Review: Fire and Fury by Michael Wolff

Another diversion here into pop culture, this time the more strictly political. We live in dangerous times and there is no better symbol of them than this book. I did note in the review a single philosophical issue I had with the book. I will spend my time here in these comments elaborating a bit on it. As usual, the original Amazon review is included in full following these comments.

The matter concerns the accuracy of the portrait Wolff paints of both President Trump and the Whitehouse West Wing organization with particular focus on Steve Bannon, and the duo Bannon began to call Jarvanka, Trump’s daughter Ivanka and her husband Jared. In a way, the story is told from their viewpoint while pulling together observations and comments of other parties both a direct part of the Trump organization (however temporarily) and those on the wider periphery.

According to the story various cabals formed and evaporated over the course of Trump’s pre-inaugural period and in the first 200 days or so of the administration. It seems like the only constant was the antipathy between Bannon (painted as an essentially driven fanatic with the old fashioned instincts of a bomb throwing anarchist), and Jarvanka a pair of rich and spoiled children whose politics were liberal leaning but who hadn’t the slightest idea of how to really accomplish anything (or what could be accomplished) aside from protecting their riches and their relation to Trump. Nobody had the slightest real political experience.

Wolff gives us no reason to believe that in talking to any of these people (both the narrow and wider set of players) he was getting an unvarnished truth uncolored by their desire to use Wolff himself to “get at” any of the opposing cabals. If what he tells us is true, it would have been almost impossible for these players to relate to Wolff with the unbiased truth. Wolff became (or it was hoped he would become) one of the arrows in each cabal’s quiver. It is therefore impossible to tell if the emerging picture is a caricature or faithful photographic image. That question, I believe, will remain unanswered until further journalistic accounts of Trump’s first year (or tenure however long it goes) are written.

But all the same, and this is the scary part, the answer to the question doesn’t much matter here as concerns the relation between the Trump administration and the world (including ourselves in the U.S.). Whether caricature or photograph, the image is that of a very disturbed and dangerous situation, an American administration that not only does not know what it is doing broadly speaking, but whose ostensible leader appears pathologically unfit to serve in this office. Worse, he is surrounded by other pathologies of various kinds all of which overlap with at least two of his; great wealth taken for granted, and an unswerving belief in their judgments about matters with which their lives have prepared them in not the slightest way.

That, my friends, is frightening to me. But it gets even worse. Not only do they not understand the consequences of their actions as concerns the world at large, they do not really care so long as their wealth is preserved. That is only a little unfair because Wolff does paint Jarvanka as caring, they just don’t know what or how to do anything about it so their focus remains, as with the others, on their wealth, power, and even (especially in Bannon’s case as he was not rich) in the appearance of power.

The story continues to take bizarre twists. Today, January 16 2018, results of the President’s medical examination, including investigation of degenerative cognitive decline, were effusively described. The doctor, a military man with rows of campaign ribbons on his breast told us that this 71 year old (and obviously overweight) man was in perfect health physically and mentally. One wants to believe the doctor and perhaps it is so that there is no disease process detectable in the President’s brain. But perfect health is a bit hard to believe and would be of anyone who looked like Donald Trump does today. The doctor attributed it to “good genes”. Based on what Michael Wolff has told us, this could only be a signal that the news conference was a put on, a show. Or am I being paranoid?

Now September 2018 and Bob Woodward has released his book “Fear: Trump in the White House” which I have reviewed. More good journalism.

That’s all I’ll say for now. Happy to discuss in comments.

Fire and Fury Michael Wolff

This must have been a difficult book to write. There is so much story to be told and the principle threads so entangled that it must have been very difficult to tie them together in a coherent story. Wolff mostly succeeds, but not entirely. Then again that is an important part of the very story Wolff is trying to tell, the story itself is about an incoherent presidential administration.

Told in broadly chronological order of the presidential election of 2016 and the roughly first 200 days of the administration up to the middle of August 2017. At the end an epilogue focused on Steve Bannon, who has a claim to being the book’s main character, brings the story up to roughly October 2017, but the pace of news has hardly stopped there. As I write this in January 2018 I can only be sure that much more will happen. Within its chronology, there are frequent steps backwards as Wolff brings in the various characters and their varying alliances coloring-in their relation to the then forward moving part of the story. Of all the characters brought to the fore, at least among the dozen or more who are in direct proximity to the president by living or working in the West Wing, only a single pair (Ivanka and husband Jared Kushner) keep the same relationship relative to one another throughout. Every other person or cabal-like group changes relationships often multiple times as most of the individuals involved come into the story and then go out!

I do have one philosophical matter to bring up. Let’s grant that Wolff reported accurately on everything he was told by everybody. He presents a fair picture of that to which he was a party either first, or at most second (and occasionally third) hand. At the same time that which he is reporting is, he points out, the back stabbing testimony of each cabal out to paint the others in the worst light possible. Even if those to whom he spoke were not outright lying to him, at the least they were telling highly selective truths almost surely leaving much out. Our only hope in this mess is that from the back stabbing of all sides towards one another and the occasional more neutral voice (though nobody was entirely neutral) from the periphery, Wolff has put together if not a true portrait, then at least a portrait true to the Kafka-esque nature of the administration! If that is a horrible thought, it is what makes this an important book.

