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.



[2] – 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.

[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.

Toward a phenomenology of television

I admit that I’ve lost anything but a passing interest in contemporary film and television. I’m not entirely in the dark on such matters; I browse Youtube occasionally, and I have a store nearby where I can find used DVDs for as little as a buck. A year ago, I got into a jag there, buying and binge watching police procedural from the the first decade of the present century. But in general, I don’t watch telvision and stay away from special effects spectaculars. (Although the last film I actually went to a theater to see was Godzilla 2014; but then I have a soft spot for Big Greeny from my childhood, and just wanted to make sure they treated him with respect. I doubt I’ll go to any of the proposed sequels, though.) And 3-D doesn’t interest me. Harpo Marx was once asked about Lenny Bruce who was achieving notoriety at the time; he replied “I have nothing against the comedy of today; it is just not my comedy.”

However, having had to study the phenomenon of television in grad school, and having invested considerable time in thinking, talking about, watching, and even, in my youth, making film, I do have some general remarks that may be useful here.

First, never lose sight of the economic background here. Both commercial cinema and television are primarily business enterprises. The purpose of film production is to provide entertainment enough to attract audiences willing to spend money on it. This has caused considerable friction between those who provide capital for production and those who come to filmmaking with a particular vision that they are hoping to realize.

The purpose of a television show is to produce enough of an audience to sell to advertisers. (This is obviously less true of the secondary markets, DVDs and on-demand viewing; technology has changed that dynamic, although it is still in effect on most of cable.) This is actually quite a lower bar than selling tickets to the theater, since the audience only needs enough incentive as necessary to get them to watch at a particular time for possible advertises. A show only needs to be less uninteresting than competing programs at the same time in order to achieve this.

With these concrete notices, we can get into the phenomenology of the two media. The most important thing to grasp here – both easily recognized and yet easily forgotten – is that what distinguishes these media from all others, and differentiates them from each other, is their relationships to time, and how the makers of these media handle those relationships. Of course every medium establishes a relationship to time, and this relationship effectively defines the medium to a large extent. But each medium does this in a unique way, as opposed to all other media. * Yet one of the problems we have in distinguishing film and television as each a distinct medium is that fictional television seems to have a relationship to time similar to that of theatrical drama or at least of film. This is not the case.
The true structural principle of television did not become recognizable until the late ’70s, when television began broadcasting 24 hours a day. By the late ’90s, when cable television was multiplying into literally hundreds of channels, it should have been obvious to all; but part of the success of television is that it depends on, and manipulates, our attention to the particular. Most people do not think of themselves as ‘watching television.’ They see themselves watching Seinfeld or Mad Men or The Tonight Show or ‘some documentary about the North Pole.’ On the immediate existential sense, they are quite right, it is the individual program to which they attend. The trouble is, when the Seinfeld rerun ends, many of them do not get up to do something more interesting in their lives; they sit there and watch Mad Men. Or at least let it play on while they discuss what it was like to live in the ‘60s, and then the Tonight Show… and if they can’t get to sleep, it’s that documentary about the North Pole on the Nature Channel, or an old movie on AMC (does it really matter which?), or an old Bewitched rerun….

Now it sounds like I’m painting a bleak portrait of the average television viewer. But such a viewer is what television is all about. And we should note that this says nothing against such viewers. They are presented with an existential dilemma: What to do with free time in a culture with little social cohesion and diminishing institutions that once provided that cohesion?

So, whereas film is about how to manage visuals and audio and story and acting in the compacted period of a couple hours, television is about how to provide endless hours of possible viewing. It is not about this or that particular show – trends are more telling at any given moment.That CSI and NCIS and The Closer and The Mentalist and Criminal Minds, etc., etc., all appear in the same decade tells us more of what people found interesting on television that decade than any one of these shows, and certainly more than any one episode.

Which brings me to my real point. Although there are still some decent films being made on the margins and in other countries, the history of the cinema I knew and loved is at an end. Despite the fact that the basic premise of both movies is that a group of talented warrior gather to defend the good against overwhelming force there is no way to get from The Seven Samurai to The Avengers. That there is a core narrative conflict they share only means that there are core narratives shared across cultures, and we’ve known that for a long time.

But while the aesthetics of The Avengers is substantially different from that of The Seven Samurai, there is certainly an aesthetic at work in it. I am not willing to grant that television has any aesthetic at all. We can certainly discuss how aesthetic values are deployed in individual shows and individual episodes. But these are almost always borrowed from other media, primarily film. Television, just as television has no aesthetic value. And that cannot be said for film.

