Tyranny from Plato to Trump

I’m pleased to announce the publication of my new book, Tyranny from Plato to Trump: Fools, Sycophants, and Citizens.

The book offers insight into the perennial problem of tyranny. Tyrants seek to grab power. They are supported by sycophants. And cheered on by fools. This is a political problem as well as a social and spiritual problem. There are tyrants in our families and in our businesses. There is also a tyrannical tendency in our souls. The same is true of the tendency to suck up to the powerful. And each of us can behave moronically, more interested in amusement than ethics or truth.

The cure is spiritual and political. We benefit from self-examination. And we need social and political guardrails that prevent tyrants from consolidating power.

Erotic Untruth and the Violence of January 6

The January 6 attack on the US Capitol gives us a lesson in the futility of violence.

Human beings have a terrifying tendency to kill each other over horseshit (to use a technical term).  Violence typically rests upon a delusion.  The bigger the lie, the worse the violence. 

Religious and ideological warfare are extreme cases.  Terrorism and cult violence routinely occur: with Jonestown, Heaven’s Gate, Aum Shinrikyo, the Manson Family, in Waco with David Koresh, and so on.  There is an analogy linking QAnon to al Qaeda. 

Some of the Trump insurrectionists believed outrageous falsehoods: that Biden and Pelosi were communists; that Covid-19 was a sinister plot; that pedophiles, Satanists, and lizard people had infiltrated the government.  This horseshit was accompanied by other more insidious lies: that the election had been stolen; and that the Congress and Vice-President could overturn the Electoral College. 

A broth of bullshit was brewing when the President said, “Our country has been under siege for a long time.”  He said, “If you don’t fight like Hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.”  This rhetoric is eschatological and existential.  It is not surprising that the pot boiled.

The rioters believed they were patriots leading a noble revolution.  But they did not seem to think beyond the immediate outburst of violence.  What was supposed to happen next?  And why did they think they could get away with it?

Some have blamed the rioters’ obliviousness on the sense of impunity that comes from white supremacy.  But at bottom this was a product of the delusion of violence.

Violence is mired in immediacy.  It is reactive and episodic.  Violence focuses the mind on the present moment.  Violence promises simplicity, clarity, and consummation.

This promise is false, of course.  But violence is not about truth.  It is about power in the moment.  It is an expression of anger and contempt.  It is not strategic.  It is emotional, exciting, and erotic.

Tangled webs of braggadocio and bullshit typically lead to violence.  Closed networks reinforce delusion and breed a sense of superiority and impunity.  Critical thought is destroyed by anger, fear, and the love of brothers-in-arms.  When the delusions are eschatological, common sense is trampled underfoot. 

We have known that violence is rooted in psycho-social dynamics since Cain killed Abel and Achilles sailed off to Troy.  Freud described how hate and violence are perversely linked to love.  Aggression against “the other” binds us together and gives us meaning. 

It does not matter that our ideology is a lie.  In fact, falsehood binds us tighter together in an erotic dance.  When some “other” challenges our delusions, we strike out.  When those delusions involve love and identity, the other becomes a menace who must be destroyed. 

Religious violence has often worked this way.  Sometimes religious violence involves tangible conflicts about land or resources.  The Crusades had political and economic causes.  But the faithful frequently fight in the name of the fabulous.  The warriors themselves want glory, as well as penance and atonement.  They want to be purged and healed, uplifted and inspired.

And so human beings continue to kill and die in defense of unprovable myths.  The most dangerous myth of all is the myth that links violence to righteousness and redemption.  Prior to Trump’s speech on January 6, Rudy Giuliani proposed “trial by combat.”  This medieval nonsense holds that somehow the gods ensure that the righteous defeat the unholy. 

But violence has nothing to do with morality.  Good guys get killed as easily as bad.  Violence occurs at the level of physical power.  It decides nothing about truth, holiness, or moral worth. 

