Where We’ve Been Lately

Share

Cheryl and I recently returned from a 2-week vacation in the Occitanie region of southern France. Here’s a 17-minute video compilation of our best photos of Arles, Avignon, Le Pont du Gard, Nimes, Les Baux-de-Provence, Gordes, Glanum, and several places in-between. The area is saturated with history, art, and culture, from the Roman times to the present day.

I know that 17 minutes is long for these sorts of travel videos, but the whole region is photogenic to the max. Hopefully Keith Jarrett’s beautiful solo piano music will help to speed the experience along… (If you have a sufficiently fast internet connection, I recommend watching this in full-screen mode.)

R.I.P. Al Jarreau

Share

Sad to say goodbye to one of the most talented jazz vocalists of all time, Al Jarreau. (Wait… did I say one of the most talented of all time? How about just the most talented of all time?).

Here’s a version of “Summertime”, recorded at an outdoor concert on a hot night in Los Angeles, August 1994, featuring a particularly polished band (including Larry Williams on piano, Neil Larson on Keyboards, Steve Gadd on drums, Andrew Ford on bass, and my friend from way-back, Charles Johnson on guitar), along with a laudably clear mix.

Check out Al’s scat solo starting around 3’12”.

Bullshit! Or: How To Frankfurt a Trump

Share

As I mentioned in my recent post, “How To Nussbaum a Trump“, others have pointed out the relevance of Harry Frankfurt’s analysis of bullshit to Trump’s rhetoric, and a few have alluded to how he might be the first post-modern President. However, given how “truth-challenged” his administration appears to be in its opening week, I thought it might be worthwhile to develop those themes in a little more depth.

Harry Frankfurt, professor emeritus at Princeton, is best known among philosophers for what are called “Frankfurt cases”: apparent counterexamples to the widespread assumption that an agent is morally responsible for what she does only if she can do otherwise. Frankfurt cases might be relevant to understanding Trump insofar as they imply that he (like anyone else) should be held morally responsible for his words and actions even if he is incapable of speaking or acting otherwise (as he well might be). But more relevant here is a distinction Frankfurt developed in 1985, and later published in his accessible little book entitled “On Bullshit” (2005). It was this book (or at least its title) that inspired Jon Stewart to interview Frankfurt on The Daily Show, thereby elevating (or lowering?) him to the role of “public intellectual” for a brief period.

“On Bullshit” is not among Frankfurt’s best work, but it’s about as readable as analytic philosophy can be. It’s also just plain fun to read a book by a highly respected professor that is copiously sprinkled with ‘bullshit’. The book’s framework can help to explain the sort causal disregard for truth and justification (or evidence) that Trump has demonstrated at least since his “Birther” years (2011-2016). The fundamental idea is this: we need to distinguish bullshitters from both people with merely false beliefs and liars. Anyone can be mistaken, and reasonable people will usually modify their beliefs once they are aware of their falsity. Take, for example, Zeke Miller, the reporter who mistakenly reported last week that a bust of MLK Jr. had been removed from the oval office; learning of his mistake, he immediately corrected his report. Liars, by contrast, are usually aware of the their statements’ falsity, and – for that very reason – intentionally try to hide it. So they recognize and “respect” (in the sense of fear) at least the particular truth they are trying to hide. But bullshitters have no respect for, or even fear of, the truth. The concept is not on their radar screen. Bullshitters might use the terms ‘true’ or ‘false’ and ‘right or ‘wrong’, but they don’t do so seriously. Think of Trump’s multiple exclamations of ‘wrong!’ during the debates with Clinton. He made no attempt to follow up with any evidence that might justify his charge, and thereby demonstrate at least a modicum of respect for truth. Rather, he seemed content to merely express his disapproval… and perhaps to do so in a way he thought his followers might find entertaining or pleasing in some other way.

The failure to take truth, evidence, or epistemic rationality seriously suggests a close kinship between natural bullshitters like Trump and far more intellectual “post-modernists”. Unlike contemporary modernists, many of whom regard objective truth as a mere ideal, but one towards which we can make progress by adopting at least apparently reliable belief-forming processes, post-modernists (of a certain stripe) reject the notion of objective truth outright, preferring to promote the value of sincerity instead. Sincerity, on such a view, is the best one can hope for, epistemically speaking.

