On Beauty, the Good, and the Value of Abstract Thought.

Who can say with certainty what beauty is? Today beauty is not a mutually shared value, but an individual property, it’s in the ‘eye of the beholder’. But what if the ‘beholder’ is wrong?

While we’re skilled at assigning value to many events or properties, we prefer to render our opinion using tangible indicators. With formulas or a monetary gauge, the outcome is black and white and doesn’t require any sort of torturous, ambiguous weighing of pros and cons. The critics can be shut down by a simple retort: it’s just math.

We are on much shakier ground, however, when we attempt to assign value to events of philosophical nature: things that are good or bad, right and wrong.

Like beauty, which is hard to define but easy to point out, the right and the wrong are abstractions, escaping a definition.  We know it when we see it.

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Apollo

I know that Ancient Greek statues and Renaissance paintings are beautiful. To know this I don’t need to rely on technical measurements. Classical art evokes stronger emotions and a sense of awe. It invites contemplation and promotes selfless thoughts. It represents universal humanity and its collective struggles and victories. However, when we observe a piece of postmodernist art, like, say, a shark in a formaldehyde tank, we’re not invited to ponder what it represents or what it’s meant to evoke or inspire. The value of a Damien Hirst’s shark tank, unlike that of a Renaissance painting, is rather in its originality, in that ‘no one has thought of that before’. Novelty and originality are cute, but they are not synonymous with beauty. Novelty art may carry a shock or entertainment value but it does not bring out something that is ‘unsaid but strongly felt’. But, novelty aside, there’s a more trenchant analysis of value here: we’re asked to marvel at the commercial value of the entity: what it was sold for and who bought it. Against such an ironclad argument one will be hard pressed to mount an adequate objection.

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Because of this overreliance, either out of fear or out of habit, on the technical tools to assess the intangibles and abstractions (like beauty), we have developed a ‘spiritual’ disability. We’re afraid or unable to declare that something is ‘wrong’ or ‘ugly’, because then we would be forced to make our case without relying on our preferred methods of argument. In order for our argument to be heard and taken seriously, we would have to show that what we think is wrong is ‘unprofitable’. But what if ugliness is profitable? How do we make our case then?

This discomfort with abstractions has broader implications. It seeps into and corrupts our public life.

The spirit of law is routinely violated even when the letter of law is upheld. Technically many criminals, especially white collar ones, are found to have done nothing wrong, and yet we often feel that the justice has not been served. How do we get that feeling? The law was upheld, we should accept it and go on with our business. But that feeling of a lack of closure, that some wrong hasn’t been righted doesn’t leave us. No law was broken when banks structured and sold mortgage-backed securities to gullible customers. The same bankers could not be touched or stripped of their bonuses because they were bound by contracts. The sanctity of contracts is sacred under the law and is indifferent to public ire. A decade later, the President of the United States pardons a conspiracy peddler and a racist felon. Technically, all of the above abides the letter of the law, but violates the spirit of the law. This spirit is something that we struggle to define even when we feel its validity and importance. Here, our reliance on numbers and technology and the letter of law gave an opening to clever, self-serving charlatans: they appeal to our reason to get away with crime. Reason, they say, tells us we have to move on. We nod, as if under a spell, and move along.

One can argue that it’s quite a big leap from Damien Hirst’s art to the pardoning of Joe Arpaio. I think these two are connected, two sides of the same coin. It’s a libertine ethos, when things are done simply because they can be done. It’s the proverbial “everything is allowed” Karamazovian lament. This mode of thinking and operating, that ugliness and beauty are the same because both can be profitable, has debased our moral radar: we have forgotten how to discern the good from the bad. And it’s not like we were very good at it to begin with, but at least back in the day we could use religion is a guide – a poor and violent guide, sure, but one that facilitated a communal, agreed upon appreciation of things that can not be measured by P&L. Today we don’t even have that.

This intellectual capitulation creates social apathy and sense of hopelessness. The apathy, in turn, opens the door for various self-serving hucksters.

