Right and left as neural net
Very nice post, John. I agree that separation is really the best possible answer -- I don't debate politics with liberals at all anymore, as their way of seeing the world is simply incompatible with mine -- but I don't think they will ever let us live in peace, given their overwhelming demand for power and control.
Your post reminded me of this long quote from Richard Tarnas's book, "The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas That Have Shaped Our World View", which identified these issues in 1991. Sorry, the quote is quite long:
"I would like to point out here the striking resemblance between this state of affairs and the condition that Gregory Bateson famously described as the "double bind": the impossibly problematic situation in which mutually contradictory demands eventually lead a person to become schizophrenic. In Bateson's formulation, there were four basic premises necessary to constitute a double bind situation between a child and a "schizophrenogenic" mother: (1) The child's relationship to the mother is one of vital dependency, thereby making it critical for the child to assess communications from the mother accurately. (2) The child receives contradictory or incompatible information from the mother at different levels, whereby, for example, her explicit verbal communication is fundamentally denied by the "meta-communication," the nonverbal context in which the explicit message is conveyed (thus the mother who says to her child with hostile eyes and a rigid body, "Darling, you know I love you so much"). The two sets of signals cannot be understood as coherent. (3) The child is not given any opportunity to ask questions of the mother that would clarify the communication or resolve the contradiction. And (4) the child cannot leave the field, i.e., the relationship. In such circumstances, Bateson found, the child is forced to distort his or her perception of both outer and inner realities, with serious psychopathological consequences.
Now if we substitute in these four premises world for mother, and human being for child, we have the modern double bind in a nutshell: (1) The human being's relationship to the world is one of vital dependency, thereby making it critical for the human being to assess the nature of that world accurately. (2) The human mind receives contradictory or incompatible information about its situation with respect to the world, whereby its inner psychological and spiritual sense of things is incoherent with the scientific meta-communication. (3) Epistemologically, the human mind cannot achieve direct communication with the world. 4) Existentially the human being cannot leave the field.
The differences between Bateson's psychiatric double bind and the modern existential condition are more in degree than in kind: the modern condition is an extraordinarily encompassing and fundamental double bind, made less immediately conspicuous simply because it is so universal. We have the post-Copernican dilemma of being a peripheral and insignificant inhabitant of a vast cosmos, and the post-Cartesian dilemma of being a conscious, purposeful, and personal subject confronting an unconscious, purposeless, and impersonal universe, with these compounded by the post-Kantian dilemma of there being no possible means by which the human subject can know the universe in its essence. We are evolved from, embedded in, and defined by a reality that is radically alien to our own, and moreover cannot ever be directly contacted in cognition.
This double bind of modern consciousness has been recognized in one form or another since at least Pascal: "I am terrified by the eternal silence of these infinite spaces." Our psychological and spiritual predispositions are absurdly at variance with the world revealed by our scientific method. We seem to receive two messages from our existential situation: on the one hand, strive, give oneself to the quest for meaning and spiritual fulfillment; but on the other hand, know that the universe, of whose substance we are derived, is entirely indifferent to that quest, soulless in character, and nullifying in its effects. We are at once aroused and crushed. For inexplicably, absurdly, the cosmos is inhuman, yet we are not. The situation is profoundly unintelligible.
If we follow Bateson's diagnosis and apply it to the larger modern condition, it should not be surprising what kinds of response the modern psyche has made to this situation as it attempts to escape the double bind's inherent contradictions. Either inner or outer realities tend to be distorted: inner feelings are repressed and denied, as in apathy and psychic numbing, or they are inflated in compensation, as in narcissism and egocentrism; or the outer world is slavishly submitted to as the only reality, or it is aggressively objectified and exploited. There is also the strategy of flight, through various forms of escapism: compulsive economic consumption, absorption in the mass media, faddism, cults, ideologies, nationalistic fervor, alcoholism, drug addiction. When avoidance mechanisms cannot be sustained, there is anxiety, paranoia, chronic hostility, a feeling of helpless victimization, a tendency to suspect all meanings, an impulse toward self-negation, a sense of purposelessness and absurdity, a feeling of irresolvable inner contradiction, a fragmenting of consciousness. And at the extreme, there are the full-blown psychopathological reactions of the schizophrenic: self-destructive violence, delusional states, massive amnesia, catatonia, automatism, mania, nihilism. The modern world knows each of these reactions in various combinations and compromise formations, and its social and political life is notoriously so determined.
