The Smoke And The Small Screen

The other day I was looking down on the city from the lower slopes of our ruling mountain, in exquisite weather. After a night’s rain the air was about the clearest I had ever seen it. There was no sign of any pollution. This reminded me of the old nickname for London, “The Smoke”, and how people used to use that name as a compliment. For lack of belching smokestacks could mean only the absence of economic activity. Would a time-traveller from the 1800s, therefore, think that we were languishing in a great depression, or whatever they called it then?

I remembered also the way futuristic illustrations used to take dense vehicular traffic, such as the Tōkyō freeways featured at the end of Tarkovsky’s Solaris, as a metonym for life itself, cf. my essay, “Gosh, Wow, Aircars!” That being so, with the roads below me very far from jam-packed, I wondered whether some other time-traveller, this time from the 1950s, would pronounce this city “dead”.

If we are right to consider the lack of smokestacks and the lack of cars six abreast to be good things, rather than symptoms of poverty and backwardness, the third question I posed to myself on the hillside that day was what new mistake we might be making to follow those made in the eighteenth century and the Fifties. What might we be confusing with Life itself? The candidate that came immediately to mind was the smartphone. I hoped that, just as we now prefer clean air to reeking chimneys, humanity might one day learn to prefer the real world around it to the flickering screen.

Extending Demophiles

In his quasi-medieval dialogue “On Religion”, Arthur Schopenhauer had the character Demophiles point out the immense difference “between your man who is learned, versed in the art of thinking, and enlightened, and the dull, clumsy, sluggish, and indolent consciousness of humanity’s beasts of burden. Their thoughts have once for all taken the direction of concern and interest for their own livelihood and cannot be moved in any other direction.”

He was, of course, right about the impossibility of moving the dullard’s thoughts once taken, but – perhaps misled by his merchant background – he erred in assuming that concern for livelihood must be their main direction. How about, for instance, saying that, “Their thoughts have once and for all taken the direction of concern for their beautification?” Of course, for many people their beautification is very much part of their livelihood; but not for all, and the others thus have less excuse.

Alternatively, what if we were to talk about the unthinking person’s “dull, clumsy, sluggish, and indolent consciousness of the Other’s responsibility for everything that may befall them?” That would speak even better to our own time, in which one of the great global industries is the proliferation of excuses.

But Schopenhauer would probably agree with the more general formulation, that the dullard cannot be moved from concern for his next short-term manoeuvre, even when this compromises his ultimate goals. Why, that would give us the very definition of the human animal!

(Fiddle date-stamp to December 2, 2013)

Posted on August 11, 2017 at 18:38 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink · Leave a comment
In: MONKEY BUSINESS, The Anatomy Of Stupidity

Disabling The Antivirus

According to Jefferson Duarte of Rice University, creditworthiness is something that human beings are equipped to detect in others’ faces, even from photographs. Moreover, he says, shifty physiognomy is independent of facial beauty, obesity, race or any other category. Given that recognition of dishonesty is part of our evolutionary behaviour suite, successful scamming must require that this recognition be first disabled. The psychology profession is hereby invited to study the methods in which society softens up the victims for being conned.

One obvious method is to “un-teach” our children, training them to “un-recognise” the shiftiness that Duarte says is visible even in photographs. This is best done by installing some malicious override code. For example, Hugo attributes his lifelong distrust of men in suits to a mother who, when informed that so-and-so was a nogoodnik, responded, “How can you say that, dear? He’s so nicely dressed!” A complete explanation would then analyse what exactly she gained from attempting to disarm her child in the face of the world’s con-men – most of whom, and the most successful, naturally wear suits. I doubt she knew any professional investment consultants or other high-stakes grifters, but then these were probably well-integrated into the class to which, as a middle-class climber, she needed to suck up.

(Fiddle date-stamp to September 19, 2010)

Beware Female Praise

Philosophers of the logico-linguistic or Oxford tradition have spilled a lot of ink discussing what it means to call something “good”. Are we judging the good man under some objective standard of value that may have nothing to do with our interests, recognising his status in a transcendent ethical realm? Or are we perhaps merely making a noise of subjective approval, like when we eat something tasty and go “Mmm”? Or are we perhaps recognising his conformity to something external, but a something strictly related to our purposes. For instance, we call a physical object “good” when it answers to what we need it for. When we call a man good comes to the same thing as when we call a screwdriver good – he is fit for purpose.

