Monumental Decisions

Randomness

One of the axioms of our existence in this universe is as follows: the natural world is random, in the sense that there is no predetermined path or course for any events. Doubly so for our individual lives, which are dominated by chance occurrences, random encounters, and social movements beyond the control of any single person. Humanity’s existence lies in the puzzling place between mastery and control of our environment and thoughts, behaviors, and actions and the overwhelming power of external events and the various lotteries we did not know we were playing.

A necessary consequence of this idea is that almost all the stories we tell ourselves are lies. Any series of events that leads clearly from one set to another is almost always, at least, a sanding-down of reality. History, for example, tends to find a middle ground – but is always a story that attempts to make sense of randomness – where we can look at a broad series of events from a great enough distance to see previously hidden causes and effects. Stories are essential to us for finding actionable information (to find the fleeting spaces between randomness which may be filled with human-intervention) and to develop meaning (as in an understanding of the individual’s purpose in the world – often related to basic survival needs – where risk is foundational for meaning – but that’s a different post). Stories-creating-meaning happens at all levels of social-grouping, and the modern social-grouping of the nation-state is what I’ll confine myself to here.

The Myth of a Nation

The artificial confines of the nation-state, which seek to bind a diverse group of people, from diverse traditions and local or regional natural loyalties, are forged with myths, traditions, ideals, and stories. These are always demolitions of the messy truth and create an unnatural sense of community. Nation-states find their tribal-coherence so tenuous that some of the greatest crimes and tragedies of the recent past are centered around, at least partly, in strengthening the “natural” connections found within the boundaries of a country. Ethnic-cleansing and genocide often find their intellectual well-spring in the seeming necessity to stave-off weakness and disunity inside a particular state. In some countries the tensions of coherence in the nation-state are obvious, as in the colonial states that share no strong bonds of culture, language, or historical narratives. There is no founding myth for these countries, just the brutality and arrogance of drawing lines on a map. In others the process of creating the nation-state is primarily an exercise in refining the common myths of ideals and history and compounding old stories with new ones. The United States is one such country.

And what is a public and overt way to honor the mythic heroes of the past which makes us all stick-together? The erection and veneration of monuments and statues.

It is instructive to view the symbolic importance of statues through some recent events. There is, of course, the famous incident of the statue of Saddam Hussein being pulled down in Baghdad after the American invasion in 2003. This was a potent symbol of the transfer of power from Iraqi to American hands. Toppling of Soviet statues in Ukraine became symbolic of a resurgence in Ukrainian nationalism. Statues of the Roman Emperors solidified their divinity, marking them as eternal Gods, powerful narrative glue with which to stick an Empire together (and perhaps attempts to make sure future Emperor’s expired by natural means…). 

So in the American South, statues of Confederate generals may be seen in the light of the significance of statuary in history. These are public symbols of power, of ideals, and of the links between leaders and the myth of the nation-state.

Monuments and Their Meaning

First, let us dispose of some unfortunate and pesky nuance. Some statues and monuments referencing the Confederacy are, in fact, meant to honor the war dead. They have a value and meaning to those who placed the monuments unrelated to the cause in which they died. Mourning and memory for loved one’s should not be eliminated by future generations. There is no difference between the defacement of graves of fallen South Vietnamese soldiers during the Vietnam War and the erasure of the memory of Confederate soldiers who died. Not their cause, but their memory, is important to descendants. With that being said, this is not the purpose, imputed or historical, for the existence of many of these monuments.

As I’ve written previously, as the distance grows between the present and a certain time in the past, events are both foreshortened and judged with a sense of hindsight. A man deemed a hero in the present may seem a villain in the future. An excellent example is the shifting views on the slave-holding Founding Fathers of America, though still venerated, they are being judged much more harshly for their involvement in slavery. This same reckoning is obviously happening now (and, of course, continuously in some form or another) among “racist” or Confederate figures.

Some Confederate monuments specifically belong to an ideology that sought to erase the purpose and legacy of the Civil War – that it was in defense of the system of slavery. Most of the Confederate statues were placed long after the Civil War, and were a mythological, symbolic reminder of the dominance of white Americans, of the fact that though the Confederacy had lost the Civil War the true goal of embedding White Supremacy was achieved. The statues become bound-up in the notion of Southern identity, a visible reminder of the heroism that shaped the Southern identity, as if it were a separate nation still, inside of the United States. 