Technocratic arguments are routinely and skillfully deployed to wear us down, to make us doubt our own assessments. The poor can not be helped because ‘numbers’. The rich needs another tax cut because ‘growth’. ‘Numbers’ and ‘growth’ are magic words, near-religious incantations coming out of the Koch brothers pantheon, that are tailored to shut down any nascent public debate. And, indeed, how can one counter ‘numbers’ and ‘growth’ with ‘feelings’ and ‘spirit’? He will be laughed out of the room.

We’re in a bind here. If ugliness and beauty are the same because both can be profitable how do we discern one from the other? Furthermore, if one, against all odds, is capable to arrive at conclusion about what ‘good’ is, he will not only face a lack of available avenues to address the disbalance, but a whole variety of social, economic and political impediments that prevent him from acting out the ‘good.’

A few years ago on this blog I ruminated on the concept of freedom and I arrived at the definition of freedom as the ability to be a good citizen. And how can one be a good citizen today? Does that also follow that without the ability to know beauty we can not be free?

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Impunity As a Result of 80s and 90s Pop Culture.

“The wicked flee when no one pursueth.”

Being an adult in the room has not been cool for several decades, since about 1970s, I’d estimate. The last movie about an adult in the room – a sober, responsible government official who defeats the bad guy was probably ‘Jaws’. Since then it’s all been downhill.

The 1980s were the worst offender. “Why do you have to wreck the company?” Charlie Sheen asks Michael Douglass in ‘Wall Street’. “Because it’s wreckable!” he snaps back. And with this, he embodied the spirit that has been haunting us ever since.

In the beloved 1980s teenage comedy “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off’ we’re asked to sympathize with Ferris – a rebellious but smooth teenager whose quest to skip school is impeded by numerous antagonists: school principal and his nagging sister. It’s a cool, funny movie that I used to enjoy watching. But the more I think about it now (thinking is really a fun killer – you’ve been warned) the more I sympathize with a worry-wart Cameron and Ferris’s older sister, rather than a free-wheeling, fuck-the-rules Ferris. Cameron is actually a much more complex character because he had some semblance of a development arc. Ferris ends up his day in the same way he started it: a spoiled brat never to be held accountable by anyone. This movie, along with a bunch of other classics like Animal House and Caddyshack are 1980s version of ‘move fast and break things’ mindset of a modern day.

Then came the 90s with Goodfellas (still watch it every time it’s on), Glengarry Glenross (Alec Baldwin kills it!), and again, we were asked to relate to and even hold as paragons of a certain postmodernist virtue, characters who break the rules and/or assert power by sheer force or insult. But it is written so well, by such talented writers, and played so brilliantly, that it’s hard to look away. It’s just fun, it’s over-the-top for dramatic effect, why even bother overanalyzing it?

Even more recently, in The Hangover, one of the villains was a character’s nagging wife, bent on spoiling the guys’ fun. The existence of such a caricature makes it easy for a male character to abandon responsibility when there’s a ‘big bad mommy’-type out there whose sole purpose is to stifle guys’ (and they’re almost always guys) freedom and fun. ‘Big bad mommy’ represents not necessarily a female force, but is a stand in for an overweening government, a ‘big brother’. If you want to write a buddy comedy, but have to adhere to basic screenwriting rules that require you to have an antagonist, such a trope villain (a nagging wife, an obsessive school principal) is the lowest hanging fruit, but it always works. It’s easy to write, easy for an audience to understand, and easy for many to relate to, as in their daily grind they, too, fight their own version of a ‘big bad mommy.’

But who and what’s there to rebel against now? Who is the ‘nagging wife’ in our lives today? A ‘Big bad mommy’ doesn’t run things anymore. Evil clowns from ‘It’, like Stephen Miller, do. But the appeal of rebelliousness didn’t go anywhere. A man has been told that he has to rebel against someone or something, otherwise his life will lack meaning. If, instead of being a feckless high school student, you’re finding yourself to be an adult in the room, to hold all the reigns of power, the game stops being fun because then you are asked for accountability. But, as we learned over the decades of pop-culture message, guys can not be held accountable and should, instead, be praised and even mimicked for their unorthodox way of skirting responsibility.

