Monthly Post

The Twilight of Authority

I wrote a couple of weeks ago about the need for a rhetorical education—that is, an education that doesn’t presume to lay down the law about what’s true and what’s false, but instead teaches each individual how to understand and assess claims about truth and falsehood. That’s a concept many people find challenging these days. We live in the last phases in an era of abstraction, and the notion of truth in most people’s minds these days follows suit:  when people talk about truth, they generally mean some set of generalizations dunned into their heads that are supposedly always true in the abstract, even though they may not work all the time (or at all) in the irreducibly grubby and complex world we actually inhabit.

Think about the things that the people around you consider to be truths. (I’d ask you to think about the things that you consider to be truths, but as that guy from Nazareth noted, it’s usually a lot easier to spot the mote in your brother’s eye than the beam in your own.)  Unless you run with an unusually philosophically literate crowd, most of these supposed truths can be expressed neatly in sentences of the form “all X are Y”: “all white people are racists,” “all people on welfare are lazy,” and so on. That’s the kind of abstract generalization I’m talking about.

People get very defensive about their favorite abstract generalizations. If you question the logic behind them, you can expect to be told that you’re ignorant, and quite probably that you’re evil as well.  For that matter, if you encounter realities that don’t fit the generalization and have the bad taste to mention that in public, you can expect to be told that the plural of anecdote isn’t data. Now this may be so in an abstract sense, but the plural of anecdote is also one of the very few ways you can find out that the abstract generalizations you’ve constructed out of your data are hopelessly out of touch with the real world.

The gold standard along these lines in recent times was set by Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign. People in her field offices in swing states, who watched Clinton’s attempts to attract voters flop while Trump’s gathered momentum, got airily informed by headquarters, “Our data disproves your anecdotes.” Unfortunately for Clinton’s presidential hopes, the election was not settled by data; it was settled by tens of millions of entirely anecdotal voters who live in a world that’s neither abstract nor generalized, and their votes quite conclusively disproved the Clinton campaign’s data. Ironically enough, Clinton keeps on trying to insist that she won the election in some abstract sense—and while this may be true, a great deal of anecdotal evidence suggests that she’s still not the one now residing at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Abstraction is a powerful tool, but like most powerful tools, it has to be used with appropriate caution or you’re probably going to chop your own fingers off. The best way to guarantee that there will soon be bleeding chunks of spare finger all over the floor, in turn, is to insist that your preferred set of abstractions is more real than the messy phenomena in the real world from which those abstractions have been derived.

That’s an insistence that always shows up late in an era of abstraction, and once it puts in an appearance, you know that disasters are near at hand: that bridges that theoretically ought to stay up just fine come crashing down, diets that theoretically ought to make people healthy make them sick, medicines that theoretically ought to be safe and effective fail to cure illnesses and cause a bumper crop of harmful or fatal side effects, governmental policies that theoretically ought to bring peace, security, and prosperity reliably yield the opposite, and so on. If this sounds familiar to you, dear reader, well, let’s just say that’s not accidental.

Yet these aren’t the only symptoms of an era of abstraction that’s passed its pull date. One of the others deserves close attention just now, because it’s become a massive though almost entirely unmentioned presence in modern American life:  the way that an embarrasingly large number of people these days are caught up in a frantic quest for unearned authority.

It so happens that as a teacher and erstwhile presiding officer in a small and quirky minority religion, I’ve had a ringside seat at this particular circus. America’s long history of religious eccentricity being what it is, religion is one of the standard venues by which people on the fringes claim authority. Some of the most impressive events in American history, and some of the most improbable, have been kickstarted by a religious leader who took off at right angles to the conventional wisdom and, by sheer force of character and example, took thousands or even millions of Americans along for the ride.

The Joseph Smiths and Martin Luther Kings, the religious leaders who from time to time have stood our history on its head, are on one end of a very broad spectrum. Across the middle are all those countless men and women who’ve taken up leadership roles in religious communities becauser they thought they could make the world a little better, whether or not you and I agree with their idea of what counts as better. Then, all the way on the other end, are the people whose sole interest in religious leadership is that they think it’ll give them the right to tell other people how to think and what to do. Those have always been a dime a dozen in American public life, but these days they’re not even that hard to come by.

Yes, we get them in Druidry, too, and there’s a great deal of irony in that.  All the way through its eccentric history, ever since the Druid Revival of the eighteenth century kicked the whole shebang into motion, Druidry has been about as far as you can get from the sort of faith in which obedience to clergy is expected, or even allowed. It’s as close to a central dogma as we have—and we really, truly, seriously don’t do dogma—that your relationship to the spiritual powers you revere is none of my business, and vice versa, even if I have a funny hat and an ornate title. Yet with maniacal regularity, during the twelve years I spent wearing a funny hat as Grand Archdruid of the Ancient Order of Druids in America, people approached me wanting various kinds of ornate titles and funny hats so that they could go around telling other people how to think and what to do, very often about things having nothing at all to do with Druidry.

They’re far from alone, of course. These days America’s thronged with evangelical Christians who sincerely believe that God wants them to bully everyone else into following a set of moral rules they generally don’t follow themselves. Right next to them are the evangelical atheists who are just as convinced that the supposedly self-evident truth of their ideology gives them the right to shove it down everyone else’s throats. From the political correctness of the left to the patriotic correctness of the right, people across the cratered no-man’s-land of American politics like to insist that they have the right to tell everyone how to think and what to do. Why?  Because they’re right, of course—but don’t ask them to justify that claim, unless you really like getting shouted down by a crowd of enraged true believers.

That’s also standard in the twilight years of an era of abstraction, and it’s probably worth taking a moment to understand why. An age of abstraction dawns when a handful of well-chosen abstract generalizations offer a sudden, startlingly clear glimpse at the shape of some corner of the cosmos. The first great triumphs of modern science played that role in kickstarting the era of abstraction now winding to its end, just as geometry did in ancient Greek times and scholastic logic did in the Middle Ages.  The cultural impact of these achievements is substantial enough that they become the paradigm on which every other kind of knowledge is modeled.

That’s a very effective approach early on, because whatever tools of abstraction were used in those first startling achievements very often turn out to be just as handy when applied to some other fields of knowledge. Thus the methods of thinking that made Greek geometry a triumph of abstract understanding turned out to be just as useful when applied to logic, and the methods of thinking that showed Newton how the planets moved also showed Dalton how chemicals combined and Darwin how species evolved. Well and good—but not every field of knowledge is amenable to any one set of tools of abstraction, or to abstraction in any sense at all.

That’s the rock on which eras of abstraction finally shatter. In particular, those fields of knowledge that have the most dramatic impact on human life—yes, we’re talking about politics and economics—are relentlessly resistant to abstraction. In political and economic life, you’re never dealing with abstractions; you’re always dealing with human beings, in all their innate complexity and cussedness. Approach them as abstractions and you fail. Approach them with abstractions, rather than with policies and proposals that address the things that matter to them in their daily lives, and you fail at least as badly.

The difficulty, of course, is that people who grow up in an era of abstraction are used to thinking that they know what the truth is. If they belong to one of their society’s privileged classes—for example, the educated intelligentsia—they’re also used to telling other people what the truth is, and expecting anybody less privileged than they are to shut up and listen. As an era of abstraction comes unglued, in turn, people who think this way face the shattering discovery that the people below them on the pyramid aren’t willing to shut up and listen to them any more. Thus they inevitably start looking for something that they think will make people shut up and listen—and at the same time, people in the less privileged classes who aspire to the status as dispensers of truth are just as busy looking for something that will make everyone listen to them.

It’s a cold and scary place for would-be dispensers of truth, there at the end of an era of abstraction.  It’s not just that nobody’s willing to shut up and listen to them, either. Tolerably often, they themselves begin to notice that the abstract generalizations they’ve been peddling as truth don’t actually work so well. Human nature being what it is, their usual response is to double down and get shrill about it, and to add as much physical violence to the equation as local custom permits.

Sooner or later, though, the last futile attempts to maintain the dominance of abstraction wind down or, far more often than not, get dismissed as useless by a rising generation, and end up on the wrong side of the grass with the generation that defended them. What follows is the opening stages of an era of reflection, in which the achievements of the departed era of abstraction get sorted through and assessed, the good bits kept, the useless bits chucked, and the habit of letting some pompous windbag with credentials tell the rest of the world what the absolute truth is this week gets a well-deserved rest.

We’re approaching that latter point in the cycle, but we’re not there yet. It’s telling, and not in a good way, that the most popular response from the political establishment to the rise of Donald Trump was an orgy of doubling down on favored abstractions, in which Trump and the people who voted for him got shoehorned into a vast array of competing “all X is Y” abstractions. As I noted repeatedly during and after the campaign, though, it’s not at all hard to understand why so many working class Americans voted for Trump in 2016, if you simply notice what’s happened to working class Americans over the last forty years.

In 1976 an American family with one working class paycheck could generally afford a home, a car, three square meals a day, and all the other amenities of daily life, with maybe a little left over for a luxury now and then. In 2016 an American family with one working class paycheck was probably living on the street.  That didn’t happen by accident, either; it happened as the direct result of specific policies enthusiastically supported by both mainstream parties and by all the officially approved economic experts; but that result, with all the human misery it entailed, was excluded from the world of abstract generalizations that guided US goverment policy from Reagan straight through to Obama, banished to the realm of anecdote by those who didn’t have to worry about where their next meal was coming from.

There were other issues that helped swing the election—Hillary Clinton’s chickenhawk fondness for military adventurism, which didn’t go over too well among the people who could expect family members to come back in body bags; the soaring financial burden imposed on working families by the Obamacare fiasco; and the Democratic Party’s hamfisted rigging of the primary process in Clinton’s favor, which convinced a great many Democratic voters to stay home on election day, among others—and all of them were variations on the same theme. The political establishment promoted a series of abstract generalizations—“the global economy,“ “standing up for democracy,” “health care for all,” “our first woman president”—while ignoring the way these abstractions worked out in the realm of anecdote, where we all actually live. The people who had to put up with the anecdotal reality, in turn, had finally had enough. While one can certainly object to their choice of candidate, it’s not as though the political establishment offered them anyone else who was willing to stop talking in airy abstractions and address the harsh realities of their lives.

That the immediate response to Trump’s election was a frantic effort to drag the discussion back to abstract generalizations, and an even more frantic attempt to erase the painful if anecdotal realities that made the event happen, was utterly predictable. It was also useless. The thing that brings an age of abstraction to its end is the inevitable failure of policies based on abstractions that stray too far from reality; the end can come by way of elections, or it can come by much harsher means, but one way or another, it’s going to come—because reality, after all, is always anecdotal, and if your abstract generalizations ignore reality, it’s not reality that’s going to lose.

While we watch the shredding of the tissue of dysfunctional abstractions that passes for political and economic thought in today’s America, it’s certainly timely to begin discussing what comes after. I’m framing that discussion in this sequence of posts in terms of education, and there’s good reason for that. After all, one highly useful thing each of us can do to get ready for the final collapse of the era of abstraction is to educate ourselves, so that we know how to get by in a world in which nobody can claim privileged access to truth any more.

There are skills that make it much easier to navigate through a world that’s supplied with claims of truth rather than truths as such—a world in which all such claims remain open to doubt, subject to constant revision and reassessment. Fortunately, those skills have been worked out in quite a bit of detail already, courtesy of previous ages in which abstraction collapsed of its own misplaced certainties and reflection had to pick up the pieces. Over the months to come, we’ll be talking about some of those skills, and also discussing such crashingly unfashionable things as the importance of the humanities—those humaniores litterae, “more human studies,” that helped the thinkers of the Renaissance dig themselves out from under the wreckage of medieval scholasticism and launch one of the great ages of human culture.

Before we get to those themes, though, one point probably deserves making here above all.  One skill that I won’t be discussing is how to find the right authority, so you can believe in whatever he or she says without having to think about it. That way lies ruin. No authority can tell you how to think or what to do, because no authority can know your life as anything but an abstraction, freighted with all the burdens of the era of abstraction now waning around us. Only you can encounter your own life in the realm of anecdote, where (again) we all actually live.

This principle applies to me, of course, just as much as it does to anyone else. In the posts ahead I’ll be presenting a range of tools and practices and things to do, and encouraging my readers to try them out. If you decide to do something else instead, go ye forth and do that thing. If you decide that, despite what I said above, you’re going to go looking for an authority to do your thinking for you, and embrace whatever abstractions he or she doles out as the one and only truth, you have the right to do that, too.  If you’re ready to confront the twilight of authority in our time, though—why, in that case, welcome to the adventure.

One further comment. One of the seemingly unbridgeable divisions in recent intellectual life lies between believers in a range of traditional religions, on the one hand, and atheists on the other. That division is almost entirely a matter of abstractions, which may help to explain why it’s been fought out so savagely in the era of abstraction that’s waning around us just now. In an era of reflection, the gap between the believer and the atheist becomes considerably narrower, and it becomes tolerably easy to set up camp in the space between, or even to settle down there for the long term. The tools and practices and things to do that I’ll be suggesting in the posts to come thus will be useful for believers as well as for atheists, and also for those in that middle ground—inconceivable in an age of abstraction—where religion is not a matter of belief in a doctrine but of orientation toward a quest. We’ll talk about that, too, as the journey proceeds.

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On a different note, as many of my readers know, there’ll be a potluck for fans of this blog in Providence, RI on June 23 of this year. As with any sensible potluck, there’s a signup sheet so that everyone doesn’t bring potato salad; you can find it online here. I’ll look forward to seeing some of you there!

250 Comments

  1. John–

    A couple of experiences of my own to relate on this topic.

    “All tariffs are bad.” (Also, “tariffs only help the wealthy.”) I got into a discussion recently in which I made what I thought was a fairly cogent argument that if we as a nation wanted to pursue goals such as livable wages, robust and meaningful employment, and a self-reliant economy that supported the well-being of the American citizenry, then a comprehensive set of tariffs would be necessary to protect workers (and employers) from being undercut by lower wages, automation, and unsustainable practices that would otherwise subsidize foreign production. The response was, as mentioned, “all tariffs are bad.” (“Nationalism is bad” was another one that came up.) After going in circles for bit, I just stopped.

    Secondly, and I’m sure you and others in the commentariat are witnessing something similar, I am seeing the response to Trump’s presidency as cohering along the lines of “It was a fluke because of [insert any combination of Hillary, Russia, sexism, racism, etc]” and “He isn’t going to last out the term anyway.” I’ve begged to differ but generally get dismissed as a impractical purist or Bannon-clone or something of that nature.

    I am still hopeful that the dismantling of our present mental constructs can occur without excessive civil strife, but I see a rough road ahead. The old lenses are not going away into the night easily — which is to be expected, given human nature. I suppose even Tolkenien elves would have similar issues, just on a much longer time-frame.

  2. There is a saying I am fond of: “The real world is just a special case of the Theoretical and can be considered trivial and ignored”. This is true of non-scientific affairs as it is for scientific and engineering.

  3. Oh JMG, I was reading your short story snippet on the other blog and I got all emotional. You give so much. I was thinking a while back that people like you, who helps others access and uncover their own latent abilities and bring out the best in people are the true powerful people. People who have more direct forms of control over others, even by force, don’t really have any power. They merely subtract from the potential of the universe. They’re at the beck and call of their own fears. You are helping people from many different walks of life to break out of the chains of their culturally conditioned and habitually conditioned patterns of thinking and behaviour. That unleashes power. You don’t know what your readers are going to make of their new worldviews, skills, resources, and what-have-you, but you have the courage to give them a chance and live with the consequences. Over the years it’s become so easy to appreciate what you do. I’m definitely gonna be tippin’ up in here.

    As far as the subject of the post, it would be nice to have a more systematic way to question abstract thought concepts and the authorities that promote them. Everybody will do some kind of research or compare the abstract claims to anecdotal reality sometimes, when the claim is something that they don’t have an opinion on, or something which they disagree with, but to question everything abstract and use reality as the benchmark re-orients the entire frame of reference between knower and the known. It’s like shifting planes from the abstract plane to the concrete plane, the plane which includes the subject and it’s environment. Kind of reminds me of the concept of beginner’s mind. For myself nowadays I’m highly skeptical of any abstract claims, but I didn’t get that way over night and I used to believe a variety of theories, some with good evidence, and some just because they made me feel good. Now I’ve always got the little nerd on my shoulder saying, “is this really how it is?” It’ll be nice to give the nerd some more systematic and advanced skills.

  4. Of those in the U.S. who are eager to abandon elitist science, etc., a large contingent are in favor of more or less explicit theocracy. Of course theocrats are peddling just another form of authority, so you would think that their claptrap too should decline at such times. However, it was after the collapse of medieval scholasticism that witch-hunting really became popular in Europe. I fear what kind of boot might wind up on the necks of our collective children and grandchildren, if only for a finite time.

  5. Thank you for this, JMG. This is a lot to consider and raises a lot of thoughts.

    First and foremost it makes me think how much more intelligent, calm and sane occultists have been sounding recently than rationalists materialists. This is a big shift, I remember just a few years ago how ungrounded those vaporing on about reincarnation, fairies and the moon sounded (note: I was one of the people doing these loony vaporings!) and how reasonable, sane and grounded the scientific rationalists sounded. Well, this has reversed very quickly! Now it is the occultists who, more often than not, sound like they know what they’re talking about, speak with clarity and insight and grounded presence and the rationalists who sound ungrounded and insane with their vaporings. I’ve been shocked by this shift and baffled; it seems to have happened very quickly.

    I think that this end of authority you mention plays a huge role in the collective psychoses that we call Trump Derangement Syndrome; the rationalist liberals are now in a cold scary place where their high abstractions are little more relevant than Disney fairy tales and are behaving like panicked children, the poor dears! Occultists who have learned from experiences rather than blindly trusted an authority, have something much more substantial and useful to work with – their own reflections.

  6. JMG
    “Orientation toward a quest”. Yes, although at my age I need to accept I will never get where the quest might be headed, (not much of a smile.)

    Anybody in Britain this last week and a bit will have heard serious official pronouncements relying almost entirely on ‘authority’, of the kind that gave us T. Blair’s version of ‘Weapons of mass destruction’. Within hours the event had our Foreign Secretary expounding while on a photo op in a hangar in front of a WWII Spitfire.

    Thinking about education, I had a conversation very recently with a retired British teacher on the subject of ‘intelligence’. He was a good teacher in his day but inevitably his task had been to sort children as sheep from goats as to who got the major share of the available teaching resources. The British system especially in those days tried to classify children according to ‘intelligence’, which, don’t y’r know, just happened to coincide pretty well with hierarchy defined by British social class. It is a devil to get rid of that automatic ‘X is brighter than Y’. I can do it up to a point, but my suggestion that ‘we’ actually did not understand the concept in any ‘true’ sense seemed not to register with my friend.

    best
    Phil H

  7. The rule of abstraction runs deep in our culture. This is why we have experts from many diffferent areas who believe they can arrive somewhere they don’t understand and apply standarized solutions without regard for local characteristics because their plans work on paper. This is also why so many people are willing to sacrifice actual living humans in favor of an abstract “humanity” or “nation”. Hard to break through that when our whole education system is based on dealing with abstractions.

    I like the direction your blog has been taking in the last 2 posts by the way, and I’m excited to explore the “range of tools and practices and things to do” that should be coming up in your next posts. Theorizing always get more engaging when it leds to practical action in our lives (which is why “Green Wizardry” is a favorite of mine among the books you wrote).

    Ill be back for more next week!

  8. In response to students rejecting the abstract in favor of the practical (falling enrollment), U of Wisconsin at Stevens Point is dropping 13 traditional Liberal Arts majors, and adding several vocational programs. Classes will still be offered in these subjects, but not majors. Currently-enrolled students, naturally, are going to apply their newly-honed skills in English, history, and philosophy to hold a sit-in and present demands to the administration. Art will no longer be a major, but graphic design will be, so if the protesters make signs and posters, they’ll be proving the administration’s point. To really protest, they’ll have to achieve their ends by holding an art exhibition, I guess.

    https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2018/03/21/university-of-wisconsin-campus-pushes-plan-to-drop-13-majors-including-english-history-and-philosophy

    What they really should be challenging is the misleading conventional wisdom that ANY college degree (and ONLY a college degree) leads to a successful middle-class lifestyle.

  9. This vacuum of authority is an especially dangerous time for the weak minded. Tacitus, in his history of the year of the four emperors, discusses an actor who manages to convince everyone that he is the emperor and even raises a little army before he’s naturally crushed. It seems like there is a real danger in these moments for people to sense the vacuum and immediately consider themselves to be the one who can fill it. Like a balloon in an actual vacuum chamber, these empty personalities expand and pop taking their hapless followers along with them … At least so far they’re only raising twitter armies.

    PS Science!

  10. I’m looking forward to the journey! Reading the news recently I’ve been struck by the considerable recurrence of topics related to our planetary plight, and looming “sixth great mass extinction event”. On the other hand, passionate conversation has largely been polarised around issues pertaining to politics, and finance. Seems to me this is evidence of our age’s habit to abstract, rather than reflect. Basically facing the likelihood of imminent dramatic change in the ecology balance, and its impact on our lives, seems to require reflection in a way few are willing to indulge in. Its far easier to channel those fears in relatively trivial (but emotionally releasing) battles of abstracted opinion on subjects like exchange rates, say. There the battle lines may be drawn, we can find a willing sparring partner, vent our emotional angst, while thoroughly ignoring the real source of our existential discomfort, namely that everything we might strive to achieve is utterly meaningless if we ain’t got oxygen to breath, water to drink, food to eat, and shelter from the elements. This week alone we’ve said goodbye to the white rhino, taken stock of the rapid extermination of insect species, and the consequent reduction of bird-life. Surely the unspoken whispered suspicion is “You are next, buddy”. Hell … then lets quickly find something to distract us with … some abstraction. After all … look at what happened to our FB data. That’s it! Lets debate the evils of a business model we’ve all known about for at least a decade.

  11. Before I get to responses, one quick comment in general. When I post something that succeeds in slapping down a good hard challenge to the ingrained mental habits of our time, one way I find this out is that a lot of people post comments trying to talk about something else. This week’s post seems to have succeeded in that way, as I fielded a flurry of such attempted diversions. Please reread the paragraph above the comment box, especially the bit about comments relevant to the current post!

    Now, on to responses…

    David, oh, it’s going to be a rough road. One thing I’m hoping to do in a small way via these posts is to point out that people who repeat things like “tariffs are bad” are using them as thoughtstopping mantras; by and large, they’re just repeating something they’ve heard from an authority, and have never actually stopped to think about the issue of tariffs for two minutes together. If enough people get this, and start pointing it out when appropriate, the mantra-chanters may just end up sufficiently embarrassed to do some thinking of their own for a change — well, that, or shut up.

    Jaznights, ha! A fine summary of the kind of thinking that lost Clinton the election.

    Merle, thank you. My motives are quite straightforward, really: I find that helping people to think for themselves and pursue their own creativity makes the world less dull, and having grown up in mid-twentieth century suburbia — and then escaped! — I have a very low tolerance for the kind of boring world that comes from excess conformity and obedience to authorities. As for ways to sort through the abstractions — ah, we’ll be getting to those.

    Dewey, my repeated experience is that would-be theocrats make up a very small fraction of those who have turned their backs on the abuses of modern science. The promoters of modern science like to claim that all of their opponents want to impose a theocracy, but it’s the same situation we’ve got with the two mainstream political parties — two abusive and corrupt establishments trying to convince everyone that you have to choose one of them or the other. There are other options. As for the witch trials, we have the equivalent already, so it’s a safe bet we’ll have them in the future, too.

    Violet, fascinating. I don’t listen to a lot of other occultists these days, and I basically don’t pay attention to scientific rationalists at all, so I’d missed that.

    Phil K., thank you. I somehow managed to miss that essay, and it’s brilliant — not least in its use of psychoanalytic metaphor to pin down the exact flavor of the quest for unearned authority now so frantically being pursued in our time. (And the author talked openly about social class and its role in the current mess, which is practically heresy these days, like every other actually significant factor in the crisis of our time.)

    Phil H., yes, I’ve been watching that from a distance, and shaking my head. It’s almost as crazed as the politics over here, which is saying something.

  12. I’d like to learn some more tools for holding constructive discussions across very different viewpoints. I think that’s a very good idea. When can we start?

  13. I am curious on your elaboration of how to deal with ideologies (abstracts) from now onwards.

    Also I like that idea of us people increasingly seeking security by either dominating others or slid under the umbrella or some paternalising grouping. The struggle for survival is taking up speed.

  14. Pedro, exactly. We have a long hard slog to get back to the point at which people can start paying attention to what’s in front of their faces.

    Lathechuck, the final transformation of the US university system into a set of for-profit trade schools completely subservient to corporate culture is well under way. Time for those of us who care about the humaniores litterae to find them a new and more congenial home, outside the reach of parasitic university administrations and the loan-shark finance companies of whom they’re the marketing departments…

    Aron Blue, true enough!

    Marco, exactly. I’ve become convinced that one of the main things driving the shrill tone in today’s politics, especially but not only on the left, is that a lot of people are painfully aware that their own descendants will think of them the way they think of Nazis — those evil people who devastated the entire planet in order to prop up an absurdly extravagant lifestyle — and they’re trying to insist that no, they’re the Good People, because someone else somewhere else is more evil than they are.

  15. This post made me think of your previous posts on catabolic collapse, which If I’m remembering right, went something like this:

    ‘As civilizations get more advanced, their infrastructure requires more and more maintenance, gradually gobbling up more and more vital resources until there’s not enough resources left for the masses and then the whole thing tumbles.’

    Hope I’m in the ballpark, anyway.

    The ‘twilight of abstraction’ you describe in this current post seems to follow a similar pattern: as society gets more media-savvy and sophisticated, more and more news is devoted to the news itself, to the exclusion of reporting on problems that affect everyday life. Leading to a waste of information resources.

    Look at the dang news. You don’t see poor or under-insured people, people in debt. You see two sides arguing over dang FBI memos. And then Congress writes more memos about the first memos, which also get argued about. Up a level of abstraction! Then there’s arguments about fake news vs. real news.

    In both cases, it’s news about itself, not news about regular people.

    Yet we’re supposed to feel privileged to live in a society where we have so many media options. We’re told it’s a sign of sophistication that we can analyze stories about stories about stories.

    So, following the catabolic collapse analogy to the bitter end, my question is: what’s the news/media version of a collapse?

    (i mean, besides running out of energy to broadcast it!)

  16. I’ve found that asking myself ‘if X is true, what else has to be true as a result’ is useful for separating the ‘real from the unreal’, as a way of challenging my own beliefs. Or, if that’s true, is it true in all cases. It’s also helpful, when listening to other people, to ask myself ‘in what world might that be true’. At least it’s proven to be a good way to try to hear what people are saying, instead of what I think they’re saying. What I have a hard time with is trying to decide who’s qualified [including myself] to have an opinion. Is Trump a good president? Well… I can’t stand him… but I really don’t have a good grasp of what he’s done, what he hasn’t done, and what the impact might be to feel like I have a really valid opinion. I can point to a lot of things I disagree with… but for instance are tariffs a bad idea? I don’t really know.

  17. Good article. And arrived just as I was thinking that rationality was a tool fit only for dealing w/ a certain set of circumstances … and loaded w/ it’s name. Bit of anecdotal evidence … two bits … abt voting. A lass standing in The Red Tent (the local bar run by a lesbian, before she decided to cash in on being Irish, that being more popular) … telling me she’d voted for the BNP (a party dedicated to … well, not being friendly to the sort of people who fit in in lesbian bars. Not keen on the Irish either, except as drinking opportunities) … just to shake things up. And then reassuring me that they had no chance of being elected when I pointed out the … suicidal nature of this. Same kind of anecdote abt Trump … an asian (in the UK meaning s’one from India … it’s funny that it has a different meaning Stateside … you have different foreigners from Asia) … taxi driver saying he’d vote for Trmp if he had the chance … just cos he was a cheeky chappy and he was like that …. just for a laugh …

  18. Prior to the last presidential primary season, I thought that the traditional media was at least partially honest but generally incompetent when looked at as a whole. After the primary season I thought, “damn, journalism is a rigged game.”

    An anecdote:

    The morning after each Democratic primary I would look to see who won. If the headlines read “Hillary’s Juggernaut Rolls On,” then I knew that Hillary had won. If – in fifteen minutes of searching the net – I could not find the results reported in any news outlet, then I knew that Sanders had won. I might not have known the margin by which he won but I knew he had won.

    It was just as bad on the Trump side – though in a different fashion.

    As we know an “unapproved candidate” ended up nominated and elected. That result was such a shocker that I actually expected that there would something in a way of a public acknowledgement of bias by the media and a pledge to do better in the future.

    It didn’t happen. Instead, we got “the Russians did it.”

    Since that time my trust of the traditional media has fallen to zero. That raises the question: How can one tell what is actually going on in such a climate?

    Accordingly, your topic is timely and I will be following your next posts with apt attention.

  19. “It’s a cold and scary place for would-be dispensers of truth, there at the end of an era of abstraction.”

