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Divagations on the impending apocalypse

November 8, 2016

From the Greek ἀποκαλύπτειν to uncover, disclose, from ἀπό off + καλύπτειν to cover. One does not, of course, expect that anything particularly unexpected will occur. Rarely, in fact, does one feel so fully the difference between the difference between future and preterite, and the difference between certain and uncertain. Nor does one expect anything unusually horrific; undoubtedly the horrorshow of history will continue as per usual.


The verb “to vote” is almost always treated as self-explanatory, which ought to strike us as strange, since the act of voting cannot even be imagined except under political conditions that are far from universal. For those curious: “vote,” from Latin vōtum promise, desire, properly the past participle neuter of vovēre to vow, to wish. Agamemnon desired; Jephthah promised; we vote.


Since voting is not, after all, very much like pulling a lever on a baroque piece of machinery, these two propositions at least seem clear. To “vote your preference” is to endorse a system of government under which decisions are made based only on the aggregation of personal lust. To “vote your conscience” is to endorse a system of ethics under which actions are judged based only on the subjective state of the agent.


Of bloggity-thingy-endorsements, my favorite was that given by SlateStarCodex:, mainly for how unabashedly neoliberal is its reasoning: “Suppose you live in a swing state. If you think (in a well-calibrated way) that it’s 10% more likely that your candidate will use $1 trillion well than that the other candidate will, your vote is worth $500. If you live in a safe state, it’s more like $30. If you value the amount of time it takes to vote at less than that, voting is conceivably a good use of your time.” Of course, “We don’t know for sure that we’re right about politics,” but “if you’re seriously uncertain about whether or not you think more clearly than the average voter, by that fact alone you almost certainly do.” That’s all well and good—but what if the average voter and I differ not in our knowledge, but in our preferences?


In Australia, voting is mandatory, with a small fine—about $30, I’m told—for those who fail to fill out a ballot. Of course, Australia also has preferential voting: I rank this candidate #1, this candidate #2, this one #3…; tally results, kick out the lowest performer, shift the votes of those who supported them to the next candidate on the voters’ ranked list, and repeat until some candidate has a majority. Like all non-dictatorial systems, preferential voting is susceptible to tactical voting (that is to say, lying), but it is more resistant to it than most.


Given the state I live in, I was surprised the other day to see on television an ad for a major party presidential candidate. But then I remembered that the Senate race here is rather close. This observation does not, of course, disprove the claim that local elections matter, but it calls into doubt whether anyone really considers any elections to be local.


In 1939 David Jones wrote to his friend Harman Grisewood, after reading Hitler’s Mein Kampf: “it is amazingly interesting in all kinds of ways—but pretty terrifying too. God, he’s nearly right—but this hate thing mars his whole thing.” The word “hate,” for a devout Catholic, is quite strong, and surely, one would think, sufficient to dispel any suspicion that he was a Nazi sympathizer. And yet many, perhaps most students of modernism are convinced that Jones and his ilk were secret fascists; the moderate position being that they kept their fascism secret even from themselves. To be sure, Jones opposed both liberal democracy and communism, which cannot help but make him a fascist, if “fascist” is our term for all those who are both  anti-communist and anti-liberal.


We must do something. This is something. Therefore, we must do this,” reasoned the politician. SMBC calls it “the falling problem.” Meanwhile, Alisdair MacIntyre tells us that “The way to vote against the system is not to vote”; since, in the American system at least, abstentions are not counted against either of the major candidates, ones suspects MacIntyre of an equivocation.


The problem with voting for a third party is not that a third party candidate cannot win; it’s that a third party candidate is almost never actually prepared to be president. This poses no practical problem, since of course they stand no chance of winning. But it poses a theoretical problem: if you refuse to vote for a major party candidate because you think them likely to be a disaster in this or that respect, why are you willing to vote for someone who would, if elected, be an absolute disaster all across the board? The same, of course, applies to those who abstain from voting entirely: do you really want to live in a world where the U.S.A. suddenly has no head of state?


Ishmael says of the monkey-rope: “So strongly and metaphysically did I conceive of my situation then, that while earnestly watching his motions, I seemed distinctly to perceive that my own individuality was now merged in a joint stock company of two; that my free will had received a mortal wound; and that another’s mistake or misfortune might plunge innocent me into unmerited disaster and death….”


In the intersection of the legal doctrines of felony murder and common purpose, if one bank robber kills a security guard, even if by accident, he and all of his accomplices are guilty of murder. Or so, at least, Denis Johnson’s Angels would have it.


Criminal and corporate law, two-party systems, print radio and television, webcomics and bloggity thingies and websites of statistical aggregation—all these baroque pieces of machinery—are not, of course, to blame. To blame are those who summoned them from the deep without a plan for how to subjugate them to our will. But then, without such mechanisms, we have no way to determine what will, if any, should be called ours.


Is this post’s greatest flaw that it takes all these things too seriously, or that it takes them not seriously enough? The only note I can think to end on is that sounded by the gloriously melodramatic pastiche that is the original Star Wars, when Obiwan Kenobi senses the destruction of Alderaan: “I felt a great disturbance in the Force, as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced. I fear something terrible has happened.”


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