iSoul In the beginning is reality

Category Archives: Politics

Politics in general and in contemporary society

Modernity and parsimony

I’ve written before about modernity here and parsimony here.

An age begins by repudiating something essential about the previous age. The middle ages started with repudiating the ancient gods and myths (cf. St. Augustine’s City of God). The modern age began with the Reformation, which repudiated the history of the Church and the pagan past of the Gentiles. It continued with scientists repudiating Scholasticism and Aristotle. And it came into its own by starting anew, whether in religion or science or politics.

If modernity starts with breaking free of the past, then what keeps it from flaming out into insignificance? The key for science was parsimony, commonly called simplicity. In contrast with the middle ages, which specialized in ad hoc explanations, the modern age adopted Occam’s razor, the law of parsimony, which privileged the fewest number of assumptions and kinds of entities.

Modernity took the law of parsimony to an extreme. It led to questioning, if not overthrowing, every tradition, every non-empirical entity, every metaphysics. The absolute minimum ontology was considered the best, which turned out to be the physical world.

Even the nature of physical things was questioned as unknowable, until the only nature left was the nature of the physical world. This nature became the idol of modernity, the one thing that could not be questioned. It became Nature, reified as something with a will of its own, something that led to human life, something that substituted for God.

As we break free of modernity, we can see its limitations and failures more and more. One is the bias of the law of parsimony: it meant qualitative parsimony but not quantitative parsimony. That is, only one or a few kinds of things could exist, but the number of them available for explanatory purposes was unlimited. This bias fit well with the use of mathematics as the language of science.

But mathematics is more than the study of quantity. It is also the study of space, structure, and change. And there is no good reason not to apply parsimony to all of them in finding the best explanation. Once we open up to the possibility of a balanced application of the law of parsimony, we can see some of the weaknesses of modern science.

Deep time was invented in the 18th century and exploited in the 19th and 20th centuries to explain the history of the Earth and the universe. What started with geology expanded to human history, biology, and cosmology.

It is all a matter of time scale. An event that would be unthinkable in a hundred years may be inevitable in a hundred million. Carl Sagan

Time is in fact the hero of the plot. … Given so much time, the “impossible” becomes possible, the possible probable, and the probable virtually certain. One has only to wait; time itself performs the miracles. George Wald

The flaw is simple: it’s too easy to “explain” anything. The violation of quantitative parsimony was the Achilles’ heel of modernity. The temptation to explain everything was too much to resist. And so, as with every age, modernity ended in failure. A great failure, but a failure nonetheless.

We can only hope that the current age will learn from the failure of modernity and seek a balanced parsimony.

Centrism and extremism

I’ve written on my understanding of centrism here and here.

The essence of centrism is an acceptance of a limit for everything. This means there are limits in all directions. The image of this is a closed convex curve with a center in the middle of the region enclosed.

Without limits, there is no center. A center is always within limits. If there is any direction without a limit, the curve is not closed and there is no center.

Non-centrists are extremists in at least one way. They reject a limit in at least one direction. They are not only not in the center, but they reject the existence of a common center.

The slogan “No enemies on the Left” is a left-wing motto that goes back at least to the 1930s. It reflects an attitude that in the direction of leftist politics, there is no limit. Because it lacks a limit in at least one direction, it is extremist in at least one direction.

Most political groups promote some cause or idea that takes precedence over all other causes or ideas. They may hold these in a limited way, but unless they have ways of limiting the range of their support, they will tend to go further and further in that direction. They are or will become extremists.

Marriage and semi-marriage

In abstract algebra, a semiring is an algebraic structure similar to a ring, but without the requirement that each element must have an additive inverse.

Analogously, what could be called a semi-marriage is like a marriage, but without the requirement that the persons be of opposite sex. (Compare here.) How would this work?

First, a marriage is also a semi-marriage so the legal requirements that apply to a semi-marriage apply to a marriage as well. For example, age requirements for semi-marriages would apply to marriages also.