    It is also cold and a bit scary for someone whose peculiar English education in the 1960s taught him not to respect authority in any degree, to always test the contrary view, and that reality is usually where you are somewhere in the middle.
    Maybe I was lucky in some respects as what you are writing about in this sequence is no surprise, but it does get difficult when you find yourself surrounded and living with people who insist that the world is binary – all Xs are Y so all not-Xs must be Zs.
    Religion is a good case in point – a lot of people like me applied the rejection of authority to religious authority and then extended that to a rejection of religion – which bounced them (and me to be honest) back into the arms of rational scientific abstraction.
    Its taken half a lifetime to climb out of that hole, but its a bit lonely out here.

    Thanks so much for being a little bit of illumination in the dark.

    RogerCO

  20. Hi JMG,

    I’m seeing the dysfunctional products of excessive abstraction all around me, not only in the religious realm but also in legal and governmental areas. Centralized city planning comes to mind as a sort of dogmatic belief system that is mostly disconnected from reality and has made it illegal to build the traditional building types that most people prefer. The outcome has been to encourage people to become outlaws in order to get anything worthwhile done.

    One of the things that to me seems to be connected to your point about seeking undeserved authority is a lack of humility. I see a lot of commentary criticizing social media for fostering narcissism, consumer culture, and intellectual bullying, but few good ideas for counteracting these forces other than turning off the TV and internet. While turning them off are undoubtedly good steps, developing humility seems like it would require an active practice.

    Spending time in quiet observance of nature is one practice that helps me. I would be curious as to your opinion of which habits of religion or culture–intentional or not–led to greater humility.

  21. A bit of anecdotal evidence in support of your theory. Saw this on a tv news program I had never seen before. A man was filmed telling why a train corridor with tunnels that serves the NY-NJ-Wash DC regional area *must* receive the billions of taxpayer dollars it had been promised by an Obama administration deal, which is now being questioned or even derailed, pardon the pun, in the course of an Omnibus bill fight. With a most earnest and emphatic tone of voice he explained to the camera that this transit corridor was the jugular vein of the nation’s head, and, if it were to be constricted, terrible effects were sure to occur.

    Not a trace of irony nor sly reserve appeared in his manner. I am convinced that he truly believes his region comprises the Nation’s Head and is so much MORE important than anywhere else. So long as his own infrastructure is crumbling, it matters. Otherwise, not so much. This truth was so self-evident to him that he was certain it would be persuasive to all, yea even unto the beasts of the fields. It never occurred to him that he was being insulting or counter-productive in his aim by parsing clean through the metaphor he made. He made the Midwest come out as the Belly and Buttocks of the Nation. Presumably somewhere down around the Mississippi delta is the exit point of the digestion system, smelly and damp, with well-clad outer limbs and flourishes residing circa LA and SanFran.

    I had thought that some of the descriptions of opposition stances taken by certain members of this community were exaggerated for glitter effect and rhetorical panache. I now, formally and in open-mouthed awe, retract that evaluation and am waiting in trepidation to learn what other Failure Follies our Swell-Headed and Self-Appointed Leaders plan to commit.

  22. JMG,

    In regard to your discusion of abstract generalizations in the second paragraph (and those immediately following), I think you may be giving people too much credit, in that you’ve given these statements a level of logical precision which most people don’t. These generalizations are typically stated without mentioning the quantifier (“all”) at all, so that we simply get statement of the form “X are Y.”

    Now as any good student of logic, going back at least to Aristotle, knows, we need to provide the implicit quantifier, either the universal “all X are Y” or the existential “some X are Y.” But in practice, most people’s thinking is so lacking in precision that they help themselves to both. When first trying to justify their claims, they give specific examples—the kind of evidence that would prove an existential claim, but never a universal. (See: the problem of inducive generalization.)

    But having only ever proven an existential, they structure their beliefs and actions around the universal, which among other things explains why they react so poorly to any calls for nuance and subtlety, and the attendant exceptions and counterexamples. Thus, to take but one example: “How dare you claim that so-and-so is not racist? Don’t you know that members of so-and-so’s group are racist?”

    Yet the very same people so often help themselves to the weaker, existential claim in self-defense: “But I never said that all X are Y…”

    So to bring this back around to abstraction and authority: The existentially quantified statement, at its best, expresses the anecdotes/data we’ve observed, while the universally quantified statement veers off into heady and problematic abstraction. So getting clear on the way we speak and think, by always stating the implicit quantifier, may have a salutary effect in helping us to avoid some of the problems you outline in the post.

    Just one more reason we should be teaching/studying logic at early and often…

  23. Well. This week’s post definitely stirred up the bees in my bonnet, and on a topic quite dear to my heart.

    My position is unflinching. If there is a sign-up sheet, the luck has been removed and you are now having a potplanned.

  24. I have really enjoyed the last two essays on this subject. It’s put a theory to something I think a lot of people here have sensed happening in the World. So thank-you for that.

    I think the rejection of authority over the individual, a final end to the rule of scholasticism and a sense of individual sovereignty, possibility and responsibility…it’s almost as our societies are teenagers finishing school.

    The “No, I won’t do what you tell me just because you’re the CFO/Head of Marketing/Headmaster/Whatever. I’m person too and my opinion and ideas count too. I want to do my own thing” sort of angst.

  25. @ JMG, Marco:

    I think that maybe one of the reasons for the tumult of abstraction might be because when people hold purely theoretical ethical and political beliefs they’re never really responsible for the way things are going. I think that organizations like the Church of Euthanasia are the ultimate examples of this, and I imagine that they’ll find themselves in good company as time goes on. I can’t shake the feeling that things like the Leap Manifesto are also an example of this, and that makes me really sad because I want to believe that something like the Leap could work, but I know that most or all of it probably won’t.

    I’m looking forward to advice on not getting sucked into one of these abstractions – seeing as we’ve grown up surrounded by a soup of them, presumably they won’t appear obvious to us, and some of them will have been specifically cultivated to look more or less delicious to us (hey there, Leap Manifesto). I’ll be reading the subsequent posts here for sure. I’m completing an industrial design degree at the moment and you can see little kernels of what looks like reflective thinking in some of the more out-there scholarship, but seeing as the vast majority of what industrial designers do is make bullsh*t products that people don’t need it requires teasing out.

  26. Dear John Michael,

    Long time lurker here, first time poster (if you ignore one comment I made under the penultimate post, just as that thread had gone cold).

    Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU for giving voice to a phenomenon, almost always evident on the rightward end of the (so-called) political spectrum, which I have observed for many years, but for which I could never give a proper name: “Patriotic Correctness”. I love it!

    I was just in heated ‘conversation’ in another online forum (the online comments section of my local newspaper) about one manifestation of “Patriotic Correctness”, that being the rampant and, to me, utterly bizarre worship of governmental agents among the police, fire fighters and above all the military. In other words, everyday figures who represent authority. It has become de riguer in recent years to automatically pay homage to these “heroes”, who I see as nothing of the kind. Nor do I disparage them, either. But I fail to see why the public must pay kneejerk homage to men just doing their jobs — jobs which, by the way, are not only significantly LESS dangerous, statistically, than many others, such as fishermen, electrical linemen or even truck drivers, but which garner very handsome incomes and benefits, usually for life.

    But OH, the howls of outrage I engendered by attempting to slay this shibboleth of current political/social orthodoxy! You’d have thought that I had come out advocating tearing off the heads of puppies after flaying them alive, to judge by the copious self-righteous indignation my comments received! Yet interestingly, those same comments received quite a few “thumbs up” from otherwise silent posters who apparently agreed wit my sentiments, even if they were not bold enough themselves to give voice to their agreement.

    I suppose another aspect of this ‘patriotic correctness” is the absolutely kooky degree to which displays of the US flag have become ubiquitous in the past 10 or 15 years. And not just the flying of the flag, but the inane demand that every US politician properly and prominently wear a US flag lapel pin in order to demonstrate the proper degree of faux ‘patriotism’. Also, the maudlin holding of the hand over the heart during performances of the US national anthem, which I virtually NEVER saw as a youngster in the 1970s (nor was the national anthem ever performed in my experience except at relatively unusual and infrequent events, for that matter).

  27. Mr. Greer – Chris from Cherokee Organics (aka: Fern Glade Farm) and I have been kicking around instances when someone comes up with a manifesto or writes a book that they know will change the world, ignite a great awakening and lead us all into a new golden age. And, how disappointed and gob-smacked they are when that doesn’t happen.

    Sometimes, they just go off and sulk. Other times (The Unabomber) they blow people up.

    Our conversation was kind of at the state of, “Hmmm. Interesting. I wonder why…” I think you’ve just provided the answer. Thanks! Lew

  28. Mr Greer, I’d be interested in your take on the role of philosophy after the age of abstraction. I know from prior comments that you are not terribly fond of Martin Heidegger’s work; be that as it may, I’ve been studying his works for some time now, and I think that there are exciting possibilities in a philosophical system that approaches ontology as a necessarily open question that cannot be fully answered. In short, it seems to me that such an approach is better suited to the kind of relationality you have written about than philosophical systems that start from a priori abstract suppositions.

    I suppose my main question is this: what role do you see for philosophy among the “humaniores litterae” to come?

  29. I feel there is a strong desire to polarize and turn on the contrast so that only black and white remains. The effect is that there will be examples on both extremes, used to prove any point somebody wants in a discussion. (Click baits instead of informing headlines.)

    In my work, I have spent a lot of time monitoring real physical phenomena using statistics and I am quite comfortable in thinking in “distributions”. (statistical term – e.g. how a certain property varies in a population) For me, distributions are very helpful to understand all kinds of problems, especially in economy and politics. It is a way out simple abstractions like “all x is y”.

    It is helpful to me to look at e.g. wealth distribution in a population and take that as a starting point for a discussion. Do we want it to look the way it does?
    I often plot histograms to get a feeling for how big a certain problem is.

    An example is to look into who benefits from certain political decisions (e.g. QE – which creates asset inflation, benefiting a micro-minority).

    Do you think there is a middle way, where we all can understand the grayscales and quantitatively discuss real problems and solutions, without becoming myopic and only look at examples in the extremes of the spectrum?
    Is this possible to teach in a school setting?

    (I only really understood this when I started to measure things myself. A useful starting point for interested readers is Nassim Nicholas Taleb “Antifragile”.)

  30. On “religion” and “atheism”– in quotes because I think both words are of very limited use individually and even worse when combined, though obviously I understand the popular definitions– it’s always amazed me how atheists expect me to give up religious practice based on a series of arguments about the nature of reality. Like most religious believers, I have personally had experiences of the spiritual beings that I worship. The idea that I’m going to give up my practices because someone “proved” that God “doesn’t exist” is as absurd as the idea that I’m going to stop calling my mother because someone proved that human beings are only fields of matter and energy. And yet atheists seem to expect exactly that– see, for example, Lawrence Krauss’s quixotic attempt to get the Dalai Lama to step down– and remain baffled when nobody listens to them.

    The same thing happens, though, on the “religion” side of the picture. My favorite example of this is the Catholic Church’s prohibition of calling on angels other than Gabriel, Raphael, and Michael. This prohibition has theoretically been in force since the 700s. Despite that, I imagine that my experience growing up in a Catholic household matches that of many of my co-religionists. I was taught about four named archangels: Gabriel, Raphael, Michael and Uriel. That was in the 1990s. Pope John Paul II reiterated the ban on angels other than the first three in 2002. Despite that, icons of Uriel can be found at most online Catholic supply shops 16 years later, and statues of him are displayed at the gift shop at my local mission, next to the other three. Now to me it seems reasonable enough to suggest that the reason that Uriel has hung around 1300 years after being officially kicked out of the Cchurch is that believers have continued to pray to him and experience results. Which further suggests that there is an actual being who responds to the name of “Uriel,” gets along with the other three archangels well enough to be invoked alongside them in both orthodox and occult Christian practice, and answers the prayers of believers. For the hierarchy, though, this is apparently intolerable. Nevertheless I’m willing to guarantee that if there are Catholics a thousand years from now, a sizable number of them will offer prayers to St. Uriel the Archangel.

  31. In regard to Lathechuck’s comment – I think part of the problem the liberal arts faces is that kids coming out of the American Public School system have endured so long a mental flogging that the skills necessary to become, say a musician, are impossible to achieve until free of the High School system. Abstraction is the basis for literally all high school busy work. Where, if you actually taught kids early on, not just kept them busy, high school would be the time for that college level liberal arts education. As is today I don’t think you can truly have a liberal arts education until you are free of the education system… and for most people today that means the education must be self-directed. Abstraction confers pride in place of accomplishment – I think this abstraction says something.

  32. And an anecdote on economics and Obamacare:

    The state I live in has a fairly sizable welfare system; it has also been hit hard lately by natural disasters. The disasters took a huge bite out of my income, with the result that, when Obamacare signup time rolled around last year, I qualified for the state’s free health insurance. I don’t like doctors, but I don’t like paying fines even more, so I took the insurance, though I didn’t expect to use it.

    It’s funny how these things work. In the last 2 weeks I’ve had 2 medical emergencies– apparently unrelated– that required a physician’s care. If I had any plan other than the one that I do, the first incident would have strained my budget to the breaking point; the second would have bankrupted me. I’m now in a position, though, that my income is finally beginning to recover from the disasters of last year– with the result that I may lose my insurance. For years I heard right-wing people talk about how welfare programs disincentivize work. I always dismissed that as so much Ayn Rand nonsense. Now that I’m seriously considering quitting my job if the symptoms I experienced a few nights ago come back, I understand it. Obviously, another pitfall now presents itself, because this is another abstraction– Your average conservative tends to think no further than “If you get rid of welfare, people will have to get jobs.” Well, no, if you JUST get rid of the welfare system all you will do is kill a lot of people from the welfare class, who will find themselves in the same desperate position as the wage class, with even less of an ability to handle it.

  33. …and don’t forget the ‘economic science’ that promised fair resource distribution and gave us sociopathic monsters.

    BTW, politics may not be straight binary… might not put all liberals in the ‘DNC/Clinton puppet pot’… there were a lot of us Bernie fans who recognized the truth when we heard it.

  34. I’m a music teacher in an elite midwestern suburb, and often I teach the jazz standard A Night in Tunisia. One day I asked one of my very students (age 17) if she knew where Tunisia was, and she guessed “somewhere in Asia?” Keep in mind this student got straight As, was in all the gifted programs in high school, and was herself 2nd generation Asian-American. Shockingly, she wasn’t the only gifted student I asked who had no idea where Tunisia was located.

    The schools around here are considered some of the best in the nation.

  35. Dear JMG,

    I am a huge supporter and fan of yours, and have been since the earliest days of ADR and peak oil. I don’t comment much, however, because I preferto read what others say and your even-handed responses. In this essay, I have just one, very minor, quibble, which I nonetheless think is important, and it’s in this sentence: “Our data disproves your anecdotes.”

    “Data” is plural; “datum” is singular.

    I realise that many will accuse me of pedantry: so be it.

    If the argument is that the messiness of physical reality matters more than abstract generalisations (absolutely no argument there), and since language is the only means of communication for such ideas, then that language carries more weight when it is precise.

    In the scheme of introducing rhetorical thinking to a populace that is ignorant of it, of course my point is minor. But, in the scheme of using language as the (sic) rhetorical tool, then considerations such as this do matter.

    As a personal anecdote, I will say that I lived in Bellingham in the 90s and vociferously argued with many NW liberals –convincing not a single one– about many of the things you’ve written about over the years. My abysmal success rate made me realise that I needed to teach myself the forgotten art of rhetoric, so your instruction is a godsend. I want to be clear, again, that I am not nit-picking in the slightest and that I am one of your biggest champions –not that many New Zealanders around here listen, being no different from other Westerners– and that I am hearkening very closely to this present series of essays with the idea to improve my own rhetorical skills, which are not very good yet, since my success rate is still zero.

  36. The final answer to the Trump dilemma amongst my liberal cohort always comes to: “They have to do something!” When I ask which “They” they are, the answer is only “they”, or maybe Robert Mueller. The only answer to Trump in the White House is a last desperate appeal to authority. When feeling especially spiteful, I do point out that if “they” do something, either through impeachment or the 25th Amendment, the result will be President Pence, a probably less chaotic and more right wing version of the current administration. That usually ends the discussion with an emotional rant about how I’m being mean for the point of being mean.

    I realized as I’m writing this that I’m the one relying on the abstract idea that laws and systems will be followed, and so I’m still stuck in the era of abstraction. This despite that I know logically that we are tribal, and emotions rule us. Hmmmm….

    @Violet: “First and foremost it makes me think how much more intelligent, calm and sane occultists have been sounding recently than rationalists materialists.” Amen to that! I began reading our host some ten years ago, on a reference (probably) from the Oil Drum. I was a little dubious about an Archdruid, but he did sound more calm and sane than many of the over-accredited authorities deferred to by my friends. Even though I still have the habits of thought that defer to reason, (see above…), I’m much more open to understanding the world in a reflective way. I take the existence of magic seriously, (in the way which JMG explains it, not in Harry Potter’s Latinate phrases), and when a friend explains that she is a witch, I accept it. Ten years hence, I would have scoffed. In fact, I can remember scoffing internally.

    To all my fellow Ecosophians: see you in June in the violet house behind the Charles Dexter Ward Mansion! (well maybe not ALL….)

  37. I want to add one observation to this “it’s become a massive though almost entirely unmentioned presence in modern American life: the way that an embarrasingly large number of people these days are caught up in a frantic quest for unearned authority.” People want authority without having responsibility and being held accountable for outcomes. Consequences for actions and decisions made just don’t occur very often. There’s a lot of “oh well” or “wasn’t meant to be”, not that they didn’t take the best actions in a timely manner. This is where all the farming metaphors of the Bibles can be quoted.

  38. Peter, thanks for this!

    Tokyodamage, good! The comparison’s quite plausible. As for your question, a collapse for the media as currently constituted is what happens when so few people still watch the media that advertising revenues begin to plunge, and media conglomerates go broke. I suspect we may not be too far from that.

    KMB, very good indeed. And of course the most powerful tool you’ve got is the one you exercised there at the end — admitting that you simply don’t know.

    Jonathan, I also know people who you wouldn’t expect to vote for Trump, who did so for the purpose of shaking things up. My take — after extensive conversations with some of them — is that they talk about it as though it’s just a lark, but it’s nothing of the kind. A lot of people have decided that the established parties and the system that’s beholden to them is so dysfunctional, and so stacked against everyone outside of a self-obsessed elite, that it makes more sense to burn things down and start over. I don’t think they’re right, but I understand their take on things.

    Mike, I’m probably going to have to put an entire post into the US media one of these days. The degree of overt propaganda in our media these days is beyond anything I’ve seen since those far-off days in high school Russian class when we occasionally got to look at, and poke fun at, the absurdities of Pravda.

    RogerCO, oh, granted. It’s cold and scary for a lot of people just now, when the era of abstraction is crumbling around us but the era of reflection hasn’t gotten going yet.

    Samurai_47, also granted. A lot of what I’m doing by encouraging people to ditch their TVs is purely a matter of helping them stop becoming dumber; actually moving in the direction of a thoughtful engagement with the world is a more complex matter.

    Zhao, you’re welcome and thank you.

    Gkb, a fine example. And of course it never occurs to the speaker or anyone else to talk about the role of obvious self-interest in that particular line of cant…

    Barefootwisdom, granted. I’ve found that if you take an unqualified “X are Y” statement and insert the existential “some” into it, and then start drawing conclusions from that, the people who like to use it as an implied “all X are Y” get either very uncomfortable or very abusive. That in itself suggests that a good basic grounding in logic makes a great weapon in this fight…

    Ruben, funny. I was cured of my enthusiasm for potlucks by one Grange potluck I attended where every single attendee, without exception, brought potato salad. So it’s a potlooselycoordinated, at this point, with a certain amount of potrandomness thrown in by the exigencies of who actually makes it.

    LoreCo, I hope you’re right. We have so many overgrown toddlers in today’s America, it would be nice if some of them were to grow up!

    Spicehammer, good. We’ll be discussing proctoplexiotomy techniques as this discussion proceeds. (Proctoplexiotomy? That’s the operation that inserts a pane of plexiglass into the abdomen, so that those who suffer from chronic cephalorectal insertion can see the light of day…)

    Jammer, those are among the things I had in mind, yes. I didn’t originate the term “patriotic correctness,” by the way — I got it from a magazine article in a left-wing periodical, details long since forgotten, back around the time that political correctness first hit the media — but it’s too good not to use.

    Lew, you’re most welcome.

    Nicholas, philosophy is of central importance in the wake of an age of abstraction, and in fact most of the really active philosophical periods in post-Roman history have come precisely in ages of abstraction. (Compare the great age of European philosophy, from the late Renaissance through 1800, with the way that philosophy was constrained to be the handmaiden of some other abstract knowledge during the periods of abstraction before and after.) You’re right that I’m not a fan of Heidegger, but fortunately Heidegger isn’t all of philosophy — I lean toward Schopenhauer on one side and the Neoplatonists on the other, and of course others will have their own preferences.

    Gorancson, statistics is certainly one way to figure this out — the two quarters of experimental design and statistics I took (and aced) my first pass through college have certainly helped me ever since. As for ways to teach it, yes, but they can’t begin in the classroom. More on this as we proceed!

    Steve, exactly. Your religious experiences, like mine, are anecdotal in nature. They’re also intensely real, in a way that abstract generalizations can never be. That was one of the things I was hinting at when I pointed out that reality is always anecdotal.

    Austin, no argument there. This is one of the reasons why I encourage anybody who possibly can do so to homeschool their children.

    Steve, fascinating. I’m on the other end of the spectrum; I make a fairly modest income as an author — not even in the middle class by most standards — and yet Obamacare would cost my wife and me more per month than our former mortgage, and pay so little (with the $6000 deductible and 40% co-pays) that we’d be forced to go bankrupt if we ever had to use it.

  39. I’ll leave our impressions of Providence in a separate comment in case not suitable to posting. Providence is a absolutely adorable city! We kept calling it a town because it really felt like one. Very walkable even with the hills, nice mix of architecture – the modern isn’t too garish, and the colonial and federal buildings are in great shape. The RISD museum was really fabulous and the student and faculty artwork just really top-notch. It was contemporary work I could understand; it was really communicating something. The museum has the period rooms too which the Philadelphia Art Museum has if you ever make it there. That museum’s first director was an interior designer who believed art was a 360 degree experience and brought in not just European period rooms, but Buddhist temples, Japanese tea houses and gardens, and Medieval courtyards.

    We toured RISD and walked all through Brown’s campus too. It reminded me of Portland with the fa-fa-fa haughty attitude. So cold though, so cold!

    However I must mention my disappointment that in the tour tips my fellow commenters submitted, no one mentioned that in Connecticut there is a used book store in a barn, well four barns apparently, and all the barns have cats! Used books in barns and cats! I could have spend an entire weekend there and in fact I might!

  40. I see a use for little local authorities within small, sharply delineated spheres-the guy who knows a guy, whithin his sphere of knowledge, is considerably better than any search engine or phone book (especially as some of his collection of guys are probably gray or black market-one never asks, just pays cash as requested). In another city, however, he has no knowledge. The neighbor who always has too much produce is the neighborhood authority on which variety of vegetables to grow. Go five miles away and her knowledge is useless, but in this canyon, it’s pure gold, and if she tells you grow X and you grow Y, you shouldn’t be surprised if it snows before your crop is ripe.

    How do we honor those authorities who have earned their authority the hard way, by decades of work, while avoiding generalizing their attributes to those who would like to claim unearned authority? And the converse, how do we avoid despising all of a category of authority when one member has abused it? How do we teach our children and others within our influence to discern between the two?

  41. Hello, John Michael Greer!

    I call what you’re talking about here “toxic abstraction”. A certain amount of abstraction is beneficial (if I put my naked hand in the fire I will always get burned), and I think this fools people, even highly educated people, into believing the whole of reality must be understood this way. At its extreme, toxic abstraction is passed on by brainwashing and programming…which we have plenty of these days. What gives me hope is watching Millennials and younger reject the toxic abstraction of Evangelicalism in droves. For the most part they are recognizing the problem of toxic abstraction and are looking for alternatives.

  42. Nancy, granted, but I heard a lot of talk about Sanders that treated him with the same sort of groveling adoration that Clinton’s more avid supporters aimed at her — and indeed I got tantrums from people who were incensed that I didn’t bow down to St. Bernie alongside them. Thus I remain wary of the obsession with authority on all sides.

    Kimberly, the US school system is far and away the worst in the industrial world, and is handily surpassed by many Third World countries. That needs to be taken into account in any conversation about education these days.

    Max, please notice the quotation marks I put around that sentence. I was quoting Clinton’s data manager Robby Mooks; if you want to disagree about the details of correct usage, by all means take it up with him.

    Peter, I’ve come to think that much of what’s going on in conversations like that has to do with two layers of communication, along the lines of Batesonian doublebind theory. The overt level is “Trump is horrible and he has to be stopped.” The covert level is “I don’t want to do anything to stop him.” That’s why the soi-disant Resistance has been so stunningly ineffective, and why so many people in it are obsessing about Trump’s removal from office, which (a) they can’t do anything about, and (b) would put an even less acceptable figure into office. They don’t actually want to stop him. The Clinton campaign was more prescient than it realized when it mass-produced all those signs saying LOVE TRUMPS HATE, because a vast number of people on the left, though they’d die rather than admit it, do in fact love Trump’s hate. He’s the guy that lets them break out of the suffocating straitjacket of the contemporary obsession with mandatory niceness, the guy who allows them to hate and bully and harm while still feeling good about themselves. They’ll denounce him and scream at him and march and protest and pound their fists, and meanwhile, they’ll also do absolutely anything to make sure he gets two full terms.

    Denys, true enough! That’s a good addition. As for the bookstore in the barns, I didn’t know about that — where is it? That sounds worth a trip.

    BoysMom, excellent. Yes, indeed, but that’s a different kind of authority, and one we’ll be discussing at length as this series proceeds.

    Jane, the kind of abstraction that makes sense actually has a different name — a commonplace — and we’ll be talking about commonplaces, and the topical thinking from which it derives, at very great length shortly.

  43. Jorma (offlist), if you’re going to whiz right by the subject of this week’s post, your comment is going to whiz right by the comments page and land in the recycle bin. Nice try.

  44. John Michael,

    Having repeatedly brought up and discussed the pitfalls of current society’s over-reliance on abstraction, particularly as it emanates from those in positions of authority (of whatever level and kind), can you at least touch on the downside of what could be expected when the pendelum swings, and reflection rules the day? Perhaps a narrow focus on the anecdotal and the specific, and the unwillingness and/or inability to acknowledge almost ANY kind of general principles or general rules? Would not this latter situation also seriously undermine any potential or nascent return to and re-emphasis on philosophy as a general subject of study and inquiry?

  45. Have any of you been following the latest Facebook scandal? It is precisely the sort of conduct on display in this particular incident and a great many other betrayals of the public trust that is undermining confidence in the establishment while accelerating the twilight of authority.

    http://time.com/5205314/facebook-cambridge-analytica-breach/

    The British government announced the other day it has summoned Mark Zuckerberg testify before a House of Commons special committee that was originally set up to investigate organizations that disseminate fake news, but in the wake of recent revelations about Facebook, the probe appears to be expanding into other acts of misconduct in the tech industry. Members of Congress are also demanding that Zuckerberg and other senior Facebook executives testify under oath about the scandal. According to some sources, Facebook could face fines as high as $2 trillion for violating Federal laws against illegal data sharing and violation of privacy.

    http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-43474760

    https://www.politico.com/story/2018/03/20/facebook-congress-mark-zuckerberg-426132

  46. I have an older friend of mine who is a retired academic and avid follower of the New York Times school of thought. I am helping him to learn how to build a bike frame for himself using the tools and fixtures that I have in my shop. He is ready to test his skills by brazing a joint that is a replica of one in an actual bike frame. I filled him in on the practical method I had developed for doing this when one has only beginners skills and dexterity with a flame, and pointed out the dozen or so bike frames I had successfully built using this method. He compared to this to the official book he had purchased on professional frame building which described a “true” and best method of accomplishing this that requires nearly perfect technique to pull off ( in my experience). He then decided ( in deference to authority) he would be using the “correct” method from the book. I smiled and said “sounds great” , realizing that his mindset in this direction was not worth arguing with.

  47. As a practical matter, one of the abstractions we live with today is war. We no longer have the draft, so while people are theoretically (abstractly) against war (as people concerned with virtue signaling should be) there is scarcely any anti-war movement in the country. “Liberals” were more than happy to vote for a war monger. Most people seem to regard war the way they regard natural disasters like hurricanes – they just happen. Nothing we can do about it. I read the other day (and didn’t fact check it) that only about 5% of the population has ever served in uniform. For them and their families war is real. For the other 90+% it’s just an abstaction. This, I think, is one of the reasons we are in a state of perpetual war. As you noted in your essay, it’s also one of the reasons HRC lost, as the anectdotal reality for some people is that their children can’t find decent jobs and so join the service, and are increasingly likely to come home wounded, or in a body bag. There’s just -barely- enough people for whom war is real to have thrown off HRC’s calculations.

