Monday, July 29, 2019

Democrat employs Strange Tactic in Defeating President Trump

Dateline: WASHINGTON, DC, year 2020—The Democratic nominee has won the presidency, beating Donald Trump in a landslide, and has also had bizarre good luck, by employing an unusual political tactic.

“I decided to go against my handlers and pollsters,” said President-elect Ernest Mann. “They wanted me to play it safe and follow what was superficially-popular to say. Instead, since the Republicans were trying to cast Democrats as "socialists," meaning communists, I decided to shape public opinion and to tell the obvious, blunt truth and rub everyone’s face in it.”

Mr. Mann spent months during the nomination process and the campaign answering every question he received from the media by saying, “Donald Trump is a fascist pig,” “The Republicans are totalitarians,” or something along those lines. His speeches likewise consisted solely of such exclamations.

For example, in a televised debate with the other Democratic nominees, Mr. Mann was pressed on his plan for medical coverage. Instead of answering directly, he held up and pointed at a picture of President Trump, and shouted repeatedly, “Fascist! Fascist! Fascist!” To emphasize his point, Mr. Mann proceeded to light his hair on fire.

Winning the nomination, Mr. Mann went on to debate President Trump and he deployed the same technique, varying his choice of words only so as not to bore the audience.

Twelve times in that debate, Mr. Mann interrupted the president by pointing at Mr. Trump and shouting some combination of the following: “Fascist dictator! Trump’s an evil totalitarian menace! 1984! 1984! Fascist pig! Con man! Con man! Demagoguing fascist! Evil clownish man-child! Psychotic lying fascist scum! Nazi white supremacist filth! Nazi! Fucking Nazi! He’s a wannabe fucking Nazi!!”

When a moderator pointed out that he wasn’t answering any of the questions directly, Ernest Mann stuck to his guns, pointing at his Republican opponent, jumping onto his podium and shouting at the top of his lungs, “Trump’s an American fascist! Danger! Danger! A totalitarian menace is standing right over there. American Nazi! American Nazi! Wannabe fucking Nazi! Putin-lover! Kim-lover! Saddam-lover! Fascist scoundrel! Evil, psychopathic subhuman clown!”

A miracle seemed to be afoot, because in the election Mr. Mann won every state in the American union, including the so-called red states.

But Mr. Mann’s good fortune didn’t end with that astonishing victory.

Shortly before the election he won three billion dollars in a lottery, all of which he gave to charities. Two days later, he won four billion dollars in another lottery.

A unicorn appeared out of nowhere and the president-elect rode the mythical beast to his swearing-in ceremony on Capitol Hill. As he held up his hand and took the Oath of office, a dove flew by and landed on his shoulder.

Political analysts have struggled to explain these strange outcomes. For his part, by way of explanation, Mr. Mann ventured, “The truth will set you free.”

Friday, July 26, 2019

Robert Mueller: The Knight who Tripped over his Lance

Dateline: WASHINGTON, D.C.—Robert Mueller stunned the quarter of Americans who are intent on keeping their country from sliding down the tubes, by turning in a lackluster performance in his televised hearings before Congress.

Knowing that most Americans prefer to watch television than to read, Democrats had hoped Mr. Mueller would translate the legalese of his muddled report into bombshell talking points, to fire up the calls to begin impeachment proceedings against an egregious pseudopresident, Donald Trump, who has profaned the White House or else shown that the myths of the sacredness of American values have always been lies. 

Mr. Mueller refused to comply with those pleas for assistance in saving the republic from the chthonic forces of populist anarchy and right-wing Christian balderdash. As the adorable progressives in the congressional hearings praised his patriotism and lobbed softball questions about Mr. Trump’s galaxy of wrongdoings, Mr. Mueller revealed that he’s a doddering old man clinging desperately to the letter of the law like a clueless Pharisee.

The director of the investigation into Mr. Trump’s conspiracy to turn the United States into a fascist hellhole refused to venture further than the findings of his report, just as that report declined to indict Mr. Trump for his obvious conspiracy with Russia and obstruction of justice. No such report was needed in the first place to remind everyone about the president’s millions of crimes and sins against the human spirit.

In a press conference following his anticlimactic appearances before Congress, Mr. Mueller clarified his reluctance to help save his country by lowering himself to the level to which the United States has sunk since the megalomania of Richard Nixon.

“The problem is that politicians have the cooties,” said Mr. Mueller. “The Democrats didn’t just want me to give political answers. They wanted me to associate with politicians, to be in the same room with cootie-ridden, pants-on-fire liars, with sordid, money-grubbing cowards and demagogues who won’t even take my report to the next logical stage and file to impeach the president.”

