Monday, March 25, 2019

Here Comes the Sun: Plato's marriage of mythos and logos

What we know as Western Philosophy started about twenty-six centuries ago, right at the  boundary between the two rival ancient empires of Greece and Persia. The first philosophers came from the Greek colony of Miletus on the coast of Asia Minor. The originality of their philosophy came from seeking to understand the world, strictly via natural explanations. What is a “natural explanation”? Miletus, was situated on the border between two empires for a natural reason. The Greek Empire was a maritime Empire, like the Phoenicians, so its colonies were situated on Islands or near rivers on the Mediterranean coast, whereas the Persian Empire was a land based Empire, so the Mediterranean coast formed a natural boundary between the two.

Perhaps it was also the invention of writing, which creates a public record, and encourages objectivity, that led the Milesian philosophers to eschew the old form of explanation which up till then, had been religious mythology. Before philosophy, impressive natural phenomena such as our planetary system and the weather, were solely understood as coming from, and explained by, the gods and their supernatural powers.

But the funny thing is, the Philosophers and their natural explanations would probably have been forgotten in the mists of time, if it wasn’t for a particular Athenian philosopher who, two hundred years afterwards, re-introduced myth back into philosophy. The Greek philosopher Plato is justifiably known as the greatest Western philosopher. Unlike virtually every other ancient philosopher, we have every one of Plato’s works in full. That makes him also, the world’s most successful philosopher. I believe that a big reason for Plato’s success was his construction of a powerful image that unconsciously  suggests the superiority of both monarchy and monotheism. Through his particular combination of dialogue and story, Plato gave monotheism a new lease on life, when, except for an obscure desert tribe, it had lain moribund since its origins in Egypt; and it was that, together with his simple didactic writing style, that helped encourage philosophy to grow and flourish in, what would have been, an otherwise hostile world.

Plato’s dialogues, a form of argument that goes back and forth between discussants, are justly famous as didactic devices. Ideally a dialogue teaches both sides of an argument, and indeed, many of Plato’s dialogues end in an impasse between the sides, called an aporia. The form of writing called “dialogues” has no greater exponent than Plato. Countless philosophy and theology students over the last two millennia have read, enjoyed, and learned from them. But they have also been fooled by the excellence of his philosophy to ignore the unconscious power of the little stories that just seem to innocently crop up here and there within the main dialogues.

Philosophy is best known for its use of rational explanations - the Greeks called this logos. Religions are based around stories about God and the gods, which the Greeks called mythos. It was two hundred years after the Milesians invented philosophy, that the Greek philosopher Plato managed to re-introduce myth back into philosophy, with a stunning effect that still has reverberations today.

Plato didn’t have a theory of truth, although his most famous student, Aristotle, did. But in many dialogues written by Plato, he told the story of his teacher Socrates’ pursuit of truth; and in one particular dialogue - The Republic - created a powerful image to symbolize the life of Socrates and his pursuit of truth - in The Parable of the Cave. When you hear talk of “The Truth”, as if truth is one answer to one question, and somehow the “enlightened one,” has received “The Truth”, ultimately, from a singular source, Aka - “The Light”- this goes straight back to Plato’s Parable of the Cave, written twenty-four centuries ago. Here it is, in a nutshell:

Imagine a group of prisoners kept in a cave their entire lives, chained to a wall, so that they can only see shadows cast by the fire. Now imagine one of the prisoners somehow escaping the chains and the cave by ascending to an opening in the ground. The first thing that happens when he gets out is that he is temporarily blinded by the sun. Slowly it "dawns" on him that, what, in the cave, he took for reality, is but shadows, because he realizes that the sun is the real source of illumination and of life. Suppose further, that the former prisoner is inspired to go back down into the cave and tell the other prisoners the truth about what’s really out there. The first thing that happens to him when he goes back into the cave is that he can’t see in the dark. He ends up blindly fumbling around, and has a difficult time convincing the rest of the prisoners, who can see better than he in the dark, that there is a brilliant reality up above.

Consider this: someone discovers an amazing “truth”. He tries to tell others of his great discovery but no one will listen. Would that have sounded familiar, even if you’ve never heard of Plato or his parable? The Parable of the Cave is one of the founding myths of western civilization. It appears to be buried deep in our collective consciousness.The power and longevity of that myth is what is behind saying: “I’ve seen the light”; behind calling an idea or a person “brilliant”; behind the famous prologue of the fourth New Testament gospel, John I, 5: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it;” behind Jesus’s declaration in John: “I am the way, the truth, and the life;” and behind Blake’s famous image of the “doors of perception”.

I can imagine being challenged here: "Where is your evidence?” It just seems obvious to me that the author of the Gospel of John was familiar with Plato’s parable, because he is using the imagery of light, darkness, and ascent in the same way. The New Testament Gospels were originally written in Greek, four hundred years after Plato wrote The Republic. There was, at the time of the written gospels, a large group of early Christians called  “gnostics” who seemed to have been directly influenced by Plato’s mythological writings, in this case, not just the parable of the cave, but also the “Myth of Er”, that comes right at the end of The Republic, and the myth of “the Demiurge” in the dialogue - Timaeus.

Note that the parable of the cave is not Plato’s theory of truth, because it is not an argument - there is no logos here. This is the type of story Plato himself, in the same book, The Republic, calls a “Noble Lie”; and, as a myth it does its work via the unconscious, not by reasoned argument. This myth powerfully equates truth with light and darkness with ignorance. It suggests that The Truth comes from a single source -the sun - a source which seemed immutable, infinite, and the origin of all life and knowledge.  Without even thinking we come to associate the idea of hierarchy and authority with the sun, and this image provides the perfect blank canvas for many future justifications of monotheism and political elitism. Here you have monotheistic theology and monotheistic epistemology all in one package, and basically burned into our collective consciousness by the sheer power of Plato’s imagery.

