Facts – Alternative Facts – Post-Truth – Truth, Composing, 23/01/2017

I’ve kept thinking about that project on the idea of post-truth that we’ve been tossing around the Reply Collective. There’s one approach that I want to explore for this piece – I thought of it over the weekend, and I want to mull it over with some folks to see if it has legs.

Here’s how it came to me, first of all.

Pictured: A collective experience of truth-expression.
So I was at the Toronto Women’s March to protest Donald Trump’s existence Saturday, and I saw plenty of signs mocking the idea of ‘post-truth.’ In a very basic sense, this is the opposition of truth and lies.

* I wish I’d gotten a picture of it. They were good and sarcastic, just like a lot of what I saw during the march.

In one dimension of the ‘post-truth’ problem, that looks like it’s all it comes down to. A trivial assertion of lies by government figures. The press secretary blatantly lies about the facts – how many people attended Trump’s inauguration – and chastises the White House press corps for their outlets’ honesty instead of reporting what they were told to report.

We told you what we wanted you to say, says Sean Spicer, and I paraphrase – and it was your moral failure and your disloyalty to the office of the President for not doing what you were told.

The most popular followup was Chuck Todd’s Meet the Press interview with Kellyanne Conway. Anti-Trump Twitter particularly blew up over Conway’s contention that, “We presented you with alternative facts.”

Orwellian? Most definitely. But ultimately, Orwellian doublespeak is trivial.

Reactionary contempt for critics now has free reign.
Even the typical recourse to postmodernist thinking about the slippery meanings of language is ultimately trivial. It’s a mere stereotype that ‘postmodernist’ attitudes and philosophies imply that there is no truth and there are no facts. Or rather, that facts are defined solely through discourse.

So factuality becomes no longer about what is and isn’t the case. It becomes a matter of duelling visions of the world – a pro-Trump set of facts means enormous inauguration crowds and violent protestors, while an anti-Trump set of facts means anemic attendance and police brutality on the streets of DC. One is an alternative to the other, and you’re free to choose between them as you’re inclined.

So you’re stuck with the oversimplified, misunderstood popular understanding of postmodernism. If you want a philosophical investigation into what post-truth can be to produce something more interesting, more useful than this, you need a different direction.

Inside the volcano.
Here’s that different direction.

Ask yourself: What truth do the women’s marches demonstrate? We are talking about a demonstration, after all.

We have a set of facts that can be described in propositions of language – statements about women’s needs, fears, vulnerabilities, and strengths; statements of political and moral beliefs that oppose them to Trump’s presidency and what it represents in wider society; biographical timelines and events in the lives of the people in the march and the wider anti-Trump movement.

While all those statements may be true, you have to ask whether they’re adequate to the situation. If you were to list all these statements, would they alone suffice to describe – completely – what the marches actually demonstrate.

A set of statements leaves out the visceral power of a person’s experience itself. The emotional and mental impact of material events in your life on your own person, personality, and subjectivity. It leaves out the force of what shapes your character, even as it describes that shape and its changes.

A cinematic philosopher.
The closest I can come to naming this kind of visceral, material, truth-in-unfolding-experience is to riff on a term from Werner Herzog – ecstatic truth. A kind of truth that’s beyond factuality, and communicates a deeper truth than an isolated fact of the matter.

An ecstatic truth communicates the power of forces that shape subjectivities and situations of life. Such a truth is the majesty of an Antarctic mountain range or the peaks of Mount Erebus and its bubbling crater. And such a truth is the terror of being lost in the jungle, with violent armies around every corner.

Such a truth is also the yearning for dignity of a poor immigrant lost in the desolation of his new country. Or the bliss of giving in to evil.

It is the human experience of sublimity, but recognizes that the sublime can appear not only in terrifying or awe-inspiring natural formations and phenomena. Sublimity is also in the daily experiences of human lives.

An incredible power can come from communicating that sublimity.

