Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Sold Out Truths

Washington Post
In the version of history being taught in some Virginia classrooms, New Orleans began the 1800s as a bustling U.S. harbor (instead of as a Spanish colonial one). The Confederacy included 12 states (instead of 11). And the United States entered World War I in 1916 (instead of in 1917). These are among the dozens of errors historians have found since Virginia officials ordered a review of textbooks by Five Ponds Press, the publisher responsible for a controversial claim that African American soldiers fought for the South in large numbers during the Civil War.

One hopes (without hope) that the brouhaha erupting over a series of Virginia textbooks containing not only reactionary propaganda but many obvious errors of fact that cannot be accounted for by propagandistic purposes but simply the flabbergasting incompetence of the whole reactionary enterprise might expand from the present scandal to encompass the endlessly ramifying variations of the same phenomenon, as when Republican climate change denialists are seated on committees devoted to energy policy, as when Republican (not only, but especially) American exceptionalists are treated as foreign policy experts, as when Republican puritans are invited to throng the discussion of public sex education or drug policy, as when Republican Friedmanian (take your pick, Milton, David, Thomas) economic-preliterates are invited to bloviate on talk shows on macroeconomic questions, and so depressingly demoralizingly disgustingly on and ever on.

We denote as "true" whatever description among available candidates on offer best satisfies the criteria of warrant for the domain whose end defines whatever work for truth is afoot, whether for prediction and control (scientific truths), to signal and police membership in a moral community (moral truths), assertions of subjective judgment and hence of subjecthood itself (metaphysical and theological truths, all of which, in my view, are ultimately aesthetic truths), aspirations toward equity-in-diversity (ethical truths), efforts to reconcile a present diversity of stakeholder claims (political truths). The clash of opinions concerning which of the domains best defines the truth that is wanted in any case and which best satisfies the criteria of warrant for the relevant domain is interminable, not least because none of these criteria, however successful they may be, has never failed after all to secure as true a description that has not subsequently been supplanted by a better one later on.

Because I hold these views, which are sometimes lampooned as "postmodern relativism" (a phrase that makes little sense to me and which seems to have as its primary use the provision of an excuse for certain lazy anti-intellectual Americans not to read a whole host of authors with quite different interests, methods, vocabularies who are nonetheless corralled together under that moniker and then dismissed, whereupon this refusal to actually know what any of these thinkers are actually separately talking about -- and some of them likely are indeed talking little more than nonsense, most of them being philosophers -- becomes a subcultural signal of superior intellect rather than of the know-nothingism it actually obviously is instead), it might seem that I have little standing to pronounce my disgust at propagandists, liars, crappy fact checkers, fraudsters, opportunistic denialists for profiteers, and the rest.

If there seems to be a whiff of paradox about a Post-Nietzschean pragmatist rhetorician like me defending the status and force of the factual, I can only assume that for those who descry such paradox they either have come mistakenly to hold as indispensable to that status and force a fanciful faith that there can be such a thing as certain or final truths of the matter rather than merely usefully well warranted ones, or they simply haven't taken the time actually to understand the views in question and so exhibit precisely the same lazy, careless, under-critical know-nothingness in respect to these "postmodern relativist" thinkers that I am decrying as one of those thinkers myself in other domains.

To propose that well warranted descriptions may be supplanted by better ones, to propose that the processes through which we arrive at warranted truths are error-prone or impinged upon by the dynamisms of other domains (scientific investigations sometimes regulated by the moral, inspired by the aesthetic, driven by the political, let us say) is far from stealing from us the capacity sensibly to distinguish truth-telling from lying, policy driven by warranted as against discredited assumptions, good faith as against bad faith in discussions of matters of shared concern, and so on.

When you are interested in little but the next score, the next hit, the next quarterly profit statement, the next election result, the criteria that warrant certain descriptions over others as the best on offer will change. When you are interested in nothing but soliciting the support of particular subcultures with which you happen to identify yourself (while dis-identifying with others among whom are stakeholders in the contest over truth at hand) or the support, say, of particular moneyed or forceful elites with whom you mean to ally or curry favor, the criteria that warrant certain descriptions over others as the best on offer will change. When you care little about reconciling your own hopes with your own history, with connecting your own cares with those of your interlocutors the criteria that warrant certain descriptions over others as the best on offer will change.

To the extent that you want to find your way with your peers (and in my understanding peers are neither equals nor intimates, mind you) to a sustainably and equitably and consensually shared world, in all our diversity -- and if you aren't an asshole or a criminal or an idiot or a perpetual infant, that is indeed something like what you want -- you need to be very clear about the motives and working assumptions, as manifested in conduct, of those with whom you are collaborating and contesting in the making of these worldly scientific, moral, aesthetic, ethical, political truths. There is nothing in pragmatic pluralist exhortations to comparative modesty about our expectations in matters of truth-talk to the philosophically-minded that undercuts the urgency of that clarity, or our capacity to strive for it to good effect.