Second, a semi-marriage is not necessarily a marriage so one cannot assume that every property of a marriage is also a property of a semi-marriage. Each property of a marriage must be evaluated to determine if it applies to a semi-marriage. For example, a business that offers services for marriage ceremonies may not need to offer the same services to semi-marriage ceremonies.

The law may focus on semi-marriage rather than marriage because semi-marriage has a larger extent. Yet it would be possible for some laws to apply to marriages but not semi-marriages. The decision as to which way to go is up to the political process.

In the U.S. since the Obergefell decision, civil marriage is semi-marriage.

Discrete democracy

Direct democracy is an idealized concept in which the people vote on all political matters. Besides being impractical, it assumes the people have sufficient time and information to consider every matter. Such a continuous democracy would be like the weekly polls published by the news media, except they would result in real decisions – and no doubt poor decisions. Instead, representative democracy is a two-tiered system in which the people elect representatives, who in turn vote on all political matters.

Representatives are elected from particular districts for a particular term of office. So representative democracies have a spatial and temporal character. There are various terms of office. Those such as the U.S. have fixed periods of two, four, and six years. Others place limits such as five years within which an election must take place. In either case, there is a period of time in which elected (and appointed) officials have their authority.

The land area or region of elections also vary. The main region is the nation but within every nation there are geographic divisions of various kinds, from districts or subdivisions of the central government to semi-independent states or provinces. Elections take place within these regions as well, and are either related to or independent of national elections.

The relative size or population of the divisions varies from small to large. There may be an attempt to make the populations of each division similar, as with the Congressional districts of the U.S. states. It may happen that some divisions cover a large area and have a small population (e.g., Alaska), while other divisions cover a small area but have a large population (e.g., New Jersey).

These divisions usually make sense as natural, cultural, and/or historic geographic regions. In the U.S. there is a flagrant practice known as gerrymandering, in which the boundaries of a voting district are set for the purpose of giving advantage to one political party. Independent commissions are used to minimize such practices.

Modern democracies are not simply “demo” (people) + “-cracy” (rule). The period of time and area of coverage are part of the political system. Such discrete democracy could be called a “geodemocracy”, or more precisely a “periodemocracy”, which is “perio-” from the Greek periodos (period) and perioche (region) + democracy. Both time and place are part of the ruling concept: the people during a particular period who are living in a particular region.

“One person, one vote” is the principle that all citizens, regardless of where they reside, are entitled to equal legislative representation. The U.S. Supreme Court enunciated this principle in Reynolds v. Sims (1964) as it ruled that a state’s apportionment plan for seats in both houses of a bicameral state legislature must allocate seats on a population basis. This principle is consistent with democracy but contrary to discrete democracy, which takes into account the natural, cultural, and/or historic geography of the districts.

News and opinion

The low end of the news business makes little or no attempt to separate news and opinion. The better news outlets attempt to separate news and opinion, but are failing. What are the reasons for this?

Let’s take it that news reports ought to consist of factual information about the world, rather than opinion. Granted that there is some editorial influence in every reporter’s story, from what goes into the header to what sources to use and what gets left out. But that’s old news.

Consider a well-reasoned news analysis or opinion piece. These tie together facts in an insightful way, and present a case for the best way to think about them. Certainly there should be facts in an opinion piece. But all to often it happens that these facts are never presented separately as news, usually because by themselves they are details or technical matters that don’t rise to the level of being newsworthy.

Then to reference such facts buried in an opinion piece, one must reference an opinion. That weakens these facts and gives the impression that they only matter to those who hold a certain position. It would be better to list the facts separately and give references for them. That way, the facts and the opinions would not be intertwined.

Consider the many news stories that quote spin and opinions by leaders and insiders about the news. It may be important to publish them but are they news themselves? So-and-so says this or that, but gives nothing more than an opinion, not a factual report or an announcement of any action. They are opinions about the news and attempts to get people to look at the news in a certain way.

All spin and opinions about the news would be better placed under opinion, where there is no question what they are. The news should be kept to factual information.

Greater efforts are needed to separate news and opinion. Meanwhile, news consumers beware!

