Sunday, 4 December 2016

Jacob T Levy's lazy post-Truth Psilosophy

Authoritarianism features State legitimized physical coercion and thus the discourse it produces is irrelevant in political context where Hirschman 'Exit' is permitted or where 'Voice' has a primary existential function of demonstrating 'Loyalty' and thus mitigating the possibility of arbitrary arrest or execution.

Orwell, Arendt and Havel may have pretended that the nomenklatura or 'intelligentsia' had some sort of countervailing power, under Stalin or Hitler, which they surrendered for a mess of pottage, or by reason of some epistemological primal error, but the truth is they never had any power at all. There was no Gramscian 'hegemony' subtly influencing you; there were goons who were ready and willing to beat you to death if you looked at them cross-eyed.

This is not to say 'Totalitarian language' isn't worth investigating. The Kremlinologist did not catalog in vain minute inflexions in Pravda's turgid prose because it was bilaterally acknowledged as a Schelling focal solution to a particular co-ordination problem and thus served a signalling function.
The trick was to separate 'cheap talk' from 'costly signals' so as to arrive at a stable Nash equilibrium which may or may not have had a feasible Aumann correlated improvement depending on the sort of signals one's own side was obliged to send.
In other words, signalling itself involved a machinery which constrained policy space. But, the important lesson to be learned from the genuine analysis of Totalitarian language which the West invested in (not what belle lettrists like Orwell or Arendt dashed off) is that our own discourse includes cheap talk and costly signals which are difficult to distinguish and which introduce hysteresis effects and which destabilise correlated equilibria.

Does this mean, liberal discourse has no place in the real world?

No, if it is part of the ethos of our nation, though it may indeed only add noise to signal in International Relations.
Perhaps Allan Gibbard, to whom Mechanism Design owes the Revelation Principle, is showing us a way forward in the analysis of 'mixed' propositions which appear to have some alethic component. In this case, the crucial test, to demarcate 'cheap talk' from a potential 'costly signal, is whether there is a 'conceptual tie to action'.
Trump's signalling has been received as tactical- because we only started paying attention to him during the course of a bitter 'Social Media' driven election contest. We are only now, very slowly, trying to link these tactical signals to an implementable strategy. There are two types of uncertainty here. One has to do with what Trump thinks is feasible. The other is concerned with the nature of the 'core' in the new GOP game in Washington.
What is exciting and gives room for the optimism the Market currently displays is that there is an implementable strategy which will be good for the median American and also less destabilising for the World. Will the GOP embrace this opportunity? Or will vested interests line their own pockets leading to a further crisis down the line?

There can be an alethic discourse about this but, I'm afraid, it can't feature irrelevant belle-lettrists like Orwell, Arendt or Havel because that's just lazy.

Take Jacob T Levy's recent article on 'Authoritarianism and post-truth Politics' which offers a useful summary of Frankfurt's notion of 'bullshit'-
Frankfurt’s “bullshit” (apologies, but I have to keep using the word) is characterized by the speaker’s indifference as to whether a claim is true—indeed, as to whether there is any truth of the matter at all. The liar or the fraud knows that there is a truth of the matter, and aims to deliberately conceal it. Neither is true of the bullshitter, who is making noise for some purpose that is orthogonal to the truth. Sometimes it is to make an impression as a knowledgeable authority, in which case the bullshitter does at least want to create the impression that there is a truth of the matter and that he knows it. So there is a deception at the level of impression, though not necessarily at the level of the claim; the pompous bullshitter might accidentally speak the truth, but still be guilty of bullshit.

The problem is, Levy thinks Trump aint jus' bullshitting. He is doing something much much more sinister-

But an untruth like this weekend’s tweet …

Donald J. Trump

In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally
8:30 PM - 27 Nov 2016


is different.

There are no winks or nudges. And I have no doubt that Trump knows this claim to be untrue. It’s not bullshit; it’s a lie, even though it comes with a spin-zone indifference to whether anyone believes it. It’s also not gaslighting. It’s too big, too obvious, and too free of any evidence. Some people will believe it, because they believe everything Trump tells them; but the people disinclined to believe him won’t believe this for a second. It doesn’t throw his opponents off-balance, or make them doubt themselves.

Why lie? Why call into question the legitimacy of the election that he won? Riling up nativist and racist populist anger isn’t especially tactically useful at this moment.

Is Levy correct? Does it make sense for a President elect, whose victory is being questioned in the Courts, to pretend that he actually got a majority in the popular vote as well?

Of course it does. The President's power increases if he claims that the people are behind him. Why? Well, there's a Newcomb's Problem type situation here. A President who thinks his program is what the people want will implement it. One who doesn't believe the majority backed him, will hesitate to do so. This in turn affects the expectations of others thus changing the pay-off matrix in a helpful way.
Trump did the right thing for himself. He sent the signal that he'd do what he promised because he believes the people are behind him and, what's more, hinted that he had the strongest possible incentive to act on at least one thing he'd promised- viz. deport illegal aliens.

Why does Levy not get that 'riling up nativist and racist populist anger' is a good tactic for Trump's victory lap because it puts pressure on the Republicans in both Houses to truckle to him in his first 18 months?