  48. John—

    Not wanting to stray too far afield from topic, but what kinds of alternative homes for the humanities might there be? Could we perhaps revive the salons or similar discursive gatherings, perhaps? I also thought of the old-form academy (a la Plato), but that might too similar to the currrent model that’s dying. Emersonian lecture series? I understand, of course, that what arises will most likely do so organically, rather than being centrally coordinated and designed.

    @ Jammer

    Re ubiquitous flags, etc.

    One of the small decisions I made when I got elected to office was to quietly stand my ground on the more overt worship of the nation-state. Each of our formal council meetings begins with the pledge. I stand, but I do not recite nor do I place my hand over my heart. Instead, I bow my head and pray quietly. The pledge strikes a bit too close to conflating deity and State for my taste, although my religious perspective has admittedly become rather unorthodox. I’ve been asked about it exactly once in the year I’ve been in office, by another council-member in a sidebar conversation, to whom I replied that I held “religious objections” to the pledge as worded and left it at that.

  49. Hi John,

    In the early era of abstraction, simplifications and linear approximations yielded a lot of low-hanging fruit. (e.g., letting six x = x for small x when describing the motion of a pendulum, looking at just the center of mass of a complicated shape, etc.) More recently, chaos theory and other maths have grappled with non-linearities in the physical world. I agree that human beings transcend these simplifications, unless their behavior is forcibly simplified as one of the aims of a tyranny determined to manage them with big data, etc.

    Also, distinction should be made between knowing the rules of the game (like chess) and knowing how to play the game. Even within the world of physics, it’s one thing to know the various fundamental laws –paragons of abstraction–and another thing entirely to trace their ramifications.

    Climate change is a paradigmatic problem that cuts across many disciplines and is subject to huge nonlinearities. “Anecdotes” –like unexpectedly calving glaciers–may be of far greater value than abstractions. (One of the early attempts at interdisciplinary thinking was Carl Sagan’s analysis of the after effects of a nuclear exchange. As imperfect as his pioneering study was, it was sufficiently accurate to establish nuclear winter.)

    In a world where the experience of the upcoming generations may be radically different from ours, maybe the most valuable info we can impart is how to think. Since you have ranged across many disciplines yourself, your “how to think” rules would be especially useful moving forward.

  50. I teach chemistry but I ask my students to write on controversial science topics several times each month in an attempt to engage them in critical thinking and to develop argumentation skills. When I started doing this I noted that a majority of students would assume one of two polar positions on a given issue. It took some time, but I convinced most of them that there is generally a spectrum of positions that can be explored for any given controversy. Some ask me to state my own position, which I will not do, either before or after the exercise. I do ask questions to see where the discussion might lead, and am pleased to see that the students are increasingly eager to engage in civil discussion. It has been interesting to note that they seem to be taking a more balanced approach in their essay writing, showing a willingness to consider as many aspects of an issue as possible. I have students asking if they can do more of these kinds of assignments, and I am inclined to oblige even though it may mean a bit less hard chemistry content will be covered. One student commented, “adults never talk to us about such stuff, and they never ask our opinion”. Let’s hope this is a proper use of time in the classroom and that it helps the students develop skills that will help them navigate the tangled propaganda coming our of the media these days.

  51. But…but…wait! You are our unassailable authority…! 🙂
    Seriously, though, it seems to be fashionable these days among unassailable authorities of all persuasions to claim an unassailable truth, declare that they have unassailable evidence, and then refuse to let anyone else see the evidence, classifying it if possible.

  52. Re the U.S. school system—about 70 years ago sight reading, look-and-say, whole word—was introduced and apparently it’s gone downhill ever since.

    I taught myself to read at 3 and was quite unpopular in the primary grades. KID: What’s this word? ME: “Archdruid.” “How do you always know the word?” “I read the letters.” “But how do you always know the word?” “Look at the letters. A—R—C—H—“. “You won’t tell how you always know the word! I don’t like you!”

    50 years later, those kids are running the “educational” system.

  53. @JMG, It seems that all generalizations fail at their logical conclusion.

    🙂

    Of course, there could be a paradox in there somewhere … but not in the generalization known as Phoenix!

    https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2018/mar/20/phoenix-least-sustainable-city-survive-water

    I think what I like most about you is how you have formed a truce, if not a coalition, with rationalism and magical thinking. Math and Art. And just when you are pushing hard on one it seems to often transmute into the other.

    I look forward to June 23. Meantime I look forward to your upcoming series of posts on thinking skills. Personally, I’d love advice on how to develop Socratic method questioning skills as Ben supposedly did.

  54. Thanks, JMG, for another tasty bowl of intellectual stimulation.
    I’d like to suggest that there’s a submerged reef just in front of the rock “on which eras of abstraction finally shatter” and it’s called “overspecialisation.” Specialisation is the ugly child of abstraction: once you have an abstraction, you can slice it into smaller and smaller pieces in order to better understand each piece, until we get to the point where everyone seems to be a specialist these days.
    An anecdote to illustrate: from when my wife first had polio until she was in her twenties, she was looked after by one orthopaedic surgeon, who did everything bones. When she had a hip replacement twenty years ago, the surgeon specialised in everything hips and knees. When she had her knee replaced six years ago, the guy did knees only.
    And so it seems it goes in all the professions.
    So perhaps, in some small way, people *do* know truth; only it’s just a small drop of truth in a large ocean of the unknown. And things can come unstuck when a specialist in one field decides another field is just like theirs, without having studied it in any real detail and that their truths apply in the new field as well. So their detailed knowledge of one area becomes an abstract generalisation in another…
    Another anecdote: when I was an IT consultant, I particularly hated doing jobs for engineering outfits, as there were always a bunch of specialists looking over your shoulder criticising, then ballsing up everything they touched because “of course they understood what they were doing, it’s only a machine after all,” without ever understanding the underlying logic of the system, let alone the fact that system behaviour was often determined by errors in that logic, rather than the logic itself, or by or random interactions with other unrelated systems (those last observations are the main reason the proponents of AI, the Internet of Things and autonomous vehicles scare the bejeezus out of me).
    So, the more you specialise, the less you see. The less you see, the more “there be dragons” and the more the world becomes a frightening unknown place. And frightened people lash out at other people and at the world around them.
    And what I love about being a small farmer now? I deal with whole systems that are specific to my farm. Processes in place five kilometres up the road don’t work here. What works here often won’t work there, and those around me who listen to “authority” in the local agronomists and chemistry sales staff are the ones who’s land is visibly failing. Admittedly, those of us who are trying to let nature back into our lives aren’t ever going to get rich, or perhaps even make ends meet, but our farms are definitely the ones where the land is improving rather than deteriorating.
    Cheers,
    Les

  55. “Jonathan, I also know people who you wouldn’t expect to vote for Trump, who did so for the purpose of shaking things up.”
    I know when I filled out my ballot (I always do paper ballot, never trusting electronic machines), I had a shale-eating grin, may have laughed a little under my breath, and muttered “Boom!” The reaction so far has been worth the price of admission…

  56. Jammer, nope. That’s two to three hundred years away, and the main result of discussing it now would be to give the partisans of abstraction another round of excuses for saying that abstraction is the only option, because reflection is just as bad, so there! We can discuss that a couple of incarnations from now… 😉

    Felix, no, I haven’t really followed it. The only thing novel about it, as far as I can tell, is that this time one of the IT oligarchs got caught doing something corrupt and illegal that inconveniences the rich and influential; they’ve been doing the like to the rest of us for most of my lifetime already.

    Clay, yep. It’s a pity that English doesn’t have a distinction like French does, between the verbs connaitre (to know in an intellectual sense) and savoir (to know in the sense of knowing how to do something).

    Workdove, I wonder if the people who talk about this today realize that people have been wrestling with it since ancient times, and devised effective workarounds long ago…

    Christopher, an excellent point.

    David, I’m working on that. The first step is getting at least a small minority of people who recognize that the humanities matter, to begin thinking about what they can do about it.

    Greg, exactly. In a future where most of today’s certainties will be junked, learning how to learn and knowing how to assess claims of knowledge are among the few things that will matter.

    Pentrus, excellent! I’m delighted that you can get away with that in today’s educational climate.

    Dennis, not so. I’ve had gut feelings that turned out to be dead wrong, and so have most people. The twilight of authority means that not even your center can be taken on faith.

    Patricia, yes, and that’s why it’s time to begin responding to such claims with a horse laugh!

    Fuzzy, yep. I was taught phonics by my parents, and as a result was six grades above grade level when I started kindergarten. Everyone else I know who loves to read was also taught phonics. Remember, though, that children are often systematically taught not to sound out the letters, which will explain the reactions you got…

    Will, are you asking for an abstract generalization concerning what you can do to know that?

    Gnat, funny. “All generalizations are inaccurate” is my favorite rephrasing of the famous Cretan paradox. As for magic and reason, in classical Pagan theurgy you didn’t start learning magic until you’d already mastered logic. The occult community needs to get back to that sort of approach; I’ve tried to make a contribution to that.

    Les, I think that’s one very important aspect. Another, though, is the corresponding bad habit of generalization — the notion that it’s possible to apply a suitably universal way of thinking to every possible phenomenon and get good results. There are a lot of “experts” in such fields as management, whose supposed expertise is so general, being rooted in supposedly universal abstractions, that it doesn’t actually produce useful results anywhere. A specialist in the big toe at least has some chance of knowing something about big toes; a specialist in management knows nothing that has even a big toe’s grip on the real world.

    Shane, why, yes, I suspect you were. 😉

  57. Hi John Michael,

    Happy spring equinox! Go ye forth and party with your favourite spirits. 😀

    Mate, in my quirky weekly story telling session, err, weekly blog, I don’t tell people what to think at all. I merely tell a story and let others draw their own conclusions.

    You know, in my professional capacity as well as in my life outside of work, from time to time, I’ve tried very hard to assist some people who were heading in a bad direction. Of course, that task is nearly impossible, as we’ve discussed before, because it conflicts with the stories that people hold dear in their heads. What’s a bloke to do?

    Hey, I had a bizarre insight too. Is the whole deafening screeching about abstractions business linked to an expression of moral or spiritual superiority, which as we previously discussed was the deadliest of the sins? Certainly it annoys the absolute stuffing out of me!

    Cheers, and happy spring equinox!

    Chris

  58. John, I think my mom taught me unintentionally, by running her finger along the text as she read to me.

    My kid learned the alphabet at age 2 by watching Wheel of Fortune. I’d wondered why he watched so intently, and then one day I found him pointing to his blocks in turn, saying each letter. Vanna Junior went on to learn to read at 3.

  59. @ David by the Lake: Our local private library, The Providence Athenæum, has an ongoing series of just those salons, open to the public, and a full time director managing them. They seem to understand that they should step in where their neighbors are failing. I prefer them to the Providence Public Library, which is slowly divesting itself of books. When I went to the PPL to continue reading the abridged version of A Study of History, I found it gone. One step forward, two steps back…

    @Les: When the older orthopedist worked on the structure of the whole body, he could understand that it is a whole system. The modern doctor who only fixes hips might not notice that a bad hip is a reaction to a broken bone mended badly in a foot. He definitely will not notice that the newest hip just sold to him has a metal on metal wear joint, and the shavings slowly coming off will poison the patient ( as happened to James Howard Kunstler)

  60. I also had specific issues that I voted on: detente w/Russia, tariffs/free trade (I’m pleased as punch that he’s actually following through on that one), and pullback from empire (which he seems to be doing, as well) So it wasn’t all just shale-eating grin. I’m also excited that he seems to be forcing the blue coastal regions out of the Union, starting w/California.

  61. Mr Greer,

    In theory theory and practice are the same. In practice they are not. This easy to remember pair of sentences has served me well over the years. When it’s my folly I get to the point of laughter. When it’s some one else I just shrug, smile and move on. This is is quite effective in most areas of my life but there are always a few places where a bit more serious attention is needed. This is where I am wanting the ability to think more clearly through the issues and separate the signal from the noise. Since my only observed role model of thought is what’s in my own mind I assume everyone else thinks the same way that I do. I know in theory this is not true. Now it is my task to practice the acceptance of dissencis and in fact celebrate the differences. Your series on rhetoric is just so timely. Thanks.

    i am currently about 2/3 of the way through The Handmaid’s Tale. The story tells me that Margaret Atwood well understands the perils of abstraction. Further, the synchronicity of the book and your post gives me a strong feeling that I’m on a powerful path. For all the chaos it’s a good day to be alive.

    With gratitude, Aged Spirit

  62. I am interested in a comment above that says, “my trust in the media has fallen to zero” after their massive failures in covering Trump. My opinion about establishment news is very similar to the commenter (Mike From Jersey) and I have also desired to adopt more skepticism when I see an online article that claims to tell me what world opinion is really demanding or the cretinous right or idiotic left are supposedly getting up to.

    But there is an unfortunate self-defeating nature to the way we think about this. We may be skeptical of “media” but in a complex society like ours we can never actually escape mediation of our lives. Our trust in abstractions can never actually fall to zero. Even if we become terrorists who question the value of life itself, we are still relying on some greater abstraction than life to tell us what is really meaningful in this world.

    G. K. Chesterton wrote marvelously about how allowing real life experiences to modify your worldview and discovering new and useful abstractions is often far better than clinging to an imaginary “unmediated” truth in your head. More recently, Jean Baudrillard wrote about the “desert of the real” that arises in a world where we let our abstractions control us rather than finding a way to control them. Ironically this inability to get a grip on our abstractions seems to be turning our planet into an actual desert.

    Even though I mistrust “the media,” these days I am pointing my friends to reading and mediation more frequently than I did when I was younger. I can now link to specific stories on Facebook that seem to justify abstractions that my personal experience has born out as true. Sometimes those stories come from excellent, independent blogs like this one, but sometimes they come from establishment media as well.

  63. David by the lake: Isn’t the pub the place where people philosophise and even the coffee shop, perhaps not as deeply.

  64. If this were the only thing you’d written, it would deserve to be enshrined. It isn’t, so it won’t be (though it deserves to be). Here is what Rudolf Steiner had to say about the topic.

    “The spiritual-scientific investigator must always thread his way between two rocks; he never loses himself in the ruling opinions and views of the day, and on the other hand he never becomes involved in empty abstractions and authoritative concepts. On many occasions I had the opportunity to tell you that spiritual science should make us practical; far more practical than is generally believed to be the case by the men of daily practical life. It should make us practical, by leading us to the deeper forces which lie at the foundation of life and throwing light upon everything from these deeper forces, and by guiding our actions so that they are in harmony with the great laws of the universe. We are able to achieve something in the world and we can influence its course of events only if we act in accordance with the great laws of the universe.” October 1905.

  65. Am I correct in assuming that the shift from abstraction to reflection was one of the driving forces of The Reformation and that the Protestant faith was originally a reflective one or am i wrong about that?

  66. Chris, and a happy autumn equinox to you as well! Yes, there’s a huge element of spiritual pride in the screeching about abstract generalizations. The rush of thinking you own the truth is an addictive one.

    Fuzzy, that’ll do it.

    Shane, most of the people I know who had a shale-eating grin while voting for Trump also had specific issues, but I suspect the grin came first.

    Spirit, excellent — yes, The Handmaid’s Tale gets very effectively into the gap between abstraction and reality.

    Avery, good. That’s why it’s crucial to replace trust in authority with the kind of reflective awareness that assesses all truth-claims and takes none of them for granted.

    Squalembrato, thanks for this. It’s about time for my annual reading of The Philosophy of Spiritual Activity (or whatever they’re calling it these days), too.

    Will, no, you’re quite correct in that. The core idea of the Reformation was that each Christian, through study, reflection, and prayer, could receive the gift of understanding that Christ promised would come through the Holy Spirit, without any need for a hierarchy of experts to get in the way. It didn’t always work out that way, but that was the inspiration.

  67. Thank you for this post, it reminds me of my favorite series of posts from TADR, the cimmerian hypothesis. Just yesterday I had a lovely conversation where I was attempting to restate some of the concepts from that series to a good friend of mine. We were discussing the distinction between natural and unnatural. She was impressed by an argument popular with contemparary antrhopoligists about the arbitrarieness of that distinction. That line of thinking going roughly thus: what we think of as artifical environments are themselves natural, and that in cultures that aren’t us nasty colonists the ‘wilderness’ is a human habitate too.

    I granted that her critique of the way that the abstract catagories of ‘natural’ and ‘artifical’ were eagerly abused by many of their users had merits – in details I don’t address here it was a decent critique of the ‘conqueror of nature’ idol – and that she problems in their current usage which seemed right by me, but that I found the catagories of the natural and artifical particularly useful in the context of the Cimmerian hypothesis. I didn’t actually remember that it was that series I was channeling at the time of the conversation, but afterwords it was easie enough to figure out where I had lifted my thoughts from. Even though she was wary of those catagories, when I described the way that a physical built environment, or a culture habituated to think too much about its own abstractions, creates a hall of mirror effects of ‘talking to itself;, isolated from patterns with more diverse origens in the cosmos, she recognized that experience of a city immediatly and clearly. It was something she had felt, but had never the words to address.

    The reason I mention that is because the entire time I was trying to make clear my own habits of thinking on the matter I was vividly aware of how delicate a line I talked. In order to illistrate the point I had to use, and beg recognition of, a menagerie of abstractions; in a conversation where the problematic aspect of abstractions was being explicitly stated by both sides. An oodle of generalizations about human learning, the imagination, and meaning were being put to work to shine light on the distinctions I wanted to point to. Also, for several tangets, I was having to effectivly request to be accepted as an authority on various points of historical interpretation; and I was vividly aware of points in the conversation where I was stating generalizations which I was not personally qualified to througly sound out; trusting that either Greer or Spengler (in addition to my own memory) hadn’t lead me astray.

    To have a conversation outside of the recived wisdom involves both escaping from over blown abstractions – for instance the claim that catagories of natural and artifical are arbitrary products of colonialism; which cuts close to some meaty points, but muddles a lot besides – and also being able to use the abstractions which remain ‘in bounds’ in a responcible way.

    You speak of the desire for unearned authority, good. I am chagrined to recollect that when the GCC was first announced as an extension of the AODA I was very interested in it, largely as a way of getting recognition, and by implication, authority. As a matter of fact I made a post to the AODA discussion boards in those days to the effect of wanting to be an authority of the bourder between the social and the natural world, only to receive an unimpressed responce from the Archdruid of Water :). It took me a few months to process that.

    That being said, in conversing with folks, and using rhetoric as best I can it commonly happens where I am treated as an authority on many matters where that was not sought; not title, membership, or funny hant required… actually I do own several funny hats, but I doubt they make the difference.

    Come to think of it, I still rather like the notion of maturing in to a religious role in life, however if current trends in my maturation and development rates are indicitave, such matters aren’t likely to be approprate until the far side of middle age, ho hum.

  68. Dear John Michael,

    OK, fair enough about worrying before-the-fact about the perils of future over-reliance on reflection. I’ll tell you what, I’ll hold you to your implied promise, and get into that conversation with you while we’re celebrating the bicentennial of the Lakeland Republic (or some future facsimile thereof, Lords willing).

    @David, by the lake,

    I congratulate and applaud you heartily for having had the nerve to (perhaps more diplomatically than I would) confront the more mindless aspects of state-worship, particularly as an elected official. But you voiced something that has always bothered me about the ritualism of state worship, as reflected in the Pledge of Allegiance for example, and that is the quasi-religious aspects of it. Whenever I see people automatically facing the flag for the Star-Spangled Banner, or the Pledge of Allegiance, I am always strongly reminded of the rote responses given by the congregation during many mainstream Christian church services. It has, for me, very much the same zombie-esque feeling to it, of minds having been automatically turned off even as the mouth and larynx continue to function (sorry if I offended anyone’s mainstream religious beliefs there!).

    And it is not just the semi-religious aspect of those public displays that bother me, but above all the absolute conformity involved, in which compliance is essentially demanded and implicitly assumed. Just imagine the near-riot that would ensue were anyone to have the nerve to try remaining seated during the National Anthem at any kind of sporting event! I have several times attended local municipal council meetings, and I was each time going to make a point of NOT standing for the Pledge of Allegiance, but as it happened I always arrived after the Pledge had been recited, so the opportunity has not yet arisen. I did ponder before each meeting what the reaction might have been to my not standing for or reciting the Pledge, though.

  69. Felix, I think the focus on the data breach aspect of Cambridge Analytica is missing the point. Much more significant is that it involved political and psychological manipulation on a vast scale and influenced both the election of Trump and the Brexit vote. https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/may/07/the-great-british-brexit-robbery-hijacked-democracy They didn’t need Russian troll farms, they had their own.

    But these kind of tactics aren’t new. Union busting outfits like The Burke Group have been doing stuff like this for decades. https://www.counterpunch.org/2009/01/06/union-busting-is-alive-and-well/ Makes me wonder in what other fields of interest to the ruling class could similar organisations flourish?

  70. The Book Barn in Niantic, CT. Found a pamphlet in the hotel in Providence and we didn’t have time to stop on the way back. http://www.bookbarnniantic.com Open 9-9 everyday.

    I love getting lost in places like that and am going to have a plan a several hour stop there maybe on the way to the potluck. My husband loves local breweries and I’m sure he can find a few to sample in the area.

  71. RE: Faceplant and Zuckerberg getting hauled before various national bodies to testify: I mentioned at the beginning of the year w/JMG and Violet’s New Year’s predictions that I thought the elite was done propping up the panopticon of Silicon Valley and social media, and was signaling that through the MSM’s negative coverage, and I think recent news shows that. The elite are letting Silicon Valley go, and are trying to pop the tech bubble.

  72. When I think of abstraction in our culture, what comes up for me is the endless power point presentations in offices. Someone, or worse a team, takes the interactions between people and computers and throws a bunch of jargon and buzzwords in with poor graphics. Then the rest of us are made to sit through an hour of listening about what they discovered about the process. Colleges are infamous for these abstraction power points too. Never is the question answered “who is responsible here for making sure things are completed?”

    There is satire of these power points and my favorite is one where a professor took the MLK “I Have a Dream Speech” and turned it into a power point called “Mainstreaming Interethnic Inclusiveness”. http://www.nyudri.org/media-index/mlkppt?rq=martin%20luther%20king for the whole presentation of 8 slides.

  73. Greetings ADJMG!

    Is this why mega cities pop up at late stages of a civilization? A whole lot of people crammed together making their living manufacturing abstractions that are then forced on the culture which results in disaster?

  74. Thank you for this: ” religion is not a matter of belief in a doctrine but an orientation toward a quest”! You’ve clearly expressed my religious position in a way I never could. In the current atmosphere of atheist vs. Evangelical, I was a mystery to myself. I would feel lost without my Anabaptist Christianity, but there are plenty of doctrinal points I either don’t believe in or don’t care about one way or the other. As long as there are enough members to sing a cappella with me and to hold hands with when we’re sick or sad, I’m not threatened or angered by anybody else thinking we’re Wrong. Shoot, we might well be. “Happy”, “Purposeful”, and “Wrong” can coexist, I guess.

  75. I loved your final point about religion as action, as this is something I have been grappling with in particular the last week. My upbringing was devoid of religion, yet I can see what influence religion has had on my culture and how I think. Now that I firmly believe we are not going to avoid warming past 2C and are due for radical shifts of all sorts because of it, I am not distraught. I am not compelled to let go in nihilistic hedonism, embracing the moment because I fear the end of moments later. Instead, I am motivated by the coming “end of the world as we know it” as a rallying cry to figure systems out now while space and resources and peace are abundant. In fact I have been feeling nearly religious about it. How to convince someone who values cars and car shows and wealth accumulation that I DO have my future in mind when I talk about becoming a farmer who uses only hand tools? There is a faith to it, to this belief that nature is abundant enough to supply us should we listen and act in accord. There is no god in all this, rather the process and world and my place in it is what feels divine. As you said so perfectly, “religion is not a matter of belief in a doctrine but of orientation toward a quest.”

  76. In Wisconsin, we have for some time now had a political campaign against education in general, and thinking (Humanities and Social Studies) in particular. More four-year colleges are reducing support for these fields and eliminating majors and now two-year colleges have been attached to the four-year colleges, so the four-year colleges will suck them dry to survive, while continuing to de-emphasize the “thinking” majors. How does this relate to your post? Our current state government is going to the root of the “problem” by defunding campuses to a degree that majors must be eliminated so that whole departments can be eliminated, at the same time that politicians get plenty of airtime talking about how colleges should have “practical” majors that support the needs of corporations. Thus, it doesn’t take long to eliminate your thinking population entirely. It is like a modern-day Savonarola putting the Enlightenment to the torch.

  77. There is a lot to build on in that essay. One of the major limitations in our public imagination grows from the fact that global communication matured at the same time that the current wave of abstraction modeled after advances in physics and other sciences reached its crest. We haven’t been able to imagine global communication without an abstract unifying theory of everything as part of its structure. The evening news or the paper of record are thought of as sources of authority that tell everyone how to think, and each channel or paper came to represent a competing abstract viewpoint. The internet has been a grand disaster for that model of communication, and we are struggling to adapt our imagination and institutions.

    I’ll be interested to see how you pursue “more human studies”. Current versions of academic humanities disciplines are hopeless lost in commentary on commentary that is abstracted from actual human problems more than physics and chemistry are. I suspect you may be pointing that the university is an institution in need of substantial reconstruction on the scale of the renaissance rebuilding of educational systems. If so, I have a proposal. One area in which I see universities best maintaining contact with human reality is in the “maker” and “design” movements. Classes in which students try to make things for themselves force them to abandon a whole set of abstractions. They have to learn which way to tighten a bolt, what kinds of tools work for cutting what kinds of materials, and the thousand ways that reality imposes itself on their most imaginative designs. I suspect a promising path forward combines studio art and engineering, two disciplines that have always been forced to deal with reality and humans, and as such have a lot to contribute to a post-abstraction world. However, these movements are also being pulled by the forces of abstraction to become ‘critical design studies’ and ‘design of virtual environments’ which allows faculty and students to again avoid the nasty realities of our world.

  78. This post really makes me want to riff on George Box’s famous quote on models (and @gnat got us halfway there already)… all generalizations are wrong, but some are useful.

    At the peak of the age of abstraction, though, it seems that the unspoken flip side is overlooked — that some generalizations are both wrong and unhelpful.

  79. JMG, thanks again. How would you compare your take on how generations are evolving vs the Howe Strauss generational theory? Do you put any stock into their theory?

    I’m looking at this passage in particular “Sooner or later, though, the last futile attempts to maintain the dominance of abstraction wind down or, far more often than not, get dismissed as useless by a rising generation, and end up on the wrong side of the grass with the generation that defended them. What follows is the opening stages of an era of reflection, in which the achievements of the departed era of abstraction get sorted through and assessed, the good bits kept, the useless bits chucked, and the habit of letting some pompous windbag with credentials tell the rest of the world what the absolute truth is this week gets a well-deserved rest.”

    Compare that to the Crisis generation (summarized oh so expertly at wikipedia): “This is an era of destruction, often involving war, in which institutional life is destroyed and rebuilt in response to a perceived threat to the nation’s survival. After the crisis, civic authority revives, cultural expression redirects towards community purpose, and people begin to locate themselves as members of a larger group”

  80. Ray, excellent! Of course it’s impossible to avoid abstractions — every word is a label for an abstraction from experience, after all. What makes reflection powerful is that it recognizes that and takes due care to negotiate the gap between abstraction and experience. You seem to have done that quite well. As for the GCC, yes, in fact, we had quite a flurry of people who approached it that way, and the Grand Grove had some long conversations about how to respond to that. The thing is, the notion that a position of religious leadership is all about telling people how to think and what to do is so deeply ingrained in US culture that it’s no wonder so many people fell into that trap.

    Jammer, you’re on!

    Denys, thanks for this! I’ll have to find some way to get there — vast used book stores are among the particular delights of my existence.

    Shane, you did indeed. Now let’s see where it goes from here.

    Denys, I’ve lost the reference, but I’ve read a paper that argues that the specific ways that PowerPoint presentations distort thinking have been responsible for a lot of preventable disasters.

    DaShui, that’s an important part of the reason, yes.

    Rebwey, you’re just ahead of your time, is all. Once classical civilization passed through its Age of Reason and came out the other side, it was quite common for the people attending a religious ceremony to have completely different notions about why it was important and in what sense the gods existed — it didn’t matter, either, because one way or another they were there to participate in the ritual. I look forward to the day when more of our modern religions have that kind of attitude.

    Tigaj, glad to have offered you a useful concept. Here’s a question for you — would you be comfortable working together with someone for whom there is a god in there somewhere?