The late Christopher Hitchens was obsessed with women’s ability to kill a man’s fun. Oh, I used to love Hitch, I thought he was, like, the smartest guy I ever read. (Made me think that if I was 25 today, I’d probably be reading up Jordan Peterson and marveling at his brilliance). Hitch was incredibly skillful with words and precision, and gave his thick sentences double, triple meaning. Now, since I’m in the middle of deconstructing our treasured pop culture icons, I find him to be an example of incredible talent and rare wordsmanship wasted on the service of excusing one’s anti-social behavior by manufacturing an artificial villain.

Of course, a ‘big bad mommy’ prototype does not have to be a literal mother or a wife. It is a gray-suited government official, an SEC bureaucrat, a DMV worker, even a Nurse Ratchet – anyone who makes the proverbial trains run on time, keeps order in an institution. I added Nurse Ratchet on the list because the villain of an iconic Milos Forman’s movie (my favorite movie for a period of time) was a metaphor for totalitarianism, but today we suffer from a different ailment: chaos. We do not live in a world where our dreams of freedom are being stifled by sadistic nurses; we live in a world where the lunatics have overtaken the asylum. Again, I invite you to think of Jack Nicholson’s character – a rebellious man totally devoid of any responsibility. And again, this is the kind of role models we grew up with and internalized. Is there any wonder then that people ‘running’ things (I intentionally put ‘running’ in quotes) prefer to think of themselves as victims yearning to break free? Break free from what? From liberals calling them names?

Hillary was an ultimate stand in for a ‘nagging wife’ type. She was that school principal that could, should she have won, hold at least some of the ‘Ferris Buellers’ accountable. She presented not just political but existential threat to our schoolyard order (or rather lack of it). And this could not be allowed to happen.

So, who should be the villain then, you might ask. Good scripts and good stories are those that, in addition to or rather instead of, external villain, focus on the internal demons of the character. Someone’s fear manifesting as aggression. Someone’s insecurity manifesting as bravado. Someone’s ‘unresolved childhood trauma’ manifesting as cruelty. The dark forces we fight are within us. The bottom line is, no one is really trying to ‘get’ us. “Wicked flee where no one pursueth.” But how do you have fun then, when no one ‘pursueth’ you?

Girl Power

The other day a senior White House official, Kelly Sadler, made a comment about ailing Sen. McCain: “It doesn’t matter. He’s dying anyway.” Sadler was referring to McCain’s advanced cancer in the context of his opposition and thus a possible ‘no’ vote on a confirmation of another woman of questionable morals, Gina Haspel, Trump’s nominee for CIA director. One wonders: how can a public official or just any human being display such a lack of basic decency? What is it that has the capacity to make us into such assholes?

A moment of self-reflection brought back the memories of my early days on Wall Street. Back in a heyday, long before the shit hit the fan, there was a feature in the mortgage bonds called ‘prepayment penalty.’ Prepayment risk was one of the several risks of holding a mortgage bond. Still innocent about the ways of Wall Street, I couldn’t initially grasp what exactly was the problem when the borrower pays off the mortgage early. I was quickly disabused of my naivete by a shrewd and seasoned co-worker: that risk meant that a bondholder would have to reinvest that money at a different, probably lower rate. So naturally, the bondholders wanted to get compensated for carrying that risk. Thus Wall Street, he enlightened me, came up with a brilliant solution: prepayment penalty paid by the borrower. With this observation he accomplished two things: he revealed how the real world works, and how still unprepared I was for being a player in that world. As this new piece of info sinked in, I gazed upon the buzzing trading floor in embarrassment at my own inadequacy: these were all killers and I didn’t think like a killer.  This is how you were supposed to think: if a borrower is late on his mortgage – he pays a penalty; if he’s early – he still pays a penalty. You get to write these rules, you get a chicken for dinner every time. It’s almost like these masters of the universe WANTED the unwitting borrower to make a mistake; no, worse – in a cruel twist they also wanted to punish him for a prudent individual conduct. Why? Because this way they collect more fees. Of course, this industry would soon forget how it sought to punish a borrower for his attempt at paying off his debts and would blame the whole thing on him being a shiftless deadbeat. But that reckoning was still years away. At that moment, I was determined to become a killer like them.

