Category Archives: Ethics

Trouble, divergence, alignment, diversity

In my field of human centered design, it is understood that before any group of people can collaborate effectively on anything, they must first align on the problem and then align on the solution.

What does this mean? Aligning on a problem means to share a conception of the problem — to think about it in roughly the same way. It is important to note here that until a problem is conceived, it is not even a problem — it is a troublesome situation.

And troublesome situations have the potential to be problematized in divergent ways implying diverging paths to a solutions. More often than not, groups confronting troublesome situations problematize the trouble in divergent ways, compounding the trouble, because now stubborn, troublesome people appear to block the way to a solution.

This happens for at least three big reasons.

Big Reason Number One is personality. Individual persons with different temperaments, sensibilities and capabilities understand and perceive the world differently in both subtle and dramatic ways, and notice different aspect of situations.

Big Reason Number Two is discipline. When people from different backgrounds confront a troublesome situation, they tend to notice very different features of the problem. Specifically, the notice symptoms of problems they specialize in solving. Different disciplines conceive problems in different and incompatible ways, and this is one factor that causes departmental strife in organizations.

Big Reason Number Three is the lived experience of incomplete information. Divergence of understanding is exacerbated by incomplete data. Given a smattering of facts, our habitual way of understandings (the combo of personality and expertise) fills in data gaps to complete the picture and perceive a gestalt truth. And we all have access to different smatterings and experience the smatterings in different sequences. Our early impressions condition our later ones. Being humans, a species with a need to form understandings, who prefer misunderstanding to an absence of understanding (perplexity), we immediately begin noticing whatever reinforces that sense, and tune out what threatens it. So the specific drib-and-drab sequence of data can play a role in shaping our impressions. The earliest dribs and drabs have “first mover advantage” in gestalt formation.

These three big reasons are not even exhaustive. It’s no wonder organizations are full divergent perspectives and controversy. (Contra– “against” + -versus “turned”). Generally, these circumstantial impressions and expert diagnoses of troublesome situations are not entirely wrong. Some are likely truer than others, but it is hard to determine which is truer than which. And it is somewhere between possible and likely that none are true enough for the purposes of solving the problem. As a matter of method, we designers assume none are right enough. (And if it does turn out that a preexisting truth turns out to be true enough, now we can support that truth with data and align the organization to it.)

Our job as design researchers is to go out and investigate real-life examples of the troublesome situation and expose ourselves to the profusion of data that only real life itself can offer. We see what emerges as important when we allow people to show us their situations and teach i\us how it seems to them.

This gives us a new, relevant conception of the problem rooted in the people we intend to serve with our design solutions.

Once an organization shares a common conception of the problem, they are better able to conceive solutions that they can align around.

And further evaluative research — getting feedback on prototypes of candidate solutions — allows teams to align around solutions that people consistently respond to favorably.

Aligned implementation teams can collaborate effectively on working out the solution in detail.

So, as I hope you can see, the designer’s task is largely a political one of cultivating alignment through collaborative research, modeling, ideation and craft.

I am unable to believe that this is not generally a better way to live.

When I am at my best, I conduct my life in a designerly way in accordance with my designerly faith.

My praxic taste

Reading Fritz Perls, I’m struck by some common principles between Gestalt Therapy and ethnomethodology and Actor-Network Theory (ANT), two of my favorite (closely associated) flavors of sociology. What interests me about the similarities is that it indicates something about my own intellectual taste, or maybe my metaphysical orientation.

These ideas fill my heart with Yes! and inspire my to underline passages and draw big stars out in the margin. I am not even sure these are two distinct principles, but rather a single two-in one principle.

  1. Do not start with a pre-existing interpretive schema, but instead, follow the phenomenon wherever it takes you. Allow the interpretation to follow from the following. The interpretive schema is what is most in question, and it is the destination of the research, not the point of departure.
  2. Do not impose your own interpretation on the subject matter, but allow the subjects involved in it to teach you their way of interpreting what is happening. Assume interpretive competence and respect it. The researcher does not know better.

The highest principle of social learning:

Follow the subject matter and allow its truth to emerge.

And another is like it:

Respect your subjects as interpretive equals.

Wrongheaded anti-Islamophobia

Post-9/11, I was on the side of the anti-Islamophobes.

My argument was, and still is, that peaceful and liberal Muslims should not be forced into the same category with violent, theocratic, totalitarian Islamists.

Islamophobes ignorantly and unfairly suspected all Muslims of being covert violent, theocratic, totalitarian Islamists. because the category “Muslim” was more immediately real to them than actual, living Muslims in all their variety.

Essentially, I was making a “not all Muslims” argument. I suppose some bigot could have invented a “not all Muslims” meme and ridiculed me for being a decent liberal who points out the inadequacies of stereotypes, but that kind of nonsense only works on fellow bigots.

But to condemn openly violent, theocratic, totalitarian Islamists is not Islamophobia. Far from it. When we condemn them, we do not condemn them as Muslims, but as violent, theocratic, totalitarians.

And to excuse or celebrate openly violent, theocratic, totalitarian Islamists is not anti-Islamophobia. It is betraying liberalism 1) by supporting its enemies, and 2) by indulging in eubigotry, which is every bit as dehumanizing as dysbigotry.

In bigotry — whether negative dysbigotry or positive eubigotry — we reduce a person to our own mental category and our beliefs about what categorization means, and allow our own understanding to eclipse who they are and how they understand themselves. We do not afford them the dignity of transcendent reality. We approach them in the attitude of I-It as objects, not in the attitude of I-Thou as fellow subjects capable of joining us in first-person plural.

Misnorms abound

A few times I’ve watched right-wing friends take a sudden and obsessive interest in a scientific controversy.

Two big ones are climate change and covid. They decide to do their own research, and dive into the literature. By “dive”, I mean they will read one papers or maybe two, and massive heaps of skeptical articles about those papers.

Then, having done their own research, they will confidently announce that this body of work is irregular, suspicious, and clearly unscientific.

My response to them is something like this: “How do you know what is scientific? To what are you comparing this work? Can you show me some examples of work you’ve examined that does conform to your understanding of scientific norms?” Invariably, the answer is “no” but never confessed directly but, rather thickly coated in longwinded, convoluted, hydra head-sprouting reasons why it doesn’t matter.

