Posts Tagged ‘Climate Deniers’

They Booed Trump at the World Series:  What Does That Mean?

October 29, 2019

They Booed Trump at the World Series:  What Does That Mean?

There’s been a lot of discussion in the press about events October 27, 2019.  First, Americans woke up to hear that the founder and leader of DAESH or ISIS had been killed in a nighttime raid in Syria.  He was a brutal and seemingly power-mad terrorist, even compared to Osama bin Laden, and the violent death of a person who celebrated rape, slavery, torture and murder is good news for anyone who loves justice.  As the Commander in Chief of the US military, Donald Trump clearly expected at least a little boost in his popularity.  You could argue that he should have gotten enormous praise and gratitude, not in the sense that he was morally owed anything but rather in the sense that if you light a fuse and it burns down to the dynamite and nothing happens, you say, “That should have exploded.”  Something unexpected and seemingly unnatural happened; instead of cheers or even polite applause, Donald Trump was jeered and booed the very day he announced that one of America’s most vicious enemies had been killed.  Why is that?

There have been many comments made about the way Trump announced the death of Baghdadi.  Obama announced the death of bin Laden with little prior build-up.  It came totally unexpectedly.  In fact, right before the raid he was going through one of the traditional Washington rituals, the White House Correspondents Dinner Roast.  He mocked himself and was mocked by others; he also teased others.  He was funny and seemed relaxed, as if nothing special was happening.  A few hours later, he was in the White House listening in real time while the raid played out, so that if any major decisions needed to be made or major announcements made, good or bad, he’d be there to do so.  When the raid was over and the troops safely on their way home, he made a relatively dignified speech congratulating and thanking all those involved, even the military who weren’t always his biggest fans because he had not served and had made decisions many disagreed with.

By contrast, during the actual raid to kill Baghdadi, Trump was golfing, enjoying his weekly multi-million dollar taxpayer-funded personal pleasure.  Then he tweeted about an upcoming big announcement, teasing it like it was the new Star Wars trailer or something.  When he finally made his announcement, it seemed to many to be self-congratulatory, to reveal operational details better kept secret, and to be generally undignified and unworthy of the president of the United States.  While Obama had emphasized that the body of bin Laden had been buried with the dignity we’d give one of our own, Trump repeatedly spoke of how humiliated Baghdadi had been, “whimpering” and dying “like a dog.” While Obama had notified leaders of both parties, Trump notified the Russians but not his real enemies, the Democrats, American citizens, most of whom have handled secret materials for years without leaking it.  And many were quick to note that when bin Laden was killed, Donald Trump was one of the first to say that Obama did not deserve any credit because he was merely the President; so why, critics asked, should Trump get any credit now when he had no more to do with killing Baghdadi than Obama had to do with killing bin Laden?

All of this, however, strikes me as beside the point.  Ultimately, while these considerations might have warranted rebuking Trump’s boorish and narcissistic messaging or his hypocrisy, it doesn’t explain the chants of “Lock Him Up!” by tens of thousands of people on live, international television.  Something much more is going on here. 

Tamara Keith of PBS Newshour was onto part of it when she pointed out that bin Laden was a much bigger force in most Americans’ minds than Baghdadi ever was.  Al Qaeda killed thousands of Americans in one day on live television; DAESH sought to establish its caliphate on the other side of the world, and most of its victims were Syrians and Iraqis.  Newshour also pointed out that while Obama got a popularity boost after the killing of bin Laden, it didn’t last; wile he got a month or two versus the hours at most that Trump earned, ultimately it partisanship took hold in both cases.  The difference between the two cases was not as different as it might first seem; still, it’s worth asking why Trump didn’t earn even the temporary boost Obama got.

When Obama took office, there were two great threats hanging over our collective heads:  the Great Recession and radical Islamist terrorism.  Killing bin Laden symbolically took care of one of these, while the Obama economic plan, including the bailout of the auto industry, helped with the other.  Before Obama took office, economists predicted that recovery from the Great Recession would be slow and uneven; some of the jobs lost would never come back, though others would replace them.  Sadly, that prediction proved true; some areas of our country never really recovered, though overall the economy has grown steadily through most of the Obama administration and into Trump’s.  The result was a balkanization of our fears.  In rural areas, and many manufacturing areas, the economy continued to be a source of anxiety; but for most of the nation, things were slowly looking up.  Areas where jobs were scarce and immigrants relatively unknown, the fear of Islamic terrorism grew to a general xenophobia; not only were foreigners seen as terrorists and criminals, but also as competitors for the scarce jobs.  But in more developed areas, there were enough jobs that immigrants were seen not as competitors as much as a necessary part of the work force.  People who knew Muslims first-hand didn’t fear them all, but distinguished between them.  So while Obama addressed the concerns of most Americans, Trump addressed himself to the needs of only a limited portion.

