‘like a visitor from non-Euclidean dimensions whose outlines are perplexing to the Euclidean inhabitants of various dogmatic Flatlands.’ – RAW, Left and Right: A Non-Euclidean Perspective
I suspect I’m not alone in thinking Robert Anton Wilson did us a big favour by tackling political semantics in his ‘Left and Right: A Non-Euclidean Perspective‘. Seen by many (including me) as a classic, and seemingly well-known (relatively, for a Wilson article), I just wish it was as widely circulated as, say, a typical social media pronouncement from the former CIA and Booz Allen Hamilton employee Edward Snowden.
(To digress: I wouldn’t know how to categorise Snowden politically. He seemed quiet on Trump, but appears to have found his critical voice again on Biden. He expressed some “interesting” views on IRC chats, circa 2007/8/9 – for example, that “[the elderly] wouldn’t be fucking helpless if you weren’t sending them fucking checks to sit on their ass and lay in hospitals all day”. Not a fan of social security, apparently. Still, one can appreciate an action that someone once took – eg whistleblowing – without setting them up in your head as a wise oracle, sacred cow or political ally.)
RAW deconstructs here via biographical detail – an effective way, it seems, to soften and dereify political abstractions. As he points out in the article, he prefers to gamble on human experience “with all its muddle and uncertainty”, than to believe in “capitalized Abstractions” and “general principles”.
A good synonym for “Euclidean” in this context might be “linear space”. Political issues – like messy personal realities – mostly don’t reduce to linear representation; but with “left” and “right” as established labels we seem stuck with the metaphor. As RAW puts it:
‘Of course, we are living in curved space (as noted by Einstein); that should warn us that Euclidean metaphors are always misleading. Science has also discovered that the Universe can count above two, which should make us leery of either/or choices.’RAW, Left and Right: A Non-Euclidean Perspective
No political centre – “Non-E” vs “Non-A”
Note the different functions of RAW’s “non-Euclidean” and “non-Aristotelian” critiques. That’s to say: you can have multi-valued (non-Aristotelian) logic within a linear (Euclidean) spectrum. In fact RAW’s recommended probability-rating method – a mindful alternative to reflexive 2-valued logic – accords with linear Euclidean POVs. With “non-Euclidean”, RAW gives us something new to chew on – a different set of metaphorical entailments than “maybe logic”, per se. This should become clearer as we continue…
In a way, Bob anticipates work by cognitive linguists (and some neuroscientists) on conceptual metaphor in politics and its “neural binding” in our brains in different areas of our lives. For example, I don’t recall him referring to a political “center” (or “centre”, “centrists”, “moderates”) much, if at all. But he did refer to “mixed economies”, by which he meant neither “Capitalist” (“right”) nor “Socialist” (“left”) but containing mixed elements of both, and neither, of what those terms popularly signify. That’s at the level of economies; his article makes the point even clearer regarding individual human lives and the chaotic multiplicities and messy contradictions they “contain”.
This reflects the more recent cognitive scientists’ preferred way of referring to political categories – ie as needing to take into account endlessly varied mixtures of different co-existing elements (at the neural level and in the “real world”), rather than assuming a shared metaphorical “centre” or “mainstream” position with movements along a Euclidean line towards an “extreme” at each end. As George Lakoff says, “there’s no ideology of the ‘center'” – the “centre” arises as an entailment of a spatial metaphor. A “semantic spook”, as RAW might say.
Another way of saying it: people who self-identify as politically “moderate” (and also people labelled by others as “moderate” or “centrist”) happen to turn up all over any Euclidean political “map” you care to construct – you won’t find them concentrated in one metaphorical spatial “location” (though most people “see” them as somewhere in the “middle”). It makes no difference whether you use a simple “right” vs “left” map, or whether you add an extra axis or two (eg “libertarian” vs “authoritarian”).
So, in the same manner that RAW warns us of outmoded belief systems (eg worldviews that derive from Aristotelian and Platonic philosophies), and cites Bucky Fuller warning us about the consequences of antiquated Malthusian and Darwinian thinking, we get an extra warning here – originally from RAW – about dysfunctional, past-its-sell-by-date Euclidian metaphors in politics.
‘The left-to-right scale that political pundits love is an inaccurate metaphor – and a dangerous one, for two reasons. First, it posits a political “mainstream,” a population with a unified political worldview, which does not exist now nor has it ever. […] Accepting the left-to-right scale leads to the logic – and the claim – that to get more votes you have to move to the right. […] there is no left-to-right line between progressive and conservative views, and no unified “moderate” worldview.’George Lakoff, The Political Mind (2008)
Simple signifiers vs Euclidean implications
The “right”/”left” terminology in politics apparently “appeared during the French Revolution of 1789 when members of the National Assembly divided into supporters of the king to the president’s right and supporters of the revolution to his left”. One can speak of “left” and “right” without any linear scale between – as in left hand and right hand, left and right hemispheres of the brain, etc. And in that sense, as simple signifiers with no Euclidean metaphorical implications, “right” and “left” seem relatively unproblematic as political labels. And, like RAW, we probably continue to use them for that limited purpose, as a kind of convenient shorthand.
But, “the Universe can count above two”, as RAW noted, and people realised that a simple duality didn’t accomodate the whole of politics. And so, ironically, “right” and “left” got extended into a metaphorical linear scale, with “centre”, “centre-left”, “far left”, etc. A sliding linear (Euclidean) scale can represent many things more “accurately” than a binary toggle seems to – even among political issues. But not whole brains, people or economies, it seems.
