Annual Christmas Message: Bah Humbug

Annual Christmas Message: It’s a Xmas terror thing!

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I hate christmas. I have always hated christmas; yes always, since I can remember anything at all, I remember hating christmas.

My mother was a single parent (father having left when I was 2). She always worked christmas (she was a nurse), she usually worked double shifts on christmas – overtime at holiday pay rate. So she was never home for christmas. That left me to the tender care of my 2 older sisters – who basically hated me. (With one, the estrangement was never repaired.)

My mother would usually prepare christmas ahead of time – chicken sandwiches, canned ravioli or beans, canned string beans – sitting in pots on the stove waiting to be heated, yum yum. For dessert, those prepared sugary jelly pies one got at the corner-store. Of course, for the first few years, I got little of it – my sisters were voracious eaters and didn’t think of christmas as necessitating any more sharing behavior than they engaged in the rest of the year.

There was gift giving, of course. My oldest sister liked to give me torn socks. My second sister, fortunately would actually try to be generous, and usually bought me first comic books, and then later books.

My mother’s gift giving was a little erratic. I think she tried, she really did. But she was too busy with working and household chores to really put much thought into it. Usually she would ask us what we wanted, and then on Christmas morning we would unwrap these relatively cheap, easily broken plastic toys. Being kids, of course we reacted depressed and complaining. By the time I was a teen-ager, my mother had just given up – she just gave us money the week before Christmas and had us buy and wrap our own presents. Somehow, the experience unwrapping them was not the same.

We had a christmas tree – my aunt usually bought it. It was usually too big. Since we kids were doing the decorating, we always over-did it and the tree looked over-weighted and gaudy. It usually stood too long in the living-room, way past new years, so it was a brown shriveled, needle-shedding wreck by the time we got it out of there.

Holiday festivities revolved around the television set. I suppose I watched every christmas special produced during the late ’50s – early ’60s: tawdry re-narrations of the nativity story, cheap vaudeville acts pretending to be cheerful, sit-com families making vacuous jokes and grinning stupidly ear to ear. The only broadcasts worth remembering were old films. I still have fond memories of the Alistair Sims “Christmas Carol.” Otherwise, by the time I was 14, television as a whole was losing interest for me, and I had gotten the general idea that christamas was basically a marketing scam. (“Things go better with Coke – Ho ho ho!”)

For quite some time in my adult years, I tried and tried to ‘get the spirit’ of the holidays. A part of me wanted to believe that the religious magic could actually worked; a part merely wanted to belong to some community celebration.

But it was hopeless. The effort to feel happy only made things worse. Christmas after christmas collapsed in emotional ruin, occasionally spoiling romantic relationships. It was only in my late 30s that I began making friends who also found the christmas season emotionally tortuous, and for many of the same reasons. Families can be a curse, not a blessing, and we ought to allow those who experience that to live their lives without some sort of guilt trip about not observing holidays that they find hollow or painful.

The last christmas I tried to celebrate, in 1991, was with my mother and my second sister. By then I had abandoned christianity completely, so it was completely about family for me.

We ate chicken and potatoes (that I cooked), listened to an album of christmas songs, and sat through a viewing of one of my mother’s favorite films, “The Sound of Music.” We exchanged presents; my sister and I bought books, my mother (true to form) gave us plastic trinkets. We all agreed what a wonderful time of the year it was. We hugged and said good-night.

I never felt so hollow, and so hypocritical in my entire life. I gave up any attempt at celebrating christmas all together, and I have never regretted doing so.

Well, what about ‘the message,’ though? Peace and love and good will to all – and of course, if you buy that, we got a freshly born baby god to sell you too!

Well, I’m sorry – if peace and love and good will are dependent on some mythic infant from a tribal culture in some desert hinterland, than the human species is doomed – this only means we are incapable of generating an ethic that responds to the gross changes in culture that our history has brought about. The worship of an infant marks the infancy of our culture. Let us admit that there has been some progress since then.

Nostalgia for christmas is really nostalgia for small communities in rural cultures, when riding in a ‘one horse open sleigh’ was a necessity if one wanted to visit family. But we live in cities now, and many of us don’t want to visit our families. Many of us just wish the whole horror show were over, and we have every right not to participate.

