Mensch tracht, und Gott lacht

Sunday, December 20, 2020

A Decent Respect

A person close to me has a taste for modern art, especially non-representational art. The kind of art that is all vague shapes and colors. The kind that defies description. I can relate them to you no better than could my nine-year-old: red and black paint on a really big canvas, is all I can say of one; red and yellow and green and black paint, with scattered blobs piled up with a trowel, and part of a boot-print in one corner, is my best stab at another. 
There was a time I scoffed at this kind of thing as non-art. Whatever could be said for these works – interior decor, perhaps, or an alternative to wallpaper, maybe – they were not art. Anyone who thought they were art was deluded. There was no point in discussing the matter. The very point of view was beneath argument. 

As I said, this is a person close to me, so I did my scoffing in silence, for the sake of friendship. But over time, to my surprise, I began to wonder that there was, perhaps, something more to the works than mere paint and boot-prints and trowel-marks. They began to capture my interest, and to spark my imagination, and to make me think about unexpected things. This non-art began, in a word, to act upon me in the ways that only art can. I was forced to conclude it was pointless to dismiss them as non-art. They may fall short of great art, or even of good art. But these evaluations would have to be made on the merits. Mere scoffing would not do. 

I realized I had come to the same conclusion as the critic Roger Kimball, who, responding to Ayn Rand's rigid aesthetic, confessed that he, too, did not like much modern art, but that instead of getting mired in formal objections over whether a work "qualifies as art," we should move on to the real question of whether it is any good. The charmless but rigorous aesthetic of a Rand, who rejected such work as non-art, "just doesn't get us anywhere," said Kimball. "What we need," he concluded, "is not definitional ostracism but informed and robust criticism." 
Definitional ostracism. That is a phrase that comes to mind often when taking in today's political news. It doesn't get us anywhere in art, and it doesn't get us anywhere in politics, either.
Take the 2020 presidential election, for example, whose results indicate the Democratic candidate, Joe Biden, narrowly defeated the Republican incumbent, Donald Trump. The elections results are a kind of modern art: little where it was meant to be, much where it was meant not to be. Bellwether states and counties pointing opposite the presumptive winner. Strange announcements that vote counts would be stopped in the middle of the night, with Republican watchers exited from the facilities, followed by vote dumps and a seeming reversal of count trends. Major changes to mail-in voting norms in many states short months before the election, including allowing votes cast potentially after election day, many of which changes were subject to truncated or still pending legal challenges. The Democratic nominee underperforming his 2016 predecessor in every urban county in the country, yet outperforming the much more historically popular Barack Obama by some 15 million votes. Strong Republican electoral wins overall. Much recent – as in, up to at least 2019 – bipartisan criticism of the reliability of voting equipment, suddenly becoming unipartisan. And a history – a very long history – of grassroots voter fraud throughout the country (as in, for instance, over 300,000 dead people on voter rolls, and the number of putative registered voters exceeding actual eligible voting-age citizens in 352 counties across 29 states – not by a little, but by a lot: about 1.8 million total). Indeed many precincts reported historic turnout, some over 100%, a result counter-indicated both by the low enthusiasm of Biden's base, and by mathematics. And then there is the influence of social media giants who heavily support Biden, and the election-season media blackout on negative Biden press, which is now being confirmed only after the election. And against all this, a result featuring exceptionally close margins, in several states measuring in the low tens of thousands. 

A great electoral heist? Or the cleanest election ever? Both of these extremes are mere scoffing or boasting. None of these circumstances, either alone or together, self-evidently establish targeted voter fraud. But they do arouse a desire for explanation. And the ongoing lack of explanation impairs, in the person with normal functioning curiosity, the formation of belief that the outcome was on the level. 

Yet where explanation is looked for, only scoffing is to be found. When I expressed my desire for an explanation of Biden's apparent win in light of these extraordinary circumstances, a friend of mine, a neocon – or a neoliberal; who can tell the difference these days? – offered no explanation at hand. Instead, he took to the internet. To search for an explanation? No: he Amazoned me a roll of tin foil, and instructions to make a hat. It is said if you want to make a man laugh, you have to tell him a joke. Did it not occur to my friend that if you want to make a man understand you have to tell him an explanation? 

To man's search for understanding, the standard political discourse only tells jokes, jokes which produce neither understanding nor laughter.
A more chilling and mirthless response to American's curiosity about the 2020 election came from the largest information service in the world. In December, Google announced it will censor any inquiry on its YouTube platform. So if you are dissatisfied with the quality of explanation offered by approved news readers, do not bother searching out other explanations. Definitional ostracism is official policy of the world's primary conduit of information. 
You are hereby warned: Curiosity is not licit.

