Posts Tagged 'socrates'

Right, and right again.

Months ago I clipped out this National Post article about how our society is increasingly “consumed by loneliness”.

One of the experts quoted is Dr. Fay Bound Alberti, “cultural historian of gender, emotion and medicine”, who identifies neoliberalism, individualism, and nationalism as isolating trends that have severed people from the support of their traditional communities – “whether that was good or bad”.

This gives the author her opening for the ritual denunciation of you-know-who:

The rise of populism can further pit people against others – blacks, Mexicans, immigrants – while at the same time creating a seeming sense of belonging.

The “Make America great again” rallying campaign slogan “theoretically represents a common purpose – or a new ‘religion’, given how evangelical Trump’s rallies can appear,” Bound Alberti said. “But it’s based on exclusion, division and difference.”

You’d think a topic like loneliness would be safely remote from the realm of partisan finger-jabbing. Turns out, no. I had the exhausted reaction once described by Alan Jacobs: “Is there any chance of my getting through a recent essay, an article, a story, an interview, without a reference to That Man?

I have a less self-contradictory theory for how loneliness is connected to “the rise of populism”. We retreat from human interaction because we fear that if we shared our unguarded opinions with co-workers, family members, and friends, we’d end up scratching each other’s eyes out.

***

Dashiell Hammett’s The Dain Curse is about a private eye protecting a troubled girl who believes that, under the influence of the title curse, she’s responsible for a rash of murders that have occurred in her vicinity. She cites her oddly-shaped face and ears, and the “fog” that prevents her from thinking “even the simplest thoughts”, as evidence that the sins of her parents have corrupted her bloodline.

The private eye reassures her that she’s perfectly normal:

“Nobody thinks clearly, no matter what they pretend. Thinking’s a dizzy business, a matter of catching as many of those foggy glimpses as you can and fitting them together the best you can. That’s why people hang on so tight to their beliefs and opinions; because, compared to the haphazard way in which they’re arrived at, even the goofiest opinion seems wonderfully clear, sane, and self-evident. And if you let it get away from you, then you’ve got to dive back into that foggy muddle to wangle yourself out another to take its place.”

Whether the private eye believes this, who knows. He’s a hard-boiled type who’ll say anything to manipulate the squirrelly mooks and screwy dames he encounters. And whether Hammett believed it, again, who knows. He spent the last thirty years of his life as an unwavering follower of the Communist Party line, holding tight to his goofy opinions even when they led to prison and the blacklist during the McCarthy era.

Anyway, I believe it. Life is a half-waking stagger through a crowded underlit arcade with neon flashing, klaxons wailing, jabbering teenagers jostling you on all sides, and you’re lucky if you can focus your attention on anything for two seconds consecutively, let alone accurately describe your perceptions afterward. That’s how I feel most of the time, anyway. I assume everyone else is going through the same thing, so I try to cut them some slack when they spill their drinks down the back of my shirt.

At his trial, Socrates claimed that if he was wiser than other men, it was only in being wise enough to realize how little he knew. I’ll go Socrates one further: I’m wise enough to admit that those supposed wise men in the newspapers, on TV, on Twitter, who to me seem such overconfident know-it-alls, are probably wiser than me after all.

The trouble is, the wise men all contradict each other, so I’m forced to rely on what scraps of wisdom I can retrieve from the foggy muddle.

***

Best I can remember, I started paying serious attention to public affairs sometime in my mid-teens, which would be the early nineties – let’s say around the start of the Clinton administration in the US, and Jean Chrétien’s Liberal government in my native Canada. Since then I’ve lived through four presidents – two Democrats and two Republicans – and four prime ministers – three Liberals, one Conservative.

That’s not much of a sample, but it’s enough that I’ve begun to notice that right-wing and left-wing governments affect my beliefs in different ways. Namely, when right-wingers are in power, either in Washington or Ottawa, I become more sympathetic to conservative ideas; but when left-wingers seize the helm there is no compensating effect on my philosophical orientation.

Thus I find myself becoming more and more right-wing.

It’s not because I have an “authoritarian personality” which makes right-wing arguments somehow seem more convincing when backed by the iron fist of the ruling party. It’s actually kind of the opposite. I live almost entirely in a left-wing milieu. My friends and nearest family are left-wingers. The restaurants I eat in, the neighbourhoods I hang out in, are populated mostly by left-wingers. And the media I consume – apart from conservative news sources I’ve sought out deliberately in the interest of balance – is produced largely by left-wingers.

