American News

Ron Johnson’s Binary Thinking

It’s time to explore the link between racism, social injustice and our dominant modes of thinking about the world.
Ron Johnson, Ron Johnson news, Wisconsin Senator, Wisconsin news, Capitol Hill, Capitol riots, Capitol Hill violence, Capitol Hill mob violence, Donald Trump, Peter Isackson

Ron Johnson in Kiev, Ukraine on 9/5/2019. © Viewimage / Shutterstock

March 16, 2021 15:18 EDT

Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson is a voice the media counts on to faithfully echo the positions and culture of the former US president, Donald Trump. For the liberal media, Johnson represents everything reasonable citizens should reject in the name of democratic values. He is also a multimillionaire, who, like the billionaire Trump, “promised to place his assets in a blind trust to ensure that he would legislate in the public interest. That did not happen.” To make sure his current and future millions would be safe, like many other wealthy people, Johnson found a way of profiting from the movements of the market provoked by the coronavirus pandemic. Such people will always be respected for their prescience and their success.

In the absence of Trump himself — no longer in the White House and banned from Twitter — the media remain attentive to any public statements Johnson is willing to make. Since the events of January 6, when a mob stormed Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, and threatened the lives of legislators, a debate has raged about who, if anyone, was responsible. Many claim that members of the mob were ready to physically attack any lawmaker favorable to certifying the results of the 2020 presidential election, consecrating Trump’s defeat. Johnson himself publicly refused to certify the results, contributing to the mob’s ire against a “stolen election.” That explains why he felt at the time that he had nothing to fear from the crowd.

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Now, Johnson is criticizing Democrats who say they feared for their lives, implying that they are either cowards, liars or both. Johnson has qualified members of the mob as “people that love this country, that truly respect law enforcement, would never do anything to break a law.” Clearly they were white patriots. How could anyone doubt their peaceful intentions toward America’s white republic?

Johnson added a remark that his opponents see as a direct admission of racism: “Had the tables been turned and President Donald Trump won the election and those were thousands of Black Lives Matter and antifa protestors I would have been concerned.”

Today’s Daily Devil’s Dictionary definition:

Tables turned:

An expression dear to those who see every problem as a simple binary opposition, enabling them to suppose that on one side are those who represent the good and on the other, evil

Contextual Note

Johnson’s racism is patent. But far more interesting and far more sinister is his assumption — shared even by Americans who claim to oppose everything he stands for — that all problems can be reduced to a binary opposition.

The senator makes a purely rhetorical point by evoking an imaginary situation that in all probability could never have occurred. It allows him to establish a theoretical equivalence between very real criminal actions — with far-reaching political consequences — conducted by those he considers his allies and the fantasized actions of those he identifies as his enemies. Johnson evokes the counterfactual idea of a Trump victory and imagines everything would play out symmetrically thanks to turned tables.

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The notion of turning the tables reflects a widespread contemporary belief that opposing sides within a competitive system will always indulge in destructive behavior, inconsistent with their stated democratic ideals. It even suggests that in an oppositional two-party system, destructive behavior becomes the norm.

The idea that public action can be reduced to the symmetry of turning the tables has its source within a deeper trend in US culture: the growing tyranny of binary logic. Silicon Valley’s success derives from the triumph of binary code. It contains the idea that every thought or creative impulse can be represented by a 0 or a 1 and subsequently built into an algorithm. With the era of fossil fuel as the dominant force in the economy presumably drawing to an end, the reign of information technology and its binary culture appears to be taking over.

Analog thinking, as opposed to binary thought, supposes a range of values across a continuous spectrum. Binary thought cancels the spectrum and replaces it by what are taken to be fundamental units that combine to simulate the spectrum. That process underlies not only the logic of computers, but also the construction of political and cultural hyperreality. Reality has an analog structure. Hyperreality uses binary logic to simulate reality. It forces every identity into a 0/1 opposition: liberal vs. conservative, Democrat vs. Republican, white vs. black, woke vs. unwoke. The points of division may vary according to different algorithms, but the underlying principle remains the same. 

Within such systems, the idea of opposition rules. Politicians promote an ideology based on simplistic algorithmic thinking because voters find it easy to accept. This in turn tends toward defining an attitude that tends toward excluding “the other.” It buttresses the notion of exclusion that justifies racism. To counter this impression and create the illusion of equality and fair play, it introduces the pseudo-logic of tables being turned. If both sides are expected to play foul, then all will be fair. Human society in a competitive culture takes on the zero-sum logic of professional sports. For one side to win, the other must lose, at least until the next rematch.

Historical Note

It may simply be a coincidence that the oppositional fragmentation of society has grown in intensity at the same historical moment in which information technology has come to represent the ultimate manifestation of progress, economic success and, for some, human virtue. 

In his book, “Les mots et les choses” (literally, “words and things”), whose title was rendered in English, “The Order of Things,” Michel Foucault pointed to a major paradigm change that took place in European culture starting in the 17th century. The modes of thought of the intellectual class began shifting from an analog model — premised on a mode of reasoning that produced meaning through the observation of multiple and often random similarities — to a binary model that permitted the growth of scientific thought. Science thrives on the analysis of individual components rather than associations based on appearance. Foucault points to the role played by the Académie Française when it reduced the idea of language to the binary pair of signifiant and signifié, signifier and signified. It implicitly excluded other associations that human language conveys through nuance.

In European popular culture, the two systems of accounting for the world — ternary and binary — continued to coexist for at least two centuries, with the binary logic of science playing an increasingly dominant role. The ultimate triumph of science in the 20th century had the effect of banishing from the regime of legitimate thought the ternary thinking that still existed in traditions associated with the idea of “folklore.” It also remained uncomfortably present in the arts and, in particular, poetry and song.

Thanks to its efficacy and omnipresence in people’s lives today, information technology has sealed the triumph of binary thought. But the latest evolution of science, the quantum revolution, may be upsetting the paradigm by introducing a troubling third state. The smallest of Foucault’s “things” exist in the alternative states of a particle and a wave. This means that, in some sense, they are also neither one nor the other. And they may be much more, as quantum computing is beginning to reveal.

Were he to think about such things, Ron Johnson would probably assume that when an electron shifts from particle to wave, it is simply “turning the tables.” But it is doing much more. Part of it concerns its entanglement with other particles which, whatever their distance, synchronize their behavior thanks to principles that no known physical force determines.

In his explanation of quantum entanglement, Frank Wilczek explains this fundamental truth: “In practice, unentangled (independent) states are rare exceptions, for whenever systems interact, the interaction creates correlations between them.” Despite the tragic implications of Schrodinger’s metaphor of a cat that is both alive and dead, this is not a zero-sum game in which the tables are turned and the winners smile as the losers weep. It is about “correlations,” which implies solidarity. The traditional model expects competition or at least independent (indifferent) action.

Some dare to speculate that the quantum paradigm may eventually push our society toward overcoming the tyranny of binary thinking. How long will it take for the politicians to catch up?

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary on Fair Observer.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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