Thursday, 7 May 2020

The Night of the Gods: Phillip Marlowe, Science, and the Heideggerian Poet


Crime novels are often seen as low-brow fiction. The author can entertain with murders and murderers as a puzzle which is eventually solved, and the reader puts the book down with nothing but the thrills to show for it. But the best crime novels also teach us things about the world and our perspective of it.

In Signs Taken for Wonders: Essays in the Sociology of Literary Forms Franco Moretti describes the role of the detective in classical crime fiction, “Since Poe, detectives have reflected a scientific ideal: the detective discovers the causal links between events: to unravel the mystery is to trace them back to a law.” (144) The criminal is the exception to society, the outsider. “His defeat is the victory and the purge of a society no longer conceived of as a contract between independent entities, but rather as an organism or social body” (135). Thus it is the role of the detective to conquer over and purge society of the undesired criminal element. 

Sherlock Holmes does this by a scientific work of tracing clues of an act to find the cause of the act. The crime of the criminal consists in acting as an individual. The criminal breaks the laws of society, yet his very act of law-breaking is involuntarily entangled in greater laws of physics and human behaviour. It is this reality which makes the science of Sherlock Holmes possible. Though the criminal seeks to hide in the mass, he leaves clues of his individuality on the machinery and accessories he attempts to hide behind, which makes detection possible.



Such is the case in “A Case of Identity”, where the perpetrator is detected by the typewriter he uses. Thus the role of Sherlock Holmes in society is to be the counterweight to the criminals, which restores the balance of society and perpetuates the status quo. The greater laws of science and human behaviour enable Holmes to reduce the meaning of an entire plot to a conclusion, a simple unified meaning. In Sherlock Holmes, “God”, a single organizing principle, is present. His world is ordered and makes sense. There all answers can be found for someone who knows how to read the signs.                                                                                           
Hard-boiled detective fiction shows us a very different reality. In Raymond Chandler’s “Red Wind” we are introduced into a dark malevolent world of chaos:                                        

"There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husband’s necks. Anything can happen" (134). 

What is the role of detective Marlowe in this hostile environment? In the midst of corrupt police, unfaithful spouses and a world on the brink of anarchy, Marlowe clearly emerges as the hero of the story. Yet in what actions or attributes does his heroism lie? He cannot be as Holmes the doctor purging society of its undesired elements; such a purge in Marlowe’s society would mean genocide. He cannot hope to restore any semblance of order or civility, since these virtues seem to have been lost long ago. Marlowe’s society is one where God is absent. There is no unifying principle which orders and makes sense of events and experiences, and society seems to be a matter of egocentric entities fighting against each other in a world of chance. Raymond Chandler himself describes his idea of Marlowe as a hero. In “The Simple Art of Murder” Raymond Chandler writes, “down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid...He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world.” (991-992) What makes him the best man in his world?


In order to find that out we cannot simply look at his actions, but rather we ask: What is the motivation behind Marlowe’s work? In “Red Wind” he rejects any price for his services, although he risks getting killed for them several times. In other stories he does take payment for his work, but it seems unlikely that he does his job simply for money. As he says in “Red Wind”, “I’m not in this for money” (157). All we learn from Chandler in “The Simple Art of Murder” is, “the story is his adventure in search of a hidden truth.” Except for searching for the perpetrator of the individual crimes in the stories, there seems to be a deeper search which permeates Marlowe’s being.                                                                                                              
Marlowe appears as the Heideggerian poet; the hero of the night of the Gods. The world described in “Red Wind” seems familiar to the world Heidegger describes in the essay “What Are Poets For?” from Poetry, Language, Thought: “At this night’s midnight, the destitution of the time is greatest. Then the destitute time is no longer able even to experience its own destitution” (90-91). The world is marked by the “default of God”: The absence of a God who gathers a people to himself. Here I will take God to mean the gathering or unifying principle which orders the world. This world, which Heidegger says is without ground (without a foundation) hangs in the abyss. So the question is, why does someone like Marlowe, who by the author’s own description is the best man in his world, spend his time in the most depraved and sordid surroundings? Why does he deal with the very darkest sides of society? Maybe Heidegger’s poet can give us a clue. “In the age of the world’s night, the abyss of the world must be experienced and endured. But for this it is necessary that there be those who reach into the abyss” (90). What is the purpose of reaching into the abyss? According to Heidegger, once the world has entered into the night of the gods there can be no salvation in the sudden return of the gods or by the appearance of a new god. There can be no “back to normal” without people experiencing what Heidegger calls “a turn” rather than a return. As Heidegger points out, “The salvation must come from where there is a turn with mortals in their nature” (115-116), and “there is a turn with mortals when these find the way to their own nature. That nature lies in this, that mortals reach into the abyss sooner than the heavenly powers” (91).

                                                            
What is the role of the poet in such a time? Heidegger remarks, “It is a necessary part of the poet’s nature that, before he can be truly a poet in such an age, the time’s destitution must have made the whole being and vocation of the poet a poetic question for him” (92). Although Marlowe needs money to live, he is not in his job for money. As Heidegger goes on to say, “Poets are the mortals who...sense the trace of the fugitive gods, stay on the gods’ tracks, and so trace for their kindred mortals the way towards the turning” (92). Marlowe is on a hunt which very much differs from Sherlock Holmes'. Rather than doing a scientific work by tracing causal links between events back to a law, Marlowe is on an ontological discovery into the very abyss of human society and human nature. This is not a journey for weak minds. As Heidegger puts it, “Are there mortals who reach sooner into the abyss of the destitute and its destituteness? These, the most mortal among mortals, would be the most daring, the most ventured” (116). “He who is more venturesome than that ground ventures to where all ground breaks off – into the abyss. . . .Those men who are . . . more venturesome must also will more strongly” (116). 

It is a journey full of uncertainty into the darkness. “He among mortals who must, sooner than other mortals and otherwise than they, reach into the abyss, comes to know the marks that the abyss remarks. For the poet, these are the traces of the fugitive gods.” (91) Unlike Holmes, Marlowe is on a mission where there may not even be an answer. As Heidegger remarks,                              

“Traces are often inconspicuous, and are always the legacy of a directive that is barely divined. To be a poet in a destitute age means: to attend, singing, to the trace of the fugitive gods. This is why the poet in the time of the world’s night utters the holy. That is why, in Holderlin’s language, the world’s night is the holy night” (92).

