A Checklist for Skepticism, Doubt, and Critical Thinking

We are all subject to flawed reasoning. Any one of us may catastrophically misread the landscape we’re navigating, whether literal or metaphorical, causing us to arrive at false beliefs that end in our deaths. We may also be thwarted in our purposes by setting them too high or low. Someone might outmaneuver us. We may make all the wrong allies—and find ourselves with all the wrong enemies. There are so many ways, and at so many levels, our critical thinking can fail, and so it is that we bring questions to the claims that people bring to us for our consideration–questions like these: (1) Does this person have any real evidence for the things they believe—and what is the quality of that evidence? (2) Are there converging lines of evidence supporting these claims? (3) Is the person an expert on the matters in question, or do they rely on authorities and experts to support their claims—and how reliable are those authorities and experts, exactly? (4) If the person doesn’t have direct physical evidence or data to support their claims, do they at least have other good reasons for believing what they do? (5) Given the quantity and quality of the evidence and reasons available to them, how strongly should they actually hold their beliefs? (6) What indications are there that the person is actually competent to weigh evidence and arguments (do they apportion their beliefs to the evidence, for instance, or do they seem overconfident, believing things without sufficient warrant)? (7) Are their beliefs coherent with other things that are well-known and established (the things we think we already know about the universe and how it works)? (8) Has the person actively sought out disconfirming evidence and arguments? (9) Has the person weighed alternative beliefs or explanations and really come to the best beliefs or explanations on offer? (10) What roles are group belonging, self-identity and esteem, financial interest, temperament, and desire—desire of any sort—playing in this person’s conclusions? (11) Is this person under the spell of a narrative that they’re telling themselves and others about their claims—and are there other ways—better ways—to tell the story of this matter that might break the spell? (12) Why does this person start their stories and claims where they do, and why do they stop their stories and claims where they do? (13) Do the explanations for these starting and stopping points amount to, when push comes to shove, question begging (circular reasoning)? (14) Are the heuristics (the rules of thumb, models, maps, narratives) the person overlays onto reality too simple? Too complicated? Is this person open to reality testing them? (15) Is the person introducing any static into their arguments (things that are beside the point, emotional appeals, logical fallacies, etc.)? If so, why are they doing that? What’s the signal in the noise here?

The critical reasoner brings such skeptical questions, not just to others, but back upon the self. Skeptical questioning directed outward, toward others, but never back upon oneself, is not skepticism. Do you have the capacity, not just for bringing criticism to others, but for self criticism–and the hearing of criticism?

Posted in atheism, Bernie Sanders, donald trump, philosophy, Politics, science, Uncategorized | 6 Comments

Atheist Bart Compolo, Meet Joseph Koerner

Pretty darn interesting. Bart Compolo, a former evangelical minister who evolved intellectually toward atheism, has discovered the world needs some of the same basic things that he did as a pastor, so he’s doing them in a low-key way at the University of Southern California, ministering (is that the right word?) to humanist students. It reminds me of Joseph Koerner’s book on art during the German Reformation (The Reformation of the Image, University of Chicago Press), in which Koerner notes numerous parallels between the Protestant pastor and congregation of the 16th century and the college professor and college class of today. Anyway, a life affirming article about what happens when a person does their level best to be true to themselves (exercising their temperamental gifts, their honest beliefs and interests, etc.) and stays honest with others. I wish there were more people who would simply risk telling the truth, living vulnerable in the world, admitting their honest doubts.

Here’s the link to Koerner’s book:

https://www.amazon.com/Reformation-Image-Joseph-Leo-Koerner/dp/0226448371/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1483135793&sr=8-1&keywords=the+reformation+of+the+image

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The son of a famous pastor, Bart Campolo is now a rising star of atheism — using the skills he learned in the world he left behind.
NYTIMES.COM|BY MARK OPPENHEIMER
Posted in aesthetics, atheism, beauty, david hume, God, philosophy, Politics, science, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

This is Colonization, Not Immigration

In the video below, what we’re seeing is civilizational colonization, not immigration. Muslim men in France are literally driving women out of public spaces. Imagine a suburb of France that was majority Calvinist asserting the authority of Calvin’s “Institutes” over the Enlightenment inspired French Constitution in this way. The Anglo-French Enlightenment constitutes a civilization, and one of the things our civilization means is women’s equality, which includes access to cafes and streets without harassment or intimidation. Blacks fought for a similar right in the American South in the 1950s and 60s. Immigrants who come from Islamic dominated parts of the world shouldn’t be able to abuse Anglo-French tolerance for freedom of religion to trump hard won individual rights. It can’t be allowed to simply take over a community in this way, leaving no room for non-Muslims to live freely, according to their own lights. If this is allowed, France will become essentially a balkanized country where women are free in some areas and not in others. If you seek to immigrate to a liberal democracy, then you’re breaking the social contract if you don’t respect individual autonomy and choice. It should be a condition of entry that you agree to respect women’s autonomy and the autonomy of people whose beliefs are not your own. Otherwise, you’re colonizing the host country, not assimilating to it. You’re exploiting the law to make of yourself, locally, the law.

