Up@dawn 2.0

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

"Opinion-y facts"

TMW/Daily Kos

"Cheating Truth" (MALA Fall '17/Spring '18)... "On Bullshit" by Harry Frankfurt (the corrected link)

JAMES COMEY: First and foremost, [an ethical leader is] someone who realizes that lasting values have to be at the center of their leadership. Whether they're in government or in the private sector or leading a university, they have to focus on things like fairness and integrity and, most of all, the truth. That the truth matters.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: And you have-- there's almost a sense of-- of alarm underneath the whole book. You say it's a dangerous time in our country?
JAMES COMEY: I think it is. And-- I chose those words carefully. I was worried when I chose the word, "Dangerous" first. I thought, "Is that an overstatement?" And I don't think it is because--
JAMES COMEY: I worry that the norms at the center of this country-- we can fight as Americans about guns or taxes or immigration, and we always have. But what we have in common is a set of norms. Most importantly, the truth. "We hold these truths to be self-evident," right? Truth is the fourth word of that sentence. That's what we are. And if we lose that, if we lose tethering of our leaders to that truth, what are we? And so I started to worry. Actually, the foundation of this country is in jeopardy when we stop measuring our leaders against that central value of the truth... (transcript continues)
We've been reading Fantasyland in my Intro to Philosophy classes this semester, in an attempt to place this moment's cheating of truth in a wider and more explanatory historical context. We began on the first day, in January:

This semester we acknowledge the particular duress lately suffered by our grand old standby philosophical abstractions "truth, reality, fact," et al, by taking up Kurt Anderson's Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History. This moment may have blindsided many, but we might have seen it coming. Maybe, with the right vision, we can see how to get past it.

And so we begin. Put on your philosophy goggles, everyone. You don't want to look directly at the Form of the Good (aka the sun) without 'em. No one's exempt from the laws of nature.

Image result for trump eclipse
Subsequently in Fantasyland... (see below)*

Summer 2018 MALA course: 

MALA 6040, Evolution in America

A course studying the cultural, social, historical, and philosophical impact of the theory of evolution in America and specifically in Tennessee, possibly including a field-trip to Dayton, TN (site of the infamous 1925 Scopes "Monkey Trial" and of an annual dramatic reenactment). Texts include Edward Larson's account of that event, Summer for the Gods, and Matthew Chapman's Trials of the Monkey (he is Charles Darwin's great-great...grandson, a Brit who made a pilgrimage to Dayton himself, and wrote about it). We'll look at why the idea of evolution has encountered both enthusiasm and hostility in this country, and at the prospects for peaceful coexistence between evolutionary science and religious faith in the future.

What Trump and Putin Have in Common https://nyti.ms/2GMaQVd


The president’s revealing that he invented a fact during a meeting with Canada’s leader renewed the question: When does he know the things he says are false and when is he simply misinformed? Read More...

We’re witnessing a war on public life. This is the cost. http://wapo.st/2oOcInW

President Trump’s Contradictory, and Sometimes False, Comments About Gun Policy to Lawmakers - The President mixed facts and falsehoods while discussing gun policy and potential solutions with legislators. 

Trump thought the British were protesting their health service. They weren’t. http://wapo.st/2E59CSP

Early Facebook and Google Employees Form Coalition to Fight What They Built https://nyti.ms/2GJoKHg Facebook appeals to your lizard brain — primarily fear and anger,” he said. “And with smartphones, they’ve got you for every waking moment.”

How an Alt-Right Leader Used a Lie to Climb the Ranks https://nyti.ms/2FLsGpE

It’s Getting Harder to Sort the ‘Credible’ from the Incredible https://nyti.ms/2GsaGBQ

Michael Wolff’s instant best-seller is part old news, part bad reporting. Its success is symptomatic of our degraded sense of reality under Trump. https://www.newyorker.com/news/our-columnists/fire-and-fury-is-a-book-all-too-worthy-of-the-president

* Kurt Andersen recalls Sir Walter Raleigh's gold-digging dream (a base to the first student who knows who called him a "stupid git," before promising to "give you everything I've got for a little peace of mind"), and regrets the early colonial pseudoempiricism he thinks helped pave the way for our present predicament. He cites historian Daniel Boorstin's contention that American civilization has favored those who are inordinately credulous and receptive to advertizing, and Sir Francis Bacon's prescient point about what we now call confirmation bias. "My side right or wrong" is a charirtable rendering of that attitude these days, when bias rarely acknowledges its own fallibility. Now, typically, it's just: "My side - !" Or, "I believe, therefore I'm right."

