Distracted from distraction by distraction

 

It may be a little early for new year’s resolutions, but it occurs to me that its rather arbitrary to decide on the first of the year to change a bunch of things.  Arbitrary and often ineffective.  So maybe its better to just start when you have the idea and let it run its course.

On my quest to become a better thinker, I am starting to be more intentional about my use of technology, specifically anything with a screen.  I’m not going Amish (yet) and I also don’t think I am a ‘tech addict’, but I have noticed a few things that trouble me a bit, so best to nip them in the bud.

Specifically, I have noticed myself slipping into the pattern (again) where the first thing I do in the morning is “check my feeds”.  I’m looking for news, entertainment and conversation.  There is nothing bad about any of those per se, but I think I am going to impose a personal ban on screens for an hour after I wake up.  That should give me time to properly wake up and set some intentions for the day before getting sucked into a rabbit hole.

I’ve also noticed getting ‘lost in the scroll’, spending far more time on social and video sites than I sometimes intend.  Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have all gotten very good at “and now this” – giving you something else that you are likely to want to see.  I don’t blame them.  Getting me to scroll improves what they know about me, and the more they know about me the more they can sell to me.  It’s just business.  But in the same way I am trying to be a smarter consumer of what I put in my body at the grocery store, I am trying to become a better, or at least a more concious, consumer of what I put in my mind.  Some of that has to do with what I follow and some of it has to do how much time I spend scrolling vs. deep reading and writing.

I have a two pronged approach to getting lost.  First, I am trying to be mindful of setting an intention before I open a laptop or pickup a screen.  What is it specifically I am trying to accomplish?  Check the weather?  Post a podcast?  Write a blog?  Sometimes I even write a few things down on a scratchpad before I start just in case I forget along the way.  On addition, I’m also starting to use tech to fight tech in this area, specifically the StayFocused plugin for chrome that lets me set daily limits on specific sites and the Moment app for my iPhone that lets me track how much I use my phone each day and on what apps.

Anyone that knows me knows I am no luddite.  I would not have nearly as rich a life as I do without tech.  I wouldn’t have rediscovered a love of reading, I wouldn’t have discovered a love of philsophy, and I wouldn’t have found my ‘tribe’.  Tech is just a tool and like any other tool, you have to learn to master it if you want to get the most out of it without hurting yourself.  These are the steps I am taking.  What do you do to make sure you don’t become a screen zombie?

Here is a place of disaffection
Time before and time after
In a dim light: neither daylight
Investing form with lucid stillness
Turning shadow into transient beauty
With slow rotation suggesting permanence
Nor darkness to purify the soul
Emptying the sensual with deprivation
Cleansing affection from the temporal.
Neither plentitude nor vacancy. Only a flicker
Over the strained time-ridden faces
Distracted from distraction by distraction
Filled with fancies and empty of meaning
Tumid apathy with no concentration
Men and bits of paper, whirled by the cold wind
That blows before and after time,
Wind in and out of unwholesome lungs
Time before and time after.
Eructation of unhealthy souls
Into the faded air, the torpid
Driven on the wind that sweeps the gloomy hills of London,
Hampstead and Clerkenwell, Campden and Putney,
Highgate, Primrose and Ludgate. Not here
Not here the darkness, in this twittering world.

– TS Elliot, Four Quartets

Fake News in the Post Truth era

I’m not sure how to start this one, so I think I’ll take some advice from the “wise” king in Alice’s adventures in Wonderland:

“Begin at the beginning,” the King said, very gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”

The subject of today’s post is the truth.  First, to define terms, the OED reads:

Truth (N): The quality or state of being true.  That which is true or in accordance with fact or reality.

I don’t see the first definition as particularly useful, but the second gets us somewhere.  In order to have truth, you have to assume or believe that there is a reality.  That may seem odd to say, but from what I’ve read there seems to be some debate about that point.  Debate that I find fascinating, but not very useful.  So for the purposes of this post let’s assume that reality exists.  In addition let’s assume that we are able to take in some of tha reality through our senses which we use to perceive reality and form true ideas or concepts.  Let’s also assume we are able to construct models that we can use to predict other truths.  That is, there are truths that we may not directly observe but rather predict based on our mental models of how the world works (this is one cornerstone of the scientific method – model and hypothesis formation).  Lastly, let’s assume that no one can know the whole truth of the entire universe (much less multiverse).  We are all blind men grasping at different parts of the elephant.  I know that’s a lot of assumptions, but I was hoping to make this a practical post about how to discover the truth rather than a philosophical one about the existence of reality, objective truth or our ability to correctly perceive even a part of either.

This post is motivated by a few stories that piqued my interest this past week.  The first came out on Wednesday, naming the “word of the year” selected by Oxford Dictionaries: Post-Truth (evidently adulting nor coulrophobia received enough votes):

An adjective defined as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’.

