Archive for the 'liberalism' Category


Games and Civilization

I recently read Jane Mcgonigal’s book titled Reality is Broken. Unbelievably, I’ve misplaced my copy and so am without my notes for this short post.

What I want to focus on is a remark that McGonigal makes about scale. Her point is that scale is not what we think it is. It’s natural to think that if five molecules behave a certain way, then fifteen molecules will behave in a similar way, just with more molecules to take into account. The rules get more complex but the rules themselves don’t change.

She talks at points as if physics shows this to be false. That at higher levels of scale, there are new emergent properties that would not be predicted by just taking the laws for a lower scale of interaction and just account for more things. I don’t know about physics and her reference is obscure and offhand, so I can’t speak to that analogy. What I want to do is to think about how civilization fundamentally changes at each stage of it’s evolution so that ideas and rules that were applicable to one part of it at one time are no longer applicable at a later part or later time.

Applicable is a vague word, but I mainly mean that solutions for certain social problems become unworkable as things change. It’s hard for me to find an example that makes the case once and for all. But take a broad view. The ways of organizing a small society, like a tribe or a clan, involve face to face problem solving, kinship relations, a very uncomplicated economy, etc. When you move from this, to something different, like a city-state, a lot of things don’t work. For example, justice requires the codification of laws, division of labor (to a meager extent), and full time political offices.

Humankind, in my mind, seems to be incapable, just horribly incapable, of keeping up with the pace of our living, of our own society. I’m tempted to think the root cause is our two systems of thinking. Humor me. We have an intuitive system of thought that rushes to judgment. See Daniel Kahnemann for more evidence, but at root, we like fatty foods, sex, we automatically approve of our own action, we see the concerns of others as less important, again ETC. We can combat all these tendencies, but it isn’t easy, and I think that these individual cognitive facts are mirrored in the way society works. Society is great at getting better music, sexier celebrities, cooler cars, gadgets, more power for the powerful. These things take care of themselves and no one, in the history of the world, has had to focus on making sure the powerful can defend themselves. No one needs to worry that the present is shortchanging itself in order to help the future. In fact, global warming shows us that we are obsessed with the present and may, organizationally, be unable to deal with what’s coming. It seems it will always be privileged.

There are other examples. The phrase “we’re always fighting the last war” is instructive. Even war, one of the most important concerns of a modern state, always lags behind. It’s partly incompetence and partly complexity. Who would have guessed that the U.S. traditional military dominance would result in people willing to blow themselves up. We’re always fighting the last war, and we’re always solving the last problem. In other words, I think we’re always woefully behind what our intuitive, automatic, unthinking societal forces create. We created the internet and it has huge legal implications. It changes how we gather intelligence, how privacy works, what IP is, and what property rules are applicable. We are way behind in addressing these issues in terms of clear thinking. We’re waiting to catch up.

One more example. We’re worried about what violent video games are doing to children. Some analogize this to the effects of TV or rap lyrics. Yes and no. If we think the analogy is perfect, then we will be fighting the last war. What I mean is that we will think that video games effect people in the same way as violent movies or lyrics. But it’s subtly different. For proof, just look at the fact that school shooters who are influenced by video games often kill themselves, whereas people from the TV generation didn’t usually suicide after their crimes. There are probably deeper differences. The right thing to do would be to adjust our social science, tweak our thinking, and come up with a new way to respond that involved reducing bullying, increasing mental health services, possibly gun control or at least better enforcement of laws we already have. We wont’ do any of those things. We may slowly adjust all of those things in the next 15 to 20 years. But for now, we can only crawl forward.

McGonigal’s point is that we’re facing a new scale to human problems. The instantaneously massive. Problems that cross geographic boundaries, social science disciplines, and defy easy solutions. To solve these problems, we must become more collaborative on a new scale. And here McGonigal really has a point. Wikipedia is a massive reproduction and systemization of human knowledge. It can be improved, but it’s already very good. She has examples about how game players can help fold proteins and create massive edifices of functionality and knowledge. Knowledge that is alive with it’s own use and pregnant with it’s own application. Her example is video games like world of warcraft in which the players have an entire economy, solve collective world problems, and develop idioms, ways of interacting, and codes of conduct — the micro rules that make all societies run but are almost impossible to catch in a sentence, a law, or a movement. This is a good point and she may be right that we need to evolve better, more massive, more complete systems of cooperation.