Now, a significant number of Trump’s followers cite his penchant for “speaking his mind” as their main reason for voting for him, and downplay the importance of what he says being true or justified, or even of his beliefs being consistent with their own. (This was evident in Tom Ashbrook’s interview of Trump supporters on On Point this morning.) Clearly, such followers value sincerity over evidence, which they seem quite comfortable without, and I see no reason to doubt their judgment that Trump is sincere (at least some of the time). Surely it would be difficult if not humanly impossible to express such wildly unjustified beliefs as that climate change is a Chinese hoax, or that most undocumented Mexican immigrants are rapists and drug dealers, or – for many years – that Obama was born in Kenya, without holding those beliefs sincerely. On the other hand, Trump seems not to value sincerity for its own sake. Rather, what ultimately matters to him seems to be neither truth, nor evidence, nor sincerity, but rather the practical consequences of expressing a belief. That is, Trump seems to use his expressions of belief like a carpenter uses his tools: to build his base of support, or to manipulate a situation (for example, to strike a deal or make an ally). In this he may appear to more closely resemble a pragmatist than a post-modernist. However, pragmatism, a philosophical outlook pioneered by William James, John Dewey, and Charles Pierce, takes the concept of truth seriously enough to bother redefining it in terms of the practical consequences of holding a belief. Bullshitters don’t care enough about truth to bother redefining it, and since Trump keeps reconfirming the observation that he is a bullshitter, I think we can safely avoid placing him in the lofty company of James, Dewey, or Pierce.

I want to stress that identifying Trump as a bullshitter in no way directly impugns his policy positions. Even the most dedicated bullshitter may (at least inadvertently) speak the truth, or have a good policy idea. Neither should we assume that most of Trump’s supporters value his sincerity merely for its own sake; many may also take it as a sign that he will keep his policy promises. Finally, although Trump often invites insults by insulting others, arguing that we should reject his policies merely because he is a bullshitter would be to commit an ad hominem fallacy, and so to imitate him. However, when Trump argues that we should accept his pronouncements and policies just because he is trustworthy or reliable, then it is not fallacious at all to point out that he is neither. And the more bullshit he spouts, the less we should regard him as either.

How To Nussbaum a Trump

Share

Photo by Dominick Reuter/Reuters

Trumpology, the still-nascent study of Trump, is an interdisciplinary pursuit. I have nothing to add to what many pundits and social scientists have observed about Trump’s politics and policies (such as they are, or as they might come to be). But I do think that philosophers have contributions to make to the field (beyond pointing out that Trump’s tweets are a virtual cornucopia of ad hominem fallacies). For instance, there have been several articles on how Harry Frankfurt’s analysis of bullshit seems to apply to Trump’s rhetoric, including this piece by Jeet Heer at the New Republic. (By the way, for an entertaining if over the top primer on Frankfurt’s view of bullshit, see this video). Others have noted how Trump may be the first post-modernist president, which is richly ironic, given how Republicans have vilified post-modernist academics for so many decades. But as far as I know, no one has yet noted how Martha Nussbaum’s “moral psychology” – a type of philosophy that focuses on the psychological determinants of moral and immoral behavior – might help to explain the authoritarian (or, if you prefer, the bullying) aspects of Trump’s personality. I have no reason to think that she had Trump in mind when she developed the ideas I discuss below (why would she have, unless her TV happened to be tuned to The Apprentice while she was writing), but that just makes their “trumpological” relevance all the more remarkable. I also don’t know whether she would agree with how I am applying a very small part of her framework to our new President. Although she made a few remarks about Trump in the context of an interview on anger at The Atlantic, she did not mention how her broader view of the authoritarian personality might apply to him.

The central ideas of Nussbaum’s moral psychology are defended in depth and detail in her Upheavals Of Thought (2001). However, if you lack the time or patience to read that 800+ page tome, many of the same general ideas can be found in her much shorter and more accessable Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities (2010). I highly recommend either book, but for brevity’s sake I’ll focus here only on the ideas as they are expressed in Not For Profit.

As with Freud’s psychoanalytic theory, Nussbaum’s brand of moral psychology has been criticized for over-emphasizing early childhood development. However, Nussbaum regards her developmental views as constituting a mere “narrative”, rather than a scientific theory. As such, she feels little need to present experimental evidence (although she does present some). Rather, she argues that her speculations are well-supported by ordinary experience (including memories of one’s own childhood, observations of other children, clinical observations offered by psychotherapists of their patients, and the deep-dives into experience that the best novelists are capable of. In any case, the question here is not whether her narrative is generalizable, but rather whether it is applicable to the quite particular case of Donald Trump. After all, although Trump’s political ideology and policy prescriptions are far from clear, his personality has been in the spotlight for at least a year and a half, and I believe that Nussbaum’s view of how such a personality might be produced can shed some light on the authoritarian tendencies Trump has plainly displayed. That doesn’t mean it’s the only way of accounting for Trump’s personality… But it’s a possible starting point for biographers and other Trumpologists to consider.