Posted in atheism, brexit, david hume, donald trump, feminism, hillary clinton, philosophy, Politics, Uncategorized | 29 Comments

Information and Entropy for Beginners

Information. Physicist Brian Greene, in his book The Hidden Reality (Knopf 2011), gives a three word definition of information: “Information answers questions” (252). Curiously, in physics you can give a three word definition for entropy as well: entropy measures questions. (That is, entropy tells you how many logically possible questions the system being attended to can actually answer, and whether those questions have been answered.) Entropy is the measure of disorder in a system. If disorder is high, entropy is high. If disorder is low, entropy is low. So when you ask, “Where’s my pen?”, and you know exactly where it is, the entropy (disorder) in your life, at least surrounding pens, is probably low. You’ve got a system around your home that is ordered in such a way that you can answer your question. Entropy measures questions. Information answers questions.

But what exactly does entropy measures questions and information answers questions mean? Greene writes: “[T]he most useful measure of information content is the number of distinct yes-no questions the information can answer. […] A datum that can answer a single yes-no question is called a bit–a familiar computer-age term that is short for binary digit, meaning a 0 or 1, which you can think of as a numerical representation of yes or no.”

What Green is describing here can be illustrate by flipping a coin twice. If you ask, “What’s the result of the two flips?”, and I say, “Two heads,” your knowledge of what we might call the “two coin flip system” is 100%. It has four bits of information, and you know all of them. You know the order of the flips (heads, heads) and the content of the flips (heads, heads). But if I say, “Heads on the first coin, but I don’t know on the second,” then your knowledge of the system drops to 50%. You know two of the four bits of information. Like losing a pen, the system is getting chaotic for you. You want to know your relation to where and how things are.

The implication here is startling. When we’re talking about information, we’re talking about entropy. Information and entropy are one. If you want to know what maximum chaos is, enter a system where you have no information; where what you’re looking for could be in any logically possible place within the system; where all the information is hidden. Here’s Greene again: “[A] system’s entropy is the number of yes-no questions that its microscopic details have the capacity to answer, and so the entropy is a measure of the system’s hidden information content” (253).

Entropy. The relationship therefore between entropy and information is inverse: the more entropy (chaos) you are presented with, the less you can definitively say at that moment about the system; the less you can map; the less you can control. There are lots of logically possible ways a system can be—that constitutes its hidden information content—but there’s only one way that a system is in reality. That’s its actual configuration of answers to your yes-no questions. Your mission, should you accept it, is to find out the way the world is by asking it questions. (Where’s your pen, again, exactly?)

Think of fog and ice. When you know little, you are in the fog of a highly entropic information system. But once you acquire definite information, and get some control over it, such as in a physical system when fog turns into ice (a much less entropic form of water because it takes on a definite shape), entropy comes down, at least for you locally. You get definite answers to your yes-no questions (that molecule of ice belongs to that snowflake, it’s not just anywhere in a fog, etc.). Your intellectual fog thus congeals into something more certain, akin to ice crystals. There are now definite bits of information that you can link-up with your other bits of information. (The philosopher David Hume would call your discovery of ice and your interpretation, experience and inference. The data you have access to and the connections you make out of it constitute your interpretation.)

Thoreau and Hume. Henry David Thoreau in Walden quotes Confucius as saying the following: “To know that we know what we know, and that we do not know what we do not know, that is true knowledge.” That’s also true information. Hume, skeptical of a priori reasoning (armchair reasoning absent investigation), put it this way in his Enquiry concerning Human Understanding:

The existence […] of any being can only be proved by arguments…founded entirely on experience. If we reason a priori, anything may appear able to produce anything. The falling of a pebble may, for aught we know, extinguish the sun; or the wish of a man control the planets in their orbits.

In other words, when asking a question of the cosmos, trying to derive a bit of information from it (“Can a man’s wish effect the orbit of a planet?”), lots of things may be logically possible, but only one thing is true. Don’t presume to know what that thing is before you really do; before you have a basis for induction (inference) from experience; before you bring down the entropy.

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Trump’s Secretary of State Pick, Rex Tillerson, on Global Warming

Below is a clip of the future Secretary of State on climate change. His argumentative maneuvers in the attached clip are predictably glib: (1) climate models possess a wide range of uncertainty; (2) the problems look manageable to him; and (3) we can adapt.

Translation: if we keep burning fossil fuels at our current rate: (1) maybe things won’t be as bad as some models predict; (2) if they are that bad, we’ll adapt; and we’ll do so by (3) engineering (which means moving our harbors and cities deeper inland, which translates into passing the costs, in the trillions, of our global warming, to future generations).

Simple. I feel so much better.

