Thursday, August 08, 2013

The Formula

There is a standard formula for media which draws and engages people, a formula followed by publishers since the 18th century. We can see it in yellow journalism of all kinds: shock jock radio hosts, Fox News, the Huffington Post, and political blogs of all stripes. It goes back to the Penny Dreadfulls, to the rags of the French and American Revolutions. Even Ben Franklin was a notorious purveyor of yellow journalism, which is how he kept his publishing business profitable.

Of course, not everyone follows the formula; it is possible to draw a following with insight and information, with genuine knowledge and expertise. You can attract people with this, but it requires effort, and it won't make you rich. Your profit margin will be low, and you won't become a media baron--at best, you will become a media presence.

But if you wish to become a media baron, the formula is simple. Here it is:

1) Choose Your Audience: Decide what your target audience is. It must be a broad section of society, usually a major political faction or party. The smaller and more special interest the group, the smaller your following. So, for example, don't target a specific Christian sect, target all Christians, and keep it vague. Lumping them all in together will become easier once you define them by providing enemies. It is far easier to unite people against something than it is to unite them for something. The key is to create something they can all hate.

2) Make People Angry: People are engaged by strong emotions, and the best is anger. Too much fear will drive them off, sentimentality is hard to maintain (though some manage), and laughter takes talent. Anger, though, is dead simple. It requires no research, no talent, and little expense. One needs only follow the rules of the formula.

3) Create Enemies: Tell your audience that those who disagree with them are dedicated to their downfall. Tell them that these people are their enemies, and if they should suceed, all that your audience have ever worked for or hoped for will be undone. Tell your audience that they are dangerous, and that their success will bring on something akin to the apocalypse. Prurient outrage is the easiest; show that the enemy likes sex, and your audience will never forgive him.

4) Build Strawmen: Under no circumstances present these enemies as reasonable people. Distort their views until they become monsters. Having done so, demonstrate how these views lead to every manner of crime and catastrophe. Depict them as advocates and practitioners of every vice and sin imaginable, and encouraging the same for everyone else.

5) Lie: Lies will feed your accusations, and outrage the opposition, so you will now have anger from all sources. Even your opponents will now frequent your media, if only to try to counter what you are saying. This will give you their names and addresses (which you can sell) and extra sales, but you can also select the worst of these outraged responses to print or post for the amusement of your target audience, and the further outrage of the opposition.

6) Teach Nothing: Reality is surprising and rarely conforms to our expectations, but anything that does not conform to the expectations of your audience will make them uncomfortable. Shield them from this, or they may desert you. If an new fact appears, spin it so that it does not challenge their beliefs. If there is a lesson to be learned, hide it. The only lesson they should hear is for others, not for them. Assure them that there is nothing that they need to learn. Best of all, this means that you require no research, which is expensive. You need only provide opinions on what is already known, and this is dirt cheap.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Why Be Good?

In response to a number of blogs and articles which claim that there is no material reason to be good, and the claim that morality is a holdover from religion, there are a number of responses that have stood the test of time. Plato's Euthyphro is one, in which it is pointed out that if goodness is based upon the opinion of higher beings, it is still merely a matter of whim, and that their must be a standard higher even than the gods by which the good is judged. It has also been observed that the ethics of religions themselves evolve through co-opting the ethical advances of the societies of which they are a part. Slavery is a good example: there is nothing in the Bible against it, and yet all of Western civilization has come to the conclusion that it is wrong. The same is now happening with regard to women's rights and gay rights. These changes are imposed upon religions from without. They must come from elsewhere. So what is the root of human goodness, and the driving force behind ethical reasoning?

As any society advances and grows in numbers, it is faced with problems related to higher populations making greater demands upon limited resources, and higher population densities which must be managed so that their living space (ultimately, cities) do not become toxic waste dumps. The solution to these problems is technological; unless these problems are solved, high mortality rates will keep population numbers low. Technology is required both to allow for lower mortality and to cope with the greater numbers made possible by it. This growth of technology is a growth in knowledge, and to deal with this the society must pursue increasing specialization. We need doctors in multiple fields, mechanics, plumbers, carpenters, programmers, engineers (again in multiple fields), policemen, city planners, accountants, and so on.

