Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Social Studies



Spring has arrived and I've been busy outside gardening incompetently. We've got a rain deficit, but today it rained which gave me an excuse not to work outside. In theory this allows me time to blog, but I've been putting it off.

Part of the problem about writing is I know what I'm writing is of little interest to anyone. The reason for writing is to explore various contrary ideas. One of those ideas is "Religion can be a powerful force for good in the world." That idea resonates with me, although I've got big problems with the ways the force of religion are playing out in the world for the worse.

I also have a hunch that Buddhist economics has something important to offer the study of economics. I'm no scholar! My hunch seems to follow the trail Karl Polanyi blazed with the insistence that economics are embedded in societies and cultures. Karl Polanyi contrasted two views of economics: the neoclassical and what he termed the substantive meaning of economics. It's this latter meaning, of a livelihood strategy, of most interest to me.

Meanwhile I'm all over the place in my thinking and am not sure what to do except ramble along.

That's a screenshot of a bloggingheads.tv episode featuring Carl Zimmer and Paul Ehrlich on the subject of Cultural Evolution. I wrote a grumpy piece in July about Ehrlich's ideas about cultural evolution. I've got to admit that seeing Ehrlich on video makes it hard for me to be cross. I very much agree with the sense of urgency he feels about humanity's prospects. But I still think the metaphor of cultural evolution confuses more than it illuminates.

Ehrlich thinks people need to change behaviors, and quickly, if humanity is to survive. Who isn't feeling the sense of urgency about the crises which confront us? Clearly science, that is the practice of reasoned arguments coupled with careful practical observations of the world, has much to offer as a way toward solutions.

The conduct of science is embedded in society and culture too and there are some blind spots. It seems to me that Ehrlich presumes social and behavioral sciences address haven't met with the same sort of progress as natural sciences have is a result of social scientists being insufficiently scientific. I don't agree with that assessment entirely. But mostly it's his apparent view of "culture" as some physical entity which seems most off base.

I agree we need to change, but how to is the question. I think social and behavioral sciences are immature sciences, but even still the work of social sciences finds its way incorporated into various technologies. Like the discoveries in the natural sciences leading to technological applications having polluting and antisocial effect; eg. nuclear bombs, the application of social sciences is hardly all good.

Public relations is a suspect field and the career of Edward Bernays, one of founding fathers of the field, provides clear examples of how social science research is applied. If change is needed, it is well to examine propaganda and the relationship between it and social studies.

A couple of Sunday's ago one the Pittsburgh Post Gazette's conservative mouth pieces, Jack Kelly wrote a column, Democrats unleash the attack dogs: But they picked the wrong target in Rush Limbaugh. Jack Kelly's columns tend to annoy me, and I suppose that's a reason I read them. The lede:
Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher, Rick Santelli and Jim Cramer owe much of their 15 minutes of fame to Saul Alinsky, a Chicago Marxist who died in 1972.
made me scratch my head. Saul Alinsky a Marxist? I'd never heard that before and I wondered whether Kelly was right.

Searching online provides plenty of hits to conservatives calling Alinsky a Marxist. But there is much in Alinsky's career that would suggest otherwise. Here's what Alinsky said himself in a Playboy interview in 1972:
PLAYBOY: Did you consider becoming a party member prior to the Nazi-Soviet Pact?

ALINSKY: Not at any time. I've never joined any organization -- not even the ones I've organized myself. I prize my own independence too much. And philosophically, I could never accept any rigid dogma or ideology, whether it's Christianity or Marxism. One of the most important things in life is what judge Learned Hand described as "that ever-gnawing inner doubt as to whether you're right." If you don't have that, if you think you've got an inside track to absolute truth, you become doctrinaire, humorless and intellectually constipated. The greatest crimes in history have been perpetrated by such religious and political and racial fanatics, from the persecutions of the Inquisition on down to Communist purges and Nazi genocide.

...My only fixed truth is a belief in people, a conviction that if people have the opportunity to act freely and the power to control their own destinies, they'll generally reach the right decisions. The only alternative to that belief is rule by an elite, whether it's a Communist bureaucracy or our own present-day corporate establishment. You should never have an ideology more specific than that of the founding fathers: "For the general welfare." That's where I parted company with the Communists in the Thirties, and that's where I stay parted from them today.
The line that Alinsky was a Marxist is parroted all over in American media. It's easy to imagine that person might wrongly conclude that the author of a book named Rules for Radicals was a Marxist. But it stretches the imagination to the breaking point to think that the numerous examples of "Alinsky was a Marxist" in the rightest media is a mistake. Rather it seems transparently a propaganda ploy.

I've become very fond of posts at Religion Dispatches. Yesterday there was a post by Hussein Rashid Osama and Orientalism: Where Islamophobes Meet Al-Qaeda. The article made me think about what's going on with the Alinsky = Marxist meme on right wing media sites. Rashid writes:
When Islamophobes want to demonize Islam, it is easy enough to take a passage from scripture and extrapolate all sorts of general ideas about how Muslims act, what they believe, or who they are in some fundamental way.
Rashid also presents a concise exposition about how Edward Said's ideas of Orientalism operate in America. I risk going way off track going into the post in detail, but the post is worth reading. Having brought up Edward Said's name it's fair to point out that Said was a frequent target of the same rightist factions who make Alinsky out to be a Marxist. What is relevant here is the sort of hermeneutic technique Rashid points to. Alinsky's writing certainly isn't scripture, but a similar technique is applied to his writing in order to prove he was a Marxist.