Posted in atheism, Bernie Sanders, brexit, donald trump, feminism, hillary clinton, Politics, science, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

What Will Be Donald Trump’s Reichstag Fire?

This election is hopelessly tainted. Trump won by just 80,000 votes spread across three swing states–and lost the general election tally by a full 2% (three million votes). Hillary got 48%, Trump 46%, and Stein/Johnson basically the remainder–which means 54% of American voters didn’t want Trump–yet here we are with Trump. And Russia’s interference almost certainly achieved far more than that 80,000 vote swing, so we’ve literally been hacked as a democracy, getting the president that Putin wanted, not the American voters. And now we learn that the head of Exxon-Mobile, with deep ties to Russia, is Trump’s most likely pick for Secretary of State.

So what can be done at this point? It’s like a storm. Hunker down and hope the Republic and planet survives in tact the next four to eight years. But I’ve never felt so despondent about the prospects for the Anglo-French Enlightenment, liberal democracy, and ecology. Trump seems to be setting the clock back, not to the 1990s, say, but the 1890s (a period of nationalism that culminated in two world wars). And he’ll have the nuclear codes, let’s never forget that. Any day over the next four years we could wake up and learn Trump has decided to arrest the conspirators in a conspiracy he has “uncovered,” or used a nuclear weapon to “solve” a problem somewhere on the pretense of some crisis. What Reichstag fire awaits us? It’s really a hostage situation.

Posted in atheism, Bernie Sanders, climate change, donald trump, feminism, hillary clinton, Politics, Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Michael Flynn and Donald Trump Walk into a Cuban Missile Crisis, and One Says to the Other…

No, this is not a joke. This is real. Donald Trump’s national security adviser is going to be Michael Flynn.

“Michael Flynn is a crackpot,” claims Paul Waldman, a senior writer at The American Spectator. He also observes that Flynn is credulous about conspiracy theories.

So we’re basically in the realm of Dr. Strangelove here.

Waldman also writes this: “For a President Trump’s unique combination of ignorance, inexperience, and impulsiveness, it’s particularly vital to have a national security adviser who can encourage calm and thoughtfulness, and not be distracted by what’s irrelevant or downright false.”

That’s not what we’re getting. Let that sink in.

If an international incident of Cuban Missile Crisis proportions presents itself at any point during the course of the Trump administration, two crackpots, at minimum, are going to be in the Oval Office debating among themselves what to do next: Micheal Flynn and Donald Trump.

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__________

An anti-Muslim extremist with a penchant for lunatic conspiracy theories. Be very afraid.
WASHINGTONPOST.COM
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How Does It Feel?

We’re in a hostage crisis. And a fog.

What I think those of us who are white males haven’t absorbed yet about this election is that there’s no being a “citizen,” male or female, second-class or otherwise, in a liberal democratic republic anymore.

We all lost the country this year. All of us. Including those Trump voters who thought they were voting to defend the Constitution.

If you’re now feeling a twinge of apprehension in having voted for Trump, or are a white Clinton voter feeling sorry for Muslim Americans–or wondering what it might feel like to be black in Trump’s America–I’ve got news for you. You’re now a rolling stone as well. If you think the Bob Dylan song is a romantic fancy, listen to the lyrics closely at the dawn of the Age of Trump, and weep.

We’ve lost the country, not in a partisan sense, but in the literal sense. There are no second-class American citizens now, male or female, patriot or hippie, Muslim or non-Muslim, because there are no American citizens.

I’m trying to describe the situation. This is Donald Trump’s America. We just live here. Going forward, we’ll all become increasingly aware that we’re moving about in this country, not because the law protects us, or because we’re citizens and this country is ours, but because we are at his sufferance. He’s going to be tolerating us being here–and he’ll be revoking that tolerance if we cross him in a way that threatens his grip on power. His loyalty is not to democracy, the rule of law, and its institutions, but to himself. He owns us.

This is a daddy-child and master-slave situation, not a citizenry to public servant situation. We have seen nothing all year in his character that suggests he can exercise self restraint, and in two months, he’ll be the boss, and he’ll believe the law won’t apply to him. There will be no effective balance of powers to check him because he’ll be ignoring them, and if anybody tries to resist him, he’s going to crush them (first with soft power, but with hard if that becomes necessary). And in four years, he’s not leaving office, even were he to lose an election. (“It was rigged, it was totally unfair.”) In four years, if he’s gathered sufficient power to himself, and can figure out a way not to, he may not even hold an election.

If you resist, and you persist in your insolence, rising above the radar into his attention, expect to be deemed an enemy of the state. There will be no normal avenues effective against him now.

That’s where we are. Washington to Obama. That was America’s Republic. We’re now dealing with a completely different animal. The veneer of the old laws and the old Republic will be cloaking a lawless authoritarian attempting to grab all the power he can get, dangerous to ourselves and the rest of the world, propped up by a system of mass propaganda, popular will, and force. This veil of the old, but dead, Republic, with its forms and laws, by cloaking this new thing that has come into existence, is going to make it very difficult to think clearly about what’s really going on. It’s the emperor’s new clothes, and we’re going to have to see through them to the truth of our situation.

