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.

 

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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.

Notes

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b3zOVi0C5X4

[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. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Dermody

The first stanza from his “On a Dead Negro;” https://www.poemhunter.com/poem/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.

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cromwellian_conquest_of_Ireland

[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: http://www.politics.ie/forum/history/22143-anti-irish-quotes-throughout-history.html

[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Irish_ballads

[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.

[8] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4Sje2VYw99A

About the song: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/%C3%93r%C3%B3_s%C3%A9_do_bheatha_abhaile

Translation in English: http://songsinirish.com/oro-se-do-bheatha-bhaile-lyrics/

Revisions author: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Patrick_Pearse

[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.”  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Stephens_(author)  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.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Easter_Rising

[10] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h4ZyuULy9zs

[11] https://theelectricagora.com/2017/02/22/nationalism-and-mythical-thinking/

 

This essay originally appeared at: https://theelectricagora.com/2017/03/03/politics-and-song/

Trump says it: why bother with election?

Yep, I called it:

 

Parody Trump: “We all know the people love me – even the towel-heads, the darkies, the kikes, the spics, the chinks – they all love me – Everybody loves me, we all know that. So I think it’s fair to say that an election in November would be a waste of time.” Trump (almost) in the news, no sign of it, August 7, 2016 post.

 

Real Trump: “And just thinking to myself right now, we should just cancel the election and just give it to Trump, right? What are we even having it for? What are we having it for?” Speech in Toledo, Ohio, October 27, 2016 https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/live/2016/oct/27/trump-clinton-news-vote-election-2016.

 

I would also be posting comparisons between my pre-debate parody of the second debate (Political discourse, 2016: tonight’s debate, October 9) and the actual second debate; except that the actual second debate was far worse than the parody version I imagined for it, with Trump stalking threateningly behind Clinton and repeatedly trying to shout her down.  And the third debate was even worse:

 

 

giphy

 

And then, being the stubborn unrepentant asshole that he is, Trump bulled his way into the Al Smith Dinner that Thursday, insulting Hillary and upsetting his conservative Catholic hosts, and manage to accomplish the seeming impossible – he lost a fourth presidential debate in an election that was only scheduled for three.

 

After  Trump declared, in his Gettysburg address (agh! – choke) that his first 100 days in office would be spent suing all the women whom he groped for talking about it in public, it has become pretty obvious to most astute pundits that, as I had already remarked in a previous post, policies were simply not at issue in this election.    This is all about personalities -or, rather, the personality, the big aging man-baby with no impulse control.

 

Clinton is a conservative (and on another day, I’ll perhaps explain why I always knew that the first female president would have to be a conservative), and I of course am not a conservative.  But Trump is mentally unstable, a narcissist with a streak of paranoia and delusions of grandeur, who has always bullied others his whole life, surrounding himself with yielding sycophants and submissive concubines. and who’s primary interest in the presidency is using it to further his personal financial interests.   That’s no one I want anywhere near a political office.

 

But he may end up being more than simply a sad footnote in American political history.  He has already started up the suspected Trump TV as a streaming service on Facebook.  Social media experts say that when he turns it into a subscription service, assuming $10 a month, it could bring him as much as roughly 12 million a year.

 

But I think there is worse to come – certainly for the Republican party.  This man won’t let go.  Although he hasn’t the temperament to organize and run a third party, he certainly has it to lend his name to one.  And the alt-right and fringe right have already demonstrated their organizing abilities.  And the media, by allowing Trump to get this far, have allowed him to bring them into the mainstream.  While that has the benefit of breaking the Republican Party in two, it also means the coming of a truly fascistic party, and one that will be able to win House seats for at least two or three election cycles.  And that would be no mere footnote to history – think of the potential for coarsening political discourse even worse than this year – but it would be sad.

Political discourse, 2016: tonight’s debate

(Due to conflicting schedules, tonight’s town-hall debate between presidential aspirants Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump was actually pre-recorded this morning. Here are some select highlights from the transcript:)

Moderator: The first question is from Mary Voter, addressed to Mrs. Clinton.

Voter: Madame Secretary, how would you address the growing number of children getting raised in poverty in areas of the United States?