Which can only mean, fit for our particular purpose. Although he is not generally studied in Philosophy 101, Friedrich Nietzsche may serve to remind us that ethics are not just about ourselves and the passive objects of our value judgements. They are a three-handed game, for us, the objects and another person who has his purposes for us. The point of our having an ethical standard may not be, as Aristotle would have held, that we become wise and truly happy ¬– the point may be that are then more ready to give this other guy what he wants. Who wants us to possess the virtue of trust? The con-man, of course. If truthful people are more ready to believe what they are told than are habitual liars, the grifter would like us to be virtuously honest, so that he can better sucker us.

With this in mind, we should reflect that being called a “good man” may make us feel warm inside but may actually be a bad sign. Certainly we know that when parents called us a “good” boy, they meant an obedient one, or one that raised their social value in the eyes of their peers. This was all that many parents ever cared about. For us to become “good” in some Aristotelian or theological sense that would stay with us for life, after they were no longer able to enjoy the brownie points, was well beyond their interests or even comprehension.

But even after such self-interested commenders have had their day, the program is still there to be run by someone else. Thirst for approval by the mother becomes thirst for approval by some other woman. She knows that she can say, “You are a good man” and we will roll over to have our tummy tickled. Our task is, therefore, to be on our guard against the grifter saying “good dog” and patting us on our head whenever we do something that serves her interest, while at the same time endeavouring to live an ethical life for its own sake. For that is not remotely the same thing.

(Fiddle date-stamp to September 1, 2016)

Why Utopia Never Arrived: Three Reasons

Whatever happened to the expectation that the cybernetic revolution would lead to shorter work and self-realisation? Just as we all know that the paperless office simply wasn’t, we also know that the net result of infotech has been the outsourcing of manufacturing jobs and even customer enquiries to Asia, plus the conversion of the employee into what past centuries would have called the “retainer”, available round the clock (“You rang, sir?”) and owing total loyalty (but, unlike his feudal predecessor, not receiving any in return).

Why was everyone wrong? The optimism rested on three misapprehensions. First, Maslow was quite wrong about people’s need or even wish for “self-realisation”, whatever that means. Above gratification on the pyramid is only undeserved self-esteem. Second, we forgot all about Their need to keep Us busy enough to prevent the possibility of reflection. Third, productivity is not nearly as important to our masters as we thought. There is something that they want far more than they want increments in efficiency, nay, far more even than profit. The reptile brains of our employers get off on watching hard work done by others. It does not need to be profitable or even rational work, as long as it is visible work done for your benefit – which tells our masters that they have arrived and are now high-status reptiles.

(Fiddle date-stamp to June 5, 2012)

It Could Have Started There Instead

We have had several alternative-history novels in which the Germans (and Japanese) won the Second World War, but what I should like to see is one in which Nazism arose in the United States first, while Germany remained true to Goethe and Schiller.

Don’t laugh: in order to see that the thing is possible, all you need to know is that Nazism was primarily a populist movement against the distress or even terror of modernity. That is the bottom line, all the specifically German aspects are lagniappe. The most breakneck moderniser in Europe was Wilhelmine Germany, which was then torn apart by the contradictions of that modernity as well as a lost war. (The number two breakneck moderniser was the Russian Empire.) But shall we really say that there was more of that offensive modernity in Berlin than in Chicago? Shall we say that small-town Germans were more trusting in the “eggheads” than were Middle Americans?

In both cases, democracy’s doom would be sealed by the Great Depression: for the birthplace of the Final Solution (perhaps of the Negro Problem rather than the Jewish Problem) to be in at Camp David rather than at Wannsee, all that would be needed would be for the rabid racists and aggressive know-nothings of the United States to be better organised. Which they now are.

(Fiddle date-stamp to July 13, 2010)

On Stupidity And Politicians

Looking at our politicians, one may be forgiven for wondering whether there is an inverse correlation between power and intelligence. That must, however, be quite unfair as long as politicians have to compete for the votes of the likes of thee and me. Where this is so, the stupid ones would appear to be ourselves. It is quite possible that politicians of all parties know full well what is feasible and what is not, as well as what are the true threats to human civilisation and national survival and what needs to be done about them – but cannot talk about it, because we are far too dumb to understand and far too selfish to forego our immediate advantage. Even the politicians who most pooh-pooh ecological concerns may in reality be just as wise as the green activists, but more realistic about flattering the voters.

It is a well-known fact that ordinary minds tend to hold an exaggerated view of their own capabilities. That being so, our leaders may be ordinary minds whom power (which the stupids have given them) has made especially delusional, or else they might be superior minds faking ordinary delusionality in order to get elected. I am not sure how we could tell.

(Change date to January 5, 2014)

Posted on June 17, 2017 at 17:39 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink · Leave a comment
In: MONKEY BUSINESS, The Anatomy Of Stupidity

The Sheep-Flaying Age

I do not know whether university students are still being taught the high-minded fictions of Politics 101, in which institutions are created to serve the common good, and whether the reason why reality cannot be spoken is because it is just too depressing.