One way to note this is admitting that the ‘talking heads’ television is what television does best. That and talk-overs (as in sports) or banter, playful or violent, as on reality TV shows. Fictional shows can deploy aesthetic values, true; but only to get the viewer to the talk show, the next commercial, the next episode. Anything that accomplishes that.

Of course, what we end up discussing is the individual show, or the individual episode. and because television lacks aesthetic value of its own, it can fill endless hours deploying a multitude of aesthetic values from other media – poetry recitals, staged plays, documentaries, thrillers, old films, old television, various sports, news and commentary – perhaps ad infinitum. That’s what makes commenting on individual shows so interesting – and yet undercuts any conclusion reached in such discussion. All the shows we find interesting today, will be forgotten in the wave of the next trend tomorrow. But don’t worry – there will always be reruns and DVDs. As long as there is a market for them, that is.
My general point here is such that it cannot be disconfirmed by any show, or group of shows, or discussion of these – such would only confirm part of my point, television’s dependence on our attention to particulars.

One way to see think of the general problem is to imagine rowing a boat in a river; upstream someone has tossed in a flower – perhaps it is even a paper flower, and we’ll allow it to be quite lovely. So it drifts by us, and we remark its loveliness, while not addressing the many rotten pine cones that surround it. Now do either the flower or the pinecones get us an aesthetic of the river? No. So ‘bad’ television tells us no more about the aesthetics of television than does ‘good’ television.

And the river trope has another use for us here. We know the flower was tossed into the river only recently; but the pine cones have been floating about us for some time. Yet to us, now rowing past these, the pine cones are contemporary with the flower.

We think of an old TV show, say Seinfeld as if it is a phenomenon of the past; it isn’t. Reruns are still playing in major markets, making it a viable competitor to Mad Men or even Game of Thrones. It is still contemporary television. (Television does not develop a-historically, but the history of its development has been somewhat different than for media where individual works are the primary product.) So an ‘aesthetics of television’ would need to account for that phenomenon as well – not just the aesthetics of Seinfeld or of Game of Thrones, but why it is these aesthetics are received by their differing audiences at the same moment in history – and allowing even that many will watch both. And I suggest it would also have to address the aesthetics deployed in ‘non-fiction’ television (scare-quotes because I’m not sure there is any such thing). I suggest this cannot be done. What television as television presents us is grist for the mills of sociology, semiotics, cultural history; but an aesthetics?

That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t have criticism of individual episodes or discussion of favorite programs. In fact most of us having watched television or still watching it are doomed to this. But we should be aware that, reaching for the flower, we may end up with a rotten pine cone – or, what is most likely, simply a handful of water, slipping through our fingers. returning to a river we merely float along.


* On the time issue: The art of cinema – that is, the cinema I know, which I admit is no longer of interest, except on the margins – is defined by the control of time. This is also true of music and drama, but in a different way, since the filmmaker has a tool neither of the other two have: editing. Films were made on the editing boards.

But this technique could be accomplished – at least to some extent – in the camera itself. Thus even amateur filmmakers, making home movies, deployed the aesthetic of the medium – a particular control of time that photography could not emulate. Thus, picking up a movie camera and operating it immediately engages an aesthetic, however poorly realized and however unrecognized, even by the one using the camera.

Stories are inevuitable in every media; exactly becasue of this, each medium must define itself in terms of its approach to and presentation of stories, not the stories themselves, since stories will occur inevitably – and when they do not, the audience will invent and impose one.

To be less elliptical then, film’s dominant concern was – and still is, although in a way I no longer recognize – vision, in both the literal and figurative senses of that term, as we experience it through time.

While such considerations are understood by producers of television, that’s not what television is about. Television is about filling time with whatever, and getting the viewer to the next block of time (as defined by producers and advertisers). If a talking head can do this, there’s your television.

Again: We viewers are not the consumers of television – that would be the advertisers. We are the commodity that television sells to them.

That changes everything.

A reply to

“Medium, Message, and Effect” by David Ottlinger:

Mathematical Platonism: A Comedy

Mathematical Platonism holds that mathematical forms – equations, geometric forms, measurable relationships – are somehow embedded into the fabric of the universe, and are ‘discovered’ rather than invented by human minds.

