The Magic of Illusion!

We all think that what we experience during our waking hours is the World. This is called naive realism. I could link to Wikipedia for this, but I’ll let Googling be an exercise for the reader.

The gist is we see stuff, we think stuff, we don’t ask too many questions. In some corner cases, such as hallucinations, we may have good reason to question what we see, hear, and think. Other than that, it’s taken as given, and it works pretty well. We see a crack in the sidewalk, we avoid it because we might trip and hurt ourselves. We look at our plate and decide what we want to eat.

Our thoughts do interfere with our perceptions of things. We stereotype people and may see them in different ways depending on our preconceptions. We may cross the street to avoid a scary empty house, and have no good reason to do that but have a feeling in our gut. The house is just a house, but we have a network of thoughts and memories having to do with empty houses, with childhood stories, with imagining who might be in it, even if we don’t see anything.

That’s one level where our perception is not purely seeing and dealing with the fact of the material world in front of us, but is brightly colored and lit by our thoughts that might be completely wrong or inapt to the situation.

There are scientists (here’s a link to an interesting presentation) who go further, and say that what we are not actually perceiving the world with our senses directly at all, but it all gets processed by our brain’s operating system, and that what we experience in our conscious minds is an artifact of that operating system. That it has much less to do with the actual world than we’d like to think.

Important note—None of this has anything to do with intelligence. You could have the most impressive ability to process data, to retain information, and also have your perceptions heavily colored by your mental life. Someone might be a brilliant and very successful businessman or lawyer and yet see the world through a scrim of illusion. They may see numbers on a spreadsheet with perfect accuracy, but see the reality behind those numbers in a way very different from someone else.

It is a truism that a lawyer’s job is to tell a story. They have many facts in front of them and, like a Tarot card reader, make up a story incorporating all the facts. If the story has narrative juice, that makes it compelling. Does it have a hero with believable motivations? Are the obstacles facing them shown in the evidence? Is there a satisfying resolution? All these make a story sticky where a list of facts would be nearly impossible to remember.

How do you remember the alphabet if you’re in pre-school? You sing it. A pattern of notes is imposed on it, you find rhymes, and that makes it memorizable. So the lawyer who crafts the better story wins the case. They may have to run the facts through a process like an audio equalizer, where you adjust all the various tones and pitches until you get just the sound you want. Anyone who has ever participated in a story-telling event, like The Moth, knows this process. Life doesn’t often present us with great stories. A story is a synthetic thing, crafted out of events in order to produce the desired effect in an audience. Great storytellers may do this intuitively; the rest of us work hard at it, with mixed effect. I’ve been to, and told stories at, a number of Moth events, and it is remarkable how some people—people with the most ordinary lives—manage to tell amazingly wonderful stories. And there are plenty of examples of people who have lived through amazing events, can only tell fairly boring stories about them.

This process of telling stories, and of running the facts of life through an equalizer in order to produce memorable stories, happens all the time in our brain. As we exist and move through our days, we hear a narrative in our head. That phenomenon is called the Left-Brain Interpreter (LBI). Here’s an article I could understand, and I’m no neuro-anything. Our LBI produces post-hoc rationalizations for our instinctive actions, and we seize on that narration as the “reason” we did something. I think we kid ourselves if we think that reason is at all real. Actually, I think consciousness is, if not a complete and total illusion, than an intermittent thing, only sparking up every once in a while, and when it is alive, feeding us lies.

I believe that what we do when we meditate is to quiet down the jabbering of our LBI and make an attempt (however feeble!) to perceive as best we can without mediation. Of course, what we might be perceiving (see above) is artifacts generated by our brain’s operating system, but still, the mental state we labor to invoke via meditation may be the closest we can get.

Okay, why is this interesting? Aside from, consciousness and thoughts and human behavior are interesting.

My prior post was about Kenin Spivak’s letter to Columbia Magazine. It caught my eye because he graduated from the same school (Columbia College) in the same year (1977) that I did. I didn’t know him—he graduated in three years (I took the usual four), he was pre-law (I was Physics with some Medieval Studies courses and a lot of theater), and he did law school and business school in three years, simultaneously (I think this was an actual program, so maybe not quite the miracle I thought at first… still, pretty impressive!).

So, you know, smart. Driven. Energetic. Ambitious. And smart, very very smart.

Yet this letter is borderline loony. See my previous post for details. And it made me wonder what’s going on in his head?

