Fantasy, Myth, Ritual

The Roman world, when the early Christians exploded onto the scene, was a world awash in myth and ritual. When Christians came proclaiming that they had one additional god to which they prayed, it was natural for the Romans at the time to ask exactly which one they had in mind. Jupiter perhaps, or Apollo, or one of the mystery cults like Dionysus, or some other God, like the God of the Persians or of the Egyptians. The Romans were entirely used to new myths coming along, or new sub-cults seeking to elevate one of the deities above the rest. The pagans dealt with this tension, these competing cosmologies, by separating truth from religion, from rituals. The philosophers, lovers of truth, wanted to encounter the divine through reason, and therefore rejected the myths, even as they demanded duty to the God their reason identified.

The paradox of ancient philosophy is that intellectually it destroyed myth, but also tried to legitimize it as religion, as ritual. If you could pay homage to the cult of the emperor it didn’t really matter whether you actually believed that the emperor was divine, and fulfilling your duty to Neptune demanded sacrifices, not anything so prosaic as intellectual assent to his creation myth. This uneasy balance was destroyed by the early Church, who insisted that the God they worshiped was not a God of myth, but Being itself, the God that the philosophers had begun to apprehend. That their God demanded, not sacrifice but belief. That true religion was not empty ritual, not merely a useful custom that must be performed for the sake of edification, but was actually true. As Tertuallian formulated it, “Christ called himself Truth, not Custom”.

This reconciliation between truth and myth was always fraught, as a faith that professed itself as Truth needed to carefully ensure that reason was never entirely unbounded by myth, and once myth could no longer constrain truth, to change the myth to fit the new truth. But there is only so many times that the myth can change, and only so quickly, only so many parts that can be hived off before the whole myth is called into question, and the ritual stands empty once more. A culture that was not prepared to entirely sacrifice the idea that myth and Truth should be at cross purposes created a new myth, which subsumed the old and imbued the traditional rituals with new meaning. The old God of the philosophers was replaced with a new telos, Reason, Liberty, Equality, Progress. But the new gods were as austere, only slightly more atheistic than the pagans found the Christian god. One can provide their assent to mystical Equality, but that mystical union that accompanies the dissolution of self and submersion into a larger whole must come from rituals that involve other personalities, and the God of Equality is not personified. Ritual union, if it is to occur, must be union with a community, not union with an ideal.

The new gods require new myths, but as the new gods are social gods, the new myths no longer need to be true. The new myths are created rather self-consciously to serve as myth, intially by Christians seeking to preserve what wisdom they could by implanting some of the old myths into the new, what JRR Tolkien called Mythopoeia, but the myths that survive are ones that serve the appropriate social function of bringing together a community to engage the ritual and propagate the myth. This can be political, like the myth of class solidarity or natural rights, or the apotheosis of founding fathers into paragons of virtue, like George Washington and the cherry tree, but just as often is not explicitly so. The most popular myths and rituals are cribbed from Germanic pagans, Christmas trees, Easter Eggs, the Easter Bunny, Santa Claus. Liberated from the need to be true, and from the need to appear true, the new myths are instead selected for their role in ritual, until the ritual and myth become entirely severed from any tether to any teleological end, a self-sustaining ritual cosmology, protected from collapse by the complete lack of any expectation of coherence.

One of the functions of ritual is to bridge the gap between the fact of continued inequality in an egalitarian age, and the yearning for unity, of the kind which can only be found amoung equals. It is in this context that the new myths thrive, by creating a world so alien to our experience, that they can be encountered without our baggage. The triumph of the new myths is to make the characters so archetypal, the story so uncomplicated, that a vast swath of people with widely varying backgrounds and experience can immediately identify and lose themselves inside the story unreflectively, providing a common experience that can be shared across lines of gender, class, occupation, generation or race otherwise unavailable. A world where lawyers, doctors and engineers cosplay cheek by jowl with installers and plumbers, retail workers and draughtswomen, lost together in a fantasy of power and triumph which transcends them.