If I were a better person, I’d leave it there. But I am not a better person, and I turn nasty and sarcastic, and make accusations: “You have absolutely no interest at all in science, and you never followed any scientific program until this one, which is an object of political obsession. So why are you so confident that you even know what is normal in science?” … “You’re a classic case of Dunning-Kruger.”

And please understand, I don’t make this attack merely skeptically. I have a much better idea than they do what science looks like close-up. For one thing, I’ve studied norms of scientific practice. And, further, when I was young I worked in a laboratory. While I was there I made the same mistake my right-wing friends make. My laboratory was obviously the sketchiest, most reckless laboratory in the world. But after reading up on the matter, it turns out it was all pretty damn normal. It was my own imagined norms that were sketchy and reckless.

You might wonder why was I reading about science and what scientific practice looks like when observed close-up.

The main reason was that my own profession, human-centered design, suffers from the same problem. All too often, non-designers expect design to happen in some vaguely methodical, unmessy way that has little to do with how design work gets done — and they get extremely uptight and resistant when they witness real design work close-up. This causes endless problems, especially when we need them to participate in design processes, as happens on almost all service design projects,

I made up a name for this kind of ignorant, semi-fantastical notion of how something probably, vaguely, ought to happen. I call them “misnorms”.

Lately, I’ve found a new and especially vicious form of misnorm, this time among progressives. It infects even reasonable people, and especially compassionate, reasonable people. They all judge Israel’s war in Gaza by misnorms of war.

They have never looked at war close-up. They do not know what lawful, responsible conduct of war is and how it compares to actual genocide. They hear “proportional response” and think they get the gist of what that means. They think they can plug war statistics into a spreadsheet and make objective moral calculations. And they haven’t looked into the realities of war in any detail at all. They know it mainly through video clips of WWII or the Vietnam War or Desert Storm, all of which were controlled or supervised by the United States military. This war is the first one filmed on camera phones and controlled by a government other than the USA.

We think this war is different and worse than all other wars, when in fact this war is just filmed differently and for different purposes to serve the interests of different group. Some of these interests are those of foreign powers. (Hamas cannot annihilate Israel through military force. But it can through manipulation of gullible, sentimental, and self-loathing Western elites.) Others are domestic power interests — namely, those of our own professional class, aka yours. Some of them are petty careerist interests (like playing nice with Hamas in order to continue enjoying the same access to Gaza as one’s rival reporters). Some are commercial. (Subscription journalism must supply the kind of morally-gratifying product that its consumers demand. They’re not paying to have their views challenged.)

It would be different if they were pacifists and unconditionally condemned all war. But they don’t. These people, according to themselves, are radicals. These are not limp-dick liberals. Radicals believe in violent revolution. As long as an underdog is doing the killing, and those killed are categorizable as powerful oppressors, it’s all perfectly fine. Punch up as savagely, sadistically and hatefully all you want. (This is the sacred double-standard of Progressivism, which applies to all groups except Progressivists themselves, who not only morally permitted but morally obligated to punch down with devastating force in defense of all the defenseless. If you are a Progressivist, you don’t even need to be warned not to reflect on this condition. You feel it in your gut that, I don’t know… there’s just something wrong with this criticism.)

Fact is: War is hell. It always is. We have always been shielded from the worst of it. Now we are being shown the worst of it on purpose. No population is ever fully responsible for what its government does, but in modern warfare the population suffers the consequences. There are always significant innocent or even dissident casualties. To require political unanimity as a condition for military attack means an end to all war. Again, pacifism is fine. But to support terrorism against innocent civilians — or to claim no civilian of an “occupying” or “colonizing” power can ever be innocent is blatant hypocrisy. Proportional response is not a matter of casualty count. It is a matter of military value of targets relative to civilian casualties. Hamas intentionally conducts its war in a way that kills as many of its own people as possible when Israel make proportional responses. Don’t use words if you don’t fucking know what they mean.

Until Progressives make some minimal attempt to understand norms of war, their opinions on the normality or abnormality of this particular war are as ignorant and worthless as the QAnon opinions on science. And I am unwilling to discuss worthless opinions with ignorant blowhards.

And the same goes for political norms. I’m not listening to another ignorant right-wing or left-wing opinion on what is a normal liberal-democratic view and what is “hard right” or a obviously a nefarious left-wing conspiracy (‘coz how else can you explain it?). People toss around accusations of nazism and fascism without ever having bothered to inform themselves on the history or beliefs of real right-wing authoritarians. Gists do not work, and they are just artifacts of simplistic ideological misnorms.

. . .

I will, however, continue to discuss these matters with people who have informed themselves, and are able to bring new disruptive facts or perspectives to the table. This kind of informed argument can actually change my mind.

And I will also converse with people who are curious, who are aware of how much they do not know, and who might change their minds or even form an initial opinion.

Basically, if the possibility of changing minds exists, I’m ready to talk.

Not all leftists

Expressing disdain toward another person’s indignation will never reduce that indignation. And if we’re honest, we’ll admit it isn’t meant to. It is meant to add insult to injury. It says “I can injure your pride with impunity, and ridicule your protests with impunity. I do not have to care what you think or feel, and there is nothing you can do about it.”

The “not all men” meme is an example of such disdain. The “white fragility” diagnosis of attempted arguments to “antiracist” doctrine is another. These are not arguments. They are speech acts that demonstrate profound disrespect and refusal to respond to appeals to reason.

When progressivism passes out of favor, which this is happening very rapidly — and when more moderate and reasonable leftists try to dissociate themselves from the excesses they tolerated, downplayed or ignored — and when they find their attempts at reason summarily rejected with “not all liberals” or “woke fragility”, I hope at least a few decent souls will remember that I tried to warn them.


If you want to make appeals to liberal principles, you must also honor liberal appeals when they are made to you.

Everybody is a liberal when they are weak. But when they are strong enough to oppress, they suddenly become critiques of liberalism and see it as an impediment to progress.

In the next few years, the left is going to lose power. It has been contemptuous and abusive to ordinary Americans and proven itself unfit for leadership in a liberal-democratic society. And the right, which has been championing liberal values for the last decade will throw off its sheep’s clothing and show its true wolfish, illiberal nature.