Here’s my thinking. He was, apparently, conservative back in 1977-80 in Law School. So he didn’t come to it as an adult. He is at home in that world. Friends, family, colleagues presumably. He (I’m guessing here but he does live in Beverly Hills) plays golf with conservatives. They smoke cigars and drink fantastic single-malt whisky at lavish private clubs (I’m not criticizing! Anytime they want to invite me I’ll go and have a whiskey and cigar with them… after I get my COVID vaccination).

Now let’s zoom out for a panoramic view. There was a time when Democrats had a firm hold on Congress, by historical alliance with racist Dixiecrats in the South. Then came LBJ and Civil Rights legislation and those Dixiecrats got angry. Republicans (Nixon) saw an opening and took it. Those Dixiecrats became Republican, and that created what we now see as the 50/50 government. It also removed any incentive for Republicans to cooperate with Democrats, which they used to do, and which older Democrats (Biden) recall as the good old days when you could reach across the aisle and get things done.

It doesn’t take a degree in game theory to see how that was no longer a necessary strategy for Republicans in Congress. Now that they could win more elections and take over Congress, thanks to their co-opting of the Southern vote, incentive to cooperate vanished like the snows of yesteryear. That cooperation Biden remembers fondly was not due to some wonderful nostalgic comity, but rather it was their only route to getting anything they wanted. Now they have another, better route, they’re taking it. Perfectly reasonable.

But there were other potential voters on the table. For starters, there were Black voters, Hispanic voters, women, young people. These had traditionally been low-turnout voters, but natural Democratic constituents. Obama’s election turned out many who had no or sporadic history of voting. This gave an edge, a small one and maybe one totally dependent on Obama, to Democrats.

But they, it seems were not the only voters available. There were the famous Working-Class White voters. Not to mention disaffected groups who never saw the Government doing anything that benefited them (even, of course, as they and their parents received Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, VA benefits… well, never mind) because there were people out there they didn’t like and the Government wasn’t doing anything about that! And the American myth of the majestic individual has a powerful draw.

Among those disaffected groups were the classic American Racists—John Birchers, Klansfolk, neo-Nazis, and all their brethren and sistern.

Now, here’s a puzzler—If you’re an old-line Republican, devoted to the cult of the Tax Cut and lower regulation and the myth that your contract with your workers is an agreement reached by equals after a fair negotiation, and suddenly you look to your left and your right and you see Nazis and Klansmen, what do you do?

You could jump up in horror and say, This isn’t for me anymore. Any club that would have these monsters isn’t a club I want to be in! But it’s hard—all your friends and family are still there, and there’s a tremendous social cost to leaving the tribe. We see this with young people who leave the Satmar Hasidic sect. They lose everything and they’re barely trained to deal with the modern world.

So you don’t leave. What else can you do? You can fight to exclude them. That’s hard, too, because now you depend on their votes. And the longer you do nothing, the harder it is to do anything. After all, why did you tolerate them for so long?

You could just ignore them. Whatever…

But if you’re a thinking person, that’s hard too. So you make excuses. You put them through your Mental Equalizer. You tweak them subtly so they’re just harmless clowns. If one of them is actually violent, well, they’re mentally ill.

You also need to balance it out. After all, if all the horrible people are on your side, what does that say about you? So if you don’t fight to get rid of them and you don’t ignore them, you need equally terrible people on the other side so you can engage in whataboutism and distraction.

It’s about turning beams into motes and motes into beams, basically.

If you’re on the right, and sitting with Nazis, who can you point to on the Left? Don’t ask me, I don’t know. But if you’re Kenin Spivak, esq., it’s “anarchists.” I find this a particularly inapt scare term, because Republicans also consider Democrats the party of Big Government. Anarchists, of course, want to do away with government altogether, at least if you go by the name. But you have to find a scary enough word. I would have thought Communists would do it, because I suppose there are actual Communists out there in the wild, but they want nothing to do with Democrats either. So he says the Democrats “appease” anarchists.

It’s very weird. On the other hand, he’s a storyteller, though not a great one. He has credit for co-writing a book, a thriller (fictional) about, I believe, Canadian pharma being sent to the US? Something like that… I believe (I haven’t read it, I did read a couple of reviews) it was intended to scare people away from cheaper Canadian pharmacies and rely instead on the wildly overpriced American drugs. Anyway, I never heard of it until I looked it up.

I actually believe that he believes, on some level, in scary anarchists who want to destroy the nuclear family, rather than just people who have alternative family structures and don’t want to be denigrated or denied benefits available to other, more standard, families.

Or maybe it’s not a firm belief but a narrative that he has found useful at the Beverly Hills Country Club bar. I don’t know, I’ve never met him. I hope to, one day, and have a cigar and a whiskey while we talk about Alma Mater. And scary anarchists.