The nature of Marlowe’s search resembles a scene in “Red Wind” where he opens up the door to a dark room, “I went into near darkness. Street light filtered in and touched a high spot here and there . . . There was a queer smell in the air” (148). Entering into near darkness Marlowe can detect traces of things. These traces may lead him to conclusions, but it is hard to know if those conclusions are right. Similarly, the chess problem Marlowe has set out on the table remains unsolved throughout the entire story. There is no eureka-moment where everything becomes clear. There are hints and clues, but no final solution. According to Heidegger, this is how the search for Being must be in an age marked by the “default of God”:                                   

“The closer the world’s night draws toward midnight, the more exclusively does the destitute prevail, in such a way that it withdraws its very nature and presence. Not only is the holy lost as the track toward the godhead; even the traces leading to that lost track are well-nigh obliterated. The more obscure the traces become the less can a single mortal, reaching into the abyss, attend there to intimations and signs. It is then all the more strictly true that each man gets farthest if he goes only as far as he can go along the way allotted to him” (92).                                                                                                              
In an age of chaos, it is not possible to have the certainty of Sherlock Holmes. It may be impossible to solve the entire riddle, or make out clear shapes of meaning in the darkness. Yet it is this very darkness, the very destituteness of the world and the default of the gods, which renders mortals able to reach into the abyss sooner than the heavenly powers, and thereby find a way to their own nature.                                                                                                                           
Yet there is an element in hard-boiled detective fiction that makes Heidegger’s theory an incomplete description of Marlowe’s search. Heidegger envisions altruistic poets who “trace for their kindred mortals the way towards the turning,” yet there is no indication in Chandler that Marlowe thought much about a “turning” or any kind of revolution in public consciousness. In “On Raymond Chandler” Jameson quotes Chandler writing, “My theory was that the readers just thought they cared about nothing but the action; that really, although they didn’t know it, the thing they cared about, and that I cared about, was the creation of emotion through dialogue and description” (122-123). In other words, where Heidegger sees the ontological discovery as a means to an end, Chandler (and by association Marlowe) seems to see the discovery or search as an end in itself. Instead of focusing on the action leading to a certain revelatory end, Chandler gives us the experience of a good man in a destitute world “in search of a hidden truth.”

Chandler, Raymond. “Red Wind” in Penzler 134-160
---. “The Simple Art of Murder” in Raymond Chandler: Later Novels and Other Writings, New       York: The Library of America. 1995. Print.
Heidegger, Martin. Poetry, Language, Thought, New York: Perennial. 2001. Print.
Jameson, Frederic. “On Raymond Chandler” in Most and Stowe 122-148
Moretti, Franco. Signs Taken for Wonders: Essays in the Sociology of Literary Forms, London         and New York: Verso. 1997. Print.
Most, Glenn W. and Stowe, William W. ed. The Poetics of Murder: Detective Fiction and Literary Theory, San Diego, New York, London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovic Publishers. 1983. Print.
Penzler, Otto, ed. The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps, New York: Vintage Books. 2007. Print

Saturday, 18 April 2020

Indirect Vision: How Learning Not To Focus Can Help You Succeed

It's been over a month since all of Norway went into lockdown, meaning that I teach my classes and do my research from home (and defended my dissertation over Zoom!) while my wife and I at the same time are running a full-time homeschool and kindergarten. Luckily, we have a trampoline in our garden, so the kids get plenty of fun and exercise. Getting rather tired of jumping myself, I invented a game where I could lie down and throw soft balls at the kids, and they have to either dodge or hit them out of the way. My 7-year old son was getting pretty good at it, so I upped the game a bit. I would throw a slow looping ball towards his head (again, they were soft) and a fast-ball towards his stomach. He got frustrated because he could only focus on and knock one ball out of the way at a time, and then the other ball would hit him as they arrived at the same time. "I can't do this!" he cried, and then I gave him a lesson I had learned from juggling:
"You have to learn not to focus."

At first he was a bit puzzled, so I explained that he could look past me to the bench on the lawn. Soon, he was doing double-blocks like a ninja and felt like he had just unlocked a superhero skill, and he was right. Learning not to focus is a skill that is crucial to success in many arenas. I mean this both in a literal and metaphorical sense, and the skill is called indirect vision.

Indirect vision is defined as "vision resulting from rays of light falling upon peripheral parts of the retina" or "vision as it occurs outside the point of fixation." Simply put, it is all the visual input your eye gets and processes without focusing on an object. This is quite a significant amount. When you focus on something, your field of vision is about 5 degrees, whereas when you don't focus your field of vision is 200-220 degrees.

File:Peripheral vision.svg

You can experience this yourself. Look straight ahead and have a person behind you move an object from behind you to in front of you. Alert them the moment you can detect movement, and tell them to stop. You will see that you detected the object already as it was about 90 degrees from the direction you were looking in. This is because our eyes are not just holes. The eye does actually extend out of the body (though not to such a mad extent as the house fly, which does have almost 360 degree vision but can't focus).


(Image from Paul Savage - https://www.flickr.com/photos/45202571@N00/60833726/)

This unfocused vision gives you less quality of perception, but much greater quantity. Indirect vision is excellent at (a) recognition of well-known structures and forms, (b) identification of similar forms and movements, and (c) delivery of sensations which form the background of detailed visual perception.

It is an ability that all humans have, but it is an elite skill to recognize, trust, and fully utilize the functions of this ability. This is especially true in elite sports where the athletes have to keep track of many moving parts at the same time. Here is a prominent example.

Football: Bruno Fernandes (Manchester United)
Since his arrival at Manchester United in January, Bruno Fernandes has been on fire. With him in the team, Manchester United have not lost a single game and have taken more points than anyone else in the Premier League except Liverpool. One of the key attributes about him that have been praised by pundits, teammates, and his manager is that he is "one or two steps ahead of everyone else." Bruno always seems to know what he should do with the ball before he gets it, and the key to that is that he frequently scans the football field. Just a glance over his shoulder, but he quickly perceives and processes the key threats and passing opportunities. How does he do this? By relying on indirect vision.

It was previously believed that it takes the eye about 100 milliseconds to detect an image, but new research from MIT has shown that your eyes can successfully detect and identify images in only 13 milliseconds, and that limit was only determined because it was impossible for the computer monitor in the experiment to shift the images shown to the research subjects quicker. This means the eye can process almost a shocking 77 images per second rather than the previously believed 10 images per second. The lead scientist theorized "one reason for the subjects’ better performance in this study may be that they were able to practice fast detection as the images were presented progressively faster, even though each image was unfamiliar" (Trafton). The images were also familiar shapes rather than abstract art.