The School of Life, btw, is out with a new video saying bias isn't always a bad thing. But maybe they just want to believe that. "Loathing of bias is the flipside of faith in facts." Faith in? Or fidelity to? Semper fi, reality-based community.

Andersen says our founding mythology underrates the "run-of-the-mill" puritans who were in it for the money and not so much the theology, the first nonnative new Americans who landed at Plymouth Rock rather than Jamestown. "The Puritans are conventionally considered more 'moderate' than the Pilgrims. This is like calling al-Qaeda more moderate than ISIS."

Finally, Andersen reminds us that our forebears were apocalyptic. They were sure the end was near, and said so right after proclaiming Ronald Reagan's "city on a hill." Let's hope they're not about to have their dream fulfilled. But, that Doomsday Clock is ticking.* 
Kurt Andersen says our "first great American heroine" Anne Hutchinson, early "feminist crusader," mansplaining target, etc., was also an early establisher of the subsequent  American Way: "so confident in herself, in her intuitions and idiosyncratic, subjective understanding of reality... she didn't recognize ambiguity or admit to self-doubt. Her perceptions and beliefs were true because they were hers and because she felt them so thoroughly to be true... [she] didn't have to study any book but the Bible to arrive at the truth. Because she felt it. She knew it." That certainly takes her down a peg. And us.

Freedom of thought in early America leaned in to supernaturalism and self-made-reality just as Europe's enlightenment - in the persons of Shakespeare, Galileo, Bacon, Newton, Descartes, Hobbes, Locke, Spinoza, and the like - was going in the opposite direction, towards the Age of Reason. Here it was "freedom to believe whatever supernaturalism you wished."

And so we got witches in Salem. "In 1692 virtually no one in New England disbelieved in witches." That's the legacy of Protestantism, says Andersen, no less than its contributions to its eponymous "work ethic."
In *Fantasyland today we read of the 18th century's Great Awakening, when pious congregants "felt the Holy Spirit" and expressed It in un-self-conscious spasms of "moaning, weeping, screaming, jerking, and fainting" supposedly marking a "supernatural presence, God shaking and slapping a sinner... or possibly Satan's resistance" to the beginning of the end of time.

And, "America's spiritual founding father," George (wait for it) Whitefield, who taught us to seek salvation in re-birth. These were not our Methodists, whose outer shows of charisma and enthusiasm (and miraculous healings, speaking in tongues, etc.) got dialed down quite some time back. But "the most distinctive characteristic of early American Methodism was this quest for the supernatural in everyday life." And that's the ticket to the American Way: "If I think it's true, no mattter why or how it's true, then it's true..."

That wasn't the way intended by the nation's political founding fathers. Thomas Jefferson urged his nephew to "question with boldness the existence of a god," and took scissors (or a penknife) to his Bible.

Why wasn't God mentioned in the Constitution? "We forgot," deadpanned Lin-Manuel's hero. They had the right to remain silent.

Sapere aude! said the Sage of Konigsberg in his renowned Enlightenment encomium. But thinking for yourself is not the same as thinking by yourself, to suit yourself, just because you're feeling it.
In Fantasyland today, a legend to rival Empedocles' volcanic leap. Ronald Reagan loved to tell the story of the supposed quasi-angel who showed up in 1776 to knock sense into our quarreling forebears before mysteriously vanishing.

Woodstock is the our great legendary sixties mise en scene, but Christianity had its Woodstock much earlier in 1801, as the wilds of Kentucky briefly became "among the most populous places in America." Cane Ridge (not to be confused with the mid-Tennessee softballers my daughter's team used to play) sounds like a bacchanal to rival the free love excesses of the flower power generation, celebrating "orgiastic individualism" with an evangelic twist. It heralded apocalyptic successor movements like Charles Finney's (his era's Billy Graham) and William Miller's.