My one criticism though is that more and more coordination will only get us so far. Beyond coordination is genuine cooperation, valuing, and striving. We have to pick our priorities, seize decisively on mistakes and errors, and work to improve things as we see them. None of this can be accomplished by mere world-of-warcraftization. World of warcraft takes place within a somewhat free liberal society, and it is those values that make it playable, and our games will replicate the flawed, never-quite-there sickness of human civilization until we solve the problem of values first.

Of course, we will never solve the problem of values. They will always be in flux and being contested, and this is exactly what makes life so enjoyable. The game we play with each other when we try to build a company, raise a family, or paint a picture is INFINITELY complex. Some games get boring because you learn their internal logic and you become tired with the repetition. Human life though, FOR THE VERY REASON THAT WE CAN NEVER SOLVE IT COMPLETELY, is always fresh and new. It’s always challenging us and we usually feel like meeting that challenge.



The History of Western Civilization Through Social Media

The history of western civilization, as far as I can tell, is the substitution of institutional, coercive, control over people’s lives with diffused, softer, and “social” controls. First, the church, your lord, your husband, and the difficulty of human life ruled over you. Very few people had power to direct their lives each day as they saw fit, and the power that they had to direct others was stern and violent. Remember, legal courts are a comparatively new thing. If someone didn’t like what you did, it was likely that they would just kill you themselves or find someone with power that looked out for them and have them kill you.

Then the church lost its power and slowly but surely, over the course of roughly two hundred years, individuals won the right to practice the religion that they saw fit. But the freedom from excommunication and being burned at the stake by the church was replaced by legal requirements instituted by various governments, and then even those slowly died away as society finally realized the ability to. In a way, religion might be our collective sneak peek at what happens to ALL institutions and systems of value. First, they rule everything, then they are up to the state, then up to the economy, then up to the individual, and then they cease to matter altogether (as I believe will largely happen to religion, or will it have staying power? That would be interesting to see). One might say that a system of values starts its death the moment that those who believe in it cannot summarily kill those who do not.

The same thing happened with the economy. First, people owed their labor to their lord. In fact, there was slavery at the beginning of most societies, but the intermediate step was serfdom or vassalage. A huge class of people created food so that others might live. Then property became somewhat more democratized in that more people could own it, but land was still largely restricted to certain people and labor was still largely immobilized by the difficulty of travel and the power of nobles of all stripes. Also, taxes were set up to almost make sure that certain people could never participate in the economy. In France, the nobles were the ones who DIDN’T have to pay taxes for a long time, because they just didn’t want to and the king did not want to tangle with them. Today, everyone can have property to roughly the same degree. If you have the money and the skills, you can get land, cash, machines, information. Anything you want. If you have the cash. (Addendum: this trend is further backed up by a short look at the history of lending. The dispersion of capital into the economy has massively democratized access to $$)

Same thing happened with the state. At first, the state was nothing more than a group of people who had weapons or commanded the power of other people with weapons. Offending the laws of a place was a good way to die. Since that brutal starting point, the legal controls on the average person have loosened in a host of ways (though they still exist). For one thing, people can now elect their rulers. They play a role in who will rule them, to some degree. That is the legacy of the advance of democracy. Also, the state cannot do certain things. That’s never really true in practice, but there are much more barriers to outright discrimination, pogroms, and the like then in the past. That is the legacy of liberalism. Finally, breaking the law is almost never a ticket to death. There are courts, appeals courts, and finally prisons. There are many, many MORE laws because society has become so much more complex, but they do not carry the absolute and unbending character that they used to.


In this post though, I want to focus on the economy at large. Here again, we are witnessing a substitution of one type of obvious power with a more subtle more dispersed power. The example I’m thinking of is social media and the internet. As the economy had evolved up until the 20th century, people were entitled to property of various kind by paying for it. The problem was that if one didn’t have money, one became poor. If you were poor before public transportation, you had to find a ride another way. If you were poor before food stamps and the like, you were hungry (soup kitchens being the exception).

But these days, a lot of things are eliminating that barrier by providing things for free. For example, news is now free, because sites provide them along with advertisements. Facebook is free, because they want you to give them all your personal information. Thousands of other services are provided not for a monetary cost (the old way of restricting people to goods), but by transacting over someone’s personal data.