Reverse political polarity

Now that the U.S. is politically polarized, it is reversing polarity. The liberals are the new conservatives. The conservatives are the new liberals. The Democrats are the new Republicans. The Republicans are the new Democrats.

Let me explain. In the past, the liberals were pushing for change, promoting equality, and seeking a better future. The conservatives were resisting change, promoting freedom, and seeking to preserve the past.

But now those who were called liberals are now old-fashioned, resisting change and longing for the past (as in the 1960’s). They are the new conservatives. They are now promoting freedom, especially lifestyle freedom and even freedom from centralized government.

Those who were called conservatives are the new opposition, pushing for change and a new political future. They are the new liberals. They are promoting equality, especially geographic equality, in which those outside the high-tech centers get good jobs, too.

The Republican Party was taken over by conservatives, and then Trump turned them into new liberals. Meanwhile, the Democratic Party was taken over by liberals who become conservatives as they joined the resistance.

It’s a return to the 19th century in which the Democratic Party was conservative and the Republican Party was liberal. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Is Trump sly?

Good soldier Schweik was a character invented by Czech author Jaroslav Hašek in the 1920s:

Through (possibly feigned) idiocy or incompetence [Schweik] repeatedly manages to frustrate military authority and expose its stupidity in a form of passive resistance: the reader is left unclear, however, as to whether [he] is genuinely incompetent, or acting quite deliberately with dumb insolence.

The character of Schweik became famous in Eastern Europe during the Cold War because he was seen as an example of the oppressed undermining their oppressors. But the question was, Is Schweik sly?

Now that Donald Trump’s unusual approach to politics (to say the least) won him the nomination, election, and inauguration as President of the U.S., people are wondering whether or not his approach is a matter of insolence or strategy. Is Trump sly?

The answer is unquestionably, Yes. Here are some reasons why:

1. George Lakoff is a cognitive linguist who has written and talked much about political speech. He is a progressive and an opponent of Trump, but he considers him an effective speaker (and tried to get the Clinton campaign to take note).

Unconscious thought works by certain basic mechanisms. Trump uses them instinctively to turn people’s brains toward what he wants… George Lakoff, Understanding Trump, July 23, 2016.

Without knowing it, many Democrats, progressives and members of the news media help Donald Trump every day. The way they help him is simple: they spread his message.

Think about it: every time Trump issues a mean tweet or utters a shocking statement, millions of people begin to obsess over his words. Reporters make it the top headline. Cable TV panels talk about it for hours. Horrified Democrats and progressives share the stories online, making sure to repeat the nastiest statements in order to refute them. While this response is understandable, it works in favor of Trump.

When you repeat Trump, you help Trump. You do this by spreading his message wide and far.

Nobody knows this better than Trump. Trump, as a media master, knows how to frame a debate. When he picks a fight, he does so deliberately. He tweets or says outrageous things, knowing they will be repeated millions and millions of times. When the news media and Democrats repeat Trump’s frames, they are strengthening those frames by ensuring that tens of millions of Americans hear them repeated over and over again. George Lakoff, How to Help Trump, Dec. 15, 2016.

2. Scott Adams is an author and creator of the Dilbert comic strip. In his blog he talks about Trump’s persuasion skills and systems thinking.

You’re probably seeing the best persuasion you will ever see from a new president. Instead of dribbling out one headline at a time, so the vultures and critics can focus their fire, Trump has flooded the playing field. You don’t know where to aim your outrage. He’s creating so many opportunities for disagreement that it’s mentally exhausting. Literally. He’s wearing down the critics, replacing their specific complaints with entire encyclopedias of complaints. And when Trump has created a hundred reasons to complain, do you know what impression will be left with the public?

He sure got a lot done.

Even if you don’t like it. Scott Adams, Outrage Dilution, Jan. 26, 2017.

If you see the world in terms of goals, you might think President Trump has failed at every important goal so far. …

But in any case, as I often say, goals are for losers. Systems are better. As I describe in my book, a good system is something you do every day that leads you to better outcomes, not specific objectives. For example, going to college is a good system even if you don’t know what job you might later want. Any time you learn something valuable, that’s a system. Networking with important people is a system. And so on.

