Libertarian Utopias I: Being a New Liberal, Research Time, 27/02/2015

This week, I’ve talked a lot about Marxism because it’s been in the news. And I’ve talked a little bit about how I originally thought Marxist politics would play a fairly large role in the arguments of the Utopias project. But over the last year, I’ve realized that Marxism isn’t going to be a major subject of that book because it’s no longer the most influential utopian social movement of my generation. That would be libertarianism.

When I talk about the influence of a social movement and its philosophy, I’m literally talking about practical influence, the power of those ideas and of the people who believe in them to shape the world. Marxism was definitely the political ideology and philosophy that played the single most profound role in shaping the politics of the early and middle 20th century. But the world we live in now has overcome those Marxist politics.

Our dreams strain against the ropes of bureaucracy.
Often, this new philosophy is called neoliberalism. That’s the shorthand that the people who oppose it use. I do like the term itself as a word, but it’s too frequently used as a shorthand for any form of capitalism that the speaker dislikes. This isn’t so in the more thoughtful political and philosophical discussions of the idea, but how it emerges in its populist form, from the man in the message board, so to speak.

Instead, I’ve taken to using the term new liberal when I talk about Friedrich Hayek’s work on the blog lately, because it doesn’t provoke the same fiery response as neoliberalism. They refer to the same thing, but when I want my reader to consider the philosophy objectively, as a concept and not a headline, I’ll call it new liberal political philosophy.

See, left-leaning internet bubbles tend to think of Hayek and the other progenitors of neoliberal and libertarian thought (I’m thinking of Robert Nozick, Milton Friedman, and the insufferable Ayn Rand) as little more than devils. But they were people with their own lives and perspectives just as legitimate as the rest of us. Even if we remain opposed to many of their ideas (and we really should), we should still read their works and understand their philosophies if we want to develop a genuine alternative.

Because, when I read Hayek, I agree with a lot of his basic ideas. Nowhere in Road to Serfdom (at least so far) does Hayek describe a just world as anything like our current global society of massively powerful oligarchs, beyond-anemic state social services, and a population barely hanging on to stability in the face of wars over natural resource control, ecological disasters, and a finance industry that profits from the collapse of thousands of people’s economic stability.

Instead, he talks about the freedom to make personal and employment contracts without state economic planning authorities telling you that you are to work only in a particular industry or live only in a particular kind of housing establishment. Now, I’ll take Hayek at his word when he says that the notion of totally planning every aspect of a country’s economy and nationalizing all its industries, even in a democracy, was mainstream in Europe and much of the Americas. At least it was in the 1930s and 40s.

It was probably the global conflict of the Western democracies with the Soviet Union that seriously doomed this political idea, since by the 1950s, the CIA was helping overthrow world leaders (like Iran’s Mohammad Mossadeq) who nationalized major industries. Nationalization of industry stank too much of Soviet communism, and I’m not sure whether the popular explosion of Hayek’s ideas through Road to Serfdom was a cause, a condition, or a boost to this political trend away from the totally planned economy. Probably all three.

Having every aspect of your personal material economic existence controlled by a state bureaucracy (along with its attendant security and police functions) is a vision of society that should be fought to preserve individual liberty. Some of the greatest works of political fiction in the 20th century were written dramatizing this conflict and its immense stakes: Franz Kafka, George Orwell, Terry Gilliam.

But somewhere between the liberal idealism of Road to Serfdom and the end of Hayek’s life (and especially the full descent into oligarchy that Western politics kicked into high gear in the era of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan), the defence of individual liberty against the bureaucratic power of the state became a political and economic program that fought all kinds of collective action and self-consciousness, even vilifying the value of community itself.

The bulwarks of ordinary people against the immense corporate power of oligarchic private ownership of a society’s wealth were shattered in the name of defending the freedom of the individual to live his life according to his own choices. Where did it go wrong? To be continued . . . 

Review By Correspondence, Composing, 26/02/2015

Probably my most frequent type of work at the Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective is book reviewing. I’ve written there on how important I think is to experiment with the format of book reviews, just because I think more can be done with them than just describing evidence for why you should read or not read the book. More than an essay offering an individual’s aesthetic judgement, a book review can be an illuminating artwork in itself.

Maybe I’ve been reading too much Borges and Bolaño over the last few years. I’m perfectly willing to admit that, but I still think the results of my experiments in book reviews are valuable on their artistic merits. 

Most of my reviews are collaborative, working with two, three, or sometimes as many as six people to discuss a larger work. This is creative on its own, with all of our different perspectives playing off each other in unpredictable ways. After all, we’re creative and intelligent people exploring (what we hope is) a complex and fascinating book.

Steve Fuller wrote another book.
Over the next few weeks, Adam Writes Everything will take part in a collaboration with SERRC and its co-founder Steve Fuller to present a review of Fuller’s own latest book, Knowledge: The Philosophical Quest in History. My collaborator will be Steve Fuller. We’ll engage in some modern epistolary dialogue about his latest project, chapter by chapter, as I explore it.

In other words, as I finish a chapter, I’ll email Steve my reactions and some questions, he’ll email me back some responses and answers, I’ll follow up, and he’ll close it.

I’ve thrown objectivity out the window, of course, but being purely or ideally objective doesn’t always do the best job of explaining a book, especially when it’s already pretty good.* Steve has written a dense, complex, multifaceted exploration of the modern philosophical problem of epistemology, and how it arose as a separate domain of philosophy in the first place. Our long-form exchanges will act as a companion to the book, more than a review and a score could achieve.

* I wouldn’t be doing this project if Steve’s book was terrible. If it was, I’d be . . . well . . . let’s just say I’m glad Knowledge is a very good book.

So I hope you’ll follow my latest experiment in the art of philosophy over the next month or so here on the blog. I promise it’ll be pretty enlightening.

My Trouble With Marxism, A History Boy Composing Research Time, 25/02/2015

Marxist thought haunts me, and I'm sure it'll haunt the Utopias project in significant ways. It even came up as a brief issue for Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity, even though it’s a book of ecological philosophy pitched in a context of posthumanism, because one of my proposal reviewers mistook common ideas in environmentalist moral theory, like humanity’s alienation from nature, for Marxist analysis because of coincidentally common terms.