Propagandists who get basic facts egregiously wrong in history textbooks, climate change denialists and creation "scientists" and proponents of abstinence-only sex "education" or capital punishment as "deterrent" or whatever know-nothing moralizing bullshit you care to think of, industry shills crowing about the benefits of scarcely understood or even manifestly dangerous products, Friedmanian know-nothings larding the already rich with treasure choked from the precarious majority, futurological fraudsters hawking their crap science and crap products and killing the substance of futurity that is the freedom inhering in the plurality of the present, none of these pathological expressions of a modern culture that has dispensed with the authority of warrantedly assertible truths would be rendered irrelevant or impotent by the assumption of our culture of the fancy that final Truths are available, and knowable, and once found, once known, once affirmed, once bowed down before, will set us free, will protect us from deception, will deliver us from evil, will make of us as Gods, or what have you.

No, it is precisely because the criteria of warrant hacked out over centuries are themselves a worldly and ritual artifice that they must be seen to, carefully maintained, as practices, as norms, as institutions, as narratives. What is wanted is not so much to give Truth over to some new Priesthood, as simply to stop valorizing short term over longer-term thinking, parochialism over contingent universalization, profit-taking over commons and consent, unchecked and unaccountable exercises of authority. This is not a change of subject on my part but my insistence on our attention to the substance of the subject at hand, the substance of the historical work out of which factuality and legitimacy are made and sustained in the world.

The disrespect for warranted truths, the disregard for shared concerns, the dismissal of expertise, the debasement of legitimacy from which we are all suffering such hopeless distress arise first of all from ignorance (that is to say, from ignor-ing, inattentiveness, superficiality), laziness, greed, opportunism, all as of a piece, in a culture that explicitly celebrates and demands just this quality of smallness, of shallowness, of meanness above others. It cannot be adequately stressed that the world is being destroyed just because that is what we are asking for.

There will of course always be liars and fraudsters and cheats in the world, but it is part of the indispensable work of civilization to help us identify and marginalize these impulses and the ones who have given themselves over to them. Until we reject and defeat the salesmen and the conmen the hyperbole and opportunism and promotion that utterly suffuse their practice and their spirit will prevail in the world to the destruction of us all.

Those crappy Virginia history textbooks were trying above all else to sell something rather than to educate, the economic illiterates peddling tax cuts for billionaires and misery for majorities are trying to sell something rather than to make policy in the best interest of all citizens, the geo-engineers are trying to sell ongoing industrialization to a world destroyed by industrialization rather than to make civilization sustainable, and so on and on and on.

And lest you respond by declaring that I, too, am just trying to sell something in saying this, actually try to focus, if only provisionally, if only for a moment, on the substance of the critique I am proposing here rather than any escape clause, however superficial, to relieve you of the pressure of thinking against the grain of your assumptions.

The problem is not that the passionate assertion of judgment offered up as argument or as narrative or as representation to the hearing of the world is no less error-prone, no less defeasible, no less constrained by situation and circumstance for its passion. Whenever the clash of opinions is afoot, always strive to follow more than the declarations on offer, but also follow the money, also notice who has the guns and where they are pointed, also listen to the stories the losers are telling.

Pay attention, too, to the inconsistencies that bespeak opportunism: Is the climate change denialist an expert in climate science and if they are not does a lack of expertise drive comparable disregard of expertise in other areas, for example in the choice of a crystal healer over a surgeon upon discerning an ominous lump? Does the futurological huckster peddling desktop nanocornucopia machines or superintelligent robot gods crow at even a skeptical mention of one of their fellow True Believers in any reputable scientific journal while at once disdaining the dismissal altogether of their project by the overwhelming consensus of the reputable scientists who otherwise publish there? Does the fulminating Republican brutalist continue to decry the United Nations even when the report of one of its agencies provides evidence they can selectively and opportunistically deploy in the service of some parochial momentary campaign? Are there shared authorities disputants concede the legitimacy to adjudicate their differences even when the authority non-negligibly sides against them?

It is finally precisely because truths are warranted in history through collective practices -- that is to say, it is precisely their contingency, partiality, sociality, pragmatism, all decried by know-nothings and denialists as the menacing relativism and unseriousness and nihilism of "Nietzscheans" or "Postmoderns" or what have you -- that the ritual artifice, the norms, the criteria, the institutions through which they are substantiated and given their due must be cherished and preserved and defended such as they are.

If you think I am selling you something rather than telling you something in saying these things, I fear you are already altogether sold out.


jollyspaniard said...

Control the past and you control the future. Revisionist history seems to be a big pastime lately. These people need to be embarassed as much as possible.

I've got a bone to pick about your Geoengineering comment. There are people advocating research into Geoengineering who take curbing emissions seriously. There's no guarantee we haven't already gone too far. Our emissions keep climbing and feedback effects worthy of science fiction disaster novels are showing up decades ahead of schedule.

Emissions cuts are the best solution, everyone acknowledges that. That doesn't mean however that there's no such thing as too late.