Now all of these specializations create informational disparity. If I bring a car in to have it fixed, I probably have no idea what needs to be done, the cost of the parts, the work involved, or the true cost of all of it. I have to trust that the mechanic is not cheating me. There is competition, of course, but it is never perfect. I may have to go to a particular shop who specializes in my make of car. I can, of course, do research on this and become something of an expert on the car I drive. But I have limited time; I cannot master all things, I must trust specialists in their area of specialization. Indeed, in order for an advanced civilization to function, it must operate on a basis of trust. Otherwise the advanced civilization that we now enjoy would become impossible. Life without trust is nasty, short, and brutish.

Consider societies where this trust does not exist. In ours, we take something from the shelf, and pay the sticker price. In societies that do not have this level of trust, they haggle over every price. But haggling takes time and expertise that could be better spent on our own areas of specialization. As a result, societies that haggle are poor.

Trust requires honesty. Salesmanship can only work if the claims made by salesmen are largely true. Every lie, every cheat, every act of sleaze costs us all. The liar is a freeloader. He is exploiting the trust that the rest of us work hard to establish for a quick payoff. He thinks he is getting away with it, but he isn't. First, of course, he is eroding the trust that our society needs to maintain itself. In this way, he is like the coyote in the Warner Brothers cartoons, sawing away at the plank that is supporting him over the abyss. But it goes further than that. If he brags to his friends about what he has done--and he will, to seek approval and justification for his actions--his friends will react in one of two ways. They may be encouraged to follow suit, thus eroding the foundation of society still further. Or, they may smile and nod, and realize that their friend is not to be trusted. And they will warn others, and for his short term gains, this man will pay a hundredfold.

Few sins can survive the light of truth. Honesty is the universal acid that burns all evil. War and tyranny require a bodyguard of lies. And honesty is required to sustain us in the style to which we have become accustomed; the style to which everyone in the world aspires to. So, to live a good life, you must be honest. And to be honest, you must be good.

Morality, it turns out, is required by the human situation. It is inescapable, if you wish to live in a world worth living in.

But some will say that that does not matter, that human concerns for comfort and prosperity are irrelevant, and that what is good might require mass human suffering. This is the morality of abstract principle. This is the morality of the bolsheviks and the Reich. Francis Fukuyama said that there are some mistakes you need a PhD to make. There are some mistakes you need to think too much, and feel too little, to make.

Let me take you on a thought experiment. I take your index finger and place it on a slab of granite, and with the other hand I take a three pound sledge, and I crush the end of your finger. Not enough to sever it, but enough to reduce the last two bones to razor sharp fragments of serrated bone, exploding the joint, permeating all the flesh--flesh, I might point out, which is so completely permeated with nerve endings that they can detect brail points a couple of millimetres apart, and all of these are now screaming a single signal of pain. The pain would be so intense that, if you were subject to cardiac weakness, it might well kill you. But at the very least, it will annihilate you. "Cogito ergo sum", Descartes said, but there would be no cogito, and no sum. You would cease to exist before a storm of raw qualia that would burn away all consciousness of everything except for that finger. You would become simply an animal in pain.

At that moment, if I were to ask you, "Is this good?", you would answer "No!" And you would know the truth of that with every fiber of your being. This is what a fact feels like.

Hume said that you cannot get an ought from an is. But what if the primal ought is an is? I suspect that all morality begins with a baby bumping his head, stubbing his toe, mashing or burning his finger, and screaming incoherently to the world, "THIS IS WRONG!" Psychopaths never connect their own pain to others, but normal people will, and will understand that unnecessary pain, particularly extraordinary pain, is always wrong, and not just for them, but for everyone.

And from this, all the rest follows.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

The Rise of the Goobermenschen

I read an article recently in the Nation about Nietzsche and Hayek. I'm not certain the author firmly establishes the link to Hayek--the main thrust of the argument seems to be that they were both from late 19th century Vienna--although some quotes near the end may nail his thesis, namely that Hayek did not favour liberty for the masses, but only for the elite. Frankly, I've always thought Hayek's work on distributed systems of information supported democracy and egalitarianism, but Hayek himself may not have seen it that way.

