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.


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


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

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.

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.

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.

Friday, 7 July 2017

Publication Update: Internal Logic, Indexing, and Consummation

Hi everyone!

I generally write the blog posts at a reading level that requires some effort, but if you are up for a challenge there's more in-depth research from me available for free. I will post them below with links and brief descriptions.

Internal Logic: Persuasive Form and Hierarchy in Kenneth Burke

This is from a conference presentation I gave at the Internation Society for the Study of Argumentation at the University of Amsterdam, 2014. It mainly concerns how a text establishes its own form of logic and teaches the reader to think in its terms and according to its own logic. This logic operates by literary form rather than formal logic, and by arousing and fulfilling expectations it can make the reader/listener feel that because it is true to its form the argument it advances is also objectively true. (I apologize in advance for the spelling mistakes)

Indexing: Kenneth Burke's Critical Method

Web project/multimedia argument that helps to explain, illustrate, and train you in one of my favorite research methods. Some fancy animations and presentations help to make the tutorial less boring, and there's a full literature review and scholarly background for those who want to go deeper. This method can be used for a lot of things. It was Kenneth Burke's favorite method for textual/rhetorical analysis and helps one to find the logical structure of the text and the "ideology" the text presents. This was published in the KB Journal, spring 2017.

Consummation: Kenneth Burke's Third Creative Motive

My most read publication. If it wasn't obvious before, I use Kenneth Burke in a LOT of my research, basically because I see him as someone who is intellectually honest and actually gets a lot of things right. Here I am teasing out a theory he has about the aesthetic motivations that direct the development in areas like the natural sciences, art, music, and is a potential factor in both individual and group motivations. It centers around an aesthetic desire for order, consistency, and completion. Edward Teller, Robert Oppenheimer, Michael Polanyi, Thomas Kuhn, Espinoza, and Saint Anselm all make appearances here. Also published in the KB Journal, spring 2017.

That's it for now. Feel free to shoot me an email if you have any questions or comments (or leave a comment below).

Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Winning Hearts and Minds: How WWII Was Won By Words Before It Was Won By Bombs

In August 2016, lifelong Republican voter and former CIA spy Evan McMullin threw his hat into the ring as presidential candidate to oppose Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. When asked why he opposed Trump, he answered that Donald Trump posed a greater long-term risk to the US than ISIS because he would undermine the goodwill for the US around the world. And this goodwill was an essential asset the US could not do without.

So this seems like a rather strong claim. Is there a precedent for this? Yes, plenty of them, and none is more telling than WWII, where I would claim that the US won primarily because the right people wanted to go there, and because those same right people wanted to leave Germany.

In 1933, Adolf Hitler instituted a racial purge of the universities and other institutions of higher learning and research in Germany to "get out the Jews." As a result, there was a massive brain drain of some of the leading minds in physics, chemistry, and other areas of learning. Here is an incomplete list of physicists who left Germany and Italy because of Hitler and Mussolini:

- Leo Szilard (filed the first patent for an atomic bomb, instrumental in creating the first atomic reactor and in convincing president Roosevelt to start up the Manhattan Project).
- Edward Teller (father of the hydrogen bomb and radical anti-Communist)
- John von Neumann (father of the modern computer, essential contributor to the development of both the atomic bomb and the hydrogen bomb).
- Rudolf Peierls and Otto R. Frisch (discovered the first workable cross-section for an atomic bomb and wrote the Frisch-Peierls memorandum which convinced the UK and US to develop the atomic bomb)
- Albert Einstein (developed the theory of relativity and convinced president Roosevelt to invest money into making the atomic bomb).
- Theodore von Karman (father of modern aviation physics and jet propulsion).
- Hans Bethe (Nobel laureate and instrumental member at Los Alamos)
- Erwin Schrödinger (Nobel laureate and father of quantum theory)
- Niels Bohr (father of quantum physics)
- Joseph Rotblat (founder of the Pugwash Conference and Nobel Peace Prize laureate)
- Emilio Segre (Nobel laureate)
- Enrico Fermi (Nobel laureate)
- Lise Meitner (discovered fission)
- Max Born (Nobel laureate)
- James Franck (Nobel laureate)
- Eugene Wigner (Nobel laureate)

In total, Germany and Italy lost more than 25% of its physicists, 11 Nobel Prize laureates, and a total of more than 2,500 scientists. Most of these chose to join the allies and made crucial contributions to the development of the atomic bomb, the hydrogen bomb, and other crucial inventions, such as the radar, which contributed to the Allies ultimately winning the war against the Axis powers, and also led to an American advantage in science, technology, and industry which the US has maintained ever since.