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Even Calls Me By My Name

The “Bastogne” episode of HBO’s Band of Brothers does some heavy lifting when it comes to Christianity’s relationship to society, as tested by the fires of absolute warfare. The setting is December 1944, in Bastogne, Belgium. The 101st Airborne Division is tasked with defending Bastogne from conquest by the German Army in the definitive battle of World War II known as “The Battle of the Bulge,” a counteroffensive launched by Hitler to break the steadily advancing Allied lines.

Here I’ll frame the episode with observations interspersed periodically with commentary.

Spoiler Alert

Instead of a rehearsal of battlefield events, “Bastogne” is a drama overlaying a historical event, complete with a clear plot progression, character development, and with rising and falling action. Everything following this paragraph is a reveal. I encourage you to watch the episode, read this, then re-watch it under the magical influence of the power of suggestion.

Continue reading “Even Calls Me By My Name”

Michael, Elliott’s Older Brother

My older boys watched Steven Spielberg’s E.T. with me. It was an experiment of mine to see how they might appreciate the movie completely out of cultural context, meaning, when I was nine years old, the bicycle silhouetted against the moon was iconic; we lived and breathed E.T. for years, knew all the tropes, memorized most of the dialogue, collected the E.T. stuffed toys, played the terrible Atari video game, and so forth. As far as my investigations could gather, Tom and Jack hadn’t even heard of E.T. They were tabulae rasae.

Therefore, I was surprised by my own reactions. First of all, as a critic, I was surprised by how many stories are being told, and, moreover, how the main story was told so subtly. For a kids’ movie, Spielberg took an enormous risk with symbolism and framing cues (if you know what I mean). In other words, there was no cabbie explaining the plot to the lowest common denominator in the audience, practically ruining the mystery and imagination. Do we have kids’ movies told so subtly nowadays? My impression is no, but I’d love to see something to contrast the thick stream of broadly told kiddie adventure movies loosely tied to minor character attributes such as loyalty, honor, friendship, or whatever tertiary trait we might want to see develop in ourselves or our children.

Secondly, as a real grown-up with kids of my own, I was struck by the spectacular emotional arc. The man-cave got awfully dusty. The movie is about separation, most importantly, about severance of the home and family. “Dad” is a major character in the movie because he’s not there; he ran away to Mexico with Sally, and this fact drives so much of the movie’s symbolism, character development, theme, etc. Elliot mercilessly pushes this point home near the beginning of the film, driving it deep into Mom’s broken heart.

Are we even allowed to tell stories like this anymore? Divorce was practically a brand-new feature of the American middle class, and it was at that time viewed as entirely and selfishly self-centered, especially with children involved, and we hadn’t yet rationalized away the immense pain created, which yields to rage. I have these memories (perhaps I’ve shared elsewhere) of riding skateboard in brand new residential subdivisions, such as were featured in the movie, talking with my friends about our parents’ divorces. The emotional wreckage was a seed planted to blossom later. How does divorce rank lately? Because we are enraptured by solipsisnormativity, crimes against home and family have been marginalized, so I don’t know that E.T. could have been told today.

Michael, Elliott’s older brother, owns the movie. Naturally he is overshadowed by the puppet and the marvelous performance of Henry Thomas as Elliott, but the story hinges on his own yearning for a father figure, someone who might teach him how to be a man. Spielberg cues us to think to this effect now and again, mostly in the numerous scenes of his mustering up manhood in defense of his mother, but later, more subtly, in the care and protection of E.T., the newest, most vulnerable member of the family, perhaps a father figure himself, though cast in weakness. At the end, Michael, a new man, has gathered to himself a vindication that he has reunited the family around his own courage.

E.T. says to him, “Thank you.”

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The Singular of Data

My friend Jeff told me a story in response to a comment I made. I had just mentioned the travails of kid sports, especially since I enrolled my kids in a hockey program which includes one third more ice time than last year’s program. I sighed, “All consuming, you know.”

Jeff leaned back and intoned a story about his brother-in-law, whose boys were raised on the road to become hockey stars, but they were only so close to making it into the professional ranks, and now the anxiety is upon them, as young men in the late teens and early twenties, to acquire a meaningful vocation.

I said, “Can you imagine investing that much money and that much effort (giving away so much of the family life, in effect) toward a goal which has such a small chance of realization?”

