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Radio Free Beszel

Philosophy Podcasts

The world is changing. What was stable has become unstuck: mass movements and class conflicts, elite hubris and institutional failure, authoritarianism and a collapse of authority: and everywhere a crisis of meaning. How should one live in this world? In this podcast, I take books I read and ideas I find and try to bring them down to earth, to understand what is happening here and now. I seek lasting principles, not hot takes. Topics include the professional class; critiques of social justice and identity politics; the information society; myth, narrative and meaning. I want to see clearly and speak freely. "Who knows, doesn't talk. Who talks, doesn't know." — Tao Te Ching




The world is changing. What was stable has become unstuck: mass movements and class conflicts, elite hubris and institutional failure, authoritarianism and a collapse of authority: and everywhere a crisis of meaning. How should one live in this world? In this podcast, I take books I read and ideas I find and try to bring them down to earth, to understand what is happening here and now. I seek lasting principles, not hot takes. Topics include the professional class; critiques of social justice and identity politics; the information society; myth, narrative and meaning. I want to see clearly and speak freely. "Who knows, doesn't talk. Who talks, doesn't know." — Tao Te Ching




Discourse, the Demon of Social Justice

Discourse is at the heart of social justice: the idea human beings are not free actors in the world, but are instead constrained by language, in the form of discourses that have been established over time. And we do not create our identities freely: who we our is our experiences of different discourses - discourses like race, gender, nationality, and so forth. Discourses are power relations. They conflict with one another - feminism versus patriarchy, for instance. They, not we, are the dominant actors in the world. We are the landscape on which they struggle, and the territory that they conquer. We are possessed by discourses. Discourses, as it were, are the demons of social justice. In such a world of conflict, power comes from controlling what people say. Censorship is not a convenient tactic of social justice, it is central to the social justice world view. This is the final episode of season one of this podcast. The theme of the season has been social justice. Nearly every episode implicitly critiques an aspect of social justice. But the pandemic has revealed that social justice is not the cause of the situation we're in. It shows that something more fundamental is at work - something that is manifesting in both social justice and the authoritarian response to Covid. I will be pausing now. When I return with new episodes, for season two, I will be looking beyond social justice. I expect I will be looking at technology, technocracy and the narrative of progress. This episode excerpts Communication, Cultural and Media Studies, 3rd edition, by John Hartley.


Racecraft: Constructing Race

"Racism always takes for granted the objective reality of race . . . [which] transforms racism, something an aggressor does, into race, something the target is, in a sleight of hand that is easy to miss." — Karen & Barbara Fields, Racecraft Race is invisible. Skin colour is merely in indication of something deeper, a hidden quality of the intellect or the personality. But that quality is not real. Like an unseen world of gods or spirits, we imagine it to give life meaning. We use this invisible, imagined quality of race explain why bad things happen: inequality, crime, injustice. In fact, race is real - as a social construction. As explain in a previous episode, social constructions are not simply in our minds. They are made of real people, things, and our interactions. Race does not exist as an invisible quality inside us - but we do create it as something we outside and among us. Census forms, news stories, academic papers: these are what race is made of, not some invisible force in the body. The anti-racism of the social justice movement acknowledges that race is socially constructed - but then it repeats the error. Racism, as the Fields sisters say, is not imaginary: it is actual oppression. It is actual things that people do to other people. Anti-racism replaces material racism with another invisible, imaginary quality of consciousness. But dematerializing racism into a phantom like race itself makes it nearly impossible to fight. Race is the perpetuation of the the belief in an invisible quality that doesn't exist. As the Fields sisters say, "the first principle of racism is belief in race." By continually recreating race, we pass racism down from generation to generation.


