Political Narratives

by Mark English

Unless we postulate an all-seeing, all-judging God, there is no one true narrative about any person or sequence of social events we care to specify. For each case, there are countless possible narratives or variations of narratives which could be seen to fit the facts. Much of the variation is value-framework related. Different assumptions regarding moral priorities will produce different interpretations of events, and so different stories.

Personal and ideological narratives are an inevitable part of life, but they should always be seen as highly provisional. Science and reason and common sense can effectively identify false or pathological narratives, those that just don’t fit the facts or which incorporate values which are incompatible with social existence; but science and reason cannot adjudicate on most questions of value. Consequently we are left with a plethora of more or less plausible but incompatible narratives.

The tradition of classical liberal thinking in the West could cope with this, to a point. It was not geared to prescription or thought control, but was focused on providing a space for (a certain amount of) individual privacy and freedom of thought and action via institutional structures which would allow individuals and groups to interact in productive ways.

F.A. Hayek was a significant 20th-century thinker who tried to crystallize these ideas into an explicit ideology. He emphasized such things as spontaneous order and individual freedom, and he had an entirely process-based notion of justice. Many of his ideas I find persuasive. But my suspicion is that it is a precondition for this kind of liberal polity to work that there be a common culture in place (as there was, in fact, in the world Hayek knew).

We are now in a very different world, having lost, or being in the process of rapidly losing, that common culture and the shared narratives which supported it. Indicative of these changes is the fact that political and legal institutions which once seemed more or less adequate are no longer effective and no longer respected.

Conservative thought (and, significantly, Hayek did not see himself as a conservative) has always been wary of ideologically-driven thinking. For the conservative, the context is crucial, and every context is different. Consequently, the only general prescriptions which are seen to have any worth are cautionary rather than positive. For example, conservatives typically emphasize the inevitability of unintended consequences of political actions. Positive prescriptions need to be tailored to the specific circumstances involved, and based on judgment honed by experience.

Such an outlook can easily lead to a certain detachment and political quietism. I don’t know that this is necessarily such a bad thing. Activists do harm as well as good. It’s well to be aware, at least, that powerful cultural, social and economic forces, well beyond the scope of a human brain to grasp or fully understand, are always in play.

Politically the best we can hope to do, as I see it, is to incorporate small aspects of this vast churning process into plausible narratives so that we may understand these aspects of reality in terms of our own personal value systems and so respond in more or less coherent and meaningful ways.

Narratives can be group-based or individual; they operate on different levels. There are meta-narratives and there are stories focused on particular incidents or individuals. There are private narratives and public narratives (political myths).

Fact-based testing cannot be applied directly to meta-narratives and political myths except to the extent that such myths make specific historical claims. These specific claims can, of course, be tested.

I learned a lesson early in my blogging career about not allowing a convenient meta-narrative to drive one’s thinking about a particular incident.

A local resident, an Iranian immigrant who had converted to Christianity, disappeared. Her Iranian husband talked to the press about threats she had received from extremists, and it was generally thought (and I went along with this) that she had been abducted and perhaps murdered by these extremists. The story played into a well-known meta-narrative about Muslim apostates being punished by the wider Islamic community. If such an abduction (and killing) had happened in the manner in which it was alleged, it would have been a big international story.

It turned out, however, that the woman’s husband had killed her and buried her body in the back garden. What happened certainly did not reflect well on aspects of Iranian and Muslim culture, but it was basically a sad, tragic, personal story without clear political implications.

One meta-narrative (or set of meta-narratives) with geopolitical implications which is depressingly compatible with many observed facts in today’s world relates to the notion that the political system has been corrupted by a system of patronage based around the military-industrial complex and (elite levels of) the political, intelligence and media establishments. President Dwight D. Eisenhower spelled out the dangers in his farewell address to the American public in 1961, and since that time much evidence has accumulated of endemic corruption at the highest levels of government, much of it associated with the arms trade and other “national security” issues.

Meta-narratives can help to make sense of events. They can also encourage confirmation bias, as inconvenient facts are ignored or twisted to fit preconceived ideas. They also play another role: they facilitate communication between those who share the same general framework, while at the same time preventing effective communication between those whose frameworks are different. My distrust of and lack of respect for all but a few mainstream media outlets sometimes make it difficult for me to communicate with people who trust the sources I reject.

This brings me back to my point about a liberal society being dependent on the existence of common frameworks which cut across social divisions. The spectacular failure of public discourse which we are currently witnessing could be seen to be a direct consequence of the lack of common narratives which transcend class and tribal-political boundaries.

