The Blind leading the blind…

Imagining Homer and his guide – 1874

Thinking about truth and why so many people seem to believe Trump lead me to re-read Information Ages:  Niteracy, numeracy, and the Computer Revolution by Michael Hobart and Zachary Schiffman.  It is a treatise about information. Hobart and Schiffman believe that there is no “no overarching definition of information serves for all time” but at the same time they insist that information did not always exist.  Information is a product of literacy.  They write:

Information derives from the twofold process of abstraction involving the related movements of “drawing away from” and “taking out of.”  When he draws away from the flow of experience in a consistent manner, the record keeper will come to realize that he expresses the phenomenon of sixty sheep verbally in two words – a noun and an adjective, a name and a number.  This point marks the threshold of writing, and once crossed, the mind begins to reflect on its own products, to mediate experience with mental objects. (at page 38)

The first age of information began with the invention of writing. It is hard, perhaps impossible for us to truly understand the world which existed before writing – the world of orality. For those with an oral frame of mind, speech was continuous with the flow of experience. In the pre-literate pre-informational world, the knower was not distinct from the known.  Mental objects did not mediate between the thinker and reality. What was spoken was experienced without being formed as a quality outside of the experience itself.  Much of what we know of oral traditions is gleaned from the study of the great epics. The epics, such as those attributed to the blind poet Homer, transmitted as songs and stories were part of an oral tradition. They were part of a flow of experience, until they were written down.  And only then did these stories become information.

Hobart and Schiffman argue that the ancient Greeks had geographical and historical knowledge about their lands, oceans, and ancestors, but this knowledge did not “constituted a stable, isolable body of information”  and thus was not information as we know it (at page 29).  They write:

The Greeks knew of Thrace because they sailed there; but were they to have stopped, they would have soon forgotten its existence.  What we call historical information had an existence even more transitory.  Living amid the architectural ruins of the Mycenaean predecessors, the Greeks eventually attributed such massive buildings and walls to a race of Cyclopes.  (at page 29). 

The Homeric epics were themselves an activity – a commemorative activity.  The authors write:

Each epic consists of a sequence of scenes or situations that serve to map the actions of the narrative.  These scenes are linked together by aural cues – spoken words and phrases that are remembered like visual images because they form certain types of patterns.  Memory in an oral culture thus involves the recollection of abstracted patterns, both visual and aural, not words.  (at page 25)

The discussion of the nature of orality in the Ages of Information provides the basis for a discussion of information – its changing nature and significance in human activity.  The authors’ basic idea is that while information is hard to define, it is sufficiently well formed to be traced through three distinctive information ages, the classical, modern and contemporary. Information in the classical age was produced by a process of identification and classification.  The organizing principle and objective was wisdom.  In the modern age, the metaphor shifted from that of a list to that of a map and the motivation became knowledge – modern scholars explored the world in order to discover the laws of nature which, they believed, could then be reduced to mathematical formula.  These formulas would provide knowledge as the ultimate information.  

The metaphor of the contemporary age is less clear, but Hobart and Schiffman suggest, it involves the qualities of power and play.  (Play they define following Johan Huizinga Homo Ludens  as a voluntary rule based activity.  Another story also very interesting)  In this contemporary age of information, the seriousness and purpose displayed in the classical and modern ages are replaced by superficiality and seeming lack of purpose.  Information appears in techniques, procedures, and rules necessary for the immediate game.  The activity is not governed by wisdom or undertaken in the pursuit of knowledge.  In the contemporary age information is shaped by activity undertaken for the sake of the activity. In this age there is a loss of faith in both wisdom or knowledge.    Wisdom seems personal and knowledge contextual, open to interpretation and critique.  Certainty is seen as momentary agreement amongst players. 

In the twenty years since Hobart and Schiffman wrote their book, information itself is increasingly at play.  Facts are no longer distinguished from opinion and truth, like beauty, lies in the eyes of the beholder.  The question then is whether information which is no longer stable can be imbued with a quality of being right or wrong, true or false. And if it cannot be fixed, is it still information. Perhaps a world of alternative facts is a post informational world. Or perhaps, the absence of information indicates a turn to a pseudo orality where remembering and forgetting define what is real.

Trump’s talent lies with his command of American – the spoken, not written, form of the language.   His talents are oral. At one level, the MAGA rallies resemble church revival meetings with the call “crooked Hilary” is met with the reply of “lock her up”.  At another they can be seen as entertainment. Trump performs as the epic singer or story teller.  Emotion is more important than reason, but emotions are reasoned through Trump’s heroic stories.  Remembering grievances and planning revenge. Trump is not trying to inform or persuade his accolytes.  Who cares about policy?  Who cares that the speeches themselves may be incoherent.  The performance may be theatrical, but it is more than entertainment. It is participatory, fun and empowering. In each telling of the tale, a new version of the Trumpian epic emerges fueled by the passion of the crowd. Success is defined by the participation of the crowd, not the critical reception of the speech. 

