Liberal Vision

John's liberal vision did not pan out (RW115)

John had a plan for the world like a lot of us did when we were young. You want to see the world the way you intend, you hope to make an impact, you hope to watch your plans unfold and you want be able to look forward and say: "Progress is inevitable! We are headed toward a thing!", but for John, none of that is coming to pass. Nothing is what any of us expected. A lot of people's impulse in a situation like that is to start pulling even harder on the oars to get things back onto the direction they expect, the direction they think is best and the direction they have worked towards. John is finding it very hard to do that because things are moving so differently and he is trying to adjust. What is a new expectation? Can you have an expectation? What are we working toward now?

John doesn't know if working toward the social and economic goals of the 1960s is still his mission in life, but if not, what is it then? He has certainly never just gotten on the log ride and rode it, but he is someone who wants to dig his heels in and make change where possible. He doesn't even know who he is dealing with now, what the expectations are, and what people think is possible. John talks to people and reads the writing of people who believe that things are possible that aren't.

John's early vision and denied access

When John was 22 years old, he wrote a number of letters to his mom. Although he was writing in gest, he was also very sincere. At the time John was ready to go, but all these middle aged people who didn't appear to be doing anything were clogging up the pipes. They were just sitting around being complacent while John was not complacent and had solutions at hand. He understood what the situation was in the world and he was ready to put some stuff into action, but he had no access and couldn't figure out a way to get his ideas to the marketplace or the public square.

His access was choked off by these middle aged plugs of people who desperately clang to their office chairs and who didn't want to hear the good news of John's Generation X who had all the solutions to all the world's problems. Is this not a meritocracy? Is the world not designed around the people with the best ideas? Is the world designed around people who inherit position, reach their level of incompetence and then just stand in the doorway?

John's mom told him that there is a lot of hard work involved in getting your good idea up over the barrier wall. What he couldn't possibly see was that there wasn't just a bollwerk to keep complacent people in position and young people out, but the world is super-complicated and while young people have a lot of good ideas, a lot of them are not practical. They have been tried a thousand times and we can go ahead and try again, but it would still not work. Good ideas often do not factor in that water costs money or that you can't make 10.000 people do what you want. There are 1000 reasons why your good idea isn't already the way the system is run.

Technology as the enabler of liberalism

John has a closet with spiral bound notebooks stacked five feet (150 cm) high full of his ideas from his 20s and full of his plans for the world. How do we deliver solar power from the Sahara Desert to where it is needed in Norway? Inventions and thought technologies, attempts to better the world and to make the world more accessible and equitable, the millstone being the history of philosophy and technology and the grist being imagination and perseverance.

John knew that cold fusion was bunkum when those guys came out, but the idea that two dingelings with a couple of flasks and two D-batteries wrapped in electrical tape could have captured cold fusion in a jar was terrorizing and went around the world. We wondered it it was that easy, because some of it does feel that easy. If you took an iPhone back to 1930 and tore it apart, it would just be jibberish to them, but if you took an iPhone back to 1965 and gave it to somebody who understood solid state technology, would they be able to use a microscope and reverse engineer it?

It is like alien technology that we have supposedly found and that we have been working on for decades to try and tease out something. Once in a while some of it comes out like the microwave oven, invisible spies, or remote viewing, but it takes a long time to put all this together. John really believed in our moment in the late 1990s when computers were able to do the calculations that kept us apart from miracles. We were going to be the robotic limb that had kept us away. The lack of this robotic interface had kept us in the dark ages, but now: Here we were!

The 20th century is full of examples like irrigation, fertilizer and micro technology that got more and more out of less and less. Because of the way he had been raised, because of his tradition and his degree in Comparative History of Ideas, John couldn't help but feel like all of this was part of the march of history, and that we did better and better in order to lift all of humanity. We would be able to create something even more magical! Space travel is a great example. Who could have imagined?

The age of computer technology

John did not touch a computer in the early 1980s himself, but he looked at it all and thought "That is amazing! I can't wait for people to learn how to use these so that they can put my plans into action!" To a lay person, computers seemed like they could do anything! John's mom was deep into computers his whole life and her computers ran things like insurance companies, county governments and oil companies, so they were closed systems. The computer was in a building and it was working within itself on itself. In order to get into the room you had to go through three locked doors and it wasn't connected to the world. The King County computers were connected to computers within the county, but they didn't talk to computers in the world and Alyeska Pipeline computers certainly didn't.

John recognized from reading Omni Magazine that we were off to the races now and we just had to make sure we didn't build a HAL. As time went on, we realized we also did not want Globo Tech to come online. We still talk about the Terminator monster Skynet to this day, which became like a great metaphor for what we didn't want, even though it seems like we are just barreling along trying to get Skynet online and we are just a little bit behind behind the curve. John didn't even have a practical application for computers at the level he does now. Now he just wants somebody to help him just get his shit online, open up a store and put a PayPal button on his website.

