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

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.

Bad Habits Of Thinking Make It Hard To Form Community

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Chapter 5 of John Dewey’s The Public And Its Problems addresses the role of community in moving from the theory of democracy (the subject of the first 3 chapters) to a working form of democracy. Dewey says that democracy only exists in communities. Just as there has never been and will never be an ideal democracy, there has never been and will never be a perfect community.

Human beings have always worked together on joint projects as a matter of course. Dewey says community arises when people begin to share signs and symbols that enable communication. They talk about their conjoint efforts, to remember and record them, to discuss them, to take pleasure in the accomplishment, to work out how to share in the accomplishment, to talk about ways to do the project better, and to talk about other possible conjoint activity. [1]

1. He starts with this simple proposition, which we’ve seen before in other discussions of his work:

Everything which is distinctively human is learned, not native, even though it could not be learned without native structures which mark man off from other animals. To learn in a human way and to human effect is not just to acquire added skill through refinement of original capacities.

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.

The communication Dewey describes lies in sharing the meanings attached to our words and symbols. It only works if there is shared understanding of those meanings and accurate recounting and recording of beliefs, desires, and methods. This enables the group to come to a reasonably clear view of the situation facing the community, to resolve problems, and to make decisions about the future course of conjoint activity.

2. Knowledge can be kept private, or held close by a few. In the latter case, it can be used to further the interests of the few instead of the community at large. That is the usual case in societies controlled by economic interests. When knowledge is widely and freely held, the community can give careful consideration to the potential outcomes of different uses and results, and it is more likely that those usages will be broader in scope and that the outcomes will benefit the community as a whole.

3. The formation of habits of behavior and thinking makes it possible for us to cope with a complex and changing environment by freeing us to focus on significant changes in the environment. When we experience something that calls our habits into question, we move out of the realm of habit into the realm of actual thinking, which Dewey calls inquiry. Rational directed linear thought is itself a specialized habit, learned with great effort by a few, scientists, philosophers, writers, and only infrequently practiced by them. This is Dewey’s flat dismissal of neoliberalism’s rational man perspective.

4. Dewey says that people expected that with new democratic forms of government the industrial revolution would change things and lead to greater community control. But the habit of kowtowing to the social hierarchy intervened, and nothing really changed. Most of the same people stayed in power, with some new people added from the industrialist class and some of the aristos dropped.

Discussion

Dewey’s thoughts on habit are close to those of Pierre Bourdieu on habitus, discussed in this series. Bourdieu made it his life’s work to study how the dominant class reproduces itself in ways that hide the continuity of domination from itself as well as from the submissive class, so that it seems natural and just and the submissive class doesn’t revolt. That’s what Dewey is talking about when he says that habits of thought were so strong that even the tumultuous changes of the Industrial Revolution and the rise of democracy were unable to shake up long-standing power structures,

Bourdieu offers a modified explanation: he says habitus comes from experience and from class structures. See this post for a discussion of habitus.

ONe obvious bad habit is trusting authorities blindly. We think “Tucker Carlson said it” or “I saw it in the New York Times”; and then we just accept it as true, even if a bit of thought would cause us to question it.

Our habits of thought can also be obstacles to learning new things, especially things that seem radically new. Think about what it would be like to be a farmer in Copernicus’ time, and to be told that the earth revolves around the sun. Or think about what it would be like to be a devout Christian when Darwin explained the origins of the species homo sapiens. If you didn’t understand the methods used by Copernicus and Darwin, and didn’t understand the chains of thought that led to their theories, it would be very hard to accept them. Then add to that the threat to your religious beliefs, and the possibility that accepting these new views would lead to eternal damnation.

Your original ideas were engrained from infancy. One you learned from direct experience. The other was taught by your whole society and was reinforced regularly throughout your life. Changing one’s mind about these things requires a tremendous commitment, intellectual daring, and at least some community support.

Now think about the Covid-19 vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech. The mechanism is new for most of us. The technology seems exotic, and even scary. There are links to fetal stem cells. Management of the pandemic was politicized by Republican politicians. Some Democrats publicly worried about the possible politicization of the FDA, which was sadly realistic, but added to the idea that politics was involved.

Black and Brown people had reason to worry that the testing was inadequate, and that they were being made test subjects as their forebears were, repeatedly. Anti-vaxxers made all sorts of maddening claims about the dangers. The new technology scared people who had previously driven themselves into conniptions over earlier vaccines. Very few of us understand the science behind the creation, manufacture and testing of mRNA vaccines.