When leftists are running things, the left-wing masses are content. Sure, they’ll still bitch about the horrible things those fascist pigs are planning to do if they ever take over, but there’s a complacent undertone to their bitching. They’re convinced of the long-term inevitability of their victory – the arc of the moral universe bending toward what they regard as justice. Aren’t all the cool young people left-wing? Aren’t all the high-birthrate immigrants left-wing? Aren’t all the old fascists dying off, their communities withering, their perks sustained only by anachronisms like the electoral college and first-past-the-post voting? We’ll be rid of ’em soon. Just a few mopping-up operations, that’s all.

But when the fascists upset their sense of destiny by actually winning elections, left-wingers go absolutely nuts. Where before they might have lobbed the occasional snide comment into the opposing trenches, in the spirit of keeping the enemy on their toes, now the barrage becomes nonstop and desperate. You flip open the arts section and every book review includes an irrelevant swipe at the uncultured rednecks occupying the capital. You sit down in a coffeeshop and the kiddies at the next table are bewailing some half-remembered social media listicle about the government’s viciousness. You attend a dinner party and sit biting your lip through a series of wisecracks made in the assurance that no-one present could ever support those ignoramuses who have tricked and slandered and demagogued their way into power.

Now, I’m pretty sure that in a right-wing milieu, the masses act out just as annoyingly when left-wingers are in charge. Never having lived in such a milieu, it’s never concerned me. Living the lifestyle I do, it’s pretty easy for me to tune out right-wing idiocy. Left-wing idiocy I simply can’t escape. And I react to it by sympathizing with the targets of left-wing ire.

It may seem silly to think of Donald Trump and George W. Bush and Stephen Harper as underdogs. Objectively, they aren’t. But from my perspective, in the milieu I inhabit, when left-wingers are on the attack, right-wing ideas appear harried, besieged, bombarded with disproportionate force. Which makes them sympathetic. So I migrate rightward – until left-wingers resume power and call off the siege, and I resume my state of indecisive stasis.

(I have also considered the idea, of course, that I’m simply getting older, and older people tend to be more right-wing – maybe because of growing wisdom, or aversion to change, or because we hold on to the same middle-of-the-road opinions we held in our youth and discover to our surprise that they’re now considered conservative.

There’s also the possibility that left-wing ideology, at least in its popular form, is becoming more unhinged with each passing decade, and older people are the only ones who’ve been around long enough to notice.)

***

During the last provincial election I read an op-ed about British Columbia’s log policy. I had been unaware of the elaborate system of rules governing when unprocessed logs can be shipped abroad and when they must be retained locally in order to provide work for our own sawmills. I can’t remember if the op-ed was pro-log policy or anti-log policy. My reaction was something like: ugh, yet another goddamn thing to think about.

I’m pretty dumb and lazy – maybe dumber, definitely lazier than the average. But I doubt all my intelligence and effort could add much to the log policy debate. The many, many British Columbians who are smarter than me, and the practically all of them who are more energetic than me, for all their deep thought and careful analysis haven’t managed to arrive at a consensus yet. Instead, unsurprisingly, they’ve clustered around two viewpoints which we might tag (however arbitrarily) as left-wing and right-wing – with the right-wingers, in this case, supporting the liberty of logging companies to market their logs abroad in pursuit of higher prices, while the left-wingers want to keep the logs here to preserve blue-collar jobs.

(A hundred years ago, the “left” side of this argument would have been for free trade, while the “right” would have favoured a mercantilist National Policy. With Trumpist protectionism ascendant on the right and “open borders” the rallying cry on the left, the two sides appear to be in the process of swapping places again.)

I’m not sure how I’d balance those two values – economic liberty for all, versus job security for a few – assuming that the anti-traders are even correct that limiting exports helps preserve local jobs. I recently spent an hour reading up on the subject, bashing my head on jargon like the Surplus Test and Fee-In-Lieu Of Manufacture, and I’m no wiser than when I began.

But if BC’s log policy for some reason became a topic of heated national debate – with my left-wing friends all reposting conspiracy theories about how this or that pundit was in the pocket of Big Logging; with John Oliver and Samantha Bee snarking about those halfwit Log Denialists; with websites supposedly dedicated to movies or comics sanctimoniously trumpeting their participation in the International Day Without Logs – well, that would clarify things enormously. The surest way to align my sympathies with the right is for the left to decide that no intelligent person could disagree with them.

It appears I’m as susceptible to brainwashing as the most credulous left-wing dunderhead. Turn bien-pensant opinion against something and I soon start seeing the good points in it.

M.

I’m afraid this is all ground I’ve covered before, for instance in my discussions of Jordan Peterson and Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Jane Jacobs and the flexible definition of “populism”, and why I can’t be bothered to vote.