This is how Bruno is able to pull off this impressive feat. Although indirect vision gives less quality, it is good at (a) recognition of well-known structures and forms and (b) identification of similar forms and movements. This is one reason why it is important for football players that the kits of the two teams are not too similar. Since they have to rely a lot on their indirect vision, they want to be able to just have to detect the right color to know if they can play the pass to them or need to avoid them. The best playmakers are able to detect patterns of play and movement in milliseconds and can make snap decisions about how to progress the ball up the field. Everybody has indirect vision, but the best players have learned to rely on it instinctively and can match the input with their tactical and experiential knowledge to create magic.


The same is true of elite performers in speed chess: they keep most of the chess board in their indirect vision and can accurately perceive and replicate the moves made by the opponent in milliseconds. Again, this is because the moves, the chess board, and the pieces are all familiar and they can tap into those trained patterns to process the data. For trained practitioners, indirect vision can tell them everything they need to know in order to act.

Learning Not To Focus Your Mind
This ability transfers to our mental patterns as well. It's a common misconception that our mind is a completely separate thing from our bodies. Rather, we think through our bodies. The senses and processes of our bodies gave our minds all the input they had to develop and learn the patterns of life. We express what our mind does based on what we can do with our bodies, showing the same relationship: We "digest" information, we "grasp" a concept, and we "wrestle" with a problem, describing actions of our stomach, hand, and muscles. This does not mean that the mind can be reduced to the body, but it shows that there is a strong relationship. This is especially true about our eyes and ability to see: the primary sense humans have had to rely upon for their survival. Our neural patterns mirror the input they receive from foveal or "central" vision and indirect vision.

We talk about "focus," which is a function of our eyes, and equate it with narrow and intense concentration, but we often disregard what happens when we are not focusing and devalue it with terms such as "unconcentrated," "unfocused," or "scatter-brained." A lot of time is spent on teaching people to "focus" and even to "hyperfocus," as exemplified in the video below.


It is not my intention here to disparage that work, but focusing A can often lead to the neglect of B, and I want to point out some of the things this focus on focus misses and why learning not to focus at times can be crucial to success. However, first I have to make it clear what I am describing and clear up one likely objection: not focusing is NOT the same thing as inattention or laziness, it's just a different kind of attention or work. Indirect vision is "focused," as it were, on a broader field of vision which may pick up less details but covers more ground.

I could expound more on this principle, but here are a few examples:

1. The Observer Effect and Early Childhood Development

You can't observe something or "focus" on something without changing it. According to quantum mechanics, even subatomic particles change their nature based on the focus of an observer. While that might just be a theoretical reality, this is definitely true in social science studies such as psychology, and it is also the case in parenting. Many parents are hyperfocused on their kids, making great sacrifices of time and money to make sure that all their needs are cared for and that they have no limits to their development. However, sometimes it is that very focus that can be one of the greatest impediments to their development.

Imagine there are two toddler's playing together. They are relating now to somebody at their own level, without large differences in size, power, or ability. As soon as an adult enters the picture, the dynamic between the toddlers sometimes changes almost instantly. A source of attention and adoration, a greater power, and the "bringer of food and changer of nappies" has now entered their universe.

The same is true of a child concentrating (focusing) individually on a task and hitting a barrier. On their own, a new part of their brain starts problem-solving, but with the focused attention of a parent the answer is only a cry for help away. It's like trying to learn maths with the answer sheet in front of you. 

I am not saying that parents don't have a responsibility to model appropriate behavior, help the children learn how to solve problems, or (most importantly) keep the child safe from too great physical danger. What I am trying to point out is that there is a need, place, and time for a different kind of attention: the quick look around the corner to make sure the toddler is alright as they stack bricks into towers and knock them down, looking out the window now and then as the kids and their friends learn how to play a new game together, allowing them spaces where parents do not intrude or interrupt except in cases of emergency. One good unsupervised act is worth twenty supervised ones, and the magic of unstructured play needs to be undisturbed from the too focused presence of parents. It's similar to "pulling up a flower to see how the roots are doing. Put another way, too many anxious openings of the oven door, and the cake falls instead of rising. Moreover, enforced change usually does not last, while productive enduring can ingrain permanent change" (Neal A. Maxwell, "Endure It Well").

2. Management and Micro-managing

When people without experience in leadership get promoted to leadership they are in danger of becoming micro-managers. They want to put in a lot of effort, and very often they think that effort has to come in the form of focused attention to each of the people they are supposed to be leading. While this can do some good in certain instances, very often these leaders tend to wear out themselves and the people they are supposed to lead by their excessive focus. Moreover, any gains in productivity are likely to disappear again as soon as the effort is reduced or another manager is brought in.

The more sustainable model is one who leads with indirect vision, recognizing patterns and keeping an eye on the processes going on, but also knows to step back and let a natural good dynamic develop, adding some encouragement here and some help there. This model is more like the farmer or gardner who keeps an overview of the processes going on but knows not to interfere too much in them.

3. General vs. Specific Knowledge

In academia, and the sciences in particular, specialization or hyperfocusing is the name of the game. It has come to the point where even different branches of physics or chemistry may have little understanding of the work that is going on in the other branches. Generalists are inherently suspicious, crossing from one discipline to another is seen as indicative of lack of depth or discipline, and a wide spread of publications is often punished in tenure or promotion reviews. Yet some very innovative insights have come from people who were able to cross the disciplinary boundaries, and this has often been the birthplace of new disciplines. John von Neumann started in mathematics but also became a foundational figure in game theory, nuclear physics, computer science, and international relations. Kenneth Burke felt uncomfortable with the rigidness of academic disciplines and therefore never completed a degree or stayed teaching at any academic institution for too long, and he has become an authority in communication, rhetoric and composition, literature, and many of the social sciences, influencing figures such as Goffmann, Francis Ferguson, Renè Girard, and many others.

I am usually skeptical of conferences with too broad a topic, since these can often be predatory, but in the midst of this hyperspecialization there is an important place for conferences such as TED. Here, people from many walks of life meet together and listen short presentations of inspiring and interesting stories and projects prepared for a general audience. Chris Anderson, the curator of TED, describes how he at the first day of his first conference started out amused, then confused as there seemed to be no common thread to what they all were saying, and then his mind started to cross-polinate ideas from all these different areas into new and remarkable insights. He could only get to this point by taking in a "wide vision" of impressions and ideas without focusing too much on each individual one, and that brought him much more than any conference he had ever been to before. He became aware of "the interconnectedness of knowledge," even in an age of specialization.

Like my son, we often encounter situations where a lot of balls are coming towards us at the same time, and the best way to respond to these challenges long-term may be learning not to focus on each one of them too much, but keep our eyes on the bigger picture.


Thursday, 12 April 2018

Overview of Pedagogical Posts on Rhetoric

Hi everyone! This blog has become quite vast after a while, and I thought it might be useful to gather some of the more pedagogical posts on rhetoric together so teachers and students can use it as a learning tool. Below are some rhetorical concepts and theorists I hope I have helped to elucidate (make clearer, more understandable) and the links to blog posts dealing with them.

