kind of self-aggrandizing pride, is that learning these things does not make me a superior being to the vast majority of people who do not sit with these questions. And part of our socio-political terrain is just that fact: most people are not going to dissect every event and issue under a philosophical-ethical lens. On the other hand, the subjects of these debates have very real consequences, and the validity of arguments is important, and establishing what is and is not valid as an argument invariably situates people within ethical and therefore philosophical debates.

I can narrate my own evolution from soldier to Marxist to Christian, oddly enough, through feminism, which called Marxism to account in some of the same ways that Marxism called liberalism to account; but again, once you engage these questions, unless you simply dig in at some point like a soldier into a defensive foxhole, then one is confronted with more questions and contradictions (sounds a bit Hegelian, no?), forcing said questioner to recognize and deal with the most basic law of philosophy, that of non-contradiction: “contradictory statements cannot both be true in the same sense at the same time, e.g. the  two propositions "A is B" and "A is not B" are mutually exclusive.”

Of course, there are plenty of fallacies that make the rounds on facebook and other social media platforms. There are formal fallacies and informal fallacies, and even ‘valid’ arguments within formal fallacies, based on faulty premises. “All feathers are made of stone. This is my feather. This feather is made of stone.” Valid, get it, but based on a faulty conclusion. Then there are the informals: straw man, ad hominem, ad populum, appeal to authority, appeal to outrage (big fave these days on FB), question-begging, false dichotomy, hasty generalization, post hoc, non sequitur, spotlight, missing the point, red herrings, and so on and so on and so on.

Fallacies are identified with logic, which is a subset of philosophy; and the truth is, as important as they are to understand, they are not easy to understand, in part because logic is a systematic, almost mathematical project, requiring some brain-sweat, and in part because we have all become accustomed to using logical fallacies in our everyday communication. Some fallacies are more well understood from popular dicta, like “correlation does not equal causation,” which is actually the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy, so you can see how the Latin makes this stuff even more obscure.
So not only does the encounter with apparent contradictions face us with the difficult task of greater discernment of the bases of contradiction, when we try to communicate the fallacy in a specific context (like a facebook comment-debate), we are forced to translate these into concrete terms. “No, just because you can’t think of any other reason for the 9-11 attacks does not mean that yours is the only explanation. There may be something you don’t know, or I don’t know, or that neither of us know.” “No, higher than average levels of sodium intake are not proven to be the cause of chronic hypertension, because there may be other corresponding variables that have not been taken into account.” “No, Donald Trump did not win solely because of X, because (1) there are complex variables at work that contributed to this singular outcome – formal electoral victory, and (2) people can seldom describe their own motivations, much less others.”

Further complicating this, people like Heisenberg and Prigogine have shown respectively that (1) the observer changes what is observed and (2) reality is non-linear, which may not call logic into question per se, but these insights as well as the complexity of experience place limits on the ability of logic (a very linear enterprise that assumes a kind of ‘objectivity’) to lead every argument to some satisfactory result. More complicating still, if this weren’t enough, is that time equals change, and a great many certainties now are not certainties a minute from now or further into the future. Language itself is a kind of attempted power, trying to freeze things in place that won’t be held.

People, then, being the prideful creatures we are, will state things that are false then try to justify them even when presented evidence to the contrary; we will make predictions that fail to materialize, then make excuses for what we said; and we will make predictions that come true, but oftentimes not for the reasons that we originally gave, which we will then trot out as proof that we were prescient.

You see all these things on facebook, which sort of structurally encourages them, in addition to a plethora of intentional lies and prevarications by people who (1) believe mendacity is justified if it is for a good cause and (2) people who spread bullshit for the pure malicious joy of watching it ‘go viral’. Confirmation bias is like gasoline thrown on this stuff, and it spreads like an Appalachian wildfire. With it, of course, hundreds and hundreds of brand new false premises, and with that thousands of faulty conclusions based on false premises.

So there is all this, and that hornets’ nest that’s been disturbed by the election of neo-fascists to run the US government. Today, they announced their intention to appoint a vicious, unreconstructed racist, Jefferson Beauregard "Jeff" Sessions (yes, named after the President of the Confederacy), to be the incoming Attorney General of the United States. Lately, the most fallacious thing we can say seems to be, “It can’t get worse.” And the easily-comprehensible reaction – one already in motion in response to the incoming government – has been to leap to action . . . which on facebook, given that we can’t do much more than write shit down, means making lots of statements and circulating lots of posts that give voice to our sense of helpless infuriation.

This is why the Appeal to Anger fallacy is so popular (to - ahem - trump our opposition with outrage that implicates them in evil for disagreeing with us). This, in turn, and in conjunction with our extremely variable understandings about what just happened and what is about to, and in conjunction with our human-all-too-human pride, egoism, and reluctance to admit errors, has led many political allies and potential political allies to get into a lot of acrimonious debates.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m talking about facebook here, and out there on the streets, people are already being attacked and intimidated; and there is very real cause for plain, unadulterated fear. In fact, this is the point I am getting to, because the divisiveness that is expressive of people’s disappointment (for those not yet in the gunsights) and anxiety (for those who are) will absolutely undermine the kinds of unity that will be necessary to resist the incoming government. And I will be unequivocal here:
Resistance to the Trump government, bold resistance, smart resistance, risky resistance, is not only going to be necessary in two months when these white-male nationalists take power, it is necessary right now.

But as soon as you say, “It is time to take action,” you have raised the question (no, “begging the question” is something else, a logical fallacy, in fact [pet peeve]), “What kind of action?” which further leads to, “What kind of action is most likely to achieve our goals?” then “What are our goals?” then “What ought our goals be?” then “What intermediate goals are necessary to achieve higher objectives?” And so it goes.

