Sunday, December 4, 2016

Clash of Worldviews: The Meaning of Trumpism

MODERATOR: Good evening and welcome back to Clash of Worldviews, the show in which we try to get to the bottom of big issues. You may have heard that President-Elect Donald Trump is a charlatan and an ogre, and that Hillary Clinton is crooked and phony. But Trump’s election has cast doubt on so much of our conventional wisdom that we’re still wondering—as though lost in a wasteland—just what the true meaning of Trump’s election might be. To help answer that question, we’ve asked Adam Garnett, famed liberal humanist and Hillary Clinton supporter, and Fred Fogarty, a Donald Trump supporter and self-described member of the alt-right to be with us to discuss the matter. Gentlemen, who would like to begin? What is Trumpism all about? 

ADAM: In a word, Trump is about himself, while his supporters are about having a laugh at the country’s expense. They’re not downtrodden, these older white working class folks; they’re just venting because they’ve fared badly under globalization, they know the days of exclusive white power or imperialism are over, and they mean to take the country down with them. If they can’t rule any longer like they used to in the first half of the last century, they’re going to pollute the discourse with their vulgarity and send a bull into the china shop.

FRED: So “they’re not downtrodden,” but they’ve also “fared badly under globalization”? Which is it, I wonder? You see how the elites can’t even think straight? No wonder they were ripe for being humiliated by Trump and by the rise of the alt-right!

ADAM: I meant that these Trumpists have benefited from governmental support. They’re part of the middle class, but they’d like to blow up the social system, thus committing collective suicide by voting against their economic interest. Trump, in other words, isn’t an expression of revolt against the powers that be. Instead, he’s a rogue power, an agent of anarchy.

FRED: Keep telling yourself that, Adam! Keep patting yourself on the back. You’re one of the good guys, right? Not some useful idiot to plutocrats.

ADAM: And who are you, Freddy? What vile hate speech will you treat us to this evening? I can hardly wait to plug my ears.

FRED: Yeah, because you’re a feminized liberal who can’t stomach the naked truth. You think Trump’s supporters are all morons and only liberals have reason on their side. That’s where you’re wrong. Many of Trump’s voters aren’t highly uneducated, but that doesn’t make them stupid. Just look at what foolishness was wrought by Clinton’s neoliberal class of professionals: they’re the Ivy Leaguers but they got it all wrong. Their polls, their history lessons, their self-serving analyses were so many paper tigers squashed by the juggernaut Trump. You think Hillary Clinton deserved to win, because she was the more rational and responsible candidate. That’s what that euphemism was about: Trump supposedly lacked “the demeanor to be president.” But you know what Hillary Clinton lacked? An honest bone in her body. She couldn’t speak the unpopular truth to the public and she lost because hardly anyone trusted that she would change the United States for the better.

ADAM: And what will Trump do? Wave his magic wand and make American great again? Is that supposed to be some profound truth he told?

FRED: Trump doesn’t speak in fancy academic double-talk. I’ll grant you that. His language is seldom precise, but the essence of his diagnosis was highly negative and thus accurate. Trump’s view of America’s standing in the world is apocalyptic, as even the Democrats pointed out. Maybe Trump exaggerates for rhetorical effect, but his main point is that the United States isn’t doing well on the whole. That’s the truth that Hillary Clinton couldn’t touch with a ten foot pole, because she had to own Obama’s legacy. The public no longer respects the system, they were disappointed by Obama who ran falsely as a change candidate, and they wanted a leader from outside the corrupt establishment who would at least have a fighting chance of effecting radical change.

ADAM: Who is supposed to benefit from Trump’s administration? Surely you don’t mean the older blue collar whites who have been misled by Republicans for decades. Surely you’re aware that the Republicans have used social wedge issues to stir up animosities and compel these folks to vote against their economic interest. Surely you understand that trickle-down economics just further enriches the top one percent while everyone else falls further behind, that a smaller government with fewer taxes gets out of the way only of giant corporations which are already as powerful as some entire countries, but that the little guy may need government support if he’s going to survive globalization.

FRED: But he’s not going to survive globalization. Again, that’s the sort of dark truth you don’t want to hear. The system that maintains the economic status quo is rigged against him. That’s the system that Obama and Hillary defend as the technocratic managers they are. That’s the system we want Trump to destroy. 

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Newscasters Normalize their Relations with Our Alien Overlord Tromp

Major media personalities strive to retain their credibility after being forced to appear naked on television by our alien overlord Tromp.

Tromp, the mastermind of the invasion from Pluto, created mass panic when he landed in the United States in November, 2016 in a fleet of golden skyscraper-shaped spacecraft. But the corporate media calmed the public by normalizing Tromp’s incursions into what had hitherto been a conventional state of affairs.

“It began innocently enough,” said Don Lime, host of a CNN news hour. “Tromp’s ship landed on top of the White House, crushing it. Even I screamed like a little girl when that happened—and I was live on air! Then my producer shouted into my earpiece: ‘Where’s your gravitas, your savvy, your objectivity?’

“So it occurred to me I had to be brave for the viewers. I locked away my true self and began coldly narrating what transpired. I was like a robot—just observing and describing in the most neutral terms I could think of what was perhaps the greatest disaster to have befallen our nation, as if it was barely even newsworthy.

“When Tromp kicked a baby’s head off, I admit I struggled. How to help prevent a human uprising that could cost millions of lives? How to do my job with dignity and avoid alienating Tromp in case he should decide he’d like to come on my show, perhaps be a regular guest or even a co-host. My producers drew up the contract and everything, so that was in the back of my mind: I had to play it cool with Tromp, because as hideous and inhuman as he was, he was now in charge.”