The myth of violence is essentially pagan.  It reflects a primitive theology.  To view the world as a battlefield supervised by the gods is to ignore a more elevated notion of the divinity.  If there is a God, wouldn’t He want us to reason together rather than to kill each other? 

The solution to the problem of violence is as old as Jesus and Socrates.  Jesus said the peacemakers were blessed.  And Socrates encouraged us to ask critical questions about the horseshit that encourages violence.  The truth is that violence is not reasonable.  Nor is it loved by the gods. 

Rebellion, Fantasy, and Nihilism

Fresno Bee, January 10, 2021

The mob’s attack on the Capitol was a juvenile outburst of rebellion doomed to fail.

What we witnessed on Wednesday was a juvenile outburst of rebellion. A motley mob stormed the Capitol without a plan or strategy. The violence was disorganized. This was a desultory insurgency instigated by a leader who lives in a fantasy world, where ranting and raving masquerade as thinking.

The image of Shakespeare’s King Lear comes to mind. As Shakespeare put it, nothing comes of nothing. This shambolic coup offers a warning about nihilism and a lesson about power and rebellion.

There is in the human soul an impulse toward anarchy. We bridle against restraint. We want the world to conform to our own image. This impulse is often destructive and nihilistic.

The rebel is a toddler angry at his parents. He is an adolescent lashing out at the world. Rebellion can do short-term damage. But the rebel’s ferocity is feckless. Juvenile rebellion cannot effect lasting change.

The rebel paints the world in black and white, leaving no room for compromise. He has no desire to build because he is focused on burning things down. He has no strategy because in his fantasy, the world should revolve around

The rebel fails to understand that this is a world of highly organized systems of power. There really is a deep state. It cannot be transformed by random outbursts of violence or emotion.

Power is tightly woven in complex webs involving political bureaucracies, transnational corporations, educational institutions, religious traditions, and so on. Political change in the modern world requires strategy based in this reality. This is slow and complex work. Random protest is toothless in the face of the bureaucratic state and institutionalized power.

The would-be revolutionaries of the 21st century — on the left and on the right — are deluded if they think this system can be opposed by disorganized explosions of anger. In the long run, the cops and the courts will win every time.

Political change requires an organized, fact-based approach to the world that avoids wishful thinking. Almost always this involves compromise and working to find common ground in a shared conception of the world. Most of what the party of Trump has done since the November election has been futile because it is based on the fantasy that Trump actually won the election. Lies have limited power. They eventually run aground on reality.

Juvenile rebellion is prideful and angry. Sometimes it is simply thrill-seeking. Other times it is a violent convulsion of despair. Almost always it is based in an unrealistic view of self and world. This leaves the juvenile rebel strangely susceptible to lies, conspiracy theories, and authoritarian politics.

The rebel feels that the world ought to satisfy his desires. When it does not, he gloms onto a savior or hero who makes him feel powerful. The rebel seeks out lies that feed his ego. This can evolve into a cul-de-sac of conspiracy, where the truth gives way to a reflection of the rebel’s own self-image.

Most rebels grow up and grow out of this nihilism. When rebellion comes of age, it mellows and deepens to discover a larger truth. A good explanation of this is found in Albert Camus’s book “The Rebel.” Camus describes how rebellion becomes nihilism. From nihilism, totalitarianism can emerge. Those who believe in nothing are susceptible to anything. But if we keep growing and looking for reality, rebellion can give birth to solidarity, justice, love, generosity, and wisdom.

The impulse of rebellion will always be with us. But it must be educated and sublimated. Artists and entrepreneurs nurture the spark of anarchy. So too do religious mystics and scientific geniuses. The creative imagination smashes barriers. But it does not destroy for the sake of destruction. Rather, it aims to build something out of nothing.

The energy of anarchy is youthful and exuberant. Without guidance this energy circulates in nothingness. When rebellion remains stupid, it is merely destructive. But when the spirit of rebellion is informed by truth, there is hope for justice, compassion, and wisdom. For this to happen you need a strategy that accepts reality. Instead of ranting into the storm with King Lear, you need to harness the wind and put it to work.

