Mouse (3): Hieronymous

The name Hieronymous means sacred name or divine name. Or, another way of putting it would be that having the name Hieronymous means that you are on the side of the angels. I once asked Mouse how he reconciles his name with the fact that he belongs to the world’s oldest profession. His answer is that he does it well enough to fool his clients but not well enough to fool their listeners. In this way he educates them, the listeners that is. The trick is that they don’t know they’re being educated so that they absorb what it is that he is trying to teach without rejecting it, thinking they themselves have been clever enough to see through all the spin. As you can imagine, arguing with Mouse is like wrestling with an octopus. But what is Mouse trying to teach? That is the question. But he has a point. It is always possible to produce a plausible story. Rationales and opinions are a dime a dozen. Very few people look beneath the story to see how it was put together. Mouse reckons that what matters is evidence and logic – the steps you take to produce the story and check it out. “Don’t get lost in the fairytale, X!” He is always saying, “Look for the strings on the puppet of rhetoric!” Mouse may have educated himself, but as he often quips, at least it has been a higher education, because he did it himself. He says he has cast the mote out of his own eye and now he has to go into the timber hauling business on other people’s behalf.

I say that if you make your living as a spin doctor you have to make up some bullshit excuse like that. What Mouse doesn’t say, but I’m sure he knows, is that the tendency for everyone to have an opinion about everything, and for many, maybe even a majority, to hold that opinion dogmatically, is the whole basis on which he has built his craft. After all, how often do you hear someone say, “I don’t know enough about that to form a view.” Or, “I would need to know a lot more before I could say.” As a poet once said, “The worst are full of passionate intensity!”

The internet has either starkly revealed this or caused it. I don’t know which. I haven’t got enough evidence one way or the other. I blame opinion surveys, too. Spin doctors study them closely and then work out a story, however implausible, that leads people where they want them to go, by somehow hooking up to the strongest opinions out there, knowing full well that many people won’t look past that superficial agreement with their prejudices to examine the evidence and logic. And that’s a fact.

Social media, too, are, no doubt, potentially fine things, but they are also amplifiers for the gossip of the global village, with the bonus that they amplify anonymous gossip, along with the stuff that real individuals actually own up to. But while this has been going on, rapacious/entrepreneurial (your pick) eyes have been seeing opportunity to game it all for profit. Others, including billionaire doctrinaires, and large but noxious corporations, have been gaming it for power – the power to keep doing things that are contrary to the general welfare of members of society. But where does this leave democracy aka representative government?

The modern idea of democracy was built on the existence of an educated class of people who could enter the public domain and understand what was going on there. Modern democracy was an idea of the 18th and 19th Centuries, during which era, gentlemen(sic) of property (so, people not susceptible to crass bribery) could be familiar with all of the major developments in human thought – both arts and sciences, while fulfilling their duty to the wider society by participating in public life. They entered the public domain on more or less equal terms, and debated policy in a way which they regarded as informed by reason and evidence. They generally had an optimistic view of the possibility of rational government. None of which means that they didn’t have massive blind spots. Some sort or political roles for women, non-whites, and the uneducated being three of these.

You would think that the entry into education, public life, and the economy by all of these excluded groups, through the extension of the vote, through the late 19th century rise of universal schooling, and the opening of the economy to new centres of economic influence and new, non-landowning classes, would have enhanced democracy. I think the evidence is that, progressively, and for a long time, it did. It also spread democracy to many countries around the world.

But while all that was happening, what broke down was the Eurocentric cultural consensus on which the public domain of representative democracies, and the values that underpinned increasing social inclusion relied. Now we are in a culturally fragmented post-modern world – there is no consensus on art, literature, science, and morals of the kind and degree that formed the common ground against the background of which it was possible to reach some degree of agreement about the form society should take. We have seen through the unreality of the Platonic ideal of the philosopher/legislators and we have not yet replaced it with something else.

No doubt there was much that was deeply woven into the fabric of the old consensus that was ‘ideological’, much that was relative to the middle-class assumptions and axioms upon which it was built. Yet it did yield a fitful, even fragmentary, kind of ‘progress’ – in social participation, in equity, in standard of living – as the model of the benevolent, wise political participant was extended to all.

But we now have an emerging condition of post-truth, or, perhaps,  a re-emergence, of a world where once again the loudest voice is the dogmatic voice of power and wealth. Now we have the domination of opinion without evidence, argument without logic, and only a diminished and decaying simulation of reason. Perhaps there was always a great deal of this, but there was also an ideology of service, of independence of thought, of rational, ethical behaviour, however idealistic it may have been, to act as a kind of check on naked self-interest.

The problem of losing all that idealism, that sense of duty, that optimism is that it stood against naked self-interest and now nothing does. We are supposed to believe that naked self-interest somehow magically leads to the welfare of all: that selfishness is virtuous. And that some sort of process of buying and selling everything, called ‘the market’, will blindly result in nirvana. The culture once was built on the idea, however precarious, that a set of values and norms of good conduct was the basis of everything else, and was more important than ‘trade’. Now there is a whole set of high priests (sic) called economists who tell us that the market comes first and is self sustaining, and values and conduct do not matter. Now we may need different values to those of our forebears, and a better way of dealing with differences of values than the old representative government system, but we do need values first, and a market only where the values tell us it’s OK to buy and sell. Otherwise we will just get the old system back – where everything can be bought or sold, including people. We are already trading people’s personal data, their debts, their future incomes (interest on debts). Can it be long before we are trading people again.

Well, enough about what I have to say. I’m sure mouse will have something to say about this stuff. What do you think?

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