How will Trump consolidate power? What will be his modus operandi? The same as we’ve witnessed all year. He’ll defame and threaten, ramping up crisis after crisis, and won’t budge–and people will relent because he’ll simply make it too hot for them if they don’t. Watch Paul Ryan buckle again and again. Watch yourself. There will be lots of rationalizing. You’ll be doing it as well. You’re not going to be witness to many profiles in courage in this age we might properly call The Fog of Trump, and you’re not likely to be one yourself.

How does it feel?

Posted in atheism, Bernie Sanders, donald trump, feminism, hillary clinton, Politics, science, Uncategorized | 16 Comments

Donald Trump’s Victory and The Ending of The Planet of the Apes

Well, I’m searching for something that reflects accurately the emotion evoked in me by this election result. When the past year was ongoing, it was the ending of Hitchcock’s The Birds that seemed the apt metaphor for what I was witnessing, and the emotional alienation it evoked: creatures I thought I knew (not birds, in this case, but Americans), I didn’t know at all. I also found myself turning for understanding to Umberto Eco’s 1995 essay on Ur-Fascism (Eco grew up in Mussolini’s Italy).

So now, what seems right for this post-election moment? I sincerely hope to be utterly wrong about this, and that Trump makes for a normal, if eccentric, American president, but I fear that the ending of the Trump era is going to culminate in something like this: the head-shaking, sobering conclusion to the 1968 version of The Planet of the Apes. Immediately prior to this scene in the film, Dr Zeus, just before Taylor heads by horse into a forbidden desert, is warned off with the words, “Don’t do it, Taylor. You won’t like what you find.”

Let’s pray for no Cuban Missile Crisis on Trump’s watch–but it’s difficult not to expect one. After the irrationality that brought us to this point, what makes us think it will stop here, and go no further?

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Posted in atheism, Bernie Sanders, climate change, donald trump, edward feser, feminism, God, hillary clinton, philosophy, Politics, science, Ted Cruz, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Trump, Hitler, Whites Who Did Not Attend College, and Tuesday

Don’t kid yourself. This is still tight. Trump’s bet is on the same demographic Hitler made his bet on in 1933: the non-college educated who live outside of the cities. In places like Berlin, you had many highly educated people embracing modernism. They lived in a mental universe that was worlds apart from those living beyond the cities. Most of the educated couldn’t imagine voting for Hitler. But when you got out of the cities, it was a different story. One of the perplexities that intellectuals wrestled with after World War II, which ended just a dozen years after Hitler rose to power, was how the country of Einstein and Goethe could have succumbed to so ludicrous a charlatan and psychopath as Hitler. How different the history of Germany and the world would have been without him! If Trump wins, then sometime around 2028, a dozen years from now, after the ruin of our Republic’s institutions and perhaps a nuclear weapons usage incident, intellectuals–if there are any left–will be asking how the land of Silicon Valley and Thomas Jefferson went mad for so very, very little. One thing this election has brought home to me is how fragile the separation of powers are in this country–and how vulnerable the country is to a well-financed authoritarian takeover. It’s scary and it’s close. And it’s scary because it’s close.

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A potential victory for Donald J. Trump may hinge on one important (and large) group of Americans: whites who did not attend college.
NYTIMES.COM|BY FORD FESSENDEN
Posted in atheism, climate change, donald trump, feminism, hillary clinton, Politics, Ted Cruz, Uncategorized | 11 Comments

Donald Trump and Emily Dickinson: An Apt Quote and Poem for the Run-Up to Tuesday’s Election

This quote captures for me a lot of the pre-election feel of this weekend: “Asked earlier Friday aboard Air Force One en route to North Carolina what the president makes of a country that has not more clearly rejected Trump, White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Trump’s rhetoric has been disturbing, but said he’d wait to see Tuesday’s results before speaking to why or how much that rhetoric has resonated.”

In other words, it’s quiet now, the winds aren’t discernible, and we’re all bracing for the news: did the weather threatening just offshore actually reach land–or drift safely out to sea?

It recalls for me an Emily Dickinson poem. I suppose it’s the poem for this election.