But then Tromp and his minions decreed that all media personalities, including pundits, analysts, and hosts, would have to perform their on-air television duties nude and uncensored.

“I was taken aback when I heard that one,” said Megyn Sally, journalist and commentator at Fox News. “I thought maybe I wouldn’t be able to go through with it. But when the projected ratings came in, I said to myself, ‘You’ll still have your journalistic integrity as long as you can pretend that nothing unusual is happening. The viewers won’t know the difference, because they’re just zoning out in front of the TV.’

“At first it was strange. I was sitting naked on set behind the desk, the cameramen leering at me and millions of people no doubt staring at my breasts on their television screens. But I reminded myself that I’m an insider, a power elite who’s making millions of dollars a year, and the schlubs sitting on their couches probably don’t even know our planet’s been conquered by an alien power; they live in their little bubble worlds on Facebook and as with the rest of the news, they’ll forget everything they’ve seen and heard minutes after they’ve turned off their TV. So I gutted it out.”

“Megyn Sally has fine knockers,” averred Joe Nobody, a Fox News viewer, “but I’ve seen better on Pornhub.”

When Tromp did consent to be interviewed on CNN, he sat across from stark naked Brianna Keeley and slid his frog-like tongue down her throat, forcing her to improvise.

“I remember thinking, ‘This is most unfortunate,’” said Keeley. “Here’s this tremendous opportunity to interview our alien master, to find out what makes him tick. I mean, what are his plans for us? Will he slaughter half our population or perhaps exterminate us in toto? Inquiring minds wanted to know.

“I’d assumed Tromp might try to use to his advantage the fact that he could decree that I be constantly naked in his presence. But it hadn’t occurred to me he might jam his slimy, two feet long reptilian tongue down my throat and just keep it there for the duration of the interview. My challenge then was to pose my carefully-crafted questions to Tromp without them sounding all garbled.

“At first, I just choked and vomited in my mouth, because I could feel his revolting tongue slithering down my throat. Then it occurred to me that while Tromp’s three hands were occupied with my breasts and other private parts, he’d neglected to control my wrists. So I began furiously writing down my questions with a thick black marker, and I held the paper up to Tromp’s bloated face. I watched as his eyeballs turned to look at my questions, and you know what? He released one of my breasts and scribbled his answers in the space I’d provided him. So it was question and answer, and normality was restored.”  

Sunday, November 13, 2016

The Ogre-Clown of Trumpland

Liberals stayed home on voting day
Smug and well off, they took no stand
Sailing by the castaway
To the far-away isle of Trumpland

Suits and pollsters of the chattering class
Stared into their cracked old crystal ball
Gave their new Gilded Age a pass
Hid their rotting nation beneath a pall

Lady Liberty cast her shadow
Crawling out from its depths the trolls
Stormed the stage of the TV show
Roaring over the din of polls

March up and down the streets if you like
Stick your pinkie in the breach in the dike
Sell your soul or you’ll surely drown
In the sewer of the Ogre Clown

Were the god we deserve to show himself at last, would we shed tears of joy or claw out our eyes to spare us from having to see our essence made manifest? How many people truly know themselves and understand that our high-tech wonderland is a veneer over a wilderness that’s the source of all our nightmares? When the lights go out and our savage neighbours throw off their ill-fitting trappings of civility, storm the battlements, and conjure their ogre king, the duped, happy-talking professionals of the establishment are shocked and appalled. “America is divided,” they say. “A civil war is coming.” But they don’t understand, because they don’t accept the barbarity spread out before them as their shadow. Only outcasts who don’t prop up the American system could be blameless for the coming of America’s best representative, for the ogre Donald Trump. They’ve played no part in turning the United States into a laughingstock which every nation is at its core for being a herd of beasts and sheep that pretend to be angels. American liberals think they’re innocent because they protect gays and Muslims and women’s choice to abort their fetuses. Meanwhile, these same liberal professionals pass their time as worker bees and consumers in a new Gilded Age and preside over the US-led destruction of the biosphere.

For comedians and philosophers, the 2016 US presidential election is an intellectual feast. Trump captured the dreaded zeitgeist of American decline and humiliated the neoliberal establishment. Contrary to Trump’s clumsy epithet for her, Hillary Clinton wasn’t especially crooked; instead, she was clueless—like the entire class of power elites, the pundits and pollsters and politicians, and the complacent beta herds of doctors, lawyers, and teachers who think they’re on the right side of history whereas the horde of Trumpian savages is un-American. Not even Sherlock Holmes could show Democrats the clues that hide in plain sight. Bernie Sanders tried and was marginalized as a “socialist” and a misanthropic dreamer. Democrats have been too busy fussing as technocratic custodians of the social systems to realize that America is a myth. Their true home has been Trump’s sewer all along—only, some have been wailing and drudging naked through the filth because they couldn’t afford blinders and boots, while the professionals, whom Thomas Frank showed have made up the base of the Democratic Party for decades, mistook the spectacle of infantilized and shell-shocked consumers, scurrying in their corner of the global village, for a land of the free and a home of the brave.  