You may be thinking, how could The Parable of the Cave be so powerful an influence, it's just a dumb little story? One could say, it was just the right idea, at the right time. You see, over time it becomes harder and harder to believe in the literal truth of supernatural explanations. According to the account in Genesis in the Hebrew Bible, God creates humans from dust, and sometime later gets angry because they are having sex with giants, and decides to drown the lot of them (except for one particularly pious patriarch and his family); and sometime later curses the surviving humans with mutually unintelligible languages, so that they can’t finish building a tower that seems, to God, to be too high;  and it’s not much better in any other myth of origin. Surely, one wants a more mature, a more ideal picture of God - a God who is Perfect, The All Knowing Source of all Illumination and Knowledge, Infinite in Power, Immutable, etc., etc...

If religion is going to get big and institutional, it needs a system of ultimate justification that can impress larger groups of people, groups that may be large enough to include people from different cultures. If forms of government are to be stable, it stands to reason that you need some kind of ultimate justification for the government’s authority. Something like the divine right of kings, that connects a human institution - monarchy - to a theology - an understanding of divinity. And Plato obliges by supplying all the basic ingredients, partly out of foresight, but mainly because he wanted to construct a Mighty Bulwark against the pluralism and relativism of his Greek opponents, the Sophists and the Poets.

And what is Plato’s famous “divided line” from The Republic, but a schema of the Shamanic world tree? The one with its roots in the underworld, it’s middle in this world, and it’s upper reaches piercing the heavens. The shaman is said to perform his rituals in a darkened yurt, with a fire in the middle, and a smoke-hole in the top-center. A pole, used to symbolize the world tree,  runs from the ground through the smoke-hole, and up above the yurt, and the shaman, after a drum induced, or drug induced trance, is said to ascend the world tree and visit all of the three, or five, or seven “worlds” that the inscribed divisions on the pole might correspond to. Eventually the shaman emerges from trance and speaks of his adventures to his audience in the darkened yurt, recounting the knowledge he’s gained in the other worlds.

Is it a coincidence that both the “the cave” and the “divided line” have parallels to ancient shamanism? Plato was obviously aware of the Greek Oracles, as well as the mystery religions, both of which probably had elements in common with Shamanism.

It’s notable too, that Plato’s Parable has a lot of vertical action going on, namely, going up out of the cave into the bright sunshine, then going back down into the darkness of the cave. This is also a reverse schematic of Resurrection, going from death to life, then back to death again. Note how it mirrors the path of the sun, which is born in the morning and dies at night. It is no coincidence that Socrates death and Plato’s resurrection of Socrates status as the great philosopher, are there in the background of this myth, four hundred years before Jesus. Socrates was not a popular philosopher in Athens. Plato, through his dialogues has made his teacher famous for all time. In doing so with such imagination and vigor, I believe he rescued philosophy itself from oblivion.

Remember, all of Plato’s works survive today, twenty-four centuries later; some of the works of Aristotle have survived; but, very little of the works of any other ancient philosophers have survived. Plato obviously did something right, and we can all learn from him.

What Plato did, by inserting mythological stories into his dialogues, was to attract maximum attention to his philosophy, making it more memorable, and above all, with his parable of the cave, making monotheism and monarchy seem more natural and attractive. After Plato’s death, a long line of religious and secular authorities recognized his superiority over other philosophers and used his ideas to advantage: Plotinus, the anonymous writer of the fourth gospel, Augustine,  and others. For all we know, all the rest of philosophy, and the very idea of universal natural explanations, which eventually became what we know today as science, may only have survived because it first rode on Plato’s coattails.

Friday, November 23, 2018


According to Wikipedia, propaganda is:
"...information that is not objective and is used primarily to influence an audience and further an agenda, often by presenting facts selectively to produce an emotional rather than a rational response..."

This may sound like a good definition, but it casts a pretty wide net.  Firstly, objectivity is a worthy ideal, but it comes largely in degrees, and is never more than approximated in our day to day communication.  In point of fact, all communication is used to influence, to further agendas, and all types of communication present facts selectively.  This is true, not for nefarious reasons, but because we always have purposes in communicating, and in the act of fulfilling these purposes we are intentionally influencing people,  presenting facts selectively, and furthering some agenda. Where this is a bad thing is when someone sets out deliberately to deceive people in order to get them to accept a version of reality that benefits a particular group of people, in opposition to the wider, public good. 

However, propaganda can be used for good effect, it can be used by democratic governments to increase civic involvement, to make their citizens feel good about being citizens, leading to greater overall cooperation. “Uncle Sam Needs You!”   That sort of thing.   So, where did  the word “propaganda” originate from?   It came from seventeenth century Catholicism,  which had an organization called “the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith”  which was charged with spreading the faith to heathen countries.

To early seventeenth century Europeans, “propaganda”  meant propagating the faith; that was seen as an unquestionably good thing .  Since then, a lot of water has flowed under the bridge and now the common point of view is that propaganda is something dark and negative.  To simplify:   with Martin Luther, the Catholics had a serious competitor and his propaganda was not welcome in Catholic countries, nor, it may be said, was Roman Catholic propaganda welcome in Protestant countries.  After a few hundred years of religious wars the dilemma of propaganda has seemed to reach a kind of impasse - what one says is the truth the other calls propaganda.

 Let us now see if we can get any further looking at the concept of propaganda as it is used in secular politics.  Today, in Canada and the United States, we live in  countries with  democratic political systems.  We like to think of democracies as stable well-managed political systems that represent the public interest in a fair process of deliberation.  But what if the democratic deliberative process itself is hijacked by a particular group?  This possibility is the dilemma of propaganda in modern democratic systems.

It seems to me, and I’m following the lead of philosopher Jason Stanley, in his book How Propaganda Works,  that the way out of this dilemma is to accept that the most important moral dividing line to observe is between propaganda that supports democracy and propaganda that undermines democracy.

 In speaking about propaganda there is a theme that we cannot evade talking about -  the problem of rising inequality.  It’s important to understand why it is important.   Democracy is about representation.  When one person or group dominates a political system, there is only narrow representation.  The interests of the majority can be ignored and dismissed while the institutions of the state are corrupted to serve the interests of the few.  That is why inequality erodes democratic institutions.

