The Result of University Cost-Cutting Measures . . .

the Plausible Deniability Blog takes up where the PostModernVillage blog left off. While you'll see many of the same names here, PDB allows its writers and editors a space away from financial strum und drang that torpedoed the PMV blog.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Why There's Still a Tea Party but Not an Occupy

by EW Wilder

1. Money.

The most obvious reason should be addressed first: the Tea Party has the backing of a couple of billionaires. This helps it survive, but as Occupy itself demonstrated, a lot can be accomplished with very little. The money is part of why the Tea Party still exists, but it it's far from the only reason.

2. Occupy has no electoral strategy. The Tea Party does.

It's as if no one from Occupy paid attention in high school civics class. The government in the US is not a top-down affair, and though Tea Party people complain endlessly that it is, they act very differently. We actually have a mixed system of local and federal control, a system in which the individual parts interact.

The Tea Party has what is sometimes called a “ground game.” This involves getting voters to vote for you. It involves meeting people. It involves fielding candidates. It involves knocking on doors. Occupy people are good at organizing rallies, but most voters tend to view that sort of thing as silly at best and threatening at worst. Occupy people are good at snarky Facebook memes. Tea Party people are good at winning.

Electoral strategy involves understanding that the county commission or the city council has more impact on the everyday lives of people than what happens in Washington, DC. Local government negotiates tax incentives for businesses, fills potholes, and makes sure the housing authority is doing its job. This is the level at which the tone of government is set. The utter absence of Occupy at this level means that the Tea Part message is the only one that gets heard. The voices of local health coalitions, food banks, and nonprofit service agencies sound like the “special interests” the Tea Party loves to vilify when there's no countervailing voice articulating why these things are important and deserve government backing.

State legislatures are important because, among other things, they determine federal congressional districts. We complain when these districts are gerrymandered, but, like it or not, this is the way things work. By failing to pay any attention to state legislatures, Occupy assured that Tea Party types would draw congressional districts. This made certain that Tea Party candidates would always win, as congressional districts would be “safe” for them for the foreseeable future.

As we have seen in Kansas, state and local officials also have tremendous power over voting regulations, and Occupy's seeming blindness to state and local government has allowed voter ID laws to keep people who agree with the Occupy message away from the polls.

This is sad because state and local offices are relatively cheap and easy to win. Since Occupy is great at organizing via social media, it should have representatives all over the place, but it does not.

3. Occupy decided to be about making a scene and not about making change.

As much as we'd love to think so, elections are not decided by Facebook “likes” or retweets. They're not won by high-quality bongo playing in Zuccotti Park. And while Occupy probably made the candidacies of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren possible, it did nothing to make Occupy a political force across the nation.

We are rightfully pissed off at Wall Street, but investment bankers are not, on the whole, capable of being shamed. Going to the physical location of the problem made for great theater, but it made for terrible politics. Contrary to what some in the Occupy movement seem to think, there are places in the country that are not Manhattan and not Cupertino. Even if Occupy had influenced politics in New York (it didn't much as Chuck Schumer is still office), that would have captured only a few congressional districts, giving Occupy only a smattering of votes among 435.

What can be done about it.

Had Occupy, instead, focused on winning over voters in Butte, Montana, it might have produced a senator or two, and a senator can filibuster. Had Occupiers stayed awake in civics, they would have understood this and focused a bit more deeply on the so-called “red” states. After all, our system of government actually favors the states, not the population on the whole. The fact that the majority of people agree with Occupy on policy makes little difference politically: he who controls Congress does matter.

Where Occupy got the idea that it could foment real change by focusing on New York City I'll never know—perhaps it's just an assumption that flyover states are inherently conservative and therefore not worth the effort. And while it's true there were small, local bands of Occupy activists all over the place, the bulk of Occupy energy went into making its point to people who simply don't care and structurally don't have to.

Instead, Occupy should have focused on crafting its message to appeal to the people who are actually being hurt by income inequality, rising health care costs, skyrocketing tuition, and declining levels of public service. These people distinctly do not work on Wall Street; they work at McDonald's and Tractor Supply, at small manufacturing firms and as unpaid interns, as adjuncts and delivery drivers and inventory stockers at Sam's. These are people who maybe once were middle class, and the Tea Party has a big head start in winning them over by making liberals look like dirty hippies and uncaring elites. These people may vote against their own interests, but they vote for people who are “like them,” at least in the sense of projecting a sensible, hard-working image. The fact that most prominent Tea Party politicians have never actually had real jobs and are mainly career politicians is, again, immaterial; they are not people who outwardly look like they don't work at all.

