Archive for Philosophy and Logic

Jun
01

Lying is company policy

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The tech reference is a bit dated now, but I used to say that if you wanted to know what Sean Hannity thinks before he thinks it, beat him to his fax machine in the morning.

On Monday it might be “Oceania is at war with Eurasia; Oceania has always been at war with Eurasia.” If on Tuesday the message in the tray is “Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia,” he’ll switch to saying that without blinking an eye, and maybe without even noticing.

It is something we have all noticed of eager authoritarian followers. He is a loyalist. Whatever Big Brother says he repeats to prove his fealty.

That, Matthew Yglesias suggests, is a defining characteristic of the Trump White House:

When Trump says something like he’s just learned that Barack Obama ordered his phones wiretapped, he’s not really trying to persuade people that this is true. It’s a test to see who around him will debase themselves to repeat it blindly. There’s no greater demonstration of devotion.

He is a man more interested in loyalty (to himself) than in personal integrity. Or the truth. “On Bullshit,” by Harry Frankfurt of Princeton’s Department of Philosophy (1990-2002), describes the break between the truth-teller trying to paint a picture of reality, the liar who knows the truth but hides it to deceive, and someone like the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue:

For the bullshitter, however, all these bets are off: he is neither on the side of the true nor on the side of the false. His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.

Truthful hyperbole” was how in “The Art of the Deal” Trump explained what in real estate is known as “puffing.” Property descriptions like “diamond in the rough” (read: falling down), “charming” (overly decorated), or “cozy” (cramped) might be more bluntly described as deceptive marketing. Yet Trump’s endless self-promotion regarding the size of his inauguration crowd and electoral college win, etc., are not simply puffing but transparently false. Something else is going on here besides pathological narcissism, and George Mason University economist Tyler Cowen seems to have hit on it:

By requiring subordinates to speak untruths, a leader can undercut their independent standing, including their standing with the public, with the media and with other members of the administration. That makes those individuals grow more dependent on the leader and less likely to mount independent rebellions against the structure of command. Promoting such chains of lies is a classic tactic when a leader distrusts his subordinates and expects to continue to distrust them in the future.

Another reason for promoting lying is what economists sometimes call loyalty filters. If you want to ascertain if someone is truly loyal to you, ask them to do something outrageous or stupid. If they balk, then you know right away they aren’t fully with you. That too is a sign of incipient mistrust within the ruling clique, and it is part of the same worldview that leads Trump to rely so heavily on family members.

But Yglesias adds that repeating the Master’s lies serves a similar function for rank-and-file authoritarian followers. Lieutenants repeat the bullshit to demonstrate loyalty. Followers use it as a shibboleth to display their membership in the tribe:

… Trumpian bullshit serves not only as a test of elite loyalty, but as a signifier of belonging to a mass audience. One chants, “Lock her up,” at a rally not to express a desire or expectation that Hillary Clinton will serve jail time for violating an obscure State Department guideline, but simply because to be a certain kind of member of a certain kind of community these days requires the chant.

The big, beautiful wall that Mexico will allegedly pay for, the war on the “fake news” media, Barack Obama’s forged birth certificate, and now the secret tape recording that will destroy James Comey are not genuine articles of faith meant to be believed in. Their invocation is a formalism or a symbol; a sign of compliance and belonging. The content is bullshit.

Yglesias writes something Sean Hannity knows in his gut without thinking: “The loyalist is just supposed to go along with whatever the line of the day is.” The danger is that constant repetition of bullshit — sold as “alternative facts” — will break down the public’s cognitive ability for discerning truth from fiction. That ability is a prerequisite for the maintenance of democracy and liberty, which is why it has been supported from the founding of the republic. But for authoritarians, critical thinking skills are a threat to control. Thus, courses in public schools that develop them among the masses must be suppressed. Is it any wonder that access to public colleges is shrinking particularly in states controlled by Republican lawmakers?

Also disturbing is the number of supposed political leaders willing to debase themselves in service to their liege lord by repeating his bullshit. There is a seemingly endless rogue’s gallery of cable news interviews by official spokespersons and surrogates eager to demonstrate their loyalty to the leader and/or their tribe through public betrayal of the truth. Is repeating bullshit bullshit?

Frankfurt distinguishes liars from the bullshitter in lines prior to “For the bullshitter…” above. He writes:

A person who lies is thereby responding to the truth, and he is to that extent respectful of it. When an honest man speaks, he says only what he believes to be true; and for the liar, it is correspondingly indispensable that he considers his statements to be false.

