Sunday, April 27, 2014

Dwelling on the Future

Past oriented societies have a cyclical view of history.
Future oriented societies have a progressive view of history.
Both wear deterministic blinders.
Present based societies, in contrast, avoid historicism of any kind.

Past oriented societies are constrained by the lessons of history.
Future oriented societies feel beyond the lessons of history.
Both fail to learn from the lessons of history.
Present based societies, in contrast, adapt historical lessons to changing conditions.

Past oriented societies have strictly delimited aspirations.
Future oriented societies are driven by boundless ambition.
Both have unrealistic expectations that must inevitably fail.
Present based societies, in contrast, align goals with circumstances.

Past oriented societies take care not to defy the past.
Future oriented societies take care not to compromise the future.
Both qualify the significance of the existing state of affairs.
Present based societies, in contrast, take responsibility for the present.

Societies, like individuals, have psycho-temporal orientations, a place on the continuum of time where attention dwells and meaning is sought out, which can be roughly categorized as either in the past, future, or present. This is just a construct, of course, but a useful one for refining our collective self-image. Looking at temporal dispositions may reveal that conservative risk-aversion as anxiety fed rumination over the past or that expansive ambition as unsustainable megalomaniac zeal. And it may reveal the reality that lies in the healthy balance between past and future. Where are we?

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Just as a kind of intellectual insecurity breeds conspiracy theory thinking, explanatory frameworks whereby little or nothing is left to chance, so does societal insecurity lead to narratives of history invested with guiding trends and purposeful patterns. The role of contingency and human agency have no place save as surface perturbations already accounted for in the model. Traditional societies find their pattern of history expressed in the customs, habits, rituals, and myths that define their past and structure their present. Accordingly, history becomes cyclical. Society moves forward, events transpire, but there is always a return to the place of beginning. Contemporary Western society, if we can be forgiven such a generalization, has found its pattern of history expressed in expansiveness and growing complexity, a sense of forward moving progress. What came before is not held onto, not returned to, but is cast off in favor of the next thing. What sustains the past based society is the durability of its history; and what sustains contemporary Western society is the promise of its future.

This promise is written into our image of history as progress. What the nature of this progress is is beside the point here, which is simply that there is a perceived pattern of ascent that can be characterized variably, sometimes as progress, or expansion, growth, complexity and so forth. And there is a comfort in this promise, in the inevitability the trend suggests, just as the past-oriented cultures are grounded by the durability of tradition and the inevitability of cyclical return. There is a danger in believing such a promise, however, a danger in reading history in the first place since there is nothing written into it beyond the story we want it to tell. Both past oriented and future oriented societies seek comfort in historicism whereby everything happens according to some immutable principle or logic inhering in the nature of nature. For the former, the principle is discerned at the level of nature's unending cyclicality, and for the latter, for us, the guiding principle is identified at the level of its unending evolution. Our destinies are united with the expanding cosmos since we ourselves, as Carl Sagan said, are starstuff.

But such principled patterns—seasons, evolution, universal expansion,—though legitimate concepts for understanding nature, are only beguiling metaphors for understanding the nature of human events. We adapt them to fulfill the mythic needs of time and place. And such historicist metaphors are not harmless. Relying on the story of history, which is really the fairytale we put ourselves to sleep to, distorts our perception of events and handicaps our capacity for corrective action. That is, deviations from the trend become marginalized as anomalies, crises and wars passing quirks, and the appropriate response essentially should be, must be, and always is, more of the same. The anomalies pile up until they overwhelm the carrying capacity of mass delusion. But by that time it's already too late.

When societies at such temporal extremes are tested, whether traditional societies by breaks in dependable cycles, or modern societies by stagnation, historicism functions as a mechanism of denial. Rather than confronting and understanding a challenge to the existing state of affairs, and considering adaptive responses, difficulties are overcome by incorporation as plot twists in the story to which we already know the ending. Unseasonably dry weather can be resolved with a traditional rain-dance ritual, and persistent unemployment with sophisticated monetary manipulations. Tradition has always worked for past-based cultures, and growth has never ceased for future-based cultures. But sometimes the rain does not come for too long, and the unemployed masses grow into a volatile force of political explosiveness. The historicist tale occasionally plays catch-up with events only to find mass starvation and revolution in the breach.

