Don’t Be So Cynical!

Diogenes the Cynic searched the world for an honest man.

I had an epiphany about what’s up with people who claim to “believe” things that are manifestly not so. I’m not talking about things people believe that are arguably wrong about or about matters of faith like belief in God or in karma. After all, most of us are wrong about most things most of the time.

The things that I’m talking about are things that you’d think it would be manifestly impossible to believe in good faith. Like saying you “believe” that the Earth is flat, or that two flatly contradictory lines of Scripture are both literally true.  Plausibility is subjective but how does one argue with a person who denies the rules of logic?

We all know from abundant counter-examples that believing nonsense does not imply that someone is stupid; the intelligent are barely less ready than the stupid to believe absurd, silly things. I know a highly intelligent, Ivy-educated, grown man who holds advanced degrees, yet does not accept the germ theory of disease. He says it just isn’t so.  The public health practices, sanitary engineering, medicine, and social practices that are consequences of that worldview are what make modern life possible, yet he’s not buying it. I’ve seen him drop a sandwich on the path in an NYC park and pick it up and eat it.

It seems like a paradox, for what else do we mean by intelligence but that someone doesn’t believe idiotic things? The paradox is only apparent, however, because people actually mean several very different things by that troublesome verb.


When non-mathematical, real-world things have to be reasoned about, determining what is true gets complicated because in nature and politics, unlike in mathematics, there are no axioms and few binary truths. The universe is shades of gray.

Every form of rigorous thinking outside of mathematics and philosophy still requires that we accept an unimaginably vast universe of knowledge on faith. Even scientists must accept almost all of what they “know” on faith and advance from there. The magic of science is that it has, or is, a set of formal processes that allow a far greater degree of certainty about that mass of knowledge than is ever possible in the world in general.

The world outside of mathematics is much too mushy for a universe of certainties to be derived by applying formal rules to propositions that are already known to be true. We can prove a proposition false by finding a contradiction or an absurd implication, but the truth is more elusive. We only have confidence a real-world proposition is true because (a) it seems true and (b) diligent efforts to prove it false have failed.

Science itself is just a set of formal conventions constructed around that principle. If a hypothesis spun out of air looks pretty good, we look for supporting evidence that makes it look better, even as we attempt to poke holes in it and show that it can’t be true. A scientific hypothesis that has not survived multiples attacks by other scientists is just hot air.

Reliance on argument and skepticism is what makes science science but the principle spreads everywhere. Take law, where cross-examination relies on it. You can testify to anything but reconciling a lie with the internals of your own stories, let alone the other facts that have been exposed, quickly becomes impossible under cross-examination. The more complex the lie, the harder it is to plug all the holes.

When educated people say they “believe” something, it usually means that in principle, it’s the kind of belief that stands up to attack. If you won’t expose a belief to attack, it means you’re just hoping it’s true.

Belief Of The Another Kind

Belief can be about facts or principles as in “I believe your testimony” or “I believe Einstein’s explanation of the Lorentz-Fitzgerald Contraction” but belief can also mean something more like allegiance, as in “I believe in love” or in God, or in exercise, or democracy, or Donald Trump.  In this sense, “belief” doesn’t imply that something holds up to arbitrarily intense logical scrutiny. It means something much closer to “down with.”  I’m down with Jesus. I’m down with Trump.  I’m down with exercise.  When people who believe in God are willing to argue about His existence or His nature, the clash of ideas may take the form of a debate but actually, it is almost always a formal display of loyalty rather than a good-faith acid test.  The faithful are not convinced by words.

We all freely mix the various meanings of belief both out of sloppiness and as a rhetorical device. Most of the time, we’re not even consciously aware that there is a difference, let alone certain about which meaning we intend, yet questioning and argument have diametrically opposite effects on the two modes of belief. Argument strengthens believe of the first kind and erodes belief of the second.Try swapping “down with” into the place of “belief” in almost any seemingly nonsensical thing that people claim to believe and while it may not transmute nonsense into pellucid logical rigor, no longer is it necessary to assume the person expressing the belief is feeble-minded. Belief, in the sense of “down with” is no more about Aristotelian logic than cheering for your football team when you enter the fourth quarter down by 17 points is. It is an expression of fidelity, not of reasoned opinion.

Flat Earth

Our bullet-proof arguments about politics convince nobody, and how could they? Why should they? Even the simplest issues are essentially fathomless unless we first accept on faith an unimaginably vast fabric of knowledge that we must first stipulate. People laugh at flat-earthers but how many of us could actually refute flat-earth theories without resort to faith in a huge body of science we barely understand ourselves?

We can’t do it by stepping back through an infinite regress of other things that must be believed first.  Could you show someone directly that the Earth is a ball? Could you say exactly why you accept the germ theory of disease? Even science requires faith.

The Base

We make a mistake by attacking the infamous Trump base. You can’t dismantle the hatred and the conspiracy theories with logic because it’s never been about logic. Nobody sat down and reasoned out that Hillary is the handmaiden of Satan and therefore must be hated. The truth is, the base hates our ideas because they hate us, and they hate us because we hated them first.  The Left has some owning up to do about this, and shows no inclination to do so.