From my perspective, humans respond to challenges of experience. However, within a given condition of experience, the range of possible responses is limited. In differing cultures, where similar conditions of experience apply, the resulting responses can also be expected to be similar. The precise responses and their precise consequences generate new conditions to be responded to – but again only within a range. So while the developments we find in differing cultures can oft end up being very different, they can also end up being very similar, and the trajectories of these developments can be traced backward, revealing their histories. These histories produce the truths we find in these cultures, and the facts that have been agreed upon within them. As these facts and the truths concerning them prove reliable, they are sustained until they don’t, at which point each culture will generate new responses that prove more reliable.

Since, again, the range of these responses within any given set of conditions is actually limited by the history of their development, we can expect differing cultures with similar sets of conditions to recognize a similar set of facts and truths in each other when they at last make contact. That’s when history really gets interesting, as the cultures attempt to come into concordance, or instead come into conflict – but, interestingly, in either case, partly what follows is that the two cultures begin borrowing from each other facts, truths, and possible responses to given challenges. ‘Universal’ truths, are simply those that all cultures have found equally reliable over time.

This is true about mathematical forms as well, the most resilient truths we develop in response to our experiences.  I don’t mean that maths are reducible to the empirical; our experiences include reading, social interatction, professional demands, etc., many of which will require continued development of previous inventions.  However, there’s no doubt that a great deal of practical mathematics have proven considerably reliable over the years.  Whereas, on the contrary, I find useless Platonic assertions that two-dimensional triangles or the formula ‘A = Π * r * r’   simply float around in space, waiting to be discovered.

So, in considering this issue, I came up with a little dialogue, concerning two friends trying to find – that is, discover – the mathematical rules for chess (since the Platonic position is that these rules, as they involve measurable trajectories, effectively comprise a mathematical form, and hence were discovered rather than invented).

Bob: Tom, I need some help here; I’m trying to find something, but it will require two participants.
Tom: Sure, what are we looking for.
B.: Well, it’s a kind of game. It has pieces named after court positions in a medieval castle.
T.: How do you know this?
B.: I reasoned it through, using the dialectic process as demonstrated in Plato’s dialogues. I asked myself, what is the good to be found in playing a game? And it occurred to me, that the good was best realized in the Middle Ages. Therefore, the game would need to be a miniaturization of Medieval courts and the contests held in them.
T.: Okay, fine, then let’s start with research into the history of the Middle Ages –
B.: No, no, history has nothing to do with this. That would mean that humans brought forth such a game through trial and error. We’re looking for the game as it existed prior to any human involvement.
T.: Well, why would there be anything like a game unless humans were involved in it?
B.: Because its a form; as a form, it is pure and inviolate by human interest.
T.: Then what’s the point in finding this game? Aren’t we interested in playing it?
B.: No, I want to find the form! Playing the game is irrelevant.
T.: I don’t see it, but where do you want to start.
B.: In the Middle Ages, they thought the world was flat; we’ll start with a flat surface.
T.: Fine, how about this skillet.
B.: But it must be such that pieces can move across it in an orderly fashion.
T.: All right, let’s try a highway; but not the 490 at rush hour….
B. But these orderly moves must follow a perpendicular or diagonal pattern; or they can jump part way forward and then to the side.
T.: You’re just making this up as you go along.
B.: No! The eternally true game must have pieces moving in a perpendicular, a diagonal, or a jump forward and laterally.
T.: Why not a circle?
B.: Circles are dangerous; they almost look like vaginas. We’re looking for the morally perfect game to play.
T.: Then maybe it’s some sort of building with an elevator that goes both up and sideways.
B.: No, it’s flat, I tell you… aha! a board is flat!
T.: So is a pancake.
B.: But a rectangular board allows perpendicular moves, straight linear moves, diagonal moves, and even jumping moves –
T.: It also allows circular moves.
B.: Shut your dirty mouth! At least now we know what we’re looking for. Come on, help me find it. (begins rummaging through a trash can.) Here it is, I’ve discovered it!
T.: What, that old box marked “chess?”
B.: It’s inside. It’s always inside, if you look for it.
T.: My kid brother threw that out yesterday. He invented a new game called ‘shmess’ which he says is far more interesting. Pieces can move in circles in that one!.
B,: (Pause.) I don’t want to play this game anymore. Can you help me discover the Higgs Boson?
T.: Is that anywhere near the bathroom? I gotta go….