Thus, it is no surprise that propaganda has become more demagogic and deceptive as inequality has increased in North America and other places around the world.  The bigger the difference between rich and poor, the more likely the rich will try to seize power in order to prevent the rest of the population from threatening their wealth and status.  And since the wealthy cannot seize power in a democratic system by being honest about wanting to protect their status, they will be inexorably tempted to use deception and demagoguery.

Note, that entrenched inequality is not a threat to authoritarian or political systems because their very reason for existing is to further inequality.   In fact, it is a major way that authoritarian political systems prop themselves up and keep themselves going.  Authoritarian systems are set up to favour one group over all other groups in society.  Propaganda that serves to conceal this fact is the default mode of communication for authoritarian states; it is the everyday means by which any authoritarian regime communicates with its populace.

   As Stanley argues, propaganda is more of an issue in democratic systems because the bad kind is a direct threat to democracy.  He points out that the  bad propaganda or “demagoguery”, was first described by Plato, in his book, The Republic, written twenty-four hundred years ago, it is a message that on the surface appears to be supporting democracy but the real intention is to subvert the democratic system.

 For instance vote suppression, widespread in Southern states, is deceptively claimed to be protecting the voting system against “voter fraud” in the absence of evidence of any widespread voter fraud.  It is marketed as a way of protecting democracy when it’s real intended effect is to disenfranchise ethnic or low income groups from exercising their right to vote.

 The current Trump Presidency is in a class all by itself when it comes to examples of demagoguery.   For instance Trump’s focus on immigration and the immigrant caravans from Central America, weeks before the 2018 midterm election, was intended to heighten passions and inflame tensions in order to motivate his followers to get out and vote. The result was that more Republicans got out to vote in the midterms than might have otherwise if Trump had not stoked racial fears.  Getting more people to vote seems to support democracy doesn’t it?

 As Stanley emphasizes, using racial prejudice to motivate voters in elections harms the deliberative process in democracies, because it makes it more difficult to have rational discussions about immigration, social welfare and other important issues when certain groups are targeted as less worthy of consideration.  We only have to look at  the amount of child poverty, poor educational results, poor access to medicine for low income groups, diminished life expectancies, and poor post-partum survival statistics to realize that America is an outlier on major measures of public health, given its per capita GNP.  To stoke fears about immigrants is really about playing to people’s prejudice, and what it does is make it far harder for anyone to deal constructively with issues like immigration, public health, and social welfare.

During the 1920’s and 1930’s the Nazis also pushed immigration as a hot-button issue and stoked racial prejudice against Jews, Eastern Europeans and Gypsies  But notice, if you look at what historians view as the major problems hounding the German Weimar Republic:  for instance, hyperinflation, widespread poverty after WWI, crippling reparation payments, The Great Depression -  the so-called problem of immigration is notable by its absence. In effect, fears about immigrants appears to have been a delusive fear not based on reality.    In hindsight we can see that Hitler used racial fears about “outsiders” to manipulate the electorate and keep them oblivious to the dangers of his totalitarian rule.

Since the invention and widespread use of the internet and social networks on the internet we are seeing the rise of a new danger.  We saw it first come to prominence in the U.S. Presidential election of 2016, when Vladimir Putin outsourced computer hacking and trolling to shadowy individuals and organizations dedicated to one of  Putin’s prime goals - that of weakening the Western Alliance.    It is also a homegrown phenomenon in the U.S. perfected by Steve Bannon and Breitbart News, where propaganda is effectively outsourced to private individuals and groups om social media to sow hatred and prejudice.

Something just as alarming is the mushrooming of conspiracy theories on youtube and on the internet,  also specialised in by the Kremlin via it’s T.V. mouthpiece: Russia Today.  Trump himself is no stranger to this form of propaganda; during the Obama Presidency  he actively promoted a discredited conspiracy theory that President Obama was born in Kenya. Conspiracy theories like Birtherism and the 9/11 “Truther” conspiracy are like hidden corrosives to the  democratic system.  The more people believe them the less they trust the government and the media, and the safer they feel inside of a bubble of fellow “truthers”.  This makes them all the more susceptible to the next conspiracy theory or, and this is more dangerous, it makes them susceptible to trusting someone like Trump who seemingly creates his own reality and “alternative facts” whenever he likes.

Thursday, October 25, 2018


 Civility is a common pool resource. A common pool resource is a resource that is shared in common by a group of people.   It is protected and preserved through an agreement with easy to follow rules that everyone agrees to follow and to enforce together. Everyone both practices and benefits from civility,  but there is no one person or group in charge of enforcing it, because everyone already participates in enforcement.

 Suppose that some one in a  group starts taking more from a common resource than is allowed.  What does this do to the resource?  If the rule-breaker is not stopped by the rest of the group he or she will inspire imitators, and soon people will cheat and undermine the agreement;  then people can see that a minority is taking more for themselves, so more people abandon the agreement; soon the common resource is depleted and becomes less available, or it goes extinct. This process is often called the tragedy of the commons.  But commons have some history of being wisely regulated by group agreements, as the Nobel Prize economist Elinor Ostrom has shown.

Civility is a common pool resource.  Civility allows the people of any group to get along with each other.  It makes civilization possible.  Civility allows us to have  all these interactions between strangers, between coworkers, between different levels of hierarchies, between employees and members of the public at large, all in ways that avoid intimidation and violence.

 When civility breaks down, it destroys cooperation;  and it needs to be quickly repaired or else it can corrode society from the inside  because it creates a poisonous atmosphere where no one appears trustworthy, more people become hostile, and the level of violence increases.  Needless to say, the absence of civility hurts productivity in many different ways.

When our leaders display incivility it is one of the worst kinds of erosion of a public good.  The leader sets an example.  If he or she is allowed to get away with incivility, many others will be inspired to do the same, radically lowering the level of civility in all of society.

What about protest movements? Aren't these a form of incivility?  In the sixties, the civil rights movement was protesting against institutional discrimination and the absence of civil rights for blacks. A movement like Civil Rights can seem disruptive to a significant number of people because they themselves may have benefited from the discrimination in the first place.  If the rules as they are enforced are  manifestly unfair, the apparent  civility may be a  sham, existing only by virtue of physical force and intimidation.

