Tag: political theory

Trump and Truth: Or What Arendt Can Teach Us about Truth and Politics

Today’s revelation that Mike Flynn resigned from his post as National Security Advisor is another strong sign that the struggle between Truth and Politics is not a foregone conclusion.  Indeed, we ought to actually celebrate the fact that when Flynn lied about speaking with the Russian ambassador, and the lie was made public, he was forced to resign.  This victory notwithstanding, we still must be extremely vigilant against the Trump administration’s attack on Truth.  For the administration apparently knew that he lied some time ago, and it was only with increased public scrutiny that Flynn submitted his resignation.  Had that not come to light, the administration appears to have no compunction about employing liars.

In what follows, I will briefly argue that Hannah Arendt’s insights into Truth and Politics, as well as her understanding of power, authority, violence and persuasion are all key to helping us resist Trump and his acolytes.   We are in a fragile time where the balance between freedom, reason, and truth may be overrun by domination, nonsense, and lies.    We are on the precipice of what Arendt calls “organized lying,” where the community, or at least the governance structures and a portion of the community, seek to systematically erode any claims to factual or rational truths, and with that to unmoor the very foundations of our state.

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Bannon’s Incoherent Vision of Disruption

In 2013, Bannon is reported to have told Ron Radosh of the Daily Beast that he was a Leninist.  He is quoted as saying “Lenin wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal too.  I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.”   Yet this is such an odd thing to tell someone, particularly a journalist, when one’s very wealth, political power and caché depend on the very institution that he wants to destroy.  Lenin, after all, wanted to bring down capitalism and the bourgeoisie to usher in the proletariat as leaders of a communist government and society.   Lenin strongly believed in Marx’s Communist Manifesto, and with it the belief that the workers of the world, and not the owners of capital, must have the power.  Only when all workers—men and women alike—are seen as equal and free will true freedom and democracy reign.  Here is the problem, as I see it, with Bannon: he isn’t a Leninist, a Marxist, or a socialist.   He is an incoherent miscellany of ideas, none of which he understands fully and all of which are dangerous when combined in a haphazard manner.

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The Value Alignment Problem’s Problem

Having recently attended a workshop and conference on beneficial artificial intelligence (AI), one of the overriding concerns is how to design beneficial AI.  To do this, the AI needs to be aligned with human values, and as such is known, pace Stuart Russell, as the “Value Alignment Problem.”  It is a “problem” in the sense that however one creates an AI, the AI may try to maximize a value to the detriment of other socially useful or even noninstrumental values given the way one has to specify a value function to a machine.

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The tradeoffs of getting to graduate school in political science

This is the nerd equivalent of a dad joke.

A pair of posts today from political scientists I admire prompts me to postpone my musings on the Hunger Games and to talk about how to get to graduate school in political science again instead. In an effort to convince you to read on, I’ll name the authors of the two posts: Dan Drezner and Chris Blattman.

Dan Drezner writes about how a post-graduate (non-Ph.D.) degree can help you to get into the doctoral program of your dreams. I’m surprised, by the way, that Dan doesn’t address the burning issue of whether it’s a good idea to go directly from undergrad to grad school. Ten years ago, when I first began thinking about turning pro, the standard advice from my professors was to wait a year or two. They argued that a year or two of work experience helped you mature after the unstructured bliss of college, and furthermore that it was pretty easy to give up money and security in principle but that giving up those things after having had them represented a deeper, truer commitment to the academic vocation.

But Dan’s post is useful nonetheless, because he addresses the fact that many of us in grad school didn’t decide we wanted to do this until we were well on our way out of our undergrad institutions. Some of his advice is obvious–do well on your GREs, write a good personal statement, and so on–but some of it is not, such as whether it’s a good idea to get a terminal master’s before going to a Ph.D. program.

Yet I think Dan neglects one important point, which stands out all the more clearly when this post is read in conjunction with part one of his series. As political science becomes more scientistic, undergrad training in techniques (game theory, math, and so on) is ever more critical. In other words, if you’re a junior applying to graduate programs next year, it’s time to load up on stats and math right now–and if you’ve been out a few years, you might actually find that your preparation in computer science and other symbol-manipulation fields has been insufficient to prepare you to do cutting-edge research. But the converse of this professionalization, as Blattman notes, is that vast chunks of political science are being dismissed–and professors may find that their grad students can write R code in their sleep but can’t tell Tocqueville from Trotstky. Continue reading


Friday Nerd Blogging

Yes, it’s soon to be back. Now if you’ve read A Clash of Kings, you might rightly wonder who the “priest” is in this allegory, since while Season 2 will feature kings and rich men the only important religious figure is actually a woman. But if you’re read A Clash of Kings closely and obsessively you know that the narration by Varys in the trailer is only passingly related to setting up Season 2 itself, and is instead a more generic tale about political power that serves as part of the dialogue (and not a particularly important part at that)in a particular scene on p. 50.

“In a room sit three great men, a king, a priest, and a rich man with his gold. Between them stands a sellsword, a little man of common birth and no great mind. Each of the great ones bids him slay the other two. ‘Do it,’ says the king, ‘for I am your lawful ruler.’ ‘Do it,’ says the priest, ‘for I command you in the names of the gods.’ ‘Do it,’ says the rich man, ‘and all this gold shall be yours.’ So tell me—who lives and who dies?”

University of Michigan’s Karsten Smolinsk unpacks this riddle through a reading of political theory:

This is a riddle from the second book of the Game of Thrones series, a story set in a place much like our own Medieval Ages. The riddle is about the nature of power. Which is greatest?

Is it the power of the law wielded by the king? As Hobbes argued, submitting to the rule of a monarch is essential to preventing the state of nature. Saving the king maintains order in society. Killing the king could create a state of nature in which life is brutal and short.

Is it the power of religion wielded by the priest? Locke argued that belief in a god is the backbone of man’s morality. Most religions express beliefs about punishment or reward based on how people follow their religion’s moral code. Saving or killing the priest could decide one’s ultimate fate.

Is it the power of money wielded by the rich man? Hobbes believes that ultimately humans are selfish beings. Saving the rich man comes with the benefits of not only potentially securing one’s own survival, but one’s own comfort as well.

Or is it in fact the power of force wielded by the ordinary sellsword? In the riddle the three powerful men are in fact powerless before the man with sword. He could kill all three of them if he wanted to. Hobbes argued that force was the most important tool of the monarch. In the end sellsword’s own beliefs will dictate who he kills, suggesting that whichever power is greatest is simply the one that people believe to be the greatest.

In other words, power is what people make of it. What I believe is that this riddle, like other subtexts in the A Song of Ice and Fire arc, suggests that the underlying story Martin is telling is most consistent with constructivism, not political realism. More on this theme later in the semester. Meanwhile, to rephrase Smolinsk’s question put to students:

So which do you believe is greatest? Do you think force underlies all power? Do you think people posses a selfish nature that grants money the true power? Does law have power without force to back it? Or is belief itself the most powerful? Think back to the beginning of the semester. How do we form our beliefs?

As a good constructivist, my argument would be that law has power even without force to back it; and despite its realist veneer, now that I’ve finished A Dance with Dragons, I would argue the ASOIAF ultimately tells this particular story of power as well. What say you?


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