Maybe the village will have enough survivors, when the rains do finally come, to rebuild, just as civilization so far has been able to put the pieces back together following its wars and environmental catastrophes. But history will not be learned from. The rain-dance will only be updated, and civilization will again be conceived as the vehicle of infinite growth, and society will be once more organized to that end. But, as Ronald Wright points out, each time history repeats itself, the price goes up. Globalization is raising the stakes of the historicist gamble. When it is the global village that waits for the growth that does not come, that continues the same tired policy rain-dances instead of adapting and seeking real solutions, there may not be enough left over, in the end, to rebuild—and if there is, it will be on unimaginable time-scales.

Why don't we learn? Traditional societies are constrained by the lessons of history. Periods of hardship or crisis will tend to reinforce traditional practices because custom and ritual are its lifeblood, the source of confidence and stability. Future based societies, on the other hand, are not constrained by historical lessons but have instead cultivated a self-image fundamentally beyond them. Conditions now are so different, so far advanced beyond anything that came before, history becomes something with little or nothing to teach us—it is, in a word, irrelevant. History is no more than a data mine to tease out the blueprint of our inexorable progress. Analyses that draw historical parallels, say to the Roman Empire or Easter Island, are at best mere rhetorical gimmicks. Perspectives that position contemporary society not as the soaring eagle it imagines itself to be but the cresting wave it is have no place in the future oriented society. One has better odds convincing preliterates to quit the rain dancing and devote whatever energy remains to relocating their village.

Serial failure and disaster are inevitable when the societal goals are pitched to the extremes of the past and the future, from conservative stasis to unceasing growth. Such projects, like the War on Terror, are definitional failures. And not only is the ultimate objective misconceived, existing conditions are qualified as unimportant and the sense of responsibility for them, which otherwise might mitigate ruin, is abdicated. If events develop essentially as part of an organic process, according to principles beyond our ken written into nature itself, the sense of agency evaporates. The best that can be done is precisely what must not be allowed to happen: preservation of the status quo.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Payment in the Currency of Attention (Homage to Adorno)

Abundance, that is, the cornucopia of goods and services at affordable prices promised by advancing technological civilization, is now being paid for in attention capitalized by an advertising model set loose. Worse than the more or less obvious payments tendered to the tedious TV commercial or the targeted ads of Google search and Facebook, which are payments in full, increasingly attention is only part of the price of admission and thereby looked over in the act of the explicit monetary payment in traditional paper and plastic money. Ads proliferate, now smuggled everywhere and into everything, from the movie theater to the passenger plane seatback. They generously boost the purchasing power of the destitute masses by accepting minds as credit. The economic laws of exchange, contrary to appearances, are not abolished in the distribution of content, goods and services free of charge. There's no such thing as a free lunch, but no longer is there an affordable one either. Free stuff, liberated by advertising, is now also affordable stuff, and this simultaneously obscures the exchange relationship and raises the stakes.

Amplified by perpetual economic crisis, universal commodification does not discriminate and devours body as well as mind, the prostitute and kidney as well as stupefied eyeballs glazing over in capitulation. Unlike the others, however, the promissory notes written in the repatterned perceptions of the eyeballs are only as good as the market exchange value of the human carcass they are attached to. Bereft of assets, attention will continue to be collateralized until, like the value of mortgage backed securities that plummets along with underlying home prices, its value proves illusory as real wages approach zero, unemployment balloons, and more individuals declare bankruptcy on their own sovereignty. The fate of liberty is now to be a pyre for our emancipation; and the autonomy over desire and preference, already smoldering, is now stoked by the opacity of heteronomy as we lose ourselves in the ventriloquism of consumer activity. By secreting exchange under the guise of the free, the last vestige of subjectivity, caveat emptor, is annulled.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

