(6) Mouse (almost) gives up.

Yesterday, Mouse and I were strolling through a park near Parliament. Mouse seemed rather glum, so I asked him there was anything wrong.

” The other day, Rey,” he said, ” I was doing a bit of research for a speech I was writing…”

“Who were you writing it for, Mouse?”

” You know I can’t tell you that. But think of the dumbest most duplicitous MP, and you’ll have guessed it.”

“The Prime Minister!” I quipped.

” Cut it out, Rey! Do you want to hear this story or not?”

“OK, shoot!” I said.

” Where was I…Oh, yes. I was looking at online news stories about the main topic of the speech. As usual, they distorted the facts, or made up ‘alternative’ ones, and failed to understand a thing about what was really going on behind the scenes, but then I got onto the ‘comments, section, which I don’t normally look at. Whoah! I said to myself, this is crazy. It was Wild West time. No one seemed interested in the facts or in whether their arguments, plausible or implausible could be supported by logic or evidence. They just wanted to score. ”

Mouse looked at me with horrified eyes, “It was like looking at myself[…]”

“How is that different from what we have always done?” I asked.

“Its completely different, Rey. I mean, Rey, that everyone had a point of view, right. That’s not new. And that meant that each person saw things at least a little differently. But you felt you could maybe get a fairly rounded view if you went round the viewing circle, 360′, and put all the views together. You could do that because most people were only dimly aware of how one-sided their viewpoint was. They were mostly feeling that they were telling something roughly true, even if a bit was being left out and there was a bit of exaggeration. If you called them liars they would be indignant. Its not like that anymore.”

I had never seen Mouse so despondent. “What is it like, Mouse?” I asked.

” I think its the things in society that have increasingly worked against real education that’ve done us in, Rey. Though, probably not for want of schools trying to teach people that truth isn’t always so simple to find and that you need to balance imperfect knowledge with doubt. Somehow the negative culture outside the school rather than an idea of balance and limited scepticism has won out. Nearly everyone under 50 has been told at school about advertising and its tricks, but they have taken that too much to heart. If you are under 40 you have probably heard all about ‘ideology’.  Problem is the tendency to make schools into economic devices for rationing life-opportunities mean there was less and less room for ‘clear thinking’ and ‘kinds of evidence’, and about the remedies for too much ideology. Fewer people believe in ‘truth’ anymore. Most under 30s doubt there is such a thing. Now, I’m not saying there ever was, Rey, in any absolute sense, but people once believed some kind and degree of truth was possible. They had this ideal of truth. Maybe from an ideal view of science or maybe from an idea of ‘common sense’, even from religion. They still hankered after the truth. Now, many people have given up on it”

” There’s a difference between doubting that perfect and complete truth is possible, Mouse, and deliberately ignoring the idea altogether.”

“Yes. You’re right Rey. But what’s happening more and more is that when you give up on the truth you don’t just shut up and say nothing, you say anything, anything at all, as long as it gets you what you want.” Mouse said.

” What you’re saying, Mouse, is that when you give up on truth its only a small step to longer be bothered by lies.”

“Exactly! We didn’t just lose a good thing, the ‘truth’, we lost a bad thing, the ‘untruth’. Now, anything goes and whatever you say it is neither good or bad, only useful or not, and that’s what worries me. Professionally, I mean. I’m starting to feel like the doctors. Everybody is diagnosing themselves, making up imaginary diseases and worse, imaginary cures. I don’t know what to do, Rey.”

“Why don’t you try to turn it around, Mouse. Give up putting a spin on half-truths, and start being a bullshit-caller, a fact checker. There’s a lifetime’s work there, Mouse. Although I don’t know how you could make it pay.”

“I’ll find a way, Rey. I’ll find a way. Thanks for that Rey, I needed that. Maybe I can just slip the facts in quite subtly so people don’t know they’re being told the truth. This requires some thought, Rey.”

“That’s another thing, Mouse. Thought. Maybe it will catch on again. You know, Mouse, logic, evidence, a degree of scepticism, examination of different people’s arguments, respect for your fellow inquirers, acknowledging you have your own biases. Nuance, Mouse. All that stuff.”

“Rey, you are a tonic. An absolute tonic. I had almost given up there for a while.”

Mouse (4):Values

It didn’t take Mouse long. He’s my most reliable and tenacious critic. He texted me, “A nice summary of the prevailing liberal wisdom about the failure of capitalism, Rey, but codswallop, just the same.” Mouse never uses Twitter. He reckons it’s for his customers, not for him. Besides, he doesn’t much like a lot of the people who are using it lately.