How smug were the writers of the Saturday Night Live sketches which depicted Trump as a troll and Clinton as a shoe-in for the presidency and “the most qualified candidate ever to run for high office”! The latter mantra was a euphemism for “competent technocrat,” for “manager of the system and maintainer of the status quo,” whereas the right-wing backlashes in Europe, the Sanders campaign and the nomination of Trump signaled that the millions who have been left behind by the system have finally insisted on searching for alternatives. A neoliberal can afford to say that masses of have-knots can be expected in a free market, if that neoliberal happens to be part of the establishment. If he himself is a loser in conventional terms, he wouldn’t be thankful for the second coming of Clinton, because he’d have been radicalized by years of resentfully watching the glitzy American success stories on TV. He’d be desperate enough to want to tear down the whole system and to take revenge on the top one percent of power elites who have flourished almost beyond comprehension while the majority’s wages in the US have been stagnant for decades. Trump exploited this blowback from globalism, using his skills as a reality TV star to demagogue his way to victory, to inflict the world with the fallout of his megalomania.

Even now after the scales have fallen from their eyes, American liberals rally to oppose Republicans who now control all branches of their government. They don’t understand that these armies of Republican troglodytes are only symptoms of a deeper, more persistent inhumanity. As Yuval Harari points out in Homo Deus, the rancor of First World blue collar workers who have lost their jobs to Third World slaves is destined to be followed by the bewilderment of white collar elites who will in turn lose their jobs to computers. As robots and slaves of authoritarian states are replacing middle-class labourers, computers will occupy upper-class positions in the knowledge economy; that’s the logic of “free market” capitalism. We “liberate” inhuman natural forces from the creativity we’re capable of imposing when we act in a dignified, transcendent fashion, and when we recognize we’re all at war with a godless universe and must create a virtually supernatural world that doesn’t run on such heartless evolutionary principles; otherwise, we suffer and die as hapless quasi-animals. Just as Obama is leading the transition team that’s ushering in the Trump regime to the White House, which regime will be dedicated to erasing any sign that the abomination of a neoliberal African-American once sat in the Oval Office, we’re all programming the machines that will replace our whole species of deluded primates. 

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Eldritch Revelations: Restoring God through Deified Humanity

The social philosophy that follows from Schulz’s reflections on religion combines Gnostic elitism, transhumanism, and existential despair about our ultimate fate. Along with Hindus and Buddhists and even Western monotheists, Schulz admires spiritual elites who shun the vulgar pursuits that define mass culture, because the spiritualists’ enlightenment has opened up a higher calling for everyone. But Schulz differs with them as to the nature of that calling. The purpose of Eastern religions is moksha, liberation from the natural cycles that imprison us by clouding our judgment. That liberation requires cognitive training and ascetic renunciation. Christianity and Islam emphasize instead the need for a personal relationship with an almighty Creator, which requires that we submit to this infinitely-greater being and understand the grace of God’s interventions in the natural course which redound to our benefit. God has revealed a path out of the thickets, and we must merely follow his commandments and trust in the deity’s greatness despite God’s unsettling hiddenness after the loss of our animistic innocence, that is, after the advent of settled civilizations in the Neolithic Revolutions (around 10,000 BCE) and certainly after what has been called the Axial Age, around the fifth century BCE.

As discussed in the last chapter, Schulz doesn’t take Western theology at face value, but reinterprets it as a system of coded, typically-unconscious references to the dynamics at play between divided human classes. God is indeed hidden because God is literally dead. Prehistoric animists didn’t realize this because they weren’t beholden to dehumanizing forms of objectivity and instrumentality; instead, animists anthropomorphized their surroundings, extending parochial human social functions to the natural world, and misinterpreting the fact that life is abundant on this planet, as a sign that life is metaphysically primary. As we now know by way of what we like to call the modern, scientific outlook, life is an aberration in the natural universe that extends far beyond not just our planet but our mundane concerns. So Christianity’s fixation on an outcast messiah is meant to revolutionize ethics—even though Church history serves the higher god of Irony; thus, the Church canceled Jesus’ revolution in the Orwellian fashion, with doubletalk to excuse Church leaders’ infamous compromises with secular authorities. And according to Schulz, the Islamic call for submission to God is hopelessly wrongheaded in light of God’s evident suicide. God’s gift to us isn’t to offer a path that leads to a place by his side; rather, it’s to free us from the burden of having to serve such a madman for all eternity. God accomplished that primordial act of salvation, by creating the universe of natural beings which replaced God’s supernatural realm. The personal God is no more, but Irony reigns in his stead and so Islamic submission translates to servitude to terrestrial caliphs, mullahs, and dictators—once again in line with mere bestial mammalian regularities. When animal dominance hierarchies are re-established by so-called wise apes, and these primitive social arrangements are rationalized by highfalutin theistic rhetoric, we have the makings of a sick joke.

Whereas the practice of Western religions has thus been farcical, on Schulz’s view, owing to the misguided, literal reading of monotheistic scriptures, Eastern religions avoid farce with their insights into the meaninglessness of the natural course of events. On the whole, liberation from the world of suffering and illusions occurs as an act of extinction, mediated by an ascetic victory over natural forces. Instead of the everlasting preservation of our personality, according to the Eastern outlook we’re freed from the anguish and indignity of having to be reborn in a cycle of absurd, sometimes horrific events. “Victory through spiritual death” is the essence of Eastern wisdom. For Schulz, though, Hindus, Buddhists, and Jains offer a misleading interpretation of life’s evolution. Life isn’t entirely pointless and so a final death isn’t our ultimate purpose. Our active deity in nature is Irony, the clash between facts and intuitions. Therefore, our task is to maximize irony, to appreciate the irrelevance of our animal preoccupations so that, as in Zoroastrianism, we can take a stand against our true enemy. But while Zoroaster speaks of a final reconciliation after the apocalyptic end of natural time, Schulz is more stoical than sanguine about our fate. Even if there can be no absolute triumph of higher values, assuming the universe is metaphysically tainted by its origin in the fall of divine being, we can partially redeem nature with the fruits of our struggle against it.