We must never presume that the progress of history is
inevitable and universal. I remember Antonio Gramsci
writing about his frustration with his revolutionary
colleagues who believed this.
But when I was first formulating the Utopias project, I explored how much I’d have to engage with Marxism, and some of the first comments I got from Marxists and Marx specialists among my personal networks were very dogmatic. I've also met several university-based Marx scholars whose way of engaging their critiques are similarly dogmatic. Unproductively so.

When I posted a long article by Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis the other day, with a long preamble of my own, on my Facebook profile, I got some very productive criticism from my old friend John-Boy. I was too quick in my preamble to describe Marx himself as having supported violent revolution during his own lifetime, which was a failure of historical knowledge on my part. 

Another acquaintance was just as dogmatic as my unfriendly critics from 2013, having accused me of never actually having read Marx. If I’ve learned anything from my skeptical readings of Marx and Marxist thinkers since starting Adam Writes Everything, it’s that the field of Marx readers is filled with dogmatic people who denounce criticism instead of engaging it, or treating it as a teachable moment. John-Boy really did it right, filling me in with some historical links tempered with his usual friendly sarcasm.

Because despite the latest accusation from one Marx loyalist, I first read his works in my undergraduate years, through a class in political philosophy. Not all of them, but I’ve read the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, The German Ideology, “The Communist Manifesto,” and scattered chapters of Capital, though not the whole thing.

Judging from Veroufakis’ article, he’s encountered a lot of similarly dogmatic resistance to his own compromises (though his critics would say betrayal) of his Marxist philosophical heritage. Antonio Gramsci described a similar doctrinaire, conformist attitude in the 1920s and 30s. I think it might be an ideological discipline that grows from the sub-culture having spent a long time as violent militant revolutionaries requiring comprehensive loyalty from adherents to prevent subversion from government agents.

Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis.
Veroufakis himself describes a profound departure from orthodox Marxism (if we can call anything orthodox Marxism in this slippery and enormous field of theory) in his own thought, which justifies why he wishes to save capitalism from itself. He breaks with the traditional Marxist understanding of catastrophe’s role in the progress of humanity.

The basic structure through which Marx understands history is Hegelian. Veroufakis describes his fellow Marxists as advocating letting the European economy fail because such a catastrophe is the condition of social progress. Hegel conceived of history as the collective human self-(sub)consciousness, humanity’s spirit, developing through the growing social prominence of movements that embody contradictions.

And I mean contradictions in a literal, logical sense. Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit describes contradictions occurring in history (A is the negation of B, but A and B both happen), being resolved in moments of catastrophic reorganization, and the new social order contains all the progressive elements of both previous patterns, but none of the flaws. 

We should not be too pious to our influences.
Veroufakis analyses contemporary capitalism as a collision of contradictions: economic productivity depends on the qualitatively creative contribution of labour, but economic management pressures both employers and workers to quantify labour through wage calculations and HR classifications. The more you quantify labour value, the less room you give for its creativity, and a totally quantified labour will be valueless, having wiped out its creative factors. This contradiction, he says, is the underlying tension whose break facilitates the collapse.

Grant him this for the sake of argument. His break from the Hegelian (and Marxist) conception of history comes from what he takes to be the result of collapse. Such a realization came after Marx’s own lifetime, and I see its ground in the philosophies of human nature in Sigmund Freud and Gilles Deleuze. The destabilization of society is not only a phenomenon in pure reason, but in the daily experience of people. And when people’s social foundations are destabilized, they become paranoid and hostile.

This is why a more enlightened anti-capitalist or anti-oligarchy movement wasn’t the most prominent political result of the socio-economic collapse of Greece. Although the anti-austerity Syriza has taken the government, their central rival is the fascist and racist Golden Dawn, a party who are openly Nazi revivalists.

The Hegelian vision of history that informed Marx’s theory of historical dialectical materialism focusses too much on the logical character of rationality considered in the abstract. Human history is a collision of millions and billions of individuals whose idiosyncratic psychologies interact at differing levels of influence to determine how a society develops. 

Hegel’s philosophy was the unfolding of reason in history. But in the real, material world, the future is in our hands, for better and worse.

We must never presume that the progress of history is inevitable and universal. 

Theories of the Real and Practice of the Ideal, Jamming, 24/02/2015

One of my regular commenters on the blog is a colleague from the Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective, Thomas Basbøll, a writing coach in Denmark. He and I have philosophical disagreements about pretty much everything we talk about. Probably our most profound disagreement is over the nature of reality; you don’t get much more profound than that.

Thomas retired his own blog last year (at least for now), but on one of my posts last week about the nature of objectivity and the ethics of journalism and communication, he wrote a few things about the nature of society and social existence. He distinguishes between things and people. Things are the subject matter of objective knowledge and material processes. People are the subject matter of subjective processes, including the social institutions that people create to manage their societies at large scales. 

Distinguishing a human ideal from a material real
all too often blinds us to the material causal power
of human technology and civilization, material which
embodies and expresses thought.
It’s a dualism that I’m not really cool with, in my own perspective. Mostly, that’s because of my thorough materialism: I’m not comfortable with making strong distinctions on the basis of substance, particularly when humanity slots into a category of its own. I’m not going to give solid arguments as to why this is the case and more essentialist dualisms are wrong. I don’t think metaphysical facts are of this kind. We can’t definitively say which are true and which are false by empirical investigation or deduction. 

I can describe a particular broad set of metaphysical concepts that constitute a general perspective on how to understand existence, and argue pragmatically for why it is better for us to make sense of ourselves and the world along these lines rather than others. This is basically what Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity does with ecocentrism, metaphysically, ethically, and morally. 

Given our current situation, a philosophical approach to humanity’s world that follows the general pattern of humanism, taking humanity to have an essence that makes it of a substantially different kind than the rest of nature conditions maladaptive behaviour. A metaphysics of our continuity with nature conditions more sustainable activity.