This fits with western civilization thus far. Goods and services are made available to more and more people. Yay! Anyone can go to and read pretty high quality writing about a range of interesting topics. Anyone can connect with friends and family via google voice, facebook, email, and on and on. The tradeoff though is made in terms of less understood and “softer” forms of restriction. Cynicism is the name for this and I predict it will grow as an extremely unhealthy force in our society.

In the old economy, if I wanted to buy steel, and you wanted to sell it to me, I knew why you wanted to sell it to me. You wanted my money. This was a type of honesty. As many have pointed out, it was also callous, since I didn’t care about you, but only your money. I maintain though that because everyone knew that money was the trade off, it created an activity and a respect similar to sports. If I played you in basketball, I know you wanted to win, but we both knew the purpose of our interaction. Same with negotiations and creating business. People know what they are getting into when they enter the marketplace. They expect to engage in economic competition (as I’ve argued elsewhere, the value of this competition is exactly the reason we need public education and wealth redistribution, so that this competition is meaningful). But now, when you go to get something, there is an element of fakery that breeds cynicism. Rather than posting a price that Facebook expects you to pay, it plays an ongoing game that most people do not KNOW ABOUT or PAY ATTENTION TO regarding what they will and will not do with your information. They want badly to do whatever they want, but they are bound to care about the community because they need the “community” to continue to extract the information that it needs. Thus there is a very amorphous dance that goes on about the service and what it entails rather than a price transaction which focuses the consumer on what they are buying. This type of transaction makes it very clear to the consumer what they are giving up.

The same things goes for news sites that make money through eyeballs. Rather than asking you to pay for what you read if you like it, there are now gadgets an procedures at every turn to keep your eyeballs on the site. Such things can be distractions, redirects, and prettier and prettier advertisements. But the point is simply to deluge you with advertisements. This is much less callous than simply asking a price, but it’s much more insulting. The purchase of things is becoming indirect. Rather than trying to get your money, facebook wants you to be willing to make it easier for someone ELSE to get your money.


It should be illegal to inherit anything?

Megan McArdle at the Atlantic is really impressing me these days. Check this out: she argues that people should not be able to inherit anything. If rich grandaddy wants to give me money, he has to do it while he’s alive: he’s got to give me a gift. He cant’ just hold it in abeyance and have it turned over to me after he dies.

This isn’t really that new of a concept, and in fact some libertarians endorse it as a way to make people entitled to only what they “earn.” (scare quotes because what you earn is really hard to determine I think). Many liberals also like it because it seems to go after rich people and takes all their money away before they can give it away to their spoiled grandkids.

But there are a lot of issues. McArdle looks at the economic effects and claims that such a tax might be economically non-optimal because parents will work less hard because they can’t give away the excess that they don’t use when they die. Of course, kids will work harder, because that pepsico heir taking Econ 001, “the economics of being rich as hell” will have to get some real skills and make his own way. McArdle rightly says that parents are more productive than kids so the fire that is lit under the asses of kids would hardly make up for the slacking that would result from adults. But even that is a little deceptive. What if parents, rather than working less, expend more money on their kids while they’re alive. For instance, I could see a no-estate tax world filled with colleges that provide healthcare, career services, guaranteed jobs on campus after school, and a pension. These colleges would cost 400,000 over four years, but parents would pay them as a way of making sure their kids are safe and protected after they die. This transfer from savings to increased investment while alive would almost surely be economically inefficient. Better to save money to be used when needed rather than find ridiculous uses for it all before one dies. Think, if you had to spend all your money tomorrow, how happy could you really make yourself than if you could spend it over a period of a year, for example? Your happiness wouldn’t increase that much after you bought that first new car and the penthouse suite at all the las vegas casinos. There is only so much you can consume at once.

But one really good effect that McArdle doesn’t talk about, is that rich people would all of a sudden become very interested in the wider social world. If you can’t guarantee that your kid will live off your money, you might start to care about medicare and social security and take an interest in these policy problems. At the margins, you might even start to care more about things like the public school system (if you have a young kid and are afraid you might die soon). The public world would likely benefit from elite attention rather than indifference (or would elites make things even worse if they trained their eyes on social problems?)

