Rules of Engagement

“[L]anguage is traded and valued as performance. Effectiveness, not truth-value is the rule for language in the sphere of communication. Pragmatics, not hermeneutics, is the methodology for understanding social communication, particularly in the age of new media.”

– Franco “Bifo” Berardi, And: Phenomenology of the End

If you’ve watched anyone not in the FOX camp trying to interview Kellyanne Conway, you see at once that she outperforms the questioner with a truly amazing rush of words, not a breath taken for punctuation, especially not a period. The goal here is to “crush,” to literally deluge the questioner with your talking points and ignore any counter to them. A rush of words, the indulging countenance of victory and superiority wins this Reality TV competition, formerly an interview.

Repeatedly, the PBS Newshour anchor, Judy Woodruff, has “one on one” interviews with such gifted performers who repeatedly crush all her attempts to counter what we’re hearing. “So, water being H30…” “Apologies for interrupting you, but water is H20.” It’s painful to watch. She hasn’t yet interviewed a QAnon disciple: “Well, you do have the support of the anti-pedophiles in the country, including President Trump.” I was very interested in seeing her interview with Jared Kushner, who is mostly a shadowy, unheard, operative. Not on this interview. He ran over Ms. Woodruff who seemed stuck in neutral while he accelerated. “Does the president know more than the scientists? Is that what children should learn in school?” Answer: “Scientists often contradict each other.” That stupidity passed because the goal is to represent in a fair and balanced way and leave the critical evaluation to the viewer. When 72 million in the population also believe that scientists contradict each other regarding global warming and that science is a candy box you can sort through and find your flavor then this balanced impartiality is nothing more than a replay and endorsement of the legitimacy of stupidities. A pause was a defeat, a signal to attack. Viewers crumbled as she did, beaten back by an assault that somehow mercifully had to come to a place where it would stop and meaning could find its way through. Meaning was a casualty; it was lost in the crushing.

And if the Italian philosopher Berardi is right, no one is really looking for it anymore:

“More information means less meaning, because meaning slows down the circulation of information. In the sphere of the digital economy, the faster information circulates, the faster value is accumulated. But meaning slows down this process, since meaning needs time to be produced and to be elaborated and understood. So the acceleration of information flow implies the elimination of meaning.”

Truth value vanishes and all is performance. There must be Performance Tanks, like Think Tanks, that train Republican press secretary hopefuls, FOX pundits, and Republican advisors and campaign managers. There is a pattern of performance, a style from speech to cosmetics, that is almost identical and repeated as if quite definite rules of engagement have been studied and practiced. This is not traditional debate in which argument is constructed and rebuttal confines itself to such. This is not talking to Socrates in hope of learning something, of advancing from opinion to knowledge. This is the debasement of communication itself, a debasement proceeding at the same time on social media. These are the rules of engagement with other minds honed and practiced in hyperreality. Fourteen years on a Reality TV show hyperreality honed Donald J. Trump’s performance skills. And they paid off for him while leaving the country cursed.

Recently, Bill Maher, a formidable interlocutor who has a fast, au courant politically savvy mind that can descend into a street rebuff, interviewed Trump legal adviser, Jenna Ellis. “Your lawsuits are being laughed out of court,” Maher said. “I mean, I’m sorry, I don’t want to make this a contentious interview. I’m just trying to present what is the truth. What’s going on in the courts. And also in your own administration.” Ellis staunchly insisted that the Trump campaign’s legal team had succeeded in Pennsylvania. “No, you haven’t,” Maher shot back. He cited the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, part of the DHS, that had released a joint statement on Thursday by federal and state election officials declaring that the election “was the most secure in American history.” The official wrote, “There is no evidence that any voting system deleted or lost votes, changed votes, or was in any way compromised.”

Repeating these words had no effect on the allegation that the election was rigged, illegal ballots were counted. Once again, a desperate and vainglorious mentality had spewed an accusation or a ludicrous hyperbole that minion minds, the entire Trump administration plus the U.S. Senate, had to then repeat and support as Truth. It didn’t matter to Ms. Ellis that this Leader had already in some four years shown that reality, especially the reality of losing, couldn’t penetrate his delusional psyche, that he had with the greatest fervor of irrationality said that the only way he could lose was if the election was rigged. This is the sort of revelation that your psychiatrist seeks, one that fully established your malignant narcissism.

As did Kellyanne Conway, Jared Kushner, Kayleigh McEnany and all who have graduated from the Trump School of Performing Bullshit, Ms. Ellis kept a smile on her face, conveying the same kind of tolerating sufferance the wise make when dealing with poor fools too dull to see the Truth.

What are the categories which permit not engaging in dialogue, dialogic or dialectic?