And when chastened leftists try to protest and appeal to liberal principles, I’m going to remind them that they renounced those principles.


I wish people would just stop pretending to be principled. I can count the number of principled people I know on my two hands.

You can be unprincipled and good, at least to some small degree.

And good to a small degree is good enough.

Trying to be more moral than you really are does more damage than good.

People like me

I am trying to decide how to weather this dangerous time.

Do I try to understand it, critique it, describe what is happening? And if so — to what end? Do I try to use my understanding to change it? Or to navigate its hazards? To navigate it and change what little I can when the opportunity presents itself?

Or do I surrender to that part of me who wants to armor myself in cynicism?

My cynicism goes like this: Human beings are more social than rational or moral. Vanishingly few people interrogate themselves on what they actually experience as true or good. They, instead, assimilate themselves to the ideas of the people they identify as “people like me”. And if “people like me” invent a dogmatic schema of identities that in fact have nothing at all to do with who I actually experience as “people like me”, I’ll embrace the dogma and identify myself as whatever I’m supposed to.

To really know a person’s real, lived enacted identity — not the dogmatic identity, that, I will say again is a mere artifact of real, lived enacted identity — just ask that person what they know is good and true. And then ask them who is wrong about what is good and true, or who is against goodness and truth. That, and nothing else, is their true identity: good, true people like me, defined against  bad, false people not like me.

Identity is something we subjectively do, not what we objectively claim. The medium of identity is the message. The content of identity is the intention object of this subjective identity-generating activity.

Identity is, for most people, entirely socially determined. And they’ll tell you this. They know theirs is determined, and from this, and from received dogma, they will insist that this is a universal fact. According to them, your identity is socially determined as well. Because they have still neglected to scrutinize what “people like me” believe, and therefore have never put their conviction to the test, a shift in identity remains entirely outside the limits  of their personal experience. And until they do this, the logic of their lived, enacted identity will drive them along the same rails to the same conclusion, and will appear to them, to be their own independent “critical thought”. Our identities — our very selves — are socially determined.

I, however, have made scrutiny, self-interrogation, and consequent subjective self-modification the center of my life, and I have found that when I ask myself whether I really believe some conviction “people like me” are supposed to believe, and allow myself the space and freedom for a truly candid response, the answer is rarely an unqualified “yes”.  And if I look yet closer at the matter — and I always do — and ask yet more questions the “yes” begins to deteriorate. It rarely deteriorates all the way into “no”. In fact, it turns out, what deteriorates is less convictions than tacit questions to which convictions are answers.

And the more this happens the further removed I find myself from my former identities. The remove, in fact, has opened into full alienation. Those who were once good, true people like me are now manifestly bad, false people, not at all like me. Those I used to mistake for “people like me” — I would be ashamed to be one of them, now. On every important point they the very opposite of who they collectively believe themselves to be.

And now the only “people like me” I can find anywhere are other people who have decided to be intellectually honest with themselves, and who signal that decision enough to be identified as who they are. Most of them are now dead, but they wrote books. I am grateful they chose to be who they are, and to preserve who they are in writing. I try to incarnate them and extend their lives in mine.

Regarding life in this time, I am not sure what I will do. I’ve tried numerous times to reach people I thought had intellectual conscience, or at least promise of developing it, but ultimately they had more loyalty to their identity than their unique personhood. They fear questioning the foundation of their social belonging. And they mistrust my intentions, for very good reason. I am an existential threat to who they believe they are. So, I am no longer optimistic critique can work. I also think others are better at critique than I am.

Maybe I need to stop thinking in terms of intellectual contributions. With the number of talented academics cranking citable content, making an intellectual contribution is like pouring a bucket of water into a lake. We don’t need more concepts. We don’t need more content. We are drowning in concepts, claims, images, songs…

What we need are personal testaments of people who identify only with others who share their dedication to working out what they, themselves, experience as true and good — even when this means excommunication from the conformist “people like me”.

Categorical coimperative

Where some conceive principles as unconditional rules of behavior, I am conceiving principles as unconditional rules of relationship with those who share them. One must conduct oneself liberally with liberals, peacefully with the peaceful, respectfully with the respectful.

And the best way to know who shares your principles is to go first. Approach others as liberal, peaceful and respectful and offer them the chance to reciprocate.

If they do not reciprocate, different principles are appropriate — for instance, passive resistance, which is not at all the same as unconditionally peaceful behavior.

Polycentricity

Every citizen today seems to have a non-negotiable issue. “I will play by the liberal-democracy game on any issue except this one issue, which, to me, is more important than liberal-democracy itself.” Here, one is entitled — no, one is obligated! — to use force if persuasion fails.

But what if your fellow citizen takes precisely the opposite position as yours? This, in fact, is not hypothetical. Your non-negotiable opposes their non-negotiable.

You, however, actually know what is true and good. You can explain why your contemptible enemy is deluded and morally perverse.

Your enemy, however, also knows what is true and good and has explanations for your deluded and perverse morality.

What makes you so sure you are right about being right, when your enemy is wrong about being right? Is it your justification of your judgment? Well, that is only meta-judgment, and it is just as fallible as judgment.

For instance, you think you’ve addressed your biases? What if you are biased about your biases? You look for them some places and not others. Hell, some of your worst biases are against people who challenge your biases, but you give those prejudices pretty moral names.

Our very worst biases, our most incorrigibly vicious prejudices, live in the holy of holies, at the sacred center of our moralities.

And here is the root reason that you so sure of your rightness. It is nothing other than the fact that you are you. And this makes good sense. You were born into the center of the universe, and you have never left it. Never for one second has the universe not orbited about its heart, who is none other than you.

But you are not the only center of the universe. I, for instance, was born into the heart of the universe. My wife was, too, as were both of my daughters.

We are all centers of the universe.

Nobody has the right to ask another person to decenter themselves, no matter how brilliant our arguments and no matter how sound our theories. When we do so, we are invariably asking them to center ourselves as the true center of the universe, even if we pretend it is for other people. We want to impose our own morality, or own prejudices, our own biases, so we can better mistake them for Truth.