Mr. Mueller stressed that he would much rather be stalking poor foreigners in the jungles of Vietnam, mowing them down with machine-gun fire and drinking their blood with his stony-faced Marine buddies.  

Saturday, July 20, 2019

Is Donald Trump Authentic?

Is Donald Trump the most personally authentic public figure in America? Tens of millions of Americans would praise his authenticity, and a cottage industry has sprouted up to explain how a nonstop liar and psychopath, with no higher cognitive functions or inner life beyond the reptilian instinct for dominating everyone else could have co-opted what for centuries—long before existentialism—was a profound, spiritual ideal. From Scientific American and American Interest, to Forbes and Newsweek, to CNN and Medium, pundits have puzzled over the concept of authenticity, studied the social scientific research, and rehashed recent history to explain how something like Donald Trump could be deemed authentic.

Vulgarity versus Authenticity

One of their key findings is that the cooptation happened decades before Trump, when corporations tempted the hippie generation to sell-out its values. WWII and the Cold War forced Americans to adopt the British attitude of “keeping a stiff upper lip,” of repressing their inner self for the sake of appearances. The implicit advice was to resist showing fear of the enemy or doubt about the prevailing social systems; instead, you were to obey the proffered conventions blindly to the point of attempting to escape a nuclear bomb blast by hiding under a desk, as the government instructed. After the repression of the “conservative” 1950s came the let-it-all-hang-out attitude and the rocking-and-rolling of the 1960s, which ended in tears as the hippies’ socialist utopia failed to materialize. Minorities won some civil rights, the Vietnam War eventually ended, and Nixon left in disgrace, but the dark side of hippie culture was apparent from the disaster at the Altamont Music Festival and from the cult of Charles Manson. Still, the wave of psychedelic drug use popularized an ideal of personal authenticity, since the drugs rebooted the psyche and encouraged skepticism towards the conventional roles that had to be occupied by your persona. After the leftist takedown of “the System” or “the Man,” there would be no need to split your personality into your private and public selves.

By the 1980s, corporations had absorbed that subculture of resistance. Advertisements exploited the value placed on finding your true self, by manufacturing interest in unnecessary products that were vaguely associated with your fundamental desires. Politicians learned they could appear “authentic” by acting as though they weren’t upper-class power elites. By rolling up their sleeves at a campaign speech or by organizing a photo op of them sitting in a diner eating a slice of pizza, politicians could impress the gullible, narcissistic, slow-witted and uninformed masses, by mastering the use of certain symbols. Personal authenticity became a shallow performance and thus a paradox.

Friday, July 12, 2019

The Source of Christian Audacity

Mysteries abound for the curious, from the counterintuitive behaviour of subatomic particles, to the origins of life and the nature of consciousness. One enigma which few would consider as profound as those, but which is no less baffling is the source of Christian audacity, especially in the United States. Most Christians living in poverty in underdeveloped countries are only ignorant, at worst, but the US is an outlier since most Americans, by comparison, are well-off, educated, and also religious. While that mismatch between the fruits of secular modernity and the clinging to obsolete traditions has perplexed sociologists, that isn’t exactly the mystery I have in mind. Perhaps even many religious middleclass Americans are ignorant of philosophy and lacking in the critical thinking skills needed to lay bare the stark incoherence of their worldviews.

The mystery, rather, is the obnoxiousness that’s palpable especially on the side of right-wing American Christians, who not only pretend that there’s no conflict between Christianity and the Age of Reason (science, capitalism, and democracy), otherwise known as “modernity,” but who luxuriate in their form of incoherence. That form is aptly called “Americanism,” and that’s the surface of the enigma in question, where the Christian aspect of Americanism is the blithe flaunting of theocratic or dominionist pretensions, using such instruments as the Republican Party, Fox News, talk radio networks, and Evangelical churches, together with this Christian’s obliviousness to the historical, theological, and philosophical gratuitousness of those pretensions. Americanism is partly a case study in the Dunning-Kruger effect, but the mystery can’t be resolved just by saying as much. The psychological causes of Americanism, of the gross contradictions in many Americans’ worldview, may be apparent, but what of the historical origin? Is the conservative Christian’s effrontery just a malady akin to a personality defect or is the Christian religion fertile ground for the sprouting of such a poisonous tree? Follow me on this journey down a path of dishonour, as we wend our way to the heart of the mystery.

The Gall of Christian Family Values

Let’s begin with a current example. Conservative American Christians pontificate about the necessity of family values. Meanwhile, Jesus and Paul taught the opposite, that Christians should flee their families and their jobs and practice asceticism, and that, should they prove too weak to devote themselves fully to God in that fashion, they should be chaste even within their marriage. The reason Jesus and Paul taught such a radical, subversive, utterly anti-conservative message is that they also apparently believed the world was going to end soon, that the signs were then impossible to ignore (namely Jesus’s resurrection and the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE), so that was the time to cease all compromises and perfect oneself with absolute commitment to the highest possible ethical standards. No children or long-term social planning were needed, because God was about to break through the natural universe and establish a divine kingdom.