    Laurel, the university as an institution in America is a walking corpse. What’s going on in Wisconsin is simply a more drastic version of what’s happening everywhere in the US, where universities have become corporate drone farms, on the one hand, and deceptive marketing schemes pushing predatory loans on the clueless and the desperate, on the other. The abandonment of the university’s traditional commitment to the liberal arts is all of a piece with that; the term “liberal arts,” remember, is a reference to the studies appropriate to a free human being, and the universities aren’t in the business of providing that any more; they’re far too into the servile arts instead. This is why it’s time, and past time, to begin building frameworks to preserve and pass on the liberal arts outside the deathgrip of the moribund academic industry.

    Ganv, well put. I don’t see the universities in need of reform, though — as I noted to Laurel just above, they’re far too deep in rigor mortis to be capable of reform. Sometimes the best approach is to walk away — and that’s what I’m proposing. The Maker and Design movements are good models for what I have in mind, and their problems and experiences are worth drawing on.

  81. JB, very nicely summarized.

    Ben, the cycle I’m discussing takes place over a much larger time scale than the one Strauss and Howe were talking about. The age of abstraction that’s ending around us just now got started around 1650.

  82. JMG, true your ‘abstraction era’ cycle is longer, could there be some overlap though? Could the regular 20 year generational cycle exacerbate or change how the abstraction cycle cycles, or vice versa?

  83. JMG, I will have to look into these Maker and Design movements you refer to above, as I need a way forward to continue creating, rather than being so depressed at the trajectory of things you so clearly describe.

  84. Just thinking of abstraction and reflection as seen reading old stories by Isaac Asimov. Unless I much miss my mark, they seem to think abstraction can solve any problem, with premises and conclusions that tend to make me facepalm. They end up being very arrogant in their assumptions about what man will be able to do, and should try and do.

    I’m not even talking about galactic empires and psychohistory at this point, I’m thinking more of things like a story where a supercomputer uses one individual to compute who won all the electoral races in the USA, and this is considered valid! When compared to the performance of pollsters in things like Brexit and the last US election, this story reads like a recipe for continuous election-stealing followed by a violent revolution. Then you’ve got planetary populations orders of magnitude too high to be supported, and easy ecological balancing by human beings at very high populations, and a lack of any kind of value given to wild organisms or places beyond a vague nostalgia, and as a place to test human courage. It’s all very ‘man, conqueror of nature’ oriented. Exemplified, perhaps, by ‘the last question’, in which an amalgam of human and robot awareness responds to the end of the universe by creating a new one.

    Some of these ideas may have seemed reasonable when written, but they sure don’t seem reasonable to me now. I bet they don’t fare well in an age of reflection.

    JMG, are the types of things I was complaining about the reason why you don’t like Asimov’s work?

  85. JMG:

    I agree that it is necessary for the classic liberal arts to start looking for a new home, but I don’t think that this is a bad idea. Literature classes at colleges and universities have become so weighed down by the trendy attitudes of the day that instead of emphasizing quality, the canon now must be multicultural/multi-ethnic/multi-whatever-the-prevailing-sexual-identities-are, and if that includes poorly written nonsense, well, you’re a racist if you mention it. More than once I’ve heard the joke that anything written by a Latino lesbian one-eyed disabled author gets first place on the reading list.

    When I was in high school a few short decades ago, we still read mostly standard Western classics, although in my sophomore year the English teacher (or English department) included some book written by a black radical author. (I genuinely wish I could remember the title; I’d like to re-read it as an adult to see if I have the same take on it.) I recall that we students thought it poorly written, poorly edited, tedious, and filled with ravings of the sort radicals of all kinds engage in. We were expected to produce some sort of essay or other project to express our understanding of the book. One of my friends, the smartest kid among us, came to class with a poster he’d made by gluing crumpled pieces of assorted paper trash on oaktag – it may even have been pages from the book. He told the teacher and the class that he understood the book to be rubbish and his project reflected that. More than a couple of students applauded. I fear that such independent thought would not be tolerated in any high school these days.

  86. I don’t know, Dewey, the boots are already on our necks and we’re considered to be IN a scientific time. Anyone notice the +3M killed overseas or the 70% increase in opioid deaths? That’s on top of a science that makes properly prescribed pharmaceuticals a leading cause of death. Makes the Spanish Inquisition look downright gentle to people in the streets.

    Is it an abstraction to say “all religion is X” and “All science is Y”?

    It reminds me that the great thing about abstraction is, you’re not responsible for anything and don’t have to do any work. Who doesn’t like that?

  87. @Felix, JMG, & Yorkshire,

    I’ve read up on it a bit, and personally, I think all the Lovecraftian pointing at the hideous revolting creature that is on display (Cambridge Analytica) is just the latest straw man trying to explain away why the Dems lost in ’16.

    Conveniently missing from most discussion of this particular issue is the fact that a different presidential candidate has made a deal with this very same devil before, I cannot besmirch his holy name here, but let’s just say that he happened to be the one up for reelection in 2012.

  88. JMG, I wonder if the ability or capacity of making connections between reflection and abstraction isn’t what good teachers do. I say this because what a good teacher usually does is depart from one random fact of common experience (“what happens”, that is, a reflection) in order to explain or present a concept (an abstraction). Bad teachers, on the other hand, just dump abstractions over their students, and let them sort out what to do with them, or decide if they have any relevance at all.

  89. @ Jammer

    Re flags, standing, etc.

    To tie this back in with this week’s topic, the abstraction of the nation-state is relevant here. I see the nation-state as a tool — most specifically, a tool of governance of a particular people, by what structure that particular people deems most appropriate. I am a strong proponent of national sovereignty and a strong opponent of centralization (particularly the globalizing kind that seeks to dissolve nation-states altogether). I believe the concept of self-determination is very important, up to and including secession from this Union of ours (“that if any Form of Government becomes destructive of those Ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it, and to institute new Government”) — although I’d much rather we find a way to accommodate our differences within a looser, federalist structure preserving the benefits we can of our present nation.

    However, worship of the abstraction is unhelpful and lends itself to all forms of abuse, including the kind of blind support for our pointless, unending wars and for our still-powerful but slowly dying empire we witness these days. I am as much as fervent supporter of the original founding principles of the American republic as I am a fervent opponent of the American empire and its self-destructive arrogance.

    I choose to stand (during the pledge and the anthem) for two main reasons. First, out of respect for others around me (as I might stand when others stood if I were visiting another’s religious service, even if I’m not participating in the ritual). Second, I do so out of respect for the ideals of the republic I *do* support — even though she may not exist any longer, that doesn’t mean that she might not exist again in the future.

  90. gkb – FYI, the federal commitment to NY/NJ train tunnel upgrades is not just to speed commutes (though that would benefit productivity). The existing tunnel structure was seriously damaged by Hurricane Sandy. Chlorine and sulfate infiltration and cracking of concrete don’t get better if ignored, and someday would cause a major failure that could kill hundreds of commuters. It seems most of Congress agrees this would be too high a price for a chance to stick it to Chuck Schumer.

    According to a 2014 Pew report, from 2007-2011 New York was above the average federal transportation spending per capita (which was $164) but New Jersey was slightly below average. The only states above $250 per capita were MT, WY, ND, SD, WV, VT, RI, and DC; most medium-high states were Republican-inclined “flyover” states. Federal transportation spending is rather weirdly distributed but in no way corresponds to a “coastal elites leeching off red-state taxpayers” model.

  91. I’m somehow reminded of a saying: “Who are you to tell me to question authority?”

    I’m also reminded of T.H. Huxley’s thoughts on agnosticism:
    ————————————————
    It appears that Mr. Gladstone some time ago asked Mr. Laing if he could draw up a short summary of the negative creed; a body of negative propositions, which have so far been adopted on the negative side as to be what the Apostles’ and other accepted creeds are on the positive; and Mr. Laing at once kindly obliged Mr. Gladstone with the desired articles–eight of them.

    If any one had preferred this request to me, I should have replied that, if he referred to agnostics, they have no creed; and, by the nature of the case, cannot have any. Agnosticism, in fact, is not a creed, but a method, the essence of which lies in the rigorous application of a single principle. That principle is of great antiquity; it is as old as Socrates; as old as the writer who said, “Try all things, hold fast by that which is good” it is the foundation of the Reformation, which simply illustrated the axiom that every man should be able to give a reason for the faith that is in him; it is the great principle of Descartes; it is the fundamental axiom of modern science. Positively the principle may be expressed: In matters of the intellect, follow your reason as far as it will take you, without regard to any other consideration. And negatively: In matters of the intellect do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable. That I take to be the agnostic faith, which if a man keep whole and undefiled, he shall not be ashamed to look the universe in the face, whatever the future may have in store for him.

    The results of the working out of the agnostic principle will vary according to individual knowledge and capacity, and according to the general condition of science. That which is unproven today may be proven by the help of new discoveries to-morrow. The only negative fixed points will be those negations which flow from the demonstrable limitation of our faculties. And the only obligation accepted is to have the mind always open to conviction. Agnostics who never fail in carrying out their principles are, I am afraid, as rare as other people of whom the same consistency can be truthfully predicated. But, if you were to meet with such a phœnix and to tell him that you had discovered that two and two make five, he would patiently ask you to state your reasons for that conviction, and express his readiness to agree with you if he found them satisfactory. The apostolic injunction to “suffer fools gladly” should be the rule of life of a true agnostic. I am deeply conscious how far I myself fall short of this ideal, but it is my personal conception of what agnostics ought to be.
    —————
    This was in 1889; it’s interesting to see the tension in it between abstraction and reflection.

  92. Ben, of course. In the real world, there are countless cycles all cycling away at their own rates of speed, all interpenetrating and affecting one another. The cycle I’m talking about here is the one that Oswald Spengler talked about, the one that tracks the rise and fall of great cultures; there are plenty of smaller cycles within that greater cycle, and the Spengler cycle itself takes place within greater cycles still.

    Laurel, good. Now, especially, it’s crucial to be willing to walk away from the things that are dying, and take part in birthing those that are ready to be born.

    Corydalidae, yes, that’s a very large part of why I find Asimov duller than the ditchwater on Deneb III. It’s also that so much of his fiction is so glib and so shallow!

    Beekeeper, oh, granted. When I went to high school, the classics had all been discarded in favor of “relevant” books, which are all forgotten now — and there’s no shortage of first-rate literature by women, people of color, etc., so no justification for including the latest fifth-rate stuff in the canon just because the author belongs to a fashionable category. (Have you noticed that the accepted reading lists these days quite often leave out Jane Austen, Jean Toomer, Zora Neale Hurston, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Murasaki Shikibu, etc., etc., in order to make room for the latest trendy stuff? I’d argue on this basis that the war against the canon isn’t actually about the oversupply of literature by dead white men; it’s an attempt to erase the past so that bad writers today don’t have to feel inadequate by comparison.)

    But I have a certain purely sentimental fondness for the old ideal of the university, and it hurts to see that plunge into its final decadence.

    Joel, true enough!

    Bruno, of course! People who can think clearly, in general, make use of abstraction and concrete example together. It’s when they get separated that the Hillary Clintons of the world take a tumble down wholly anecdotal stairs.

    Dwig, Huxley was a thoughtful man, and even in the belly of an age of abstraction, thoughtful people tend to work within that tension.

    Will, it’s an easy trap to fall into!

  93. Hello John,

    I was just recovering from a bit of bruised ego I suffered when reading the description of the comparatively superficial modern approach to knowledge acquisition in the intro to On the Shadow of the Ideas and now I find out you don’t want to be my guru . . . you want me to think for myself and work at learning!?!

    Joking aside, how long does it usually take for the age of abstraction to wind down? It seems like the potential for civil discourse has hit an all time low but from what you’ve said it’s likely to get worse not better in the near term.

    I’m looking forward to this series. Thank you.

  94. John–

    “But I have a certain purely sentimental fondness for the old ideal of the university, and it hurts to see that plunge into its final decadence.”

    As one who would’ve spent his days puttering about a modest university campus and wandering the deep recesses of the stacks, tweed jacket and all, for the remainder of his days if he could have, I must agree with your sentiment.

  95. @Ben Johnson, JMB
    Re: Applying the 80-year cycle to the twilight of authority

    Ben: since you quote Wikipedia, I presume that you haven’t read either Generations or Fourth Turning, or found the Fourth Turning web site, I could be wrong about that, but any of them would be more accurate than Wikipedia.

    Michael’s commentary on the 80-year cycle stacks five of them together. If JMG is right about the current cycle beginning in 1650, then it will end around 2050, and we are in the Unraveling period of the fifth and last 80-year cycle. This seems to be consistent with what I’ve seen going on in the last few years, and what JMG is talking about in this essay.

  96. @ Darkest Yorkshire,

    Granted. But consider that there were an awful lot of manipulative and underhanded tactics used by both sides during the 2016 presidential election and the Brexit vote. For instance, look at the way Hillary Clinton and her cronies rigged the Democratic primaries to ensure she got the nomination, thereby cheating Bernie Sanders out of the nomination and probably the presidency. Or the way that Hillary supporters went around claiming that Sanders supporters were “Bernie Bros” motivated by misogyny and white male privilege.

    As for Brexit, I remember the crassly manipulative tactics that were used by the British establishment, including much of the news media, to persuade people to vote Remain, from cynically exploiting the murder of Labour MP Jo Cox for propaganda purposes to President Obama flying to the UK and making thinly veiled threats to intimidate British voters into voting against Brexit. One of the things that helped pushed Brexit over the top was widespread public anger at the use of such tactics by the Remain campaign.

  97. @ JMG:

    I too remember reading an essay about PowerPoint and its debilitating effects on both individual and collective cognitive functioning. It may well have been the same one you were referencing but like you I cannot remember the name or source of the article.

    One thing I do remember is that William Lind wrote one of his On War columns about the destructive influence that PowerPoint has been having on the American military mind and argued that the misuse of PowerPoint is one of the major factors responsible for the remarkable level of incompetence demonstrated by the US military over the last few decades.

    https://www.lewrockwell.com/2007/03/william-s-lind/conversations/

  98. @barefoot wisdom-
    I agree with you about the need to study logic much earlier. I had to wait until late in college to take a mathematical logic course, and wondered why in the world I hadn’t been exposed to it earlier! Understanding how an argument works would have made, for one example, my high school geometry studies much more productive. I didn’t understand WHY we were forced to write proofs; I was quite willing to accept Euclid’s authority on the topic. If I had understood that the tools of abstract logic were powerful outside of, say, finding the bisector of an angle… Just a touch of multidisciplinarity, of the type that Pentrus is so bravely exploring with his students (Bravo, Pentrus!), might have been so useful in my education. Kids are quite able to understand the difference, for example, between *some* and *all*, or that *X implies Y* does not equal *Y implies X*. I think we as a society systematically underestimate the capacity of kids, and we then reap the results in the form of undereducated people.
    –Heather in CA

  99. @ gorancson-
    The Common Core math standards, which so many love to hate, contains a strand of “measurement and data” which starts with kindergarten and works right through statistics in high school. The Common Core-aligned curriculum my daughter uses in 8th grade requires her to work with other students to collect actual data, learn to display it in many different ways for different purposes, and construct and analyze arguments about it, including statistical analyses. Guess what? People HATE the curriculum. It’s HARD. Kids hate it, parents hate it because they don’t know how to help their kids with it, many teachers hate it because it’s so time-consuming and slippery… I love it, myself, because it forces my daughter to go back and forth between specifics and abstractions, seeing what each can lend to the other, but I’m in a very small minority.

    Most people would prefer a very bounded curriculum that focuses on computational skills, since that is both traditional and comparatively easy to teach and assess. Sadly, these computational skills are not sufficient for navigating our current world, not least because computers are obviously faster, more accurate, and cheaper to use for those tasks. However, knowing when and how to apply a computation or data representation, and what you can and cannot conclude from it- now we’re talking power. Perhaps this is another reason these skills are so rarely taught? After all, people who can collect and reason about their own data, and apply skeptical thought to that of others, are harder to bamboozle. Again, we as a society get exactly the education for our kids that we are willing to put the effort in for.
    –Heather in CA

  100. Ben Jonson, JMG – I have long noticed that these cycles are fractal in form. The end of a megacycle, which is what JMG is talking about, is like your run-of-the-mill Crisis Era writ large and at a slower pace. The Crisis Eras are the big bumps in that road. But we are certainly in an ordinary Crisis Era right now — everything but World War III or whatever it will be called. Even the media whose notion of deep time is “Clear back to 2010” are noting the similarities between this one and the one I was born into the tail end of.

    So those who say “Western Civilization is coming to an end” are actually correct by the usual definition of “1472 and all that” and following. Though actually, if I read my history books correctly, the end of the megacycles seem to take place during a Great Awakening, in this case, the Fourth*. One major straw in the wind for that was the replacement of the lovely old liturgies with (my cliche here) their graceless modern translations, for those to whom Shakespeare writes in a foreign tongue —- even though Gold Rush miners and cowhands on the range apparently never had any trouble with it when there was a play in town.

    *a.k.a. 1968 and all that.”

    Again, just my $0.02, but I’ve seen very little to contradict this in American history at least; and can trace it reasonably well in a certain chunk of Roman history as well.

  101. @Greg Simay-
    Your quote, “…human beings transcend these simplifications, unless their behavior is forcibly simplified as one of the aims of a tyranny determined to manage them with big data, etc.,” seems very apt to me, and sounds an awful lot like public schooling! It’s really hard to teach and manage large groups of kids, so out comes the hammer of simplification, and the silly and detrimental focus on data-driven education- testing, testing, and more testing! (Admittedly, as a parent I don’t always find it easy to teach and manage the behavior of my own two children. At least at a ratio of two-on-one I have a fighting chance.)
    –Heather in CA

  102. David by the Lake/Jammer: It’s occurred to me in the last year or so that freedom of religion (at least as practiced in America, and I suspect in the Westphalian system more generally) looks suspiciously like a classic example of people reacting to the failure of a binary frame by inverting that frame. Specifically, it’s inverting the traditional picture of Christendom: rather than a bunch of quarrelsome political fiefdoms with differing cultures bound together under the authority of the universal Body of Christ, freedom of religion supposes a bunch of quarreling denominations bound together under the authority of the universal nation-state.

    (Actually, hmm. I wonder if this has something to do with the tendency to view being a religious leader as giving license to tell other people what to do? It would mirror the position of feudal lords in medieval Christendom…)

    A lot of the problems look similar, too: corruption in the overstructure, schism from differing views of what the overstructure should look like, and (most relevantly to the topic of patriotic rituals) heretic-hunting of the “they’re doing the overstructure wrong!” variety.

  103. @ JMG-
    I’m sure you can tell that I am very enthusiastic about this upcoming series, and can hardly restrain myself from prematurely pursuing the discussion about education. I am hoping that you will encourage your readers to not only try the habits of mind you are suggesting on for themselves, but also discuss them with others, and particularly with kids, whose minds are still plastic, as opposed to us old fogeys, who may have a lifetime of unlearning limiting habits to do. Whether you are an official teacher or homeschooling parent or not, everyone can find an activity to do alongside a kid or group of kids and in the process both teach them useful skills and demonstrate good thinking habits. It doesn’t need to be formal- leading a Cub Scouts demonstration, helping with the school play, or chatting with a neighbor kid who’s curious about what you’re doing in the front yard- just talk with them as if they are quite capable of holding their own intellectually, because they are. Schools are not able to do this effectively with all kids. Only if we all pitch in to the difficult work of teaching and learning do we have a chance as a society of educating our next generation (and simultaneously our own!).
    –Heather in CA

  104. JMG,
    as with most of your posts, I start by thinking “this is obvious!” and then end up spending a lot of time trying to actually understand what you are saying.

    In this case, I am confused about the role of abstractions in the problems we are facing.

    I grew up with an abstraction only education, no liberal arts whatsoever. I have been told many times that I am oversimplifying things and the real world is messier than that.

    And yet, I think that a lot of the horrible manifestations that you attribute to abstractions can actually be easily understood by simple abstractions.
    For example, collapse of civilization is due to available energy (very basic abstraction). A lot of political issues discussed are just real world examples of the prisoners’ dilemma. Educational “industry” is corrupt because of simple evolutionary strategies that have proven successful in a corrupt society. I could go on and on.

    In that case, the question is: why are these simple explanations completely ignored? They fit perfectly in the age of abstraction. On the other hand, appeals to emotions seem to prevail (of course there are very profitable interests that promote those appeals).

    Maybe we need the right abstractions, or maybe there is something else at work here. What do you think?

  105. The habit of dismissing mere reality as “anecdote” is something I’d noticed a long time ago, but I never framed it in the terms your using here, as a matter of abstraction vs reflection or abstraction vs reality. Now that I have that in my intellectual toolkit I’m seeing it everywhere.

    Another common example: Martial arts. Anyone who follows the martial arts internet knows where I’m going with this. It’s impossible to even approach the subject of fighting these days without being told a great deal about styles that “don’t work.”

    What doesn’t work?

    Usually, whatever style isn’t currently being widely practiced by fighters in the UFC. Aikido doesn’t work, tai chi doesn’t work, karate doesn’t work, kung fu doesn’t work. Nothing traditional works, ever. Only Brazilian jiujitsu works. Or, perhaps, only Brazilian jiujitsu, muay thai, and Western boxing and wrestling work. Tae kwon do doesn’t work, except that it obviously works for Stephen Thompson, so maybe it works. Sometimes. Probably not, though, because high kicks don’t work, and you shouldn’t learn them.

    It’s never seemed likely to me that any of the keyboard warriors who spread this kind of thing had ever been in a street fight. I’ve personally used tai chi to defend myself, and I know others who have as well. I’ve used snap kicks learned in Shotokan karate to defend myself in a street fight against a much larger opponent, despite the fact that, according to You Tube, kicks don’t work in street fights, and you should never use them. Of course, if I were to share this on the larger martial arts forums, it would be dismissed as “anecdotal evidence” by people who think that using the phrase “anecdotal evidence” makes them smart.

    And on the subject of people who voted for Trump “to stir things up”… it’s worth considering that at least some people who claim are not telling the whole truth. I personally made this claim a few times during the election. I did so because “I hate the US government and especially the Republican party, and Trump is like throwing a bomb in the middle of these things” was the one justification I could give for my vote to my friends who are Democrats that wouldn’t immediately bring on a torrent of abuse. It was also a way to test the waters with some people– claiming “I might vote for him just to stir things up” was a way to test the waters without being called a Nazi. As it happens, I do hate the US government and especially the Republican Party, which have done a great deal to harm me and the people I care about during my lifetime, by invading Iraq, for example, and by making student loans not dischargable in bankruptcy. And Donald Trump has done deal of harm to the Republican establishment in particular. But that wasn’t the only reasons I voted for him.

  106. Greg Simay (writing above) entered an unfortunate typographical error when he wrote “e.g., letting six x = x for small x when describing the motion of a pendulum”. There may be some situations in which “six x” is just as good or bad as one x, but what he meant to write is “sin(x) = x”. This is a well-known trigonometric approximation when x is “small enough that you don’t care about the error”. (Other small-angle approximations are tan(x) = x, and cos(x) = 1- x*x/2. x must be in radians, not degrees.)

  107. I must feel much as my students do when I read posts like this week’s. A giddiness at reading insightful writing that causes one to think beyond the everyday nonsense that makes up much of our media these days. I enjoy the comments and responses as much as the essay itself.

  108. On the collapse of authority–
    Seems true that people are losing faith in governmental and religious authority–
    Contrast that to the soul-crushing control of employees in most mega-businesses like Amazon or (from personal experience) Walgreens, CVS, and Rite Aid. A reaction to the loss of respect, or are they just taking things to their logical end?

    Nicolas Naseem Taleb has an interesting essay on ‘Truth’ in his Black Swan book;
    Before Europeans discovered Australia, it was possible for them to believe that Black Swans did not exist. This was a fragile truth since to confirm it one would have to examine all swans on Earth. But to disprove it, we need find only one Black Swan–as they found in Australia.
    In this way, knowing what is false is more robust than knowing what is true–And indeed it may be that anything we think of as ‘true’ is at best a working hypothesis– So says Taleb.

    I am not sure I agree with statements about rampant Evangelicals, at least not anymore. For the past 5 years or so, the ones I know seem to be turning inward, probably due to a mixture of cognitive dissonance and ‘what have you done for me lately?’

    Taleb again has an interesting essay about how the beliefs of an intolerant minority can prevail in a larger society in his new book, ‘Skin in the Game.’ For example, most catered food is Kosher, even though most people are not Jewish. This is because non-Jewish people can eat Kosher products without any trouble, so its worthwhile from a marketing viewpoint to make it all Kosher to avoid potential upset to the small minority. It may be relevant in the ongoing discussion, and I’d recommend putting your name on the waiting list for that book to anyone with a fairly well-stocked library nearby.

    Re Pravda– I last read it in 1981 at the U of Maryland college library. I was struck at the time at how much it had the same look and feel as the Washington Post. I probably should have taken that as an omen…

    Re: Limits of Powerpoint– Are you perhaps thinking of Edward Tufte? Here’s a link;
    https://www.edwardtufte.com/tufte/posters

    Not sure why, but you and the commentariat keep producing the most wonderful T-shirt slogan material! FWIW, here’s my list so far;

    You are not your opinions
    You are not their opinions either –JMG

    God, Grant me the serenity to know that I can’t change others,
    the courage to change the only one I can change,
    and the wisdom to know its ME

    “The real world is just a special case of the Theoretical
    and can be considered trivial and ignored” –Jaz Nights

    How I found Jesus, lost weight and improved my sex life through Witchcraft
    –display as a book cover

    The plural of anecdotes really IS data

    Front of T-shirt; All generalizations are wrong…
    Back of T-shirt; … but some are useful.

    One should always remember never to say, “Always,” “Should,” or “Never.”

    In Theory, Theory and Practice are the same.
    In Practice, They are not.

    Religion–Not belief in a doctrine
    but orientation toward a quest.

    Who are you to tell me to Question Authority?

    Looking forward to the next chapters,
    –EG

  109. A couple of thoughts here… first, regarding the Pledge of Allegiance. IMO it dates back to a time of much higher immigration of immigrants who wanted to assimilate. The flag was (is?) the only symbol which applies to all Americans. That said, it’s a requirement for rank advancement in Boy Scouts to be able to recite the Pledge. I have one Scout who chooses not to recite it weekly during the opening ceremony, and we honor that. I do, however, require that he KNOW it, because that’s a requirement. At Memorial Day and Veterans Day, I ask my Troop to participate in the town’s parade/observation. It’s not a requirement. I tell them about my time in the Navy and how important the observances are to me, their Scoutmaster. I tell them that I think it’s important to be ABLE to participate in such observances in accordance with the customs which surround such ceremonies. I know that other veterans in town appreciate seeing Scouts participate. But it’s all optional on my watch.

    Re: academia and also specialization… when I was in grad school for a MA in English, applying to the PhD program, it wasn’t enough to be a medievalist, or an Anglo-Saxonist… I had to focus in to a single text, sometimes to a single work within a single manuscript. I was actually thankful NOT to be accepted to the PhD program – I wanted to read ALL the Anglo-Saxon literature and other documents, not just one! In the Real World ™ being a medievalist, much less an Anglo-Saxonist, is considered VERY specific, but in academia, that’s still considered being a generalist.

  110. RE: gnat, the Guardian, and Phoenix

    As a resident of Phoenix, I can say that the situation is every bit as bonkers as described in the Guardian article, and more.

    How can it be more insane? As one example, I’m a member of a UU church here. The UUs tend to be very literate, and very educated; there’s quite a few college professors that go to my congregation. However, on the whole, they are convinced that solar panels, self driving cars, and Elon Musk in general will usher us into a kind, sustainable future. And if that fails, there’s always Mars.

    Climate change is always something that happens Out There, away from Us, and it’s something that can be addressed by “climate change legislation.” I’ve never heard anyone broach the idea of, for example, not flying anymore, and I don’t think the idea would be well received if it came up. Nor do they seem to notice that neither they nor any of their neighbors have solar panels – there’s just this abstract idea of Solar Power floating around that will replace all our unpleasantly oily energy sources.

    This is in a crowd of people that nearly unanimously agree that climate change is real, but they cannot connect it to their own patterns of behavior, and I don’t think they dare let go of the idea that technology will save us. And somehow the matter always ranks far below Transgender Bathroom Freedom on the UU To-Do list.

    (Thank you, gnat, for linking to the article. I’m going to print it out and try to rain on a few parades this weekend.)

  111. To follow up on my previous comment, I realize that coming out of the gate swinging like that is not going to make me any friends. I’m still chewing on how to present this unpalatable worldview to the UUs.

  112. Mr. Greer,

    It is serendipitous that you make these points. Lately, I have found at the university that if you write something that offends the local political officers, their most common avenue of objection is to quibble with your grammar, or to–I am not kidding– accuse you of being incoherent when your points could not be plainer. At first I internalized the criticism and assumed I was being lazy or sloppy because I didn’t want to be conceited. However, over time, and after many revisions, I noticed commenters kept copying and pasting the same objections. Thus, I concluded that these tactics were a form of academic gaslighting and gave up.

    Have you run into this irritating tactic, too? What, if any, is your strategy to deal with such folks? I ask because getting out ol’ Strunk and White and following the letter of the grammatical law doesn’t help.