Thomas’ metaphysical distinction of things and people defines action as something different from the real, though I doubt that it is kosher to put them in a hierarchy of more or less reality, as has sometimes been done in philosophical history. He writes that “only materiality constitutes the objective reality.” Social institutions, being the creations of humans, exist as subjective (or perhaps intersubjective) idealities. Action in the context of a society (the only action possible) has a dynamic of obedience. But institutions don’t give orders that individuals follow. 

Instead, think of institutions as establishing the frameworks and conditions for social and political action. A social institution is an ideal entity that we understand, and what constitutes our understanding is our practice (or should I say praxis?), moving according to the possibilities for action that their frameworks structure.

A very intense Ian Hacking.
Thomas cites Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann’s The Social Construction of Reality as a key philosophical touchstone in this conception, that what is socially constructed is other than real. But I’d stand on the shoulders of another landmark sociologist philosopher as a touchstone for my developing my own view: Ian Hacking, who wrote that what was socially constructed was just as real as anything else, because human actions and relations are themselves real, material processes.

I worry that Thomas downplays the reality of emergent entities, entities that are constituted through relations. Because relations constitute all bodies, structures, and matter. I find it very retrograde to regard entities constituted through human action as somehow less real than entities constituted through other kinds of relations. 

Thomas also has some fascinating ideas in some older entries about the nature of language that flow from his distinction of the material real and the human/social ideal. Our languages and our ways of knowing the world, under this distinction, are traditions of action and understanding, a notion that he evokes Borges to explore. 

For one thing, the correspondence conception of truth as the assertion of facts is pretty inadequate in this model. But because traditions are ideal entities in Thomas’ thinking, so they guide and determine our actions, moving us to think in particular ways. And he may be right about the character of language and knowledge paradigms as traditions, but his distinction of real and ideal may encourage us to think that our models of knowledge are somehow disconnected from reality. 

Think about this implication of that disconnect: If we our traditions of methods to know the world are ideal in a sense that they’re distinct from reality, schiz between the ideal and the real becomes inevitable, almost a matter of definition. Being so deeply situated in our traditions as we are, the ideal becomes a prison cutting us off from the real. We lose the conception of our knowledge and social action as causal.
• • •
He slips and slides away from easy definition. Borges.
Thomas refers to Borges’ story “The Approach to al-Mu’tasim.” It’s the story of different ways that a particular story is interpreted. The subject of our contemplation is the narrative of a young man searching for an ideally good and holy man, and each of the protagonist’s encounters brings him to characters progressively approaching this ideal. The story ends with only a brief glimpse of the mysterious al-Mu’tasim.

Borges describes this fictional book as having two separate editions. In the first, al-Mu’tasim is described in superlative terms, but has particular idiosyncratic traits, clearly a person with his own life who has achieved much ethical progress. This al-Mu’tasim is barely glimpsed in the story, but we know that he is a real person in the narrative, with a singular history and identity, from whom we could learn. 

The al-Mu’tasim of the second edition is a pure idea. Each person the protagonist speaks with about him describes him as a reflection of themselves. This al-Mu’tasim is an image of perfection to which we can only approach while it remains equally distant. Such is the flaw of the unreal.
• • • 
This is one of the main reasons I’m glad that I take part in the SERRC. Adam Writes Everything will participate over the next month or so in a new experiment in book review writing, which I’m really quire excited about. I hope to promote it beyond just the circle of SERRC, spreading it to wider academic publications and forums. 

Beyond these experiments, SERRC is also a gathering place for people with remarkably diverse philosophical approaches, perspectives, and ideas to work on common problems. Our diversity cuts off unfortunate tendencies to philosophical groupthink that all-too-often emerge in communities based solely in university institutions and content-restricted journals. SERRC is the kind of community that I think will make genuine philosophical progress over the next century.

State Power to Create a Nobility, Research Time, 23/02/2015

Friedrich Hayek has a lot of curious critiques of using state/government power to plan, manage, and control economic activity. One critique stood out to me as being, essentially, a product of the radical left. 

His argument goes something like this. Say a hardcore, old-fashioned socialist government takes over from a relatively liberal one. Its plan is just as the technocrats of Hayek’s own age presumed was the inevitable wave of the future, to run all the economic affairs of its country through a centrally planned state infrastructure, nationalizing all industry and making all people state employees. 

Such a socialist government will have to equalize people’s income and living situations. Because the current arrangement of society is economically unequal, this will require giving some people more state benefits than others. Essentially, it creates a favoured class of people, the beneficiaries of more state wealth, support, and services. It would also have to take wealth away from citizens who had an outsized share under the old regime, but concentrate on the people to whom the state gives most for this argument.

This phenomenon is the state itself creating a new most-favoured class within society. All societies have such classes, and one of the purposes of community-scale democratic organization is to give these classes the pokes required to keep them from lording their wealth over everyone else. But in Hayek’s hypothetical example, the institutional machinery of the state itself secures the new ruling class of uplifted poor and bureaucratic managers of the economy.

Such a movement is entirely anti-democratic. But the right-wing or conservative movements that helped promote Hayek's new liberalism weren't really interested in creating a society free of privilege. They didn't want to nationalize the economy under a bureaucratic state's management, but such classes of very wealthy people have seldom opened competition for their fortunes to all.

Two theorists in my research for the Utopias project have already made such critiques of state power to create and secure a ruling or nobility class in their own times: Pyotr Kropotkin and Mikhail Bakunin. 

Kropotkin discussed the politics of humanity with a longer frame of reference than a lot of the notable political theorists and writers of recent years. He didn’t talk in terms of decades or even centuries, but in reference to millions of years of human evolution. This perspective taught him that humans most naturally and for the longest time lived in small groups whose lives depended on constant interaction and mutual dependence and aid. 

The problem with modern society, from such a perspective, would be that rigid social hierarchies of authorities and noblemen with special privileges over many individuals is a radical shift away from this best practice. It discards a social practice that is easily seen to be evolutionarily superior, and quite a lot about rigid hierarchies show just how maladaptive they are. 

Bakunin spent some of his harshest words decrying the institutions and the economic practices that constituted and enshrined a class of nobles. He went beyond the macro-economic scale of state favouritism, though, and attacked the practice of inheritance of wealth itself. Inheritance is the foundation of nobility on the scale of the individual, allowing personally unearned wealth to jumpstart another person’s fortune unfairly.

