I’m amending my post based on results from the 2012 Presidential Election. Comments by GOP pundits speak directly to my comments below. Both Karl Rove and Charles Krauthammer exemplify the anti-rational memes I identify and discuss below. Krauthammer, in fact, argues the GOP platform needs no changes; the GOP simply couldn’t motivate the proper personalities to communicate the Republican message. If the message is so complicated 9 candidates cannot communicate the “message,” the problem might be the message.
My previous post, a book review of D. Deutsch’s The Beginning of Infinity, left a cliffhanger, of sort. D. Deutsch spoke of static versus dynamic societies, specifically, static societies fail; dynamic societies endure, unless compromised or infected with non-rational memes. Then, demise of a society is a guaranteed surety. I dropped a parenthetical comment within my review indicating I would speak more on this topic later. This is later.
David Deutsch introduces a stunning array of ideas in a few short pages. He essentially breaks down culture and the transmission of cultural ideas and describes the bifurcation of a society’s choices into two paths. One path takes society down a static path, and essentially the end of that society. The other path takes society down a dynamic path, and persistence. Sounds a lot like Robert Frost, “the path not taken.”
My chosen theme for my writing is geography, the entire milieu of geography. When a quantum physicist wanders into the realm of culture and nation-building, my “geography-sense” begins to tingle. I have nigh-incomplete knowledge of quantum physics but I have a lesser amount of incomplete knowledge about geography. However, tying a few ideas from The Beginning of Infinity (TBOI) to geography should not be too difficult. What comes thereafter, might be.
The notion static societies and dynamic societies are part of the milieu of geography should not be too indulgent; this notion should be self-evident, actually. TBOI introduces a term which is not generally used in geography. The term is expressed more in sociology, or psychology, perhaps. However, TBOI introduces the term as a fundamental components of culture. The analysis of the term is used to examine the general success or failure of societies within a historical context. For instance, the failure of the Roman Empire, the failure of Nazism, the failure of the Soviet Union are all potentially explained by the function of a single term, and the terms components.
What is a meme?
Richard Dawkins, in his book The Selfish Gene (1976), posited the idea of a “meme.” A meme is a self-replicating idea (369). But not this simple, as a meme is a self-replicating idea within a culture much like a gene is a self-replicating set of biological instructions which communicates to cell how to develop. Memes carry cultural instructions which communicate and define individual’s behavior within a culture.
A meme is a self-replicating idea which carries the cultural instructions which communicate and define an individual’s behavior within a culture. Memes can mutate due to societal pressures, therefore memes evolve over time.
Thousands of memes can exist. Memes can arise and disappear within a person’s lifetime, or they can persist over generations. Memes can self-replicate with varying degrees of success. Some memes persist over time with considerable fidelity; they do not lose their message. Some memes adapt over time and evolve. The information content will change; did a new meme arise and replace the old meme? Or, is the meme simply a mutation?
Memes can be categorized as one of two types. “Rational” memes are based upon rational and critical thought (388). Being based upon rational and critical thought, rational memes are able to be accurately replicated. Rational memes evolve in the direction of real understanding and knowledge (389).
“Anti-rational” memes are founded upon non-rational thought or non-critical thought (388). Non-rational thought or non-critical thought is a means of saying the idea is not likely to be replicated with any degree of accuracy. An example of non-critical thought is the response to a question, “because I said so.” Another example includes memes which are based on religious ideologies, faith-based ideologies, or political-based ideologies. An example of such anti-rational memes would include the belief women are inferior or too delicate to vote or to become involved in politics, or the notion Blacks or people of color are inferior, or the notion the only true faith is Judaism. Anti-rational memes mutate away from developing better understanding and increased knowledge, and in doing so hinder or eliminate adaptations which encourage greater critical thinking.
Rational memes arise from critical thinking and encourage greater understanding through promoting more rational thought.
Anti-rational memes arise to hinder or prevent critical thinking and impair understanding and restrain knowledge.
Rational memes persist and are enjoyed throughout society and across time. Rational memes succeed in spite of debates and criticism because the memes themselves inspire debate and criticism, becoming better and accepted throughout society. The example set forth in TBOI are the Laws of Motion described by Isaac Newton. Newtonian physics not only is useful for construction, such as cathedrals and bridges, and useful for artillery (388). In other words, rational memes are useful across a broad spectrum of people and disciplines, are well-suited for being re-purposed, and foster more criticism and debate.