Kairos

Newtown, Gun Control, and the Importance of Kairos
A post explaining the concept of kairos and applying it to the Newton school shooting.

Stasis

A post explaining the concept of stasis and applying it to the first 2012 presidential debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney


Topoi and Topos of the Tyrant

What's Not To Like About A Tyrant?
A post explaining the classical rhetorical exercise called the topos of the tyrant with examples
An application of the rhetorical exercise "topos of the tyrant" to a relevant modern case


Chaim Perelman's Overview of Arguments

These posts are a series describing the different arguments Chaim Perelman and Lucie Albrechts-Tyteca categorized, how they work, and how they can be defeated.

Arguments and the Structure of Reality: A Beginner's Guide to Perelman, Part III




Tuesday, 6 February 2018

Blockchain, Bitcoin, and the Conservation of Information

A lot of these thoughts are inspired by or based on a lecture given by Torbjørn Bull Jenssen, Senior Economist at Menon Economics. He completed his MSc in Economics at University of Oslo in 2014 with the master thesis "Why Bitcoins Have Value, and Why Governments are Skeptical" (available here). The lecture was titled "Blokk-kjede: Et nytt teknologiparadigme" ("Blockchain: A New Technological Paradigm").

Now this is of course way off the area of my expertise (rhetoric), but at the same time I found a lot of implicit and explicit rhetoric going on in the discourse concerning blockchain and Bitcoin. Here are four of the impressions I took away from the presentation:

1. Blockchain is essentially a conservative technology

The technology is described very briefly in the video below.


According to Wikipedia, " A blockchain, originally block chain, is a continuously growing list of records, called blocks, which are linked and secured using cryptography. Each block typically contains a cryptographic hash of the previous block, a timestamp and transaction data. By design, a blockchain is inherently resistant to modification of the data. It is 'an open, distributed ledger that can record transactions between two parties efficiently and in a verifiable and permanent way'. For use as a distributed ledger, a blockchain is typically managed by a peer-to-peer network collectively adhering to a protocol for validating new blocks. Once recorded, the data in any given block cannot be altered retroactively without the alteration of all subsequent blocks, which requires collusion of the network majority.

So in a sense, the blockchain technology is an attempt to create permanence in a fluid online universe, but without a centralized source guaranteeing that permanence. At its base, the technology is a ledger, but one where the credibility of the ledger has been transferred from the bank clerk to the technology. In that sense, blockchain is a modern museum archive or vault. The technology is designed for the conservation of information in the same way as the archive or vault is designed to conserve precious texts or artifacts. The difference is that the menace is not rust or mice, but rather hackers and government agencies who can usually steal or corrupt data. The blockchain solution to this threat is rather ingenious. Rather than retaining the original information in a safe place, the information is protected by active usage and proliferation, requiring all future transactions to repeat the original information of every transaction that has been made so far.

Of course, this does not guarantee that the blockchain cannot be changed, but it is increasingly costly to do so for every transaction (because the encryption chain gets longer). And that brings me to point number two:

2. Safety lies not in the impossibility but rather the costliness of the attempted hacking.

Safety is never complete, it is never absolute. Any wall that is built can be climbed or breached, any rules set up can be bent or broken. Asking "how do you prevent theft?" can be compared with the question "how do you prevent war?" The answer is that you can never be certain of preventing either, but you can do your very best to discourage it by making it an extremely costly endeavour. The claim is that the amount of computing power and resources needed to breach the blockchain system is so costly that the attempt simply does not make financial sense (the computing power alone to breach Bitcoin is estimated to cost upward of 2 billion dollars). This supposes some things of course, and makes some assumptions that can be challenged (for example, it does not account for a radical increase in computing power that could come with quantum computers etc.) but it is similar to the argument Alfred Nobel (inventor of dynamite), Orville Wright (co-inventor of the airplane), and Niels Bohr (inventor of the trigger for the plutonium bomb) made for increasing the costliness of war: once the object to be gained (victory) is no longer worth the transaction cost (the destruction of all major cities on both sides), the incentive for that act is gone.

3. Bitcoin (one of the products using the blockchain technology) is more than a technology, it has in some ways become a sovereignty unto itself, with its own form of governance and government (with power divided and in some way balanced between developers, miners, and users). When it comes to Bitcoin, the system and its safety cannot be reduced to the blockchain technology. Rather, there is a complex web of ideologically motivated people, exchanges, and other systems and actors with diverse incentives, who make this work. Bitcoin, exactly because it is all online, generally has to fend off or sustain more attacks than other currencies, but there are significant computing and brain power invested in its security and success. Rather than having a one-time technology (blockchain) that forever will have solved the problem of security, the Bitcoin community is all about further development and innovation. In some ways, this is similar to Alexis de Tocqueville's argument about monarchy and democracy. Monarchies are inherently stable, but then have to go through violent crises of succession whenever the king dies. Democracy is the crisis of succession made permanent, where "a king dies" every 2 or 4 years. This makes the peaceful transfer of power possible, because the people have been well trained to handle this kind of crisis. The system of world finance many in the Bitcoin community envision is also reminiscent of H.G.Wells' vision in The Open Conspiracy (written and published in 1928) where he describes a world system more governed by scientific criticism and merit than politics. Rather than resembling older forms of governance, he the World Republic would be something altogether different, and envisions a decentralized meritocracy where facts and scientific criticism of ideas (comparable to the mechanisms driving physics) will be the main forms of influence.
(You can follow the cryptocurrency market development here https://www.worldcoinindex.com/)

4. Implicit in both blockchain and bitcoin is an inherently libertarian ideology. How can a technology be ideological? Well, Freeman Dyson says a technology is ideological in the sense of what it makes easier or more difficult. For example, the atomic bomb makes offense the best defense, and in that sense it strengthens a hawklike aggressive military ideology. Bitcoin is inherently libertarian because it makes easier (almost inevitable) the libertarian choices and preferences for governance, and relationship between the government and the governed. Individual freedom and privacy are inherently made easier than oversight and control.

This of course leads to all kinds of abuses, with Bitcoin being used to pay for illicit activities, but it also makes it the preferred method to donate to many human rights activists and campaigners in countries with oppressive government control of the financial system. It opens up banking to the 2-4 billion people who do not currently have access to a well-functioning banking system, and it opens up payments to people and countries currently under sanctions by the US. In a way, it opens the way for "economic freedom" and removes barriers for parties who for whatever reason want to exchange money. According to libertarian ideology, this (although it can have some negative effects) overall is a good thing for human creativity and happiness. Left to themselves, without heavy oversight or intervention from state powers, humankind is most likely to be happy and prosperous.