Trumponomics Could Be an Even Bigger Disaster, Jamming, 20/01/2017

First of all, I’m sorry for not having written even a short blog post for Thursday. I had an amazingly stressful day at work Wednesday, and I was so burned out and tired when I got home that I barely had enough energy to eat Chinese food and nap.

Can’t go wrong with the sesame chicken, but sometimes nothing can overcome total nervous burnout.

I spent yesterday doing some much more relaxing research for my communications agency job. I can work this position from my home office, which means that my working uniform usually involves a pair of bear claw slippers. No better solution for any workplace stress or burnout.

In the course of that research, I read up on general economic trends and projections, trying to incorporate them into my strategies and recommendations to clients.

All hail Fearless Leader!
One thing I discovered was this analysis of the centrepiece of the Trump Administration’s economic policy – protectionism.

When I first heard during the campaign that Trump promised a protectionist national economic policy, I knew it was a radical break from political parties’ orthodoxies in America.

Now, I’ve opposed for a long time many of the injustices that unrestrained, corporate-led free trade has created. But I also know that any solutions to the problems of corporate-led free trade can only really come from people-led globalization.

Protectionism and the autarkic ideal that inspires those policies, ultimately leads to disaster. There’s simply no way that an economy – even one with the diversity of the United States – can survive without supplemental goods and services from around the world. It’s a perfect recipe for long-term stagnation.

Look at the effect of Trump’s plan. High tariffs at the same time as you choke off immigration. America’s has a large population of people retiring from the workforce and dying off – the country has a low unemployment rate.

There are millions of people out of the workforce – maybe for their own or a family member’s health reasons, or because they just have no marketable skills. But with no plans to raise wages, or finance a nationwide equitable program of affordable higher education, those unmarketable people won’t find work.

As for Paul Ryan’s plans to gut the Affordable Care Act? Millions won’t be able to get the treatment they’d need to return to work. Nor could those millions afford or the homecare contractors to whom they can trust their ill loved ones, so they could return to the job market.

So the only way to inject capital into the country at a national scale comes from trade links. High tariffs would essentially cut off a lot of the foreign savings and investment entering the United States.

The country imports way more than it exports. But a country makes up its massive global trade deficit by selling huge numbers of state savings bonds. The sale of those bonds brings in billions of dollars in investment money.

Shutting off global trade with high tariffs shrinks your trade deficit, which sounds like a good thing – America becomes a net exporter, drawing money into the country.

But if its people are still poor when this happens, people won’t have enough money themselves to make up for the immediate-term shortfall in bond income.

A wealthy citizenry and a properly funded government can provide the investment income to fuel the economy. People, their banks, and their governments can save money and invest it in developing ventures and companies in their country.

But people in the United States are – as individuals – burdened by hideous debt. It’s a continued hangover of the mortgage crisis at the end of last decade, for older folks. For younger people, it’s the crushing weight of enormous student loans to pay off at the very beginning of their careers in a workforce of insecure labour.

So the economy is choked from two sources. Foreign investment plummets, the government is so underfunded that a budget surplus is impossible, millions of people are drowning in personal debt.

Whatever income first comes from the export surplus won’t make up that difference. The surplus will only come from the same inadequate export numbers the US now has – it’ll only be a surplus because imports shut off. With fewer goods on market, prices will increase, but no one will be making any more money and they’ll have just as much debt.

Some people already live like it's the Great Depression again.
Millions more might if this economic scenario happens.
Low incomes and rising prices means mass poverty.

The solution to unjust globalization led by corporate oligarchs isn’t turning away from the world. It’s a just globalization. Such a thing is possible. Here’s one way to imagine a just, fair globalization.

Governments around the world cooperate to build planetary infrastructure – transit links, internet cables, transnational power lines, ecological preserves, treaties to manage and conserve natural resources properly. Stuff like that.