Trump seems to be a systems thinker. I doubt he knew he would jump from real estate developer, to author, to reality TV star, to president. At least not in that order. Instead, he systematically accumulated money, persuasion skills, and personal connections until he had lots of options. Being president was one of them. Scott Adams, How to Evaluate a President, Feb. 16, 2017.

3. Trump acts in accord with the idea that the press is the opposition by trolling the press and putting out red herrings to get them off the track.

Now that he is president, reporters assigned to Mr. Trump are in a tough position. They have to pay close attention to what the White House says, but they know the White House may give them garbage and dare them to spend an entire working day trying to verify or debunk it.  Barton Swaim, Wall St. Journal, Jan. 23, 2017.

4. Trump’s background and inclination includes the positive thinking and speaking of Norman Vincent Peale and Paula White. His negotiating tactics include hyperbole:

In Art of the Deal Donald Trump calls one of his rhetorical tools “truthful hyperbole.” He both defends and praises it as “an innocent form of exaggeration — and a very effective form of promotion.” As a promoter, Trump made extensive use of this technique. Trump & Truthful Hyberbole, Mike LaBossiere on December 4, 2015.

Yes, Trump is sly.

Cherchez les hommes

Cherchez la femme is a French expression from the 1854 novel The Mohicans of Paris by Alexandre Dumas, which means “no matter what the problem may be, a woman is often the cause. Look for the mistress, the jealous wife, the angry lover… there is a woman at the root of each problem.” The alternative cherchez de l’argent (look for the money) is something detectives, journalists, and Marxists are prone to do.

A different approach is better when trying to find or explain social and political change: cherchez les hommes, look for the men. The power, prestige, and influence is where the men are because men much more than women seek power, prestige, and influence. And that also leads to power, prestige, and influence following men.

Steven Goldberg wrote two books, The Inevitability of Patriarchy (1973) and Why Men Rule (1993) with the central argument that:

Specifiable hereditary psychophysiological differences between males and females engender in males a more-easily-released tendency for dominance behavior. This is observed by a society’s population and is incorporated in all aspects of socialization that mediate the psychophysiological and the institutional. As a result all societies, without exception, exhibit patriarchy, male status attainment, and male dominance.

The fact that men rule is not popular today, but it is a fact whether anyone likes it or not. Why it should be true is another matter. The point I’m making here is that this fact enables us to find and explain some social and political changes.

Cherchez les hommes means look where men are leaving and where they are going because power, prestige, and influence are headed away from where they are leaving and toward where they are going. Where are men leaving? Men are leaving universities.

Women accounted for 55 percent of undergraduates enrolled at four-year colleges in the United States as of fall 2014, according to the most recent data available from the federal education department.

It’s not a new phenomenon. Women have outnumbered men on college campuses in the US by a widening margin since the late 1970s, and the gap will continue to grow in coming years, according to some projections. Boston Globe, March 28, 2016.

“Women in the UK are now 35% more likely than men to go to university and the gap is widening every year.” BBC News, May 12, 2016.

Men are leaving universities so we conclude that universities are losing power, prestige, and influence in contemporary society. Men are less welcome and less interested in today’s egalitarian universities. Egalitarianism may have served men well in the past, but no longer.

Where are men going? In the U.S. there are more men than women in the Western U.S. The cities with the largest gender gap are high tech centers such as Silicon Valley, San Francisco, Austin, and Seattle. In the 2016 presidential election, the gender gap helped the winning candidate (see here and here).

This shows that high tech is gaining and universities are losing power, prestige, and influence. Politics continues to be dominated by men, though a different kind of man than before, younger, more western, and less tied to tradition.

Religious freedom in two senses

I last wrote about religious freedom here. The post concerns how to define religion for purposes of religious freedom.