It may help that Trump is, for most intents and purposes, illiterate.  Tony Schwartz, who ‘helped’ write the Art of the Deal commented that Trump didn’t read much, certainly not books.  Mary Trump in her book, Too Much and Never Enough noted that Trump had once hired someone write an entrance exam for him.  During his time in the Oval Office Trump became famous for insisting on short briefing documents.  It was reported that some aides were concerned that he seemed unable or unwilling to read.  He excelled in his Twitter commentary, but not because of his command of written English.  In his speeches Trump was not encumbered by the norms of rhetoric. Still he communicated well.  Those who chose to listen seemed to understand what he was trying to say.  It may well be that this success involved a guileless grasp of the tools and traditions of orality – the norms of communication in the pre literate world. 

Of course, it might just be that the seeming lack of literacy in Trump’s political performance was due to ignorance or anti intellectualism.  He related well to his followers because they shared his disinterest in information, whether it be true or false, and his love of the tall tale.

Whatever the reason, be it orality or ignorance, for the literate and well informed, Trump’s appeal remains hard to fathom.

The Big Lie Part 3

Dear Leader…

The question many observers of the US election ask is why do so many people support former President Trump. Why do they continue to think that the election was stolen?

From the former President’s perspective, the election was close. All Trump needed was 40 or so thousand votes spread around a few of select states.  As these states were controlled by Republicans (as the Governor or state assembly was Republican) was it too much to ask that the votes he needed be found. As he told the official from the state of Georgia “Recalculate”.  It was so close – why couldn’t they help just a bit? And besides, how could he have lost when he was so popular?

Despite Mr. Trump’s self belief, the problem for him was that there was no evidence of voter fraud or manipulation even to the extent of 40,000 votes. There was no evidence of election irregularities, let alone massive vote rigging.  Over 60 judges, some Trump appointees, threw out legal challenges to the election results for want of any proof of electoral misdeeds.  What the facts did support was his election loss. Millions more Americans voted for Biden than for Trump – not that this matters in the US Presidential election.  Biden also received more votes in places that mattered – in states like Pennsylvania, Arizons, Wisconsin and Georgia.   Biden won the Electoral College vote and the Presidency.  Biden won.

Ironically, at least for Republicans, the dearth of voter fraud was a consequence of years of attempts at what Democrats call voter suppression.  In the US each of the 50 state governments have their own rules when it comes to elections and voting. State officials in a number of what have become Republican states have worked hard for years to make their voting systems fraud proof. A number of such measures have assisted the Republican cause by making it harder for poor and, in particular poor people of colour, to vote.  The Secretary of State in Georgia, who Trump asked to find more votes, had said that he had wanted Trump to win.  What he didn’t say was that Republicans had done all that they could do to help, but it still wasn’t enough.  Some observers have suggested that Biden’s winning margin would have been higher but for voter suppression.  At the same time, all the rules meant that it was then much harder to challenge the vote.  At the same time the attempts at voter suppression arguably motivated Democrats to get out the vote despite the challenges, while making Republicans complacent. 

Trump for months before the elections claimed that the only way he would lose was if the vote was rigged.   After the election he continued to dispute the results.  He said that he would never concede and he hasn’t.  The fact that millions more people voted for Biden than for Trump.  Even with the strange electoral college process, there can be no doubt as to Biden’s victory.  Biden received more votes in states where it mattered.  In the absence of evidence of any irregularities or worse, voter fraud, Biden’s victory is indisputable. 

Trump has said that he would never concede and he hasn’t. Millions of Americans continue to believe he is the victim of a terrible injustice.  Thousands went to Washington to advance his cause.  His supporters attempted to prevent the certification of electoral college votes by occupying the Capitol (the building housing the House of Assembly and Senate).  Their anger at election fraud directed at the so-called traitors who accepted the election results exploded into a mob.  Screaming to hang Pence and bashing doors and windows to enter forbidden buildings overwhelming security.  And then, at Trump’s request, they left. Such violence by self proclaimed patriots done in the name of protecting America  was  incomprehensible to almost everyone watching from a distance.  These strange folks with their MAGA hats, bizarre outfits and Confederate flags were convinced that they had to fight to protect their way of life. Millions of Americans believe in the new Big Lie.

Millions more people voted for Biden than for Trump. Even with the bizarre electoral college process, there can be no doubt as to Biden’s victory. Biden received more votes in states where it mattered for the electoral college vote. In the absence of evidence of any irregularities Biden’s victory is indisputable.

Without Trump, it is unlikely that the election result would have resulted in armed insurrection.  Sure many people would not have accepted the results as true, but Trump made it real. 

