Archive for December, 2019

Star Trek and Impeachment:  how long should the impeachment trial last?  As long as Capt. Picard says it should.

December 26, 2019

Star Trek and Impeachment:  how long should the impeachment trial last?  As long as Capt. Picard says it should.

Counselor Deanna Troi: [explaining] While they’re learning how to communicate with Riva, they’ll be learning how to communicate with each other.
Lt. Commander Data: [interpreting] And that is the first and most important aspect of any relationship.

—–from Star Trek, The Next Generation, season 2, episode 5, “Loud as a Whisper” (1989, Paramount Studios)

     The fundamental divide within our nation is not religious, political or even moral; it is epistemological. We do not see the same reality, so how could we hope to agree on solutions? Some even claim there is no “reality,” just a war of wills between those with “facts” and those with “alternative facts.” Did Donald Trump commit crimes worthy of impeachment? How can we agree, when we don’t even agree with what a “crime” is, what words like “I’d like you to do us a favor though” mean, what “interference” in an election means, or any other independent reality?
If Donald Trump is removed from office, that will not heal the divide in our nation. If Donald Trump is quickly acquitted, that will not heal the divide in our nation. While polls suggest that most people agree that he did things that are immoral and unfit for our nation’s leader, there is debate even there about whether the crimes were “high” enough to justify impeachment. And some people, looking at the same evidence, claim there is no crime at all, not even a questionable act.
Every major intelligence agency of our nation agrees that Russia, and Russia alone, illegally interfered in the 2016 elections. Even the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee, run by Republicans, agrees that this is true. Yet Republican senators, who supposedly listened to those reports and who voted to accept those reports into the Congressional record as facts, publicly deny them. Often they simply refuse to even look at such evidence at all, preferring the news feed from RT over any direct briefing from the CIA.
This is not political partisanship. This is epistemological apartheid: two populations side-by-side, with no language in common, no shared reality, virtually forbidden to communicate with one another. Is there an escape from this trap?
If anyone knew (or will know, it gets confusing) political impasses, it was (will be?) Capt. Jean-Luc Picard of the USS Enterprise. Thousands of inhabited planets, each with radically different cultures, languages, histories and values, each with competing interests, and one diplomatic misstep could lead to war that could possibly extinguish any or all of these and kill billions of sentient beings. While he had an arsenal of weapons at his command, often the problems were those that could not be solved by a war of wills or weapons. Often the task was to end a war, or stop one before it started. In such situations, what was needed was communication: and before that, the foundation of communication, a shared reality.
Two examples come to mind. The first is from Star Trek, TNG’s second season, the episode “Loud as a Whisper.” The story revolves around a planet which has virtually destroyed its civilization through warfare, and now has finally decided to seek peace between the two enemy factions. They have requested a famous diplomat from another planet, someone with no ties to either side, to mediate between them. The diplomat is actually mute; he has an extrasensory bond with three interpreters, who express his thoughts and emotions. However, at the first peace meeting, one of the two negotiating parties attempts to kill the mediator rather than give up the war that has defined his life. The assassination attempt fails because everyone else realizes that endless war is pointless; the assassin is tackled and his shot goes wild, missing the diplomat but raking his interpreters with deadly fire. Suddenly, this great negotiator is not only deprived of his greatest tool—-his “chorus” of interpreters who provided him not only a voice but also different perspectives——but he is now unable to communicate. He uses a sign language that no one on the ship understands. He is isolated, and the two sides have no mediator.
This seemingly insurmountable problem becomes an asset. Both delegations still want peace and want the mediator to resume his work. He cannot do this without a way to communicate. He resolves therefore to teach them his sign language. By learning to speak to him, they’ll be learning to speak to each other, something they have not done for more than a generation of constant warfare. It may take many months before any but the most rudimentary communication between the mediator and the warring parties is possible, but the whole time they will be engaged in the joint project of learning this new skill, working together, and helping the diplomat help them. The fact that it will take months or maybe years is an asset; they’ve been killing each other for years, and the war was never going to end in a day. This first, drawn-out project will be the start of their reconciliation.
The second episode I thought of was “Darmok.” In this case, an alien culture is seeking to negotiate directly with the Federation and with Capt. Picard. While they have technology that allows them to understand the words each is saying, the cultures are so different that they cannot understand what the other means by those words. The humans use words like you do; the other race, the Tamarians, communicate through metaphor. This is such an important part of their culture that they cannot even think in any other way; but without knowing the story to which their words refer, no one else can know what those words mean. It’s as if I said, “Archie Bunker” in response to something you said. If you knew that Archie Bunker was a bigoted character in the 1960s sitcom “All in the Family,” you’d know I was calling you a bigot. But if you didn’t know the story, you’d have no idea what I meant even if the words were comprehensible. So the aliens have a problem; they want to establish communication, but even though they understand the words the other side is using, neither understands the other’s meaning.
The solution, again, is a joint project. The Tamarian captain traps himself and Capt. Picard on a planet with a dangerous beast, which they can defeat only by cooperating. As a culture that communicates entirely through stories, they set up a situation where the two captains must work together, and the story of this cooperation becomes the context of future communication. It will clearly not be a fast or easy process, but a rushed process would not solve the underlying problem: a lack of shared context.
The current political situation in the United States has been called “a civil cold war.” I was a child in the 1960s and vividly remember television references to “the generation gap” even if I was too young to be part of that conflict. In addition to the clash between the military-aged and their elders who started the war and sent them to fight, there was the ongoing struggle of non-whites and of women to be treated as equal human beings. But I don’t have the impression that the divisions between the two sides were ever as stark as they are now: more violent, but not more decisive. For the most part, people got their news from the same sources. They knew what the issues were and what words meant. Some may have thought Martin Luther King Jr. was a dangerous Communist agitator while others saw him as a Christian peacefully crusading for justice, but at least both sides understood what “Communist” and “justice” meant; the gulf between them was largely about facts and values. Today people who fight to protect children throw thousands in cages, sometimes to die alone or to simply disappear by the hundreds if not thousands, because the “children” they care about are unborn; those already born are on their own. Others say that an “unborn child” is like an “unbuilt car:” not a thing at all but only the potential for one. If we can’t even agree what a person is, how can we decide whether something is an unjust crime against people? How can we decide whether a leader’s excesses are the necessary price we pay to protect hundreds of thousands of “tiny unborn persons” or simply crimes with no excuse except the grievance and will-to-power of his supporters?