The article linked to above goes into the first use, history and usage trends of the term.  While not mentioned in the article, the selection of the prefix seems to be an attempt to relate the idea expressed by the entire word to post-modernism, which rejects the idea of objective reality and absolute truth and is the foundation for slippery slopes like moral relativism.  The selection of this terms seems to confirm some of what Cassier predicted in The Myth of the State, specifically about the purpose of language shifting from meaning to emotion.

The second story came out yesterday via Twitter moments, bemoaning the challenge that the traditional media will face reporting on Trump based on his active use of Twitter to distribute “fake news”.  The “tweet storm” collected in the moment provides a narrative about how the stories about Ford deciding to keep a plant in Kentucky came to be.  I encourage you to read through the moment, but the short version is this: Trump sent out a tweet and a few seemingly respectable news outlets picked it up without checking any other sources, no doubt driven by the need for speed to get the clicks.

The final story that prompted this post comes from the New York Times, but there were similar articles from a variety of source this past week.  The article is focused on how internet titans (in this case Google and Facebook) are trying to cut down on “fake news”.  It seems that fake news has been named as one of the scapegoats of the left for the election results a few weeks ago and theses companies are under pressure to do something.  In related news, Twitter suspended accounts of various alt-right members and personalities this past week.

What’s interesting to me about all of these stories is how they frame the debate.  The first one sets the stage by normalizing the idea of being persuaded by appeals to emotion; the idea that truth is of little value. With the truth conveniently disposed of, the second two article setup the battle between the President Elect and the traditional news media as the ultimate arbiters of post-truth.  Trump’s tweets are certainly post-truth, intended to bypass rationality and make you feel something.

The stories about clamping down on “fake news” mean that the traditional and emerging media don’t like the competition for access to your limbic system.  They have been in the feelings game for year.  There are countless examples of them creating fake news as recently as just this past week.  In some odd way, you have to give Trump some credit for at least not claiming that what he tweets is true.  By labeling what Trump and others do as “fake news”, the traditional and emerging media are ignoring that the purpose of “news” has shifted.  The news is no longer about reporting the truth, but rather about manipulating emotions and reinforcing existing beliefs.  This is not a debate about who is telling the truth, it’s a debate about who’s post-truth you should trust.  It’s about who you should tune in for your daily dose of emotional manipulation.

As part of becoming a better thinker, I choose to avoid the manipulation and seek the truth.  And there are a few tools I am trying to develop to strengthen my truth discerning muscles.

First, I am taking a look at where I collect my news.  One part of this endeavor is actively trying to break down the filter bubbles that have seeped into my life through the use of Google, Facebook and Twitter.  In the quest to deliver more relevant content and thus capture more attention, they have created algorithms that filter what I see to give me more of what I like.  It’s these filtering algorithms that build up the bubble and create the conditions for post-truth.

I still use all of these as well as other services, but I use them conscious of the fact that I am not getting the whole story.  To break down the filter bubble, I try to follow or click on as many links that I disagree with as I agree with.  Anytime I find an article I agree with, I search for the counter point.  I also am one of the few people I still know that use a RSS feed reader (I use feedly since Google Reader closed down a few years ago).  RSS readers allow you to control what you see.  There is no algorithm filtering the content or the order in which you see things.  It’s still up to you to populate your reader with a diversity of sources and to constantly refine your sources if the post-truth to truth ratio gets too high, but at least you are in control instead of an algorithm that has as its only goal getting you to scroll and click more.

Next, I am trying to become more mindful of my biases.  I accept the fact that I can never remove them completely, but that doesn’t mean I can’t eliminate them.  Bias is like a smudge (or in some cases a scratch) on the lens through which we perceive reality.  By first becoming aware of all of the different sorts of bias and then trying to notice when they become active, I can polish that lens and perceive reality more clearly.  Meditation and journaling have certainly helped with the noticing of bias, and this catalog (and cool poster) of cognitive bias have given me a vocabulary to label bias as I notice it.

With better sources more clearly perceived, the last part of my effort to become a better thinker is to get better at the actual thinking part.  I first heard of the Trivium method a few years ago and it immediately captured my attention.  I am by no means an expert practitioner, but the I do use the basic framework of grammar, logic and rhetoric for most serious discussions and it is becoming more of an always-on in the background process.  I recently picked up a copy of this book on critical thinking  (which has to have one the best titles I’ve picked up in a while) and hope that it will further my critical thinking tool set.

Regardless of your faith (or lack thereof), most people can admit that the bible has some eternal truths in it.  One of those is John 8:32:

Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.

If truth sets you free, what does post-truth do?  I doubt it makes you “free-er”.

Stuck in the middle

Sometimes I feel a bit like a man with no country.  I refuse to pick a “side” for a variety of reasons, from the view that life is way more complex than can possibly be represented by two choices to the conviction that both “sides” are trapped in the same authoritarian box.  For a time I saw this as a deficit since it meant that I had no standing with either side.  I can’t claim to be “one of them” and then try to change them from the inside.

