Of Brutal Binaries and Scale-tipping

Forget binaries.  Who’s tipping the scale?

W.J. Astore

Citing the accusations against Brett Kavanaugh in particular, Andrew Sullivan claims that America is a land of brutal binaries.  On the surface, his idea appears sound.  Scratch the surface, however, and the idea breaks down.  The problem is that “brutal binaries” sell. They grab attention. They serve to mobilize.  They excite the base, the partisans, people who love to bicker.

But the notion that every issue is reducible to a binary, a 0/1, on/off, win/lose, is most often simplistic and misleading. Perhaps we should think not of computer binaries but of scales.  Entities with power put a finger (or more) on the scale to tip things in their direction. Even as they do this, they claim the scale is equally balanced for all or even tipped against them.  In short, we need to think not about either/or or on/off binaries, but about who has the power – and what they’re willing to say and do to keep and extend it.

Again, my point is to avoid binary computer-speak. The notion I’m 100% right, you’re 100% wrong.  Those who describe debates as “binary” leave no possibility for change or compromise. They see only unbridgeable divides. This is a satisfying notion to the powerful, for they don’t want change. They want to keep the status quo because it profits them. They’re happy to see Americans bickering and fighting and shouting — even as they quietly reap the profits.

So I despair of America’s so-called binary debates. They divide us, distract us, and make us angry. We shake our heads in despair, thinking there’s no way to reach “them,” the other side in the “binary” argument. The truth is different.  Polling data suggests Americans are far more in agreement than we are in disagreement (consider wide support for a higher federal minimum wage and for universal health care), but all we hear about is the divisiveness. Again, this serves the powerful. They’re happy to see us fighting over the scraps as they feast on the choice cuts.

Rather than shouting at each other, Americans need to work together in good faith.  Forget the false binaries, America.  The world is rarely a 0/1, I win/you lose, black/white place.  Even when the scales are tipped, as they so often are, there is common ground.  We’ve found it before – we will again.

5 thoughts on “Of Brutal Binaries and Scale-tipping

  1. This. A thousand times, this.

    Binaries are powerful tools. Sometimes extremely useful tools – fight/flight is a basic cognitive response that keeps us alive. But for people living in relative safety, like most Americans do, more often than not binaries are invoked by the powerful to serve their own purposes.

    The left/right, red/blue, conservative/liberal binaries matter to us mostly because of the way our democratic system is structured (as most political scientists argue). With a first-past-the-post voting system, you are almost guaranteed to get 2-3 major parties that are themselves coalitions of interest groups.

    A lot of what we’re seeing in American politics, I think, comes down to the fact that back in the ’90s, in the uncertainty that followed the end of the Cold War, the Clintonian democrats took advantage of internal differences in the GOP (producing the Perot movement) to pull a key component of the GOP coalition over to the DNC.

    Arguably, from the ’70s to the ’90s, the GOP coalition was characterized by the pro-business, evangelical, and foreign policy interest groups. And the main part of the DNC coalition was comprised of the union, progressive, and ‘minority’ coalitions. But on both sides of the pond, Clintonians/Blairites realized that they could take their progressives for granted – no way they’d vote for a conservative party – and make the ‘left’ safe for pro-business capitalists.

    The problem with this was that it left the GOP in a dangerous position. Their history makes it basically impossible to appeal to the unions or progressives. And so Gingrich and his jingoistic, America-first rhetoric ended up dominating the GOP. Trumpism is a natural result. Remember that Gingrich, then Giuliani, both ran in the GOP primaries and tried to cultivate the same sort of people who ended up backing Trump. They, throughout their careers, pushed this new form of virulent right-wing ideology because it turned out voters.

    In retrospect, the neoliberals of the Clinton/Blair set created the conditions for the emergence of a right-wing revival. aided and abetted by the more radical set among the GOP. I think, if America is to maintain our current political system with two major parties, then the GOP has got to be revived, given an opportunity to appeal to voters who aren’t motivated by fear of those on the other side of the false binary.

    All this to simply agree with you, Dr. Astore: binaries are dangerous. I think this Pew Research article’s graphic ought to be displayed on every TV news channel whenever anyone attempts to portray Americans as either ‘left’ or ‘right’:


    We desperately need a more sophisticated understanding of our own political system. Unfortunately, binary arguments make for good clickbait, and newsertainment like CNN’s Crossfire or Fox News’ old equivalent, Hannity and Colmes.

    It is also good to remember that even computers, which rely on binaries for their machine code, in practice are now much more sophisticated. They can use ‘fuzzy sets’, which rather than looking at a person’s politics on a binary scale, can consider them using other metrics, and allow partial affiliations to impact analysis. So you go (crudely speaking, I only understand some raw basics) from set:

    {0, 1}
    {0 under circumstance x, 1 under circumstance y, with x mattering 60% of the time, y mattering 40%}

    Which allows for indeterminacy. A person stops being a 0 or 1, but a contingent agent capable of behaving like a 1 or 0, depending on context.


