Timothy Snyder and Gore Vidal on the American Imperial (“Tyrannical”) Presidency

Timothy Snyder, in the following video, notes that the Presidency of Trump has the earmarks of tyranny.

I agree with what he says, except for his praise of the Constitution. He thinks that the Constitution was designed to prevent tyranny through a division of powers. That may well have been the intention. But the Constitution is flawed in many respects.

Among these flaws, the most egregious one is in having created the office of a President, elected by an electoral college and mass democracy. A better system would have been to have a prime minister nominated and elected by Congress, and even better one would have been a system with two co-equal prime-ministers, nominated by two parties with each minister having veto power over the other, as was the case in ancient Roman Republic with their two consuls. But a still better system would have been to imitate Switzerland and have four political parties nominate a seven-member executive council and cabinet, which would then be confirmed by Congress.

The present system allows persons of low caliber to be elected as Presidents. Worse, once elected Presidents have enormous powers in nominating cabinet posts and federal judges, and they also have great discretionary powers as military commanders-in-chief to declare martial law, and send troops to quell uprisings. For example, the so-called American Civil War, was not a war against a foreign aggressor, but was taken to be a domestic rebellion, which did not require a Congressional declaration of war, but was entirely within the powers of the President. And President Lincoln decided to send troops to the south to squash this “rebellious secession” of the South — a mopping up operation, as it may be called, which cost over 600,000 lives.

Timothy Snyder does not seem to appreciate the fact that the exercise of power which Trump is exhibiting is granted to him by the Constitution, and the mechanism of impeachment is too weak to curtail his abuse of these powers.

The Constitution, as it exists, is geared to making sure that the rich are in control. How so? Well, given mass democracy it will be the rich who will predominate in Congress because of election expenditures. And, let’s not forget, the Senate, as originally established, was to be selected by State legislatures, which themselves would be controlled by the rich, and would elect Senators who were friends of the rich. Furthermore, the Senators were to serve six years which would outlast any temporary political upheavals.

Anyway, several years ago, Gore Vidal gave a very insightful analysis of the existing Imperial Presidency:

Collapse!

I know that it is very difficult to predict with any accuracy about what will happen to humans — there are too many factors to consider. Nonetheless, there are some generalizations which can be made. One is that the sun will burn out is some 4 to 5 billion years. Another is that given finite resources, infinite growth is impossible. It is this last generalization which has been at the horizon of my thinking — made explicit by Thomas Malthus, who in 1789 published an essay noting that resources (specifically food) grow arithmetically, while populations grow exponentially. The conclusion seemed obvious to me: there is a limit to growth. And a report by that name, “The Limits to Growth” was published in 1973, using a computer to take into account various factors. [Here is a documentary about this project:

The criticism was that the predictions failed. This is true. But the claim that there is a limit to growth with finite resources seems to me to be a truism, as does Paul Ehrich’s “The Population Bomb” (1968). Again, the criticism of these books was not that there is a population problem, but a disagreement about the severity of it, and what will take care of this problem.

We are now living in the midst of an ecological crisis, as well as with other possible global collapses. This impending sense of collapse has been analyzed and proclaimed by a host of people. One of them is Jared Diamond in his book “Collapse” (2005). Below is his 2003 TED talk on this subject:

Recently, I came across the compelling documentary film “Prophets of Doom” (2011):

It includes the following six “prophets”:

  • Michael Ruppert (1951-2014): “Confronting Collapse,” “Crossing the Rubicon”
  • Nathan Hagens
  • John Cronin: “The Riverkeepers”
  • James Howard Kunstler: “The Long Emergency,” “Home From Nowhere”
  • Hugo De Garis
  • Robert Gleason: “End of Days”

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    ‘Our House Is Still on Fire,’ Warns Greta Thunberg at Davos, January 21, 2020

  • Propaganda and Rationality

    Susan Stebbing in Chapter 7 of Thinking to Some Purpose (1939) made two important distinctions. The first was to disambiguate the concept of propaganda in the neutral sense of propagating information, of making it widely available; from the disparaging sense of propagating false information (what nowadays is sometimes referred to as “fake” news).

    The other distinction which she wished to stress was between what she stipulated as “conviction” and “persuasion.” She stipulated that conviction was to be the result of reasonable arguments, whereas persuasion was the result by all other means.

    In view of the fact — which Stebbing admitted — that “conviction” and “persuasion” are often used synonymously, it would be clearer to simply prefix the adjective “rational” to these terms. We way then speak of rational persuasion (or conviction), irrational persuasion (or conviction), and non-rational persuasion (or conviction).