According to opinion polls, more Americans are worried about mass shootings and domestic terrorism than they are about Mexicans or ISIS.  More Americans worry about Russian hackers than about whether #MeToo is unfair to men.  While Trump voters fear illegal aliens voting, voters in other areas have dealt with real election fraud:  the Republican Secretary of State in Georgia sabotaging voting machines in black neighborhoods, the Republican candidate in North Carolina literally stealing ballots from Democratic voters, thousands of legal citizens being blocked from voting around the nation by Voter ID laws designed to handicap legal citizens, and so on.  The problems most Americans fear are not being solved by Trump.  In fact, Donald Trump seems to exacerbate those problems.  He doesn’t fight mass shootings; he defends the NRA, which even the GOP-controlled Senate concedes is a Russian asset, and which fights to preserve the rights of suspected terrorists, domestic abusers and the mentally ill to have military-grade weapons.  He doesn’t fight to ensure that all citizens can vote; he supports voter suppression and voter suppressors.  He doesn’t fight foreigners undermining our elections; he encourages and even forces them to intervene to help him.  And most tellingly, while he touts his fight against Islamic terrorism, more Americans have been killed or threatened by white supremacist terrorism which often cites Trump-favored information sources like Breitbart and InfoWars, or even quotes Trump himself.  We’ve had mass shootings, white supremacist riots, and bombing attempts, all citing Trump’s words in support and loyalty to him as their motive.  In short, to most Americans, Donald Trump is a more obvious and all-encompassing danger than Baghdadi was on his best day. 

Why did they boo Donald Trump at Game 5 of the World Series?  Because they hate Trump, sure.  But why?  Is it, as Trump supporters claim, because those 40,000 people simply hate America?  That would be stupid; this is where we keep our stuff, so why would we blow it up?  Is it “Trump Derangement Syndrome,” an irrational blind hatred of all things Trump?  Again, no.  The hatred and anger flows from the fact that Trump is felt to be a threat, a greater threat than any other, the nexus of most or all of the fears and anxieties of the majority of Americans.  He supports the terrorists most of us fear, the ones who shoot up schools and shopping malls and churches:  the white supremacists, the incels, the people who just collect guns so that when their anger boils over they’ll be ready to make the universe pay.  He accepts the praise of those who literally proclaim him the new Christ, and who threaten to unleash civil war in God’s name if he is opposed. 

I don’t think most of the people in that ballpark thought about this explicitly.  They reacted emotionally, as a result of conscious reasoning and unconscious perception.  The two things Trump can most credibly brag about are simply not the two things most people fear the most; and the things they do fear the most are things they associate with him.  Booing Donald Trump feels like booing Nazis and other “very fine people,” like booing the El Paso shooter and the Charlottesville driver and all the other terrorists who have quoted him, like booing climate change and all the entitled billionaires who fight to keep it happening, like booing the corruption of government officials who funnel tax money into their businesses while brazenly shaking down lobbyists for “donations.”  In a real sense, Donald Trump is a symbol, a bigger-than-life character, the way bin Laden was and Baghdadi is not, at least not for Americans.  And while for many Americans he’s a symbol of fighting social and economic changes that unsettle traditional values, for a return to the America they remember from their childhood, when America was Great, for many more he’s a symbol of chaos, random violence, political violence, oppression, environmental chaos of floods, fires, melting glaciers and mass extinctions, of religious oppression, and an attack on Hope itself. 

I side with the jeering masses, the booers, the chanters, the displeased.  I see two great forces struggling for control of America.  One saw itself as the Culture Warriors, but they’ve largely lost that war so rather than fight to win the culture they fight to establish rule by force over it.  Their slogan, Make America Great Again, is a formula for going backwards, for stasis and even degeneration.  The best days are behind them, so they seek to drag everyone and everything back into the past, back to when it was simple.  The other side’s slogan is “Yes We Can!”  It is optimism, It was Hope and Change, It is growth.  Anything not busy being born is busy dying; so this other side seeks to guide the change but not to fight it.  Trump famously, proudly resists learning, resists change, resists advice or other perspectives or other voices than his own.  Obama studied and read and questioned all through his presidency, and changed course when he had to.  Obama said, “You are the change you’ve been waiting for.” Trump said, “Things are a mess, and I alone can fix it.”  I guess, for all my cynicism, my self-esteem is simply not low enough for me to bow down to a mere mortal who claims perfection and omnipotence, and who demands that I shut up and follow meekly where he leads.  I’d rather have leaders who demand my effort, my attention, my mental engagement, my work, but not my soul.  And so, apparently, do 40,000 or so baseball fans at the fifth game of the 2019 World Series.

Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, second edition (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984) pt.3

April 4, 2015

In the elder days of art

Builders wrought with greatest care

Each minute and unseen part, 

For the Gods are everywhere.

—-quoted by Harry Frankfurt

I first read After Virtue in 1988, about four years after the second edition was published. It holds up remarkably well. If anything, the early 21st Century culture buttresses his argument that we live today in a Nietzschean/Weberian emotivist society. MacIntyre argued that in the late 20th Century moral language had degenerated into a contest of wills, and claims to moral truth were employed as disguised attempts at manipulation. In the 21st Century, claims to objective empirical truth are likewise emptied of real content, and instead employed as weapons to dominate the other. One example seems to be the climate debate. This is largely a factual debate, it would seem, though it is treated as a moral debate because one group claims its property rights and individual liberties are at stake, while the other claims it is harmed and threatened by the selfishness of the first. In this debate, the factual claim was made that scientists who argued that human activity is a leading cause of climate change for the worse were engaged in a vast conspiracy to gain grant money by purveying falsehoods.[1] But when a major denier of this claim is found to have been funded by the fossil fuel industry, this is not taken as refuting the claims of “climate deniers.”[2] The mere suspicion that “those guys” had mercenary motives was enough to discredit them; but the admission that “our guy” has financial motives does not trigger any self-doubt or retraction, because the factual claims themselves are irrelevant. They were only rhetorical stratagems, not true factual claims.

Whether or not one sides with the 97% of climate scientists who believe human activity is altering global climate for the worse, any objective observation must admit that when someone claims the 97% are all part of a vast conspiracy while rejecting stronger evidence that the 3% are themselves paid to support the opposite view, that is prima facie evidenced that something is going on besides a disagreement over fact claims regarding economic entanglements.   The claim of a vast conspiracy by scientists to fabricate climate evidence was really a rhetorical weapon disguised as a fact-claim, just as the emotivist argues that claims to moral truth are merely rhetorical weapons or tools. Emotivism has grown from a moral theory to an epistemological principle, at least in the popular culture. We have moved from being a culture that no longer believes in “good” to one that also no longer believes in “true.”

Harry Frankfurt has discussed this phenomenon in his seminal essay, On Bullshit.[3] In this essay turned book, Frankfurt attempts to describe “bullshit” as a concept distinct from lying or other forms of misstatement. “Lying” implies that the liar knows what the truth is, and for some reason just wants to avoid it in this case. The liar really depends on everyone else being honest, or at least on the liar himself or herself knowing the truth in order to avoid it. The bullshitter, by contrast, does not care about the truth one way or the other. Instead, he or she is simply engaged in some other linguistic exercise, attempting to achieve goals quite apart from any engagement with truth.[4] The bullshitter is concerned with how the audience perceives him or her. The bullshitter wants to seem intelligent, or patriotic, or serious, or whatever, and says whatever he or she feels will lead the audience to believe this. The bullshitter is primarily engaged in manipulating others, not in avoiding or discovering truth.

At this point the connection between the theory of moral language known as “emotivism” and the theory of general language known as “bullshit” converge. Frankfurt writes:

            One who is concerned to report or to conceal the facts assumes that there are indeed facts that are in some way both determinate and knowable. His interest in telling the truth or in lying presupposes that there is a difference between getting things wrong and getting them right, and that it is at least occasionally possible to tell the difference. Someone who ceases to believe in the possibility of identifying certain statements as true and others as false can have only two alternatives. The first is to desist both from efforts to tell the truth and from efforts to deceive. This would mean refraining from making any assertion whatever about the facts. The second alternative is to continue making assertions that purport to describe the way things are, but that cannot be anything except bullshit.[5]

Emotivism would seem to be a subspecies of bullshit. The one difference, and it is significant, is that the emotivist is not committed to an unconcern with the truth. MacIntyre’s description of the historical origins of emotivism make this clear.[6] The members of the Bloomsbury circle believed they were making statements of moral fact, when in reality their moral debates were simply contests of will. They did not mean to bullshit and therefore were not bullshitters. Emotivism began as a theory that said, in essence, that people may think they are describing facts when they are actually not. Thus, someone can be simply mistaken, and have a deep concern for “the truth,” but not find it because, the emotivist says, there is no truth to be found. But once someone does accept the claims of emotivism, he or she must either cease using moral language at all, or become a bullshitter.  The bullshitter is the self-aware emotivist.