But what I was struck by, yet again, was the crude elitism of Nietzsche's philosophy, the ebuliant rush to kneel before the ubermensch. Yet despite all of his appeals to classical standards, Nietzsche's overman is a hero without virtues. All forms of morality are simply the imposition of the masses upon the Great Man. And the obvious question is that, if someone really is a Great Man, how is it that the masses were able to tame and subjugate him?

The answer is, they don't, nor was Christianity the origin of the virtue of charity. Generosity has always been the trait of great leaders; in the early sagas of northern Europe and Iceland, the great king is called the ring-giver, a man, or woman, whose exercise of charity and generosity sometimes takes them to the point of penury, and in this way inspires the loyalty that makes him or her a great leader. Christianity did not make charity a virtue, it simply recognized what was already regarded as a virtue in the ancient world, for Christianity owed as much to the philosophy of the Greeks and Romans as it did to that of the Jews. And in all of these cultures, charity was a virtue.

The truly great man or woman will rise in any society, and will do so with the blessing of the masses, because they will combine at least some of the classic virtues that all admire: generosity, humility, loyalty, courage, intelligence, creativity, honesty, wisdom, and knowledge. Any system of governance that discourages these or does not reward them will be quickly surpassed. Competition does not merely exist between individuals, but between groups. And any society that does not respect the full range of virtues will find itself in trouble.

Moral realism is a consequence of epistemological realism. If nothing is true, nothing can be good, and conversely, if one recognizes that there are facts that are the case, one must eventually accept that there are certain rules of social conduct that are better than others. Curiously, Nietzsche fell prey to a vestigial dogma; when he gave up Christianity, he did not give up the idea that all morals came from God. But he was no fan of evolution either. If he had been, he might have realized that we have evolved a conception of what is fair and good--indeed, we came to this point before we were human. All of the great apes share this sensibility. A chimpanzee, given a root vegetable when his neighbor is given a piece of fruit, will throw the vegetable away in protest, even though he is hungry. Even dogs know what is fair; a dog who plays roughly, and who does not bow and apologize for too rough play, is ostracized--a penalty that is usually lethal.

Because Nietzsche ignores the virtues, he became the champion of mediocrity, however much he wanted to be otherwise. Everyone thinks they are the ubermensch. Everyone thinks they are above average--it's a well known cognitive defect of our species. By stripping the hero of virtues, Nietzsche made it possible for anyone to claim to be a hero. His lowbrow descendant, Ayn Rand, painted greed as the mark of the hero, a development that Nietzsche would have despised--indeed, he despised most of his descendants. His sister married a proto-nazi, whom Nietzsche despised, and they came to blows with Nietzsche the loser.

It is astonishing how many intellectuals praise the marshal ethic, even though it is at best the willingness of the strong to protect the weak against thugs, while at worst (and most often), it is simply the ethos of the thug. Physical courage is of course a component of intellectual courage, but this does not mean a willingness or the capacity to beat people up. Rather, it means a determination to stand ones ground against physical threats. This is the essence of the Hegelian Master-Slave dialectic, in which the master becomes master by his refusal to accept any other role, and the slave overthrows him by doing the same. Christopher Hitchens, who, after forty years without physical exertion could not even be reasonably expected to be able to run away, much less fight, still stood his ground against physical threats and made no attempt to hide himself from those who meant him harm. Feminists would do well to take note; physical prowess is not required for physical courage, only the determination to stand one's ground. Only when feminists do this without resort to the protection of male officialdom will they be taken as equals, rather than delicate flowers to be coddled--and managed--by the men folk. The don't need the permission of men, and it's time they stopped asking for it.

And yet, the thug is another example of the ubermensch gone to seed; the man of a single virtue, and a dubious one at that. A person with the virtues to avoid war, and to defeat the thugs with words, is worth a thousand who can win a war, because if you are at war, you've already lost.

Nietzsche didn't understand that. And so, we have the Goobermenschen.