In short, when and why would we tolerate the absence of open minded conversation and its search if not truth at least bits of commonly shared meaning, enough to establish a consensus upon which something can be done, such as mitigating global warming, a pandemic, an oligarchy? You can sense urgency in Marx’s famous sentence in his Thesis on Feuerbach: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it,” but we know that accurate interpretation grounds effective change, and that both depend upon our ability to communicate within what we all agree to be rational rules of engagement. When would we overlook their transgression, and when not? When would those trained to corrupt and undermine this fragile democratic order be found accountable?

A child may not be emotionally, intellectually, and experientially keyed to listen to you. The older and the young perennially talk at cross purposes perhaps because the young have no experiential frame of reference by which they can evaluate the reality bubble they are in, and the old have too many such frames to permit them the patience to deal with the unjustified self-confidence of the young.

Perhaps the rule of conversation engagement cannot be followed because you’re talking to a delusional patient, perhaps not yet admitted into the psychiatric ward but on his or her way there. If you’re self-reflexive prone, you might consider that you’re the one who is delusional.

Or, you may be talking to someone who is dragging you into a conspiratorial way of thinking, a reasoning grounded in some conspiracy beliefs, or, you’re trying to extricate them through conversation from their own entrapment.

You think all you have to do here in speaking to a QAnon believer is to quote Wikipedia’s definition: QAnon is a far-right conspiracy theory alleging that a cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles is running a global child sex-trafficking ring and plotting against US President Donald Trump, who is fighting the cabal. Either this has never been read or if read only meant that Wikipedia was part of the conspiracy, or, more frightening you thought that the description was correct and not a conspiracy at all but the truth.

Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert, QAnon advocates, both won seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, though their beliefs tell us that no rational dialogue can be expected from either. Rep. Taylor-Greene has just proudly announced to her House peers that face masks are “oppressive.” This puts her almost in the presidential “drink bleach” response to the pandemic. Clearly QAnon beliefs, like Trump’s unconstitutional assertion that he will not heed the results of election, are a forthright undermining of the democratic order. What that order, which we now discover has no means from within itself to protect itself, established was that The Congress debates and deliberates, heeding its own rules of engagement, and the presidency bows to the voice of the people as expressed in a presidential election.

We find ourselves with no punitive power against such transgressions. At this moment, Trump in his lame duck time in office, is doing all the can to leave both domestic and foreign affairs in a ruined state for Biden to inherit, preparing the way for Biden’s failure and Trump’s own return in 2024. Trump can start a war with Iran during this period and there’s nothing in our Constitutional order to stop him. We are prevented from engaging this possibility by our inability to consider anything rationally.

Perhaps you’re talking to someone who sees no purpose in seeking what a Celestial Entity has already willed into being. Your god vs. my god is a no conclusion game in which both sides hold each other in check. Evil cannot be allowed to speak or be listened to, though what is evil and who is exercising it should open the dialogue box. Even Goethe’s Faust had a reasonable conversation with Mephistopheles and came to a Faustian bargain.

Some refuse to carry on a fair and equal debate with subordinates of any kind, employees, students, slaves, women, the homeless and poor and so forth. How many women at boardroom meetings are given equal time to be heard? How many, indeed, are in the room?

Perhaps open dialogue is threatening, either to your personal safety or financial status, or runs counter to your best interests as you see them. For example, does it pay for the Republican Party to let an impeachment enquiry go where it must to pursue the truth, a sort of unimpeded Socratic dialogue, when such acquiescence will anger the 72 million Americans attached at the hip to Trump and whom the Republican Party needs to remain viable as a political party? Should I enter with an open mind a discussion about wealth redistribution when it’s my wealth that will be redistributed? Ditto regarding ending fossil fuel dependence when my stocks are in fossil fuel?

Perhaps you hold your own opinion sacrosanct and therefore don’t engage in any conversation in which you could learn something but rather see such as an opportunity “to crush.” You could go viral on YouTube with your crush. Social media voices support and therefore authorize your opinion and those that don’t need to be crushed. Who knows what’s best for you other than you? So, why bother listening to anyone at all? You’re self empowered, an autonomous, self-willed unique individual. Why send your children to school? Why did you go?

We don’t engage in any open-ended dialogue with people we despise and hate, or those who disgust us for whatever reasons (they don’t Roundup their lawns or they live homeless on your lawn). Our passions shut down non-contentious talk in such a way that reason never enters, or when it does, it’s the sort of alibi reasoning that fronts our passions.

Personal example: I was born and raised in the “old” Brooklyn and the sight of gentrifiers, whom I take to be an invading army of young professionals whose children are learning Mandarin in a private pre-school, sort of millennial age colonizers from flyover regions whose meritocratic success has landed them huge salaries in the Manhattan financial sector and its algorithm tech support, kicks my reason out the door while fueling my passions, in this case, anger and disgust and sadness. I see these colonizers as encrusting themselves on ways of living and being in the world that their lives filled with high end simulacra and no sense of neighborhood beyond their Apps can ever attain. For me synthetic life immersed in the financial depredations of neoliberalism found and twisted my “old” Brooklyn into a hyperreality, a kind of Disney World in which what was real has been supplanted by what is fake.