Perhaps the most disturbing thing about Trumpian bullshit is how many are so short on integrity as to be willing to repeat it, whether as proof of loyalty or just to “catapult the propaganda.” As Frankfurt observes, the bullshitter has no care for the truth. Trump is an “I say what’s on my mind” kind of guy, Yglesias observes. The truth values of any of it is irrelevant. But many of those willing to repeat it (Kellyanne Conway and Sean Spicer are two examples) may yet know what they are saying is untrue. Trump is bullshitting. His surrogates are lying because lying is company policy.

(Cross-posted from Hullabaloo.)

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Jun
17

The scourge of newsiness

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Via ETC News News Dump.

Via ETC News News Dump.

Eugene Robinson’s piece in the Washington Post looks at the challenge covering Donald Trump presents to the news media:

Trump lies the way other people breathe. We’re used to politicians who stretch the truth, who waffle or dissemble, who emphasize some facts while omitting others. But I can’t think of any other political figure who so brazenly tells lie after lie, spraying audiences with such a fusillade of untruths that it is almost impossible to keep track. Perhaps he hopes the media and the nation will become numb to his constant lying. We must not.

Trouble is, it’s not just Trump. Like Billy Pilgrim, American readers have come unstuck from the truth. Human attention span now is less than that of a goldfish. Our capacity to discern truth from lies is about as keen. The Internet and social media are awash in newsy-looking websites featuring thin, unsourced “reportage” of questionable provenance — newsiness. But it’s easily digestible. As Jeff Goldblum said of his character’s job at People Magazine in The Big Chill, “I don’t write anything longer than what the average person can read during the average dump.” That makes web surfers easy prey for Donald Trumps and disinformation traffickers. When a friend shares a “well-researched” article, prepare for a fusillade of “facts” unsupported by a single link or original source reporting. Goldfish don’t check sources.

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May
28

Aristotle’s ashes

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Reports out of Greece this week not about refugees and economic chaos say archaeologists may have found in his home town of Stageira the tomb of the philosopher Aristotle. You know, the “golden mean” guy. Wonder what Aristotle would think of our orange mean guy? Or the rest of us, for that matter.

Keeping one’s head has not been in fashion in America, oh, since September 11, 2001. Of late, those who do are – to both the right and left – clearly part of the comfortable establishment that has to go. Sorry, Ari.

Dahlia Lithwick covers the Supreme Court of the United States for Slate. A more establishment institution you will not find. (SCOTUS, I mean.) Maybe it is because she is Canadian, but Lithwick is a tad uncomfortable with the rhetoric of the presidential race. And because she leans left, she is more than a tad uncomfortable with the tone of from fellow lefties. “There’s no heavier burden than a great potential!” Linus van Pelt once said. No one can disappoint you like your friends.

Regarding those litigating Hillary v. Bernie, Lithwick writes:

I have been taken up short by the number of comments and scoldings I have faced, from close friends and casual acquaintances alike, for voicing even a hint of support for one or the other in recent months. The tone hasn’t merely been dismissive and furious; the message beneath has almost universally been that I am a moron.

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May
24

Not a good look

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Social media has largely taken over the family-and-friends propaganda market from email. I’ve mentioned my collection of over 200 specimens of right-wing “pass-it-on” emails. You know the ones: the lies, smears and disinformation we all have received from fathers and T-party uncles, the kind with large, colored type and maybe a gif of praying hands above the exhortation to “pass it on.” But in-box Izvestia pretty much tailed off as Facebook, Reddit, etc. gained market share. Sadly, what with email was overwhelmingly a phenomenon of the right has shifted left with social media. Not a good thing. We should be better than this.

In the misty past before the dawn of the internet (1980?), I was visiting the home of a friend who told me with some alarm that I should never buy any more products from the Procter & Gamble company of Cincinnati, Ohio. Its president, she said, was on the Phil Donahue Show and said the company gave money to the Church of Satan. As proof she told me, you could look on their packaging and see a small crescent moon and stars symbol, a “satanic symbol.”

“When did you see this?” I asked.

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Apr
24

Has America lost its resilience?

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One of Pavlov's dogs, preserved at The Pavlov Museum, Ryazan, Russ

One of Pavlov’s dogs, preserved at The Pavlov Museum, Ryazan, Russia.
By Rklawton via Wikimedia Commons

Frame adversity as a challenge, and you become more flexible and able to deal with it, move on, learn from it, and grow. Focus on it, frame it as a threat, and a potentially traumatic event becomes an enduring problem; you become more inflexible, and more likely to be negatively affected.

That is how people who study psychological resilience see the difference between people who rise above adversity and those who succumb to it. Maria Konnikova wrote about those studies in a February New Yorker article. Coping skills come naturally to some people, but they can also change over time. “The stressors can become so intense that resilience is overwhelmed,” Konnikova writes. “Most people, in short, have a breaking point.”

