Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Elections and Monkey Brains

The Primal Three Musketeers

By John Taylor; 2010 Nov 16, Qudrat 13, 167 BE

This is sort of a review of a humour book I just read:

Scott Adams, Stick to Drawing Comics, Monkey Brain!: Cartoonist Ignores Helpful, Portfolio, 2007, pp. 252-253

I say sort of a review because I will also be talking here about some political ideas recently posted by Adams on his Dilbert blog. That is where the material for this book came from originally as well.

I was very glad to have a funny book like "Monkey Brain" to keep my spirits up during the past month, during which I suffered a seemingly endless severe cold or flu. Part of the misery for a talkative fellow like me was that every time I opened my mouth to talk I would go into coughing fits that threatened to drown me. I was feverish and voiceless, and I needed something to laugh at.

I enjoy Adams' twisted ideas and often cruel, power-mad sense of humour. You never know what he is going to come up with next. I have read most of his previous books with great pleasure, and I am realizing now that his ideas about politics have influenced me more than I imagined. His jokes are like a hammer that drives in some highly pointed ideas.

Adams watches and reads the news constantly, and comes up with half-cocked ideas that often have a touch of genius. He is a non-believer in God, but no anti-theist; he has as little patience for extreme skeptics as for dogmatic believers. Nevertheless, at times I found his lack of a grasp of the fundamentals of faith quite bothersome. This negated some of the benefit of the humour.

One good thing about Adams is that he sees how pathetically broken the political system is and tries to come up with suggestions. All are original, some are totally facetious, and others are serious and certainly deserve lengthy treatment. I am addressing some of them in the book I am writing -- especially my planned third volume, which will be on ways to improve democracy.

One essay in Monkey Brain in particular touches on issues that are very important to me; it is called "The Future of Voting." Here he suggests the idea of a law preventing any kind of political advertising.

"... we should ban all political advertising. I realize it's an issue of free speech, but ... freedom has always had lots of restrictions. For example, you can't libel someone, and you can't lie about your product's effectiveness, and you can't yell "Fire" if there's no fire. If a political ad sways an election and causes an unnecessary war (just to pick an example), then it's a lot like yelling "Fire." We routinely limit free speech when the alternative is worse." (Scott Adams, Stick to Drawing Comics, Monkey Brain!: Cartoonist Ignores Helpful, Portfolio, 2007, p. 253)

Here we see a confusion about freedom of speech that seems to be coming to a head in the U.S. It is the puss in a festering boil of corruption that is destroying their entire political system. The question that should be asked first is, "Free speech for whom?" Liberty of expression begins and ends as an individual right. It cannot be a group right.

As soon as you let entities -- groups, corporations, governments, organizations -- have an equal right to free speech along with individuals, then by that very fact you crowd out and nullify the right of individuals to say whatever they are moved to say. How can one voice compete against many? How can one voice compete against money, against vested interests, against even one other opinion? It is impossible.

A single mind and the opinions it forms are valuable if and only if they come out of the spirit of truth. Unlike groups, only an individual mind can investigate reality directly and come up with something new, be it through prayer, reflection, science, work experience, or whatever. A group can either amplify that genius or block it out. The amplification is what J.C. was talking about when He said, "When two of you gather in my name (i.e., in His spirit) then I am the third ... if three, I am the fourth, and so forth... " The trick of consultation is to let that spirit speak, and to follow that. And only an individual voice can stumble over the way the spirit wants to take us.

Adams, in a blog posting, tentatively suggests that political parties should perhaps be banned outright. Like a lot of others these days, he thinks that maybe we should be scientific about investigating the possibility.

"Imagine a democratic political system in which no one is allowed to be a member of a political party. How would things be different? My hypothesis is that confirmation bias, or cognitive dissonance, or something of that nature, influences voters to irrationally agree with the platform of their own party no matter what the facts suggest. My hypothesis is easy enough to test. All you'd need to do is come up with a phony issue and present it to your test subjects as something to which their party agrees, or disagrees, and see if party affiliation influences opinions. I think the effect would be large." (Scott Adams, Dilbert Blog, "Eliminating political parties," Nov 5-6, 2010 <http://www.dilbert.com/blog/entry/eliminating_political_parties/>)

In this suggestion, Adams is coming close to the total ban on politicking that is a rule for Baha'i elections. As a Baha'i, I used to jump up and down when I heard such suggestions, but now I am realizing that my viewpoint was too narrow. This ban on loose tongues at voting time is much older than the Revelation of Baha'u'llah.