There are a bunch of deeper philosophical questions too. One is: is the problem with rich people giving their money to their kids that they are giving some people a leg up who didn’t work for that leg up, or is it there something special about the way inheritance goes to people I value and not other people in need. What if, when I died, I put in my will that my fortune was to be given to a random person living below the poverty line. Should the government be able to tax away to its coffers. It really reinvigorates the whole debate about people’s entitlement to their money in any case. A 100% estate tax would basically that any money I don’t spend is de facto tax money. But why? What if I want my fortune to go to HIV research and not the USFG? See, I think the 100% estate tax gets some of its umph from the idea that people who benefit their own kids are blue-blooded selfish bastards who want to perpetuate a family lineage where a lot of people have first names like “Dale” and “Sebastian.”

HOWEVER, as I’ve argued many times on this blog, I think society should be thought of as a competition. Not a cutthroat, war of all against all type of competition, but like a basketball game; a fair but somewhat antagonistic arena where greatness can emerge and each participant can be honored for their good faith attempt to be great. So, I think an estate tax would further that goal, of making sure each person was put into a position where they are pushed to succeed for themselves. For the same reason I cringe when I see a parent spoiling their kid, I cringe when I see someone getting inordinate resources from their parents, and this means I cringe many times at myself, since I’ve been the beneficiary of their generosity. I’m not saying everyone has to fend for themselves. I think welfare, education and medicare, and on and on are similar to salary caps and free agent restrictions: they ensure everyone gets a shot to compete.


Holder and Legal Ethics, Re: Bin Laden

Eric Holder testified partly on the killing of Bin Laden today, and what he said was kind of revealing, because it really has nothing to do with legal justification.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t know if there is legal justification for what we did to Bin Laden (there likely is), and even if there were ABSOLUTELY no legal justification, I wouldn’t be very upset and rather think this situation shows that there sometimes might be no reason to follow the law: even a just law.

For example, it is likely just for a nation to outlaw torture, still I’m not sure that some circumstances would not require a nation to break that law. The argument here would not be, as Bush sometimes seemed to think, “When there are a lot of lives at stake it IS LEGAL to torture.” No, I think something else. I think, “When there are lots of lives at stake, it is ILLEGAL to torture, and this is a just law, but nonetheless in the circumstances that just law does not deserve our allegiance.”

The funny thing though about Holder’s testimony is that he doesn’t make any of these arguments I just listed, not one. He doesn’t say that there was a justification for killing Bin Laden, or that we don’t need one, or anything like that. Just congratulations on a job well done and that’s it. And don’t get me wrong, maybe that’s all that’s needed in the grand scheme of things, but you would think that the head of our legal system would talk about something related to legality when called to Congress.


Aliens and Abyss

James Cameron directed both of these movies, and they both start with “a,” but beyond that, it’s interesting to think of these movies as opposites.

You see, I just watched the Abyss all the way through (I had seen parts before) and they’re both exploring basically the same things from opposite sides of things.

Take Aliens. In this, movie, humanity sends marines, the most brute force method of offering social commentary on excessive militarism. Anyway, the tough guys show up with Ridley and they look around the colony where the aliens are running around. Of course, the military is “in the right” (whatever that means in a movie like this) and it would be good if they could destroy the aliens, which are a primal force. They are nature’s urge to destroy and procreate (see my post on Aliens here) brought into physical form and THEIR allegorical role is pretty clear too.

So you have militarism against nature’s darkest incarnation, but of course there is betrayal. The corporate executive wants to risk humanity’s livelihood for PROFIT. He wants to bring the aliens back to civilization and represents humanity’s potential to sabotage itself.

Then take Abyss. In abyss, the aliens are peaceful and live in harmony with nature. They live on earth rather than among the stars. They are intelligent rather than bestial. There are other opposites no doubt.

And the humans (at least most of them) don’t want to destroy the aliens but only to talk with them and learn from them. Here humanity is represented well. But does humanity have the potential to sabotage itself? Yes of course, and in this movie, it is the military that represents humanity’s flawed nature. It’s tendency to see enemies where there are none.

In Aliens the military is performing its righteous role as protector, and they are done in by someone who refuses to see the real risk that the aliens pose to civilization. In Abyss, the military sees the aliens as a threat when they are not. The urge to protect runs amok and creates danger and destruction where there is no need for violence.

