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Thursday, June 16, 2011

A kindred spirit

Like my first intellectual hero Orwell, I've been a relatively independent thinker all my life--going back, actually, to my childhood--and I have some scars to prove it. Yet while it can be very comfortable to be in the minority, it is extremely difficult, I think, to stick to one's opinions with no support whatever. Orwell obviously thought so too. That's the point of the climax of 1984, when O'Brien terrorizes Winston not only into giving up his political apostasy, but even to betraying Julia. In the end Winston winds up loving Big Brother because he has no one else to love. No one has ever explored the Freudian implications of all this effectively, to my knowledge, but that's a story for another time.

Now for some years now, and with increasing frequency, I've been talking about the decline of rationality in our civilization. I still haven't been able to bring myself to read the book I bought years ago detailing a similar process in the early Christian era, perhaps because I'm too afraid of what I might find, but I think about this almost every day. To paraphrase Orwell once again, the freedom to say that two plus two equals four is once again under threat. So it was very comforting to pick up the current New York Review of Books a few days ago and read a most interesting article by George Soros, "My Philanthropy," beating the same drum.

I have never met Soros, although I believe my father, a former Ambassador to Hungary, knew this most prominent Hungarian-American fairly well. He does not seem to be aware of generational theory but his life bears a most interesting relation to it. Born apparently in 1930, he belongs to a small minority who actually can live through at least parts of not one, but two great world crises. As he explains, he was 13 when the Nazis brought their form of irrational terror to Hungary, and only his father's ingenuity saved him and most of his family. He made it to the United States during the High, in the 1950s and 1960s, when the prestige of science and rationality was at its height. (These of course were the years of my own childhood.) But now, for the last forty years of his life, although his own insights into the world economy have made him one of the wealthiest men in the world, he has watched the steady erosion of rationality in public life, especially in his adopted nation the United States. And, not surprisingly, he is profoundly disturbed by it.

Soros explains that he has contributed $8 billion to a series of Open Society foundations around the world, designed to develop and publicize information useful to the public and hold governments accountable. Western societies have a good many such organizations already; many others do not. But Soros is also concerned about worldwide governance, especially in the financial realm. Like me, he worries about the problem of imposing order upon chaos. As he says:

"As I see it, mankind’s ability to understand and control the forces of nature greatly exceeds our ability to govern ourselves. Our economy has become global; our governance has not. Our future and, in some respects, our survival depend on our ability to develop the appropriate global governance. This applies to a variety of fields: global warming and nuclear proliferation are the most obvious, but the threats of terrorism and infectious diseases also qualify; so do global financial markets. In the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2008, it is not enough to stabilize and restart the financial markets; we must reinvent a global financial system that has broken down. Having reached this insight, I cannot afford not to address these issues."

Soros was among the minority of financiers who were not surprised by the financial crisis, and in rather chilling language he describes what he tried to do about it.

"I passionately disagreed with Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson’s plan to bail out the banks by using a public fund called the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) to help banks take toxic assets off their balance sheets. I argued that it would be much better to put the money where the hole was and replenish the equity of the banks themselves. I worked closely with the Democratic leadership in Congress to modify the TARP act so as to allow the money to be used for the purchase of equity interests. I had many other ideas that I hoped would be put into practice when Obama became president, including a fundamental reform of the mortgage system, but that did not happen. I published a series of articles in the Financial Times but got little response from the Obama administration. I had many more discussions with Larry Summers before he became the President’s economic adviser than I did afterward. My greatest disappointment was that I was unable to establish any kind of personal contact with President Obama himself."

Exactly why Barack Obama put so much more faith in Larry Summers than in older men like Soros and Paul Volcker is a question I would very much like to understand. But I digress.

The three most critical paragraphs of the essay follow and I reproduce them in full (obviously for non-commercial use only.)

"The United States has been a democracy and open society since its founding. The idea that it will cease to be one seems preposterous; yet it is a very likely prospect. After September 11, the Bush administration exploited the very real fear generated by the terrorist attack, and by declaring 'war on terror' was able to unite the nation behind the commander-in-chief, lead it to invade Iraq on false pretenses, and violate established standards of human rights in pursuing and interrogating terrorists.

"The war on terror forced me to reconsider the concept of open society. My experiences in the former Soviet Union had already taught me that the collapse of a closed society does not automatically lead to an open one; the collapse may be seemingly bottomless, to be followed by the emergence of a new regime that has a greater resemblance to the regime that collapsed than to an open society. Now I had to probe deeper into the concept of open society that I had adopted from Karl Popper in my student days, and I discovered a flaw in it.