Bob wants a “Truth” and Tom wants to play a game. Why is there any game unless humans wish to play it?

A mathematical form comes into use in one culture, and then years later again in a completely other culture;  assuming the form true, did it become true twice through invention?  Yes.  This is one of the unfortunate truths about truth: it can be invented multiple times.  That is precisely what history tells us.

So, Bob wants to validate certain ideas from history, while rejecting the history of those ideas. You can’t have it both ways. Either there is a history of ideas, in which humans participated to the extent of invention, or history is irrelevant, and you lose even “discovery.” The Higgs Boson, on the other hand, gets ‘discovered,’ because there is an hypothesis based on theory which is itself based on previous observations and validated theory, experimentation, observation, etc. In other words, a history of adapting thought to experience.  (No one doubts that there is a certain particle that seems to function in a certain way. But there is no Higgs Boson without a history of research in our effort to conceptualize a universe in which such is possible, and to bump into it, so to speak, using our invented instrumentation, and to name it, all to our own purposes.)

Plato was wrong, largely because he had no sense of history. Beyond the poetry of his dialogues (which has undoubted force), what was most interesting in his philosophy had to be corrected and systematized by Aristotle, who understood history; the practical value of education; the differences between cultures; and the weight of differing opinions. Perhaps we should call philosophy “Footnotes to Aristotle.”

But I will leave it to the readers here whether they are willing to grapple with a history of human invention in response to the challenges of experiences, however difficult that may seem; or whether they prefer chasing immaterial objects for which we can find no evidence beyond the ideas we ourselves produce.

The real problem with Trump’s rhetoric

It has taken me forever to try to figure out why Trump’s hyperbolic bluster, outright lies, and paranoiac screeching has any effectiveness at all – and it’s not simply that the media find it fascinating.


The fact is, Trump is saying exactly what his core followers would say in the same situation.  They would want to order people about; they would want to threaten and bully; they want to belittle people noticeably different from themselves.  They want to “grab her by the pussy;” they want to laugh at the disabled; they want to threaten nuclear war.  They want to gloat over perceived enemies after every little victory, and to blame others for every failure.


The key to understanding Trump’s behavior since entering the White House is that he is always playing to these core followers.  He has nothing to say to Merkel; it is more important to his followers that he say something about her.  By now he must know that bullying doesn’t work with Congress – even his Republicans; but that doesn’t matter, it’s the appearance of bullying that delights his core following.  He mocks the press because they have not fallen in line and glamorized him as he thinks they ought to – and that thrills his core following, who believe him glamorous as they could never be.


The real problem with Trump’s rhetoric is – Trump’s voters (or at least what I am calling his core followers, his true believers).  They represent about a third of the electorate, and they have no contact with any reality science can study, any logic one might wish to use in argument, and evidence not promised in conspiracy theories that will never be brought out in public (because of course non-existent; but that doesn’t matter to them, because they ‘believe’ in it, that’s all the validation they need).


That’s the problem.  A third of the electorate unreachable by any reasonable discourse or fact or evidence.  A personality cult verging on a religion.


It has been often said, without an informed an electorate, democracy is unsustainable.  Well, America is at least a third underwater now; and unfortunately, they’re the ones who elected the captain of the boat.

Politics and song

Now, the whole business of Irish nationalism can get very serious if you’re not careful.

– Liam Clancy [1]

My father, Joseph Connelly, abandoned his family when I was two years of age.  I probably should have hated him and be done with it; but that’s not how children respond to their abandonment.  There’s a lot of self-questioning – ‘was I the cause of his leaving?’ – and attempts to prove worthy of a love that will never be acknowledged.

So up to his death of a heart attack in 1989, I went through periods when I tried to adopt Irish culture as somehow my own; as my inheritance.  In the long run, these efforts failed, and they left me realizing that I had no cultural inheritance beyond the common culture of the United States.  When people ask me where my family came from, I answer without hesitation, “Brooklyn” [2].

Nonetheless, the efforts to identify with an Irish heritage left me with considerable sympathy for a people that had long suffered the most miserable oppression as a colony of the British Empire.  (The British long maintained that Ireland was a willingly subservient kingdom, aligned to Britain in the laughable pretense of a “United Kingdom,” but this was believed only by British colonialists stealing farmland from the Irish and putting them to work as, in effect, serfs.)  The oppression really began with Cromwell’s bloody conquest of the Catholic Irish, whom he called “barbarous wretches”; the massacres were bad enough – and the Irish were no saints in these engagements – but the immediate aftermath really established the Anglo-Irish relationship that followed:  the policy of suppression “included the wholesale burning of crops, forced population movement, and killing of civilians” [3].  It cut the population by nearly half.