Witchcraft's Reason

We need someone to blame. When something bad happens, we don't want to hear that it's because of chance or nature, because then it's meaningless. We want a social explanation. That's what witchcraft delivered for the Azande people, studied by Edward Evans-Pritchard, For the Azande, everyday misfortunes are caused by witchcraft. If you get sick, and the illness gets progressively worse, that's because of witchcraft. There are witches all around. Their envies and jealousies lead witches to bewitch friends, neighbours, even family members. To us, this belief seems irrational. But it is no more so than our confidence in science or technology. We don't understand most technology, but we have experts who do, and we take their word for it. The Azande have experts too, and ways to identify witches. Suspected witches even effectively confess to the deed. And their experts can even conduct an autopsy to discover whether someone was a witch. The only thing missing is a mechanism - the actual method that a witch uses to arrange it so that your hurt yourself on a stump, for instance. That's the one thing that science offers that witchcraft does not. But do you know how your phone works? All the mechanisms involved, from electromagnetism to just-in-time software compilers? Of course not. So it is with the Azande. It is easy to pretend superior knowledge, but we are not so different. Witchcraft among the Azande is real. Even if no one is truly bewitched, from oracles to autopsies to the rituals of an accused witch promising to desist, witchcraft is a real social institution. As an example from a foreign culture, it provides us with an illustration of how social constructions work. In the next episode, I will bring that home, to a more familiar construction: race. See E. E. Evans-Pritchard, Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic Among the Azande.


What Are Social Constructions Made Of?

"When a dancer stops dancing, the dance is finished." - Bruno Latour What Latour calls "critical sociology" (an intellectual foundation of social justice) does three things. 1) It replaces the activities of real people with abstract forces from a limited set of existing categories, like capitalism, society, racism, etc. 2) It ignores the protests of the actors when they say that's not what they're doing. 3) It takes those protests as proof that the sociologists are correct and that ordinary people cannot bear to face the reality of the forces that motivate them. The result is a discipline that believes in invisible, intangible - in other words, metaphysical - forces that manipulate us like puppets, and which, because they are not material, we have little hope of influencing. The error is not political, however: it is simply how many sociologists look at the world. Latour offers an alternative explanation of social constructions as existing in the material world, composed of the associations of people and things- a dance, in the metaphor above, that exists only so long as their interactions continue. His book, Reassembling the Social, is actually an introduction to his confusingly-named Actor Network Theory. This episode can serve as an introduction to some of the core ideas of ANT.


The Invention of White Privilege

Plantation owners in 17th century Barbados had a problem. They purchased white indentured servants and black slaves. At that time, there was little difference: life expectancy was so short that most indentured servants never saw freedom. The decision to buy servants or slaves was often dictated by price. Black and white alike, the oppressed teamed up to rebel. Their oppressors concocted a strategy. Divide and rule: pit the two groups against each other by emphasizing race, and giving more privileges to the whites. For the first time, they crafted race laws that stripped black slaves of rights. And they deliberately starved them. "Tush, they can shift," they said: feed the blacks too little and they will steal from the whites. The strategy worked so well that it was imported to South Carolina, then to other English colonies in what was to become the United States. White privilege was created not to benefit white people in general, but to benefit the masters. It was created to oppress black and white workers and slaves. The point was not privileges themselves: it was the message they sent that made one group feel superior, the other inferior, so that they would not work together. This strategy survived slavery, into the Jim Crow era when W. E. B. Du Bois called it a "psychological wage" that kept wages down for white workers and maintained racial antagonism to benefit elites. We used to talk about prejudice and disadvantage: the implication was that disadvantages should be eliminated, raising everyone up. To call out privilege is to imply that it should be eliminated, lowering everyone down. Talk of white privilege is what it has always been: a strategy for domination that sets people against each other on the basis of skin colour to prevent them from resisting domination by elites. See The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic, by Peter Linebaugh and Markus Rediker. See also Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880, by W. E. B. Du Bois.


The Matrix and the Heresy of Progress

The Matrix echoes the Gnostic heresy: the world is a prison for our souls, the creator is evil, and knowledge brings freedom. In the film, what appears to be reality is in fact an illusion created to enslave humanity. The red pill reveals the true world and grants the power to control the illusion to war against the creator. For the ancient Gnostics, the material world was false. Our bodies and their pleasures, from food to sex, were oppressive deceptions. The truth, they believed, was that our souls are eternal, but this knowledge has been taken from us. Gnosis means knowledge - knowledge of our true natures, and how to transcend our earthly limits. The early Catholic Church declared the Gnostics heretics: for in the Bible, the creator is good, and so is his creation. But did Gnosticism really fade away? Philosophers Augusto Del Noce and Eric Voegelin say no. They argue that Gnosticism has taken on a materialist, atheist form. The ancient Gnostics believed that Gnostic enlightenment would guide us to a spiritual Utopia. Revolutionary materialist ideologies - communism, socialism, fascism, progressivism - believe instead in a Utopia here on earth. But, Del Noce and Voegelin say, these ideologies are fatally flawed. Like the Gnostics, and like the humans in the Matrix, they reject the world that exists. Their adherents' belief that better world is possible is so strong that they are willing to cast principle aside. If unborn generations can be spared the suffering of our fallen world, are not acts of violence really acts of love? But once principle has been lost, it can never be regained. The pursuit of Utopia degenerates into nothing more than the pursuit of power. See Augusto Del Noce, The Crisis of Modernity; Eric Voegelin, Science, Politics and Gnosticism; and China Miéville, "Foundation," in Looking for Jake.