  113. Well, it is Spring here in Texas, so most of my days are at the farm recently. I have work pending here in the metropolis, and took to reading your essay as a break from engineering. And note, there is no real segue, so reading you and the comments must serve as such.

    At the end of the line, two things come to mind: collapse of authority and claiming authority.

    I will give you a marketing tactic which is used successfully by sales people and by politicians. I have used it myself to bring a number 5 outfit to the number one spot within a single year. And it is blunt, simple and most effective: you simply claim the authority.

    When you claim authority or position regarding something, and do so loudly and in no uncertain terms, many things cascade from this. From a certain standpoint, you have your competitors speaking your company name and occupying their thoughts and conversations, framing their arguments about your claim and how to refute it – free advertising, and all provided by the opposition. You do not even have to defend the position excessively, just be able to recite where you have actually led instead of followed, or performed as well as the number one or two in certain instances.

    I did this in conjunction with some very good new technology based on the KISS rules, and in tandem with claiming first place and leadership in new tech, along with a decent advertising campaign – the #1 spot was achieved in 13 months. I did put my job directly on the line with our CEO, but I had thought about why brand ‘X’ was #1 – and it was simply because they constantly claimed the spot. By claiming the same spot and letting the competition circle the wagons and spend time trying to debunk the claim, we were catapulted into conversations where before we were ignored or a non-player.

    This was a HUGE eye opener for me, even though I was nervous a a cat in a room of rockers, because my job was 100% on the line. But once you lay claim to the leader spot, it falls to other to knock you off.

    I don’t now how that fits into where you are going with this, but this is a real anecdote and what actually transpired with me personally. Consequently, I rarely believe anyone is truly the #1 in anything, at least not for very long – they just borrow the jacket and lead the parade…

    Collapse of authority is another matter, but I am seeing more of it in these last 4 or 5 years. In large part, I am seeing people abrogate responsibility and ignore bad things that ensue. This is particularly evident in municipal and county matters, where nobody is responsible for anything – it is someone else or some other department or the technician or whoever they can pass it off on.

    Consequently, people no longer believe there will be satisfactory resolution, and so they find another way – be it legal or not. And so I am seeing a lot of small but technically illegal things pop up more and more. Weed is the first thing – it is everywhere now, in pots in backyards, in patches on the side of the road.

    I am seeing more ignoring of city rules rather than pushback. The grass cutting requirements are such that you can get a ticket if your crass is “unsightly in height” per the regs. Several people massively planted bluebonnets in their yards, which by Texas law you must allow to bloom and go to seed. Stymied the city, and so the ‘bad’ grass thing has disappeared now from the enforcement regime.

    Similarly, there is a reg that no trailers can remain parked overnight on the street. Homeowners began parking their RV’s in front, and enough did this that the trailers were relented on for enforcement. Now I see boats parked in front so guys can get up early and head out fishing, rather than having to go to the boat storage and get rigged up for the trip – much more convenient and sensible, even if ‘bad’.

    Small things, but the net result is that the minority who insisted on all these new regs was simply overpowered by the defiance of them and the subsequent inability to enforce fairly or at all due to manpower.

    Of course, these are mere anecdotes, right?

  114. @Dewey: People in North Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, New Orleans and Puerto Rico have also suffered a great deal of infrastructure damage due to super storms. There are people without homes and power in PR, people without homes and without their farms in rural NC, people who lost everything in Katrina and have never recovered. There are Federal highway system bridges in the Midwest that have not been maintained in the last 50 years, ready to collapse at any moment. Was the speaker blithely dismissive of all these prior claims on Federal moneys, of more primal, comprehensive, equally expensive needs? I do not know. The video clip I saw gave no evidence either way.

    It was not his naked self-interest which was so disgusting to me. One expects that. It was his completely clueless, solemn and earnest demeanour, implying that everyone listening must naturally bow to the superior truthiness of his self-inflated cartoon balloon: his metaphor of “headship” for his region and, by implication, mere “body parts” for everyone else’s. What was most insulting was his total lack of awareness that he was being insulting. Not ignorance nor cupidity but arrogance. Blind, tone-deaf, complacent, smug, unthinking arrogance.

    And I suspect it was his habit of abstraction that deprived him of sense, sensitivity, and a sensible pretense of civil respect for the rest of the nation. He was so accustomed to thinking of himself and his cronies as the most vitally important people in the nation, if not the whole world, that he neglected to ascertain whether anyone actually agreed with his ideas of relative worth. No wonder people played the trump card in this Bridge Game. I just wish they had not picked the joker.

  115. Dear Felix, what I find interesting is that Zuckerberg is being called to account at all. Factions are shifting or he went too far and made a former backer mad or something or the sort.

    Dear Kimberly Steele, Geography Is. Not. Taught. in American public schools. Around the same time that instruction in phonics was being phased out, geography, history and civics were replaced with social studies, in other words, indoctrination in correct attitudes.

  116. Jammer, I am sorry you do not understand what is happening during those “rote responses”. However feel free to comment anyway.

  117. In the “Big 5” personality scale I’m very low (like 2nd percentile) “agreeableness”, which makes it practically second nature for me to question authority. In fact back in college, I got very much mixed up in skeptic circles. Not much later on however I found that the “skeptics” seemed to have their own authorities and so called “freethinkers” thought very much like each other.

    I remember a friend, who was then-atheist and exploring Evangelical Christianity. Her “skeptical atheist” friends didn’t like this very much, and kept referring her back to Carl Sagan’s writings. What they were doing was trying to save a potential apostate from perdition and the irony was completely lost on them. Their own Shahadah could well be “There is no God, but in any case Sagan is his prophet.” Though nowadays it would probably be DeGrasse Tyson.

    (Random aside: what is it with these astronomers and why do they tend to be wannabe philosophers?)

    I’m not against the idea of skepticism per se – after all I’m the sort of personality inclined to be one. Reading this essay I realized that identity labels themselves are abstractions. Hence, individual skeptical people might be engaged in skepticism, but once a group of folks start identifying as Skeptics(tm) they tend to start thinking alike. This is the same dynamic that’s driving the political/patriotic correctness phenomena. So if you’re “gay” then you must be completely on board with progressive left wing agenda, and on the other hand if you’re mostly conservative but have some left wing beliefs this means you are “un-American” somehow.

    Nowadays I tend to be skeptical of my own skepticism, wary of it becoming another authority. Whenever I think I have some sort of unique epiphany, I take a step back and tell myself: “Surely I’m not the smartest person to have lived and someone has thought of this already.” And often I tend to find somebody, often someone who’s lived way in the past, who’d disproved the so-called “original thought”, or stated it in a much more refined manner.

  118. The switch between Abstractionism and Reflection has happened before in the history of college, I note, and as it happens a good friend and I have been kicking around the idea of starting a school. Both of us were home schooled, my kids are home schooled, he’s an associate professor. Our timeline’s rather long: I’ve got kids to raise, he’s got professional profile to raise (and hopefully find a life companion), but in another couple decades we’d like to pull this school that we wish we’d had for us and for my kids together.

    So I’ve got another thing to study-the activities of the colleges at the end of the medieval abstraction period. It looks like the timeline is a couple hundred years for each, so there should be another such period with colleges to look at as well? Or did I get that wrong?

  119. Joel and Felix, I don’t doubt most parties do nefarious things. Have you seen any Adam Curtis documentaries like Century of the Self, The Power of Nightmares, The Trap and HyperNormalisation? I think most are on Youtube. They dig into the full story of how the whole political spectrum came to hold the same low opinion of the public and justify manipulating them. The fact that both sides do it has about the same result as two armies both using chemical weapons has on the civilian population of the land they’re fighting over.

    The revulsion against Cambridge Analytica and similar organisations and methods can also become an extension of the kind of elitist disdain often criticised here – “How could people be so stupid to allow themselves to be manipulated like that?”, while regarding yourself as far too smart to fall for anything like that. It also functions as a way to dismiss the opinions of those who disagreee with you. The way it seems to have become fasionable to accuse someone you disagree with of being a bot. I had an image come to mind of two bots getting stuck in a loop of accusing each other of being bots. 🙂

    But this doesn’t change the fact that the ruling elite spend vast effort and resources on trying to make people as malleable as possible. I am curious of what personality traits and life experiences make people more or less vulnerable to these attempts, as people do seem to react to it in very different ways.

  120. A very thought-provoking essay, JMG.

    Many thanks.

    Among the comments were references to “simplification” by Greg Simay and Heather in CA. In his (for me) sublime “A Canticle For Leibowitz” Walter M. Miller has the post “Flame Deluge” – a nuclear apocalypse – backlash against the learned and publications as The Simpllification. The novel also has the notion of the “booklegger” saving scraps of pre-apocalypse writing for eventual study and inclusion in a gradually emerging monastic culture. I pray that the world of fiction doesn’t become real.

    Denys referred to barns with cats and books; the later Bernie Rhodenbarr novels of Lawrence Block revolve around Barnegat Books, Bernie’s NYC store into which Raffles the cat was introduced specifically to “terminate with extreme prejudice” the rodent problem. Perhaps the Providence barns were the inspiration?

    Finally, Dennis Roe makes a great point about the nature of authority. My understanding is that originally, in Roman Law, authority supplied something lacking. Thus, a minor (pupil) lacked capacity to deal with his own property and required a tutor to provide the authority to ensure any transaction was legally competent. Some people will, unfortunately, always require assistance but for most of us that should be unnecessary.

    Apologies if I’ve bored, and thanks again.

  121. Partially off-topic though relevant to one line of comments in this post, there’s a (current) reddit AMA by the author of a book on “book towns” (towns that have cultivated used books as part of their civic identity). I’m not positing him as an authority (there, topic-relevance!) but as someone with information that may be of interest to the bibliophiles among us. 🙂

    https://www.reddit.com/r/books/comments/86kohr/im_alex_johnson_author_of_book_towns_the_first/

  122. Thinking a bit more about anecdotes and data- what is an anecdote but something that “happened”, which someone observed, and around which the observer then built a snippet of a story? Now it’s an example of something- in other words, a representation of a bit of data. Or you could think of a data set as many tiny snips of things that “happened” and were observed, divorced from their narrative context and then interpreted with a new story collecting them together. It seems to me that once again, it’s narratives all the way down. Those who get snippy about the plural of anecdotes not being data might perhaps be objecting to the ownership of the interpretation- who controls the narrative(s)? A change in consciousness is intended, but in accordance with whose will?

    In the social sciences (ahem), there is a constant tension around how much context to preserve when trying to extract an abstract explanatory or descriptive framework from observations. For example, a researcher might be able to do rich, detailed, longterm observations of three teachers’ classrooms, getting to see a great deal of context around the construct in question- but is a sample size of three going to be convincing to anyone? Conversely, the researcher could administer standardized tests to thousands of students, collecting lots of “data”- but can those data tell any meaningful story about the process or products of teaching and learning? Much depends on the kind of story the researcher intends to tell. Detailed case studies (basically extended anecdotes) seem more trustworthy to some, closer to reflection on direct experience, while others demand greater abstraction- distance from those messy details- as the only way to see what’s happening on a larger scale. What counts as data? Who decides? What makes a convincing story, and who decides? What, if anything, is to be done as a result of the changes in consciousness effected by the stories? Philosophy, drama, politics- it’s all there, a little microcosm of our society at the end of this age of abstraction. It’s no wonder our educational system is a mess- so is our society. And yet there are glints of beauty and hope and heroic work in there too.

    –Heather in CA

  123. @Felix, regarding your “Power” point comment,

    As someone soon to be departing the military officer ranks (no golden parachute for me by the way) I can confirm your hypothesis. I’ve put together a few briefs and even witnessed the exact brief described in the article you shared.

    Some of the latter have 200+ slide decks with each slide packing so much data to make zero sense to someone not trained in deciphering it, with literally thousands of person-hours expended in providing input for some very high ranking officer to make ONE decision. My sanity is thankful that I’ve never had the privilege of contributing to one of these, as otherwise the few brain cells I have left would probably be leaking out of my ears by now.

  124. Just thinking about a connection between abstraction and violence (specifically the specialised sort of “structural violence” embedded in bureaucratic institutions), which is highlighted by David Graeber in this essay: http://eprints.lse.ac.uk/53222/1/Graeber_Dead_zones_imagination_2012.pdf

    The essay contains this nugget:
    “…what we are really referring to here are material processes, in which violence, and the threat of violence, play a crucial, constitutive role. In fact one could argue it’s this very tendency toward abstraction that makes it possible for everyone involved to imagine that the violence upholding the system is somehow not responsible for its violent effects.”

    And this one:
    “…what is really important about violence is that it is perhaps the only form of human action that holds out even in the possibility of having social effects without being communicative.
    To be more precise: violence may well be the only form of human action by which it is possible to have relatively predictable effects on the actions of a person about whom you understand nothing. Pretty much any other way one might try to influence another’s actions, one at least has to have some idea who they think they are, who they think you are, what they might want out of the situation, and what their aversions and proclivities are. Hit them over the head hard enough and all of this becomes irrelevant.”

    I find both quotes apt, and have also been pondering an observation he has made elsewhere (which I could not find) to the effect that the records made by early Europeans when they first arrived in places like Madagascar, were full of anecdote – stories of individual encounters and adventures, each one unique and full of texture and colour. However, precisely at the moment at which a European country had decided to formally colonise and administer the place, the records change from anecdotes to data. Quantification and abstraction appear to be the handmaidens to actual weaponry in making a conquest happen – that is to say, to bring about a relationship structured entirely around one of the parties ability to destroy the other.

    It is relevant that in a different context, the Domesday book was the signature product of William the Conquerer’s (1066) aspiration to rule Britain. The effects of which were fought with words, among others, the words of the Charter of the Forest (1217).

    I suppose what I personally have an interest in (as well as being interested in) learning, is the rhetorical ability to choose the word that turns away wrath.

  125. Cortes-
    I didn’t find your comment boring at all! Going off to extend my liberal education by reserving “A Canticle for Leibowitz” at the library now… Much of my reading list these days comes from JMG’s salon here; thanks, all.
    –Heather in CA

  126. There is a booktown in Central NY which I visited. Once.

    I asked the lady with the charming accent, “Where is your gardening section?” “I don’t have a gardening section.” OK

    The guy at the rare book store–he had some plebian stock downstairs–demanded to know what was I looking for while I was coming through the door. “The 1916 edition of the American Rose Annual.”, which is my standard response to that query. He didn’t have it because no one does.

    And then the store which specializes in mystery, SF and fantasy had none of my favorite authors.

    Not worth a half day drive over winding roads.

    What I have wondered about is some sort of cooperative library, maybe lending, maybe not, reasonable annual fee with no exceptions, and just books, no computer access, no meeting rooms–take your political campaign elsewhere, please–chairs and good light. A problem one runs into with non-profits is boards of directors with their own agendas.

  127. @Lew the Una-Bomber, according to himself, wanted to live alone and in his serene peace as a hermit in the forest, until the forestry agency put an end to that, so to say civilization started to intrude in what was the last of sanctuaries from civilized life back then.

    This was his trigger to bomb people IN ORDER to bring his manifesto to the public, which he did. The kind of intentionality you are inclining however never was part of these writings.

  128. @wendy Thank you for the book towns link! Very inspiring and I plan to own a used book store one day. Sounds like the more the better!

  129. I am reminded of two experiences lately.

    One person leaning on the liberal side proclaims to me X is Y because Z and so forth.
    I comment an anecdote that contradicts this. “But that is just and anectode!”
    Of course…then I point out that I interpret the given statistics so and so, and the response is “I don’t trust any statistics! They are
    an instrument of manipulation”

    Well, then.

    On another day I randomly pointed out to a colleague how “there’s a new billboard poster in the metro station that seemsto be an invitation to some kind of sect”. It was rather random bring that up and my colleague declined “I don’t take a stance toward religion”.
    The same person though has said things along the lines of not liking any religions in general, not wanting them to play a part in any relevant discussion or sphere of life, and has oftentimes cleary disapproved of any kind of religious practice or reasoning in the past.

    Does that make sense? Maybe not everything does have to make sense?

    My conclusive idea about rhetoric from what I read here is that it also must connect at another level other than pure reasoning that resembles a lingual maths competition, and I don’t mean emotional manipulation.

    When I reflect on why I have taken stances in the past or brought arguments, it certainly often amounted to:
    1) a thing is important to me personally 2) I want to provoke or feel like pouting 3) I want to wiggle out of a difficult discussion
    4) I want to paint a rosy picture that makes everyone including me feel good

    Rhetoric is probably then like breaking the unconscious code behind our reasoning;
    The pictures of napalm and Mylay in the newspaper of the US when the Vietnam war was raging did not fail to shock and outrage the public, as I recall? People’s fantasy was obviously limited beforehand, to what modern warfare really means.

    So if I want to convince people of a reality, that is very real to me, or pervasive, then it would be rhetorical to make other people feel and experience the manifest guise of my reality.

    Or maybe this wasn’t intended to be explained here with the word “Rhetoric”.

  130. Claire, fortunately, there are no Druid gurus. If you want to sit at the feet of something and learn wisdom, we tend to recommend the nearest tree for that purpose. 😉 As for the twilight of an age of abstraction, there’s no specific dividing line. What happens is that individuals notice that the latest fashionable abstractions don’t work, and find their way from reflection on that fact to reflection generally — a few here, a few there, and gradually the abstract generalizations drift to the sidelines and people who are attentive to experience take charge. We’ve got a ways to go, in other words, but quite a bit of change can happen on a personal and local scale right now.

    David, me too. I’d have made a beeline for an academic career if the academy hadn’t already begun to turn into a corrupt and exploitive industry when I was considering it — and it’s gotten much, much worse since then.

    Felix, thanks for this! I may be able to use that in an upcoming post, too.

    Patricia, fair enough. I suspect we have several more generational cycles to play through before the grand cycle of Western history runs down, but we’ll see.

    Heather, as I don’t have children and haven’t spent much time around them since I stopped being one, I’ll leave that discussion for those who do. By all means, though!

    NemoNascitur, good. Reflection isn’t about getting rid of abstractions; that’s not possible, much less useful. It’s about reflecting on our abstractions, testing them against lived experience and other sources of useful feedback, and not getting stuck in them.

    Steve, oh dear gods, yes. The teacher of my t’al chi teacher in Seattle used to be one of Chiang Kai-Shek’s bodyguards when the latter was president of Taiwan, and under constant threat from Maoist assassins. I never had the chance to meet him, but I knew a person who’d watched him take out an armed mugger on the streets of Vancouver with a single strike of his cane. T’ai chi doesn’t work? Yeah, right…

    But your broader point is also important. Martial arts styles never fight; only martial artists do, and “what works” is a function of the concrete, anecdotal reality of each individual combat.

    Pentrus, so do I — one of the things that keeps me blogging is the quality of the discussions that follow each post.

    Emmanuel, if somebody wants to launch a line of T-shirts et al., using these and other slogans from the blog, I’d be happy to give it ad space.

    Ed, okay, you can quote. Would you care to add some thought of your own to that?

    Michelle, delighted to hear it — may your troop thrive. As for speclalizing in a single Anglo-Saxon document — sheesh. I suppose it’s a desperate attempt to justify as many possible jobs for Old English specialists as possible…

    Cliff, I’ve been invited to speak at an assortment of UU churches, and have had friends who belong to many more. What you’ve described seems to be pervasive, and is one of the several reasons why I’d sooner spend my Sundays neck deep in a vat of live tarantulas than attend a UU church. The religions of the privileged always tend toward a sanctimonious fixation on cosmetic reforms that won’t impact their privileged lifestyles in the least, but for some reason the UU churches I’ve encountered, personally and secondhand via friends, seem to have a world-class case of that.

  131. @Cliff If it makes you feel any better the crazy is not just there. I paid $240 to attend a Transition Towns two day workshop last year, facilitated by Transition Towns USA. One of the facilitators said “we don’t need to worry about future energy because this guy (sorry I forget his name and google isn’t helping me find it) figured out we could power the world with wind turbines!”. She was rhapsodic about it. Huh? I read the Transition Towns book and it was about living with as little energy as possible, not substituting one for another. I told her wind power in that scale was never going to happen.

    The Transition Town folks who hosted the event were very religious about solar panels. Everyone needed them and should have them. They didn’t claim to know about solar hot water and weren’t promoting it. One of their leaders was big on Euthereum cryptocurrency and went on and on about how it was going to save the world. I told the man he was delusional.

    In addition to the lack of information over two days about living a low-tech, low-energy lifestyle in community, I had the pleasure of watching three college age women stop the entire workshop claiming they witnesses micro-aggressions amongst the participants. They wouldn’t name names or the transgressions but we were assured that they happened and we all needed to watch our behavior and thoughts! I didn’t say anything to these women and resigned myself to giving stink eye so they could register another micro aggression.

    People are unable to accept – to quote our host – the future is not what we ordered. Everyone thinks they have found the solution or are in complete denial about what’s next. I have the garden, pick new skills to learn each year, and have raised my kids to live without electric for days. We are having fun doing these things and I have little desire to keep what I already have. Although antibiotics and vaccines would sure be nice to keep!

  132. When I was a freshman at a very large state university in 1986, for my required humanities course I was required to write an essay illustrating the difference between fate, chance, and coincidence. Coming out of a mediocre public school, it melted my brain. Now homeschooling my own kids, I made sure to melt their brains with the topic in high school and watch them struggle to find the words to describe the difference.

  133. gkb – The federal government should, IMHO, also help to fix the power grid in Puerto Rico and assist other storm-damaged communities. And federal transportation dollars should address life-threatening infrastructure deficits before those that are matters of convenience, so I certainly hope that the proportionate expenditures in many “flyover” states first target those old, dangerous bridges you note.

    I hope that the guy who was upset that the train project was being targeted wouldn’t disagree with those priorities, and you indicate that you saw no evidence he did. Yet, just because he’s asking that a governmental promise to fix a problem that puts his and others’ lives at risk be kept, you use words like “naked self-interest, clueless, insulting, arrogance, cronies.” The people who ride through that deteriorating tunnel to work every day are our fellow Americans, not “cronies”. It scares me to see America turning into a dog-eat-dog world where we are all outraged when those Not Like Us get any help or protection whatsoever – and the definition of who is Us gets finer and finer. Seventeen years ago, the whole country was outraged when Al Qaida murdered a bunch of New Yorkers. They were Us then. What happened?

  134. @ Jammer, Michelle, et alia

    Re flags and pledges and the like

    An excellent discussion. I hadn’t really thought of the nation-state in terms of abstraction/reflection until this post and subsequent discussion, but the issues at hand to make sense within that context.

    One thing I’d like to add to my own anecdote 🙂 also ties in with another theme that has been discussed on this blog, namely that of accepting the consequences of one’s choices (whether we’re talking about the “raspberry jam” principle in magic or more mundane decision-making) . Our council elects a president and vice-president for annual terms each spring. Because one of the duties of the council president is to lead in the recitation of the pledge, and the vice-president fills in when the president is absent, I would be unable to serve in either capacity. The situation hasn’t arisen yet, but if it does, I will accept the limitation I have imposed on myself and decline any nomination for either of those offices when we hold our organizational meeting (“personal reasons” should suffice). It is a small thing admittedly, but important from my internal perspective.

  135. JMG & all
    “tell other people how to think and what to do” … Well, it depends on who he is, but that’s his job in many instances, (smile) or it was in a lot of jobs I did back in the day. Whether ‘he’, and it was usually ‘he’, did his job well, depended however on his ability to recognize the qualities of his team, and inter alia the competencies and judgment they brought with them. The other part of his job was to be the one accountable for results. In the long term, high morale was part of the deal and ‘he’ had to make sense of the work as a whole and satisfy the needed sense of ‘worth’. This latter part of the equation might be what is so hard to find these days among our contradictions. ‘Employers’ and ‘governments’ and ‘religions’, including ‘Tech & Science’, let alone ‘Educationists’ play a dangerous game with ‘appearances’ among the blow-backs.

    Willing folk can become terminal skeptics, and meaningless dollars blow about in the wind.

    best
    Phil H

  136. Although I don’t have the time to read all the comments, the issue of trust – especially in institutions – wasn’t mentioned much. Apparently 60 years ago a strong majority of Americans would have answered affirmatively to the question: Do you trust the US Government to do the right thing for the country and people. Vietnam and Watergate were the leading edge of destroying that trust. And of course it isn’t just the government in which we have lost trust. I think the military is the only major institution that gets a significant degree of trust. The type of authority discussed here requires trust, and it just ain’t there. I believe that these institutions have done a lot to lose that trust but I also believe that partisanship leads to attacks on institutions even beyond where justified leading to even more dismal levels of trust. Once lost, trust is a hard thing to get back.

  137. Here’s one for Emmanuel Goldstein’s T-shirt slogan collection:

    “Facts without theory are trivia. Theory without facts is [the expletive that is abbreviated as BS].”

    This is usually called “Beiser’s Brass Tack” around here.

    It goes back to the late professor at my university, Ed Beiser, who taught many subjects, but always, in every course, how to think. He was a perpetual thorn in the side of some university administrators, who kept on finding mean-spirited ways to hobble him.

    One example, with broader implications that go beyond Beiser himself: one of Beiser’s advisees was called up before a disciplinary committee over some alleged offense. In the usual course of things, such a student may bring along his advisor or some other outsider. Since Beiser had at some point acquired a law degree, however, he was quite publicly forbidden to accompany his own advisee to the hearing, as no accused student might have a lawyer present on his side at any university disciplinary hearing, only the administration.

  138. Dear Jill N,

    I am very sorry if I inadvertently offended you, or anyone else here, by my earlier comments on my perception of the sterility of the rote responses in many mainstream Christian masses and services. I was actually appalled with myself afterward for having made such an insensitive gaffe!

    The point I was trying to make (not very well) was simply that those kinds of organized religious services and functions simply do not speak to my own spirituality. It was not my intention to try to judge how they might speak to the spiritual needs of anyone else, however.

  139. Millennial, I’ve fielded that here on the blog tolerably often, but I can just delete grammar trolls out of hand — and of course I generally do. In person? Good question. I wonder what would happen if you confronted it directly by saying something like, “I’ve noticed that when people start trying to deflect a conversation by quibbling about grammar, it’s usually because they know they’re wrong. I take it that’s what’s going on here, too.” Mind you, you may get a meltdown, but the person may stop being a grammar troll, at least around you.

    More broadly, when somebody tries a deflection tactic, I tend to call them on it and return to the subject. Again, there’s a fair chance of meltdown, but I don’t like to reward bad behavior.

    Oilman2, oh, granted. That’s been one of my basic rhetorical strategies from the start of my blogging career; I simply present my point of view without apology, without kowtowing to the conventional wisdom or doing any of the kick-me signaling you’re supposed to do if you have an unpopular opinion or aren’t an approved authority, and a surprising number of people listen. My favorite bit of criticism, which I’ve received over and over again, is the outraged bellow “You think you’re right!” Why, yes, I do. People who hold opinions that contradict the conventional wisdom are supposed to cringe and apologize and do all kinds of social signaling to indicate that they know they’re wrong, and an astonishing number of people do this without noticing, and then wonder why nobody takes them seriously. You’re quite right that if you refrain from doing that, and act as though you know you’re the top dog, quite a few people will take you at your word!

    Carlos, excellent. That is to say, you’re a real, small-s skeptic — as the Greek root suggests, someone who actually takes an honest look at things — rather than a capital-S Skeptic(tm), a believer in a dogmatic faith that pushes the hard work of taking an honest look at things off onto Carl Sagan or the like. (As for your question about astronomers, my guess is that Sagan fell in love with the idea of being the Pope of rationalism, and Tyson has spent his entire adult life trying to be Carl Sagan.)

    BoysMom, before the high abstraction of the Middle Ages, there weren’t educational institutions worth noting in the western world, so you’re kind of out of luck there. Remember that all this fits into the broader cycle of civilizational rise and fall; the Age of Reason now waning around us was native to western civilization, while the previous one here was borrowed from the Muslim world — Christian scholasticism was a pale shadow of the Age of Reason of what Spengler calls the Magian culture, the great culture of the Middle East that achieved its flowering under Islam. Before then? You’ve got the classical Age of Reason, which began with the Presocratics and wound down around the time Rome conquered the eastern Mediterranean littoral.

    By all means get out there and found a school! That sounds like an extremely worthwhile thing to do — especially if it integrates the benefits of homeschooling.

    Cortes, anti-intellectualism has a long history here in the US, and not without reason. The great conflict in US cultural history is between the privileged, educated coastal elites and the homespun culture of the inland hinterlands; that division got going before the Revolution and remains a massive divide today. Claims of intellectual superiority are a constant theme in the attempts of the coastal elites to pump wealth out of the hinterland, just as claims of moral superiority are a constant theme in the attempts of the hinterlanders to pump wealth back in from the coasts. So Miller was being realistic; a nuclear war would wipe out the big coastal cities while leaving large sections of the hinterlands untouched, and so the reaction would probably involve a hard swing toward hinterland values.