In contrast, attacks on political correctness, although seemingly legitimate complaints, are not objections to unfair rules, they can often be attempts to restigmatize and remarginalize previously disadvantaged groups.  These attacks are contributions to a larger agenda of strengthening formerly dominant groups by attacking the weak and formerly oppressed groups -  the modus operandi of Fascism.

 Civility is a common pool resource.   it makes it possible for the participants of every human group to share information,  to arbitrate disputes, to have fair exchange, and to facilitate mutual help in times of need.  We are in trouble when we start to lose civility.  Remember, it is a common pool resource.  What that means in practice is that the pool of civility can be depleted if enough people trample on the rules.  When civility is gone it then becomes far more difficult for a group to regain it than it would have been to maintain it in the first place, and that is because it is a common pool resource.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

George Soros, Davos 2018  on IT Monopolies:

"I want to spend the bulk of my remaining time on another global problem: the rise and monopolistic behavior of the giant IT platform companies. These companies have often played an innovative and liberating role. But as Facebook and Google have grown into ever more powerful monopolies, they have become obstacles to innovation, and they have caused a variety of problems of which we are only now beginning to become aware.

Companies earn their profits by exploiting their environment. Mining and oil companies exploit the physical environment; social media companies exploit the social environment. This is particularly nefarious because social media companies influence how people think and behave without them even being aware of it. This has far-reaching adverse consequences on the functioning of democracy, particularly on the integrity of elections.

The distinguishing feature of internet platform companies is that they are networks and they enjoy rising marginal returns; that accounts for their phenomenal growth. The network effect is truly unprecedented and transformative, but it is also unsustainable. It took Facebook eight and a half years to reach a billion users and half that time to reach the second billion. At this rate, Facebook will run out of people to convert in less than 3 years.

Facebook and Google effectively control over half of all internet advertising revenue. To maintain their dominance, they need to expand their networks and increase their share of users’ attention. Currently they do this by providing users with a convenient platform. The more time users spend on the platform, the more valuable they become to the companies.

Content providers also contribute to the profitability of social media companies because they cannot avoid using the platforms and they have to accept whatever terms they are offered.

The exceptional profitability of these companies is largely a function of their avoiding responsibility for-- and avoiding paying for-- the content on their platforms.

They claim they are merely distributing information. But the fact that they are near- monopoly distributors makes them public utilities and should subject them to more stringent regulations, aimed at preserving competition, innovation, and fair and open universal access.

The business model of social media companies is based on advertising. Their true customers are the advertisers. But gradually a new business model is emerging, based not only on advertising but on selling products and services directly to users. They exploit the data they control, bundle the services they offer and use discriminatory pricing to keep for themselves more of the benefits that otherwise they would have to share with consumers. This enhances their profitability even further – but the bundling of services and discriminatory pricing undermine the efficiency of the market economy.

Social media companies deceive their users by manipulating their attention and directing it towards their own commercial purposes. They deliberately engineer addiction to the services they provide. This can be very harmful, particularly for adolescents. There is a similarity between internet platforms and gambling companies. Casinos have developed techniques to hook gamblers to the point where they gamble away all their money, even money they don’t have.

Something very harmful and maybe irreversible is happening to human attention in our digital age. Not just distraction or addiction; social media companies are inducing people to give up their autonomy. The power to shape people’s attention is increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few companies. It takes a real effort to assert and defend what John Stuart Mill called “the freedom of mind.” There is a possibility that once lost, people who grow up in the digital age will have difficulty in regaining it. This may have far-reaching political consequences. People without the freedom of mind can be easily manipulated. This danger does not loom only in the future; it already played an important role in the 2016 US presidential elections.

But there is an even more alarming prospect on the horizon. There could be an alliance between authoritarian states and these large, data-rich IT monopolies that would bring together nascent systems of corporate surveillance with an already developed system of state-sponsored surveillance. This may well result in a web of totalitarian control the likes of which not even Aldous Huxley or George Orwell could have imagined.

The countries in which such unholy marriages are likely to occur first are Russia and China. The Chinese IT companies in particular are fully equal to the American ones. They also enjoy the full support and protection of the Xi Jingping regime. The government of China is strong enough to protect its national champions, at least within its borders. 

US-based IT monopolies are already tempted to compromise themselves in order to gain entrance to these vast and fast growing markets. The dictatorial leaders in these countries may be only too happy to collaborate with them since they want to improve their methods of control over their own populations and expand their power and influence in the United States and the rest of the world."