Live Not for Others

Affirmation is a trap. It makes us dependent, weak and unhappy. It starts in school. Some comply and are rewarded. They do well in school: but if they have come to expect praise, they may be lost or angry in lie. Others resist and are punished, and lose out as they enter the world of work. Often it is girls who comply, and boys who do not. Both are sabotaged in life. But instead of teaching independence, instead of making school more like life, we have chosen the opposite: we are making life more like school. But adults who are dependent on others to praise them will have unstable identities and lack independence.


Joseph Tainter: Collapse and Complexity

As society becomes complex, it reaches a point where the cost of coping with problems exceeds the benefits. Then, people may choose collapse as the lesser evil. But in a globalized world, no society can collapse in isolation. The alternative is the progressive immiseration of the population to preserve the rickety complexity of the system and the privileges of the few who benefit. This is the argument of Joseph Tainter in his classic book, The Collapse of Complex Societies. All societies (or civilizations) face challenges. To meet these challenges, they develop complexity: armies, technologies, institutions. At first, the benefits are clear, but as complexity mounts, the costs of maintaining it grow even faster. Whatever its benefits, complexity is a burden on the population. They have to work harder, pay more taxes, or suffer more privation. A point is eventually reached, at least for some of them, when the costs of additional complexity start to exceed the benefits. There is a final crisis - a challenge that demands yet more complexity solve. Those who pay the price may figure they are better off accepting collapse. They might prefer barbarians rulers to Rome, if it means lower taxes. They might be better off keeping their crops for themselves rather than feed the system. They want to defect: to prevent them, the system must implement yet more complexity, heightening the risks. Technology can't solve the problem: it is subject to the same diminishing returns. Only a new source of energy can roll back the clock. Though collapse is seldom good, it may be less bad than sustaining a decrepit system. But in an integrated world, it cannot happen: were a society to collapse, it would only be taken over by its competitors, and complexity would remain high. In a globalized world, Tainter thinks, no-one can collapse until everyone collapses. In the mean time, the lot of the population steadily worsens as they work harder and harder for less and less to sustain a system that no longer benefits them.


Shawshank: The Prison of Professional Life

The lesson of The Shawshank Redemption is compliance. The film is about life, and Shawshank prison stands for the institutions to which professionals devote their careers. It seems to be a story of freedom. It is not. The film affirms a myth that all professionals are taught: They are more intelligent and better educated. They are more sensitive. Unlike the faceless masses, they are unique individuals with freedom in their hearts. That freedom is a myth. It may exist in their hearts: but to earn it in the world, they must serve. The price is compliance. Its price is life. Thinking they are free, they become their own jailers. Real freedom is the carrot on the end of the stick: grind away your decades and in your old age you can earn the dream of retirement. The institution where you work? It may be brutal, the management may be corrupt - but the institution is necessary. You are a superior individual. Redemption is something every man must earn for himself. There may be companionship here, but not solidarity. In the end, work will set you free. See Jeff Shmidt's book, Disciplined Minds: A Critical Look at Salaried Professionals and the Soul-Battering System that Shapes Their Lives. Also mentioned: Brian McDonald's You Are a Storyteller podcast.


Like Bad Parents

We punish adults as though they were children - in ways that don't even work on kids. We say that we are handing out "consequences" - as though we are parents and they are our children. Of course it doesn't work - no-one likes being treated that way. Not even children. The real keys to effective parenting are trust, love and respect. If your child knows you love him and respect him, and that he can trust you, then what you think carries a lot of weight. Children do crave boundaries, and they do like those boundaries enforced: but that's not at all the same thing as a struggle of wills over punishment. Actual parents know this. We know not to treat our children like fools. We know that dishonesty and punishment carry a high price. We know that they are people too. Of course with adults punishment is even less effective - they are not children, we are not parents, and they know it. How is it that so many grown-ups don't seem to realize this? How is it that so many treat other adults like children? Is it because we don't have enough experience with children? Regardless, we can't expect to have healthy relationships with one another - or with our children! - if this is how we behave.