That seemed a rather hopeless position, so I’ve been pondering how being a non-voter / non-party member could be an asset to help those that do vote and are in parties make better decisions so at a minimum you all don’t make things worse for me and the people I care about.  It seems to me what I can do is notice and point out patterns I see in common between both sides; behaviors that both sides exhibit, strategies that one side is pursuing that other should or goals that both sides share in common but because they see themselves as opposed can’t see on their own.

For this to be effective, I’m going to need some help though.  I’m going to need to find some people that identify as right or left and are accepted as such by those groups to help me refine the identification of these patterns and then share the ideas within their groups.  While it may be true that “A prophet is not without honor except in his own town, among his relatives and in his own home,” it seems to me that the in-group vs. out-group feelings are so strong right now that anyone who’s not clearly in will be rejected out of hand.  It’s going to take people already in the group to start to change hearts and minds.

Here’s an example of a strategy that I see the left pursuing that I think those on the right need to mirror: calling out and excising the more extreme, less logical elements.  I know most on the right feel like they “won” (although with a strange undercurrent of shame, perhaps driven by fear of the PC elements that the some on the left are calling out) so it’s hard to focus on improving, but I see this as critical to return to some more normal and productive form of discourse.

The first example I saw of this was from Sam Harris on his post election reaction podcast.  Dr. Harris has been an outspoken critic of Trump leading up to the election, so this talk is full of shock and emotion, but he also points out some of the specific failings on the left that allowed Trump to win.  He points to safe spaces and trigger warning as examples of an over reaching political correctness that pushed tolerance to the point of intolerance.

Nicholas Kristof provides another example in his NYT Op-Ed, published all the way back in May.  Clearly not a reaction to the election results, but still on point.  He starts the article with the story of George Yancy a sociologist who is also an evangelical christian.  Yancy says he feels “problems” being black outside of academia, but “problems” being Christian inside of it.  Kristof cites other examples of intolerance of the right in academia:

One peer-reviewed study found that one-third of social psychologists admitted that if choosing between two equally qualified job candidates, they would be inclined to discriminate against the more conservative candidate.

In these two example I see the left starting to identify elements that have gone too far and are incompatible with its core ideology.  I think the right needs to do the same.  Thought leaders on the right need to call out the racists, misogynists, xenophobes and others who also go too far in their intolerance.  The should have an easier time of it than those on the left, since the ideas they are calling out are so clearly intolerant, not draped in the facade of tolerance like the ideas on the left.  If there are some leaders on the right that are taking this on, I applaud them, but in my searching I couldn’t find them.

One commonality I see on the left and the right is a yearning for freedom. Freedom to marry who they want.  Freedom to do what they want with their property.  Freedom to be the authors of their own lives.  Freedom requires tolerance since the goals and strategies you have may be different than your neighbor.  If you are both going to be free you need to tolerate your neighbor up and to the point that they are limiting the pursuit of your freedom.  The point that both sides are missing in all this is that a spirit of tolerance is nearly impossible within a regime of force.  Tolerance dies when subjected to force as demonstrated with the mutation of the left’s tolerance into intolerance and in the right’s intolerant reaction.  If we can figure out a way to replace force with free association (which includes the ability to freely disassociate) then the marketplace of ideas will ensure that we can experience the freedom that we all are seeking.

Reading: exercise for the mind

If I am going to be a better thinker, I need to get better at reading.  This is not a literacy issue.  I can read and I do actually read quite a bit, but I know there is room for improvement.  Specifically, I need to be more selective in what I read (without creating a bubble), I need to figure out a way to make it more of a daily habit and I need to figure out a way to actually read some of the better long form online content.

My selection process today looks something like this: I add items to my wish list based on specific mentions or recommendations in podcasts or on blogs / social media, make a purchase every so often from that list from Amazon or see what the magical portal has for decided I should read, either from that list or completely out of the blue.  I add the new books to my tsundoku pile until I am done with at least one of the books I am currently reading (still on the fence whether reading more than one book at a time is a good thing or a bad thing) at which point I scan the pile and see what I am in the mood for; whatever I think I can really dig into or whatever I think I “need” to read at the time. I’m not sure exactly what I need to do to make this better, but it just feels a little too random to me.  I know I won’t be able to read everything I have on my wishlist, so I need to come up with a more deliberate way to decide what to move from there to the pile and what to read from the pile.

I read when I have time.  I was in a habit for a while of reading in the morning.  I think I need to get back to that.  It was a pretty solid, if boring, morning routine: get up, meditate, journal, read (and have coffee) then get on to whatever the day had in store for me.  For some reason, I feel out of that routine in the last few months, with only journaling persisting.  In this case I think I know what to do to make it better, so I just need to do it.  The holidays coming up seem to be a good window to re-establish that routine (not only reading but daily meditation, which has advantages I will surely explore in future posts in this series).