The government did nothing to teach the facts. People wallowed in ignorance. And now we may never achieve herd immunity, meaning we are condemned to a future of regular and unpleasant vaccinations.

Far too many of us have lost the ability to reconsider our habits of thought even when they produce absurd or dangerous outcomes. Prominent Democrats drink the blood of children? Bill Gates puts microchips in vaccines? But I’m not sure how open our society is to new ideas at any level, particularly ideas around status, dominance and power.

As Dewey says,

Thinking itself becomes habitual along certain lines; a specialized occupation. Scientific men, philosophers, literary persons, are not men and women who have so broken the bonds of habits that pure reason and emotion undefiled by use and wont speak through them. They are persons of a specialized infrequent habit. P 185.

This is an ugly picture of almost all politicians, and almost all of the pundits and media personalities who cover them, and far too many of us. It’s hard to see how the nascent US Public can identify itself when so many of us have such bad habits of thought. It makes you wonder if the dominant class uses this failure to cement itself in power.
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[1] Here’s the text summarizing several pages from which I gathered this idea:

A community thus presents an order of energies transmuted into one of meanings which are appreciated and mutually referred by each to every other on the part of those engaged in combined action. “Force” is not eliminated but is transformed in use and direction by ideas and sentiments made possible by means of symbols. P. 179-80.

Democratic Values In Practice

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In earlier chapters of The Public And Its Problems John Dewey described the social ideal of democracy as distinguished from the form democracy takes in an actual government. Chapter 5 begins his answer to the question how can we move from our current politics to forms closer to an ideal democracy. That could mean minor fixes to the current form, or adding similar institutions. But if the problems we need to solve exceed the capabilities of our institutions, then we may have to examine the entire structure and make major changes to produce new institutions, laws and regulations that can solve our problems.

The controlling factor must be the interest of the Public, using the term as Dewey does. Steps that bring more of a Public into the decision-making processes are improvements. That could just mean making it easier for everyone to vote, so they can participate at the level of selecting officials. It can also mean taking those interested enough into the decision-making process. That could be as simple as listening to their concerns. It could mean listening to their ideas about who should speak for them, who they trust, and to their solutions. And this isn’t just about government. For Dewey, democracy is valuable in all aspects of our social lives, work, Church, voluntary associations, and involuntary associations like Homeowners Associations.

Dewey offers the following working descriptions of democratic life:

From the standpoint of the individual, it consists in having a responsible share according to capacity in forming and directing the activities of the groups to which one belongs and in participating according to need in the values which the groups sustain. From the standpoint of the groups, it demands liberation of the potentialities of members of a group in harmony with the interests and goods which are common. P. 174-5.

Among the characteristics of democracy are liberty, fraternity and equality. These words make no sense apart from communal life. If society is just a large group of isolated individuals, equality comes to mean merely average, leaving no room for the brilliant, the incompetent, and the uninterested. Liberty means freedom from the bonds of community, ending in anarchy. Fraternity, brotherhood, is meaningless absent community. From this Dewey concludes that democracy is meaningful only in the context of community.

In the context of a community, fraternity becomes the conscious appreciation of the common goods created by our joint efforts and which give direction to our lives. Liberty frees us to flourish, to live our best lives in the company of others, and with their assistance and encouragement. Equality becomes the share of the jointly created goods accruing to each according to need and capacity to use, unhampered by other concerns.

Dewey uses babies as a way of understanding equality. We give babies what they need, not because they’ve earned it, but because they need it or because it makes them happy. When we do this across society, we are our best selves.

Group behavior arises naturally. People work together, live together, and interact. Community arises naturally as we begin to appreciate the contributions of our neighbors and see that they appreciate our contributions. To Dewey, the key point is not the physical actions or the emotions that might attach to them, but the moral implication. By “moral” Dewey means that community life “… is emotionally, intellectually, consciously sustained.” We pay attention to each other and to ourselves in our relations with others; and our community supports our drive to become our best selves.

In an early work, The Ethics of Democracy, Dewey discusses this moral or ethical vision of democracy.