Difficulties, including the occasional Irish rebellion, continued throughout the history of this “union” of Ireland and England, but reached a turning point with the notorious Potato Famine of 1845.  The potato had become a staple, because it could be grown in private gardens.  When a serious blight stuck, the Irish faced starvation. Cash crops in Ireland were routinely sent to England for wholesale, and if they returned to Ireland for retail sale, they were priced way beyond the ability of the Irish peasantry to pay. These practices were unaddressed by the British government for some five years [4].  By the end of the famine, roughly 1852, the Irish population was estimated as having lost more than 2 million, half to starvation, half to emigration.  The British – many of whom agreed with Cromwell’s assessment of the Irish character as barbarous and wretched (and shameless Catholics to boot) – thought that with the famine ended, markets would naturally stabilize, and relations with the Irish could be restored to way they were under the Acts of Union of 1801. They were wrong.  Survivors of the Famine and their heirs remembered what they had gone through and who had put them through it.  Irish political activists were no longer interested in “protesting” impoverished economic conditions that the British colonialists could exploit.  They knew that any such conditions would inevitably recur as long as the colonialists controlled the economy.  So began the long hard struggle that would lead to Irish independence.

Irish rebel songs had been recorded since at least the 17th century (“Seán Ó Duibhir a’Ghleanna” on the Battle of Aughrim during the Williamite War, 1691).  Indeed, there are so many of them that they form a genre of their own.  (Going by Wikipedia, they seem to comprise about a third of all catalogued folk songs of Ireland [5].)  However, they truly embed themselves in Irish culture in the decades leading up to the War of Independence (1919-21).   They include exhortations to fight for “dear old Ireland,” reports of battles, like “Foggy Dew” (Easter Rebellion, 1916), elegies for slain soldiers; as well as opinions on differing perspectives on the politics of the era, especially concerning those that erupted into violence during the Civil War of 1922.

One might object that I haven’t remarked on “the Troubles” in Northern Island, so I will.  There have been political songs on both sides of that conflict, as well as, in recent decades, admonitions to peace. [6]  They are all Irish.  Because as much as some citizens of North Ireland like to think of themselves as somehow British, no one else does – not even the British, who in signing the accords that brought peace to Ulster (1998), effectively agreed to the right of all the Irish to self-determination.

One can no more remove politics from Irish song, than one could remove the Guinness Brewery from Dublin [7].  But the matter goes much deeper.  In fact, throughout the years of occupation, pretty much whatever the Irish sang about was political in nature.  They sang of the success of their gardens – that violated British economics.  They sang of their children – they weren’t supposed to have so many, those damned Catholics!  They sang out their love of their God – in the 17th Century, this got them killed; in the 18th matters improved, it only sent them to prison.  They sang of the beauty of their countryside – and were kicked off it left and right.  They sang of their trades – which they couldn’t independently practice, without a British approved overseer.  All they had to do was warble a note in Gaelic, and they were suspected of some dark satanic plot against the crown.  In other words, the very existence of Irish song, the very singing of it, was a politically rebellious act against British domination.

It must be kept in mind here that for 400 years, the British were engaged in what might be called genocide-by-attrition of the Irish people.  This is difficult to discuss in America, where the media has such a fascination for the health and marital antics of the ‘royal family’.  I suppose the long-range plan was to have the Irish simply die off, but since most of them were Catholics, that wasn’t going to happen.  So the British settled for total suppression of the Irish way of life and domination of its economy. They reduced the Irish to something less than serfs, since serfs were recognized as being a part of the land they worked.  The Irish were not recognized as belonging to the land, they were seen as somehow an annoying infection, needing to be cauterized.  The British did worse than destroy Irish culture, they stripped the Irish of the resources needed to produce culture.

But the body is a resource, and it can only be stripped from the possessor through death.  As Hitler realized, the only way you can completely erase a culture is through complete eradication of the targeted people.  But the British, although cruel and destructive, had a peculiar image of themselves as fundamentally “decent,” so all their crimes needed to be rationally explicable and moderated with some sense of “mercy” (and with some sense of moral superiority).   Goering once declared in a speech, “Yes, we (Nazis) are barbarians!”  A British politician would never admit such a thing.  So the Irish were allowed to starve to death, but there were no death camps to be found in, say, County Clare.