Nor should it be surprising that twentieth century philosophy finds itself in the condition we now see. Of course modern philosophy has brought forth some courageous intellectual responses to the post-Copernican situation, but by and large the philosophy that has dominated our century and our universities resembles nothing so much as a severe obsessive-compulsive sitting on his bed repeatedly tying and untying his shoes because he never quite gets it rightwhile in the meantime Socrates and Hegel and Aquinas are already high up the mountain on their hike, breathing the bracing alpine air, seeing new and unexpected vistas.
But there is one crucial way in which the modern situation is not identical to the psychiatric double bind, and this is the fact that the modern human being has not simply been a helpless child, but has actively engaged the world and pursued a specific strategy and mode of activity a Promethean project of freeing itself from and controlling nature. The modern mind has demanded a specific type of interpretation of the world: its scientific method has required explanations of phenomena that are concretely predictive, and therefore impersonal, mechanistic, structural. To fulfill their purposes, these explanations of the universe have been systematically "cleansed" of all spiritual and human qualities. Of course we cannot be certain that the world is in fact what these explanations suggest. We can be certain only that the world is to an indeterminate extent susceptible to this way of interpretation. Kant's insight is a sword that cuts two ways. Although on the one hand it appears to place the world beyond the grasp of the human mind, on the other hand it recognizes that the impersonal and soulless world of modern scientific cognition is not necessarily the whole story. Rather, that world is the only kind of story that for the past three centuries the Western mind has considered intellectually justifiable. In Ernest Gellner's words, "It was Kant's merit to see that this compulsion [for mechanistic impersonal explanations] is in us, not in things." And "it was Weber's to see that it is historically a specific kind of mind, not human mind as such, that is subject to this compulsion."
Hence one crucial part of the modern double bind is not airtight. In the case of Bateson's schizophrenogenic mother and child, the mother more or less holds all the cards, for she unilaterally controls the communication. But the lesson of Kant is that the locus of the communication problem, i.e. the problem of human knowledge of the world must first be viewed as centering in the human mind, not in the world as such. Therefore it is theoretically possible that the human mind has more cards than it has been playing. The pivot of the modern predicament is epistemological..."
This is a very nice essay; quite thought-provoking. On the left-right spectrum and NETTR, I would see it as the essence of the "right" to hold their heritage precious, while the "left" wants to destroy it in order to make the world a more righteous place. This makes them bipolar enemies, as the internet graphs suggest.
But the spectrum graph, showing limitless extremism to right and left, with sensible "moderates" at the origin, is nonsense. The graph can be considered a controlling framework invented by corrupt people who play the system to their own advantage by posing as the sensible middle themselves while fanning the natural enmity between the two sides. Often, it is the self-described "centrists" who are the real extremists.
In fact, there is no spectrum. On the "right," we immediately find that we vary radically on what exact heritage it is we want to protect, whether it be race, ethnicity, religion, culture, nation, law, or
environment, and which ones, since we all have different childhoods. So long as we are facing an aggressive "left" that wants to destroy it all, we are united comrades, but if we ever actually took power, we would instantly be in civil war with each other over those very issues. The "left" is more united, because they hold none of these things dear, and are glad to blow up all of it provided it will distress the other side.
On the "right" is a diversity of schools, each trying to preserve a different part of their heritage. No one of them is intrinsically further "right" than another ideologically. The only other measure of don't-wanna-go-there extremism is how low and violent one is willing to be to achieve one's ends. That, though, is the great moral question, and it applies to the "left" and the "centre" just as much as it does to the "right."
