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Saturday, October 20, 2012

Philosopher George Berkeley and Modern Day American Politics

How could an Anglican bishop who died in 1753 have anything to say about our American political system?  He couldn't and didn't.  Instead, it is his most famous saying that informs American politics today: Esse Percipi Est. In English:  To be is to be perceived.*

Of course this is an extracted and shallow application of a major philosophical concept.

Here is the concept in a nutshell:  in reaction to the developing schools of Materialism, George Berkeley (pronounced Bar-Clay) proposed that the data we receive from the senses were Ideas that gave us no actual proof of the world existing outside our impressions of it.  He's right. I feel my fingertips stroking the keyboard but my feelings are based upon neuro-chemical signals that provide my mind with information.  If I apply nova-cane to these fingertips, I feel nothing. Our senses can actually entrap us and keep us from knowing whether the outside world exists.

He had a solution: the actual world is immaterial and can only exist if it is perceived as existing. So how does our world constantly exist (overcoming the tree-in-the-forest conundrum)? God.  God constantly perceives everything and therefore maintains everything's existence. Although most modern-day philosophers disagree with Immaterialism, many admit that his ideas did provide significant doubt on whether we can actually know of  a concrete reality existing outside our sense experience (see Bertrand Russel's The Problems of Philosophy--a great primer for anyone interested in learning more about philosophy). **

So now to dumb it down even further I will apply it to American politics. Existence of a politician depends upon the electorate's perception of him or her.  Sure the politician exists as an actual human being, but survival in politics entails that you must exist as a perception, or people must perceive you, your political party, and your ideology as being strong, competent, and correct.  It may come as no surprise that you could think of politics as a con-game or as a parlor trick.

Cynicism aside, politics is not a confidence game nor a simple slight of hand.  Sometimes the perception of a politician is accurate, but it must still exist as a perception among the public conscious.  If not, facts mean very little.

An example:

George W. Bush and the Iraq War.  The perception of why we invaded actually changed while troops were still entering Baghdad.  We attacked based upon a perceived threat to our national security.   When Saddam did not use any WMD's to fight off our troops,  the administration steered the public perception to a rationale that this was a purely humanitarian mission to rid Iraq of a horrible dictator  (to hedge their bets before the invasion, the Bush administration even named it Operation Iraqi Freedom). 

Also, the pre-invasion opposition simply failed.  They appeared as objects of paralysis, remnants of the sixties who could not feel the global-intervention paradigm being pulled from underneath their feet (i.e., peace was no longer the answer).  Certainly they had the facts on their side, but they failed to account for people's sense of fear.  Instead of calming fears they walked around with puppets of George Bush and staged esoteric plays by some long-dead Greek guy named Aeschylus.

Bush, of course, did the easy and irresponsible thing: he turned these people into the enemies of freedom (Fox, CNN, and network news helped too). The majority saw protesters as hippie peaceniks with no sense of reality and little understanding of how the real world actually worked. Almost ten years after the invasion this majority now agrees with those smelly hippies. Doesn't change the fact we went to war, but it's a nice consolation.

This unfortunate example proves one thing: win the public's perception--or at least a slight majority of the public--and you win.

 The GOP pays millions to a pollster named Frank Luntz to figure out the words to win elections.  He gave us phrases like "Tax Relief", the "Death Tax", and "Taxing Job Creators".  Properly chosen words can be used to form the proper narratives. The proper narratives then can be used to create the perception of which group is the "tax and spend" party and which is the party of "fiscal responsibility" and "small government".

The Democrats have fought back--with facts mostly on their side--to convince people that the near opposite is the truth, but the Republicans continue to hammer away. Of course fighting is perceived as bad, and what eventually takes over is public apathy and the perception that all politicians are only looking out for their own interests and do not care about serving the public.

To me this is the worst perception of all.

To be continued...     

 For more on Bishop George Berkeley:

*Usually written as Esse Est Percipi.  I like the above version better since it sounds nicer and is still grammatically correct (the Ancient Romans were a bunch of Yodas).

** In the stranger-than-fiction world of Cosmology, an idea that has, or almost has, reached a point of scientific consensus is that the universe exists as a three-dimensional hologram. projected by the outer edges of the universe. So Berkeley may be right after all!

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