    Why have these distinctions? The idea of non-rational is to apply to the cognitive life of animals (and we are animals, after all), which includes instinct, association, and conditioning. These cognitive modes are operative as passions — including beliefs, which in humans are shaped linguistically. And there must be some kind of Weltanshauung which people acquire while being raised and living in some linguistic culture. Call it a pre-reflective ideology, if you like. It has also been called an “inherited conglomerate.” In my dissertation on Wilfrid Sellars, I called it an Alpha World, as distinct from a transformed or successor Beta World.

    I am reminded here of George Santayana’s idea of “animal faith” and the idea that we must start in “medias res.” I am also reminded of Alfred North Whitehead’s point in “Science and the Modern World,” that each age has a set of presuppositions.

    Now, the culture in which you find yourself may be riddled with pseudo-scientific myths, slogans, epigrams, and proverbs — which are false. And the task is to free — at least — yourself from this Platonic cave of bullshit. At the same time there are various bullshitters keeping you in (cognitive) chains.

    Bullshitters — intentionally or non-intentionally — use non-rational means to persuade (convince). And — worse — through cognitive dissonance you may even be persuaded to accept that which is irrational. It is irrational to accept a contradiction.

    Escape from the cave is through rationalism. I agree with Karl Popper’s description of rationalism in “The Open Society and Its Enemies,” Chapter 24:

    Since the terms ‘reason’ and ‘rationalism’ are vague, it will be necessary to explain roughly the way in which they are used here. First, they are used in a wide sense; they are used to cover not only intellectual activity but also observation and experiment. It is necessary to keep this remark in mind, since ‘reason’ and ‘rationalism’ are often used in a different and more narrow sense, in opposition not to ‘irrationalism’ but to ‘empiricism’; if used in this way, rationalism extols intelligence above observation and experiment, and might therefore be better described as ‘intellectualism’. But when I speak here of ‘rationalism’, I use the word always in a sense which includes ‘empiricism’ as well as ‘intellectualism’; just as science makes use of experiments as well as of thought. Secondly, I use the word ‘rationalism’ in order to indicate, roughly, an attitude that seeks to solve as many problems as possible by an appeal to reason, i.e. to clear thought and experience, rather than by an appeal to emotions and passions. This explanation, of course, is not very satisfactory, since all terms such as ‘reason’ or ‘passion’ are vague; we do not possess ‘reason’ or ‘passions’ in the sense in which we possess certain physical organs, for example, brains or a heart, or in the sense in which we possess certain ‘faculties’, for example, the power of speaking, or of gnashing our teeth. In order therefore to be a little more precise, it may be better to explain rationalism in terms of practical attitudes or behaviour. We could then say that rationalism is an attitude of readiness to listen to critical arguments and to learn from experience. It is fundamentally an attitude of admitting that ‘I may be wrong and you may be right, and by an effort, we may get nearer to the truth’. It is an attitude which does not lightly give up hope that by such means as argument and careful observation, people may reach some kind of agreement on many problems of importance; and that, even where their demands and their interests clash, it is often possible to argue about the various demands and proposals, and to reach — perhaps by arbitration — a compromise which, because of its equity, is acceptable to most, if not to all. In short, the rationalist attitude, or, as I may perhaps label it, the ‘attitude of reasonableness’, is very similar to the scientific attitude, to the belief that in the search for truth we need co-operation, and that, with the help of argument, we can in time attain something like objectivity.

    It is of some interest to analyse this resemblance between this attitude of reasonableness and that of science more fully. In the last chapter, I tried to explain the social aspect of scientific method with the help of the fiction of a scientific Robinson Crusoe. An exactly analogous consideration can show the social character of reasonableness, as opposed to intellectual gifts, or cleverness. Reason, like language, can be said to be a product of social life. A Robinson Crusoe (marooned in early childhood) might be clever enough to master many difficult situations; but he would invent neither language nor the art of argumentation. Admittedly, we often argue with ourselves; but we are accustomed to do so only because we have learned to argue with others, and because we have learned in this way that the argument counts, rather than the person arguing. (This last consideration cannot, of course, tip the scales when we argue with ourselves.) Thus we can say that we owe our reason, like our language, to intercourse with other men.

    Karl Popper on a possible “abstract society” and our current practice of cellphone snubbing (i.e., phubbing).

    WASHINGTON, DC – OCTOBER 13: Young adults split their time between the televisied debate and Twitter on their smart phones during a debate watch party at the Local 16 bar and restaurant October 13, 2015 in Washington, DC. Democratic candidates Jim Webb, Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, Martin O’Malley and Lincoln Chafee squared off on the CNN-hosted debate in Las Vegas. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

    Below is a passage from Karl Popper’s “The Open Society and Its Enemies” (1945), Chapter 10: “The Open Society and Its Enemies,” Sect. I. Compare what Popper says here with the articles at the bottom of this posting.