Political Mud

In the excellent Epsilon Theory note: Always Go to the Funeral, Ben Hunt describes the partisan dust-up over statues in this way:

“You hear all the time about how these Trump tweets and the associated narrative construction are a “dog whistle” that motivates and calls forth the alt-right clowns. Okay. I guess. But what the tweets and the narrative really are — and this is what Steve Bannon understands perfectly — is a dog whistle for the Democrats and an obedience collar for the Republicans. It creates a Competition Game where none existed before, and it forces every elected politician, regardless of party, to play their appointed role, strutting and fretting upon the stage. Even though none of them like the script and none of them want to play the part.”

This is a part of the narrative of the statues as well. Regardless of the role statues mean in a larger sense, to the life of the nation-state in the minds of citizens (as grandiose as that sounds, the chain of myth and story directly connects them) they are being used as a political tool for manipulation. The endless complications that arise from this muddy the waters, for the moment, of historical meaning. As anyone’s opinion of whether a statue should remain or fall becomes part of a public campaign of tribal signaling, having a true opinion on the basis of the modern nation and the confines and constituent parts thereof (and linking it to the manner and type of public monuments in display in our cities) becomes difficult to voice without being drawn into a political argument. Pulling down statues is already a (perhaps surprisingly to some) radical act, and to bind that radical act to the absurd theater of the Red vs. Blue power struggle increases the intensity of the discord. The machinations of political actors will pass away, the argument over statues will not figure prominently in the political histories of America in the 2010’s, but the era peppered with controversies over the removal of the statues will be.

Making Meaning

As statues are symbolic – often deeply of the foundation of the nation-state – their removal can be of great consequence as well. Now, as statues across the country, and abroad, are vandalized and torn down, there is a process of meaning-making occurring. As a matter of fact, when critics say things like “the left is tearing down statues because they hate America” they’re at least getting toward the truth. That is to say, pulling down statues of figures who represent, or seem to represent, racism is a way of remaking the mythology and story of the whole country – and rejecting the current one. Pulling down statues is about transferring the rights of power from one group inside the country to another.

But what about a new story? That is much harder to tease-out. America is still bound by the old, nonrenewable narrative of the Post-WWII Era. “America, through purity of ideology, military, and economic strength, stands for and defends liberty around the world.” This story around which our nation is centered, like all the others, is a lie, but it is increasingly out-of-step with reality. Nihilism is bleeding into our social life with not much to replace it. Recent histories of America are pessimistic, realistic pieces, which seek to strip-away the artifice and rose-colored tones of both the recent and distant past. An inclusive, non-racial American story is elusive at best, as we have no great tale to renew our artificial boundaries, and American history is scarred by racism.

The questions we need to be asking are forward-facing, not backwards. Tearing down statues, when accompanied by visible regime change, or a surging movement which recaptures a different story of the past is a necessary part of creative-destruction. When unaccompanied by such a redefinition of the nation, they are a marker of the disintegration of national cohesion.

Should the statues be removed? Yes, they are largely anachronisms, symbols of a past that no longer exists, and reminders of deep inhumanity. But the harder question is: What will replace them?

Freedom of Speech and Areopagitica

Unpopular Opinions

The classical liberal principle of freedom of speech, of course enshrined in the First Amendment of the US Constitution, is supposed to protect the citizenry against state censorship. As with many Enlightenment principles and ideals, “free speech” is complicated by technology. We now live in a society where there are often more restrictions imposed on people from non-state actors than from the state itself. Consider the following examples:

Example 1: A mob silences a despicable person – someone who deserved it – it brings us all closer together in a mutually-shared opinion that the bad person committed a bad act, worthy of punishment.

Even in this circumstance, a fairly common one, many of us evince an unease of mob justice, even if we agree with the principles on which that rough justice was founded.

Example 2: A suspected child pornographer is caught with 5 terabytes of pornography on his computer (an almost unimaginable amount), but the warrant that allowed the search of his computer is flawed, and the case is thrown out after action by the ACLU – and a pedophile goes free.

In this circumstance, we are almost universally on the side of the authorities, because the guilt is obvious, the crime heinous, and the liberation of the suspect is on the basis of a technicality.

Now, a third example: a man expresses an opinion, which may be at the edge of commonly-accepted propriety or public opinion, but which is not heinous and not illegal. A social community, and not a court of law, attempts to get that man in “trouble” with his employer. He is not saved by a technicality, nor totally condemned by a mob.

The third example is the tricky place where many of our modern disputes over freedom of speech and mob justice inhabit. There is no clear legal principle which overrides the general condemnation of an overtly heinous act and there is no universal mob (that is, there are always dissenters and contrarians) which engages in a digital hanging.

