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It's still the crap detector

by geezer in Paris Fri Dec 29th, 2006 at 01:32:41 PM EST

George Soros is right- there is a political process driven by the principles of consumerism that devours thought and endangers any rational public discourse. But it is more than that, I think. There is much recent evidence that we come into the world with a lot of preprogrammed responses and behavior- far more than hitherto though.

For almost a century now, it has been unfashionable to suggest that human beings are born with a lot of preprogrammed behavior and behavioral tendencies. "Like father, like son" is seen as cruel and false.
The "Blank slate" theory of human development is currently fashionable. Without much evidence, I think.
When I must explain to my kids some inexplicable, often painful event in their social lives I tell them that human beings- each one- is like a crystal with many facets, through which the human heart and mind can be seen-- a different view through each facet. I do not yet mention that these facets can be doors as well as windows, through which the personality can be "managed".

Why is it so hard to quit smoking? I think I know. It's because fire has been our essential friend and servant for at least a half million years, and a whiff of smoke and the sight of a glowing ember stirs up a deep, atavistic feeling of security and satisfaction in most of us. So also does the possession of "Stuff" stir something very deep in the human psyche. Even if the stuff is crap. My first wife Joyce could never resist a garage sale- she understood well that part of herself, and laughingly called it "the crow in me", while doing serious battle with it.
The marketing gurus who are most successful sell by tapping into these deep patterns, but since the whole concept of inherited behavior is suspect these days, let alone inherited knowledge, they construct a quasi-logical conceptual framework to explain why their stuff works, without getting into the heresy.

The battle with racism is endless and universal because  that facet of human psyche which reveals a human willingness to crudely typecast the "us" and the "them", and then label according to our ancestry is universal and powerful, and is therefore terribly tempting as a handle to use to manipulate us.
An awful lot of us DID love Ronnie, and Dubya. Even some of those who would croak before admitting it. Our reasons remain unexamined, since we cannot admit the attraction.
The German people were deeply anti-semitic at the end of the Weimar Republic- they were living in a hell of a collapsing economy and the sour taste of defeat, and needed a scapegoat, someone to blame. But find one today who will admit- or perhaps remember- that secret satisfaction that came when the evil Christ-killers were drug off to--- somewhere they didn't want to think of.

A well-attended event in French history was the guillotine.
"For a time, executions by guillotine were a popular entertainment that attracted great crowds of spectators. Vendors would sell programs listing the names of those scheduled to die. Regulars would come day after day and vie for the best seats. Parents would bring their children. By the end of the Terror the crowds had thinned drastically. Excessive repetition had staled even this most grisly of entertainments, and audiences grew bored." ----Wikipedia.

GWB is a product that is being marketed to us in the US by his handlers because he appeals to, I think, several of the darker facets of the human character, -particularly to some of us who believe ourselves to be beyond such things. In public, we deny the attraction, but it is effective on a deeper level. If not, --why do we tolerate torture IN OUR NAME for even one day? We could change it practically overnight, you know. What would be the future of Guantanimo, if a million people showed up one well-publicized day in Washington, all wearing a blood-red article of clothing, --or carrying a length of electrical cord, or a waterboard"-like object? Too busy, are you?

To know that we are "being sold a bill of goods" offers little if any protection from the pitch. The only protection is what Neil Postman called a "built-in crap detector" in his 60's book, "Teaching As a Subversive Activity", and the creation of this crap detector is the real function of education. We no longer do this kind of teaching. Quite the contrary. We teach regurgitation, get-along acceptance, sycophancy, and the value of greed.  

I believe that GWB is, for some, an instrument to act in ways that they would not dare to act themselves. A surrogate to take bloody vengeance.

To some, I think he is the father figure, the patriarch who will relieve them of the obligation to think for themselves.

To others, he is an instrument of religious fulfillment, whether their religion is Christian Fundamentalism or Neoconservative doctrine, or Neoliberal Marketworship. Bizarrely, he has become an instrument of doctrinal support- the face that proves the case- for the Jihadist Muslim. For who in the world more perfectly represents their stereotypic American imperialist, than GWB--and us, by association? He is America's symbol, the US's archetype.

Ronnie was also such a powerful public product, and we bought the package. We need to have the courage to admit that we are the ones who sat on our ass while our cute little pop-up land mines, designed at Ft. Huachuka, Arizona, cut the legs off their children. We need to know why we bought. It aint the elites here, ducky, who sat on their asses. It's us. The info was all there, on C-span, where I learned it. You didn't know? Could it be that you didn't want to know?