    “As a consequence of its loss of organic character, an open society may become, by degrees, what I should like to term an ‘abstract society’. It may, to a considerable extent, lose the character of a concrete or real group of men, or of a system of such real groups. This point which has been rarely understood may be explained by way of an exaggeration. We could conceive of a society in which men practically never meet face to face — in which all business is conducted by individuals in isolation who communicate by typed letters or by telegrams, and who go about in closed motor-cars. (Artificial insemination would allow even propagation without a personal element.) Such a fictitious society might be called a ‘completely abstract or depersonalized society’. Now the interesting point is that our modern society resembles in many of its aspects such a completely abstract society. Although we do not always drive alone in closed motor cars (but meet face to face thousands of men walking past us in the street) the result is very nearly the same as if we did — we do not establish as a rule any personal relation with our fellow-pedestrians. Similarly, membership of a trade union may mean no more than the possession of a membership card and the payment of a contribution to an unknown secretary. There are many people living in a modern society who have no, or extremely few, intimate personal contacts, who live in anonymity and isolation, and consequently in unhappiness. For although society has become abstract, the biological make-up of man has not changed much; men have social needs which they cannot satisfy in an abstract society.

    Of course, our picture is even in this form highly exaggerated. There never will be or can be a completely abstract or even a predominantly abstract society — no more than a completely rational or even a predominantly rational society. Men still form real groups and enter into real social contacts of all kinds, and try to satisfy their emotional social needs as well as they can. But most of the social groups of a modern open society (with the exception of some lucky family groups) are poor substitutes, since they do not provide for a common life. And many of them do not have any function in the life of the society at large.

    Another way in which the picture is exaggerated is that it does not, so far, contain any of the gains made — only the losses. But there are gains. Personal relationships of a new kind can arise where they can be freely entered into, instead of being determined by the accidents of birth; and with this, a new individualism arises. Similarly, spiritual bonds can play a major role where the biological or physical bonds are weakened; etc. However this may be, our example, I hope, will have made plain what is meant by a more abstract society in contradistinction to a more concrete or real social group; and it will have made it clear that our modern open societies function largely by way of abstract relations, such as exchange or co-operation. (It is the analysis of these abstract relations with which modern social theory, such as economic theory, is mainly concerned. This point has not been understood by many sociologists, such as Durkheim, who never gave up the dogmatic belief that society must be analysed in terms of real social groups.)

    In the light of what has been said, it will be clear that the transition from the closed to the open society can be described as one of the deepest revolutions through which mankind has passed. Owing to what we have described as the biological character of the closed society, this transition must be felt deeply indeed. Thus when we say that our Western civilization derives from the Greeks, we ought to realize what it means. It means that the Greeks started for us that great revolution which, it seems, is still in its beginning — the transition from the closed to the open society.”

    *******

    Julie Beck, Ignoring People for Phones Is the New Normal: A study looks at how phone snubbing—“phubbing”—becomes socially acceptable. The Atlantic, June 14, 2016.

    Varoth Chotpitayasunondh and Karen M. Douglas, “How “phubbing” becomes the norm: The antecedents and consequences of snubbing via smartphone,” Computers in Human Behavior, Volume 63, October 2016, Pages 9-18.

    An addition to Karl Popper’s critique of psychologism

    I am going to comment on Chapter 14 of Popper’s “Open Society and Its Enemies,” titled “The Autonomy of Sociology.”

    The main purpose of this chapter is to criticize the position called “psychologism.” This position is attributed to John Stuart Mill, which claims that human actions and institutions can be explained by a psychology of human nature. Popper’s position is that they cannot; that social phenomena are sui generis, i.e., autonomous. I will not rehearse his arguments, with which I agree, but introduce my own.

    Consider the case of feral children, who are by assumption normal, except for lacking a human language. Watch the following video below about such children:

    The video asks whether feral children are “human.” In one sense, of course, biologically, feral children are human beings. The question is really whether they are “persons,” or “human” in the way we are. By my criterion, a person is anything with which one can make agreements. And agreements are possible only with a language. So, the origin of society as we have it, is possible only with language. Subtract language from a person, and you get a feral human being.

    One interest in studying feral children is to understand under what conditions learning a language is possible. And the hypothesis is that there is a critical period of early life when learning a language is possible — something like the phenomenon of imprinting. And when that window of opportunity is passed, learning a language does not occur.

    The mystery is how languages originate. And the only clear fact is that language is a social phenomenon. Other than the behavior of a feral child, all other actions of human beings are imbued with language and human institutions. Thus, if Descartes were more reflective, he would have realized that his skepticism was possible only in language; specifically, the statement “I think therefore I am” is in language. He could have concluded “I think therefore I am using a language.”

    Popper concludes — and I agree — that what passes for psychology [of a language using human] is imbued with sociology.

    Critique of Karl Popper’s “The Open Society and Its Enemies”

    I keep reading Karl Popper’s book “The Open Society and Its Enemies” (1945), and trying to understand his stand on various issues.