But this rule is exceptionally new. Those curious about the surprising outcomes of previous elections were not starved of explanation as they are today. When Democrats made accusations in 2016 of election interference, they were not, as are Republican accusations today, rejected out of hand. And when they continued making them in 2017, Americans still forbore from dismissing them outright. When they persisted in 2018, and in 2019, I must say I began to feel Democrats had begun to impose rather excessively on our credulity. And when their evidence was officially found wanting, I confess I searched, without success, for some expression of gratitude for their fellow Americans' years of patient attention. 

But I maintain that we Americans did the right thing: Our countrymen, though of profoundly different opinions, sincerely believed in their cause. We could not do less than to consider their cause on the merits. If a man "was such a rogue," said Samuel Johnson, "as to make up his mind upon a case without hearing it, he should not have been such a fool as to tell it." As it proved, the Democrats' cause proved to be bosh. But no one could have told them so without first having heard them out. We might have hoped they would make their case in less time than the three years they indulged. But a mind is another country, and who can say how long will be the travels through it. And to their credit, Democrats subjected their claims to the crucible of investigation, evidence, and trial, where it was found disproved, publicly and finally. Together, we reached closure. Consensus, it is to be hoped, will follow.

Just as four years ago, today a similarly large share of Americans have concerns about election interference. They are concerned that corporations leveraged censorship and algorithms to support a certain candidate. They are concerned about strange circumstances surrounding mailed ballots, and about strange circumstances in the vote counting election night. 

Nearly half of likely voters share these concerns. So they are justified in expecting the same respect they afforded their political opposites for nearly four years: that their concerns be taken up, investigated, and considered on their merits.

But that, it appears, is not to be. To the questions about the peculiarities of Biden's putative electoral win, all that is offered is definitional ostracism. Media bias: that is deemed a conspiracy theory. Censorship of conservative voices by social media? that's a conspiracy theory. Election interference? conspiracy theory. Voter fraud? conspiracy theory. Rand's art criticism was charmless, but at least it was rigorous. Political fact checkers have all of her charm, but fall rather short of her rigor. 

That is a shame. We are a country. The men and women of a country are meant to share things in common. Sharing things is not always easy. In fact, it is often very hard. Whether it is art or politics or religion or any of the other facets of life we share together, the project is to seek to understand others, even when – especially when – we do not agree with them. We wield only very lightly the ability to separate truth from nonsense. A mere eighth-of-an-inch is all that keeps the angels from tumbling out of the heavens onto the addled heads of forward-lookers and right-thinkers far below. 

Some humility is in order. How can any of us know what is true and what is nonsense? There is truth, and there is falsehood. But we can know the difference only seldom, and with much difficulty. And perhaps after committing many errors. The most common and most tragic failing of man is a too sure sense that he is right. You cannot dictate common sense by giving its Twitter account a blue check. 

Americans do not want in their politics the endless series of declarations given them by today's "fact check" journalism. Ordinary men, Thucydides observed, usually manage public affairs better than their more gifted fellows. Benjamin Franklin similarly noted that good governance depends not only upon the wisdom and integrity of its governors, but also "on the general opinion of the goodness of the Government." There is wisdom in the opinion of ordinary citizens. 

But even if Americans' opinion is wrong, it deserves a hearing, not mere scoffing. After Donald Trump won the Republican nomination in 2016, Jonah Goldberg took aim at Trump's ideas as nothing but empty populism, comparing him to the early 20th century populist William Jennings Bryan. Goldberg scoffed at Bryan who, when confronted with the question of whether to add silver to support the currency to support the farmers of his state, admitted he knew nothing about the issue. Yet Bryan had gone on to advocate the policy merely on the grounds it was supported by the opinion of the ordinary people of his state: “The people of Nebraska are for free silver and I am for free silver. I will look up the arguments later.”

Like Goldberg, I too scoffed at this. Of what relevance, I wanted to know, was the opinion of yokels to the subtleties of governance? 

But I was wrong. To this day, I freely admit I still do not know whether the "free silver" position was good policy or bad policy. All I know is that it was a question that ordinary people wanted argued. Now, ordinary people are not entitled always to have their way. But they are entitled to have their say. Even a criminal is entitled to an advocate. Americans deserve no less. If Bryan had not been willing to argue for his people's interests, he would have chosen the wrong vocation: he should not have entered politics, but the military. 
Populism and free speech and free exchange of opinions, though less elegant than the approach of, say, a North Korea, can claim credit for bringing about consensus among Americans. Late in the 20th century, polls showed that most American blacks believed OJ Simpson was innocent of murdering his wife, compared with overall American opinion squarely believing he was guilty. But Americans did not censure or censor the opinions of those who disagreed. To the contrary, mainstream Americans accepted race populists like Al Sharpton, who advocate for race-based outcomes, as respectable political voices who deserve a say in our political discourse. Yet by elevating voices that many find grossly antagonistic to their own views, American opinion did not diverge. To the contrary, it came together: 20 years later, the opinion of blacks on OJ's guilt had moved decidedly closer to overall opinion. 