Another thing I tell my kids, and that I live by, is, "Hope that it's your fault. Because if it's THEIR fault, it's really hard to change. But if it's YOUR fault,--why, YOU are in charge of that problem." The bogie man is ephemeral, smoke, conveniently immune to occam's razor. But if it is us,--then we can deal with it.

We will never be safe from "products" like bush and Reagan until we can show people what the real cost of these delusional products are- the real costs that come with that comfortable "package".
We will never be able to spot these pied pipers until we reconstruct our educational system into a place where young people learn again to persistently and skillfully question all things, including their own motives and beliefs.
The rest is word games.

"relieve them of the obligation to think for themselves."

It is indeed easier to have someone do the thinking for you, if your thinking is not very good. And for a totalitarian-aspiring government, this is the ideal malleable audience.

In the 3 phase states of society there are ice, water and steam. Ice is the frozen totalitarian state that seeks immutable structure, water is a liquid innovative, flexible society that seeks to be level, and steam is the chaos that initiates the breakdown of society.

You can't be me, I'm taken

by Sven Triloqvist on Fri Dec 29th, 2006 at 03:08:10 PM EST
I'm very fond of my old Sokal-Tallis CMTP (colonic material of a taurine provenance) detector. I just have to keep it fine-tuned to dampen the background noise of my own crap. Perhaps in that I'm shielded by a strong aesthetic sense.

Tallis offered a few general guidelines in his delightful review of Sokal-Bricmont:

  1. It's a good idea to know what one is talking about.
  2. Not all that is obscure is necessarily profound.
  3. Science is not a `text'.
  4. Don't ape the natural sciences.
  5. Be wary of argument from authority.
  6. Specific scepticism should not be confused with radical scepticism.
  7. Ambiguity may be a subterfuge.
by de Gondi (publiobestia aaaatttthotmaildaughtusual) on Fri Dec 29th, 2006 at 06:12:52 PM EST
I agree with most of those, but partly disagree with the "science is not a 'text'".  It is in the sense that the specific culture of doing science and the cultural genesis of its epistemology can be studied that way. The problem comes when the sillier post-structuralists began to argue that that's all it was, in a sort of reductio ad absurdum version of post-structuralism. On both sides of that mess was a failure to realize that the scientists and the humanities/social 'science' types are not looking at the same thing. The first are looking at the natural world, the latter at the human one. In discussions with science oriented friends at the time I used the example of Newton's obsession with alchemy and theology. For scientists it is irrelevant, for historians it is at least as important as his straight scientific work.
by MarekNYC on Fri Dec 29th, 2006 at 08:10:42 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Tallis's "guidelines" are at the conclusion of his article Sokal and Bricmont: Is this the beginning of the end of the dark ages in the humanities? I'll generally agree with your observation (in so far as  guideline number one allows me!) but imagine that Tallis draws his guidelines from the context of his essay where he takes to task the same post-structuralists you mention.
by de Gondi (publiobestia aaaatttthotmaildaughtusual) on Fri Dec 29th, 2006 at 09:05:35 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Yes, but...

And let's not forget...

Then again these just underline how science works. There's always a boundary of ambiguity where almost anything can happen, and no one has much of a clue what they're talking about. Eventually, after a decade or five, the wheat gets sorted from the chaff and what's left is mostly reliable, and not too silly.

This is different from the post-structuralist approach, which is mostly just an assertion of 'We're just as clever as you are you know - if not more so' directed at authors, scientists and artists.

In reality most post-structuralists are silly superficial fourth rate academics who repeat the same old nonsense over and over, apply the same old techniques by rote, and provide endless amusement for themselves and each other at conferences. Most of the world has no idea they even exist, and wouldn't care if they didn't.

It's true the original heavy hitters had something worthwhile to say. But the followers treat the whole thing as an exercise in narrative for its own sake. Outside of silly skirmishes like Sokal, the post-structuralists are probably the least influential political movement in the whole of history. While they've been deconstructing this and decoding that, the Chicago Straussians and neo-lib economists have kicked their collective asses right off the playing field. And they've been too self-absorbed to even notice.

This matters because it proves that socialised stupidity has nothing to do with intelligence. If you give a primate an interesting enough game to play, with the promise of an interesting enough reward - whether it's safety from the dread outsiders, or the chance to feel cleverer than another primate who would otherwise be threatening - they'll keep thwacking that conditioning lever over and over.

If you want to make it stop, you have to take the lever away and give them something more productive to do.

The point of progressive politics is to do exactly that - it's not just about being nice to people or fighting for ishoos, it's about creating environments in which people get to have more interesting choices, and more of them. The more games there are to play, the less likely it is there's going to be a convergence on one of the silly or destructive ones.

Creativity and diversity aren't just nice words - they're also the best inoculation against microbrained shitheads like Bush, and the rest of that flapping coke-addled cabal.