Some of this confusion is genuine; groups with different views and values, different metaphysical assumptions and so on deriving different ethical injunctions. Some of this confusion is intentionally created. Russian political scientists have openly discussed their theory of “managed democracy” where the government attempts to create a “post-truth” society as a means to keep the people disorganized, divided and therefore more easily controlled. Whether the divide is natural or manufactured, the result is the same: a society divided not only by competing economic theories or moral philosophies, but even by different epistemic worlds. We don’t agree what truth is, how to find it or even whether it exists. In this situation, I think the great negotiator Riva from “Loud as a Whisper” would agree that what we need is to take the time to recreate a shared reality, a shared frame of reference. The impeachment of Donald Trump is one opportunity to begin this process. A thorough investigation, a lengthy and careful trial, would not only discover the events that actually occurred, but would also establish the meaning of those events. And what is at least as important, even though it would be an adversarial situation (prosecution and defense) it would also be a joint project. A well-played sporting event is a joy to its viewers, no matter who wins, so long as both sides agree in the end that the result was fair. Those who can’t agree are known to be “bad sports.” The fact is that just as you can’t have a football game without two teams, you can’t have a trial without two sides; the adversaries need each other.
What is more fundamental, and most important at this time, is that a real trial would have to be one that accepts the principle that truth matters. Did the President of the United States violate the law, violate his oath of office, and use taxpayer money to secure personal advantages for himself at the expense of national security? That is a factual question; it is either true or false. Did Putin’s government actively and covertly attempt to undermine our free elections, and is he working to do this again, as the Senate Intelligence Committee and 17 U.S. intelligence agencies say? Or is the real “interference” the fact that some Ukrainian official wrote an op-ed article, openly using his own name, expressing his opinion that Donald Trump should not give vast swaths of Ukrainian territory to Putin? Does the factual reality, the truth, matter, or is the only thing that matters whether some claim suits the agenda of some politician?
What this nation needs, more than anything, is a return to a belief in objective reality. When I was a kid, we had race riots, anti-war riots, corruption, the Kent State Massacre, the Weathermen, and more. We had real troubles. But we didn’t have a major political party and millions of people denying objective reality, rejecting science as some sort of conspiracy, rejecting medicine, and even arguing that education was bad because people who know stuff tend to disagree with the party. We had plenty of paranoia, and sometimes it turned out the paranoids were right; but we didn’t have people actually in the government denying everything they heard from over a dozen of our own intelligence agencies. In that sort of situation, we need some long-term work to re-establish a shared frame of reference. A serious investigation of Mr. Trump’s guilt would do that. It would presumably allow witnesses on both sides: the side that says Trump was pressuring Ukraine to cook up evidence to smear a political rival, and the side that says that there was something terribly wrong in Ukraine that Mr. Trump was legitimately investigating. This would in turn raise the question of where each side was getting its information and how it was validating its claims, which would raise the more fundamental question of how we can establish “truth” in any functional sense so that communication is possible. By contrast, having a one-week “trial” in the Senate would allow no time for serious debate about how either side decides whether to believe any particular claim, and would reduce everything to a mere power-play that solves nothing.
Maybe there is no “objective truth” that is free from personal interpretation or projection. Even if you say this, you must also agree that there are degrees of distortion. People of differing cultures and values can work together to solve problems. We may disagree about many things, but we can generally distinguish between those with whom we disagree versus those who are seriously crazy. If we’re trying to avoid drowning in a flood, say, and five people are filling sandbags to reinforce the levy while one is killing cats because cats are agents of Satan, we don’t just say, “Well, he’s got alternative facts.” We don’t just say, “Five of us think sandbags are the way to go, so we decide what’s true.” We look at whether killing cats has ever solved any problem, such as the Plague in Medieval Europe, and we find it hasn’t. We look for some rational reason to believe killing cats might help the situation, and can see no causal connection such as we usually see in other areas of life. On the other hand, we do find instances where sandbags have helped, and our past experience suggests that it is the sort of thing that would be useful. We might also consider the dangers of adopting a sandbag strategy versus the dangers of ignoring the levies and just hunting cats. We would decide that the stakes are too high to do nothing, that the course of action most likely to help was to fill sandbags, and would decide that the person who refused and instead ran around killing cats was (at best) a useless loony. The need to work together, coupled with the urgency of the situation, would force us to make judgments about shared reality and how we can judge truth. In calmer times, we might have just left the cat-hater to his superstition; but when the flood waters are rising, the “he’s entitled to his own opinion” that suggests epistemological relativism becomes “we don’t have time for your nonsense anymore.” The past successes of filling sandbags during floods, versus the failure of felinicide, would give us a practical, pragmatic way to sift likely truth from probable falsehood. If our species could never apprehend the world with any accuracy, we’d have died out a long time ago; so we are capable of some truth, and should try to find it.
The first step towards making the divides in our society manageable and possibly even productive is to decide to seek to treat reality first as a matter for investigation rather than power struggles. No doubt struggles will continue even after all the facts are established as well as they can be, and that is fine. But unless we can at least agree what it is we disagree about, there can be nothing but fighting without end. Democracy is, in the end, a way to have internal struggles without destroying our society, by agreeing to shared rules of engagement and conflict resolution. The only alternative is violence.