I’m not sure what he offered as an alternative to dealing with the accumulated wealth of the dead, and I haven’t managed to think of any alternatives myself. So any direction in this regard would be much appreciated.

It’s another aspect of how libertarian politics seems to converge with anarchist philosophy. Despite this, libertarianism in our public world keeps turning to the right. I’m not sure of the exact cause, and there are probably many. A major practical factor, so I hypothesize right now, is that when Hayek and Milton Friedman formed the first new liberal think tanks, they had so much corporate financial support and influence that their fundamental ideas for the freest markets enabling liberty were corrupted by the new ruling class of our societies. 

Finding a Productive Western Left in the Fight Against ISIS, Advocate, 21/02/2015

Ordinary Western people are in a weird position today. Most middle and lower class people today struggle for success. Most of us aim for a relatively dignified life, stuck in an economic system that makes growing demands on us, which leads so many of us to live our lives on credit. 

Our governments’ economic policies tend increasingly to let working people’s salaries stagnate in the face of overall growth in productivity. The rich grow richer, and the rest struggle to maintain the same standards of the previous generation. This is the central political issue of my generation of Western people, the rallying cry of the Occupy movement whose political reverberations are still being felt, and will continue for decades.

But these problems are nothing compared to the horrors people face in the definitive wars of our generation. These include violent conflicts in Sudan, Mali, the Congo, and Kenya over political power and oil and mineral wealth. I refer to Vladimir Putin’s Great Game style imperial games in Ukraine and other bordering countries. I also think of the Islamist uprisings in Nigeria and Pakistan. 

From an RT report of ISIS mass murders in Tikrit.
The most terrifying political violence on Earth to me is the genocidal wave of Islamic State, a Millenarian movement whose goal is to immolate the Middle East, kill hundreds of millions of people, and bring about Allah’s Earth-destroying fire.

I read with rapt attention Graeme Wood’s article in The Atlantic exploring the theological foundations of Islamic State as a social enterprise. It seems to have been the most read piece of journalism on this movement, and captures much of what mainstream discourse has so far ignored. The movement is, in Wood’s words, a cult with an army of hundreds of thousands, and a military arsenal raided (or given) from the region’s most brutal dictators, forged in the shameful moral wasteland of Camp Bucca, where the United States army brutally tortured captured anti-occupation militants in Iraq. Wood's analogy is that it as if Jim Jones or David Koresh actually had the firepower and global support to raze a continent to the ground.

Westerners have thought about Al Qaeda as the paradigm of Islamic fundamentalist terror movements for so long (and the social trauma of Sept 11 was so scarring) that it’s hard for us to see how a similarly inspired movement could act differently. Their eye isn’t on the West primarily, but on building a doctrinaire, prophetic Islam on Earth, a society that strictly enforces a comprehensive social morality on the model of Mohammad’s era, as well as providing for all the physical and spiritual needs of its people. Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi’s caliphate is supposed to become a society of perfect spiritual and social conformity in which there is no poverty, homelessness, or suffering that is not a punishment for crime or apostasy.

Islamic State is of a piece with the Edenic dreams of fundamentalist Christians who work to enforce total conformity to their religious and social beliefs, while hastening the End of Days and Christ’s Earthly dominion. Al-Baghdadi and his followers simply admit that their apocalypse is built on the slaughter of millions.

It is, to anyone used to thinking from anything resembling a secular viewpoint, really fucking weird.

One thoughtful critic of Wood’s piece forcefully points out his central conceptual error in understanding Islamic State. Wood talks to a single scholarly expert on Islamic prophetic extremism, and most of his reporting speaks with dedicated adherents to Al-Baghdadi’s goal to build an ideal totalitarian Islamic state on the genocide or enslavement of all those not similarly devoted.

Journalist Murtaza Hussain.
Murtaza Hussain is right to describe Al-Baghdadi’s movement as heresy. All the institutional scholarly institutes of Islam agree that Baghdadi’s movement is a perversion of Islam. His interest in writing his scathing critique of Wood’s piece is clear: in representing the Islamic State movement as a distilled, hyper-extreme essence of Islam more pure than the religion’s actual practice has ever actually been, he lends al-Baghdadi and his followers a legitimacy to represent Islam to non-Muslims that they don’t deserve.

Here’s where I feel awkward as a Western person who is struggling to work out how best to strive against the political and social injustices of my own country. I’m descended from a wide culture that has been responsible for terrifying injustices and violence on the rest of the world through centuries of colonial enterprise. Nearly everyone in the West* has benefited from colonial military-economic exploitation of others, through our having such a higher average standard of living.

* The exceptions are truly destitute people like the homeless of Toronto who have frozen to death on the street this winter, abandoned by everyone to die in worse conditions than we permit to animals and sometimes even treated with the contempt too many of us give to the poor.

But Western people are still fighting struggles of their own against the growth of oligarchy in our power structures. And too many dissident Westerners let this struggle against oligarchy misdirect our energies. It’s how earnest people of the Western left defend Bashar Assad and Vladimir Putin, because they fight the West, and these useful idiot leftists associate the West with an immutable colonialism. 

The Caliph speaks for no one.
The Western Idiot Leftists are just as essentialist in their political thinking as any bigot. I want to figure out how to oppose the injustices happening in other cultures without having to absolutely vilify my own culture. Doing so targets my culture, Western culture, with the same essentialism that Wood’s Atlantic article applies to Muslim cultures when he situates Islamic State as the purest Islam. 

Muslim culture is as diverse, fragmented, and filled with as many singularities as its people. Actually more, because further articulations of Islam emerge from the relations of Muslims living their cultures together. Wood wrote in a way that left his article vulnerable to Hussain’s valid objection. Islam, like any human cultural phenomenon, has no essence. Those who already hate Islam and Muslims (people like Mike Huckabee, Bobby Jindal, and countless other bigots around the world) will read Wood’s article and take Al-Baghdadi’s Islam as the essence of Muslim culture. And they will use that belief as further bedrock for their bigotry and hatred.