Airing different opinions promotes consensus. Squelching opinions promotes division. 

This principle bore out in the great American religious experiment, too. The Congregational churches of New England were deeply antagonistic toward Unitarians until at least the early 1800s. But Congregationalists were deeply individualistic and dialectical, who in the end found themselves more hostile to hierarchical thinking than to Unitarians. So by the end of that century, Unitarians were not only accepted in New England but became well-respected members of society. 

Had Google been around to censor and censure in the 1800s, Unitarians might still be as ostracized today as are Trump supporters. Google is at once more religious, and less broad-minded, than 19th century Congregationalists.

The modern politician, however, like the modern journalist, believes ordinary Americans have no right to advocacy or even to information that might support an opinion opposite their own.True progress, if anyone were really interested, is not in building things, but in building understanding. But those who say they want progress do not seem in the slightest bit interested in understanding those who stand in their way. They talk a good game about understanding, but in practice the understanding only flows one direction. 
These politicians, and journalists, after prompting by Rush Limbaugh, now openly wonder if Americans have an appetite to secede, to break apart our country. Might these politicians and journalists have considered whether they have already broken us apart? Elites are deeply interested in understanding the lives of strange and violent foreigners (even when the reporting is false), but they have no interest in understanding the concerns of ordinary citizens in their own country. Secession, at this point, would be a mere formality: America's leadership has already seceded from its people. They are in a loveless marriage. All that remains is the paperwork. 
Mark Steyn says he had been worried there would be a civil war, but that now he worries there won't be. Which I take to mean, there must be either reconciliation, or divorce – but not neither. Definitional ostracism is a desperate feint at neither. It may get us nowhere, but I suspect it will get us someplace much worse than that. 


Michael Brazier said...

The American political class will not allow allegations that the 2020 election was stolen, not because they think the allegations are false, but because they fear they are true. They do not consider that suppressing all investigation of the allegations is the one course of action most likely to persuade the voters, not just that they're true, but that the political class is complicit in the fraud, and means to rule regardless of what the public thinks.

An elite with moral courage would face their fears, take the allegations seriously, and try to refute them - and promise to respond appropriately if that were impossible. The American political class, alas, lacks moral courage.

Tim Kowal said...

Agreed, Mr. Brazier. That I may not hear testimony given to the U.S. Senate only heightens its importance.

Censorship testifies against the censor.

Tom Van Dyke said...

"Good music is music that I want to hear. Bad music is music I don't want to hear."--Fran Lebowitz

This is also a working definition for truth in the 21st century.

Shelgel said...

Our political "elite" and Republicans in particular are always interested in the next fight, that will be where they make their stand, today we must capitulate for the "good of the country". But that next damn they will stand.

Daniel Menes said...

Mr. Brazier, I think you are close, but to me, you don't quite hit the nail on the head. I know many of these people, as I'm sure do you, the sort of Very Smart People who now scoff at any questioning of this election's results (after having spent four years challenging the last election's results). My evaluation of them is a bit different from yours.

I agree that fear is big for them. I think it is not so much fear that Trump won--an outcome that is so outside of their faith that they cannot even entertain it. I think they fear two things.

First, each of them lives in existential terror that he or she will someday be found to have had a "wrong" opinion--one that is later struck down as a heresy against conventional Liberal opinion. They have a nightmare in which they confidently declare to the class that the answer is "broccoli," only to have the teacher look at them with a mix of disappointment and scorn, and say, "no, cauliflower." Or worse, "broccoli is racist."

Thus they cling to the dogma of the moment like a shipwrecked passenger clinging to a piece of driftwood. Of course they know that the dogma will always be defined as "whatever benefits the Democratic party." No conspiracy was needed, no coordinating message had to go out, to tell them that, in the event the count showed Biden with more votes, it would be heresy to entertain the possibility of election fraud.

Of course, I think we all know that, had Trump somehow prevailed in the initial vote count, their positions today would be subtly different. By which I mean, "diametrically opposite."

A person who honestly believes that it is a mortal sin to be wrong is someone who will never be able to think about anything. Which is why I say they don't believe the allegations about the election are either "true" or "false." "True" and "false" aren't words whose meanings they really understand.

I suspect, however, that they find dogma an unsatisfying substitute for thought. They sense that they are missing something. That dissatisfaction only drives them more stridently into the arms of dogma. This, then is the second great fear that motivates the Very Smart People of the left: each and every one of them is terrified that their peers will figure out that they are faking it.

Inkling said...

Quote ".... instead of getting mired in formal objections over whether a work "qualifies as art," we should move on to the real question of whether it is any good."

I've got a handy criteria for judging the "good" of both abstract and realistic art. If it looks like something I could do, then it isn't art.