Where am I going with this? Once I learned about this clever mechanism I didn’t feel outraged. It didn’t cause any internal conflict. What it produced instead was a self-satisfied chuckle, a realization that I was on the other, winning, side of this trade. It felt like an initiation into a special club. That it was I who, directly or indirectly, stood to benefit from all those poor schmucks who played by the rules written by ‘us’. Yes, at that point I have considered myself to belong to ‘Us’, the winners. I mean I was smart and worked 14-hour days and took plenty of abuse to get there, so, surely, I deserved it. In a set up like this it was just a matter of time before a disparaging word or a caustic comment towards the losers would slip off the tip of my tongue. I became a good cog.

Women like Kelly Sadler – also a good, loyal cog, blond and pretty and useful to the regime in many capacities, are often predisposed to not understand a toxic dynamic happening before her eyes, because her current status and a future lobbying career depend on not understanding it. She can smell that power the way I could smell that money.

The moment of initiation into a special exclusive club is the moment you lose your internal moral compass. Grateful of the rare privilege you want to prove being worthy of the membership. In the company of powerful men the misfortunes of the distant others is an odd topic to bring up. At best it will create suspicion about you having the right qualifications, about you having an understanding of the mission at hand. At worse, you’ll risk expulsion. Smart club administrators seek to invite new members from humble origins, minorities, women. They know those will be the best, most ruthless and most dedicated defenders of the club’s mission. The sense of belonging, of a need to belong, will trump the sense of right and wrong in most people most of the time. And indeed, throughout the history, women, especially white, privileged women, have been the loyal foot soldiers and defenders of the worst atrocities.

Kelly Sadler’s comment, put in that context, is a logical and totally predictable occurrence. She wasn’t thinking about McCain, or his family or even about how this will sound, should it ever come out, to an outside public. All she did was channel what everyone in that room was thinking. Judging by those standards she’s proved worthy of the membership.

Eagles Win

It was heart, not brains that fueled massive celebrations last night in Philly after Eagles win. It was the same kind of heart that makes people go to Times Square on NYE at freezing temperatures.  Perhaps it was the same kind of irrationality that made people pull the lever for Trump. It defies rational analysis. People climbed poles that have been greased and turned over cars. Why? If you asked them they would holler ecstatically and incoherently in your face but would not give you an answer. Any verbal means of expression would feel awfully inadequate under that unique circumstance.

Eric Hoffer in his book ‘The True Believer’ dissects the above sentiment to its basic elements. Human irrationality and passions are a phenomenon with a much bigger political and social implications than we, especially on the left, are willing to assign to it. He points out many culprits, but central of them all is the desire to belong to a cause, often combined with the lack of other channels of expression for one’s personal passions.

To express oneself with words, the kind of words that will telegraph one’s personal sentiments with 100% precision is a skill that takes time to learn and practice. It would be a big ask of a rough-and-tumble, starved for victory blue collar Philly crowd. It is this inability to express oneself that manifests itself in physical form during significant political or social events.

I saw the amount of pent up energy being released yesterday that would put to shame any other march or celebration that I’ve seen before, and I’ve seen a lot. Obama victory in 2008 comes close, and I still remember and relish that magic and camaraderie in the air, but it does not come nowhere near to a high-octane, visceral, shambolic riot (“a Russian riot – senseless and ruthless”) of a first ever Super Bowl win.

If I had to pick one defining characteristic to describe a sports fan whose drought has been broken? A lack of irony. A lack of irony expressed in the irrational. I like that. It’s pure art. A good piece of art lacks irony. To be ironic is to be unsure about the resulting effect on the audience, thus deploying irony as a shield against a possible misunderstanding. Why should I then take such an artist or an author or a person at his word?

Those riff-raff on the streets last night, climbing greased poles, turning cars and eating horse manure? Oh, there was zero irony there. It was beautiful. It was like winning WWII. It was beautiful because it was driven by heart and defied any classification and any explanation. I watched the spectacle from my apartment trying to find appropriate words. It was a tall order, even though I spent years perfecting my writing skills – a pastime that teaches you descriptive rigor, which in turn teaches you things about yourself. (One of the side effects of this process was the realization that I dislike Russian rock music. Because, you guessed it, it’s ironic.) But I digress. To ask that euphoric mob ‘how do you feel’ would be to insult them. That would be asking them to use a medium of expression that lacks adequate conducive qualities.