The passions felt by partisans in an election campaign run deep.  Victory is sweet and defeat bitter.  Campaign workers spend long days, weeks, months, even years, believing that they can win.  And when their candidate doesn’t win, especially in a close election which matters, the loss hurts.   The hurt is personal and often financial.  Those on the losing side may find it tough to get another job.  Even for those whose participation amounted to attending rallies, buying swag and even donating money, faith in one’s candidate can run deep.  Being told when faced with crushing defeat, that victory had been stolen comes as a welcomed relief.  Trump’s Big Lie worked because his supporters wanted to believe.  But Trump was no Lenin.  He did not have a realistic plan for taking over government.  He had no Trotsky and, more seriously, no military support.  The Big Lie was not believed by the right people or perhaps enough of the right people. 

So why? Why do so many people believe so strongly in something for which there is no evidence? There is Trump. He stands in front of the crowd and tells them that they were robbed. He assures them that they are not crazy or misinformed. They believe him when he says that the supporters of the Democrats, not them or their friends, those believe the Fake News, are the crazies. They believe him when he feeds their belief that immigrants, people of colour, Muslims, Jews and maybe even Catholics, are destroying the American way of life. Trump feeds his supporters faith, especially the Q-Anon supporters, that they and they alone know the truth about America. And unless they fight for that truth, America will be lost. But still. How can anyone believe anything Trump says? And will they continue to believe as the memories of his Presidency fades.

The Big Lie Part 2

The American Dream

I think this is a fact, which it serves no purpose to deny, but, whether it is a fact or not, this is what the black populations of the world, including black Americans, really believe. The word “independence” in Africa and the word “integration” here are almost equally meaningless; that is, Europe has not yet left Africa, and black men here are not yet free. And both of these last statements are undeniable facts, related facts, containing the gravest implications for us all. The Negroes of this country may never be able to rise to power, but they are very well placed indeed to precipitate chaos and ring down the curtain on the American dream.

I think this is a fact, which it serves no purpose to deny, but, whether it is a fact or not, this is what the black populations of the world, including black Americans, really believe. The word “independence” in Africa and the word “integration” here are almost equally meaningless; that is, Europe has not yet left Africa, and black men here are not yet free. And both of these last statements are undeniable facts, related facts, containing the gravest implications for us all. The Negroes of this country may never be able to rise to power, but they are very well placed indeed to precipitate chaos and ring down the curtain on the American dream.

This has everything to do, of course, with the nature of that dream and with the fact that we Americans, of whatever color, do not dare examine it and are far from having made it a reality. There are too many things we do not wish to know about ourselves. People are not, for example, terribly anxious to be equal (equal, after all, to what and to whom?) but they love the idea of being superior. And this human truth has an especially grinding force here, where identity is almost impossible to achieve and people are perpetually attempting to land their feet on the shifting sands of status. (Consider the history of labor in a country in which, spiritually speaking, there are no workers, only candidates for the hand of the boss’s daughter.) Furthermore, I have met only a very few people—and most of these were not Americans—who had any real desire to be free. Freedom is hard to bear. It can be objected that I am speaking of political freedom in spiritual terms, but the political institutions of any nation are always menaced and are ultimately controlled by the spiritual state of that nation. We are controlled here by our confusion, far more than we know, and the American dream has therefore become something much more closely resembling a nightmare, on the private, domestic, and international levels. Privately, we cannot stand our lives and dare not examine them; domestically, we take no responsibility for (and no pride in) what goes on in our country; and, internationally, for many millions of people, we are an unmitigated disaster.

James Baldwin, “Letter from a Region in My Mind” from a 1962 essay “Whatever white people do not know about Negroes reveals precisely and inexorably, what they do not know about themselves.” November 10, 1962

The American dream, in theory, is defined by ideals of democracy, rights, liberty, opportunity and equality set out in the Declaration of Independence. In practice, this dream is of freedom from social or governmental constraint. It is a freedom best enjoyed by the individual. Central to the faith is the sense that all individuals have equal opportunity – everyone has a chance to get rich. Those who succeed in making money, the more the better, deserve nor only their money but respect for living the dream. In this dream, success and with it upward mobility, is achieved through hard work. The United States is believed to be a society with few barriers. Anyone, if they want, can better themselves. Regardless of social class or circumstances of birth everyone can enjoy success and prosperity – a better and richer life for themselves and their children. The Dream only requires that one accept that just as success is due to one’s own efforts, so is failure. The poor are responsible for their own fate. The individual, not the community matters.

As Baldwin noted, for many Americans the dream should be understood as a nightmare. Its promise is but pretense. Still, many Americans cannot see the damage done by their unquestioning faith in this American Dream. The claim of equality – excluding women, people of colour, and First Nations – was always obviously hollow. The steadfast belief in the United States as a land of equal opportunity always ignored the obvious and ever present chasm between the the rich and the poor.

Believe. Many believe, profoundly, that America is the dream. It is who they are. It is deep in the culture. There are so many books, plays and songs written about the American Dream. It is hard to see the dream as a lie – delusion perhaps? The sting is that it seems so true: anyone can be anything they want to be… but there are so few winners and so many losers. The fever may never break but when it does, who knows what might replace it.