On Positive Bias, Part I: A Sense of Direction Overheard in Words

Bewildering streams of contradictory signals bombard the thinking person trying to make any kind of sense of the state of the world today. On one hand, surging fossil fuel prices threaten world economic growth, and stability, but alternative energy technologies are getting cheaper by the day; signs of financial hardship are everywhere, yet unemployment is down, the stock market is breaking new highs, and we're always on the mend; conflicts plague the globe, yet statistically we're living in the most peaceful era in human history. Is the world falling apart, on the brink of some collapse, or is it simply a case of selective attention, "if it bleeds, it leads" on mass scale? Is it possible to tell, through the cognitive dissonance, whether things are actually deteriorating or improving? Where does the balance fall between Moore's Law and Peak Oil?

There is a back door to the answer, and it has to do with language. For example, let's start with a different question: is Memory on the decline? There was a time when everyone warehoused stories and facts in their own heads. Poems were not read but recited; dates and facts were not looked up but recalled. Socrates was right, the strength of our memories suffers when demoted and made less necessary by writing and record keeping. The combination of digitization and human-device integration is turning this trend parabolic. So, again, is Memory on the decline?

Put this way, we see what the question is really asking: how should we frame the concept of Memory? That is, how should we frame any concept? Are we conceptual conservatives clinging to classical models (Socrates decrying the proliferation of writing)? Or are we progressives adapting our concepts to the changing world of things and ideas (wikipedia functions as exogenous memory)? 

When it comes to positive concepts, we are indeed conceptual progressives. "Memory", "Wealth", "Democracy", "Growth", "Innovation" --  we feel comfortable gradually adapting these concepts to the changing times. "Democracy" is deployed to designate the political organization of Ancient Athens as well as of contemporary India.

In the case of "Memory", bridge concepts like "transactive memory" already foreshadow a future where, after the figurative hippocampal hollowing out gives way to the quite literal Wikipedia implant, we'll have no problem seeing this all as an augmentation rather than an atrophy of memory. This will pass by with us hardly noticing until it becomes commonplace, obvious, to refer to the near seamless integration of minds and digital information, without qualification, as memory itself. That will not be a bastardization of "Memory"; it's what memory will become. We'll forget (no pun intended) that a few decades earlier memory meant not only something different than it does today, but the opposite of what it does today. Positive concepts are infinitely adaptable.

But what about negative concepts? What about those concepts that might call into question our flattering self-image? "Violence", "Slavery", "Imperialism" -- these, it turns out, are fossils frozen in time. They are unearthed only to be used as measures of how far we've come. Whereas positive concepts possess a temporal core making them amenable to unlimited contextual stretch, critical concepts are historically fixed such that any comparative analysis is assured to be a triumphant celebration of the present.

But why should this be so? If the concept "Democracy" can describe Periclean Athens as well as post-Saddam Iraq, why can't the anchor on the nightly news use the concept "Slavery" in the report on insurmountable student debt? Doesn't this distort our perception of the actual state of affairs? The most interesting question: doesn't this pervasive bias also function as indirect indicator for whether things are really better or worse than they seem, a kind of Doppler Shift for a reality that, although it cannot be directly perceived, can still be sensed as either coming or going?

What the philosopher Walter Bryce Gaille called "Essentially Contested Concepts" is only scratching the surface of the tensions and contradictions embedded in our language, and the tensions and contradictions of reality language is tasked with concealing. It is not only the technical neologisms of specialized fields or abstract evaluative notions like "Art" or "Justice" that we might worry about. All of our important concepts, even apparently prosaic and transparent ones like "memory", are volatile bundles of polysemantic friction stabilized only in socially emergent consensus. Looking closely at how we settle on the meanings that we do reveals a consistent bias. Positive concepts take on expansive, inclusive, and adaptive meanings; negative concepts are maladaptive, increasingly irrelevant, and ultimately fossilize as relics of the past. Without even delving into the psychosocial and political roots of this bias, we can discover hints in it of what the actual, gruesome state of affairs really is.
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Defanged and declawed and outdated, negative concepts now mainly serve to reinforce the status quo. The best recent example of this is Steven Pinker's exhuming of Violence in The Better Angels of Our NatureThis tomb is perhaps the quintessential archetype of modern complacency, a manual on facile analysis, a veritable museum of mistakes that can be revisited endlessly. It has already received ample and effective criticism from a number of voices, so the focus here will be squarely and solely on the instinct for self-congratulating conceptual bias Pinker's thesis so perfectly illustrates.

