Say it if you mean it

The fact that impeachment is finally heating up isn’t actually a good thing, since, as with everything these days, the right thing is being done for the wrong reasons and therefore having all the wrong results.

The two fundamental facts of the situation are a) Trump is both a wanton criminal and unfit for office in every possible way, and b) the chances of him actually being removed from office are presently negligible. Therefore, since impeachment cannot realistically accomplish its nominal goal – no matter how necessary one judges that goal to be – it must be approached tactically. The question has to be what the act of filing impeachment charges can actually accomplish, as well as whether doing so is the best way to accomplish that.

This is supposedly the calculus by which Pelosi has been operating. Impeaching immediately upon gaining control of the House would have validated the narrative that the Democrats are merely on a partisan witch-hunt, convoluted or legalistic charges would fail to draw the public interest, and a drawn-out process would distract from more important priorities.

So of course when Pelosi finally did decide to press for impeachment, she did in a way that maximizes every possible downside. The issue doesn’t materially affect anyone in America, it’s happening during the primary, which is the most important time for the Democrats to be making a positive case for themselves, and it’s blatantly obvious that the only thing that roused the establishment to give a shit was the fact that Trump was going after one of their own and damaging their electoral chances. Attempting to avoid the appearance of political gamesmanship had precisely the opposite effect, for the simple reason that doing so is itself political gamesmanship. Furthermore, acting like this one incident is finally the thing that’s beyond the pale sends a clear message that everything else wasn’t, which pretty dramatically undermines the case that impeachment is necessary because of Trump’s unique awfulness. If the only way you can get him is to rules-lawyer him over a technicality, how bad can he really be?

This is all a consequence of the thoroughgoing and rather pathetic obsession of liberals with playing “11-dimensional chess”; that is, of trying to find One Weird Trick to con people into supporting them rather than making an honest case for their beliefs. The motivation for acting this way is partially understandable. As mentioned, the parameters of the current situation prevent impeachment from being approached in any other way, and this applies generally. The mere fact of telling the truth offers no guarantee that you’ll be believed or even heard, so tactical considerations are never avoidable.

But all this means is that the truth is a real thing that exists in the real world, rather than a magical wish-granting fairy. The value of the truth is not metaphysical; it is precisely that true arguments are better than false ones. They aren’t perfect – they don’t necessarily prevail – but they offer distinct advantages. True statements adhere to reality; people can independently verify true things. Consistently prioritizing the truth over immediate surface appeal demonstrates to people that they can trust you. You can more effectively highlight dishonesty and bad faith in your opponents when you aren’t subject to those same charges yourself. Perhaps most importantly, insisting on honesty keeps you honest with yourself, preventing you from taking convenient shortcuts or being swayed by your own biases.

And of course if you actually win, winning based on the truth will give you the chance to actually accomplish something rather than merely incrementing a scoreboard. Obama, for example, was able to win strong victories based on his talent as an advertiser, which has misled his aspiring successors into believing that the only way forward is to replicate that strategy. But his victories were, in rather short order, proven hollow, simply because they were never based on anything, and the same claims made without the glamor justly ring false.

So the irony here is that trying to game the situation to find the thing that “works best” is generally the thing that works worst. Again, the temptation is that, because true statements can be misrepresented and misinterpreted just as easily as false ones, adhering to them feels like a disadvantage; if there’s a less true statement you can make that would be a more effective message, you’re obligated to forgo it. The problem with this is that less true statements can only be more effective for false reasons. For example, if the media is structured in a certain way which causes it to present things with a certain bias, it might seem that the necessary thing to do is to frame your ideas in a way that plays into that bias in order to get a fair hearing. But if your ideas actually do go against that bias, and the bias remains intact, then you’re going to remain at a disadvantage until you deal with the bias problem itself, i.e. accept the truth, and then present your ideas truthfully. Thus, problems of this nature cannot be gotten around, but must always be gone through. The constraints that the truth places on you are positive constraints: the things they force you to do are the things you were ultimately going to have to do to succeed anyway.

A basic example of this is the recent contrast between Sanders and Warren on the issue of using taxes to fund healthcare. Warren, knowing that the media has a psychotic obsession with demonizing anything that can be framed as a “tax increase,” tried to dodge the issue and reframe it to be about “costs,” and then released a plan designed to trick journalists into describing it as not having any “middle-class tax increases.” Despite being correct on the merits (“costs” would in fact go down, since the amount of taxes required would be less than the amount people are currently paying in premiums, and the taxes would also be progressive), this is still a dishonest answer, because it’s designed to avoid the relevant question. Sanders, by contrast, spelled out everything plainly: taxes would go up, premiums and deductibles would stop existing, and this would be a net benefit for everyone except rich fucks. In this case the Warren approach appears to have failed even in the immediate term, which illustrates the basic hazard of trying to be clever: sometimes people just don’t fall for it. But the real importance of the Sanders approach is that accepting the usefulness of public funding and getting over the childish idea that there’s a spooky monster called “big government” that’s always bad is going to be necessary in order to pass literally any legislation that benefits anyone other than hedge fund choads, so any serious attempt to change things starts with being honest about that.

Note that this very much does not mean being polite and reasonable all the time (and it almost never means “fact-checking”). For example, Labour in the UK has been having problems with baseless accusations of antisemitism. The mistake they’ve made here has been taking the accusations seriously. This is dishonest behavior, because acting as though there’s a real problem that needs to be addressed conveys the perception that there is – it makes “Labour attempts to deal with its antisemitism problem” an accurate headline. The correct response here is to be a total asshole about it: act indignant that anyone would dare accuse you of such a thing, insult anyone dumb enough to fall for it, and attack the accusers’ motivations. This conveys the correct perception that the issue is a smear and the people propagating it are either stupid or evil. “No, you’re the real racist” is a true statement when the people you’re dealing with actually are the real racists.

Furthermore, the most salient issue of the election was Brexit, on which Corbyn took the position of holding a second referendum. While this is the rationally correct thing to do (there was no actual plan on offer during the original referendum, so once one is developed, people ought to be able to vote on whether that’s what they want. It may be the case that, even though most people prefer Leave to Remain, there exists no possible Leave plan which most people would specifically prefer over Remain, in which case Remain is the democratically legitimate result), campaigning in this way is still dishonest, because Corbyn obviously does have an actual position on whether and how Brexit should happen, and he didn’t advocate for it. You have a moral obligation to tell people what it is you actually believe.

Just so, the correct strategy on impeachment has always been the obvious one: file impeachment charges every time Trump commits an impeachable offense. The first time this should have happened was in fact on day one of his presidency, at which time he had already been credibly accused of sexual assault by multiple people (remember, impeachment is an investigation, not a conviction). Doing this would have actually blunted the accusation that Democrats were just waiting to impeach at the first opportunity. Impeaching immediately when an issue arises, when the moment is not opportune, demonstrates that the issue itself is what you care about.

Furthermore, the problem of Trump constantly committing impeachable offenses should have been dealt with by impeaching him on all of those counts, immediately upon each issue arising. He should have been impeached for the emoluments thing as soon as he refused to divest himself from his business, for obstruction of justice as soon as he admitted it on TV, for poisoning the environment as soon as he appointed a corporate executive to head the EPA, for torture as soon as he started putting children in cages, for inciting violence on numerous occasions, and for failing to take care that the laws be faithfully executed on even more numerous occasions, including but not limited to issuing the Muslim Ban with no rational justification other than racism, deliberately sabotaging Obamacare, reneging on the Iran Deal, failing to expediently process refugee applications, and attempting to make policy on Twitter based on Fox News gossip. Again, doing all of this is the only way to demonstrate that these issues are actually serious; the complaint that there’s too much to pay attention to doesn’t hold a lot of water if you’re not even going to try.

The fact that the Republicans would have immediately shut down each of these attempts is also a point in favor of this approach. It’s more than a little peculiar to argue that the reason not to worry about impeachment is that the Republican Party is a completely lawless organization that will stop at nothing to maintain their grip on power. If that’s the case, it kind of seems like you need to do something about it! And the thing that you can do about it is reveal the truth: every time an impeachment inquiry gets shut down, mobilize every available person to send the message that the Republicans are facilitating criminal behavior and violating their duties to the United States. That’s why this strategy should have been pursued even before Democrats had control of the House: House Republicans shutting down the inquiry would have highlighted the problem just as well, and served just as well as an opportunities to highlight the underlying offenses. That’s the thing about relying on the truth: the only obstacles that can impede you arise from things which are also true, and which you therefore also need to deal with.

The catch is that the truth cannot be adhered to piecemeal. Saying only the true things that are convenient for you in the moment and leaving out the rest is in fact a classic form of lying. This does not mean that the truth dictates your tactics – you are not obligated to say every true thing related to your topic every time you speak (and in fact doing so is an ineffective way to convey the truth) – but it does constrain them. If you know something relevant to the situation and you fail to bring it up, you’re being dishonest. Bad faith arguments can only be called out from a position of good faith – if you’re guilty of the same thing you’re accusing someone else of, you can’t actually be opposing them on the merits.

