A Somewhat Charitable View Of Vaccine Refusers

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In my last three posts I examined David Brooks’s theory that vaccine refusal is is one result of the rejection of his version of the epistemic regime of the his version of the creative class, and with it the expertise and knowledge claimed by scientists, academics and other experts. He relies in part on Jonathan Rauch’s book The Construction Of Knowledge. Brooks is just wrong; here’s what Rauch actually says.

I don’t think people reject the scientific method or the epistemic regime under which it operates. I don’t see anyone saying physicists are wrong about quantum mechanics, or that antibiotics don’t work. People go to the doctor when they’re sick in the same numbers as always.

I think the actual problem with vaccine resisters is that they think that whether or not to take a Covid vaccine is a political issue or a social issue about which they are entitled to have an opinion, instead of public health problems firmly in the realm of professional expertise.

To explain this further, here are some of the factors that governed my decision to get the vaccine. I did my own research. I knew most vaccines are made from attenuated viruses or inactivated viruses. Covid vaccines use a different technique. Here’s the New York Times description of the mechanism. Here’s the Wikipedia entry for mRNA vaccines. Here’s a comprehensive description of the construction of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. Here’s a comprehensive description of the manufacturing process for the mRNA vaccines.

This research raised questions I cannot answer. For example, are there proteins in a normal body shaped like the spike protein and is that a problem? I have to rely on experts on that question. But is the FDA so politicized it would approve a dangerous vaccine because Trump interfered?

I talked to a friend, a health care journalist, about the issue of politicization of the FDA. He seemed confident that the FDA was safely independent. One of my brothers has worked on getting FDA approval for drugs for serious diseases, and he explained their procedures. He was also confident about FDA independence.

In the Fall of 2020, my extended family got into an email discussion of the vaccines. One of my nieces is a virologist who is working on a monoclonal antibody treatment for Covid. She told us to take whatever vaccine we could get the day we could first get it.

I knew I wouldn’t be in the first wave of people getting vaccinated. That maeant there was an even bigger trial out there, all those people ahead of me.

In sum, I did my own research, but other factors were vastly more important than my understanding of the vaccine. I have no way to assess the accumulated stores of scientific knowledge that led to the vaccine, or any way to evaluate the clinical trials or the data they generated. All I can hope to do is come to a rough understanding, and perhaps come up with a question about the applicability to my personal situation.

This is true of all scientific matters. Mostly it doesn’t matter. My computer works. I don’t have to understand it. I just have to learn how to use it for my own ends. I use a several drugs to protect my eyes from further damage. I checked, and I can vaguely understand how the experts think they work, but really, I just take my doctor’s advice.

So far I’ve only looked at knowledge about the physical world. The problem is different in the social world. For example, I pay attention to politics, and I think I have a reasonable set of principles and priorities that govern my political views. I can evaluate political issues by comparing them to what I personally observe, what I see in the media, and my principles and priorities. But I’m fully aware that most of my thinking comes from reading the views of other people, and trying to incorporate them into a coherent picture with other things I think.

In my last post I quoted Rauch talking about the importance of family and tribe in making decisions. I agree with him that on a wide range of life issues the decisive factors are our family, our tribe, and the people and groups with which we generally agree. One of the very few exceptions is our specific efforts to increase human knowledge, where we stick closely to Rauch’s reality-based epistemic regime. We all depend on others in making decisions about everything, not just our layman’s understanding of scientific matters.

I assume other people operate about like I do. They listen to family, tribe, trusted people, and read stuff on the internet. Then they test that information against some internal standard, and either accept or reject it. Most people across all divides in our society think they are capable of doing this accurately. This idea has its roots in a view of human beings and in the ideology of individualism. It’s at the heart of neoliberalism, which says we can always figure out what we want and need. I don’t think so. I agree with C.S. Perice that all we really want to do is avoid the unpleasant feeling of doubt by coming to any firm belief.

So what we have with the vaccine refusers is a category error. If this were a straight issue of scientific knowledge, most people would realize they cannot evaluate it and are dependent on professionals.

The Trumpified Republicans and their media and armed wings amplified the idea that the pandemic and Covid are political issues. Because the government and politicians were out front in dealing with Covid, people were primed to think of Covid as a political issue. Too many people tried to evaluate vaccines and public health measures as political issues, which led them to listen to their usual political sources, right-wing media and politicians, and their friends and trusted groups.

Their confidence was buoyed by the availability of information from the internet. But they weren’t looking at the information in the links I put above. They were listening to intentional liars, Qrazies and anti-vaxxers. Social media algorithms probably amplified this disinformation.

People tried to construct a mental picture taking their new information into account without upsetting too much of their general world view. That didn’t work, because there was too intense a conflict between the reality of the pandemic and the views they were getting from their preferred sources. So we hear people denying that Covid is a real thing and constructing detailed theories about conspiracies between Doctors and Big Pharma to make tons of money. We get theories that vaccines and masks are government efforts to control our lives. For the larger number of people who don’t follow closely, this becomes confusing and vaguely scary. In the end, we as a nation are no where near the necessary number of vaccinations.

This explanation doesn’t justify anything or anyone. You have to be sunk in stupidity to think that a vaccine is a political or social issue. You have to be a piece of human garbage to encourage people to reject vaccines against a dangerous disease. But it’s hard to blame low-information people for being worried about this ginned-up controversy.

It’s really maddening.

Why I’m Angry At David Brooks

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… [S]ome people waited anxiously [for the release of the Mueller Report]. Others already knew the result. As a Trump supporter named Donna Kowalczyk told the journalist Ben Bradlee Jr., “I don’t think there’s anything to it. If they find something, they will have made it up.”

To say that she and I approached the question differently would be an understatement. As a professional journalist, I am evidence-based, dispassionate, and fair-minded. I decide after I have the facts, not before. At least, that is how I flatter myself.

But really, am I so different from Ms. Kowalczyk? Or am I merely a member of a different tribe, and as biased and blind to my biases as she or anyone else? And suppose, for argument’s sake, Ms. Kowalczyk is in fact less evidence-based and dispassionate than I: whose way of thinking is more normal and natural? Whose way is more serviceable for most humans in most circumstances?

The answer: not mine.

Rauch, Jonathan. The Constitution of Knowledge, Pp. 20-21, fn omitted.

I was outraged by David Brooks’ article in the Atlantic, How The Bobos Broke America. In my last two posts I’ve tried to explain why I’m so angry. Of course everyone knows Brooks is a shallow apologist for the dominant class. Of course he dips into books and scholarly papers looking for passages he can twist to support his permanently fixed world view. Of course he blames liberals for all the damage done by the dominant class. Of course he wants readers to focus on his arguments and ignore his filthy rich patrons behind the curtain. I spent hours working my way through his dribble, reading Rauch, and writing these posts, so at one level it worked.

It’s genuinely stupid to blame the creative class for Trumpism, as Brooks does. Most people are happy to enjoy the work done by the creative class, and really don’t care what individual members of that class like in the way of coffee or lettuce or music. Just like we don’t really care if they like NASCAR and Country Music. Each to his own.

Everybody knows that the only reason anyone cares about these culture war issues is that sickeningly rich right-wing fanatics, opportunistic politicians, and paid media liars pump up hostility about the outrage of the day, hoping that the rage of their little minority coupled with the unthinking votes of long-time Republicans will keep them in power through gamed elections.

I’m occasionally pissed off at the people who fall for that garbage, but it always used to pass, and I certaoinly wasn’t angry at them. That’s changed. In writing these posts I realized that I’m genuinely angry at the anti-vaxxers, and at the Trumpists and their armed wing, collectively the Right. That anger boils over onto every Republican who ignores the threat the Right poses to our democracy.