    Wendy, interesting. Thank you.

    Heather, good! Yes, exactly — the various quarrels about anecdote vs. data are all about who gets to define and control the narrative which guides action. Our present difficulties with data and anecdote are rooted in the widening chasm between the narratives being pushed by the core institutions of our society, on the one hand, and the world experienced by the vast majority of Americans outside the privileged classes that control those institutions, on the other. In such times you’re going to get quarrels over narratives!

    Scotlyn, that’s definitely worth brooding over. I’m tempted to connect it to Martin Buber’s distinction between I-you and I-it relationships.

    Nastarana, not surprising — a destination book town pretty much has to focus its appeal on the privileged, and so has to become obsessive about signaling that hoi polloi are not welcome there. What they stock is an important way to do such signaling. As for libraries — yes, and we’ll be discussing that in due time.

    Labor Case, good. Rhetoric must address the whole person, not simply the thinking mind. That’s where so much of today’s overly abstract communication falls flat — it’s communication without motivation, or (rather more often) communicates one thing and motivates something very different. My comments in an earlier post about reason, emotion, and self-interest as the three bases for belief are meant to point to a way to address that.

  140. Oh, yes, we have lots of time for that, John. But having seen a fairly big cultural break 50 years ago, I’e taken to thinking of our grand cycle as “Western Civilization 2.0.” Or as I put it once, “an Elizabethan and a Victorian would probably understand each other far better than either one wold understand someone from 1980.”

  141. JMG replied to David, by the lake:

    “I’d have made a beeline for an academic career if the academy hadn’t already begun to turn into a corrupt and exploitive industry when I was considering it — and it’s gotten much, much worse since then.”

    Indeed it has gotten much, much worse, says this old retired professor. As an institution for learning, the American university system is far past its pull-date.

    But my own university was never designed as an institution for learning. Its charter of foundation (1764) says explicitly that it was instituted for “preserving in the community a succession of men duly qualified for discharging the offices of life with usefulness and reputation.” It does presuppose that this can be accomplished by “forming the rising generation to virtue, knowledge, and useful literature,” so knowledge gets a small look-in somewhere as a student passes through his college years.

    Until the early 20th century, Brown’s president had to be a Baptist minister. (That was what are now called “Northern Baptists,” not the same thing as the Southern Baptist denomination of today.) But Baptist ministers did not traditionally need to have any sort of education at all; it was enough if they were called by a congregation and several already ordained Baptist ministers could be found to ordain him.)

    And, while we are on this subject, maybe those of us who come to the potluck on June 23, or at least some of us, might like to kick around in person our ideas for what might take on the role of “institutions of learning” in the 21st century and beyond.

  142. JMG,

    I found your response to Oilman fascinating. And I love that you “present your point of view without apology.”

    “People who hold opinions that contradict the conventional wisdom are supposed to cringe and apologize and do all kinds of social signaling to indicate that they know they’re wrong, and an astonishing number of people do this without noticing, and then wonder why nobody takes them seriously.”

    Might you please expound a bit on some examples of “social signaling to indicate that they know they’re wrong”?

    Thanks,

    Jacques

  143. @Scotlyn:

    Thank you for the Graeber article on structural violence obliterating the necessity of communication, which contains several important points. I am thinking, however, of a recent spectacular case of violence in Rio de Janeiro, where the black lesbian favela-raised councilwoman Marielle Franco, who had repeatedly criticized police violence and was also the (critical) chairwoman of the committee monitoring the military intervention, was summarily executed with four shots to the head, using bullets reserved for police use. It is quite clear to just about everybody that this execution is meant to communicate a message, but there are many and contradictory messages that people hear: a threat against women, against black women, against the military interventor, a threat by the military interventor against his critics etc.

    To tie this in with the theme of this weeks’s post: it is hard work to not get absorbed by the categories offered for this murder (rampant violence, mafia execution, “she had it coming”, military coup, structural racism, Mexicanization/Colombianization of Brazil) and try to hold several possible explications simultaneously until the moment that more information is available. That may be easier for those who knew her personally.

  144. Excellent post, as always JMG. Looking forward to learning about the skills in an era of reflection.

    “Finding the right authority” being ruinous reminded me of a friend’s attitude when I was trying to explain some of the basic points about peak energy and the decline of empires. He kept asking, in obvious exasperation, “Well, what should I do about it?” My responses kept coming back to his responsibility (and need) to work out his game plan on his own, and I was simply the “messenger” of some uncomfortable facts which were going to impact our futures – especially the assumed future of progress.

    The Long Descent will have no shortage of people looking for the “right authority”, and helping them get on track and working that out will be satisfying. Of course, I’m still working that out myself, as “truth”, “data”, and abstraction are slippery little buggers in the areas of politics, economics, and religion.

  145. The media constantly feeds idealized images and anodyne stories to people, people who swallow them uncritically, assuming they are real and reliable accounts of the world. The fact that the media selects and filters its content with prejudice, and with an agenda, barely occurs to many who watch and read.

    We need a better diet. Where to find it?

  146. Of course anecdotes are data. They happen to be QUALitative data rather than QUANtitative data. They can be collected and analyzed by numerical methods if you have enough of them on one topic; or they can be synthesized by qualitative methods to gain insight into complex situations that do not easily reduce down to the simplifications of a single independent variable. Aristotle, Freud, Jung, Darwin, meteorologists, medical diagnosis, Facebook advertisers, Google, and Cambridge Analytica all rely on anecdotal information streams and observations for their knowledge seeking and predictive activities.

    Like other kinds of collections, heaps of anecdotal evidence require hard work, deep reflective thought and a lot of time to process. Collections of fairy tales, folksongs, handmade farming tools. Or pottery from a living tradition compared to, say, pottery dug up by archaeologists in the same region. You can’t just point and click and get answers. That is, if you want to extract any scientific knowledge, useful information or applicable wisdom out of your wild and woolly anecdotal database, you need to collect data that have demonstrable relevance to the matter you intend to study. If you wish to know how people managed barn lighting before rural electrification or coped with power outages during the most recent hurricane-induced flood, then you need interviews of living survivors with lots of pertinent questions. It will not help your your study if you focus on collecting humorous tales of buffalo chips and jakes-jokes. However, if your subject of inquiry is composting and midden practices before the septic tank was invented, outhouse jokes might prove a rich vein of ore for your study. Reflection is the solvent you use to extract the goods. But you must *think* and think hard. The plural of anecdote is headache. The other plural of anecdote is gold dust.

  147. @Heather: “Those who get snippy about the plural of anecdotes not being data might perhaps be objecting to the ownership of the interpretation- who controls the narrative(s)?”

    OH YES, exactly – I’ve always felt this but never seen it put quite so perfectly. Complain about the side effect that some drug repeatedly gives you, let’s say, or praise an alternative treatment, and you are implicitly arrogating to yourself the power to say what is happening to/in your body, about which the spokesmen for scientism think they have sole authority.

  148. @Dewey: Twice now you have taken the words I aimed at a self-centered attitude and applied them as if I have been condemning a bunch of poor helpless commuters to sulphite perdition. I said nothing about the commuters. I said the speaker had a bad attitude and I hold to it. He apparently thinks his region is the King of the USA and we dirt peons ought to bow in humble acceptance of his divine authority. It was bad enough that he did not bother to hide his contempt for everyone west of the Jersey Turnpike. But he was totally unaware that there might be any need to do so! Not even as a rhetorical subterfuge to enlist us little people on his side. His superiority was so evident in his own eyes that it must of sheer necessity force us mere humble dirt peons to understand how supremely important *his* needs are. He had no idea that by telling the camera *his* region is the Head of the Nation (and therefore more equal than other animals) he was speaking just like an Orwellian Pig.

    If you want my opinion about the commuters it is that they should all be walking to work or staying home and not spending federal money and oil and gas always shuffling about from place to place. And their State and municipal governments ought to be putting policies into operation to disincentive-ize so much transit and slapping huge fines on all corporations that do not allow people to work from home.

    If corporations want people to leave home and show up in Their Offices, then they can pay for the transit themselves, tunnels and all. It is not my duty as a citizen to pay for corporations’ convenience in putting their faces over the shoulders of their workers. And if the commuters had a lick of common sense, they would be pressuring their employers to help them cut down, cut back, and eventually cut off the costly shuttling habit. Get busy NOW changing the way they relate to work, food, and everything else, including their p-poor attitudes towards the people who grow their food. The tunnels WILL fail; the roads WILL crumble. Stop spending federal money, everyone’s time, depleting fuels, mental effort trying to prop up an unsustainable system. That ‘s my opinion of the commuters’ plight. As for the guy who asserted his Headship of the Nation, I leave him to the contemplation of his own feet. He might need them sooner than he thinks.

  149. RE: Trump,
    this is the first time in my life (I only vaguely remember Carter) that a president has actually followed through on some of his campaign promises, especially the ones that go against the established grain (tariffs), and has not bombed a country or sent or increased troops in some part of the world. I find this very refreshing.
    About the flag, for all the display of the flag, people ARE NOT following the US Flag code, and are being very cavalier about the flag. Tattered, torn flags are displayed everywhere. Flags are not taken down at night and put back up in the morning (the flag is not to fly at night w/out a floodlight on it). Flags fly through every storm, even though the flag is never to be flown in the rain. So, for all this flag use, they are being very cavalier about it, and, indeed, violating the law.

  150. denys,
    wow on the transition towns. The one I was involved with wasn’t much like that. If that is what it has devolved to in your area, I am sad to see it.

    That said, it has shut down in Powell River, and is pretty inactive in Victoria these days. Still, it seems to have left a legacy of backyard chickens, front yard and boulevard food gardens, and a little free library in a box on a street very close to mine, so it has left some good behind. And one house with solar panels, which may or may not be connected.

    As for the one in Powell River, I don’t think any of us had the money to seriously consider solar panels. Wood stoves, food gardens, transit and electric bicycles, and pestering the council to allow chickens yes… and it started an alternate currency, the Powell River Dollar, which I believe is still going.

  151. Denys, that’s a fine question, and the fact that they expected an essay on it shows that they hadn’t given up on expecting young people to learn how to think

    Phil, fair enough. I should probably have put in “…whether they have any interest in hearing your opinion or not.”

    Dean, an excellent point. The collapse of trust in government, and institutions generally, has a lot to do with the widening gap between the official narratives and people’s lived experience; it’s kind of difficult to put any trust in official spokesflacks when what they’re saying clearly has no relation to the anecdotal reality that people experience in their lives.

    Robert, that’d be a fine t-shirt.

    Patricia, but either of them would have an easier time understanding us than they would understanding an ancient Egyptian or an Aztec, you know. The recent changes are part of the ordinary transition from, in Spengler’s terms, a culture to a civilization.

    Robert, so Brown was a finishing school for the scions of the elite. Fair enough! At least they were honest about it. Can you recommend a good source, by the way, on Northern Baptists? The wholly fictitious Old Independent Liberal Baptist Convention of New Jersey plays a very modest role in The Shoggoth Concerto, the equally fictitious Old Independent Liberal Baptist Convention of Massachusetts will play a somewhat more important role in its sequel The Nyogtha Variations, and I want to make sure I haven’t engaged in too many howlers.

    Jacques, there are various ways to signal other people that they should ignore you because you know you’re violating the conventional wisdom. An apologetic and defensive tone is one of them. So is the kind of angry denunciatory tone that drips insecurity from every pore. So is the habit of spending more time talking about what’s wrong with the conventional wisdom than explaining what’s right about your alternative. There are others. For your homework, go find ten essays arguing for points of view that are unacceptable to the conventional wisdom, and ten more that defend the conventional wisdom. Read through each of them, and notice which sound more confident. Then go through them again, and figure out why.

    Drhooves, I get the “well, what should I do about it?” question a lot. People rarely ask me more than once, though, because I have plenty of suggestions! 😉

    Scaro1972, start by reading less news and more “olds.” Dead people make good intellectual company, since the issues that moved them are mostly dead too, while the deeper values abide. Listening to your neighbors, co-workers, and friends is another good idea, since they’re likely to mention their experiences from time to time — and of course you can also get out more, if at all possible on foot, and pay attention to what you see.

    Gkb, excellent! Yes, exactly.

    Shane, true enough — he said he was going to start a trade war with China and now, by cracky, he’s done it. What I want to see is how all those people who were piously praising economic localization are going to react when they get some of it, and their cheap Chinese consumer products suddenly are replaced by much more expensive domestic products…

  152. Hmm. That does make sense. I want to think about whether a preference for data (quantity) over anecdote (quality), correlates strongly with a preference to treat others as “its” (or even as a singular collective “it”) over multiple “yous” who have to be known and related to individually and one by one.

    In any case, rhetoric, it seems to me, belongs to the province of “I/You” and violence to “I/It”. So to say the same thing I said in the last comment, slightly differently, I am interested in learning to use rhetoric (in part) for its potential uses in sidestepping or forestalling the possibility of violence.

    Personally, I also want to thank the person who has submitted that “Data IS the plural of anecdote” since I have long suspected this. Where could data possibly come from? Either from the crazy quilt that life has presented to us made of individual events that have individually (and probably idiosyncratically) occurred – or else made up in someone’s imagination.

  153. Oilman–

    On the topic of authority and responsibility, it’s occurred to me more than once that I’ve never, not once, heard anybody in power in the United States claim responsibility for anything. In daily life, every normal person sometimes says things like, “That was my fault,
    I’m sorry” or “I dropped the ball on that” or something similar. Nobody in power ever does.

    Often enough, of course, we do get public apologies. These always take a form like “We really let you down” or “We didn’t live up to our highest standards” or something similar– framing the issue as a mistake or an accident. These always occur when somebody powerful is caught doing something really, genuinely wrong. See, for example, the repeated apologies for “mistakes” by Wells Fargo bank, made every time they’re caught stealing from their customers. Or Mark Zuckerberg’s recent apology for deliberately allowing Cambridge Analytica access to the data of 50 million Facebook users: “I’m really sorry that this happened,” he said, which is what you would say if somebody’s basement flooded or they left their car in a 90 minute parking spot too long and got a ticket. It’s not what you say when you deliberately harm somebody and are trying to take responsibility and repair the relationship.

    Incidentally, this is one of the sources of my undying disgust with Hillary Clinton, who shares responsibility for American wars in Serbia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, and Syria, and publicly “regrets” precisely one of them– the one that public opinion thinks was a mistake. (And there’s that word “mistake” again. If you ever get a chance to talk to an old-fashioned Marxist-Leninist, that’s always the word they use to refer to the crimes of Joseph Stalin.)

    I’ve often thought that if I heard a politician say to the American public, “This was a terrible decision. I made it because I was offered a great deal of money by [corporation/bank/special interest lobby/union], and I was greedy. I am sorry,” I would vote for them, regardless of party.

  154. Sorry, perhaps I should add that I am aware of a couple of concrete examples of this in action. One relates to a person I know and find impressive, who works as a night warden in a homeless hostel for men. One night there was an altercation involving a man, a knife, a degree of what you might call “high dough”, into which my unarmed friend waded, and said to the armed man, “Are you having a bad day? Want to talk about it?” An excellent “I/You” approach which, as it happened, did eventually dial the situation down, and best of all, no one was injured, not even the knife wielder.

    I assume it will be reiterated that to perfect the art of rhetoric does require an “I/You” engagement, always.

  155. Another thing on trust in institutional authority…

    In the 1990s it came out that the tobacco industry had full knowledge of how deadly and addicting its products were, and went to great length to hide the truth. The structure of the tobacco industry is 3 or 4 very large, very wealthy corporations which control nearly the entire market and have the money to buy politicians, pay for scientific papers, and silence whistleblowers.

    These days Everybody Knows that the tobacco industry was really bad. It never seems to occur to Everybody, though, that every industry in the country, from media to energy and pharmaceuticals to firearms, is structured in exactly the same way as the tobacco industry. Or, maybe it does occur to people now, at least unconsciously– I never hear anybody say it– and that’s a major part of the growing distrust in authority.

  156. A note about anecdotes…

    If I remember correctly, this word is from Greek, and means “unpublished tale”, or something similar. In a society where publishing anything was a labor of love and years (long before Gutenberg), much was not published. Much of what was published was read only by the literate.

    In a world such as that, any ‘unpublished tale’ had to be oft repeated or else it was lost. Fortunately for us, the Greeks and many others did write and store scrolls and/or books.

    If one thinks about the fact that literacy was uncommon back then, the ‘anecdote’ carried as much weight as a book or scroll, simply because it was memorable enough to be repeated often, for whatever reason. My imagination falls to thinking that the illiterate would likely put more weight to a local anecdote than some scroll full of symbols they could not personally decipher, and that had to be read to them and not necessarily by someone they trusted.

    I find it thus quite ironic that in modern times, anecdotes are dismissed. They are dismissed as one-off instances and likely fabrications; they are considered non-facts with people falling back on ‘published papers’ and “official positions” or documented data.

    Methinks there is a firm measure of cognitive dissonance with respect to what an anecdote truly denotes. When one looks around at the dismal state of published technical papers and textbooks, or at the myriad obvious and odious lies that are fed to us from “trusted sources”, well, I’ll take a couple of aligned anecdotes as a fairly decent countervailing argument.

  157. Ah, yes. OK – that’s what Western Civ 2.0 is, then. Enter Gaius Julius Octavianus Caesar, nicknamed Augustus, stage right.

    Re: What can I do about it?” questions – hand out copies of the Green Wizard’s Handbook, might be a place to start.

  158. Thank you Mr. Greer. I am a regular reader of your posts and this one prompts me to comment for the first time. I know that I don’t know very much but I do have a few opinions. My lack of certainty stems from, I believe, what my father used to say. 50 some odd years ago, in my youth, he would repeat in his broken English, thick east-european accent ” believe half what you see, one quarter what you read, nothing what you hear “. The easy part is the nothing but the half and quarter are not so easy.

  159. @Oilman,
    the opposite seems to be happening here in KY, at least as concerns driving. People who obsessively follow the law/rules in contravention of accepted norms are everywhere now. People who block the passing lane going the speed limit, people who will not enter the intersection when waiting to turn if there’s no protected green arrow, and people not passing cars turning left on the right when there is plenty of shoulder/roadway to pass. These are all norms and rules of thumb that everyone followed years ago in the name of “not being an a**hole/Yankee” that now lots of people priggishly are a**holes/Yankees” about.

  160. RE: Faceplant, at least here in the US. Silicon Valley is known for being a Democratic stronghold, so part of that might be GOP pushback. To the victor go the spoils…

  161. “There is no God, but in any case Sagan is his prophet.” I think JMG put it, “there is no God but Man, and Sagan is his prophet.”

  162. JMG: The Northern Baptists renamed themselves the American Baptists some time ago, and their website is here. The First Baptist Church in America, the Congregation gathered by Roger Williams in 1638, is the home church of the American Baptists, and the university which formerly employed Professor Mathiesen was originally founded to instruct Baptist ministers. Once the Brown family had donated enough money, the school changed its name in honor of the many slaves who perished in the middle passage to honor the major donors.
    In 1908, Brown erected a copy of the famous classical statue of Marcus Aurelius on horseback, the original of which stood for many centuries on the Campidoglio in Rome. Marcus Aurelius was the last of the “Five Good Emperors” who ruled Rome for most of the Second Century. I’m sure all the young men of 1908 read his “Meditations”, and understood that they were to be both scholars and leaders of the American Empire, in the image of Marcus Aurelius. The kicker is, of course, that Marcus failed miserably in his duty to develop his successor, and left the rule of Rome to his brutal and incompetent son Commodus.
    Recently, Brown has recast the message it is sending to its students with the installation of Untitled (Lamp/Bear). Perhaps the message is that Brown will stuff the soft brains of their students with the light of learning?

  163. Dear Jaques, there was a really sad example of obligatory cringing and apologizing during the most recent election. Some bloggers from Honduras were trying to bring to the attention of American feminists the horrifying record of the Hillary Clinton State Dept. in that country, stolen elections, killings and so on, all the while assuring feminist Democratic voters that they understood we (not me) were backing the former Secretary but maybe we ought to consider her record overseas.

  164. @ Shane

    “has not bombed a country or sent or increased troops in some part of the world. ”

    Your man has just hired John ‘Defcon 1’ Bolton as his National Security Adviser. Why this guy isn’t in a maximum security prison is a mystery to me. He is a war-mongering, diplomacy-hating, psychotic with a longstanding and intense desire to attack Iran. I believe an attack on Iran is inevitable now. Just another immoral, unwinnable, multi-trillion dollar gift to the MIC. Just like Iraq, in which Mr. Bolton was instrumental in fomenting. I really hope I’m wrong, but I have a bad feeling about this…

    This is the worst of Mr. Trump’s many really horrific appointments, second only to Scott Pruitt to head the EPA, which he has been busily dismantling. If you care at all about the environment, Trump is a disaster. Interior, Agriculture, etc. all headed by people hell bent on dismantling them.

  165. Scotlyn, yes, very much so — rhetoric as a way of engagement encourages alternatives to violence, since rhetoric (as distinct from eristic) is about exchange. What do I need to give you in order to earn your agreement? That’s the question at the center of the rhetorical act. More on this as we proceed.

    And yes, that will be reiterated.

    Steve, yep. The only people I know who think corporations are anything short of Satan in institutional form are the more cluelessly dogmatic sort of pro-business libertarians.

    Oilman2, thanks for this. Yes, exactly — because the anecdote passed down in the minds of the illiterate will have been chosen and preserved precisely because it contained some bit of wisdom worth remembering. The concept of commonplaces, which we’ll be getting to shortly, represents the same thing in written form.

    Patricia, Octavianus seems to be a little delayed; at the moment, so we have to make do with Marcus Licinius Crassus…

    Peter, your father was a very smart guy.

    Shane, yep — although these days Tyson is his self-anointed Caliph.

    Peter, many thanks for this. I’ll give the American Baptists a look. As for Lamp/Bear, I think it’s supposed to teach Brown students to hate art, and (since this is Providence, after all), to love craft…

  166. @ Shane W –

    Try looking closely at the car occupants. Here in TX/OK/LA/AR, there are a lot of folks ‘fresh off the boat’. They only need to amass a 70% score to get a driving license, so with just some simple cramming – they get a license here. However, many learned to drive elsewhere, and that famous “International Driving License” doesn’t mean much in my book.

    My driving experiences in Mexico, Cairo, Bangkok, Lagos and other lovely spots was very different from those in NZ/AU/DE/UK/MY…

    In my own experiences (anecdotal, naturally) Mexicans are really crappy drivers when they cross the border. That being said, my worst driving nightmares were in Cairo and Bangkok.

    My point is that there is more than just degradation of US norms going on – there has been an influx of folks from elsewhere for the last 20+ years of zero immigration denial who are really crappy drivers.

    @ Steve T –

    I don’t know your background, but in my reading of Sam Clemens and a lot of editorials written after the Civil War, it is very plain that the three professions most unlikely to offer apology (and thus some measure of responsibility) are: politicians, lawyers and clergy.
    Yes, this is a broad generalization, but as an anecdote (wheee,,,) my son IS a lawyer, and is bailing out of his profession due to the swampy lies, padded bills and the failure of anyone in his profession to be responsible for anything.

    A lawyer is taught early on to never say anything of substance unless it is unavoidable, and never in front of multiple witnesses. We have similar creatures in the oilfield, called mud engineers. Their inability to make an unqualified statement about drilling mud is quite legendary.

    If we assume my son, who is very high IQ and very honest (Aspergerish), cannot stomach his fellow legal eagles, and that many if not most of our politicians are lawyers – well…, er… need I expound more?

  167. On the Pledge of Allegiance – When I was in 4-H club, we started every meeting with the Pledge. My amateur radio club now starts every meeting with the Pledge. I hadn’t heard much of it in the intervening decades.

    When I was a child, I supposed that we said the Pledge to remind us of how each individual is a part of our (club, town, state, and) nation, so we need to be serious in preparing for our roles as future citizens. (4-H was / is something like the Boy Scouts, but open to both genders and focused on developing practical skills for the modern rural economy… including conducting meetings by Roberts Rules of Order. As a young teen, 4-H activities taught me about personal finance, woodworking, electrical wiring, baking, gardening, and structured hanging-out-with-girls.)

    Now, it feels to me as though we’re assuring anyone who might be listening that we’re NOT a gang of subversive rebels, meeting to plot some nefarious act. In all seriousness though, it may reflect the fact that many of our group are retired police or military, and it’s a moment of traditional “ceremonial magic” to mark the conscious transition from gathering, greeting, and gabbing to following the planned agenda.

  168. It has occurred to me that the transition from abstraction to reflection is redolent of Antonio Gramsci’s famous concept of the interregnum, to wit:

    “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”

    I think a lot of what exercises people today regarding politics can be diagnosed as “morbid symptoms”. The Social Justice Warriors and the Alt-Right, far from constituting a window on the future, as their opponents fear, are the very essence of such morbid symptoms.

  169. JMG
    The entirety of your reply to Jacques strikes very close to home. Ouch. Excerpt: “An apologetic and defensive tone is one of them. So is the kind of angry denunciatory tone that drips insecurity from every pore. So is the habit of spending more time talking about what’s wrong with the conventional wisdom than explaining what’s right about your alternative.

    Perhaps not too late!

    best
    Phil H

  170. @Sgage Yes John Bolton is DefCon1 repulsive and my stomach also turns at the thought of him so close to the President. Again. I cried out “no!” when I saw the news.

    After some reflecting…. Trump is a man of made of reality TV and Bolton on the team going into talks with North Korea, and possibly Iran shenanigans, shows that we are positioning ourselves for war. We just need to look like we are preparing for war to gain a better hand in upcoming talks. Trump doubles down every time he is challenged and Bolton, as well as the appointment of Pompeo, former CIA director to head up State, is Trump positioning himself for a fight.

    I keep coming back to Trump worked his adult life constructing buildings in two of the most corrupt, bureaucratic, mafia-run towns that ever existed, NYC and Atlantic City, and succeeded. People put down Trump’s achievements but I can’t even count on one hand the number of people who accomplished what he did in the 1980’s and 1990’s with building. The man knows something about people and how to work them to get what he wants.

  171. Dear sgage, (If our host will allow a response to your comment about Mr. Bolton) I am really, seriously regretting that I gave up alcoholic beverages for Lent this year. Anyway, it seems that the me-too folks have Mr. Bolton in their sights, so maybe that faction does have its uses after all.

    Mr. Greer, I can also think of lots of things one can do right now, though possibly not so many as you, which tend to involve do without, make it last and so on. The response one gets these days from those interested in perpetuating their comforts (SJWs and conservatives alike) tends to be some variation on
    but so and so from somewhere really needs that or those jobs, where is your compassion? I think so and so could have stayed somewhere; how did keeping him, her or them employed or in business get to be my job?

  172. @sgage: Bolton is ready for war with about half the world, especially Iran.
    JMG’s reference to Marcus Licinius Crassus is a sly pointer at a previous leader of an Empire, who started a war against the Parthians from his governorship of Syria. The Parthians won, and killed Crassus in the process. The Parthians were the people whom we today call Iranians.
    The leaders of American Empire have always been engaged in expanding war. Under the leadership of the Nobel Laureate ®, America fed or led wars in Libya, Syria, Niger and Yemen. America’s right to murder anyone anywhere was emphasized by drone strikes worldwide. America’s disdain for the right of the people to consent to their government was established early on in the Obama years by support of the coup in Honduras. Bolton is just more open about it.
    Since the Depression, the Federal Government has gathered more and more power to the center, and put that power in the service of unnatural persons. Sometimes that power can be used wisely, sometimes not. Our rivers and air are cleaner than they were 50 years ago, but the water is now full of micro plastics and traces of all sorts of chemicals and pharmaceuticals. Meanwhile, the waters are rising, and no one actually is doing anything about it. Sending about 100 officials to Paris to the 2015 U N Climate Change Conference surely doesn’t model less use of carbon fuels.
    The man at the head of the parade has changed, but the bands march on all the same.

  173. BTW – is anybody here really shocked that Trump had a mistress straight out of Hustler magazine? Does anybody care? The media are covering their faces and squeaking “Eeek! Eek! eek!” like the stereotypical Victorian maiden (who was probably a lot tougher than the stereotype.) Talk about accenting the cosmetic over the cosmic!

    At least he’s an up-front and frack-you sort of pig!

  174. *googles “eristic”*

    “In philosophy and rhetoric, “eristic” (from Eris, the ancient Greek goddess of chaos, strife, and discord) refers to argument that aims to successfully dispute another’s argument, rather than searching for truth. According to T.H. Irwin, “It is characteristic of the eristic to think of some arguments as a way of defeating the other side, by showing that an opponent must assent to the negation of what he initially took himself to believe.” Eristic is arguing for the sake of conflict, as opposed to resolving conflict.”

    Hmm. Yes. I can see how rhetoric is not that, but instead, arguing for the sake of knowledge. Also, perhaps, arguing to win some common ground within the bounds of which you, and I, with our differing opinions may continue to be at peace with one another, which heretofore existed only in potentia, and which an eristic approach might have burnt, salted and ruined.

