Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Eyes You Shall Never Have

I'd suppose that the recent turn towards demagoguery or willingness to "believe" nonsense, both here and abroad boils down to humans feeling a near-instinctive entitlement to some intimate warmth or assurance of being a good and important person from our primary social groups; and refuse to accept that when our primary social "we" is a nation-state of tens or hundreds of millions such-family like unqualified acceptance can never be had. People want the validating sense of power that comes with being personally attached to such immensity, such wealth, such military prowess, but cannot stomach that even if every groceria was a good old grocery store that neighbors in contemporary mega-societies must still fundamentally exist as strangers to each other, to be judged by each other with a strangers coldness.

This can lead among other things to a performance of zeal similar to what was seen in an earlier era of autonomous urbanization in the nineteenth & early twentieth centuries. An exaggeration of tribe and creed to the centrality of self. An effectively nihilist will to presume that the sociopolitical ideals they share with their fellows are not only true and good but the only truth and the only good. That anything done towards the end of an impossible historic triumph is permitted. If shared belief is the natural basis of group identity than one can at least escape any legitimate judgement from the stranger. While if such beliefs do not stand to scrutiny than never mind. The believers need only to win history and seize control of its writing to eliminate all judgement and all scrutiny forever. Cue Orwell and all that.

Or to state it in a slightly simpler way look close at what Trump supporters worry about most and you'll find a panicked denial that they are not the cultural default; or that there has never been such a default at all. They cannot stand that they are just another subculture within a centerless ballpit of only subcultures, bound to be seen as odd by the other balls just as they find the others odd in turn with no transcendent authority to decree that the others are wrong, that the habits they've learned will win them admiration within their own social groups can possibly be despised by other groups. The core of their reality-denying media-hating blather against "the establishment" or "elites" is an emotionally redeeming myth that this state of affairs is artificial. That the strangers judgement is not based on sincere conviction but is only ever a shallow gesture of fashion and thus not a real judgement.

I recall Rick Windham, hunting & fishing columnist for my hometown newspaper. Windham was among the leaders of a group that that sought to get hunting not just allowed and sanctioned by Nebraska law but double allowed, enshrined in the state constitution as not just legal but objectively virtuous by authority's decree. Windham would advocate for this in his columns, raving against the "elites" in the unicameral who were unable to hide their annoyance at this petty man, and also warning against alien California hippies who might take over our values one day. He wanted hunting to be universally seen as normal while at the same time wanting to be seen as personally exceptional for being a hunter, while viewing reality and humble good sense as mere speedbumbs in the way of this oxymoronic paradise. He may or may not have been aware that moral unease with hunting or meat eating did not really appear out of nothing in the 1960's. I've read Oregon Trail migrants express disapproval of deer-shooting, and even as far back as the early 18800's the English thinker Jeremy Bentham wrote that the question regarding our treatment of animals "is not can they reason but can they suffer?" Still Windham tells himself that he believes in a falsely stolen Man's Age when everyone agreed that hunting was proof of Self-Reliance or a talent for handling oneself in the wilderness. The idea of such unchallenged good regard being artificially denied by elites allowed him to feel that such regard was still his in some sense; to whistle past the fact of strangers being unimpressed by his Power because he simply had none. That he was just another actor in a custom particular to a few thousand rural prairie men in a world of billions, gathering meat with his comfortable waterproof jackets and fetishized thousand dollar tactical scope whatnots while indigenous folk who truly do need to kill their own food do it with handmade spears.

You may have seen those old photos of Native American boys who were herded into boarding schools then forcibly styled into a "Victorian gentleman" look down to the haircut. These scenes are of course horrifying to modern liberal eyes and also quite baffling. Forcing Christianity upon these kids was evil enough; yet though also easier to comprehend given the perceived cosmic gravity then mandatory short hair mandatory cuff links etc. Even in a time when it was not only mainstream but the mainstream to presume that only Europeans were civilized we must surely have been able to see that at least some of our customs were value-neutral? That there is no inherent link between Aristotelian logic and a snazzy tux?

The answer is that cosmic gravity has never really been what it's about. Those who proclaim Western superiority may seem to make a rough kind of sense when they say that our particular way of thinking is what creates the wealth technology or medicine that makes life better for everyone, or facilitates more elaborate art forms that more strenuously push the human mind, or that the Christian faith is a sublime moral truth with unique powers to minimize the bad and maximize the good within human nature. All such gravity and pomp and appeal to first loyalties is meant to make us feel obliged to shut down our critical reasoning because that is not what it's about.

