Clause 61: The Pushback Blog

Because ideas have consequences

Flexible Or Unprincipled?

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There are a lot of questions out there right now. I have them also. Answers are not readily forthcoming, but can we refine the questions?

Who Put the Syrian Kids on Donald Trump’s Milk Carton?

Was the missile strike on Syria on 7 April an impulsive and emotional response to video evidence of suffering children? Assembling the available evidence since the 2016 campaign, it sure looks that way. But even if this is true, what can we take away from it?

It is highly unlikely that a sudden whim from the President provoked top-down assessment of an option to use force that had not be previously considered. More probably, a course of action involving missile strikes on Syrian government assets was already on the table, and the images of children suffering the effects of sarin broke through to executive attention and resulted in this course of action being considered where it wasn’t before.

This would indicate that there will be other opportunities for a person with an agenda and the right kind of supporting materials to influence executive policy in both foreign and domestic situations.

Where Is the Boundary between Flexible and Unprincipled?

The entire Trump presidency puts this question to the nation, along with related questions, such as, “Can a policy you disagree with ever be principled?”

Certainly, Trump has given every indication of having a very limited set of operating principles. We have every reason to believe that, if someone were to take a shot at him today with a rifle, by this evening he would have a new-found interest in gun control. Everything that had been said during the campaign about Second Amendment rights would be, in the immortal words of Ron Ziegler, rendered inoperative.

However, this is nothing new. We have more antecedents than just the Nixon Administration to recall in order to gain perspective. There are obvious similarities between Trump and FDR; I mentioned these a year ago. FDR was fully capable of meeting with six people, all of whom had mutually incompatible agendas, and have each of the six walk away from the meeting fully believing that, “Roosevelt agrees with me completely.” Then FDR would follow a seventh course, or perhaps do nothing.

Nevertheless, FDR was popular with the country. You can see the newsreels of people in the street crying when he died in April, 1945. Whatever he really believed, FDR conveyed the belief that the troubles of the people in the nation really mattered to him. The principles he publicly stood for were to try anything to get out of the Depression; it just happened that anything always led to an expansion in the role of the federal government.

The principles we have seen from Trump are counterpunching, strength and bellicosity. It would be helpful if we saw more of these principles at work representing the nation, rather than in the service of Donald Trump the person. This still would not satisfy those people who don’t want America to be about counterpunching, strength and bellicosity, but it would be a step in the right direction.

I should also point out that we’ve tried other approaches. The Obama Administration had entirely consistent and predictable responses to atrocities in Syria: Do nothing. These did not lead to a satisfactory outcome.

In a position of leadership, refusal to divulge principles is not an option. People will not suspend judgment because you withhold information. They will attempt to fill in the blanks themselves, deducing your principles from the available information. It won’t do to complain about the inferences people draw from your behavior after having refused to put your own word out.

Can Congress Stop Airlines from Overbooking?

Why not? Isn’t that fraud? The airline is representing it has seats available that it doesn’t really have.

I understand that the airlines will, in turn, claim to be subject to traveler games with multiple reservations and cancellations. There is a risk involved, where the travelers don’t want to get bumped and the airlines don’t want to fly empty seats around.

When you run a business, you bear business risk. We don’t let dry cleaners evade their negligence by stamping Not responsible for losses due to negligence on the dry cleaning tickets. They can try it, but it won’t hold up in court. Similarly, it is bad public policy to let the airlines dump the risk of matching capacity to demand on the consumers.

Are We Overestimating the Ability of China to Help with North Korea?

This question was raised on the BBC’s Dateline London show this week. The idea behind the question is that the PRC may not be able to influence North Korea as much as others in the world believe possible.

At the same time, people are calling for a diplomatic solution to the problem posed by North Korea’s nuclear aspirations. Even the Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, has warned of a “head-on collision” between the US and North Korea. However, what a diplomatic solution would look like is unclear. North Korea expelled outside inspectors in 2003, formally withdrawing from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. What can anyone reasonably offer Kim Jong Un in exchange for permanently scrapping his nuclear program?

Reviewing North Korea’s nuclear history reveals there has been little to no success in halting the country’s progress in its nuclear program. However, another detail that has not been addressed is hidden in the history: North Korea is unreliable and cannot be trusted. Every single deal that has been reached in the past has been broken by North Korea. With this in mind, North Korea’s demands for  recognition as a nuclear power and its promises to not use nuclear weapons recklessly or its ending programs in exchange for the United States and South Korea halting joint military exercises must be met with suspicion. This raises the question, how do you negotiate or make a deal with an actor you cannot trust?
— Kevin Princic, “North Korea: Navigating the ‘Land of Lousy Options'”, 20 Jan 2016 [http://blogs.shu.edu/diplomacy/2016/01/north-korea-navigating-the-land-of-lousy-options/]

China is definitely worth engaging, as China is North Korea’s windpipe. Anything China can do is a contribution. Nevertheless, the options are all rather bad at this point.