Hellas had a systemic bias against politicking. This put it in the perfect position to invent democracy. How so? Religion was part of the political process -- in a good way. That is, priests themselves did not interfere, but they had the all important role of acting as hosts for many political functions. We forget that in Ancient Greece drama, banking and elections all were religious activities that often took place on holy ground, at the local temple. In other words, the location itself forbade loose tongues. You did not cheat in your banking or tax payments because the local god and oracle were right there, looking right over over your shoulder as it were.

Same thing for free speech. There was no need for legal sanctions in Hellas. What people said was limited by an inherent sense of the sacred. There could be no jostling for power, attacking others, all the garbage that is now fair game in elections if you were standing on holy ground, if, to use a Jewish analogy, you were standing in front of the burning bush and you were standing on cold earth, with your shoes off. Verbal vitriol is destroying democracy today, and the worse it gets the less and less people can appreciate the sacred nature of voting. The solution is simple. Forbid any talk at all about whom to vote for except on your ballot itself; then stage the election on the holiest ground available. Anybody who shoots off their mouth there will be committing sacrilege, limited by their own sense of shame.

Recent research has found that this effect has a tremendous influence on people, irrespective of what they believe, irrespective even of what they are thinking. In one study they left out a cup of coins along with coffee, relying on the honour system for paying. Some did not pay, some helped themselves to the money. But when they put up a poster with an image of eyes -- not even a face, just eyes -- looking right at you, suddenly the number of cheaters and freeloaders dropped drastically.

In other words, if you held a vote in the local synagogue or Buddhist monastery, it does not matter if voters are Jewish or Buddhist, they would feel the sacredness of the place and act accordingly. Another study found that children left alone cheated far less at a game if it was suggested that an invisible fairy girl was in the room with them. Whether they believed that this fairy girl existed did not matter. The suggestion that she was there all but wiped out cheating.

So, if voters said a few prayers together before the ballot is cast, probably this effect would multiply, even for atheists.

The most important thing to do is to unite religion, science and politics into a single process of investigation of truth. We forget that this ultimate goal is why conflict and arguing was tolerated in the American model of politics in the first place. The clash of opinions under free speech is supposed to act like a scientific experiment that squeezes falsity out and leaves standing only the right ideas.

Adams in his defense of banning political advertising points out that the spark from the clash often shows how to solve the root problem.

"Finding fault is how you usually determine whose job it is to shape up and fix things. But sometimes, as in this case, the people who can fix it are not the ones at fault." (Scott Adams, Stick to Drawing Comics, Monkey Brain!: Cartoonist Ignores Helpful, Portfolio, 2007, p. 253)

For Adams, the invention of the Internet is what has changed the situation and made political parties and political advertising obsolete. Instead we should invent a sort of political Facebook to iron out the flaws of the present political order.

"Lots of voters don't use the Internet, especially the elderly. But that will change over time. And elections are often so close that it wouldn't take much movement to improve the results. ... I think a couple of twenty-somethings with Web skills could alter the face of democracy forever. And maybe make a few billion dollars for themselves along the way." (id.)

Of course, when argumentation is done poorly or is taken to an extreme, all three, science, religion and politics, are destroyed. All that is left are inflammatory verbal wars. This is something that Plato realized and agonized over, as do I. Think about it. A democratic regime killed Plato's beloved mentor, Socrates. Yet as I slow-read his last work, the Laws, I notice that here Plato is, at the end of his life, toying and experimenting with democratic methods. In spite of his famous suspicion of what democracy could become, he was not throwing it out. He knew that any future government for all time has to have a democratic element.

For example, over and over Plato suggests very much the same thing that Adams does, unknowingly, that we should experimentally combine democracy with polling and come up with something that I call meta-democracy. I'll talk about that in future.

Anyways, let us close with Plato's suggestion that the three goals of religion (sobriety), science (wisdom) and politics (love) are all, in essence, the same goal. They are the primal Three Musketeers, one for all, and all for one:

"You must reflect that when we say he must look to sobriety, or again to wisdom, or to amity, these ends are not distinct but identical." (Plato, Collected Dialogues, The Laws, 693c, p. 1282)

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