"Popper had argued that free speech and critical thinking would lead to better laws and a better understanding of reality than any dogma. I came to realize that there was an unspoken assumption embedded in his argument, namely that the purpose of democratic discourse is to gain a better understanding of reality. It dawned on me that my own concept of reflexivity brings Popper’s hidden assumption into question. If thinking has a manipulative function as well as a cognitive one, then it may not be necessary to gain a better understanding of reality in order to obtain the laws one wants. There is a shortcut: “spinning” arguments and manipulating public opinion to get the desired results. Today our political discourse is primarily concerned with getting elected and staying in power. Popper’s hidden assumption that freedom of speech and thought will produce a better understanding of reality is valid only for the study of natural phenomena. Extending it to human affairs is part of what I have called the 'Enlightenment fallacy.'

"As it happened, the political operatives of the Bush administration became aware of the Enlightenment fallacy long before I did. People like me, misguided by that fallacy, believed that the propaganda methods described in George Orwell’s 1984 could prevail only in a dictatorship. They knew better. Frank Luntz, the well-known right-wing political consultant, proudly acknowledged that he used 1984 as his textbook in designing his catchy slogans. And Karl Rove reportedly claimed that he didn’t have to study reality; he could create it. The adoption of Orwellian techniques gave the Republican propaganda machine a competitive advantage in electoral politics. The other side has tried to catch up with them but has been hampered by a lingering attachment to the pursuit of truth."

Even though I have mixed feelings about this passage, I have no doubt that it states a very profound truth about our times. (It has never been confirmed, by the way, that Karl Rove was the Bush Administration official who talked about creating his own reality, but it was widely assumed from the beginning.) And I am increasingly convinced that the change is related to the eclipse of print media in favor first of television and then of other electronic media over the last half century. Images replaced sentences as marketing tools, first in the economy and then in politics. It is easier to excite the senses directly than to reach them through the rational part of the brain. Political consultants have understood this for a long time. The result is that, as Soros says, we now face a profound economic crisis without the capacity to carry on an intelligent public discussion about it.

What sticks in my craw in his passage is the phrase "Enlightenment fallacy." I don't know enough about the intellectual history of the 18th century to state this with any confidence, but I'm not sure that the great Enlightenment thinkers believed that reason was certain to become the predominant force in human affairs. They (like our own Founding Fathers, who came from that tradition) believed that reason could, and should, play a greater part in human affairs, but I think most of them knew that this would never be easy. It's ironic, but also very understandable, that the 1950s and early 1960s, when rationalism was at its peak, gave way so suddenly and dramatically to the emotional explosion of the Awakening, which ultimately led the humanities departments in academia to abandon the idea of the Enlightenment. I was appalled more than ten years ago when Cornel West and Henry Lewis Gates had the Boomer effrontery to criticize their Missionary counterpart, W. E. B. Dubois, for being "too seduced by the Englightenment project." On the contrary, Dubois understood that reason, however threatened by outbreaks of emotion, would always remain the only possible basis for a just society. Soros actually comes around to a position similar to this himself: "Karl Popper took it for granted that the primary purpose of political discourse is the pursuit of truth. That is not the case now; therefore we must make it so. What was a hidden assumption in Popper’s argument must be turned into an explicit requirement for open society to prevail." I actually doubt that that statement would have come as a surprise to the Englightenment figures themselves--certainly not to Rouusseau, Jefferson or Madison.

Soros has drawn the particular ire of the right because his life is a repudiation of their principles. Rich people like him are supposed to feel entitled to their wealth and not to be concerned with the broader public good. I suspect that is why he has been subjected to such scurrilous propaganda campaigns, as he mentions. Turning to the economic crisis, he argues that President Obama's non-confrontational approach and excessive optimism has given the Republicans the initiative, and that they have used Orwellian newspeak to convince the public that government caused the problem and that dismantling government is the solution.

"a What is surprising is the extent of their success. The explanation lies partly in the power of Orwell’s Newspeak and partly in the aversion of the public to facing harsh realities.

"On the one hand, Newspeak is extremely difficult to contradict because it incorporates and thereby preempts its own contradiction, as when Fox News calls itself fair and balanced. Another trick is to accuse your opponent of the behavior of which you are guilty, like Fox News accusing me of being the puppet master of a media empire. Skillful practitioners always attack the strongest point of their opponent, like the Swiftboat ads attacking John Kerry’s Vietnam War record. Facts do not provide any protection, and rejecting an accusation may serve to have it repeated; but ignoring it can be very costly, as John Kerry discovered in the 2004 election.