For the truth about the human race is fully known to all psychopaths, while the rest of us still believe in the tooth fairy. We are a predatory species, and we predate on ourselves as well as on everything else. Most of us are food, end of story.

The “nation” is therefore a PR fiction covering a predation territory. Rulers are those who have staked a claim to a range and are prepared to fight others for the exclusive right to consume its resources, namely us. From this it follows that “globalisation” is actually predation gone global, with a functional rather than geographical definition of territory.

Most politics and most public employment is a sub-type of this predation, in that the lions cut the jackals in on a share of the booty in return for support against other lions. The output of the system, the behaviour of the so-called government or nation, is the resultant vector of the individual interests of these sub-predators. Wars and suchlike are partly about access to resources and partly the sum of individual diplomats’ career interests.

The most ludicrous part of the whole tooth-fairy story is the suggestion that rule by the top predators is a contingent outcome and that something else is possible. No, our choices are limited to: relatively benevolent plutocracy, in-between plutocracy and malignant plutocracy. An older age put this in terms of shearing the sheep contra flaying them. We are now entering a second age of sheep-skinning within a hundred years.

Revitalising The Economy

It is not particularly fresh news that religious institutions are first and foremost business institutions, engaged in the movement of money from some pockets into other pockets. We understand how all kinds of religious building function as tangible fixed assets for the purpose of generating a revenue stream, while for their part the customers, whether magnate or commoner, make pious donations as admission price or high-yield investment. To this end, the fixed assets known as churches, monasteries and shrines are bought and sold just like mills, bridges or customs posts, or else or divided into shares that are bought and sold likewise. Not exactly into thousandths of the capital, but the principle is the same.

We also understand how the question of how to run the collectively-owned businesses that we call medieval monasteries spawned a vast management literature, and how successful models were exported and copied, while models thought to be dysfunctional were forcibly reorganised or suppressed. Creative destruction, as Schumpeter would call it. Above all, those individuals thought to embody managerial prowess were headhunted from one location to the next. Such monks would have perfectly understood the modern invocation of “benchmarking”. It has also been suggested that a particular organisation within the Christian church, the Cistercians, were the pioneers of what would later be called factory production, standardisation and the multinational.

So far, so good. But that is all the more reason to take the final step. For, until the great age of the chartered town and its self-governing burgesses, the theologians and devotional writers were practically alone in thinking about how best to organise profitable corporate entities. We might therefore do well to enquire what would happen if, every time a twelfth- or eleventh-century writer talked about “the Church of God”, the “kingdom of heaven” and so forth, we were to replace this expression with our modern cant, “the Economy”.

If, we may often suspect, that modern hypostasis or abstraction, “the Economy” is really the name given by a particular class of people to their own extorted riches, well, the same may be true of the kind of people who spoke in proprietorial terms of “the Church of God”. If the substitution works, that does not prove that the twelfth-century writers consciously had producing and consuming, buying and selling in the forefront of their minds when talking about the Church. But it might nevertheless indicate that we have been missing something important.

The Norman Anonymous, to take just one example, would then be writing that, “The king ought, therefore, not to be excluded from the governance of the economy, that is, the Christian people, because the kingdom would then be separated from the economy and destroyed.” For the relationship between the secular and the ecclesiastic power was a perennial issue, and is perhaps not so very different from what we nowadays call “the role of the state in the economy”. We may have been in error in taking the rhetoric for a greater reality than it actually is, and vainly assuming that when they spoke of the body of Christ and so on, they were talking about something “spiritual”. If, in those days, most of the economy was in the hands of the collective owner caste that wore the cowl as their business dress, then what they might really have been talking about is the right to run the enterprise as they saw fit, free of interference by those claiming to represent the people in some different sense. Well, they would, wouldn’t they?
We might even find that the programme we call Gregorian, calling for the absolute autonomy of the clerics, might – if translated in the spirit of “follow the money” – sound like something not entirely unlike Ayn Rand.

Posted on April 20, 2017 at 16:37 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink · Leave a comment
In: GETTING MEDIEVAL, Spiritual Business

Tit For Tat And “The Good War”

It is often said that the shock of 911 was that the USA was for the first time vulnerable on its own soil to enemy action. This overlooks the little detail of the Soviet ability to exterminate every life-form on the continent, perhaps because this was both too abstract and too horrific to think about. Perhaps Moscow should long ago have launched a missile at Washington packed with party favours, just to make the point.

The conclusion drawn from this first actual demonstration of American heartland vulnerability has been, of course, that this Must Never Happen Again. So much attention has been paid to the prevention measures, to whether they will work and at what price in terms of civil liberties and global hatred, that nobody has stopped to point out the moral peculiarity of a demand for invulnerability.

