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Basic Reasoning and Reading

2016 December 9
by Ian Welsh

Competent and good are not synonyms.

Smart and good are not synonyms.

Evil and competent are not synonyms.

Virtues are not all moral virtues.

Bravery is a morally neutral virtue. It makes bad people worse, and good people better, and without it all virtues and vices are nearly meaningless.

Competence is morally neutral. It is how you use your competence that matters.

Next: Human Nature.

It is possible for people to be both good and bad. A politician may do something good, and then do something bad. It is even possible for a person who is evil overall (George Bush, Obama, Putin) to do the right thing, for the right reason. People can murder others one day, and rescue babies the next and rescue those babies out of the milk of human kindness.

If you do not understand any of the above, if you are not capable of disentangling your emotions or your tribal identities enough to reason like this, then you are incapable of rational thought when it matters.

Finally, if you do not like my writing, if it bothers you that I say that Trump is competent, or that Genghis Khan, though evil, was a great man, you do not have to read it. If someone is threatening you to force you read my stuff, please call the police.

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While, on occasion, I write to comfort people, I do not write to pander to people’s prejudices or tribal identities.

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30 Responses
  1. Stuart Zechman permalink
    December 9, 2016


    “If you do not understand any of the above, if you are not capable of disentangling your emotions or your tribal identities enough to reason like this, then you are incapable of rational thought when it matters.”


    From reading this, it seems as if you are aware that these distinctions are both A) fucking obvious and B) less than ubiquitously understood.

    So, some questions which come immediately to mind would be:

    1) Do you think that you’re witnessing some kind of short- or long-term trend in terms of ideas which are both A) and B), such that you’d be required to write a post like this one more so now than at other times?

    2) What about the current situation makes it necessary for there to be a post from someone like you, entitled “Basic Reasoning and Reading” (along with similar, contemporaneous posts on this problem from others), i.e. how did we get here?

    3) What, in your opinion, is to be done, both at macro and micro levels, apart from essentially telling individuals who are incompetent at basic reasoning and reading to fuck off and go elsewhere, as you have done in this post?

    Thanks so much for considering these questions,
    Stuart Zechman

  2. SnarkyShark permalink
    December 9, 2016

    I threw my TV out 12 years ago. I very much understand I do not look at things the same way as my family and those who are still in the Matrix. I think Media false programing integrates far deeper than anticipated and may explain some of it. Mental laziness and fear fill in the rest.

    How did it come to this?
    How did it ever come to this?
    Take That. The Circus live at Wembly

  3. realitychecker permalink
    December 9, 2016

    Ian, I come here because I welcome fresh thinking that is not undergirded by ideological absolutes. And you always deliver that, and I thank you for it.

    The people you decry are all people who are willing to live with glaring self-contradictions in their belief systems, and feel no obligation to ever resolve those contradictions. Fuck them, they don’t deserve to waste the time of thinking people of good faith.

    Keep on keeping on, brother. ((Ian))

  4. Ian Welsh permalink*
    December 9, 2016

    Who are the other Stuart? Links?

    People are /very/ upset by Trump, and many have read my posts as being pro-Trump. Saying good things about him, even if they are true, and I say that he’s overall bad, is considered bad/traitorous, etc… A number of emails to that regard, some cancelled subscriptions, etc…

    So be it. If they are polite about it, I am too. But I’m getting tired of dealing with it retail. 🙂

  5. DMC permalink
    December 9, 2016

    The prevailing attitude seems to be “any stick with which to beat a dog”. Partisan bickering quickly devolves into characterizing the opposition in absolute terms. Back when I was in the polling and market research biz, we called this the “Vote for Smith or the Earth will fly out of its orbit into the Sun!!” phenomenon. And with someone even his supporters admit is personally obnoxious to an unprecedented degree, its hard to get at the real “flesh and blood” Trump as opposed to the straw man that so many would rather engage with.

  6. December 9, 2016

    The problem with Trump, is he is making a that that he will not live to see the consequences.

    He is 74, and perhaps has 15 years of life.

  7. SnarkyShark permalink
    December 9, 2016

    Stuart Zechman

    I am down with number three. The time for idiots to wallow in self celebration is over. We have the capability to be rational beings but it is hard work. Only the people who are willing to do the work and have cleared the mind and got over themselves will be able to join the conversation. It has to be that way or else we are doomed. Our world killing play-toys have changed the dynamic.