Anti-rational memes can persist and spread among people in the very same as rational memes. However, their effect is different. Anti-rational memes harm society (378). Anti-rational memes discourage criticism, debate, the pursuit of knowledge and deeper meaning. These effects may see mundane, yet the effects of those effects tend not to be mundane. Discouraging criticism and debate leads to the rise of police states, censorship of the media, detainment, loss of freedoms, imprisonment, or death. Russia has created a set of Internet censorship laws which greatly restricts access to the media, makes libel a criminal offense, and forces foreign news reporters to register as foreign agents (Atlantic, 3 Nov 2012). Fascism is another example of an anti-rational meme. Fascism is the unquestioning devotion to an ideology, typically a political ideology. Fascism is not limited to politics; the adherence to religious indoctrination in the face of contrary evidence is also a form of fascism. The United States is not immune to anti-rational memes. The Salem Witch trials springs to mind, the Red Scare & McCarthyism of the 1950s, and the “You Are Either With Us Or Against Us” domestic and foreign policy during the 2001-2008 Bush Administration are all forms of fascism, and anti-rational memes. The persecution of Julian Assange and WikiLeaks is an interesting circumstance. Yet, despite the controversy, I would argue this persecution is also an anti-rational meme because deeper truths are being hidden or concealed. This is precisely the nature of anti-rational memes.
The precise nature of anti-rational memes is to work against the revelation of knowledge, to blur or conceal the truth.
At this point I’m departing from my synopsis of memes, and discuss of rational and anti-rational memes. Rational memes are consistent with dynamic societies. Dynamic societies are not immune to the dangers of anti-rational memes. Within dynamic societies, both types of memes exist and are both exposed to the same sets of criticism. Anti-rational memes do not stand up to criticism, however, falter, fade away, and are replaced by rational memes. Even rational memes are under constant scrutiny and may be replaced by new memes or evolve into a new meme. Because of the continual improvement of rational memes in dynamic societies, the memes themselves become increasingly easier to replicate without loss of fidelity (388).
All meme forms and variants can exist within a dynamic society. Dynamic societies allow scrutiny and criticism of memes. Anti-rational memes will be identified as false, shallow, or useless. Rational memes will persist under critical observation and will be replicated accurately.
Static societies may have rational memes. However, due to the persistence of anti-rational memes, rational memes are disposed. Anti-rational memes can be as faithfully replicated as rational memes. For example, slavery in the United States was a persistent anti-rational meme based on several specious arguments. Generation after generation of people in the U.S. South were indoctrinated into the Slavery System. Most any attempt to argue against slavery, i.e. to criticize the meme, was immediately squelched. Static societies encourage the Status Quo, suppress criticism, and enforce invariant compliance of anti-rational memes (381). Laws are passed which encode the meme into the social fabric, such as the “Sundown Laws” which persisted in the United States well after Black Emancipation. Society may even foster and encourage the use of taboos to control behavior. Even within the allegedly “free and open” United States, some mixed race couples continue to find bias and discrimination.
Static societies are doomed to fail. Static societies impose rules, regulations, and restrictions which have the effect of ultimately shutting down human creativity. Human creativity is essential for meme evolution and transmission.
The society of the United States is generally associated with being a “dynamic” society. Many societies today are dynamic societies. All of Europe, India, the United States, Chile, Argentina, Canada, are all examples of “dynamic” societies. If you don’t see your country mentioned, its probably still dynamic, I merely did not want to develop a comprehensive list. As long as a society is able to evolve to more rational ideas, i.e. rational memes, the society has a good chance of being a “dynamic” society.
Some societies I tend to think of as being dangerously close to becoming static societies. Russia comes to mind. The more restrictive the government becomes, the more speech and political expression is curtailed, the more likely Russia will become static. China falls into the same category for essentially the same reason. North Korea is a static society. Venezuela under the rule of Hugo Chavez, becomes more of a static society under his strict leadership. Any of the Middle Eastern countries, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the Maghreb countries, and many countries of sub-Saharan Africa have the potential of becoming static societies. Rules, laws, or taboos which restrictive the free movement of ideas, or limit certain populations are anti-rational memes. Limiting the role of women in business, industry, sports, or government are anti-rational memes. Discriminating against a population based on skin color or other physical traits is an anti-rational meme. The killing of albinos in Tanzania because they are seen as “ghost” people is an anti-rational meme. The notion in Malawi of having sex with a virgin girl as a cure for AIDS/HIV is an anti-rational meme.