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Fri Dec 29th, 2006 at 09:42:03 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Outside of silly skirmishes like Sokal, the post-structuralists are probably the least influential political movement in the whole of history. While they've been deconstructing this and decoding that, the Chicago Straussians and neo-lib economists have kicked their collective asses right off the playing field.

Ummh, so the notion of things like gender and sexuality as social constructs rather than objective biological realities hasn't been influential? Or the analysis of how  social control is exercized and reinforced in a liberal polity through dominant narratives?  

by MarekNYC on Fri Dec 29th, 2006 at 11:54:35 PM EST
[ Parent ]
And now off to my weekend away from internet access and the city, drinking champagne, and rereading The Order of Things ;)
by MarekNYC on Sat Dec 30th, 2006 at 12:08:38 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Gender theory is still a slave to economics. Everything is still a slave to economics. That's exactly the point.

As for dominant narrative theory - show me one example where this has made a practical difference to policy.

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Sat Dec 30th, 2006 at 06:06:52 AM EST
[ Parent ]
This is the only forum where just reading the comments on a diary can require six or seven sorties to the wiki or the library or my stash of reference stuff. Thanks to all for such good comments, and an enjoyable journey.

The Straussian neocons are effective actors within a particular social space not because their analysis or world view has any real ability to illuminate reality, but in fact to the contrary- they produce policy and fabricate action plans that work only within a reality fabricated from a tired mélange of old Nazism and paternal, fascist fragments. But they have helped to create an administration that lives in that reality, and can therefore maneuver comfortably there. Their reality appeals, I think, to several of the "Facets" that represent windows into some very common human behavior-motivation patterns, --the same access points that have always drawn demagogues and shit-salesmen. But the passage of time has shown that theirs is a fragile reality, and policy fabricated within it's limits generally fails. Spectacularly.

The post-structuralists represent a rebellion against a way of describing human existence that had, somewhere within it's mechanistic little heart the craving for certainty and "hard-science" status and craven epistemological imitation of the nut-and-bolts guys. The structuralists eventually brought us dangerous dingbats like B.F. Skinner. This desire for the status of "hard scientist", with it's prerequisite handy tool kit of wrenches and chisels to operate on the humans social reality was nowhere more obvious than in the US- when I went to graduate school, it was impossible at my school and many others to write a thesis or dissertation that did not comply with the mechanistic prescriptions of "Behaviorism", and get it accepted. But these guys taught us a lot. And they mostly grew up- even the physicists emerged into as richer, more creative  thought-world, in the end. Neils Bohr, one of my heroes, once said, at the end of his professional life, and leaving behind an irrevocably changed word, that "After 40 years of doing physics, I think now I know nothing for sure." That's progress.

And, ThatBritGuy, the post-structuralists have changed the way we think, in good ways. For me, thinkers like Pierre Bourdieu represent a good blending of the better features of the structuralist and post-structuralist approach. And they are powerfully influential in the crucial arena of public, popular action that exists in France, and even in the US now- far more so than the cartoon reality of the Neocons. Bourdieu made a transition from reclusive academic to in-your-face activist, on the Jose Bove model, and just exited the hell out of a lot of people. Damn! A sociologist who does stuff, who gets involved! And his shit seems to work!
Wish he were here now. It would be a lot more interesting world.

Capitalism searches out the darkest corners of human potential, and mainlines them.

by geezer in Paris (risico at wanadoo(flypoop)fr) on Sat Dec 30th, 2006 at 06:45:58 AM EST
[ Parent ]
by oldfrog on Sat Dec 30th, 2006 at 06:05:16 AM EST

Capitalism searches out the darkest corners of human potential, and mainlines them.
by geezer in Paris (risico at wanadoo(flypoop)fr) on Sat Dec 30th, 2006 at 06:49:11 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I think the picture was taken when veterans were invited to a Bush speech.
by oldfrog on Sat Dec 30th, 2006 at 08:03:39 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Human psychology is based on experience and association, I think. Any event or perception is matched with previous experience or knowledge, even if inconsistently or by a very remote association. That allows us to form a sophisticated and potentially adequate response easily. In the worst case, we learn: "correct" the association or the reaction, etc. Experience and association, rather than logic, would be the basis of Artificial Intelligence as well.

Although basic associations are there imprinted in us, their development and growth is much determined by the "environment", or the process called life. Very few associations are irresistably imprinted, at least in early age. Repeation of associations is stronger than differentiation between good and bad: you can easily start repeating the same mistake over and over again, even if the effect is obviously not good for you.