Conservative Christians can’t be easily forgiven for doubting that the New Testament’s message on those subjects is so one-sided, because the reason for the lack of clarity only deepens the mystery by adding to the Christian’s shamelessness. As Elaine Pagels points out in Adam, Eve, and the Serpent, the Gospels include the radical message, but they also soften it as time wore on, the end never came, and churches had to begin to think strategically and practically about how best to organize long-term communities. For example, as Pagels writes, ‘Matthew juxtaposes Jesus’ promise of great rewards to “every one that has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands for my name’s sake” (19:29), with Jesus’ reaffirmation of the traditional commandment “Honour your father and mother” (19:19),’ as though there were no blatant contradiction between them. Matthew also softens Mark’s uncompromising prohibition of divorce, “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her” (Mark 10:11), by having Jesus say, “I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery” (Matt.19:9, my emphasis).

Friday, July 5, 2019

Tragic Heroes in Fiction and Reality

Aristotle defined the “tragic hero” in fiction as a fallible, morally-upright protagonist who provokes pity or fear in the audience because even this character’s strengths are finite and so they’re accompanied by a fatal flaw or limitation, which leads to his or her downfall. Whereas a god would have no such flaw, we can be only imperfectly moral even at our best, in which case we’re subject to the rule of irony: we can be trapped by our success, corrupted by power or good fortune, and led astray not because we’re unable to cope with adversities but because the moral enterprise itself is somehow cursed. The tragic perspective amounts to a critique of the ancient Greek conceit that nature is “cosmic,” that the universe is so ordered that everything fulfills a purpose, from the so-called four material elements to human beings. To be sure, for the ancient Greeks the universe isn’t the best of all possible ones, since they thought the gods are only doing their best to hold back the opposing forces of chaos. Still, the question raised by tragic narratives is whether the compromised cosmos is good enough for a wise person to place her trust wholeheartedly in the traditions and inspirations that are meant to guide us. The horror in tragedy is that life may not be worth living if even heroes can be doomed, because the project of heroism itself is poorly realized in the flawed cosmos.

At least, that’s a question raised for late-modern philosophers who have gone beyond the Greek vision, to entertain the deeper, existential fear known as “angst,” that being the general suspicion that the whole world is indeed operating other than for the best. If there are no natural purposes, because the concept of purpose is “subjective,” as we learned to say especially after the cogitations of Descartes, Hume, Kant, and Nietzsche, we risk being alienated from nature and perpetrating harebrained gambits to extract us from that predicament. We know, for example, that the heliocentric model of the universe is invalid because it’s unapologetically human-centered. To go on trusting our intuitions after learning that the universe’s scope in time and in space is inhuman seems foolish.

Or is there greater folly in presuming we can stand apart from nature and seek to improve on the world as we find it? Is there anything still heroic in the tragic hero, given the cosmicist view of nature as being an inhuman wilderness that necessarily appalls the lover of knowledge? Again, to say that Everyman in the Age of Reason is estranged from the world in so far as the latter is scientifically explained is to say not just that we automatically question the “wisdom” of natural processes, since we presume they’re not the product of benevolent intelligence but are accidents and readily at odds with our preferences. In addition to such outwards doubts there are the inward ones since we, too, are natural beings. How wise, then, is the wisest person? How honourable or beautiful or industrious? What is the merit of human virtues if we’re flawed creatures in a universe in which none of us, not even the universe as a whole was meant to be?

Notice the difference between calling nature “flawed” and calling it “inhuman.” A flawed universe approximates some ideal, in which case we could speak of natural rights and purposes without resorting to a self-centered metaphor. By contrast, an inhuman universe is a terrifying monster, namely that which is other than anything we could feel comfortable with by way of intuitive understanding of it. By intuition we know ourselves best of all and so we’re most at ease thinking about people or about living things. We quail at the prospect of being logical and objective, of putting aside our self-serving biases and trying to understand reality as it is, because as Kant explained, there’s no such understanding. Objectivity leads us to horror in the face of the noumenon, to the sobering conclusion that we don’t really know anything at all, since the methods we employ to understand things inevitably humanize them to some extent, and humanization of the inhuman is falsification. So if the world is alien to us, if the closer we are to us, the further we are to nature, we can’t trust our anthropomorphic models and should confess that the natural world has nothing to do with any explanation of its patterns that could conceivably be a relief to us. But we’re led to doubt both the world around us and our efforts since as strange as the emergence of intelligence may be in nature, our thoughts and actions have animal origins and so they may be counterproductive.