People build business links around the world through professional networking associations. I’m a member of one – the International Association of Business Communicators. And there may be thousands upon thousands of similar associations all over the world. All building links and making deals. Actually person to person.

Imagine a world built by the world’s governments and independent, hustling businesspeople.

When the Imaginary Is Real, Composing, 18/01/2017

Social contract stuff again today. Because the whole concept of the social contract has been at the centre of Western political theory for literally hundreds of years. As a popular idea, it informs the very act of writing states’ constitutions.

As annoying and constraining the concept can be, it’s not going away, and anyone who wants to write foundational political theory has to grapple with it.

Here’s a common stereotypical way* to describe a social contract: as a thought experiment. “We all know that such a moment could never have existed. But if all the members of a society could have gathered to decide among themselves how they’d live, they would decide that . . .”

* You know where you can find the best examples of sadly common lazy stereotypes about how to describe philosophy? Look up a kind-of-shit Introduction to Philosophy textbook.

But here’s a problem with that image of the social contract concept as a thought experiment. It doesn’t really make clear why we would make the experiment in the first place.

Social contract thought experiments are ostensibly about discovering the fundamental relationships and concerns of society. Depending on the emphasis, it tends either to security (so you lean Hobbes) or productivity in community (so you lean Rousseau).

Yet it rarely works as a means to discover a real essence of politics. It’s an argumentative demonstration, but as an argument, it’s strictly rhetoric. If you’re interested in building a vision of society as fundamentally about mutual security, you’ll work through a social contract experiment that makes it so. Same goes for whatever set of values you want to argue is paramount in society.

That's not to say that social contract thought experiments are useless or poor philosophy. They’re actually great philosophy, but not because they reveal some real essence of society. It’s because thinking through them is an engine of concepts and ideas about fundamental issues of social life and human nature.

You don’t want to get to a right answer that’s so clearly correct that it shuts everyone up and they just memorize it as the perfect answer to the question. You want the best way to encourage thinking.

Now here’s how Immanuel Kant lays it out. He turns it into an example of a technical term in his complex, carefully designed ontology of the human subject – an ideal of pure reason.

How an “ideal of pure reason” works – it’s a framework principle of thought itself. Literally a regulation for our minds. So while it's an imaginary scenario, it's a real part of the human mind and subject.

So what kind of thought does thinking through a social contract argument facilitate? For Kant, it’s the thought of governors themselves – heads of state, politicians, functionaries, legislators, parliamentarians.

By focussing their minds on the fundamental questions of what brings people together in a society, leaders will create laws, regulations, and institutions for their own societies that align with the values and best interests of their own people.

As Kant puts it, they’ll write laws to which every citizen would consent if given the opportunity – just like in the image of writing the social contract in the first place.

There are some limitations to this. But I’ll get into those tomorrow.

Post-Truth Riffing With the Squad, Jamming, 17/01/2017

So my colleagues at SERRC have been tossing around the idea of a project engaging with the notion of post-truth.

A bit of a serious topic these days. It’s a term that cries out for analysis from the professional social epistemologists. I’ve signed on to be part of the project. Its timeliness (and general mainstream media ubiquity) makes it a good topic to throw down on as a group of public intellectuals.

Besides, the general discipline of the organization is social epistemology – the study and investigation of how social interaction at all levels of individual, group, cultural, and institutional processes creates knowledge. The concept cries out for our analysis.

Rather, the general idea is crying out to become a concept. ‘Post-truth’ is largely just a buzzword with a little academic pedigree. But when philosophers go to work on a messy, complicated phenomenon, we can craft a concept that can do some useful work in helping us understand clearly a muddled, confusing real-life situation.

So here are some initial thoughts on what to do about this post-truth idea. We’re still in the early stages of working out this project, and I’d like to get some thoughts from my likely collaborators, anyone else in the SERRC, or any of my friends and readers so inclined.