The Tea Partiers and those who fund them are not wise, but they are clever, and they know how the government they purport to hate really works. It's high time those who supported Occupy start boning up on basic civics. A distaste for retail politics will simply guarantee Tea Party control from now on.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Mental Illness, Mass Shootings, and What We Get Wrong

Part of the reason our public discussion of public mass shootings in the US tends to devolve into arguments that we should just “Keep the guns away from the crazies!” is that we have a poor collective understanding of what mental illness actually is.

“Mental illness” is, technically speaking, psychiatric diagnosis, and psychiatric diagnosis is, in this part of the world, determined by the DSM-5 The DSM-5 is a diagnostic manual created by the American Psychiatric Association, and the diagnoses therein are based on descriptions of symptoms that tend to cluster together. 

Whether a person has these symptoms is determined by self-report (often on a simple form) and observed behavior. 

There is no blood test to determine mental illness, and the brain imaging studies that have been done so far aren’t definitive. If that seems surprising, consider that describing Picasso’s Guernica in terms of it being made of certain tones of oil paint on canvas won’t help you understand the Spanish Civil War, fascism, or cubism, for that matter, nor will it help you understand Picasso’s peculiar genius.
There is some preliminary association between these observed behaviors and reported states with certain genetic profiles, but there’s little understanding of the epigenetics involved (why people with the same genetic profile can have very different psychological experiences).  

And none of this stuff matches exactly with what people actually experience when they’re suffering psychologically or going through extreme states of mind.

In other words, mental illness is descriptive, no prescriptive; the idea that we can just screen somebody and divine the next ticking time bomb is a convenient Hollywood plot device, not reality.

There’s little daylight between the notion that people “just snap” and “start shooting” and the idea of demon possession. What’s compelling about this Vanderbilt report is that it begins to see what leads to public mass shootings as something that’s probably complex, that is, like so many human behaviors, a cultural and “biopsychosocial” experience, not a simplistic bit of myth. 

Sunday, July 12, 2015

On Being in Trouble

by Lael Ewy

1.0. Being in trouble—and the feeling of being in trouble, with its flush of the cheeks and stomach's continual fall—presupposes the existence of an authority, real or imagined, to be in trouble with.

1.1. An authority has his hooks in you, even before you know you're snared.

2.0. Grown-ups are just as prone to feeling like they're in trouble as kids are, which

2.1. tells us that being in trouble is not a necessary part of being a child, but rather it's the first step of becoming an adult:

2.2. the realization that one's power is limited, her place in the hierarchy not as lofty as she thought.

2.3. This leads to a few different reactions. Among them are acceptance and rejection.

2.4. Rejection of one's place in the hierarchy can be further subdivided: rebellion against the hierarchy and a grinding need to continually further one's place within it.

2.4.1. These reactions are not mutually exclusive within any given individual, but one generally outweighs the other.

2.5. From the first subdivision we gather rejects and weirdos, artists and originals. From the latter we gather stockbrokers and social climbers, politicians and revolutionaries.

3.0. These latter types, unable to make sense of their existential positions through personal or creative expression, are all trying to defeat the same thing: the constant, sinking feeling that they are in trouble.

3.1. This feeling is similar to the feeling of responsibility, but it floats free, exhilarating, yet unattached to compassion or love, and one runs across it unbidden, at moments as arbitrary and pernicious as the projection of power:

3.2. the agent's probing stare, the buzz of an alarm clock, white letters on a field of red.

3.3. If a politician paints himself as an outlaw, with war paint and feathers, he is a liar, as much as a revolutionary who claims to be bringing The New Law;

3.4. they are both headed for the comfort of the same old throne, the place from which they can be the trouble they always see in the world.

4.0. Power, then, is the fundamental problem of being in trouble, the internalization of shame, the call to forever destroy one's own dignity before it is publicly quartered.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Advice to Graduates, Delivered to the Class of 2015, Purewater University Graduation Ceremony, May 10, 2015

by TS DeHaviland

As you begin the grown-up part of your life journey, as you enter careers, as you become the adults we haven't had the heart to tell you you do not want to be, you might be asking yourself “What do I need to do to become successful?”

This is an important question an era in which it is increasingly difficult to “make it” in the traditionally American sense.

That is why I, as a successful person, have taken it upon myself to tell you.

First, major in business.