Is Kemalism Finished in Turkey?

General Mustafa Kemal took control of a national assembly that opposed the concessions required by the Allies at the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres. He defeated the Allied forces, forcing a revised settlement at the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne. In 1924, Kemal abolished the Caliphate and Turkey became a one-party republic. He proclaimed a program called the Six Arrows:

  1. Republicanism;
  2. Populism, here focusing on transfer of political power from aristocrats and tribal leaders to citizens;
  3. Nationalism,
  4. Secularism, separating national law from Islamic law and enforcing only the former;
  5. Statism;
  6. Modernization.

As an instance of both populism and modernization, Kemal required Turks to have last names. He changed his name from Mustafa Kemal to Kemal Atatürk (Father of the Turks). He invited westerners including John Dewey to advise the government on how to achieve modernization.

The referendum being held today asks the country whether the executive of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan should be granted constitutional changes bringing all state bureaucracy under his control. The office of prime minister would be abolished and the president would have greater powers to issue decrees and dissolve parliament. He would also have greater powers over the judiciary.

As of this writing, with over 95% of the votes counted, the BBC reports that Yes votes are leading 51.4% to 48.6% for No.

Erdoğan has sought to reverse the secularism of Kemal while expanding on nationalism and statism. He has taken a hard line with separatist Kurds. In 2016, an attempted coup d’état of uncertain origin broke out in Turkey which was defeated. The Erdoğan government claims that the coup was masterminded by a former ally, Fethullah Gülen, now living in exile in Pennsylvania.

What becomes of Kemalism? There were some roots of authoritarianism in Kemalism; all evidence indicates that Erdoğan is returning to at least this level of authoritarianism. At the same time, he always has been more Islamist than Kemalism could tolerate. Early in his life, he was jailed and banned from political office for expressing Islamist political views. This ban was annulled by his allies in the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2002 after winning a national election victory.

 

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Truth, Justice and the American Politician

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There seems to be a lot of confusion and selective hearing about truth, particularly when it comes from politicians. Let’s step back and try to unpack all this.

Hillary Clinton Goes to Bosnia

Here is an excellent case study. In 2008, Hillary Clinton claimed:

I remember landing under sniper fire. There was supposed to be some kind of a greeting ceremony at the airport, but instead we just ran with our heads down to get into the vehicles to get to our base.
— Hillary Clinton, speech at George Washington University, 2008.

In fact, nothing like that happened. Here is a video of Clinton’s arrival in Bosnia in 1996.

So did she lie? I do not believe that she did. Here rendering is not truthful, but I don’t believe it deserve the status of a lie.

Why do I say that?

I believe that Clinton had an image in her mind of the person she wanted to be, and she remembered what happened at Bosnia in 1996 in those terms. What actually happened was irrelevant.

Cognitive Dissonance

The theory of cognitive dissonance was first put forward by Leon Festinger in 1957. At the time, the idea was truly revolutionary, as psychology was in the grip of behaviorism. Festinger found behaviors that behaviorism could not explain. Subjects would change their opinions to achieve consonance with their previous behaviors.

Festinger, with Henry Riecken and Stanley Schachter, had written When Prophecy Fails, a book recording the beliefs of a small cult who had predicted a flood would destroy the world on 21 December 1954, both before and after the non-event. Not only did many cult members refuse to abandon their beliefs when the flood did not occur; they committed to them even more intensely.

Both women were greatly upset by the disconfirmation of the  morning of December 21, Edna Post being hit especially hard. Nevertheless, throughout the period of disconfirmation both these women unquestioningly accepted the messages, predictions, and rationalizations that Mrs, Keech and Dr. Armstrong worked out for the group. Both of them simply repeated the rationalizations of disconfirmation that the leaders elaborated and glowed over the wonder and beauty of the plan. Their faith, too, remained firm all through the time that we maintained contact with them. On January 24, Daisy while en route to Virginia wrote to one of the authors, saying, “Believe me, we certainly have had divine guidance all along the way. We get orders from ‘upstairs’ en
route.” And “Give our ‘best’ to the other two from Minneapolis, Tell them we know the future is ‘rosy.’ We’ve been promised many wonderful things and we still know who our Director is. We go as his guests — his representatives.”
— Festinger, et al., When Prophecy Fails (1956), p. 195.

The behavior of various public figures is often attributed to lying and covering up, but cognitive dissonance offers a better explanation and one that does not require mendacious intent.

It takes some degree of ego to run for national public office. A candidate has to appeal to others, raise funds for the campaign and prevail against hostile counteraction from competitors and their supporters.

Consider a newly elected Senator, arriving into what is often called “the world’s most exclusive club.” There will be overwhelming pressure to believe that he deserves to be there, reinforced by the bubble of staff that the Senator has accrued through the campaign. The realities of politics require that the Senator will have built a narrative about himself, his motives and his actions that can survive the attacks of others, armed with opposition research and seeking to show the voters inconsistent behavior in the Senator’s history.