Dwarf descending.

I’ve been writing a lot lately, more than I have since wrapping up my novel a couple years back, but my blogging frequency hasn’t increased. I’m holding in reserve a dozen or so essays on contentious topics: immigration, electoral reform, Vancouver transit planning. A couple of them, I think, are pretty good; yet I hesitate to share them.

It’s not that I doubt whether my opinions matter: I know very well they don’t. I don’t keep up this blog in the hope of influencing anyone else’s opinions. The possibility that I might accidentally change someone’s mind about something makes me more reluctant to post, not less.

In an 1822 essay entitled “On Effeminacy of Character”, William Hazlitt scorned wishy-washy writers like me:

They alter what they write, not because it is, but because it may possibly be wrong; and in their tremulous solicitude to avoid imaginary blunders, run into real ones. What is curious enough is, that with all this caution and delicacy, they are continually liable to extraordinary oversights. They are, in fact, so full of all sorts of idle apprehensions, that they do not know how to distinguish real from imaginary grounds of apprehension[.]

By contrast, says Hazlitt,

There is nothing more to be esteemed than a manly firmness and decision of character. I like a person who knows his own mind and sticks to it; who sees at once what is to be done in given circumstances and does it.

But what about the well-meaning fool who sees at once what is to be done, does it, and discovers too late that his action was ten times more destructive than inaction would have been? What percentage of our gravest problems have been made graver still by the interventions of manly characters who insisted that the time for debate was over, that circumstances required a bold and immediate response?

Which isn’t to deny that inaction, too, has led to grave results. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say that inaction is action: that the decision to forbear is as consequential as the decision to act.

Most people find such haverings contemptible. They’re certain that they can distinguish right action from wrong, truth from falsehood, wisdom from folly. In my youth, before I knew much of anything, I too had such confidence. The way forward was so obvious! How could these idiots not see it? How could they be taken in by such transparent nonsense?

I understand, therefore, the impulse to choose a side. What I don’t understand is why so many people, having made their choice, seem so much angrier at squishes like me than they are at their declared opponents.

I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot.
So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth.

Granted, that’s stern, sword-in-his-mouth Revelation Jesus, not easy-going Sermon on the Mount Jesus. But you’d think even Revelation Jesus, while chastising the lukewarm, would still rank them higher than the downright cold.

No doubt my inability to grasp this paradox is connected with my lack of religious feeling. But speaking as a chilly-hearted atheist, wouldn’t Jesus rather have the spiritual-not-religious types sitting by neutrally, instead of actively working against him? Doesn’t his vituperation risk turning them from neutrals into hostiles?

In a somewhat less exalted vein:

monty jim meddick

Monty, by Jim Meddick.

In this case, Dehlia has correctly diagnosed Moondog as not so much undecided as apathetic. But why is she so confident that if she can get him into the voting booth, he’ll pull the right lever? [1] He has only the bleariest grasp of the issues. If he has a preference at all it’ll be due to something trivial, like a candidate’s gaffe, or more likely a campaign ad misrepresenting a decontextualized comment as a gaffe.

Suppose by some infinitesimal chance the election came down to Moondog’s single vote. Does Dehlia really want questions of life or death, war or peace, prosperity or ruin, to be determined by which memes happened to be in her lowbrow friend’s Facebook feed on election day? Is it fair to pile so much responsibility on his sloped shoulders?

Thankfully, there’s practically no chance of it being decided by one vote, so it’s safe to throw Moondog’s half-assed opinion into the mix. If Dehlia really feels so strongly about getting undecideds to vote, a better strategy may be to reassure them that their participation won’t make the slightest difference.

***

I used to make certain assumptions: that high intelligence correlated with good judgement; that I was highly intelligent; that therefore I could trust my judgement.

Where did those assumptions come from? Before I was old enough to reason, I absorbed from my elders, my friends, and the media certain preconceptions about what intelligence looked and sounded like. I accepted the arguments made by the people who looked and sounded that way, and sneered at the arguments of those that didn’t. I taught myself to act and talk and write like the people whose arguments I’d accepted. I knew I’d chosen the right side because, after all, wasn’t I highly intelligent? I must be, because the intelligent people all agreed with me.

One of the things intelligent people did, I gathered, was read books. So for a while I pretended I’d read a lot of books, even though I hadn’t. I knew this was fraudulent, but I figured I could scrape by on my natural intelligence, which as yet I’d seen no reason to doubt. But since my pretense occasionally exposed me to the danger of being shown up by people who actually had read the books, I thought I’d better start reading them for real.