As Nussbaum’s narrative is condensed in Chapter 3 of Not For Profit, it begins with two main observations. First, “Human infants are born, helpless, into a world that they did not make and do not control”, and second, infants (and even newborns) are born with, or else rapidly develop, a significant amount of emotional sophistication. Since for Nussbaum – as for many other philosophers and psychologists – emotions are cognitions or judgments of a situation’s value relative to the subject’s goals or preferences, this implies that young children, infants, and even some non-human animals have a more sophisticated mental life than one might suppose. In the case of most humans, first comes anxiety, which is caused by the infant’s expectation that their immediate needs and desires will be satisfied, along with the fact that sometimes – perhaps often – this expectation is not met. More controversially, perhaps, Nussbaum asserts that this anxiety is accompanied by a primitive type of shame that is caused by the (non-verbal) realization that “one is not in fact omnipotent”. Narcissism, a trait characterized by an obsessive self-focus and an ongoing desire for completeness, power, and control, emerges as a reaction to the primitive anxiety and shame. Complicating matters further, the shame that began as a result of dependency on others is soon joined by disgust at one’s own bodily waste products – an emotion often triggered by toilet training. That disgust, combined with a growing narcissism, leads to projection. We observe this when children stigmatize other children as “having cooties”, but that relatively innocent sort of game can turn much more serious when social influences focus the projection onto subordinate groups. At that point whole populations can be bifurcated into the “pure” and the “impure”. Later, particularly among adolescent males, peer pressure based on socially accepted conceptions of “the real man” (that include unrealistic norms of perfection, invulnerability, and control) tends to further exacerbate the narcissism that began in infancy. Finally, given a social milieu in which most people tend to defer to authority, acquiesce to the dehumanization of vulnerable groups (e.g., the widespread objectification of women), and fail to raise critical or dissenting voices, and the authoritarian personality grows and thrives.

Obviously, this narrative is controversial. I should also stress that it is only a very partial representation of Nussbaum’s view, as she gives an equally detailed analysis (in Upheavals of Thought) of competing developmental processes – involving innate and learned capacities for empathy and compassion – that allow people to avoid developing intense narcissism or an authoritarian personality. However, if this view of authoritarian personality development is right, its value lies in how it can reveal junctures at which parents and societies can intervene in the process to disrupt it, and (on the positive side of the ledger) to encourage the development of an empathetic citizenry capable of participating in a genuine democracy. To that end, Nussbaum goes on to point out ways of countering projective disgust, the pure/impure bifurcation, narcissism, and unrealistic norms of perfection and invulnerability.

So to what extent can Nussbaum’s narrative help to explain Trump? First, Trump’s having been for most of his life the head of a highly successful (whether multi-million or multi-billion dollar) company seems likely to have involved the social factors that could nurture his authoritarian personality, once it had already started to develop. That is, in such a situation, Trump would likely have been surrounded by people who would defer to his authority, and who would feel uncomfortable voicing much dissent. Also, at some point prior to this, Trump, like most other Americans, would have been exposed to the prejudices, racisms, and misogyny that have always permeated American culture. Indeed, these were more intense during Trump’s formative years than they are now. And here is where the rubber really meets the road. For if Nussbaum is right, it was those influences that shaped and amplified Trump’s projective disgust, which was so amply manifested during the campaign. Consistent with the observation that he is misogynistic, it began by his singling out women as targets. For instance, as Alexander Hurst noted in The New Republic:

Last week, Donald Trump was once again disgusted. Commenting on Hillary Clinton’s awkward bathroom break during the last Democratic debate, he said, “I know where she went, it’s disgusting, I don’t want to talk about it. No, it’s too disgusting. Don’t say it, it’s disgusting, let’s not talk.”

It’s not the first time that Trump has been perturbed by a bodily function. As Frank Bruni noted in his New York Times column, Trump has been publicly disgusted by Marco Rubio’s sweat and by the idea of pumping breast milk. Then there was his notorious comment about Fox News host Megyn Kelly, in which he conveyed an almost visceral revulsion: “You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever.”

The Trump campaign has stunned bemused pundits by growing in strength with every controversy and outrageous policy proposal, like banning foreign Muslims from entering the United States. It has finally forced them to admit that his success comes not despite these things, but because of them.

What if disgust is a distinct part of that?

What if, indeed?