Mining that irrationality of the crowd is a skill currently perfected by hucksters. It is used to sell us stuff and make us vote for conmen. Can Democrats relearn to harness those forces for the common good next November?

A Trader Learns About the Universe

If a question was posed to me ten years ago, at my professional peak, whether a tree makes a sound if it falls in the woods with no one around, I’d pause, wondering whether the questioner had too much spare time on his hands or was just being a dick, then, with a stare and a tone tailored to let him know that he’s an idiot, I’d answer with a smug “Of course it does. Now fuck off” and go back to my Bloomberg.

Back then I practiced what I called a ‘pragmatic practicality’ philosophy. That pragmatic, no-nonsense worldview came in handy for the low-brow (albeit pretend, ironic low-brow), hustling, locker room world of a trading floor, with its references to Goodfellas and Airplane! and Caddyshack. I thought I have found all the answers – and they resided in science and logic, in numbers and common sense. Never a philosopher I worshipped reason; Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins were authorities on thought and staples in my modest library – modest, you see, because no time to read – with highlighted passages and main arguments memorized as I prepared myself for a random argument with an imaginary religious person: If your god is omnipotent can he create a stone that he himself can’t lift? If God loves us why does he allow the unimaginable sufferings in this world? The burden of proof is on you to prove His existence, not on me to prove the negative. Check, mate. Pretty solid.

Ironically, it was quantum mechanics – a discipline of physics – that put cracks in my philosophical certainty. The conventional Newtonian physics failed to provide a satisfying answer to a few things, one among them is a problem of conscience. As a busy person with no time to ponder I tucked it into the farthest mental compartment to be dealt with later. That part, which I now know is called ‘the Hard Problem’, deals with an elusive but stubborn problem of consciousness origins. Not the mechanical part, which merely explains how the neurons interact with each other and how information received through eyes and ears is stored in the brain. Hard Problem deals with figuring out how those physical processes produce thought, and more importantly, feelings of awe and other irrational human emotions. How does that neural interaction produce goosebumps when I hear a, say, David Gilmour’s sick guitar riff? Is it similar to a Catholic nun crying rapturously after meeting the Pope? Are these experiences rooted in the same place, even though she’s religious and I’m not? This has put me into intellectual stupor.

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Beauty after the rain on a random drive.

Just as Hitchens and Dawkins like to portray religion as a safety blanket used by those who are afraid to search for answers, my worship of scientific reason was no different: a subconscious search for certainty so that I can get on with my life. Psychologically it was the same security blanket, but only for those who are too smart to believe in the supernatural.

Well, I am too smart to believe in the supernatural, but at some point I also acknowledge that my scientific inflexibility manifested the other side of the same coin – fear of the unknown. I wanted to know, but instead of fairy tales I wanted formulas.

That search led me to quantum physics – a series of books for beginners and YouTube videos, where formulas revealed a world functioning under a totally different set of rules – rules that are incompatible with our standard understanding of the physical world. A world where the presence (or absence) of the observer affects the subsequent events. This is where the ‘tree in the woods’ quiz came up again. This time I wasn’t so sure it made a sound: if there’s no ear or any sort of receiver, the sound wave simply dissipates without being captured. Thus no sound! A devotee of logic I couldn’t argue with that.

Mouth agape I kept reading. Some things were too hard to comprehend, like the entangled particles phenomenon, where two particles no matter how far from each other behave in a simultaneous manner. You observe one particle and its twin, which, no matter the distance between them, act in total unison with each other. There’s not even a fraction of a millisecond between their moves. Einstein called this phenomenon a ‘Spooky action at a distance.’ Or take even the simple concept of space: would we even know what space is if it was empty; if there were no objects in the universe would it be possible for us to know the difference between a centimeter and a million miles? A working person, in a numbing daily grind, doesn’t think about this stuff at all. Well, I have time to think about it now – so I should.

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Atlantic City, inviting to contemplation.

So how do these findings – that the universe is an observer-dependent entity, square off with our philosophical longings?