The premise of liberal thinking

Like most 19th and 20th century liberals, John lived his whole life with the belief that the more information there is and the more education people have, the more enlightened they will become and the more they will discover what we in the liberal community believe to be the truth: Mankind is basically good and that if you give people opportunity, they will make good things. If we all work together and pull together, we can make something bigger than if we are each working in solitary confinement or working in competition with each other. Ultimately we are trying to create a global community. All of this is predicated on the idea that if there is more information and if more people are educated, this is the inevitable result. In liberal thinking, educated people do not take the same information that you had and conclude that it's every man for himself and life is nasty, brutish and short.

The premise of the United States of America for most of the post-enlightenment era was that the reason for poverty and the reason for suffering was that people were capable, but they were excluded from the light of higher knowledge. If a child is raised with enlightenment principles in wonderful schools, it will have access to the world of elevated thoughts which will lead to elevated actions. The only reason that not every person is like that is that people are raised as sharecroppers or as factory workers and they never get that education, which is the crime of capitalism that liberalism seeks to address.

Particularly the Internet seemed like the fulfillment of this possibility. Rather than to pluck all these kids from their oaky farm shares and put them in academies, we could connect everybody online and all the information in the world would be available to everybody. We would never have to wonder about statistics or comparative religion anymore because computers could could tell us what all the great religions thought. They would distill it and produce the truths and we could all follow these truths.

How the world failed to see the liberal vision

In 200 years of impassioned liberal thinking, nobody expected that a world of total access to information would be such a massive cluster fuck. We are not living in a world of competing ideas, but there is no competition between ideas at all and they don't have to prove themselves against one another. John was hoping that there would be a million ideas and that the best would bubble to the top. That is the whole idea of universities and it is the Western tradition! We didn't want to restrict education to a wealthy minority, but we were seeking to disseminate it among all the people to create a nation of philosopher kings!

Public education is the whole premise of it! You don't need a chicken farmer in Iowa to have more than a 4th grade education, but you want him to, because that is how he starts to vote for progressive candidates and those candidates will then take progressive ideas to the nation's capitol where we pass legislation that extends voting rights to all. This is how it worked and this is what progress looked like. The idea was that when you were introduced to enlightened ideas, you would recognize their superiority and embrace them, if only you were educated.

People in John's own political community today are astonished that other people don't share their values. That has always been the case, but there had been a reason people didn't share those liberal values: They didn't have access to them and they didn't have the time to think about the liberal understanding of community, politics and economics. Time was the factor! If you had to work in a factory, you couldn't really sit and study. Today it just feels like half the people think one thing and half the people think another thing, but they both think the other group isn't educated. There is no system by which you can take one idea, put it up against another idea and compare its relative merits, because we don't have any common framework, we don't have shared goals, we don't have shared language and everybody is just shouting into the air.

The left does not have any plan, but a ton of expectations. They get agitated about some short term goals, but nobody is fitting those short term goals into a framework of what they think the world is going to look like or what they want the world to look like. The few people who are able to articulate that don't appear to understand that there are 150 million people who don't want that and what they are going to have to do about them. It is easy to say that the world is going to look like your college debating society, but what are you going to tell the 200 million Americans who think that this is a terrible idea? Are you just going to make them do it? There are still a lot of feelings that if you just show people, they will understand the wisdom and the only problem is that they live in ignorance.

The problem of the modern dialectic

Today we have access to all the information as much as we want, but ignorance somehow still persists. Either people are excluding themselves from the right information or they are interpreting it incorrectly due to bigotry or due to a closed reciprocating system within their communities. Their church tells them that right is left and black is white! Explaining away the fact that millions and millions of people don't share your interpretation of the data requires a certain amount of magical thinking, because not all of those people can be living in ignorance. Not all of them are being lied to by their churches! Even amongst people who share John's political sensibilities he considers an awful lot of them as living in ignorance in the sense that they are not thinking deeply enough, but they are just shouting.

There is not one answer to things

The liberal vision is not turning out how John had planned and he can't see a path where people could get back to a shared understanding because one of the fundamental truths of life is that there isn't one answer to things. You can look at a person standing on the street corner holding a sign that says "Down on my luck! Can you spare a dollar?" and you can say that they are a victim of a system that has chewed up a decent person and spit them out and if only he had access to the means of production, we could put him into an apartment and he would be an upstanding citizen who would spend his evenings reading and would get active in his local society. The person in the car with you could look at the same person and say that there is somebody who is just leeching off of the rest of us, who is just a taker and why do we coddle these people? He should be put to work somewhere if he got enough time to stand around with a sign.