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Apr
20

In a neoliberal’s garden with you

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Something Gaius wrote on Monday grabbed me:

In the FDR-liberal world, the function of government is to provide services to citizens and protection from predators in the private sector. In the neo-liberal world, the function of government is to manage government services so the private sector is given the most profit opportunities possible.

Going back over some notes from the weekend, I recognized the echo of George Monbiot’s critique of neoliberalism in the Guardian. His How Did We Get into This Mess? was released yesterday. Neoliberalism, like many political enthusiasms, morphed from philosophy to religion with its practitioners hardly noticing. Not so for working people paying for neoliberal hubris. They noticed:

Neoliberalism sees competition as the defining characteristic of human relations. It redefines citizens as consumers, whose democratic choices are best exercised by buying and selling, a process that rewards merit and punishes inefficiency. It maintains that “the market” delivers benefits that could never be achieved by planning.

Attempts to limit competition are treated as inimical to liberty. Tax and regulation should be minimised, public services should be privatised. The organisation of labour and collective bargaining by trade unions are portrayed as market distortions that impede the formation of a natural hierarchy of winners and losers. Inequality is recast as virtuous: a reward for utility and a generator of wealth, which trickles down to enrich everyone. Efforts to create a more equal society are both counterproductive and morally corrosive. The market ensures that everyone gets what they deserve.

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Mar
27

Of Trumps and tweens and blastocysts

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New Yorker tells the sad tale of the latest failed experiment in AI. Apparently (I missed it), Microsoft last week rolled out a twitter bot named Tay:

Tay is an artificial intelligent chat bot developed by Microsoft’s Technology and Research and Bing teams to experiment with and conduct research on conversational understanding. Tay is designed to engage and entertain people where they connect with each other online through casual and playful conversation. The more you chat with Tay the smarter she gets, so the experience can be more personalized for you.

Tay is targeted at 18 to 24 year old in the US.

Uh-oh. You don’t have to be Mary Shelley to see where this is going. After barely a day of “consciousness,” Microsoft pulled Tay’s plug.

Anthony Lydgate explains:

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Mar
05

Strip mining the human landscape

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350px-Chino_copper_mineDylan Ratigan’s August 2011 on-camera meltdown is as close as reality has ever come to Howard Beale’s Network rant remembered in Digby’s sidebar.

What made it a powerful moment was he was right:

Tens of trillions of dollars are being extracted from the United States of America. Democrats aren’t doing it, republicans aren’t doing it, an entire integrated system, banking, trade and taxation, created by both parties over a period of two decades is at work on our entire country right now.

Elias Isquith at Salon this morning interviews Les Leopold, Labor Institute executive director and president, about his new book “Runaway Inequality: An Activist’s Guide to Economic Justice.” Ratigan called what is happening “being extracted.” Leopold calls it “financial strip mining,” and a far cry from what free marketeers and neoliberals taught would happen from lower taxes and fewer regulations:
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Mar
01

A certain moral flexibility

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Nick Naylor (lobbyist for the Academy of Tobacco Studies): My job requires a certain… moral flexibility.

Thank You for Smoking (2005)

Martin Blank (contract killer): When I left, I joined the Army, and when I took the service exam, my psych profile fit a certain… “moral flexibility” would be the best way to describe it. I was loaned out to a CIA-sponsored program – it’s called “mechanical operations” – and we sort of found each other.
Grosse Pointe Blank (1997)

Perhaps it is a class thing. We already know the rich live by a different set of rules from the hoi polloi. One fascinating thing about moralizing by many conservatives is their flexibility about accepting people (among their tribe) who bend the rules and get away with it. If an opponent does it, that’s wrong. If they do it – say, waterboarding or carpet bombing – well, you can’t make an omelet, etc., etc. Beating the system or rigging the game in one’s favor is a sign of strength. Cleverness and guile are the marks of a leader.

So the latest from BuzzFeed Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith should have no impact whatsoever on Donald Trump:

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Feb
28

Entitled to their own country

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entitled-child2a“That’s just not done,” people used to say of behaviors that violated genteel rules of polite society. It is not an expression you hear much anymore. “Polite society” is now as quaint as the notion that the United States abides by the international rule barring torture. Like the rule against Ghostbusters getting involved with possessed people, it’s more of a guideline than a rule.

“It’s okay if you’re a Republican” (IOKIYAR) is musty Internet shorthand for how one major party believes rules and norms apply only to certain people and not others. We are beyond that now. Far beyond it. It is a wonder anyone still uses the expression from the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.” Nobody believes it anymore, even at the highest levels.

Writing for Salon, Harvard professor Bruce Hay gives his understanding of how the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia approached science. As a former Scalia clerk, Hay speaks from experience:

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