What constitutes the drive to terror of Islamic State is that its adherents themselves also believe that their genocidal movement is the essence of Islam, just like the bigots of the West.

Objectivity Is IV: What All This Has to Do With Communications, Composing, 20/02/2015

Continued from last post . . . The modern model of journalism grew out of the reaction to the yellow press style of reporting and publishing. Newspapers no longer needed to shout over each other for attention to earn their sales. Instead, they could build a reputation for fair and informative reporting, and let their regular subscribers carry the bulk of their income.

Objectivity was the rule of the new game of newspapers that made their reputation in prestige. Contrast this with the public relations industry, which was still progressing its norms and techniques into territory just slightly more sophisticated than carnival barkers. The conditions were just right for the two industries to crystallize their public images that would sustain for decades. 

Hearst used his corporate newspaper empire to attack
Citizen Kane because he took personally its critique of
him as an egotistical blowhard who would use his
corporate newspaper empire to attack his enemies for
spite. It proved that he was exactly how Welles
depicted his thinly veiled character.
Cracks showed in the pristine reputation of the new objective ideal of journalism from the beginning, starting with the open secret that William Randolph Hearst, the Rupert Murdoch of his day, promoted messages through his newspapers that boosted political ends he favoured. By the 1980s, the fragmentation of media through cable news created the conditions for the niche development of journalism. 

We all knew that, under the mythical veneer of total objectivity, particular publications had always slanted in particular directions either generally or on particular issues. The explosion of media channels, first on television and then on the internet, constituted a positive push in the economic environment for outlets to double down on their ideological biases to corner a loyal audience. Combine this with the economics of the click-through in blog-based media, and we have the modern resurgence of the yellow press. 

Public relations, meanwhile, was becoming corporate communications. Although there was still a great deal of unethical behaviour at the top of the profession, where the largest firms tend to work on behalf of the most dangerous projects, the industry was becoming more prestigious and professional. 

I think a lot of this had to do with the fact that corporate communications was becoming a female-dominated industry, overcoming the dickish egotism that tends to prevail in male-dominated fields. Finesse and nuance were the skills of thought and expression that you needed to advance and progress in corporate communications, no longer bullish competitiveness and the will to dominate.

It was also becoming more complex, adopting the tools of narrative creation that had been perfected in reporting and journalism. But they were adopted to build the images of corporate and community clients, not for any duty to report truths. Truthfulness was still important; outright lying is considered unethical in public relations practice, no matter how many prominent examples you can find among the richest companies. Riches corrupt, after all.

No one could even pretend that Sean Hannity's
softball interviews with Mitt Romney during the 2012
Presidential election approached objective journalism.
But there’s now an honesty to public relations that modern journalism lacks. Even the journalistic institutions that are the most nakedly partisan (the most obvious examples being FOX News and other prominent media brands in the Murdoch conglomerate) pitch themselves as essentially truthful. If a FOX journalist calls himself conservative, he says it’s because his conservative beliefs reflect the truth. The liberal journalist will say the same thing. 

The reputation of journalism as an objective pursuit remains with us, even as almost every instance of objectivity collapses into a partisan venture. This is why, yesterday, I wrote that the concept of objectivity in this context (among pretty much every epistemic context, but that’s for another time) can no longer work, and that we need a virtue of truthfulness instead. 

Corporate communications has an honesty that modern journalism, with its yellow streaks, lacks. A corporate communicator will always admit her agenda, her goals about what she wants her audience to believe. She will admit that there are other ways to think, but that her aim is to convince people of some particular belief for causes and reasons about which she’ll be completely transparent if you ask.

A corporate communicator admits her agenda. In this, she’s truthful.

Objectivity Is III: Truthfulness as a Virtue, Composing, 19/02/2015

Continued from last post . . . So here’s my little philosophy of journalism idea, the four aspects of objectivity. That word isn’t really appropriate for what I describe here, though. The myth of the objective is still too powerful, both in journalists’ culture and in wider society. 

Instead, I’ll call it truthfulness. Objectivity is a specific goal to be achieved, or rather to sit infinitely distant from every human attempt to achieve it, our fixed star in the horizon of our worldly action. Truthfulness isn’t a goal in this sense, or even an ideal. Instead, it’s a virtue, an aspect of a human personality that describes a tendency to behave in particular fashions. And it’s better that we behave truthfully than not.

This post is my tentative definition of truthfulness in communications practice, whether as a reporter, a public relations practitioner, or simply as a broadly defined communications expert. Consider these four aspects as my first, tentative conception of a virtue of truthfulness. Any truthful communication must be fair, adequate to the subject matter, revealing, and comprehensive. 

A panel from Paul Cornell's The Girl Who Loved Doctor
, a story that explores the real ethical and political
differences between the world of Doctor Who and ours.
Fairness. The empty platitude version of this idea is “There are two sides to every story.” That’s pathetically underdetermined. Really, there are as many sides to every unfolding story as there are participants (sometimes, more). 

The example I gave at the start of yesterday’s post, that the military dictator deserves equal time to the activists he suppresses, was much too stark a contrast. I chose it as an extreme example to show the limits of fairness.* Fairness is a submission to the moral complexity of the world, an admission that there are rarely heroes and villains. All sides of a conflict, no matter its violence or intensity, can do terrible things and also be upstanding, admirable people. As Paul Cornell once wrote, our everyday world has no monsters to destroy, only immensely difficult problems to solve.

* A note about the concept of reversal in the McLuhans’ Laws of Media. Even here, a principle taken to an extreme expression reverses itself. I may also ask my Hegelian friend B-Rad what this conceptual movement might have to do with Hegel’s concept of aufheben. But that’s a philosophical-historical triangulation for another time.

Adequacy. Reporting is essentially synthesizing empirical observations into an account of what you’ve observed. If you’re going to report your observations truthfully, then what you say has to be adequate to the events and people you’re talking about.

This isn’t the same as total accuracy. We can’t be accurate in any total sense about anything we talk about simply because there’s too much going on. I’ve read some very good journalism lately about the fight in Canada’s parliament over the government’s sloppy new anti-terrorism legislation. Adequate reporting discusses the content of the bill, its possible uses, evaluates the legislation for possible problems and overreach in execution, describes the causes and content of every disputant’s perspective and goal. 