A voice from the past underscores the points I am making. Paul Volcker’s politics are not my politics, but he does not speak from a narrow ideological perspective.

He is a Democrat, and was at one time an economic advisor to President Obama. He is remembered as the Federal Reserve chair who raised interest rates to very high levels to counter high and persistent inflation in the early 1980s.

Volcker is now 91 and very ill, maybe dying. He recently talked to the New York Times. He sees “a hell of a mess in every direction,” including a lack of basic respect for government institutions.

“Respect for government, respect for the Supreme Court, respect for the president, it’s all gone,” he says. “Even respect for the Federal Reserve.”“And it’s really bad. At least the military still has all the respect. But I don’t know, how can you run a democracy when nobody believes in the leadership of the country?”

America is developing into a plutocracy: “There is no force on earth that can stand up effectively, year after year, against the thousands of individuals and hundreds of millions of dollars in the Washington swamp aimed at influencing the legislative and electoral process.”

Here is one meta-narrative at least upon which the left and the principled right can agree.

44 Comments »

  1. This is a beautifully wrought essay. Thank you for conceiving of it and posting it. I think the loss of this consensus that you (as well as others from what I can see) have pointed out is a much more tragic situation than many have grappled with. The question is not whether the former consensus was real in a substantive sense (or “Real” in philosophic terms). It clearly was not. It was quite artificial. It was also in many ways crude and generalized. But it did an enormous amount of work socially for a minimum of harmony, and those who wished it to be destroyed in the interests of an alleged authenticity took an unwise position in my view. But that is just my two cents.

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  2. Hi Mark,

    Congratulations on a very perceptive essay in which you make some important observations. I agree completely that it is impossible for any one brain/person to fully comprehend and understand the world in which they operate. This has always been the case, but it has become an obviously very acute problem in view of the overwhelming abundance of information that is now available to everyone.

    You also correctly identify that the fundamental problem appears to be cultural. But this is where we part company. I believe that culture is a highly misunderstood concept that we, through our ignorance and confusion, use in a very inconsistent way. This in turn contributes to all of the severe difficulties we are having in communication and problem resolution.

    The concept of culture is clearly very important. It has been a hotly debated and disagree upon ever since the first modern definition of it by EB Tylor in 1871. Not a few are now beginning to suspect that there is no such thing, or that it has died. I believe culture is a powerful influence that we have ignored and/or misunderstood at our peril.

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    • I’ll reply here regarding our differences on culture. I sympathize with what you say in your essay, it is fairly mainstream, and I may have had similar intuitions.

      You wistfully say that we ” are now in a very different world, having lost, or being in the process of rapidly losing, that common culture and the shared narratives which supported it.” I daresay that most of the people in the world, the ‘oppressed’, are not unhappy. One could view the battles of the 19th and 20th century as attempts at controlling that ‘cultural narrative’. There is a lot of power and money that come with the ‘correct’ narrative. In my view, narratives are nothing more than a reflection of our personal theories of culture. The problem is that there are innumerable theories of culture, the aggregate of which are often referred to as the culture of a particular group or locality. This is a highly imprecise and misleading way to look at the world. But it is a way by which to harness great power, and to wage war, if needed.

      The concept of culture is indeed exceedingly complex – I call it supercomplex. It is constantly changing, often tumultuously. My alter ego, Johannes Lubbe, and I have just now published a semi-formal, comprehensive description of culture (https://billlubbe.wordpress.com/2018/10/31/anatomy-of-culture/). In essence, there is but one global culture. Each one of us experiences a different subset of it, leading each of us to have their own private theory of culture. As a result of social forces, we form innumerable communities, many of which are referred to as a culture.

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  3. Wonderful essay. I hope as well for “the common frameworks which cut across social divisions.”

    You write: “We are now in a very different world, having lost, or being in the process of rapidly losing, that common culture and the shared narratives which supported it. Indicative of these changes is the fact that political and legal institutions which once seemed more or less adequate are no longer effective and no longer respected.”

    We do need a common culture which can support liberal society, and I like the conservative viewpoint in this regard. Though I would put it as that common culture is not being lost but going through a transformation. In America in 1800, the common culture which enabled a democracy was limited to the whites who had rights in the democracy. The last 200 years can be seen as the common culture expanding and becoming more inclusive so that democracy can be better realized.

    The right seems to think we can keep the culture the same as it was in the past but expand rights to everyone. The left seems to think we need rights for everyone, so we need to give up the old culture and replace it from above with a new one. The centrist option seems best: transforming culture from within, while respecting the past culture, is crucial for better realizing a liberal society.