This is part of why the bothsidesism of the present situation refuses to die: because the Democrats actually are corrupt and deceitful, they lose the ability to call the Republicans out on this – regardless of how much worse the latter really are. It’s been noted that the narrative of Democrats and Republicans “living in separate realities” on impeachment is bullshit, given that the Democrats plainly have the facts on their side. The problem is that both parties are in fact taking the same approach to the situation: neither of them actually cares about the law or the constitution or the moral capacity of the person controlling the planet’s largest military; they’re both simply trying to game the situation for their own short-term benefit. This is what makes the folk belief that “they’re all just a bunch of crooks anyway,” while lacking the recognition that the Republican Party is presently an explicitly criminal organization, nonetheless substantively correct on its own terms.

It’s also what allows people like Trump to present themselves as crusading outsiders based on superficial distinctions – and often, significantly, on accurate criticisms. Even as Trump only ever belches out whatever random notion worms its way into his moldy old brain, he’s often on point for the simple reason that there’s so much to work with that he’s bound to hit eventually. He was correct, for example, to attack Clinton for supporting the Iraq War, Warren for pretending to be a Native American, the political establishment in general for screwing over working people with rigged trade deals, and Jeb Bush for having no real reason to exist. The fact the Trump himself is no better on any of these points doesn’t actually amount to an argument in favor of this opponents. Rearguard actions can sometimes protect you from a rout, but being honest in the first place is what prevents people from being able to impose those sorts of narratives on you at all. “Sure, I may be a murderer, but at least I’m not a serial killer” is not a particularly compelling argument in favor of oneself – but if you actually are a murderer, then that’s the only true statement you can make.

And this is of course why there was never any chance of the Democrats following an honest impeachment strategy: they were only ever interested in political gamesmanship. The Democrats won’t impeach Trump for waging secret wars, torturing migrants, poisoning the environment, or selling out working people to vested interests, because past Democratic presidents have done all of those things and they intend for future ones to continue the trend. The power of adherence to the truth is not only that it can act as a sword and shield, but also as a mirror. It can show you when people who claim to share your goals and motivations do not in fact do so. Vampires can often present themselves attractively, but when you turn from their glamour and focus on reality, you find that there is nothing there at all.

The postness of truth has been greatly exaggerated. The only thing preventing the truth from working is the refusal to use it. More noise and more lies may make advancing the truth a more difficult proposition, but they do not diminish the power of doing so. More to the point, adherence to the truth is and always will be the only to win victories that are substantive rather than spectacular and to do things that affect the real world rather than merely playing well on TV. It’s not so much that honesty is the best policy as it is that it’s the only policy that’s actually a policy.

A glass darkly

bffs

Oprah Winfrey and Donald Trump are the same person. If you don’t understand this, you don’t understand anything.

First of all, they’re both rich fucks. This isn’t, like, a coincidence. People don’t “just happen” to get rich. Your relationship to the material conditions of your existence is one of the primary determinants of who you are as a person. Before we even get into any other considerations, the actual act of being rich is itself immoral. When you or I imagine being “rich,” we imagine things like having a big house in a quiet neighborhood and a fancy car and an extensive record collection, but this isn’t what being actually rich is like. Being actually rich means literally having more money than it is physically possible to spend – even after resorting to ridiculous luxuries like owning three summer vacation mansions filled with rare art collections that you only visit one week a year or buying a Hawaiian island. It’s difficult to really imagine what things like this are like, which is why a lot of people resist this argument: they can’t imagine a situation where losing money results in no material deprivation whatsoever. But this is the real situation that our society has decided to create for some people, and it’s the situation that Winfrey and Trump both inhabit every waking moment. Every dollar they hoard is a dollar’s worth of food taken out of the mouth of a starving person. There is no word for this other than “evil.”

People like to talk about whether rich fucks “deserve” their money or not, but this is completely irrelevant to the argument. Remember, we’re talking about money in excess of the amount that you can actually spend on all the luxuries and projects during the amount of time you’re awake each day. Since you would lose absolutely nothing by giving it away, since your life would remain exactly the same with or without it, whereas lots of other people’s lives would improve immeasurably upon receiving even the tiniest fraction of it, there can be no possible justification for keeping it, regardless of its source. It doesn’t matter whether the money came from a big sack you found in the street or whether it was a boon bestowed upon you by god herself in recognition of your exceptional personal character. Philanthropy, which we’ll discuss further in just a moment, has no effect on this, because the issue is not how much money is being given away, but how much is being kept. A person living paycheck to paycheck does not lose virtue points for not giving to charity, because all the money they have is already being put to valuable use. A rich fuck does lose virtue points for every dollar they keep in the bank, because that money is being kept from people whom it could be helping. It is the actual holding of the money, in a situation where billions of others need money to survive, that constitutes the immorality. And considering the scale of the situation, this pretty much overrides any other possible concerns regarding what kind of person someone is. Like, if you knew someone whose construction company built concentration camps, you wouldn’t really give a shit if they seemed nice and empathetic in person. This is almost exactly the same thing.

But even if we do feel the need to interrogate the source of money as an indication of its recipient’s character, Winfrey and Trump are still in the same situation. Just as being rich is not a coincidence, getting rich is also a matter of a particular type of interfacing with present social conditions. Again, when you or I imagine getting rich, we imagine things like getting a big promotion or writing a bestselling novel or something – something that reflects our own abilities and doesn’t hurt anyone else. This isn’t how getting actually rich works. In a capitalist society, they way you make money is through exploitation. People who work for a living can only ever make enough to cover their own expenses, maybe with some extra left over for luxuries and savings if their skills happen to be in demand at the time. The way you make walking-around money is by extracting the value of other people’s labor, and the way you make a lot of money is by extracting a lot of value from the labor of a lot of people. The way you get actually rich is by building an empire. I mean, that’s exactly the term we use, we call things “media empires” or “construction empires,” and that’s exactly what they are. They’re giant exploitation engines in which the lives of millions of people are ground up into lubricant for the lifestyles of the rulers. It’s really not even a metaphor; they literally consume people’s flesh and blood. The fact that Winfrey is a self-made man and Trump is a trust fund baby doesn’t really impinge on any of this. If anything, it reflects worse on Winfrey; Trump inherited his father’s immorality, while Winfrey built her towering edifice of bullshit with her own two hands. Because we live in a society that allocates resources immorally, the people who succeed in it are the people who are the most immoral. Making money is a bad thing that makes you a bad person.

Those are the general principles, but this particular comparison is especially interesting, because Winfrey and Trump are not merely representatives of the same class, but representatives of the same belief system, with exactly the same M.O. Like, Bill Gates got rich by being a monopolist, but his company actually did produce products that people use. He added something to the world. Winfrey and Trump do not merit even this basic distinction; they are pure self-advertisers whose only product is their own image. The way Trump operated was not by actually building things, but by buying other people’s products and inflating their value through hype campaigns. Since the hype always far exceeds any actual value (especially since Trump has negative taste and can therefore be counted on to always select the worst products), there’s inevitably a collapse, at which point Trump sends out his lawyers and accountants to pocket the proceeds and leave other people holding the losses. In almost exactly the same way, Winfrey attaches herself to other people’s books and ideas and uses them to inflate her own image. Since the marketing of these things always far exceeds their actual content (especially since Winfrey is a credulous hack and can therefore be counted on to always select the most diluted variety of snake-oil on display), the fad inevitably dies out, at which point Winfrey shields herself from any fallout by simply moving on to the next trend (or occasionally issuing a Serious Apology if there’s a real scandal). People like this are worse even than rentiers, since they don’t even own the things they put their names on. They are pure value extractors; perfect parasites.

Even more than that, though, the similarities in Winfrey’s and Trump’s approaches point to something deeper than circumstantial convergence; they point to the same underlying ideology. Focusing solely on image and advertising necessarily requires complete adherence to existing values and standards. This is because symbols have to have referents; people have to know what you’re talking about, and if there’s no actual underlying product with its own value, the only way this is possible is if you’re saying something that people already believe.

When personal computers first came out, they were a new type of thing, so people didn’t already understand what they could do. This meant they couldn’t be marketed with pure bullshit, but had to actually function such that people who used them got something out of it. The same thing happened with smartphones; Apple’s insufferable advertising notwithstanding, it was only once people started using smartphones and experiencing the various things they could do (not all of it good, but still) that they became popular. A less compromised example is the Sriracha hot sauce guy. Sriracha has become a cultural buzzword in the complete absence of any marketing or promotion of it whatsoever. I had no idea where the stuff even came from until I saw that article. Because it’s a quality product, you don’t have to conjure up fantasies of fun-loving bikini girls or rugged manliness in order to sell it. It’s actually good; it has its own value, and is therefore able to speak for itself.