Instead, we can polycenter ourselves. In this act, we each go first and invite others to join us.

When we polycenter ourselves we acknowledge our fellow-centers by seeking to persuade and cultivating our own persuadability.

For us, the only non-negotiable is that everything must be negotiable.

The invitation looks and sounds like respect — gassho or dap or “shalom”or “namaste”, etc. It changes the air around you. We become who we are, organs of the distributed God.

The servant of practice

The wisest thing Yogi Berra never said was “In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice, but in practice there is.”

Those who have pushed theory to its limits, and subjected all values to critical interrogation will tell you also that in theory there is no better or worse, beautiful or ugly, good or evil. Theory debunks them. They are social, psychological, philosophical phantasms, constructs, instruments of domination.

So it seems from inside what can be theorized about.

In practice, however, values are the very heart of the matter.

Theory is — and must always be — the servant of practice. When theory tries to usurp the place of practice, theory repeats Apollo’s rape of Daphne.


If you confine yourself only to what you can objectively conceptualize, explicate, reason out, argue and defend you’ll find it impossible to take many of the most important features of human life seriously.

You will gain a comprehensive objectivity at the cost of subjectivity.

But you will not even experience the loss, because, by this point, you will have come to consider subjectivity an epiphenomenon of objective processes, a species of object, an epiphenomenon of objective processes.

A subject, however, is not an object. Subject is, among many other things, objectivity.

To make an antithetical dichotomy of subject-object is to commit a category mistake.

Subject and object are not on the same order of being. Subject is the ground of object, the objectivity within which an object appears as an object among objects.

Subjectivity is our first-person participation in reality. The antithesis of subject, that against which it is defined, is not object, but rather transcendence.

The subject-object dichotomy is a nihilistic dead-end category mistake. The subject-transcendence (Within-I, beyond-I) dichotomy opens us to participation in the world among myriad objects.


Critical theory criticizes everything except theory as final arbiter of what is really real, what is apparently real and what is unreal.

But in practical life, theory plays a minor role.

Theory plays a major role only in the skull-sized kingdom of wordworld, down in the palace dungeon where the Grand Inquisitor does his work.


Nietzsche:

In the writings of a hermit one always hears something of the echo of the wilderness, something of the murmuring tones and timid vigilance of solitude; in his strongest words, even in his cry itself, there sounds a new and more dangerous kind of silence, of concealment. … The recluse … will doubt whether a philosopher can have “ultimate and actual” opinions at all; whether behind every cave in him there is not, and must necessarily be, a still deeper cave: an ampler, stranger, richer world beyond the surface, an abyss behind every ground, beneath every “foundation”. Every philosophy is a foreground philosophy — this is a recluse’s verdict: “There is something arbitrary in the fact that he came to a stand here, took a retrospect, and looked around; that he here laid his spade aside and did not dig any deeper — there is also something suspicious in it.” Every philosophy also conceals a philosophy; every opinion is also a lurking-place, every word is also a mask.

Nietzsche again:

Into your eyes I looked recently, O life! And into the unfathomable I then seemed to be sinking. But you pulled me out with a golden fishing rod; and you laughed mockingly when I called you unfathomable.

“Thus runs the speech of all fish,” you said; “what they do not fathom is unfathomable. But I am merely changeable and wild and a woman in every way, and not virtuous — even if you men call me profound, faithful, eternal, and mysterious. But you men always present us with your own virtues, O you virtuous men!”

Thus she laughed, the incredible one; but I never believe her and her laughter when she speaks ill of herself.

And when I talked in confidence with my wild wisdom she said to me in anger, “You will, you want, you love — that is the only reason why you praise life.” Then I almost answered wickedly and told the angry woman the truth; and there is no more wicked answer than telling one’s wisdom the truth.

For thus matters stand among the three of us: Deeply I love only life — and verily, most of all when I hate life. But that I am well disposed toward wisdom, and often too well, that is because she reminds me so much of life. She has her eyes, her laugh, and even her little golden fishing rod: is it my fault that the two look so similar?

And when life once asked me, “Who is this wisdom?” I answered fervently, “Oh yes, wisdom! One thirsts after her and is never satisfied; one looks through veils, one grabs through nets. Is she beautiful? How should I know? But even the oldest carps are baited with her. She is changeable and stubborn; often I have seen her bite her lip and comb her hair against the grain. Perhaps she is evil and false and a female in every way; but just when she speaks ill of herself she is most seductive.”

When I said this to life she laughed sarcastically and closed her eyes. “Of whom are you speaking?” she asked; “no doubt, of me. And even if you are right — should that be said to my face? But now speak of your wisdom too.”

Ah, and then you opened your eyes again, O beloved life. And again I seemed to myself to be sinking into the unfathomable.

Eichmann and cliches

Following is a selection of comments Hannah Arendt made about cliches, culled from Eichmann in Jerusalem. The highlights are mine:

The German text of the taped police examination, conducted from May 29, 1960, to January 17, 1961, each page corrected and approved by Eichmann, constitutes a veritable gold mine for a psychologist –provided he is wise enough to understand that the horrible can be not only ludicrous but outright funny. … It was funny when, during the cross-examination on the Sassen documents, conducted in German by the presiding judge, he used the phrase “kontra geben” (to give tit for tat), to indicate that he had resisted Sassen’s efforts to liven up his stories; Judge Landau, obviously ignorant of the mysteries of card games, did not understand, and Eichmann could not think of any other way to put it. Dimly aware of a defect that must have plagued him even in school — it amounted to a mild case of aphasia — he apologized, saying, “Officialese is my only language.” But the point here is that officialese became his language because he was genuinely incapable of uttering a single sentence that was not a cliché. (Was it these clichés that the psychiatrists thought so “normal” and “desirable”?

To be sure, the judges were right when they finally told the accused that all he had said was “empty talk” — except that they thought the emptiness was feigned, and that the accused wished to cover up other thoughts which, though hideous, were not empty. This supposition seems refuted by the striking consistency with which Eichmann, despite his rather bad memory, repeated word for word the same stock phrases and self-invented clichés (when he did succeed in constructing a sentence of his own, he repeated it until it became a cliché) each time he referred to an incident or event of importance to him. Whether writing his memoirs in Argentina or in Jerusalem, whether speaking to the police examiner or to the court, what he said was always the same, expressed in the same words. The longer one listened to him, the more obvious it became that his inability to speak was closely connected with an inability to think, namely, to think from the standpoint of somebody else. No communication was possible with him, not because he lied but because he was surrounded by the most reliable of all safeguards against the words and the presence of others, and hence against reality as such.