However, Schulz’s writings are frustratingly short on details of the nature of this redemption, and indeed this is the chief mystery not just in Schulz’s philosophy but in the exploits of his cult. Schulz shares with some Eastern currents of thought the view that thinking itself is the primary evil. But whereas Zen Buddhists, for example, contend that so-called rational thinking is cognitively inferior in that it produces the illusion of egoism, and that a deeper experience of oneness is possible, Schulz maintains that reason is baneful precisely because of its cognitive supremeness. Reason presents the horror of fundamental truth, the fact that being in general is absurd and that God is probably literally dead, but our use of reason also restores divinity and so this cognitive expertise sets us on a course to God’s madness. Reason undercuts itself by delivering rational creatures the unwanted grand truth that a precondition of our happiness is the set of vices that comprises the vulgar personality: above all, happiness depends on ignorance, in that the more you know, the harder it is to sustain the short-sightedness needed to be comfortable under any circumstance. Reason demonstrates that we have no proper place in the universe and that our salvation can proceed only by our schemes that all seem harebrained in historical hindsight.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Republicans Praised for Reducing Stigma for Psychopaths

Dateline: WASHINGTON, D.C.—The National Institute of Mental Health congratulated the Republican Party for helping to accustom Americans to those with mental illness, by elevating obvious psychopaths to positions of high office.

Doctor Fernando Lamas, chairman of the institute, said at a press conference that Republican voters have done the United States “a great service, showing more so-called progressive Americans that those with antisocial disorderswho are typically demonized in popular horror filmscan be entrusted with political power as long as we shirk our civic duties and learn to keep lowering our standards for acceptable public behaviour.”

According to Dr. Lamas, the Republican Party began this initiative in the 1980s when Republicans found that they could concoct excuses for Ronald Reagan’s declining health, which he suffered due to an onset of Alzheimer’s. Prior to that, Republicans were embarrassed when President Nixon’s megalomania was unveiled by the Watergate scandal.

“But their reverence for the mentally ill really ramped up,” said Dr. Lamas, “when Republicans managed to keep a straight face as they elected George W. Bush as president. Perhaps inadvertently at first, but surely with a charitable intention thereafter, Republicans worked tirelessly to teach mentally healthy citizens not to ignore the deranged, as George Bush Jr.’s cornucopia of follies left the whole world dumbfounded.”

By excusing Bush’s daily embarrassments and epic fiascos, Republicans brought mental disorder out of the shadows. Dr. Lamas compared this Republican initiative to gay rights advocacy: “both Republicans and homosexuals flaunt their peculiarities, whether on the national political stage or in Gay Pride parades, forcing everyone else to become inured to that which they might once have loathed.  

"After Bush there was Sarah Palin, John McCain’s vice presidential nominee. With her bizarre turns of phrase, her unabashed ignorance on all relevant matters, her clueless mix of Christianity, family values, and sociopathic Republican boilerplate, she took hysterical mean-spiritedness to a higher level.

“But it’s that party’s fearlessness in spotlighting such palpably-malignant personalities,” continued Dr. Lamas, “as though they could be entrusted with vast political power, that’s done wonders in removing the stigma from mental illness.” Republicans have been particularly generous with sociopaths, not just by thrusting them into mainstream discourse, but by “coaching them to be evermore lax in disguising their inhuman lack of empathy.”

“Sociopathy, an extreme form of Antisocial Personality Disorder, is a mainstay of the political world,” said Gwendolyn Bianca, political scientist at Fancypants University, who also spoke at the press conference. Bianca argued that since it’s axiomatic that power eventually corrupts even the most moral of individuals, we can expect that a disproportionate number of politicians (as well as businesspeople and other wealthy or powerful persons) lack the capacity to feel complex emotions.

“Conscience is a luxury they can’t afford,” said Bianca, “because a politician’s duty demands that he or she sacrifice others for the greater good, a burden that would be intolerable to anyone with some moral sense.”

Dr. Lamas said that because Donald Trump, the 2016 Republican presidential nominee, has “given the game away, displaying no trace of shame or compassion, all Americans owe the Republican Party a debt of gratitude for its service to the mentally ill.”

Bianca added that “whereas Democratic leaders have opted for the traditional approach of hiding their elitist contempt for humanity behind feel-good messages and empty socialist promises, psychopathic Republicans have refused to sit at the back of the bus. Unlike Barack Obama or Hilary Clinton, whose antisocial personalities were formed when they were indoctrinated into the neoliberal technocracy and who thus mistake loss of conscience for exceptional rationality, Republican lunatics have shown no deference to the public’s prejudice against human predators.

“Republican elites wear their insanity on their sleeve, whereas Democratic politicians pretend to care about the little people. And bless the American voters for their bottomless tolerance for the absurd! Thanks to that recklessness, mental health issues have come to the fore, which has flooded the clinics across the nation with much-needed donations.”

Monday, September 26, 2016

When Madness is Normal: Sanity in the Minds of Animals and the Rise of Divine Persons

There’s a perennial debate about the psychiatric concept of mental disorder. Is that concept being abused? Are normal behaviours being pathologized to sell pharmaceuticals? But the truth of mental health and insanity seems far removed from this controversy.