So here’s the important part: if you don’t have something with its own value, then you do have to rely on all that other stuff; you have to piggyback off of preexisting sources of value. You obviously have to have some sort of value claim in order to make a pitch to people. If you have a valuable product, this claim can potentially be something new. The concept of “personal productivity” didn’t used to be a thing, but once various types of machines became popularly accessible, it became something that could actually exist and was therefore possible to value. New values like this may or may not end up being good things, of course, but at least they’re new, and they’re based on real things that people can do. If you don’t have a source of value, you have no basis from which to make a new claim, so you have to make an old one. You have to play to a preestablished fantasy.

The fantasy that Trump plays to is the fantasy of opulence. It’s the idea that money determines everything in the world, and therefore aligning yourself with money gets you the best possible experience. Buying Trump-branded products ensures that you’re getting the most expensive and therefore highest-quality goods, and therefore living the best possible life for that and only that reason. The fantasy that Winfrey plays to is the fantasy of self-help. This is almost exactly the same idea: that choosing the right products and thinking the right way amounts to a secret formula for living a perfect life. Buying the products and following the trends chosen by Winfrey’s magical insight ensures that you’re getting real true meaning, and therefore living the best possible life for that and only that reason. (Also, do people really not notice that Winfrey specifically plays to the Magical Negro stereotype? Her whole thing is being “spiritual” and “authentic” and using that to serve as a lifestyle guide for rich white women. I don’t understand why people who would raise hell about this sort of thing in any other context give a pass to the one person who deserves it the least.)

The only actual difference between Winfrey and Trump is aesthetic. Specifically, Trump caters to the masculine side of the consumerist fantasy, selling suits and steaks and golf club memberships to promote the ideal of being a big important businessman, while Winfrey caters to the feminine side, selling diets and empathy and mindfulness to promote the ideal of being a magical unicorn princess. The reason this makes Winfrey look better on the TV is that femininity is significantly closer to a real standard of what being a decent person is like than masculinity is. (As just a few examples, femininity includes care, attention to detail, a focus on practical reality, and a basic level of concern for other people.) But a) aesthetics, while nontrivial, do not override morality, and b) Winfrey’s aesthetics are still overwhelmingly the aesthetics of rich fucks, which is to say their similarities with Trump’s are greater than their differences. Trump’s business books actually are self-help books, just marketed to a different audience. Trump University is exactly the same thing as The Secret, sold with exactly the same language.

Thus, Winfrey, no less than Trump, is a complete prisoner of the existing social order. Under ordinary circumstances this would merely be pitiable, but because these people have actual power, they do not only suffer from but also actively advance these harmful values. Their ideological commitments go so deep that they are unable to escape them even when they’re trying to help. Trump’s idea of charity is giving away free rounds of golf, and his idea of helping people is Trump University, an actual shakedown factory so blunt mafiosi would consider it beneath their honor. Winfrey, while less of an explicit con artist and more of an actual philanthropist, still favors spectacle over substance, as most famously illustrated by her stupid car giveaway stunt. Like, first of all, this was a stunt. I fucking cannot stand people who treat stunts like they’re real things. They’re fake. That’s the whole thing that a stunt is. Anyway, the point is that this is also bad charity. Cars are a modern necessity, so people generally have the number of cars they need, and people attending Oprah tapings are not exactly those in the most dire need of financial assistance. The reason she did this was not out of any consideration of how much it would help people, but because it would reflect well on her: because the recipients are sympathetic and the narrative plays into the “American Dream” – and of course because it gives her a big televised platform to grandstand on. Indeed, this is the exact definition of “philanthropy”: even “good” philanthropy isn’t actually good, because philanthropy is bad charity that promotes the giver more than it helps anyone.

The more concise way to put all of this is that Winfrey and Trump have both killed people through active negligence. Trump hires undocumented workers on the cheap and skimps on safety, resulting in injury and death. Obeying the capitalist imperative to generate profit, he stiffs contractors for his own gain, forcing them to forgo medical care and other necessities. Winfrey promotes quack science, fad diets, and fraudulent psychology, covering up their reality with her own aura of glamour. These are things which people, trusting her, take into their bodies, physically harming them. It’s hard to trace causality here, but given her reach, it’s a statistical certainty that this has harmed people’s health and resulted in deaths. There’s no room for sentimentality here. (Also, people with sentimental feelings toward Winfrey should consider that Trump’s fans have exactly the same sentimental feelings towards him, for exactly the same reasons.) People like this have no place in any decent society. I mean, come on. Both of them sell magazines named after themselves with pictures of themselves on the cover, every month. Come on. I’m embarrassed to even be talking about this.

Maybe this line of argument strikes you as a particularly unfair variety of false equivalence, because Winfrey is clearly a much better person than Trump. Of course she is. Trump is the worst possible person; you get exactly zero virtue points for being better than him, because literally every human is a better person than Donald Trump (as are most dogs and cats and probably a fair number of moles and squirrels). Like, the fact that Winfrey is against sexual assault rather than being a confessed sexual assailant is, y’know, better, but it’s not impressive. Back in the day, we used to call things like that “meeting basic standards of human decency.” More to the point, though, it doesn’t really matter whether you’re a good person or not. It matters what you do; it matters what effect your existence has on the rest of the world. It matters whether you’re doing something useful for people or whether you’re paving the road to hell.

I genuinely cannot believe that it has come to this, but I’m actually going to throw the fucking bible at you:

13 Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.

And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing.

And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.

Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up,

Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil;

Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth;

Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.

Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away.

For we know in part, and we prophesy in part.

10 But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away.

11 When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.

12 For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.

13 And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.

Our only access to reality is through perception, and perception is always partial. Sometimes what we’re seeing is obscured by the glass we’re looking through, and sometimes what we’re seeing is actually just a smudge on the glass itself rather than something on the other side. Because of this, no piece of evidence is ever a slam dunk. Anything that looks good from one angle might turn out to be hideously ugly from another. What this means is that you need to have an organizing principle with which to make sense of your observations. Without that, each individual observation can only stand briefly on its own before the changing wind sweeps it away into insignificance; “whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away.” If you don’t have the truth, you don’t have anything.

The tricky part, of course, is to determine what kind of thing we’re really talking about here; that is, what exactly is meant by “charity.” It’s originally a translation of the Greek word agape, which means something along the lines of selfless loyalty. It’s not something that you like or that makes you feel good, but something that you choose to be for, regardless of circumstance. Thus, the fact that someone says something that sounds good or does something that appeals to you can never be taken as independent evidence. It must always be evaluated for its accordance with the truth. As Nietzsche puts it, “the knight of knowledge must be able not only to love his enemies, but also to hate his friends.” (You’re reading claws of love dot com, the internet’s #1 source for Nietzschean bible study.)

The part of this that’s wrong is the part where the truth is magic. It is incorrect to say, as people often do, that perception is “flawed” or “misleading,” as this implies that there exists a source of “correct” information that reveals things “as they really are.” In fact, there is no reality outside perception, but rather only reality through perception. This does not license us to engage in knee-jerk subjectivity. It does exactly the opposite. It requires us to go beyond each individual impression and to formulate a broad understanding composed of the data from multiple lines of perception. “There is only a perspective seeing, only a perspective ‘knowing’; and the more affects we allow to speak about one thing, the more eyes, different eyes, we can use to observe one thing, the more complete will our ‘concept’ of this thing, our ‘objectivity,’ be.” It’s not just that “that which is perfect” will never actually come, but that there is no such thing, which means that “that which is in part” constitutes everything that there is. We can never get out of the wicked game; no one is ever a saint or a hero, no indicator is ever universally reliable and no narrative is ever complete. We always have to do the work of figuring out how things fit together, how multiple perceptions accord, and how to create understanding out of disparate parts. You can’t do this using “just the facts,” because the facts themselves can’t tell you how to organize those facts. You need something outside of the facts. Christians call this thing “charity,” Nietzsche calls it “will,” but I just think of it as the truth. And in a society that insists on smooth, clean, one-line narratives, the truth will always cut hard against the grain. It is the responsibility of anyone who claims to be a person to make those cuts. This is the only way to make anything make sense. As Hamlet learned, there’s nothing contradictory about smiling, and smiling, and being a villain.

Latin roots

This otherwise unremarkable article includes a rather curious construction:

My major concern about Clinton’s comments (aside from the fact that her identity instantly polarizes any discussion of this topic and makes “independent” inquiry impossible) is her use of the word “legitimacy,” a word that is derived from the Latin word legitimus, which means lawful. Does a legitimate election mean one in which no laws were broken by the winning campaign? Quite likely there has never been such an election.

If “legitimate” means “legal,” and every presidential campaign has involved illegal behavior, then it is literally Logic 101 to conclude that every presidential election has been illegitimate. One would think that the whole point of puffing oneself up and belching out a Latin etymology, all in italics and shit would be to draw precisely this sort of logically necessary conclusion, but, amazingly, the only purpose of the author’s nitpicking is to draw the empty conclusion that the official results of the election were the official results of the election.

Of course, if we’re going to take concepts seriously, then the question of “legitimacy” goes far beyond picking grammatical nits. The U.S. government’s claim to legitimacy rests on the idea of “the will of the people.” Because the citizenry is not directly involved in almost any government decision, elected representatives have to be able to claim that they’re just doing what their constituents want them to do, that people are “getting what they voted for.” This argument requires two premises to hold: everybody has to pay attention and vote, such that the input to the system is sufficiently representative, and the candidates have to accurately represent themselves and their interests, such that what people think they’re voting for is in fact what they’re voting for.

