Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Marcuse-Anon: Cult of the Pseudo-Intellectual - TK News by Matt Taibbi

Marcuse-Anon: Cult of the Pseudo-Intellectual - TK News by Matt Taibbi: Reviewing "Repressive Tolerance" and other works by Herbert Marcuse, the quack who became America’s most influential thinker

We hear a lot about what is called the “Cancel Culture” and wokeism, especially from those on the political right who see these forces as threatening our civilization with its law and order. I’ve seen many on the right such as Tucker Carlson or Sean Hannity bemoan this destructive trend but without offering a good explanation why this is happening or what can be done to stop it. For explanations of the ideas behind these forces of deconstruction I recommend Stephen Hicks’ book Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault and Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity―and Why This Harms Everybody by Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay.

I would now add Marcuse-Anon: Cult of the Pseudo-Intellectual, an insightful essay by Matt Taibbi, who writes for Rolling Stone and wrote books such as Hate Inc.: Why Today’s Media Makes Us Despise One Another. Taibbi comes from a journalist background and is politically on the left. However, I’d say he is closer to being a traditional liberal than a progressive one. His essay builds a case for explaining a lot of what is happening stems from Herbert Marcuse, a Marxist philosopher. My blog post won’t be able to do justice to Taibbi’s article, so I won’t try to summarize his argument or key points here. Instead, I’ll share some key quotes that stood out.

Here are selected quotes from different parts of the essay.

Most Americans have never heard of him — he died in 1979 — but his ideas today are ubiquitous as Edison’s lightbulbs. He gave us everything from “Silence Equals Violence” to “Too Much Democracy” to the “Crisis of Misinformation” to In Defense of Looting to the 1619 Project and Antiracist Baby, and from the grave has cheered countless recent news stories, from the firing of Mandalorian actress Gina Corano to the erasure of raw footage of the Capitol riot from YouTube.

He was the real-world embodiment of Orwell’s utopian linguists who were impatient to rid the world of all those annoying words for shades of difference. Once you have a lock on “good,” why bother litigating degrees of its opposite? Bad is bad. He thought in binary pairs, and freely conflated concepts like inadequacy, misgovernment, and indifference with cruelty, repression, persecution, and terror, a habit of mind that’s inspired a generation of catastrophizing neurotics who genuinely don’t know the difference between disagreement and an attempt on their lives.

We saw it in health officials who went from condemning anti-lockdown protests to, a week or two later, declaring that racism — not on their radar prior to the murder of George Floyd — was a “lethal public health issue” superseding the pandemic. We saw it with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez applying the transitive property of whatever nineteen times over to make Ted Cruz’s decision to refuse certification of the Electoral College mean he was “trying to murder me” and “almost had me murdered.” Same with the New York Times employees who declared their lives were thrust in peril by soon-to-be-fired editor James Bennet’s decision to run an editorial by Senator Tom Cotton.

Summing up, this is a theory of an intellectual elite forced to seize absolute power on behalf of racial minorities, the disabled, and other oppressed groups, while canceling free speech and civil rights for all others, and especially for the corrupted mass of working-class people, who are no friends of the revolution but actually ignorant conservatives obstructing the road to “pacification and liberation.” Does this sound familiar?
It does indeed sound all too familiar!

I find Taibbi’s respect for facts and objectivity refreshing so I always look forward to his commentary and analysis, even when I disagree with him. These disagreements give me the chance to test my beliefs.





Sunday, January 3, 2021

'Loserthink' by Scott Adams - Narrative Corrections

'Loserthink' by Scott Adams - Narrative Corrections

One of the people I follow on Twitter and locals.com is Scott Adams, the creator of the cartoon Dilbert and trained hypnotist who specializes in persuasion. Adams runs a daily video blog where he offers his unique perspective on current events. He is one of the few people who predicted that Trump would win the 2016 presidential election based on what Adams saw in Trump’s methods of persuasion.

I’ve been meaning to review his most recent book, Loserthink: How Untrained Brains Are Ruining America, but the post by Joseph Caskey in the link above does a nice job covering the key points.