From lefty-folk like I used to be, we always concluded that “we” had to strengthen “the movement,” whatever that happened to be, and the more ideological comrades would say things like, “We have to build X or Y,” which was kind of funny, given that the “we” in these cases were maybe a hundred people spread all over the country. These kinds of clarion calls, of course, are only effective once an actual movement is consolidated and in motion. Slogans are not alchemy. They don’t fume new realities into existence, even if they make a few wannabe Che’s feel momentarily potent.

The point is, before anyone is going to take appropriate and effective action, there will have to be some concrete and effective means for determining goals, determining the actual tasks and actions that will fulfill them, and some feasible way of continually recruiting, employing, consolidating, and expanding the base.

The 'base' means a hell of a lot of people, and if that is restricted to those who meet whatever long list of ideological-evolution litmus-tests, the goal of a hell of a lot of people will not get met. Just as importantly, all action is not appropriate and effective. I ought to repeat that for emphasis.

If you hear anyone saying things like, “the propaganda of the deed,” run away from them as fast as you can. They are about to destroy any work you do with some loose-cannon, adventurist, adolescent boy crap. Action does not mean effective, and what is effective is that which, in this case, creates obstacles to the Trumpite agenda, not that which inadvertently helps it. Sometimes the most effective actions employ very substantial forms of self-restraint.

Does the action recruit, employ, consolidate, and expand your movement? Just a point here about some people pushing notions like buying guns. Holy shit, I can hardly think of a worse idea. This incoming regime is salivating at the idea that some protesters will fire a shot, so they will have the pretext to brand us as ‘terrorists’ and apply the full force of the state against us.

For actions to be effective, in most cases (avoiding a fallacy here), it needs to be predicated on a fairly detailed apprehension of the overall situation.Self-delusion, outworn schemas, and reductive analyses of the political terrain are not only not helpful, they are positively detrimental.

The most common manifestation of these nowadays, on my facebook pages, is the tendency to generalize about what caused the election of Donald Trump. The second most common, especially on my broader page, is left-wing phrase-mongering based on organizing principles that have not worked since around 1935. The third most common – related in many cases to the first two – is the tendency to treat the current conjuncture like those in the past that have certain features in common. 

In a very good post-election article by Mike Davis, called Not Revolution – Yet, he breaks down many of the actual statistics into bite-sized pieces, and comes to one conclusion with which I very much agree.

He notes, in passing, that Republicans supporting racists is not something new. It has been the party of white supremacy for some time now, even if Trump and his coterie were more explicit in its expression (and have energized white nationalist hooligans all over the country). The margins between Clinton and Trump, combined with the unremarkable voter turnout, do not reflect any particular sea change; and Trump’s demagogic (and reversible) opposition to neoliberal trade policy sank Clinton in at least four key Midwestern states. Yes, white privilege and white racism (active and passive), played a role, but the reality is that had Sanders run against Trump, Sanders likely would have won, which doesn’t mean some who would have voted for Sanders were not racists. It means that there were more than one motivations for most people to vote.

Davis’ most forceful claim – and the one with which I agree – is that the real surprise, the real indication of substantial alteration of the American terranus politicus was manifest in the Sanders campaign, which was only blunted by the extraordinary coordination of effort between the business class, the corporate media, and the Democratic National Committee.

Leftists, in their vast numbers, and many of whom initially dismissed this upsurge within the Democratic Party (because they see political reality through those outworn political schemas), were almost relieved when Sanders was defeated, because their ‘predictions’ had come true, even though it was not for the reasons that they originally gave, which they could then trot out as proof that we were prescient. Then they fantasized that Sanders supporters – who they still generalized about using their own ideological preconceptions – would flock en masse to the Green Party banner, because the Greens presumably had a ‘program’ that mirrored the convictions of those who voted Sanders. This, of course, did not come to pass; and the Greens didn’t even come close to matching the Libertarians.

I have very little doubt that there will be resistance to Trump. When the Bush administration launched its post-9-11 military adventures, there was massive and sustained resistance, even if it didn't stop the wars. The savagery of the wars was blunted by that resistance, and many attempted policies of domestic repression were blunted as well. It is true that the election of Barack Obama as President defused the antiwar movement, which turned out to be, in significant part at least, an anti-Republican movement. Which is precisely why we should not assume that the base of the Sanders campaign, which I still believe was the most remarkable development before the election of Trump, is the base of some leftist imagination of the resistance to Trump. We just don't know yet, but we ought to quit projecting our fantasies onto the social reality. Few people thought that a bus boycott by some Southern black churchy thing called the Montgomery Improvement Association would amount to much either.

I am going to give my support to any form of nonviolent direct action against this neo-fascist agenda that appears and to which I am able. We are already communicating locally about what that might be. Little things and bigger things. Because to expand the base, we have to make room for more people. You have time and people. Time is a constant.

For the time being, resistance to the incoming government will take a lot of different forms. People shooting them down from facebook are not helping, and they will need to be ignored. Some people will throw cold water on anything they didn't personally think up, or anything that doesn't toe the party line.

I, for one, am also going to engage the post-election struggle within the Democratic Party between the neoliberals and the 'progressives', because there is an actual base there.  The argument that we cannot colonize the Democratic Party because it has never been done before is not convincing (because we have never been here and now before, as Davis pointed out, despite sloppy historical comparisons to the contrary). There is already a resistance of this kind in place and in motion, imperfect as it may be.

Defense of people targeted by hooligans now and by the incoming government in the future is absolutely crucial. This is not meant to conjure up a tv fantasy about whooping some ass like a salvific hero. This means contacting and communicating with organizations representing targeted people, setting up means for reporting, recording, blocking, protesting, advocating, civil disobedience, showing solidarity (like the college women who all donned hijabs), and providing things like sanctuary, legal aid, and material support.

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