Now, the Senator will not be able to obtain everything he wants; he must engage in barter and log-rolling, giving his vote on some issues on which he does not agree in order to obtain the support of others for items of higher priority. He must bring home patronage to influential constituents if he is to be re-elected. All these pressures reinforce the need for a narrative that can preserve his own self-image in the face of inconsistent behavior.

Thus, I find it hardly surprising that Clinton remembered herself coming into Bosnia under fire or that Jeff Sessions did not remember conversations with the Russian ambassador during his confirmation hearings. These people construct narratives about themselves, remembering incidents in terms of the self-image they want to have. What actually happened is irrelevant.

It would seem a damn fool behavior to willfully lie about episodes that can be researched by the press or have video evidence on YouTube for anyone to find. I don’t believe the processing ever gets past the brain stem. The politician first deceives herself. She squeezes her memory of events, forcing them to fit the story about herself that she not only wants to tell others, but needs to believe about herself.

What’s Good for Me Is Good for America

I do not mean to exonerate people for this behavior. If my explanation is accurate, it is actually more disturbing than if the people involved had simply lied. It is saying that they can’t tell truth from falsehood. They have commingled their identities with the country. It speaks to delusions of grandeur.

The problem is not limited to government; private sector organizations also have to contend with it.

Billy Graham had a man named Grady Wilson who yelled “Horseshit” — however you say that in Baptist — at him whenever he took himself too seriously. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons the Graham organization has been so successful. I had a Chairman of the Executive Committee who used to blow a launch-caller at me. Every chief executive should find someone to perform this function and then make sure he can only be fired for being too polite. Since the leader must lead the battle against institutionalization, it’s to the leader that you should look for early signs of losing the war. Is he getting confused about who’s God? Polishing up the image instead of greasing the wheels? Preoccupied with the price of the stock? Listening to the public relations department? Short-tempered with honest criticism? Are people hesitating before they tell him?
— Robert Townsend, Further Up the Organization, p. 107.

In my experience, it takes an person of unusual moral strength to accept Townsend’s advice. The key difference being that when private sector organizations go senile, they ultimately fail and are replaced. They don’t take the whole country with them.

There is a great howling right now about truth and facts, but a failure to understand the human behavior that leads to the incidents we have observed. Perhaps it is comforting to think that we have been lied to and ill-served. We the People can believe a narrative about ourselves, that we have been taken advantage of by malicious operators. Throw the rascals out and get in a new lot. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Cognitive dissonance is not limited to people in power. Even nice people like you and I are susceptible.

Written by srojak

March 6, 2017 at 5:22 am

William Pitt the Elder

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William Pitt the Elder, by William Hoare

William Pitt the Elder, by William Hoare

William Pitt the Elder (1708-1778), later 1st Earl of Chatham, was a chief minister of Great Britain (there was still ambivalence to the title of Prime Minister). He was bombastic, mercurial, confrontational and he may have been manic-depressive.

He changed Anglo-American politics forever. If you live in Pittsburgh, Pittston, Pittsboro or various Pittsfields or Chathams, your place of residence was named in recognition of William Pitt.

Paymaster of the Forces

Between 1746 and 1755, Pitt served as Paymaster of the Forces, effectively the treasurer of the British Army. At that time, the office was extremely lucrative for the holder, with two principle perquisites:

  • Ability to skim the interest in army funds, including the soldiers’ pay;
  • Ability to skim the profits of sale of military assets, such as the sale of old military supplies.

Although Henry Pelham, who has previously been paymaster of the forces, had refused these perquisites, he had been private about it. Pitt publicly renounced them. This example initiated a change in the way we conceive of the conduct of a political office holder. What had been looked upon as standard operating procedure, and remained so in many other countries, became viewed as corruption in the Anglo-American tradition.

Pitt initiated this change, and he did it not through introducing laws or launching a crusade, but by the simple force of his own example.

The Seven Years’ War

The Seven Years’ War began in 1756 and initially went very badly for Britain and her allies. The Braddock Expedition had been smashed in 1755. In the early years of the war France took Minorca, Fort Oswego and Fort William Henry. Hanover, allied to Britain through the King, was forced to withdraw from the war.

I know I can save this country and that I alone can.
— William Pitt, 1756

In 1757, Pitt entered into a coalition government with a man who had been his enemy: Thomas Pelham-Holles, 1st Duke of Newcastle. They divided their responsibilities: Pitt managed the war against France in their colonies, while Newcastle managed the war in Europe. Pitt obtained the funding to support world war, while Newcastle handled the patronage needed to keep the coalition in power.