I “reason” here in a way that supports my passionate response, namely, that sharp minds achieve meritocratic/professional success and that earns enough salary and stock options to take whatever piece of real estate captures the eye. But my passions also lead me to question the whole notion of meritocracy, with such egalitarian credentials but with such disastrous effects on egalitarianism. This feeds oligarchy, not egalitarian democracy.

My point is that our personal passions are not to be dismissed, that they trigger and propel, close our ears and our eyes to thought, but also push thought into a living space. They vitalize thought. Without our passions we wouldn’t work ourselves into this or that issue, face events and find a point of view, our own at first and then because the passions don’t burn out, all the talk of others. The anger that builds when injustices never end propelled Black Lives Matter, propelled the whole country and the whole globe into confronting those injustices. The anger of 72 million will eventually finds its way to our Monopoly game economics that justify that anger.

President-elect Biden inherits a country in which there are passionate divisions. His first debate with President Trump showed us that performance and not rational dialogue is a bedrock division. How to return to meaning? How to stop crushing and returning to listening? How to accept that opinions are rarely your own creation but prefabricated, seldom rigorously examined in Cartesian fashion, and not accidentally complimentary to your status and self-image? Where our opinions come from and why we have them, especially if you have them strongly, matters if we are engage in dialogue that is not disingenuous and therefore useless.

You need to do a good deal of research, acquire workable erudition, as well as critical and logical thinking skills, grounded in historical grasp and made possible by extended attention span if you claim you’ve reasoned your way to your opinions. Perhaps if education in the U.S. hadn’t been abducted by corporate needs and priorities of privatization above anything public, including “public schools,” the U.S. would have a populace demonstrating a populist rationality. Such is not the case.

Our dialoging capabilities are too low to encourage Biden to take on open debates etc. with the 72 million Trump supporters. We don’t need more of the same “crushing” contests so beloved on social media. Journalists must recognize that they can’t confront Trump patriots and operatives as if false balance engagement would reveal Truth that both sides and all viewers and listeners would accept. Unless reportage is attended by interpretation, which is now mostly done by journalists, and summarizing and synthesizing are brought to the public’s attention, we are encouraging the nonsense that information, especially a lot of it, breeds knowledge and understanding. Inside, outside and upside-down trading on Wall Street feed on information and more information in order to maximize the virtual circulation of the abstract value of money and thus more money made. Human understanding has absolutely nothing to do with this.

As the bedrock conditions of threatening realities confront everyone regardless of party, there will be dialogue with purpose recognized by all. Everyone runs out of a burning house; no one stops to ponder. So the time will come when the 72 million divest themselves of Trump, whacko conspiracies, Bannon’s campaign to destroy whatever we’ve got (he’s not particular), and recognize that it’s the play of a financial hyper-capitalism immiserating them and the synthetic logic of the algorithm that’s destroying the human faculties that respond and absorb at so much slower a rate, if at all. In short, an openminded conversation can take place respecting the rules of rational engagement.

It’s difficult to say what the Democratic Party will offer in that engagement once Never Trump isn’t their platform. Neither the politics of identity or any centering of the margins will mean much to those who see themselves positioned elsewhere, say, middle- and working-class locations, locations scheduled for extinction within our economic rules of engagement.

The Democratic Party has long been complicit with our present digital-financial domination, and it must be recognized after the results of this presidential election, that the Republicans’ call to join that domination is appealing to those marginal groups the Democrats have presumed they own. Rather than joining and obliging a Liberal purging of white guilt, these people of color and all those impoverished and immiserated may prefer to climb that ladder taking them to fame and fortune, as wave after wave of immigrants have climbed in the past.

Some new political solidarity my offer a completion of FDR’s Economic Bill of Rights, forgotten by the Democratic Party in both Clinton and Obama administrations. The Leftist faction of the Party could offer an actionable deliberation of the Green New Deal. What is clear is that some solidarity needs to come up with a platform on their side of the debate because even with Trump gone, there’s an increasing struggle to survive side that 72 million will still represent. And talk of micro-aggressions, 64 gender identities and staying woke, the transgender bathroom battle, and the wonderful salvaging operations of gentrification, multi-culturalism, Otherness, and diversification is not amiss but does not an ideology make, at least not one that can change a country and a planet facing existential threats.


Joseph Phillip Natoli’s The New Utrecht Avenue novel trilogy is on sale at Amazon. Time is the Fire ended what began with Get Ready to Run and Between Dog & Wolf. Humour noire with counterpunches. .