While there is a lot of crap online that isn’t worth the bits that transmit it to your screen, there is some amazing stuff as well.  Most of the amazing stuff is long form and I do struggle with reading long form stuff in my browser.  Its a combination of not engaging with a screen in the same way I do with a book or magazine and the easy distraction of another tab.  I started putting long form pieces I ran across into a “To Read” folder in Evernote, but that continues to grow and I’ve spent almost no time going back and reading it.  I need to start making time to go there and read what I’ve put in, or I need to find a different system.

You could read for hours (days) on the benefits of reading, but there are a few things I have noticed since I made a choice a few years ago to be more deliberate about reading which are directly related to this idea of being a better thinker.  The biggest benefit of reading to becoming a better thinker is that it gives me access to a whole lifetime’s worth of experience in a few days or weeks.  I won’t become the best thinker I can be by reinventing the wheel.  Reading lets me stand on the shoulders of giants.  Reading expands the inventory of patterns I can access when trying to understand the world.  Reading lengthens my attention span.  It’s the antidote to mindset you develop from endless social media scrolling and clicking.  Reading, specifically reading something I disagree with which I do deliberately from time to time, tests my critical thinking skills.  Reading makes me a better writer, which lets share my views so they can influence others and so they can get better by exposure to other ideas and feedback.

It seems to me that the biggest obstacle most people face in reading anything more than random blog articles like this or “news” from Facebook is not a struggle against why its important, but rather a system on how to get it done.  Since I’ve been at this for a little bit, I can share my experiences on what has worked for me.

Two things I’ve already mentioned as things I want to improve can help you become a better reader: have books around and make time to read.  The second point is rather obvious, but the first one may not be, or at least wasn’t for me.  The key is the ‘s’ – books, as in more than one.  Before I got serious about reading, I would buy a book and it would sit around as I read it.  If I got bored with it or got stuck, it sat.  When I got done with it, there was a gap of weeks or months before I would get around to ordering something else.  When I started having a pile around, I found myself going to the pile when I got stuck or bored (that’s how I started reading more than one book at a time) and when I was done there was something I could grab immediately so I didn’t loose any time or momentum.  Books are cheap – have a few (dozens…hundreds) of them around.

Another suggestion is to read a book that gave me a much more structured reading process: How to Read a Book (which is certainly an example of strange loop theory in action).  If I ever put together a top 10 list of books that every high school senior should read this will no doubt be on it.  I learned how to categorize a book so I could get the most out of it and not expect something it can’t deliver.   It also taught me to scan a book before I read it – look through it to get a sense of the structure before diving in.  I learned to “argue” with a book while I was reading it.  I learned about syntopical reading – an approach I am still perfecting.  If there is one thing you want to do today to be a better reader, pick up a copy of this and set a goal to finish it before Christmas.

One thing that has not worked for me is digital readers.  I bought a Kindle a few years ago and have used it to complete a few books, but in general I find it very hard to make it through lengthy or deep content on a screen.  It has worked for me for light works of fiction or shorter (200 pages or so seems to be the sweet spot) more serious works, but outside of that everything I’ve failed to complete everything else I’ve tried on Kindle.  I’ve had a little more success with audio books, although I don’t think I get all of the benefits of actually reading the same material.  I get the ideas, but I don’t find myself arguing with them as much, and since there is no place to take notes or highlight, I find I retain less of the information.  But audio books do have their place for me – there is no better (safer!) way to “read” on long road trips.  YMMV.

I’ll end with what will likely be common advice in this series.  If anything in this post has struck a cord, then decide now to get more serious about reading.  Whatever works for you to commit yourself to try for some time.  Put it on a sticky note you’ll see every day.  Buy a few books and leave them on your breakfast table so you see them first thing in the morning.  Add a “reading time” block on your calendar.  I can’t guarantee that you will start reading more if you do any of those things, but I can guarantee that if you can break pattern and start to read more, you will start to think better.

Declaration of purpose

iu-3.jpeg

My dear family, guess what? Today I found out what my special purpose is for. Gosh, what a great time I had. I wish the whole family could’ve been here with me. Maybe some other time as I intend to do this a lot. Every chance I get. I think next week I’ll be able to send more money as I may have extra work. My friend Patty has promised me a blow job. Your loving son, Navin.

Steve Martin in “The Jerk”

I’ve been blogging here for a while.  In that time the general idea has simply been to have a place to share things I think are interesting and to develop my ideas simply by the act of having to form them into complete sentences that someone else might read with some level of comprehension.  Other than that, the topics and direction have been quite random: product reviews, IDPA competition videos, book reviews, social/political commentary and family news.  There was a time before we started blogging at work that I did some work related stuff here, just to have an outlet.

I think I am going to get a little more focused.  At least for the next few months…and perhaps years, I’m going to focus on making better decisions.  Decisions are an outcome of our thinking, so I am going to focus on making myself a better thinker.  Thinking is an result of creating space and time to think and having a good understanding about how (not what) to think, so I will focus on how I can do that.  Good thinking is also a product of good inputs, both information and physical (food, chemicals, etc) inputs, so I will focus there.  Lastly, good ideas without action are not worth having, so I will focus on how I have implemented whatever I determine is a good idea.