In the United States, our political parties are susceptible to becoming victimized by the spread of anti-rational memes. The Democratic Party support of unions is an anti-rational meme which hinders business, disallows the movement of ineffective workers and their inherent inefficiencies, and prevents the replacement of outmoded business models with modern adaptations.
The Tea Party movement itself is based almost exclusively on a host of anti-rational memes, racism, Creationism, pro-Christian, pro-faith, and a return to the Gold Standard are simply a few anti-rational memes prevalent among the Tea Party.
Republicans, especially Conservative Republicans, have become significantly enamored by anti-rational memes. The “Patriot Act” provided unparalleled access to law enforcement for domestic surveillance. During the Bush Administration, citizens throughout the country found their “patriotism” challenged by simply criticizing White House policies. Members of the Senate Science and Technology Committee side with Creationists and other anti-science advocates against current research extending from the study of Cosmology, evolution, stem cell research, to climate change. Conservative Republicans, such as Donald Trump persist in perpetuating the Birther meme concerning President Obama’s place of birth and his academic record. Other Conservative Republicans persist in associating environmental catastrophes like Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Sally with God’s wrath against the moral turpitude of homosexuality and abortion. The current political clarion among Republicans, “Take Back America” exemplifies yet another anti-rational meme. The United States has not been lost, has not been over-run or taken over. The government is not besieged. A coup d’etat has not supplanted any of our three government divisions.
Dynamic societies succeed by critical investigation of memes, by moot, and by using human creativity to expose, evaluate, and adapt memes. As memes are replicated, and evolve, individual memes may become static (383). Static memes are not necessarily bad. The idea of one-person, one-vote is a static meme which is important for governance which cannot really get more any more simple. Remember, the previous memes prevented women from voting, black males could cast a vote which counted as 1/2 the vote of a white male, and only white landowners could vote. Individual memes may become static. Danger arises when static memes become encoded with the law, or imposed by taboo, and society in its entirety is restricted from exercising creativity in advancing knowledge and gaining deeper understanding.
The two major parties, the Democrats and the Republicans, are catalysts for memes. Democrats, often referred to as “Liberals,” are criticized for simply being that, liberal. Liberal carries many connotation; open, explorative, educated, flexible, wavering, and progressive are a few terms which come to mind. Republicans are often characterized as “Conservative,” meaning resistant to change, parochial, narrow-minded, and traditional are a few terms which come to mind.
Both political parties are far from perfect. However, Republicans are dangerously close to becoming the bastion of anti-rational memes. Advocating increased levels of religious expression in schools disaffect members of a society which purports to be accepting is an anti-rational meme. Anti-science faith-based messages which articulate evolution and cosmological sciences as being straight from Hell is an anti-rational meme. Deprecating education at levels beyond high school is an anti-rational meme. Denouncing climate and atmospheric sciences is an anti-rational meme. Advocating the status quo upon reliance on fossil fuels and against alternative energies is an anti-rational meme. Denouncing the rights of gay and lesbian citizens based on religious intolerance is an anti-rational meme. Stripping rights away from individuals to exercise control over her own reproductive rights in an anti-rational meme. Restricting the use of embryonic stem cells on religious grounds is an anti-rational meme.
For Democracy to succeed, at least two parties of equal rational and critical thinking acumen are necessary. My criticism of the Republican party is levied mostly to vent frustration over the entire political process. In reading TBOI, particularly the portion regarding memes and culture, I was struck by the relevance of Deutsch’s comments and their applicability to current societal and governmental concerns. Much of the vitriol of our current political climate arises from anti-rational memes, examples of which I have already mentioned. These anti-rational memes are associated with members of one political party, are encoded within that party’s platform, in fact. That the GOP cannot mount a substantive and unified front to the Democrat Party can be tied directly to the anti-rational memes harbored by many Republicans. To provide a better leadership at local, state, and national level, GOP leaders need to scrutinized their platform, their ideals, eliminate those notions which are parochial, limiting, predicated on ignorance and non-critical thinking, and purge their party of members who support anti-rational, non-critical memes. Otherwise, the Republicans are dooming themselves to irrelevance, being diluted by more non-critical thinkers, and radicalists, eventually being replaced by a number of factions.
Source: Deutsch, David; The Beginning of Infinity; Penguin; 2011.