28 December 2017

Fascism is speaking in bad faith

It is important to understand that fascism is not a political ideology in the same way that communism is. Communists have a detailed policy program which they espouse and pursue. Fascists do not; their policy prescriptions are often outright incoherent.

Fascism is better understood as a political method. And a key part of that method is speaking in bad faith: falsely describing what they want and care about, as a way of disrupting the process of political discussion itself. The vigor with which fascists do this is difficult to understand unless one has encountered it.

I have talked about this before, when talking about Milo Yiannopoulos, the Alt Right, and free speech:

We should not defend that as free speech; we need to recognize it as an attack on free speech.

This is a method and it has a purpose.

If we look at the history of far right movements, we can recognize the basic pattern. These movements are not simply opposed to liberalism-as-in-the-Democratic-Party; they are opposed to liberalism-as-in-liberal-democracy. They oppose universal human rights and equality. They aim to discredit liberalism by turning its systems against itself, making them impracticable, perverting the meaning of words like “free speech”.

In this we see a continuity between the fascists of the early 20th century and the fascists and para-fascists of today. Sartre's Réflexions sur la question juive describes this pattern in a troublingly familiar way.

Never believe that anti-Semites are completely unaware of the absurdity of their replies. They know that their remarks are frivolous, open to challenge. But they are amusing themselves, for it is their adversary who is obliged to use words responsibly, since he believes in words. The anti-Semites have the right to play.

They even like to play with discourse for, by giving ridiculous reasons, they discredit the seriousness of their interlocutors. They delight in acting in bad faith, since they seek not to persuade by sound argument but to intimidate and disconcert. If you press them too closely, they will abruptly fall silent, loftily indicating by some phrase that the time for argument is past.

This is not restricted to the specifics of anti-semitism. It is a general rhetorical style. Here is Harry Frankfurt, the author of the wonderful short book On Bullshit summing up the method.

The distinction between lying and bullshitting is fairly clear. The liar asserts something which he himself believes to be false. He deliberately misrepresents what he takes to be the truth. The bullshitter, on the other hand, is not constrained by any consideration of what may or may not be true. In making his assertion, he is indifferent to whether what he is says is true or false. His goal is not to report facts. It is, rather, to shape the beliefs and attitudes of his listeners in a certain way.

I bet you can guess who Frankfurt was talking about in the essay where he said that.

To get a feel for how this works in governance, I vigorously recommend the (exceedingly fun) party game Secret Hitler, in which players pretend to be a parliament where fascists are trying to pass legislation and get their leader elected Chancellor. In the game, the fascists know who each other are but the liberals don't; this makes the gameplay include the fascists lying about their intentions and pretending to be liberals. The player who is their secret leader tries the hardest to appear to be a liberal.

The game is structured such that the fascists are always outnumbered. But they usually win.

23 December 2017

Do your best

This is a story about doing your best.

So like a lot of people I have a certain ambivalence about Ms Amanda Palmer, but I love this thing she did, not so much for the thing (though it is delightful) but for the story behind it. So first check this out:

If you don't know, Palmer is a musician who does very lively stage shows, is wildly narcissistic, and has a vigorously cultivated network of fans. So she is interesting in part as a creature of our particular media age. She has gotten crowds of people for her music videos by saying on social media, “Hey, we are shooting a video in such-and-such place on Thursday. Show up wearing something cool.”

Her original plan had been to simply perform the difficult Tchaikovsky piece, despite being a pianist who plays by ear. You should read her telling of how she failed — except she didn't. The Boston Pops hadn't sent for the most technically proficient pianist, they sent for her, so she wised up and delivered what only she could have done.

Whatever it is you are doing, the gods didn't send someone else. They sent you. Do your best.