The notion that we're in a post-truth world isn't exactly new. We've been
slipping in this direction for a long time. What's happened lately is that
we've crossed a threshold. But the conditions have existed for a while.
First of all, here’s a few things my approach won’t be. I won’t rest with the idea – very valuable and important though it is – that a ‘post-truth era’ is basically a world of lies. Or the fulfillment of Stephen Colbert’s ‘truthiness’ – strength of self-belief and the emotional intensity of your opinion matters. Whether it reflects actual facts at all? Not so much.

This notion is true. But it’s too simple. It’s the idea of ‘post-truth’ before philosophical creativity has really gone to work on it. We don’t know the idea’s inner structures, possible implications, its links to other concepts of different philosophical approaches and positions. It’s just an idea. Only when we’ve engineered it into a concept can we know what it means.

Yet you also can’t take the idea too seriously. There are certainly dangerous elements to how easily knowledge is undermined. A. C. Grayling cites one example – that one of the first auto-complete suggestions for the phrase “Did the” is “Holocaust really happen?” and some of the top hits are from denialists.

Definitely serious. But you can’t approach the ‘post-truth era’ as if we were in some radically different mode of politics and society than we were only a few years ago. It passes blindly over the real continuity in history from the current moment to the past.

We see only a huge difference – it’s there since we’ve apparently crossed a post-truth threshold in 2016 – but we also have to see its conditions and precursors. The journalist Jonathan Mahler got the philosophical ball rolling a few weeks ago.

The loops of knowledge – the social connections through which we learned about the world – began closing off a while ago. Some of the first to close their knowledge to outside input were the leaders and many figures in the W Administration.

Turning their eyes from the intelligence reports that would have denied their desire to invade Iraq. Occupation leaders unable to see the growing insurgency until it was too late to stop anything. Even when the UN was bombed and many people who could have helped build a better post-invasion Iraq were killed.

Everything was normal. Their blindness is the precursor to our closed feedback loops of partialities, dogma, and conspiracies. It’s a normal development in continuity with the past. But those situations only become conditions retroactively.

This is my starting point. I want to touch base with my collaborators and see what else can develop from this project. It could be a fantastic blend of philosophy, sociology, politics, and historical anthropology. Hope to hear from everyone soon.

The Slow Outreach of Respect in the Troll Era, Advocate, 16/01/2017

A fortunate follow-up to my analysis of troll politics this weekend. It’s a small example of a conversation that I think demonstrates how real social change happens. A story about getting people with opposing political views to sit down respectfully and work out ideas about the future of society together.

That kind of coalition-building used to be done in most state politics and governance, but not anymore in this era of demonizing the opposition and priming people for one-party rule.

A graphic representation of people's typical attitude when discussing
politics on the internet.
Qualifications first. I don’t intend this story to imply anything about how to win elections or referendums. Because this is about how to build bridges with opposition to humanize each other and restore values of friendship and brotherhood to political organizing.

So do you win elections? Present a set of genuine policy alternatives driven by a genuinely alternative political and moral philosophy that critiques and makes up for the blind spots in the current government’s approach. Then promote the hell out of that vision and drive turnout as high as you can.

But how do we end this impasse of polarization? What kind of conversation spaces can we start with our opponents that won’t immediately become cesspools of abuse?

Twitter will not be that space. Political organizing on Twitter is for peacock posturing and rallying your own troops with news, photos, and live video.

Facebook can be that space, but not the typical kind of Facebook space that’s gotten all the press this year – It won’t be partisan news pages like Eagle Rising or Addicting Info. I’m talking about interactions of personal pages and profiles.

My old friend D the Miner got into it when I posted a link to my post about troll politics, throwing some right-wing perspective into the mix. And though I cheekily confronted him about it at first, we ended up in a fairly detailed back-and-forth about how people perceive and associate political and social values, and what the future of Canadian energy should be.

Do not let the monsters determine how you live, only how you fight
Facebook comments allow people to have public conversations where each statement can carry a lot of detail. You can explain what you want to say in a comment or reply field where you can go on for a paragraph or two.