The philosophical questions arise from our mental facilities. Subatomic particles act out in a manner that suggests a link between our thoughts and their behavior. Our neural circuitry has the power to form reality. Our reality is a collapsed wave function of probabilities. We were given tools, unlike animals, to ponder our existence. The problem is we were given the tools but no instruction manual. If we didn’t have conscience then there would be no such concepts as morality and the good and the bad, just like there’s no morals in the animal kingdom. Lions eating an antelope is neither good nor bad. But we, humans, we were given a hammer; there must be a nail somewhere.

In a nutshell that was the logic behind Kant’s Categorical Imperative. To put Kant in simple terms, he posited that because we possess a faculty of reason we should use it to discern good from bad. (As an aside, this kind of thinking is incompatible with the way Wall Street thinks: everything is looked at through the profit angle. On Wall Street, like in an animal kingdom, there is no right or wrong; whatever makes money is right. Which is, if you think about it further, a sad commentary on a bunch of super smart guys suppressing their ample mental facilities and their sense of wonderment at the altar of profit. But deep down they know they’re too smart for this shit. This dissonance manifests itself in odd ways like ‘radical transparency’ and ‘transcendental meditation’ – pseudo-philosophies whose sole purpose is not enlightenment but profit. A vicious circle.)

But there are things that exist outside our thoughts. While out thoughts change the outcome of a quantum experiment they can not change certain abstract concepts like mathematical formulas. They exist outside of our mental realm.

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Abandoned Railway in Philly

If we accept Kant’s notion that there IS such a thing as ‘the right thing to do’ and it is as certain as a mathematical concept that exists even if we don’t think of it (2+2 = 4 even before we were born and will remain so after we die), then our duty as sentient species is to find out what it is.

But how? How do we get to determine what is good and what is bad. This is where the science fails. How does one proceed further then?

I think it is the confluence of science, philosophy and arts (particularly literature) – the trifecta – that should be employed to help us understand our predicament. The three disciplines should be given equal weight; each alone can never be sufficient enough for our inquiry. Traditional science explains the mechanics of the world; quantum physics elevates the role of the observer; philosophy poses the questions we have to (no, must!) ask ourselves as sentient beings; and literature frames the human existence into a context which in turn helps us to categorize the events and give them moral meaning.

Don’t you already feel like a fugitive from Plato’s cave seeing the light for the first time? After thinking this way there is no going back.

So what does that all mean? Is there good or bad and how does one have to live? Again and again through history, people from different walks of live who ever embarked on contemplating on this question came up with similar answer. An atheist Tolstoy and a religious Dostoyevsky have similar conclusions: the suffering that we see around us is not indicative of a vengeful deity nor of a singular depravity of a human soul. It is but inevitable part of our existence, like a crest of a wave would not be a crest without a trough. Without the bad we would not know what good is. But, still if we MUST know what is good, certain classics might help. Tolstoy found meaning in the irrational; Dostoyevsky found meaning in loving others.

I like this idea. I like the idea of meaning in the irrational – that is things that carry no profit or fame. Can you put a price on a sense of awe?

 

 

Certitude vs Doubt

I find it interesting that many Republican politicians, upon leaving public office, undergo a curious transformation. Their right-wing fervor subsides, they mellow out and turn into normal, reasonable, even compassionate human beings. Look at Bush II and Schwarzenegger. Such post-factum metamorphoses don’t befall Democrats; retired Dems don’t become hardline pro-life, supply-siders and foreign policy hawks after leaving office. Such ideological shift is a purely Republican phenomenon. I won’t be the first to conclude that right-wing politics is a total act, a show. Fox News would be a prime example of such a glittering, buffoonish arcade, selling Tarot reading to the gullible. In fact, this ‘total act’ theory holds up if you look at how any of the GOP and its satellite outfits operate: they put on a show to sell you a product.  And when a right-wing pundit or a politician leaves the racket he doesn’t have to be a salesman anymore. Thus the subsequent mellowing. A John Kasich is more likely to become a hippie upon retirement than a Chuck Schumer to become a hardliner. Democrats believe in their product, thus they have no need for a later change of heart; Republicans merely use their product as a tool, easily discarded when no longer useful for business.