At first I was furious at Brooks’ intellectual laziness. Rauch carefully describes an Epistemic Regime developed over centuries that dragged us out of ignorance and gave us tools to make our lives vastly better. Brooks calls it a group of people who determine what’s true. That’s an appalling misrepresentation.

Brooks insinuates that he works under the Epistemic Regime, but no. Brooks is a member of a bias-confirming community, a “… social affinity [group] where we seek not to test each other’s beliefs but to affirm them.” Rauch, supra at 114. In fact, he’s a confirmer-in-chief, a leader. I knew that, and now I have formal words to describe his despicable intellectual dishonesty rather than obscenities.

I’ve worked out two justifications for my anger at the Right as a whole.

1. Brooks argues that the creative class makes the Right and the Republicans feel disrespected.

If creative-class types just worked hard and made more money than other people, that might not cause such acute political conflict. What causes psychic crisis are the whiffs of “smarter than” and “more enlightened than” and “more tolerant than” that the creative class gives off.

Brooks is saying that the creative class creates psychic crises leading to political conflict by being different. The creative class has its own tastes in consumer goods, entertainment, and intellectual activities. It has a different moral sense than the Right. He’s saying that we in the creative class should not tell the Right about our tastes, maybe even that we shouldn’t have them. He says we should never argue with the Right about the thinking or lack of thinking behind our respective moral judgments. We must never try to put our own moral choices into law. He’s saying the Right’s tastes and morality should be respected, but it’s fine for them to hate us for ours. He’s saying that we should never use the law to rectify injustice as we see it.

Well, David Brooks, you might accidentally be right about this, but you contributed to it, and it’s bullshit. You the rest of your bias-conforming community can just fuck right off.

2. After reading Rauch, I began to see the Right differently. They aren’t just worried about living their own way, which somehow is threatened by my moral sense and the laws I think are necessary to make things better for all of us. Just like David Brooks, the Right rejects Rauch’s Epistemic Regime.

It’s the usual practice under the Epistemic Regime to insert disclaimers about problems with everything we defend. Not this time. Rejection of our system for accumulating knowledge is dangerous, stupid, and scary. The alternatives offered by the Right are ignorant, absurd, and guaranteed to produce misery for everyone. The people who push those alternatives are ghouls, misfits, nihilists, and power-maddened freaks.

We are constantly admonished that the fault lies with the leaders and mis-leaders, not the great mass of our fellow citizens. We should be nice to the latter, it’s not their fault. I could almost accept that when they complained about equal marriage, abortion rights, and the War on Christmas. But now they attack the entire way of thinking that gave us the vaccine for a deadly disease, and then organized to produce vast quantities of the vaccine, safely, in a matter of months.

The Right’s rejection of vaccines, for whatever ridiculous reasons, threatens me personally and the people I love. I work hard to be a member of the Tribe of the Epistemic Regime, and I take it personally, I get angry, when the Right Tribe attacks it. More broadly, rejection of the Epistemic Regime is a threat to the continued accumulation of knowledge, which is crucial if our planet and the human race are to survive.

That threat justifies intense anger.

David Brooks Says Smart People Caused Trumpism

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David Brooks wrote a too-long article, How The Bobos Wrecked America. blaming smart people for Trumpism. I discussed one aspect of this in my last post, focusing on Brooks’ use of the term Epistemic Regime. It’s a phrase he picked up from (I’d guess) reading a couple of chapters from a book by Jonathan Rauch, The Constitution Of Knowledge. I’m reading Rauch’s book. The first four chapters discuss the Epistemic Regime as a system we as a society developed to decide what is true.

Rauch follows Charles Sanders Peirce’s concept of truth. I discuss this important definition here. Truth in Rauch’s sense means that a proposition has been thoroughly checked for error, and so far has held up. Truth, then, just means our best guess at a useful and accurate description. The goal of the Epistemic Regime is to eliminate error, not to establish some objective truth “out there”.

The word “epistemic” is related to epistemology, the branch of philosophy concerned with knowledge. Here’s Rauch’s definition of an ideal Epistemic Regime:

… a public system for adjudicating differences of belief and perception and for developing shared and warranted conclusions about truth…. P. 76.

Rauch’s Epistemic Regime is a community of institutions through which individuals cooperate and compete in generating and disseminating new propositions, checking them for errors, and if cleared, fitting them into the store of knowledge, subject to being amended or dumped if later found to be erroneous. There are, of course, other methods of determining what is true, such as bias-confirming regimes, or those which just accept the word of an authority figure or group.

Rauch’s Epistemic Regime is self-organizing. No one controls anything. The communities are open. Anyone willing and able to do the work can participate. It’s impersonal, in that conflicts are about propositions, not people.

The range of subjects covered by this Epistemic Regime is large, but it is not all-encompassing. The limits are set by considerations about what we can falsify. For example, we currently think the universe began with a Big Bang, and that we cannot know what happened before the cataclysmic event because it obliterated all evidence.

The general method of construction of truth can be applied to many areas. For example, we can apply aesthetics to decide if Emily Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey is good. [It is.] We can make warranted judgments about aesthetics, morality, and other fields using tools honed by the Epistemic Regime, such as respect for precedent, persuasive argument, careful attention to detail, and willingness to accept criticism.

This isn’t what Brooks drew from Rauch. He claims that over the past few decades a new group of social classes has evolved, one Red, one Blue, and both hierarchical. One of his Blue Classes is the “creative class”, which he characterizes as:

… the same scientists, engineers, architects, financiers, lawyers, professors, doctors, executives, and other professionals who make up the bobos [his group from his book Bobos in Paradise].

Here’s his thesis:

The creative class has converted cultural attainment into economic privilege and vice versa. It controls what Jonathan Rauch describes in his new book, The Constitution of Knowledge, as the Epistemic Regime—the massive network of academics and analysts who determine what is true. Most of all, it possesses the power of consecration; it determines what gets recognized and esteemed, and what gets disdained and dismissed.

Brooks seems to think Rauch’s Epistemic Regime is just a group of people, identical to the creative class, or at least overlapping it. That’s not what Rauch says.

The Epistemic Regime is a system developed over a long period and followed by a lot of people seeking to increase our knowledge. We act under the Epistemic Regime when we seek knowledge. The habits of thought we use under the Epistemic probably influence us in other aspects of our lives, but I don’t root for Notre Dame, or admire Jane Austen, as part of any Epistemic Regime.

The creative class does participate in creation of new knowledge, but it also works in the area of culture, taste, and politics. Tools generated under the Epistemic Regime can be applied to criticize specific aspects of each. But the Epistemic Regime doesn’t tell us how to enjoy our lives or which political party to support, because our individual choices can’t be falsified. De gustibus non est disputandum. Chacun à son goût. Each to his own. All societies agree on this point.

No one, and certainly not an entire class, controls the Epistemic Regime. And, the Epistemic Regime doesn’t control anyone. Its a system for adjudicating truth as best we can, not of domination.

Brooks seems to thinks the creative class is homogeneous in cultural matters, which is dumb. The only thing this class uniformly accepts is insistence on Rauch’s Epistemic Regime when working to generate knowledge. Outside that, members are diverse on every social axis.

Brooks tells us that the creative class disrespects the culture of the Red Classes. That makes them resentful so they vote MAGA.

What causes psychic crisis are the whiffs of “smarter than” and “more enlightened than” and “more tolerant than” that the creative class gives off. People who feel that they have been rendered invisible will do anything to make themselves visible; people who feel humiliated will avenge their humiliation.

Brooks doesn’t explain the connection between these two sentences, probably because there isn’t one.