The decision we just made last Tuesday was the result of thousands of decisions that millions of people made in the months and years leading up to Nov 11 2016.  In the next 1400+ days, I am going to try to learn how to make better decisions with the hope that some of you might be inspired to do the same, and as a result you all get to have better options to choose from in 2020.  I say “you all” not only because I think the english language needs a plural second person pronoun but because I am a deliberate non-voter.  I recognize that many of you will never share my position on voting as a form of violence, so I figure sharing this personal expidition into better thinking is the one thing I can do to make lemons into lemonade.

I am not doing this from a position of “I know better than you” or ” you need to learn to think like me.”  I am simply doing this as a way of living out being the change I want to see.  I don’t want to see everyone think like me.  How simultaneously scary and boring that would be.  I do want to see all of us learn to think better since the quality of the world we live in is the direct result of the quality of our ideas.  And since the only one of us I can control is me, I’m going to focus my attention there and let you all know how it goes.  I also don’t have any illusions that any more that the 10 to 20 people that normally read what I post will ever see any of this.  But it’s enough for me that I get better and that just one you does as well to make it worth doing.

Help me open a door so I can step through

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I need some help.  I need a way to signal to you that when I disgree with you, it doesn’t mean I support the “other side”.  I mean you no harm.  I am open to a lengthy discussion to really work things out.  I don’t look down on you or think you are less just because you have a different idea than me.  I support your right to have a different idea, while not necessarily supporting the idea itself as long as you agree to answer my questions about your idea and not use force to make me accept it.  I have long ago taken to heart the wisdom that the person who is proven wrong in an argument based on reason and evidence is the real winner since they now have something they didn’t have before: the truth.  I am open to change my ideas as long as you are willing to consider mine.  Is there a badge I can wear or something I can do to my profile picture to make that clear?

Here’s why I ask: I am a voluntaryist.  An abolitionist.  Yes, an anarchist (no, not the bomb throwing kind).  And while I have been pretty open about my views, I’ve not sought to actively engage with people who I know hold different views.  That has all changed in the last few days.  Not because I am afraid, but becase I see a tremendous opportunity.

The fear that propelled Trump into the Oval Office and the fear that has resulted from that outcome comes from a common source: people sense that the system is breaking down.  That’s the opportunity: to use the examples of recent and future history to demonstrate that a system based on coersion will never work.  But I’m not sure that I can capture the opportunity unless I figure this out first.

I think I’ve found some good ideas (I say found since it would be hubris to claim I came up with them….which is one of the maddening things about these ideas, they’ve been around for so long and aren’t more well known than they are.  Perhaps that I should take that as a signal).  Ideas about critical thinking, effective communication, getting out of our info bubbles, asking better questions, creating space between input and output, using tech with intention, and developing attention span and memory.  But I also think thatI am sure that they will get better if I can respectfully share them with people that take the time to really listen (without assuming that by arguing against their point that I am supporting the popular opposite point), take time to consider and the respectfully share with me what they think I’m missing or got wrong.

I am ready to admit that some of my ideas may be too idealistic to see them lived out in my lifetime, or maybe ever, if you are ready to admit that the ideas we are using now aren’t working out so well for any of us.  If you can  admit that ideas like forced unity through coercion, the authority of one man over another (whether it be through the divine right of kings or the voice of the people in democracy) and the stimulus response loop we’ve been in are not resulting in the most happiness for the most people.

I respect your decision to avoid discussions with people that want to impose their ideas on you and when challenged can’t come up with anything more than “that’s just the way it is”, “because I said so” or even “because it’s in my particualr holy book”.   But that’s not me.  And I need a quick way to explain that to more than the ten people that might have read this post or else those ideas will never get better. Or else those improved ideas won’t be held by more people.  And better ideas is the only way we are going to make things better for all of us.

 

Parallels between the response to Islamic terrorism and the election

All analogies break down if you push them far enough. But they are still useful as a lens to understand things.  So don’t try to push this one too far, but see if you can learn something from it.

It seems to me that significant portions of the American population are engaging in discourse that we should know from current experience does not lead to positive outcomes.  They are repeating patterns established in the course of the conversation we’ve had about Islamic terrorism and what to do about it.

Some are afraid.  They have every right to be after the fear based campaigns we were all targeted with. They are afraid of what happens next. They are afraid that the promises made will come true. They are afraid of ‘the other’.  Just like a large segment of Americans have been afraid of  anyone in a hijab or reading a Koran in the last decade plus. Fortuantely our recent experience offers us a way out of that fear: get to know ‘the other’. This is not a call for unconditional acceptance. Rather, it is a call to move beyond broad generalizations to a more nuanced, specific conversation. That can only happen at a personal level. Find someone that voted for Trump and seek to understand why. I think you’ll find the vast majority of them aren’t nearly as scary as you think they are. I think you’ll also find that by seeking to understand, you will influence their views in a far more profound way than posting a meme on Facebook or attending a protest march.