We don't need to know Tom Mulcair's breakfast to
know what pisses him off.
There’s no need to report the menus of all the parliamentarians’ breakfasts on each day of debate. Adequacy requires a genuine accounting for all the relevant facts, which requires discrimination of a situation’s causes.

Revealing. Much of the world is hidden from us. Nothing conspiratorial here. The world is just a murky place where you have to go digging for facts. And the course of people’s daily lives don’t normally bring them into fairly close contact with most of the other seven billion or so humans on Earth. There’s a lot about the world that we don’t know.

Truthful communication should reveal something about the world that most of the people who hear it didn’t know before. One of the best examples in journalism is a lot of the foreign documentary work that VICE has enabled. It has produced some of the best news documentaries that I think I’ve ever seen. I was especially impressed by their coverage of the civil war in South Sudan last winter.

Straight factuality isn’t the only aspect of being revealing either. I think the kind of revelation that Werner Herzog calls ecstatic truth profoundly articulates this principle of truthfulness. His documentaries give you a sense of a phenomenon, the unfolding drama of the world itself, in a way that straight facts and precise accuracy of each piece of information would actually detract from our understanding. 

Consider how his Fata Morgana depicted the horrifying desperation of rural African poverty without ever knowing the names or life stories of any of those people in his film. Or how his Lessons of Darkness gives you a better appreciation for the stark, otherworldly, hellish terror of the 1991 Kuwaiti oil well fires better than any of the journalism of the time, no matter the praise CNN received for their own work.

You need a more poetic way of speaking when you
have to describe the experience of an entire country's
earth literally being set aflame.
Comprehensive. At first glance, you may think that adequacy contradicts this. But the term helps make an important distinction. Adequacy refers to facts, but comprehensiveness is about perspectives themselves. Being comprehensive of an event or situation means including all its constituent narratives, the human stories. 

Here’s an example to illustrate, which I’ll be talking about later on the blog in a different context. I read a fascinating interview with a Syrian dissident named Yassin al-Haj Saleh. He was talking about his disappointment with the Western left because many leftists are blind to the suffering of ordinary Syrians in the region’s current civil war, and under the Assad regime. I’ve seen this myself, talking to fellow self-identified leftists who defend Bashar Assad out of a sense of realpolitik: standing up to Western imperialism and military expansionism requires solidarity with those who oppose them, like Assad.

The nature of their blindness is a lack of comprehensiveness. The only people who factor into such a political analysis are the heads of states and militaries. For all that the left claims to be able the liberation of the people, most of its popular political activism appears rooted in blindness to the affairs of regular folks. 

Now that I have my more conceptual argument laid out, the question remains what exactly all this has to do with communications and brand journalism, which was the original Twitter conversation that sparked this days-long riff of tangents. To be continued . . . 

Objectivity Is II: Twisted Through Daily Life, Composing, 18/02/2015

Continued from last post . . . So we are left with a world where the only claim to objectivity is at best a lie, and at worst an excuse to turn away from genuine injustice. There are two sides to every story, so I must take the perspective of the dictator who runs government torture chambers and death camps with the same fidelity to objectivity in presenting their voice as the military resistance leader.

I choose this example because it’s stark and without nuance. It illustrates the problems that arise when humans attempt to achieve total objectivity: moral judgment becomes impossible because someone can develop a justification for any action. I’ve met a lot of philosophers during my time in the university system who believed in moral facts, but those moral facts are all so general that they’re almost meaningless. 

Joshua Oppenheimer's The Act of Killing re-enacts
moments when Indonesian government operatives killed
left-wing guerrillas, supporters, sympathizers, and
people who generally disagreed with government.
Legalized murder is common throughout history,
killing in the name of national security.
Yes, it’s clear that murder is wrong. Its wrongness is part of the definition of murder, a morally unacceptable killing. Knowing that doesn’t settle anything about what acts of killing are murder. 

A husband kills his wife in a domestic dispute? Yes. A sloppy driver kills a teenage cyclist at night? Maybe, but she can still sue the victim’s family for her emotional distress. Capital punishment? I and a lot of countries say yes, but a lot more say no. Soldiers in war? Depends on whose side you’re on. Civilians in war? See previous response. Assassinating subversives? I never want to work for a state security service. Euthanasia? Under debate. Abortion? Legal, but many are willing to kill to stop it.

Murder is wrong. Yes, an objective fact that produces such clear answers. 

One of the most dogmatic professors I ever had believed that philosophy had established a certain and objective moral fact, that slavery was wrong. Slavery is a horrifying institution, but I don’t think the philosophical and political debates of the Wilberforce era discovered any objective moral facts whose ground lies beyond human thought. 

What we really discovered is that you can’t be a democrat and hold slaves at the same time. You at least have to give them a pretence of individual freedom, and they’ll still hold you up for your hypocrisies.

Given how impossible objectivity is, should we even try to be objective? As far as I see it, while pure objectivity itself is only possible for God, humans can still take it as a guidepost. We’ll never be able to achieve it, but the ideal functions as a horizon, always infinitely distant, but providing us our proper orientation. 

Even if journalistic institutions usually don’t have a partisan agenda, they each have their own orientations. We’re able to tell which orientations are better or worse, not in terms of whether they achieve objectivity, but whether they’re fair, adequate, revealing, and strive for comprehensiveness. 

These four qualities constitute the human virtues of objectivity. As for what precisely those might be, I’ll walk through that tomorrow. To be continued . . . 

Objectivity Is I: A Dream Born From a Lie, Composing, 17/02/2015

One thing I always loved about the practice of professional philosophy was the intellectual challenge. Wrapping my head around complex concepts is some of the best mental exercise you can do. I always knew I’d miss that when I decided to move on from the university world to the business world.

Except that I don’t have to miss it at all. I’m a student member of the International Association of Business Communicators, and every Thursday, there’s a Twitter chat open to all its members. I’ve been taking part every now and then because it’s an easy way to network all over the country and beyond, but it’s also a good place to just have interesting Twitter conversations.