Jeff shifted in his chair and recounted the tale of a dear friend of his who was a bona-fide rock star, in his own mind. He did nothing but play his guitar and practice with his band of fellow-travelers, living up the hedonistic ideal, touring Europe and Japan every year. “If you buy him a sandwich, he’ll take it home to his mom’s basement, where he lives, and save half of it for dinner the next day.”

Jeff rarely answers any question  with a propositional statement; he’s all stories, all the time. His experience is wide and varied, so I guess he can. What makes him especially delightful is that he doesn’t tell stories to fill empty space in a conversation, he’s answering a question. One story gives the answer, and then he’s done, no stringing endless tangential episodes ad infinitum.

I saw somewhere recently (and, forgive me, I can’t remember the context) someone mention that the Affordable Care Act might be screwing over huge numbers of people, but a) those numbers are still marginal, and b) the fundamentals of ACA are forged in good policy. I take that to mean, in other words, that as long as the proper number of people are served by this public policy, those who are hurt (ground to dust, more like it) by the same public policy are data. I’m under the impression that that number doesn’t even need to rise to a majority; it just needs to meet some data-triggered threshold which satisfies its designers. All others should be able to conform, no? If not, then selection has taken its course, alas.

It’s not that I’m against science, God forbid; it’s that I’m against its magisterial application in all aspects of the human experience. Public policy, public morality, public religiosity (for lack of a better word), public everything falls under the hegemony of science, as though science were some sort of impersonal absolute extracted by innumerable university studies from an easily-accessible material world. Science, in this manifestation, never serves; it is always master.

Okay, I yield the point: “ground to dust” is too much; there are worse things on this earth than ACA. Nevertheless, I will not yield the larger outcry, namely that this sentiment is a resistance to the notion that in our story-less data-gathering, individuals are being sorted in a grand perversity of science-wielding masters so that they lose their individuality, and thus their ability to serve on another. We don’t learn to serve each other by means of data; we learn by means of experience, which is brought forward through civilization through stories, wherein are the ties of myriad strands of data.

Queen Elizabeth was finally convinced that the monopolies, though they appeared to buy consolidation of her throne, were costing her far more than an open market would. The data had always been there, but the stories hadn’t trickled up to the throne.

The Spooky School

Glasgow at the turn of the 20th Century was bohemian, and if it weren’t for early 19th Century Parisian bohemians, turn of the century Glaswegian culture would define the term. More to the point, Glaswegian culture, by means of Charles Rennie Mackintosh, defines architecture to this very day. If you live in or around a city in Europe or North America which grew up before World War II, you see Charles Rennie Mackintosh everywhere, both in architectural design and in architectural embellishment, particularly the Mackintosh rose. You’ve seen that stylized rose everywhere, so much so that you probably don’t know you’re seeing it.

G112-1MackintoshRoseWhere did it come from, and how did it get such a wide distribution? This design, along with many of his design ideas, exploded into the arts and architecture world, as you might imagine happened if you study this specimen more closely, and perhaps if you study other specimens of the rose which he designed. All of Europe breathed a sigh of relief when that tension was released, and the relationship brought to bear by this explosion continued for twenty years, before Mackintosh succumbed to depression and tongue cancer in 1927.

Architectural design throughout the western world had become sclerotic and quite formalistic, suppressing artistic expression and craftsmanship. There were signs of growth and creativity, with such notable patrons as William Morris, but those who were trying to create new schools of architectural design were confined to certain pockets, quite literally confined, bound by physical walls within which individual creative thinking might be encouraged, but, aside from certain trade magazines, such thinking was all moot. In these terms, the political bound the individual so that he could not express. If he expresses as he is compelled to express from within himself, he can expect to lose his ability to eat.

Nevertheless, the Celtic revival movement was percolating, along with the English Arts and Crafts movement, but there was as yet no spearhead to bring the incredible talents into the larger professional world. Plenty of these artisans, however, were quite aware of their predicament, and they reacted quite predictably: they formed schools within schools.

In 1889, Charles Rennie Mackintosh was introduced to one of these schools within a school while he was working as an assistant for an architectural firm. They were a group of young women attending art school who called themselves the Immortals. Frances and Margaret Macdonald were among this group, and they struck up quite a relationship with Charles and his colleague Herbert McNair. The four of them began to collaborate, becoming known to the outside world as The Four, and the outside world began to take notice.