Thursday, 7 December 2017

Freedom or Stability: Terministic Screens of World Politics and Their Rhetorics

"When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail."

In his book, No Apology: The Case for American Greatness, presidential candidate Mitt Romney looks at the main state actors on the world stage and compares them to businesses with different business models. He sees the American leadership of the world weakening because "nothing is as vulnerable as entrenched success," a proverb he learned from his father's business experience. At the time, some criticized his assessment of Russia and China as being too "Cold War-ish," although many of his critics have later apologized and said "Romney Was Right About Russia." It may be a part of an occupational psychosis for a business man to see everything as likened to a business model, but that perspective also gave some interesting insights into the strengths and weaknesses of each nation's plan for success.

Today I'd like to do something similar, based on my occupational psychosis as a rhetorician, and give a brief overview of some of the main perspectives on world politics that the major actors use to make sense of things. These are different lenses or screens through which world events can be viewed, and it can help us to make sense of the logic that dictates or at least guides their actions, their moves and countermoves. As Kenneth Burke wrote, these different screens each turn our attention to different things and shows different meaningful relationships. He writes in Language as Symbolic Action: "Even if any given terminology is a reflection of reality, by its very nature as a terminology it must be a selection of reality; and to this extent it must function also as a deflection of reality" (45). So here are a two of the screens and some feature of reality that they reflect, select, and deflect.


Freedom
Though this has often been a smokescreen to hide the real motivation (selfish national interest) it is also true that many choices have been made in US foreign policy that were not based on the goal of getting any immediate gain, but rather serving the long term benefit and freedom of a large group of people.

Following WWII, it would have been possible for the US to maintain their world leadership and keep all the other nations, who were all broken from WWII, in subjugation and disorder. Instead, they instituted the United Nations, The World Bank, The International Monetary Fund, and offered the Marshall Plan to rebuild the economies of Europe. They even offered, with the Baruch Plan, to share their knowledge of the atomic bomb and allow the United Nations to control all the uranium in America and in the world in general. As the world's only functioning economy, the world's only nuclear power at the time, and the largest and most advanced military in the world, the US could easily have become oppressive world masters, but they chose instead a course that led to unprecedented freedoms and wealth for millions of people around the world.

The seeds for this way of thinking goes back to the American revolution, where the greatest thing to be feared was the tyrant, and the greatest thing to be preserved for all was liberty. As Kenneth Burke writes in A Grammar of Motives:

"Considering the Constitution, then, as an enactment arising in history, hence a dialectic act, we find something like this: Thrust A (the will of the monarch) had called forth a parry A1 (the 'rights' of the people). A document is formed that memorializes and perpetuates this parry. And it survives, in its memorialization, after the role of the opponent, whose thrust called forth this parry has been removed" (365).

We find this anti-tyrannical attitude in Thomas Jefferson's quote about too much and too little law:

" … were it made a question, whether no law, as among the savage Americans, or too much law, as among the civilized Europeans, submits man to the greatest evil, one who has seen both conditions of existence would pronounce it to be the last; and that the sheep are happier of themselves, than under care of the wolves. It will be said, the great societies cannot exist without government. The savages, therefore, break them into small ones."

With this frame of mind, one looks over the world and wants to see liberty. When one sees what resembles "the tyrant" and an absence of the rights set down in the Declaration of Independence and US Constitution as universal rights and self-evident truths, one immediately looks at how one can relieve and free the oppressed from the burdens of a tyrant. The assumption is, as Winston Churchill states, that when the people of the Earth are free they will move into "broad, sunlit uplands."

This sentiment is well and alive today, most notably in the US and Europe, with some very recent "converts" to this perspective in former Soviet Union states like Georgia and the Baltics. Here is a passionate defense of that perspective by the former president of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili, denouncing Russia and envisioning a future of free nation states, without empires.


Though it has recently suffered a set-back in the US, with the "America First" policy of Donald Trump, John McCain and others both on the left and right side of the aisle still speak in defense of freedom and denounce tyranny and oppression in all its forms. Here as recently as in November.


Reflection of Reality
This terministic screen really does reflect an important reality in the world: There is a real difference between freedom and oppression. There is a difference in terms of which governments kill huge swaths of their citizens. Communist regimes have killed a total of between 83 and 100 million of their own citizens, with just the administrations of Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong, and Khmer Rouge alone killing between 21 and 70 million. In general, there is also a difference long-term in economic development and prosperity, and innovation (though Russia and China so far have been able to introduce market reforms without allowing for full democratic freedoms). Freedom vs. oppression also seems to have a rather universal appeal, with people all over the world willing to dedicate their lives to be able to live in freedom.

Selection and Deflection of Reality
What does this perspective miss? Why doesn't freedom flourish as soon as dictators are killed and regimes are toppled? Why is there a current movement even in free nation state democracies to elect parties and implement policies that are antithetical to this dedication to freedom? Well, a few things:

1. Freedom isn't easy.
Freedom can be great, but it can also be a huge burden. For people who were used to be told what to do and what to think, freedom can be disorienting, leading many to feel lost, abandoned, and alienated. Suzanne Langer claims that many Germans, growing up with an authoritarian system, felt disoriented in the modernistic Weimar Republic, and this made them easy prey for the collectivized lures of Nazism and Communism. Except for the absence of tyranny, what does freedom even mean for the average person? What does freedom mean to you if there is nothing you want to be free to do? In some ways, it can be a bit like what Ryan Hamilton says about freedom and being single (starting at 2 minutes.

For many people from the former Soviet Union, who were used to having the state plan and provide for them, freedom soon seemed more like abandonment. It may be similar for some Muslims who transition from rigid moral codes to countries where you can pretty much "do whatever you want" and react by seeking fundamentalist clerics online and become radicalized. Though economic aid, meaningful work, idealistic social projects, a strong social bond, and friendships can ease these plagues of modernity and transitions from authoritarianism, the hard truth may be that some will in the end still reject this because they simply don't want freedom.

2. Tyranny can be better than anarachy
Though state actors have been responsible for mass killings on a large scale, most people in the world are not killed by their own governments, for the simple fact that it is not in their interest. If nothing else, governments need people for tax revenue, recruits for the military, and to provide a labor force, so even the worst governments in the world provide some benefits to their populations. As long as you are not a threat to the government and control your tongue you can usually do your work and go about your everyday life without too much interference. People can live in the most oppressive conditions as long as there is some degree of predictability. Anarchy, on the other hand, can lead to a brutal war of everyone against everyone, with constantly shifting power structures, uncontrolled violence, and where what is praised one day can be punished the next day. That is a situation that is truly intolerable for people to live in. There is nothing as uncivil as a civil war, with neighbor fighting against neighbor. In comparison to this, even the most oppressive regime becomes tolerable and preferable. Which brings me to my next perspective.