"On the other hand, the pursuit of truth has lost much of its appeal. When reality is unpleasant, illusions offer an attractive escape route. In difficult times unscrupulous manipulators enjoy a competitive advantage over those who seek to confront reality. Nazi propaganda prevailed in the Weimar Republic because the public had been humiliated by military defeat and disoriented by runaway inflation. In its own quite different way, the American public has been subjected to somewhat comparable experiences, first by the terrorist attacks of September 11, and then by the financial crisis, which not only caused material hardship but also seemed to seal the decline of the United States as the dominant power in the world. With the rise of China occurring concurrently, the shift in power and influence has been dramatic.

"The two trends taken together—the reluctance to face harsh reality coupled with the refinement in the techniques of deception—explain why America is failing to meet the requirements of an open society. Apparently, a society needs to be successful in order to remain open."

For the past three years I have been studying Franklin Roosevelt, and I am convinced that he understood that last point perfectly. He lived, and governed, in an age when bad political outcomes such as Stalinism and Nazism were not only possible, but seemed on their way to becoming the norm. And thus, he understood that he had to persuade the American people with both words and deeds that their system was working--and he did. And it is no coincidence, in my opinion, that Roosevelt, a born aristocrat, understood that the ordinary man had to be convinced we were on the right track, while Obama, a bright young man from a relatively modest background who was adopted, if you will, by the elite educational system, apparently does not.

Two days ago I was talking to a contemporary who remarked that she was glad to be as old as we are, and that she feared for today's youth. I have mixed feelings about that too. She is all too aware, as am I, of the decline in our political and social life that we have lived through, but I suppose I am more hopeful that the younger generations will be able at least to begin to reverse it. We can now say that the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century dream that reason could produce utopia was indeed a fallacy. Reason is simply one pole of human experience whose importance rises and falls over the centuries. It has been falling for the last forty years; it will someday stage a comeback. Recognizing that, it seems to me, holds the key to dealing with the remainder of our lives with some optimism, no matter how bad the news on the front pages seems to be.


Anonymous said...

The American Dream is a famous phrase. Trying to maintain the fantasy of a utopian progress is this American Dream, the "Pursuit of Happiness" of the founding fathers. The right and the ad men learned to manipulate this reality in an expanding capitalist cosumer system. Hollywood and advertising came to dominate/replace reality so that a rational reality became unimportant. Perception is everything in a controlled environment (we are like animals in a zoo being spoon fed reality by sound bites, etc.). Putin learned how to fabricate a "controlled democracy" to satisfy western perceptions and desires of his own people without rocking the boat of the rich too much. America is going the same way though is seems more subtle. Eventually the finances will break down and the democratic facade will fail. Nobody votes for austerity after all and when nothing else is on offer then rebellions agains govts. are all that can happen and tehn a strict military type takeover to avoid disorder and impose discipline. The two parties are dreaming the American Dream whic has been dreamt out. The reality is different and austerity will not be democratically imposed(except as in "Hitler got elected then made himself a dictator".)

Anonymous said...

My old boss and friend John McMahon said in the NYT's article "Rethinking the Ban on Political Assassination" of 30 Aug 1998, " We received {in 1985} a draft secret executive order telling telling us to knock off terrorists in pre-emptive strikes. I told our folks to send it back and tell them." When the president revokes the executive order which precludes CIA from assassination , then we'll take this on.' That hit the guys on the NSC staff. They went ballastic." James Woolsey told the President more lor less the same thing when he was DCI . What has happened to the integrity of our public servants ? How do we bring back into government men who know how to demand proper leadership.

GreatMystery said...

I enjoyed very much your article.

Though I do think that reason and emotion are not the only two poles. Character and a certain transcendental understanding (called in the east "enlightenment") are also elements necessary for a functioning society, and by functioning I mean generally non-op/repressive (just), fluid class structure (dynamic), and in balance with the systemic whole (the earth's ecoystems) from which we are an emergent property.

It's funny that we both (the east and the west) use the term enlightenment for generally the same thing. For us it seems an alchemical, and yet laughably quixotic, quest wherein we mix a little bit of this and a little bit of that and get something different.

Those in the east haven't ever really worried about getting just the right proportion of emotion and reason, and whether the governmental structures are best suited to the propagation of such acts. As there are quite a few examples of enlightened kings undermining their own power by setting up vast networks of unproductive temples.