    Still, I should let you know that, partly due to an ADR mention of Discordianism, I havedeveloped a small, but growing, attachment to Eris, who is my “Patron of Bureaucracy.” I have occasionally resorted to soliciting her favour and patronage in matters related to my current paying the bills kind of “work/work” in the dark heart of bureaucracy (separate to my “heart/work” in TCM and healing).

    To everything its season, and there is, I think, a role for Eris to play in this Age of Bureaucracy. But there is a role, too, for the patron of Rhetoric, and I will now consider *who* that might be…

  175. I remember, you once said, in the Arch Druid Report that one should read 19th Century books, or books written earlier than that. I am glad you made that recommendation. For after all, I think that should become a new hobby of mine. It is a real shame that things have gotten so dumb down, especially with the advent of Television, and later the Internet.

    Mind you, I do not suppose that 19th Century Writers were either more intelligent or more civilized than those of today, but simply more introverted. I like studying Logic, though it does tend to give me a headache, after a while. Make no mistake, the idea is very interesting. Not only discerning what is based on fact from what is based from prejudiced nonsense; there is also the idea of seeing how various things fit together, consistently.

  176. @Cliff

    I suspect that this is the attitude here in First U in Albuquerque as well.

    @Joel, Felix
    Re: Powerpoint

    I know of people who will not use Powerpoint, for a lot of reasons. If you want to see an alternative, look up “Amazon six-pager.” Amazon (the company, not the rain forest) requires that the briefing paper for executive decisions must cover everything required in six pages – no more, and the people in the meeting to discuss the issue and decide what to do about it spend the first half hour silently reading it (and presumably making notes).

    @Denys

    Much as I dislike Trump, I have to agree: he absolutely knows what he’s doing in terms of the rough-and-tumble of bare-knuckle high-stakes politics. My take is that, in this incarnation, he’s pushing the limits of what he can achieve with personal power.

  177. Thank you, Peter van Erp, for highlighting the symbolic implications of the Brown’s ghastly Untitled (Lamp/ Bear) statue, which you can see in all its blue (in)gloriousness here:

    http://providenceonline.com/stories/brown-university-features-untitled-bearlamp-by-urs-fischer,21331

    To me, it looks as though the bear — Brown’s totemic animal — has been lobotomized by the lampshade, that it, its frontal cortex has been severed from the rest of its nervous system. The artist may have been wiser than either he or the University realized. (Wry smile …)

    A very minor quibble: I’m not certain that Brown was founded to produce Baptist ministers, or even Protestant ministers, rather than gentlemanly members of the state’s economic elite. Relatively few of its graduates, even in its early years, went into the ministry, and University’s Charter and its early Laws expressly provided for the admission of Jews as well as Christians of any and all denominations. From its earliest years, too, the University deliberately provided instruction in the sciences, and it offered more courses in science than it did in theology. But all this happened a long time ago in a world now far, far away; it’s only a very small quibble now.

  178. It’s not going to be US in war with Iran, but Saudi Arabia – last line from this story “Assiri was with the crown prince in the states last week where they got Trump’s support for the offensive against Iran, for their operation in Yemen and the rest.” http://www.euronews.com/2018/03/24/saudi-general-in-charge-of-yemen-campaign-speaks-to-euronews

    I wondered why Trump went to Saudi first and what he was doing there. Maybe talking about stabilizing the region? Previous presidents of ours would have not let Saudi take action against Iran. The US would do it for Saudi Arabia.

  179. One of the biggest issues right now is getting the information needed to make realistic analysis of the world. To provide one example, apparently the anti-missile system is now obsolete. I really think this should be headline news, but it’s not. It’s not even the core of the article. This is something that, in order to make any sense of the world, we need to know.

    https://www.cnbc.com/2018/03/01/putin-russia-up-the-ante-on-missile-defense.html

    This is something I’m not sure how to fix right now, with the way the media seems to be a curious mixture of utterly incompetent, propaganda, and caught in an absurd level of abstraction. It seems more like a predicament than a problem, but I wonder if there is a solution I’m missing.

  180. @Patricia Matthews Who cares that a billionaire slept with a porn star? And the fact that the porn star is bragging about it now seems like her method to be famous. Porn is a tough business with a short time to work it. She’s probably now worth 100 times what she was paid previously.

    I also wonder if Trump creates these dramas because he wants the rumors of sexual escapades knowing CNN will take the bait and run with it. If they are talking about sex, they don’t have time to talk about anything important. I did learn from CNN last year that Trump gets two scoops of ice cream, and drinks Diet Cokes, and makes someone sort out only the red Starbursts.

    CNN is now the People Magazine of TV news.

    They are trying to make this into Monica Lewinsky all over again, but that affair was done in the Oval Office over two years, with the President sleeping with an employee. Context is different.

  181. @Matthias Gralle – thanks for considering the point about violence. To consider the example you’ve cited, it is clear that the person who actually fired the gun at Ms Franco did not see any need to consider who she was, what she might want, what she believed, what she feared. Neither the shooter, nor any person who might have instigated the shooting by instruction and/or incitement, were asking the question which JMG has framed as follows: “What do I need to give you in order to earn your agreement?”

    Her agreement was not “earned”, in fact it was considered dispensable, because what was desired was her silence. If ending her life, ended not only her questions, but also the questions that others might be asking (by instilling an understandable fear or caution in others) that would be a bonus. In Graeber’s words (paraphrased) this act of violence may well have influenced another’s actions without the influencer having to have any idea who she thought she was, what she might want out of the situation, and what her aversions and proclivities were.

    That is to say, the one thing violence does not do is ask how to earn your agreement, or cooperation. Violence takes it. Where violence can become a losing proposition is that, once you have resorted to it, you can never turn your back. Anyone who has responded to violence by giving the appearance of compliance, will certainly stop complying the instant you stop being there, and stop keeping your threat constant and alive.

    Rhetoric, which we are being offered here in these posts, may take longer, and may take time, listening, and finesse, but when you have actually understood what the other person needs, and you have earned their genuine agreement by giving it, you can turn your back, and the agreement will live on.

  182. Dear John Michael,

    I was wondering whether you have any thoughts about the Eastern Orthodox church (as you’ve expressed a number of interesting thoughts about Catholicism over the years). The reason I ask is that from my superficial reading it seems the eastern tradition has less of an emphasis on authority and system than the western (e.g. the Pope, Aquinas & the scholastic tradition) and more on mysticism and poetry – hence the link with this week’s topic. In any case for potential Christians it seems somehow frustrating that there are two major traditions, both with great thinkers, arts, architecture, links with early traditions, but that one of them declares the other a schism and the other declares the one heretical.

    Thank you.

  183. Re the Brown University bear …. my first thought is a student prank, similar to Miskatonic U students decorating Cthulhu with a Santa Hat and football pennant. That makes Albuquerque’s famous Chevy-on-a-stick look almost serious!

  184. Hi JMG,

    Off topic but I think you’ll be interested. I just finished teaching an 8-week Ham Radio Technician License class.In this rural Oregon town of Sweet Home with population of 9,000 and typical rural economy, we had 15 people attending. 13 have already taken their exams and passed, the other two had other obligations on the day of the exam but are already signed up for the next exam. I’m sure they’re going to pass too! We’re all going to keep meeting to help the new Hams with whatever questions they have.

    More people are already inquiring about when the next class will be held. There are also people that want me to teach a General License class! This is bringing a whole bunch of people together in this community.

    August KG7BZ

  185. Alas, the Lamp-Lobotomized Bear is no prank, but a quite serious art installation. IIRC, it was funded by a wealthy donor, maybe even a member of the University’s governing body (I don’t remember the details).

    By the way, the official name of the University’s governing body has always been “The Corporation.” I find that 200-year-old name almost prophetic of the arc of the University’s history over the last 250 years.

  186. Lathechuck, the Freemasons and most other fraternal orders include the Pledge as part of their standard opening ceremony. I suspect in large part it’s an echo of the dark days of the McCarthy era, when any organization anywhere could be accused of being a Communist front, and overt displays of patriotism were one way of deflecting such charges.

    Phil K, thanks for the reminder! It’s been too long since I read Gramsci.

    Phil H., it’s never too late. Speak boldly!

    Nastarana, true enough!

    Patricia, given that ol’ Marcus Licinius C. is the guy who gave the word “crass” to the English language, it does seem appropriate, doesn’t it? As for Trump’s taste in poptarts, that’s not going to lose him any votes among his base, and it’s not as though anything he does can actually offend the people who hate him more than they’re already offended, after all…

    Scotlyn, as a properly initiated Chaplin of the Legion of Dynamic Discord, and a proud co-owner of a copy of the fifth edition of the Principia Discordia, I’d be the last person to object to appropriate reverence being done to She What Done It All. It’s just that “eristic” is so useful a term!

    Twin Ruler, I’d agree that 19th century writers were no more intelligent than writers today, but they were unquestionably more cultured, being raised in an age that valued culture and coherent, literate, knowledgeable thinking. Thus the value in reading their works in our present age of accelerating decline…

    Denys, well, we’ll see. The Saudis declaring war on Iran would be one of history’s top examples of really dumb decisions, but regimes do that quite reliably in their twilight years.

    Will, the one semisolution I’ve been able to come up with is the habit of reading news from non-US sources. Everybody’s news is biased, but I don’t know anyplace else on earth where the media is as dumbed down as it is here in the US, and if you read a number of foreign news sources from various corners of the world, you’ll have a better chance of getting at least some of the facts that matter.

    Monk, as it’s not my religion, I tend to keep my nose out of it. I also don’t have any particular opinion about the relative merits of Shi’a and Sunni Islam, or of Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism.

    Patricia (if I may), I wish somebody would make Lamp/Bear sprout tentacles…

    August, delighted to hear it!

  187. I’m reminded of Jidda Krishnamurti, some years back, who kept repeating, “Pay no attention to the speaker!” It makes me smile, and seems like a good omen, to hear you saying the same thing. He certainly turned out to be worth my attention, and I suspect you will too 🙂 Looking forward to whatever comes next. Thanks.

  188. Yes, I thoroughly like the word “eristic” which is new to me, and I am fairly certain Eris would not object, either. 😉

    In the course of looking up the word and its uses, I came on a fascinating mention of Schopenhauer and this book he wrote lampooning certain habits of argumentation, “The Art of Being Right”

    https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Art_of_Being_Right

    which suddenly makes him much more approachable to me personally. My previous and necessary foray into Schopenhauer’s work (around the time ADR was winding up) did leave me with the impression that he was readier to give up on the world than I could be.

  189. John–

    Re non-US news sources. Would you (or anyone else in the community, especially those in other nations) have some suggestions for good outlets to start with?

  190. @sgage,
    well, neocons establishment types are nothing new for the Trump administration, he’s been appointing them since day one, and the line of reasoning “see, he’s got all these old cronies, so it’s BAU” hasn’t stopped him from making changes. Indeed, no one in his cabinet seems to last long. Who knows how long Bolton will be there. Having hawkish neocons in his cabinet hasn’t stopped him from pulling back on Syria, Afghanistan, etc.

  191. I thought this morning about this post about abstraction, and how it connects to the increasing tendency for many people to focus on global or national news. For example, although Trump’s policies do matter and can make a difference to an individual, what his motivations might be, who he slept with, what he had for breakfast, his background, all of that is basically irrelevant. Who Trump slept has no affect on the lives of Americans, much less the lives of people living outside the US. But internationally, the media devotes considerable attention to it and you read comments from people obsessing over these things.

    For that matter, the same thing goes for the majority of farther-away events like trade disputes between other countries, political developments that don’t affect the country you reside in, etc. Is Brexit, while very important to the British and to Europeans, really that important to the average person living in California?

    It’s like we are encouraged by certain major media channels to be ‘global citizens’, and take part in the ongoing drama of the ‘world order soap opera’ (Headline: Britain breaks up with Europe, Europe sad!). International and national events are more exciting and important than what goes on in our neighbourhoods and communities.

    For some it seems that getting infuriated by events in the global and national media is a signal to themselves and others that they are a politically engaged person. However, dealing with local issues highlighted in the local media is hard work, because they are less likely to be in the realm of the abstract (events and facts are more easily verifiable), because you might know people involved, and because real-world positive or negative feedback to one’s actions is more likely. But it is easier to avoid this hard work by being outraged about global new events.

    My thought was that people would have a range of news sources they read, from the international to the local. But the rapid decline in local news media, plus the popularity of international newspapers with limited resources for local news (unless it is really ‘exciting’) contradicts this, so I don’t think I’m altogether wrong. As a result I’ve been trying to reallocate the proportion of news I read far more to local news.

  192. Thank you, John Michael, for another engrossing article!

    As noted by many commentators above, an abstraction that has turned reality upside down is the MSM and associated governments regarding Russia. As best I can tell, Russia has adhered to international law and a morality that the deplorables such as myself would approve (Crimea, US elections, Syria and the Skripal poisoning farce in UK not withstanding)

    The anti-Russian abstraction has been carefully cultivated over generations to serve the purpose of the ruling elites (be that an organization of high function sociopaths, lizard people, etc. – it doesn’t matter). The purpose(s) of that abstraction remains obscure to me beyond the usual motivations of seizing wealth, enslaving people and eliminating a rival. There is more, I suspect, to their madness but one may need to be mad to fully understand.

    Reality and the anti-Russian abstraction has reach a point of gross dysfunction. Russia tried to buy in to various Western abstractions (a civilization of freedom, wealth blah blah blah) in the 90’s but now realize that those abstractions were little more than a sop for the masses.

    Russia freed itself from Marxism and is now appears relatively free of ideology/abstraction. Perhaps that is why they, despite having many unfavorable circumstances, are outsmarting the West in terms of international relations and have gained a relative invulnerability to Western military coercion and sanctions. Western exceptionalism (its biggest abstraction?) can’t allow such. Russia must be stopped and learn to accept the power of Western exceptionalism!

    What won Trump the hatred of the MSM more that anything else, to me, was his openness to normalizing relations with Russia versus Hillary’s shrilling threats to destroy Russia. He actually appeared to accept the existence of another powerful nation that was not fully ensnared in the Western financial and political system.

    Things will become very interesting as the MSM/governments double down on Russia. The World Cup of soccer in Russia is coming up so expect even more hysterics from the MSM.

    To be clear, there are many other abstractions that are similarly dysfunctional but the above has the potential, small at the moment, to result in a general nuclear war.

  193. Re: Violence and communication

    Thanks for considering the example, Scotlyn. You are of course quite right that whoever killed or incited to kill Marielle Franco did not stop to consider her opinions, and I hope you are also right that this means they won’t achieve their goals in the long run. Unfortunately, the long run sometimes is very long (e.g. 1968-1985 in the case of some previous political murders in Brazil). The point I was trying to make, about the ambivalent messages and symbolism to the rest of the citizenship, is actually included in Graeber’s argument when he says that _some_ violence carries a lot of meaning, though not all of it does.

    Graeber talks a lot about the need for the weaker parts in a power relation to understand the stronger ones but not vice versa, which is a point JMG has also made several times on the ADR (women vs men, employees vs employers etc.). I am re-reading Ursula K. Le Guins’s Tehanu at the moment, and this is one of the major themes in the book: as a woman, as a person without political power and as a person without magical training, the protagonist Tenar is forced to spend a lot of time second-guessing powerful men’s intentions and tries in many ways, usually without success, to make them understand her points. Actually, I highly recommend Tehanu. When I first read it as a teenager, I felt let down, since I had iked the earlier Earthsea books much better. Now that I am nearer in age to the protagonists, I find it a marvelously symbolic description of powerlessness, aging and the search for meaning.

    PS: some weeks ago, somebody asked about “true names”, and JMG answered they were a trope of bad fantasy. Though I don’t suppose I could change JMG’s opinions about the Earthsea cycle, I would certainly classify it as just about the opposite of bad!

  194. “No authority can tell you how to think or what to do, because no authority can know your life as anything but an abstraction, freighted with all the burdens of the era of abstraction now waning around us.”

    Thank you so much for saying this (and for the rest of the post)! I have been so frustrated with people lately over this idea, and have not figured out how to articulate it. People seem to be looking for approval and validation in other bloggers, pundits, speakers, whoever. I think it’s fine to want that external validation and approval sometimes, I might even call it a normal human reaction, but I feel like it’s just gotten out of hand. For example, I remember I was reading another blogger’s post on some policy (it may have been net neutrality, I can’t remember the topic because I was so annoyed with the reaction). They’d been writing about how so many readers wanted their opinion on the topic. All I can think of was why, why on earth is this person’s opinion relevant to that conversation? They aren’t even American! Why would so many people care so much about what some random blogger from a different country thinks about American policy? These people weren’t just asking for fun either, in the comment section, they were basing their life choices, how they vote, what they planned to do about the issue, off of this person’s commentary. There’s something to be said for deferring to an expert, for instance, if someone asks me a question about Catholicism, and I’m standing next to a Catholic priest, I’d probably point them in that direction. I know next to nothing about the religion. But it’s like people think everyone who can write is an expert, even when all they are is just some random person with a blog, and they are one hundred percent ready to die on that hill and do whatever they say.

    Sorry for the long commentary, but it drives me crazy. People are so willing to swallow whatever someone says without fact checking or thinking critically about anything. I just wish people would go inside themselves, find that self-validation and self-trust first, and then go read public discourse. Instead it feels more like people have an opinion, but as soon as somebody trendy says it’s wrong, they throw out their brains and their thoughts to do whatever said trendy person is telling them too.

    Anyway, I am looking forward to this series! It’s so hard to maintain your senses when everyone else is willing to smack you down the minute you ask any questions. It sounds like a toolkit we could all use.

  195. @Matthias – Yes, Graeber is among the scholars I’ve read who notice that the kinds of weapons the weak can be effective with (perhaps not enough to transform their world, but often enough to gain some small space, some respite, some autonomy), include the gaining, and applied use, of detailed knowledge* of those in power over them, who, by definition, may resort to the use of weapons of violence with impunity (and therefore have no particular reason to gain correspondingly detailed knowledge of the weak). (The weak, for their part, can never resort to weapons of violence without getting further and more powerfully hammered or entirely smashed). It is this imbalance that defines and shapes the hierarchical structures within which each of us navigates.

    As to giving a message by using violence – yes, but it is the kind of message I’ve called “a pulpit”. The congregation is not expected to talk back – only to hear and do. It is not the kind of message that invites conversation.

    I thoroughly agree with you about Earthsea and Tehanu. Like yourself, I especially appreciated the way Tehanu highlights her own “navigation” through the hierarchies in which she finds herself.

    *Graeber calls this “emotional labour”.

  196. About Crimea and anti-Russian news:

    It seems convenient for everyone to forget that Crimea was a part of the Ottoman Empire until 1783, when it was acquired by Russia as war spoils at the end of the so-called Russo-Turkic War. It was largely inhabited by Tatars, who were Muslim. Under Stalin, most of these Crimean Tatars were forcibly resettled elsewhere in the Soviet Union, or simply killed. In 1954 Nikita Khrushchev arbitrarily transferred Crimea from Russia to Ukraine, essentially an administrative reorganization within the old Soviet Union. After the collapse of the Soviet Union things got complicated, and centuries-old animosities between Western and Eastern Ukraine, and between Ukraine generally and Russia, turned the whole Crimean question into a poisoned bone of contention. One can devise excellent legalistic arguments to support any side in this mess, but there is no such thing here as a just and equitable solution to a problem, only a range of possible compromises, each of which will leave at least one party feeling oppressed and spoiling for a fight. The situation is made to order for several outside parties to foment political unrest and violence, each in its own interest. The United States has not been the least among these outside parties. — As a general rule, I tend to think highly of Ukrainians and favor their cause of independence; but in this case I keep coming back to the fact that Crimea was part of Ukraine only for about 60 years, but part of Russia for more than a century and a half. — Dare I suggest, tongue very firmly in cheek, giving Crimea back to the deported Crimean Tatars and their descendants, who are generally Muslim? (he said, ducking for cover …)

  197. John Michael,

    This is in reference to your statement above: “The only people I know who think corporations are anything short of Satan in institutional form are the more cluelessly dogmatic sort of pro-business libertarians”.

    That may have been true of some minority of libertarians, those who strayed into that movement from the Ayn Rand fringe, but I have known many libertarians (and Libertarians!) who have been as vociferously and fundamentally opposed to the very concept of corporations as we know them today as any on the leftward end of the (so-called) political spectrum. The one who really opened my eyes in this regard was Karl Hess, former speechwriter for Richard Nixon, who shortly thereafter became a prominent and outspoken anti-corporation libertarian.

    However, I will admit that the libertarian movement (or at least the US Libertarian Party) has fallen so far in the past decade from its former adherence to principles over (putative) expediency, that given my now-limited contacts with it, for all I know many in what is left of that party and movement may be wholeheartedly, if perversely, embracing the multi-national corporation as the epitome of “free enterprise”.

  198. Just two comments here — Brexit is important to Californians only if they have some reason it’s important (family, investments, etc) ….. or it it gives them ideas about secession.

    Second, moralizing and virtue-signaling can be such an ingrained bad habit that it has more staying power than the ideologies it claims to be about! Full disclosure -I found myself mentally doing so about my pitiful attempts at being Greener Than Thou, and even about matters of taste! (So she wants to serve maple bourbon. It ain’t nobody’s business if she does. Certainly not mine, even though I’d prefer it with ginger or 7-up.) Rand’s most poisonous statement in all her prolific writings was “You must never fail to pass moral judgment!”

    And a thought-stopper from 60 years ago. (True conversation, never forgotten. Nor forgiven.) “You have the wrong attitude, young lady.” “What did I do wrong?” “The fact that you even have to ask, proves that you have the wrong attitude!”

    BTW – I tend to draw a distinction between ethics and morals. Ethic is about fairness and treating people decently. Moralizing is about rules, and respectability as defined by the moralizers.

    I now return you to the twilight of authority and the darkest hour of trust in it

  199. Dear John Michael Greer,

    Thank you for another post, and I very much look forward to reading more of your writing on this vital subject.

    PS Ping to Dr Jung! Interestingly for me, and perhaps to others, is that your post coincided with my having arrived at the end of Neil Postman’s exellent, provocative, and eerily prophetic AMUSING OURSELVES TO DEATH: PUBLIC DISCOURSE IN THE AGE OF SHOW BUSINESS.

    Sincerely,

    MILLICENTLY LURKING

  200. Great post, JMG. I really enjoyed it.

    One thing I would point out is that Obama got a lot of the working class vote in 2008 and 2016 because of his tough talk on free trade and the global economy. History shows that was certainly just talk as he just carried the baton of free trade. He even tried to get TPP and related trade deals finalized that the previous administration laid the ground work for.

    Now we get Trump who, in my opinion, is starting to look an awfully lot like Obama in orange face. Like Obama he is taking his covert, clandestine and drone warfare to higher levels than the previous administration. Like Obama he is talking a big talk to the working man and woman (health care for Obama, tariffs for Trump) yet just like Obama, Trumps reforms are meaningless words and toothless edicts. Trump is simply the Republican’s version of Hope and Change. You would think the GOP could have picked someone better than a billionaire, junior rank oligarch who was a life long New York Democrat.

    But hey, maybe that is part of the end of the era of abstraction? Maybe you need a big, fat helping of absurdity!

    Be well, my friend! I wish I could come to the potluck.

  201. Thinking of I-it and I- you relationships in the context of trade. I live in BC, and BC and Alberta relations this year have reached a new low due to the disagreement over the Kinder-Morgan pipeline. Quite the screaming match. Alberta’s position seems to add up to: “how dare you refuse to take our oil, you are hideously selfish and we will force you to take it,” along with demanding of Trudeau that he make BC cooperate.

    BC’s is along the lines of “Make me.”

    So far there has been BC threatening to slap a limit on the amount of oil that can be sent through any pipeline to the coast, Alberta stopping talks on buying BC electricity, Alberta slapping a brief boycott on BC wines, BC referring the question of whether it can legally limit oil sent to the coast to the courts, and most recently Alberta threatening to cut oil sent to the coast in the middle of the second highest gasoline prices the BC coast has ever seen, accompanied by starting legislating to allow them to do that.

    Well, I suppose that’s one way to reduce our reliance on oil…

    Two BC MPs got arresting for going too close to a Kinder Morgan installation, thus breaching a court order on friday, along with a bunch of other people. The local, much more sedate, protest at a local MP’s office that I went to was pretty angry with both Trudeau and with the Albertan government as exemplified by premier Notley. One young man even cried ‘death to Alberta’, to which I yelled ‘no!”. That was going way too far.

    Anyway, Trump isn’t the only one starting trade wars lately, and the tendency of people to react to opposition by trying to force the other party to give in, without much consideration to the other party’s interests, is very much alive and well in Canada.

    A related problem is that the national energy board approval of Kinder Morgan is considered to be badly flawed, Trudeau promised reform and once in power refused to redo the environmental assessment under a new fairer system, and once in power unilaterally approved it. Now none of the pipeline’s opponents trust Trudeau.

    I have a feeling this is going to get uglier before it gets better.

  202. Archdruid,

    The abstractions serve a secondary purpose, they act as a means of dismantling communal trust. In the early stages of the cycle it’s easy to declare anyone who disputes the imperial line as crazy, because the abstractions are generating real material returns. A single individual or group warning of impending consequences are easy to ignore. However as the cycle progresses the consequences start to catch up, impacting the people at the bottom of the social hierarchy first. At that point the warning cries or solutions to problems get taken very seriously. Community trust begins to be rebuilt by the simple harshness of real world trial and error. This guy pointed us to an herb that healed my kids sickness, so he’s legit, This one showed my cousins where he could get a good job so he’s on the level, and so on.

    This makes sense in the larger context of the rise of warlords and tinpot dictators too. As the world of abstractions fades away the only way leaders can gain support is by anecdote. “Oh yeah, you remember that time Atillia stuck it to John McCain?! Man that was awesome!”

    In this world actions really speak louder than words.

    Regards,

    Varun

  203. @Shane W The US Flag code is not enforced because the Supreme Court ruled that issues around display of the flag or destroying it (flag burning as political protest was the issue) were a matter of 1st amendment rights to free speech. However there is nothing preventing those who claim to respect the flag from following the code voluntarily. The fact that most cannot be bothered annoys me. Flags in rags are just disgusting, followed by flags flown from the backs of vehicles turned black by exhaust smoke. Even proper folding is too much bother. Sigh.

    BTW if anyone needs to properly dispose of an American Flag the Boy Scouts, the Girl Scouts or an American Legion post are places to inquire.

  204. Patricia, I’ll let South Park do the talking about any porn stars or other professionally attractive women that Trump may have slept with: https://youtu.be/xR-EU_l_pKA?t=1 I’m not going to make any comment on the morality of Trump’s sexual behaviour, because models won’t sleep with me now – and unless I am randomly selected to become extremely wealthy, they won’t when I’m 70 either.

    It is really something to watch the pearl clutching over this ‘incident’ – it’s also telling that the media expects Trump’s current wife to be particularly upset – as if she’s the first woman to get hitched to a rich, unfaithful man who is unattractive inside and out. Of course, there’s no discussion of the fact that Ivanka Trump, who supposedly speaks 5 languages, is likely smarter than most and surely knew what she was getting into when she married the Orange One.

  205. gkb – I can’t watch the video, but if the guy you complain about is directly putting down the rest of the country (as opposed to stating the facts about the economic importance of the NY/NJ metro area), indeed that’s deplorable. However, do you realize that when you write:

    “If you want my opinion about the commuters it is that they should all be walking to work or staying home … It is not my duty as a citizen to pay for corporations’ convenience in putting their faces over the shoulders of their workers. And if the commuters had a lick of common sense, they would be pressuring their employers to help them … cut off the costly shuttling habit.”

    – you are yourself being elitist? Because most of the jobs that are most essential to keep a society running require interaction with things or people, not just data, and therefore require someone to appear in person. And virtually all blue- and pink-collar jobs are of that nature; it is only white-collar jobs where telecommuting would usually (ignoring the sometimes vast security issues) be feasible. And most people are not able to live within walking distance of their work and other unavoidable centers of activity.

    Someday our civilization may well collapse so far that there are no more decent streets, roads or highways to be seen. For now, though, transportation infrastructure is essential to almost everyone’s lives and is one of the basic public goods that 99% of us think the state should supply. In crowded cities, transportation infrastructure has to include public transit, because even if the working class could all afford SUVs, if they all attempted to drive them to work it would be perma-gridlock. Will New York as currently organized be unsustainable after the oil age? Yep, sure. So will Wyoming. That does not mean we should cut off transportation funding tomorrow and tell them to start riding horses or stay home.

  206. “I second the request for a selection of non-US news sources. The only one I know of isn’t, properly speaking, a non-US source as much as an aggregator of non-US sources with a definite viewpoint: things that are tending toward the “Clash of Civilizations” from a Generational Dynamics (80-year cycle) viewpoint.

    http://www.generationaldynamics.com/pg/ww2010.weblog.htm

    That’s one of my favorite websites. I’ve been reading it on a regular basis for years. John Xenakis always has lots of fun things to say.