And if you have children and they express unhappiness with christmas, don’t chastise them – they probably have very good reasons for it, and you should wonder hat these are.

So what to do this consumer glut ‘holiday’ season, if you’re not in a holiday mood?

well, if you can enjoy the sensual pleasures, the one good thing about christmas is that you get a good excuse for doing so – get drunk and have good sex is one possible experience of christmas cheer.

If you’re not so inclined, try reading a good book. I suggest George H. Smith’s “Atheism: the Case Against God” for its intellectual rigor. Or perhaps something more entertaining, a movie classic – Akira Kurosawa’s “Yojimbo” makes for jolly good holiday fare.

Certainly you can’t go wrong simply meditating on the absurdity of the human experience. 400 years of modernity and we’re still celebrating a Roman holiday!

Happy Saturnalia!

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The state we’re in

I apologize for the abruptness of my previous post (“Get Trump Out”).  But it is quite clear to me that the very presence of Trump in the White House is damaging the social fabric of the nation.

 

A hurricane devastates Puerto Rico, and Mr. Trump uses it as a photo-op, while dismissing Puerto Ricans as lazy and insulting the mayor of San Juan.  A worsening situation on the Korean peninsula and Trump tells his own Secretary of State that negotiations are a “waste of time” while exchanging crazy threats with the DPRK’s Kim.  Our allies seek assurance of our reliability, and get insults from Trump, who treats their greatest potential adversary, Putin, with kid gloves.  Police violence escalates and Trump applauds it, even suggesting that law enforcement officials should go ahead and violate the civil rights of suspects.  His response to the slaughter of an innocent woman is to insist that murderous Neo-Nazis include “some very fine people.”  A harmless public protest in a major sports arena, and once again the violent rhetoric.  59 murdered in Las Vegas? – another photo-op, with Mike Pence.

 

This is not a president; this is the Angry Old White Man in Chief, stoking the flames of potential violence at every turn.

 

His mental instability clearly gives Congress all the justification it needs to remove him from office.  They won’t, of course.  But we must keep up the pressure on them to do so, and vote Democratic in the next elections.  Because Trump in the White House is degrading our culture, our social connectivity, while heightening the potential for violence domestically and war abroad.

 

Trump is not the president of the United States.  At a time we need a leader, we find ourselves tethered to a foul-mouthed buffoon with poisonous attitudes willing to risk even mass destruction for a moment’s self-glorification.    This man isn’t simply unfit, he is actively dangerous to the people of the United States – the people of the world.  Again, the Republicans need to rethink the future of their Party – for surely Trump is hijacking it to the ugly phenomenon of the worst presidential administration in American history.

 

And we again must keep up the pressure – resist – protest – and vote.

Get Trump out

Although Stephen Paddock was clearly a far right gun nut, his exact motivation will probably never be known.

But Trump’s utter lack of sympathy or empathy is clearly on display. He – who has no religious affiliation – prays with religious right racist Mike Pence. Then he goes to Puerto Rico, whose citizens (American citizens) he says are lazy, so he can pat himself on the back – no matter the suffering of Puerto Ricans (who are largely Hispanic, so why should he care?)

Trump’s violent rhetoric has excited right wing gun nuts like Stephen Paddock.

Racist pig! Get him out of office! He won because of a quirk in the electoral laws. He is a minority president that no one wants but fools who don’t read, don’t accept science, don’t reason – and don’t care.

Get this pig out of office.

Las Vegas Shooter Right Wing Gun Nut

Circumstantial evidence is gathering to suggest that Stephen Paddock, the mass murderer in the recent attack in Las Vegas claiming at least 58 lives, had some connection with the Bundy militia – gun-fetishistic white supremacists and right wing anti-American insurrectionists – and of course supporters of Donald Trump; and that Paddock stalked ant-Trump protestors, possibly seeking potential victims.

 

Mr. Trump, I suspect you inspired this shooting. The victims do not need your “warmest condolences.”  They need you to leave office, so the nation can begin healing from all the chaos you have brought to executive policy, both foreign and domestic.  And to leave behind your evident racism, self-aggrandizement and  cruelty.

 

Mr. Paddock’s behavior did evidence “pure evil,” as you say.  But then so does yours.  Again, resign now, so that the nation may heal.

