Notes From A Miserable Nation

When you meet someone from a miserable nation, you know it. You can see it in their faces, hear it in their voices, watch it in their body language. When you ask innocently, ‘how is your country doing’ they get tense. You can tell how bad things are by their answer. If they say ‘there are problems’ then you know it’s not as bad as it could be. If they say without skipping a beat ‘I love it, I miss my country so much’ with a big smile on their face and perhaps a photoshop-perfect watery-eyed sigh, you know it’s very bad, and you wonder how much worse it will get.

America is closer to the former than the latter, for now. We are miserable citizens who get asked to explain ourselves when we travel abroad. We are the citizens who no longer enjoy the simple pleasures of life together despite the smaller inconvenience that our ideologies don’t align. We say to ourselves about others ‘it’s too much trouble to be around people who are like that, who believe those things.’

Economies and politics are different but symbiotic, and both are again intertwined with class. You can observe this on a personal level. We are all constantly comparing ourselves to each other economically, we have a good idea of where we stand compared to each of our close associates, and we are rarely in intimate contact with people who are vastly higher or lower on the 7 billion rung ladder that we are all scrambling up. In so far as politics is an associative art, then, the choice to associate with people of differing economic strata is a political choice. The fewer people you associate with, the smaller your political experience will likely be. And importantly, another person like yourself can only show you a rung of the ladder similar to your own.  So the fewer people from different rungs you know, the less varied your political experience will be. If everyone you know is just like you economically, then you haven’t heard everything there is to hear politically.

Add to this mix the confusions of culture, psychology, occupation, and on and on, and one can quickly start to see the likely culprit of our current woes: communication. The farther apart we grow, the harder it becomes to understand each other. It’s very hard to have a clear conversation through the noise of an entire human life. If you have ever tried to sit quietly and focus on your own breathing for just five minutes, you will see how little control you have over your own thoughts. The mind is like a wild horse, untamed and raging, and we trust only our own herd.

How do we fix our misery? The answer is not clear. But taming our wild minds would be a good start. Practice equanimity, control your reactions. Then find some person that is not like you and get to know them. Listen to them and allow yourself to genuinely care about them as a person. Don’t try to convince them or correct them. Just be with them for a while. That would be an even better start.

Maybe after we all do that, we can finally have a real, good conversation with each other and sort out some of those problems we are always telling foreigners about.

Politics: The Crisis of the Left

In the wake of the rejection of post-recession leftist moral precepts by the western democracies that resulted in Brexit, the election Donald J. Trump in America, and the rise of right wing authoritarianism in Europe, a political vacuum has opened in America that is dangerous, not just for the Left, but even more so for the Right.

In subverting it’s own rules and colluding to disenfranchise it’s voters in order to ensure the nomination of Hilary Clinton as the Democratic candidate for president over Bernie Sanders, the Democratic Party violated the fundamental principle on which it’s own existence is based, namely the agreement between party leaders and party members to follow party rules for choosing a leader. The moment that the Democratic Party broke those rules and forced it’s own will upon it’s members, it became a totalitarian political organization. Democratic party members were then forced to choose between two authoritarian, anti-democratic oligarchs.

Interestingly, Democrats did not at that point reject the party en-mass. A minority of Democrats followed through on their Leftist principles and abstained from voting or voted for third party candidates. An even smaller minority of Democrats lost all faith in the Left and voted for Trump. We will come back to these voters in a moment. But the majority of Democrats stuck with the party. And now we are ready to ask the fundamental and most dangerous question: how can a member of any party remain loyal when it betrays them?

The answer is related to what the philosopher Jean Paul Sartre called Bad Faith. In order to cope with modern life, we sometimes lie to ourselves that “things could not be otherwise.” We do this in order to avoid the uncomfortable truth that we are in the end responsible for our choices, and that if we choose to change, we can. For the Democrats, the lies they told themselves took many forms:

  1. Blind party loyalty: The party knows best.
  2. Fear of Trump: Trump is worse than Clinton.
  3. Petty Self-delusion: Clinton isn’t that bad; She is better than Trump; She is more electable; etc.
  4. Lazy complacency: Even with the betrayal, our party is better than others.
  5. All of the above

These lies are responsible for the current fear that the Left feels, namely that, not only it is in decline, but this decline is irreversible.

A clue to the future of a viable path forward comes from an analysis of the Democrats who voted for Bernie Sanders during the Democratic primaries and for Trump in the 2016 general election. They did not follow the blind masses of ex-Bernie supporters into the Clinton tent after he lost. They clearly were independent of partisan loyalty.