Dr. Frankfurt argues that bullshit is more corrosive to society than lying. The liar is parasitic on the process of seeking and sharing truth; the bullshitter has said that truth does not matter. But society cannot long exist without truth. No organism can. If some cod decided that whether or not sharks were actually in the area did not matter so much as whether the others followed their direction, and the rest became so befuddled about sharks because the leaders were constantly making contradictory claims, and the whole species finally gave up on believing there was a way to know whether there were sharks around or not, then it would be a short time before they were all devoured. Fish, however, do not have the ability to ignore the plain evidence of their senses to their own destruction out of party loyalty or ambition or a desire for attention. Humans, however, can choose bullshit over reality. We can and in many cases have turned supposed debates over the truths of a case or the best possible resolution of a problem into mere contests of will with no actual concern for reality.[7] But when the decision-makers in a society cease being interested in whether they have the facts straight, or whether the policies they propose will work or are working now, then it is only a matter of time before that society collapses. And in a democratic society, we are all decision-makers, and must all care about truth if we are to survive.[8]

To summarize: MacIntyre’s historical argument of the state of moral language is that once “morality” and “ethics” meant something very different: a concern with the particular fulfillment of human nature, of what is “good” for a person to seek and attain, and how to do so. The Aristotelian understanding was that the goal of human life could be found within the nature of human life itself, and called this eudaimonia or “happiness.” The Augustinian development of the Hebraic-Christian tradition argued that this goal lies beyond the human life itself, in its relationship with God. But in the Enlightenment, philosophers threw out both tradition and religion, Aristotle and Augustine, and sought to preserve the basic moral values and language of these without any particular foundation. The ultimate result was emotivism. Moral language ceased to have any fixed meaning, and became available for another purpose: manipulating others to fulfill one’s own irrationally-chosen goals. And to continue this line of argument further with Frankfurt’s discussions as a prompt, the recognition of the hollowness of moral language spread beyond the philosophers to the society as a whole, and from the sphere of moral debate to all levels of discourse, until all truth-claims and not just moral truth-claims became mere tools of the bullshitter to manipulate others and attempt to bend society to his or her own whims. Ultimately, however, this is not sustainable; if we are to survive as a species, we need to “be true to the earth,” as Nietzsche might put it, and seek those truths that will enhance our survival.

But if we are to do that, we ultimately must attack the problem that started all the others: the difficulty moral language has fallen into since the Enlightenment. Until there is some sort of broad consensus regarding moral truth, we cannot expect much headway in the search for consensus on other sorts of truth, since moral nihilism will continually push us towards a general epistemic nihilism.

[1] “Weathering Fights” The Daily Show http://thedailyshow.cc.com/videos/x1h7ku/weathering-fights—science–what-s-it-up-to- last accessed March 19, 2015

[2] “Things Just Got Very Hot for Climate Deniers’ Favorite Scientist;” Washington Post http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2015/02/23/the-favorite-scientist-of-climate-change-deniers-is-under-fire-for-taking-oil-money/ last accessed March 19, 2015.

[3] Harry G. Frankfurt, On Bullshit, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005). Also, see the interview on “The Daily Show,” http://thedailyshow.cc.com/video-playlists/cuwvn6/daily-show-10035/zz9jnz (last accessed March 25, 2015). Note that in the interview, Frankfurt mentions that the essay was first written in 1985, but published as a book in 2005; so his initial insight is contemporaneous with After Virtue but it somehow was more market-relevant in the 21st Century.

[4] On Bullshit, pp. 55-56

[5] On Bullshit, pp. 61-62

[6] After Virtue, pp. 16-17

[7] Nietzsche said much the same thing, but he thought that the will-to-power was itself a survival instinct; thus he assumed an underlying pragmatism would drive our creation of facts. Friedrich Nietzsche, “On Truth and Lie in a Premoral Sense,” http://oregonstate.edu/instruct/phl201/modules/Philosophers/Nietzsche/Truth_and_Lie_in_an_Extra-Moral_Sense.htm last accessed April 3, 2015

[8] On this point, see Harry Frankfurt, On Truth (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006)