What exactly is Loserthink? Per Adams, “Loserthink isn’t about being dumb, and it isn’t about being underinformed. Loserthink is about unproductive ways of thinking.” An example of Loserthink: mind-reading where we claim to know what another person is thinking then “refuting” that thought or intention.

Caskey’s review mentions a couple others such as the slippery slope argument but doesn’t mention one that I see all the time: using analogies to make predictions. Adams gives an example in this interview with Sharyl Attkisson.

I highly recommend Caskey’s review as well as Adams’ Loserthink and his other books. Check out Scott’s Twitter feed (@ScottAdamsSays) and his locals.com community (https://scottadams.locals.com/).

Sunday, June 14, 2020

ROBERT BIDINOTTO: The Real Meaning of "Natural Rights"

ROBERT BIDINOTTO: The Real Meaning of "Natural Rights"

Robert Bidinotto posted this on Facebook in reaction to those who are concerned about the restrictions the government imposed to control the spread of the COVID-19 virus. 

Dave Rubin On Where Liberals And Conservatives Can Agree, And Can't

This review in the Federalist of Dave Rubin's Don't Burn This Book provides a balanced explanation of his "classical liberalism."

Dave Rubin On Where Liberals And Conservatives Can Agree, And Can't

Saturday, June 13, 2020

Left vs. Right = Empathy vs. respect?

One of the people I follow closely is Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert and author of several books such as his latest, Loserthink: How Untrained Brains Are Ruining America. Adams was interviewed recently by Hotep Jesus about the protests and riots triggered by the death of George Floyd. I found the interview to be filled with fascinating insights by both Scott and Hotep. While they didn’t agree 100% I liked how the respected each other’s viewpoint. I also was impressed with Scott’s reaction when Hotep said something that Scott didn’t necessarily agree with or didn’t understand the point Hotep was making. Instead of going on the defensive Scott asked Hotep something like “What does that look like?” which got Hotep to flesh out in clearer terms what he was truing to say. It was more like a true conversation than a traditional interview.

Scott commented on Hotep’s claim that Republicans’ and conservatives’ lack of empathy doesn’t resonate with blacks. If I recall correctly Scott said the right emphasizes respect more than empathy and that they suspect those who talk about empathy because it could be used to subvert the rule of law (which the right says protects civilization from collapsing into barbaric chaos).

This comment reminded me of an article Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind and co-author of The Coddling of the American Mind, posted:  “Where microaggressions really come from:  A sociological account” which comments on a paper titled Microaggression and Moral Cultures by Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning. Their paper claims there are three moral cultures: honor which people have to earn, dignity which we have inherently, and victimhood in which people claim to be easily hurt by slights, real or imagined. Haidt posts parts of the paper with key text emphasized.

Here is a quote from the conclusion of the paper, which Haidt provided in his post.

“What we are seeing in these controversies is the clash between dignity and victimhood, much as in earlier times there was a clash between honor and dignity. … One person’s standard provokes another’s grievance, acts of social control themselves are treated as deviant, and unintentional offenses abound. And the conflict will continue. As it does each side will make its case, attracting supporters and winning or losing various battles. But remember that the moral concepts of each side invokes are not free-floating ideas; they are reflections of social organization.”

Why am I bringing up? I might be stretching things a bit too much to force fit into a theory I’m mulling: a parallel between Arnold Kling’s three languages of politics and these moral cultures. Kling claims conservatives explain things in terms of civilization versus barbarism and therefore defend law and order. (Look at how many of Trump’s tweets consist of “Law & order!” in response to the riots. Tucker Carlson has regularly harped on the breakdown of civilization threatened by the riots.) Liberals, on the other hand, see everything in terms of oppressors and the oppressed. Libertarians (who are the smallest and least visible group) focus on freedom versus coercion and advocate protecting individual rights. I’m thinking that conservatives gravitate toward the respect of the “honor” culture (and somewhat to the “dignity” culture) while liberals empathize with the victims of oppression. (Although I think it’s interesting that liberals claim most oppression comes from capitalism, not from the government which they see as the tool to abolish oppression.)