Our bells are worn threadbare with the ringing of victories.
— Horace Walpole, 1759

1759 is remembered as an Annus Mirabilis for the harvest of victories over the French. In North America, Britain captured Fort Ticonderoga and Quebec, and drove the French from the Ohio Country after taking Fort Duquesne the previous autumn. British forces captured Guadeloupe. In Europe, the Navy destroyed the French capacity to launch an invasion of Britain, establishing itself as the dominant naval power, and Britain with her allies won the Battle of Minden. In India, British forces relieved the Siege of Madras.

For the remainder of the war, Britain consolidated and expanded on these gains, collapsing French holdings in India and North America east of the Mississippi.

The American Colonies

The poorest man may in his cottage bid defiance to all the forces of the Crown. It may be frail — its roof may shake — the wind may blow through it — the storm may enter — the rain may enter — but the King of England cannot enter — all his force dares not cross the threshold of the ruined tenement!
— William Pitt, speech in Parliament, 1763

Britain had become concerned about how to pay for the enormous army it had created during the Seven Years’ War. Sons of powerful landed families had purchased commissions as officers in new regiments. It would have been unthinkable to buy them out, but how were these regiments to be supported financially? A plan for an excise tax on cider, which would have landed principally on the country gentry, had gone down to dramatic defeat in 1763, taking George III’s favorite, the Earl of Bute, along with it.

George Grenville then became first minister, and sought to solve the problem by taxing the American colonies through the introduction of Sugar and Stamp Acts. More odious than their tax effects was their intent to bypass colonial legislatures in imposing taxation. Townshend and his allies maintained that the colonies had “virtual representation” in the British Parliament.

The Stamp Act led to riots in America and attacks on British agents who collected the taxes. By January, 1766, there was sharp division in Parliament. Grenville had worn out his welcome with the King, who replaced him with Charles Watson-Wentworth, 2nd Marquess of Rockingham, who brought Edmund Burke along with him as personal private secretary. Rockingham wanted to repeal the Stamp Act, but a substantial number of MPs were unwilling to yield the conceptual right of Parliament to impose taxes. Virtual representation was also seen as essential; the same doctrine addressed the representation of cities such as Manchester, which had no representatives of their own in Commons.

Pitt was not buying the idea of virtual representation, and foresaw the future of reform:

This is what is called the rotten part of the Constitution. It can not continue a century. If it does not drop, it must be amputated. The idea of a virtual representation of America in this House is the most contemptible idea that ever entered into the head of a man. It does not deserve a serious refutation.

The Commons of America represented in their several assemblies, have ever been in possession of the exercise of this, their constitutional right, of giving and granting their own money. They would have been slaves if they had not enjoyed it! At the same time, this kingdom, as the supreme governing and legislative power, has always bound the colonies by her laws, by her regulations, and restrictions in trade, in navigation, in manufactures, in every thing, except that of taking their money out of their pockets without their consent.

After this, Grenville rose to voice his objections, and then Pitt returned in reply.

The gentleman tells us, America is obstinate; America is almost in open rebellion. I rejoice that America has resisted. Three millions of people, so dead to all the feelings of liberty as voluntarily to submit to be slaves, would have been fit instruments to make slaves of the rest.

Pitt concluded:

Upon the whole, I will beg leave to tell the House what is my opinion. It is, that the Stamp Act be repealed absolutely, totally, and immediately. That the reason for the repeal be assigned—viz., because it was founded on an erroneous principle. At the same time, let the sovereign authority of this country over the colonies be asserted in as strong terms as can be devised, and be made to extend to every point of legislation whatsoever; that we may bind their trade, confine their manufactures, and exercise every power whatsoever, except that of taking money from their pockets without consent.

[Full text of speech and rebuttal: http://www.bartleby.com/268/3/23.html]

The distinction between binding their trade and taking money from their pockets without consent escaped many of the members in attendance.

If you understand the difference, it is more than I do, but I assure you it was very fine when I heard it.
— Lord George Germain, 1766

Whigs were always having to navigate the treacherous space where liberty and order met; it would ultimately undo them. But that was more than a century in the future.

Rockingham yoked a Declaratory Act, asserting the theoretical right of Parliament to tax the colonies, to repeal of the Stamp Act, recognizing the impracticality of doing so in this manner.

Chief Ministry

Being responsible, I will direct and will be responsible for nothing I do not direct.
— William Pitt, speech in Parliament, 1761

His time as chief minister was short: 1766-1768. He selected a cabinet of very capable men, but there were no precedents by which he could require them to work together or to all pull in the same direction. Pitt himself was too obstinate and too much of a loner to do the backstairs politicking that would have been necessary to bring the group together as a team. His term as chief minister is generally considered a failure.

In 1767, Charles Townshend, Chancellor of the Exchequer, introduced the Revenue Act of 1767, first of a series of bills remembered to history as the Townshend Acts.