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  4. Hi Mark,
    once again I admire your contribution and largely agree with you. That means I can only quibble about details.

    there is no one true narrative about any person or sequence of social events we care to specify.
    There is one true narrative and it has nothing to do with an omniscient, omnipotent God. Once an event has passed it is set in stone. The exact position of every particle that makes up that past event, is fixed in time and space. That is the truth of the matter and it exists. Getting access to that truth is the great difficulty and this is what your essay is about. We simply have no way to reliably access that truth.

    Much of the variation is value-framework related
    It is all value-framework related. Look at it this way. We are time machines. Our minds can travel back in time to examine past episodic memories. But this trip back in time requires a map. Without a map we would be mired in a marsh of unconnected memories. This map is the sum of our narratives. We create narratives by stringing together related episodic memories, in the way you might string beads together. This narrative thread is what holds the episodic memories together in a coherent whole. We do this because we need to appeal to the past as a guide to the future. Because our minds are time machines we can travel into the future to imagine desired futures and the means of realising these desired futures.

    Imagining a desired future is essentially a valuing process. When we appeal to past narratives to inform this imagined future we are drawing on the values contained in the narratives. Thus the essential reason for creating these narratives is to create values/meaning that will inform and guide our minds in their travels into the future. Our minds are not only time travellers but they are also meaning making machines.

    The tradition of classical liberal thinking in the West could cope with this, to a point. It was not geared to prescription or thought control
    But it is heading in that direction. This is the phenomenon that Dan-K labelled the ‘radical partisanship of the truth’.

    We are now in a very different world, having lost, or being in the process of rapidly losing, that common culture and the shared narratives which supported it.
    Our shared narratives are stored in our writings. As people in the modern ‘screen time’ culture read less they lose their connection our shared narratives. I see this especially in the marked decline in the frequency with which people quote great writers. This was a dependable indicator of learning which we see less frequently because people read less.

    For the conservative, the context is crucial, and every context is different. Consequently, the only general prescriptions which are seen to have any worth are cautionary rather than positive.
    I can’t agree. We all desire a better future. And we all use the past to inform our path into this desired future. The liberal is more likely to want a break from some aspects of this past so that the desired future is not inhibited by the past. The conservative, on the other hand, favours the pragmatic approach of a smooth transition from the past to the future. The liberal desires to be liberated from the past while the conservative wishes to conserve those parts of the past that will contribute to or enhance the future.

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  5. Some interesting thoughts here, but I disagree on some pretty fundamental issues here. Keep in mind I’m writing this in the aftermath of a series of terrorist attacks on Jews, Democrats and other minorities, all in the last few days, but I think they undercut your arguments in relevant ways.

    First, I don’t see why culture matters for the parts of Hayek I know best (because they are most relevant to my own field of accounting). Hayek’s 1945 paper was pretty narrow. He argued that we shouldn’t have a central board of making decisions about prices if information was hard to communicate. Economists Jensen and Meckling specified that usefully by distinguishing between general information, which is easy to communicate and can be centralized, and specific information that is hard to communicate and shouldn’t be centralized. But the role of culture seems well hidden in these arguments. I would argue that they are designed specifically to be culture-free: make your own decisions your own way, no one has to know your reasoning, information or narrative. Instead, society is organized by the impact of those decisions.

    Second, I don’t know what definition of ‘conservative’ is wary of ideology and instead focused on context. People who call themselves conservative have long used elaborate and overarching narratives to support the status quo, painting romanticized histories, clashes of cultures, and enemies within with a very broad brush. The narrative most relevant to this week is about globalist enemies of the people (i.e. Jews). Your overall argument also seems like a pretty typical conservative narrative romanticizing a mythic past where we shared a common culture, and it’s all these new folks with their new cultures that are ruining things.

    As far as the final argument about plutocracy, I think liberal and conservative narratives are still pretty different. They way you have written it, it basically sounds like big government is the problem (that’s why the money flows in, classic Reaganism). One could slot in a reference to Soros anywhere and it would sound more like the narratives that inspired the Pittsburgh shooting. Whereas liberals would point to the this statement from Volcker: “The lesson of all this is we need better, stronger supervisory powers.” Here, government is a solution. Add in references to Citizens United and gutting of the voting rights act, and it’s a pretty familiar liberal narrative.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Second, I don’t know what definition of ‘conservative’ is wary of ideology and instead focused on context. People who call themselves conservative have long used elaborate and overarching narratives to support the status quo, painting romanticized histories, clashes of cultures, and enemies within with a very broad brush.

    = = =

    This is absolutely correct. I hope Mark replies.

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  7. 1970scholar

    Thank you.