This thesis, in short, is that there is a historical trend away from violence, and that we sit at the pinnacle as the least violent, least cruel and most peaceful era in human history. The essence of Pinker's argument, however, if you can get past the avalanche of numbers and graphs, past the stories, fluffy tangents, and historical anecdotes, past the PhD and the "fractal phenomena", if you can get past all that unbewitched, the argument boils down to the claim that "violence" is an ahistorical concept. All the wonderful data our empiricist has collected for us serves only to obscure the quite metaphysical conceit that violence is perfectly transparent, continuous, and singular, in no need of adapting to new times and ideas. Measures of violence can be compared across millennia without a shade of doubt that a murder in the Bronze Age has the same meaning as yesterday's murder in Midtown Manhattan.

Reviewing some possible explanations for our modern day tranquility, Pinker glosses over the observation that the value of life and limb changes over time without pausing to consider that he himself just lit the match every reader should use to burn his own book. He notes, "when pain and early death are everyday features of one's own life, one feels less compunction about inflicting them on others."

Historical observations of the latter sort not only illuminate our modern sensibilities; they point to the necessarily evolving meaning of violent acts. "Violence" is not the fossil Pinker pretends it to be. If pain and early death are defining features of society A, and if eudemonic longevity are defining features of society B, a strictly quantitative comparison of violence between the two must be highly misleading.

Let's look at some of Pinker's own examples. He likes to remind us ad nauseam that barbaric practices were de rigueur in medieval Europe. Minor infractions could entail anything from axed hands to grisly public executions. The contrast between such images and our modern norms is evident. What's less clear is what this contrast is worth as comparisons of violence. Isn't it perfectly obvious that severing a hand for theft represents a significantly different, that is, lesser, degree of violence for a medieval villager than it does for an enlightened cosmopolitan? Or, to put it more pointedly, isn't it more violent, all else being equal, to sever the hand of a concert pianist than the hand of a court jester? And on certain scales of time, aren't we moderns all the equivalents of that concert pianist? In an objective sense, the quality of the violent act is surely the same, and it will tally up identically in the record books -- a severed hand is a severed hand. But in a more important sense, this act means something very different in different times and places to different cultures and peoples.

It would be an irresponsible oversimplification to suggest that all violence is relative and that no society is more or less violent than another. Such a conclusion is just as surely wrong as Pinker's conviction that bald statistics are sufficient to make his sweeping judgments celebrating the present. An alternative analysis that brings "Violence" up to date, that investigates what our current norms, practices, and modes of life mean for measuring this sensitive concept, such an analysis, no matter how rigorous, no matter how sophisticated, will never grab headlines or pass as cultural currency for the simple reason that that is not the way our critical concepts are allowed to function.

While violence is frozen in ahistorical amber, it is quite the opposite situation with our positive concepts. For example, Democracy, like Memory, is as alive and mutable a concept as the changing world around us. How far will we stretch it? In its original Greek instantiation, it meant small-scale, direct political participation for the twenty or thirty thousand homogenous citizens of a city-state; a form of government definitionally and etymologically distinct from rule by elites and distinct from rule by centralized authority; an emphatically participatory system where every citizen was eligible and expected to hold office; where civic duty was indistinguishable from citizenship. 

In the modern era, this concept of Democracy means the political organization of hundreds of millions of people, spread out over thousands of miles, separated even further by language, culture, and history; where citizenship is a matter of right rather than privilege, with no necessary ties to civic duty; and where the will of this indifferent demos is filtered through the sieve of representatives slightly more popular than cockroaches passing legislation inevitably as empty and compromised as themselves. The democratic foundations of the United States of America, that paradigmatic Democracy of the modern era, are so brittle, so corroded by the acid of money, that it functions solely by virtue of the dwindling democratic weight it is asked to hold.