  8. December 9, 2016

    People are /very/ upset by Trump, and many have read my posts as being pro-Trump. Saying good things about him, even if they are true, and I say that he’s overall bad, is considered bad/traitorous, etc… A number of emails to that regard, some cancelled subscriptions, etc…

    It is, of course, the emotional component of this that is the issue. You are, of course, absolutely right about Genghis Khan, but people see you as attempting to justify taking a position they view as having contributed to something harmful, by virtue of you taking that position. ie, you can see it as them not really agreeing with you that what we say on the internet means little because we have no power, as you mentioned in your calm-down video.

    Speaking of which, I stayed mum back then because I agreed with what you were trying to do with it, but I can’t help but think that you might have been the wrong messenger and led people to reject what it was you were telling them. Here was someone who quite openly did not prefer Clinton to Trump (for particular given reasons) telling people whose whole model of the world is that tiny nudges of opinion and individual effort matter and whose worst fears are coming true to calm down and smell the roses. Now that same person is putting up (perfectly correct, in itself) posts that greatness and goodness are not the same thing, in a world in which Trump might not be a good person, but unconventionally good at his new job (we’ll see). And that emotional subtext has not gone away.

  9. Peter permalink
    December 9, 2016

    What we are seeing is the culmination of a long and slow process that began with Bill Clinton. The process of blind almost cult like faith in a created identity/image was expected to continue with Al Gore but that was disrupted and that created the first irruption of the type of behavior we are seeing now. The Bush years along with the rise of the internet offered these early Clintonites a target to attack and an new younger audience to attract many of whom swallowed the myths about the wonders of the Clinton years.

    During this time the Red Queen was being groomed and positioned to step in and claim her preordained role but Obama, an unknown, snatched the gold ring from her hand. This produced a short but ugly reaction from the queens quislings and minions but deals were done and promises made that soothed or at least quieted the denied true believers.

    The final stage of this saga leading up to the election shows a true cult of personality developing, two actually with the Berners and their short lived but flaming quest. The twice denied early Clintonites were leading the newer true believers in a frenzied denial filled frontal assault on anyone who dared to think they could deny them their Red Queen.

    Enough people responded to this fanaticism in the right places to finally drive a stake through the heart of this diseased cult and the true believers have nowhere to turn except to strike out at anyone who still remains sane.

  10. V. Arnold permalink
    December 9, 2016

    Spot on Ian.

    @ SnarkyShark

    I threw out my TV in 1994, so what?
    Do you think the internet is any better? You still are faced with the very same decisions; the garbage is everywhere.
    Discernment is still required; reasoning and reading comprehension are more important than ever…

  11. December 9, 2016

    My dad was a small, petty, selfish man and a terrible father. However, he did some acts of kindness throughout his life-I totally understood if you always had a soft spot for him because he bought you a bike so you could play with the other kids and no one else in your family ever/never bought you anything. I never wanted to destroy your memories-but you demand to remember more than the memory- you want a fantasy of a bright savior, a deep event. So, Not only can my relatives not deal with my reality of my father, they can not let go of their rose colored -. history to embrace the reality of their own memory. That is American culture-black and white thinking- no grey- micro issues-macro issues-family-geopolitical-militantly defending mirages.

  12. Orbital Debris permalink
    December 10, 2016

    Perhaps you don’t get the point that the negative reaction to anything that even remotely smacks of being positive about T…p can, not unreasonably, be taken as tacit support/acceptance/normalization/rationalization for a fascist whose actions are more likely than not to bring about a tremendous, even unprecedented, amount of human suffering.

    You spend a lot of your time here trying to argue for why your generally very skeptical and cynical view of politicians/public figures is more rational and enlightened than others, and now here you are arguing the opposite point. Really it is starting to look like nothing more than reflexive contrarianism.

  13. Ian Welsh permalink*
    December 10, 2016

    I just wrote an article on Genghis Khan. The Mongol death toll was probably the second highest caused by war, and when you consider that WWII happened in a world with much higher population, the Mongols have it.

    For Trump to cause an unprecedented amount of suffering he would have to start World War III. So I will assume you expect that.

    Clinton was FAR more likely to start WWIII, given she hates Russia and Trump doesn’t, and Russia has the nukes.

    Thank you for the illustration of my thesis.

  14. Ian Welsh permalink*
    December 10, 2016

    Mandos: yes, I understand the “by saying anything positive about Trump you contributed to his victory” reasoning, since I’ve been getting it spewed at me. First, I don’t think it’s true (those who have nothing good to say about someone, ever, are not credible, see Peter Dauo for that), second, I don’t much care. I’m not writing to try and effect the outcome of elections.