It’s certainly true that there are tastemakers among the creative class, and that they are snotty about it. The snotty people of an earlier generation referred to High and Low Culture. For most of human history cultural superiority was solely a pleasure of the filthy rich, like the Medici or French Aristos. They were scary because they exercised physical power over people’s lives. That’s not true today. Why would anyone care what the creative class thinks about their cultural and taste preferences? And why would that turn political? Brooks doesn’t say.

Discussion

1. Brooks doesn’t say anything about the cultural views of the Red Classes that are “dismissed and disdained” by apparently, the entire creative class. I’m pretty sure it’s mostly a toxic mixture of self-pity, racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia and other anti-social attitudes.

I’d guess most of the Creative Class doesn’t like that toxic mixture. Generally we (I include myself in the creative class, just like Brooks does) think we should try to follow the Golden Rule. We justify and expand that view with tools provided by Rauch’s Epistemic Regime. We try to squelch bad impulses in ourselves and in society. And we don’t care if that hurts the feelings of racists, women-haters, homophobes and xenophobes.

2. Brooks is trying to explain why so many Americans reject vaccines and other public health measures. He does this by conflating the creative class with the Epistemic Regime, as if the two were identical. If you reject the creative class then you have to reject the Epistemic Regime and its fruits, like vaccines, but somehow not Ivermectin and monoclonal antibodies. He doesn’t even try to justify this absurd idea.

3. Brooks is right that the Red Classes are angry and hostile towards the Blue Classes, but he makes no effort to explain how they got so worked up they’d suicidally risk sickness and death over it. He says it’s now become political, but he doesn’t explain why anyone would think that makes sense.

He doesn’t mention the economic power of the filthy rich, or their role in generating and amplifying the grievances of the Red Classes; or why it seems to be a policy choice of his Republican Party. It’s just natural, he says, as if that explains something.

4. In other words, this relentlessly long article contributes nothing to knowledge. You’re just supposed to assume that because it’s so bloody long and drops a bunch of names it’s a brilliant defense of the Trumpian Republican Party to say:

“If only those smart people weren’t so rude”.

Understanding Suicidal Americans

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I’ve always had a sneaking admiration for people who vote on principle rather than self-interest. Lots of people vpte against their economic self-interest because they believe that some religious doctrine is more important. Some vote for the Republicans who have rigged the economy to protect the interests of the filthy rich because the Republicans promised to end abortion. I think that’s stupid. But at another level, it’s easy to forgive. After all, I vote for Democrats like Liz Warren who want to raise my taxes. This would be expensive for me, but I think it’s crucial for a decent society to work to reduce wealth inequality.

But even I can’t understand the rationale for refusing masks and vaccinations. That’s just suicidal, as we see over and over among the genuinely stupid. For example in the last few weeks, at least seven conservative talk radio hosts nad anti-vax anti-mask shouters have died of Covid-19. Their reasons vary, but all ignore the actual facts, including the safety record of the vaccines and the protection they give us. As an example, Phil Valentive said in a blog post that his chances of contracting Covid were “pretty low”, and his chances of death were less than 1%. In point of fact, at least 13% of us have caught Covid, and 1.6% of cases have resulted in death so far. But Valentine thought he could evaluate his own immune system and do his own calculations.

Innumerancy isn’t new in the US; most of us aren’t good at really big numbers. That’s why we don’t do research ourselves but rely on experts to help us make smart decisions. And therein lies the problem. These suicidal people reject traditional expertise.

Again, at one level, so do I. The elites who started the War On Terror are incompetent monsters. Elites decided to deregulate the financial sector. They were wrong and caused enormous damagae around the world. The capitalists who fought regulation designed to prevent climate change are elites. They are still busy wrecking the planet. The intellectually dishonest hacks on SCOTUS who have beat back our efforts to govern ourselves are elites. The list of failed elites is long and dismal. And none of them are ever held accountable. Not a single one of them is even shamed. And that’s before we get to Trump and his crowd of intentional wreckers. So yes, our elites are failures.

But that’s not what the suicide class cares about. They’re mad because smart people hurt their feelings. That’s the explanation offered by David Brooks in his article How The Bobos Broke America. Brooks read several recent books about stuff, and he explains that the “creative class”, of which he is a member, is a bunch of self-centered, self-righteous, not-nice people who are insufficiently sensitive to the feelings of the rest of America.

Brooks’ creative class consists of “… the same scientists, engineers, architects, financiers, lawyers, professors, doctors, executives, and other professionals who make up the bobos …” the group Brooks discussed in his book Bobos In Paradise. They came to dominate culture. This makes the other groups sad, or angry, or both, and so naturally they reject the class and its values. In that process, they reject the expertise that gave rise to cultural dominance. That includes the science and technology that we need to solve our actual problems. Here are some quotes to flesh that out:

1. The working class today vehemently rejects not just the creative class but the epistemic regime [defined earlier in the test as “the massive network of academics and analysts who determine what is true”] that it controls.

2. A third rebellion is led by people who are doing well financially but who feel culturally humiliated—the boubour rebellion. These are Mark and Patricia McCloskey, the rich St. Louis couple who waved their guns at passing Black protesters last year.

3. What causes psychic crisis are the whiffs of “smarter than” and “more enlightened than” and “more tolerant than” that the creative class gives off. People who feel that they have been rendered invisible will do anything to make themselves visible; people who feel humiliated will avenge their humiliation.

4. The reaction to the bobos has turned politics into a struggle for status and respect—over whose sensibility is dominant, over which groups are favored and which are denigrated. Political attitudes have displaced consumption patterns as the principal way that people signal class sensibility.

Like everything Brooks writes, this is slanted to produce a result Brooks likes. But there are a couple of germs of reality here. There is no doubt that the value systems of various classes of society are different. And there are in fact epistemic regimes. We saw a lot of this in reading about the sociology of Pierre Bourdieu.

Consider this post. Bourdieu talks about symbolic violence, meaning “…the capacity to impose the means for comprehending and adapting to the social world by representing economic and political power in disguised, taken-for-granted forms.“ In this phrasing, someone has power to enforce an epistemic regime related to economic and political power. I used neoliberalism as an example in the post.

Epistemic regimes govern most of our ways of understanding parts of our lives, including our social lives, and our spiritual lives, and the way we understand academic disciplines. There is, for example, an entire epistemic regime around our understanding of literature. There is an epistemic regime that governs scientific fields, as Kuhn shows. These epistemic regimes are regularly contested, as by deconstruction, or string theory. But there are entire systems devoted to managing and deciding those contests.

Brooks pretends that a “massive network of academics and analysts” controls the epistemic regime around political and economic power. As a statement of cause and effect, that is absurd. It would be equally absurd to argue that literary theory is governed by a massive network of billionaires and centi-millionaires.

To put it another way, there is no plausible political science theory that says that the interests of the filthy rich are entitled to dominance in a democracy or that any particular pig rich person is entitled to make decisions for the rest of us. Nor is there a plausible economic theory that says that oligopoly is a good way to run a market. True, there are economists and lawyers who tie themselves in intellectually silly knots trying to justify the current state of concentrated corporate power in the US. The oligarchy funds this network of grifters and PR hacks and supports their efforts to distort and mislead.

That takes us to the next step. The suicidal class operates under its own epistemic regime, one created by right-wing media and social media, right-wing pundits, Fox News and its competitiors, right-wing talk radio, and a massive infrastructure of support from right-wing Oligarchs. This epistemic regime is totally divorced from reality. It says to its adherents: you can’t trust main stream media, government workers, scientists, doctors, the health establishment, or any one other than us, because only we know the truth. Covid is just like the flu. Vaccines cause sterility. Hydrochloroquine and Ivermectin are great treatments for Covid.

The people who create and operate this epistemic regime are not Brooks’ creative class. They are a motley group of ghouls, amplified and encouraged by tools of the Oligarchy. And their epistemic regime is killing people.

