Category Archives: conservativism

Self-Deception, Dishonesty, and Epistemic Closure

In my last post I explored epistemic closure on the group level, using the observations from the former Czechoslovakian  writer, artist, actor, and politician,  Vaclav Havel.  Today I’d like to focus on the personal dimension of this closed-mindedness. Havel used the term “post-totalitarian state” to describe a state which operates under a subtle totalitarian state-of-mind which purports to be completely open and honest, i.e. “free.”  In this “Brave New World” prison, there is the surface belief of freedom but only because the bars which constitute the prison are so subtly imposed that they are not obvious to most.  In this “benign” police state, the gears, wheels, and pulleys that orchestrate the bondage are so well-hidden beneath the surface they are not noticed, consisting in ideological subtleties that can only be seen by those who have the capacity for self-reflection.

The individual dimension of this epistemic closure operates in accordance with the collective version described last time. Individuals imprisoned in this, “empty world of self-relatedness,” are encapsulated in their own premises which are not subject to review because there is no “self” consciousness available to conduct such a review.  The onset of such “self” consciousness would constitute a “splinter in the brain” which would be so catastrophic that internal, unacknowledged (i.e. “unconscious”) defenses would immediately intervene and rely on bromides such as the currently popular, “Fake News.”

But this “imprisonment” I’m describing is not necessarily as sinister as I’m making it appear.  Any identity seeks to maintain itself, to cohere, which means it has a certain core that borders on the sacrosanct.  In fact, “sacred” can describe this core as it is the very essence of our being and if this “essence” is not poisoned it will help us maintain a sense of integrity even in the face of conflict.  But if real “integrity” is present then conflict is welcome as exposure to different view points facilitates the flourishing, or “unfolding,” of an identity, allowing it to contribute meaningfully to the context in which it lives.  When this core is “poisoned,” however, any different viewpoint invokes that fear of “splintering” and leads to the creation of a false world in which any threats are minimized or prohibited.  In the extreme, the result is psychosis in which one’s private prison has become so confining that reference to any feedback from the external world has been cut off and one is left with the aforementioned, “empty world of self-relatedness.”

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Marilynne Robinson on Subjectivity, Dissent, Rationality, and Faith

Marilynne Robinson is one of the most astute social critics and feminist writers in our contemporary world.  In the current edition of The New Republic she has an article about Martin Luther and the dissent that he introduced which led to the Protestant Revolution.  She points out that Luther was a very conflicted soul, certainly “haunted” and driven by forces he was not aware of, but appearing at a ripe moment in history and has proving to be a pivotal figure in Western Civilization.  I also can see how one could even argue that the direction he led us was not even in the best interest of mankind, given our present day capacity to allow “dissent” to become such a way of life that even a “rational” body like the U.S. Congress is anything but rational.

Even in her youth Marilynne was a thoughtful sensitive soul, very “aware” of her own subjective experience and the world in which she lived, even that of flora and fauna. The following is from an article in Christianity Today magazine about Robinson’s keen spiritual sensitivity.  The writer pointed out that she developed a keen sense of observation, including the Ineffable, recalling that she could sense God’s presence there long before she had a name for him. “I was aware to the point of alarm of a vast energy of intention, all around me,” she writes, “barely restrained, and I thought everyone else must be aware of it.” Perhaps they were, but in a culture in which “it was characteristic to be silent about things that in any way moved them,” the young Robinson was, in her deepest experiences, alone.”

“There were mentors, though. She remembers her grandfather holding an iris blossom before her, quietly commending its miracle of form, and the “patient old woman who taught me Presbyterianism,” offering Moses’ burning bush and Pharaoh’s dream of famine as wonders to contemplate. In their reticent attention, both mentors gave Robinson a way to stand before mystery and gradually behold it. “It was as if some old relative had walked me down to the lake knowing an imperious whim of heaven had made it a sea of gold and glass, and had said, This is a fine evening, and walked me home again.”