Saturday, July 15, 2017

In Memoriam: Liu Xiaobo 1955 -2017

The following translation was retrieved from the New York Review of Books Web site  I. Foreword
A hundred years have passed since the writing of China's first constitution. 2008 also marks the sixtieth anniversary of the promulgation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the thirtieth anniversary of the appearance of Democracy Wall in Beijing, and the tenth of China's signing of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. We are approaching the twentieth anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre of pro-democracy student protesters. The Chinese people, who have endured human rights disasters and uncountable struggles across these same years, now include many who see clearly that freedom, equality, and human rights are universal values of humankind and that democracy and constitutional government are the fundamental framework for protecting these values.
By departing from these values, the Chinese government's approach to "modernization" has proven disastrous. It has stripped people of their rights, destroyed their dignity, and corrupted normal human intercourse. So we ask: Where is China headed in the twenty-first century? Will it continue with "modernization" under authoritarian rule, or will it embrace universal human values, join the mainstream of civilized nations, and build a democratic system? There can be no avoiding these questions.
The shock of the Western impact upon China in the nineteenth century laid bare a decadent authoritarian system and marked the beginning of what is often called "the greatest changes in thousands of years" for China. A "self-strengthening movement" followed, but this aimed simply at appropriating the technology to build gunboats and other Western material objects. China's humiliating naval defeat at the hands of Japan in 1895 only confirmed the obsolescence of China's system of government. The first attempts at modern political change came with the ill-fated summer of reforms in 1898, but these were cruelly crushed by ultraconservatives at China's imperial court. With the revolution of 1911, which inaugurated Asia's first republic, the authoritarian imperial system that had lasted for centuries was finally supposed to have been laid to rest. But social conflict inside our country and external pressures were to prevent it; China fell into a patchwork of warlord fiefdoms and the new republic became a fleeting dream.
The failure of both "self-strengthening" and political renovation caused many of our forebears to reflect deeply on whether a "cultural illness" was afflicting our country. This mood gave rise, during the May Fourth Movement of the late 1910s, to the championing of "science and democracy." Yet that effort, too, foundered as warlord chaos persisted and the Japanese invasion [beginning in Manchuria in 1931] brought national crisis.
Victory over Japan in 1945 offered one more chance for China to move toward modern government, but the Communist defeat of the Nationalists in the civil war thrust the nation into the abyss of totalitarianism. The "new China" that emerged in 1949 proclaimed that "the people are sovereign" but in fact set up a system in which "the Party is all-powerful." The Communist Party of China seized control of all organs of the state and all political, economic, and social resources, and, using these, has produced a long trail of human rights disasters, including, among many others, the Anti-Rightist Campaign (1957), the Great Leap Forward (1958–1960), the Cultural Revolution (1966–1969), the June Fourth [Tiananmen Square] Massacre (1989), and the current repression of all unauthorized religions and the suppression of the weiquan rights movement [a movement that aims to defend citizens’ rights promulgated in the Chinese Constitution and to fight for human rights recognized by international conventions that the Chinese government has signed]. During all this, the Chinese people have paid a gargantuan price. Tens of millions have lost their lives, and several generations have seen their freedom, their happiness, and their human dignity cruelly trampled.
During the last two decades of the twentieth century the government policy of “Reform and Opening” gave the Chinese people relief from the pervasive poverty and totalitarianism of the Mao Zedong era, and brought substantial increases in the wealth and living standards of many Chinese as well as a partial restoration of economic freedom and economic rights. Civil society began to grow, and popular calls for more rights and more political freedom have grown apace. As the ruling elite itself moved toward private ownership and the market economy, it began to shift from an outright rejection of “rights” to a partial acknowledgment of them.
In 1998 the Chinese government signed two important international human rights conventions; in 2004 it amended its constitution to include the phrase “respect and protect human rights”; and this year, 2008, it has promised to promote a “national human rights action plan.” Unfortunately most of this political progress has extended no further than the paper on which it is written. The political reality, which is plain for anyone to see, is that China has many laws but no rule of law; it has a constitution but no constitutional government. The ruling elite continues to cling to its authoritarian power and fights off any move toward political change.
The stultifying results are endemic official corruption, an undermining of the rule of law, weak human rights, decay in public ethics, crony capitalism, growing inequality between the wealthy and the poor, pillage of the natural environment as well as of the human and historical environments, and the exacerbation of a long list of social conflicts, especially, in recent times, a sharpening animosity between officials and ordinary people.
As these conflicts and crises grow ever more intense, and as the ruling elite continues with impunity to crush and to strip away the rights of citizens to freedom, to property, and to the pursuit of happiness, we see the powerless in our society—the vulnerable groups, the people who have been suppressed and monitored, who have suffered cruelty and even torture, and who have had no adequate avenues for their protests, no courts to hear their pleas—becoming more militant and raising the possibility of a violent conflict of disastrous proportions. The decline of the current system has reached the point where change is no longer optional.

II. Our Fundamental Principles

This is a historic moment for China, and our future hangs in the balance. In reviewing the political modernization process of the past hundred years or more, we reiterate and endorse basic universal values as follows:
Freedom. Freedom is at the core of universal human values. Freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, freedom of association, freedom in where to live, and the freedoms to strike, to demonstrate, and to protest, among others, are the forms that freedom takes. Without freedom, China will always remain far from civilized ideals.
Human rights. Human rights are not bestowed by a state. Every person is born with inherent rights to dignity and freedom. The government exists for the protection of the human rights of its citizens. The exercise of state power must be authorized by the people. The succession of political disasters in China’s recent history is a direct consequence of the ruling regime’s disregard for human rights.
Equality. The integrity, dignity, and freedom of every person—regardless of social station, occupation, sex, economic condition, ethnicity, skin color, religion, or political belief—are the same as those of any other. Principles of equality before the law and equality of social, economic, cultural, civil, and political rights must be upheld.
Republicanism. Republicanism, which holds that power should be balanced among different branches of government and competing interests should be served, resembles the traditional Chinese political ideal of “fairness in all under heaven.” It allows different interest groups and social assemblies, and people with a variety of cultures and beliefs, to exercise democratic self-government and to deliberate in order to reach peaceful resolution of public questions on a basis of equal access to government and free and fair competition.
Democracy. The most fundamental principles of democracy are that the people are sovereign and the people select their government. Democracy has these characteristics: (1) Political power begins with the people and the legitimacy of a regime derives from the people. (2) Political power is exercised through choices that the people make. (3) The holders of major official posts in government at all levels are determined through periodic competitive elections. (4) While honoring the will of the majority, the fundamental dignity, freedom, and human rights of minorities are protected. In short, democracy is a modern means for achieving government truly “of the people, by the people, and for the people.”
Constitutional rule. Constitutional rule is rule through a legal system and legal regulations to implement principles that are spelled out in a constitution. It means protecting the freedom and the rights of citizens, limiting and defining the scope of legitimate government power, and providing the administrative apparatus necessary to serve these ends.