Pitt himself, now Earl of Chatham, had gone into seclusion in 1768. Only in 1770 did he return to his seat in the House of Lords. He was still an intermittent participant. Without his leadership, his allies — Rockingham, Burke, the Earl of Shelburne — were in disarray the government’s back-and-forth measures in America spun out of control.

Weakened by illness, Pitt played an increasingly marginal role in British politics, until he finally collapsed on the floor of Parliament in 1778.

Nevertheless, he had a profound effect on our political traditions.

Written by srojak

March 4, 2017 at 1:23 pm

Interviewing Kellyanne Conway

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This video (6:31 long) from Vox was brought to my attention. It raises a number of interesting questions. Laid over with questions about Vox itself and the media in general, we have even more questions. It is a very layered story, and worth some time to dig through the various layers.

Let’s start with the subject at hand, then open the lens to the bigger picture.

Being a Representative

Conway’s role on these shows is to represent the administration. Within a circumscribed, forest-for-the-trees perspective of the role (more on that later), I think she does an outstanding job. She is determined and relentless. When she has a strong hand, she plays it; when she has a weak hand, she bluffs like crazy.

She knows that many of her interviewers want to pin her down. They want to face her. They want to force her to fold, to make concessions. She has no intention of doing that. It’s a test of wills.

I have some experience in representing myself; I represented a software company in sales efforts. Conway is a walking illustration of the very ethos of a successful software sales representative: “They promised you beachfront? You don’t want beachfront. Swampland is the future!”

Being Donald Trump’s Representative

Overlaid on top of this is the fact that she is representing the administration headed by President Trump. I don’t think I am being unfair to Trump by saying that this is no ordinary presidential administration. He consistently promised something out of the ordinary on his campaign, and he is delivering in abundance.

Given the nature of Donald Trump, the person, there are going to be some striking challenges in being his representative. For openers, he pops off at the mouth — or the tweet — much more than the typical organizational leader. Then his representatives have to go forward and try to control the damage.

I believe that Trump did not further his own cause by calling Judge James Robart a “so-called judge”, but he did. I believe that a more nuanced approach to the limitations of the press would have been preferable to calling them “The enemy of the American people.” But Trump doesn’t do nuance. We’ve had years to figure this out. The man is, as of this writing, 70 years old; he’s set in his ways.

So you, the representative, get the task of appearing in front of the press, who are howling like a scalded dog after having been called the enemy of the American people. You can’t unsay his remarks. You can’t disown them. You can’t cut and run. How are you going to navigate this?

So, yeah, Conway “reinvents Trump’s positions into more defensible versions of themselves.” How else would she keep her head above water? Jeff Lord has been doing the same thing as a Trump flack on CNN for the entire 2016 campaign. When Trump made totally outrageous, foot-in-mouth statements that would appear indefensible, Lord simply replaced them with positions from an idealized, Trump-like candidate that existed in his own imagination. What would you do on camera in front of a national audience? Concede the point? That’s not what you’re there for.

Some Perspective on Representatives

None of this is new; it’s just a matter of degree. The British series Yes, Prime Minister contained an episode titled “Official Secrets“, which first aired in 1987. Here is a link to the video. If you’re pressed for time, skip forward to about the 23:00 mark.

Bernard, what made you think that, just because someone was asking you questions, you had to answer them?
— James Hacker, “Official Secrets”

Further on, Hacker instructs Bernard in how to handle difficult questions. He has eight ways to defect questions. The net of his advice is:

If you have nothing to say, say nothing. Better still, have something to say and say it, no matter what they ask. Pay no attention to the question; make your own statement. If they ask the question again, you just say, “That’s not the question” or “I think the more important question is …” Then you make another statement of your own.
— James Hacker, “Official Secrets”

As a representative, you don’t have the option of having nothing to say. So you have to have something to say and force your will to prevail over the will of your questioners. Conway is very good at this.

So Why Invite Her?

The host of the Vox piece says at the end:

Just remember, she’s doing her job. It’s the news shows that keep booking her that are letting you down.
— Carlos Maza

Why do they bring her on? Part of it is the unwritten co-dependency story of how Trump got to be President in the first place. The news networks have 1,440 minutes a day to fill, 365 days a year. They’re crazy for content. They don’t know what else to do.

There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.
— Oscar Wilde

Trump has exploited this dependency mercilessly for his entire campaign. By saying and tweeting outrageous things, he dominated his opponents through airtime. While career politicians were cautious and scripted, Trump was spontaneous and outrageous. The received wisdom was that you couldn’t win an election doing that. Evidently, the received wisdom was wrong.

No, having flacks on a news show to evade questions is not helpful to us as citizens. It never was. The extremes of this administration just throw the issue into bright relief. Neither was having teams of opposing flacks to shout at one another and talk over one another during the 2016 campaign. Evidently, it is all the cable channels can think of fill time.