I called him back. “Tell me more, Mouse,” I said.

“Well, it’s not so much that you’ve gotten it wrong, Rey, but that you’ve only told half the story,” he said, “There has been a lot more going on in the last three hundred years than the rise of the propertied, learned, expert, busy-body, new middle class. Sure, we had the Renaissance, and the Reformation, which uncoupled art and religion from the ancient Church of Rome, but the key to the rise of the new economic participants was the rise of new industries, and new sources of economic influence outside the aristocracy and nobility. And this new gentry were not going to be denied. They created the Enlightenment, not the other way around. Reason was their Goddess, either in the way religion was turned toward each individual reasoning out the scriptures for themselves, or even going further towards a reason completely independent of faith: the kind of Goddess of Reason enshrined by the French revolution in place of the altar in Notre Dame.”

“But how is that different, Mouse?” I asked him.

“Because it implied that each person could or should be able to read and to reason,” he replied. “And it implied that each person was potentially equal to any other, not only in the sight of God and St Paul, but in everything. After all, if you can decide the most important questions, those about salvation, you can hardly be denied the opportunity to be part of other, lesser, political decisions.”

“OK, Mouse,” I said. “I get that.”

“But? I can hear you say ‘But’, Rey.”

“Yeah. But. But what did I leave out? That doesn’t seem like half, Mouse.”

“Right, Rey. The half that was left out was the half that all revolutions leave out. What is to replace what you are tearing down? They were tearing down the enchantment, the magic, the source of all deep feeling and valuing. But not replacing it with anything but reason.”

“But, and but again, Mouse, they knew that. There were all sorts of philosophes and savants digging into that.”

“But it is not in reason’s nature to give you enchantment, Rey. And have you ever noticed how the value systems that you can reason your way to are so…antiseptic? To make values stick and burrow in deep enough to actually motivate behaviour, they need to be learned in the family, and they start at your mother’s knee. Then the rest of the family, the neighbourhood, other families, the whole village. It takes a village, Rey.”

“Reason is a thin gruel compared to the rich sauce of family relationships, Rey. And relationships were gradually pushed back, from village to extended family to nuclear family, from sacred to your choice to secular, from sincerity to mere performance, from life being based on things beyond price to being about things that can be undone, denied, unfriended, with the touch of an icon. And you know what pushes everything back, Rey. Power and Wealth that captures the centre of society and places pressure on the village, and the family, and on the individual and robs them of their chance to prosper and flourish, damages their confidence and scorns their honesty.”

“OK. I see your point now, Mouse. You’re saying God and community have been replaced by spin.”

“Exactly, Rey. Spin now rules the world.”

“That’s so bleak, Mouse, and a self-serving thing for a spin doctor to say, if I may say so. It wasn’t like that when we were kids.”

“You’re right, Rey. All is not lost. Real values still survive in the strangest places. They always fight back. But when we were kids, they were much more abundant and self-sustaining, Rey. You remember that, Rey.”

“Yes, I do, Mouse.”


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 of 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?

Mouse (2) : (Childhood 1)

Mouse calls himself a crypto-philosopher, while I am a professional philosopher. “Crypto” is Mouse’s favourite word, or one of them anyway. It’s not a word I use. I tend to say “manqué”. That’s the benefit of an expensive Jesuit education. Mouse was educated in the school of hard knocks. He grew up poor. I grew up rich. We were unlikely friends. We used to hang out together all the time. We lived on opposite sides of a creek. Mouse lived in a shack; a tent, really, made of war surplus canvas bits and pieces and recycled packing cases and hidden deep in the bush: Mouse seemed to be as free as a bird. No chores, no homework, no music lessons! For some strange reason, this way of life was deeply attractive to me; I was Tom Sawyer to Mouse’s Huckleberry Finn. I lived in an expensive, deep waterfront holiday house, complete with boat ramp, jetty and saltwater pool; on the respectable side of the creek, of course. There were a lot more “don’ts” than “dos” in that house.

mouse houseBottomley’s Shack

After the war, that’s the Second World War to you Generation Alphabets, you could find little shacks in the bush, all over. Many of them were occupied by a single inhabitant, usually a returned soldier, damaged by war and drink. But quite a few were occupied by families, doing it hard; sometimes by war widows and a couple of scrawny kids; sometimes there was a dad, too, the whole family trying to claw back from the brink of poverty, after the Great Depression and the austerities of the war.