At first, their work was mocked and ridiculed, but, as they say in sports, “They don’t boo nobodies.” Something about their work had struck a chord and a nerve, so they were encouraged by the response. They received positive response to their work as well, from these other pockets of architectural bohemianism, particularly in Germany and Vienna. Being sensitive artist-types, however, they withdrew into a world of their own making, creating in their expressions a symbolic world whose interpretation is known only to the four of them. Soon, professional journals began to offer professional critique of their work, and they began to win prizes for submissions to open exhibitions. They gained no small notoriety throughout the architectural world as the principal representatives of the Glasgow School.

They relied so heavily on distorted female figures, flowers, and tears that outsiders began to call the Glasgow School the “Spooky School.” The Four had triumphed, but, as a foursome, they had reached their zenith; individual expression was still subverted to the political, albeit only four of them. Moreover, Herbert married Frances and moved away, leaving Charles and Margaret to look at each other, shrug, and marry. Their collaboration was remarkable.

It was the rose, however, Charles’ Glasgow Rose, which he made his own, that revolutionized the architectural world. Mackintosh had found freedom within this little school within a school within a school, developing a language to communicate with them and only them so that only those whom he trusted most could advise, criticize, and encourage him. Within that conclave he gestated, and from that conclave he was born with a brand new rose in hand.

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Part Seen, Imagined Part (1896)

For this post I leaned heavily on my repeated readings of John McKean’s Charles Rennie Mackintosh: Architect, Artist, Icon, and also Fanny Blake’s Essential Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Page numbers by request.

Sorry About Your Friend

Charlie* came by the house today, looking like the bottom of a city garbage tote in the middle of July, if it were hot, which it’s not. I noticed right away that he couldn’t hear what I was saying; I kept having to repeat myself.

Eventually the conversation turned black, concerning a piece of property over which is some familial contention and striving. He said, “I have insurance. I’ll burn the [expletive] thing down before I let them put a For Sale sign in front of it. Ricky would have helped me.”

Ordinarily, Charlie is a nice enough guy. He takes care of his mother, who is 93, and he greets me and my children kindly, even going so far as to fetch the boys frozen popsicles when it’s hot out, which is rarely but is known to happen. The boys are forbidden to go into his house, first, out of prudence, second, because Charlie is known to invite young men into his house, whereupon he offers them drugs, then performs unspeakable acts of a sexual nature upon them while they are passed out. He represents a problem, the outbreak of leprosy in our otherwise holy camp.

“Ricky,” he continued. “Ricky Matt. He was my best friend. He’s laid out at the funeral home today.” Ah.

Ordinarily, Charlie is not fractured drunk and high by noon. His best friend was shot in the head three times by State Police after he pointed a shotgun at them. Ricky and David Sweat had had an argument in a cabin because Ricky had drunk himself into a stupor. The plan had been to make for Canada, and they were nearing the goal. This happens: self-destructive persons cannot fathom success, and they sabotage themselves. So they split up, and they were both captured.

The more pitiful of the two was killed, stone drunk. They could smell the alcohol pouring out with his blood and brains from feet away. They even offered to show Charlie the pictures of his friend. He said to me, “I didn’t want to look at them. They told me there were three holes and lots of brains.”

My neighbor was standing in front of me, suppressing the mourning reflexes with a heavy consumption of alcohol and drugs.

For fifteen years, Ricky and Charlie had written each other, dating back to when Ricky was in Mexico. After Ricky escaped from prison, State Troopers ransacked Charlie’s house (1, 2, 3…8 houses from mine), looking for all those letters and any indication of Ricky’s whereabouts or intentions. Charlie said, “I told them to get lost; they were wasting their time.” He stood there, staring at me, stupefied.

“Sorry about your friend,” I said. I wondered what it must be like to have a best friend’s violent death celebrated on television.