For it is part of the human condition that no individuals, groups or nations are, have ever been, or ever will be, invulnerable to attack. As Hobbes famously wrote, “For as to the strength of body, the weakest has strength enough to kill the strongest, either by secret machination, or by confederacy with others, that are in the same danger with himselfe.” The implied lesson here, that the strong and aggressive is likely to provoke a coalition of the weak and fearful to defend against him, is equally applicable to the life of nations. Let us imagine the consequences of an individual’s waking up one day and discovering that he was a superman who could in no way be harmed or restrained; the rest of us would not greatly enjoy the prospect of whim or conscience being all that stood between us and destruction or enslavement. Why should it be any different for a country? The invulnerable man or nation would not be a part of the moral order in which the rest of us live, in which our actions have consequences, and unpleasant actions have unpleasant consequences. For the invulnerable man or nation is unlikely ever to comprehend that the best way not to get attacked involves both a degree of strength, but also not giving intolerable offence.

Now, there is a name for the condition in which an entity fails to understand that it cannot do unto others without others doing back unto it – infantilism. The small child hits the other children, and when he is hit back runs screaming to Mommy; he does not yet understand that the bad thing that has happened to him is not only the same sort of bad thing that he had been handing out, but also its direct and inevitable consequence. If Mommy is sensible she will explain the link, and by dint of repetition of both the explanation and the experience he will eventually “get it”; but if Mommy is a moron and instead goes storming off to the day-care manager, he won’t. Then we get another narcissistic psychopath.

It may well be natural for human beings to contemplate only the wrongs done to them and never the wrongs they have done to others, even when the latter came first; but it is by no means desirable. Individuals must be brought to understand the connection between what they do and what happens to them; we call this a good upbringing. Nations must also be brought to understand the connection between what they do and what happens to them; we call this a good war.

It is said that Tit-for-Tat retaliation teaches small children both reciprocity and empathy; the mirroring of the action enables the perpetrator to understand what it feels like to be the victim, and even if he never makes that leap, he will learn about reactions and consequences. Children have a natural sense of justice and will therefore come to understand the limits of acceptable aggression – unless deluded adults intervene in the process to prevent the children themselves teaching one another the requisite lessons. Of course, this learning will initially be resisted, via the anti-Kantian reasoning typical of Libertarians and small children (but I repeat myself), namely, “But it doesn’t apply to me”; the well-adjusted members of society are the ones who have had this notion hammered out of them in the playground.

Might this socialisation process also apply to whole nations? The Germans once had a taste for military glory, imperial adventures and genocide, but through Tit-for-Tat were thoroughly cured. The Japanese likewise. Or does American moral infantilism go much deeper than German and Japanese militarism? After all, for almost all of its history the island nation minded its own business and wanted nothing more than to be left alone, so that the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere was ultimately an answer to Commodore Perry. The Germans were long known as a nation of philosophers, musicians and clock-makers, and their period of insanity from Bismarck to Hitler lasted less than a century. It is now more than a hundred years since the Americans inaugurated their overseas empire by slaughtering three million Filipinos who wanted freedom; before that was the Indian genocide and chattel slavery, all the way back to the colonial period. The Americans, therefore, have never really had a period of inoffensiveness, because no one ever helped to socialise them.

Given that about half of the American population failed to “get” Vietnam, it is perhaps not surprising that the main explanation of 911 was “They hate our freedom”. (Waaaah!!! They hit me for no reason!!! They’re just mean!) If the Tit-for-Tat needs to be more or less proportional to work properly, then the moral infantilism of the USA would need to be educated by a retaliation that is in keeping with its own deeds. And in that context, the attacks of 911 were pinpricks. The overthrows of elected governments, the vicious military dictatorships, the drowning in blood of popular movements for national or social liberation, the unleashing of death squads on trade unionists, democrats, liberals, human-rights activists and ecologists, the torture centres, the proxy wars, the aerial bombing, the destruction of social infrastructure, the dispossession of peoples, the economic exploitation and environmental degradation, the napalm, the defoliants and the depleted uranium – in a hypothetical spirit of Tit-for-Tat, all this could be visited on the Americans themselves. A propaganda machine of equal effectiveness with the Americans’ own could then portray this to the rest of the world not only as right, proper and necessary, but also as conducive to Motherhood and Tortillas. Radicals have calculated the body-count of American policy since 1945 as around 50 million. Should the Tit-For-Tat slogan therefore be, “Tell me when we reach 50 million”?

Posted on March 9, 2017 at 19:39 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink · Leave a comment
In: RESISTANCE IS FUTILE!, Some Modest Proposals