I started Early – Took my Dog –
And visited the Sea –
The Mermaids in the Basement
Came out to look at me –

And Frigates – in the Upper Floor
Extended Hempen Hands –
Presuming Me to be a Mouse –
Aground – opon the Sands –

But no Man moved Me – till the Tide
Went past my simple Shoe –
And past my Apron – and my Belt
And past my Boddice – too –

And made as He would eat me up –
As wholly as a Dew
Opon a Dandelion’s Sleeve –
And then – I started – too –

And He – He followed – close behind –
I felt His Silver Heel
Opon my Ancle – Then My Shoes
Would overflow with Pearl –

Until We met the Solid Town –
No One He seemed to know –
And bowing – with a Mighty look –
At me – The Sea withdrew –

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Trump’s running a racist campaign that black voters especially need to reject, Obama said.
POLITI.CO
Posted in atheism, Bernie Sanders, donald trump, feminism, hillary clinton, poetry, Politics, Ted Cruz, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Hillary, Not Monica: John Sununu, Donald Trump, And Misogyny In 2016

Misogyny. One of the saddest moments for me in the run-up to Tuesday’s election is reading this morning of a joke that John Sununu–a 77-year-old Trump surrogate, former governor of New Hampshire, former chief of staff to George H.W. Bush, and a member of Mensa (!)–delivered to a gathering of New Hampshire Republicans, in which he said (grotesquely) that when Bill Clinton declared he “did not have sex with that woman,” he was talking, not about Monica, but Hillary.

Hillary.

Who cracks a joke like that at a gathering of men and women together–and the women not leave the room? That’s not Hillary hatred, that’s woman hatred. And yet nobody left the room, male or female. If that joke had been made by a manager in a workplace among a gathering of men and women, that manager would (rightly) be removed from a position of responsibility.

Yet this is a Trump surrogate in 2016–and Trump himself almost certainly won’t even be bothered to comment on it, nor will he be asked about it. It’s just one more thing to shrug at, apparently, as if to say, “The voters will decide Tuesday.”

But the Sununu incident really brought to the fore for me exactly how proudly and brazenly misogynistic Republicans have become in this election cycle–literally daring voters to abandon them for their expressions of disrespect, indifference, and hatred toward women–all the while showing themselves to be supremely confident that women won’t.

There’s something deeply, deeply wrong with our country if the women living here do not decisively vote this down at the polls on Tuesday. If Republicans are rewarded with all three branches of the federal government after all that has gone on this year, I don’t understand the country. And yet the most recent New York Times poll has white women splitting their votes 50-50 between Hillary and Trump.

How can this be?

It recalls what Umberto Eco, who grew up in Mussolini’s Italy, wrote in 1995 as one of the characteristics of what he coins Ur-Fascism (base fascism; the fascism that has ebbed and flowed throughout the ages). Eco observes that, in Ur-Fascism, machismo extends not just to “war and heroism,” but to a “will to power” in “sexual matters,” a “disdain for women,” and a playing “with weapons…[as] an ersatz phallic exercise.”

A majority of white American men have made their preference clear as noon that they’re just fine with a revival of this sort of fascist-style machismo in America, and for Trump to be its standard bearer, translating it from culture into politics. But are there really not enough white women in the country to join women of color to block this? Will Hillary really just pull half of the votes of white women this year–and perhaps lose the election because of it?

I would never have believed it a year ago. I’m wondering now.

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Posted in atheism, Bernie Sanders, donald trump, feminism, hillary clinton, Politics, Ted Cruz, Uncategorized | 6 Comments

Trump Can’t Read–And Yet Will Have The Nuclear Biscuit?

Samantha Bee here is being funny–and yet her theory is troublesome because so plausible. Maybe Trump can’t read. Or, at least, not well. Are we really about to elect–in the 21st century, and to the highest office in the land–a borderline illiterate? That may be the case.

Think about what it means to entrust a mercurial and temperamental authoritarian, who also happens to be substantially illiterate, with America’s nuclear biscuit. It sounds like the scenario for a dark comedy; something that would never actually happen in real life because, well, we all know it’s simply too absurd.

But now it’s on the cusp of happening. And so it’s not funny at all. Not at all. Ur-Fascism, led by someone who doesn’t read, is about to triumph in the land (or in what was once the land) of Jefferson and Lincoln–two inveterate readers.

For over two centuries this country has been, until this year, the most reliable bastion for the Anglo-French Enlightenment in the world. It was this, in part, because it treated the life of the mind–reading and reason–like they mattered; indeed, as if they were of first importance. Laugh at the clip below–then weep. Something is deeply, deeply wrong with us collectively, that the majority appear to want a satyr to rule over them; that we have let things reach such a dangerous inflection point–and with so little active and sustained resistance from moderates and liberals.

Posted in atheism, Bernie Sanders, donald trump, feminism, God, hillary clinton, Politics, Ted Cruz, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

On Donald Trump, Jon Stewart Spoke and Louis C.K. Did Not

The majority of voters may literally–literally–be on the cusp of voting a fascist into the White House. A fascist. I don’t use that term loosely. I mean a real fascist.

Yet here’s what I read at USA Today this morning: “Stewart joined several other A-listers at the annual charity event, including Bruce Springsteen, Jerry Seinfeld, Louis C.K. and Jim Gaffigan, but he was the only one to focus on politics.”

This is not a business-as-usual moment in American history. It’s not. It’s an existential moment for everyone. If you’re silent now–this week, today–you’re responsible for what Donald Trump does with police powers and nuclear weapons as president tomorrow.