Clinton: I have a twelve point program to bring to Congress that provides funds to those areas that would put into place health care clinics and educational support –

Trump: Wrong! I have children, I hgave a lot of children, there are probably a lot of children I don’t know I have, you know, because my Vietnam was a series of beds and I barely got out alive, let me tell you, no STDs –

Mod.: Mr. Trump, please wait for a question addressed to you before interjecting your personal affairs! Now, here’s one from Joe Dimswitch, of Bakersfield California.

Dimswitch: Hey Donald! Love ya, baby! What suggestions you got for a guy on the make in a singles’ bar?

Trump: Here’s an instance of my huge support! I have large numbers of followers like you, and they’re all on the make. Look, just go up to the good-lookers and rub your dick against them. Don’t forget, flash a lot of money at ’em –

Dimswitch: I don’t got a lot of money, I lost my job –

Trump: Then go away, you’re a loser – get him outta here.

Mod.: Another question for you, Mr. Trump, from Marvin Electorate, concerning foreign policy.

Electorate: Mr. Trump what strategy do you have in mind that would include possible use of nuclear weapons in Iraq?

Trump: Strategy? I don’t need no stinking strategy! What are you, a plant? Clinton put you up to this? Is this debate rigged? Let’s talk about my huge support, by bulging manhood, my big brain. You can see from my head-size, right? Big brain, very big.

Clinton: May I address this, because I believe the threat of use of nuclear weapons actually increases the danger in the mid-east –

Trump: Shut up you cow! the risk of you cheating on your husband threatens a big reality TV show in the near future, you know, like Hulk Hogan?

Mod.: Candidates, please, let’s confine our discussion to the issues at hand.

Trump: My dick doesn’t issue anything, like I said, no STDs, okay.

Mod.: Miss Angela Branlass, you wish to ask Mrs. Clinton about her position on women’s issues?

Brainlass: Hillary, do you prefer being on top or doggy-style? And look at this big hunk’o’man beside you, don’t you just want to grab his crotch and give it a squeeze?

Clinton: Miss Branlass, the issues that confront this society –

Trump: See, women want it, too, what can I tell you? Branlass? Great ass, but you could lose a few pounds around the middle. Are those tits real?

Branlass: They are!

Trump: Come around later and I’ll play with ’em a little.

Clinton: Can we please discuss the policy issues this election is really all about?!

Trump: Hillary, chill, bitch, this is a man’s world, learn to live with it. If I were Bill, I’d sleep around, too. Hey, I’m not Bill, but I still sleep around. I even slept with you, Hillary.

Clinton: You did not!

Trump: I never said I did, where’d you get that from? Some immigrant drug-dealer or your Muslim terrorist friends?

Mod.: Mr. Trump! Please, we have a question from James Blacklivesmatter, from Chicago, Illinois.

Blacklivesmatter: This for both candidates, concerning the fraught race relations currently prevailing in the United –

Trump: “Prevailing, prevailing,” oh listen to the fancy talk from the black guy! You go to school for that son? In my administration, don’t worry, we’ll get rid of public schools , replace them all with public prisons. Law and order will make you feel more secure behind bars.

Clinton: I don’t think we can wave away the concerns of African Americans with easy slogans about law and order!

Trump: Wrong! We can do this by getting more white women for the bros! That’s your plan, but that ain’t happening, Crooked Hillary, all the white women are for me! You, too! (Reaches over to grab Clinton’s breast.) Hey, real, no silicon, I’m impressed! (Clinton whacks Trump’s head with the microphone; a hollow ring sounds, but otherwise there’s no reaction.) Women all love that, they love the booby snatch. I’ve done it with Ivanka hundreds of times, she loves a good feel –

Mod.: If we cannot get back to the issues, we may have to close this debate early; Mr. Bob Blowall, you have a question for Mr. Trump?

Blowall: I’m gay, but I love the Donald! Hey can you flash it once for the fellas?

Trump: Sure. (Unzips, pulls out penis.) You can take it in your mouth, but for a couple grand –

Blowall: You mean you’d pay me a couple grand to blow you?

Trump: No, you pay me. My whole idea in life is to get other people to pay me what they want me to pay them. That’s smart, that’s why I’m huge.