Her subjective “aliveness” is best illustrated in her first novel, “Housekeeping” in which an Aunt cares for two young nieces and leads them into her eccentric, “hippy” world of myth and magic.  One of the nieces eventually rejects this life for the “normal” while the other takes off with her aunt for a vagabond life of adventure in an ethereal world of which most of us are oblivious, where distinctions are nebulous.  The most memorable line in this novel for me is, “Emptiness can blossom into all the compensations it requires.”  Robinson knew, and still knows, that the realm of the imagination holds riches untold for humankind if we are but willing to find the courage to venture there, allowing our intellect to be refreshed by the energy that lies there.

Here is the context from, “Housekeeping,” in which the aforementioned quotation occurs, “For need can blossom into all the compensation it requires. To crave and to have are as like as a thing and its shadow. For when does a berry break upon the tongue as sweetly as when one longs to taste it, and when is the taste refracted into so many hues and savors of ripeness and earth, and when do our senses know any thing so utterly as when we lack it? And here again is a foreshadowing-the world will be made whole. For to wish for a hand on one’s hair is all but to feel it. So whatever we may lose, very craving gives it back to us again. Though we dream and hardly know it, longing, like an angel, fosters us, smooths our hair, and brings us wild strawberries.”

Hamlet’s Wisdom for Our Political Impasse

Shakespeare had wisdom relevant to the political impasse of my country. He realized that human nature often leaves us trapped in a cognitive grid, i.e. being “lost in our head,” which W. H. Auden described as the world of a “logical lunatic.” In the following passage Hamlet is in deep anguish and pines for his mother to listen to him, listen not merely be “waiting” until he finishes talking:

(Hamlet, speaking to his mother, Gertrude)
Leave wringing of your hands. Peace. Sit you down
And let me wring your heart. For so I shall
If it be made of penetrable stuff,
If damnèd custom have not bronzed it o’er so
That it is proof and bulwark against sense. (i.e.feeling)

Gertrude was wringing her hands with her own anguish and guilt over her son’s misery. But Hamlet, consumed by rage…teeming with “mother issues”…would not give her any mercy and asked her to take a seat and let him “ring her heart.” And Hamlet knew he could, for he knew that with his murderous rage he was able to, “speak daggers to her, not use them.”

But Hamlet’s creator, Shakespeare, knew that Gertrude was like all humans, insulated with a thought-world shaped by “damned custom” that had “bronzed o’er” her heart so that it would prevent any affect which would allow genuine listening. “Damned custom” is a necessary gift of human culture, to fill our heads with contrived thinking designed to help us function in our tribe which means to minimize the influence of “bothersome” affect. But if the “bronzing o’er” is done too completely, then one is not capable of listening to anyone but only in interpreting what is heard in terms of a medley of pre-conceptions and premises. Without that “proof and bulwark” being in place, listening to the anguish of another person would prove too painful so culture provides us platitudes such as, “Oh, it will pass” or “My, I know how that feels” or, “Oh hell. Why don’t you just get over it,” or, “God knows what is best.”

In the current political situation this denial system leads to the “hunkering down” phenomena in which some, when faced with contradictions and absurdity in their stances, merely assert their beliefs with greater emphasis. This is because core beliefs are seen to be under attack and these “core beliefs” …always to some degree unquestioned assumptions…are not subject to question. And, of course it is this morass of the unquestioned that harbors “material” that is deemed too painful to address.

“They call it Reason, using light celestial, just to outdo the beasts in being bestial.” Goethe

Salman Rushie Explains Trumpism

Natural disaster is here again, giving us a chance to look at the lunacy of cause-and-effect carried to the point of lunacy.  Jim Bakker, the former PTL tele-evangelist, now hawking the gospel and end-of-the-world survival food.  Meanwhile, Rush Limbaugh is blathering on his latest conspiracy theory, that Hurricane Harvey is implicated in a plot to increase sales of bottled water and batteries.  (For Jim Bakker story, see:  (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/jim-bakker-hurricane-doomsday-food_us_59af847be4b0354e440d93dd)

Cause-effect is important as otherwise the world as we know it would not exist.  There would be no possibility of a structured whole that facilitates human culture.  But when the spiritual dimension of life is missing, or at least ossified in meaninglessness, the cause-effect view of the world is devoid of perspective. This is very much related to the time-space continuum about which I pontificate often.