There is an individualism in democracy … it is an individualism of freedom, of responsibility, of initiative to and for the ethical ideal, not an individualism of lawlessness. In one word, democracy means that personality is the first and final reality. It admits that the full significance of personality can be learned by the individual only as it is already presented to him in objective form in society; it admits that the chief stimuli and encouragements to the realization of personality come from society; …. It holds that the spirit of personality indwells in every individual .… From this central position of personality result the other notes of democracy, liberty, equality, fraternity – words which are not mere words to catch the mob, but symbols of the highest ethical idea which humanity has yet reached – the idea that personality is the one thing of permanent and abiding worth, and that in every human individual there lies personality.

This idea, that each individual personality flourishes only in the context of society, under its guidance and inspiration, is a brilliant justification for democracy.

Discussion

1. The Republican Party is whole-heartedly committed to the view that society is a mass of isolated individuals. It’s an idea which has deep roots in the American psyche, the lonely settler, the Lone Ranger, the rugged individual, John Galt and Howard Roark, Homo Economicus, all are examples of this theory of human nature. In The Ethics Of Democracy, Dewey dismisses this theory.

Just as Dewey predicted, the consequences of treating humans as isolated grains in a huge sand pile are dire. The bulk of the Republican Party detests people who disagree with them, particularly what they call the Left, meaning anyone who sees systemic racism, gun violence, unfair taxation, crumbling infrastructure, climate change, abuse of workers, and Covid-19 as serious problems that must be solved, and can only be solved if we act as a community.

The idea of fraternity among all Americans is meaningless to the Republican Party. Equality is a sour joke, a tool to help the weak and the moochers. Liberty means freedom from laws they don’t like, and from social restraints. Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity in Dewey’s sense have no place in Republican politics or discourse. For the entire party, there are no problems that require joint action, only pseudo-problems defined in right-wing spaces: attacks on Dr. Seuss and Mr. Potato Head; unfounded and inexplicable fears of immigration, violent crime, and budget deficits. Take a look at this chart.

Dewey says that our individuality is formed by the society around us. This too is reflected in the Republican Party. Adherents are taught, and teach their children, to ignore science unless it produces results acceptable to the hall monitors at Fox News. Fighting Covid-19 restrictions, gun fetishization, attacking legislatures, these are regarded as manly and appropriate behaviors. Police attacks on random Brown and Black people, and protestors of all colors are righteous. Exactly as Dewey said, the result of hyper-individualism is anarchy.

2. Only a few politicians, mostly local, do a decent job of involving the public in matters of public policy. Think about policing. What exactly do we as a community want to accomplish with policing? I bet the answer is different on the North Side of Chicago than the South and Southwest sides. But no one ever asks, and no one cares. We just keep doing the same things and throwing money at the problems.

3. I’m imagining a series of meetings in Churches and Schools around the city where people can talk about what they want in small groups, maybe with non-ideological facilitators, maybe live-streamed; taking in reactions from the public; more meetings. Then select from among themselves two or three people to meet with other similarly selected; talking and taking the new ideas back to their groups; meeting and discussing, trying to come to grips with this complex social problem. Maybe add some professional polling or non-ideological focus groups. Surely someone has better ideas than mine.

Democracy is possible. We just have to make it happen.

The Social Critique Of The Port Huron Statement

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The Port Huron Statement, written by Tom Hayden and adjusted and accepted by the SDS, asserts that the left needs both a program and a vision. The value section gives the vision. Those values are reflected in the critique of society. Hayden says that social structures of the early 60s were stultifying. Young people go from formative experiences in college to positions in the adult world for which they were prepared.

The fraternity president is seen at the junior manager levels; the sorority queen has gone to Grosse Pointe: the serious poet burns for a place, any place, or work; the once-serious and never serious poets work at the advertising agencies.

No one questions the system. The elites explain this passivity as evidence that people are satisfied with the status quo. But how can that be if people haven’t learned about alternatives, or how to change things, or about the actual power that have? Or, the elites claim that actual issues are disappearing. But they control the media and the education system, so how would we know otherwise? Other elites claim that “democracy never worked anywhere in the past”. But “… how can a social order work well if its best thinkers are skeptics, and is man really doomed forever to the domination of today?”

Universal apathy is reinforced by the existing power structure, which separates the public from full knowledge of the facts, and protects decision-makers from the public. Socially isolated citizens have no way to grasp how their world works. Hayden uses Dewey’s language around “publics”.

The very isolation of the individual — from power and community and ability to aspire — means the rise of a democracy without publics.

The American political system is not the democratic model of which its glorifiers speak. In actuality it frustrates democracy by confusing the individual citizen, paralyzing policy discussion, and consolidating the irresponsible power of military and business interests.

