iSoul In the beginning is reality

Category Archives: Politics

Politics in general and in contemporary society

Centrists and extremists

There are a variety of centrists, as there are a variety of means (e.g., arithmetic, geometric, harmonic, etc.). But all centrists share certain characteristics, which differ markedly from all extremists.

Centrists reside in the center, the middle, from a long-term perspective. Unlike moderates, who go with the flow of current politics and culture, centrists resist change away from the center. As I’ve noted before, that often makes centrists contrarians, trying to turn society away from movement toward any extreme.

Centrists see extremes as contraries, not contradictories. This logical point is the justification for seeking to balance opposites rather than eliminate any of them. It’s not that extremes are all wrong; it’s that extremes substitute the part for the whole. Extremists see their opponents as permanent contradictions, which leads them to desire to eliminate them rather than compromise with them.

One commentator on Hegel put his dialectic this way:

Logical unification is the application of the same dialectic relationship in the realm of logic. Consciousness is taken as ‘thesis’ and Being as ‘antithesis’. Thesis and antithesis are identical because antithesis is derived from thesis, and different as antithesis is something other than thesis. This contradiction between them is, however, resolved and superseded in their unity understood as ‘synthesis’.

This logic is exactly wrong. The problem is not antithetical propositions, that is, contradictions, but contraries that are treated as contradictories. Contraries can be reconciled at a higher level of consciousness but contradictories cannot be reconciled because one is true and the other is false. There is a direct line from Hegel’s logic to the Marxist liquidation of classes of people considered to be in contradiction to the cause.

Centrists welcome balanced compromise between contraries. There is no formula for what this is or how to achieve it. Each case must be considered separately, and care must be taken so that weaker parties are represented as much as stronger parties. Balance is not a fixed equilibrium but an oscillation around a center, like a balance beam rocking back and forth.

Centrists are patriots. A patriot is one who supports the good of the whole country, rather than just a part or faction. The problem of politics is the tendency for factions to gain power and the good of the whole to decline. Constitutions and elections are supposed to reduce the danger of that happening, but it takes vigilance by patriots to make sure it doesn’t.

Centrists keep the whole in mind at all times: the whole of society, the whole of civilization, the whole of life. Extremists take a part for the whole, and end up trying to eliminate the other parts. The ultimate extreme is idolatry: putting something other than God in the place of God. Centrists keep God in the center at all times.

Conservatives and liberals

The terms “conservative” and “liberal” are used in a variety of contexts but what is the distinction? They have come down to us through 19th century politics, but that turns out not to help much since many conservatives today would consider themselves as “classical liberals”. One can use alternate terms such as traditionalist and progressive, but they have various associations of their own.

I would say that the basic distinction is this: conservatives are most concerned with saving something – souls or money or traditions – and liberals are most concerned with spending something – lives or money or resources. That is, conservatives focus on what is worth keeping and liberals focus on what is worth spending.

Religious conservatives want to save souls, to promote what it is that brings salvation, to keep people from being or becoming infidels or unbelievers. Religious liberals want to spend their lives helping people, making the world a better place, doing something that needs to be done.

Economic conservatives want to save money, to buy only necessities, to keep money safe for future needs. Economic liberals want to spend money, to give to the poor, to use money to improve the world now. In the past, this has meant that conservatives had more money than liberals but that is not necessarily true today. Contemporary culture is a spendthrift culture, where most people do not save money either because they have more than enough already or because they live for the present.

Environmental conservatives are “preservationists,” those who value nature for its own sake and want to save it from development. Environmental liberals are “conservationists,” those who want to spend natural resources optimally for the sake of humanity. This is the inverse of what political conservatives and liberals want to do regarding the environment.

Political conservatives want to keep traditions that have worked for generations, to maintain the solvency of governing institutions, to preserve culture and society. Political liberals want to spend resources on improving society, to change what is wrong with society, to remake everything in light of their vision for the world.

In short, conservatives see the glass as half-full, and liberals see it as half-empty. Liberals see what the have-nots need, and conservatives see what the haves could lose. In the past conservatives were considered more pessimistic – seeing what could go wrong – whereas liberals were more optimistic – seeing what could work for the better. But today liberals are almost paranoid about the future – warning of disaster if society doesn’t change radically – whereas many conservatives are content to stay the course with only modest changes.

I have written before, here, about an inversion that can take place between conservatives and liberals. If liberals succeed at changing society enough, then conservatives may long to change things back to where they were before, whereas liberals want to keep their gains. Then liberals will resist change and conservatives will promote a return to what was lost. So conservatives become liberals and liberals become conservatives.

We save in order to have something to spend, and we spend in order to have something to save. The wise counselor advocates balance between these two movements. That is the centrist approach.

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.