Neither of these premises actually holds. Relatively few Americans vote, and the electoral spectacle, as a rule, avoids discussion of policies and even values as much as possible in favor of pageantesque preening and reality-show drama milling. These problems are fixable; the solutions are mostly obvious and I won’t bother recounting them here. But nobody in the government is actually trying to fix them. On the contrary, politicians spend most of their time catering to the spectacle and actively suppressing votes. This, then, is the true sense in which elections are illegitimate: they simply to do not pass a reasonable evaluation of the relevant criteria.

For example, very few people voted Republican because they wanted corporations to get a huge tax break. Yet that is precisely the Republicans’ top priority; furthermore, they aren’t trying to convince anyone or even discuss the issue at all, they’re just trying to ram it through as quickly and with as little oversight as possible. Thus, this behavior is illegitimate on basic democratic principles, regardless of the specific institutional mechanisms by which it transpires. Talking about “legality” or “process” here entirely misses the problem.

But the criteria themselves are also not set in stone. Consider, for example, the debate over money in politics. Some people believe that, because those with money “earned” their money, they have the right to use it as they will to attempt to affect society. Others believe that politics should be a sacred ground where the pernicious influence of money is banished so the focus can remain on actual discussion rather than propaganda. This is a live debate on which there is currently no consensus among Americans, and which position you take directly determines which elections you can consider legitimate (if you take the latter position, then, again, no elections are legitimate). So if you only focus on legalities like campaign finance laws and bribes and things, you’re ignoring the bulk of the issue. The fact that particular actions happen to be legal at this exact point in time says nothing about the moral standing of the actors; on the contrary, it says something about the state of the law. It’s tautological to describe a particular government action as “lawful” when it’s the government making the laws in the first place. The reason Nixon was full of shit when he said that “if the President does it, it’s not illegal” was not because he was technically incorrect, but because that’s beside the point. If it happened to be legal to break into your political opponents’ facilities and steal their information, that wouldn’t change the moral legitimacy of an election whose results were premised on those actions.

This is also one of the many reasons why all of these Russia histrionics are so disgusting. We don’t need Russian interference to give us something to criticize about the U.S. election process. Even if the all of the imagined Glenn Beck chalkboard arrows turn out to be real, it would all still amount to nothing more than a drop of piss in our vast ocean of bullshit. We have several beams to remove from our own eyes before it will become worthwhile to bother with splinters like those.

People think the current situation, where everything is premised on lies and analysis has no impact, means that rationality has failed, but the truth is they don’t really know what it looks like. As soon as you fail to draw a conclusion that reason requires you to, you lose the name of action. Analysis doesn’t ever have an impact unless it ends in a fist. “Reason” in such a case is merely the guise you assume as a peddler of comforting fictions. The alarmist tenor of the moment is actually a perverse means of reassurance: it is the subconscious insistence that, once the crisis has passed, everything will go back to normal.

This is why theory matters – and why facts don’t matter until you have your theory right. Complaints about “re-litigating” this or that election are premised on the notion that elections are atomic: the only purpose of an election is to generate a result; the result has already been generated; there’s no point in discussing it any further. And it’s true that specific infidelities, such as Clinton’s financial arrangement with the DNC, stop mattering at some point. What is the point, though, is that revelations such as these show us not how things went down once, but rather show us how they always are. It’s not that we’re going to going to change the results or that Sanders “would have won,” it’s that, as long as this is the way things are, any candidate who is even remotely Sanders-like will always lose. Which of course means that we didn’t need really the revelations at all. We just needed to draw the real conclusions of what we already knew. The only way you can understand this is by figuring out not what happened but rather how things work.

The sticking point here is pretty straightforward. It’s cowardice. Literally all the signs right now are pointing not to the conclusion that things have gone wrong, but to the conclusion that the world was always constituted wrong. A situation this grotesque can only have arisen because it was inevitable. But that’s too scary, so people just don’t think about it. They feel like they need to say something “serious,” so they adjust their spectacles and cite their references, and then go right back to reading Harry Potter. Unfortunately, ceasing to believe in evil wizards is one of the basic preconditions for being an adult human. Trump being president is one problem. The fact that someone like Trump was able to become president is all the problems.

And it is in fact rationality that can solve these problems. Yes, I will admit that, despite everything, in the midst of insanity and in the face of looming catastrophe, I still cling to the dying embers of the oldest faith. Seriously though, rationality isn’t just a dull matter of calculating statistics and conjugating verbs. Real rationality means real engagement with the real world as it really exists. That doesn’t mean that things are always what they seem. It means that, behind the curtain, there is always a reason, a physical cause, that makes things seem the way they do. And because the universe was not designed but is rather an unintentional jumble of proteins, those reasons are generally not going to be appealing plot developments that slide easily into place. They’re generally going to hurt.

Etymology isn’t destiny, but it can help show you what the world is made out of – assuming you’re actually willing to find out. If you’re going to claim that you’ve gotten to the root of the issue, you’d better have dirt on your hands. There’s nothing more pitiful than fake scholarship.

See no evil

My last post requires an addendum. I mentioned that expecting social media companies to filter out bad political content is a fool’s errand, because all you’d be doing is shackling yourself to someone else’s biases. So there’s that, but there’s also a deeper, category-level confusion which has been occurring with increased prevalence and which pretty much nobody is picking up on.

Some time ago, Google changed its search interface to add little boxes and things for “recommended” results. This is supposed to make it easier to find answers to direct questions without having to go through a whole page of links. But people have been noticing that this approach leads to a lot of untoward results; for example, queries regarding the Holocaust used to produce Holocaust denial pages in the boxy results. It’s easy to understand why this happens: most people accept the occurrence of the Holocaust as a historical fact, so the only people who actually input queries along the lines of “did the Holocaust really happen?” are denialists (or at least budding denialists), who then click through to denialist sites. So the Google algorithm is just performing its usual function of showing people the most popular results correlated with their input.

There isn’t actually a way around this. As long as there are Holocaust denial sites on the internet, there will exist some query that directs you to them. I mean, if there wasn’t, Google wouldn’t be much of a search engine, right? But that doesn’t mean that there’s no problem here. Rather, the problem is specifically with the boxes that pick out some of the results and stamp them with the imprimatur of officiality. As long as that’s happening, Google actually is recommending those results. So the only sensible option here is to get rid of the boxy results. Google’s job is to show you what’s on the internet and nothing else.

Importantly, there is a technical reason why this is the correct solution. It is impossible for Google’s boxy results feature to work “correctly,” because it is internally contradictory. It is intended to be both a dynamically-generated response based on the most relevant data currently present on the internet and an Official Correct Answer. You can’t do both of those things at once. You have to pick one. Furthermore, picking the second one is also impossible, because the number of potential questions is literally infinite. What the boxy results actually are is an illusion. They look like a recommendation when they are actually no different than anything else that happens to come up in the list of results. The reason that boxy results specifically reflect badly on Google is because they are lies. It is correct to say in this case that Google is lying to you, even though the results are completely unintentional, because Google has constructed its interface to look like something that it is not, and is thereby conveying false information.1 So the only logically viable option is for Google to quit fucking around and just be a search engine, which, you might recall, was the whole thing it was good at in the first place.2

People seem to be having a certain amount of difficulty understanding this. Naturally, there’s always a performative moral crisis when something like this happens, but in this case the complaints are almost universally targeted at the same, specific, exactly wrong place. Consider this article, which correctly points out that the problem is specifically with the boxy results:

For most of its history, Google did not answer questions. Users typed in what they were looking for and got a list of web pages that might contain the desired information. Google has long recognized that many people don’t want a research tool, however; they want a quick answer. Over the past five years, the company has been moving toward providing direct answers to questions along with its traditional list of relevant web pages.

Type in the name of a person and you’ll get a box with a photo and biographical data. Type in a word and you’ll get a box with a definition. Type in “When is Mother’s Day” and you’ll get a date. Type in “How to bake a cake?” and you’ll get a basic cake recipe. These are Google’s attempts to provide what Danny Sullivan, a journalist and founder of the blog SearchEngineLand, calls “the one true answer.” These answers are visually set apart, encased in a virtual box with a slight drop shadow. According to MozCast, a tool that tracks the Google algorithm, almost 20 percent of queries — based on MozCast’s sample size of 10,000 — will attempt to return one true answer.

Unfortunately, not all of these answers are actually true.

and then immediately descends into psychotic gibberish:

Google needs to invest in human experts who can judge what type of queries should produce a direct answer like this, Shulman said. “Or, at least in this case, not send an algorithm in search of an answer that isn’t simply ‘There is no evidence any American president has been a member of the Klan.’ It’d be great if instead of highlighting a bogus answer, it provided links to accessible, peer-reviewed scholarship.”

. . .

