Decoding Decoding The Gurus

I love this center-left podcast by two center-left academics (Christopher Kavanagh and Matthew Brown) decoding the new breed of secular gurus (such as Jordan Peterson, Ibram X. Kendi, Eric and Bret Weinstein, Joe Rogan) by examining their facts and logic.

Here is an overview of their mission:

By guru we refer to the standard definition of “an influential teacher or popular expert” but our specific focus tends to be the subset of gurus who make liberal use of ‘pseudo profound bullshit’ referring to speech that is persuasive and creates the appearance of profundity with little regard for truth or reference to relevant expertise. The recurring characteristics identified collectively trend towards negative traits, so a high score on the gurometer could be regarded as identifying ‘bad’, potentially exploitative gurus who produce ersatz wisdom: a corrupt epistemics that creates the appearance of useful knowledge, but has none of the substance. The characteristics identified have not been empirically validated but are based on our personal assessments. Taken together, they help us in the task of spotting gurus in the wild.
Galaxy-brainness
Galaxy-brainness is an ironic descriptor of someone who presents ideas that appear to be too profound for an average mind to comprehend, but are in truth reasonably trivial if not nonsensical. Gurus often present themselves as fonts of wisdom, and it is an all-encompassing kind of knowledge that tends to span multiple disciplines and topics. Their arguments often link together disparate concepts, such as quantum mechanics, logic, and the nature of consciousness. A guru will often present themselves as a polymath, who can offer novel insights with reference to many different fields. They will often allude to their own accomplishments, and exaggerate them to a shameless degree. They will confidently offer hot takes on technical topics, and with a wave of their hand, dismiss the perspectives of genuine experts. This is, of course, a confidence trick that relies on the recipient being convinced of their unique intellectual powers. Various performative flourishes can assist in this deception, such as unnecessary references to high or specialist literature, the use of jargon and technical terms. On closer inspection, these references can often be recognised to be entirely superfluous and largely tangential to the argument being presented. However, the recipient is not expected to dig too deeply or to fully understand the references being made. Indeed, they are probably most effective when the recipient does not understand them at all; they are merely allusions intended to signal a deep level of knowledge.

I want to do a little decoding of their decoding.

In their latest episode,guest Robert Wright says: “You should be able to talk about that [cognitive empathy for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine] without being accused of repeating Putin talking points. I was against NATO expansion in the 1990s.”

Kavanagh: “This Russian official said we regard Ukraine as an important part of our sphere of influence. The West is trying to take this strategic ally and pull them into their orbit. They had a leader who was more pro-Russian and was ousted and they want to draw closer ties to the EU. And all through that conversation, the thing that struck me, and I think I’m more sensitive to it because I’m from Ireland, which way they orientate their foreign policy? What group or society they want to be closer to?”

Great question. And if Kavanagh had gone deeper, he would have seen that there are no rights here. There’s no higher authority to turn to resolve this dispute. Rights, generally speaking, over have meaning within particular nation-states at particular times. Those rights are extended by countries to their citizens. There are no universal human rights because there is no universal power with the capacity to protect those rights. The United Nations, for example, has no power to guarantee anybody’s rights.

With international relations, we’re all stuck in an iron cage together and nobody is coming to rescue us. Whatever rights we build come from taking power in a part of that iron cage and making ourselves as powerful as possible to minimize incentives for others to fight us.

There are various declarations about international human rights, but they have no power. The human rights movement developed in the 1970s after left-wing activists became disillusioned with politics but still wanted to act in a way that feels virtuous, so they wrapped themselves in the mantle of international morality. Prior to this development, human rights were understood as rights extended by nation states to their citizens.

Kavanagh: “Tough luck. You are not the rulers.”

If Russia invades and take territory from Ukraine, Russia is the ruler.

Kavanagh: “You can put pressure on them.”

Russia doesn’t have to abide my Chris Kavanagh’s feelings. The only basis for his declaration of international human rights is his feelings but his feelings aren’t dispositive. Wars don’t end or fail to start because of Chris Kavanagh’s feelings. If he had an argument, he’d make the argument, but as he has no argument, all he can enunciate is that feels something.

Kavanagh: “What you can’t do is send people into the country and deny that you’re doing it.”

And yet that is what happened. Kavanagh can deny reality until the cows come home, and yet reality is.

So we have this academic who’s normally so rational and logical crying out against reality and wailing that what is should not be. And on what basis? Because Chris Kavanagh has feelings opposed to reality. If Kavanagh wants to cite international law as the basis for his argument, then who enforces international law? Nobody unless some other powerful nation wants to enlist international law in its own interests.

The first and foremost task for any state is to survive and if you don’t put your survival above international law, you’re not going to survive for long. America violates international law all the time when it is in its interests to do so.

This is the way of the world and always has been — the strong take what they want and the weak endure what they must.

That you don’t like this and you feel that because the Lady of the Lake, her arm clad in the purest shimmering samite, held aloft Excalibur from the bosom of the water, signifying by divine providence that you, Chris, were to carry Excalibur and rule the cosmos is not dispositive.

Listen. Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony.

You can’t expect to wield supreme power just ’cause some watery tart threw a sword at you!

Kavanagh: “Militarily annex parts of the country. And that’s what they did. And the way the person spoke about it, Ukraine doesn’t have the right not to be in Russia’s sphere of influence and they don’t have the right to be closer to NATO.”

What rights does Ukraine possess? The rights it can protect. No more and no less. And in the protection of its rights, it is going to crush a ton of other rights, because nations will do anything to survive.

But they won’t do that? No, they’ll do that too.

Kavanagh: “And when it comes to NATO membership, I’m always stuck with the feeling…”

That’s all you have on this, mate. Your feelz. Strange feelings lying deep inside about enforcing universal human rights is no basis for a system of international relations. Supreme power derives from supreme military power backed by supreme economic power, not from some farcical emotional ceremony.

You can’t expect to wield supreme power just ’cause some watery feeling threw a moral mandate at you!

Kavanagh: “Ukraine was on the precipice of entering NATO and that wasn’t the case.”

Ukraine was a de facto part of NATO. Just because it wasn’t officially a part of NATO doesn’t mean it wasn’t unofficially a part of NATO. A lot of what is unofficial is more real than what is official. In some places, for example, the unofficial economy is far bigger than the official economy. The unofficial gossip you get from coworkers is often more real than the employee handbook.

Russia is struggling against Ukraine because it is primarily fighting NATO, not Ukraine.

Kavanagh: “If Ukraine was admitted to NATO, that is their right.”

A right granted and enforced by whom? You can’t expect to wield supreme power just ’cause some watery feeling threw a moral mandate at you!

How many battalions does international law command?

How many battalions does universal human rights command?

How many battalions does Chris Kavanagh’s feelings command?

About as many as I command.

I DM’d Kavanagh on Twitter May 29, 2022: “I was just reading Ronald Coase’s 1974 paper on the free market of ideas, and I was wondering when did this cease to get the default support of intellectuals? I think it was after the rise of the internet when university intellectuals had the unpleasant experience of being critiqued by those they regarded as their inferiors? It’s a bit like the press being all for freedom for themselves but not for broadcasters. Intellectuals are all for their own freedom of expression, but not for the masses online.”

I got no response. Kavanagh says on the show that he actively engages with people on Twitter DM, but he found no reason to engage with me.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see Amazon.com). My work has been noted in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (Alexander90210.com).
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