The Danger Of Stupidity

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In the first post in this series, I quoted Charles Sanders Peirce for the proposition that the only reason we think is to relieve doubt by coming to a belief. We don’t necessarily seek the best belief, or some objectively correct belief (if there is one), though we might, and it might be best if we did. All we really want to do is to relieve doubt.

But that leaves out people who don’t ever doubt anything. It also points to people who claim to think but who aren’t interested in the solution with the best chance of meeting their most important needs; just something that relieves them of doubt. The pandemic has produced excellent examples. Media coverage and life experience have caused many people doubt. They look for relief from the doubt. They don’t need the best answer, or a sane answer, they just need to settle whatever their doubt might be.

David Byrd

In June 2020, Tennessee State Representative David Byrd of Waynesboro, TN voted for a resolution stating that the mainstream media has sensationalized the coverage of Covid-19, and that the General Assembly

… congratulate[s] the people of Tennessee for clearly seeing that the mainstream media has sensationalized the reporting on COVID-19 in the service of political agendas.

Byrd was diagnosed with Covid November 25, went into the hospital December 5, was on a ventilator for 55 days, lost his liver and required a transplant, and came out of it urging people to get vaccinated. He got sick before the vaccine was available, and he claims never to have been anti-vax. He now thinks Covid is dangerous and urges people to get vaccinated.

It’s hard to say what goes on in people’s minds, but the statement about sensationalizing the pandemic is an important clue. Assuming that he actually believes this, what exactly was he talking about? Media coverage wasn’t bloody. I think it didn’t go far enough in showing the frightening situation of sick and dying people. TV reporters did not show actual patients, or corpses. If Byrd had seen video of people breathing by ventilator, he might not have been so blasé about his own risk. If he had listened to Covid patients trying to breathe on their own, he might have thought twice about hanging around with potential vectors, including his equally ill-informed colleagues. Did he think it was political and thus damaging to Trump? Would political fault matter to sick and dying people, or people who didn’t understand the danger? Did he feel the same way about the absurd emails and Benghazi frenzies?

No, I think we can safely analyze this in Charles Sanders Peirce’s terms as expressed in The Fixation of Belief (1877):

The irritation of doubt is the only immediate motive for the struggle to attain belief. It is certainly best for us that our beliefs should be such as may truly guide our actions so as to satisfy our desires; and this reflection will make us reject every belief which does not seem to have been so formed as to insure this result. … [T]he sole object of inquiry is the settlement of opinion. We may fancy that this is not enough for us, and that we seek, not merely an opinion, but a true opinion. But put this fancy to the test, and it proves groundless; for as soon as a firm belief is reached we are entirely satisfied, whether the belief be true or false.

Byrd had a doubt about Covid that he wanted to relieve by finding a belief that would satisfy his desires. His only desire was political, not his personal safety. So he fixed on a political belief. Sadly that was a bad guess about the best thing for him.

Phil Valentine

Phil Valentine is a conservative talk radio host on WWTN-FM in Nashville. Here’s his blog post on the vaccine dated December 17, 2020. After ranting about Hillary Clinton and the dearth of credit to Trump for getting the vaccine out there, he says:

I’m not an anti-vaxxer. I’m just using common sense. What are my odds of getting COVID? They’re pretty low. What are my odds of dying from COVID if I do get it? Probably way less than one percent. I’m doing what everyone should do and that’s my own personal health risk assessment. If you have underlying health issues you probably need to get the vaccine. If you’re not at high risk of dying from COVID then you’re probably safer not getting it. That evokes shrieks of horror from many, but it’s true. I’m weighing the known versus the unknown.

I suppose we might ask what these “unknowns” are, or whether he plans on getting the pneumonia and shingles vaccines, but that’s too picky. Maybe he’s just not very smart. Here’s his take on climate change, echoing the idiot Senator Imhofe with his dumb snowball. Valentine does his own reasoning and research on the pandemic. It might have been better to start with a question like this: scientists, including epidemiologists, virologists, and public health experts say Covid is dangerous, and that the vaccines are safe and work, so everyone should get a jab. Now how am I different from everyone else? Why isn’t that the best advice for me?

Instead, I’ll guess he read some stuff about Covid, and decided he knew best about his own body and its ability to shut down the virus. He thinks we should all make our own decisions about our health, apparently without reference to expertise. He thinks we marvelous Americans can handle the complexity of the pandemic in the same way we decide between tacos and huevos rancheros. He places no value on scientific information or conclusions, doesn’t know any statistics, doesn’t grasp the principles of epidemiology or virology, doesn’t understand and probably doesn’t believe in the principles that underlie the vaccines, and doesn’t think any of that is important. I’ll bet he can’t do his own taxes, though.

And, guess what: nearly dying has converted him to a vaccine believer.

Valentine at least recognized that the right question is his personal safety; but he doesn’t know how to think about that problem, and just happens to come out in the same place as David Byrd.

The disinterested, the ignorant, and the prejudiced

There is a large group who just ignore the problem, or believe nonsense. I won’t use names, but they’re all over: people who just couldn’t quite get around to getting vaccinated, or who are convinced that it’s a trap or a hoax. Here are some examples.

These are people who aren’t paying attention. I am grateful for the people reaching out to them. They are doing what needs to be done.

Conclusion

In the first post in this series, I hinted at my view that bad thinking is central to the success of the Oligarchy in spreading their self-aggrandizing lies. I hope this discussion helps us see how well that works.

In an earlier series I argued that democracy only works if there is a sense of community among the members. As we face the pandemic and the desperately dangerous climate disaster, we need to operate as a community. We have to operate on the principle that no one is safe unless we are all safe. We have to settle our doubts in the way that will enable us to flourish, not in ways that fit our prejudices.

[Image Source: “I Did My Own Research” by @GQPMonitor]

Introduction To New Series, Index And Bibliography

Index Of Posts In This Series

The Danger Of Stupidity
Understanding Suicidal Americans
David Brooks Says Smart People Caused Trumpism
Why I’m Angry At David Brooks
A Somewhat Charitable View Of Vaccine Refusers

Introduction

I’ve spent a lot of time going through The Public And Its Problems by John Dewey, and now it’s time to move on. That series led me to the conclusion that there are people pushing hard to create two separate communities in the US. Democracy isn’t possible in a society of two communities. One plausible way forward is to think about division: who is pushing it, and why and how they do it.

My tentative answer: there is an oligarchy inside our democracy that can seize power by creating a divided electorate. They use their wealth to weaponize the lines of division. They hire people to creat propaganda and other means of blunting the ability of people to understand their material, emotional and spiritual needs, and the steps that might improve them. Oligarchs do this to cement their own power and material wealth. They are joined by other people who think they benefit from helping the Oligarchs. Then there are the religionists who want to impose their morality on the rest of us at any cost. There are others who aren’t much more than nihilists.

Overview

The Oligarchy. The theory that there is an oligarchy in the United States is based on the work of Jeffrey Winters and Benjamin Page, in a paper titled Oligarchy In The United States?, published in 2009. Winters and Page see Oligarchy in terms of “power resources, particularly material power resources as manifested in wealth”, as well as political and cultural power. They argue that possession of great material resources gives owners political power, and

… carries with it a set of political interests: interests in preserving and protecting that wealth, interests in ensuring its free use for many purposes, and interests in acquiring more wealth. That is, highly concentrated material wealth generally brings with it both enormous political power and the motivation to use that power in order to win certain kinds of political-economic outcomes. Possession of great wealth defines membership in an oligarchy, provides the means to exert oligarchic power, and provides the incentives to use that power for the core political objective of wealth defense (which, depending on the national and historical context, means property defense, income defense, or both).