The fastest way for Google to improve its featured snippets is to release them into the real world and have users interact with them. Every featured snippet comes with two links in the footnote: “About this result,” and “Feedback.” The former explains what featured snippets are, with guidelines for webmasters on how to opt out of them or optimize for them. The latter simply asks, “What do you think?” with the option to respond with “This is helpful,” “Something is missing,” “Something is wrong,” or “This isn’t useful,” and a section for comments.

This is all nonsense. The problem is that Google gives some of its results a false sense of authority, so the solution is for it to give a different set of its results even more of a false sense of authority, while also soliciting comments from everyone and putting in 3,000 different links allowing people to leave 30,000 different layers of feedback, because then the results won’t be confusing anymore.

Again, there are a literally infinite number of possible queries and results, which is the whole reason you write a search engine in the first place. Putting in custom results for specific queries both breaks the functionality of what Google is supposed to be doing, and is a futile game of whack-a-mole, a drop of water in a sea of bullshit. Furthermore, when you go down this road you’re trusting Google to provide the “right” results, which is a task at which it has absolutely no institutional competence. Is there seriously anyone who still hasn’t noticed that nerds are generally extremely bad at anything outside of their direct area of expertise? (That’s kind of the definition of “nerd,” actually.) To precisely the extent that you have a curated system, you do not have a search engine. You have some nerd’s journal.

Again, again, Google can either be a search engine or a source of direct information. It can’t be both things, and the practical effect of “solutions” like this is to transform Google into an extremely shitty direct information source. Think about this for literally five seconds: if the problem is that the web has a bunch of shitty content on it, then how is soliciting more information from the same place going to change anything? Are we seriously assuming that Holocaust deniers are going to be above gaming these sorts of things? The idea that individual people can change Google results by yelling at the company loudly enough is not any kind of solution; it’s properly horrifying. It means that search results are constantly subject to the random whims and biases of the people who are the best at yelling about things on the internet. This isn’t order; it’s chaos.

You may recall that the internet already has a source for crowdsourced direct information. It’s called Wikipedia. And, indeed, the problem that a lot of people are having here is that they are expecting Google to be the same thing as Wikipedia. In other words, they are incapable of understanding that a search engine and a source of information are different types of things, and thus, when one of them doesn’t behave like the other, they see it as a “problem” that needs to be “fixed”:

This is a really remarkable comment, especially coming from a guy with a fucking book emoji in his name. There’s not even an argument here, there’s just a completely unexamined assumption that Google and Wikipedia are directly comparable on some kind of “information quality” level or something and that one of them is “better” than the other. This is as far from intellectualism as it’s possible to get. (Don’t even get me started on the pathetic haughtiness of “do better,” as though it were any kind of meaningful statement (as though it imparted any semantic content at all), let alone a solution.)

Since I know I have to say this explicitly, I am absolutely not arguing that there is any such thing as a “neutral” platform or algorithm or that Google is not completely fucked up and deserving of excoriation. This isn’t about “neutrality” and “bias,” this is about what type of thing a thing is. What I am arguing is that things need to be criticized for what they are actually doing. It is correct for people to give Wikipedia shit about, for example, how it addresses trans people, because what’s on Wikipedia was put there by a specific person and approved by other specific people. Wikipedia’s “neutral point of view” thing is largely bullshit, because you can’t actually do that, but it is correct for it to attempt to stick to the facts and avoid editorializing. There’s no point in complaining that Wikipedia doesn’t promote your own personal political philosophy hard enough. But when it comes to something like which gender you use to refer to a trans person, there isn’t a “neutral option,” and the issue can’t be avoided. You have to make a choice, and that choice merits criticism.

So, as mentioned, the part of the Google results that is actually wrong is the boxy results, and they’re wrong in general, not just when they display “wrong” answers. Aspiring detectives may have noticed that I lied earlier. The Holocaust denial thing didn’t actually come up in one of the boxy results, it was just at the top of the normal list. So the people complaining there actually were full of shit. More specifically, they were full of shit insofar as they were directing their complaints at Google. The existence of the site is the problem, not the fact that Google’s algorithm noticed that it was on the internet and displayed it to the people to whom it calculated it was probably relevant.

This does not mean the algorithm is “neutral.”3 There’s no such thing. There are a lot of different methods you can use to find and display search results. They can be based on the site’s overall popularity, or on how many people clicked through from a given source, or on how well the content appears to match the search parameters regardless of traffic patterns. You can even switch this around; you could, for example, specifically promote less popular sites when they match certain search criteria. This would distribute traffic more equally and advance less popular opinions, though it might also increase the bullshit ratio. Hell, you could even take all the valid results and just display them randomly – this would actually have the positive effect of promoting previously unknown sources (hi), even though it would certainly increase the bullshit ratio, perhaps by quite a lot (depending on the extent to which “authoritative” sources are actually bullshit in the first place).

These are the real choices Google has to make even if it stops lying, and any choice made here is going to have political results. Pushing all the results towards the New York Times center is just as much of a political action as promoting fringe sites. So criticism of the behavior of Google’s algorithm is in fact within bounds here, as long as that’s actually what you’re criticizing. Pointing out that one bad result appears in one place is not a real argument, because nobody actually put it there. In order to make that argument, you have to argue against the general behavior that results in that particular output, and when you do that, you are implicitly arguing against all of the behavior that results from the parameters you’re selecting for criticism. You can coherently make the argument that Google should be promoting more “authoritative” results, but only if you’re willing to accept that non-authoritative results that you happen to agree with will also get downgraded. And the reason I’m claiming that people are full of shit here is that I don’t think anyone actually believes this. What people actually want is for the bad results to just not be there, because their existence is actively immoral. Which is an entirely praiseworthy opinion, but you can’t just wish them away. You have to think about how you actually want these things to be determined, because the consequences are going to be far greater than the one or two bad results you happen to encounter. I mean, if you really do want only “officially approved” sources displayed when you perform a general internet search, I’m within my rights to conclude that you’re an authoritarian.

There’s a reason this is happening, though. Google is not trying to act as a search engine and failing; it is choosing to promote itself as an source of information and is doing so dishonestly. The reason it is making this choice is that it is what people want. People don’t actually want to know what’s out there on the internet. They want a magic box to give them the right answer. That’s the only possible explanation for the proliferation of those stupid talking internet cylinders. My ability to comment intelligently on this aspect of the problem is somewhat limited, as I cannot for the life of me imagine why anyone would a) pay to b) put a robot in the middle of their house that c) talks at them and d) constantly monitors them in order to e) sell them shit, all for the sake of f) an inferior version of the functionality that you already have on your desktop and know how to use, because you ordered the thing off of Amazon in the first place. That is literally my idea of hell. Anyway, the reason people buy these things, one supposes, is that they want to be able to yell indistinctly at a robot and have the robot give them the magical Correct Answer. In other words, they want to be lied to. In order to respond to this desire, Google has to be dishonest, because it’s not possible to honestly create an incoherent system.

Pressuring Google to censor “bad” search results one at a time doesn’t solve a real problem.4 I don’t actually object to Holocaust denial sites being delisted (good riddance, obviously), but I do object to intentional delusion. I object to people who think that removing unpleasant things from their field of vision is the same as improving material conditions for living humans. Indeed, what we’re really talking about here is removing unpleasant truths, because it is a real fact that these sites really exist, and that their existence accurately reflects the fact that large numbers of people sincerely believe these things. This is real news. All obscuring it does is make liberals feel better because now they don’t have to see the bad things. You may recall that this dynamic has resulted in some problems recently.

The true fact of the matter is that the world is a disgusting place. This should neither be accepted nor ignored. But not ignoring it also means not fooling yourself about where things are coming from. It means choosing high-value targets and not easy ones. It means understanding how the things you are yelling at work so that you can yell at them accurately. It means taking actions that actually move the world in a better direction instead of the ones that merely move you into a more comfortable chair. Above all, it means keeping your eyes open to the things that are the most disgusting to look at. The only option for interacting with reality is to learn how to navigate the sea of bullshit.

It is for this reason that category errors matter. If you can’t tell the difference between a racist website written by a person and the racist output of an algorithm, you are not actually perceiving reality. Even though those things are both wrong – even though algorithms can be just as blameworthy as individual people – they’re wrong for different reasons, and they require different responses. There’s a reason we have different names for different things. Different things are different. A search engine is not the same thing as a news site. Treating different things as though they were the same thing is called stupidity. It makes you wrong about things.

We also have a name for the desire to retreat from a complicated world into a simplistic shell of officially-verified Correct Answers. It’s called cowardice.