There were a bunch of other similarities too, like the harsh environments, the use of thermonuclear bombs and strong women. I forgot a lot of the other stuff I noticed, but the lesson I got was basically that humanity is does itself in or tries to. The very institutions that it creates, capitalism for exchange the military for protection can just as easily be its undoing. And what is the nuclear bomb other than the ultimate expression of how our own technology can threaten us. And what is global warming other than a dramatization of how humans can ecologically suicide, and sometimes I think of racism or war as humanity socially self imploding; gobbling itself up.

And so, one thing I’ve been toying with lately is to think of humans as the self defeating animal. Aristotle thought we were the political animals, Kant and others thought we were the rational animal, some biologists think were are the tool using animals (wrong, monkeys use tools) or the language using animal (wrong again, prairie dogs have a sophisticated compositional language),and Marxists think we are the creating, laboring animal. All sorts of things are supposed to characterize our uniqueness in the natural order. If you follow this blog, you know I think its kind of useless to try and capture humanity’s essence in this way. Better to just leave the matter unsettled and let humankind always impress us with what it wants to be today. Despite my skepticism about “human nature” I’m finding it productive to understand human beings as the type of animal that can defeat itself by pursuing its goals.

Think of someone who tries really hard to be happy by thinking what will make them happy (I use this example all the time). Such a person defeats their chance at happiness necessarily by their intention to get it in everything they do. No other animal can defeat themselves in that way. Sure a lobster might trap himself further by struggling in a trap, but this is accidental. A lobster can never defeat its own flourishing by acting, and this is because it only one layer of consciousness, its immediate impulses to respond to stimuli. It cannot ruin one layer of consciousness by the intrusion of another. But since humans the ability to react immediately and seamlessly in tune with the environment, but also contrary to it through reflection, we can come into contact with ourselves. We can be weak willed and we can be self-defeating.

And most human problems I think arise from that very fact; the ability for us to conflict with ourselves, with our brothers and sisters and with our fellow humans. There’s something kind of Buddhist about this whole thing too — we can only live in harmony with each other when we learn to live in harmony with ourselves. But there’s nothing deep about that last part, every ideology since the beginning of human time has imagined that reconciliation with our nature.

*Also Abyss is SO much like Sphere or Armageddon (hostile environments, big stakes, futuristic means of transportation). Doesn’t leave one too impressed with Hollywood really.


A Breakthrough on Awkwardness

When it comes to awkwardness, I’ve heard it all (I’ve done it all too). So as I grow older and become more mature, I’ve become a little more guarded and jaded about the term “awkward.” People seem to use it a lot; way too much in fact. Everything now is awkward and it seems that for growing number of people, this is our default way of relating to people.

So I’ve been doing some thinking, and my thoughts were these: first, can I say anything new about awkwardness that helps this amorphous concept take on a new distinctiveness and with it, perhaps a new significance? Second, could any theory that I came up with explain the apparent EXPLOSION in the use of this term? In other words, I guarantee you that people living together in the 1100s, 1200s, 1600s, and 1800s didn’t have much  use for this term. Why now?

At long last, I think I have some answers, and I found them by going to get my haircut.

You see, I really like the haircutting job that my current “stylist” gives me. She is VERY quick, reasonably priced, and seems to do a good job. Then again, I’m comparing her work to when, until shockingly recently, I just shaved my hair to a uniform length with a razor when it got too long. NOT a hit with the ladies as you might imagine. Not even really a hit with myself when I looked in the mirror.

Anyway, the one problem with this hair person is that we are about as different as two people can be. We have nothing to say to each other. Not anything — and I consider myself a competent conversationalist. And true to form, I have been able to keep things going with her in the past. We talk a little bit about the weather, not too much, but sometimes about her kids, recent holidays.

The only problem is that to advance these conversations, I had to lie quite a bit. She would ask me why I was getting my haircut at 2:30 on a monday dressed in shorts, and to be honest, I was a little ashamed of the fact that I was a philosophy grad student and hence had no job and read books all day (today I would do things differently and would not be ashamed to admit that piece of information — call it maturity, or call “i just don’t care anymore,” whichever suits you). So, I made a vague story about how I get a lunch break from my job (which remained unspecified) which I use to get my hair cut. This has continued and now I have to keep making things up when I show up at odd times to get my haircut because I forgot my lie from last time. AND FRANKLY, I didn’t think this woman was really paying attention.