I realize that it might be too late for some of you to do this. But there's nothing stopping you from marching right over to the admissions office immediately after this ceremony and re-enrolling. That would also have the advantage of saving you from paying off your student loans for a few more years, and it would finally get your fathers off your backs for choosing a path in which dead languages play a prominent role.

Besides, you're already six-figures in debt, so what's another hundred-thousand to a future job-creator?

If you do this, or if you have already done this, you'll notice that, as a business major, you're no more prepared to deal with the vagaries of the real world than anyone else. Perhaps less so.

But key people in key organizations will think you're more prepared, and, frankly, that's all that really matters.

You see, competence, intelligence, and quality of work are highly over-rated by the earnest seeker of success. In fact, attention to detail is a sure sign of someone who lacks leadership qualities. Actually caring about what you do merely communicates that you want to do menial and low-paying things that involve paying attention to the details, not to manage and execute.

It is, therefore, vital that you develop the proper disdain for the actual work while always speaking vaguely of “the big picture” and “the 30,000 foot view,” and “the view from the balcony.” In this way, you can telegraph your leadership abilities by assuming the ground the Big Guys already occupy.

Next, it's important to know rich people and schmooze with them.

Schmoozing is different than friendship. I cannot stress that enough. The people with whom you are schmoozing are not your friends, though your success depends upon spending a lot of time with them, particularly at the events they think are important—typically vapid and annoying parties of varying vapid and annoying themes.

If you're not already rich, they will never fully accept you, and you will never be able to marry their women. And, trust me, if you're not already rich, you don't want their women anyway, unless you always want to be considered “the help” by your in-laws.

Schmoozing is also called “networking” by those who want to make it seem less mercenary than it is. Do not believe it: it's schmoozing. It's a sophisticated form of sucking up: as such, it is one of the most important life skills you'll ever develop.

So laugh at their awful, shallow, sometimes racist jokes. Agree with their wackadoodle political philosophies. Tell the female host how wonderful she looks, even though her latest plastic surgery makes her look like a largemouth bass.

There is nothing more effective for getting what you want from rich people than catering to their perceived notions of their own place in the world.

The next thing you must do is to sell out almost immediately. The moment you see an opportunity to signal to the blue bloods your willingness to give up to them whatever glorious thing it is you've created, do it. It doesn't matter if you've discovered a cure for cancer and Big Pharma wants to buy it just to shut it down so they can keep selling their existing lines of drugs. It doesn't matter if it's a new energy source and a military contractor wants to buy it so they can wage better war. If big money takes an interest, sell. Clinging to impractical ideas like integrity or the desire to create a better world is a certain way to invite ruin.

The ancillary rule is to not just sell out early but to sell out often. The man who stands on principle stands alone. And freezing.

As you sell out, though, it's very important to cover you bases. Get everything in writing and run it by a good contracts lawyer. Make sure you get yours and that the cash-flow clause is airtight when you walk away.

Remember: those rich acquaintances are going to screw you every chance they get, and you have to protect yourself. And don't worry about offending them: they'll admire you more for having had the intelligence and audacity to screw them over first.

Another reason not to feel bad about doing screwing them over is that their kind of greed isn't the reason the rich are rotten; it's merely a symptom of it.

The reason they're rotten is honest: it's in how they are raised.

You see, all of this advice I'm giving you is what rich people are taught from the cradle to do. It's second-nature to them, but as the last graduating class of people made up mostly of the middle class, you-all have to learn this stuff, and it's best not learned the hard way.

At this point, you might be asking “TS, this sounds like a miserable way to live! Constantly compromising, sucking up to people I hate, always angling for the way to maximize for me and not care for anyone else.”

And, of course, you'd be right.

But the premise, and the promise, of higher education these days is about being successful, not about being happy, content, or fulfilled.

If you want those things, you could use your prodigious intelligence and cultured understanding to solve real problems or help people in need. You could use your creativity and wit to produce great works of art to edify humanity and alleviate suffering through the compassion they engender. You could use your brilliant scientific minds to advance what we know about the world and make us a more efficient and sustainable species.

But doing these things is a great way to become poor, to struggle with irrelevancy and frustration, to constantly face the possibility that all of your hard work is going towards a lost cause.

And even then, there's no guarantee such a life will make you happy, content, or fulfilled. But it's got a much better chance of doing so than the life spent chasing what we cynically call success.

Now, a few of you accidentally took logic, and you might think you smell a false dilemma. “TS,” you might say, “there's got to be a third way, some synthesis of fulfillment and success, some way to do good while still doing well.”

Fifty or sixty years ago that may have been true.