When the Cheyenne, Pawnee, Assinibone etc had their first contact with European fur traders they found "our" manner of dress to be ridiculous, they thought their our masculine custom of the handshake was the most asinine thing they've ever seen. Native men would pass the time in winter camp by mimicking the white handshake with each other and then falling to the ground laughing for hours on end. If Europeans are not the Only True Civilization then we cannot say that they were wrong to laugh. That's what it's all about. If neither we nor anyone else is the superior culture, if there is no human prototype to provide a center, then most people will always look ridiculous to most people, most people's favorite food will always be disgusting to most people, most peoples spiritual beliefs will always be preposterous nonsense to most people, most peoples customs and day-to-day habits will always be a stupid waste of time and life to most people, everyone's language will always sound like an infant's blather to most people (Because this is in fact what all of our languages are with a bit of architecture tacked on post-facto.) There is no transcendent standard to save us by dictating that we must not be seen as freaky little cartoons by most people who will ever live. If you think of how schoolkids will on occasion latch themselves onto a bully out of protest-too much-will to equate weirdness with danger or evil, or to find comfort in the idea of weirdness being Someone Else by definition. That's what it's all about. Behind the ethnic chauvinist's talk of love of the Eternal Folk or final historic victory that child's insecurity is all there is. It was never really about saving the boarding-school Natives souls. It was always about making them be us in visual mundanes so that they would have to laugh at themselves to laugh at us.  A love for freedom or equality is not the instinctive human default. Their rejection does not strictly require any special trauma false consciousness or socioeconomic malice. There shall always be people who reject equality difference and choice for as long as there are humans who hate being judged by standards they cannot control.   
I've asked conservatives online about their understanding of patriotism from time to time. Of in what way exactly they think societies benefit from presuming their own natural inclination to the good. Of why such an assumption is more than an indulgence-for-its-own-sake same as any drug high, let alone an ethical obligation. The answers I received were not quite coherent though not necessarily vicious.  I did of course receive many answers to the effect that we must see the US as inherently good because soldiers died for it, and when I pointed out that to presume a thing must be good "Because" people died for it is a distinctly Jihadist style of reasoning well, this did of course bring out the viciousness quite reliably.

The popular right-wing fixation with "elites" goes all the way back to John-Bircher days at least, or even to slaver fantasies of "soft" boarding-school Yankees. There's a tellingly needful desire to believe that liberal or leftist beliefs cannot have organic roots from within American life and culture but but must be invented by unnaturally bloodless professors or Hollywood hedonists. From here flows an obsessive search for hypocrisy, double-standards or some other sign of insincerity among these imagined opinion-masters, and a great will to torture logic to the greatest possible contortions in order to find "examples" of such hypocrisy. I would guess that this willfully delusional form of anti-elite posturing has many roots; a 'Strong-Father' style of upbringing that leads one to feel that all statements of belief are assertions of authority & command by definition, an equation of fame with power that flows from a desire to believe that the world is a coherent place intentionally scripted by a small group or recognizable faces, or is anyhow an easy equation to make when the mass media we feel connected to the world through bleeds into a common soup in our memories.

Claims to the double standards of liberal elites are generally filled with intentional bullshit and sometimes outright lies in regards to the Clintons omnisexual orgies or Beyonce worshipping Satan and so on.  Still I think there's a certain flavor of sincerity behind it all. A genuine sense that to participate in society at all is in itself to acknowledge it as the exclusive ideal, that one must necessarily live in a state of depressive loss if they do not assume the cultural norms they were born to to be basically what is Meant, that a counterfeit claim to superior personal enlightenment is the only conceivable way that one could stand the prospect of social forms not being Meant. Of course everyone knows better than to claim outright that society is perfect, but the human tendency is to acknowledge only such flaws as can plausibly be blamed on deviance from the True Path that our ancestors lived for the sake of deliberately paving For Us.  We have a hard time grasping how one who truly identifies with the social group could possibly bear to think that the norms themselves are the problem, that "Our" norms are themselves the problem. It is easier to believe that only those who perversely live for the sake of holding common folk in contempt could think so.

If a desire to transform society is not in itself hostility towards its members, then how else after all does one handle their personal conscience after being part of that society all their lives?  In-group superiority may be zealously asserted or quietly assumed. But if it is not believed in at all then the prospect of being personally complicit in evil precisely because  one followed the rules suddenly looms horrifyingly large. There is no more primal or predictable human folly than to become more complicit in evil through the very act of denying that we possibly could be. It is when this backfire effect reaches a certain critical weight that history Goes Bad; when societies collapse, war tyranny and disease prevail, and humans die together by the cityfull.