    “The question is not whether the former consensus was real in a substantive sense… It clearly was not… It was … in many ways crude and generalized.”

    I would characterize the common culture of which I spoke as a set of overlapping cultural frameworks, incorporating various kinds of knowledge (including practical knowledge of language, customs, etc.). As you suggest, there was never any substantive consensus to which you could point. And social and political myths are of necessity “crude and generalized”. But, as you say, the system we have lost *worked*. People were freer (less constrained in terms of formal laws and regulations, less dependent on government, less subject to corporate influence and control) and yet the society functioned fairly smoothly — certainly compared to what we see today.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Bharath

    Thank you.

    “… I would put it as that common culture is not being lost but going through a transformation. In America in 1800, the common culture which enabled a democracy was limited to the whites who had rights in the democracy. The last 200 years can be seen as the common culture expanding and becoming more inclusive so that democracy can be better realized.”

    I am saying that something has gone badly wrong in recent decades.

    “The right seems to think we can keep the culture the same as it was in the past but expand rights to everyone. The left seems to think we need rights for everyone, so we need to give up the old culture and replace it from above with a new one. The centrist option seems best: transforming culture from within, while respecting the past culture, is crucial for better realizing a liberal society.”

    A fair analysis. I am sympathetic to your view but I think you are over-optimistic.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I accept something has gone badly wrong in recent decades. As part of the bad I would highlight (a) an unthinkingness on the left, (b) an anti-intellectualism on the right, and (c) the threat and reality of the eviseration of traditional modes of human interactions with the advent of digital life, robots and humans gaining control over the human genome, and this going along with great economic disparities. (a) and (b) are horrible, though entirely predictable, responses to (c). Instead of addressing the common situation of (c), the left is living into a fantasy of the future (“all will be well and diverse in the future”) and the right is living into a fantasy of the past (“all was well in the past”). Instead of addressing the shared new problems, the left and the right are fighting over old categories (race and gender being the most prominent). In academic phil, this is shown by the progressives focusing entirely on diversity issues while academic phil itself is on track to be significantly reduced in size and influence.

      I am optimistic. Once we have a clearer understanding of the new shared problems, I think majority will turn to it and avoid the old problems that the far right and far left are in the grips of. But not denying reality. This will happen alongside bombings, assasinations, environmental catastrophes, global population displacements, name calling and general demeaning of public discourse and civic life. From the breakdown, an understanding of the new, shared situation will emerge.

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      • Bharat

        “I am optimistic. Once we have a clearer understanding of the new shared problems, I think [a] majority will turn to it … This will happen alongside bombings, assasinations, environmental catastrophes, global population displacements, name calling and general demeaning of public discourse and civic life. From the breakdown, an understanding of the new, shared situation will emerge.

        I too see us as being in the midst of a breakdown which (barring major nuclear or biological disaster) will be followed by something better.

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      • [Corrected version]

        Bharath

        “I am optimistic. Once we have a clearer understanding of the new shared problems, I think [a] majority will turn to it … This will happen alongside bombings, assasinations, environmental catastrophes, global population displacements, name calling and general demeaning of public discourse and civic life. From the breakdown, an understanding of the new, shared situation will emerge.”

        I too see us as being in the midst of a breakdown which (barring major nuclear or biological disaster) will be followed by something better.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Bharath,
        I am optimistic. Once we have a clearer understanding of the new shared problems, I think majority will turn to it and avoid the old problems that the far right and far left are in the grips of.

        The “problems that the far right and far left are in the grips of” are the common problems of all of us. The strong trend towards illiberalism is a shared problem. The growing and vast wealth gap is our common problem. The hyper-partisanship of today’s discourse is another common problem. Who has the correct understanding of these problems? Liberals claim they have that understanding. Conservatives claim they have that understanding. So whose understanding is the right one? What is worse, these understanding are drifting ever further apart.

        We need optimism, Optimism is an emotional state that empowers us to seek out difficult solutions. It is the emotional power that enables change for the better. This kind of optimism is not the blind belief that things automagically get better. It is instead a realism that acknowledges how bad thing are but pledges to get stuck in and make a positive difference.

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  9. Darjeeling

    I am not defending the views of everyone who might identify as a conservative but rather am trying to articulate my own views which draw in part on a long tradition of European conservative thought. This tradition is distinctly anti-ideological and emphasizes the need to take social and historical contingencies into account.

    In my previous essay I elaborated on the common culture idea, emphasizing the historical dimension (cultural continuity), the role of science and enlightenment, and different levels of allegiance and identification: local, regional, *and international* (“… an organic and historically significant network of interrelated communities and practices transcending regional and national boundaries…”).