But the contrast between success and fulfillment has become, in recent times, considerably more stark: the efforts of the wealthy few have, quite purposefully, stymied the work of the compassionate mass. In our own greed, our own desire to be like those whose collections of stuff they've taught us covet, we have allowed the rich to set the terms for what it means to be successful.

If you're OK with not having what they have, if you're OK with being a small voice of caring in a chorus of greed, then you might begin, in some modest way, to change the tune.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Duality, Purity, and the Conservative Mind

by EW Wilder

Part of what most liberals can't conceptualize about conservatives is the degree to which ideas of purity, success, goodness, “winning,” and so forth are deeply informed in the conservative mind by their opposites. For example, we can't have success for everyone because success can only exist with the presence of failure. Failure defines success. It's not just OK to have losers in society; it's necessary so that success can exist. Because conservative definitions of success often depend upon concepts of goodness, holiness, hard work, and thrift, these concepts become meaningless without failure. To take away success, to denigrate it, or “punish” it in any way is not merely to change the material status of the top 400 or 400-thousand people; it is to attack the entire moral universe itself, the great chain of who deserves what.

So when conservatives appear to have hyperbolic or delusional responses to what liberals think are modest asks—higher taxes on the rich, moderate controls on guns, less draconian approaches to immigration—they're really responding out of a sense of existential crisis, crisis that moves beyond individual concerns and into the cosmic realm of the proper order of things as conservatives have come to understand it.

Because many conservatives see the world as a set of binary opposites, any philosophy that challenges those opposites is simply inconceivable, and any worldview that appears to reverse them—such as Marxism—is seen as fundamentally immoral. We cannot know good, goes this way of thinking, without distinctly contrasting it with evil—and the more striking the contrast, the better. The latter can be seen dramatically in the different reactions to two series of action movies: the Rambo films, in which there is a very clear delineation between good and evil, were lionized by not just conservatives, but just about all Americans, during the Reagan era. The Harry Potter series, on the other hand, in which knowing good and evil is the fundamental problem, and often fraught, has been accused by conservatives of everything from promoting homosexuality to teaching witchcraft. Another series in which an occult force, in fact The Force, is central to the story has not been so accused: the Star Wars series. For as much as the “Dark Side” is appealing to central characters in the series, its delineations are clear, and one's affiliations to it are traditionally conservative: you are tempted to its corrupting power and fall to it through a weakness of will, and you draw away from it via a conversion experience, often at the end of an otherwise evil life.

It's informative that the most common form of damnation conservatives have leveled over the past 50 years about worldviews they oppose is that they espouse “moral relativism.” Relativistic worldviews are seen to collapse dualities, but the conservative mind can't see that within relativistic worldviews, the dualities still exist; they're just no longer on firm conceptual ground and may shift or change. This creates a universe in which such ideas as good and evil, success and failure, purity and impurity, cannot necessarily be immediately known; the moral axes upon which the conservative mind relies for its operation in the world thereby become uncertain, and the self in comparison to them cannot be known. Thus we can define both Christian and atheistic reactions against Islam as fundamentally conservative: unable to see that violent and tolerant formulations of the faith are relative to one's relationship to the Koran, both conservative Christians and doctrinaire atheists condemn Islam itself.

Perhaps the most damaging way of thinking, then, from a conservative point of view is one that rejects even relativism as being inordinately dualistic and that collapses the cherished dichotomies into a single continuum of understanding and experience.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

On Bullshit

by Mary Chino Cherry

In a famous moment from The Blues Brothers, Elwood Blues breaks down a vital concept for his brother Jake. Jake has just accused Elwood of lying to him while Jake was imprisoned, and Elwood responds “I just took the liberty of bullshitting you a little . . . . It wasn't lies. It was bullshit.”

Americans are, of all variations of the genus homo, perhaps the most prone to—or adept at—bullshitting as a way of life.

Alexis de Tocqueville notes that, even in the 1830s, the people of these United States were constantly on the make, uninterested in philosophy for its own sake, but fascinated in all that might make material differences in their circumstances. Tocqueville's insinuation that this was a flaw is, perhaps, prototypically French, but the fact that he devotes considerable real estate in Democracy in America to exploring it implies the opposite. Indeed, no American would seriously criticize another for wanting to do better for himself, even if that American was already rich. “Excessively wealthy” must, then, be considered the default synonym for “successful,” “happy,” “satisfied,” or any other conceivable positive status.