III. What We Advocate

Authoritarianism is in general decline throughout the world; in China, too, the era of emperors and overlords is on the way out. The time is arriving everywhere for citizens to be masters of states. For China the path that leads out of our current predicament is to divest ourselves of the authoritarian notion of reliance on an “enlightened overlord” or an “honest official” and to turn instead toward a system of liberties, democracy, and the rule of law, and toward fostering the consciousness of modern citizens who see rights as fundamental and participation as a duty. Accordingly, and in a spirit of this duty as responsible and constructive citizens, we offer the following recommendations on national governance, citizens’ rights, and social development:
1. A New Constitution. We should recast our present constitution, rescinding its provisions that contradict the principle that sovereignty resides with the people and turning it into a document that genuinely guarantees human rights, authorizes the exercise of public power, and serves as the legal underpinning of China’s democratization. The constitution must be the highest law in the land, beyond violation by any individual, group, or political party.
2. Separation of Powers. We should construct a modern government in which the separation of legislative, judicial, and executive power is guaranteed. We need an Administrative Law that defines the scope of government responsibility and prevents abuse of administrative power. Government should be responsible to taxpayers. Division of power between provincial governments and the central government should adhere to the principle that central powers are only those specifically granted by the constitution and all other powers belong to the local governments.
3. Legislative Democracy. Members of legislative bodies at all levels should be chosen by direct election, and legislative democracy should observe just and impartial principles.
4. An Independent Judiciary. The rule of law must be above the interests of any particular political party and judges must be independent. We need to establish a constitutional supreme court and institute procedures for constitutional review. As soon as possible, we should abolish all of the Committees on Political and Legal Affairs that now allow Communist Party officials at every level to decide politically sensitive cases in advance and out of court. We should strictly forbid the use of public offices for private purposes.
5. Public Control of Public Servants. The military should be made answerable to the national government, not to a political party, and should be made more professional. Military personnel should swear allegiance to the constitution and remain nonpartisan. Political party organizations must be prohibited in the military. All public officials including police should serve as nonpartisans, and the current practice of favoring one political party in the hiring of public servants must end.
6. Guarantee of Human Rights. There must be strict guarantees of human rights and respect for human dignity. There should be a Human Rights Committee, responsible to the highest legislative body, that will prevent the government from abusing public power in violation of human rights. A democratic and constitutional China especially must guarantee the personal freedom of citizens. No one should suffer illegal arrest, detention, arraignment, interrogation, or punishment. The system of “Reeducation through Labor” must be abolished.
7. Election of Public Officials. There should be a comprehensive system of democratic elections based on “one person, one vote.” The direct election of administrative heads at the levels of county, city, province, and nation should be systematically implemented. The rights to hold periodic free elections and to participate in them as a citizen are inalienable.
8. Rural–Urban Equality. The two-tier household registry system must be abolished. This system favors urban residents and harms rural residents. We should establish instead a system that gives every citizen the same constitutional rights and the same freedom to choose where to live.
9. Freedom to Form Groups. The right of citizens to form groups must be guaranteed. The current system for registering nongovernment groups, which requires a group to be “approved,” should be replaced by a system in which a group simply registers itself. The formation of political parties should be governed by the constitution and the laws, which means that we must abolish the special privilege of one party to monopolize power and must guarantee principles of free and fair competition among political parties.
10. Freedom to Assemble. The constitution provides that peaceful assembly, demonstration, protest, and freedom of expression are fundamental rights of a citizen. The ruling party and the government must not be permitted to subject these to illegal interference or unconstitutional obstruction.
11. Freedom of Expression. We should make freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and academic freedom universal, thereby guaranteeing that citizens can be informed and can exercise their right of political supervision. These freedoms should be upheld by a Press Law that abolishes political restrictions on the press. The provision in the current Criminal Law that refers to “the crime of incitement to subvert state power” must be abolished. We should end the practice of viewing words as crimes.
12. Freedom of Religion. We must guarantee freedom of religion and belief, and institute a separation of religion and state. There must be no governmental interference in peaceful religious activities. We should abolish any laws, regulations, or local rules that limit or suppress the religious freedom of citizens. We should abolish the current system that requires religious groups (and their places of worship) to get official approval in advance and substitute for it a system in which registry is optional and, for those who choose to register, automatic.
13. Civic Education. In our schools we should abolish political curriculums and examinations that are designed to indoctrinate students in state ideology and to instill support for the rule of one party. We should replace them with civic education that advances universal values and citizens’ rights, fosters civic consciousness, and promotes civic virtues that serve society.
14. Protection of Private Property. We should establish and protect the right to private property and promote an economic system of free and fair markets. We should do away with government monopolies in commerce and industry and guarantee the freedom to start new enterprises. We should establish a Committee on State-Owned Property, reporting to the national legislature, that will monitor the transfer of state-owned enterprises to private ownership in a fair, competitive, and orderly manner. We should institute a land reform that promotes private ownership of land, guarantees the right to buy and sell land, and allows the true value of private property to be adequately reflected in the market.
15. Financial and Tax Reform. We should establish a democratically regulated and accountable system of public finance that ensures the protection of taxpayer rights and that operates through legal procedures. We need a system by which public revenues that belong to a certain level of government—central, provincial, county or local—are controlled at that level. We need major tax reform that will abolish any unfair taxes, simplify the tax system, and spread the tax burden fairly. Government officials should not be able to raise taxes, or institute new ones, without public deliberation and the approval of a democratic assembly. We should reform the ownership system in order to encourage competition among a wider variety of market participants.
16. Social Security. We should establish a fair and adequate social security system that covers all citizens and ensures basic access to education, health care, retirement security, and employment.
17. Protection of the Environment. We need to protect the natural environment and to promote development in a way that is sustainable and responsible to our descendants and to the rest of humanity. This means insisting that the state and its officials at all levels not only do what they must do to achieve these goals, but also accept the supervision and participation of nongovernmental organizations.
18. A Federated Republic. A democratic China should seek to act as a responsible major power contributing toward peace and development in the Asian Pacific region by approaching others in a spirit of equality and fairness. In Hong Kong and Macao, we should support the freedoms that already exist. With respect to Taiwan, we should declare our commitment to the principles of freedom and democracy and then, negotiating as equals and ready to compromise, seek a formula for peaceful unification. We should approach disputes in the national-minority areas of China with an open mind, seeking ways to find a workable framework within which all ethnic and religious groups can flourish. We should aim ultimately at a federation of democratic communities of China.
19. Truth in Reconciliation. We should restore the reputations of all people, including their family members, who suffered political stigma in the political campaigns of the past or who have been labeled as criminals because of their thought, speech, or faith. The state should pay reparations to these people. All political prisoners and prisoners of conscience must be released. There should be a Truth Investigation Commission charged with finding the facts about past injustices and atrocities, determining responsibility for them, upholding justice, and, on these bases, seeking social reconciliation.
China, as a major nation of the world, as one of five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, and as a member of the UN Council on Human Rights, should be contributing to peace for humankind and progress toward human rights. Unfortunately, we stand today as the only country among the major nations that remains mired in authoritarian politics. Our political system continues to produce human rights disasters and social crises, thereby not only constricting China’s own development but also limiting the progress of all of human civilization. This must change, truly it must. The democratization of Chinese politics can be put off no longer.
Accordingly, we dare to put civic spirit into practice by announcing Charter 08. We hope that our fellow citizens who feel a similar sense of crisis, responsibility, and mission, whether they are inside the government or not, and regardless of their social status, will set aside small differences to embrace the broad goals of this citizens’ movement. Together we can work for major changes in Chinese society and for the rapid establishment of a free, democratic, and constitutional country. We can bring to reality the goals and ideals that our people have incessantly been seeking for more than a hundred years, and can bring a brilliant new chapter to Chinese civilization.
Translated from the Chinese by Perry Link