This is Not the Worst Year Ever

Time magazine declared 2020 “the worst year ever.”  That’s obviously not true.  In the 1850’s, millions were held in slavery.  In the 1860’s, over 600,000 Americans died in the war that freed those slaves.  One hundred years ago, the Spanish flu killed 675,000 Americans, while women struggled to gain the right to vote.  Our current troubles are minor in comparison.   

Time magazine’s hyperbolic headline can be forgiven as a ploy to sell magazines.  But people succumb to hyperbole.  We tend to magnify present suffering.  And that can impede critical thinking.   

History is not one story, it is many.  When historians look back on 2020, they will see failure that caused unnecessary suffering.  But they will also witness ingenuity that mitigated harm.  We should learn from our successes—and from our failures. 

Some of what we suffered in 2020 was the result of human greed, ignorance, and pride.  The Covid-19 death toll was made worse by selfishness, ignorance, and lack of leadership.  The fires in California were the terrifying result of human-caused climate change.  The social divisions and racial tensions of 2020 are the result of systematic stupidity and political polarization. 

But human intelligence prevented things from being even worse.  Health care systems evolved.  A vaccine was developed.  There were government bailouts.  School teachers invented online learning.  Firefighters demonstrated heroism.  And Americans educated themselves about racism and the American Constitution. 

Life includes both tragedy and triumph.  We fail.  We suffer.  We learn.  And we grow.

Resilience is a process of growth and development.  Resilient people generally avoid absolutism and hyperbole, which cause despair.  Defeatism undermines the spirit of invention, discovery, and growth. 

Consider a recent essay by Chris Hedges on cultural despair.  Hedges warns that despair can fuel the wish for magical solutions that can turn into fascism.  I’m sympathetic to his critique.  But Hedges’ assessment is itself dispiriting.  Hedges gives voice to despair.  And this leads him to conclude that reform is impossible.  He concludes that we are faced with a choice between tyranny and revolution. 

Hedges’ dilemma is typical of despair.  We tend to dwell on the darkness without noticing the light.  But history is more complicated than a stark choice between tyranny and revolution.  And there is no such thing as “the worst year ever.” 

Evaluation is relative and evolving.  Some people fell in love in 2020.  Others died.  Some families had children.  Some experienced divorce.  Some people began new careers.  Others lost jobs.  Art was created and scientific discoveries were made.  But businesses failed and crimes were committee.  For some people, 2020 was a great year.  For others, it was miserable. 

And yes, there was Donald Trump.  But there were also movements of social protest.  The Constitution was tested.  But the system worked.  Polarization increased.  But decent people sought common ground.

We must resist oversimplifying when we judge.  These are not the best of times.  Nor are they the worst of times.

Some new age advocates of mindfulness celebrate “non-judgmental awareness.”  There is value in this.  But non-judgmental presence is only a tool and a mood.  We need to judge things.  Judging helps us learn, invent, and improve.  But we need to be judicious in judging—moderate and prudent. 

We can learn a lot from acceptance and gratitude.  The mind can be sharpened by quietness and presence.  Thinking and learning require judgment and discrimination.  If we practice pure acceptance, we will never learn anything. 

If we are overly judgmental and hyperbolic in our judgments, we will also fail to learn.  We have to see what works—and what doesn’t.  We must also remain open to the new and the different.  We must be creative and inventive in our response to the world.

To say that this was the worst year ever is a kind of cop out.  It is a shoulder shrug and a sigh.  Shrugs and sighs are OK—for a moment.  Then it’s time to roll up our sleeves and get back to work.  Instead of dwelling on what went wrong, let’s learn from our mistakes.  We can also learn from our successes.  And with some luck and a lot of labor, the next year may be better than the last.