  15. Mike permalink
    December 10, 2016

    Erm, Orbital Debris: I think you completely missed the point.

  16. Hugh permalink
    December 10, 2016

    Trump will be the worst President in US history. This is pretty much baked in to our political process. George W. Bush was, hands down, the worst President in US history, but then Obama came along and was worse than Bush. Now Trump will come in and will easily be worse than Obama. So it goes.

    I do not know what competence has to do with anything. Political figures like Bush, Obama, Trump, throw in Sanders too if you want, are all competent flimflam artists and know how to do the old razzle-dazzle. But if we are talking solving the country’s problems and improving the lives of the many, and not just the well-connected, then they along with our whole political Establishment are totally and completely incompetent, not to mention criminal.

  17. V. Arnold permalink
    December 10, 2016

    @ Hugh

    No, I think, when all is said and done; Obama, while not the absolute worst in U.S. “history”; was arguably, the worst since 1945 (my birth year).
    Trump is a very scary guy, but he’s also an unknown entity, as a president, at this time.
    However, Obama betrayed the U.S. people; and I view betrayal as a most egregious of crimes.

  18. SnarkyShark permalink
    December 10, 2016

    V. Arnold

    Nice lecture. Throwing out the TV was only the start.
    “Do you think the internet is any better? You still are faced with the very same decisions; the garbage is everywhere.” The internet is WAY better. Plenty of Data to sift through. Conventional media is PURE programming. Only filtered data. I would have thought this obvious.

    “Discernment is still required; reasoning and reading comprehension are more important than ever…”

    Gosh its a good thing you set me straight, I would have never figured that out./snark/

  19. nihil obstet permalink
    December 10, 2016

    My ratings in the worst president since WWII sweepstakes: Ronald Reagan was the worst. He normalized the acceptance of lying as good politics so that candidates and then elected officials can say virtually anything without consequences. He continued the training of the neoconservative cabal that started in the Nixon White House and came to full power in the Bush II White House. I’m convinced that Reagan reached a deal with Iran to hold the American hostages to damage Carter’s reelection chances, but even without that, Reagan’s dealings in Iran-Contra were treasonous; they eluded U.S. law, damaged U.S. communities, and supported the worst kind of terrorism in Nicaragua. He denigrated government as being more like a foreign occupier than like the people joining together to address common problems. This made it possible to extend police powers beyond their Constitutional limits, because we’re convinced that government does that. The test of a president’s goodness isn’t his personal morality but the effect of his policy, both short and long term. Reagan, or rather his administration given his problems with Alzheimer’s during his terms, set the trajectory of American policy towards the utterly unaccountable government run for the benefit of the rich and well connected that we are suffering from now.

  20. Peter permalink
    December 10, 2016

    Hugh, OD and others here seem to be locked in the same mindset as global warming deniers. They cling desperately to their fanatical positions not based in reality but designed to make them feel secure within their conditioning and safe from new ideas or reality that challenges that conditioning.

    They don’t seem to care that they appear to be almost religiously biased fools who are stuck on a self made loop that has no exit in this reality. The only positive result from this inability to digest the Trump reality in a sane manner is that they and all the snowflake voices out there will continue driving people away from their Clintonite poisoned party. They may never be able to recognize their inability to digest reality but other people see that their train has run off the tracks.

  21. December 10, 2016

    Some people might eagerly argue that this is not so, but the US has evidently entered the downward spiral that every empire that wasn’t conquered by force has gone through.

    That people are willing to blame this on Jill Stein voters or niche bloggers is a bit amusing, but it is what it is.

  22. realitychecker permalink
    December 10, 2016

    @ nihil obstet

    Agree with everything you said there, but must also add that Reagan abolished the Fairness Doctrine, which, most importantly, allowed for the mass media to also start lying without consequence.

    Nowadays, when I ask anyone under the age of 40 or so if they know what the Fairness Doctrine was, all I get are blank stares.

    Acceptance of liars is the final stage of societal disintegration.

  23. Adams permalink
    December 10, 2016

    Don’t care why, just keep writing. We’re entering a new Dark Ages. Someone has to live in a cave and keep some truth alive. If only to demonstrate to those who (may) survive that a few grokked reality, that there is a link, however tenuous, that connects.

    Orwell, Gurdgieff, Ouspenski: lies are truth and nothing is as it seems. We are living in a fog. No

  24. December 10, 2016

    Have to inject this thought to nihil obstet …..
    December 10, 2016
    My ratings in the worst president since WWII sweepstakes: Ronald Reagan was the worst.