Stability
For a while in college, I for some reason found myself listening quite a bit to an English-speaking Chinese radio station, and it was so interesting to observe how world events and news were covered on that station. The overwhelming term around which all evaluations of the world swirled was  "stability". Whenever a protest, a war, an election, or anything else was covered, it was all seen through the prism of stability: "X country has returned to stability, Y country has recently been destabilized, the destabilization was caused by Z. Prospects are not good for having the country make a quick return to stability." It struck me that they reported the world news somewhat the way I am used to hearing reporting about the financial markets and stock exchanges. At some level, I am wondering whether this goes back to the Confucian focus on harmony, with harmony being a greater and more important virtue than truth. Another word for harmony is balance, and balance is a manifestation of stability.

Incidentally, this is a view shared with Vito Corleone (The Godfather) and Donald Trump. Vito Corleone observes that a gang war between the crime families is "bad for business" and therefore seeks harmony rather than vengeance (at least in the short term). Perhaps for similar reasons, Donald Trump thought Michael Gorbachev was a bad leader and praised the Communist regime in China based on their ability to maintain stability. This is from an interview he gave in 1990:

"Russia is out of control and the leadership knows it. That's my problem with Gorbachev. Not a firm enough hand. [...] Yet Gorbachev is getting credit for being a wonderful leader - and we should continue giving him credit, because he's destroying the Soviet Union."

"When the students poured into Tiananmen Square, the Chinese government almost blew it. Then they were vicious, they were horrible, but they put it down with strength. That shows you the power of strength."

The promise of stability has always been the lure of authoritarianism in its different forms, and the prism of stability makes you see a well-functioning democracy and a stable dictatorship as almost equivalent. With this perspective, it makes sense to knock down popular protests as though they were insurgent groups or foreign agents: after all, they are agents of instability, the devil in this moral hierarchy. Here is Vladimir Putin using that argument for all it is worth to defend supporting the Syrian regime, despite the fact that Assad's regime has killed most of the 250,000 killed in the Syrian Civil War.


Of course, even he speaks of democratization as being the ideal (though he actively undermines that same process for his own citizens in Russia). This just shows how prevalent the "freedom" lens is still in the world. He is arguing for stability, but needs to do so in the language of freedom.

Reflection of Reality
As I said, the yearning for stability is deeply ingrained in the human mind. With stability comes a measure of predictability, and with predictability comes a measure of safety. In some areas and countries, regimes focused on stability have been able to more effectively provide for the safety of the inhabitants than regimes focused on freedom. Even in democracies there is a provision called "martial law" where normal rights and procedures are abandoned in order to deal more effectively with an emergency or a crisis. In some ways, this is an admission that freedom is a burden and a luxury which can be put to the side in times of great need. The "stability" perspective maintains the importance of an aspect of reality that is essential. Even for the American military a "failed state" or "power vacuum" is the nightmare scenario. As far as it goes, modern world politics disprove or at least does not agree with Jefferson that no law is better than too much law.

Selection and Deflection of Reality
So what does this perspective miss? Why have so many people in past and modern times rebelled against and toppled regimes that were very adept at providing the basic needs of stability and predictability?

1. Freedom and stability are not mutually exclusive
You have to be a pretty bad leader to lose in a contest between your selfish but stable leadership and anarchy, but these are not the only options on the table. In the United Kingdom there has been some form of representational government at least since 1430, and yet it has been one of the most stable and predictable countries in the world by almost any measure during the last almost 600 years. The United States of America has enjoyed over 150 years without a civil war or major domestic dispute, despite absorbing the largest amount of diversity, immigration, and social change in any nation during that time. In addition, during the same time span both these countries have pretty consistently been among the most innovative and the most wealthy nations in the entire world. Yes, these patterns of peaceful, stable, and reliable democratic coexistence are not easy to create, but they have been replicated in nation after nation using these two as an example.


Yes, you need some time, both the US and England fought civil wars early in their democratic experiments. Yes, you need strong institutions. Yes, you need a somewhat enlightened electorate. It's not easy, but stable and reliable democratic governance is possible. And the benefit of that governance is pretty convincing. As Vox reports, "At the same time as democracy spread globally, every objective metric of human welfare jumped up dramatically. Between 1950 and early 2011, global life expectancy jumped from 47 to 70. From 1990 to 2011, the percentage of people who died before turning five fell by about half. The percent of people killed by war is 1/30th of what it was in the late 1940s. 721 million fewer people live in poverty today than in 1981." In comparison to this, the feeble promise authoritarians give of "stability" is pretty pathetic.

2. Dictatorships lack a mechanism for change, renewal, and improvement
On a pretty fundamental level, democracies and authoritarian regimes operate on the basis of some very different assumptions about people. For authoritarian regimes, the population is a threatening and irrational mob that needs to be controlled, trained, and supervised. They need to be organized by a superior intelligence who then rules by decree supported by force. However, there is nothing innate in those who arrive at the highest echelons of power in those regimes that endows them with superior intelligence to those in the population (unless the population can be kept stupid and ignorant by artificial means). Therefore, it is likely that ideas, mechanisms, and methods superior to those developed by the regime will be developed by the populace, and they will definitely be developed by neighboring free nations that do not supress these ideas in the same way. In order to keep up with the rest of the world, these regimes will have to reward merit, and once they reward merit they also give power. Once they give power, then sooner or later their own grasp of it becomes threatened.

The Soviet Union needed an enlightened elite to keep up with the US in the nuclear race, but this at the same time put the future success of the Soviet Union into their hands, thereby giving them influence. This influence was then used by the likes of Andrei Sakharov, who invented the Soviet hydrogen bomb, to undermine or change the rigid structures of the Soviet Union. In the 1980s he "helped to initiate the first independent legal political organizations and became prominent in the Soviet Union's growing political opposition."

In democracies, brilliant people and ingenious ideas can rise to the top without any threat to the system. Rather than gathering a movement to overthrow a regime violently, they can peacefully join political parties, debate their ideas, and win local or national elections. People who see errors or imperfections can join with others to remedy them, and if the errors or imperfections are significant enough they will sooner or later gain power to do so. As long as there are strong institutions and ideals to manage the "crisis" of a national election, there is no great instability or risk inherent in the transfer of power. Although democracies at times elect people completely unsuited for their office, overall democracies have produced some of the most eloquent, capable, and intelligent leaders, and have been spearheading the reduction of poverty and increase in health and standard of living. In an authoritarian regime you are either the organizer or the organized, whereas democracies allow people to both organize and be organized in turn. Below is an eloquent statement on this by Robert F. Kennedy (starting at 2:40).