Things like racism, consumerism or quiting to smoke do have basis in associations, and geezer is nicely right with the examples. But the problem is not existence of associations; the problem is which associations prevail. Weimar antisemitism arose from unupposed intimidating propaganda, for example. Many biggoted associations thrive not because they are truely irresitably imprinted, but because humanity "knows" many ways to keep them alive through the history of power intrigues and escalating self-satisfation.

The GWB marketing campaign was well-organized - it was a real control of mass perception, fuelled not only by the determined GOP policy, but by the "liberal bias" of the media (under recent liberalization, or rather monopolization) as well. Liberal punditry happily played along, developing strong self-hurting habits. "Phony Gore" legends of 2000 live till today.

Consumerism is not determined genetically to wild proportions well. It takes some training and knowledge (at least for most of us) to participate in the modern "rat race" in full. Hence, you have to break some blocking associations, and overfeed certain other associations to "fulfill yourself". The current scale of consumerism is not a blind outcome of individual aspirations, but a finely tuned liberatarian machine by now.

by das monde on Sat Dec 30th, 2006 at 08:44:53 AM EST
It's those basic assumptions that interest me at the moment-
It is true that very few associations, or better, "Imprints", are irresistibly powerful. We did have an enlightenment, after all. I also agree that the structure of human decisionmaking is deeply tied to experience and association- or, as I would put it,  observation and making connections, finding patterns.
But that is only a part of it, and current fashion does not include a good model that helps explain what we inherit- or those pesky imprints. Hell, we don't even have the words to talk about them effectively.
Jack Vance wrote a great, fun SF book, "The languages of Pao", that explored this a bit, and the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which basically said that the words you have and their associated concepts determined your perception in a big way. No words, no concept-no "thing". (Invisible elephants in the living room? Sure. Ourselves as torturers).
"But the problem is not existence of associations; the problem is which associations prevail."
I can agree with this, but I maintain that preexisting, inherited traits act as a filter to help determine what associations are incorporated into the patterns we make. The propagandist, the marketing expert, the training crew in the school for racing rats know a lot about those filters people use, and they market creatures like GWB to "feed the selected kittys" .
It's the truly dangerous ones (Carl Rove?) who seem to instinctively determine how to swim downstream in the darker currents of human inheritance and myth, and use this to manipulate events, to make puppet shows for us- ones we find very hard to resist.

Capitalism searches out the darkest corners of human potential, and mainlines them.
by geezer in Paris (risico at wanadoo(flypoop)fr) on Sat Dec 30th, 2006 at 01:37:10 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Philosopher Harry Frankfurt published a best-selling book last year titled "On Bullshit". It has been translated into a number of languages. His point is that BS is the saying of something where the speaker doesn't care one way or the other about the truth of the statement. The aim is to achieve a certain effect and the facts are irrelevant.

This is why people get into non-productive debates about whether the Bush regime is telling the truth or not. What they are engaged is a propaganda campaign fueled by BS and those using truth/falsity as a measure are taking the wrong approach.

Frankfurt has just published a follow up book "On Truth" where he tries to explain why uncovering the truth is an important goal.

There are many reasons why people prefer to not know the truth. Self-deception is one of the ways that people cope with unpleasant reality. It is such a powerful force that rationalists constantly fail to change attitudes by use of logic, while propagandists can rouse large crowds of followers by peddling lies and false hope.  

Policies not Politics
---- Daily Landscape

by rdf (robert.feinman@gmail.com) on Sat Dec 30th, 2006 at 10:21:06 AM EST
The facts aren't irrelevant. They serve to apply a patina,--a coating, an aroma, perhaps, of truthiness. They can, in the hands of an expert, form a cocoon in which the blackest of lies is concealed. But I understand your point. I just had to rage a bit.

Such debates are indeed futile, except to illuminate technique- kinda like watching the tapes of your last fight, in which you got obliterated, to find out what hit you.  

Capitalism searches out the darkest corners of human potential, and mainlines them.

by geezer in Paris (risico at wanadoo(flypoop)fr) on Sat Dec 30th, 2006 at 01:46:54 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I don't think there is hardly anybody left now who actually likes GWB. Remember that he just barely even got elected in the first place, and his policies have undermined most of the basic tenets of the Republican party: Fiscal conservativism (gone), individual liberty (gone), isolationism (gone), strong military (gone). Even the evangelicals don't like him because he didn't deliver on any of their issues. He's a particularly lame lame duck at this point.

The real questions are: 1.) What will the Democrats be willing and able to do with their thin majority? and 2.) What will the rest of the world--Europe in particular--do as America's geopolitical power ebbs in the coming decade?

by asdf on Sun Dec 31st, 2006 at 12:19:46 AM EST

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