Fugue State

So, that really happened.

I had previously been working on a different piece that I had hoped to post this week but the outcome of the election and the realization that we will all soon be living under a one-party state interrupted that particular line of work.

Instead, I suppose the thing to do is to reflect, as intelligently as one can manage under these circumstances, on the path that brought us here. We might ask with Herzen, “Who is to blame?” but the catalogue of failures is almost too large to comprehend. Was there a failure of the media to take seriously the manifest danger of a Trump presidency? What about the strategic incompetence of the Clinton campaign? The FBI, flexing its deep state muscles on the eve of an election in which late deciders broke overwhelmingly for Trump? The Republican party, which for decades has groomed its voters to be receptive to conspiracist ideation and authoritarian leadership? The Democrats, who in doggedly pursuing a neoliberal economic policy had foreclosed on the possibility of a genuine left populism? The voters themselves, some for ignoring or wishing away Trump’s extremism and others for openly abetting and aiding it? Yes, all of these and more besides.

In the wake of this historic event, we are left standing amidst a pile of ruins after a cataclysm, sorting through the wreckage to try and understand where it came from and what drove it. For the more privileged among us, every day feels like an altered reality in which all of the things we thought were true are not just false but fundamentally incomprehensible; the frameworks by which we understand the world seem inapplicable. For anyone belonging to a sexual, religious, or racial minority group, the concerns are much more immediate: waves of violence and harassment have already broken out, as literal fascists come out of the woodwork, emboldened by the triumph of their Fuhrer.

There will surely be recriminations and autopsies aplenty; it is not clear to me that the responsible parties will learn anything from them. On the one hand, as I write this, even arch-establishmentarian Chuck Schumer endorses Keith Ellison (championed by Bernie Sanders) to lead the DNC. On the other hand, there are rumors that Chelsea Clinton, of all people, is being groomed for a run for Congress in suburban New York. This election ought to serve as a wholesale repudiation of Clintonian Third Way-ism, but its grip on the party’s affect, inclination, intellectual underpinnings, and ideology is far from being decisively loosed.

I don’t wish to spend much time rehashing the various arguments here. There will be ample opportunity to do so in the coming weeks. With unified control of the federal government, Republicans will be able to finally implement their fully destructive agenda in a way that we have never seen before. Any advances made in the previous 8 years, if we’re optimistic, and actually the last three decades if we’re realistic (let’s not say what we think if we’re being pessimistic) will be undone decisively. More than that, as it is easier to destroy than to build, the basic institutions that ensure the adequate functioning of governments at the federal, state, and local level will be dismantled. It’s easy enough to point to the obvious horrors of putting a climate denier in charge of the EPA or Ben Carson in charge of Education. Sarah Palin will duly sell off the national parks as head of Interior. But the real damage is going to be done not by top-level department heads, but by the legislative destruction that a Republican legislature sending bills to a Republican president can work. Civil rights, unions, reproductive rights, regulatory frameworks, taxes, environmental protections: all of these things are either going to vanish or be weakened beyond usefulness. Putting them back together is going to be the work of a lifetime. The institutions that even make resistance to this possible will be fatally compromised, and Republicans are going to do their best to dismantle civil society so that we are reduced to a nation of serfs. The new feudalism is here.

We have seen a preview of what this looks like from observing Kansas under Sam Brownback for the last several years. Now we’re going to see what this mode of governance produces when applied to an entire country. Perhaps its effects will be so devastating that the electorate, further demographically altered in another two or four years, will reject it, but pinning our hopes on that would be expecting too much. It’s clear that opposition will have to come from the ground level, and that means it will have to be organized for resistance. That is our collective task for the foreseeable future.

The Power of Mechanical Thinking

Last year, I stumbled across a project by an Italian artist named Gianluca Gimini in which he asked people to draw what they think a bike looks like and then digitally rendered the result. It’s really neat and worth taking a look at; as a cyclist, several things jumped out at me immediately. The first was that most people don’t really seem to have any good conception of what a bike frame looks like, and the second is that they don’t actually know how bikes work. A lot of these drawings have the chain either attached in the entirely wrong place or depicted in a configuration that would almost certainly fail to work correctly.

People of course make this mistake not because they’re stupid but because they are unfamiliar with the details of bicycle mechanics. I suspect most people don’t ever think too much about how bicycles actually move, but hopefully if they do, they quickly realize that in order for the bike to actually move, the rotation of the pedals has to be coupled to the rotation of the wheels via the chain. The chain is really a key component, but many people left it off entirely or misunderstood its purpose.

Which is all to say: thinking mechanically is hard. Even for a simple system like a bike, it’s actually quite difficult, if only because it requires people to traverse a particular chain of potentially unfamiliar thought. It requires one to think carefully about what each component in the system is for: what function it fulfills and how it relates to the other components of the system. Most people are not used to working through a complex sequence of causal mechanisms in this way, but when the mechanisms in question power a bike, you get by more or less on instinct. It’s when the mechanisms become more complicated that the troubles begin.