 

 


  1. So, strictly speaking, this is a UX problem and not an algorithm problem. The extent to which a program’s interface determines its functionality both apart from and synergistically with its back-end code is kind of a whole other thing, though. 
  2. In case you’re wondering, AI, in addition to not being a solution, is not even a unique issue here. An actually intelligent AI would actually be intelligent, i.e. it would be a person. A practical AI that is not intelligent is just a fancy executable. This is actually another category error: the kind of AIs we have right now are just really complicated single-function computer programs; the sci-fi type of AI is an actual agent with human-like general reasoning capabilities (or perhaps not-so-human-like, but at least functionally similar). No matter how impressive the former is, it’s not the same type of thing as the latter. People are constantly getting this wrong and freaking out over really simple programs displaying barely surprising behavior; frankly, I don’t understand why people are so eager to leap to the completely unsupported conclusion that robots are about to take over the world. Anyway, the point is that we ought to be using two different terms for these things, because they are in fact different things. 
  3. You might want to note that a search engine is actually an object – it’s a fixed block of executable code. Objects aren’t neutral, but that doesn’t make them the same type of thing as subjects.5 Objects do not (non-metaphorically) have things like “desires” or “goals.” They have inputs that they accept, internal calculations that they perform, and outputs that they generate. (This applies just as well to ordinary physical objects. When you throw a rock, the input is force, the internal calculations involve weight and wind resistance and ductility and soforth, and then the output is force again.) 
  4. Also, this isn’t even the half of it. Google is up to way shadier shit than this; specifically, Google’s advertising monopoly – the fact that it both sells ads and controls and extracts money from ad blockers, meaning it is effectively selling ads to itself – is a book-length problem with serious implications for how the internet is going to work. This is exactly why we have (or are supposed to have) antitrust regulation. Google shouldn’t be allowed to be both things. The extent to which this is a bigger problem than racist websites showing up sometimes cannot be overstated 
  5. The big plot twist is that, even though objects and subjects are distinctly different types of things, living in a material world means being a material girl. Er, it means that all people (subjects) are also objects. They’re physical bodies existing in physical space. Importantly, though, a person is not an object in addition to being a subject, but is rather one thing that is both an object and a subject at the same time, in the same mode of being. Reconciling this apparent paradox is one of the Great Problems. 

Against facts

The acquittal of the officer who murdered Philando Castile is as unsurprising as it is unbelievable. It’s exactly the same grotesque spectacle that we’ve seen played out so many times before – but it wasn’t supposed to be. This time was supposed to be different.

Castile was pulled over for a routine traffic stop; he allegedly “fit a profile” or something, like, we all know what was really going on there, but the point is that the officer was just going through the usual checks and had no reason to expect an altercation. Castile was compliant, but he knew he had a problem: he was carrying a legal firearm, and he knew that if the officer saw it unexpectedly and got nervous, things could easily become unmanageable. So he did literally the only thing he could: he disclosed the existence of the weapon and proceeded carefully. And then he was shot to death.

In every previous case of this nature that has attracted mass-media attention, there has been some kind of controversial factor for people to argue about. Eric Garner and Alton Sterling were engaged in illegal activity; Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown allegedly assaulted their killers; Tamir Rice was supposedly brandishing a toy gun. None of these provide actual good angles – at the very least, they all require you to argue that minor transgressions are deserving of an instantly-applied death penalty without trial – but they’re all technically something. It’s broadly conceivable that a person of honorable intentions could make the good-faith argument that these were individual tragedies and not indicative of a widespread social calamity. But when you make an argument of the form, “if the victim engaged in certain behavior, then the killing was justified, so there’s no real political problem,” you are implicitly conceding that, had the victim not engaged in the proscribed behavior, then there is a real political problem.

That’s why the Castile case was supposed to be different. Castile committed no crime and did everything right, so there is simply nothing available on the “if” side to lead to the “then.” In which case the battle lines should have been drawn differently. The “all lives matter” crowd should have had no problem taking Castile on as a martyr and rallying for reforms to prevent such unacceptable occurrences. This should have been the thing that overcame the perils of “race relations” and provided an example that everyone could agree on. But of course there was no such reconciliation. The sickening thing about this case in particular was that nothing mattered; everything remained as it was and the same vile story was recited yet again, and yet again faded away with no conclusion in sight. The unavoidable inference, then, is that the facts of the case simply do not matter. Everyone has already decided what they believe, what policies they support and what catastrophes they are willing to countenance, and nothing is going to change that. And of course one must be honest enough to apply the same standard to one’s own side: had definitive evidence emerged that Michael Brown really did rob a convenience store and then bum rush a cop, that wouldn’t have changed the substance of the critique or the need for political action. In no case, then, are the facts of the situation ever relevant. There is only ideology.

There has been a great deal of recent lamentation over “fake news” and “alternative facts,” and one must concede that this is largely justified. Politicians certainly are a craven pack of liars, and people in general really do have problems getting their heads around the fact that facts are facts. But if we’re talking about politics, what we ought to be talking about is the connection between facts and political action, which is whence arises the problem: there isn’t one. Getting the facts right doesn’t help, because facts don’t matter either way to people’s political opinions. This sounds terrifying, but it actually makes perfect sense. Politics is about how we want the world to be, not how it currently is. Deciding on a political opinion means deciding in which direction you want to move. The value of facts is that they tell you how to get to what you want; they tell you where you are in relation to your goal. It’s entirely possible, perhaps even easier than not, to design counterproductive policy, in which case your actions will end up moving you in the opposite of your desired direction. Adherence to facts is how you avoid this problem. But this only becomes relevant after you’ve decided what it is you want.

The situation is often portrayed as a matter of novel facts spurring people to action. That is, everyone already believes in peace, love, and understanding, but they don’t know about the many injustices regularly taking place, so they simply need to be informed that things are going wrong in order to start doing something about it. This is wishful thinking. What the facts clearly demonstrate is that the revelation of facts doesn’t change people’s political opinions. At the end of the recent O.J. Simpson docudrama, there’s a moment when Johnnie Cochran sees then-president Clinton on TV talking about the need to address systemic racism and revise police practices, and he’s terribly gratified that the truth has finally come to light and that something can now be done about it. What’s striking about this is that people said exactly the same thing when the same issue recently started to be documented guerilla-style via smartphones and social media: now that the truth is unavoidable, things have to change. But what we’ve seen is that in neither case was this actually the case. Obviously, Rodney King and Mark Furman didn’t precipitate a solution to the problem, or we wouldn’t still be talking about it. But the current situation, where far more facts about far more dramatic occurrences are available on a daily basis, has seen no greater effect. All those cases listed above, plus others that have received equal attention and many more that have been forgotten or lost to the news cycle, were not the result of a single spate of increased attention. The issue has been risen on a regular basis over the course of many years, and the situation has never changed.

This is why the current fetish for “fact-checking” is largely misguided. It is not due to factual ignorance that people form harmful opinions. It’s much closer to being the other way around: people come to believe ridiculous things when those things align with their pre-existing ideology. Adherence to the facts can’t change this, because you have to use ideology in order to understand facts in the first place. A big table of numbers doesn’t do anything for you until you analyze it with political intent. In fact, “fact-checking” itself is a result of the same dynamic. Sociologically speaking, it’s pretty clear that the actual function fact-checking performs is liberal escapism. The people who check fact-checks are not those who require the information, but those who wish to reassure themselves that they are the good people for believing what they already believe. Liberals have already decided – in advance of the facts – that they’re the “rational” ones who “believe in science,” and the act of fact-checking allows them to perpetuate this belief.

More specifically, fact-checking as political activity is the result of a category error. It is indeed the news media’s job to report the facts and correct lies, and policymakers’ job to account for the real facts rather than the facts they wish were true. But the vast majority of us are not engaged in the activities of either journalism or policy-making, whereas all of us are permanently engaged in the activity of advancing values. Indeed, it is often our moral responsibility to ignore facts in favor of the truth. This is necessary because the world is a complicated place. It really is true that there are laws on the books prohibiting discrimination, and that there are scholarships and other programs aimed primarily at aiding black people, and that claims of disadvantage generally get sympathetic hearings in the media, and that Barack Obama was elected president twice – by healthy margins, even. But none of these facts compel the conclusion that we shouldn’t care about racism anymore.

You can dig up a real fact from somewhere or other to support basically anything. For example, false rape accusations really do happen sometimes. There’s no point in arguing whether any one case is valid or not; to fall into the trap of arguing the facts here is to fail to press the issue. The question of whether to treat rape as normal and false accusations as anomalies, or the other way around, is only answerable by ideology. You can’t engage with the issue until you’ve made that choice. (Equivocating doesn’t count as engaging with the issue; it counts as ignoring it.) And you can’t let the numbers make that decision for you, either, because you have to decide what the numbers mean. It’s true that there are more rapes than false accusations, but it’s also true that, even on the highest estimates, the vast majority of women never experience rape. The vast majority of black people never get murdered by the police, either. The numbers themselves don’t tell you what matters. Rape doesn’t become an issue once the number of occurrences rises above a certain threshold. It becomes an issue once you start caring about it.