Alexis de Tocqueville visited in 1831, gathering the observations that would inform Democracy in America's judgment that no country in the world is as fanatically Christian as America.

Joseph Smith wouldn't have believed his own story, if it weren't his own story. Hard to believe he was less credulous than the 15 million Mormons in the world today - not to mention all the deceased Mormons who've moved on to occupy their own planets-or have they?
In Fantasyland, we're reminded today of Sir Arthur C. Clarke's declaration: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."  He didn't mean that it is magic, but that magic thinkers can't appreciate the difference between natural law and supernatural hocus pocus... and that too many of us are and will continue to be magic thinkers, until we finally grow up and accept childhood's end. “There were some things that only time could cure. Evil men could be destroyed, but nothing could be done with good men who were deluded.”

Homeopathy is magical thinking, in Andersen's book. And phrenology, and mesmerism, and Ben Carson's Seventh Day Adventism, and so-called Christian Science, and countless other varieties of pseudo-scientific snake-oil miracle-whipped charlatanry.

"Matter cannot suffer," said Mrs. Eddy. It quite evidently can, as it can do all the things we witness. That was William James's brilliant answer to those who would denigrate materialism as a philosophy incapable of accounting for the wonder of life. "To anyone who has ever looked on the face of a dead child or parent, the mere fact that matter could have taken for a time that precious form, ought to make matter sacred for ever after. It makes no difference what the principle of life may be, material or immaterial, matter at any rate co-operates, lends itself to all life's purposes. That beloved incarnation was among matter's possibilities."

The California Gold Rush reoriented a lot of Americans' gaze back to the literal ground  of our real material world. Heaven can wait. But can we? We're like patient, diligent, long-term-planning ants some of the time, but then impatient, party-hardy grasshoppers the rest. Our "wilder, faster, and looser" side may not be in it for the long haul after all.
In Fantasyland today we encounter the counter-culture, hippie-dom, and the New Age whose mother church was Esalen Institute, "where miracles not only happen, but where they happen all the time." Don Draper was there, for a dose of Gestalt therapy and the deceptively-benign "I do my thing and you do your thing" prayer. The deception consists in concealing radical relativism behind a screen of tolerant-seeming pluralism that "helped accelerate the giant slalom toward a concoct-your-own-truth culture and society" that really didn't need the encouragement.

Nor did Jane Roberts, who made "Seth" (an "unseen entity") speak through her "channel" and say things like "you create your own reality"

Our culture's "sudden and enthusiastic embrace of psychotropics" helped make Seth seem a lot more plausible, for some, "fog(ging) up the boundaries betweeen reality and fantasy."

Kurt Andersen's mom was one of the inexplicably-countless potted devotees of The Secret Life of Plants. Reading generally makes people smarter, but dumb reading is another story.
In Fantasyland today, Kurt Andersen's brush is a bit broad when he paints with it a picture of '60s academics who turned away from reason and rationalism as enthralled with the view that they were all raging relativists who saw no significant difference between truth and falsehood. Some were on the relativist spectrum, for sure, but - and this is a point to be made (for all the good it will do) to Pyrrhonists and other radical skeptics. If all is up for grabs, truth-wise, what's left to recommend your point of view?

Maybe an out-of-body perspective, UCLA psychologist Charles Tart might have responded. He got tenure after reporting that a young woman in his lab went for regular o-o-b nightflights to retrieve remote numbers. Can't believe that flew.

Tom (Electric Kool-aid) Wolfe said the Jesus People of the '60s were "young acid heads who had sworn off drugs... but still wanted the ecstatic spiritualism" and found in "Fundamentalist evangelical holy-rolling Christianity."

It was hardly "nonfiction," but Hal Lindsey's Late, Great Planet Earth was wildly successful with its even wilder Satanic/apocalyptic conspiracy-mongering. No wonder Billy Graham seemed relatively moderate compared to such stuff, and to his not-so-different compadres Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell. If you want to earn a reuptation for reasonableness in America, just stake out a position slightly less hysterical in tone to that of your peers.
Today in Fantasyland, we note the Big Bang that erupted after the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) adopted its founding document in 1962 - the explosion of magical thinking when "dystopian and utopian fantasies seemed plausible" and the Weather Underground went to work making real explosions, kidnapping heiresses, robbing banks and creating general mayhem in the name of revolution.