What’s more, the context of those threads are clear from their layout – if a thread is a conversation between two people, you don’t have to jump in on that exact thread if you have something different to say. You can start your own comment thread and conversation on the post.

It’s a slow process – literally just detailed conversations among friends scattered around the country and the world. But it can create a more relaxed space where people can talk in a respectful way about the different ways they experience life and society.

Because while we may be in a time of extremism now, we’ll also need to lay down the foundations of a more peaceful politics to emerge if democratic culture survives this upheaval. Those foundations are those calm spaces of conversation and fellowship between different people.

Not always appropriate for every political context. But definitely needed.

Troll Politics, Advocate, 14/01/2017

It’s not exactly news to call Donald Trump America’s most prominent troll. But it’s not just an insult. Trolling is often discussed (and dismissed) as the immature snarking of self-entitled jackasses. And it is.

But it’s also become a politically powerful weapon – the discourse of mocking, dismissal, and the marginalization of critique and conscience. It turns every piece of sincere communication against itself. The crystallization of nihilistic postmodernism.

Troll discourse is the most powerful political speech weapon of our time. And if progressive forces don’t master it and learn to destroy it, anti-racist and anti-fascist politics will be crushed in the West.

If progressive activists can grow their own trolling skills – both on
social media and in real life – to Shkreli's and Milo's levels, those
movements will have a chance of surviving the Trump years. If not,
we'll be ripped to shreds.
So how does troll discourse work? It’s essentially the subversion of political language. Look at the most recent example.

For the last month, the progressive mainstream Western press has led major discussions of “fake news.”

The term originally refers to the websites and Facebook groups that concoct lies and hoaxes – usually about left-wing political figures and the Hillary Clinton campaign. These hoaxes are so purposefully inflammatory that they’ll drive a huge number of clickthroughs (and the attendant ad revenues).

It’s a little blunt, but basically accurate. Since the US election, there’s been a flurry of panicked articles floating around the progressive and liberal online literati denouncing fake news and trying to figure out how to stem it.

Now look what Donald Trump did in his press conference last week. During the presidential campaign, CNN was widely seen as kowtowing to the Trump campaign for the sake of ratings. But the network also employs many Trump-skeptical journalists.

When faced with critical questions about his Russian connections from CNN’s Jim Acosta, Trump refused to answer them. He instead denounced the whole network. But look at the language – “You’re fake news!

He smeared any reporting of Trump’s personal and business connections with Vladimir Putin and the Russian billionaire nationalist community as the irresponsible spreading of fake news.

Yeah, well you're a fake President.
A term that’s been defined in popular discourse as Trump-critical is now used by Trump himself to denounce any criticism of him and his government. Classic trolling – take a term whose popular meaning is most often used against you and use it against your enemies, claiming it’s for the same reasons.

In just the same way, chief trolls like Milo Yiannopolous and protege Martin Shkreli are brilliant practitioners of trolling. They’ve taken the narrative concepts from people and groups who’ve historically suffered from systematic institutional marginalization, and let wealthy white men of various levels of jockishness and dorkitude claim to be victims of systematic discrimination.

Because someone who makes video games they don’t like broke up with a stalkerish asshole. Or a Trump-critical journalist who works for a typically “women’s” magazine objected to harassing, stalking behaviour to get a millionaire hedge fund trader banned from a social media platform.

Shrkeli’s defenders have called his removal from Twitter his victimization at the hands of SJW fascists and an attack on his free speech rights.

Verbal and graphic harassment in a public forum has been defended as an untouchable act of free speech. When Shkreli was to appear as a guest of honour at the UC Davis stop of Milo’s Dangerous Faggot Tour, protests of the two grew so intense and violent that the appearance was cancelled.

Millions of people take this notion seriously. We have a lot of work to do.
And people called the cancellation of a high-budget campus tour stop an attack on Milo and Martin’s free speech.