Eichmann’s astounding willingness, in Argentina as well as in Jerusalem, to admit his crimes was due less to his own criminal capacity for self-deception than to the aura of systematic mendacity that had constituted the general, and generally accepted, atmosphere of the Third Reich. ‘‘Of course” he had played a role in the extermination of the Jews; of course if he “had not transported them, they would not have been delivered to the butcher.” “What,” he asked, “is there to admit?” Now, he proceeded, he “would like to find peace with [his] former enemies”a sentiment he shared not only with Himmler… but also, unbelievably, with many ordinary Germans, who were heard to express themselves in exactly the same terms at the end of the war. This outrageous cliche was no longer issued to them from above, it was a self-fabricated stock phrase, as devoid of reality as those cliches by which the people had lived for twelve years; and you could almost see what an “extraordinary sense of elation” it gave to the speaker the moment it popped out of his mouth.

Eichmann’s mind was filled to the brim with such sentences. His memory proved to be quite unreliable about what had actually happened; in a rare moment of exasperation, Judge Landau asked the accused: “What can you remember?” (if you don’t remember the discussions at the so-called Wannsee Conference, which dealt with the various methods of killing) and the answer, of course, was that Eichmann remembered the turning points in his own career rather well, but that they did not necessarily coincide with the turning points in the story of Jewish extermination or, as a matter of fact, with the turning points in history. (He always had trouble remembering the exact date of the outbreak of the war or of the invasion of Russia.) But the point of the matter is that he had not forgotten a single one of the sentences of his that at one time or another had served to give him a “sense of elation.”

Hence, whenever, during the cross-examination, the judges tried to appeal to his conscience, they were met with “elation,” and they were outraged as well as disconcerted when they learned that the accused had at his disposal a different elating cliche for each period of his life and each of his activities. In his mind, there was no contradiction between “I will jump into my grave laughing,” appropriate for the end of the war, and “I shall gladly hang myself in public as a warning example for all anti-Semites on this earth,” which now, under vastly different circumstances, fulfilled exactly the same function of giving him a lift.

These habits of Eichmann’s created considerable difficulty during the trial — less for Eichmann himself than for those who had come to prosecute him, to defend him, to judge him, and to report on him. For all this, it was essential that one take him seriously, and this was very hard to do, unless one sought the easiest way out of the dilemma between the unspeakable horror of the deeds and the undeniable ludicrousness of the man who perpetrated them, and declared him a clever, calculating liar — which he obviously was not. … Despite all the efforts of the prosecution, everybody could see that this man was not a “monster,” but it was difficult indeed not to suspect that he was a clown.


…As far as Eichmann was concerned, these were questions of changing moods, and as long as he was capable of finding, either in his memory or on the spur of the moment, an elating stock phrase to go with them, he was quite content, without ever becoming aware of anything like “inconsistencies.”


Justice, but not mercy, is a matter of judgment, and about nothing does public opinion everywhere seem to be in happier agreement than that no one has the right to judge somebody else. What public opinion permits us to judge and even to condemn are trends, or whole groups of people — the larger the better — in short, something so general that distinctions can no longer be made, names no longer be named. Needless to add, this taboo applies doubly when the deeds or words of famous people or men in high position are being questioned. This is currently expressed in high-flown assertions that it is “superficial” to insist on details and to mention individuals, whereas it is the sign of sophistication to speak in generalities according to which all cats are gray and we are all equally guilty.

Another such escape from the area of ascertainable facts and personal responsibility are the countless theories, based on non-specific, abstract, hypothetical assumptions – from the Zeitgeist down to the Oedipus complex – which are so general that they explain and justify every event and every deed: no alternative to what actually happened is even considered and no person could have acted differently from the way he did act. Among the constructs that “explain” everything by obscuring all details, we find such notions as a “ghetto mentality” among European Jews; or the collective guilt of the German people, derived from an ad hoc interpretation of their history; or the equally absurd assertion of a kind of collective innocence of the Jewish people. All these clichés have in common that they make judgment superfluous and that to utter them is devoid of all risk.


I remember back in the wake of 9/11, especially after the United States invaded Iraq, I was unnerved by the similarity in logic and speech pattern of supporters of the invasion, and those who didn’t quite support it but played devil’s advocate on why maybe we should be over there. I felt like I was hearing some other being speaking through the mouths of these people. They were some kind of  mouthpiece for a collective being. It gave me the deepest kind of creeps.

I feel the same way today both about Progressivists and QAnon types.

I think people who think primarily in words and spend a lot of time in their verbal representations of the world instead of in direct contact with with various realities are susceptible to this kind of semi-solipsistic mass-mind possession. The moving parts of these possessions are cliches, ready-made arguments and tokens, which are less abstractions from reality than they are tokens that stand in for intuited truths.

For me, the best kind of thinking and the best thoughts are responses to real situations, situations where our intuition has failed us and needs assistance. We experiment and reflect on our failures and successes until we  once again can get traction. The practical understanding developed through this process can be formulated in language and used to interpret and guide our future actions and be taught to others. This kind of intuition-rooted, practice-forged understanding works more like an interface with the world than a representation of it.

Susan and I have been collaborating on a way to talk about these different relationships with reality. We’ve been calling these two world-relationships “word world” versus “intuited world”.

The mean of liberty, equality, fraternity

This is an attempt to reframe my old “political gamut” liberty-equality diagram, with an added third dimension of fraternity (indispensable in an age of Post-Trump identitarian madness) in terms of the Aristotelian mean.