 

Republicans!  Think of the future of your party!  Determine that this man is not fit for office, and get him out of it!

Doctor Who and the Ontology of the Fictional Character

The Electric Agora

by E. John Winner

Philosophical background

This is not a text of philosophy, but it would be remiss not to note some of the philosophical background to the issues raised.  One of the problems with that background is that in the kind of discussion we’ll be having here, we will naturally be making claims regarding fictional characters, which some philosophers insist do not exist.

The approach to fictional entities that came to dominate the Analytic tradition was initiated by Frege, who decided that names for fictional entities were simply ’empty;’ they lack reference, or more precisely they refer to nothing. (1) This was later supplemented by Russell’s theories of denotation and description:  Names of fictional entities could refer to properties (and thus have meaning), but these properties amounted to nothing, since the entities didn’t exist.  (2)

I’ve never been happy with this approach because the implication of it is that…

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The importance of rhetoric in politics

There is an intricate and intractable relationship between the three foremost modes of discourse – grammar, logic, rhetoric – which comprised the teaching of language in the Middle Ages – taught for a thousand years as the “Trivium.” Grammar, logic, and rhetoric have all changed over the years – as they must – but I think the Medieval teachers better understood what we need to learn about language practices than we do today. At any rate, a good theorist or critic of rhetoric, to be such, must be well schooled in the Trivium – must be aware of logic and grammar, to recognize how these are used rhetorically. It should also be noted that in evolutionary terms, grammar is probably primary, since without order language cannot be understood, rhetoric is secondary, since the principle function of language is agreement on action between people, and logic tertiary, as a clarification of rhetorical and grammatical protocols. But I admit I am now wandering into speculations on the origins of language, which can only be the subject of speculation, since we have little evidence on the matter.

The following develops from responses to an article by Dwayne Holmes, “No Contest,” which attempted to refute understanding of rhetoric as a proper heuristic for deployment in either understanding or enacting political discourse. [1] It deployed two primary arguments: The first is that rhetoric, as the art of persuasion as such, is too dangerous to be allowed unconstrained in public argumentation, which ought to proceed to judgments derived logically. The second is that rhetorical criticism is useless for understanding the public presentations of the current President, Trump, since he makes no argument and is no master of rhetoric; intead, it is asserted, he is merely a dishonest entertainer, and only has followers seeking to be entertained rather than deal with issues of policy.

What we’re supposed to see from the conjunction of these arguments is how powerless an understanding of rhetoric is in dealing with political discourse, since the real tension there is not between rhetoric and logic, but between ‘serious’ political engagement (necessitating logic) and political ignorance.

However, this doesn’t make any sense, because it leaves us with a lack of explanation of the Trump phenomenon such that we can develop strategies of persuasion for those who follow him. This would necessitate a broader, deeper appreciation of how people make political judgments based on emotionally informed motivations and not simply rational self-interest, which thus also necessitates a broader, deeper understanding of the art of persuasion that must address these motivations. So what we really find is that failure to understand the full dimensions of rhetorical practice leaves one powerless before phenomena that seem to involve irrational judgments based on criteria other than the logically feasible.

The two arguments do not hold together in such a way that a conclusion follows logically from their premises; and the premises lack properly convincing definitions their of terms. It is not surprising then, that the essay ends, not with a summary restatement of the argument(s) and their logically derived conclusion, but with the rhetoric of an emotionally charged promise that the future will somehow make all such matters clear.

Let’s consider Holmes’ issues from a different perspective.

Journalist Anthony Zurcher, remarking Donald Trump’s rhetoric: “He pulled back the curtain on the show and laughed along with his supporters at the spectacle. He encouraged his crowds to cheer the hero (him) and berate the villains (everyone else).” That’s an appeal to an audience. It is persuading that audience to respond in a certain way. That is what rhetoric is supposed to do. [2]

‘Vote for me because…’ is quite obviously the initiation of an argument during an electoral process. One may say, the election is over; however, Trump is already currently engaged in a campaign for re-election in 2020. Therefore, he is still making that argument. (There are several other more discrete arguments he is making, concerning the nature of the media, the right of a president to do as he pleases – thus the very structure of American government, the nature of American society, and the nature of foreign affairs. But his argument for re-election is the most obvious. [3])

Some would deny that Trump is making any arguments or using any rhetoric, insisting that Trump is involved in distractions rather than persuasions; but as I showed with the Zurcher quote, this won’t do. It is true that Trump is not reaching out beyond his base, but his rhetoric is quite successful in keeping his base committed to him.