Rhetorics of These
So how does this all influence the rhetoric used by the proponents for each of these systems? For the proponents of stability, the most important thing is to always hold up the devil of instability to scare the populace. In order to do so credibly, these regimes will sometimes create artificial instability in order to have a clear deterrent. Russia has fomented ethnic and religious tensions in Azerbajan, Ingusjetia, Abkhasia, and South Ossetia, Stalin divided the Fergana Valley into four nations in order to create tensions between population groups (preventing a direct rebellion against his rule), and Putin is currently more interested in prolonging the Syrian civil war than actually bringing it to a close. In addition, it serves their interest to create civil discord in the "so-called" stable democracies. In the 60s, the KGB were planning to assassinate Martin Luther King jr. and install Stokely Carmichael as the head of the civil rights movement, since he was more favorable towards a more violent approach. At the same time, they were supporting the Black Panthers and other paramilitary groups financially, because doing so could weaken the United States. More recently, they have used Facebook, Twitter, fake news websites, hacking, and intimidation to organize protests and events aimed at stoking racial and religious tensions, and creating disillusionment among the populace. And they are also providing funds and arms to the Taliban to prolong the war in Afghanistan.

Proponents of freedom on the other hand will look for and support initiatives, groups, and people who are trying to limit or fight against tyrannies. Sometimes they will take the zeal too far, and not pay attention to the dangers posed by instability. Being used to the proponents of stability using this as a scare tactic, they will often disregard warnings against or be blind to the dangers that come with giving freedom to areas without strong institutions and with long histories of ethnic and religious tensions. The invasion and subsequent "democratization" of Iraq showed quite clearly the dangers of that blindness. The current state of affairs in Libya, where people are again sold as slaves in the marketplace, shows just how bad a state of anarchy and tribalism can become. Also, with the focus on parrying tyranny this worldview may be blind to other threats and problems that go beyond the question of freedom and oppression. Finally, they may become lost in a game of always supporting the underdog, even though the underdog turns out to be just as bad an oppressor as soon as the shoe is on the other foot.

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

Bellwethers, Indicators, and Omens: The Rhetorical Impact of Special Elections and Micro-Movements

As I was pulling into the university parking lot today, I realized that my mind was instinctively looking not just for free parking spaces, but also behavioral patterns that might indicate to me whether the other spaces were empty. This made me think about how we, as humans, by nature or nurture think in this way, and how that endows some events or images with profound meaning, or at least meaning beyond the event itself.

Here is the parking situation I face every day:
- If you come to the university between 7 and 8 am, the world is your oister. You can pretty much pick and choose your preferred parking space. The lots closest to the entrances go first (we have just one large building on campus).
- If you come after 9 am you'll be lucky if you don't have to park across the street by the hotel or fitness center.
- If you come between 8 and 9 am you will find a spot, but the best (closest to the entrances) will most likely be taken, though you may get lucky.

This morning I had to drop my daughter off at school, so I arrived between 8 and 9 am. As I entered the parking area I immediately started looking for signs or indicators (as all of you probably do). We know some of the familiar ones:
- If a car enters a parking lot and then exits it, that parking lot is full.
- If the parking lots furthest from the entrance are jam packed, that means those closest to the entrance are all taken. The same goes if some pseudo-lots (could work, but not marked) are taken.

And then there is this peculiar one that I have found at my university:
- If the parking lot in the corner with the greatest chance of getting boxed in or getting a scratch while maneuvering is taken, then the lot is full.
- If that and another space is empty, then there is a good chance for more empty spaces too.

The space I am talking about is this one in the corner, where the black/grey car is parked
The space next to the two birch trees is an indicator for the parking lot capacity
It occurred to me that we use the same kind of thinking in a lot of ways to try to predict the future or make estimates beyond what we have knowledge of at the moment. They are used in politics (often to describe by-elections), economic forecasts, weather forecasts, statistical analyses, and (more anciently) to tell fortunes or predict the success of a battle or war. Hume would claim that all of these are superstitions, but they have proved their value in the past. In either case, whether or not we like it, it seems we as humans are hard-wired or trained to think in these terms.

We have different words for these signs, with some different meanings and implications:

A bellwether (originally meaning a male castrated sheep wearing a bell) has come to mean one that leads or takes initiative, or actively establishes a trend that is taken up by others (a little podcast about the word available here). The parking space in question cannot be a bellwether in this case, since the parking space is not an agent and therefore not able to actively establish a trend or take initiative. However, the first car that abandons the attempt of finding an empty spot in the lot can become a bellwether. If I and five others behind me saw that, we likely won't even try that parking lot. The problem with designating something a bellwether (and talking about signs of the future in general) is that you can only clearly establish the truth of the statement afterwards. It can be factually true that "this proved to be a bellwether of the market," or "this company has often been a bellwether," but "this company is a bellwether" can never be anything but an unsubstantiated claim about the future. I and the cars behind me might now follow the lead of that first car at all.

Everyone wants to be a leader, nobody wants to be a lone wolf or that one weird guy that walked off by himself, but the difference between a bellwether and a freak or anomaly is first determined after the first step has been taken. A leader has to walk alone in the beginning in order to lead, to establish a new direction. Leadership is lonely, at least at first. But if the flock doesn't follow, what then? Then it's suddenly not leadership but egotism or deviant/disobedient/anomalous behavior.

Look at the example of Republican Senator Jeff Flake and his recent powerful speech denouncing Trump and the current administration. The speech makes it clear that he wants to be a leader and he predicts that he will be a bellwether: 

"This spell will eventually break. That is my belief. We will return to ourselves once more, and I say the sooner the better. Because to have a healthy government we must have healthy and functioning parties. We must respect each other again in an atmosphere of shared facts and shared values, comity and good faith. We must argue our positions fervently, and never be afraid to compromise. We must assume the best of our fellow man, and always look for the good. Until that days comes, we must be unafraid to stand up and speak out as if our country depends on it. Because it does."


Without doubt, this is a call to the flock to follow his lead. It is a speech with the grandeur and visionary statements customary when leaders set out a new course, and it has appeals to emotions, patriotism, and the principles many of the other members of the Senate have mentioned themselves often. But will he prove to be a bellwether, or will he be a lone lost sheep from the Republican fold? It all depends on how many others are willing to follow his lead. As Evan McMullin and others argue here, the difference between the two can depend on very few people bringing it over the tipping point.