Part of the question becomes: quantitatively and qualitatively, how free is our speech currently? And not just in the narrow constitutional sense, in the sense of having cultural and social constraints? How powerful are those cultural constraints, and is there anything “we” should do about it as a society? I don’t propose to have many answers here, certainly not any easy ones.

We may be easily seduced by the dull, Doric opinions stamped by the imprimatur of the enforcing mob of a habituated mass-culture – just as we may be titillated by the exotic contrarianism of a seemingly rebellious agitator, who may wring truth out of over-saturated public narratives.

Independence of thought is once again the difficult vigil of any discerning and intelligent individual. The problem with the mob is that the mob is often right, and the problem with the contrarian is that they are often wrong.

Most often, the mob is turned against those on their “own side,” as a way to enforce rigid tribal identities. The liberal artist is the one in danger of being canceled for talking inappropriately about race, not the conservative. The conservative is likely to be publicly emasculated for their opposition to the public’s ownership of AR-15’s, not Taylor Swift.

“If you say the wrong thing these day’s you’ll be canceled!” – says the centimillionaire who has made a living off of being “politically incorrect” and has, at no point, been canceled.

So the battle against censorship is fought in different dimensions now: it is fought against the government in some cases, but more often, it is fought against the mass culture of society, conjured into existence, especially, by social media. And it has also become a thing-in-itself, like so much else. It is a tool used for national politics, to enforce tribal boundaries, it is used as boogie man to frighten one side or the other.

Tribal digital mobs are fluid, and many opinions shift on “cancellation” depending on which tribe one is in. A man decrying the fate of a “conservative” losing his job one day may in fact call for the destruction of another man’s livelihood on another. Examples of this abound, and I do not feel the need to post any particular exchange. If you open up Twitter and scroll for a few minutes, I’m confident you will find an example.

The problem we are faced with now is probably unique in modernity: the social restrictions enforced by the unofficial rules and powers of mass society are as effective as the restrictions imposed by governments. Things have changed, but it may be helpful to look at the wellspring for some of the original arguments against censorship and for freedom of speech in an attempt to inform our current response.

Areopagitica

“Areopagitica” is a polemic by the poet John Milton, arguing against government censorship of books and pamphlets. It is cited often as a basis for the First Amendment, and more broadly as a classic defense of the principles of Freedom of Speech. As it has become a “classic” it is broadly defunct and dead – not a living document, but an afterthought and citation. What is forgotten about the polemic is that it is foremost an attempt at persuasion. This is fitting as there are no unassailable truths in this world, there is no scientific principle that was not overturned, and there is no basic argument about human ideals that is not, at its base, an opinion.

For those looking to the sage words of our intellectual forebears on the construction and nature of liberty, there is no succor to be found for a society where social norms are enforced by mobs:

“Nor is it Plato’s licensing of books will do this, which necessarily pulls along with it so many other kinds of licensing, as will make us all both ridiculous and weary, and yet frustrate; but those unwritten, or at least unconstraining, laws of virtuous education, religious and civil nurture, which Plato there mentions as the bonds and ligaments of the commonwealth, the pillars and the sustainers of every written statute; these they be which will bear chief sway in such matters as these, when all licensing will be easily eluded. Impunity and remissness, for certain, are the bane of a commonwealth; but here great art lies, to discern in what the law is to bid restraint and punishment, and in what things persuasion only is to work.” (pg 18, paragraph 1)*

Aside from this (an argument that leads to the thesis that censorship will be ineffective), the central argument of “Areopagitica” is that exposure of controversial ideas, through a free press, allows society to sift and refine ideas until only the specks of pure truth remain.

“For books are as meats and viands are; some of good, some of evil substance; and yet God, in that unapocryphal vision, said without exception, Rise, Peter, kill and eat, leaving the choice to each man’s discretion. Wholesome meats to a vitiated stomach differ little or nothing from unwholesome; and best books to a naughty mind are not unappliable to occasions of evil. Bad meats will scarce breed good nourishment in the healthiest concoction; but herein the difference is of bad books, that they to a discreet and judicious reader serve in many respects to discover, to confute, to forewarn, and to illustrate.”(pg. 12, paragraph 1)

In this argument, people are forever infantilized by censorship – our liberty of thought and action is restricted by a government paternalism. If we are to be fully-realized people we must have access to the various contrary arguments and temptations of the world.