I wote a vast majority aren’t that scary, not all aren’t scary. Some are positively terrifying. And that’s where the unafraid, or even celebratory, come in.  There have been calls for the moderate / mainstream leaders in the Muslim community to denounce acts of terror.  The other group needs to do something similar. The other group, what I believe is a majority of them, need to be very public in their denouncement of racism, bigotry and misogyny.  Otherwise it will always be guilt by association.  Those that can’t or won’t change their views and actions need to lose their seat at the table. They need to be shunned. You cannot force them to change their minds or make them act against their bias. This is not about safe spaces or trigger words. But you don’t have to listen to them, you don’t have to let them speak for you and you don’t have to associate with them.

If we can find a way to have these difficult, nuanced and personal conversations we can move beyond fear and find a way to each pursue our own vision of freedom without impeding our neighbors pursuit of theirs.  Maybe we’ll enjoy that so much, we’ll rid ourselves of the Islamic boogyman as well.

The day after

Well this is about to get interesting. There are a lot of bleary eyes and shocked expressions around me this morning. I can’t say I’ve seen any overt celebration in person (my Facebook feed is another story).  Perhaps there are some that are secretly celebrating for their own reasons or perhaps it’s just the crowd I am with this week for work.

There are a couple of things that worry me and a couple that give me hope. First the worries.

Our 45th presidency was going to be a shit show either way. The thing that concerns me about the particular shit show my fellow Americans have selected is that it’s going to be highly unpredictable. Say what you will about the defeated candidate, she was predictable to a fault. The only thing that anyone knows about our president-elect is that it’s all about him. No, I’m not worried about his seeming bigotry, racism or misogyny. Maybe I’m fooling myself, but I think that was more than half just for show driven by a keen sense of what he needed to say to win. What I am worried about is that we don’t know what he will actually do, only that but will be whatever he calculates is best for him at the time he is making the decison. It will be interesting to see how his ‘deplorables’ react the first time that his personal gain runs in the opposite direction of theirs. More on that later.

My other worry is not the mandate the president elect might take from his near landslide victory, but more the mandate that some of his more extreme supporters will assume exists for them. What will they now view as acceptable behavior and conversation?  You could argue that the SJW phenomena has grown under the moral shelter provided by the exiting administration. What form of social discourse will emerge in the next four years?  SJW has eroded western values like freedom of speech and the free exchange of ideas and it’s reaction will do more of the same. Funny how the results are the same even though the motivation seems to be diametrically opposed.

But it’s not all bad. The first thing that gives me hope is to think back to all the things our current president promised and compare that to what he actually did. As near as I can tell Gitmo is still open, we’re still in at least 2 wars in the middle east and we still have a major terrorism problem.  That’s not an indictment of Obama, but rather a call to realize that stump speeches are one thing and reality is quite another.  Perhaps the only thing less true than campaign promises are words uttered in bars a half hour before closing time.

My second hopeful thought may be a bridge too far. It is definitely a strange combination of dystopian and Pollyanna world views. It’s clear that we’ve “kicked over the table” to borrow a phrase from one of the talking heads I watched this morning in a effort to distract myself with a bit of schadenfreude.  That’s what a majority wanted and a minority is in shock over today.  As this plays out, could this be the catalyst for both groups to realize that the game is rigged?  Will the “winners” realize that while they changed the means, the ends are the same, causing them to see through and break out of the ruling and ruled paradigm?  Will the “losers” in their shock realize that they lost because they over reached by using government force to drive their agenda, causing them to return to peaceful, rational means of change?

If we’re going to make a change (or burn it down all depending on your POV) then let’s not be half assed about it.  Carpe diem.

90 Second Book Review: The Myth of the State

I don’t consider myself a philosopher.  I’m more of more a “fan of philosophy” to borrow a phrase from my favorite podcaster.  I still have to look up the definition of meta-physics and epistemology.  I am not sure of the difference off the top of my head between existentialism and positivism.  But that doesn’t keep me from following along, perhaps in the same way that a dog enjoys television.

My latest jaunt into the philosophical realm was “The Myth of the State” by Erst Cassier.  This was a HBP find that I must admit I bought completely based on the title (give me a break, it was something like $3).  What I thought Ersnt would teach me is why the state is an illusion of our collective conscious or unconscious mind.  It doesn’t really exist.  It’s just some people telling other people what to do.  What the book is actually about turned out to be quite different, but just as interesting.

The Myth of the State was published posthumously, and with a little controversy about how it was finished.  It came on the heels of Cassier’s blockbuster (if there can be such a thing in the 20th century as a philosophical blockbuster) Essay on Man (which I happened to add to my tsundoku pile a few weeks back).  In this book, Cassier gives a rather complete (especially for only 300 pages) and fascinating account of how the state has used myth to propagate itself.  If it were written today it might be called something like “Lies the state tells you (for your own good of course)”.