    There is much in the views of Karl Popper with which I agree, but there are some fundamental things with which I disagree.

    Let me start with the things I agree with. I agree with his views on Plato and Marx. He thinks of Plato as a totalitarian, and of Marx as admirable in his descriptions and analyses of capitalism of his day, but as totally wrong in his prophesies. I also agree with him on the need of governments to take a “negative utilitarian” stance — meaning that governments should strive to minimize harm, rather than to try to promote a nebulous good or happiness. I also agree with him on the need to be rational, and the need for an open society which allows for free speech (including the right of assembly and protest). I was also impressed by his description of an “abstract” society — very insightful and prophetic.

    After these agreements, you may wonder what possibly would I disagree with. There are several things: his stance on definitions and “essences,” and, what appears to me to be a disparaging view of nationalism. But here I will not discuss these. The fundamental disagreement which I have with Popper is over his non-critical view of liberal democracy. In other words he approves of mass democracy, with a parliament and a president or a prime minister. And he seems to be nonchalant about the fact that dictators such as Mussolini and Hitler gained power in liberal democracies. Well, it is understandable when some dictator grabs power through a revolution or a military coup. But for liberal democracies to sprout dictators — to use Popper’s favorite method of modus tollens — constitutes a refutation of liberal democracy. But he does not see this. And he does not seem to have the imagination to envision other hypotheses about an acceptable form of democracy. The most glaring omission is that Popper never mentions Switzerland, which is, in my opinion, the best form of liberal mass democracy. The difference between Switzerland and all other forms of liberal democracy is that Switzerland does not place executive power into the hands of one individual, but disperses it among seven co-equal individuals. Furthermore, Popper seems to have no conception of anarchism. He could have cited the anarchism of Nestor Makhno in Ukraine during the Russian Civil War (1918-21), or the anarchism during the Spanish Civil War and Revolution (1936-9). But, he does not.

    Another point. He tries to distinguish “utopian engineering” from “piecemeal engineering.” Put otherwise, he is expressing a faith in social democracy as contrasted with revolution. I find that this distinction is not clear, for the simple reason, that a single piece of legislation could constitute a revolution. For example, according to Crane Brinton, the French Revolution occurred when Louis XVI agreed to the demands of the Third Estate that all three Estates meet together as the National Assembly. Another piece of social engineering — the passing of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which freed the slaves, was a revolution. And I can envision that the following other amendments to the U.S. Constitution which would also constitute revolutions. Introducing a Swiss style Federal Council, or an agrarian amendment giving each citizen the right to a chunk of free subsistence land — would both be revolutions.

    The problem with this approach to “piecemeal engineering” revolutions is that it will not work, because of the structure of liberal democracies. They are structurally controlled by the rich, and the rich will never legislate such revolutionary amendments.

    Ukraine: A Bad Case of Democratic Dictatorship

    As you may or may not know from my previous postings that I regard placing political power in the hands of one person — be it a president or a prime minister — a form of democratic dictatorship. It is democratic simply because the population has elected these rulers directly or through their representatives. As an alternative, the Swiss do not have either a president or a prime minister, but a Federal Council of seven co-equal individuals.

    This unfortunate state of affairs of one-man rule is offset in federal states, i.e., countries which are divided into regions with locally elected governors and mayors, with locally managed police, prosecutors, and courts — as is, for example, the case in the United States. So, in such countries the central dictatorship is limited.

    Not so in Ukraine. Ukraine is not federated, nor, for that matter, even properly decentralized — except for mayors and local legislative councils. The president is elected by the whole country. And he makes five top-level appointments: the prime minister, the head of the army, the prosecutor general, the minister of internal affairs (police), and the minister of foreign affairs.
    (The other minsters are appointed by the prime minister.) The president also has some influence on the appointment and dismissal of judges.

    If any of these appointees does not do the will of the President, they are dismissed. So, do you think they do the President’s will? Specifically, there is central (i.e., President’s) control of whether to prosecute or not, and there is central control of when or where to send the police or army.

    The current President of Ukraine is Volodymyr Zelensky, a professional comic with no political experience. The parliament is totally controlled by the President’s political party. He is a Russian-speaker, who is rapidly trying to improve his command of the Ukrainian language. His sympathies are clearly with Russian speakers. This was evident for years in his televised comedy show which was done in Russian.

    Because of the ongoing conflict with Russia in the Donbass region, the President’s will is here especially critical. So, what is his strategy in face of Russian aggression? Any country with a patriotic leader would welcome volunteer troops to fight against an agressor. But not this President. He wants to disperse volunteer combatants, and leave the fighting to the regular army. Furthermore, he is prosecuting volunteer fighters — calling them “terrorists.” And what is he doing with the regular army? He is withdrawing it from the front, and letting the aggressors advance by taking more territory.

    I call this “treason,” but then what can you expect from a Russian democratically elected dictator?