Monday, June 19, 2017

Drumming and Normativity

Perhaps the first sound we ever hear is our mother's heartbeat, and the last thing we hear may be our own.  The heartbeat's tempo, regularity, and  its steady repetition is what sets the pace for all of the many things that we do in our lives.  That beat becomes slow and steady when we fall asleep, but in times of stress the heart beats faster to facilitate the incredible bursts of energy that may be required to get us out of danger.

Analogous to  the way that the heart pumps blood to the muscles and makes action possible, we can say that the drum beat drives the music forward.  The softer, the quieter the drums, the more laid back the music.  The louder and more insistent the drums the higher the energy  becomes.   The drums and percussion are the instruments most felt by the entire body.  We instinctively move to the beat of a drum, we can't help it.     

But the heart, together with all the other organs in the body, is a team player.  So too, the drums.  In drumming, control is everything.  As a drummer I have the power to command and overwhelm the entire band, but, if I exercise that power and drown them out I become persona non grata.

If I were a chimpanzee like Jane Goodall’s “Mike”,  who became the alpha dominant by capitalizing on the noise and confusion caused by his clanging and banging empty fifty gallon oil drums together, then I could dominate all the apes around me with my awesome drum set.  But humans usually don’t tolerate that kind of domination.  I would get absolutely nowhere with any band I can think of, unless I exercised restraint.

There is something about percussion that mirrors normativity itself.  The huge Silverback Gorilla who beats his chest, the alpha male chimpanzee who slams a tree branch against the ground - these close relatives of ours maintain their absolute dominance by bluffing with loud percussive sounds that signal their power and ambition without the necessity of having to fight it out.

We can reproduce a similar kind of compulsion and power with percussion instruments.  The thunder of Tympanies, the deep and explosive sound of  Gongs, the clarity and sustaining sound of a huge Bell - they all have the power to break us out of our trajectories, to refocus our attention, to summon us.

Humans, unlike the apes and other animals, work together through agreement and cooperation and resist overt domination.  This is reflected in music, especially in the relation between the percussion section and the rest of the band. Like the heartbeat the drummer sets the pace, but he’s got to be in sync with the other players.  The drumbeat drives the music forward, but the drummer has to fit-in with everybody else, constraining his volume, keeping the tempo steady, but continually facilitating and reflecting the energy level of the other musicians at the same time.  

Birds have beautiful, but mostly solitary songs, wolves howl together, elephants trumpet, but animals never achieve a cumulative  body of knowledge and culture the way humans do.  I believe that the key to this difference is in normativity,  our collective adherence to  rules.

 Music is a collective human phenomenon. It’s possible to play music by yourself, but it really requires a collectivity to get it off the ground - to compose music, to build up a repertoire of songs, to form styles and traditions,  to produce musical instruments, to train musicians, to build  audiences and to make  musical performance possible.

Music itself, like all other human pursuits, is rule-governed.  It is the rules of music, the scales, harmonies, time signatures, tempos, and controlled dynamics that allow for such creativity and cooperation.  But wait, there’s more!   There is another way that music reflects human life, and is the reason why music is so emotionally appealing.  

Music reflects the ceaseless changing activity that comprises life. Think of what a Beethoven Symphony and ongoing life have in common.   Things happen, events unfold, sometimes slowly, other times quickly;  there are different themes that are introduced by different individuals;  some of these themes drop out, but some get stronger as more people join in.  Things happen, and different things coalesce;  they can change dramatically, they can evolve in expected or unexpected ways;  themes that had dropped out previously can reappear and join in with the chorus. The music can build and build, creating a tension and then release as the musical phrasing reaches a climax and frames an ending.

Not all music is as complex as a Beethoven symphony, but it is easy to see how tempos, patterns,  changes, progressions, transformations, and repetitions in music can evoke our experience of everyday life.  Music may be rule-governed, but it’s largely the way that music moves our bodies and interacts with and mirrors our feelings that forms the basis of its appeal.

Getting back to drumming, there’s a strong connection between certain time signatures such as 2/4 and walking.  Left right, left right, maps onto one two, one two,  which is why drumming is so prominent in marches.  When two people walk together they  often walk in unison.  It’s often done unconsciously, in fact it is a neurological phenomenon called “entrainment”.   This can be seen in a more deliberate fashion, in military marches, and it is definitely facilitated by drumming. Entrainment can have a powerful emotional effect on us, partly because when it is happening we perceive the group acting as a single organism.  

Drumming can also induce trance, sometimes because of the monotony of some repetitive beats and sometimes because, when one hears two complex beats simultaneously, one can either hear the two beats in combination, which is the usual way, or, more interestingly,  one’s focus can be suspended between the two beats, unable to choose one over the other -  at which point one enters a trance. How do I know this?  Because I have inadvertantly put myself into a trance practicing drumming exercises.

Note the paradoxical consequence that drumming can either induce entrainment and a powerful sense of unity or, alternately, the disassociation of trance.  My sense is that both these phenomena have to do with the connection of drumming with normativity.  To begin with, the stark simplicity of drumming is a lot like the binary opposition in normative concepts such as good/bad and right/wrong.  