Liberty

  • Excess: absolute autonomy of individual (anarchy)
  • Deficit: absolute autocracy of collective (collectivism)
  • Mean: balance of civil rights and obligations (liberalism)

Equality

  • Excess: wealth/power/status ought to be distributed equally (equity)
  • Deficit: wealth/power/status ought to be distributed unequally (hierarchy)
  • Mean: wealth/power/status ought to be earned and maintained (opportunity)

Fraternity

  • Excess: membership in polity is exclusive (closed citizenship)
  • Deficit: membership in polity is all-inclusive (universalism)
  • Mean: membership in polity is conditional (open/permeable citizenship)

Cracked

Here are two Facebook posts I decided to suppress.

 


1.

I’ve cracked. I am done.

I am not longer pretending that progressivism is a respectable ideology.

I reject progressivism as a principled liberal.

Progressivism is not, as many confused people believe, liberalism gone too far, but rather abortive liberalism. It is a fundamentalist perversion of my liberal faith, far worse than straightforward rejection.

For the last ten years I’ve watched my formerly liberal allies degrade into craven identitarians. I don’t respect it and I can no longer pretend to respect it.

When you attach that inane preface “speaking as a…” I hear you speaking as a conformist to a contemptible ideology.

When you dole out different portions of dignity to different persons based on how you and your likeminded dittoheads categorize them, I witness the actions of an arrogant bigot, who doesn’t even know what equity even is.

And if you are among those who actually believe “the personal is political” you are no friend of mine. This is not because I reject you and your beliefs, but because anyone vacuous enough to operate under this principle is incapable of friendship. Listen: anyone with functioning intuition feels it viscerally when a person approaches them, not as a person, but as an instance of a category. It doesn’t matter one bit if that category is a good category or a bad one — it is dehumanizing.

I have no time for dehumanizing ideological operants. Be a fellow human, treat me as a fellow human, or go away.

This is where I stand on things. It is not negotiable. If you don’t like it, do us both a favor and speak up so we can stop wasting each other’s time and energy.

 


2.

Progressivists are constantly approaching me as a fellow progressivist. Of course, being a decent person, obviously I must be a progressivist.

On the contrary: because I am a decent person I am not a progressivist.

I am a liberal, and that is the very furthest thing from progressivist.

I do not admire or even respect progressivist activism. It is not compassionate and it is not countercultural. It is grotesque, callous and cowardly conformism. It cares only about its own ideological flourishing, not about human beings. If you are Jewish, this should be overwhelmingly obvious to you after the last three weeks.

If you happen to be a Progressivist, we can still be friends, as long as you can handle the fact that I cannot help but notice your family resemblance to other totalitarianisms. You’re no hero of history. Quite the opposite.

Intersubjective being

Ontologically, interpersonal relationships (marriages, friendship, social affiliations etc.) are neither objective, nor subjective, but, rather, intersubjective.

Some see these relationships as a social status assigned to a grouping of persons. When such assignments happen, of course, new being is established, not only social categories, but also legal entities. These are, in their way, real, but they do not exhaust the being of the relationship, and it can even be argued that they are not its primary meaning.

However, people who lack an ontological intersubjective category, tend to either see only the objective or subjective aspects of the relationship, or they make category mistakes about relationships.

For instance, they might see the essence of their marriage as their own subjective romantic feelings about the other. Or they might reduce it to their legal status as a married couple. Or they might see themselves as a social unit who appears together at functions. Or they might view it as part of their own identity. “I am a married person.” Or “I am so-and-so’s spouse.” Or they might see it as a practical arrangement. Or maybe it is a formal institution with rules and practices.

To see marriage as an intersubjective being is to understand oneself as a participating subject in a subject who emerges in the process of participation. It isn’t something already existent that each person is trying to figure out. It isn’t an image in two different persons’ minds. It is an emergent We who comes to some kind of existence through the participating subjects.

I want to argue that The same is true for normative concepts governing interpersonal relationships. In particular, I am talking about justice and fairness. These norms are not objective, not subjective, but intersubjective. There is no already existent ideal justice waiting to be seen or excavated by one party or another. It is also not a feeling that justice has been done by one party when the other disagrees. Justice emerges when justice is worked out among involved parties. Fairness is what comes into being when everyone works together to make things fair.

There is no perfect justice or perfect fairness, but this does not mean that justice and fairness do not exist at all, and that we cannot discern gross injustice from imperfect justice. But if we do not understand what kind of being justice is, we are unlikely to generate much real justice.

And same with relationships. When the majority of our population has no idea what an interpersonal relationship is, or how to participate in one, we are unlikely to even achieve imperfect relationships. People will think they have friends but will waste away from loneliness. We will suffer a loneliness epidemic.


I know vanishingly few people capable of thinking relationships or justice without making subjective or objective category mistakes. Of course, many people manage to participate in relationships and justice, anyway, despite their inability to speak or think about it. And the more intellectual a person is, the worse their chances are of living these realities.

Explaining antisemitism

I have several explanations for antisemitism.

I’ve heard that if you are trying to explain yourself, one explanation is more persuasive than several. But I am not trying to persuade. I am trying to understand, and I think there are multiple reinforcing factors.

The first explanation is based on Rene Girard’s theory of mimetic desire. The Jewish people have a deep, intense enduring love for Adonai, for their tradition and for their homeland. Other groups have imitated these loves, and have claimed the relationship, the tradition and the land for themselves, to the exclusion of the Jewish people. But the Jewish people refuse to give these things up, so a scapegoat is needed. Every pogrom is a dark communion — a reenactment of the crucifixion.

The second explanation concerns love and dread, the compelling pull and the repulsive push of the transcendent. The Jewish people began as one more tribal sacrificial cult, but over many generations of stubborn refusal to die out, has iteratively rebirthed its own culture into something so sublimely transcendent that, now, very few people can enter and understand from it. Everything Jewish is haloed with a love-dread aura. It is alien and transcendent, but, worse, it has a strange attitude toward alienness and transcendence — it loves the stranger and welcomes the strange. Which makes Judaism both strange and meta-strange. Religiously sensitive non-Jews love-hate it. They can’t get it out of their heart. They cannot leave it alone, but nor can they grasp and accept it. They need to have it, or control it, or failing that kill it and keep it.