Our concepts, especially our essentially contested concepts like Democracy, do change and must change to fit new environments, new knowledge, new practices, new technologies. Representative democracy is as valid a conceptual development as transactive memory is. Problems arise when the slow conceptual stretch, which we fail to take notice of, obscures an underlying reality that is allowed to slowly diverge from the concept it is the presumptive instantiation of. Simultaneously, our critical concepts, which should function as correctives to the creep of complacency, are handicapped and denied functional adaptation (Violence -- a murder is a murder). The result is a descent into an Orwellian world of opposites. 

Just as memory continues its path to its formal equivalent yet substantive opposite, Democracy is being similarly transmogrified right in front of us. And it takes all associated concepts down with the ship. What does "Citizen" mean anymore? Or "Participation"? "Politically Informed"? "Equality"? Let's take a closer look. Citizen, beyond pretty patriotic slogans, amounts to little more than legal permanent resident status. No political duties or obligations, only optional privileges and the off chance your body will be drafted as a meat shield to invade the proud citizens of other countries. In ancient Athens, by these standards, the disenfranchised mass of slaves were model Citizens. Participation? The 50/50 chance some poor slob drags himself to a ballot box on Tuesday and holds his nose as he casts a ballot for D or R. And informed? Equality? We can keep calling whatever this is a Democracy, but sooner or later the ugly reality will spill out of its conceptual disguise like a fattening gut finally bursting the seams of the pants that were always just a bit too tight. 

Until then, the concept will continue to serve to conceal whatever mounting travesty of political and social mismanagement it must for the survival of existing elites. And when the first proto-cyborg outfitted with seamless mind-web integration wakes from his post-op stupor and is instantly hailed the smartest man alive, the free and fair Democratic election of Google, Inc. as President of the United States of America will be right around the corner, if not in the rear-view mirror.

And what of Innovation? As yet another positive concept, like Democracy, with a central part to play in the narrative of progress, we should see it ripped from its historical context and emptied of all meaning so that it effortlessly fits its role in the story. And so it goes. 

Innovation is now largely a by-word for the flashy advances modern technology is good at providing as opposed to actual improvements in human well-being it is bad at providing. Systems thinking required to evaluate what actually produces long-term net-benefit is marginalized as besides the point. Unintended consequences -- pollution, rapid resource depletion, social instability, climate change, traffic jams -- are brushed off as so much collateral damage in an otherwise just war. What does it matter how many wedding parties have been droned, how many children are dismembered and disfigured, when we finally got Bin Laden.

And just as ill-conceived as the War on Terrorism is, the even more hopeless war innovation is pressed into fighting is the one against Nature itself. All the collateral damage, all the insurmountable problems so-called innovation recklessly leaves in its wake will be solved, one way or another, with more of the same (only this time faster, better, stronger). Is it just a coincidence that the favorite genre of those autistic nerds leading us to our techno-utopian perdition is fantasy? We're carrying out the wholesale, civilizational abdication of responsibility for the Present -- on all levels: political, economic, environmental -- because of the implicit safety-net of technological solutionism? on a science fiction tale spun out of thin teleological yarn?

Even if our political elites and captains of industry do not explicitly and openly endorse the Singularity meme as such, even if many of them are not yet aware of it, "technological acceleration",  "exponentialism", these are already seeping into and poisoning the collective imagination, like so much fracking fluid leeching into an underground aquifer. Structural unemployment, runaway debt, soaring food and fuel costs, societal disintegration and revolution, these are trifling blips too insignificant, in the grand scheme, to vitiate our purity of purpose. Any hesitation, any suggestion that we need to step back or rein in our excesses is a chilling threat to growth, and such sensible, backward thinking will surely be blamed when we fail to reach the civilizational escape velocity we were promised.