I would admit that conservatives don't fall neatly into the respect culture. I think there are elements that fall into the dignity culture and some into honor. I'm also using honor in a broader sense than personal honor such as honoring tradition, law, the constitution, the family unit, etc.

This leads me to Integral philosopher Ken Wilber who proposes that humans (and cultures) go through stages of mental evolution; he uses colors adopted from Spiral Dynamics, created by Don Beck and Christopher Cowan, who based their work on Clare Graves, professor of psychology at Union College in Schenectady, New York. This model describes each stage of evolution. Red refers to gang culture (as in red in tooth and claw), blue for traditional culture with a clearly established hierarchy or pecking order (some conservatives) and laws, orange for Enlightenment values of reason, individualism and hierarchies based on meritocracy (libertarians and some conservatives) and green for liberals and the Green movement in which they denounce hierarchies in favor of egalitarianism. Wilber claims each stage, if it is to be a healthy evolution, should transcend yet include the previous stages. Pathologies set in when the next stage rejects the former stages entirely.

This might sound like New Ago woo-woo stuff but I think there is some merit to these distinctions that can help with the current situation. The trick is to find a way that integrates all of them. If the right wants to make progress with the black community they need to find a way to express their ideas and concerns in terms of empathy or in terms of fighting oppression. The same goes the other way too. If the left wants to be more convincing to those on the right they could coach their ideas more in terms of protecting traditions and civilization or, for libertarian, in terms of protecting rights. (Notice I said “if” in both cases. The problem is that it’s easier to band together with our selected tribe and tut-tut about how bad the other side is rather than making the effort to find ways to explain your position in terms that the other side is more likely to accept.)

I’m sure someone could come up with better ideas but here is a first attempt.

For the right they could say something like, “What happened to Floyd should not occur in a civilized society that recognizes the inherent worth of every person’s life regardless of their race or ethnic background. Just as racism oppresses blacks, excessive use of force by the police AND in response to the police oppress too, neither of which we do not condone.”

Liberals could say something like; “Excessive force does not protect us and, as the resulting riots have shown, contributes to the breakdown of law and order, the very thing we on the left and the right value.” When both sides talk with a libertarian they could say; “What the policeman did to George violated his right to life and due process. The failure of the authorities to protect the people who live or have businesses in the areas ravaged by the riots amounts to violating their rights too.”

I’m not saying this attempt to translate your language into a form that the other side uses will always work. I do think you stand a better chance of being heard than what is happening now which is a cacophony of outrage and demonization of the opposing sides.

Thursday, April 9, 2020

Review of How to Have Impossible Conversations: A Very Practical Guide

It seems just about everyone agrees that the vicious rift in how we disagree with each other has never been worse than it is today, especially in politics. Friends have disowned each other over whether they support gun control, immigration, climate change or Trump. We all shake our heads as if this was a hopeless, irreconcilable divide. Although this might be ultimately be true I believe we should still try.

I’ve read several books and articles that offer suggestions on how to bridge this gap. Of the ones I’ve read I’d highly recommend How to Have Impossible Conversations: A Very Practical Guide by Peter Boghossian, James Lindsay. Peter Boghossian is a faculty member in the philosophy department at Portland State University and is a speaker for the Center of Inquiry and an international speaker for the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science. James Lindsay holds degrees in physics and mathematics, with a doctorate in the latter. Because I liked this book I’ve been planning to write a review for this blog. However, this review by Eric Barker, author of Barking Up The Wrong Tree, does such a nice job hitting the key points that I’ve decided to quote from his blog entry to share the key points from How to Have Impossible Conversations.

I should note that the book’s advice is laid out in a sequence starting with beginner’s level recommended skills then intermediate and expert levels. The authors explain that they evolved these skills “drawn from the best, most effective research on applied epistemology, hostage and professional negotiations, cult exiting, subdisciplines of psychology, and more.”