Another irony: quite a lot of important political matters seem to be “modelled” more usefully by a dichotomy than by a linear scale. On capital punishment, abortion, etc, we don’t see a sliding incremental scale or a middle-of-the-road. You don’t hear people say “I’m moderate to centre-right on the death penalty – about 67% pro-execution”!
(As I describe in another post, RAW has written at length on the Matrist/Patrist psychological dualities and their political manifestations – another area in which he seems to anticipate a trajectory now seen in cognitive and brain sciences. This post-Freudian analysis yields several political dichotomies that can be boiled down to “right”/”left” – or “conservative”/”liberal” or “authoritarian”/”libertarian”, etc – terminology.)
RAW anti-war – the debate
‘I seem anti-war by “temperament” (whatever that means — early imprints or conditioning? Genes? I don’t know the exact cause of such a deep-seated and life-long bias).’ – RAW, Left and Right: A Non-Euclidean Perspective
In the context of “left”/right” semantics, Bob’s anti-war remark strikes me as a useful springboard for a timely, urgent debate. In recent years I’ve noticed a flood of social media posts equating warmongering with “liberalism” and even “centrism” (often tied to depictions of Trump as maverick peacemaker). I’ve no idea how much of this is organic, as opposed to engineered.
There seems a big difference to me between anti-war views based on “progressive” morality (universal empathy, humanitarianism) and so-called “non-interventionist” views based on fairly narrow nationalist cost-benefit considerations. Of course, I’ve long been aware of hawkish establishment “Liberals” (indeed, RAW mentions a few in his article); but in my British upbringing, I’d always associated pro-war leanings with “conservative” and “nationalist” views. “Shock and awe”, “full spectrum dominance”, colossal overpowering military strength, etc – these don’t seem the things that “liberals” (or “leftists”) by definition fetishize! (I’m old enough to remember when “liberals and lefties” seemed more likely to be denounced for being too soft – for not having the stomach for military action).
RAW’s point about temperament and early imprints leads me to think again of Matrist/Patrist dichotomies. Naturally, the instinctive abhorrence of suffering of all kinds, and all creatures, reflects the nurturing Matrist polarity, whilst the emphasis on strength, control and conquering expresses the Patrist side. G. Rattray Taylor (along with RAW) links Matrist tendencies with “progressive” views, and Patrist aspects with “conservative” politics.
I also think of RAW’s remark that he saw himself as, emotionally, a “bleeding heart liberal”, but rationally as “libertarian”. That makes perfect sense to me in the current context, in which Bob (along with cognitive/brain scientists) points to multitudes of possibilities co-existing within a human being – as revealed in biographical detail, with different political modes of thought arising in different areas of one’s life – often without us being aware of the shifts between them (eg when those different modes co-exist in time – which Lakoff calls “biconceptualism”).
‘I think one of the bravest statements of the 1970s was made by Norman Lear in a Playboy interview when he said, “I’m an old-fashioned, bleeding heart liberal.” That is so corny and so kitsch and so camp and everybody sneers at that kind of thing. But if you’re not a do-gooder you don’t really appreciate life. That’s the secret of secrets.’RAW interview with Michael Helm (1977/78)
So, what of the weird contortions of political categories (“left” and “right”, for starters) on social media? What about the view, churned out relentlessly, of “liberals”/”centrists” as largely responsible for most of the “imperialism”, “regime change”, bombing, killing, drone-strikes and general nefarious warlike intervention in foreign lands? (Did you just have the reflexive response, “WELL,THEY ARE!”?). What of Donald Trump as anti-establishment saviour who would put a stop to the liberal deep-state war machine?
Not all of this comes from MAGA folks, discord-sowing bots, troll farms or profit-algorithms gone astray. Some comes from influential and creditable commentators – people like Edward Snowden. The Intercept‘s Jeremy Scahill, for example, asserted that Donald Trump represents “the best hope we’ve had since 9/11 to actually end some of these forever wars”. His then colleague Glenn Greenwald promoted the notion of Trump as “non-interventionist“, and also as “just more honest” about US policy than his “liberal” predecessors such as Obama.
With heavy-hitters like those asserting these claims, perhaps they contain some truth?
Well, maybe not so much. I note that after Trump took office, the number of US troops deployed abroad increased – Trump escalated every conflict he presided over, ramping up bombing in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Somalia and Yemen, increasing civilian deaths (in some cases to record-high levels) while removing civilian protections and reducing accountability. In the year after Trump became president he oversaw more than 10,000 US-led coalition airstrikes in Syria and Iraq, with a 215% rise in civilian deaths. Trump’s drone strikes far exceed Obama’s, and US weapon sales to foreign countries increased under Trump.
But then none of this should come as a surprise if you paid attention to Trump’s strongman campaign rhetoric on the use of America’s colossal military force (“I would bomb the hell out of them”, “I would bomb the shit out of them. I would just bomb those suckers”, “take out their families”).
So, presenting Trump as some kind of peacemaker seems a weird one, to me. As does presenting “liberals” (or “centrists”), as a class, as prototypical warmongers. But I guess we’re only just starting with the bizarro algorithm-boosted political-category dislocations.
In any case, I’d love to see the wider circulation of RAW’s insights on political semantics – and General Semantics and neurosemantics – along with the new trajectories of neuro- and cognitive sciences, as anticipated by RAW.