What’s Up With Comedy? Preliminary Expectoration

December 20, 2019

What’s Up With Comedy? Preliminary Expectoration

 

This is part of the confusion that manifests itself in so many ways in our day; something is sought where one should not seek it; and what is worse, it is found where one should not find it. One wishes to be edified in the theater, to be esthetically stimulated in church; one wishes to be converted by novels, to be entertained by devotional books; one wishes to have philosophy in the pulpit and a preacher on the lecture platform.[1]

—– S. Kierkegaard

 

 

Does anyone else think it strange that we demand higher moral standards from our comedians than we do from our nation’s political leaders? A comedian’s career can be derailed by a careless tweet. An actor’s career can be derailed by a charge of sexual impropriety. A singer can be called to account for performing at a party hosted by a dictator, or sometimes even just for performing in a country with an unsavory government. But if the President suggests that someone should be beaten or killed, or confesses to a crime, it’s said he was “just joking;” if a dozen or more women testify he raped or assaulted them, they’re all dismissed as liars; if he praises and is praised by murderous, corrupt dictators and even claimed by them as “one of our agents”, it has no noticeable impact on the love of his fans or the respect of his party.[2] Our age accepts any buffoonery from its leaders, so long as they make the crowds laugh; but actual comedians are expected to act like leaders.

In Kierkegaard’s Either/Or, the fictitious anonymous author argues that such confusions reflect a society in disarray. “Our age has lost all the substantial categories of family, state, kindred; it must turn the single individual over to himself completely in such a way that, strictly speaking, he becomes his own creator.” Our lives lack context; there is no essential connection between one and another. There is no passion; nothing has significance in itself, and we are left only with the frivolities that capture our interest for a moment. Our age, even more than Kierkegaard’s, seems fundamentally confused and disoriented. We want big, glitzy megachurches with a good show; we analyze the moral messages implicit in the latest blockbuster movie. Leaders are “just joking” or just using “locker-room talk,” while entertainers are expected to be role-models. We look for things where any serious, thoughtful person would not; and what is worse, we find what we’re looking for, because the age itself is careless and thoughtless.

Such thoughts as these suggest that it is time to think about humor, and about what it means in this age. What is comedy? Why do we take comedy so seriously? Why do we look, not to the saints or the scientists or the journalists or the leaders for truth, but to comedians and to politicians who caper and jape more than any real comedian? I want to think about these questions. Maybe, when I’m done, I’ll find the joke was on me; it wouldn’t be the first time.

[1] Søren Kierkegaard, Either Or, v. 1; edited translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hont, with introduction and notes (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1987) p. 149

[2] Melissa Lemieux, “Russian Media Calls Trump a Moscow ‘Agent,” Jokingly Suggests He’ll Need to Flee to their Country After Leaving Office;” Newsweek 12/16/19 (https://www.newsweek.com/russian-state-media-calls-trump-moscow-agent-jokingly-suggests-hell-need-flee-their-country-1477554)