Horseshit and the Human Condition

Why do snake-oil salesmen and con men succeed?

Because human beings have a great appetite for horseshit. 

Horseshit is a term that I learned from my grandfather, who was one of the world’s great artists of profanity.  My grandfather taught me a lot of interesting things, for example, that H. was Jesus’s middle name.  Like other men of his generation, grandpa distinguished horseshit from ordinary bullshit.

Kurt Vonnegut said that we prefer useful and comforting horseshit.  Hemingway defined horseshit as abstract, metaphysical nonsense.  Jack Kerouac warned that the world was trying to drown us in horseshit.

The philosopher Harry Frankfurt described bullshit as speech divorced from truth.  Horseshit is like bullshit.  But while bullshit entertains, horseshit seduces. 

A story about the fish that got away is bullshit.  A conspiracy theory is horseshit. 

Horseshit tantalizes.  It promises false nourishment.  It’s dangerous because it’s trying to sell you something.

I used to hike with my dogs on a horse trail.  They couldn’t resist the stench of fresh manure.  They would gobble it up by the mouthful.  And then they would vomit.

Human beings are similar.  We swarm to warm piles of nonsense and gorge on garbage. We humans are not typically interested in truth.  We prefer ideas that flatter and gratify.  We want to be titillated and entertained.  Truth is boring.  We prefer strong and spicy narratives.   

Malicious agents know how to manipulate this.  They spread horseshit.  And we buy it.

As my grandfather used to say, there are more horse’s asses than horses.

All of this helps explain the ordure oozing out of the White House.  Courts and election officials have repeatedly confirmed the validity of the 2020 election.  But Presidential power burnishes bullshit with the sheen of authority.  Prominent Republicans refuse to point out that the emperor’s new clothes are stained with runny hair dye. 

My grandfather would have asked a simple question about all of this.  Which is more likely—that there is a vast secret conspiracy to steal an election in “the U.S. of A.” (I can hear him adding “for chrissake”…) or that Trump is spreading horseshit?    

Horseshit is not unique to the Trump Era.  In 2004, Ralph Keyes published a book called “The Post-Truth Era.” Keyes pointed out that George W. Bush lied and manipulated the truth about the Iraq war.  But before Bush, Clinton lied, as did Nixon.  And so on—back to Caesar and Pericles.

In a recent op-ed, Nicholas Goldberg reminds us that lying is part of the arsenal of authoritarianism.  He cites George Orwell and Hannah Arendt to make his point.  But horseshit is as old as Plato. 

Plato did not like the bullshit stories of Greek religion.  He thought those myths taught the wrong lessons to the gullible masses.  Plato suggested that the philosopher-king should create new myths to manipulate the masses into buying his utopian scheme.  Thus Plato suggested replacing ordinary bullshit with tyrannical horseshit. 

Bullshit and horseshit have existed since human beings began talking.  Hunter-gatherers told bullshit stories around the campfire.  That is how art and religion were born.  Bullshit became horseshit when the shamans began profiting off those stories. 

Horseshit is meant to manipulate.  The bullshit artist is a lightweight in comparison to the horseshit hawker.  The bullshit artist is a good-natured raconteur.  But the horseshit vendor takes advantage.  Bullshit is playful and light.  But horseshit is denser and tastier.  It often even seduces those who sell it into believing that the manure they are spreading is true.

At some point reality bites back.  But often it is too late.  When your dog gorges on manure, he’ll eventually vomit.  But it is better to avoid the binge and the purge. 

The cure for all of this is fresh air and a good shovel. 

To see beyond the horseshit, Kerouac climbed a mountain. There is wisdom in taking a moment to rise above the stench. 

But you don’t need a mountain top to climb above the horseshit.  You only need self-control and a skeptical spirit, critical thinking and the scientific method.  Political checks and balances also help.

Stay focused on what is true.  Attune your nose to reality.  Feed your soul on nourishing ideas.  And don’t let anyone sell you a load of manure.