    I am familiar with Hayek’s work on price signals etc., but he also wrote what you could characterize as social philosophy. I am suggesting that the sorts of social and political arrangements he advocated (based on classical liberal values) could not be successfully implemented in today’s socially fragmented and politically polarized world.

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  10. The tradition of classical liberal thinking in the West could cope with this, to a point. It was not geared to prescription or thought control, but was focused on providing a space for (a certain amount of) individual privacy and freedom of thought and action via institutional structures which would allow individuals and groups to interact in productive ways.

    And then today’s modern version of liberalism started evolving in the direction of coercing or suppressing unacceptable speech. This is the natural destination of a group that fervently believes it alone possesses the truth, because there is a consequence of that belief, and the consequence is that falsity cannot be allowed to exist.

    The ultimate irony is that a liberalism that believes it holds a monopoly on truth and intelligence can only end in illiberalism.

    The form that this illiberalism will take is being previewed in China, see this link for details:
    https://www.businessinsider.co.za/video-china-train-warns-citizens-to-behave-for-social-credit-system-2018-10

    Which illustrates the truth of the corollary to Lord Acton’s famous dictum: “All technology tends to corrupt and absolute technology tends to corrupt absolutely.”

    Now if you are a good modern liberal who absolutely believes he possesses the truth, how could you possibly resist the golden opportunity presented by this technology? It is after all your duty to suppress all falsity. This is the Eleventh Commandment of modern liberalism.

    I haven’t yet had breakfast.

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  11. Hi Mark:

    My comments are on the idea of a narrative. I’ve been reading two small books by Helger Eckhertz on “D-Day Through German Eyes”, based on interviews made in 1955.

    The German soldiers had been told they were defending Europe. They had a narrative. One said:

    “My father was very sympathetic to the National Socialist (Nazi Party) view of the world. In this view, a United Europe was trying to assert its independence and its very right to exist, against certain powerful international forces. America and the English were in an unholy alliance with the Bolsheviks, and it was these Russians who were orchestrating world events from Moscow. Moscow – that word! During the war, so many bad things were explained by saying that ‘Moscow arranged it’ or ‘Moscow has done this to us.’ Even when the Americans and the English bombed our cities, when they began destroying whole towns, the newspapers would often say this was done ‘at the command of Moscow.’”

    Another said:

    “We in the German forces thought that we had gone to such lengths to protect France, to guard its people against harm. I think that deep down I could not believe that the Americans would shatter this peace we had achieved.”

    The interesting thing is that — unlike some — these two Germans came to see their narrative self-destruct.

    The first said:

    “Since the war has ended, of course, I have come to believe the opposite of this, and I suspect that the Soviets actually had very little influence over the Western allies. Certainly, when you think how quickly the Americans and the Soviets became enemies, which happened within months of the end of the fighting in Europe, it is hard to believe that the Americans were interested in helping the Soviets at all. … Since the war has ended, of course, I have come to believe the opposite of this, and I suspect that the Soviets actually had very little influence over the Western allies. Certainly, when you think how quickly the Americans and the Soviets became enemies, which happened within months of the end of the fighting in Europe, it is hard to believe that the Americans were interested in helping the Soviets at all.”

    The second said:

    “I was wrong about everything. I know today, ten years later, that everything I believed during the war was a mistake. I understand today that we Germans were not in France to protect the people, we were there only to exploit and persecute them. We should never have been in France, or Russia, Italy, any of those places. The things that we did were appalling . . . everything was wrong. Why would those Americans hate us so much? Why would they cut our throats and break our necks like animals, in the road, without a word? Well, because they knew the truth of what we were doing, that is why.”

    I’m giving these stories as illustrations in support of one of your points. Narratives can be contested and people can change. However, against your pessimism, I know I’d much rather be alive today than in 1944!

    Alan

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    • Hi Alan

      I am talking about the probable end of a two-and-a-half-thousand-year cultural tradition. Am I sad about this? Yes.

      I also see economic and social decline. We are not in a good position. Do I see things improving in the near future? No. In the longer term? Barring catastrophe, yes, of course.

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        • Alan,
          As pessimisms go, this is off the scale. I have no reply.

          Why not? There is after all much evidence supporting his contention. I think this is a fruitful area for debate. As usual it is complicated and all depends on your observation timescale. Some things get better, some things get worse. But what are the deep, underlying trends. Where are they going? And why? I think he really does deserve a careful, thoughtful reply.

          I recommend Noah Hariri’s rather good book, Homo Deus.