Mental Disorder as Dysfunction

The latest psychiatric manual of disorders, the DSM-5, defines “mental disorder” as “a syndrome characterized by clinically significant disturbance in an individual's cognition, emotion regulation, or behavior that reflects a dysfunction in the psychological, biological, or developmental processes underlying mental functioning. Mental disorders are usually associated with significant distress in social, occupational, or other important activities. An expectable or culturally approved response to a common stressor or loss, such as the death of a loved one, is not a mental disorder. Socially deviant behavior (e.g., political, religious, or sexual) and conflicts that are primarily between the individual and society are not mental disorders unless the deviance or conflict results from a dysfunction in the individual, as described above.”

The key to understanding this definition is the notion of a “function.” The psychiatrist wants to distinguish between normality and pathology, the latter being a deviation from a norm that calls for psychiatric action; more precisely, she wants to cater to cultural presumptions about psychological normality, which is why the definition adds that “An expectable or culturally approved response to a common stressor or loss, such as the death of a loved one, is not a mental disorder” (my emphasis). If a culture sanctions some behaviour, the behaviour cannot be abnormal or dysfunctional—unless the whole culture is backward and deranged from a modern, Western viewpoint. What, then, does “dysfunction” add to the concept of mere statistical abnormality, that is, to the concept of something’s rarity? Here the psychiatrist walks a fine line between calculating the difference between common and uncommon psychological and social patterns, on the one hand, and moralizing on the other. The latter is forbidden to the contemporary psychiatrist who seeks to align her discipline more with the hard sciences than with philosophy, theology, and the arts. In the past, psychiatrists did rationalize theological prejudices regarding the alleged evil of certain dispositions such as homosexuality and femininity. Jews and Christians read in their scriptures that women are inferior to men, and early modern, Western psychiatrists deferred to that unscientific, moralistic judgment, prescribing patronizing means for women to adapt to their alleged inferiority and lack of full personhood. But after R.D. Laing, Foucault, and others showed in the 1960s and ‘70s that the prevailing psychiatric criteria for mental health were subjective, psychiatrists developed objective tests in the form of checklists, thus preserving the scientific image of their discipline. (For a stirring presentation of this recent history, see Part 1 of Adam Curtis’ documentary, The Trap.)

The notion of dysfunction, then, is crucial to this larger psychiatric project. On the one hand, a dysfunction is an inability to carry out some process, to complete some expected relation between cause and effect. The fact that there’s a causal relationship at issue provides the generality to account for the norm which is being violated, since causality is the paramount scientific concept for understanding natural order. Psychiatrists see themselves as scientists exploring the mind and so they posit an order in the mental domain. The order investigated by scientists in general is explained with an instrumental agenda in mind, the goal being not just to understand but to control phenomena. Thus, scientists are minimalists and conservative in their theorizing: they objectify, explaining regularities in terms of force, mass, and other such relatively value-neutral properties. Real patterns are understood in terms of physical necessity—not as happening, for example, by free choice, since that would be a form of magic, a miracle that couldn’t be controlled and therefore couldn’t be scientifically (instrumentally and objectively) understood.

So a dysfunction is a deviation from, or a blockage in the furtherance of, a function, where a function is at least a causal relationship. However, because the psychiatrist sees herself as a medical scientist, she thinks she does well in the world, and so a mental function must be more than a regularity that merely happens regardless of any normative context. Functions are deemed to be good from some perspective, namely by a culture at large. Psychiatrists thus still kowtow to social presumptions, but they do so under the cover of scientific (instrumentalist, objectifying) rhetoric. Mental dysfunctions are, therefore, relatively bad irregularities: violations of social norms, causing suffering which is commonly assumed to be unwanted, and preventing the individual from carrying out her “important activities.” The goodness of mental health depends on a social evaluation, which the psychiatrist merely presupposes, but she’s quick to point out that not every conflict with society is pathological. Political, religious, or sexual rebels aren’t mentally unwell unless their behaviour is brought on by a dysfunction, as the DSM definition says. This means the rebel must suffer because of her inability to function, that is, because of a syndrome reflecting a disturbance in her thought processes. 

Monday, September 5, 2016

Eldritch Revelations: The Full Anthropocentricity of Religions

Art by Cameron Gray
Jurgen Schulze uses his Principle of Irony as a guide to metaphysical and cosmological truth. In general, he infers, there must be a self-negating deity to maximize irony and tragedy in the universe, “to cast everyone into the spiritual wilderness and thus to thrust a fully-charged existential quandary upon each reflective soul” (18b). The Truth must be “universally bewildering,” as Schulze once told me. Indeed, contrary to utilitarianism, which speaks of the obligation to maximize happiness, Schulze contends that enlightened individuals should discern how reality maximizes irony, establishing a gulf between natural facts and our intuitions and preferences.

Schulze seems to have reflected for long hours on the nature of religion, but his thoughts on that subject derive once again from a single principle, which is that all religious discourse is anthropocentric with respect not just to that discourse’s origin or cause, but to its reference. All religious statements derive from human primates, not from any extraterrestrial source; more surprisingly—especially since he posits a cosmic deity, in the name of Irony—Schulze says that all such statements have as their inner meaning some bearing purely on what has been happening in our history. The world’s major religions speak of gods, supernatural realms, and of experience that transcends the five senses. Taken superficially, literally, and exoterically, then, religious creeds point far beyond our sociopolitics and dominance hierarchies, our class divisions and relations to our environment and to other animal species. But for Schulze, every major religious utterance ought to be interpreted as metaphorical and, more specifically, as reflecting back on how we distinguish ourselves in nature.