That may have been a mistake.  Song is of the body.  One feels it singing. It reverberates deeply in the lungs and shakes the innards.  It rises up with every breath (Latin: spiritus).  Sing a song and one is that song.  Sing a song for others, and one produces culture.  The British could take everything from the Irish, but they could not take away their breath; they could not stop them singing.

There are actually two ways to listen to a song.  One is to hear the voice simply as a part of the music itself.  One doesn’t actually pay attention to the words; perhaps one doesn’t understand the words.  This is how we listen to songs in languages we do not speak.  But the practice extends beyond that.  Where I work, my older colleagues and clients generally tend to be political and social conservatives.  Yet the public address radio is set to a “classic rock” station.  So I find myself frequently bemused watching these conservatives hum along to songs promoting recreational drug use (“White Rabbit”), sexual promiscuity (every other song by the Rolling Stones), political revolution or anti-war resistance (Steppenwolf’s “Monster”), non-Christian religious belief (a George Harrison song extolling Hari-Krishna), or even a song of anti-American hostility (“American Woman”).  They listen to something like the Chambers Brothers’ burst of outrage, “Time Has Come Today,” and don’t seem to have any idea that they are the targets of that outrage.  The words are meaningless to them, because they’re not listening to the words.  The voice they hear and hum along with, that’s just part of the music.

I have a suspicion that this is how most of us listen to songs in our own language, especially songs we have been hearing since very young.  My colleagues and clients don’t want to be reminded of the ’60s with all that era’s political turbulence.  They want to be reminded of their own youth.

What the British did in their aggressive disenfranchisement of the Irish on their own soil was to force the Irish to listen to their own songs, to pay attention to the words as well as to the melodies.  Because we listen to the words of a song when they are touching us directly in our immediate circumstances.  So even ancient songs can be made meaningful again if the events they refer to are replicated in the events of the current day: they are recognized as contemporary as a newspaper or a political broadside.

The British thus made the rebel song the touch-stone, the embodiment of Irish culture.  One can see how this plays out in the Irish ‘cheer’ (that’s its technical genre), “Óró Sé do Bheatha ‘Bhaile.” [8]  This probably originated as a shanty, welcoming sailors home from voyage (its structure is quite similar to “Drunken Sailor,” with which it probably shares a common original).  During the Williamite War, it transformed into a plea for Bonny Prince Charles to reclaim the throne and set conditions aright for the Irish.  In the early 20th Century, it was slightly revised by Patrick Pearse, who some say was murdered – or as others would have it, executed – by the British for participation in the Easter ’16 Proclamation of the Irish Republic. [9]  The song is in Gaelic, and roughly less than a third of the Irish report using Gaelic.  That may be less among today’s young Irish, and perhaps they don’t quite understand the full meaning of this song.  But anyone in Ireland forty years or older does.  A call for heroes to oust the “foreigners” (British) from Ireland, it was used as a marching song during the War of Independence.  Even if one doesn’t understand the words, the historical context reveals the meaning, a context remembered and passed on through generations.

Let’s clarify that.  Obviously, however moving the music, and however well known the context, the words technically have no meaning, until they’re explained.  So imagine a young person, unable to speak Gaelic, yet hearing his parents and their friends singing this song and noting their attitudes of pride and determination.  Such a one would feel impelled to ask after the song’s meaning.  And here’s where attempts to suppress a language and its song swing back to bite the oppressor’s hand.  The young person now pays closer attention to the meaning of the song during and following the explanation than he or she would if it were sung in a language already understood.  In other words, the effort to suppress Gaelic song actually backfired:  Rebel songs in Gaelic achieved greater respect as audiences struggled to place them meaningfully within the context of the Irish revolution and take possession of them as their own.

In fact, the problem for any empire is that colonization, oppression, slavery, and mass slaughter do not make friends.  Empires generate hatreds and enmities that last for generations.  The good natured Irish tend to adopt a “live and let live” pragmatic attitude even towards those they have battled in the past.  But they also tend to carry a grudge.