    He’s much better at being a aggregator than a predictor, however.

    I’ve been reading Xenakis for years. Far longer than JMG. He’s really good to read for his news items.

    The most interesting thing of note that he’s talking about, that actually got my attention, was his recent point about the Pivotal generation (the post-Millennial generation).

    I think that he’s got China pegged a little wrong, but then I’m not exactly an expert on China. I don’t know how you become a global hegemon (in the Western/Faustian culture/civilization cycle) when you have decided on the Japanese demographic approach. But, then I’m not an expert of the interplay between demographics and global hegemony.

    He’s also off by several years on his transition to the so-called “Fourth Turning/crisis era” if you think about such things. A better person to talk to about that is Mike Alexander. Xenakis tried for years to get Mike to work with him, I think.

    Here’s one of Mike Alexander’s old pieces (which is similar to what Xenakis talks about):

    http://radio-weblogs.com/0107127/stories/2002/12/30/mikeAlexandersWarCycle.html

  207. @Steve,
    I don’t hate the US, but I am supremely indifferent about it. Starting w/the Puritans, going through the Civil War, imperialism, and, most recently, with Jimmy Carter, whenever this nation has faced a choice between the Jeffersonian democratic republican ideal and proto-capitalism/consumer industrial capitalism, it has always chosen consumer industrial capitalism, and it’s always been the Jeffersonian ideal that’s gone under the bus. So, when people talk about America/Americanism being the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and the democratic republican idea, I disagree, because those values have always been subjugated whenever they’ve come between consumer industrial capitalism and its predecessors. As one president famously remarked, “the business of America is business.” So, when people say “America”, what comes to mind, first and foremost for me, is corporate America–Bank of America and Chase, Walmart and Target, McDonalds and Starbucks, Facebook and Google, etc., not the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. This is where I disagree w/JMG most strongly in my affinity for the US. I really feel that there is nothing left of the Jeffersonian ideal to draw upon now, and, if you are to judge an entity by its actions and not merely its lip service, then the Jeffersonian ideal that most people associate w/America is most certainly NOT what Americans value, it’s consumer industrial capitalism as embodied by the American dream. There is no commonwealth in America.

  208. Some thought about women oppressing (or policing) other women and the presuppositions behind them and who hold them:

    1) “There can only be one.” Presupposition: the ladder is rickety and very, very narrow at the top. Independent of race, sex, or anything else but ambition and the zero-sum game. Results: she’s oppressing those under her and any perceived rivals, all right. But it’s nothing as abstract as sexism nor anything personal – just “get the frack out of my way!”

    2) “What one does reflects on us all.” Presupposition: If Joe does something stupid, he’s an idiot. If Jane does something stupid, it will result in a chorus of “Isn’t that just like a woman!” Prevalent in any group that is or feels itself to be stigmatized. Result: Jane has to be policed so she won’t poison the reputation of the entire group.

    3) “Her free choice threatens my free choice.” Also known as “giving aid and comfort to the enemy.” Presupposition: That Our Side is surrounded by enemies just itching to (a) drag us back to the kitchen in chains because they want a servant or (b) drag us out of our happy homes because they hate to see anyone contented. Prevalent: on either side of the political/cultural fence. See also Gun Control – same dynamic applies. Result – “Their Free Choice Must Be Destroyed!!!

    4) “We have to make sure everybody’s on the same page.” ” Presupposition: If the rules are known and followed, nobody will get hurt. So let’s make it clear what the rules are and make sure everybody follows them. A twin sister to:

    5) “What did she do to deserve what she got?” Presupposition: That those who follow the rules don’t get hurt, therefore…” Prevalent among: those so sheltered that undeserved bad things have never happened to them. See also “A conservative is a radical who’s been mugged/a radical is a conservative who’s been beaten by a cop.” Results: a very sharp divide between naughty and nice/lucky or unlucky.”

    This sort of stuff has been known for years among those who have been in various movements; known for millennia among thoughtful historians who bothered to look at these questions, and rediscovered every few years by authors of “When bad things happen to good people” and the like. But so have the thoughtless comments listed above been in circulation for millennia, often as God’s Revealed Truth.

  209. I’ve noticed a crystallizing side effect of all of this rhetoric in bad form. It has all of the ingredients of your recent posts. Thought stoppers, hate leaking out from repression, and just plain bad rhetorical arguments. I would call it the Facebook faction building witch hunt. It’s obvious to see hate leaking out in facebook, but now I’m seeing groups of people purporting to persuade, but really only looking for people to stumble into and join a witch hunt. It reminds me of a KKK rally. Sickening.

  210. @Shane: The Frugalwoods example has been a hot topic in the FIREsphere lately (Financial Independence, Retire Early). This crowd attempts to jump from the wage or salary to the investment class through exercising severe frugality, avoiding consumerism and the occasional side business. Several of the most prominent examples have written blogs or books about their experience, and the Frugalwoods are the most recent to hit the book circuit. The inconvenient fact is that they earned at least 300K / year between them for the last few years before they retired, giving the lie to their book’s theme of ordinary folks making good through frugality. There is a significant overlap between the techniques used by the FIRE crowd and JMG’s green wizardry, though the end games and worldviews are significantly different.

  211. “Reality is anecdotal.”
    What a brilliant rebalancing.
    Have you considered what might be driving all this abstract generalization? Is it something that arises or is arising this time due to some phase shift in thinking itself? For example, physics seems to have reached the end of the road with its model of breaking things down into the tiniest pieces possible and manipulating them detached from everything else.
    (Amanda Gefter’s Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn is a brilliant and somewhat scary report on just how much theoretical physics has now undermined the metaphysics that has been based on for centuries.)
    Or is it a reflection of changes in society? For example, with the shift from capital/infrastructure as the locomotive of the economy to knowledge as the locomotive, the way society is organized needs to change, but hasn’t. So we are left with an obsolete directing class whose interests are served by the well-credentialed but ultimately aimless technocrats whose legitimacy is so bound up with the abstract generalizations.
    Perhaps there is even a second Malthusian law that says that any society that produces a large prosperous middle class will eventually graduate an excess number of children of that middle class into contention for elite positions and this overproduction of elites drives them to prey on and ultimately destroy that middle class.

  212. Hi JMG,

    In the present age of abstraction, those with contrarian opinion are shunned as pessimists and harbingers of negativism. Those embracing blind optimism are heralded as thought leaders and social icons. This opinion parsing seems mostly in service of economic growth and maintaining the business as usual model of capitalism.

    One wonders in a transition from abstraction to reflection will the value of differing viewpoints shift? Will contrarians be afforded serious consideration or will the present behaviors remain unchanged?

  213. I will also raise my hand as one who once hoped to be a tweed-jacketed professor perusing stacks, and whose chances were blocked by the rot in academia. In short, I was accepted into the Religious Studies program at the University of Chicago, hoping to study pre-Christian European religions with a student of the renowned comparativist Mircea Eliade.

    During my interview with this student of Eliade, I brought up his teacher as one of the main influences on my thinking, at which point the air chilled noticeably. As it turns out, the fellow I was speaking to had turned on his professor for reasons of political ideology, and had been dragging Eliade’s name through the mud for quite some time. He made it rather clear that I would not be welcome in his department. This, coupled with stories from a friend of mine who studied at Yale, made it clear that success in today’s academia is more dependent on strict adherence to an ideological orthodoxy of a generally Marxist sort, rather than interest in the specific subject matter one wants to study as a career.

    I am also interested to hear what sorts of possibilities there might be in the future for actual academic study as the search for – and preservation of – knowledge and wisdom.

  214. Dear JP, I have also wondered if reports of Chinese domination were not a bit exaggerated, although I also am no expert.

    What I have noticed is that rising hegemonic powers tend to enjoy great prestige during the years and decades of their ascent, even while they are also feared. You perhaps remember American prestige during the 1950s. A Hellenistic king in Asia Minor actually willed his kingdom to The Senate and People of Rome and I believe this occurred after Rome had destroyed Carthage and Corinth in the same year. I have read that during the 19thC it was sufficient for a caravan in Asia to show a British flag to avoid being attacked and plundered, and you might remember the praise of Cyrus the Great in the Book of Isaiah. Such prestige The People’s Republic does not yet enjoy, and not for want of trying. Xenakis provided a link to an Indian assessment of Chinese power, hard and soft, which is most interesting. To the adverse effects of militarism in the South China Sea one might add the behavior of many overseas Chinese, which was the subject of an Asia Times Online article some years back, so please don’t accuse me of ethnic bias. As that ATO article pointed out, from illegal gold mining in Ghana to slaughter of elephants and other endangered species to various other kinds of chicanery and manipulation of indigenous laws and customs, many Chinese have not made themselves welcome abroad.

    I have frequently thought–sheer speculation ahead, –that American hegemony would be replaced in the Pacific at least by an alliance of Canada, Japan and Australia with India, Indonesia and an isolationist USA as junior partners.

  215. @Dewey: When I say people should be walking to work or working at home I am not talking about using electronics, which is equally unsustainable as daily use of car, bus, and train transport. I am talking about real work. People who have the amount of sense the gods gave geese will flock together in smaller groups geographically close to one another, and do work that is necessary and valid and life-affirming. There is plenty that needs to be done and should be done but is not being done precisely because the immortal corps’es are blocking the needful doing thereof.

    I see no reason why federal transporation funding should not be cut off cold turkey and those funds redirected to a federal mandate of re-localizing the food sources and other workplaces of the U.S. together with a federally mandated initiative and subsidies provided to individual homeowners to retrofit their homes for energy conservation and stand-alone solar PV lighting and solar thermal HVAC. Nor do I see any reason why the NY-DC corridor should be privileged over other, long standing claims on federal money, nor why they should not have to fight for the scraps from one admin to the next just like the rest of us do. Nor, for that matter, why rich WY ranchers should have cheap federally subsidized access for their privately owned cattle to feed on what are supposed to be public parklands.

    The federal highways are an outdated idea that Eisenhower had for making this country ready to fight a prolonged European land war. It is not a national priority as far as I am concerned. War has changed, and, as a nation, we need to be pouring money and resources into local militias to prepare for the next war that is coming to us. A very, very different kind of war. That means starting now on a horse- and mule-breeding program, by the way. Plus other ideas.

    I am not an elitist: I am a radical thinker. This is rare enough (not on this site, to be sure) that it may very well appear to be hoity-toity to those who have a strong need to conform to herd behavior and social norms in the face of every crisis. My idea of national priorities is different from what corporations want to do to increase their already bloated profits. Very different. However, unlike corpo’s, I have no desire to obtain, nor power to compel, obedience to my ideas of radical conservation. I have no authority, false, true, nor sunset-drowned; and my abstract generalizations are not thy abstract generalizations.

    Corporate entities, now legally persons who can contribute to political campaigns, just like us meat people, except they are immortal, can very easily set up offices and workshops and cheap housing and everything needful for their meat serfs to produce profit for them in distributed geographic locations without coercing them to go traipsing off every day to some other part of the world and then traipse back again. They have very nearly all the money in the world now, and can spend that money in ways that do not encourage gross habits of consuming oil and expelling wastes into the air and water, and crowding into cities where suburbs inevitably form and demand expensive infrastructure for themselves. If corporations want us meat people to congregate in one location so their managers can breathe down the meat necks of workers and feel infinitely useful as dominant compellers of unwilling but mostly docile industrial mode wage slaves, then they can use their own money to achieve that unworthy aim. It is not something that national tax money should be dedicated to. I, for one, have a better use for that money. In my opinion, of course.

  216. @ Shane–I can’t find another Steve in the comments section, but I’m not sure to which of my comments it was in response. It’s an interesting point, though– but I disagree. I think that “Americanism,” meaning a civil religion centered around veneration of the flag, the Constitution and Declaration of Independence, the various Founding Fathers and other secular saints, is a good thing and something that I want to see more of.

    For one of JMG’s story contests I worked out a future US in which Americanism is a full supernatural religion, because the last remaining Americans have long ago been exiled to a tiny island in what is now the Philippines. There they light candles to Washington and Jefferson, pray to Lady Liberty, and, in their ritual elections of “presidents” and “senators,” create for a moment in their temples a place called “America” that is nowhere on this Earth.

    Obviously, the word “America” in the context of Americanist religion– I mean today, not in my future history– doesn’t have much of a relationship to the experience of life in most of the country, but that isn’t the point. The point, instead, is that we increasingly lack any kind of cultural, religious, or even linguistic unity in this country, and the political unity that we have is part of the problem, not any kind of solution. Americanist religion, playing roughly the same role here that the monarchy does in Britain or Confucianism in China, seems to me to be the only way to hold the whole thing together. It also seems that, properly harnessed, it could be a powerful force against the Walmarts and US Banks which are destroying life in the actual country.

    …Or maybe not. I may just be in love with a fictional creation. But I wonder if an anthropologist visiting what is now Kansas or Pennsylvania during the postindustrial Dark Ages might write about the local tribes belief in “America” that resembles aboriginal Australians’ descriptions of “the Dreamtime.” A sort of Otherworld, peopled with mythical heroes– some universal, like Washington, Lady Liberty or the Great Eagle; others unique to particular regions, like Sam Houston (Texas), William Penn (Pennsylvania) or The Oprah (worshiped as the Genius Loci of what is now Montecito, California)– lost in the mists of time, and yet, at the same time, all around us.

  217. Hi JMG,

    I hope that the Vernal Equinox marks increasing light in your life.

    I know that this is late reply, work and home have consumed my spare time this last week or so. So I’ll simply pass on my wishes and let you know that as a considered atheist, I much prefer occupying the middle ground. Sometimes I even bring popcorn 🙂

  218. This has been one of my favorite posts you’ve done JMG, thanks! It has made a lot of things kind of click for me, and helped me realize that I have to do what I have to do.

    As far as the news sources, I’d reiterate what JMG says about taking any news source from outside of the USA as a good news source for reporting on US issues. Keep in mind, there is no perfect news source. As our host mentioned, every source comes with it’s own abstraction, namely that of the narrative they are following. So if you want to discover a lot of the weaknesses within the USA, RT is a great news source, as the Russians giggle with glee every time a little piece of US global hegemony weakens. Case in point, as everyone talks about the trade war between the US and China, I can’t think of any US news source which reported the death of the US dollar. That announcement has more ramifications on US global hegemony than anything else, as far as I am concerned. It also makes me glad I kept a few notes in China!

    BBC does a great job trying to distract themselves from their own issues by seeking to understand other places. About the time Trump was giving the State of the Union speech, BBC News Hour had a great series going into Flyover Country, Wisconsin in particular, and actually spoke with various Trump supporters, following them with their lives for a few days, really helping to understand how his supporters think and why they still follow him. I have yet to see anything as simple as that done by US media. And the best part was, they didn’t try to psychoanalyze it all.

    So when reading news, the key is to always keep in mind what is the sources narrative and/or bias. Remember that as you are reading because that will help you to remove the bits of truth and useful information and separate it from the garbage.

  219. One possible news source is the German weekly magazine “www.spiegel.de”. It has some articles in English. The drawback is that it has its own biases in favor of the current world order, but it is presumably still better than US news sources.

  220. Nastarana, according to Pew Global Research, nearly half of people surveyed in Canada, the UK and the United States have a favorable view of China. 70% of Russians and 64% of Australians have favorable views of China. In Africa, 63% of people polled view China as a positive influence in their country. According to a 2014 BBC World Service Poll, 80% of Nigerians view China’s influence positively, with only 10% expressing a negative view, making Nigeria the most pro-Chinese nation in the world. This isn’t surprising. Chinese money and infrastrucure have radically changed the face of the continent; the Chinese built over 6,500 km of railways, 6,000 km of highways, over 200 schools and 80 sports stadiums in Africa. The Chinese simply have more to offer than American imperialism and condescension (I would politely suggest calling them sh*thole countries might have been a tad undiplomatic on the part of the Americans).

    You can check these stats here:

    http://www.pewglobal.org/database/indicator/24/

    http://afrobarometer.org/publications/ad122-chinas-growing-presence-africa-wins-largely-positive-popular-reviews

    The Maldives has signed a free trade agreement with China despite staunch Indian opposition. Cambodia has kicked off military drills with China after snubbing planned joint U.S. exercises. Duterte of the Phillipines has certainly been cozying up to China after calling a U.S. president a “son of a whore”. South Pacific nations have harshly rebuked Australia for criticising Chinese economic influence in the region:

    “Samoa’s Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi on Jan. 12 said the criticism of Fierravanti-Wells is “insulting” to Pacific Island leaders, and could “destroy” Australia’s relationship with the region.
    Vanuatu’s newspaper Daily Post published an article rebuking Fierravanti-Wells’s point, saying these roads lead to their homes rather than “nowhere.”

    “The government of Australia might want to put down those stones it’s throwing at China and learn a thing or two from its own mistakes first. And talking over our heads about our shortcomings isn’t going to win them many friends here, either,” the newspaper said, adding that the road project aided by Australia in Vanuatu four years ago has become the butt of jokes.

    Tuilaepa introduced that Australia has promised a wholly-aided parliament building several years ago as a gift for the 50th anniversary of Samoa’s independence. However, the South Pacific Island was later requested to raise part of the funding by itself.

    “Such practice is common for Australia, but China has always kept its promises,” Tuilaepa remarked.”

    http://en.people.cn/n3/2018/0122/c90000-9418316.html

    It would appear that not everyone shares your hostility toward China and the Chinese people. Everywhere I look, I see Western influence on the wane.

  221. Shane – that’s great! Hope the short story made it into an anthology. Of course, the “presidents” are the popes, and the “senators,” the archbishops.” Fleshing it out with the local patron saints/god/esses as you did in the rest of the post is even better. Write, Shane, Write!

    Pat in Aztlan

  222. I think all of this insecurity over China’s rise was best summed up by the father of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew: “For America to be displaced, not in the world, but only in the western Pacific, by an Asian people long despised and dismissed with contempt as decadent, feeble, corrupt, and inept is emotionally very difficult to accept. The sense of cultural supremacy of the Americans will make this adjustment most difficult. Americans believe their ideas are universal — the supremacy of the individual and free, unfettered expression. But they are not — never were. In fact, American society was so successful for so long not because of these ideas and principles, but because of a certain geopolitical good fortune: an abundance of resources and immigrant energy, a generous flow of capital and technology from Europe, and two wide oceans that kept conflicts of the world away from American shores.”

  223. Tom, Krishnamurti has always had my respect for telling the Theosophists to leave him out of their messianic fantasies. I wonder how many other people would have had the courage to kiss off a lifetime gig as Global Guru!

    Scotlyn, Schopenhauer is a mixed bag, like every other thinker out there. To my mind, he would have done better if he’d remembered the difference between a fact and a value, and wound up his philosophy by saying, “As far as I’m concerned, existence sucks, but your mileage may vary.” Mind you, like a lot of people who like to grumble about existence, Schopenhauer was rather more into it than he liked to admit; he loved gourmet cooking, used to play the flute for an hour every day before dinner, doted on a succession of miniature poodles, and was a fairly steady source of income for the harlots of Frankfurt…

    David, I read the BBC, to get a less stupid version of what the Anglo-American establishment wants people to believe; RT, to get the devil’s-advocate view of same; and a series of aggregator blogs that cover a wide range of news — Naked Capitalism is currently my favorite there — and when I find an interesting story via one of those, I read more widely in the story’s source website. It makes for a nice scattering of sources.

    Jbucks, a very good point. Of course there’s at least one additional reason for people to fixate on news from far away: since they can’t do anything significant about the politics of Borriobooli-gha, they can get all heated up about it without feeling that they have to do anything.

    Observer, the thing I find bleakly amusing about the whole blame-it-on-Russia industry is that supposed liberals are piling into what amounts to McCarthyism whole hog, buying into the same sort of guilt by innuendo that they used to critique in ringing tones. This country really has lost it marbles.

    Audrey, you’re welcome and thank you! I admit I’m scratching my head, trying to figure out what happened to simple things like checking your facts and suspending judgment in the absence of proof. We’ll get to those, though, and a great deal more.

    Robert, at the risk of having people throw brickbats, I’ll suggest that we need to have everyone involved join in a chorus of “Crimea River”… 😉

    Jammer, that’s why I specifically said “the more clueless sort of pro-business libertarians.” That excludes libertarians who aren’t pro-business — I know a fair number of those — and also those pro-business libertarians who don’t happen to be clueless — I also know a fair number of those!

    Patricia, it amuses me no end to recall that Ayn Rand’s true disciples these days are exactly the social justice activists that she would have despised most, and would have returned the favor with gusto…

    Millicently, you’re welcome. It’s been a while since I’ve read Postman; I’ll have to remedy that in due time.

    Alliemims, the GOP didn’t pick Trump. He picked himself, to the horror of the GOP establishment, and since their nomination process wasn’t as corrupt as the Democrats’, he got the nomination in the teeth of everything the GOP establishment could throw at him. Beyond that, though, you’re quite correct — Obama did a fine job of saying what people wanted to hear, then gave them a really first-rate imitation of Dubya’s third and fourth terms. Whether Trump will do the same thing is an interesting question; when it comes to trade policy, at least, he seems to be going his own way.

    Corydalidae, fascinating. Many thanks for the data points from up north!

    Varun, excellent. Yes, and that’s also a major part of what’s going on.

    Philippe, thanks for this — a brief glance over the article suggests that I need to read it very carefully indeed.

    Patricia M., and thanks for this also. Knowing the thoughtstoppers makes it easier to craft thoughtstarters to get around them.

    Dtrox(etc.,), I don’t follow Faceplant at all, so can’t comment on that directly, but the habits I’ve been trying to skewer are common enough that this doesn’t surprise me a bit.

    Jessi, I like your Second Malthusian Law! The driving force behind the rise of toxic abstraction, though, is something I’ve discussed at length a while back, the ordinary workings of a cycle that leads from the barbarism of sensation to the barbarism of reflection.

    Res, my take is that the frantic insistence on manic optimism is the last gasp of faith in the failed religion of progress, and will be followed by a pretty fair backlash. That’s only partly tied to the transition from abstraction to reflection, though; any habit of thought pursued far enough ends in absurdity, and will give rise to a swing in the opposite direction.

    Nicholas, we’ll get to that.

    Gavin, thank you! And likewise — with popcorn, of course.

    Prizm, you’re welcome! Thank you for the useful notes on media, too.

  224. Oilman2 and others…

    The oral transmission of culture by far exceeds recent developments in scriptural history. Repetition, rhythmic repetition, still dominates our minds today.

    Who can forget those fabulous, wonderful songs and stories heard in childhood and youth? Impossible.

    Those are the words, the expressions which, time-honoured, spring to mind.

    And are, more likely than not, free from commercial application.

  225. Crimea River indeed, especially since there is no way the Russians are giving it back, for a number of reasons.

    The Russians believe Crimea rightfully belongs to them. They point out that Crimea was Russian territory up until 1954, when it was unilaterally transferred from the Russian Federation to Ukraine by Nikita Khrushchev (an ethnic Ukrainian) in violation of the Soviet Constitution. From their perspective, they were not seizing territory in violation of international law but taking back territory that had been illegally stolen from them. Funny how that never gets mentioned in the Western press.

    The Russians seized control of Crimea in response to the latest American engineered Colour Revolution in Kiev. There were senior American officials who were pushing for Ukraine to become a member of NATO and the Russians were very worried about the prospect of NATO bases in Crimea, which is a strategically vital area for Russia. Not only is it the home base of the Black Sea Fleet but the Russians were concerned about American missile sites being located there and able to neutralize Russia’s nuclear deterrent. Faced with what Russia considered to be an existential threat to their national security, they did what they believed they had to do. Does anyone really believe the US would have not responded similarly if faced with a major military threat on its borders? Imagine if the Chinese or Russians had engineered a coup in Mexico, installed a rabidly anti-American government and started stationing Chinese or Russian military forces close to the American border. Based on past behavior, I have no doubt whatsoever the US government would have reacted with far less restraint then Russia has shown so far in dealing with Ukraine.

    The Russians have learned through long experience that trying to appease their foreign enemies only invites them to push harder. At the end of the Cold War, the US government promised the Soviet Union there would be no eastward expansion of NATO and that no American or German troops would be stationed in Eastern Europe. Both of those promises were honored by the George Bush Sr. administration but promptly chucked out the window after Bill Clinton took office. Both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations continued and expanded the Clinton administration’s policies towards Russia. The Russians bent over backwards to be our friends after the Cold War, only to be treated with contempt as defeated enemies to be kept down and turned over to Western business interests for wholesale looting. Likewise, when the Russians acted to protect their vital national interests in Crimea, Ukraine and Syria, the US and EU used that as an excuse to ratchet up the pressure and engage in overt economic warfare. That pattern of escalation continues. Compared to the 1990’s, Russia is a much stronger country than it was both militarily and economically. While the American Empire continues to implode, Russia is well on its way towards regaining superpower status, aided by its alliance with China.

    The Russians have learned some hard lessons and there is no way they will cave into the US after what has happened. At this point, it would be political suicide for any Russian politician to do so. Meanwhile, economic warfare by the US and its allies has forced the Russians to become more self-sufficient and rebuild long-neglected sectors of their economy. Thanks to Western sanctions and Russian counter-sanctions, Russia is now the worlds largest exporter of grain and almost completely self-sufficient in other food products. While Russia still needs major economic reforms, something Putin readily acknowledges, Russia weathered the 2014-2016 economic crisis far better than anyone expected. The more the US and its lackeys try to punish and demonize Russia, the more they will end up strengthening it, something American and European leaders would have realized was a very likely outcome if they had read Arnold Toynbee’s A Study of History, particularly the sections on “The Stimulus of Pressures” and “The Stimulus of Blows”.

  226. I’d like to support what Felix the Cat wrote about Crimea, about Russia, and about the “Color Revolution” in Ukraine. The USA’s approach to Russia since Bill Clinton’s and George W. Bush’s presidencies has been a text-book example of Hubris, and Nemesis follows Hubris as surely as night follows day. The “American-led World Order” has no viable future, unfortunately for us living here on the western side of the Atlantic.

    And just to make things worse, our policy-makers in D.C. seem to be wholly ignorant of the centuries-long Russian view that England and the British (now the American) Empire have been Russia’s most formidable and determined adversary on the global stage ever since the late 1500s, when Russia first attempted to secure an doorway for itself into the world’s ocean trade by way of the White Sea. Russia, too, has been playing a long game since the reigns of Ivan III and Ivan IV (though it is definitely not as long a game as China plays). It has always been an enormous weakness of American strategic thinking that its “thinkers” (so-called) have no sense of the importance of deep history and long games.

    As for Ukraine, another, somewhat longer game is at play there, and has been at least since the Union of Krewo in 1386, when the last Pagan High King* of Lithuania, Jogailo, chose a Roman Catholic baptism and took a Polish royal wife, rather than an Eastern Orthodox baptism and a Russian royal wife. This game was about ecclesiastical power (which was a huge component of political power at that time) within the European and Asian land-mass, rather than access to the world’s oceans, but it was just as significant a game as the other. Here, too, our strategic planners in D.C. seem to lack even a small clue about how deep the split runs between the (roughly) Western/Catholic and Eastern/Orthodox populations, or factions, in Ukraine, and how significant that split is. (To be fair, Moscow seems to be somewhat obtuse about this, too.)

    Note: *Jogailo’s title in Ruthenian was ” Velikiy Knyaz’ [Великий Князь],” which in Modern Russian translates as “Grand Prince” — a lower rank than “King.” But the word ” knyaz’ [Князь] ” is cognate to English “king,” German “könig,” and so forth; in the days of Jogailo it still meant “King.” The word ” velikyj [Великий] ” means “great” or perhaps “grand” now, but applied to a king, it denotes a king who rules over other kings, and “High King” works better in English for that. — In Modern Russian, Jogailo’s historic title now suggests a natural and acknowledged subordination to some higher sovereign, whether the ruler of Poland or of Russia. This is an excellent example of how the vagaries of language affect perceptions of “reality, “in this case, of political “reality.”

  227. Viewing geopolitical developments, I suggest we have none to fear so much as our own ‘leaders’ (what a fascistic term that is, ‘leader’ – not mine you’re not!)..

    People who have each and every one sought out office, generally with no real personal or professional qualifications.

    What was the old saying: ‘Appoint only those who don’t seek office’?

  228. PS Currently living in the ‘really, probably, quite likely, almost certainly’ deeply menaced UK, and near a major US air base too, I am checking under my bed every night for Putin.

    I haven’t found any yet, but that just goes to prove how damn cunning the fellah is: he could strike at the heart of my home at any moment! 🙂

  229. A current abstraction? : ‘I’ve paid the appropriate fees for my “Funny Hat and Grand Title” (in their countless available forms and flavors), therefore I deserve all authority assumed or presumed with said “earned” credentials, despite a mountain of anecdotal evidence to the contrary.

    I may have offered up my own abstract generalization there, based on my own experiential anecdotes. I’ll give it a further think! The entire topic strikes me as one very worthy of reflection. Thanks for the post!

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