For this review, I will give a brief overview of the first 90% of the book to focus on the concluding chapter.  I think its extremely relevant to what I sense is going on these days.

The opening section attempts to answer the basic question “what is myth” and comes to the conclusion that myth is the stories we create to explain things when we don’t have any better way to understand them. I’ve come to realize how important story or narrative is over the past few years.  Harari argues in Sapiens that its the “one thing” that allowed humans to rule the world (while everything else carries our stuff).  At the top level, narrative seems to decompose into rational stories (aka hypothesis) and mythical stories (aka fairy tales). Cassier completes the opening section with an exploration of the impact that myth has on language, psychology and social life.

With that basis set, the center section, which is the bulk of the book, tells of the different twists and turns in the development of state myths from the time of Plato, who propagated the idea of the “legal” state through to Machiavelli’s contribution of removing the connection between religion and transcendent order (as an aside, the two chapters on Machiavelli contained some of the most interesting analysis of his work that I have ever read) through to the Romantic’s reversal of the Enlightenment view that myth “had been a barbarous thing, a strange and uncouth mass of confused ideas and gross superstitions, a mere monstrosity” to the view that myth was “the mainspring of human culture”.

The final section sets up the few philsophers and thinkers that, in Cassier’s view had the biggest impact on 20th century political myth (aka those that we can thank for the mess we are in).  He begins with a discussion of Carlyle’s theory that Hero Worship is “oldest and firmest element in a man’s social and political life”.  From there, it was just a hop skip and a jump to some of the terrible ideas put forward by Gobineau on race worship and the totalitarian race.

From there of course we end up at Hegel.  I will set the time aside to read what he had to say for himself one day, but I do get the sense that I understand some of Hegel’s ideas better after reading Cassier’s synopsis.  Cassier posits that the form of Hegel’s arguments had for more impact than their content.  What’s more Cassier is of the opinion that Hegel himself would have strenuously objected to the arguments made by people using the form of his arguments after his death (if he could find a way to project from the Absolute Idea…).  That being said, I still can’t get my head around Hegel’s notions about the state being the ultimate expression of freedom.  Perhaps this is an example of what he means that philosophy is only a product of its time, and can’t project forward or backward.

Now to the final chapter.  I am not exaggerating when I say that the concluding chapter hit me so hard I was contemplating the myth of HPB actually being a portal from another universe that sends me things I am supposed to read.  It lays out in 20 or so pages everything that I have experienced in politics as exemplified by the current election cycle.  I am going to attempt to communicate the idea Cassier is trying to get across in this chapter (and arguably in the book overall) with as little commentary as possible.  Just enough to connect the thoughts without just quoting the whole chapter and making a TLDR post RTLDR.

As you read this think about what you’ve just witnessed.  Regardless of who you plan to vote for tomorrow (I’m out of state and darn it if I didn’t forget to absentee ;-), think about the larger context in which this “discernment” process has occurred.  Think about how much or little real content there has been.  Think about how often emotion was employed instead of reason.  Think about who has benefited.  Then let me know if you see any parallels between what Cassier was warning about at the start of WWII and what we’ve all just witnessed from both “sides”.

The chapter starts with a discussion about how “unusual and dangerous situations” drive “modern” man to abandon reason and resort to myth.

The call for leadership only appears when a collective desire has reached overwhelming strength and then, on the other hand, all hope of filling this desire in an ordinary and normal way, have failed.  At these times the desire is not only keenly felt, but personified.  It stands before the eyes of man in a concrete, plastic, individual shape.  The intensity of the collective wish is embodied in the leader. The former social bonds – law, justice and constitutions – are declared to be without any value.

He then claims that “modern” man is too sophisticated to buy into the “simple” myths of our “savage” ancestors:

If modern man no longer believes in natural magic, he has by no means given up the belief in a sort of ‘social magic’.  If a collective wish is felt in its whole strength and intensity, people can be persuaded that it only needs the right man to satisfy it.

Cassier moves on to point to what he views as the most significant development in the 20th century relative to political myth:

…our modern political myths appear indeed as a very strange and paradoxical thing.  For what we find in them in the blending of two activities that seem to exclude each other.  The modern politician has to combine himself into two entirely different and incompatible functions. [He is the priest of a new, entirely irrational and mysterious religion.  But when he has to defend and propagate this religion he proceeds very methodically.  Nothing is left to chance’ every step is well prepared and premeditated.  It is this strange combination that is the most striking feature of our political myths.

Myth has always been described as the result of an unconscious activity and as a free product of imagination.  But here we find myth made according to plan.]

Henceforth myths can be manufactured in the same sense and according to the same methods as any other modern weapon – as machine guns or airplanes.  This is the new thing – a thing of crucial importance.