“He would have helped me burn it down. He always looked out for me. I know he went and did some bad things…”


*Charlie is a pseudonym

Boots on the ground, castles in the sky

Raging Against Each Other’s Machines

There’s never been a true war that wasn’t fought between two sets of people who were certain they were in the right. The really dangerous people believe they are doing whatever they are doing solely and only because it is without question the right thing to do. And that is what makes them dangerous.” — Neil Gaiman, American Gods

deer terrorism jobs

The longer I listen to people talk about political issues, the more obvious it appears to me that politics has an ideology problem. In the inimitable words of our Benevolent Robot Overlord, “politics is the mind killer. Daniel Kahneman has demonstrated that our rationality is impaired, with logical deliberation often taking the back seat to emotion. We use emotive reasoning and simple heuristics as our primary modus operandi in punching through the complexity of the real world. Jonathan Haidt finds that intuitions frame our fundamental moral evaluations and understanding of the way the world ought to be, and are therefore the cognitive source for our basic political alignments. The combination of bounded rationality and intuitive reasoning creates a cocktail of moralistic, emotive thinking that limits our intellectual scope and creates social division.

Our feelings group-select us into tribes that share similar moral foundations, building identity (“I’m a conservative, and I stand for x”) but leaving us close minded to people who don’t speak our moral language. The resulting process from working from ideals makes us conceive of what is always a messy exercise in figuring out how to live with one another and coordinate social life, into a contest for dominance over institutions and encourages divisiveness. Politics breeds both abstract moralism and tribal thinking, encouraging groupish vindictiveness.

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Thus, we get the common stories found in abundance all over social media. Our comrades on the political left imagine “The Right” as composed of corporate shills, religious bigots, and warmongers who hate racial and sexual minorities, the poor, and the environment, and want the world dominated by greedy businessmen, religious fanatics and militaristic imperialism. Conversely many right-wing (com)patriots will castigate “The Left” as a bunch of communist hippies who are soft on criminals, terrorists and dictators, want to instigate economic policy a la the Soviet Union, and support damaging deviant social behavior alongside multicultural relativism that undermines fundamental traditional conventions and  sanctity in a radical effort to end civilization. That contrarian army of individualists, the libertarians, attack both left and right as little more than fascistic, totalitarian apologists for the coercive boot heels of the near-criminal state-industrial complex: everyone is culpable, from drug wars to drone strikes. By contrast, left & right frame libertarians as selfish greed-preachers who don’t care about the good of society. Lefties think that they are heartless corporate apologists that happen to like the gays, while right wingers portray them as pot smoking, prostitute frequenting anarcho-crazies that have good ideas about tax reform.

double facepalm

It’s a basic part of the system. Public goods are by definition an all encompassing form of service provision, with a one-size-fits-all result. Winning a seat in political life is zero-sum: if your guy wins, mine loses. The production of policy is produced and influenced by the messy aggregation of votes that function more strongly as reaffirmations of personal identity than they do the sober analysis of social science. Voters are incentivized towards increasing their irrationality as a systemic feature.  If we compare the kind of low information, motivated reasoning engaged in by most voters, with the sort of meta-cognitive capacity that would be required for choosing good policy outcomes, we are inclined to the conclusion that democracy is a farce to the extent that the goal of the system is to achieve beneficial outcomes via popular consensus.

As a social equilibrium, we are encouraged to engage in the kind of signalling that prizes maintaining group affiliation and values affirmation over deliberative thought. In other words, politics isn’t about policy. A significant amount of social activism isn’t about caring, but about showing that you care. Representationalism rules. “We” stand for all the good things. Rather than acting in ways that really affect systemic incentives and create positive change, people tend to engage in “folk activism”, transmitting values to reaffirm our group identity, and playing games of status to put themselves higher in the hierarchy of value. These activities feed the furnace of ideology, and frequently result in damaging initiatives. If we think about activism as a market, the demand for beneficial activism is far lower than activism that is bought by people interested in tribalism and mood affiliation, which leads to an automatic growth in supply for tribalist activism, and so on.