Quoting more from the book, it is “organized by difficulty of application: fundamentals (Chapter 2), basics (Chapter 3), intermediate (Chapter 4), advanced (Chapter 5), expert (Chapter 6), and master (Chapter 7). Some techniques teach you to intervene in the cognition of others, instill doubt, and help people become more open to rethinking their beliefs. Other techniques are oriented toward truth-seeking. Some are just plain good advice. Their underlying commonality, regardless of your conversational goal, is that they all empower you to speak with people who have radically different political, moral, and social worldviews.”

So what are the key points of this book? Here I’ll rely on Eric Barker’s summary. (I’ve edited it slightly and added comments to explain a point if it needs to be expanded.)

·      Be a partner, not an adversary: If you’re trying to win, you’re going to lose. The best approach is: Be nice and respectful. Listen. Understand. Instill doubt. (I refuse to change my mind about this.)
·      Use Rapoport’s rules: They can seem awkward but they reduce conflict better than Valium. [I’ll add an explanation of Rapoport’s rules below.]
·      Facts are the enemy: Unless we’re talking about the savvy, attractive people who read this blog, yes, facts are the enemy. [I have some additional thoughts below.]
·      Use the “Unread Library Effect”: Let them talk. Ask questions. Let them expose their ignorance. Do not cheer when that happens.
·      Use scales: Bring extreme statements down to earth with numbered comparisons. And unless they’re certain at a level 10, they’ll mention their own doubts which can aid your cause.
·      Use disconfirmation: “Eric, under what conditions would disconfirmation not be effective?”
·      Serious beliefs are about values and identity: Don’t attack what they believe, focus on the validity of their reasoning process and whether that identity is the only way to be a good person.

What are Rapoport’s rules? Impossible Conversations explains, quoting from Daniel C. Dennett’s book Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking. (Rapoport is a game theorist.):

1.    Attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.”
2.    List any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
3.    Mention anything you have learned from your target.
4.    And only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

Rapoport’s rules would fall under the concept “steelmanning” in which you restate your opponent’s case in the strongest possible way before challenging it. This approach treats your partner’s beliefs more fairly than using the “straw man” approach in which you purposely weaken or exaggerate someone’s case then refute it.

What about facts? Why do Boghossian and Lindsay urge us not to argue with facts? Well, they don’t say you should never use facts. “It does mean that introducing facts into a conversation is likely to backfire unless done at the correct moment and with great care. … Many people believe what and how they do precisely because they do not formulate their beliefs on the basis of evidence – not because they’re lacking evidence. … Few people form their beliefs on the basis of rigorous consideration of reasoned arguments. Complicating matters, most people believe they do have evidence supporting their beliefs.  … We tend to form beliefs on the basis of cherry-picked selective evidence that supports what we already believe or what we want to believe. Virtually everyone formulates most of their beliefs first then subsequently looks for supporting evidence and convincing arguments that back them up.” As Jonathan Haidt says, we think we’re being detectives who piece together the facts before reaching a conclusion when in fact we act like lawyers who choose facts to make a case.

The authors conclude that introducing facts can backfire and harden your partner’s viewpoint rather than leading your partner to change their mind. They suggest that a more effective way to work facts into a conversation is through questions and by saying something like “I may be wrong about this. It’s my understanding that …”

They also offer a valuable tip on choice of words: eliminate the word “but” and replace it with “and.” For instance, instead of saying “Yes, but how should we deal with the children of illegal immigrants?” we say, “Yes, and how should we deal with the children of illegal immigrants?”

I’ve found that when I disagree with someone on a subject the person I’m talking with often asks why I disagree. They’ll ask what evidence do I have. That gives me the opening to introduce the facts I’ve used to support my conclusion. I should note that sometimes my partner doesn’t ask for my reasons. The less reasonable person will just launch into an attack because I dare to disagree with their unshakeable opinions. In that case, I might still cite my reasons but find a way to end the conversation. Diplomatically, of course!

While I admit I haven’t mastered all of the techniques in this book the key points discussed above have helped me when talking with people who don’t see things the way I do. Read How to Have Impossible Conversations because I think it is possible to have reasonable conversations.