While I personally think the Electoral College is an outdated institution, it remains a hard fact of American politics, and needs to be addressed in political strategy and should help guide the rhetoric of a national campaign. Clinton didn’t plan on this, relying on a “Blue Wall” of reliable states that didn’t really exist. The Republicans understood this full well, and reaped the rewards of their strategy and the rhetoric used, including that by Trump.

One might wish politics would be entirely reasonable and orderly. So did Socrates – that ended in his drinking hemlock. As I’ve remarked elsewhere, politics is war by another means, not the other way around. It’s a dirty business, and those who don’t like the dirt should not play. If Democrats keep insisting that ‘the other side’ play fair, instead of coming up with a more persuasive politics, they will keep losing elections.

I suppose one might look forward to things getting worse to the point that everyone awakens to realize the rightness of the liberal point of view (and act accordingly). There are two things wrong with this: 1, no matter how bad things get, they can *always* get worse; and humans simply learn to adapt. Because of this, 2, such a hope is doomed to disappointment – Marxists believing this have been disappointed time and again; social critics in ancient Rome were disappointed to the point of the collapse of the Western Empire, after which there was nothing left to hope for.

There certainly is an ethics of the practice of rhetoric, and this is discussed within rhetorical theory; but ultimately this depends on a more general ethics per se. The fundamental criteria of a successful rhetoric is that it works. When to use it, whether or not to use it, how best to maneuver between different modes of discourse and in the service of what causes, is entirely a matter of practical ethics and (in the present context) practical politics.

I’m not a cynic, but I am a pessimist. That’s because I accept people pretty much as they are, rather than how I think they should be. Most people – yes, even most Trump voters – hold themselves up to pretty high standards – they may not be my standards, and I understand frustration with that – but they are standards, nonetheless, and people try to live up to them. When they fail to do so, it’s not because they’ve been manipulated by swindlers, but because uncertainty leads them to misjudgments – they are trying to do their best, but are unsure of what the best might be in a situation of insecurity. Some want them to adopt other standards, and, further, to discuss those standards only in reasonable argument, and, finally, only act according to a reasonable conviction reached through those arguments. This is not addressing human beings.

In real politics, there is a necessity for addressing all the perceived needs of the electorate, and not just their ‘best interest’ as decided by experts.

That politics is war by other means – this derived from Hobbes, not Machiavelli – is certainly pessimistic, but it stands on solid ground: History demonstrates time and again that when politics breaks down, war results. Perhaps it is this inevitable trajectory that politics is intended to stave off.

I said that the Western Empire collapsed, and it was the Western Empire that social critics in the Late Empire were concerned with preserving. Eventually the City was abandoned, and civilization moved elsewhere. In the West, by the way, this meant the conquering of hearts by way of an utterly irrational promise that the life after death would resolve all the dilemmas of the earthly struggle to survive, delivered through a militant organization drenched in mystery and armed with paradoxical faith in what could not be ‘proven’ but only believed. – exactly because it could not be ‘proven,’ and thus ‘must’ be believed.

-_-_-

[1] https://theelectricagora.com/2017/07/13/no-contest/

[2] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-40475448 – Or consider the analysis of Trump’s use of hyperbole by Joseph Romm. Also not a professionally trained rhetorician, yet Romm has earned ‘street cred’ in the field after years of experience negotiation public policy and authoring a book advocating the use of rhetoric. https://thinkprogress.org/donald-trump-may-sound-like-a-clown-but-he-is-a-rhetoric-pro-like-cicero-ac40fd1cda79

[3] And given this, by the end of this year, there should be at least two Democratic candidates running for the 2020 nomination. However, this is unlikely, because the DNC, which should be fostering new talent in such efforts, remains convinced that their glory days were the Clinton Administration, and that people will just get so appalled by Trumps antics… like hoping that the Republican Congress, knowing that Trump will sign any bill they can get onto his desk, would consider impeaching him.