But today, everything came crashing down. I was a little tired, and had no energy to pull conversational teeth. So, things quickly lapsed, and that was when I realized that I understood awkwardness very well — it is the consciousness of futility. Here’s what I mean. I tried some topics I knew she wouldn’t care about. For example, I told her “there is a girl I really want to take sailing, so I’m looking forward to April, when the dock opens back up. I need to get back into practice.” I’m met with “O sailing?” followed by silence. Ok fine I thought. She then asked what I did on the weekend. I was filled with dread. I ran through my activities briefly, trying to think what would strike a chord. I said that I caught up on sleep and went to Chelsea (poorish, immigrant part of Boston) to work on a public health campaign that I’m a part of. “O.” And then this is where the insight really hit me, which is that after that, I wanted to find something to say, at least to be polite, to show that I was trying too, but I felt trapped. Why? Because ANYTHING that I might find interesting and worth talking about, she would not. I began to feel that the conversation was FUTILE, and I became vividly aware of that fact. More specifically, I felt trapped by my own psychology, because anything that my mind, either naturally or through sustained ratiocination, settled on as a topic, would almost certainly not appeal to her. So I stewed in this state as she snip-snipped away, and then thought “well, I can at least ask her HOW her weekend was,” but I hesitated because it’s a strange question to ask a thirty-something year old married woman. But more than anything I just knew she wouldn’t care or wouldn’t elaborate on anything, so I waited, and then realized that I HAD WAITED SO LONG that I couldn’t even ask the polite “how was your weekend” if I had wanted to.

Caught in the mirror of this salon, I became distinctly conscious that this woman and I could not bring ourselves to care about each other. Now don’t take this is the wrong way. I do care about this woman in some ways. I give her a good tip, and I like her work, and were she ever to be in trouble, or needing a blood transfusion, or on and on, I would be glad to help. And of course, she is polite to me and respects me as a customer, so she cares about me in a sense too. But in any DEEPER sense, we do not care about each other, and the awkwardness of my haircut today I think grew out of the dangerously obsessive awareness of this fact.

Awkwardness, in all (most?) situations, is, I think best understood as the realization of the hopelessness of further conversation in the situation. It is the realization that all communication will have a strictly utilitarian character. This is why it’s awkward to run into an ex that one isn’t on good terms with. All communication for the sake of communication (which is normally an entertaining exchange of ideas and worldviews –this blog has tried to show deep an activity a simple conversation is) is out. Communication is for a utilitarian exchange: “how are you?” “what are you up to these days” These are things just to fill periods of silence just as my stylist asked me questions simply to pass the time. The answers were irrelevant. When you’re at a party and a conversation is getting awkward, the reason is that your jokes and comments aren’t hitting home — they’ve become an act or a play and they aren’t finding their proper reception.

Now the extrapolation. Why is it that in this day and age, we are so enamored with the concept of “awkwardness” and why do we reach for it so naturally and instinctively?

I think the answer comes from the spread of standards of behavior (brought about partially by capitalism, but not entirely. Besides, laying everything at the doorstep of capitalism is so passe, and wrong to boot) and most recently, the way that the internet renders relationships. You see, more and more, we run into people that we respect and have some attenuated concern for, but as our web “weak” concern spreads further and further, we find that our web of “strong” concern is not keeping up. So, we run into the waiter who we trust to take our order and not spit in our food, but have no ability to josh with him before he takes our order. We have facebook friends who we may run into at a party or out in the city and its quickly apparent that our biggest connection is contained in servers tracking facebook’s data somewhere in Los Angeles (or where ever they keep the damn things). So we find ourselves draw, in some situations, to respond and acknowledge other people that it is FUTILE to speak to. We know it is. We know there is nothing we care to share with each other, etc.

Don’t get me wrong. This isn’t the case for everyone. I’m not trying to depict a lonely world of disintegrating social bonds (but as you know, I believe that to be happening,  but just not in this post and with this point). People try hard to speak to others and some people (especially older people who’ve had hard lives it seems like) have an uncanny ability to launch into conversations and to genuinely TAKE AN INTEREST in another person’s life. Is this skill best classified as curiosity or kindness, or what? I don’t know but I know awkwardness is the outgrowth of our increasingly dwarf-like ability to relate to others that are very different than us, and when this inability comes home to roost in the form of a conscious moment, we find ourselves being awkward. Words become mere sounds and pleasantries become, well, just pleasantries.