The British are a very proud people.  Writing this in America, I know it is expected of me to continue, “and they have every right to be.”  But I don’t believe that.  The history of England includes important eddies of remarkable writers and scientists.  But these appear to the sides of a great river of blood, clogged with the remains of slaughtered natives of colonized lands.  And for every one of those dead, whole families are left behind to this day, battling to redefine the wretched political and economic confusion the British Empire left behind in its collapse – a collapse that the British still won’t admit or deal with honestly.

I write this in America, the nation that long acted as inheritor of that collapsed empire, while flattering the British ego, by pretending we are all somehow the same people because of a common language.  By functioning in a more paternalistic, “caring” fashion, acknowledging the sovereignty of other countries, spreading around aid programs, enlisting allies (as long as they didn’t threaten our hegemony and wealth), Americans have deluded themselves into believing they are not imperialists and have made no enemies.  But they are and they have, and this will continue to haunt and befuddle their foreign affairs for many generations to come.

But America has another problem.  There is no such thing as “the American people.”  America is a collection of many peoples from around the world.  Some of these have been historically oppressed, although later assimilated into the mainstream.  Others have not been able or allowed to assimilate.  And others may feel themselves oppressed where there is no empirical evidence that this is so, beyond their own disappointment, given the nature of the economy or the nature of constitutional government.  Consequently, there are an awful lot of people here who have, or who have had, or who believe they have, reason speak out.  And when the means for doing so are blocked or when speaking seems unlikely to convince others – they can always sing about it. [10]   That’s what song is for.  Politics is not an add-on to song; song is an inevitable expression in politics.

Mark English wrote here recently of the dangers of relying on mythical thinking in matters political. [11]  The desire for respect, for the ability to live without oppression or risk of theft or murder, for the opportunity to realize one’s full potential unhindered by stigma – are these mythical aspirations?  Quite probably.  The world is a cold home to a lonely, anxious species of over-developed hominids.  But I would not be the one to reassure those starving in a famine that, rationally, their deaths would (in the words of Scrooge) “decrease the surplus population.”   Some myths are worth living for, even fighting for; and worth singing about.



[2] My oldest sister never quite got over it, and became obsessed with developing a family tree.  She traced the Irish roots back to an 18th century poet, Thomas Dermody, aka Dead-Drunk Dermody, who, as his nickname would suggest, drank himself to death at an early age.

The first stanza from his “On a Dead Negro;”

AT length the tyrant stays his iron rod,

At length the iron rod can hurt no more;

The slave soft slumbers ‘neath this verdant sod,

And all his years of misery are o’er.


[4] The British response to the famine – heartless indifference – was a purely rational one.  Remember that this was the age of Malthus, who once wrote, however ironically:

“(W)e should facilitate, instead of foolishly and vainly endeavouring to impede, the operations of nature in producing this mortality [of the poor]; and if we dread the too frequent visitation of the horrid form of famine, we should sedulously encourage the other forms of destruction, which we compel nature to use” Essay on the Principle of Population, 1798.

Lest any think this was not in minds of the British during the Famine, consider the following:

“Ireland is like a half-starved rat that crosses the path of an elephant. What must the elephant do? Squelch it – by heavens – squelch it.” – Thomas Carlyle, British essayist, 1840s

“The judgement of God sent the calamity to teach the Irish a lesson, that calamity must not be too much mitigated. …The real evil with which we have to contend is not the physical evil of the Famine, but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the people.” – Charles Trevelyan, head of administration for famine relief, 1840s

“[Existing policies] will not kill more than one million Irish in 1848 and that will scarcely be enough to do much good.” – Queen Victoria’s economist, Nassau Senior

“A Celt will soon be as rare on the banks of the Shannon as the red man on the banks of Manhattan.” – The Times, editorial, 1848

Source of additional quotes:


[6] For instance: U2: “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” Simple Minds: “Belfast Child,” The Cranberries: “Zombie.”

[7] Until Guinness bought out the brewery building recently, they held a 9,000 year lease on it.


About the song:

Translation in English:

Revisions author:

[9] The execution of the leaders of Easter ‘16 was perhaps the most profound mistake the British could have made.  Initially, they sentenced 89 men and a woman to death; but the first 15 executions were staggered over 9 days, as crowds stood outside the prison weeping, and politicians both Irish and British protested.  Author James Stephens described it as “like watching blood oozing from under a door.”  The sentences of the other 75 sentenced to death were commuted.  But the damage was done.  The effect was to galvanize the Irish people in support of independence.




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