That we Americans want philosophy to bend toward bettering ourselves by fattening our wallets may get us into trouble, but, importantly, it's a good benchmark by which our devotion to bullshit may be measured. Rather than let Christian traditions about the sacraments of giving and living simply get in the way, we have re-created the faith as the “prosperity gospel” without a single stammer or blush. Put simply, Americans have forged Christ Hisself in the image of the charlatan, the adman, the salesman, the motivational speaker, the bullshit artist.

Americans fall for marketing strategies, bald-faced hype, and clever ads not because we're gullible, exactly, but because these things are different passages from the same American scripture. We recognize in those who speak them the words of Our One True Lord. To not fall for the come-on, to call the salesman on his bullshit, is something just shy of blasphemy; doing so places the bullshit-caller-on-er squarely in the category of pessimist, destroyer of the American Dream. In a broad-based transvaluation of values, the American bullshitter has become the American plain-dealer. He is fair because he is playing the game as, it is understood, it ought to be played: an attempt to gain advantage is the only admirable quality in the continual tournament of self-interest. Woe be to she who walks away or refuses to play the bullshit game.

It is this ethos that allows the right-wing—which correctly does represent “traditional” American values—to denigrate all “bleeding hearts” and feminists, “do-gooders” and regulators alike.

There is little more sobering to the spirit of bullshitting than she who is unafraid to point out its obvious and overpowering stench.

Friday, January 2, 2015

On Ceremony and Civilization

We've largely done away with ceremony in the Western World, and while there's a lot of merit in that, our ingrained need for ritualistic behavior bubbles up in other ways, often along the lines of what we used to ceremonialize: superstition, numerology, cleansing, purification, and the like. When someone washes her hands 100 times a day or flips the lights off and on 50 times before entering a room, some primal needs are being met, and often for the same reasons preindustrial cultures might dance the rain into existence or cleanse a new hut with sacred smoke: we all suffer basic anxieties over situations that are outside of our control.

That ceremonial and ritualistic behaviors are also means to make sense of the disturbing absurdities of everyday existence gets little attention in the psychological literature, and that hints at what truly ails us: we've placed sense-making squarely in the category of psychological disease because to acknowledge its true nature is to tacitly admit that our culture needs to be made sense of, that the basic absurdities, contradictions, and injustices of contemporary society are, in fact, those things, and our culture is not as well-ordered and normal as is generally assumed.

The same culture that justifies execution because murder is wrong, that promotes the violent death of unarmed minority men because a law officer feels threatened by the color of his skin, that blames poor people for being born poor, and rewards the destruction of the world economy by giving multi-million dollar bonuses to the destroyers is a culture that requires that no one question any of these injustices. It must have its assumptions shared by a preponderance of the population in order to function. Those who openly question or those who subsume social ills into psychological or bodily distress must, by the logic of keeping the system alive, be deemed sick, criminal, dangerous, and so on.

By this reckoning, acts of madness and acts of ritualistic behavior outside of the accepted ceremonies can also be considered acts of subversion.

This notion is reinforced when we look at which ceremonies we have decided to retain. Rather than relieving grief, restoring hope, or creating meaning, contemporary ceremonies are often occasions for reinforcing the existing social order. Even seemingly innocuous ceremonies such as graduations, formal weddings, and awards presentations follow similar patterns. The most powerful members of the representative organizations take literal power positions within the gathering area. They are placed high on podiums and stages, visually representing the organizational structure and dominating the scene. These powerful people control the sequence of events, bestowing “honors” on the peonage assembled below them. These “honors” are generally for those who exemplify obedience to the status quo. In order to accept the honor, you must also implicitly accept the power structure that bestows it.

During funeral services, the reach of the power structure is projected into a hypothetical afterlife: you die as you live, but now, in perpetuity, as a vassal of the system to which you bowed your entire dry and grinding life. The pastor or the priest is seldom present in order to celebrate a life or as someone who helps make sense of death; rather his role is as a reminder of He to whom your petty soul belongs, his pronouncements on the rightness of the order he represents. Thus we hear, along with the traditional bromides, such phrases as “God has His reasons,” but these reasons are rarely enumerated; it's an act of hubris to question what those reasons could be, much less whether nor not those reasons are valid or even exist. Into the breach of this mystery stands the pastor, whose earthly presence is sufficient reason for you to know—and accept—your place in the Holy Order: below and with head bowed and heart cowed.

And so ceremonies that those unburdened by civilization might have used as ways of bringing people together or as ways to help solidify an individual's importance to the group we corrupt into rituals of subjugation.