The Democrat left used to be the working person’s party, fighting primarily for economic justice; social justice was primarily a byproduct of the economic struggle. We’ve cast the Trump base as the hated white man, but in fact, virtually all of the major economic and social programs, from the 8-hour workday and child labor laws to women’s suffrage and the civil rights legislation of the 1960’s depended on the votes of these very people and their parents and grandparents. The base is the people who voted-in Roosevelt, Kennedy, Johnson and the thousands of Representatives and Senators who passed the legislation and the constitutional amendments underlying these social reforms. It was an almost unprecedented thing; scores of millions of white people, first men and then both sexes, sustained a multi-generational movement to dilute their own power in favor of egalitarianism. If those same people, in many cases literally the same individuals, now use the words “Democrat” and “liberal” as pejoratives, we should put more energy into wondering why.

Don’t Blame It On MLK

The civil rights and women’s movements of the 1960’s and 1970’s shifted the Left’s emphasis to social justice first and economics second. We have written history to make that epochal shift seem inevitable but it’s not clear that it ever was. Even Martin Luther King, at the eye of the hurricane of the civil rights struggle, saw the fight for racial equality as only one aspect of a larger fight for economic equality for every American. He was first and foremost a civil rights activist but he saw the future as an alliance based on class rather than race and certainly not on gender or sexual preference.  The momentum of his career was in the opposite direction from that leftist politics as a whole has taken since, i.e., which is away from class-based politics and toward identity politics.

The move toward identity politics led the left needing to cement a diverse alliance of non-white people, women, youth, LGBT, and other groups. To unify these groups they started using the white working class and lower-middle-class male as a straw man, a shared villain to focus resentments on. Feminism broadened it to all white men but the principle is the same. The intellectually sloppy reflex has gathered momentum for two generations now, and it’s everywhere, but it was always a grotesque oversimplification.

It made emotional sense–there’s no denying it. Most racists were and are in fact white but it would be surprising if they were not in a country that is almost 70% white and only about 12.5% black. Most Nobel Prize winners, child molesters, licensed drivers, and construction workers, and mass shooters are white too because most Americans are white.

The formal name of the fallacy that’s scuttling the Democratic Party is “affirming the consequent.” It should be obvious that the majority of villains being white does not imply that the majority of white people are villains. It is a non-sequitur in the rigorous meaning of the term. In the same way, the undeniable fact that non-white people are more likely to be poor does not imply that most of the poor are non-white and in fact, despite the greater rates of poverty among non-whites, the number of poor whites in the US is about the same as the number of poor non-whites. It is the proportions that are different, not the actual number. Moreover, counter-intuitively but for reasons that are well understood, for generations now, white people have been significantly more likely to slip down the economic ladder than non-whites despite the fact that taken as a group they are higher up the ladder.

There Is No Such Thing

There’s never been such a thing as White. Not really.  What does an Upper West Side Jew in Manhattan have to do with a white Baptist from Georgia? What does an Upper West SIde Jew even have to do with a Hassidic Jew from Brooklyn?  The typical white person in Washington DC has more in common with the a typical black person in Washington DC than they do with the the typical white person from Des Moines or Oshkosh. I have much more in common with the African American people that I happen to know than I have with most Italian Americans. I grew up in Washington DC–we didn’t really have Italian Americans—you were either Black, Irish Catholic, vanilla middle-class White Protestant, or some kind of Foreign Service exotic. I knew two Italian Americans, the Iadaroloa brothers. Other than them, until I moved to New York, everything I knew about Italian Americans I learned from Mario Puzo novels.

Is there any such thing as Black either? If you’re from Atlanta you may well think so, but you wouldn’t be so sure if you were from Hudson County NJ where I live. In Atlanta, the great majority of black people are African Americans descended from people brought here as slaves.  In my town there are plenty of people who look like they have African ancestors, but not many of them are American and a lot of them don’t even identify as Black; they’re Haitian, Dominican, Somali, Cuban. I even know a couple of Swedish black people and one fresh off the boat from London. I only know of one plain vanilla African American person around here, and his last name, ironically, is Levine.

They Hate Us

The red-state Trump base hates blue-state types in part because we paint a picture of the world that seems obviously false from where they sit. False and slanted against them. Unlike the one-or-two percent of the US that is covered in big cities, in almost two-thirds of America by land-area, diversity is almost non-existent and the social justice concerns that go with diversity make little sense. In a thousand north-south miles of Appalachia, there is no “white privilege” because there is virtually nobody who isn’t white. Not just white, but specifically Scots Irish and poor, possibly the strongest flavor of white that exists. There are plenty of poor people in that thousand miles–people were poor even before the enclosure acts in 18th Century England drove them here. People whose speech and manner marks their class as surely as skin color denotes race. The world view generated by a blue-state cultural establishment paints a picture of America that is completely unlike anything in that region. It is a view that villainizes them as low-class Neanderthals to the extent that it acknowledges their existence at all. The real hatred derives from the class part of that formula. The cultural left links racism and sexism to class and Americans hate nothing as much as being told they’re low class. It’s the American Dream–we want to think that we’re just not rich yet. Democrats need another path to social justice, a path that doesn’t demonize the largest electorate in the country and exclude the largest category of the poor,

Why should they believe in global warming when everything in the world view that they are told is real can seems to be obviously false? If the Democrats want to win again, let alone get the landslides to which they’d be entitled in an economically rational world, they (we) need to learn to love the communities in the rainbow coalition without showing contempt for the white working man that the liberal agenda has historically depended upon.

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