And then came the Sexual Revolution, with the Pill "available everywhere by 1965. "When sex became far less consequential, it could become less 'real' and more like exciting fiction." See Erica Jong and Philip Roth...

This is real: Did you see all the kids who walked out for 17 minutes yesterday, in honor of the 17 latest school-shooting victims? This caps (for now) a history beginning with the first gun rights absolutists who surfaced on both the left and the right in the '60s. By the late '70s "hysterics [had] managed to take over the NRA, replacing its motto 'Firearms Safety Education, Marksmanship Training, Shooting for Recreation' with the second half of the Second Amendment."

Kurt Andersen realized fantasy would now rule pop culture, he says, when he saw Star Wars. "I remember walking out of the theater thinking the Force was the first faith with which I felt simpatico."
In Fantasyland today we're reminded - wouldn't you rather forget? - that the occupant of the formerly-most-respected office in the world once slapped and body-slammed the head of the WWF on stage. He's been slapping the rest of us since.

Burning Man is another fantasy stage for adults of all ages, who go to the desert and dress up as unicorns, birds, mermaids, geishas etc., and "step through the looking glass - that is, through the LED screen - to inhabit Azeroth or Tatooine" or wherever. Kids 'R' Us for sure, innocently and harmlessly enough for most perhaps, but Michael Jackson was another story. 
In Fantasyland today, we recall the last American president for whom "the world of legend and myth were a real world"-the same who told that preposterous angel anecdote about Thomas Jefferson and the founders. There he goes again. (Bonus base opportunity, kids.)

We also try to recall the vanishing time before the '90s when "cockamamie ideas and outright falsehoods" didn't spread quite so fast and wide as they do now, thanks to the web that was supposed to bring us all closer to knowledge, truth, facts, and reality. "Reality: what a concept"-said what late comic whose tv costar now says he was grabby, flashy, and inappropriate on set?

80% of Americans say they never doubt the existence of God. What would Descartes say? Possibly, what Bacon said: begin with certainties & you'll end in doubts, but begin with doubts and you may end in certainties. In my experience, the best thinkers begin and end in doubts. They do not quest for certainty. Stay tuned for the anti-Descartes, Montaigne.

Augustine's instruction 1,600 years ago is still pretty valid, no doubt: Don't be stupid, don't interpret holy writ literally.
Today in Fantasyland, another "channeled" dictation: A Course in Miracles alleges confirmation of Descartes' worst nightmare - "that physical existence is a collective illusion--'the dream.'" Dreams preempt systematic scientific inquiry but, mirabile dictu, make it possible for each of us to "create your own reality." What if yours contradicts mine, though? Aren't we going to need some applied science to sort it out?

Her hat's not formally in the ring yet, but Andersen's probably not going to support a presidential bid from Oprah. He says she, "more than any other single American by far, outside conventional religion and politics, is responsible for giving a platform and credibility to magical thinking... an inclusive promoter of fantasies--extraterrestrial, satanic, medical, paranormal..." She propelled The Secret to its iconic status (but don't call her New Age). She elevated Drs. Phil & Oz to celebrity status. She does seem, ironically enough, to be a force of nature.

The not-so-secret "law of attraction" says you just need to think the right thoughts-and if things aren't working out for you, you're just not thinking and believing hard enough to harness "placebo power." Believe and receive. This magical doctrine becomes truly pernicious when it's invoked to excuse dishonesty, as in the case of our benighted Tweeter/Grabber in Chief: "...it doesn't matter if he lies as long as what he says feels true." It does. It doesn't.
Today in Fantasyland, Kurt Andersen says professors and college graduates ought to be important fighters defending reason but have instead become enablers of magical thinking. Case in point: Princeton-trained poli-scientist Jodi Dean, author of Aliens in America: Conspiracy Cultures from Outerspace to Cyberspace and enthusiastic defender of "the veracity of people claiming to be not just (UFO) witnesses but abductees."

It's not just Higher Ed that's the problem. The largest charter school operator in Texas, a company called Responsive Ed, issues textbooks presenting Genesis as a scientific theory and dismissing evolutionary biology as "dogma" and "unproved theory." And that was before Betsy DeVoss.