The three interests identified by Winters and Page are shared by all members of the Oligarchy. They all seek those ends in their own ways but their ggals are the same. Their individual actions reinforce each other in ways that hammer the rest of us. To be quite clear, I don’t think there’s some vast conspiracy among the Oligarchs or anyone else. It’s just that their interests converge. I think of it as a self-organizing limited Oligarchy.

The Ideology. Money alone isn’t enough. The rest of us have to consent, to accept the outcomes as fair. That’s where neoliberalism comes in. It tells people that this is a fair system, that it rewards people for their natural merit, their hard work, their persistence, and their good behavior. It also tells people that if they aren’t well-off, if they are in debt, too poor to pay for health care, unable to give their children a decent life, it’s their own fault, and there’s nothing to be done but suffer.

Neolliberalism became the dominant ideology of both legacy parties beginning in the late 70s. Successful people called it meritocracy, so it didn’t bother Democrats. Republicans used its laissez-faire component to dismantle the safety net and the regulations the Oligarchy didn’t like and Democrats did little to stop them.

Then the Great Crash crushed that ideology into dust for everyone who could think clearly. That, of course, didn’t include politicians. With Obama in charge, Democrats tried to restore the previous regime. Republicans blocked even Obama’s miserly proposals to help regular people, while throwing money at the Oligarchs. Then Trump. Anyone who can think at all can now see that the entire system of neoliberalism has wreaked havoc on the vast majority of us.

As a palliative, Republicans offered racism and nationalism, first quietly, and as the visible economic and cultural damage grew, more and more overtly. Now they’ve added authoritarianism in the Trumpian vein, and weirdo fantasies in the Qanon vein, and the Big Lie about stolen elections as a combo meal.

Divisions. We are a complex nation. There are many ways of dividing us from each other: race, class, wealth, income, education, and location and more. Or we might be divided along the lines suggested by the theory of moral foundations, or by other differences in moral concerns.

Target audience. There are a number of us who are ready to burn it all down in the hopes of restoring white supremacy or some other regime in which they are the dominant power. They are easily manipulated by propaganda from the Oligarchy. Here’s a good description from Thomas Edsall in the New York Times.

Sadly many people truly believe the gunk Trump and the Trumpists spread, the Qanon fantasies, the racist crap, the moral terror of Critical Race Theory, lies about crime, and the Big Lie. We all know Republicans we thought were connected to reality who believe some or all of the garbage. How did we get to be so absurd? One possibility is suggested by something Charles Sanders Peirce wrote in The Fixation of Belief (1877):

The irritation of doubt is the only immediate motive for the struggle to attain belief. It is certainly best for us that our beliefs should be such as may truly guide our actions so as to satisfy our desires; and this reflection will make us reject every belief which does not seem to have been so formed as to insure this result. … [T]he sole object of inquiry is the settlement of opinion. We may fancy that this is not enough for us, and that we seek, not merely an opinion, but a true opinion. But put this fancy to the test, and it proves groundless; for as soon as a firm belief is reached we are entirely satisfied, whether the belief be true or false.

There’s a lesson for all of us here, and it applies to me as much as followers of Q. Bad habits of thought inflate people’s perception that other divisions are crucial to their self-perception. And, the large number of divisions gives those who want two tribes fighting each other have plenty of choices.

One other group seems problematic: the religious zealots. This group wants to impose its morality on all of us, and will stop at nothing, including absurd unconstitutional laws, to do so. The Oligarchs can easily make promises to this group, because their wealth means they won’t be bothered by whatever laws the zealots want.

The Results. The ultimate result of the internecine wars in the majority is an impasse in government. Nothing can change because democracy doesn’t work when there are two distinct groups with nothing in commmon. The Oligarchs are able to influence what’s left of government with their lobbyists and campaign cash. They cement their power and protect their wealth and statues.

Conclusion

So there’s my story as of today. In this series, I’ll take up these points and try to find support and contradiction. I’m not going to take a particular book for this, but I’ll use those I’ve read and new material. I’ll update this page with new posts, and add a bibliography section to keep track of the new material.

Bibliography
Philip Mirowski, Never Let A Serious Crisis Go To Waste.

Joshua Rothman, Why Is It So Hard To Be Rational. This article describes several theories about rationality and the difficulties we face in trying to be rational. Look for the charming reference to Pride and Prejudice’s Charlotte Lucas.

Nicole M. Stephens and Sarah Townsend, Research: How You Feel About Individualism Is Influenced by Your Social Class This article in the Harvard Business Review discusses some research on the difficulties faced by working class people trying to enter the meritoracy. I didn’t read the underlying materials.

Final Thoughts On The Public And Its Problems

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I hoped John Dewey’s The Public And Its Problems would help me understand our currant political morass. In a way, it did, as I noted in this post. I am disappointed that there aren’t any usable solutions, but that too is a lesson. In this conclusion I’ll discuss three things I got out of it.

1. Social Contract theory is wrong-headed

Before I read this book, I understood politics through the lens of social contract theory, the idea that a large group of isolated individuals enter into agreements on the organization of society in order to provide themselves a reasonable amount of security and protection from others. Dewey rejects social contract theory because it’s based on the idea of isolated individuals as the basic unit of society. In Dewey’s view we are all linked together from birth in social units, first families, then as we grow, into larger units, clans, tribes, schools, friendship circles, churches, sports teams, and then throughout our lives in larger and larger groups.

I’ve read several books explaining modern physics. I wish I were able to write about the idea of the universe as an energy field, with matter defined as clumps of energy of varying degrees of complexity, and with humans described as very complex clumps of energy. In this picture, everything is connected to everything else; it’s all part of the same energy field.

Even without that lovely image, I agree with Dewey. I can see the influences other people have on me and my thinking. I realize that my ability to cope with the world is the direct outcome of the way I was raised, the information I have been taught, and the ways of thinking I have learned from others.

We are not isolated individuals.

2. The Role Of Theory

A. Thinking

A number of the books I’ve read have a theory embedded in them. This seems especially true of the book about the Frankfurt School, where the grounding is in Marx and Freud, and the foreground is the dialectical method. Other books are grounded in a deeply historical approach. This includes Arendt and Polanyi; and Foucault, who talks about his genealogical approach. Pierre Bourdieu’s work is heavily grounded on data he gathered from observations and surveys of large numbers of people.

Dewey takes a somewhat different approach, free inquiry. I understand this to mean we should start by identifying the problem to be solved. Then look at the facts, including social facts, as carefully as we can. We generate possible solutions through discourse with others. Then we regard the chosen solution as tentative, which requires monitoring the situation continuously to see what needs fixing. It’s free in the sense that it is not affected by the demands of people trying to advance their own ends, or by religious adherence to some universal theory.

Another method of thought is explication and extension. Much of what we inherited from our ancestors is couched in old language and is expressed by discussion of older concepts. So, in philosophy much of the earlier work discusses the nature of being, and abstract ideas like whether we actually know the real world of objects or whether we only know what we receive from our senses. A lot of our new learning ins couched in academic language, which makes it hard to understand. Careful reading and explanation of these texts requires putting ourselves in the position of the writer and restating it in contemporary terms. We are then in a position to examine some of the possible extensions of that thinking, while being careful not to get too far ahead of the actual ideas of the original text. We might call it the student method.

B. The Goal of Theory For Liberals and Progressives

For Dewey, and for Arendt, Polanyi and the Frankfurt School, the goal of theory is to help us come to grips with specific problems and situations. Where are we? How did we get here? What were we thinking when we made the choices we made in the past? What facts did we get right and wrong? What were our goals? How close did we come to meeting them? And so on.