Oh crikey! I've got about a dozen pages open in tabs from sites like FreeRepublic, FrontPage Magazine, The Eagle Fourm, and various sites they link to. I'm trying to figure which ones best demonstrate my thesis. There are so many pages it's hard to pick! What many pages have in common is to posit deception on Alinsky's part, to say that his words are a sort of code. This article by John Perazzo illustrates this technique. Melanie Phillips at the British magazine The Spectator quotes Perazzo's article extensively in order to substantiate her thesis:
[I]n the world of Barack Obama, community organisers are a key strategy in a different game altogether; and the name of that game is revolutionary Marxism.
Part of the charm of a British publication, even a conservative one, is that articles like Phillips get some push back, something American-based conservative outlets prevent.

One commenter, AnotherPerspective, remarks:
Melanie, you have a remarkable talent.Linking Obama, Alinsky, and Marxism with so little effort or apparent embarassment. Perhaps next you could link good and evil, darkness and light, heaven and hell, intelligence and stupidity.
I'm no Marxist. A big part of that has to do with a philosophical difficulties with rigid ideologies, a position similar to Alinsky's. A part of it too is not really having the fortitude to be rigorous. Alinsky is long dead, and using his "Marxism" to tar Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton as "Marxists" isn't convincing. There's another problem with it, and that's how is skews informed comment about Marxism in American discourse.

Public Relations and propaganda surely do influence people, and that influence is measured by changes in behavior. It's not satisfying to think that propaganda is just a tool which can be used for good or ill. In my prescription of the way the world ought to be, reason seems more virtuous. So it's ironic that one area of "successful" application of knowledge created by social science are "killer" propaganda and PR techniques.

Of course the Internet changes things. Recently I saw a page commenting on the influence of paid links on search engine results pages. The example used to illustrate is fascinating. After the World Trade Tower attack, it was revealed there were large put options taken out the day before the attack. Authorities thought these transactions anomalous. I heard about them at the time, but the issue seemed to fade into the woodwork. Apparently Mayo Shattuck III the head of A.B. Brown unit of Deutsche bank at the time grew sick of seeing his name come up in search results and hired reputation managers to improve the situation.

The Irish Elk is a species of deer that went extinct about 11,000 years ago. An enormous species, skeletal remains have antlers as long as twelve feet across. The consensus reason for the evolution of the trait is as a process of sexual selection. The big honking antlers conferred a mating advantage.

I've already said I'm not very comfortable with Ehrlich's cultural evolution project. I think cultural evolution makes sense only as a metaphor. But as a metaphor might social change driven by propaganda bear some formal resemblance to sexual selection in evolutionary biology? I doubt it. Here's another throw away question: What sort of designer would put a twelve foot long, eighty pound head rack on a deer? Ehrlich's urgency to understand cultural evolution, at root it seems is a call for technologies of social change. The current state of the art doesn't give me a good feeling about this project.

1 comment:

DaisyDeadhead said...

One of the things that bothered me in WALL-E, was how the human survivors (on the space ship) didn't interact with each other personally/face-to-face, but only on computers. In fact, I found it one of the most disturbing things about it, along with the environmentalist message. As an actual forecast of the future, I could totally see it happening.

I also thought of the SOUTH PARK episode THE DAY THE INTERNET STOOD STILL: the online-kid-couple who meet in person, can't carry on a conversation, but when they finally get their internet back, happily tell their friends, "We're back together!"

There seem to be two different cultures developing, one online and cerebral, and the other, mainstream and not. Every now and then, the two cross over and it's weird, but undeniably fascinating. Interestingly, the mainstream culture considers regular news media to be, well, mainstream. When a local woman got fired for feeding stray cats in back of her worksite, people were telling me I should cover the story, it was too flaky and cat-lover-bizarre to make the local newspapers or TV, but was just right for a blog. I agreed and was all ready to interview her and take photos of her (as well as the cats who wait for her daily ministrations), when they gave her back her job. I will always think I might have had something to do with that! It is understood that there is a big "underground" out there, and her employer didn't want the aggravation of cat-lovers flooding him with emails, as well as letting local computer-cat-people know that he is an asshole.

But it made me wonder about the overlaps of the two cultures. All the "cultural evolution" stuff you are talking about, makes me wonder what part the internet junkies play in all this.

Aren't we at the forefront of the evolution!? I like to think so. But then, are we going to simply devolve into mere extensions of our computers, communicating online but not in person, like in WALL-E and the SOUTH PARK episode?

I got this weird feeling that everyone thought: if I covered the story of the woman getting fired, then it would OFFICIALLY EXIST, you know, Philip K Dick style: I wrote it into existence. The cat-lover's boss may have been thinking along those lines too, in a way...If I wrote it, then he would officially have to answer for his actions. He wasn't ready to do that, so the mere threat gave him reason to rethink his actions and change his mind.

Just some thoughts. My usual blather for a day off! DISREGARD! :D