Last week, a discussion of brand journalism turned into a fascinating discussion of the nature and possibility of objective knowledge. Some industry context. Brand journalism is essentially when the marketing wing of a corporation uses the tools and products of journalism to build its image throughout multiple media platforms. Essentially, the methods of journalism are used to build complex narratives about companies. 

The New York Times used to be the paragon of the
journalistic virtue of objectivity, but a naïve belief in
such a virtue today appears hypocritical.
I don’t really consider this controversial. It’s one additional way that companies build their public images. But the concept of brand journalism unsettles people, I think because of the popular myth that the profession of journalism developed over the 20th century as the guardians of public trust by their fidelity of total objectivity. 

Brand journalism therefore unsettles people because it uses the tools of journalism for purposes that are clearly not about communicating information objectively. It’s an openly partisan activity, journalism for the sake of building a company.

Here’s my own perspective on the entire issue. Journalism is a collection of techniques in gathering, reporting, and assembling information about ongoing social and political issues and events. It’s typically used to refer to a profession of people who use those techniques, and they have usually worked for organizations like newspapers and television networks whose goal is simply to inform people about the wider world. 

When mass market journalism began, its discourse was often very sensationalistic, because its economy was driven by people paying for copies. In a competitive marketplace, where sales were driven literally by people shouting front-page headlines in the street, the most sensationalistic content generated the most money. This is the model of the yellow press. 

When newspapers began to be sold by subscription and less by newsboys, they secured their income through reputation. And the most reputable subscription newspapers became known for depth of analysis and objectivity of perspective. 

Murdoch at least as the virtue of being up front about
his socially conservative, hateful biases, and how they
explicitly inform the publications he owns.
As this reputation became the dominant popular conception of journalism, it was widely believed within the field itself. One tweeter during the #IABCTOchat described a former editor he had during his days as a journalist who still believed in the myth of pure objectivity.

Because it was always a myth. Although the practice of journalism remains motivated by its goal of pure objectivity in individual stories, every story has an angle and every editor identifies what stories will be pursued and which will be left to whither in obscurity. I don’t know how anyone can believe in the essential objectivity of journalistic practice in the era of Rupert Murdoch. 

No matter the virtues of its individual practitioners, their powers are constrained by the corporate policies of their employers. No one believes that any media outlet has a genuinely unbiased approach to the news. Even the lack of bias is a bias, an act of turning away from problems of injustice, responding to situations of clear discrimination or exploitation with the empty platitude, “two sides to every story.” 

So what are we to do in this modern environment where objectivity has become an impossible dream? To be continued . . . 

Why I Can’t Trust Canada’s Federal Liberals and Neither Should You, Advocate, 14/02/2015

Since the news broke early last week, I’ve had my eye on Eve Adams’ switch to the Liberal party and Liberal leader Justin Trudeau’s announcement that she’ll run in Conservative Finance Minister Joe Oliver’s district in north Toronto, the Eglinton-Lawrence riding.* This is a post of purely political analysis and speculation, one relatively intelligent Canadian thinking out loud on the internet about the parties jockeying for control of the country in this Fall’s federal election.

* Just to warn you all, this post is heavy on Canadian politics. It’s also heavy on anger. After it goes live, I’m meeting my girlfriend for a whimsical day of shopping and watching Star Trek on Netflix. Happy Valentine’s Day.

Eve Adams, Canada's latest example of barely
competent political corruption.
Now, if I was in Trudeau’s position, I’d be an entirely different human being. But speaking from my observer’s position, Adams doesn’t appear to be a trustworthy person in any significant way. She and her partner Dimitri Soudas have been Conservative party members and activists all their lives. Now they've had their club membership torn up. For someone who has devoted literally her entire lifetime to a political party, to have left it for their historic, moral political enemy, the Liberal party, must have meant something very serious had happened.

Or maybe not. The press conference where Adams and Trudeau announced her party switch was filled with so many hollow platitudes, it practically echoed. Adams had lately been trying to parachute herself into a different riding association for this year’s election, because her current riding, Mississauga-Brampton South, was going to shrink in a redistricting to deal with population changes. 

Since she lives in Oakville, she tried to get the Conservative riding association for the Oakville-North Burlington district to make her its candidate instead of running in the shrunken riding. She made a fool of herself by barging into its nominating meeting and attempting to railroad herself in as a candidate. She repeatedly interrupted other speakers during the meeting and essentially tried to filibuster it. I don’t really need to say that it wasn’t very effective. 

Perhaps more critically, Adams has faced substantiated accusations that her campaign for the nomination paid people to join the Conservative party in exchange for their support. 

It also seems that Soudas abused his position as executive director of the federal Conservative party to smooth Adams’ way to the 2015 nomination. The exact details of what he did never came fully to light, but this is what got him fired from one of the top staff positions in Canada’s ruling political party. He even said in a CBC interview during the thick of her nomination fight, “I’ll breach any contract that says I can’t help my family.”

No one believes a word you say when everyone who
cares believes that you're a liar.
It sounds like an admirable position of loyalty to the people closest to you, but in this case, it amounted to abandoning basic moral norms about conflict of interest when it comes to the procedures to ensure transparency and fairness in the collective decision process of who gets to become part of the national legislature. He was effectively justifying political corruption as an expression of familial love and loyalty. 

After a year of ridiculous and corrupt dealings of Adams and Soudas to secure her nomination, Stephen Harper eventually put his foot down. Adams was becoming a laughing stock and a humiliation, Soudas could no longer be trusted; they were liabilities. Harper made a decree: Adams would never be a Conservative party candidate at the federal level again.

So she became a Liberal one, running against the popular Joe Oliver in northern Toronto. 

With all these allegations of corrupt behaviour, it makes little sense as to why Justin Trudeau, or anyone in the Liberal party, would trust Adams to join them in an election year. Mind you, she certainly found it easy to secure a candidacy, Trudeau parachuting her into the Eglinton-Lawrence Liberal riding association by a decree of his own.

While Trudeau himself will likely never talk to Soudas, Liberal party organizers will, picking his brain for everything he ever experienced working in the upper echelons of the Conservative party, and Stephen Harper’s inner circle. He’s an intelligence gold mine. It makes perfect sense to do so.