Immediately I noticed two things. The first was that I forgot ninety-nine percent of what I read within a day or two of having read it. This made me question whether I was as intelligent as I’d previously thought. It also made me wonder whether all those other intelligent people, who made such a big show of having read so many books, had absorbed much more of them than I had.

The second thing I noticed was that the authors I read, particularly those from different cultures and eras than my own, had very different ideas about what constituted good judgement. In fact, many of the ideas they lampooned as transparently foolish were the very ideas that the intelligent people of my own time and place lauded as unquestionably correct.

Not that there was much uniformity of belief among the authors. Hazlitt and George Eliot and George Orwell and C.S. Lewis all started from different assumptions and arrived at different conclusions. Yet they were clearly as smart as any modern writer; in fact, judged solely by the quality of their prose, far smarter. As for the quality of their reasoning, it appeared to be at least equal to, probably superior to my own. Beyond that, how was I to say?

If any two thinkers who in my shaky estimation seemed equally intelligent could reason their way to opposite conclusions about the truth; if their opposite conclusions could appear equally plausible; then on what basis could I choose between them?

I began to suspect that my judgements were no better than a coin flip, and that I should probably refrain from taking any action where there might be a danger of negatively affecting other people.

If I this was as stupid a conclusion as it seemed, then my reasoning must have broken down somewhere – which meant that I was even less intelligent than I thought, and even less qualified to judge.

***

I can imagine how my intelligent peers, if confronted with such doubts, would reassure me. Yesterday’s geniuses, while enlightened by the standards of their times, simply couldn’t have known what we know now. Had Nietzsche seen the workings of a modern welfare state he would have chucked all that will-to-power stuff. Had H.G. Wells witnessed the condition of modern Venezuela he would have been more skeptical of centralized economic planning. Had Chesterton had access to the Sayings of Justin Trudeau he would have realized that all faith traditions contribute equally to our wonderful multicultural mosaic.

Though ignorant in their various ways, these authors all did their part to raise us to such intellectual heights. We are dwarfs standing on giants’ shoulders, standing in turn on other giants’ shoulders, stacked giant-atop-giant all the way back to the first groaning behemoth sunk nostril-deep in the ancestral mire. We honour those giants – who couldn’t possibly have dreamt how far and how clearly we’d someday see – by pulling their books off the shelf occasionally, revisiting their obsolete arguments, chuckling fondly at their innocent errors; but not by taking them too seriously. No doubt they’d find our current beliefs strange and disorienting. Well, wouldn’t we be disoriented if we were somehow raised to the dizzying level of some far-future dwarf poised a thousand giants above us? Wouldn’t the habits of that future dwarf seem to us foreign, inexplicable, even horrific? Our vision is as yet too narrow to take in such galaxy-spanning vistas!

Could be. But here’s how unintelligent I am: while struggling through, for example, The Republic, I never once found myself thinking, “Ah, Plato, poor simpleton. If only he could have lived to see how successfully we moderns had answered all his primitive fears.”

I thought instead: “Uh-oh. What if this old kook was right?”

What if democratic rule devolves inevitably into tyranny? What if certain stories, melodies, and rhythms breed effeminacy of character? What if common myths are essential to preserving social stability?

Our common myth is that all the above propositions are untrue; and maybe it’s irresponsible of me to dabble with them. As Plato’s hero Socrates modestly admits:

[T]o carry on an argument when you are yourself only a hesitating enquirer, which is my condition, is a dangerous and slippery thing; and the danger is not that I shall be laughed at (of which the fear would be childish), but that I shall miss the truth where I have most need to be sure of my footing, and drag my friends after me in my fall.

Suppose that in the dwarf-on-dwarf quarrel on the giant’s shoulder, the wrong dwarf prevailed? Suppose that rather than stretching up to the stars, that dwarf stepped blindly into the void, dragging the others after him? Suppose this has happened any number of times in our intellectual history, that it’s happening right now, and that instead of a triumphant climb heavenward, all we really have is a vast swamp littered with heaps of dead dwarfs?

M.

1. In a subsequent installment of Monty, Dehlia confronts the likelihood that Moondog’s vote will cancel hers out.

Fourteen years ago, when I was still full of whimsy, I wrote this short dialogue between Plato and his pupil Dion. Last year I described first encountering the famous line about standing on the shoulders of giants in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. In April I undertook a preliminary survey of the domain of epistemic muddle that is now my permanent home.


Michael A. Charles is a writer, animator, and musician currently living in the Vancouver area. He used to be the singer and guitarist for the band known as Sea Water Bliss.

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