    My take is that the decline of much control over the Executive Branch started when the Congress had Nixon dead to rights with regards to the treason of dealing with a foreign government in an effort to win an election. Private citizens are forbidden to do this, for reasons of statecraft.
    Because the alternative to impeaching Nixon for this treason was to put Spiro Agnew in the office…a situation no one wanted…I think Congress cut a deal with Nixon that if he would get rid of Agnew, Congress would allow Nixon to resign.
    Reagan benefited from this when he dealt with Iran to hold the hostages until he was sworn in and with his proven treachery in Iran and Nicaragua among other things. He should have been impeached.

    Instead we got what we have now…if the President does it it is legal (which I think is a Reagan quote but can’t remember for sure).

  25. nihil obstet permalink
    December 10, 2016

    @Luane Todd

    I think a number of people have said it since, but Nixon originated it with “When the president does it, that means that it’s not illegal.”

  26. Hugh permalink
    December 10, 2016

    So is there a difference between a Trump supporter and a Trump troll?

    Much like Bush, Trump is one of these characters who was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple. He started out rich and expanded his fortune by catering to the rich, dumping his debts on to others through bankruptcies, and screwing over his workers and contractors. Somehow it never bothered him to have illegals build his hotels and resorts or staff them. He paid them and everyone else who worked for him shit. He would kill ten people if they stood between him and a camera and open mike. He is so thin skinned that he would go on a twitter rant for a week if someone criticized his tie. He’s against immigrants but married two of them.

    And on and on it goes. He wants to replace civilian control of the military with military control of the military by naming a four star Marine general to be his Secretary of Defense. This is a Shock and Awe kind of guy whose solution to every problem is to use greater force. We have already seen how well that works. His choice for Labor Secretary hates workers, unions, raises in the minimum wage, but does love him some cheap easily abusable illegals. His pick for Education Secretary only went to private schools, loves charter schools (in spite of the fact that they don’t perform better and do perform often worse than public schools, but do steal money from public education), and so, no surprise, wants to privatize much of public education. The choice of this soon to be “populist” President for Treasury Secretary is a Wall Street predator who earned his title as the “king of foreclosures”. Oh yes, and he’s another Goldman Boy. His choice for EPA is a climate change denialist. He’s got the infamous Elaine Chao in his proposed Cabinet because nepotism never hurts when you’re married to the Senate Majority Leader. His choice for Attorney General throws some meat to conservative whackos everywhere. And he’s probably going to name the head of Exxon as his Secretary of State because the business of America is business, and if you belong to the lower 80% of the population and think this is going to help you, you either need to be on meds or your meds need to be adjusted. It’s all billionaires and generals and the super well connected and the one common thread that ties them all together is that not one of them gives a fuck about you.

    And just to be clear, I oppose all Democrats and all Republicans. I told you this election was the choice between two shit sandwiches and it’s a sucker’s game to choose between them –just as it is a sucker’s game to play the “Let’s Wait Until Trump is President Before Judging Him.” But then looking at some of these threads and those at Naked Capitalism, the one thing Trump can count on is an abundance of suckers. I figure in three years most of his strongest populist supporters will be sick to death of him and be willing to blame everyone but themselves for having elected him. Not that Clinton would have been any better, but that’s the point. If you want to stop being treated like rubes, stop acting like one, stop accepting the shit choices the powers that be give you.

  27. Orbital Debris permalink
    December 11, 2016

    No, thank you for proving mine.

  28. December 11, 2016

    Trump has proved himself a reasonably competent if not over honest business man. He has yet to prove whether he can be a competent president.
    I am a competent engineer. I have yet to prove my competence as a neurosurgeon. Would you like me to attempt to prove my competence on you?

  29. Tiago permalink
    December 12, 2016

    I’ve read most of your posts since I found out about this blog a few months ago. Keep it up, man. We need more people who are not afraid of thinking for themselves and then to share their views with others.
    The TV/social media have a great power in setting up the world views of the masses. When we don’t bring up our concerns and don’t share our thoughts for too long, for fear that people will treat us like we’re crazy, we are allowing the media to effectively imbue people with the values of big corporations, making them dig deeper into their fantasy world, while suffering very real consequences and giving big corporations very real profits.

  30. Stuart Zechman permalink
    December 12, 2016


    RE “Who are the other Stuart? Links?”

    Here’s an example of what I’m talking about, in which Atrios gently walked up to the line last week, carrying his usual bag of caveats, and said:

    “But when something [Trump] does is popular, even if it’s bullshit, people should understand why…”


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