The third explanation is boring. Because the Jewish tradition values parenting and education, many Jews are smarter and better parented than their peers, and consequently excel, and become objects of envy, especially in times of rampant mediocrity and vanity. When a self-esteem pandemic hits, Jews make folks feel like something the cat dragged in. And, this might be a separate point, they make very poor objects of pity, because they just aren’t, as a group, pitiable. People addicted to compassionate condescension can’t do that with Jews, even when Jews are dramatically persecuted.

The fourth explanation is even more boring. Jewish culture values honesty and directness over saccharine softness. Jewish honesty runs confrontational, argumentative, brusque and sometimes flat-out harsh, and people get their precious feelings hurt. Envious and offended people get resentful, and resentment can infect whole generations.

The fifth explanation concerns the role of Jews in history. Primarily because of the first reason, the uneasy centrality of Jews in other peoples’ religions and hostility consequent to this centrality, for much of history Jews have been excluded from land-ownership and participation in reputable trades. They were forced into disgraceful trades like finance. Nobody likes their lender, so that has been a problem. But worse, Jewish financiers — all of whom spoke Hebrew and were therefore able to partner with Jews in other regions — were the financiers of the aristocrats who founded the modern European nation-states. The tradition of hostility of one’s own nation-state contains a thick red strand of Jewish international finance paranoia.

The sixth explanation is so obvious I almost hate to include it. Jews refuse to stop being Jewish. Many learn Hebrew and can speak to one another in a language unknown to suspicious folk who wonder what exactly is being said. And what is going on in those houses of worship? What is going on in their homes and the backrooms of their prosperous businesses? What are those weird people scheming about? Jews are conspicuously alien and for that reason inspire paranoia in the paranoid.

There’s probably more, but this list suffices to account for the phenomenon. And this same list also helps account for why Judaism is my religion.

Why Israel is necessary

You are not your brother’s keeper.

You say you are, but when the decisive moment comes, you will do the wrong thing. Remember sitting in the theater with sweet tears streaming down your face for the little girl in the red coat? “Oh, if I’d been there.” But then you watched another movie and cried over something else. It is so nice to cry. It is so fun to march and shout. It is so gratifying to grandstand with this demographic or that. Because you’re one of the good ones. You are an ally.

But I think on some level you know the truth: You are not a hero of history. You are too faint-hearted and cloudy-minded to stand alone on anything. You are a weather vane pointing whichever way your news entertainment media and your HR department happens to blow you. And if the wind stops blowing, you stop pointing.

You are not dependable. And that is why Israel is necessary.

Ex infinitio

Genesis does not begin with nothingness. Creation is not ex nihilo.

Genesis begins with more than everything. Creation is ex infinitio.

As with scripture, so it has been in that already-in-progress life inside which you awoke, from the chaos of infancy.


Somethingness — toomuchness — is primal. In the beginning is chaos.

Nothingness is abstract. It is an advanced abstraction that, once it possesses us, is thrust beneath the primordial toomuchness — an artificial ground, upon which we cannot stand, but within which we stiffen ourselves in epistemic rigor mortis.

Inside this self-inflicted vacuum we stiffly tumble end-over-end, nowhere, vacuous.


An infinite welter and waste is articulated by spirit.

Objects emerge from the encounter of subject and chaos.

Light against dark against mottled grays? Mom, dad, grandma, grandpa against a muddled mixture of suffering and comfort.

Division of this and that — always against the undivided all. Definition of this, in contrast that — both always against the irrelevant field of everything else.


We define against infinitude, but infinitude is so omnipresent we confuse it with nothingness itself. Just as you, sitting wherever you are, focusing on whatever focal object occupies your attention, define the object of your attention against everything else.


Every subject emerges in the midst of undifferentiated chaos.

You did. I did. Our infant subjects learned to recognize our first given objects.

When we learned new subjects, new given objects emerged. Our mathematical subject learned that one apple and one block shared a characteristic: one. And one block and another block shared something with one apple and another apple. From chaos came quantities of whatever.

We learned the subject of manners. We learned to say “please” when desire emerged and to say “thank you” when desire was gratified. We learned the subject of morality. Some actions were rewarded, some punished.

Every subject articulates new given objects. Those objects are articulated from chaos.


Then there is the sheer bullshit of social construction. You take a class on Derrida in college and get it in your head that you can invent reality. If you practice your bullshit invention long enough it will become familiar. If you force other people to adopt your bullshit long enough, they too, will see it as familiar.

What this does, of course, is alienate us from what we experience.

Soon, we are so alienated, we can see images of slaughtered and raped human beings and just view it all as political abstraction. It’s all just concept play.

We are like the little German boys who followed the first World War like a sporting event, described by Sebastian Haffner:

For a schoolboy in Berlin, the war was something very unreal; it was like a game. There were no air raids and no bombs. There were the wounded, but you saw them only at a distance, with picturesque bandages. One had relatives at the front, of course, and now and then one heard of a death. But being a child, one quickly got used to their absence, and the fact that this absence sometimes became irrevocable did not seem to matter. As to the real hardships and privations, they were of small account. Naturally, the food was poor. Later there was too little food, and our shoes had clattering wooden soles, our suits were turned, there were school collections for bones and cherry pits, and surprisingly frequent illnesses. I must admit, all that made little impression. Not that I bore it all “like a little hero.” It was just that there was nothing very special to bear. I thought as little about food as a soccer enthusiast at a cup final. The army bulletins interested me far more than the menu.

The analogy with the soccer fan can be carried further. In those childhood days, I was a war fan just as one is a soccer fan. I would be making myself out to be worse than I was if I were to claim to have been caught up by the hate propaganda that, from 1915 to 1918, sought to whip up the flagging enthusiasm of the first few months of the war. I hated the French, the English, and the Russians as little as the Portsmouth supporters detest Wolverhampton fans. Of course, I prayed for their defeat and humiliation, but only because these were the necessary counterparts of my side’s victory and triumph.