In this respect, religious discourse would be like science fiction: taken literally, a sci-fi novel or movie is about some events transpiring in the far future or on a distant planet, but every science fiction author knows that those scenarios are just literary devices that are useful in creating the psychological distance to discuss prickly, often taboo issues that impact us here and now. Theology as it has been practiced in the major religions is a form of literary fiction—except that instead of suspending our disbelief for the sake of entertaining ourselves as consumers, religious devotees are entranced by religion’s literary devices and escalate their belief in the protagonists until the belief becomes unshakable faith in the absurd. We’re blind to the hidden function of religious language, because we’re gullible, lazy, and easily distracted by literal, surface meanings of the most outlandish statements. The greatest lies that preoccupy us by assuaging our fears and stirring up our unconscious longings are the most fervently believed. But, says Schulze, “this process of indoctrination is as anticlimactic as a magician’s trick: once you learn the secret of its success, the spell wears off and you’re left to marvel at the audience’s credulity. We’re led like pets on leashes, our mind furnished with preposterous beliefs like a dog forced to wear gaudy mittens and a silly yellow hat in the rain” (20b).

The deeper meaning of theology, for Schulze, which I discerned from my interviews with him and from some of the scraps that remain from his corpus, is that religious discourse is entirely self-directed. Again, his point about anthropocentrism isn’t the classic one, familiar from the Presocratic philosopher Xenophanes’ charge that a donkey would interpret God as being donkey-like; the point isn’t that as we cognitively process that which lies beyond the bounds of our experience we filter it through humanizing concepts, distorting and taming reality so that as we confront it we might resort to our comforting, social repertoire, praying to the wind and so forth. Schulze’s point, rather, is that religious discourse isn’t a distortion, since religious phenomena are occurring right before our eyes, but we’ve grown so accustomed to them that we don’t appreciate their strangeness. Theology doesn’t employ humanizing transducers; instead, it “slyly retells the outlines of human history, but overlays a facade of fiction to preserve our modesty” (20c). In a word, religious myths and creeds are so many romans à clef. As such, the key to their interpretation is to perceive the connection between the fiction and the human reality. 

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Man Discovers Awful Truth, Shames Mass Media

WASHINGTON, D.C. 2017—Gerald Humphrey’s profound discovery began when he realized the American mainstream media’s treatment of Donald Trump’s Republican campaign for the presidency contrasted sharply with reality.

“CNN, the Associated Press, the New York Times, and all the other major news outlets in the United States kept taking Donald Trump much more seriously than I would have thought any curious and sane investigator would have a right to do,” said Gerald. “They kept listening to what Trump said at rallies or on Twitter and then they talked or wrote about it a lot, without ever mentioning the obvious truth. It dawned on me that a vast cover-up was unfolding.”

Gerald surmised that the American press was embarrassed by what Trump inadvertently was revealing about their political establishment. But instead of alerting Americans to the appalling truth or calling for the revolution that was evidently needed, journalists tried to treat Donald Trump as an ordinary candidate.

“Even when the cable news programs featured angry talking heads who were astonished by Trump’s audacity,” said Gerald, “hosts like Anderson Cooper or Don Lemon would always strive to retain decorum or were quick to inject some empty right-wing talking point to balance the proceedings.

“It’s like the emperor who’s strutting in public with no clothes on,” Gerald continued. “Who’s going to be brave enough to be a witness to the shocking truth? Who’s going to overcome the shame of living in a place where the grand emperor could be so vain and gullible that he’d mistake himself to be wearing fine garments that are allegedly visible only to intelligent people who deserve to keep their jobs? Who’s going to yell out, ‘The emperor has no clothes’? Apparently not the 'serious' American media: the absurdity was too much for them, so they turtled up.”

For weeks Gerald retreated to the confines of his basement, refusing to receive any news. “I thought maybe I was going mad,” he recalled. “How could I see the truth that was as different from what was being reported to millions of people, as night is from day? I mean, I wasn’t even in the news business! But even I could tell that Trump had knocked over the applecart and that anarchists should have been rushing up to him to thank him for proving their point: Western civilization is a sham. The most powerful country on earth is run by clowns in a circus and we keep stuffing our face with popcorn.”

Gerald was incredulous that political reporters would bend over backward to avoid denigrating the American political system. “Some anchorperson would be interviewing Trump,” said Gerald, “and I just couldn’t believe the interview always lasted more than five seconds. The minute Trump opened his mouth, any self-respecting journalist would have been obligated to say to Trump’s face—and for the benefit of the viewers—‘No, Trump, what you just said is retarded. Get the fuck off my stage, you psycho clown.’” 

Political scientist Renaldo Blackenpuss, professor at Pseudoscience University in Nowheresville, sympathizes with Gerald’s discomfort with the media’s treatment of the Trump phenomenon. “Corporate media figures are addicted to normality,” said the professor. “They’re not trained to uncover the truth; not anymore, at least. They’re trained to spin facts to sell a product to the beleaguered consumers, a product we call ‘the news.’

“Sometimes that involves distorting the truth to make it seem salacious, to titillate viewers so they’ll keep their eyes glued to the TV. Or it might mean ignoring a complex truth, offering up puff pieces or scandals, because the news producers know that in their spare time consumers mostly just want to vegetate or to act like ghouls. Or it might require throwing a wet blanket on the truth, to protect the enterprises that fund the collapsing journalism industry through advertising or that give journalists access to heavy hitters who have that godsend quality of gravitas.”

“In hindsight,” said the professor, it’s become clear that “journalists only pretended to care about objectivity, because most professionals want to seem scientific.” When asked whether this charade affects political scientists as well, Professor Blackenpuss hemmed and hawed and fiddled with the collar of the lab coat he wore for some reason.