But why did all these physicists choose to join forces with the US, why did they choose to give their loyalty and all of their considerable knowledge and scientific effort to a foreign country? These numbers are the aggregate of thousands of individual decisions, a different algorithm of choices and consequences in these individuals' lives, and in most cases the US became the choice. Why?

The US in the 30s and 40s were not without a blemish in the eyes of these physicists. There were strong anti-Semitic forces in the US too, and the Roosevelt government was enforcing a strict quota on Jewish immigration which kept many refugees from Europe out of the country. Boats were turned back, and Jews were sent back to a continent in flames to meet their deaths in the camps at Auschwitz and Birkenau. Some Jewish scientists feared to go to the US because of this, but they were also attracted to Roosevelts rhetoric in defense of freedom and democracy. On the other hand, the Soviet Union was unattractive because of the many purges instigated by Stalin and the lack of freedom of expression. Some scientists still chose to join the Soviet Union, or to spy for them in the US, like Klaus Fuchs did, but for most the Soviet Union seemed neither safe nor attractive. Stalin was his own worst enemy, and he set the technological power of the USSR back many years because of his mass executions and deportations.

In Turing's Cathedral: The Origin of the Digital Universe, we get a glimpse into the decision-making process for one of the most important of all of these scientists who did more than perhaps any other to give the US an advantage in science and technology for the next 60 years: John von Neumann.

It says: "Von Neumann left Europe with an unforgiving hatred for the Nazis, a growing distrust of the Russians, and a determination never again to let the free world fall into a position of military weakness that would force the compromises that had been made with Hitler while the German war machine was gaining strength. He replaced the loss with a passion for America and everything its open frontiers came to represent" (181).

However, he nearly didn't make it to America. For himself, as a world famous scientist, it was easy enough to gain employment and an exception from the immigration quotas, but for his fiance and soon to be wife it was not so easy. Would he have stayed in Europe or even chosen the USSR out of desperation if his wife would not have been granted immigration to the US? What would the world have looked like then?

The world of minds, from Sergej Brin at Google to John von Neumann who invented the first computer, is distributed all over the world in every nation and language. The US will only be able to keep its edge in all fields if it is open to these people and if these people actually want to go there or support what the US and the West is trying to do around the world. This is why the actions of Donald Trump's presidency may in the long-term be more fatal to the US than ISIS. 

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Arguments to Establish a Structure of Reality: A Beginner's Guide to Perelman, Part IV

Of all the types of argument that have been explored so far, these are the only ones that do not rely on a previous structure of reality in order to work....or do they?

Quasi-logical arguments rely on essential patterns of thought that we use to reason about any issue, such as, "if there is a thing that is distinct from another thing then there must be a border that defines the extent of this first thing." Such as the first distinction a child learns between "me" and "not-me" or "mine" and "not-mine," or "momma" and "not-the-momma" (as illustrated by this cute dinosaur baby).

Arguments based on the structure of reality require habits of thought that give us some kind of expectation based on a pattern of thinking that we have accepted. Both these two types of argument have no guarantee of validity, only consistency. It is a quasi-logical argument of consistency that undergirds both types of argument. One type requires the arguer to be consistent with essential patterns of thought and logic, whereas another type requires the arguer to be consistent with learned patterns of thought. This distinction may be artificial (all patterns of thought may be learned), but they are still real in the sense that these two types have different status with the quasi-logical being seen as more logical and fundamental, and less culture-dependent. 

Arguments to establish a structure of reality is maybe best understood as a counterpart to arguments based on the structure of reality. Whereas the second uses general patterns of thought to prove or explain one specific case, the first type of arguments works from specific to general, a kind of induction. You use an accumulation of specific examples to prove or indicate a more general principle, pattern, or law in operation. This is the general preferred method of the empiricists and positivists, and they claim that induction is the method whereby one can prevent just spinning in logical circles and actually have scientific progress. A ball falls to the ground one time, and that is recorded. In the same way, it falls to the ground the second time, and that is recorded. One continues to do so until the mass of specific events and instances seems consistent enough to be indicative of a general law that "a ball with mass will always fall to the earth instead of falling upward into the sky." This proposition is problematic, but it has so far worked as the basis for the hegemony of science and its privileged status in the realm of academic fields. A repetition of events that is predictable creates a pattern that indicates that some greater law or principle can be found to determine these events. The same type of argument works in our everyday life and in politics. Here are some of the categories that belong to this type of argument:

1.       Example
In The Realm of Rhetoric. Perelman writes: “To argue by example is to presuppose the existence of certain regularities of which the examples provides a concretization” (106). Whether in science, politics, religion, or any other field, a concrete example is often the most vivid and memorable evidence for a more general rule or principle. The atomic bomb is the most vivid evidence of the neutron and its capabilities, the Churchill/Chamberlain experience has forever made "appeasement" a dirty word, and the atonement of Christ stands for Christians as the great example of Gods love for mankind. Of course, in civic debate, an example shares the weakness of empirical results as a basis for science: It can always be contested. A scientific theory is never proven. Not a single scientific theory or result is forever proven and accepted. If the ball falls up just one out of 700,000,000 times, it still invalidates the argument that the previous events were indicative of a general rule. Whereas, if an example is used to invalidate a case then, by itself, it can require the rejection of a rule to which it is opposed. Just a single counterexample can destroy the effectiveness and validity of the example.

2.       Illustration, unlike example, is not used to establish a new rule but rather to give it presence and make it more understandable and applicable. An illustration has a rule that has already been justified or agreed upon, and the illustration simply serves to make it more vivid or clear. Illustrations are commonly used for pedagogical reasons, but they are also used to emphasize points and give them greater emotional appeal. An illustration of this, is the illustrations that are used at memorials, festschrifts, and other festive occasions that celebrate someone's life. The people in the audience probably already agree that this person is great, and all the examples that show the person's greatness are not meant as points that cannot be rebutted, but rather as illustrations to make more vivid and present something that is already accepted by the audience.

3.       Model and Anti-Model are set up as examples of preference. More than just understanding, model and anti-model are meant to be followed or shunned. For example: physics is the most precise science and should be the model for sciences and all human knowledge (claim of the positivists). "Alchemy is the exact model of what chemistry and science should NOT be like." Jesus and the devil are models and anti-models. Einstein and Bohr are models for scientists.  The Athenian democracy, despite its faults, has been accepted generally as a model for modern democracies. The model seeks that which is the best representation of what a good scientists, philosopher, Christian, Republican, Democrat, Communist, Conservative, Progressive, man, woman, or child should be. The anti-model is the warning, the distortion, the thing to be shunned. The object used as a model obviously needs to be well established beforehand, but using the object as a model for what one should follow or be can be an inductive invention. 

4.       Analogy Similar to an equation in mathematics, except that it does not posit the equality of two relations but rather affirms a similitude. 

The basic structure of this argument is that “a is to b, as c is to d.” The role is to clarify the theme (meta) through the phoros or “explain an unknown relationship through another more familiar one.” One example is: "Old age is the evening of life." This is a metaphor. Perelman called a metaphor "a condensed analogy" that leaves some parts unsaid. The full structure (implied and explicit) is that "As the evening is to the day, so is old age to a whole life." One uses something that everyone experiences every day (an evening) to explain something that others (younger people) have not experienced. We do this all the time and have become so used to it that we can shorten the structure without confusing others. We can say "at the dying of the day" or "a new day is born" or "Abide with me, behold t'is eventide" and understand the relationship between life and a day. A new metaphor creates a new understanding and a new connection between ideas that were formerly understood only separately. In this sense, this kind of argument creates a new structure of reality.

All these arguments are "progressive" in the sense that they create or attempt to create new structures of thought and perceived reality. However, they by themselves require some larger implicit ideas in order to be valid. Empirical results require some kind of empiricist philosophy of science. Unless there is the concept of laws of nature, there is nothing which the ball falling to the earth can prove or be indicative of. And unless there is first a theory or hypothesis, no scientist would know where to look to find proof. These theories and concepts however are not essential structures of thought but rather learned or habitual structures of thought, and these give no guarantee for validity (as the vast false structures of learned and habitual thought have proven). However, seen from the perspective of argumentation we can still say that these arguments are "effective," and currently the arguments to establish structures of reality (inductive arguments) are the most effective of all. They have a higher standing. But is this just because we live in a progressive society that values progress and movement over stability?