The time-space continuum, and its off-spring cause-and-effect, is basically the nuts and bolts of “reality.”  And I am certainly not against reality but I’m very much a proponent of another dimension of reality, which I will call it Reality, without which life will become meaningless.  This “Reality” is the domain of what some of us like to call “God” but unfortunately when the notion of God gets consumed by culture it too loses its value.  And I deliberately used the pronoun “it” for a deity that is confined to cultural conveniences, including language, is an “it.”

Let me put this phenomenon on personal terms.  It is easy to blame Trump and Trumpism for the ugliness that is abounding in my culture currently.  And, he certainly is a contributor to it.  But as Salman Rushie recently pointed out, Trump is only the symptom of the problem and when he takes his place in the dust bin of history the problem will still be with us.  For the problem is very much related to this notion of “Reality” that I proposed and the “god” intertwined in that dimension of human experience is not an absent, disembodied deity but one who lives in the very core of our being and, according to none other than Jesus, “is us” in a very critical fashion.  The problem is our intrinsic disavowal of that intrinsic dimension of our being, opting to focus on the external, one example being our hedonist consumerism. But as long as we continue to be externally oriented, given to blaming others…including God…we will not come to recognize and experience our own God-given human agency which would allow us to be better care-takers of this beautiful world we live in.  As Jesus told us, “The Kingdom is within.”  (Re Salman Rushie and Trump, see the following:  https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/sep/02/salman-rushdie-interview)

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Here is a list of my blogs.  I invite you to check out the other two sometime.

https://anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com/

https://literarylew.wordpress.com/

https://theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com/

Marginality, Boundaries, & Racism

Marginality is a commonly used term in modern culture, referring to pushing certain people into the “margins” of our social body because of reasons that often amount to the simple fact they are “different.”  And I’m glad this term is on the table as it has produced such abysmal ugliness in our culture as racism, misogyny, homophobia, and xenophobia.

But here I want to emphasize the importance of margins even in the face of their common gross misuse.  These margins I’m speaking of are merely boundaries and without boundaries an individual, or a group of individuals, cannot cohere.  Boundaries, in the social terms I’m speaking of here, are at root the ability to draw the distinction between self and not-self, between “me and thee.”  The ability to draw this distinction is one of the most important phases of our development and only to the degree we have done this will we be able to function in society with some degree of success.

However, when this distinction-drawing has gone awry and is overly valued, the emphasis of boundaries will be excessive and the result will be an excessive push to marginalize people who are different.  This problem stems from existential insecurity as those whose grounding in reality, in the inner-most depths of their being, will find themselves overly emphasizing who is “them” and who is “us.”  Let me illustrate with the simple illustration of the immigration issue in my country.  Immigration policy is a legitimate and even moral need for the welfare of a tribe.  But when social tension is pronounced, often by socio-economic pressures, a matter like immigration policy will become a political football and rather than be resolved will be endlessly quarreled about. In present day, it gives rise to cries like “Build that wall” and “Keep those Mexicans out” which often amounts to nothing more than overt racism rather than the simple and legal right to set a boundary and control who can enter our country.  The foolishness of this “Build that Wall” cry was demonstrated with another Republican Presidential candidate, Scott Walker, responded immediately to Trump’s suggestion with notion of building a wall between the U.S. and Canada also!  “Trump got a lot of applause, so I’ll say the same thing,” Walker must have thought!

We are not rational human beings.  Never have been and never will be.  We are human beings driven primarily by emotion and our reason is subservient to these emotions.  That does not mean we deserve the label “irrational”…necessarily…it just means that our reasoning must be taken with a grain of salt, thus allowing for other perspectives.  Cooperation and dedication toward a common good would then be possible.  But it is easier to just go along with unexamined prejudices, biases and premises about life, giving to them by drawing distinctions rigidly when they could be drawn more graciously.