Clinton (looking down at Trump’s penis): No, not so huge.

Blowall: Yeah, that’s actually kinda disappointing….

Trump: Well, at least I have a dick!

Clinton (unzips, pulls out 12 inch clitoris): Gag on this, loudmouth!

(It should be noted that by this point, the debate will go off-air; plans are to broadcast a marathon of “Leave It To Beaver” re-runs instead.)

Never Trump

Yes, it is true that Clinton’s foreign policy tends toward neo-conservatism’s wish to keep America at the top of the globalist economic food chain, possibly by military means. And yes, her domestic policy seems to be a ‘kinder, gentler’ version of neo-liberalism, with its unproven (or rather, falsified) ‘trickle down’ economics, which in the primaries I fought against, and in any normal election would vote against. But these are, ultimately, policy disagreements which can be discussed reasonably and compromised (and I’m certainly hoping that Clinton can be pressured into compromising them).

But it is making a gross misjudgment, as has most of the media, that Donald Trump has any policy positions whatsoever. This man is a complete sociopath, everything about him screams it. He doesn’t ‘lie’ in a purposeful manner, he simply sees no reason to tell the truth. He is all bluster and faux anger and domination. Assuming he wants to be president (and there is some evidence that he doesn’t, that this may be a scam in order to establish a media conglomerate), he doesn’t want to be the leader of the world’s only real superpower, he wants to be *boss*, to tell people what to do, to make deals, to open a hotel next to the White House, to use public funds to settle old debts, to threaten perceived enemies. He feels no commitment to the rule of law, doesn’t understand the Constitution and its branches of government, is disrespectful of American history (about which he knows little), is insensitive to the needs of wide swaths of the population.

The notion that we should vote for change – at any cost – that is, just shoot the dice on this megalomaniac, and see what comes up, because Clinton has neocon leanings, is frivolous. Chester Himes ends one of his novels with a metaphor that sums up such thinking – a blind man with a gun in a subway gets jostled and just starts shooting.

I have said before that this is the worst election in history. I don’t know that Clinton would start any new wars, but she will certainly lack a feeling for the nuance of policy in the Islamic world – but that’s been true of every President since Teddy Roosevelt. Furthermore, she will be constrained for two years by a Republican Congress – probably for four. Whereas the problem with such a Congress is that they will have to find some backbone to mount the needed impeachment against Trump when the inevitable financial corruption investigations at last make their way to the public. And if they don’t then the US will truly have a thoroughly illegitimate government, and I’m not sure that we can recover, since we’ve been going down that road for so long.

It is simply wrong to believe that any vote in this election is going to make things better. It is a choice between a neocon with experience who understands the inner workings of Washington (so, the status quo) – and a blind man with a pistol. For most people, it’s not really a choice between ‘the lesser of two evils.’ It’s a choice between continuing the gradual decline of the status quo; or a rapid descent into indecency, moral corruption, and embarrassing displays of executive hubris, especially in foreign policy and concerning minorities and immigrants.

Again, note that I do not critique Trump’s policy positions – because he doesn’t actually have any. What he has is a collage of things other people have said, verbalizations of ideas suggested by questionable political commentators, efforts to capture the anxieties of a working class he has, as employer, treated repeatedly with contempt,; a patchwork of borrowed phrases. buried rumors (not just about Clinton, but from decades ago), conspiracy theory innuendos, and reality TV performance hutzpah. He’s a clown show whose very presence in this election cycle denigrates the meaning of elections here, and shames our history by reminding us that many Americans are more interested in the charms and entertainment of carnival barkers than they are in art, science, or serious political policy.

If I were in a state where I truly thought that my vote mattered (with Trump and Clinton neck and neck), I would probably vote Clinton, because Trump is such a deplorable public personality. And where a third-party vote might at least draw attention, I might vote Green or even Libertarian (since the Libertarian party went so wacko at its convention this year – really, check out Sandra Bee’s report on it). But, again, New York is a peculiar state – half the population lives in or around NYC, and the City is particularly jaded – if Missouri is the “Show Me State,” New York is the “Been There, Done That” city – New Yorkers can smell a scam a mile off. They don’t mind con-men who are rain-makers – who can make other New Yorkers money – But Trump stopped being that long ago; so now he’s just a grifter on the hustle, and he hasn’t anything to sell that New Yorkers want. Consequently, Trump couldn’t win New York if he paid every voter a thousand dollars. So I’m fortunate that I live where I can protest the system by thumbing my nose at it, by not voting.