I recall an Evangelical Christian spiel that I saw online or maybe heard on radio or TV. I forget the medium but it did happen and  I'm not just making a fantasy land where I'm an omniscient observer I assure you. I recall anyway that the man or woman or bodiless text said something like 'We know that God loves us, and that since he loves us there can be no valuable loving gift then his holy word on how we are to live.'

Strictly speaking there is indeed very little in the way of 'so now what?' that necessarily follows from 'Christ is Lord' 'Mohammad is the last prophet' etc etc...

There is a strong human tendency, close to universal if not quite, to understand love for parents as primarily gratitude for providing a model of what humans are and ought to be like, of what men and women are and ought to be like. I would say that conservatives are those most intensely inclined to this but we'll get to that. And the tendency is by no means foolish or bad in itself. It has functionally 'worked' for most people in most times. Most people in most times have simply taken on the life of their same-sex parent upon adulthood and living memory of this being what Life Has Always Been has only recently passed even in the West. Of course it still effects how we think. We've all heard those boilerplate lines about everyone thinking tour parents are the worst people in the world as teenagers then learning they were geniuses as we age. The possibility of anyone seeing their parents as the random specimens of humanity they are, a bundle of probably non-superlative virtues and flaws, is implicitly denied and such denial is the very point of this hoary old folk wisdom. Most of us cannot yet wrap our heads around the possibility that whether our parents have been exceptionally wise or foolish by standards of the particular path they chose may just well be irrelevant to ourselves and our own choices. We have entered the age where "How Life Works" dies again and again with each person, or even several times in the same life with each change of job or address. To time for choosing to see this as desirable or not may have never been in the first place and is far gone forever now regardless.

There is a primal liberal impulse that presumes wisdom to be a good ethical concept of how the world should work. There is a primal conservative impulse that presumes wisdom to be deft navigation of how the world present-tense Works. The latter does of course require a circular justification of whatever toxic social norms or brutally enforced hierarchies happen to be there when one's toddler brain grows into sustained consciousness. Still it is a simple survival need for the conservative impulse to be the childhood default, and as one grows it remains less disheartening vertiginous and disquieting. I do not mean to be flip about systemic oppression but there are reason why the liberal impulse is truly socially normal among only the historically fucked over, and with critical exceptions among even them. When it comes to white Americans or other historically favored well, we've all seen the kid who gets mad when his grandma chooses not to give him her candy like he's come to expect. We've all been that kid. Of course getting the candy is proof-in-itself of always deserving it.

Consider now how so many languages have close equivalents of fatherland, motherland, patria... I've seen and heard many lefties express exacerbation of how anyone could oppose same-sex marraige say, or openness to lifestyle choices in general, with some variation of 'don't societies exist to maximize human happiness?' Sure. So we believe by definition. Conservatives though presume that existential direction from the Patria is the ultimate reason for society, and that such direction must have priority over personal happiness when it comes to choosing. (That is insofar as they even acknowledge an ultimate conflict here. I've read several right-wing commentators matter-of-factly place existential doubt in the first rank of human agonies along with grief heartbreak etc..) The inscrutible-to-outsiders intensity of homophobia or antifeminism has a long list of overlapping causes, one of them being a sense that dictation on how to be a woman or man is one's due reward for a lifetime of obeying speed limits workplace dress codes grade school chewing-gum bans and all the rest. Conservatives love "freedom"; because that's a normalized American feeling that they're 'supposed' to have, but view any prospect of a dramatically greater social openness to people living or identifying as they will to be an oxymoronic negation of why we have bothered to organize ourselves as we have.

Or to state it in another way, the embrace of "alternate facts" is and has always been about a loathness to accept that Ultimate reality is independent of one's social environment or concept of How The World Works; that the social order, hierarchy, and day-to-day- habits of living for society's members are subjective choices that will someday fail even on such points not based upon evil premises. A refusal to accept that the 'slippery slope' fundamentalists warn against is indeed real and also eternally inescapable, that one ultimately has no choice but to improvise what they think is best in the moment,  perhaps to be wrong and rightfully damned by  humans a thousand years hence with better ethical codes than our own, who rightfully hold our respectability standards in scorn because there's are better. I could have born to a place and time where slavery and/or human sacrifice was routine. I will never know if I would have been the brave rebel who challenged either but probably not. The odds of this are necessarily low for any given one.  

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