A strong potential counterexample here is global warming. This seems to break the script: it’s genuinely novel information that could not have been reasonably foreseen, and it requires us to change our behavior and beliefs in ways that would not have been necessary without it. As Naomi Klein has it, it “changes everything.” So what’s crucial to note is the fact that the people who do “accept the facts” on global warming – who, in fact, loudly and self-importantly trumpet their fealty to the scientific consensus, as though that were something to be proud of – are doing basically nothing about it. Funding renewable energy and tweaking regulations do not come even close to addressing the true scale of the problem. The reason actions such as these are the ones being taken is that they are the ones that fit within the existing liberal-capitalist framework that basically every world leader adheres to unquestioningly. And on the other side of the ledger, liberals never seem to consider the fact that there are reasons that people resist facts. If someone encounters a fact once and ignores it, it’s pretty irrational to imagine that “explaining” the same thing to them over and over again will have any additional effect. Rather, the relevant logic is quite simple: if you believe that capitalism is a moral system, then it cannot be the case that capitalism is going to destroy the planet. It must simply be a case of certain groups gunning for competitive advantage, because that’s what happens under capitalism, and capitalism explains everything. And of course you wouldn’t be able to solve the problem with government intervention in any case, because government intervention always produces results inferior to the “natural” actions of market forces. Ideology determines both which facts are acceptable and which actions are possible.

Furthermore, you don’t actually need the facts of global warming to make the right argument here. The problem follows directly from the general logic of capitalism. Economics has a concept called “externalities,” which refers to the effects of a trade that aren’t accounted for within the trade itself.1 A better way to understand this is that capitalism basically means that rich fucks set the agenda, and they aren’t going to account for anything that doesn’t affect their pocketbooks. Other people getting polluted or regions of the planet becoming uninhabitable are just going to end up being the cost of doing business. So if you already oppose this arrangement ideologically – if you believe that resource use should be governed democratically such that the resulting decisions take into account their effects on everyone involved – then you’ve already solved global warming. Conversely, if you believe that rich fucks should be allowed to allocate resources autocratically, but that the government should be empowered to mitigate the consquences of those decisions, then you will never be able to solve global warming, no matter how cleverly you design policy or how tightly you cling the facts to your chest, because you have already made the values-based decision to give the fox VIP access to the henhouse.

In short, facts are real, but that’s all they are. By themselves, they’re inert. If you want to apply force to something, you can’t just gather up a bunch of chemicals and expect them to leap up out of the beakers of their own accord. You also won’t know which chemicals you need until you’ve drawn up your plans. And even then, nothing will happen until you actually build the bomb.

 


  1. A professor of mine once quipped that his introductory Econ textbook had five pages devoted to externalities and five hundred devoted to the rest of economic theory, and that it should have been the other way around, since what “externalities” actually means here is literally everything in the world other than basic economic theory. 

Bubble babble

I’m entirely certain you’re well-acquainted with the idea that “media bubbles” are a big problem right now, effecting disinformation and perverting ideology and generally destroying society in an orgy of postmodern technological mediation. Certainly, there is cause for concern; unlike in the past, when everyone had complete correct information that they used to make fully rational decisions, nowadays humans have somehow become closed-minded and parochial. The figure of the barely-informed loudmouth shouting his kneejerk opinions into the public square represents a truly new development in history. And now that bad things are happening in politics, which has never been the case before, it’s clear that something must have gone horribly wrong.

No, okay, so I’m super annoyed about all the hyperventilation, there’s nothing more obnoxious than small-minded arguments against small-mindedness, but there’s also a real issue here. The internet certainly is generating a world-historical amount of garbage data, and political polarization really has increased to an extreme degree. The fundamental dynamic at issue here is what pretentious people like to call “epistemic closure.” When one’s sources of information or methods for evaluating it are limited in some fundamental way, certain areas of knowledge become inaccessible – or, worse, only accessible in the wrong way, such that the formation of inaccurate ideas comes to be considered true knowledge. Fox News will never give a sympathetic hearing to an idea like universal single-payer health care, so if that’s where all your information comes from, you can never develop an informed opinion on this topic. It’s important to realize that this is an absolute constraint; it’s not that it becomes harder to get to the truth, it’s that it becomes impossible. This is the double-edge of the Enlightenment ideal: since there’s no such thing as divine wisdom or whatever, you cannot form correct ideas without accurate and comprehensive information, regardless of how smart or conscientious or committed you are.

Now, one of the few positive results of the 2016 election is that no one is any longer laboring under the delusion that there’s any kind of “unbiased” source that can be relied on for complete information. “Traditional” news sources simply represent one particular set of biases. There’s plenty of issues on which they’re incapable of informing you. Most obviously, an enforced centrist perspective will fail to understand a situation where the “center” is falling apart and all new growth is happening on the “extremes” (that is, it will understand the situation incorrectly, as a “breakdown of communication” or a “legitimacy crisis” or whatever). So the popular response to this is the idea of a “balanced media diet.” The worry is that the internet allows and/or forces people to self-sort into ever more polarized communities, so you have to make the effort to seek out sources that oppose your existing beliefs. The villains then become “algorithms” that deliver pre-polarized information, or “cult-like” communities that suppress dissent.

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. The most important source of epistemic closure is our finitude as physical beings. Simply put, there are only so many hours each day you can spend reading shit, so it’s more than a little odd to argue that people should be spending more of said hours reading things they believe to be more wrong. If you could really read everything, and also spend the requisite time to analyze and distill it all, then sure, that would solve the problem. In reality, though, you have to choose what you’re going to care about, and any choice you make is going to define a particular horizon. If you’re a feminist, for example, you could spend half of your time reading feminist sources and the other half reading anti-feminist sources, and this would give you a “balanced” perspective, in the sense that you’d understand what’s going on on both sides. But this understanding will necessarily be shallower than the one you’d get by focusing your time on one side; you’ll miss deeper arguments and distinctions and internal diversity. For one thing, you might come to believe that there are only “two sides,” which is not the case. Anyone who knows a second thing about feminism knows that its herstory is coated with blood spilled by many thousands of vicious internal disagreements. One way to get over feminist dogmatism is to read more anti-feminism, but an equally effective option is to read more feminism. There isn’t one choice that “works” and one choice that doesn’t. There are different choices that have different effects. Some bubbles are bigger than others, but you can’t not be in a bubble.

This is why blaming the internet or “algorithms” or whatever misses the mark. Like, I don’t enjoy defending tech assholes, but they really just aren’t relevant to this situation. There is a sort of consumer rights issue here; people should be able to find out how their feeds and things are being customized and change them if they want to. But arguing that search results should be more “responsible” is arguing the opposite: it’s arguing for non-transparent corporations to have more control over what people read. I mean, it’s pretty obvious that most people talking about this are only thinking things through from their side. They see lots of “bad” articles floating around, and they feel like “someone should do something,” so they imagine that Google can somehow code social responsibility for them. Practically speaking, though, you can’t make that kind of a distinction in general.1 “Misinformation” is a value judgment made by the end user. If you write an algorithm that adds more articles about global warming to the feeds of denialists, that same algorithm will necessarily also add more denialist articles to the feeds of people who believe in global warming. You can’t have it both ways. Rather, trying to have it both ways is exactly how things get fucked up. Someone at the New York Times gets it into their head that they have a “liberal bias” that needs to be corrected, so they hire an Islamophobic global warming denialist to write opinion columns. Problem solved.

People want to read things that accord with their beliefs, and – this is the important part – they have good reasons for doing so. The reason feminists, for example, disprefer reading misogynist diatribes isn’t because they’re offended or whatever, it’s because they believe feminism to be true, and they’re obviously more interested in reading things that are probably true than things that are probably false.

You don’t just automatically start understanding things once you’ve read broadly enough. You have to process the information, and how you do that – and why you’re doing it – is going to affect what conclusions you end up with. Like, there is a problem with certain types of feminists spending all of their time yelling at Bad Things and not actually developing their ideas. But if you’re one of these people, and you decide to “broaden your media diet,” all that’s going to happen is that you’re going to find more things to yell at. It’s going to strengthen your existing biases, and that’s going to happen regardless of what it is that you’re reading, and the reason for this is because it’s what you want. This isn’t even a bad thing, because the only way this is not the case is if you lack the ability to critically analyze information, which is, um, a somewhat worse situation to be in. If your goal is just to avoid being wrong, then you might as well not read anything. But if your reason for reading things and drawing conclusions is to do something with the information, then you can’t just wait around until you’re “sure,” because that’s never. In order to actually get somewhere, you have to take a stand somewhere and start moving, which will necessitate rejecting opposing ideas. Breathing underwater requires a bubble.

I’m not just applying this to my own side, either. The fact that people believe all kinds of weird conspiracy theories about the Clintons makes perfect sense, because the Clintons really are classic amoral political schemers, so if you’re opposed to them, it’s more accurate than not to assume that they’re up to some shady shit. Besides, liberals believe whatever nonsense people come up with about Trump, too. It’s the same thing. This is the normal way human communication works.