This kind of understanding does not tell us what we should do. It might suggest goals or solutions. But we still have the responsibility to identify our problems. Once we have done so we can use the social facts provided by theory to generate solutions. Then we are in a decent position to examine the question What Should We Do? For Dewey, that is the central question of politics.

C. The Goal of “Theory” for conservatives.

Conservatives use theory differently. They have a theory, a universal world view, valid at all times and places and for all people. Their only goal is to prove their theory is perfect and that the left and anyone else who doesn’t agree with their theory is evil and responsible for the sins of the world.

At the root of conservative theory is the idea of the isolated individual as the fundamental element of society. This leads them to the social contract theory, where voluntary agreements are the only binding force of society.

It’s easy to see this in action. It explains the secessionist movement in the Antebellum South. It explains the refusal to accept the 2020 election results, which were met with violence among a number of conservatives and with pouts and denial among a broad swath of them. It’s visible in the anti-mask and anti-tax movements, and the allegedly religion-based refusal to live with their fellow citizens under majority rule. They are alone and they are all that matters.

D. Conservative Pundits

Here’s a discussion of Michel Foucault by the pseudo-intellectual Ross Douthat. One of his premises is that leftists used to tout Foucault because he offered a radical critique of government power under the heading of biopolitics. Leftists loved this when conservatives were in control. Now they ignore Foucault because Democrats are in power. As evidence, he cites leftist acceptance of the governmental response to Covid-19.

That’s just wrong at every level. Here’s my discussion of Foucault’s biopolitics. It’s clear that Douthat hasn’t tried to read Foucault, or understand the details of his views of biopolitics. He doesn’t know that Foucault is describing what he sees, not prescribing anything.

Douthat isn’t doing any of the things I describe in Part A. He has a universalist world view: he’s a Catholic Conservative. He only reads books and papers to pick out shiny bits to attach to that world view, or to use as springboards for blaming progressives, liberals and Democrats for the sins of the world. This is a common problem among conservative pundits. They are not actively engaged in trying to understand the objective and social facts in front of them. The only problem they see is that the world doesn’t match their theory. Their only solution is to co-opt government into imposing their world view on the majority who don’t care about their world view.

3. Politics Is About Solving Problems

One central premise of The Public And Its Problems is that the point of politics is solving the problems common to a group of people. Dewey thinks of this in these terms:

One reason for the comparative sterility of discussion of social matters is because so much intellectual energy has gone into the supposititious problem of the relations of individualism and collectivism at large, wholesale, and because the image of the antithesis infects so many specific questions. Thereby thought is diverted from the only fruitful questions, those of investigation into factual subject-matter, and becomes a discussion of concepts.

The “problem” of the relation of the concept of authority to that of freedom, of personal rights to social obligations, with only a subsumptive illustrative reference to empirical facts, has been substituted for inquiry into the consequences of some particular distribution, under given conditions, of specific freedoms and authorities, and for inquiry into what altered distribution would yield more desirable consequences. P. 212-213. Paragraphing changed for clarity.

Conservatives like Douthat are much happier arguing abstractions than real problems. They don’t want to change the current distribution of freedoms and powers unless it imposes their pre-determined solutions. Neoliberal Democrats are happy talk about abstractions rather than problems, because it means they don’t have to act. That’s why we hear about budget deficits and filibuster rules instead of legislation. It explains the refusal of elites of both parties to confront actual problems. And it explains why Republicans get away with propaganda about Foucault and Critical Race Theory. It’s easy to lie about abstractuibs and conceptual tools. It’s hard to lie about specific facts.

Dewey is quite clear that he doesn’t have a solution to the questions about the self-identification of a Public or any of the other problems he raises. He hopes that education and theory will help. But in the end, it’s up to all of us, not the theorists.

Conclusion

Dewey’s idealism about the possibilities of democracy is inspiring. Even if we can’t use his book to find our way closer to that ideal, we still aspire to it.

The Public’s Problems In Finding Itself

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The sixth and last chapter of John Dewey’s The Public And Its Problems addresses some of the obstacles to formation of a community capable of recognizing itself as a public. He doesn’t have any practical solutions. But he offers two theoretical ideas and a couple of practical steps. And he argues that community is the most human form of relationship in an almost poetic section.

1. Get rid of excessive individualism

This idea brings us back to an earlier post, in which I discussed Dewey’s rejection of social contract theory. The basic reason for this rejection is Dewey’s view that we are not human apart from the culture and society in which we find ourselves. That culture and that society formed us, gave us our language, our morals, our behavioral structure, and our self-definition. He takes this up again in Chapter 6.

We think of ourselves as individuals in a naive way. We are separate physically, and we move under our own steam. But so do animals. Every part of our psyches that is truly human comes from other humans, who tend us as babies, teach us as children, and interact with us in as adults. Certainly as separate entities we have different capacities, mental, physical, and emotional. But these only come into play when we interact with others. They only develop through our interactions with others.

Dewey uses an analogy to explain this. We know what a tree is, a plant with a trunk, branches, leaves or needles, and roots. We know that there are cells in the plant that perform certain functions, such as converting sunlight, carbon and other elements into itself. We can use this descriptive definition for some purposes.

But to say anything interesting about trees, we need to consider the earth on which they stand: the atmosphere, water, and sunlight they need for life; and the plants and insects that surround them and live in and inside them. It’s the same with humans. We cna use the common sense idea of the isolated individual human for some purposes, but to say anything interesting we need to consider the entire environment of the human, which includes other human beings.

The idea that humans exist at their fullest through their associations with other human beings is related to Dewey’s view that all that we think of as true comes from truths handed down to us from our ancestors. See, e.g. William James, Pragmatism, Lecture II.

Now Dewey and Schiller proceed to … apply [this lesson] to the most ancient parts of truth. They also once were plastic. They also were called true for human reasons. They also mediated between still earlier truths and what in those days were novel observations.

This vision of humanity links us in a web of relations with our ancestors, our contemporaries and future generations. I once sat on a hill in the Dordogne Valley outside a cave decorated with prehistoric art. The art was the product of people like me, and some kid had stuck a hand in the pigment and made a handprint under a ledge designed to hold a pool of oil and a wick. Looking across the valley, I saw wild asparagus, edible berries and grains, walnut trees, and imagined small game. Beyond them lies the great river full of fish. I’d seen the tools of my ancestors at a nearby museum. I knew a little of how they lived. I could almost feel the connection across 25,000 years. And I know that some of what I know they knew, just as some of what they knew I know.

Treating our perceived selves as isolated individuals leaves us with no real way to become the humans we actually are.

2. Philosophical theory is absolutist

Even professedly empirical philosophies have assumed a certain finality and foreverness in their theories which may be expressed by saying that they have been non-historical in character. They have isolated their subject-matter from its connections, and any isolated subject-matter becomes unqualified in the degree of its disconnection. P. 214.

Other philosophers are even worse than empiricists. I listen to The Partially Examined Life, “a podcast by some guys who set out to do philosophy for a living but then thought better of it.” They discuss the original works of a number of philosophers I will never read, like Kant and Averroes. Their descriptions of these works suggest that the writers thought their ideas were valid for all times and all places.

I suppose this was natural when people thought the universe must have a purpose laid out by its Creator. But Dewey was one of the first philosophers to take evolution seriously. He understood that the key insight of evolution theory is that there is no point to the universe. Evolution doesn’t move toward some predetermined goal. There is no direction in evolution other than survival. All evolution is the sum of the reactions of organisms to a changing environment.

Dewey thinks philosophical and ideological absolutism is dangerous.

The disciples of Lenin and Mussolini vie with the captains of capitalistic society in endeavoring to bring about a formation of dispositions and ideas which will conduce to a preconceived goal. If there is a difference, it is that the former proceed more consciously. P. 218-9.