Hayden identifies several reasons for this. First, the policy differences within both of the main parties are greater than the differences between the parties. Mostly this means that the Dixiecrats are more like the Republicans than they are either mainstream Democrats or liberal Republicans. The rigidity is increased by the seniority system in the Democratic Party, where most committees are chaired by Dixiecrats, and the system gives these chairs enormous power to enforce their wills.

Second, there is a bias towards local concerns. Legislators are more interested in trying to stay on the good side of their voters, even when the interests of those voters runs contrary to the national interest. Therefore politics fails to confront national and international issues in a smart way.

Third, whole communities are unrepresented: Black people, particularly in the South, migrant workers, poor people, and urban and suburban people gerrymandered into districts where they do not count

Fourth, all of this is made much worse by corporate power, expressed through lobbying and special access.

These forces work together to calcify politics, and weaken government, especially the legislature. Image and charisma replace thoughtfulness and insight. Voters are confronted with “pseudo-problems”, but actual problems are not addressed, let alone solved, by a weakened government. The confusion and lack of results lead to worse apathy. Politicians do nothing about this state of affairs; in fact, they support it.

The dominant feature of politics in 1962 was anti-communism. Public apathy and ignorance open the way for highly nationalistic, conservative anti-communists. These people took over the Republican party under the leadership of Barry Goldwater.

Their political views are defined generally as the opposite of the supposed views of communists: complete individual freedom in the economic sphere, non-participation by the government in the machinery of production. But actually “anticommunism” becomes an umbrella by which to protest liberalism, internationalism, welfarism, the active civil rights and labor movements.

The economy has a few elements of social support, but for the most part it contributes to the malaise. Hayden says we live in a “national celebration of economic prosperity”, but millions live in poverty and deprivation. Work is “unfulfilling and victimizing”, but it’s the only means to achieve financial security. We think we are free because we live in a free enterprise world.

People are excluded from control over their work lives. The rich and their corporations run the country. They dominate the fabric of social life. Government is not a countervailing force protecting citizens.

The military industrial complex is another dominant force. The cooperation between corporations and the military is crystalized by the statement of Charles Wilson, CEO of GM, who lauded the creation of the “permanent war economy.”

There’s more, but that gives a good flavor of the critique.

Discussion

1. The Port Huron Statement was written nearly 60 years ago, and 35 years after the publication of The Public And Its problems. I think it still serves both as a statement of values and as a social critique. True, it doesn’t mention women or the LGBTQ community, and its discussion of racism and the labor movements is weak. Some of the issues are no longer relevant, like the Dixiecrats. But these criticisms can be addressed within its framework.

2. Dewey says that corporations and the rich control political discussion. Their interests are not the same as the interests of the vast majority. Most people can’t even articulate their own interests because of the confusion and dissembling of the wealthy and their minions. Dewey thinks that a good society is one in which individuals have agency in all aspects of their lives.

The Port Huron Statement puts those concerns in the center of the discussion. Hayden adds discussion of the role of the military and the special role played by corporations that support it. That shows the influence of C. Wright Mills, especially his book The Power Elite.

3. The critiques of Dewey, Mills, and Hayden of the way democracy is actually working in America could all have been written today, with only minor changes. Mill’s power elites still run things. Issues of social inclusion are still a huge problem. National discourse is still confused by lies and distortions that serve the rich at the expense of everyone else. It is still difficult for citizens to recognize themselves as publics, capable of pursuing their own interests. The average person has little agency. Americans are divided by manipulation of pseudo-issues.

As an example, the rich make demands on government and get most of what they want from all three branches of government: tax cuts, IP protection for critical vaccines, de-regulation, weakened agencies, hand-outs. At the same time, a huge number of Americans are suffering under a catastrophic pandemic and the effects of deteriorating infrastructure, chemical pollution, and climate change.

A significant majority of us want the government to act. Courts offer years of delay to any objection from almost anyone. Most legislators are locked into their ancient games. Legislators who have internalized the values of the rich, or who are corrupt, or just stupid and indifferent, use senate procedure to block necessary changes. The dissemblers and liars raise absurd questions like “do they deserve it?” and “how do we pay for it?”, questions never asked about the demands of the rich. Anything that works for the common good is labeled Communist. Those arguments and tactics have been used at least 120 years.

This history is evidence of another of Dewey’s basic principles: democracy is a project of a community, never a finished product.

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