To those in the east the path to enlightenment is simple and linear in theory, but like a snowflake in practice: enlighten yourself! It's a deeply internal quest of deep realization that transcends symbolic recognition and a letting go of all things-- some argue even the pursuit of enlightenment itself must be let go of.

It's not something that we create, it's something that finds us. it's something that we can't contrive, only propagate.


Bozon said...


Many thanks for this essay.

Very thoughtful summation of several areas of deep concern.

There are many reasons for the way things have now been going. As you have shown many times here, they go back a long way, regardless of how viewed.

Wish we could have altered this course long before I was born, but no dice.

Contrary models have shaped our 'vacillations', so to speak; a Yeatsian metaphor.

Deep nationalism on the one hand, deep individualism on the other, and understandably deep, if nevertheless not that well founded, suspicions of strong government,

have predetermined both our course, and our decline at once, it seems.

It was in many ways a fortuitous, and frankly ideologically undeserved, pinnacle (not by any means a solid victory, given the Cold War aftermath)

which we achieved, for a moment, at and after 1945.

It would not have happened in the absence of abject weakness in Western great powers at that moment; and a temporary abundance of resources and opportunity here, resources and opportunities all too quickly squandered since then.

About 'enlightenment', or rationality, unfortunately, as a society we never had, or developed, very much of that over here.

All the best,

Seth said...

"Exactly why Barack Obama put so much more faith in Larry Summers than in older men like Soros and Paul Volcker is a question I would very much like to understand."

Good question.

"... Roosevelt, a born aristocrat, understood that the ordinary man had to be convinced we were on the right track, while Obama, a bright young man from a relatively modest background who was adopted, if you will, by the elite educational system, apparently does not."

Good answer. Larry Summers has the perfect establishment pedigree. Soros is too self-made to register with Obama. Volcker is too naive and non-political. Obama identifies with insider, political operators.

Jude Hammerle said...

Dear Dr. Kaiser,

It is good to read that you have made a sort of peace with the inevitable pendulum swings of rationality. The next step is to imagine how a good, open and successful society can sustain itself through an irrational interval without needing to create a Crisis to rally citizens around.

The trick to such understanding is to concede that history is a simple non-cooperative game. While simple non-cooperative games are well understood, we nonetheless do not play them well. In such games the logical strategy is always to defect, but if we defy logic and cooperate, we invariably create value because we curtail reciprocal defections.

A few basic changes would improve our play. These changes would require no sacrifice of ideology for any player, nor any substantive concession of any kind.

First, we should know the structure of the game. The game has a center, and the center is surrounded by rebellions. At present the center is dormant because rebels are fighting each other for control of the rebellion. We should concede that opponents are simply mental models, and in the absence of real opponents we always create imaginary ones.

Second, we should accept that the game has no end. Today, elections (for instance) function as ends in themselves, triggering endgame strategies and therefore reciprocal defections. Once we understand that the game has no end, defections are no longer in any player’s interest.

Third, we should change our method of scoring. At present, we count only wins and losses. For a better future, we must switch to a scoring system that tallies combined payoffs for all players. In this regard, it is worth noting that the famous strategy Tit For Tat routinely beats all comers in classic combined-value tournaments, even though Tit For Tat NEVER WINS a single game.*

Fourth, we should disregard one another’s ideologies. The “whats” of society are seldom in dispute; it is the “hows” that divide us. We must measure all players by the overall payoff to society (employment metrics, standard of living, domestic and international security, principles of the Constitution, etc.), rather than by ideological and parochial measures like campaign promises and earmarks.

Our game as we currently play it can only produce defeat for this society. As a nation, we sit with rapt attention as players on Survivor and other reality shows demonstrate the value of reciprocal cooperation, until (of course) the series finale triggers the endgame defections that produce one winner and eleven losers. When we turn off the TV, we return to our own game, which is structured identically, and produces a comparable majority of losers.

With affection and respect,
Jude Hammerle

* See Robert Axelrod, The Evolution of Cooperation, p. 112.

Anonymous said...

I would put the start of the "decline of rationality in our civilization" as late 80s or early 90s. Certainly it was in full swing in the way the media covered campaign 2000. How else to explain the success of "Al Gore invents the internet"?

Jude Hammerle said...

By the way, I just got tipped off to the presence of this Orwell correspondence in the BBC's archives: http://www.bbc.co.uk/archive/orwell/index.shtml

Anonymous said...

Farrakhan: The White Man Made Obama Bomb Libya