Similarly, Trump repeatedly manifested the adolescent norms of “real manhood” in his dealings with the other candidates. Perhaps these were cemented into his personality during his years at the military academy he attended, which he fondly remembers as being quite formative. In any case, we all recall how Jeb Bush (and later Clinton) were accused of having “low-energy”, and how Marco Rubio was nicknamed “little-Marco”. Ted Cruz escaped this direct form of belittling, perhaps because Trump sensed that Cruz has narcissistic tendencies (“leadership qualities”?) similar to his own. However, Cruz did have to deal with insults against his wife, which is not surprising on a Nussbaumian analysis. For according to adolescent male ideals, the more attractive a man’s wife or girlfriend is, the more “manly” the man is. If Trump intuited that Cruz shared his own adolescent conception of a “real man”, he also might have supposed that he could successfully attack Cruz by insulting his wife. He did, and it worked: Cruz got suitably rattled. “Real men” don’t get rattled. Finally, when Rubio tried to strike back at the same adolescent level by insinuating that Trump’s little fingers indicated that he has a little penis, Trump proudly remarked that that was certainly not the case. (That’s how “real men” respond to an insult, not by getting rattled but by doubling down). And that response worked, because Rubio was trying to out-bully Trump, a hopeless task given that it takes a lifetime to develop an authoritarian personality of Trumpian proportions, and it was obvious that Rubio was not that type of guy (and Bush was even less so). Commentators, of course, decried the level on which this discourse played out, but that level could have been predicted (and explained) by Nussbaum’s narrative.

Finally, Nussbaum’s narrative might be useful in explaining Trump’s “bromance” with Vladimir Putin. For on that narrative, authoritarian bravado masks a deep insecurity born of unresolved anxiety, shame, and disgust. Trump’s oversized self-image needs constant feeding to counterbalance those negative emotions or self-judgments (this, of course, helps to explain his thin skin). Who better to supply this feeding than a fellow authoritarian like Putin, himself a role model of “male perfection” (as Trump may view him). There might of course be many other factors at work here, including the fact that Trump would feel a natural affinity for another authoritarian who projects disgust at a shared “out-group” (Muslims). The danger, however, is that two authoritarian narcissists make for a very unstable couple. We can only hope that they can resolve whatever problems arise between them by directly comparing their genitals, rather than by launching missiles at each other (and at us).

At this uncertain moment of history, at the very beginning of the Trump Era, my hope is that the authoritarian tendencies Trump has displayed, the obvious (Frankfurtian) bullshit he has spouted, and the negative emotions he has projected, have been mostly for show. Perhaps he is actually more intelligent and compassionate than he seems. Barring that, I hope that he has grown-ups around him – perhaps some of his children! – who can help to mitigate his worst instinctive reactions. The best that can be said of Trump is that his thought processes seem not to be orderly enough to sustain a coherent ideology (for evidence, just try to make sense of his meanderings during this New York Times interview). However, we can only hope that a disorderly mind is not a precursor to a truly disordered one. If it is, philosophy might be our only consolation.

Autumn Daze

Share

autumn-daze-640

So, it happened. The entire month of October went by without a post. My excuse: I would have been too tempted to write about the nauseating election we’ve been suffering through for it seems like forever. May our national nightmare soon fade from memory, as a technicolor Fall fades into a grayscale Winter…

National Parks as “Breathing Space”

Share

As you may have noticed, I’ve visited quite a few National Parks over the last few years. Having just returned from yet another hiking trip (this time to the Great Smokey Mountain National Park), I found this Jeffrey Brown interview with author Terry Tempest Williams strangely moving, particularly at the end. Tempest Williams is eloquent, and her love for the land comes through loud and clear.

Aristotle’s Analysis of Trolling

Share

Who would have thunk it? Aristotle analyzed trolling millennia ago! The long-lost manuscript was recently discovered and translated by Rachel Barney, and published in the American Philosophical Association’s Journal! Here’s the first paragraph:

That trolling is a shameful thing, and that no one of sense would accept to be called ‘troll’, all are agreed; but what trolling is, and how many its species are, and whether there is an excellence of the troll, is unclear. And indeed trolling is said in many ways; for some call ‘troll’ anyone who is abusive on the internet, but this is only the disagreeable person, or in newspaper comments the angry old man. And the one who disagrees loudly on the blog on each occasion is a lover of controversy, or an attention-seeker. And none of these is the troll, or perhaps some are of a mixed type; for there is no art in what they do. (Whether it is possible to troll one’s own blog is unclear; for the one who poses divisive questions seems only to seek controversy, and to do so openly; and this is not trolling but rather a kind of clickbait.)

Read the whole thing here.

(For my part, I recognize that trolls exist, but I think the epithet is too often unfairly aimed at those who really do have a sincerely and reasonably held opinion contrary to the “community’s”).