“I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race, where the immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat. Assuredly we bring not innocence into the world, we bring impurity much rather; that which purifies us is trial, and trial by what is contrary.” (pg 13, paragraph 2)

Here is another possible fix to the intractable facts of disagreement, to try our best to channel outrage into productive debate. To use a “bad” opinion to sift our own.

The last thing that we CAN learn from Milton’s piece is the best remedy we have, perhaps the only remedy: to think independently. It is not an easy answer, or a quick social fix. It is not a principle which can be codified in law, and it will not stem the tide of accusations, harassment, unfairness, or rigidity from digital mobs. As in all matters which beset the modern mind, it speaks to personal responsibility, to recognize in one’s self the means whereby we may fix our feet to the ground and not be pulled along by those surging around us. I wish I had a better answer, but it seems the only way to fracture the mob is to not participate. It is doubly-hard because we should be most skeptical where we are most sympathetic and most engaged. Mobs inflame our sense of tribal identity and ignite the most passion where they find dry kindling.


*Areopagitica and Other Prose Works, by John Milton, from the Everyman’s Library, 1941 Edition

Mobs and Riots

Reconstruction

Ulysses Grant, Union General and President of the United States, is more popular now than at any time since the 1880’s. After his death, he was long regarded as an inferior general, a poor President, and an unremarkable and flawed man. With a host of biographies and changing views on racism, his formerly withered reputation is blooming.

Grant’s military career and Presidency are an excellent example of the sandy foundations of the stories we tell ourselves about the past. The moral clarity of his Presidency will henceforth protect him, inasmuch as there is a public memory of him at all in our relentlessly forward-looking society. But in the focus on the shifting opinions of Grant’s career, the context of his moral-firmness is a revelation of vicious inhumanity and tribalism.

Reconstruction is (probably, though I’m sure there are other contenders) the most shameful period of American history.

After the Civil War ended and slavery abolished it became clear that the true driving force of Southern society’s defense of slavery was not its economics, or based in regional conservatism (in the sense of unchanging institutions), or competing views of Federal power – it was based on social tribalism.

Subjugation, the institutionalized inferiority of black people for no other benefit than maintaining a particular division of social standing, became the primary goal of radical Southern political movements.

And the history of that tribalism and those political movements is shockingly depraved and revolutionary.

There were:

  • Massacres of black people, in some cases hundreds at a time
  • Literal coups, where state government’s were overthrown by armed force
  • Widespread Terrorism across the former Confederate states
  • Massive Federal military intervention, including the suspension of the Writ of Habeas Corpus

By the end of Grant’s second term in office, Reconstruction was abandoned. And why did Reconstruction end without enforcing the rights of full citizenship of freed slaves? It was subsumed by national politics.

In the last three weeks, there were two nationally-known incidents (several others but these received the most attention) which intimately concerned race and policing.

The Destruction of Amy Cooper

A white woman used the police as an implicit threat on the physical health and safety of a black man. The reaction to the video of the incident being made public was animated by a modern mob, a digital one. Without passing judgment on her digital destruction, it is an example of the power of social media to amplify tribal signaling. Much of the backlash became about showing everyone else that “they were on the right side,” dare I call it virtue signaling?

The Murder of a Black Man

The murder of George Floyd was a clear example of the aggression and callousness of modern policing. But these protests, riots, and the reaction to them, have gone far beyond this initial outrage. Looting, arson, and people dissatisfied about other aspects of the social order have joined in, and muddied the focused protests over policing.

A Riot is a Signal

Mob violence is an expression of rage and tribalism. A mob, a riot, is a thing-in-itself, not connected to any particular ideology – in the post-Civil War south, riots were anti-black affairs. They were both political tools and a signal of dissatisfaction with the current social regime. We now judge this harshly, but it was, at its base, a signal to the occupying Federal forces, and enough northerners grew tired of constant intervention that they became effective political tools.  And public perceptions of those riots became the currency of national politics, deeply influencing the course of political events.

One thing that people tend to forget when they’re caught-up in idealism or discussions on policy: organized violence is effective. It goes both ways, the violence of the mob can produce real change, the suppression of the mob through violence can stifle it.

These incidents now are also in the process of being subsumed by national politics. The construction of narratives in relation to these protests both destroys nuance and is necessary to try to resolve the deep unease generated by chaos.

If I were to exhort people toward one action it would be to resist, and resist deeply, the temptation to blame all of  this on one of our two political tribes. These tribes will use this chaos to advance their fight over the throne, and not for reform.