Pandemic of Hate

"Treat them like the plague-spreading lepers that they are. You want to be put in isolation camps? That's where this is headed, you will have deserved it, and I'm all for it." — highly up-voted comment on Reddit, September, 2021 There is an epidemic of hate against the unvaccinated. Our leaders call them dangers to society, encouraging widespread hate. They are being fired from their jobs and ostracized. People wish death on them. Gluboco Lietuva, for example, explains the impact of the policies and the hate on himself and his family. The formation of mass hate follows the pattern of totalitarianism. Dutch psychologist Mattias Desmet, echoing René Girard's description of the scapegoat ritual, calls this mass formation: a form of collective hypnosis. A minority of the population, suffering from social isolation, anxiety, meaninglessness and anger are effectively hypnotized. Their fears and frustrations focus on a target. The possibility of violence rises. Most of us are not hypnotized: but history shows that if we go along with the spirit of hate, the probability of atrocities rises. Though I chose to be vaccinated, fear where this will lead.


Fanaticism Without Faith: The Internet and the French Revolution

"Fanaticism without faith, discipline without loyalty, excommunication without communion." Augustin Cochin. Sound familiar? The Internet is not the first time a new forum for communication turned society upside down. The French Revolution did not come from nowhere in 1789, Cochin says: the ideas and the fanaticism had already been worked out in members-only philosophical societies, where men united around dreams of remaking society. These societies were supposed to be places of free thought. In fact, they were manipulated by inner circles and insulated from the realities of life. They tended towards conformity and extremes. They built imaginary cities in the clouds: but when the Revolution came, they tried to build those cities in reality, and ultimately in blood. The story Cochin tells is strikingly familiar. The radical dogmatism emerging from the Internet today echoes his depiction of revolution at the beginning of the modern era. It explains how a few people can secretly manufacture public opinion, gain power, create the illusion that they are simply representing the will of the people and defending human rights. See Augustin Cochin, Organizing the Revolution.


Hierarchy vs Centralization: Equality Against Itself

"Equality facilitates the exercise of power." - Mirabeau to Louis XVI, during the French Revolution There is no escape from organization and structure. We may try to create groups without structure, in which everyone is equal: but the result is the opposite. Structure arises spontaneously as a few within the group accumulate influence and power - only without formal organizational structures, their power can be hard to see and harder to challenge. The feminist Jo Freeman ("Joreen") explains this in her famous essay, The Tyranny of Structurelessness. We often have the idea that eliminating hierarchy frees us. This is a useful story for those who dismantle hierarchy, whether they be tech companies or activist groups. But it is often not the case. In reality, hierarchies diffuse power, delegating it to branches and closer to the people at the bottom. That may be helpful, as when one has access to a local elected representative, or it can be tyrannical, as in Southern states in the U.S. during the Civil Rights struggle. But as Mirabeau told the King, eliminating hierarchy increases the power of the centre over everyone. Equality may not be what it seems. This episode lays the groundwork for next week's episode, Fanaticism Without Faith: The Internet and the French Revolution, when I talk about how a few men were able to take control of France while appearing to do the will of the people.


Lest We Be Barbarians

"You must pick up the gun to defend civilization against barbarism. Those who pick up the gun are barbarians." — Kenneth Hite Justice is not only about punishing the perpetrator: it's about ourselves, and who we become. We are what we do, and though what we do may be just, we may not like who we become. Spoilers for Seven Samurai, The Godfather, Dune, The Empire Strikes Back.


René Girard: Contagion and Scapegoat

Humans respond to plagues and social disorder with collective murder. Since antiquity, communities have chosen victims who are marginal or different. The perpetrators truly believe that the victim is guilty - a belief confirmed when the murder restores order. René Girard argues that such murders are the foundation of social stability in cultures around the world, but that actual historical violence has been disguised as myth. He argues too that out of control mimetic contagion - rivalry arising from desire - is the reason for disorder in the first place. These two contagions - disease and out-of-control rivalry - coincide in times of plague or pandemic. They are reinforced by empathy, by a belief in our own virtue, and by technologies that encourage imitation. The situation we are in now, with the COVID-19 pandemic and social media, is likely to lead to scapegoating of innocent victims. But we, like the ancients, will believe that we are bringing justice to the guilty. Draws on René Girard's books, I See Satan Fall Like Lighting, The Scapegoat, and Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World.


