History's actors

History's actors October 31, 2016

Let’s take a moment to think about free thought, and what sense of ‘free’ is in play.
The obligatory first stop is Wikipedia, which says:

Freethought or free thought is a philosophical viewpoint which holds that positions regarding truth should be formed on the basis of logic, reason, and empiricism, rather than authority, tradition, revelation, or other dogma.

What’s “free” about that? It’s freedom from the arbitrary. Authority (in the sense of The Big Boss as opposed to expertise), tradition, revelation, and dogma are all arbitrary, and that’s what makes them opposed to freedom. You can’t argue with the arbitrary, or show it evidence, or appeal its rulings. That’s how you know it’s arbitrary.

That perhaps doesn’t feel like the absence of freedom to people who have grown up within it, but to people who do have experience of thought that is not arbitrary, it’s stifling.
However, thought that is constrained by reason and evidence rather than dogma and tradition is not “free” in any sweeping or absolute sense. It’s not anarchy, or anything goes, or whatever floats your boat, or if that’s true for you then who are we to say it isn’t.
Free thought is actually hedged and limited by reality . . . which is what makes it better than the other kind. Better, but not necessarily more consoling, or fun, or flattering to the Self.
That’s how these things work. Games are games because there are rules – if there’s total freedom to break the rules, the game doesn’t work. You can just pick up the ball and carry it to the net and put it in, if your goal is to place this ball inside this net. But if your goal is to play football, you can’t; the rules and the opposing players getting in your way are what make it a game.
People like the game, and they don’t want more “freedom” from the rules and the opposing players. The obstacles are essential. Ballet is ballet and not just jumping about at random; music is music and not just noise; poetry is poetry and not just some words. Free thought is disciplined as opposed to random, constrained by reasonable rules and criteria as opposed to unreasonable, authoritarian ones.
I’ve been thinking about this thanks to Donald Trump. Trump is right-wing, but he’s not a traditionalist or a religious dogmatist – he’s more a guy who just picks up the ball and puts it in the net. He doesn’t give a damn what’s true and what isn’t, he doesn’t think about it that way; he cares about what he feels like saying at any given moment. He’s at least as lethal to freethinking as popes and imams are.
Making a truth-claim, or a reasoned argument, is constrained by limits just as football and ballet are. It requires freedom from arbitrary restrictions, but also limitation by non-arbitrary criteria. To put it succinctly, you can’t just make shit up.
Trump just makes shit up. If you type “Trump lies” into Google news, you will get too many hits to follow up. Eric Boehlert put it this way at AlterNet:

According to Daniel Dale of the Toronto Star, who methodically fact-checked the three presidential forums, Trump made 104 false statements during the debates, compared to Clinton’s 13. Incredibly, Trump unfurled 37 false statements during the third debate, which averaged out to one whopper for every minute he spoke that night.
Obviously, one of the reasons we know Trump can’t tell the truth is because media fact-checkers have worked overtime to document his trail of deceit.

I usually don’t watch presidential debates, because I’m not going to vote for the Republican and I don’t feel any need to watch such an artificial bit of theatre – but I watched all three of them this time, because the horror of Trump needs to be understood.
They made it painfully obvious how impossible it is to challenge him every time he lies – the “debate” would instantly degenerate into even more of a kindergarten shouting match than it already was. He simply lied too often to correct. If only there had been a referee instead of a moderator, he would have been red carded within seconds and we could all have spent the time more wisely.
But of course Trump isn’t trying to make truth claims or reasoned arguments. Pause for peals of laughter, because of course he’s not – he’s trying to get attention, and adulation, and elected. He ignores the constraints of truth-seeking and logic, but he heeds other constraints, or at least he adheres to them because they suit him.
His game or art form or epistemology is not about truth or reason, it’s about selling. He’s good at selling, if nothing else, and he’s succeeded in selling himself to a lot of people. It appears that he lost a lot of them over the past few weeks, but there are still many millions who have bought the Trump brand.

We know from history that buying an authoritarian racist liar as head of state can lead down terrible roads, to places where free thinking and most other valuable pursuits wither and die.
Here’s a famous passage from an article about the Bush administration by Ron Suskind in 2004:

I had a meeting with a senior adviser to Bush. He expressed the White House’s displeasure, and then he told me something that at the time I didn’t fully comprehend – but which I now believe gets to the very heart of the Bush presidency.
The aide said that guys like me were ‘in what we call the reality-based community’, which he defined as people who ‘believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.’
I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ‘That’s not the way the world really works anymore,’ he continued. ‘We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality – judiciously, as you will – we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.’

Trump would vehemently agree with that if asked, I’m sure. He likes creating his own reality, and trying to impose it on everyone else. The quality of the product is neither here nor there.

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