Dr. Nonideal Theory: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Tradeoffs

”A lady said, “What’s your solution?” I said, “There are no solutions. There are only trade-offs.” She said, “The people demand solutions!” –Thomas Sowell

How might we confront this problem? There appear to be two potential avenues. The first is institutional. By breaking down politics into smaller, more diverse, less coercive units, we can make fewer things items of social conflict. Public policy becomes a little less zero sum. Institutional choice and localizing alternatives realigns some of the system away from the problems that plague centralized institutions. Option two is intellectual. Since I tend to identify as a libertarianish type, there is a great temptation to simply say that getting politics out of things will solve all of the problems. Intellectual honesty commands me to recognize that this is a consistent issue in thinking about all social organization, not easily solvable even if the whole world became followers of Robert Nozick. So the question becomes individualized: how can we weigh off our different mental investments? In contrast with the absolutism I’ve been describing, this is about ‘trying on concepts for size’, not about declaring x to be superior to y. However, given the systemic nature of the problem, radical change appears to be required.

A plausible solution is to reconfigure ideology towards framing the world through the lenses of our utopia, rather than forcing it to conform to the stuff in our heads. Given how complicated the world is, forcing absolute conformity to our ideals is usually a terrible idea. Don’t immanentize that freaking eschaton, and avoid at all costs the thickets of the nirvana jungle. Should we wander in, be ever wary of the Beast of Perfection. If we want to achieve some measure of success, compromise is key, and a significantly consequentialist attitude is king.

Consider the debate over the minimum wage. An ideologically pure version of this discussion would be, on the socialist left, that pro-market right wingers are stooges for business who don’t care about the exploited wages of the poor, and that We Lefties Stand For Rights of Labour Against Capital. From the free market right, that the left is ignoring the economics of price controls, and furthermore Hates Freedom, because they are ignoring the right to free contracting between sovereign adults.

Suppose that instead, we built the conversation in terms of moral tradeoffs. The discussion could look something like this: Social democrats and many liberal egalitarians would say that it is morally concerning and unfair to workers to be compensated at low levels, and so the state should artificially raise the wage of the bottom quartile of the income distribution to compensate for potential employer exploitation (markets could be monopsonistic, such that a significant percentage of workers are being paid below their true marginal product). They would also claim that it is a positive expansion of freedom for those who can earn the new wage, since people with more money have greater purchasing power. They would concede that this will lessen open contracting capacity (since it restricts the mix of benefits vs. wages), as well as create unemployment (because of the law of demand) but would prefer the tradeoff of a slightly higher wage for a certain aggregate of workers in situations with potentially disproportionate levels of bargaining power between labour & capital.

Libertarians and many conservatives would say that contracts ought to be freely negotiated, and that it is a form of unfair treatment and a restriction of liberty to declare the terms and tradeoffs of negotiable agreement (mix of benefits, wages, and/or taking employment) especially for the least well of members of society. They would emphasize that the minimum wage creates unemployment for people with a marginal product below the level at which the wage is set, restricting their freedom to contract and treating that section of the workforce unfairly, cutting down on their positive freedom and purchasing power. They would concede that lowering or getting rid of the minimum wage makes wages and hiring entirely dependent on competitive pressures ensuring that people are valued according to marginal product, but prefer that more workers have a fair chance at employment, as well as the freedom to bargain for a wider mix of wages and benefits.

Note that both sides are using similar but slightly different kinds of moral reasoning. They both think that moral respect for individuals requires that institutions be arranged in such a way as to make sure that people are treated correctly. Right wingers are appealing to ideas about freedom of choice to bargain for and contract employment, and fairness in being able to do so on an equal basis. Left wingers are appealing to ideas about fairness to be guaranteed certain wages, and freedom of choice in expanding the purchasing power of certain workers. None of these are entirely mutually exclusive, but they do involve an emphasis of one over the other.

Free market types want people to be free and equal, but would prefer we do so by building the structure of social organization so that workers themselves are the primary agents of their own well being and choices, and would rather arrange the interaction of private institutions to ensure that that autonomy and fair treatment will be maintained. A simple version of their value ranking would be: 1] Freedom; 2] Equality. Socialist types have a similar mix, but are more concerned about the possibilities of exploitation, and distrust absolute respect for free choice and fair treatment absent interference from above by state mechanisms. A simple version of their ranking would be: 1] Equality; 2] Freedom.