3. Dewey’s Suggestions

From here Dewey goes into a detailed discussion of two things a properly functioning Public requires. First, the social sciences must become better and faster at free inquiry, a technical term best thought of as inquiry free of a pre-determined theory. Second, we need to educate people to the highest degree possible. These two steps will move us in the right direction.

One critical point stands out in the lengthy discussion that follows. There is no fixed set of rules. People change, societies change, technology changes, and our understanding of change changes. Our analytical tools, including our philosophy, must be formed and used for inquiry. We judge our tools by whether they do the work we want done. That’s just as true of social theory as it is of hammers. But we have to understand that any answer we come with is provisional.

… [P]olicies and proposals for social action [must] be treated as working hypotheses, not as programs to be rigidly adhered to and executed. They will be experimental in the sense that they will be entertained subject to constant and well-equipped observation of the consequences they entail when acted upon, and subject to ready and flexible revision in the light of observed consequences. P. 220.

Discussion

In the last post in this series I discussed what seems to me like the emergence of two communities in the US. One, the one I think I live in, tries to grow knowledge and understanding both of ourselves and our society, and to share that knowledge and understanding as widely as possible. The other doesn’t like that. It can’t distinguish a plausible view of the world from the world conjured up by Qhucksters and right-wing liars. The second community despises the first. Mine is utterly unable to understand the second, moving between horror, disgust and laughter at the madness it sees.

Dewey believes that education and better social science can deal with this. He wrote this book in the early days of totalitarian movements, and must have seen the potential for danger. It’s not surprising that he doesn’t have an answer. I haven’t seen anything that suggests a way to have a real dialog with a true believing follower of Trump/Cruz/Gaetz/Hawley/Greene, or with the rich and their claque.

In the next post, I’ll conclude this very long series with some final thoughts.

Reading Through The Eyes Of Others

Most of the books I’ve posted about here are non-fiction. They include histories, intellectual histories, semi-philosophical texts, and a few polemics. I read lots of other stuff too, often just to clear my head from abstractions and theories. I’ve read a lot of murder mysteries, sci-fi (not so much fantasy), serious novels (think Pynchon), old novels, thrillers (not so much lately, real life is scary enough), as well as science, historical fiction, religion, and more.

I never bothered with romance novels, though. I read a couple of Janet Evanovich novels I found in a beach rental: they were delightful reading in the hot sun. I read one or two Outlander novels by Diana Gabaldon I found in another rental, which were fun light reading. That’s about it. Several years ago my excellent daughter gave me a copy of Courtney Milan’s The Suffragette Scandal. I enjoyed it immensely. It’s an imagined history set in 1877 England, the sixth in a series called The Brothers Sinister. So I bought the series and became a Courtney Milan fan.

Milan writes both historical novels set in 19th C. England, and contemporary novels. She writes lots of interesting characters, including those of different ethnic backgrounds and gender identities. Some books have interesting plots, others are more focused on relationships.

Well, turns out Milan is actually Heidi Bond, a graduate of U. Mich. law school. She clerked for Alex Kozinsky who resigned in disgrace. Here’s one reason why. She went on to clerk for Sandra Day O’Connor. I learned all this because the Michigan Law Review asked her to do a book review. She chose one of my favorite novels, Pride And Prejudice by Jane Austen. Her review is titled Pride And Predators, and it’s great.

I sent a link to the Bond/Milan review to Rayne, a real Janeite, and of course she’d already seen it. I explained that I’d read a bunch of romance novels, which I found more or less randomly, through Goodreads, best-sellers lists, and NetGalley, among other sources. I really didn’t like most of them. They rely on improbable plots, like billionaires marrying single moms who work at Denny’s; there are whole series based on single working women marrying billionaires. Characters have stomach flutters and goose pimples when they meet, and these continue until they get together for sex; it’s like the only thing on their minds is sex. The men are all buff hardbodies (google “hard-planed chest”); I didn’t see a single one that looked like someone you’d see on any beach. There is a lot of discussion of clothes.

The single most irritating thing is the paragraphs of discussion about what’s in the heads of characters, even in scenes based on dialog. The character says something, and the next paragraphs are discussions of that something. Then the other character says something, followed by more discussion. None of this advances the plot. Sometimes we get new information about the character, but most of it tells us nothing new. There’s a lot of repetition, as if we can’t remember what we read earlier. There is an excellent example of this in this post by writer and editor K. J. Charles. (H/T Kate).

It’s distracting and mildly unpleasant to me. I’m good with the omniscient narrator who occasionally explains what’s happening with characters. We see that in Pride And Prejudice, where the narrator becomes another character, in that case, one I’d like to know. But in the romance novels I read, it was a real problem. I found myself skipping ahead to the next line of dialog, ignoring the commentary.

As Charles says in the blog post, it’s just bad writing. So why are these novels so popular? Romance is the largest selling genre of books. They’re everywhere from drug stores to grocery stores to real bookstores, to airport stores, and of course the online book sellers. Amazon has a list of Romance best-sellers, about which I express no opinion. People are paying for them and they must offer something.

Rayne gave me some advice.

1. She suggested I read Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema by Laura Mulvey, which is one of the early articles addressing the male gaze. The idea is that movie-goers, men and women, watch movies through the psychological formations that they bring with them. Watching movies generates two kinds of pleasure:

The first, scopophilic, arises from pleasure in using another person as an object of sexual stimulation through sight. The second, developed through narcissism and the constitution of the ego, come from identification with the image seen.

Because we live in a patriarchal society, looking is divided into two kinds: active/looking (male) and passive/looked-at (female). Movies privilege the male gaze. They seem to be designed to fulfill the scopohilic pleasure of the male on the screen and the male watcher in looking at others on the screen, especially women; and identification by the male spectator with the male on the screen who acts toward the more or less passive woman. The analysis is grounded in Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis.

Psychoanalytic theory is thus appropriated here as a political
weapon, demonstrating the way the unconscious of patriarchal society has structured film form.

It’s a fascinating essay. The idea of the male gaze is not dependent on psychoanalytic theory. It’s easy enough to deduce from a close watching of movies from years before 1975 when Mulvey wrote. Jane Fonda’s Barbarella springs to mind. A later example more focused on the pleasure of identification with the male lead, there’s Kiss Of The Dragon, starring Jet Li and Jane Fonda’s niece, Bridget Fonda.

The idea of the male gaze is easily transferred to books. I’d like to think The Great Transformation by Karl Polanyi and The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt are neutral as respects gender and sexuality, because neither focuses on those matters. As respects the prose of these books, I doubt that even a careful reader would be able to assert with confidence that one was written by a man, the other by a woman. But as to choice of themes? I don’t know. Maybe Arendt is a special case of transcendent genius, and the comparison isn’t fair.

Anyway, it’s obvious that romance novels, especially the ones I don’t like, aggressively reject the male gaze. The writers don’t care what I think about literature, or how I approach their works. They aren’t trying to impress me and they don’t care if their sex scenes titillate me. That’s a really useful way to read these books. I should ask myself what it would feel like to enjoy them. What are the points that make them interesting to so many other people? What needs or desires do they fulfill? Is it voyeurism to read them?

2. As to my complaint about bad interior monologue, Rayne introduced me to the idea of free indirect speech.

Free indirect discourse can also be described as a “technique of presenting a character’s voice partly mediated by the voice of the author”, or, in the words of the French narrative theorist Gérard Genette, “the narrator takes on the speech of the character, or, if one prefers, the character speaks through the voice of the narrator, and the two instances then are merged”.

Rayne wrote:

I hear you about the use of free indirect speech in romance genre. Austen is one of the earliest to use it, and she may have done so in part because she didn’t have formal education afforded to young men of her time.