After the fiasco of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Gerald set out to determine whether the American media were engaging in other cover-ups. “If our civic religion had degenerated to this extent,” said Gerald, “where our political pageantry and rituals mean so little we might as well be sacrificing babies on an altar to a sun god, what was our world really like? If the media could perpetrate a pretense of this magnitude, what else could they be hiding?”

What Gerald found shocked the world, earning him the Pulitzer Prize. Recalling his monumental discovery, Gerald said, “I simply looked really hard and then I saw it: the United States isn’t actually part of what we thought of as the North American continent. Instead, for all this time our whole country has been floating somehow, twenty miles above sea level.”

At his Pulitzer acceptance speech, Gerald was ambivalent. “When I first saw the astonishing truth,” he announced, “when I realized that night was day and black was white, the very next thought that came to me was: ‘Those bastards!’ How could journalists have missed such a basic truth that was right under their noses? Scientists could be forgiven, because they’ve made a trillion other discoveries.

“But what were American reporters blathering on about while no one realized the entire American landmass is physically disconnected from the rest of the planet? What video of cuddly kittens were they featuring instead as click bait? And what megaphone were they handing to an obvious narcissistic, sociopathic buffoon and senile conman like Trump?”

Near the end of his speech, Gerald urinated on the Pulitzer gold medal, but wasn’t shocked to see that the illustrious members of the audience ignored his protest. No outcries were heard. According to Gerald Humphrey, “they were fixated on the prize itself and on the system it represents which would lie in ruins were it not for our credulity.”   

Thursday, August 18, 2016

How to Fathom the Nature of Truth

What is really happening when a set of symbols, such as a statement or a thought, “gets at the truth,” as we like to think of it? What is it for symbols to be in touch with the facts? The use of symbols to uncover the truth about truth is bound to be fraught with paradoxes, and if a noncognitive experience of oneness with the mapped territory is the answer, this experience may not be as the Buddhist would have it. Instead of feeling at peace as a quieted mind at one with the sea of interconnected events, we might feel obligated to lament our absurdity with a round of horror or embarrassment on our impersonal creator Nature’s behalf.

Three Faulty Theories of Truth

from Lesswrong.com
There are three popular philosophical explanations of truth, none of which is adequate. First, there’s the contention that a true statement is one that corresponds to, or that agrees with, how things are. This view must be a holdover from the ancient theistic worldview which personified nature as God’s handiwork. The idea of agreement is folk-psychological in that agreement occurs between minds, not between a mind and a non-mind. When two people agree, they share the same attitude, experience, or belief. But the non-living majority of nature has no mental properties, so there can be no agreement between it and our statements about it. Early analytic philosophers like G.E. Moore and Bertrand Russell pioneered the correspondence theory of truth, writing, “Thus a belief is true when there is a corresponding fact, and is false when there is no corresponding fact.” These pompous philosophers dismissed theistic religion as gauche and not even worth discussing; they thus lacked the Nietzschean fortitude to appreciate that God’s death renders the secular humanistic notion of truth-as-correspondence—as well as all secular liberal vestiges of god-talk—just as obsolete as theism.

At best, this conception of truth appeals to a metaphor, comparing a mind-to-mind relation to a mind-to-non-mind one, but the comparison is weak not just because of the obvious and relevant dissimilarities, but because of the dubious origin of this way of conceiving of our role in the world. If a mind such as God is the ultimate reality, and God created us according to a plan which would have us use natural facts for our benefit or to demonstrate our worthiness to spend eternity with God, then a factual description of something might be one that indirectly puts us in harmony with God. God’s artifact, that is, the world we describe, would be aligned with our artifacts, namely with our utterances and mental representations, and so this conception of truth would be no mere metaphor. Just as mortal minds can agree with each other, so too they could literally agree with the divine mind. But if we assume atheism, as we must when practicing philosophy while being faithful to the spirit of our time, we’re faced with the awkwardness of any attempt to salvage this theistic projection of ourselves onto a horrifically-impersonal world. Assuming theistic religion was perpetrated to further sundry inauspicious agendas, such as early Neolithic warlords’ domestication of large populations, the tainted remnants of that sort of religion are unlikely to augment a pure-hearted pursuit of knowledge.

Next, there’s the coherence theory of truth, which says a statement is true if it coheres with other statements such that the system’s self-consistency rationally justifies us in believing any of the cohering statements. As you can see, this theory merely reduces truth to an epistemic criterion of reasonableness. One sign that a speaker may be onto something is if her statements hang together so that she’s not contradicting herself like a deranged person. For example, if someone’s narrative of what happened the night she witnessed a crime doesn’t change when the police press her for details, a jury would have reason to trust her report. We assume that the world doesn’t contradict itself, that we occupy a natural order bound by some metaphysical logic, not a chaotically-shifting pseudospace, and so we think our belief systems should mirror this rational wholeness of facts.