The Left must align themselves with an anti-partisan, pro-worker nationalism without giving into the paranoia that identity politics tends to create. That paranoia will alienate working class and older aristocratic voters.  Instead, the Left must recommit to the broad reforms laid out by Bernie Sanders, but mix in with that a solid commitment to evidence based policies that are focussed on promoting social justice and environmentalism.

That is the way to win back those ex-Bernie Trump supporters.

Film: The Revenant

One of the greatest environmentalist films in recent years, The Revenant is at it’s heart a story about the irony of humanity’s attempts to end it’s own suffering by dominating and destroying the natural and social world on which it depends for survival. In the clip above, the first few shots celebrate the grandeur of the wild. The silky streams of water and bright rays of sun through lush and dripping moss. The crags of frozen snow drifts are invitations to appreciate the tender majesty of the Earth. But next, the beauty of pristine nature is juxtaposed with the bleak piles of dead bison skulls, a dusky sky lit only by the moon, and the frozen camera lens covered in snow, looking up into a the obscured and fading treetops. Why are we seeking revenge against the natural world, which causes our suffering but means us no harm? Is it our place to reject the suffering our human existence forces on us? If we somehow reach our goal and dominate the acute causes of our “species specific” pain, we will inevitably become disillusioned from our physical world, forced to live in exile from our natural condition, as Rousseau feared. Which would be the greater loss: life without relief from suffering or life without wild beauty? The Revenant warns that our choice may come back to haunt us.

Film: The etherial Louie C.K.

*Spoiler alert* There are two things about this next clip that I find mesmerizing. First, the sheer feeling of “everything-is-finally-amazing” -ness of it is incredible. It borders on a religious vision of bliss. Secondly, the comedic ark is so interesting. It starts with the awkward stares and collective disgust with a dark pool of liquid on the subway seats. Then the entire aesthetic shifts  to an Nirvanic meditation on Louie disrobing before the pool, to which my immediate reaction was, “What’s he doin- oh, uh oh, where is this going..” But any expectations for mischief are instead caught off guard by the exaggerated display of deeply selfless sacrifice for the common good of all. Finally, the impossibly innocent face Louie makes while the woman strokes his beard exposes his antics. With this quick cheeseball face, Louie relieves the weight of the “meaningful experience” and prevents the natural viewer tendency toward skepticism, thereby allowing the audience to safely enjoy the profundity of what they witness till the end: the moment of recognition with an alluring young woman, the silent confirmation of the crowd that YES, Hakuna matata, we are all alive right now and things are going to be ok.


Language: Two-Dimensional Semantics

Two-Dimensional (2D) Semantics is a big deal these days in Philosophy and has been for the last decade or two. This is a really cool way of thinking about certain words that have puzzled philosophers for a some time, like ‘I’ and ‘here’ and ‘now’. But to understand what is weird about those words and what 2D semantics is, we have to start at the beginning with 0-Dimensional Semantics and work our way up through 1-Dimensional Semantics.

Before we get into that stuff though, what is semantics? Semantics is basically the study of what words and sentences mean. There are different kinds of semantics and the type of Semantics we will be discussing here is called formal semantics. The purpose of formal semantic theories is to describe logical rules for deciding what words and sentences mean and why. So for instance, what does ‘banana’ mean? One semantic theory might say the the word ‘banana’ refers to an idea or concept of banana that you have in your head. Others might say that ‘banana’ refers to that fruit over there on the table. These theories are important in general because they help us understand how science and language interact* and why we can talk about things that don’t exist like unicorns and my dancing skills. But specifically for our purposes these theories are important because they help us understand why sentences are true or false. Semantic theories give us a way of deciding if a sentence is true or false by describing the rules for using words to say true things. For instance, if I say “the banana is yellow,” we know that this is true because we know the rules that govern what ‘the banana’ and ‘is yellow’ mean: ‘the banana’ refers to a banana and ‘is yellow’ refers to it’s color. We know immediately if the the sentence is true because we can look at the fruit and see whether or not it is actually (1) a banana and (2) yellow colored. If it is both a banana and yellow, then the sentence ‘the banana is yellow’ is true. Different semantic theories give different ways of understanding why sentences that are more tricky than that one are true or false, but that is a basic example of how a semantic analysis would work.