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Two other blogs of mine are listed here which I invited you to check out:

https://anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com/

https://literarylew.wordpress.com/

https://theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com/

Epistemic Closure in Poetry

The political impasse in my country with the hijacking of the Republican Party by hyper-conservative voices has brought to my focus the topic of epistemic closure.  This is the idea of an idea, or group of ideas, that so captivates a group that any disagreement is forbidden as it would threaten their unconscious need for certainty.  Carried to an extreme this phenomenon always produces a figure head, someone extremely immune from feedback from external reality like Donald Trump.

This morning I ran across a beautiful poem in the Times Literary Supplement which illustrates this phenomenon.  It then brought to my mind two other poems, all three of which I will now share:

Sleeping Dogs by Stephen Dobyns

The satisfied are always chewing something;
like eternal daybreak their smiles remain constant.
They think they travelled far to get here. In fact,
it was two or three steps. Their definitions
surround them like a kennel contains a hound.
Let’s say you rattle their gate. Let’s say you became
a flea nibbling the delicate skin of their belief.
One eye rolls up, a raised lip reveals a tooth.

Like a thrown stone imagining it will not fall
their explanations work to keep the world fixed.
And here you’ve come with your trumpet. Did you
think they would like your music? Your accusers
are blameless. They press their paws to their soft ears.
Why share their kennel if you won’t let them sleep?

And here is one of my favorite poems by Emily Dickinson who uses vivid, concrete language to describe the emphatic closing of a mind against any feedback from one’s private frame of reference:

The Soul selects her own Society —
Then — shuts the Door —
To her divine Majority —
Present no more —

Unmoved — she notes the Chariots — pausing —
At her low Gate —
Unmoved — an Emperor be kneeling
Upon her Mat —

I’ve known her — from an ample nation —
Choose One —
Then — close the Valves of her attention —
Like Stone —

And finally here is an excerpt from “New Year Letter” by W. H. Auden who poignantly captures the duplicity of the social contract and the courage it takes to explore beneath its facade:

…only “despair

Can shape the hero who will dare

The desperate databases

Into the snarl of the abyss

That always lies just underneath

Our jolly picnic on the heath

Of the agreeable, where we bask,

Agreed on what we will not ask,

Bland, sunny, and adjusted by

The light of the accepted lie?

 

Language is Nuanced and Contextual

Ben Carson is now on stage with Trump, playing his part in the daily clown show.  He almost immediately made a splash when in his first speech after taking office as Housing and Urban Development Secretary described slaves on slave ships as “immigrants.”   When he was immediately criticized over this statement, he responded with, “Look up the definition of immigrants.”

Carson is another demonstration of the Trump administration’s lack of appreciation of nuance in language, reminding me of the former Supreme Court jurist, Antonin Scalia who argued, “The constitution means just what it says.”  Conservative politicians, and theologians, are literalists and do not consider the contextual dimension of words.  Though these very same persons will readily argue that one who cries “Fire” in a theater does not have the right to do so, that venue being one one “context” which is relevant to the use of words.

Carson replied in response to critics of his observation, “Look it up in the dictionary!.”  He is right, “immigrant” means someone moving to another country.  However, the notion that a black person in the bowels of an 18th century slave ship was an “immigrant” is just absolutely ridiculous.  And, though this is only obliquely related, let me show you a photo of Ben Carson and Jesus in his household, the nuances of which are highly comical.

If only I was skilled with photo-shop, you would soon see a picture of myself with Jesus and Buddha on either side of me, arms around me and myself with a beatific smile.  This photo is such a stunning example of how Ben Carson, and so many of the Republican Party, have no idea of how they are coming across to the onlooker.

ADDENDUM—This is one of three blogs that I now have up and running.  Please check the other two out sometime.  The three are: 

https://wordpress.com/stats/day/literarylew.wordpress.com

https://wordpress.com/posts/anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com

https://wordpress.com/posts/theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com