So yes, Clinton is a neo-con, a neo-liberal, she’s an insider out of touch with ‘Main Street’ Americans, she feels entitled, she really just wants to break the ‘glass cieling’ (and she has run a terrible campaign).

But the worst that she can offer is ‘more of the same;’ and Trump offers much worse (and intentionally offers it, because it gets him audiences he can rant to). No, not the end of the world, but the end of any illusion (or hope) for a democratic republic we might still, with some sense of belonging if not pride, call America.

So if you feel the need to vote, and you live in a state where your vote matters, then all I can suggest is, vote against Trump. He is a mockery of democratic values. Those values are very little realized these days; but they remain good values, worthy of teaching our children. Do not let them go gently into that good night – rage, rage against the dying of the light.

—–
This originated as a comment to an article by Mark English: https://theelectricagora.com/2016/09/26/dangerous-times-thoughts-on-the-us-presidential-election/

Problems with Utilitarianism

Reading about Utilitarianism recently, I first asked myself what I knew about it. It is now recognizably a form of moral realism, positing a standard of moral conduct separable from personal experience or belief – the greatest good for the greatest number. It’s been many decades since I’ve read Bentham, but I seemed to recall there was at least a suggestion, at the beginning of Utilitarianism, that its basic principles were already implicit in actual practice, and that Utilitarianism merely promised clarification and perfection by application of ‘scientific’ methodology. If so, then originally Utilitarianism would not be a moral realism but a scientistic justification for, and institutionalization of, existing practices. However, such a Utilitarianism would be unsustainable due to objections from any number of positions taken by those who felt the then current practices somehow disenfranchised them, or injured them, or oppressed them. (Malthus’ argument that the poor should be allowed to die off is this kind of Utilitarianism, and one can imagine the poor and their advocates not being too happy with it.) If I were remembering the matter aright, it should be clear why Utilitarianism would mutate into a claim of a ‘good’ as an identifiable value separate from what any one individual or group would wish it to be.

In America, most political arguments are in fact Utilitarian in one sense or another – and really can’t be otherwise. A politician is always arguing that he or she represents the most important interests of the greater number of the electorate – how could they not?

My general point is that it’s easy to see why understanding Utilitarianism might be somewhat difficult for some (including myself). I don’t say that to defend it, but because I find it somewhat confused, with a checkered history, even though politically inevitable in a diverse population with democratic aspirations.

I was never very impressed with the philosophy of Utilitarianism, so I didn’t keep up with it much. Kant’s deontology may be just as wrong, but it is far more interesting, because it raises the question of just how far we can extend rationality into the realm of morals before we bump into the fundamental problem of any moral realism, (or meta-ethical analysis, for that matter), cultural differences.

At any rate, reviewing some background material today, I find that I was wrong about Bentham (he was in fact attempting reformation of existing practices), but right about the essentially confused nature of Utilitarianism. Higher level utilitarian arguments can be convincing (and the crude utilitarianism we find in politics can be persuasive); but the ground is very shaky.

Here is an interpretation of Bentham‘s general premise, from The SEP: “We are to promote pleasure and act to reduce pain. When called upon to make a moral decision one measures an action’s value with respect to pleasure and pain according to the following: intensity (how strong the pleasure or pain is), duration (how long it lasts), certainty (how likely the pleasure or pain is to be the result of the action), proximity (how close the sensation will be to performance of the action), fecundity (how likely it is to lead to further pleasures or pains), purity (how much intermixture there is with the other sensation). One also considers extent — the number of people affected by the action.” (http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/utilitarianism-history/)

Assuming “we are to promote” – that is, we are obligated to promote – “pleasure and act to produce pain,” is committing ourselves to a standard separable from any particular instance of pleasure and pain. And this makes absolutely no sense. The First Noble Truth of Buddhism, that life is suffering, was derived – and remains derivable – from personal experience. (And if one hasn’t experienced it, then the way of the Buddha offers no solution.) But apparently Bentham distrusted experience as a guide, since it tends to generate morals based on personal prejudice; so where is this obligation to promote happiness coming from?