Those two ideas are so incompatible with one another while looking at the same guy with the same small amount of information we have about him. Neither side at this point in our national conversation would ever be willing to concede a single point or give even an inch or a centimeter to the person on the other side. And here is this guy with the sign and the question is: What do we do as a culture? He doesn't want to be there. Nobody wants to see him there. If there even are solutions to his predicament, these solutions follow from the initial assessment of who he is, what his situation is, and what his problem is.

On one side the solution is all these ideas about what to do about people who have fallen through, who are poor or at a disadvantage. On the other side there are all these solutions to problems that stem from the premise that the poor deserve their poverty and they are only poor because they don't work hard enough or because God didn't smile on them. How do you wade into that as someone who is coming from hundreds and hundreds of years of believing that as soon as everybody just read all the books and saw all the data, that the solution would be clear?

The liberal tradition turns out to have been based on a lot of magical thinking. It isn't necessarily true that if you just expose everyone to Rousseau they automatically go: "Yes! Agreed!" There are an awful lot of competing writers, too. We are living in a world now where 80% of the left is proceeding from the (Jacques) Derrida they never read.

Nobody reads newspapers anymore

Part of the conversation John was having with Sean Nelson in June of 2018 was that we came up believing that newspapers could help. The little computers that we carried around with us in our heads were going to be part of the formula of doing these calculations and spreading the word, convincing people through our writing and through our work. Now he got no more ideas than anybody else. He is an editor at a newspaper that used to have a tremendous impact on Seattle, but he said that nobody reads the newspaper anymore. People sitting in cafes waiting for friends and who have decided that they are not going to look at their phone today might pick up a newspaper. In the past you would walk into a café in Seattle and every person in there was reading The Stranger the day it came out.

Now everybody is looking at their phones. The Strangers is online, but you don't start at the first page and read the newspaper on your phone, but you follow a link to an article about a band you like or you go read Savage Love or something. The newspaper is viable, it is driving traffic to its web site and it is selling ads, but the idea that everybody in Seattle still reads the stranger every Thursday it's gone. Sean says he writes 15.000 words a month and puts it in the newspaper. They have real-time statistics about what is being read and who is reading it and they put the paper out in the cafes and people take them, but the newspaper is no longer the way. What is he going to do? Sit at his computer and write polemical screeds and put them on Medium and hope people read them?

The blogging and social media and podcasting revolution

John is very lucky to have podcasting, because the energy in him to think about stuff and talk about it has still a last toehold in a world where people are still patient. Their listeners are self-selecting to participate in a media that requires patience and that is deliberative and accumulative over time. Podcasting is very different from spinning the dial on a radio. If you settle on a podcast and you are listening to it over time, you are accumulating a basis. John can't imagine how he would feel if he didn't have that venue.

People often compare podcasting and the fact that we are still very much in the dawn of podcasting to when the web and blogging first became a big thing. It was the first time in history that a regular person regardless of their level of education or connections could write something and get it out in front of potentially millions of people. It was the first time that there was even a mechanism for that to happen! When Dan was a kid and wanted to be a writer, your dream was to work for the New York Times, or Time Magazine or something like that, because that was the only way that you could possibly get the thing that you wanted to write out in front of anyone. If you wanted to write a book, you'd better be good enough for a publisher to want to take a risk and publish it. All of a sudden blogging allowed you to just write something and if it is good, people will eventually find it. Forget self publishing on Amazon! You can just write something and it will be out there in the world.

Podcasting is different from that because hearing somebody's voice is much more personal. Before we had written language we had spoken language. There is nothing more natural than hearing the sound of a human voice being in your mother's womb and hearing her voice talking. That is the first thing the human being hears. There is something very personal and intimate about a podcast and now we have mechanisms to make them, produce them and put them out there. It is not effortless but it is not difficult either. It is not easy to do a good show, but it is easy to create something and get it out there. It is kind of remarkable when you really think about it.

The idea that blogging finally gave everyone the opportunity to publish their written work was originally that it would be meritorious. Sure, everybody could publish their stuff, but only the good stuff would get passed around, because people would select the best. That initial Blogging revolution and the initial Twitter revolution still felt like part of the liberal march and we all embraced them excitedly. The whole idea of thumbs up thumbs down was that the stuff that got thumbs up was the best, but what we have seen in recent years is that shit gets thumbs up because it is the worst and people do not self-select the best material.