The simplicity of drumming, it’s sharp definition and repetitiveness, frames the music into a regular series of parts which we call “the beat”, each with a brief rise in tension, then a climax and dissipation.  This framework repeats itself over and over throughout many songs.

I want to say that normativity frames all human social activity, in the sense that in any common activity we feel compelled to act in certain ways, independently of our particular desires.  The Contemporary Philosopher John Searle refers to this as the fact that only humans have “desire-independent reasons.”   

We keep our promises, fulfill our obligations, and do our duty, basically because we live in society and we want to keep living in society. There is something compelling when we feel an “ought”, that we feel we ought to do something, or when we see a wrong, and feel strongly that it should be publicized and  punished. Immanuel Kant, the great philosopher of the enlightenment brought out the specifically universal quality of morality in his concept of “the categorical imperative,”  that is, that moral rules apply to everyone,  that we cannot absent ourselves from this kind of rule without being excluded from society.  This also shows that contrary to Utilitarianism, morality is irreducibly  social and cannot consist of simply adding up individual people’s needs and preferences.

   Because Kant wanted to make human reason autonomous and base everything on this autonomy he excluded emotion from his system.  That was an unfortunate mistake, because it reflects a basic misunderstanding of the nature of normativity.

Kant’s autonomy turns out to be a mirage because reason by itself has no compulsion whatsoever.  It needs emotion to supply a sense of direction, an ought.  But, of course, any emotion is caught up in some immediate and particular circumstance.  We are angry or sad about a particular situation.  How can morality make a claim to being universal if it has to involve emotions that are about particular situations?  The answer lies in the way that collective commitment is necessary for morality to get off the ground.

One thing that is absent from both Kant and the Utilitarians is the importance of enforcement.  But, the 17 Century British philosopher Hobbes saw it.  In his great work Leviathan, Hobbes stated:  “Covenants, without the Sword, are but Words, and of no strength to secure a man at all.”

Part of normativity, the part which Kant emphasized,  is its universal inclusion - everybody commits to moral rules and no-one is excluded unless everyone agrees that they should be. That universality is important, but it is only half the story.  Besides our collective commitment to follow the moral rules the moral force also resides in our collective commitment to enforce the rules, with the  possibility of different degrees of exclusion, with the ultimate degree being execution.

The categorical imperative is really a social commitment to hold to and enforce  universal standards of conduct.  By this commitment we have replaced sheer animal dominance with morality and the rule of law.  I am reminded of this every time I play the drums in a band.  Each band member, by committing  to play in this particular band, constrains his or her playing to be in sync with the rest of the band.  This is  how music is kept alive, how it is created and re-created.  If any other group of animals could collectively recreate a piece of music, it would be strong evidence of rule-governance - of normativity in another species.  

Monday, April 24, 2017

Prologue to "The Normative System"

The Universe is the first and oldest system.  All other systems are contained within it and subject to its  universal framework, bound by the forces of gravity and electromagnetic energy.

What are Systems?  Let’s call them: “ways of doing things.”

 At the end of the seventeenth Century Isaac Newton showed, in his derivation of the laws of motion, that gravitational force impacts the motion of all physical objects.

At the beginning of the twentieth Century Albert Einstein, in his theories of Special and General Relativity, showed how the dual forces of electromagnetic energy and gravity determine the very geometry of space and time.

The force of gravity defines the boundary of the Universe.    Outside that boundary there is no matter, there are no lines of force, no geometrical space, no locations, no energy, no movement, and no development.  There is no outside. Everything is inside. Everything is either a system or a part of a system.

All systems do things.  Doing things takes energy, so all systems use energy.  There is a fixed amount of energy in the Universe.  According to the first law of thermodynamics, energy can neither be created nor destroyed.  

All systems use energy to do things and in so doing they make that energy less available to other systems.  This is the second law of thermodynamics.  Once energy has been utilized it cannot be re-utilized to the same degree.  Each time it is used it becomes degraded.  For example, in a living-system plants extract energy from the sun, and animals extract the chemical energy from eating plants, or from eating other animals.  Animals have to work physically harder to get the same amount of energy that plants can get just by staying in one place and soaking up the sun. That is the second law of thermodynamics at work.

All systems develop and change over time.  All systems are born, they do things, and then they die, and stop doing things.  This is obviously true of living organisms, but it is also true of  our solar system and the Universe, but on vastly larger time-scales.  

Systems form a natural hierarchy.  All systems are physical;  living systems are purposive physical systems;  Human systems are normative purposive physical systems.

I have divided systems into three nested categories:  All systems are physical systems, subject to the fundamental forces of the Universe.  Living systems are purposive physical systems.  Human systems are normative, purposive physical systems.

All systems are physical, that is, they exist within the Universe.  There is no outside.  What we refer to as “spiritual” is a human system of perception that relies on our culture and imagination and is therefore based on physical occurrences.

Living systems are purposive physical systems - they maintain and replicate themselves.  A flame resembles a living system because it gives off heat and changes it shape. A flame just goes out when it runs out of fuel. The flame is a partially self-maintaining physical system but it does not act from purpose.  In contrast,  a  living system will go look for more food before it runs out of energy.

What makes human systems different from other living systems?  Humans have rules that they collectively agree to.  These rules create a social reality that only exists because of collective human acceptance.  I call this creation of social reality Normativity.

The fundamental fact about normativity is that it is an artificial creation of a boundary.  One between good and evil, right and wrong, truth and ignorance, beauty and ugliness, and, between meeting or not meeting countless standards of behaviour.   The boundary is not there in reality like the shoreline.  It is one that is created by the agreement of a group of human beings. In order to create this boundary humans must be able to agree on a difference, and actively maintain that difference by including some behaviours and excluding others.

Normativity is a system that frames all human social activity.   The first humans began the human experiment when they agreed to live under a moral system.   Just as the Universe creates the structure of physical reality through its own gravitational and electromagnetic forces, by drawing a line between good and evil our Homo Erectus ancestors created the basis for all succeeding human systems, systems that eventually led to language and the myriad of cultural forms that we participate in today.