It does remain the case that the normal way human communication works is badly, and that real lies have real consequences. If you believe that Planned Parenthood is literally dismembering infants and selling their body parts to, uh, somebody (I’m not deep enough into this to know whence the nationwide demand for baby torsos supposedly originates), your advocacy on the subject is going to be somewhat more zealous. But learning the actual fact that only X% of Planned Parenthood’s expenditures go towards abortion-related services doesn’t change the moral calculus of the situation. If abortion is evil, then a little bit of it is still evil. It’s certainly worthwhile to correct lies, but you can’t fact-check your way around morality. If abortion is actually moral, then Planned Parenthood’s particular operating details don’t matter. An organization that spent 100% of its funds on abortion and sold the remains for ice cream money would be a moral organization. Focusing on the nuts and bolts here means dodging the real issue, and this is generally the case in political discussions. Even if Clinton really did use her secret email server to help the Illuminati plan Benghazi, the actual question at hand remains which policies we prefer to advance as a society. In general, misinformation does not add a unique problem to our existing difficulties in figuring out how to talk to each other. It makes things worse, but it’s not itself a crisis.

What is a crisis is when these sorts of discussions become impossible, when an enforced “healthy diet” drains the flavor from the world. When you’re stuck reading nothing but “respectable” media sources, that’s when you have a real problem, and extremism is the solution to that problem. It’s what makes new things possible. Which means that, yes, even the recent explosive growth of rightist extremism has to be understood as a positive development. InfoWars may be maximally false, but if you don’t have InfoWars, you also don’t have the truth. The fact that people have these beliefs is a bad thing, of course, but given that they do, it’s better for them to be out in the open. I mean, their agenda hasn’t actually changed, right? Reagan talked pretty on the TV, but his whole cut-services-and-fellate-corporations deal was exactly the same thing as what the current government’s up to right now. People lately have been praising Bush Jr. for talking nice about Islam, but he was doing this at the same time that his administration was turning Muslims into America’s new Great Civilizational Enemy; Trump is just picking up where he left off. Those situations were worse than the one we’re in now – rather, those situations are why we’re now in our current situation – because there was more obfuscatory rhetoric that had to be disentangled before you could get at what was really going on. This is now less of a problem; we’re getting closer to the point where people actually know what the stakes are.

It’s comforting to imagine that there’s a “middle ground” where we can all get along peaceably, but there’s not. Extremism doesn’t create disagreements, it reveals the disagreements that were already there, because people have real disagreements. Pretending this is not the case prevents anything worthwhile from ever happening. We don’t want a society where there’s “reasonable debate” about sexism, where half the time the Hyde Amendment is in place and half the time it isn’t. We want a society where sexism doesn’t exist. We want everyone trapped inside the feminism bubble, permanently.

This is the truth that must be acknowledged. All the things that people are so concerned about these days – political polarization, ideological extremism, the speed and diversity of information, the dethronement of traditionally respected sources of various kinds of authority – are the things that are, in spite of everything, going well. There’s no way to “fix” this, because it’s not broken. What was broken was the “end of history” bullshit that convinced people there were no fights left to be had, and that situation is now better. We are more confused now because we are closer to the truth – we have, in at least some sense, stopped lying. This is what has to happen. Getting the ocean without the roar of its many waters is not a real option. The real options are: retreat or advance.

 


  1. From a technical perspective, the reason this can’t work is that you have to write the code before you know what data it’s going to be run against, so you would have to be able to predict what information is going to be true or false before that information has actually been generated, meaning you can’t rely on the details of the information itself, meaning you can’t actually be making a real judgment as to whether it’s “disinformation” or not; you can only be relying on contextual coincidence. And if you try to get around this by using human intervention, all you’ve done is appointed an arbitrary, unaccountable person to act as an arbiter of truth, which is obviously several steps backwards. 

Our haunt

The revelation that Tony Schwartz was the exclusive author of The Art of the Deal, with Donald Trump providing only indirect thematic inspiration, has been nagging at me ever since that first tweet. Of course, I use the word “revelation” ironically; it’s always been terribly apparent that Trump lacks the capacity and focus to read an entire book, much less write one. But that’s exactly what’s bothering me: it is obvious that Trump did not write this or any of “his” other books, and yet they are still referred to as books “by” Trump and quoted from as though the words therein emanated from Trump himself in any capacity at all. In short: why is everybody constantly lying about this?

Consider, for example, this article, wherein the author not only assumes that the words in The Art of the Deal are Trump’s own, but actually attempts to mine the particulars of their phrasing for insight into Trump’s personal psyche:

Notice the specificity of his observations, his eye for certain details. Notice the irrepressible joy, almost awe, he experiences and expresses. Notice how loving, wistful, aroused he is, by the play of surfaces. It’s hard to believe he’s faking any of this. It seems, to me at least, quite real.

This analysis cannot hold, for the very simple reason that Trump did not write the words being referred to here. That is, Schwartz probably wrote this based on some sort of story or description he got from Trump, and maybe this really is how Trump is, but it’s still bad analysis. It ignores the real situation. It’s fake news. The fact that it “seems real” is exactly the problem: it is a lie that is easy to believe.

So what this means for The Art of the Deal specifically is that it’s essentially Trump fanfiction (without the “fan” part); given its inherent mendacity, it is worthless as evidence (and this probably applies just as well to everything else that has Trump’s name on it). Similarly, it’s been widely acknowledged that Trump’s inaugural address was written by Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller, and this presents the same problem. Those words were not Trump’s, and yet they are taken as evidence of what Trump personally thinks and believes. And Trump is not a confounding case, but rather the clarifying example here, because it’s rather apparent that he doesn’t think about or believe in a whole hell of a lot beyond his own surface-level aggrandizement.

So of course this phenomenon is not limited to a single series of hype-building hackworks; it is one of the basic properties of the culture that we inhabit. We routinely attribute things to people who did not originate them. This applies not only to ghostwriting in general, or to political speeches in general, but also to pop songs, where analyzing a song written by a committee and composed by a robot supposedly reveals to us the performer’s personal convictions, and to celebrities in general, whose stage-managed public appearances are tugged and prodded for evidence of appropriate ideology, and to technology, where Steve Jobs is given credit for the work done by a variety of different designers and engineers employed by Apple Inc. (to be clear, this is not to insist that someone like Jobs, or like a pop singer, contributes nothing, but simply that a lot of the stuff attributed to them is stuff that they had no real hand in), and to corporations in general, where CEOs are lauded for “spearheading initiatives” that earn them their golden parachutes on the way out, and, yes, to society itself, where workers, the people who actually do the things, are treated like a big dumb lump of human inertia, while living disutility generators like Thomas Friedman go jetting around the world in the guise of “thought leadership.” So this isn’t fine-print pedantry. It kind of matters.

Admittedly, there’s an extent to which this is all shorthand; that is, by “Trump says” we consciously mean “it is the collective public opinion of Trump administration officials that,” but there’s also an extent to which we are falling for our own con. If you seriously think that every anti-Trump protestor and/or commentator understands fully that Trump is the symptom and not the disease, you’re kidding yourself. As above, lots of people are taking what’s happening right now to be representative of Trump as a person rather than a result of the general political situation as opportunized by specific schemers of Bannon’s ilk. For example, “Trump’s” budget proposal, among other things, was poached pretty directly from the Heritage Foundation:

“When we were on the campaign, for Trump’s speeches we would pull stuff from Heritage budget documents and make the arguments that Heritage was making,” Moore said. “I think it’s very accurate to say that a lot of these ideas … even some of the arguments they make, some of the rhetoric is almost verbatim from Heritage.”

If you don’t know this, you are not capable of opposing the entity that is actually doing the things that you are opposed to. And Heritage has been around; it had a major influence on Reagan’s presidency, for example. So this isn’t one misdirection happening right now because of social media or whatever; it is the ongoing cause of everything that has been happening, all along.

We all learn in school that Issac Newton said he was only able to see what he saw by “standing on the shoulders of giants” but we learn this at the same time that Newton himself is drilled into our brains as the lone-genius inventor of physics, as a Great History Man. So we often think we understand the distinction here – nobody will, when pressed, actually claim that Jobs plucked the iPhone fully-formed from his brain – at the same time that we unconsciously assume that things really are that simple (that plucked-from-the-head reference is from mythology, i.e. the stories out of which we construct the underlying assumptions that we use to understand the world). Because of course both things are true: nobody’s a lone genius, but people do make real individual contributions. I’m not saying the relevant dynamics are always obvious, or that it’s never safe to elide the details (I’ll admit to making this very elision myself), but to simply assume that everything with the Trump brand name stamped on it emanates directly from the addled brain of the man himself is to accede to the fantasy that people like Trump attempt to flatter themselves with, and to abandon the truth. We are attributing authorship of the situation to the person who is in reality nothing more than a name on a dust-jacket.

Worse, this is exactly the trap that these people want us to fall into. The whole point of someone like Trump is to function as an attention heat-sink, leaving people like Bannon and organizations like Heritage free to operate in the shadows. The only way to stop these things is to exorcise the animating spirit; otherwise, the same forces will return to possess the next media-friendly stooge who wanders in looking for applause lines. Failing to get this at least half-right is what allows for someone like Trump to get up on a stage and say “I alone can fix it,” and for people to believe him. And the opposing view, that “Trump alone can break it,” makes the same mistake and results in the same ineffectuality. We should try to avoid this. It’s the kind of thing that could come back to haunt us – I mean, more so than it already has.