 

Right-wing politics is an act that doesn’t require special training. All it requires is a projection of certitude. Perhaps such certitude is why it is easy, for a liberal, for the sake of argument or for fun, to assume the role of a conservative. We can make ourselves sound like Bill O’Reilly without any effort. Hell, a Fox News personality is an easy game. To take it a few notched up on a difficulty scale, any leftie in my circle can provide a lucid, informed argument, quoting both dead and living conservative intellectuals and sound like William F. Buckley in the process. Normally, they would be talking about personal responsibility, limited government, free markets, etc. They would be quoting Burke, Hayek, Ayn Rand, Grover Norquist, etc. We’d talk about the deterioration of traditional values and sound like Frum and Brooks and Charles Murray. Of course, that doesn’t mean we would agree with the argument we were making; it means that we are informed enough to be able to make it, to assume that kind of mindset, to see where the other side is coming from. An average informed liberal, if asked, can defend conservatism better than an average conservative. We just don’t want to.

 

Conservatives are incapable of a similar role-play. A conservative’s attempt to play a liberal would quickly deteriorate into making an over-the-top caricature: “Let’s put all the disabled Muslim lesbians on welfare; let’s abort all babies; let’s take all the guns away!” Conservatives are incapable of speaking the language of liberalism, even for the sake of gamesmanship, because that language eschews simplicity. Liberalism is an awareness of the essential duality of a human nature. If conservatives made an honest attempt to speak liberal, honest being the key word, it would make them pause and ponder, which would then prevent them from engaging in a half-assed, mocking affectation. (Btw, that also explains why the majority of actors and screenwriters are lefties: they are required, by their trade, to ponder what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes). A conservative worldview, like a Jerry Bruckheimer movie, is a rather simplistic, one-dimensional realm where bad guys are bad and the good guys are good. A well-written conservative character, on the other hand, would, through a personal accident or a personal flaw, begin to see others’ humanity, not just his own. A priest who doubts the existence of God; a Wall Street shark who finds Jesus – you get the idea. Real life makes that happen to a conservative, but not before he leaves the circus for good. On twitter I follow several former Bush staffers and GOP operatives who don’t hold any public office anymore, and all of them have undergone a massive turn of heart. Today they sound like bleeding-heart liberals, talking about helping the poor, forgiveness, compassion, etc.

 

A thoughtful argument of a conservative trying to imitate a liberal would go something like this: Personal responsibility is a great idea, but there will always be people among us who will need help. As a society, we can’t leave them on the side of the road. Free markets is also a good idea but they can’t function properly without at least some regulations: the vulnerable must be protected from the unscrupulous and the contracts need to be enforced. These functions need government interference. Abortion is bad, but banning it is antithetical to individual liberty – a revered conservative notion, btw. Religion has a place in society but should be kept private and if you must bring it up in public life, focus on its calls for mercy rather than on a watchful, vengeful Deity.

 

To come up with these arguments a conservative would be forced to think about a particular circumstance, an individual story, a person behind the statistic. But nuance and ambivalence don’t sell. Simplicity and certitude do. Today’s Republicans operate on such a contrived certitude; they claim to know how things should be, and the reason things are not this way is because the pure, unentangled experiment in their minds has not yet been tried. If you point out that it has, like in Kansas, they will counter that we should just give it more time. Paul Ryan knows, just knows, that health care for every American is a certain road to serfdom. Why? He just knows.

 

If Paul Ryan were to write a story, his main character would be devoid of a pensive, wistful state. If that character were to find himself thinking, it would be about how to maximize profits or defeat the baddies. His life story would be a cookie-cutter amalgam of hard work, overcoming adversity, becoming rich and driving into the sunset in a convertible. There would be no underlying theme, no personal struggle, no moral ambivalence.

 

For the foreseeable future Republicans will keep successfully selling their product; they have perfected the trade over the decades and they have a talented salesman. In the meantime, Democrats can ponder about the following narrative: an effete hipster from Brooklyn moves South, buys a gun and becomes a badass.

 

To Fight the Right Make Them React

You can detect a certain pattern in the US civil discourse: a reaction is always faulted more than the action itself.

A black man gets shot? The protesters get the blame.