The answer is that Levy has his own axe to grind and thus needs to at least pretend to be stupid-

To understand this kind of political untruth, I think we have to look to theorists of truth and language
in politics; Frankfurt’s essay was only tangentially that. But the great analysts of truth and speech under totalitarianism—George Orwell, Hannah Arendt, Vaclav Havel—can help us recognize this kind of lie for what it is. Sometimes—often—a leader with authoritarian tendencies will lie in order to make others repeat his lie both as a way to demonstrate and strengthen his power over them.
Authoritarianism has never been created by 'a leader with authoritarian tendencies'.
It has been created by goons who beat the shit out of you.
Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, every other authoritarian dictator, started off with a huge bunch of goons ready and willing to beat the shit out of anyone whom they thought not loyal enough.
Levy doesn't get this. He lives in a fairy tale world where one day the Dictator wakes up and decides to tell his courtiers a thumping great lie- 'pigs can fly!' says he. Immediately, the Luftwaffe is reconstituted on a porcine basis. However, the RAF are undeterred by flying pigs and bomb the shit out of the Fuehrer's bunker. Perhaps that's what Levy thinks actually happened to Hitler.

Saying something obviously untrue, and making your subordinates repeat it with a straight face in their own voice, is a particularly startling display of power over them. It’s something that was endemic to totalitarianism. Arendt analyzed the huge lies and blatant reversals of language associated with the Holocaust. Havel documented the pervasive little lies, lies that everyone knew to be lies, of late Communism. And Orwell gave us the vivid “2+2=5.”

Levy is a Professor. His students have to repeat with a straight face, in their own voice, the worthless shite that he writes in order to get a corrupt Credential. The Holocaust wasn't about lies and blatant reversals of language. It was about killing people- something a lot of goons wanted to earn money doing. Havel may have documented pervasive little lies under late Communism. So what? Once people knew there were no goons ready and waiting to beat them into submission, that stupid scam collapsed completely. Orwell wrote a best-seller which took up Churchill's 'Gestapo' trope and associated it firmly with Atlee's Socialism. To be fair, stuff like the 'Groundnut Scheme' was a sort of 2+2= 25 and widely ridiculed at the time.

Being made to repeat an obvious lie makes it clear that you’re powerless; it also makes you complicit. You’re morally compromised. Your ability to stand on your own moral two feet and resist or denounce is lost. Part of this is a general tool for making people part of immoral groups. One child makes a second abuse a third. The second then can’t think he’s any better than the first, the bully, and can’t inform. In a gang or the Mafia, your first kill makes you trustworthy, because you’re now dependent on the group to keep your secrets, and can’t credibly claim to be superior to them.

Okay, so that's what happens on Politically Correct Campuses- we all know that; but not every subject taught at University is as worthless as whatever shite Levy teaches. There are some alethic disciplines which have commercially important spin-offs. Castro's Cuba may have lied through its teeth about infant mortality and so on but the Pharma Sector which earned them hard currency was permitted to go forward on alethic lines.
However, Levy is right about the horrible effects of being made to 'repeat an obvious lie'- like when you join the Masons, or the Oddfellows, or the Fulham Chapter of the Jedi Knighthood (where you have to swear that Princess Leia is too a virgin and did not get off on Jabba the Hutt's ginormous tongue).
We must immediately ban all such pernicious organisations coz they are on a slippery slope bound to end up in satanic child abuse and Mafia like organised crime.
But in totalitarian and authoritarian politics, there seems to be something special about the lie, partly because so much of politics is about speech (and especially public speech) in the first place. Based on the evidence of his presidential campaign, I think Donald Trump understands this instinctively, and he relished the power to make his subordinates repeat his clearly outlandish lies in public. Every Sunday he provided fresh absurdities that Chris Christie, Rudy Giuliani, and Kellyanne Conway repeated on the talk shows. They didn’t persuade anyone who were strategically important to persuade; the audience for Meet the Press isn’t low-information, undecided, working-class voters, and the kinds of people who did watch those shows knew the claims were false. But making his surrogates repeat the lies compromised them; that tied them to him. And it degraded them, and made clear where power lay.

This is nonsense. Totalitarian and Authoritarian politics is about physical coercion and arbitrary punishment. Even if you spout all the required lies to demonstrate loyalty, you could still end up in a Gulag more especially if you weren't pulling your weight, or, more simply, pour encourager les autres.
Levy, lazy fellow that he is, habituated to tyrannize over slavish graduate students, pretends that Trump is actually a Professor of his own ilk. Christie and Giuliani and Conway are his graduate students. They have to repeat his worthless shite in order to have a shot at tenure.

Newsflash, Levy Sahib- Professors don't have power. They are ridiculous simply. No doubt, they assert themselves in a manner destructive to whatever Research Program they espouse or, indeed, the ethos of Paideia, but there's a reason we let them carry on fucking up in such a ridiculous fashion.  Not Socrates at the Symposium, Levy and his ilk are drunken helots paraded for the edification of Spartan Youth.

The Chinese have a saying- 'Science Students look down on Arts Students. Arts students look down on Politics student. Politics students look down on their teachers.' This does not mean a small percentage of Politics students don't end up with the bigger house and Swiss Bank Account. It just means that lazy hypocrites are universally despised. Rent dissipation isn't just a feature of Authoritarianism. It is also a function of mindless preference falsification and the prevalence of holier than thou academic availability cascades.

1 comment:

  1. To be fair, Levy has done interesting work in other fields. This was written for a new Libertarian website- the Niskanen Center- which appears to be a platform for careerists and lobbyists.
    It claims that Hayekian Liberalism needs continual re-invention by the recirculation of stupid memes. Thus, it's lead article highlights a tweet from Trump calling for flag burning to be penalised as a clear and imminent danger to Liberalism. The fact that Hillary Clinton sponsored the Flag Protection Act in 2005 does not seem to have registered on the writer- a young man with an MFA.