However, this second conception of truth is abortive for at least two reasons. First, there are plenty of cases in which a coherent worldview, the internal order of which gives us some reason to trust it, turns out nevertheless to be wrong. Monotheism, astrology, Nazism, and the like may all be more or less coherent systems of thought, but none has the merit of being true. At most, coherence is an indicator but not a sufficient condition of truth. Likewise, a statement must be meaningful to have a chance of being factually true, but many meaningful statements are mistaken or even preposterous. Second, coherence in general can’t be the same as truth, because natural systems throughout the universe are coherent with respect to how their components operate, but that doesn’t mean, say, a solar system is a veridical account of anything. Again, the reason epistemic coherence is regarded as meritorious is because natural events in general are assumed to be regular and orderly. This point, though, goes both ways: if a belief system should mirror natural regularities, by being self-consistent, those systems must already be coherent even though they obviously aren’t themselves true with respect to anything. So coherence can’t suffice for truth. And if we say it must be statements or beliefs that cohere for there to be truth, their key distinguishing feature is their semantic meaningfulness but meaning turns out to be just as mysterious, not to mention as originally magical or supernatural as truth. 

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

The American Spectacle

Liberals and globalists (proponents of globalization) are aghast at the Western conservative’s retreat to infantile, care-free farce, as in Brexit and the Republican nomination of Donald Trump, the latter having been preceded by the astroturfed Tea Party diversion from the economic causes of 2008’s American housing market crash. The suspicion is that American and British white male losers in the global marketplace are scapegoating gays, Muslims, or Mexicans because these whites no longer know how to be men enough to recognize the reason why their middle classes have vanished, which is that the postindustrial environment spoils these men and so they can’t compete with the likes of the hyper-pragmatic Chinese. Heretofore the aristocratic winners in the genetic lottery that ruled their segregated societies until the 1960s’ social revolutions, whites in North America and Europe must face the prospect of being marginalized in the global melting pot, as not just Chinese and Indians but also machines come to dominate the workforces. Partly also as an unintended consequence of feminist overreach in liberal societies, Western men have lost touch with their innate sense of honour, and so they’d sooner drug themselves to death than admit that their history—from the medieval Christian atrocities in Europe to Spain’s genocide against Native Americans and the African slave trade—is sordid and wholly unforgivable, and that whites need a spiritual, existential awakening or risk becoming a laughing stock class of deluded crybabies.  

The Debordian Spectacle of Trump and His Minions

Guy Debord’s concept of the society of the spectacle can partly explain the Trump phenomenon. According to Debord’s postmodern (i.e. pretentious and obfuscating) application of Marxist theory, capitalism is a process in which “the commodity completes its colonization of social life.” Social interactions become more and more mediated by mass media images, to which we passively defer, and we live in an infotainment bubble in which past and future are conflated to make capitalistic culture appear eternal and immutable. “All that once was directly lived has become mere representation,” says Debord. “The spectacle is the existing order’s uninterrupted discourse about itself, its laudatory monologue. It is the self-portrait of power in the epoch of its totalitarian management of the conditions of existence. The fetishistic, purely objective appearance of spectacular relations conceals the fact that they are relations among men and classes: a second nature with its fatal laws seems to dominate our environment.” The spectacle “is a pseudo-sacred entity. It shows what it is: separate power developing in itself, in the growth of productivity by means of the incessant refinement of the division of labor into a parcellization of gestures which are then dominated by the independent movement of machines; and working for an ever-expanding market. All community and all critical sense are dissolved during this movement…”

This concept of the spectacle, of the image or other representation that functions as an oppressive cultural intermediary, needn’t be restricted to a Marxian analysis. There are social spectacles or myth-laden images, and there are individual ones just as there is culture and there’s the stage in each mind in which stereotypes compete for the spotlight of our personal attention. Society flatters its economic structure, defending the power allotments in its dominance hierarchy, and we each spin a private tale, the narrative of our life in which we’re the starring protagonist. Images from our dreams and symbols of the idols to which we dedicate ourselves compel us to trust the judgments issuing from these self-serving thought-worlds, from the mental space we inhabit when we live in our heads with existential inauthenticity. The alternative isn’t to trust in The Force, to walk the heroic path like Neo from the Matrix, without thinking we’re on it. Animals are the relatively thoughtless ones; thoughts—including second-order and objective ones—are weapons in our war against the godless environment. What we need isn’t nirvana, the inner peace from detaching from our thoughts as a result of our personal self-destruction. Instead, we should learn to tell better stories; we need to learn how to be self-respecting artists.
   
In any case, Trump, then, is a phony revolutionary. His supporters believe that he’ll save the white portion of the lower middle class, by protecting the US economy from foreign cheats such as the Chinese (who actually just work a hundred times harder than North Americans and a thousand times harder than Europeans), or that he’ll punish the double-dealing political class by blowing up the whole American government. But those are wishes, not rational predictions, and anyway empirical interpretations of Trump’s intentions are irrelevant, from a Debordian perspective. Mainstream Trump is a symbol and his cultural significance is determined by underlying economic processes. Ever since Nixon brokered a deal with Strom Thurmond, creating the GOP’s Southern Strategy, Republicans have pretended to champion the backward social positions of the antediluvian white southerners, while double-crossing them with free trade deals and other plutocratic economic policies that have hollowed-out the American middle class. Again, instead of taking responsibility for having been duped as gullible, irritable voters, these southerners together with low-information blue collars prefer scapegoats. Now Trump is merely doubling-down on this trusty political strategy. Superficially, Trump has the capacity to fight for this once-dominant social class (again, a class that deserves to languish for having benefited from the atrocities of its forbears). Technically, Trump could repair the American infrastructure by establishing a Democratic-style, protectionist welfare state under the cover of xenophobic bluster. But the profound ironies of social reality are perceived only at a more rarified level. Trump is himself a plutocrat, after all. Instead of controlling the government’s policies from a distance, with lobbyists and Manchurian candidates, a hero of the power elite has decided that pulling the levers directly is more efficient. We get the candidates we deserve, but the question is: Who are “we”?