Journalists seem to think that the reporting of peoples’ opinions constitutes reporting facts. It may be a fact that the person you’re interviewing has that opinion, but it’s still an opinion. Postmodern journalism happened long before Donald Trump threw his cap in the ring.

Consider a real issue: last year, there was an announced change in Department of Labor policy that was later blocked by a federal court injunction. How much of this issue did you hear on cable news? How much did you read about it in your favorite print outlet?

Vox

The people at Vox are good at identifying behavior from Conway when it comes from people they don’t like, such as Conway. But do not lose sight of the fact that they have their own viewpoint to push — everybody does.

Some further reading:

What is Truth?

Most of us accept something called the Correspondence Theory of Truth. Simply put, if you accept this theory, than in order for a statement to be true, it has to correspond in some meaningful way to objective reality. This requires acceptance of a bundle of premises:

  1. There is an objective reality;
  2. We can know it;
  3. We can all obtained a shared common knowledge of it;
  4. We can take a statement and measure the correspondence with that shared common knowledge of reality, and therefore the truthfulness of that statement.

A full treatment of these implications is going to have to wait for another post, because this is a subject in itself.

It is clear to me, from his conduct, that Donald Trump does not subscribe to this theory. His truth is more pragmatic in nature: what is useful to me right now? This may seem shocking and even immoral, but it has an intellectual lineage going back to William James and Charles Sanders Pierce:

‘The true’, to put it very briefly, is only the expedient in the way of our thinking, just as ‘the right’ is only the expedient in the way of our behaving. Expedient in almost any fashion; and expedient in the long run and on the whole, of course; for what meets expediently all the experience in sight won’t necessarily meet all farther experiences equally satisfactorily.
— William James, Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking, Lecture VI (1907)

So something can be true today, because it is expedient, and then untrue tomorrow, because it is no longer expedient.

I direct the interested reader to the entry from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on Pragmatism for further discussion.

It is not necessary for Donald Trump to have read William James for him to think in this way. The notion has been rattling around out there for over a hundred years.

The question of truth introduces a professional challenge to the journalist: what are you reporting? The truth or someone’s truth?

For the journalist who does accept the Correspondence Theory of Truth, it presents also a personal ethical challenge: what do you do about this? Do the standards of journalism require you to refrain from inserting your own beliefs, or do you have an ethical responsibility upon to advocate your viewpoint as to the nature of truth?

It is clear that many of the people trying to get “the truth” out of Conway and those like her are not formally aware of these issues. They sense something is not quite right, but I don’t think they could articulate what the problem is.

 

 

Written by srojak

February 20, 2017 at 12:45 pm

Not My President

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This week, Georgia Democratic Congressman John Lewis gave an interview where he stated he does not sees Donald Trump is a “legitimate president.” Lewis gave as his reasons the alleged Russian hacking during the campaign, saying this “helped destroy the candidacy of Hillary Clinton.” Lewis went on to claim a “conspiracy on the part of the Russians and others” to tamper with the election, but did not identify who the others were.

To the surprise of no one, Trump responded with a series of two tweets criticizing Lewis. These tweets themselves became subjects of further reporting and kept the story hot. Over the past week I have read an entire spectrum of opinions over what Lewis said and how Trump responded. Here are my conclusions.

Political Legitimacy

John Lewis absolutely does have the moral right to reject the political legitimacy of Donald Trump. He has this right not because he is a congressman or a civil rights legend, but because he is a citizen. As long as we believe it to be true that the power of the government derives from the consent of the governed, the governed have the moral right to withhold that consent. The citizen can refuse to consent to specific actions or to the presence of specific office holders.

However, if rejection of political legitimacy is serious — if it is more than just a posture for effect — then it is an extreme position. Like going to war, a person who rejects the political legitimacy of an elected official must have strong reasons and, if he goes public with his rejection, he is obligated to articulate those reasons. If you are going to influence others to accept your position, there are going to be consequences for you and consequences for them.

Not liking the outcome of an election is not a valid reason to withhold legitimacy from the winner. It is a repudiation of the election process. Yes, the parade of claims that Barack Obama was not a citizen by birth was a lame attempt to do exactly this: to withhold legitimacy because people did not like the result of an election.

Yes, there is a lot to dislike about Donald Trump. If you want to say that he’s not your president, you have that right. But “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires” that you should have good reasons, reasons that are centered on actions.

If you want to refuse him legitimacy because he has never conveyed a set of principles other than his own self-enlargement that he really stands for, I can see your way to that. But I can’t go with simply not being willing to accept that your candidate lost. Back in the spring, my candidate lost and I got over it.

Instead of blaming the Russians, FBI Director James Comey and whoever else is handy, the Democrats would be best served by examining why their program and their candidate did not go over. Yes, I am sure it is painful trying to comprehend losing an election to this man. The truth hurts.

Is the System Rigged?

You could claim that Donald Trump invited this back in the general election campaign, when he claimed that the election would be rigged if he lost.