Notice that this isn’t just a classification of the banners under which we ride our noble steeds for Justice, our hair streaming in the wind whilst we thrust the lances of Truth. What the right is saying is that they opt for a distinct set of moral tradeoffs. They would prefer that private actors have higher degrees of control over their domain, with the imperfections that come from ensuring compensation only from competitive pressures, in order to allow actors to make more individual choices about their dealings with one another, and prevent what they view as an unfair form of paternalistic management that raises costs and restricts contracts. The left would prefer that we attempt to guarantee an absolute level of market wages for a certain aggregate of workers, because they would rather ensure an absolute footing of bargaining power for at least a certain percentage of people, and be guaranteed that specific benefits are assured for those workers.

As David Schmidtz points out, although justice is about giving people what they are due, what that involves is both contextually bounded and in correspondence with a number of different moral conceptions, such as desert, equality, or need. These intuitions track unevenly onto real world institutions, and may combine together in complicated ways. This means that moral theories are more like maps of a neighbourhood, and less like airtight syllogisms of logic. Respect for people (or nonhuman animals) as being morally important means that the systems people work within are required to deal with a number of different moral issues that carry different amounts of weight in the calculus about what sort of policy we ought to favour. Serious political theory is required to taking certain rankings of values, build specific ones as primary, and mold them into a (relatively) optimum institutional set. If anything is problematic about the common kinds of political debates we seem to have, I think it is that they deny the inherent trade offs taking place, and the difficulty of imposing simple heuristics and intuitions onto a world which is far more complex than those processes will allow for.

Whither ideology?

Ideology is a virus.” ― Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash

”There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”                                                               –David Foster Wallace, This Is Water

A shift in attitudes is required. Rather than having arguments on the basis of one overarching intuition, the social equilibrium would change towards building and signalling a multi-intuitional mix, and making the ranking of intuitions a high status activity.

On micro level, we need a little more postmodernism in the mix. By this, I’m not suggesting walking around with a black beret (kick-ass as that sounds) and a worn copy of one of the most incomprehensible books ever, declaring social constructs all over the place. I mean that relativizing positions and being more skeptical about simple, one-directional narratives is ultimately the only way to start edging, like primeval amoeba, towards the evolutionary apex that is the multicelled organism of critical thinking and epistemic humility. Discovery processes and emergent systems can allow us to more easily figure out what is valuable through evolutionary processes of competitive experimentation in ideas. This might lead us to better understanding of the different  items of value found in different political perspectives. Intuitions are useful, but limited. Evolution distributes a randomized and complex mix of emotional leanings and neural-cognitive filters across the population, with different feelings as pieces of the ongoing puzzle we call the achievement of justice.

Stylistically, this requires realigning social identity towards a state of fluidity. It entails a shift in the use of ideology from dogma to conceptual framework. Ultimately, more of what we want can be accomplished by adopting some form of consequentialist ethics, in which the goal of the system is built around maximizing specific goods, directed and bound by rules. The tradeoff game mandates compromising on the terrain of the world, and applying things appropriately.

In the words of the Great Literary Bandana God himself, this is water. Ideology is a byproduct of our attempt to interpret and analyze reality using the evolved cognitive tools with which we are equipped. We can’t think completely without it, but we can recognize that this is the baseline that we work from. Given this recognition, a positive role for ideology might be understood as a set of framing mechanisms– the water requires a submersible for navigation through the murkiness of the deep. Any kind of thinking about social organization requires making some kind of model of ranked moral priorities, about which parties can reasonably differ. The obvious inherent difficulty is that maintaining this version of belief, as opposed to a set of axiomatic propositions approaching near-religious dogma, goes against the grain of our instincts towards over moralizing.

We want to say that our top ranking explains the whole picture, when in reality, it’s just a weighted first variable in our moral calculator. We need to do a better job at not only listening to the other side of an argument and grokking that point of view, but also at understanding the complex relationships between conceiving of ‘’The Good’’ and thinking through seriously the way things pan out in the world, regardless of where you end up on the political spectrum. The axiom here is: prize ideas, before ideology. As an informal social equilibrium (excluding the possibility of a grand mass revelation of The True Nature of Reality) we should be shifting towards making values ranking a high status activity in a world where complexity reigns and we continue to fumble around, trying to figure out what it all means.