In our family, looking down on “ordinary people”, they all seemed to be one great undifferentiated mass, but the Bottomleys taught me there are many gradations and each one is important. First, at the very bottom came Australia’s first people, the aborigines. We didn’t know any Aborigines, and we knew nothing about that part of our history, so, like almost everyone else in those days, we alternated between seeing them as noble savages and degraded remnants of a dying race. Next came the “no-hopers”; people who were unemployed or unemployable. This was almost always “their own fault”. Next came the battlers – people who were trying to get enough money together to buy a block of land and send their kids to school. When they had the land they would build a garage, with a toilet and sink and a workbench that doubled as a kitchen, then they would live in it, which was illegal, unless the local authorities looked the other way, which, bless them, they often did in those days.

The Bottomleys aspired to become battlers. They had no money to build a garage but they did have a block of land. Finally you came to the respectable working class people: The tradespeople and the clerks – hard working, salt of the earth, but….you wouldn’t want your daughter to marry one. There were, of course, many finer distinctions. These mattered a lot to some people. And then there were tribal identities: Catholic, Protestant, Calathumpian; Scottish, Welsh, English etc. At a certain level, the families you were connected to mattered, or the year your ancestors came to Australia (triple score if they arrived on the “first” fleet….unless they came 50,000 years earlier, which didn’t count).

Fine distinctions were not confined to the common people. If you were near the top of the heap, even the street you lived in came with its own prestige score. Sometimes which side of the street you lived on mattered, as well as how you used a fork, whether you called the euphemism the toilet, the bathroom or the dunny, and lots more.

Mouse (1)

Hieronymous Bottomley is my best friend. We go way back. We were in kindergarten together. Hieronymous was known as ‘Ronnie Mouse’ to our enemies, the bullies. They also made great play of the word ‘bottom’ which seemed to amuse them a great deal. To his friends he was just ‘mouse’, a big, easy-going mouse. Or so it seemed. In fact, he was anything but a mouse; he was slow to anger but a lion when he was roused.

He was always big, even then, whereas I was small and still am. If you’re small you are a target for the bullies too. They used to call me ‘Wog’, I guess because of my non-anglo name. To mouse I was just Rey or ‘X-Rey’ , because my middle name is Xavier , sometimes ‘stingray’, because I had a lightning fast punch to the enemy’s nose. Together we made a formidable pair, he would hoist them off the ground, and I would dong them on their noses, which soon became luminous. The bullies learned to leave us alone. Nowadays we tend to defend ourselves with by less physical means.

Nowadays Mouse is a spin doctor. He calls himself spin doctor to the stars and politicians. He reckons that spin doctoring is just the professionalisation of something that used to be done by amateurs. The difference between professionals and amateurs in his opinion is not that he’s better at it than the amateurs but that he doesn’t believe his own spin. He also reckons it is the oldest profession in the world and that it is where the second oldest profession got their general idea of how to operate.

Amateurs come to believe what they say when they say it for long enough. Politicians are like that too. It just takes them a little longer for them than it does for less calculating singers and thespians.

The other day he said to me, “X-Rey, I reckon most people are easy to fool because they think sideways or upside down or backwards instead of thinking all round.”

“Why do they do that, Mouse?” I asked.

“That’s an easy one,” he said. “It’s kind of like burying your head in the sand. They are either afraid of something or they really want something. So they get tunnel vision. The focus in on the thing they are scared will jump out at them, they pant after a bone that think they can grab, and they can’t see anything else.”

“So you could say they are watching the doughnut and not the whole. Ha, Ha!” I quipped.

“Let me make the jokes, Rey! Besides, they mostly only watch the bit of the doughnut nearest to them. But you’ve got a point there. It’s the shape of things. The way they fit together that matters. And that includes other people’s points of view. If you want to see the doughnut properly, you’ve got to see it from all sides as well as seeing the hole in the middle. It’s the way things fit together, not just the things themselves. If everyone saw like that, I’d be out of a job.” He sounded pensive, but then he perked up, and said brightly, “Anyway, Rey, tell me about your blog. What’s it about?”

“What you said, Mouse. What you just said. And maybe a little bit more…about what doughnuts really are!”

“This is going to be fun, X! I’m sure I’ll fall about laughing when I see it.”

“Either that, or you’ll burst into tears, Mouse’s Bottom!”, I needled him.