Wonder what Thomas Jefferson would say about that. "It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg." Sure, neighbor, say what you want. But don't compel young students to hear it in their science classrooms unless you want to turn out generations of blathering scientific illiterates. Oh. You do.
And, to Fantasyland, to ponder the incendiary psycho-message of The Courage to Heal and (speaking of Back to the Future) the bizarre Satanic Panic of the '80s. Did the former really say that feeling bad about yourself probably means you've repressed memories of molestation? Did the latter really lead to the imprisonment of dozens on the strength of no evidence at all?
 ...Fantasyland's connection of dots "from flying saucer obsessives to 9/11 truthers to Donald Drumpf, with detours including a sidetrip to Waco and a most unpleasant brief visit with Alex Jones. The briefer the better.
Next in Fantasyland, Kurt Andersen wonders what really derailed the GOP. Paul Ryan's favorite fiction writer Ayn Rand is part of the answer, and science denial is another. But there's some good news on this front, "only 17% of Americans who don't call themselves Republican believe global warming is a myth." [40-41]
In Fantasyland, Andersen says  "most mass killers in America are not psychotics or paranoid schizophrenics,  they're role-playing fantasists "motivated by our besetting national dream of overnight fame... they're citizens of Fantasyland, unhappy people with flaws and failures they blame on others," they want to "force the rest of us to pay attention to them for the first time." Thanks to the NRA's "demented," hysterical, reactionary opposition to the '90s assault weapons ban, the killer fantasists have a powerful lobby working on their behalf.

Less violent (so far) but no less unsettling to Andersen ("it gives me the heebie-jeebies") is the prospect of "augmented reality" now being funded in Silicon Valley to the tune of $1.4 billion. These new VR technologies promise to be "ridiculous, sublime, wonderful, [and] awful." He can't wait.
In Fantasyland, "Disneyfication" is not a term of praise, but an acknowledgement that parts of urban America increasingly resemble theme parks - to the delight of kids of all ages.  Even Kurt Andersen admits to being "delighted to live on a Brooklyn block that looks very much like it did a hundred years ago." Better a little historical fantasy than the bulldozing of history that has always been the pattern of the New World.

But still, isn't there something unseemly about the Peter-Panification of America that's reflected in so many childless adults crowding the theme parks? It'd be nice if they'd at least find somebody else's 9-year old to bring along, there are too many real children whose parents can't afford the admission.

Adults are getting mentally younger and more childlike and children are inheriting wealth and power. Mark Zuckerberg, like so many Internet entrepreneurs, became a billionaire at just 23. Is it any surprise that he, and they, haven't always thought carefully through all the troublesome implications of their moneymakers for people's privacy and security? Of course they wished it wouldn't be so. But "the tendency to believe that wish makes it so" is magical thinking. Hey, let's go to Disneyland!
In the last chapter of Fantasyland, Kurt Andersen calls out the right-wing pundits who've "effectively trained two generations of Americans to disbelieve facts at odds with their opinions." We're all liable to that, to a degree, and the only corrective is the one J.S. Mill celebrated in On Liberty: unfettered free expression, and unimpeded receptivity to it. Giving the devil his due: Trump understood that a "breakdown of a shared public reality built upon widely accepted facts represented not a hazard but an opportunity." 

When your base discounts facts and truth you can get away with saying to them things like: "Don't even think about it. Don't even think about it Don't even think about it..." Don't worry, they won't.

Philosopher Michael Lynch says repeated self-contradiction by politicians like Trump can dull our sensitivity to the value of truth itself." That's what James Comey told George Stephanopoulos.

What's the good news? "America may now be at peak Fantasyland. We can hope." Some can pray. Hope we have a prayer.

1 comment:

  1. Does it really "work" to believe in Santa? Didn't you continue to receive presents after you stopped believing? Is believing in Santa analogous to believing in God?
    - Believing in Santa is more of a cultural and societal "must do" than something I ever associated with religion. If I were to tell my son Santa is'nt real, he would be different from his friends who do. And if he told his friends what I had said it would cause a serious fracture in his friendship with them. So telling people about Santa is more for the risk of what could happen if I ever told the truth. So in some ways yes, it is like religion, especially the way religion was handled in the past.