Cassier’s point seems to be that over time, rationality has replaced myth as the primary narrative structure.  This has happened everywhere except in the realm of politics, where myth still reigns supreme, except now we have scientifically created myths.  Myths on steroids.  GMO myths.

Cassier outlines three changes that happened to allow this myth making machine to come into existence:

  1. Change the function of language from conveying meaning (i.e. semantics)  to conveying emotion.  Anyone triggered much these days?
  2. Create of new “magical” rites that “lull asleep all our active forces, our power of judgement and critical discernment, and take away our feeling of personal responsibility.”  Remember…you have to vote…or else you won’t get your sticker. 
  3. Reinstate “divination” since “Prophecy is an essential element in the new technique of rulership.  The most improbable or impossible promises are made.” Which do you trust more: campaign promises or liars?

The book ends with this, actually somewhat hopeful, view:

I have no doubt that later generations will look back at many of our political systems with the same feeling as a modern astronomer studies an astrological book or a modern chemist an alchemistic treatise.

And, echoing Francis Bacon’s advice that “victory over nature can only be won by obedience”,  he even starts us down the path of how to get there:

We must learn how to obey the laws of the social world before we can undertake to rule it.

Maybe we all need to become at least a fan of philosophy.

Illuminating the idea of striving without clinging

I suppose it was inevitable as I made an attempt to get more serious about meditaton this year that I would get exposed to some Buddhist ideas.  I haven’t sought them out (if anything I have tried to find a purly secular meditation approach), but as I said was probably impossible to avoid them entirely.  I don’t have anything against Buddhism per se – it just wasn’t my goal to learn about it as part of my developing meditation practice.

That being said, one of the ideas that came to me over the last year which has had a profound impact on my overall outlook, the lens through which I perceive my own actions and how to make them better is the idea of striving without clinging.  The basic concept seems to be that to acheive enlightnement (which I understand to be some combination of peace, happiness and knowledge of the way the universe works) you have to take active steps in that direction (i.e. striving) but you can’t get attached to the actual goal you are trying to reach (i.e. no clinging).

While the idea of striving without clinging is given as a persecription to acheive enlightment, I find it a good recipe to get almost anything done.  As I read The War of Art, I would say Pressfield’s message is all about learning to strive without attachment.  You have to want to accomplish something, but not want it so much that your ideas about how it should be when you are done keep you from ever getting started.  That is one of the secrets to breaking through what he calls “resistance”.

In what is becoming my standard practice, I am reading a few books right now and I came across a few quotes that shed some further light on this idea of striving without clinging.  Both are philosophy books, but otherwise they are quite different.  While striving without clinging is just a few words, its a pretty difficult concept to grasp, so anytime I see something that helps me understand it a little better, I think its worth noting and sharing.

The first quote comes from Erst Cassirer, in the The Myth of the State, in a chapter discussing the contributions of Machiavelli to modern political thought:

In the twenty-fifth chapter of The Prince Machiavelli explains the tactical rules for this great and continual battle against the power of Fortune.  These rules are very involved and its not easy to use them in the right way.  For they contain two elements that exclude each other.  The man who wishes to stand his ground in combat must combine in his character two opposing qualities.  He must be timid and courageous; reserved and impetuous.  Only by such a paradoxical mixture can he hope to win the victory.  There is no uniform method to be followed at all times.  At this moment we must be on our guard, again we must dare everything.  We must be a sort of Proteus who, from one moment to another, can change his shape.  Such a talent is very rare in men.

The second quote comes from Frederic Gros in A Philosophy of Walking in a chapter on Slowness:

The illusion of speed is the belief that it saves time. It looks simple at first sight: finish something in two hours instead of three, gain an hour. It’s an abstract calculation, though, done as if each hour of the day were like an hour on the clock, absolutely equal.

But haste and speed accelerate time, which passes more quickly, and two hours of hurry shorten a day. Every minute is torn apart by being segmented, stuffed to bursting. You can pile a mountain of things into an hour.  Days of slow walking are very long: they make you live longer because you have allowed every hour, every minute, every second to breath, to deepen, instead of filling them up by straining the joints.  Huttying means doing several things at once, and quickly: this, then that; and then even something else.  When you hurry, time is filled to bursting, like a badly arranged drawer in which you have stuffed thingswith not attempt at order.

Slowness means cleaving perfectly to time, so closely that the seconds fall one by one, drop by drop like the steady dripping of a tap on stone.  This strectching of time deepens space.  It is one of the secrets of walking: a slow approach to landscapes that gradually renders them familiar.  Like the regular encounters that deepend a friendship.  Thus a mountain skyline that stays with you all day, which you observe in different lights, defines and articulates itself.  When you ae walking, nothing moves: only imperceptibly do the hills draw closer, the surroundings change.

I still struggle to fully grasp the idea of striving without clinging since it seems such a contradiction. I struggle even more to practice it.  But I think Cassierer and Gros, each in their own way, have helped illuminate it for me just a bit more.