Should We Make Public Discouse Like A Basketball Game?

The NCAA tournament is in full swing, so here are some thoughts that merge basketball and politics.

Reading up on the daily grinding, yelling, screaming, name-calling, and deception of our political system is a very laborious affair. It’s so tiring, and I have often have to take a nap after reading all the ridiculous things going on. And then I have to write about them on this blog, to implore people to ignore the ridiculous and to focus on the true. In trying to ignore some of the things not worth commenting about, I end up having to comment about them. This is the unavoidable cycle that drives a lot of our supposed public “debate.” Is there a way out?

To get clear on a solution requires getting clear on the problem. I want to characterize public discourse as infected by the following two tendencies.

1. cynicism and the imputation of bad faith — For a while I kept a tally of this phenomenon, but I got so upset that I stopped. But basically, if you read an article that is critical of one party or politician, you will come to a point where the description of the issue stops, and the argumentation is supposed to begin, but all you find is something like “The explanation is simply that X does not want America to succeed,” or some such thing. And then, all of a sudden, you find yourself PAST the argument. That was it, just a bald assertion of bad faith.

I have interviewed now many people in government, and seen many more interviews, and not once has this been anyone’s motivation. Not once. Nonetheless, rampant cynicism abounds — the collective belief is that everyone who does not see it one’s own way must necessarily be devious and conniving. Never is there the thought that someone might sincerely think that something YOU THINK is incomprehensible, is actually a good way to do things. Trying to understand the seemingly incomprehensible is where all argument (and all philosophy in fact) begins, and as a political culture, we seem just too plain exhausted to try for that anymore.

2. The focus on others rather than oneself. Even when arguments in our media culture do hone in tightly on an IDEA or a POLICY, they inevitably seek out the most easily dispelled mistake or the most the irrelevant factual error. At the very best, this debate usually targets some idea that someone or some party has as DUMB. Fine. All good discourse is going to require that you criticize flawed ideas, and sometimes you will have to criticize them quite harshly. However, there is a continued emphasis on trying to find out what one should not believe and what one should not endorse rather than helping people try to find a proposal that is complex, but nonetheless DOES MAKE SENSE. And, in fact, makes sense despite the wide variety of alternative views and arguments that are available to attack any position worth debating together as a society.

The media as I see it relentlessly (probably unintentionally) batters the brains of people into giving up ideas and turning against proposals. I’m not an Obama devotee, but the notion of hope is probably relevant here. At every turn the media drowns out, destroys, and smashes ideas into pulp, often with very bad arguments and often without any comparison to the alternatives. The average person is not only skeptical of politicians and media outlets, but even intellectually, skeptical that anything could ever work.

In short, there is very little emphasis on developing a positive view and growing it and defending it. This is also a metaphor for most of American culture today. There is never an interest in the sacrifice, or risk, or difficulty, required to BUILD SOMETHING. Whether it be something as quotidian as a marriage or a personality, or something as grand as a scientific theory or philosophical program (don’t misread me here. I don’t think philosophy and science is actually any more GRAND than everyday struggles like raising a family. I use the word because others would be tempted to. Sometimes I meet people who are like what is your, like, PHILOSOPHY, man. That’s not the right attitude a philosophy is just like any other activity such as becoming a great discus thrower or a good club promoter. You are growing something that will shed light on everything else; that will ripple throughout your daily consciousness).

So now the solution: make public debate more like sports. I don’t mean the “gamification” of politics (excuse this terrible word that some tech commentators insist on violently injecting into the vernacular). The reason is that there is a difference between the chicken-shitification or the farmvillification of important things. I.e., turning serious tasks into petty little simulations with make-believe rat pellets guiding us toward a social equilibrium of behavior. No, I mean an understanding of the attitude that comes from competition. I’ll outline it below and explain how it dispels the problems I raised above.