This is high class journalism first and foremost, but it reads at the same time like an Elmore Leonard novel! As Sean Spicer began to say “you can’t make this shit up!”. Frankly this book would be hysterically funny if it was not so downright dangerous and disturbing.

Book Review: Assholes A Theory

My only additional comment here is that Amazon rejected my review (below) because it contains the word ‘asshole’. This is political correctness gone crazy. They asked me to delete the word or perhaps change it to something like ‘A******’ but I refused. Considering that the title of the book appears at the top of every review I cannot comprehend how Amazon algorithms would permit the publication of any review of this book. Be that as it may, I am not politically correct and I publish my review of this excellent book here on the blog for your edification.

Assholes, A Theory

Bravo for a brilliant book. Dr. James takes what appears at first to be a trivial notion, “the asshole” as a metaphor for a particular sort of human
behavior and uses it to illustrate how philosophy is done, what it must consider, and the directions in which it can be applied.

He begins by defining the term and then comparing it to other “terms of derision” like ‘jerk’ exploring various examples both hypothetical and drawn from the headlines so that after the first few chapters we are comfortable understanding what an asshole is as compared to other kinds of behavior worthy of opprobrium. Following this set up he moves on to social philosophy; why this behavior exists, how it comes about, various possibilities concerning its root cause (or causes) and why most (but not all) assholes are men. He next discusses what people who are not assholes can do about those who are, both on the individual level and in small or large social systems. In the closing chapters he moves further into the realm of the political and economic. He argues for a refreshing view of what might be called “the problems of capitalism”. Far from the Marxist idea that capitalism is inherently and necessarily unstable, James argues that modern (State regulated) capitalism can be perfectly stable and what makes it unstable are the presence of, you guessed it, assholes, whose behavior distorts the system rendering it less and less stable over time.

Does James make his case here for this final claim? I think he does, and it puts a nice capstone on an all around excellent book in the philosophical arena of ethics. An easy read. If you are looking for an example of good philosophical technique applied to a trivial notion that turns out to have world shattering consequences, this would be a good read.

Searle on the Ontology of Social Reality

This is a very natural pair of reviews. Both focus on the same subject, the social world and how such social phenomena come about be they marriages, sporting events, cocktail parties, governments, or money. He is not concerned with the history of these things, but their ontological structure and how that structure is brought into existence. Searle devotes particular attention to how language, a special social phenomena with correspondingly unique properties. It is precisely language, particularly its capacity to make declarations (“I anoint you King”), and that these declarations can be compounded, that bring about both informal (cocktail parties) and formal (governments, money) social institutions. Language is not necessary to social organization as such. Higher animals engage in social behaviors without the benefit of language. But social behaviors are not institutions. Only humans create institutions, and declarative language is both necessary and sufficient. As Searle puts it, once you have language you already have [at least one] a social institution.

Naturally this raises some epistemological issues. Searle doesn’t much address libertarian free will in the earlier book, but in the later he has to address it because he recognizes that the obligations and powers of institutions, even abstract ones like money, ultimately devolve onto individuals. But obligations and powers stemming from the declarative utterances of individuals (many of course codified into such things as laws and constitutions) simply make no sense if their creation and subsequent behavioral acceptance was determined by physics. I would take the successful creation of functioning and persistent institutions to be evidence of the metaphysical genuineness of free will, but Searle refuses to go there, asserting nevertheless that it might be an illusion. He does note that if illusion, nothing of philosophy makes any sense either.

At the end of the later book Searle addresses the subject of rights. He seems to recognize that there is no such thing as a “natural right” or “absolute right” outside of a social context. The consequences of being unarmed and meeting a hungry lion on the savanna should put paid to the idea of natural or absolute rights, but he wants to give a sensible context to the terms even within a social context. He tries, but I’m not sure he succeeds. Perhaps this is but a linguistic disagreement between us. Even to communicate the concept of a natural or absolute right requires language, and as Searle points out this puts the notions squarely into a social context from their inception.

The Construction of Social Reality (1997)

In an earlier review of a later book (“Seeing Things as they Are” 2015) I said Searle’s argument for “direct realism” was a bit circular. In this earlier book, he addresses that very circularity.

This book is about the physical and conceptual structure of social reality, such things as money, marriage, government, corporations, and cocktail parties. Searle points out that many animals live and cooperate in packs and so exhibit a “social reality”. All it takes to be social is for two people, or animals, to do something together. If you and I decide to go for a walk together, that, our walk, is a social fact. If we agree that a screwdriver is useful for driving screws, our agreement takes place in a social and linguistic framework in that we both know what screwdrivers and screws are for. But neither the walk, nor the screwdriver are institutional. Walking is something that humans are able to do by their physical constitution and the same goes for the screwdriver’s ability to drive screws. But other objects (coins) can also drive screws and if they can do that it is also thanks to their physical constitution.