Ask an ordinary person, even a reasonably educated one, to draw you even an approximate diagrammatic representation of how the federal government (or state, or local, doesn’t matter; I’m rolling with the federal example for now), and probably the modal reaction will be great confusion. Likely most people can figure out that the president is somewhere on top. There will also be a circle that represents the legislature (two circles for the two chambers if the respondent really paid attention in civics class) and those with some degree of political awareness will also include the Supreme Court, although the mechanism of its interaction with the other two branches will evade most. The vast federal bureaucracy that exists under the auspices of the executive branch will not be present; if any executive agency even appears, it won’t have any relation to any other part of the government. I can’t imagine any significant fraction of people would know anything about such minutia as House or Senate committees or the operations of the lower courts. Describing the interactions of these various actors with each other is also likely to be beyond almost all of them.

Again, this is not because people are stupid: it’s because the details of how the government operates are extremely boring and also vastly complicated. This is sometimes lost when one’s social network consists of politically informed people who genuinely find politics interesting. To most people, even people with advanced educations, policy discussions sound like that “wah wah” noise the adults in the Peanuts comics make.

Maybe none of this would matter so much if what was at stake was something as simple as voting. I’m of the opinion that parties are useful as information aggregators that abet the functioning of cognitive heuristics, so it’s not as though ignorance of the mechanics of government would render people unable to make voting decisions. But this ignorance does have serious consequences for political rhetoric and thought. Faced with a problem of overwhelming complexity, people do not take the time to think mechanically through disparate pieces of evidence and arrange them into a coherent whole. Rather, people lean on various cognitive heuristics and biases to arrive, via motivated reasoning, at conclusions in agreement with whatever positions they already hold. This phenomenon presents itself across the political spectrum; perhaps the most recent and salient example on the left was the insistence by many Sanders supporters that his candidacy had the potential to usher in a fundamental political revolution. As someone who supported Sanders and voted for him, and who is generally quite closely aligned with him on most issues, I found these declarations to be downright delusional. They could only have been made by people who had but the vaguest ideas of how an administrative behemoth like the United States federal government actually functioned. What was missing in these declarations was any causal process that would lead to the promised transformation, and the missing spaces were filled in with magical thinking.

If the left was delusional about the promises of a Sanders presidency, then the right is delusional about… everything else. The conspiracist swamp in which the American right baptizes itself daily is home to a menagerie of monsters, from Agenda 21 to the ZOG. Routine operations of government are seen not for what they are (mostly boring administrative paper-pushing with occasional attempts to accomplish something), but rather as sinister operations to undermine the country. The most anodyne processes are endowed with occult implications; that bike lane is just a precursor for the invasion of the UN blue helmets, and don’t let any egghead intellectual tell you different. The left’s fault may be excessive wishful thinking, but the right has entirely abandoned even the pretense of commitment to existence in a shared reality. You might be able to convince someone who holds a different view from you, but you can’t convince someone who denies the fundamental premises of (even approximately) verifiable truth and causal connection between events.

Richard Feynman once characterized science as “a way of trying not to fool yourself,” while acknowledging that “you are the easiest person to fool.” But fooling themselves is what a lot of people do when it comes to politics, over and over again. The mechanisms at play are incredibly complex and tracing their operations requires a great deal of cognitive effort, so by and large we don’t even attempt it. And when it comes to teaching people how to think their way through these sorts of problems, we don’t do that either. Much is made of the importance of “critical thinking” in education, but all too often those words are just that, unmoored from any actual critical approach to problems. We mostly throw a bunch of facts at people without explaining how those facts can be synthesized into a meaningful whole and move on. Of course the end result is, even among highly educated people, an inability to follow a chain of reasoning from end to end or understand how disparate aspects of a complex system connect to each other. And now here we are in the 21st century, with a world’s wealth of information (much of it accurate!) available to us on demand and no handle on how any of it hangs together. We starve in the midst of plenty because we don’t know how to digest the food.

Missives from Beyond the Galactic Rim

Ok, maybe not the galactic rim. Maybe not even the Oort cloud. Let’s say the asteroid belt because how could you tell the difference anyway?

One of my problems is that I like to start things but not finish them. That applies to writing too; plenty of half-completed musings sitting around on my hard drive and awaiting the day when I return and end them with a pithy punchline. But then the punchline never materializes and it gets harder and harder to get yourself to wrap up your thoughts.

So I’ll be trying a slightly different tack, moving to a more discursive and meandering and less focused approach. I’m thinking that without the pressure to come to a neat conclusion, I might be more willing to just get my thoughts out. That means that the things you might read in this space in the near future may not have a tight thesis with three supporting paragraphs or whatever; they may not have any particular purpose at all other than as an exploration of whatever particular idea I’m entertaining at the moment. But since I’m not writing for an academic audience (actually: what audience am I writing for? So far as I can tell, it consists of me), concision and focus be damned. Reviewer #2 is unwelcome in these parts.

Enjoy. Or don’t. But better if you do.