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  12. Alan, that was fascinating. It illustrates beautifully how one an be imprisoned by a prevailing but wrong narrative. But how does one free oneself from the grip of the prevailing narrative? How does oneself recognise the wrongness of it?

    I am an Unamerican. The prevailing American narrative seems to me to be so wrong in so many respects, and I suspect most Africans, Russians and Chinese would agree with me. How can we possibly know the truth of these matters? Do 1.5 billion people know more than the mere handful of 0.3 billion Americans? What makes you the arbiter of the truth? Is that not just the inevitable arrogance of the powerful.

    Memento mori.

    It is said that when a Roman general was granted the ultimate honour of a triumph, he would have a slave standing behind him in his chariot whispering the words ‘memento mori’, lest he become intoxicated on his own glory.

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    • Labnut, the explanation these Germans gave of why they believed the Nazi narrative about United Europe is ignorance. They say they really knew nothing about America and the Anglophone world. All they knew of America was jazz and cowboy movies. I find this plausible. For them it was a pre-global world. They lived within a nationalistic and agrarian bubble. They were truly astonished at the technical superiority of the Allies, at the Allied soldiers’ anger against Germany, and at the humanity of their treatment after being captured.

      They also did know of the death camps. They were not ignorant about what the Nazis were doing.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Alan, it is much more nuanced than than. Let me give you a small example. My maths teacher, a professor of Mathematics, was a German Jew who emigrated from Germany in the late ’30s. At that time the German policy was to force Jews to emigrate from Germany. Eichmann was leading this effort and was energetically trying to force Jews to emigrate.

        We school children were fascinated by the later capture of Eichmann in Argentina followed by his trial/execution in Israel.As a consequence we closely questioned our maths teacher about his experiences in Nazi Germany. I pressed him vigorously about attitudes to Hitler and Nazism.

        I was gobsmacked when he replied that most Germans were supportive of Nazism, regarding it as their path out of suffering. I then asked him what he personally thought about it. He replied that at the time he thought the same. Now remember this was a highly educated Jew who had become a professor at a German university, no mean feat by the way. He was a highly intelligent, accomplished academic who could not be accused of being ignorant.

        By the way, I have been reading Bettina Stangneth’s book – Eichmann Before Jerusalem. This is very good reading. She completely demolishes the myth of Eichman being the banal bureaucrat executing state policy.

        So, no, I don’t believe the simple explanation of ignorance. Ignorance is of course a factor but there are many other, possibly more important factors.

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        • Alan, the logical extension of your kind of reply would be for you to allege that anyone who disagreed with you is ignorant. This is a common kind of thinking but it just does not fly.

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          • Labnut: Did you read what I wrote? My point was about German ignorance of the Anglo world, not about the nature of Nazism. Also I don’t say anything about people who disagree with me! You are barking up the wrong tree.

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  13. We are now in a very different world, having lost, or being in the process of rapidly losing, that common culture and the shared narratives which supported it.

    The real change is the Internet.

    Our common culture was anchored on our means of communication. And communication was, generally speaking, slow and difficult except with neighbors. With the Internet, it is now easier to communicate with somebody half-way around the world than it is to communicate with my next door neighbor.

    We are in the process of developing new traditions, new cultural understandings. But we have broken the old ones.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. labnut

    “[Quoting me] “There is no one true narrative about any person or sequence of social events we care to specify.” There is one true narrative and it has nothing to do with an omniscient, omnipotent God. Once an event has passed it is set in stone. The exact position of every particle that makes up that past event, is fixed in time and space. That is the truth of the matter and it exists. Getting access to that truth is the great difficulty and this is what your essay is about. We simply have no way to reliably access that truth.”

    I disagree. I said “… about any *person* or sequence of *social* events…”

    A narrative relating to a person or the social aspect of things simply cannot be translated into particle-position language. It involves interpretation and judgment, and without a god-like interpreter/judge you inevitably have competing (and incompatible) narratives.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. I essentially agree with Mark’s central thesis. Our culture is so incredibly complex because it includes, amongst many other things, all the narratives out there. It is indeed beyond our ability to grasp or control. But I am optimistic too because I believe that we will figure it out. Technology’s advance may be part of the answer. We will be more connected to each other and to better sources of information.