First, highly established competition is self-absorbed, and I mean that in a special way. What I mean is that a coach, before a game, NEVER talks about the other team. Whether they’re hurt, or whether they’re offense is bad, or whether they’re fans are cowardly, or whatever. The emphasis is always on the team and what it has accomplished. Listen to coaches interviewed right at halftime. They always talk about their team and what it can do and what confidence they have in the group of people they have GROWN over the course of the season. Sports is ruthlessly self-examining.

This is no accident. You can’t win unless you take a simple confidence toward your own abilities. In practice, you don’t sit idly, thinking about how all the other teams are ruining themselves with incorrect workout routines, injuries, or off-practice revelry. No, one SCREENS the opponent out. Mentally, a team is always with itself in a complete, but benign solipsism, just trying to make itself as good as possible, and then turning that power outward at the moment of competition.

Second, there is no cynicism. One knows that the other team is trying to win, just as much as one’s own team. And for the most part (there are some exceptions when a call is just awful) coaches never let their PLAYERS think about the refs or make excuses for themselves. Of course, the coach will curse and heckle, but never is this allowed to infect the players. For them, the game is as close as possible to a fair and pure test of each side’s heart and determination.

Also, and this is really key, opponents in sports often come to respect each other. How does this happen? I’m not really sure, but I think it is the result of a controlling attitude of anti-cynicism, that merges with the confidence that sports breeds.

So how to remake the political sphere according to the values of competition?

Well, for one thing — and this should come as no surprise — the parties must become more like sports teams. Heck, citizens must become like sports players. The temptation is to look elsewhere. To take great joy in seeing someone else falter or to see an idea that plainly doesn’t work, or a demagogue create controversy out of nothing. The temptation is to look OUT and AWAY and to get angry and self-righteous. This is the fuel of the worst sorts of engagements our society is capable of.

Rather, the attitude should be like sports. One should read, think, and learn, all the while growing a theory of an idea or a position. When confronted, one can defend it, but the search, just like a practice, screens out distractions.

In this quasi-utopian world I’m imagining, I would not have to sit here and blog about all the ad hominem attacks and poor arguments, because no one would focus on them. They would dissipate like a calorie of heat in the endless cold of space. No one would turn their head and no one would glue their eyes to the TV. Chicanery and nonsense would not be combated or called out or suppressed. Rather it would cease to exist for the public at all (notice that I’ve made this argument before when I’ve argued that we should be zen-like in our approach to politics, by which I mean we should act against mudslinging THROUGH INACTION).

Further though, cynicism would disappear. Of course, the media would have to, as I’ve argued it shoud, reshape itself as an ump or a ref, faithfully recording point and counterpoint in a great national debate on serious issues. This would combat cynicism, but so would the focus on competition in its true form, which as we’ve seen, can generate respect. Larry Byrd was one of the first people to call Magic Johnson when the latter found out about his infection with the HIV virus. In a way, I think the competitive urge of two great competitors to destroy one another is the flip side of love. It is love in its other guise.

There are flaws with my proposal, and I’ll present them in the spirit of combating cynicism.

First, there are time when personal attacks and imputations of bad faith are needed. This happens in sports too. Every once in a while one coach will say that another coach has poor player control or that the coach encourages “dangerous” play. This is a last ditch effort and it is sometimes necessary. It is necessary in our culture too. It’s important to call out bigots or obstructionists, etc. I just think the threshold for doing so should be high. Better to keep our noses to the ground and work on building something rather than indulging tit for tat exchanges about words, comments, and bad faith.

Also, there is a real elitism to my proposal. In a way, I’m suggesting that we make our public sphere like a debating society where everyone observes decorum etc. But what about times when there are people undergoing oppression in the streets? Should such people await the conclusion of an austere round of discussion before rioting, or trying to retake a modicum of decency and power?

I have no answer to this objection, because again, there are times when debate and discussion break down. When the bounds of rationality and public-spirited discourse are twisted and only action can break them free.

One response I have though is that notice how ANTI-ELITIST sports are in general. If anything is these days, SPORTS are for the people. So perhaps there is a way to elevate everyone in the political sphere by treating our discourse with as much reverence as we give Sunday football (and actually, I think that would be a bad model, because sunday football gets infected with all sorts of other issues that are unrelated to “pure” competition). On this model, we are all participants in a roughly fair media system and to make it more fair, we must attend to our ideas and then be prepared to engage with others with the respect given to opponents on those same ideas.