Dale Carrico said...

I've heard it all before and declare geo-engineering to be utter greenwashing bullshit. There is in fact no-one advocating "research" into geo-engineering stricto sensu inasmuch as there is nobody who can even tell you to what "geo-engineering" is supposed to refer as a coherent body of techniques in the world, even in potentia in distinction from, say, aggregate effects of remediation strategies and renewable techniques already well underway before the corporate-militarist futurologists stepped in with their content-free but oh so portentious neoligism in the usual manner of futurologists whereupon they immediately started pooh-poohing the inevitable failures of mainstream environmentalist organizing, regulation, education, techniques and offering up their CGI cartoons of megascale engineering wet dreams as if they were serious alternatives (again, precisely in the usual way with futurologists). Contrary to your final sentence, I declare that if regulatory politics and comparable mainstream legible interventions fail (and I take your reference to emission standards as synecdochic for the full suite of strong but still mainstream-legible environmentalist proposals), then, yes, it really is too late, in a finite world in which biosphere is possible within bounds that are strained already nearly beyond bearing and can indeed fail, there really is such a thing as too late, and serious people of good will damn well better leave off the infantile magical thinking bullshit. Note that the sorts of untestable unknowable unfathamonably vast scaled ramifyingly consequential geo-engineering schemes that tend really to give the corporate-militarist futurological bullshit artists their most ferocious hard-ons would also have to be funded, regulated, operated via precisely the sorts of politics whose failure presumably renders sooper-futurological alternatives necessary in the first place, thus begging the question why politics that can't work for shit we all actually know would work would suddenly miraculously work for bullshit nobody can even pretend is real let alone plausible. No doubt the fact that most geo-engineering "proposals" enable corporate-militarist-industrial concerns that fucked up the whole planet to assume center stage in these for-profit megascale cleanup operations, whether or not anybody can say they would work or not, is completely irrelevant to their allure for the oh so serious new techno-environmentalist elites who now cheerlead for them to the applause of well heeled corporate pricks and military wonks the world over. I suggest you survey my arguments on the topic archived at the sidebar under the heading "Futurology Against Ecology" in which you will discover as by now you may have suspected already that the bone you had to pick with me has been well picked over by me already, indeed at excruciating length and in a manner perfectly in keeping with the tone of tolerance and moderation and good cheer that so characterizes all my critiques on every subject.

jollyspaniard said...

Nothing is unknowable in climate science. We already have a pretty good idea of the cooling effects of sulphur for instance. It's not an alternative to going zero carbon but a panic button if going zero carbon isn't enough.

It's always being framed as being a stalking horse for something sinister. In reality it's just scientists speculating these people aren't united under a singular agenda.

Do I want geoengineering? No. I don't think anybody in their right mind does. That position changes if the world's climate goes into runaway positive feedback.

Dale Carrico said...

The mistake you are making is fancying that geo-engineering has anything to do with science at all.

"Geo-engineering" is like EVERY futurological topic, a primarily rhetorical formation, the promulgation of an ideological or even theological vantage at most superficially appropriating, organizing, and freighting with emotional and political and narrative significance some science (and usually no small amount of pseudo-science as well) in the service of wish-fulfilment fantasizing, and what I have explained elsewhere as almost always reactionary politics -- hence my futurological brickbat that every futurism is functionally a retro-futurism.

There is of course plenty of science happening at the nanoscale level, there is plenty of molecular biochemistry afoot, but there is no Drexlerian "nanotechnology" that correlates to the futurological topic. There is plenty of non-normativizing prosthetic, genetic, cognitive medicine emerging on the scene but there is no "enhancement" and certainly no "longevity" medicine that correlates to the futurological topic. There is plenty of network security and user-friendly software coding but no "AI" and certainly no "Friendly super AI" that correlates to the futurological topic.

So, too, there is no "geo-engineering" for you to want or not to want. The term has no substance except as a way to direct attention and imagination from mainstream-legible environmentalism onto greenwashing pseudo-environmentalist formations to maintain and even amplify elite-incumbent profit-taking and authority.

Quite apart from whether you agree with me or not, do you grasp now the altogether different nature of the critique I am leveling than the one to which you seemed hitherto to be responding?

Again, if I may ask, have you read the other posts on the topic of "geo-engineering" available at the sidebar since, again, you have raised an issue in this last response I already dealt with at length in an exchange with Jamais Cascio (which I fear ended what had been a friendly relation between us) archived there.

Dale Carrico said...

It's not an alternative to going zero carbon but a panic button if going zero carbon isn't enough.

Repeat this often enough and I can tell you, sure as I'm sitting here, that you will become a collaborator in the ongoing extractive-industrial destruction of the world quite as lethal as the most fulminating climate change denialists.

Collin said...

In other words, if he says the magic words enough times, he'll turn into a zombie.

Do you ever reflect on what you're connoting to others? If so many people consider you a Postmodernist, maybe just maybe they're right?

Dale Carrico said...

Boy, you showed me.