I think nothing needs to be done about the Leftists themselves, although it is wise for us to protect ourselves as best we can from the effects of the Left. But, left to their own devices, the very nature of their utopian outlook is destructive. And they of course destroy themselves.
I think the instincts on the Right to preserve - to literally conserve - help a lot here. Repositories of knowledge tend to be respected. A right-leaning Wikipedia would be respected, whereas the Left view it as another tool to further their aims. That is consistent with your thesis, that the left-brain mentality outlined by McGilchrist is incapable of managing reality. It will burn down its own house to meet some immediate goal.
This break with reality and its corollary, the quest for cosmic justice, means it is only a matter of time before reality hits. From our point of view they seem increasingly unhinged. But I think that is inevitable as their utopian goals cannot work. Once everything looks like San Francisco the moderate types will yearn for law and order.
Wow! Beautifully written essay. You teach us something new while also entertaining us. Thank you.
All I know is I used to identify as center left. The goalposts moved & I found myself center right. My principals remain the same: antiwar & conserve the environment.
I agree with that last bit about getting centered, in nature. But it seems to me the crux is, we have to start getting comfortable using the power we are so busy talking and theorzing about.
A small yet very important thing that everyone and anyone can do, is refuse to comply, participate and acquiesce to (using the schizophrenia-metaphor, or simile or whatever) the psychotic's descripton of reality.
Next level is always pitching in to help out, when you notice someone saying no to the psyhcotics, no matter who they are. Example: the local school board wants to have 10-year olds learning how to perform fellatio and stimulate the prostate, and the bible-thumpers, floorlickers and licecaps are the first ones to protest - join in! Doesn't matter if you find others of their idea or practices abhorrent - by joining in you achieve a chance to create common ground and accord, and sow spite among your opponents.
Right, enough of Captain Obvious (my son actually calls me that, the uppity boy!).
About the left - right thing: it's wrong. Can't put it simpler than that. Seating arrangements from the French Revolution does not an ideological slide-rule make.
Example: is lowered taxes on wages left or right? Lowered taxes is traditionally right, but then only for the well-to-do and major corporations. What if we change the taxation of labour so that the first [insert amount here] per family is untaxed, and only tax what someone earns on top of that?
Would that be left or right? What about having a tax code set up so a single minimum wage income, full time, is enough to support two adults and three children, and a dog?
Left? Not present-day left, no way. They're all about subsidies and welfare. Right? No hay José, the right's never changed one single thing to benefit the poor - especially the workingpoor - unless forced to.
Politics ain't binary, man. It's all vectors and stuff.
"the idea being that criticism is fine, but we should not tolerate using the left or its tools, such as cancellation, to solve our own ideological conflicts. All of these are worth reading in full."
It's worth reading Taleb's "Skin in the Game" - especially the section of the the intolerant minority
We have to know what we will not do or accept. Which means that there have to be those we will not hire, will not befriend, etc.
The prosaic version is "there's a difference between an open mind and a hole in the head"
Absolutely fascinating piece. I can tell that I’m going to be thinking about it for a long time.
Well done, and loved the final message.
To do the famous "yes, but" without the intention of criticism (as you said, good thought is explorative, and critique often comes from being triggered more than anything else and is therefore pointless): there seems to be a pathway from right wing thought to left brain hemisphere madness as well. It can start with the lament to "focus more on practical solutions", "we need to finally do something about it" etc. and end in rigid systems (models) for how society should be. This is the opposite of accepting organic thought and development based on a wide-angle and long-term view of reality. Think rigid theocracy, technocratic right-wing authoritarianism and the like. Classic ponerology, in other words, where real grievances are exploited by bad actors. In fact, the RH/LH distinction seems to be a useful way of looking at these things and recognizing them, too.
A fascinating thesis. And it definitely describes the rightwing Substacks I have been reading -- and how I don't quite fit in, as my writings are more action oriented than descriptive.