For the last hundred years writers have been encouraged (bordering on pressured) to “show, don’t tell” in fiction as well as narrative non-fiction. But many of the authors who exemplify this style of writing, from Chehkov (“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass”) and Hemingway (see his Iceberg Theory) to Chuck Palahniuk (who wanted to ban dialog tags referring to thinking). They’re nearly all men — I can’t think of a woman author who typifies this push. The emergence of modern marketing copy which sold sizzle, not the steak, also shaped this move away from indirect speech, and much of that emergent copy was written by “Mad Men.”

In other words, much of modern writing and the subsequent education which embraced it reflected “male gaze.” It’s what Carla Lonzi rejected in the late 1960s but didn’t yet have a concise theory to express her perspective. Laura Mulvey fleshed out her theory of “male gaze” in her 1975 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.”

What you read in romance written primarily by women authors may be an unconscious rejection of the male gaze. In some cases it’s a pointed rejection — the smut and clothes serve female gaze not served elsewhere, and the authors knowingly include it though they may call it “fan service” to do so. And the excess of free indirect speech is an embrace of what women experience, their tendency to overthink everything in a world which punishes them for failing to fit a model mold. There are a plethora of memes about women overthinking:

Women spend more time thinking about what men are thinking than men actually spend time thinking.

Perhaps women authors are ready to turn a corner, though, because they don’t need to overthink what’s finally given to them.

It’s taken since Mulvey’s essay for TV/film industry to fully embrace serving female gaze. STARZ’s Outlander series is one example as is Netflix’s Bridgerton, both of which are based on period fiction with the latter far more inclusive. So sorry, you may have to bear with more bare male ass and proportionally less heaving female bosoms in both.

Well. According to the Wikipedia entry on male gaze, there is some agreement with Rayne about Austen’s use of free indirect speech. That seems wrong to me; as I said, I see the form as the omniscient narrator, and frequently a delightful character. But we can disagree about that without disturbing the main points about gendered writing.

Conclusion

Here’s a good site with tons of reviews of romance novels of all types.

It’s Summer without Covid-19. Let’s enjoy all of it.

The Two Communities And The Future Of Democracy

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Chapter 5 of John Dewey’s The Public And Its Problems is a rich statement of much of Dewey’s thinking on knowledge, science, and psychology, all brought to bear on the question of what is needed to bring us closer to an ideal community and an ideal democracy. I’ve discussed some of these points in the last two posts. Here I look at two more points, and conclude the discussion of this chapter on a sour note.

1. In the previous post, I quoted this:

To learn to be human is to develop through the give-and-take of communication an effective sense of being an individually distinctive member of a community; one who understands and appreciates its beliefs, desires and methods, and who contributes to a further conversion of organic powers into human resources and values. P. 180.

This idea is central to Dewey’s concept of the nature of a community. We think of ourselves as separate individuals. Certainly in private settings we are. But we are much more than that. In public settings, such as work, team sports, Church, and in government service, we become more. Our understanding of ourselves is completely different when we act as part of a group or a family. In the work setting and in government service we have responsibilities and powers we don’t have as individuals. In our Churches, we are affected by worship and service, in self-examination and openness to forces beyond ourselves.  When we play basketball with others, we have different roles, and our success or failure comes from the actions of all of us.

One of the main things that links us in our different roles is a common understanding of the situation in front of us. That includes both the context of the norms of our society, “its beliefs, desires and methods”, and the nature of the contending forces. Norms set limits on our behavior, especially our interactions with others. They channel our actions in ways deemed socially useful. Deviations can cause us problems. Negotiating changes is a long-term project.

2. Dewey thinks that habits of thought frequently blind us to the need for change. He says that for most of us habits of thought are so deeply engrained that we cannot truly question them. When these habits are activated, we respond to abstract concepts instead of to the merits of the proposition. Here’s Dewey’s example:

One of its commonest [bad habits of thought] is a truly religious idealization of, and reverence for, established institutions; for example in our own politics, the Constitution, the Supreme Court, private property, free contract and so on. The words “sacred” and “sanctity” come readily to our lips when such things come under discussion. P. 192-3.

This must have been shocking to Dewey’s audience (recall that this book is a series of lectures). I picture gun fetishists braying about their sacred Second Amendment rights which have existed from all eternity, or at least 1791. Hilarious bewilderment follows when they’re confronted with Dewey’s statement that their sacred rights are subject to change.

Change might come from a new group of Justices who see fit to reject the mummery drooled by the intellectually dishonest hacks who signed on to the Heller opinion. Change can come because we as a nation are entitled to move on from the dictates of the long-dead Founders which merely resolved the political problems they faced. We can make our own rules fit for our purposes. For example, we are even free to adjust the absurd idea that a democracy can function under the dead weight of unaccountable life-tenured ancients acting as a bevy of Platonic Guardians. [H/T Learned Hand]

That last is a good example of throwing off bad habits of thought. I was a lawyer for many years and defended the role of SCOTUS. Now I just see it as one of many obstacles to democracy, an institution in desperate need of rethinking. In a similar way, the prison abolition people and the defund the police people are demanding close inquiry into the roles of major institutions. Dewey would be pleased, I think.

Conclusion on Chapter 5

It’s helpful to think of democracy as the natural form of government for a healthy community. As a nation we need knowledge of the situation, reasonable means for discourse on those problems, conceptual tools that enable us to do a good analysis, and the willingness to proceed even when we are uncertain of the best path, with the idea that we will change direction if our first solutions don’t work, and with a commitment to facing the problems our solutions create.  Only then can we forge a community and a democracy.

In other works, Dewey emphasizes the importance of a good education for all citizens as a key to a functioning democracy. Dewey doesn’t say it, but we also need to conduct ourselves in good faith.

Dewey doesn’t try to apply these ideas to his time, and disclaims the ability to suggest practical steps towards a healthy community. I think our problem is that there are forces at work that are aggressively trying to create a massive divide in our nation, as if we are two competing communities. The Republicans are hell-bent on creating an alternate reality, one that has few points of contact with the world as I see it. Theirs is the world of the Big Lie, Qanon, Trump as an anointed savior sent by the Almighty, a vaccine that causes people to shed something something that upsets menstrual cycles and causes sterility, science denial, patriarchy, and unthinking acceptance of gibberish readings of ancient texts. It’s also a world in which only unfettered capitalism can save us.

One of their tactics is attacking the conceeptual tools we use to understand our selves and our society. A recent example is the redefinition of Critical Race Theory. This tool begins with the idea that what and who we are is largely shaped by our institutions and power structures, just as Dewey suggests. Critical Race Theory looks at the way our legal system and the power structures it supports interact with race. The Right Wing media translates this into “being white is bad”, or “all white people are racists” or some similar stupid lie. This is a deliberate attack on a conceptual tool that may be of great value.

This has been running side-by-side with the effort of Christian Fundamentalism to create a separate world for its adherents, perhaps with a long-term goal of turning the government into a Christian Theocracy. That includes Seg Schools, havens for White Christian Children safe from the unChristians and other rabble, Christian Rock music, creationism and other forms of fake science, home schooling, and colleges in which the devils of secular humanism can be expelled along with anything that threatens their world view.

These trends now include adherence to a limited range of self-sorted media and social media platforms where the two groups intermingle to some extent, or perhaps where the dominant class teaches the subordinate class what to believe and how to think.

To see these trends, see this by Ross Douthat in the New York Times, and this by Eric Levits in New York Magazine.

I do not see anything in Chapter 5 that helps me even begin to think about this problem. I’ll just say again following Pierre Bourdieu that the the right wing part of the dominant class is using this division to maintain its own position and serve its own desires. The sane part of the dominant class can’t seem to do anything about this division, assuming it opposes the division.

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