All the concept that progressive activists develop to articulate their claims, their programs, and their rights are co-opted by reactionary enemies within months, weeks, possibly even days. Not just intent, but linguistic meaning itself has been politically destabilized.

Unless progressively-minded activists and organizers confront this form of reactionary subversion, we will be crushed. Progressives need to master the subversive and moving language that reactionaries already use with expert skill – This is the most difficult political battle of my generation, and we need to perfect our weapons.

I’ll be posting this on my Facebook author page, and tagging all my activist friends – I hope we can have the first of some productive discussions to turn the tide against reaction and in favour of real freedom.

Patriotism and the Nation, Composing, 13/01/2017

So here’s a preliminary outline of how the argument I laid out the other day about patriotism will play out in the arguments of Utopias.

This is the conception of patriotism as it was originally developed – a concept of democratic revolution. It’s the notion that ordinary people could mature and progress politically, socially, and morally, enough to take responsibility for running the country.

Patriotic politics was a democratic response to the mainstream of central Europe’s approach to governance in Immanuel Kant’s time – paternalism, where the only bulwark against chaos was the authoritarian rule of a monarch and the noble classes that surrounded him.

It's easy when you're an absolute monarch to think the whole country
revolves around you. Mainly because, institutionally, it does.
Doesn't necessarily make for the most well-rounded people.
The ideal of patriotism was the ideal of the French Revolution, which loomed large in Kant’s political imaginary. This despite Kant arguing explicitly against the overthrow of any constitution, ruler, or sovereign institution in his “Theory and Practice” essay.

Because the core idea of the French Revolution was that the king, despite his position and the ontological conception of the crown as sovereign, was actually immature, self-interested, blinkered, and blind to the real concerns of the country’s people. And the people had a better conception of what their country needed than the king.

For the first time in continental European history since the beginning of the centralized state, a sudden and massive institutional change took place, based on the notion that the people could govern better than the monarch.

And that popular practical knowledge justified the replacement of the monarch. More incredible, that transformation took place in France, which was the largest, most centralized monarchist power in continental Europe.

Kant himself straddled the two eras as a thinker, since he was already an old man when the French Revolution began playing out. But this idea of the people’s maturity to be free was much more influential on German thinkers of the following generation: George Hegel, Johann Fichte, Friedrich Schelling, Novalis, and those who followed them.

But now, a new political problem began playing out in Western society: Who were the people of a country?

In a political context of absolute monarchy, this question makes no sense. The country was defined through the person of the crown – the people of a country were the subjects of the crown.

The only power for which a monarch is fit, is symbolic power. Only
when they have no real material mastery of the government and no
truly absurd or exploitive privileges, can a heredity monarch be more
likely to accept the responsibilities of the throne. Good series, too.
Being its subjects separated them from that crown – not just a difference in social hierarchy, but a difference in being, in essence. The people and the crown were different orders of being. The people’s national revolution in 1789 changed all that.

Popular sovereignty means that the people and the crown are the same. Just like it says on the tin, the people are sovereign. But now you have to figure out who the people are.

Kant’s political writings refer to the citizens as the sovereign people. But citizenship alone is more than just a matter of who holds papers for the state – who’s registered with the passports, the birth certificates, and other citizenship documents at the relevant government ministry. That’s the factual question of citizenship.

It isn’t the moral question of citizenship. That’s not just about who happens to have citizenship of a country, but who should have citizenship of a country. Not the citizens as they are, but the body of rightful citizens. The people who can unify their political and social desires into a popular general will that shapes institutional structures and governmental norms.

There can be many possible answers to this. But the answer that quickly came to predominate in European philosophy was the nation – that concept unified ethnicity, linguistic community, cultural mores, and religious heritage into a single, unified essence for each state.

This is the philosophical and political moment when the concept of nationalism came to dominate Western thought. It would not end well.