Institutions are different. Money is not valuable intrinsically because of the properties of colored paper. It is valuable because it is embedded in an institution that applies symbols to physical things (like printed money) granting them powers they do not have merely as a product of their physics. These symbolic applications can be compounded endlessly yielding more and more complex institutions into which subsequent generations are born and raised against a background of these already symbolized and so constructed social realities. Language, that which we use to assign these symbols, is itself a socially constructed phenomenon and special because it is the institution that originates in a pre-linguistic but already social (in the animal way) context. Apart from the bodies that utter them, words work because they are symbols from the beginning. Paper colored and printed in a certain way by a certain institution (a mint) is, after all, physical. The government itself rests, ultimately, on something physical, a constitution, which is recorded in one form or another. Records (whether in language on paper, pictures, bits encoded in a computer, or uniforms conveying certain assigned powers to their wearer) are often the “at bottom” physical manifestations of our symbolic institutions. Every dollar bill is a record. Here (as I suspected) Searle and M. Ferraris (“Documentality”) come together. All of these are physical RECORDS that constitute the foundations of “from that point on” persisting social institutions. We connect the raw physical thing to the constructed institution by language.

If all of this seems too quick and over simplified, it is here in this review, but not in the book. Searle takes us through the argument that social institutions are, step by step, constructed by such symbolic assignments. “X has power to Y in context C” being the fundamental form of all institutional facts. This structure can be infinitely recursed. “Y’s” can become “X’s” and “C’s” can become “Y’s” generating symbolic constructs (social facts) recursively and Searle takes us through numerous examples demonstrating how it is that our complex social reality can be generated from the same structure which, when fully unpacked, and except for language, always finds its bottom in some physical X. Thus society grows out of the physical foundations of the world and is continuous with it.

In the book’s last three chapters, Searle connects all of this to the ontological reality of the physical world and our shared experience. Physical reality must exist in order that any statements about it are intelligible, and specific forms of physical reality (like Mt. Everest or the screwdriver) must exist and be shareable, part of our “public reality”, or we could not be sure, when we communicate (a social phenomenon) that our meanings are ever understood. If I say “the cat is on the mat” we take for granted that we know what we mean by ‘cat’, ‘mat’, and ‘on’, not to mention an enormous background of experience in physical and social reality such that we understand and agree on a reasonable range of contexts for cats, mats, and so on. Searle essentially argues that it is our capacity to communicate and construct social realities out of physical realities, that demonstrate the independent correspondence between our epistemic categories and the external world. None of this would work if not for mind-independent things structured much as (if not always exactly) we take them to be. Our capacity to communicate rests on the correspondence between language-reflected concept and mind-independent fact.

I would give this book six stars if I could. Searle is exceptionally good at getting at what he means in plain English. Anglo-analytic philosophy at its best, and about a meaningful subject!

Making the Social World: The Structure of Human Civilization (2010)

This book written in 2010 amounts to a reprise of Searle’s earlier “The Construction of Social Reality” (1997) which I have also reviewed. In the introduction to this book Searle says there were a few issues not sufficiently clarified and his aim is to clarify them.

The two books are about the same length, but Searle manages to say much more in this one about language, free will, and the sensibility of “human rights” outside formal institutional contexts. How does he manage this feat? In the earlier book he very carefully constructs his primary insight into the structure of social institutions and carefully demonstrates its application to a wide range of social phenomena like cocktail parties, sports, money, and government. In this book, he is able to state that fundamental argument more succinctly (he’s had a lot of time to work with it after all), embedding it more firmly into a clarified examination of the nature of human language as it relates to the development of social phenomena. As a result, there is nothing in the first book that isn’t also in this second one, but for some readers the main argument, the structure of all social contexts, might be stated a little too quickly here. I had no problem with it, but then I had already read the earlier book.

But despite the extensions and clarifications here, Searle still leaves a few things not clarified. He distinguishes between negative and positive rights. “Free speech” is a negative right because it requires nothing else of others besides letting me speak my mind. By contrast, a right to clean water (a UN declaration says this is a right) is a positive right because it puts an obligation on everyone else in the world to contribute to providing such a right. Searle rightly points out that positive rights are thus more problematic than negative rights, but he does note that the UN declaration of such positive rights puts the onus of obligation on governments rather than mere individuals. He also uses a strange example, the right (in the context of the social institution of marriage) of a spouse to be consulted by their spouse before the latter commits to some life changing course of action. This is not a negative right as he seems to cast it, but a positive right, the corresponding obligation being on the spouse contemplating the act.

Finally, Searle tries to make sense of the notions of “natural” and “absolute” rights, those that exist by virtue of our being human beings outside any social context. I do not think he clarifies these ideas fully. An unarmed man encountering a hungry lion on the savanna will be eaten by the lion ninety nine times out of a hundred and that puts paid to any such thing as “natural rights” outside social contexts.

Despite getting a little loose with the notion of “human rights” at the end of the book, this is a superb portrait of the ontological structure of social reality. In a last section, Searle points out that most social scientists do not think that a grasp of social ontology really helps them with their work but they are mostly wrong about this. Most social science (for example) begins by assuming language and then asks how social reality is constructed with it. By contrast Searle notes that once you have a language, you already have a significant social context.