When he starts his two-front war–one domestic, fighting resistance to him at home, the other against foreigners (and make no mistake, that war is coming, and he’s going to relish that war)–you will be responsible for it. It’s not enough to vote. We’ve got to speak. Now. Wednesday of next week will be too late.

Are you silent now?

100_4692.jpg

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Ur-Fascism: What Would Umberto Eco Say about Donald Trump’s Movement?

I hope to be pleasantly surprised with a Hillary victory announced on the day after the election next week, but I’m nevertheless bracing for a Trump win. And in wrestling with what this past year has meant, I find myself thinking about an essay written by the Italian writer Umberto Eco, who lived through Mussolini’s fascism.

Over twenty years ago, in The New York Review of Books (June 22, 1995), Eco wrote of the difficulty of deciding whether a contemporary political movement is fascist: “It would be so much easier, for us, if there appeared on the world scene somebody saying, ‘I want to reopen Auschwitz, I want the Black Shirts to parade again in the Italian squares.’ Life is not that simple.”

Despite the difficulty, Eco nevertheless identifies in some detail fourteen things he takes to mark a contemporary encounter with what he calls Ur-Fascism (Eternal Fascism). If you want the details, of course, the original essay is here. But at this historic inflection point–the 2016 election–let’s lay them out in digest form, so as to absorb them at a glance. The phrases and sentences in quotation marks are Eco’s:

(1) The cult of tradition gets wed to the occult in a way that tolerates the contradictions between them. The past provides revelation, and directs followers to a nostalgic Golden Age, but only in hints and in creative interpretive syncretisms. “Saint Augustine…as far as I know, was not a fascist. But combining Saint Augustine and Stonehenge–that is a symptom of Ur-Fascism.”

(2) There is a rejection of the Anglo-French Enlightenment tradition of reason. Eco calls this the fascist dismissal of “the Spirit of 1789 (and of 1776, of course).”

(3) There is distrust and resentment of intellectuals. “Thinking is a form of emasculation. Therefore culture is suspect insofar as it is identified with critical attitudes.”

(4) There is impatience with making careful distinctions, maintaining coherence in sustained argument, and arguing civilly. “The critical spirit makes distinctions, and to distinguish is a sign of modernism….For Ur-Fascism, disagreement is treason.”

(5) There is fear of diversity. Ur-Fascism “seeks for consensus by exploiting and exacerbating the natural fear of difference.”

(6) The movement’s energy is derived from “a frustrated middle class.” This middle class is “suffering from an economic crisis or feelings of political humiliation, and frightened by the pressure of lower social groups….[T]he fascism of tomorrow will find its audience in this new majority.”

(7) National identity is besieged by enemies from within that are sinister and engaged in criminal conspiracy. “[A]t the root of the Ur-Fascist psychology there is the obsession with a plot, possibly an international one.”

(8) There is bitter resentment of opponents, and thus an incapacity on the part of fascists to judge their enemies rightly. Fascists at once underestimate and overestimate their opponent’s actual capacities, and resent them for their wealth, cunning, solidarity, and power. “Followers must be convinced that they can overwhelm the enemies,” and yet they repeatedly misjudge them as “at the same time too strong and too weak.” For this reason, fascists “are condemned to lose wars because they are constitutionally incapable of objectively evaluating the force of the enemy.”

(9) Enemies must be vanquished utterly. Solutions must be final. There is no living with the enemy. “Life is permanent warfare” that brings about “an Armageddon complex.”

(10) Mass elitism. The fascist group consists of the best people on Earth. Are you a member? If not, you’re looked down upon. There is open contempt for outsiders and the weak. (This may be a reaction formation against aristocratic attitudes directed down toward the middle class.)

(11) The cult of heroism and heroic death is celebrated. “[E]verybody is educated to become a hero.”

(12) Machismo. This extends not just to “war and heroism,” but to a “will to power” in “sexual matters,” a “disdain for women,” and a playing “with weapons…[as] an ersatz phallic exercise.”

(13) Populism trumps democracy and rights. The Leader channels the People; individuals don’t have rights or agency that exceed the will of the People. “Since no large quantity of human beings can have a common will, the Leader pretends to be their interpreter.”

(14) Language is corrupted. Language games that cloud or prevent critical thought, such as the language of Newspeak instituted by the English totalitarian state in Orwell’s 1984, or the insular, epistemically closed, rhetorical world of the talk radio host, are deployed. “Fascist schoolbooks made use of an impoverished vocabulary, and an elementary syntax, in order to limit the instruments for complex and critical reasoning.”

If you accept Eco’s criteria for what constitutes Eternal Fascism, and you’ve got Eco’s fascist family traits list out in front of you, it’s pretty evident what jumps out: Donald Trump’s movement can be reasonably thought of in fascist terms.