    Another part of the answer is that we and our culture are so much more than what we realize: the incredible range of phenomena that we recognize and interact with, the richness of culture’s content, and the degree to which our individual awarenesses have underestimated the dimensions of the global whole. It is obvious that total culture, culture-as-it-is, the medium that provides for our existence, is beyond factual description. Such a description would require a continuous awareness of the evolving whole and an accurate and precise means, a perfect language, of communicating such – very improbable eventualities. Unfortunately, we are left, then, with our best individual efforts in an overwhelming situation. There is no agreed upon way to do this, so each one of us has to come up, somehow or another, with their own stories, intuitions and heuristics on which to base their behavior. Each personality processes this mass of information privately, according to explicit, implicit and unconscious, but natural, rules, almost all of which have been acquired from others. This is our new contemporary reality: the past is opaque, the present is not fully knowable, and the future is impossible to predict. The guideposts proffered by history, both religious and secular, have rightly been ‘deconstructed’ by the new information uncovered through scientific curiosity. Still, living in the cultural present is filled with purpose and meaning, daily affirmed by everyone as they go about their preferred businesses, pursuing happiness. Each person rediscovers the universe within, as it were – an idea that has been around for a very long time. (E.g. Luke 17:21.) Deaths of meaning and the individual have been highly exaggerated.

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  16. Neil Rickert

    “We are in the process of developing new traditions, new cultural understandings. But we have broken the old ones.”

    Yes, the old ways are broken. But I question whether anybody could reliably discern at this stage the shape of things to come, culturally speaking.

    “The real change is the Internet.”

    I don’t underestimate its huge impact on human relations and on the way human brains function more generally.

    “Our common culture was anchored on our means of communication. And communication was, generally speaking, slow and difficult except with neighbors. With the Internet, it is now easier to communicate with somebody half-way around the world than it is to communicate with my next door neighbor.”

    The positive aspects of this are outweighed by the negative, in my opinion. In particular, the *shallowness* of it all.

    Also, there was effective (and deep and intimate) one-way communication from past to present via books. The art of reading is being lost.

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    • I don’t underestimate its huge impact on human relations and on the way human brains function more generally.

      The effect has been far greater than I would have guessed. There’s probably a research project there for social scientists.

      I mostly agree with your take on this.

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  17. Johannes Lubbe/Liam

    Yes, there is a fairly high degree of agreement between us.

    “… Deaths of meaning and the individual have been highly exaggerated.”

    I am certainly open to the idea that there is *in a sense* just one human culture, instantiated (differently) in each individual. This neatly parallels the idea that there are at bottom no languages, only idiolects.

    But then you have made culture/language into a very abstract idea, even more abstract than the (useful but imprecise) notion of a particular culture or a particular language. Does this matter? Probably not.

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    • Mark,

      Yes, we do believe that it matters, a lot, that on the one hand culture is a very abstract idea. But, on the other hand, culture and language are very real public creations and fundamentally important public assets. This dualism collapses in the conscious bodies of each individual, in the eternal present. (If this sounds strangely like quantum logic, it is not entirely due to coincidence. The failures of classical logic to explain our supercomplex behaviors are increasingly leading to consideration of alternative approaches.)

      Therefore, the only agents of apprehension, comprehension and change are individuals. Culture is real, but it is not autonomous, as some claim. Culture can not change, unless an individual first decides to change their behavior. Each individual, no matter how sophisticated or naive, is custodian of some aspect of the whole. But no one comes even close to understanding the whole. We therefore form ‘communities of action’ in a rather intuitive process. Sometimes this process goes horribly wrong.

      The best we can hope for is that everyone, each individual, each agent tries their sincere best. This would obviously be very different from the prevailing approach of relying on experts ‘to tell us what to do’. (This may, in fact, explain the phenomenon of Trump. A large swath of the population decided that ‘Washington’ was out of touch.)

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      • Johannes Lubbe

        “Culture can not change, unless an individual first decides to change their behavior.”

        But these decisions are mediated/facilitated by cultural elements within the individual brain.

        “Each individual, no matter how sophisticated or naive, is custodian of some aspect of the whole. But no one comes even close to understanding the whole. We therefore form ‘communities of action’ in a rather intuitive process.”

        This idea of distributed information parallels some of the thoughts of Mises and Hayek.

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  18. Alan,
    Labnut: Did you read what I wrote?

    Alan, to claim I don’t read what you say is just plain wrong, unnecessary and not in the spirit of the conversation. Let’s look at the larger context and then the meaning of my words will become clear.

    1. I remarked as follows about narratives:
    Getting access to that truth is the great difficulty and this is what your[Mark’s] essay is about. We simply have no way to reliably access that truth.

    2. You gave an interesting account of how Germans believed false narratives.

    3. I replied, in an affirming manner
    that was fascinating. It illustrates beautifully how one an be imprisoned by a prevailing but wrong narrative. But how does one free oneself from the grip of the prevailing narrative? How does oneself recognise the wrongness of it?

    4. You countered by saying:
    the explanation these Germans gave of why they believed the Nazi narrative about United Europe is ignorance.