Basically, there are two ways to define religion: (1) a narrow, traditional sense in which religion means one of the world religions, which are concerned with worship of God or gods and/or following a certain way of life; or (2) a broad sense in which religion means what each person defines as the greatest good or ultimate concern and the lifestyle choices that follow from that. In the latter sense everyone has a religion; even those who are atheistic or anti-religious make a religion out of that.

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution lays out the two sides of religious freedom: negative freedom (freedom from) and positive freedom (freedom to). “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” The incorporation doctrine applies this to the States, too. Consider these two sides in relation to the two definitions of religion.

(1) In the narrow sense of religion, government shall not promote or demote one traditional religion over another, shall not provide material support for traditional religious activities, and shall not interfere with traditional religious organizations and activities.

That protects religious organizations and leaders but what about adherents who want to apply their religion to their daily activities, their business, or other nominally secular actions? For example, can a business operate in accordance with religious principles if they conflict with generally applicable laws? The Supreme Court has said, No. So the narrow definition of religion causes problems for individuals.

(2) In the broad sense of religion, government shall not promote or demote one view of the greatest good or ultimate concern over another, shall not provide material support for anything that someone might consider religious, and shall not interfere with any organization or activity that people claim has religious significance for them.

Clearly, the broad sense of religion causes problems for government. For example, there are people who say it’s against their religion to pay taxes. Does that mean they get off free? Does anyone have a veto over laws based on something they claim is part of their religion? In the broad sense of religion, it seems so.

The Supreme Court has reacted against this stricture on government and affirmed the legitimacy of any government action that is not aimed against any particular religion. In 1990 an exemption was sought so members of a tribal religion could ingest peyote despite a ban on this drug. The Court denied this in terms that seemed to equate freedom of religion with freedom of speech: say anything you want, have any religious opinions, but the law applies to everyone (Employment Division v. Smith).

The problem is that the second definition is too broad and the first definition is too narrow. The way forward is to adopt a broader version of the narrow definition or a narrow version of the broad definition. What might this mean?

For example, it could mean that someone can’t just say, My religion forbids me to pay taxes. They need to demonstrate that this is part of a religious tradition or doctrine that is a central part of their life. This is similar to the process for obtaining conscientious objector status with the selective service system (military draft). It’s not easy to obtain this status, but it can be done by those with a strong case to be members of a pacifistic religion.

On the other hand, it should take more for the government to justify a law than merely that it advances a secular purpose. Many secular purposes these days are against the religious beliefs and practices of many people. The government should be required to show a compelling public interest in a law, or else carve out exceptions for religious objectors.

As government has grown, religious freedom has been under pressure to contract. This needs to change, without giving everyone a veto over laws they don’t like.

Judging politicians

From what most media outlets say and the way most people talk, it would seem that the most important thing politicians do is make speeches. Talk, talk, talk, day after day. Some words bring headlines, perhaps unwanted. Other words bring praise or condemnation. In the end, what is most remembered about politicians is their words, not their actions.

Sometimes words and actions go together, as when a public official announces a decision they have the authority to make. Other times actions follow words, as when a politician promises they will do something specific, usually after the election. But most of the time words are sufficiently vague and actions are sufficiently long in coming that it’s hard to tell whether or not promises were kept.

What really makes a difference is what politicians do, not what they say. So the way to judge politicians is by their actions, and their results. That means one should pay little attention to their words and much more attention to their actions. Why is this so hard for people to do?

For one thing, the media make it hard to do. It is much easier for the media to talk about a politician’s words rather than their actions, which need to be explained and may get into complex details. And so the media focuses on a politician’s latest off-hand remark rather than on what document they signed or directive they gave.

Where is the action-oriented media? Mostly the business press. Those in business require knowledge of actions that may affect them rather than the daily brouhaha of political blather. Otherwise, specialized media have updates for particular issues. Are you interested in environmental issues? Subscribe to an environmental newsletter. Religious freedom? Follow a Christian news source. Your town council? Go to some meetings yourself.

The bottom line is that most talk by politicians is hot air, which should be no surprise. So don’t pay attention to it. Follow their actions instead. Chercher l’action.