What counted was the fascination of the game of war, in which, according to certain mysterious rules, the numbers of prisoners taken, miles advanced, fortifications seized, and ships sunk played almost the same role as goals in soccer and points in boxing. I never wearied of keeping internal scorecards. I was a zealous reader of the army bulletins, which I would proceed to recalculate in my own fashion, according to my own mysterious, irrational rules: thus, for instance, ten Russian prisoners were equivalent to one English or French prisoner, and fifty airplanes to one cruiser. If there had been statistics of those killed, I would certainly not have hesitated to “recalculate” the dead. I would not have stopped to think what the objects of my arithmetic looked like in reality. It was a dark, mysterious game and its never-ending, wicked lure eclipsed everything else, making daily life seem trite. It was addictive, like roulette and opium. My friends and I played it all through the war: four long years, unpunished and undisturbed. It is this game, and not the harmless battle games we organized in streets and playgrounds nearby, that has left its dangerous mark on all of us.

It may not seem worthwhile to describe the obviously inadequate reactions of a child to the Great War at such great length. That would certainly be true if mine were an isolated case, but it was not. This, more or less, was the way an entire generation of Germans experienced the war in childhood or adolescence; and one should note that this is precisely the generation that is today preparing its repetition.

The force and influence of these experiences are not diminished by the fact that they were lived through by children or young boys. On the contrary, in its reactions the mass psyche greatly resembles the child psyche. One cannot overstate the childishness of the ideas that feed and stir the masses.

Real ideas must as a rule be simplified to the level of a child’s understanding if they are to arouse the masses to historic actions. A childish illusion, fixed in the minds of all children born in a certain decade and hammered home for four years, can easily reappear as a deadly serious political ideology twenty years later.

From 1914 to 1918 a generation of German schoolboys daily experienced war as a great, thrilling, enthralling game between nations, which provided far more excitement and emotional satisfaction than anything peace could offer; and that has now become the underlying vision of Nazism. That is where it draws its allure from: its simplicity, its appeal to the imagination, and its zest for action; but also its intolerance and its cruelty toward internal opponents. Anyone who does not join in the game is regarded not as an adversary but as a spoilsport. Ultimately that is also the source of Nazism’s belligerent attitude toward neighboring states. Other countries are not regarded as neighbors, but must be opponents, whether they like it or not. Otherwise the match would have to be called off!

Many things later bolstered Nazism and modified its character, but its roots lie here: in the experience of war — not by German soldiers at the front, but by German schoolboys at home. Indeed, the front-line generation has produced relatively few genuine Nazis and is better known for its “critics and carpers.” That is easy to understand. Men who have experienced the reality of war tend to view it differently. Granted, there are exceptions: the eternal warriors, who found their vocation in war, with all its terrors, and continue to do so; and the eternal failures, who welcome its horrors and its destruction as a revenge on a life that has proved too much for them. Göring perhaps belongs to the former type; Hitler certainly to the latter. The truly Nazi generation was formed by those born in the decade from 1900 to 1910, who experienced war as a great game and were untouched by its realities.

This was written before the Holocaust. Here is an account from Hannah Arendt on the moral reasoning of one of these boys, grown up into a nice abstract adult:

The member of the Nazi hierarchy most gifted at solving problems of conscience was Himmler. He coined slogans, like the famous watchword of the S.S., taken from a Hitler speech before the S.S. in 1931, “My Honor is my Loyalty” — catch phrases which Eichmann called “winged words” and the judges “empty talk”… Eichmann remembered only one of them and kept repeating it: “These are battles which future generations will not have to fight again,” alluding to the “battles” against women, children, old people, and other “useless mouths.” Other such phrases, taken from speeches Himmler made to the commanders of the Einsatzgruppen and the Higher S.S. and Police Leaders, were: “To have stuck it out and, apart from exceptions caused by human weakness, to have remained decent, that is what has made us hard. This is a page of glory in our history which has never been written and is never to be written.” Or: “The order to solve the Jewish question, this was the most frightening order an organization could ever receive.” Or: We realize that what we are expecting from you is “superhuman,” to be “superhumanly inhuman.” … What stuck in the minds of these men who had become murderers was simply the notion of being involved in something historic, grandiose, unique (“a great task that occurs once in two thousand years”), which must therefore be difficult to bear. … The troops of the Einsatzgruppen had been drafted from the Armed S.S., a military unit with hardly more crimes in its record than any ordinary unit of the German Army, and their commanders had been chosen by Heydrich from the S.S. elite with academic degrees. Hence the problem was how to overcome not so much their conscience as the animal pity by which all normal men are affected in the presence of physical suffering. The trick used by Himmler — who apparently was rather strongly afflicted with these instinctive reactions himself — was very simple and probably very effective; it consisted in turning these instincts around; as it were, in directing them toward the self. So that instead of saying: What horrible things I did to people!, the murderers would be able to say: What horrible things I had to watch in the pursuance of my duties, how heavily the task weighed upon my shoulders!


Life is to be lived in reality, and reality is given to us intuitively in myriad ways. If we receive it, our reflections on it will keep us in relationship with reality.

We can obscure replace reality with words. We can focus on words and play with them. It will all be quite amusing and pleasant. But we will alienate and we will be alienated.

Pluralist blip

Pluralists maintain principled awareness that there are multiple perspectives from which every event and every issue may be understood.

It seems that now, with the recent brutal pogrom in Israel that at least some of our elite institutions have recovered some momentary slight degree of pluralism. They can see multiple sides of this particular issue — where, in recent years many events seemed to have only one possible morally legitimate interpretation.

Police brutality had only one side. Compelled “Antiracist” indoctrination had only one side. Sexual harassment had only one side. Overturning Roe v Wade had only one side.

All organizations were required to take a stand! Silence is violence!

But apparently this slaughter in Israel — this has two sides — and now, suddenly, organizations must maintain moral neutrality and avoid stirring up unnecessary controversy.

As a Pluralist, I am faintly heartened to see organizations behave as they should have all along. *

As a Jew, I find it appalling that Progressivists are suddenly able to see both sides of this particular issue — an issue where, on one side Jewish babies were literally murdered and Jewish women literally, physically raped.


Note: I do not believe this abrupt embrace of institutional neutrality is a principled pluralist stand. I believe it is a purely pragmatic response to the fact that on this one issue, Progressivist opinion is divided. When Progressivists all agree on an issue, and only Liberals, Centrists and Conservatives dissent (civilly, quietly, politely), Progressivists are more than happy to take a univocal stand on issues. It is only when Progressivists are divided (and will dissent vocally, disruptively, coercively) that organizations exercise diplomatic neutrality.