But let's face it, the number of people working longer, harder, and for less and less pay is growing right along with the number of transistors per integrated circuit. The Singularitarians, when being honest, will at least admit that the race to the technological godhead is getting a run for its money from the sheer growing mass of proletarian ballast threatening to sink the whole ship before it ever reaches the New World.

Absent the political and social prerequisites for capitalizing on scientific discoveries for the benefit of mankind, innovation has slowly devolved to a kind of glorified gadgetry. The shinier and more complex, the better, as a rule. And electronic voting, safe and secure, will be the greatest Innovation Democracy has ever seen. Before you know it, you'll be tabbing over from Facebook to .GOV, entering your official Citizen's PIN, and "Liking" leadership into office. Doing away with the inconvenience of the voting booth and RL human interaction will surely boost voter turnout. Who knows, maybe, if we're lucky, Steven Pinker is already collecting the statistics and crunching the numbers that will prove that ours is the most democratically engaged era in human history.

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Like a locked-down totalitarian regime, Enlightenment myth perpetuates itself by neutering the vocabulary of opposition. Thought itself becomes redefined and petrified in the image of the myth, of the Great Leader, until a critical mass of internalizations makes direct, formal censorship superfluous. Past this tipping point of delusion, which passes unnoticed, censorship itself, as a concept, becomes historically handicapped with the rest. Censorship becomes something they do over there. It's identified with narrow archetypes like the jailed journalist and the comical ministry of culture, classical mental models closed off from the demands of a rapidly changing world and always best exemplified, conveniently, by the enemy. Centralized blocs of capital, media oligopoly, Corporate-State incest -- these of course have as little to do with "censorship" as the drone's rocket, sleek and sophisticated, locked-on to its terrorist target, has to do with terrorism.

So what to make of the contradictory signals? Is everything getting better or is it getting worse or is it all just too much of a mixed bag to tell? If our analytical concepts are consistently biased for self-flattery, with our critical concepts languishing, and yet the state of the world still appears as grim as it does, the actual state of affairs, whatever that may be, cannot be too hopeful. We're looking at the world through rose-tinted glasses and still can't shake the dreadful sense that all is not well. The Doppler Shift overheard in our language suggests things are going down rather than coming up. How long until these concepts crack open under the swelling strain of events and the ungodly horror of reality washes in like a flood?

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Vladimir the Mad

Take Putin's odd insistence that the armed troops in Crimea are "Crimean Self-Defense Forces" and not a contingent of the Russian Military. Is he crazy? Or is he availing himself of the same privilege the United States does when Obama's signature on a Status of Forces Agreement can instantly transform thousands of foreign-deployed American Troops into "Advisers" or "Personnel"?

Of all the interpretations Western commentators have floated for why the president of the Russian Federation has responded the way he has to the events in Ukraine over the course of February and March of 2014 -- a bellicose foreign policy, bullying, concerns over NATO expansion, -- the most illuminating interpretation is that he is insane. Illuminating, that is, precisely for what it reveals about the West. 

In prior centuries, when the international landscape accommodated multipolar and dipolar orders, which itself signified a multiplicity of vying ideologies, alternative schemes of social and economic organization, the actions of other state actors on the international stage could be understood, at least in part, in terms of such ideology. Even with extreme figures -- Stalin or Hitler, say, -- questioning their sanity was in a sense only an intensified way of describing the brazenness with which they pursued their political interests. When Chancellor Angela Merkel, however, asks whether Putin is living "in another world", or whether he is in touch with reality, which echoes a theme in the Western media narrative of events, something quite literal is meant by the question.

We question someone's sanity when their behavior or logic is irreducible to any comprehensible principles rooted in a common reality. They become utterly unpredictable, capable of carrying on a normal conversation one moment and lunging at our throats the next. The decisions and actions of insanity appear rash and disordered, as if inhabiting a world parallel to but completely different from our own. Putin appears to be lunging at our throats, and the West is acting baffled and scared. But are these same commentators and government officials really as surprised as they pretend to be?