Of course there is large scale voter fraud happening on and before election day. Why do Republican leaders deny what is going on? So naïve!
— Donald Trump tweet during October 2016, reported by Business Insider.

So now let his intemperate words come back to bite him. Why shouldn’t his opponents also claim the system is rigged because they didn’t get the result that they want? I mean, other than the fact that he’s Donald Trump and they’re not?

Maybe this is what it is going to take to restore sanity; rash, ill-conceived actions have to have consequences.

The Great (Over)Communicator

Did Trump make a tactical error responding to Lewis and perpetuating the story? Did he make a tactical error attacking Khizr Khan for his speech at the Democratic Convention? Did he make a tactical error for his statements about Mexican immigrants in June 2015? The talking heads pontificate out how counterproductive his behavior is. I have yet to see actual negative consequences. Instead, he played the media like a calliope and obtained free publicity.

Donald Trump has successfully flouted decades of political wisdom.

Never pick a fight with people who buy ink by the barrel.
— Mark Twain

Politics is human beings; it’s addition rather than subtraction.
— Donald Rumsfeld

Using the orthodox wisdom, I thought Trump would flame out early in the primary season. I was wrong. I am not interested in continuing to repeat the same mistakes.

What is there to learn from this experience? The first thing to learn is the fact that nobody knows how long these tactics are going to work. Nobody knows whether this is a seasonal change or a fundamental change. The talking heads on television say that you can’t govern this way. But they also said you can’t win a campaign this way, and that assertion did not hold up.

Written by srojak

January 15, 2017 at 12:08 pm

Freedom from Choice

with one comment

Moral autonomy has been a central feature of Western thought since the Enlightenment. In the history of philosophy, the concept is usually considered to have been developed by Kant and further refined by Mill. Given the deep pluralism of belief begun with the Reformation and the Enlightenment emphasis on rational inquiry, I believe the development of a morally autonomous individual was a logical outcome.

Where personal autonomy is the ability to choose one’s own actions, whether moral or not, moral autonomy is the ability to conduct one’s own inquiry into moral behavior and determine for oneself the morally correct course of action. Individualism would not be possible without moral autonomy. Separate from these is political autonomy, which, since it concerns politics, applies to groups: a group having political autonomy can set its own political course.

Moral autonomy requires some discussion of the selfhood of the person involved. A key question is: Does an authentic self really exist apart from the society in which the person lives? A person who answers in the negative will likely emphasize belonging and relationships above individuality and autonomy. At the extreme end of this view, moral autonomy would not even make any sense.

Moral autonomy is also impracticable, if not unthinkable, in a clan-based society like Afghanistan. The individual who attempted to assert his autonomy would put himself outside the protection of his clan. He would be a target for other clans and anyone who wanted someone to pick on. His life would necessarily be solitary, mean, nasty, brutish and short.

Although Western thought has been very far-reaching, it is not universal. It has critics both inside and outside of Western nations. Furthermore, we now have a large number of people in the West who are unaware of the advantages that Western thought has conferred upon them and are not prepared to defend it.

Beyond this, there are seasonal tides that cause moral autonomy to be viewed differently through the decades. The 1930s, for example, were very collectivist years in history, and autonomy was under attack almost everywhere. Since 1960, moral autonomy has made an uneven comeback in the West, galloping forward in some areas while advancing fitfully and tentatively in others. Being aware of the history, one cannot simply extrapolate the continued advancement of moral autonomy without reversal into the future.

MacIntyre’s Objections

Irving Babbitt quoted a joke from the 1920s asserting that everyone would ultimately have to become either a Marxist or a Roman Catholic. Alasdair MacIntyre has done both, starting as a Marxist but later converting to Roman Catholicism and ultimately taking up a Thomist approach. MacIntyre is considered a very important communitarian thinker.

His first important major work was After Virtue (1981), wherein he asserted that the liberal Enlightenment project had failed and had done so necessarily, not accidentally. While After Virtue was primarily a criticism of where the Enlightenment had gone wrong, he provides hints of what he would substitute for it. Later writings, particularly Dependent Rational Animals (1999), advanced MacIntyre’s positive communitarian program.

Justice and Moral Anarchy

.. modern politics cannot be a matter of genuine moral consensus. And it is not. Modem politics is civil war carried on by other means …
After Virtue, p. 253.

MacIntyre sees modern liberal individualism having descended into emotivism, where there is no ground to reach agreement among partisans having competing moral claims. Although we engage in rational argument to persuade others of the correctness of our viewpoint, there is no shared moral basis to which we can appeal in order to serve as a foundation, offering mutually agreed-upon premises for persuasive argument.

Although the moral claims are advanced by persons, the partisans claim that their arguments are impersonal and even universal.