Friday, November 22, 2019

News as selling mythologies


I’m reading Hate Inc.: Why Today's Media Makes Us Despise One Another by Matthew Taibbi, a contributing editor for Rolling Stone who has covered political campaigns. If you’re not familiar with Taibbi I’ll note that he would never be accused of being a right-winger! In reading his essays and his book it’s clear Taibbi despises Fox News and Donald Trump. However, unlike many of his new media brethren who have jettisoned objectivity to push their politics, Taibbi seems to value being objective even when it leads him to uncomfortable conclusions. While he excoriates Fox and Trump he also turns his guns (although with markedly less harshness) on CNN and MSNBC.

In the chapter titled How Reading The News Is Like Smoking, Taibbi says the following.

The main difference between Fox and MSNBC is their audiences are choosing different personal mythologies. Again: this is a consumer choice. It’s not the truth, but a truth product.

People who watch Fox tend to be older, white, and scared. They’re tuning in to be told they’re the last holdouts in a disintegrating empire, Romans besieged by vandals.


People who watch MSNBC, meanwhile, are tuning in to receive mega-doses of the world’s thinnest compliment, i.e. that they’re morally superior to Donald Trump. The network lately has become a one-note morality play with endless segments about Michael Flynn, Michael Cohen, and Paul Manafort.


The coverage formula on both channels is to scare the crap out of audiences, then offer them micro-doses of safety and solidarity, which come when they see people onscreen sharing their fears.

I’ve written before about Arnold Kling’s book The Three Languages of Politics in which he identifies three primary languages in American politics. Liberals tend to talk in terms of oppressors and the oppressed. Conservatives fret about civilization succumbing to barbarism. And libertarians see things in terms of individual freedom from coercion. Based on listening carefully how liberals, conservatives and libertarians talk I think Kling’s model is valid.

Taibbi’s description of Fox’s primary audience identifies conservative’s fear of leftist barbarians undercutting the traditional foundations of civilization, which reflects Kling’s language modal. While Taibbi doesn’t discuss the views of MSNBC (or the other major news outlets) in the same terms as Kling, I assume Taibbi would agree with many of the Trump haters I’ve met who claim that Trump is a racist, misogynist and didn’t earn his wealth but who obtained it by taking advantage of people. A common theme underlies these charges: that Trump (and therefore his supporters) favor oppressing people because of their race, gender or economic status.

Later Taibbi says:

I’ve run into trouble with friends for suggesting Fox is not a pack of lies. Sure, the network has an iffy relationship with the truth, but much of its content is factually correct. It’s just highly, highly selective – and predictable with respect to which facts it chooses to present.

Here I’d say the same thing could be said about CNN, MSNBC, ABC, CBS, NBC and NPR. Taibbi gives them a pass, as if they don’t do exactly the same thing he attributes to Fox. On the other hand, the first appendix in Hate Inc., “Why Rachel Maddow Is On The Cover Of This Book,” explains why Taibbi put Maddow’s photo on the cover with Sean Hannity. He concludes the appendix with this comment about Maddow.

What she reads each night is not the news. It’s Stars and Stripes for a demographic, the same job that made Sean Hannity a star. Only she does it for a different audience, Lonesome Rhodes for the smart set. Even she must realize it can’t end well.

[Lonesome Rhodes was a character in a 1957 movie titled A Face in the Crowd. Here is the Wikipedia summary of the plot: “The story centers on a drifter named Larry ‘Lonesome’ Rhodes who is discovered by the producer … of a small-market radio program in rural northeast Arkansas. Rhodes ultimately rises to great fame and influence on national television.”]

While I’m only halfway through Hate Inc. I’ve read enough to be comfortable with recommending it to people on the left or the right. As Taibbi says, the news organizations “keep people away from the complexities of these issues, by creating distinct audiences of party zealots who drink in more and more intense legends about one another. We started to turn the ongoing narrative of the news into something like a religious contract, in which, in which the idea was not just to make you mad, but to keep you mad, whipped up in a state of devotional anger. Even in what conservatives would call the ‘liberal’ media, we used blunt signals to create audience solidarity. We started to employ anti-intellectualism on a scale I’d never seen before, and it ran through much of the available content.”

The only thing I’d add is that this anti-intellectualism springs from shedding objectivity.