However, by calling something or someone a bellwether you may actually influence whether or not a person actually becomes a bellwether. In the clip above, the panelists compare Jeff Flake to those who spake out against Senator McCarthy and finally were able to bring about his downfall. Those people were bellwethers, but many other people who have spoken out against dominant trends ended up just being lone wolves howling to the moon. 

This is what Cicero and later Chaim Perelman called "the argument from definition." As Perelman writes, “Every time an idea can be defined in more than one way, ‘to define’ comes to mean to make a choice” (62). The White House Press Secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, is trying to define Senator Flake's words as the exit of a lone wolf ostracized by the flock. If other Republican leaders see the action in that light, then they will be more unlikely to want to follow. After all, who wants to follow a madman into the desert? If, on the other hand, Jeff Flake and other people can define the act as that of a bellwether, a leader, someone who actively establishes a trend which others then follow, then people are also more likely to join the effort, add their voices and influence to boost it, and actively develop the potential trend to make it dominant or at least significant.

The argument works because our mind constantly strives to be ahead of the future in order to safeguard our well-being and that of those around us, and so we are willing to accept unsubstantiated arguments about the future because these are often the best we have. In any case, it is a possible future which we may be able to help bring to pass.

An indicator is a word commonly used in science and technology, and it does not have the same requirement as a bellwether of active involvement. The car in the space by the two birches is an indicator that the parking lot is full. An indicator is something which indicates. To indicate is either to point out or show, or to suggest something as a desirable or necessary course of action. It originally comes from Latin "indicare," meaning to point out or show something with your finger. In chemistry, it means "a compound which changes colour at a specific pH value or in the presence of a particular substance." The compound points to or shows that a specific pH value has been reached or that a specific substance is present in the mixture.

A bellwether actually has to do something, but indicators can often simply be events or objects which point to or show us something else. A beating pulse is a key indicator of life, your breath turning to steam is an indication of minus degrees (Celsius) temperatures, and a surprising defeat in a by-election may indicate that popular sentiment is turning against your party. 

Of course, not all things called indicators have a necessary correlation with what they are intended or purported to show or point to. And one can also choose which indicators to focus on or view as significant. Is the popular vote or the electoral college the best way to indicate which candidate had the most support (or was least disliked)? What are the best indicators for popular sentiment or wealth distribution? At the fringes, indicators become any potential sign of future intentions or actions, and people search words for hidden meanings, weightings, or indications of what else is to come. Again, this may be done unconsciously or consciously in order to support your ideological narrative. 

The Left in America claim the future belongs to them, because students vote overwhelmingly for Democrats, but this has also been the case for many years and has not significantly changed the balance in American politics. Yet after every election lost by the Democrats one sees articles and posts about this same "ray of hope." I have read them ever since Al Gore's defeat in 2000, and they were repeated with Kerry's defeat in 2004. They were turned to exultations about the future when Obama won in 2008, and were offered again as solace when Clinton lost in 2016. There is a saying that "A man who has not been a socialist before 25 has no heart. If he remains one after 25 he has no head." Whether or not that is the case, it seems to be a prevalent trend that the radical youth vote turns into the considerably more conservative adult vote and most conservative senior vote. But what do these facts indicate? What do they point to or show? And can they give us any meaningful data or hunches about the future?

Well, some indicators are seen as more meaningful than others, so a lot of attention flocks to them. And that makes it important for certain groups to create indicators even when they don't occur naturally. This is where by-elections or special elections come in. These are elections held outside the normal campaign season, and are for that reason given disproportionate attention and endowed with disproportionate importance. Opinion polls are all well and good, but the only way to understand how people will actually vote is to actually have them make a vote that counts. Special elections are given lofty titles such as "a referendum on the President" and huge amounts of money are poured into a race that, in terms of actual political influence, has very little effect overall. In Georgia's sixth district special election, over 50 million dollars were spent to convince the roughly 250,000 voters, totaling about 250 dollars per vote.


Why did they do this? It was because both sides hoped this election could have a signal effect and become an indicator to their supporters as to which side was winning and would be winning in 2018 and 2020. For the next year, whenever the Democrats claimed they were winning the Republicans would be able to say "look at the Georgia sixth district election." Even though the huge amounts of money spent made the indicator really an unreliable and artificial one, both sides still saw enough value in securing it for their side to spend over 25 million dollars each. This huge symbol effect connected to a single event brings us close to the next point, the omen.

An omen can be any event or object that is believed to foretell the future, and often signifies the advent of change. It is a slippery slope argument to say that "the factory in town closed down, a recession must be coming" and yet we all at times feel gloom gathering or think "the writing is on the wall" for some momentous future event. "People in the ancient times believed that omens lie with a divine message from their gods." We may claim in the modern world to have put such feelings and notions behind us, but they pop up in all kinds of predictions about the future, from election forecasts to sport outcomes. Here is a star Norwegian coach who towards the end of two defining matches (one to avoid relegation and the other to become league champions) said he got the feeling "it's not meant to be." 

The inauguration refers to the old Roman role of the augurs, who were supposed to read the guts of animals in order to determine what the likely outcome of a policy would be. In that role, they were searching for omens of the favor or disfavor of the gods. Moments and images in politics and history have been seen as omens or ominous: the soldier jumping over the nearly completed Berlin wall,


for example, symbolizing a last escape from what was to become the Iron Curtain encompassing half of Europe. Another famous "omen" is the explosion of the first atomic bomb with the following quote going through Robert Oppenheimer's mind: "I am now become Death, the destroyer of worlds." 




Of course, from its very inception the omen and the augur were also tools of persuasion. Cicero often used the augur's office to delay the decrees of Marcus Antonius, and magazines and political campaigns like to stage "omens" to appeal to the potential people have to be convinced by these.

In America, financial or electoral success are often heralded as signs or omens of divine approval. After Donald Trump's election, Representative Michelle Bachmann stated “God raised up, I believe, Donald Trump,” and Rev. Franklin Graham said of the victory “God showed up.” The Economy (written that way on purpose) is also often seen nowadays as signs of divine approval or disapproval. Thus, the slow economic recovery for many years during the Obama presidency was God's rebuke.

How useful are bellwethers, indications, or omens when we reason about the future? Well, they are obviously faulty, some less so and others more, but any estimate of the future is bound to be uncertain. We have these frames of mind, I believe, because they have shown their usefulness and validity in the past, and because they really have nothing or very little to compete with when it comes to knowledge or purported knowledge of the future. In either case, we can hopefully sharpen our intuition and discerning ability by questioning to which extent we listen to those who would take advantage of our predisposition to be thus persuaded, and learn to question whether we are here dealing with hard indicators, bellwethers, or purported omens of the future. That may also form and inform the future we help to create.