Yet if we possess no unassailable criteria, no set of compelling reasons by means of which we may convince our opponents, it follows that in the process of making up our own minds we can have made no appeal to such criteria or such reasons. If I lack any good reasons to invoke against you, it must seem that I lack any good reasons. Hence it seems that underlying my own position there must be some non-rational decision to adopt that position. Corresponding to the interminability of public argument there is at least the appearance of a disquieting private arbitrariness. It is small wonder if we become defensive and therefore shrill.
After Virtue, p. 8.

In a community of people attempting to reach political decisions in this way, they cannot do so on a moral basis, because they cannot achieve agreement upon premises. Therefore, resolution of disputes must in the end be a matter of which side has the stronger will and is prepared to use the least restraint in order that their will should prevail upon others not so minded.

An honest assessment of the events of the past year, at the very least, leads me to believe that the above is an accurate rendering of what we have come to.

The Telos

MacIntyre has a very direct writing style. Chapter 5 of After Virtue is titled, “Why the Enlightenment Project of Justifying Morality Had to Fail.” At root, he claims it had to fail because it disputed the idea of an ordained human purpose, a telos. A telos exists outside of human choice. It imposes ethical obligations on all persons, “just because you live here.” You don’t get to choose whether or not to morally accept it. You can always refuse to honor its demands, but you will be morally less of a person because of your refusal, and good people will shun you.

The assertion of a human telos is a direct attack on moral autonomy. Or, if you prefer, it is equally true the other way around: the assertion of moral autonomy is a direct attack on a human telos. The latter is the more historically correct, because that is one of the consequences of the Enlightenment. It logically follows from the Reformation: once there was no longer one monolithic authority — namely, the Roman Catholic Church — to interpret the telos, who was going to be in charge of the interpretation?

Dissent in Communitarian Societies

How does a communitarian society, which rejects individual autonomy, turn back when it starts to go wrong? The events of the twentieth century have demonstrated that organizations at all levels and scales, from clans to religious movements to commercial enterprises to political entities, are fully capable of going astray. To avoid this issue is to engage in philosophical negligence; it is simply bad risk management. There must be a framework for individuals to dissent from the decisions of the community on moral grounds and seek to have these decisions reconsidered.

The show trials in the Soviet Union in the 1930s were considered remarkable because the defendants willingly acknowledged their own guilt. Why did they do that? Why did they not defend themselves? Solzhenitsyn wrote that they had gone to a moral place from which they could not defend themselves.

And what did Bukharin fear most in those months before his arrest? It is reliably known that above all he feared expulsion from the Party! Being deprived of the Party! Being left alive but outside the Party! And Dear Koba [Stalin] had played magnificently on this trait of his (as he had with them all) from the very moment he had himself become the Party. Bukharin (like all the rest of them) did not have his own individual point of view. They didn’t have their own genuine ideology of opposition, on the strength of which they could step aside and on which they could take their stand. Before they became an opposition, Stalin declared them to be one, and by this move he rendered them powerless. And all their efforts were directed toward staying in the Party. And toward not harming the Party at the same time!
These added up to too many different obligations for them to be independent.
The Gulag Archipelago, vol. 1, p. 414; italics in original.

Without moral autonomy, it was not possible for any of the accused Communists to have an individual point of view, at least not in ethical terms. Without moral autonomy, who were they to oppose the community, even when the community demanded that they sacrifice themselves to it?

This behavior was not confined to communists. I have previously cited the example of Hindenburg. Once the German citizens really accepted “the conviction that the subordination of the individual to the good of the community was not only a necessity but a positive blessing,” they did not have a moral leg to stand on when that community chose racist and exploitive collectivists to lead them.

Virtues and Autonomy

The assertion of virtues with a prior moral claim upon all persons can only be squared with moral autonomy if all persons would somehow converge on the acceptance of these virtues. This was part of the great Enlightenment project. Kant hoped to resolve this with the categorical imperative, which American progressive education simplified to, “What if everybody thought that way?” He hoped that all moral and thinking persons, no matter their starting point, would be able to use this to reason their way to a common moral understanding. Kant both underestimated the potential scope of deep moral pluralism and failed to reckon with the ability of people to rationalize.

The discovery of a telos, a higher human purpose, which all persons could assent without compromising moral autonomy would be a worthwhile project, and I wish success to anyone who undertakes it. However, after all these years of life, study and experience, I doubt that it can be achieved. Where does this leave us?

I hear and acknowledge MacIntyre’s criticisms of Enlightenment inquiry and moral autonomy, but I am deeply skeptical of his program to address them. Individual moral autonomy is a supreme achievement of Western civilization. It is our front-line defense against mass movements that would lead us lemming-like to our destruction.

Supplementary Links

This discussion only scratches the surface of issues involving moral responsibility and political consequences thereof. For the reader having a deeper interest in the subjects discussed, here are some leads. One should bear in mind that any of these will be written by a person with a point of view.

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Written by srojak

January 1, 2017 at 12:42 pm