Secondly, Benthem is suggesting a calculus of pleasure and pain, when such are without any essential measure. Psychologists have tried for years to provide such measurement, with success limited to purely physical stimulation. But how much pain is experienced by a parent upon the loss of a child? How much pleasure in a wedding ceremony? What kind of pleasure do I feel when I learn a hated enemy is dead, such that I can measure it? What kind of sorrow and anger am I feeling in support of the African American community’s response to the alarming number of police shootings of unarmed men and women? On what scale should I rate it?

So, how generalizable is this presumed promotion of pleasure and pain? The last paragraph of my previous comment raises the inevitable cultural problem – pleasure and pain are not reducible to physical sensations, but, indeed, physical sensations are frequently responses to social events. But different cultures realize socialization in many different ways. Recently, I’ve read someone remarking that god hates homosexuals. While I have heard Protestant ministers make this claim, but Catholic clergy have ever followed the principle ‘hate the sin, but love the sinner,’ presuming this to be true of god. We know the ancient Greeks and Romans were quite tolerant of homosexuality; and the cultures of ancient India and Japan had ornate rules for ‘proper’ satisfaction of homosexual desires.

The SEP article quotes Bentham’s rejection of laws against homosexuality as an unnecessary impingement of personal sentiment on the general welfare thus:

“The circumstances from which this antipathy may have taken its rise may be worth enquiring to…. One is the physical antipathy to the offence…. The act is to the highest degree odious and disgusting, that is, not to the man who does it, for he does it only because it gives him pleasure, but to one who thinks [?] of it. Be it so, but what is that to him?”

One can sympathize with Bentham and still see that he has somewhat missed the point. People often feel greater security and greater pleasure in socialization when they have a sense that the culture they live in is homogeneous enough that they share values with the greater number of their fellow community members. The cultural differences concerning homosexuality indicate much wider cultural assumptions about the shared values of the differing communities – and not just about homosexuality, but about to what degree individual behavior may vary from community norms, about the appropriate means of tolerating such variance, about the ground and harshness of sanction concerning unacceptable variance. Once we begin studying cultural difference along such general lines, we begin to see in the details just how different cultures can get. Utilitarianism soon stands revealed as a set of assumptions and arguments within a *given* culture, and can no longer be universalized on a founding principle to which we all agree.

Beyond Bentham we come to the classical Utilitarian identification of ‘pleasure’ with ‘happiness,’ and this is not sustainable. It is a torture of reason to suggest that ascetics must be feeling some physical pleasure in their denial of physical pleasure; yet they may certainly be very happy. And yes, they may be feeling a psychological pleasure, but this may yet not be the source of their happiness, so much as their self-identification with their ascetic ideal, to which their psychological pleasure is mere response.

Which of course raises the apparently long-recognized critique of Utilitarianism’s insistence that ‘happiness’ is the ultimate goal of our moral decisions (whether we wish to admit it or not) – namely that it is simply not at all clear that all moral or ethical choices do in some sense, and ought to, move in the direction of increasing happiness. It is demonstrable that many ethical decisions we make do not lead to the greater happiness of one’s self or one’s community. My loss of faith did not bring happiness to me nor to the Catholic community in which I was raised. Commitment to civil rights in the 1960s meant recognizing that years of contention and further reformation and occasional strife would follow, as efforts to redress discrimination and increase acceptance of all races as fellow humans would need to continue indefinitely.

As I’ve noted before, where general ethics within a diverse community are concerned, I tend to think eclectically. There are some issues I would argue along deontological lines, others I think are better address with achieving personal virtuousness (virtue ethics); on other issues I can be a ruthlessly legalistic pragmatist or Hobbsean contract theorist; so of course there are issues I wouldn’t hesitate to address on Utilitarian grounds, especially in political matters.

But as a complete normative theory of ethical behavior, Utilitarianism still seems confused – and, frankly, an artifact of a given culture at a given time, which has largely passed into history.