Kids in school get shot? Their parents receive death threats.

A woman gets raped?  Why destroy a promising young fella future in the aftermath.

Trump said this or that? But Hillary called people deplorable!

Notice a big pattern here: We don’t like victims and we don’t like their reaction to the injustice.

I sense a big PR opportunity for the beleaguered left.

When was the last time you saw an anti-abortion ad? I see one on the billboard along the NJ Turnpike all the time. Now think of the last time you saw a progressive social ad? In my 20 years in the US I never saw one. This is a major tactical oversight of the left. The left is very good at writing articles and arguing on TV, but their efforts are non-existent in the areas and in the format that regular people access every day. Where are all the ‘Overthrow you corporate overlords’ billboards along the highway?

Anyway, this is not a minor shortcoming. The right has perfected this game, and it is not much different from their usual MO: attract the gullible with one message and sell them something else. Good example of such con is pseudo abortion clinics that they call ‘crisis pregnancy centers’ which are actually anti-abortion establishments masquerading as help centers. But a lot of desperate poor women end up there. The bullshit works! Why shouldn’t we employ the same approach? Except we won’t be even selling bullshit.

To keep rust belt workers attention on Trump and GOP can be achieved by placing a few ‘where are the jobs?’ billboards strategically along a highway with a (left-wing) website at the bottom. Those websites should look like a garden variety right-wing site: a flag, an eagle, a Declaration of Independence, etc. Then welcome them with a message that America is not what it used to be anymore. And it’s not like the message doesn’t hold up to reality. Then, praise the time when the unions were strong. Then ponder about what happened to them. Then link the declining wages to the decline of unions. I’m just throwing ideas out there but you get my drift. It doesn’t have to be an explicit socialist message. Then they look around and see Trump’s administration filled with cronies. I mean Trump is doing all the work for us already.

Hell, it doesn’t even have to be a website. It’s all about the visuals. Lack of a link would actually compel people to look it up.

You consider yourself a patriot? Great. We have something for you too. Have an ad designed like Soviet poster art from the 20s: A worker with a hammer and a fat guy in a tux and a top hat and a sack with $$ on it. Place it on a public bus in a Midwestern city, or, hell, Texas, just for shits and giggles. I mean this is a compelling visual that will reach people on a visceral level. I dare Fox News to mock it as Soviet propaganda. It’s gonna totally blow in their face if they’re too loud about it. First, they’re friends with Russia now, second by talking about it they would have show the image, which will draw even more attention. Third, the left will have a ready compelling rebuttal: ‘what, are you saying you’re against the working class?’ And finally, it’s not the 80s anymore, you can’t scare anyone with the word ‘socialism’ anymore.

Or better yet: the ubiquitous ‘Jesus loves you’ poster. Put it out there, but link it to Pope Francis-style message of compassion for the weak, instead of some TV huckster asking for money. That’s gonna be refreshing.

Another idea: treat expansion and preservation of voting rights as the left’s equivalent of NRA. VRA is the new NRA. Be as vocal about it as possible. Again, the advantage here is totally on our side.

It’s not about collecting money, not about building customer base, not about clicks or likes. It’s about spreading the message, or ‘sowing doubt’ to use the well-known tactic of tobacco companies and climate deniers. Let’s feed them their own shit.

All of it might sound absurd, but everything Trump did was absurd. You can’t fight absurd with another Paul Krugman article. It’s time for us to do some crazy shit.

So our goal in the next few years is to offer an action, in a sense a giant trolling exercise, to which the right will be forced to react. When I say action, I don’t mean protests and demonstrations – quite the opposite. Protests are a reaction and are bound to draw ridicule and dismissal. What I mean is the methodical deployment of the 1st amendment that will withstand any challenge in courts. Just like what they do with the 2nd amendment. No amount of civic deaths will do anything to the power of NRA. In the same sense, no amount of outrage on the right to our ‘sickle and hammer’ billboards in public places will be able to do anything, other than make them look like fools. I have to stress: not articles, not graphs and charts, not academic papers, not talking heads analysis. I mean visual displays in public places. And they will overreact, they will be foaming at the mouth. The right made us react to their juvenile behavior for decades. Now let’s make them react.