René Girard: Identity and Desire

Does desire come from within? René Girard argues no: we imitate the desires of others. We pursue the fantasy that if only we could uncover and achieve our own, authentic desires, we would be happy. In fact, our desires are copies; when we achieve them, we are left unsatisfied. Advertising, for example, shows us others to imitate in order to "be ourselves." The fruitless pursuit of authenticity leaves us feeling that there is something wrong with who we are. The result can be unstable identities beset by dissatisfied and envy. The imitation of desire, Girard says, leads to competition, conflict, and crisis. See René Girard's Deceit, Desire, and the Novel.


Hitler's Students: Elite Overproduction Then and Now

When there are too many elites, chaos follows. In essence, this is historian Peter Turchin's theory of elite overproduction. Tracing the history of civilizations around the world, he finds that an oversupply of elites is one of the strongest predictors of social unrest. As Götz Aly explains in his book, Why the Germans? Why the Jews?, this is a key part of the what happened in Germany between the wars. In the 1920s, the liberal Weimar government opened up access to universities. Many families sent their sons to study for the first time. By 1931, a third of graduates could not find jobs in their fields. Frustrated Christian students turned on their Jewish counterparts, whose representation in white-collar jobs was out of all proportion to their tiny share of the population. The Nazis promised affirmative action for Christians and against Jews. Students were among Hitler's first and most fervent supporters. Turchin argues that the situation is similar in the United States today. There are too many university graduates for too few professional jobs. Disappointed ambition and intense competition appears to be driving unrest today. This explosive combination of anger among young elites explains political upheaval from Occupy Wallstreet to identity politics and the social justice movement.


"A conscious decision": How Copyright Sold Out U.S. Industry

"My job was to be in charge of the intellectual property policy of the United States . . . if you go to a shopping mall in this country you cannot buy anything made in the United States anymore. It all comes from China or some other place like that. Well, the reason for that is we've completely opened up our markets. It was a conscious decision to basically abandon low-wage manufacturing jobs, and the idea is that we would compensate for that with higher wage high tech information more intangible based jobs." - Bruce Lehman. Making copyrights and patents, not things, produced a few winners and many losers. Inequality skyrocketed. Politics polarized. Small towns hollowed out, while in major cities house prices went through the roof. It was not China's fault. China was made an offer they couldn't refuse: making and breaking the deal was the only rational choice for the Chinese people. In America's new winner-take-all economy, a few Americans won - but America lost. It was a deliberate choice by the winners. See the documentary, RiP: A Remix Manifesto. Next week: Hitler's Students See the documentary, RiP: A Remix Manifesto.


Hannah Arendt: Totalitarian Dreams

Totalitarianism begins as dream. It ends in nightmare, the destruction of the individual. Hannah Arendt, a Jew who fled Hitler, analyzed the commonalities of communism and Naziism in her book, The Origins of Totalitarianism. Life doesn't make a very good story. It's inconsistent, irrational, unfair. We can end up feeling alienated alone, as though we don't matter. The totalitarian Big Lie provides an explanation, naming villains and identifying a narrative for pursuing justice. It seems to make sense of a senseless world. Through its actions, its continuous movement, it proves its lies true. Alone and insulated from the real world, it's easy to fall for the lie, to follow chains of logic that lead somewhere terrible. And one need not be alone. You may hear that the movement is violent and extreme, but the people you actually encounter are sympathizers or allies: normal, decent people who share some of its ideals and goals. They are the gateway to the movement. Once your are inside, they serve as insulation: even as the you get closer to the extreme core of the totalitarian ideology, you are always surrounded by people who make you feel less extreme than you are. it's an echo chamber. It is easy to believe that everyone (except for very bad people) agrees with you when the only people you encounter share your views. The ideology is total, because it claims that everything is political. It erases the distinction between public and private. Everyone is first and foremost an agent in pursuing the inevitable, just course of history. Even when the movement turns on them, believers often submit: a life given for the cause is better than a life (or death) without meaning.


The Case for Social Justice

A concise argument for the contemporary social justice movement and why it considers language fundamental. I explain the faith, but I am not a believer.