This means, if you are a moderate or liberal American, all hands on deck this week. Why aren’t we working harder to stop Trump’s movement today, right now? A personality contest (Hillary vs. Donald) seems to be obscuring what’s at stake–but it’s not about who we find the most amusing or likable person. We’re not voting on a high school yearbook photo. We’re essentially voting up or down next week on an Ur-Fascist course for our nation.

Does fascism really have to be fronted by the name of “Mussolini” or “Hitler” to arouse our full attention, alarm, and resistance? Will the moderate and liberal immune systems of our country catastrophically collapse in the last week of this election, allowing the virus of Ur-Fascism into the very center of our nation’s organism–the White House?

What is happening to us?

3e-corot-orpheus.jpg

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Donald Trump and Ur-Fascism

Umberto Eco and Ludwig Wittgenstein. Over twenty years ago, in The New York Review of Books (June 22, 1995), Umberto Eco wrote of the difficulty of deciding whether a contemporary political movement is fascist:

It would be so much easier, for us, if there appeared on the world scene somebody saying, ‘I want to reopen Auschwitz, I want the Black Shirts to parade again in the Italian squares.’ Life is not that simple.

To break through the quandary of how to identify fascism on the contemporary scene, Eco turned to the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s notion of family resemblances for help.

Family resemblances. Wittgenstein is a notoriously difficult philosopher, but his family resemblance idea isn’t, at least not on a first pass. Think of an actual family. Family resemblances are traits more or less shared by most who belong to a family, but not necessarily everyone. Most everyone in a family might, to a greater or lesser degree, have big noses, buck teeth, and a tall and lanky build–but maybe not all. Some may have two of these traits, or one–or even none. Someone in the family may share, instead, another characteristic trait (small ears). But when you put the family members side by side, the resemblances jump out at you.

Wittgenstein broadened this simple observation to everything we might seek to define. By replacing the search for definition with the search for family resemblances, Wittgenstein bypassed the narrowing constraints of traditional essentialist definition (all family members have trait x or they’re not part of that family, period; all fascists have trait y or they’re not part of the fascist family, period). Wittgenstein brought a lighter touch to the identification of a thing than, say, a medieval thinker like Thomas Aquinas might have. Essentialist definition could, Wittgenstein claimed, be fruitfully substituted with a search for family resemblances.

You might thus say that, for Wittgenstein, what is essential gets replaced by what is interesting, as when Lionel Abel (1910-2001), an early contributor to Partisan Review, in an interview from the mid-1990s, said this about the Russian revolutionary and author, Leon Trotsky:

He had a literary verve which was unmistakable. He was a great journalist. And the intellectual power of his criticism of the Stalin regime . . . [is] accepted nowadays as justified, that he was right. But we didn’t know he was right. We knew he was interesting. And, in a way, if you lived in the Village [Greenwich Village in New York City in the 1930s], what was interesting was right. Certainly, the uninteresting was wrong. I’m not willing to altogether give that up, even today.

Traditional definition can be limiting in ways that block broader insights and generalizations. But by looking for interesting family resemblances, and deploying a lighter touch in definition, one might see fresh patterns, comparisons, and contrasts. Umberto Eco did this in his attempt to identify fascist resonances in the present. He wasn’t seeking an essentialist definition of fascism, or one grounded in the details of politics in the first half of the 20th century, thereby excluding from the designation fascist all those not belonging to that period. Instead, he tried to tease out family resemblances among movements throughout history that mark them, for Eco, as akin to the fascism he knew in the 1920-40s. Eco coined the term Ur-Fascism (Eternal Fascism) for the sort of fascism he had in mind; a fascism that he sees as emerging in different places and times.

Ur-Fascism. In his original essay from 1995, Eco identifies in some detail fourteen things he takes to mark a contemporary encounter with Ur-Fascism. Let’s lay them out in digest form, so as to absorb them at a glance. If you want more detail, of course, the original essay is here. The phrases and sentences in quotation marks are Eco’s:

  1. The cult of tradition gets wed to the occult in a way that tolerates the contradictions between them. The past provides revelation, and directs followers to a nostalgic Golden Age, but only in hints and in creative interpretive syncretisms. “Saint Augustine…as far as I know, was not a fascist. But combining Saint Augustine and Stonehenge–that is a symptom of Ur-Fascism.”
  2. There is a rejection of the Anglo-French Enlightenment tradition of reason. Eco calls this the fascist dismissal of “the Spirit of 1789 (and of 1776, of course).”
  3. There is distrust and resentment of intellectuals. “Thinking is a form of emasculation. Therefore culture is suspect insofar as it is identified with critical attitudes.”
  4. There is impatience with making careful distinctions, maintaining coherence in sustained argument, and arguing civilly. “The critical spirit makes distinctions, and to distinguish is a sign of modernism….For Ur-Fascism, disagreement is treason.”
  5. There is fear of diversity. Ur-Fascism “seeks for consensus by exploiting and exacerbating the natural fear of difference.”
  6. The movement’s energy is derived from “a frustrated middle class.” This middle class is “suffering from an economic crisis or feelings of political humiliation, and frightened by the pressure of lower social groups….[T]he fascism of tomorrow will find its audience in this new majority.”
  7. National identity is besieged by enemies from within that are sinister and engaged in criminal conspiracy. “[A]t the root of the Ur-Fascist psychology there is the obsession with a plot, possibly an international one.”
  8. There is bitter resentment of opponents, and thus an incapacity on the part of fascists to judge their enemies rightly. Fascists at once underestimate and overestimate their opponent’s actual capacities, and resent them for their wealth, cunning, solidarity, and power. “Followers must be convinced that they can overwhelm the enemies,” and yet they repeatedly misjudge them as “at the same time too strong and too weak.” For this reason, fascists “are condemned to lose wars because they are constitutionally incapable of objectively evaluating the force of the enemy.”
  9. Enemies must be vanquished utterly. Solutions must be final. There is no living with the enemy. “Life is permanent warfare” that brings about “an Armageddon complex.”
  10. Mass elitism. The fascist group consists of the best people on Earth. Are you a member? If not, you’re looked down upon. There is open contempt for outsiders and the weak. (This may be a reaction formation against aristocratic attitudes directed down toward the middle class.)
  11. The cult of heroism and heroic death is celebrated. “[E]verybody is educated to become a hero.”
  12. Machismo. This extends not just to “war and heroism,” but to a “will to power” in “sexual matters,” a “disdain for women,” and a playing “with weapons…[as] an ersatz phallic exercise.”
  13. Populism trumps democracy and rights. The Leader channels the People; individuals don’t have rights or agency that exceed the will of the People. “Since no large quantity of human beings can have a common will, the Leader pretends to be their interpreter.”
  14. Language is corrupted. Language games that cloud or prevent critical thought, such as the language of Newspeak instituted by the English totalitarian state in Orwell’s 1984, or the insular, epistemically closed, rhetorical world of the talk radio host, are deployed. “Fascist schoolbooks made use of an impoverished vocabulary, and an elementary syntax, in order to limit the instruments for complex and critical reasoning.”

Donald Trump and Ur-Fascism. If you accept Eco’s criteria for what constitutes Eternal Fascism, and you’ve got Eco’s fascist family traits list out in front of you, it’s pretty evident what jumps out: Donald Trump’s movement can be reasonably thought of in fascist terms and he is its tangerine Jack-in-the-Box. I’ll thus approach a conclusion to this blog post with a passage toward the end of Eco’s original essay that I take to be at once a prophetic and chilling prediction of the coming of a movement like the one Trump leads:

To have a good instance of qualitative populism we no longer need the Piazza Venezia in Rome or the Nuremburg Stadium. There is in our future a TV or Internet populism, in which the emotional response of a selected group of citizens can be presented and accepted as the Voice of the People.

This is a pretty impressive prediction. At a time when the Internet was at the barest fraction of its existing size, Eco saw that it might function one day as a kind of electronic Nuremburg rally; a gathering place for the followers of a would-be Mussolini. Breitbart Virtual Stadium. Hmm.

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Aspect Seeing and Donald Trump

Hmm.

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Donald Trump And The Slave Market

Geromeslavemarket.jpg

I detect the whiff of the slave market in these stories. Trump casually and repeatedly compromised young women’s modesty, mixing among them while they were naked in their dressing rooms–and some of them were as young as fifteen. Because he could. Because he owned the pageant–which meant that, if they wanted to go on being in the pageant, he owned them. Slave owners grab their underlings by the pussy; they thrust their tongues down their throats unbidden; they walk in unannounced while the people they own are dressing. Because they can. This is who Trump is. If he has power, he’ll exercise it without respect for the most basic human boundaries. He’ll cage his political opposition. He’ll disrespect the separation of powers and national borders. He has the mind of the slave owner. He must never reach the White House.

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No Pinocchios on Trump’s bragging about “inspecting” pageant contestants while they were backstage in dressing rooms and not fully dressed.
WASHINGTONPOST.COM
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Jean-Léon Gérôme - A Roman Slave Market - Walters 37885.jpg
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Jean-Léon Gérôme 004.jpg
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Painting image sources: Wikipedia. The paintings are by Jean Leon Gerome (1824-1904).
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Make It Go Away

The second debate in a nutshell.

Image source: https://www.pedestrian.tv/news/entertainment/memes-ahoy-the-internet-reacts-to-todays-dumpster-/72af03a8-5f0c-49a3-8a2f-77b477440f10.htm

https://twitter.com/JAMNPP/status/785316346158583808/photo/1?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw

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Donald Trump Assaults Nonconsenting Debate Chair

The image that sums up the second debate.

Image source: https://www.pedestrian.tv/news/entertainment/memes-ahoy-the-internet-reacts-to-todays-dumpster-/72af03a8-5f0c-49a3-8a2f-77b477440f10.htm

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