The startled shock with which the West looks on at the developments in Crimea could itself be seen as a studied tactic in deliberate psychiatric isolation. The West, that is, the United States and the European Union, is playing the role of chief psychiatrist in the world insane asylum. In pretending to be utterly baffled by Putin's behavior, they are simply asserting the primacy of their own picture of the world and the consensus norms of international conduct.

The intention is for the patient, as in the movie Shutter Island, to begin to question the nature of his own conduct, of his self and his motives, to doubt his own sanity in the face of the incredulous authority figure until the deliberately induced existential vertigo and paranoia overcomes him, and he shrivels back down into a docile patient.
Rachel 2: You think I'm crazy?
Teddy Daniels: No. No, no I...
Rachel 2: And if I say I'm not crazy. But that hardly helps, does it? That's a Kafkaesque genius of it. People tell the world you're crazy and all you're protests to the contrary just confirm what they're saying.
Teddy Daniels: I'm not following you. I'm sorry.
Rachel 2: Once you're declared insane, then anything you do is called part of that insanity. Reasonable protests are 'denial'. Valid fears 'paranoia'.
Teddy Daniels: Survival instincts are 'defence machanisms'.
Rachel 2: You're smarter than you look, Marshal. That's probably not a good thing.
Shutter Island (2010)
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One could mark the ascension of the West to the role of world psychiatrist from around the end of the Cold War. The wall came down, Western Capitalism, Democracy, and Liberalism had won. The dipolar order gave way to the one way the world works, the one model of what moves society forward, the one model of what is the best and most productive form of economic, social, and political organization. Denying the Russian Federation the courtesy of comprehending their behavior as motivated by rational self-interest, by a coherent alternative view of the way the world is and should be from the Russian perspective, they are invoking their supremacy, their absolute hegemony, their role as arbiters of what counts as normal and abnormal thought and behavior. 

Prior diagnoses appear to have been faulty: 
I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy. We had a very good dialogue. I was able to get a sense of his soul; a man deeply committed to his country and the best interests of his country.
- George W. Bush, Slovenia Summit 2001
The patient expertly deceived the psychiatrist, made him to believe sanity had dawned. But now Putin is again acting as if the "best interests of his country" conflict with the best interests of the West -- in other words, a relapse into insanity. The patient is running amok in violation of his probation, and the West, as judge, jury, and executioner, is desperately trying to drag the patient back into the courtroom where a plea of nolo contendere is equivalent to a plea of insanity.

Some sympathy for the wardens of this asylum is due, however. The developments in Ukraine and Crimea are especially troubling for us because of the linear conception of history in the West. In this account, the advanced first world nations (Western Europe and North America, mainly) are way ahead of the pack, trying simply, out of great compassion, to encourage the stragglers along. The fall of the Soviet Union was a key psychological breakthrough in this story. We thrive on it. It defines us and gives us our sense of meaning and purity of purpose. Anything that pokes at its basic premises is deeply disturbing.

Unmitigated failure in the 21st century, however, has been hard to ignore and has quickly begun to shake the premises of this story loose. In these short 15 years, the triumphalist self-narrative has been trying to accommodate a string of reality checks: 9/11, the defeat in Afghanistan, the defeat in Iraq, the global financial meltdown, intractable unemployment, and economic stagnation. It's not hard to see the special significance that this confrontation with Vladimir Putin might now have for the Western psyche. 

This confrontation psychologically functions as more than yet another roadblock along our ascendant trip through linear history, another passing anomaly. The paradox underneath these events -- that a situation with such low stakes (Crimea and the political leanings of a failed state) has taken on such vast proportions -- confirms that this stands for something more. The political turmoil that has taken root in the fertile soil dividing West and East, in Ukraine, which literally translates to "borderland", functions as a powerful symbol of the declining hegemony of the West. This confrontation continues to cast shadows of historical proportions because the authority of the world psychiatrist and world policeman is being openly challenged. The other inmates have taken notice and are taking heart. The brief illusion of the triumph of the West is cracking. We have not entered into some post-historic phase, some fundamentally new future. The inmates are breaking free, and it looks as if the psychiatrist was the crazy one all along.