Now that we know what semantics is, let’s talk about some weird words that behave differently than most words. To begin, we have to understand the most basic rules that govern words, which are called 0-Dimensional (0D) semantics. This is the sort of basic semantics we use when we say that ‘banana’ refers to bananas. Basically, we are saying that every word has an extension and that if you know what the extension of every word in a sentence is, then you can understand what the sentence means. For instance, the extension of ‘the banana’ is a banana, and the extension of ‘the red ball I have in my hand’ is the red ball I have in my hand. Above, we saw that we can decide the truth or falsity of the sentence ‘the banana is yellow’ if we look at the extensions of the words ‘banana’ and ‘yellow’. That is essentially what 0-Dimensional semantics does. It simply takes a word and assigns it to an extension. We use it to teach babies words when we hold up an object, like a ball, and say “ball” to the baby. Things can get a little tricky when we take into account the fact that more than one word can have the same extension. For instance, the words ‘gas’ and ‘petrol’ and ‘fuel’ all have the same extension. This is very important for the next part. But for 0D semantics, that’s about as complex as it gets.

Let’s take it up a notch. Things get a bit more complicated when we look at 1-Dimensional (1D) semantics. That last point about different words with the same extension is crucial. At some point, the people working on semantic theories realized that different words or phrases that have the same extension don’t always play by the same rules regarding that extension. Some words or phrases always refer to the same extension while other words or phrases sometimes refer to different extensions depending on different possible ways things could be. Take for instance an extension with a few different words and phrases like Michael Jordan. To refer to Michael Jordan, we can say ‘the most famous basketball player of all time’ or ‘the Nike spokesman’ or simply ‘Michael Jordan’. The first two phrases could refer to different people. If Michael Jordan had become a musician instead of a basketball player, maybe the extension of ‘the most famous basketball player of all time’ would be Kobe Bryant or someone else. And the same is true for ‘the Nike spokesman’. If Nike had chosen a different athlete, like Shaq, maybe he would be ‘the Nike spokesman’. But the last phrase, ‘Michael Jordan,’ always refers to the man Michael Jordan no matter what. There’s something special about the phrase ‘Michael Jordan’ that makes it different from the other two phrases. No matter what the man Michael Jordan did with his life, he would always be the extension of the phrase ‘Michael Jordan’. For semantics, that means that some words and phrases (like ‘Michael Jordan’) always pick out the same extension, while other words and phrases don’t (like ‘the most famous basketball player of all time’). Specifically, this means that words and phrases have a dimension of possibility in their meanings: some words and phrases could have other possible extensions than the ones they have right now while other words and phrases can only have the one extension they always have.

Now we are ready for 2D semantics. Philosophers in the last decade or two have begun to pay more attention to words like I, here, and now. These words are special because their meanings change depending on their context. Philosophers call these words indexicals. in some sense indexicals act a bit like the words in 1D semantics that always necessarily pick out one object. For instance, if Michael Jordan says “I am the most famous basketball player of all time,” the ‘I’ means the same man as the word ‘Michael Jordan’ and the sentence is true. But obviously ‘I’ and ‘Michael Jordan’ aren’t synonyms. For instance, if Roger Clemens said “I am the most famous basketball play of all time” the sentence would be false because ‘I’ would then mean ‘Roger Clemens’. This is what makes indexicals distinctive is that they change meanings depending on their context of use. Another simple example: if I say, “I am here” and you say “I am here”, we have just said two different things with the same words because the meanings of the words ‘I’ and ‘here’ are different in these sentences.

So let’s recap. With 0D semantics, words and objects are paired 1 to 1. The word ‘Ball’ means ball, and the word ‘banana’ means banana. Simple. In 1D semantics, words and objects still pair 1 to 1, but now we introduce the dimension of possibility to meaning: the words ‘Michael Jordan’ always necessarily mean the same object, i.e. the man Michael Jordan, but the words ‘the most famous basketball player of all time’ don’t always necessarily pick out the same object; they could possibly pick out any number of players who could have been the most famous basketball player of all time if Michael Jordan had never played basketball. Finally, in 2D semantics, words and objects still pair 1 to 1, and some still could possibly have other meanings while others still necessarily mean one thing, but now we add in the dimension of context: indexicals, like I, here, now, there, you, it, this, etc. all point to different objects depending on the context in which they are used.

In another post, I’ll explain some interesting results of understanding language this way.

*for instance, what do chemists mean when they say they “discovered that water is H2O?” If water has always been H2O, then did the word ‘water’ always mean H2O? If not, then weren’t we referring to something other than H2O when we used the ‘water’ beforehand? After all, how could we have been referring to H2O when we said ‘water’ if we didn’t know about H2O at all? But then how could we be referring to something other than H2O if that’s what water is? And if so, then doesn’t this mean that they discovered something about the word ‘water’ too, namely that it has a meaning we didn’t know it had? And doesn’t that mean that we don’t always know what our own words mean? But how could we not know what own words mean?