But my right brain provides me with data points which don't seem to fit. I have memories of Progressives with bumper stickers that read "Just Breathe." My memories of academia were that the hard sciences had more right wingers, and that those who studied art, music, and literature tended to be on the political left.
And then there were my Libertarian Party days. LOTs of left brained autists there! Lots of refugees from the libertarian movement in this right wing corner of Substack. While the Reason crowd and many still active in the LP are spiritually leftists, there are plenty of Austrian School types who have gone full Alt Right. But the Austrian School types can be just as left brained as Objectivists. Question the axioms of praxeology or the Zero Aggression Principle and get Cancelled.
But maybe a realignment is taking place. Go back 50 years and it was the Religious Right that was into censorship and it was the non communist Left that was edgy and taking humorous looks at inconvenient truths. Look at the early years of Saturday Night Live, for example. Today, the Babylon Bee is edgier than Saturday Night Live.
Or maybe we are seeing the fruit of an education system which puts too much emphasis on reasoning and no longer puts much emphasis on memorizing facts or reading primary sources. Our problem may be that the political Left is out of its right mind...
This was really excellent! A lot of helpful insights brought together! This is the kind of essay that raises interesting question and gets productive conversations started!
On the subject of what to do, I have many more questions than answers, but any viable solution must involve accountability for not only decision makers, but also for the theorists on whose models decision makers rely. No more Paul Krugman's continuing to sound off authoritatively on economic policies decade after decade of getting it wrong and still be treated like they're any kind of legitimate expert; no more warmongering neo-con-artists migrating from one administration to the next and one political affiliation to the other, getting us into disastrous wars under false pretenses. Skin in the game for anyone involved with creating or enforcing national policies. That's the downside of a wealthy civilization: the policy-makers have so much insulation from the costs of their bad decision-making that they can delay the day of reckoning until the costs are catastrophic. But those costs are the reality check that keep the Left Hemisphere's model-based strategems from getting too badly out of control. When those costs are removed or externalized, there's nothing left to course-correct.
I've read a couple of books by mainstream academics recently - pop sociology, basically. The authors share a common Marxist slant to their views, including an obsession over a fine-grained analysis of Left and Right, Liberal and Conservative.
And in every instance, this preoccupation is completely worthless at understanding the modern world. Who fucking cares if Milo Yannopoulis is right but not conservative, or Dr. Nobody-Ass Professor has a critique of liberalism from the left?
It's irrelevant to the grueling experience of living through the process of culture death. Functionally, the right recognizes this process, while the left seems to want to pretend that Amazon and Netflix and Pfizer are sufficient antidotes to depravity and depression.
More generally, I've noticed that as soon as Marxist terminology enters a conversation, that conversation becomes instantly incomprehensible. It's a dialect of the Black Tongue of Mordor, and it serves as a mimetic weapon to annihilate thought.
As a lifelong inhabitant of the corpus callosum, I really got a lot out of this excellent essay. Also, I had to look up “spandrel” (with one “L,” incidentally). Well done!
<Go for an aimless ramble in nature.>
Excellent advice. And great read, as always. The kind of read I don’t mind waiting for so no rush, make sure YOU work in plenty of time ‘out of doors.’ It will keep you grounded.
I am going to do a brief thought experiment here if I may.
I think a perhaps a more useful idea than right or left is establishment and anti-establishment. This gets at conundrums the "right" often struggles with like neo-cons self identifying as "conservative" or "right wing," while in essence behaving like progressives who want to impose their flawed abstract left brain model on the world. Neo-cons are the establishment and the dissident right is anti-establishment which is why most of us correctly oppose neo-cons even though they self identify as "right." Woke and the WEF are the establishment again trying to impose their abstract left brain managerial models on the world. However a few on the left the Glenn Greenwalds and Jimmy Dores oppose the WEF establishment, and while their thought may not be to your taste, most here would surely admit they are better more sincere people than Max Boot and Bill Krystal?
I have a two part essay here on this topic. I can link to them below but I would like to get John's permission first before doing so. May I link to my essays on the topic for those who may interested in more reflections along these lines?