    5. In turn I replied as follows, after giving the supporting example of my maths teacher:
    it is much more nuanced than that…no, I don’t believe the simple explanation of ignorance. Ignorance is of course a factor but there are many other, possibly more important factors.

    6. You in turn said
    Did you read what I wrote? My point was about German ignorance of the Anglo world, not about the nature of Nazism.

    7. But you have in part contradicted yourself where you have earlier said, in (4)
    the explanation these Germans gave of why they believed the Nazi narrative about United Europe is ignorance.

    But so what? This misses the fact that I am clearly making a general point about the great difficulty of recognising the falsity of a narrative, saying that one becomes imprisoned by false narratives, (1) and (3). You in turn put it down to ignorance(4), drawing on the German example. I admitted that ignorance played a part but claimed there is much more to it. (And I still make that claim, see below*)

    The conversation could have usefully continued from this point, had it not been stopped by your tart and misleading aside, which fails to take into account the larger context of the conversation. What a pity, because the larger context, which is the real point of my remarks, is what seems to be important and fascinating.

    * Daniel Goleman, in his book Social Intelligence, makes the point that we are embedded in a social web, resonating in harmony with nearby nodes of the web. We adopt narratives that harmonise with our portion of the social web, because to do otherwise creates excessive dissonance. This, I think is the real explanation, but reasonable people can disagree reasonably 🙂

    Michele Gelfand, in her fascinating book, Rule Makers, Rule Breakers, discusses how tight and loose cultures shape our perceptions and behaviour. Loose cultures tolerate more disharmony in the social web, allowing a greater variety of narratives, whereas tight cultures align their narratives to a greater extent.

    It is even more complicated in places like China which has a tight/loose culture.

    And this is my whole point. We are imprisoned by narratives formed out of the fabric of our social web. This is not a prison that can be readily recognised or felt. Most of us will never recognise or see it for what it is, a prison.

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  19. Robert Putnam’s contributions about social capital are also relevant to this matter. Roughly put, social capital is the sum of our social connections in society. The greater our social capital, or the increased number of social connections, the richer and deeper are our narratives.

    Mark said
    We are now in a very different world, having lost, or being in the process of rapidly losing, that common culture and the shared narratives which supported it.

    Robert Putnam has extensively documented the remarkable decline in social capital. I believe that it is this that accounts for the loss that Mark bemoans.

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  20. Mark,
    But then you have made culture/language into a very abstract idea, even more abstract than the (useful but imprecise) notion of a particular culture or a particular language. Does this matter? Probably not.

    That is true from an eagle’s perspective. From that perspective we have one culture, that of the human species.

    But does it matter? Very much so, given the fact that we are arguably one of the most murderous species on Earth. It turns out that local variations in culture can have large consequences, and that matters a great deal.

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  21. Labnut: My only point was to distinguish between one aspect of the German soldiers’ worldview — their ignorance of the Allies’ power, toughness and humanity — and another aspect, their knowing complicity in the internal horrors of Nazism. That I think is what you failed to read. There is no contradiction in my claim, as far as I can see.

    I do appreciate the wider points you and Mark are making. In return I was trying to give a concrete case for more specific discussion. Apologies for the “tartness”.

    Liked by 1 person

  22. Labut: Regarding Goleman, I suspect that the paraphrase you give is unfalsifiable. If examples of people in conflict with those around them are given, “nearby nodes” will be redefined to mean not actual proximity but proximity of beliefs and values.

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  23. Labnut; Thanks for the mention of Gelfland’s book, which is new to me.

    If I understand Mark, he thinks we used to live in a tight culture and now we live in a very loose culture, and this is to our general detriment.

    You, it seems, think we live in a loose culture and that’s a good thing, compared at least to the tight culture in places such as China.

    Or, more likely, I am just confused.

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  24. Alan

    On the claim that my pessimism is “off the scale”, I just want to say that it is a matter of time-scale, detail and perhaps clarification. I don’t see myself as pessimistic or as optimistic. (I am a cultural conservative, not a cultural pessimist.)

    Sure, I have strong *personal* feelings and opinions about what is valuable and what is not valuable in contemporary culture. But these judgments are tangential to questions of what is *viable*.

    I see my central (non-value-based) claims as being eminently defensible (though possibly, as I say, in need of some refining or clarification).

    And any *predictions* are educated guesses at best.

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  25. labnut

    I just wanted to say I appreciate your contributions and I have been looking up the authors/researchers you mentioned. There are many different possible approaches to these matters and your comments in particular are driving me to clarify the intellectual and empirical bases of my claims.

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