The flaw in the liberal argument has always been that when given the choice to sit and read Rousseau or to sit and read Penthouse magazine, you will find that most people will choose Penthouse. How do you reckon with that as a liberal and as someone who believes that education will bring out the intrinsic good? Too often the liberal theorists say that it is okay that people don't want to read the really smart polemic that they wrote and that they instead want to read Penthouse magazine, because we will just do the thinking for them and take it from here. That is the problem when you get into a lot of leftist governments, because they do believe that they have figured out what is virtuous and that the fact that the rest of the people didn't read those volumes doesn't matter anymore because our little brain trust here will be their benevolent dictators.

In the past, the things that had the most stars on Twitter often were the funniest things. It was kind of miraculous and you wanted to get stars for your thing because it did feel like "Wow! I got 60 stars, because I deserve 60 stars for that!" It felt like real currency. The first shade that got thrown on it was that it became a popularity contest. The people who always got 100 stars kept getting 100 stars even for their shoddy stuff and new arrivals to Twitter would say they are just as funny as that 100 star person but nobody knows them, nobody likes them, and they are not part of the gang. It started to get a little shade on it. Pretty quickly people accused it of being exclusive.

Then there was that phase of "follow back" and if you don't follow me back, then you are some kind of snob. "I don't know man! I don't know you and I don't want to read your stupid tweets!" - "Oh, are you too good for my tweets?" - "Well yeah, kind of. Your tweets are fucking stupid!" That was a weird moment when people were trying to democratize it and if we all follow each other, then we will all be following 25.000 people and our Twitter feeds will be just total gibberish, but at least it is equal! There is no quality anywhere! John looks for it every day. Where is the quality now? Where are the quality thinkers thinking quality thoughts in an environment where people are not screaming at each other and not producing lowest common denominator pander? John doesn't know, but he also doesn't have the time to read every blog.

How to filter out the good information?

There is nothing keeping every single person listening to the show right now to start a new podcast where they just read the newspaper but yelling it. The Garrett Morris version! John doesn't know how to put filters on things without falling prey to the problem of the modern age where you filter out news that you don't want to hear. It is not hard to put filters on stuff, you can filter everything down to the smallest particle, but that is not how you create a well-rounded society. You have to give everybody a little dose of everything, but how do you do that? The Atlantic magazine keeps trying to be above the fray. They are trying to do this magic trick of making articles that are entertaining, politically moderate and unbiased enough, but that also allow us to be real.

You can't write one article saying "Trump lies!" and then another article saying "Trump tells the truth!" That is not balanced, because Trump does lie and he does not tell the truth, but you could conceivably write an article that said "Trump lies for the better good!" There are lots and lots of people who feel that Trump's lies don't matter because we know what he means, his lies are just hyperbole, it is small potatoes and don't get hung up on it, because he is doing good work out there! That would be the other article to counter the "Trump lies all the time" article. The Atlantic can't really do that and there is no place in the world where you could have those two viewpoints share a page, or not many places that are then going to become the lingua franca or the common currency where everybody wakes up in the morning and reads the same front page.

John's whole relationship with the Internet now is to unfollow stuff and that is a weird relationship for him to have with information and with other people's voices. He has always been "More! More! More! More weird viewpoints! More people! More talk!" It is weird to have somebody he knows and admires and whom he knows personally say enough things online that he might unfollow them, although they still remain friends. John didn't unfriend them personally, he still loves that person, he just doesn't want to hear them.

Dan's soliloquy (RW115)

See full article on this page

Dan talks about how he has fallen from Twitter and that he considers Twitter harmful. We are not made to interact with so many people instantaneously and everything anybody writes on Twitter will always offend somebody, which is no fun. People don't even realize anymore that they are using Twitter or that they are on Facebook and it has gone beyond being an addiction. Dan only follows certain types of people and his system eliminates banter and chatter and it allows him to see what the people he cares about are up to. He goes on a 20 minute rant about Twitter.

John thinks this was the greatest "Dan's Soliloquy" of their whole show! He has never heard Dan go uninterrupted for that long on a variety of topics and their listeners are going to be very pleased at hearing inside the unfiltered mind of Dan. Dan himself thinks it is too pessimistic and nobody wants to hear that. He used to think he was just realistic and people would tell him he was very pessimistic, but he was realistic and they were pessimistic or too optimistic. They couldn't see the real world and now it's just flat out pessimism and cynicism, because that is all that is left after his soul got eaten.

Dan also tells his story from when he worked at Disney and compares it to Twitter: At Disney you never see anybody who is out of costume, but on Twitter you see everybody at their worst. John does not want to see Dan smoking a cigarette in half his costume! He only wants to see him come online already in his bear suit. John is never out of his bear suit.

People often compare John to Sweetums from the Muppet show, especially when he was missing his tooth and had long hair. Dan can definitely see it.

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License