 

A note on rhetoric

(This includes revised material from previous posts.)

“Words are instructions or directions for behavior, and they may be responded to either appropriately or inappropriately, but the appropriateness or inappropriateness depends upon the judgment of someone.” – Morse Peckham [1].

Dialogue: A rhetorician and a logician:
‘Let’s say we have one audience that sets stock in logic based discourse; another prefers appeal to emotions. The problematic is not how each target audience has its base preferences triggered rhetorically, but why it is they wish their preferences appealed to. The one identifies with their intellect, the other with their ”gut feelings….”’
‘This sounds like you’re saying that both audiences are being manipulated.‘
‘I wouldn’t say manipulated; I suggest their responses are directed toward a preferred end.’
‘But surely an appeal to reasoning is simply part of a dialogue in the effort to find a common truth.’
‘Are you not listening to yourself? “An appeal to our reasoning”? what could be more rhetorically directive?’
‘But if I am faced with a choice reasonably presented, allowing me to judge on logical grounds -‘
‘And how does that make you feel? Isn’t that the person you always wanted to be? and would you submit if you did not feel this?’
‘But I am trying to convince you -’
‘You want my assent; and how shall this be evidenced?’
‘If my logic is sound, you will agree.’
‘You want me to engage a speech act, “yes;” and further, don’t you also want me to go about “convincing” others on your behalf?’
‘On behalf of the truth!’
‘It may be; but that’s beside the point. Therein lies your dilemma: Everything you want me to say may be true; everything you want me to do based on that, may be based on true beliefs. But first, you must have me acquiesce. You must persuade me to your cause. You can appeal to my previous experience and education; you may appeal to my inculcated beliefs; you may appeal to my sense of self, to the values with which I identify. But you will never get my assent with pure logic. “If” covers a lot of ‘maybes,’ and “then” only necessarily follows in a truth table.’

Rhetoric: the practical value:
There is not a single thing we say lacking rhetorical value. The art of rhetoric – and critical response to it – begins with admitting that. Rhetoric is the verbalization of our desires and our fears – our lust, our wish for power, our frustrations and anxieties, our self-identifications, i.e., our images of ourselves: it defines our selves socially, and how we interact with others (the others we always want something from, whether good or ill; or even if it is perceived as benefiting the other somehow [2]). We use it on others, there is no socialization otherwise; and others use it on us.

The art becomes, how to navigate in its stream, not whether we wish to stand apart from it (which is impossible) or what we can know independent of it (which is nothing). We might want to be intellect separable from material reality; but that is not as nature made us. We are as we are; my dog will use every sign she can present to get me to pet her, to feed her, to let her out at night. Our signs are far more complicated; but do they not originate in similar needs for recognition and social ‘stroking’? What a wonderful thing it would be, if we were ‘spirits in a material form’! Unfortunately, we are merely animals, trying to get the world around us to do our bidding.
“The goal of all argumentation (…) is to create or increase the adherence of minds to the theses presented for their assent. An efficacious argument is one which succeeds in increasing this intensity of adherence among those who hear it in such a way as to set in motion the intended action (a positive action or an abstention from action) or at least in creating in the hearers a willingness to act, which will appear at the right moment.” – Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca, The New Rhetoric [3].

We have developed a great many technologies with which to do this; but the first and foremost available, and indeed inevitable, to all – is rhetoric. Who cares if you can upload consciousness into a computer? The important question is whether you can persuade a plumber to clean your pipes on Saturday! (Extra points if you get him/her on weekday rates!)


[1] Explanation and Power: The Control of Human Behavior, U Minnesota, 1979.
[2] “Eat your spinach and you’ll grow up healthy as Popeye.”
[3] Chaim Perelman and Lucie Olbrechts-Tyteca, The New Rhetoric: A treatise on argumentation (J. Wilkinson and P. Weaver, Trans. ), University of Notre Dame Press, 1969.
This is probably the most comprehensive text on rhetoric in the modern era, and links well with classical rhetoric without simply re-iterating it, since the authors were well aware that they were writing in the post-propaganda era following WWII. It had considerable influence on Continental philosophers, but is written in the straight-forward academic prose preferred in the Analytic tradition.