But Eve Adams and Dimitri Soudas are only Liberals by name. The fact that Trudeau, despite his stances on abortion, marijuana legalization, and a host of other social issues, can so easily accept a lifelong right-winger like Adams into his party is a sign that the Liberal party has not changed after its humiliating four years as the third-place party in Canada’s parliament for the first time in its history.

The Liberal party, since the days of its first real super-operative, C. D. Howe, has prioritized power over ideology. Avoiding ideological thinking is fine, but you’re supposed to prioritize value, social and personal ethics. Pursuing power for power’s sake is inherently authoritarian, and doing so in a democratic electoral framework doesn’t block that. 

And yet so many still believe that he has virtue.
Eve Adams wanted to run in a safe Conservative seat so she could stay in power in Canada’s parliament. She pursued such corrupt means to do so that even Stephen Harper thought her too much of a liability, so cut her off. Now she gets to run in one of the safest Conservative seats in the country. As a Liberal.

Trudeau accepted Adams into the party and gave her a seat that she’ll likely lose because he wanted the intelligence of she and Soudas to build their strategy against Harper and the Conservatives. And he’ll probably get enough actionable intelligence to beat them. I almost want to see Soudas’ conversations with the 2010s’ Howes, just because I love that kind of intensity.

But Adams will always be small fry in politics. Everyone who looks into her background over the last four years will see how corrupt she is. She can’t wash the stink of blind, selfish ambition off herself anymore. It’s the same with her fiancé Soudas. The best political snakes are so utterly ambitious and power hungry, they’ll abandon any political ideals for power and the information that will let them win it, while still appearing as a true statesman.

Justin Trudeau, ladies and gentlemen.

How Do We Understand Space? Jamming, 13/02/2015

I’m rather notoriously bad at giving directions. When my friend Lobo threw my 30th birthday party at his place in Hamilton, everyone I knew who had never been there before chastised me for my terrible directions to his apartment. It’s at a clear intersection, you just have to use the back door because it’s above a storefront.

Anyway, a recent incident of my giving a friend mediocre directions to get back on a highway to Vaughan (turn right onto the Queensway, then right when you see the highway crossing by East Mall), started me thinking the other day of how we think about space. The McLuhans touched on this in Laws of Media, when they talked about the boundless infinite. But I also remembered a more prosaic conversation with a friend I had a couple of years ago.

Walk with me to the edge of the world.
“If I go to the edge of the universe and throw a baseball out into space,” asked Ballsy, “what am I throwing it into?”

“Nothing,” I said. “You’re just throwing it.”

“But I have to throw it into something!”

“No, you don’t.” Really, you don’t. “Just throw the ball.”

“But where does it go when I throw it?” he asked.

“Farther away.”

I don’t know much about the history of cartography, but I know that we’ve used maps to describe space and give travelling directions for a very long time. The invention of Cartesian coordinate mathematics and accurate clock mechanisms to measure longitude accurately helped us improve our maps considerably. We’re long accustomed to thinking of the universe as a big plane of space, and objects existing in that plane at specific points. 

Space exists, and objects are things that exist in space. But that’s not the way the world really is. It’s only the way maps are, and maps are useful tools for navigating space. Maps simplify directions, positions, and relative distances by assigning specific coordinates to the locations of objects. 

But objects are real. Things that fly around. Most of our maps that we use in daily life represent the Earth, but Earth is an object too. It’s just so huge relative to us that we can represent its surface as a flat space. Distances between points aren’t real, only lines on maps. Real distances are between objects in the world. 

The earliest posts on Vaka Rangi described Polynesian navigators who found their way around the world based on subtle clues of ocean currents and mapping their movements relative to the sky. The modes of knowledge they need for that kind of navigation offer us an alternative to our own popular conception of space. 

I’m always hesitant to discuss indigenous cultures in these terms because of the terrible danger of what I call Magical Red Man syndrome, when a Western person takes a foreign indigenous culture to embody an ideal, or their contingent cultural creation is deified as somehow more in touch with nature or God than the inherently corrupt nature of the Euro-American perspective. 

But one culture’s ways of knowing the world can hit closer to the way things are than others. And I think when it comes to understanding space, the Western perspective makes a serious mistake when we reify our maps, and imagine space as already existing so that objects can have a place.

Really, objects create places, and the relation between those places constitute space. So a more authentically truthful way to understand directions and navigation than absolutely measured distances between points, is to imagine paths from one landmark to another, hopping from place to place on your way to a destination.

Think seriously for a moment about how a Time
Lord would understand spacetime and objects.
When you also consider that places shift their relations, change, and disappear over time, there’s a dynamism to the process that makes it difficult for humans to understand. I sometimes wonder what a species with genuinely superior intelligence would think of us. Superior in the same sense that humans have a superior intelligence to cats or koalas. 

What if they’re able to do dynamic non-linear mathematics as easily as we can add? Most humans will be utterly mystified at how they think. But trippy philosophical investigation can give us a kick toward actually progressing our powers to think. Here's an example, drawn from popular science fiction. 

Another blogging hero of mine, Phil Sandifer, suggested an explanation for why Robert Holmes kept referring to Gallifrey as located in the constellation of Kasterborous. But this didn't really make sense. Constellations aren’t actually astronomical bodies, they’re arrangements of stars as seen from a particular perspective.

But the Doctor is always explaining the location of Gallifrey in a constellation to humans, and in a meta-fictional sense, Doctor Who is a show for human television. The Doctor is saying what arrangement of stars Gallifrey appears in, relative to the Earth’s position. For a creature with the advanced intelligence of a Time Lord, their coordinates wouldn’t be anything like coordinates in our sense, a location on a representative map.

Our representative maps are just abstractions that let us easily navigate. Time Lord level intelligence wouldn’t need these simplifications of the universe. A creature that advanced would think about space and time entirely in terms of relative dynamic locations and paths. 

Time Lord coordinates would be vectors, showing the path from where we are now to the destination. They’d see the universe not as a static space with stuff in it, but as arrangements of objects through which we navigate paths. When we learn to think this way about the world, we'll literally advance as a species.