    1. Thank you. Yes, I remember Clinton and the DLC. They shifted the Democratic Party to the right (in the cause of electability) without thinking about where that would leave the Republicans. Who cares, right? The Republicans, as you say, had nowhere to go but further rightwards, setting the stage for the emergence of a “populist” like Trump. Of course, Trump is really all about himself. The real danger is a right-wing populist with convictions. He or she may be coming in 2024, or even earlier if Trump gets impeached.


  2. My first experience with Binary Politics was during Watergate back in late summer 1973. I was in a discussion group. The Pro-Nixon types said Nixon was too savvy to actually order the Watergate Break-in, no need to, McGovern was no threat. It was a rogue operation. The Anti-Nixon types said Tricky-Dick was up to his neck in ordering the Break-in, as Nixon was a control freak. Another group offered the idea Nixon may not have ordered the Break-in, but was too smart not have known all the facts shortly after and began a cover-up.

    The bottom line was Pro-Nixon or Anti-Nixon even though at that point we had no way of knowing what the tapes would reveal were firm in their respective beliefs.

    Our McMega-Media at least Cable News has MSDNC and CNN firmly in the anti- President Agent Orange camp, and FAUX News is in the Pro-President Agent Orange camp.

    There is also the Whatabout’s – such as if some Republican is accused of sexual misconduct Bill Clinton, Al Franken or Ted Kennedy is the Whatabout.

    The Clintonites tried their best to depict Monica as lying trailer trash. When Clinton’s part was finally revealed, I remember one unrepentant Clintonite saying he was only screwing woman not the country. It is still strange that the Starr investigation went from White Water to Monica’s dress.


  3. “There is only one party in the United States, the Property Party … and it has two right wings: Republican and Democrat. … In order to have a third party you must have two other parties.” — Gore Vidal

    Or, as Jimmy Dore said on his youtube show WaPo Cartoon Urges Trump To Bomb More:

    “You know, we’ve complained about people attacking Trump from the right. And what does that mean?

    Well, that means that when Trump decides to pull out of Afghanistan and you say “He’s pulling out of Afghanistan to please Putin,” that’s attacking him from the right because what you want him to have a more bellicose military stance. When Trump says, “I don’t want to bomb Syria,” and you go, “Oh, he doesn’t want to bomb Syria because of Putin,” that’s you attacking him from the right because you want him to be more of a war hawk. That’s attacking him from the right. That’s how a right winger would attack the President, not a lefty. But lefties are no longer people who consider themselves on the left. They’re no longer against war anymore. We have two pro-war parties.”

    For my part, I refuse to go along with the ludicrous name of “parties” (plural) when the country in fact has but one party (singular). I prefer speaking of The Property Party’s two right-wing “factions.” I have trouble with the notion of “binaries,” which implies two things, when I see only a monolithic Orwellian singularity — The Party.

    I’ll worry about binaries when and if the Aboriginal American Boobies ever learn to count past the number 1: you know, like monotheism, or Single Spook Animism. In other words:

    “Let us get nearer to the fire, so that we can see what we are saying — The Bubis of Fernando Po” (epigram from Chapter One of The Meaning of Meaning, by C. K. Ogden and I. A. Richards)

    “…the most notable trait common to members of [primitive aboriginal] communities is a certain amiable inefficiency when confronted with force or fraud.” Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class (1899)

    Which thoughts led to the composition twelve years ago of:

    The Boobies of Fernando Po
    (from Fernando Po, U.S.A., America’s post-literate retreat to Plato’s Cave)

    The Island of Fernando Po
    Once knew a fleeting fame
    As home to aborigines
    The Boobies were their name
    Who — legend has it — only spoke
    By light of fire’s flame

    Their basic primate language showed
    That Boobies had devolved:
    Whatever they had figured out
    They also had unsolved,
    Reverting to forgetfulness
    And culture long dissolved

    They had the means of making noise
    As all rude peoples do
    And yet just like the deaf and mute
    They had to see words, too,
    Or else they could not cogitate
    Or any thoughts construe

    The Boobies of Fernando Po
    Could neither read nor write,
    Instead, they “acted out” their speech,
    “Performing” it despite
    Unconsciousness of language arts
    Of which they’d long lost sight

    Their spoken tongue made little use
    Of sentences and words,
    Thus they communicated like
    A flock of chirping birds
    Or else like fatted cows content
    To graze within their herds

    Dependence on the visual
    Constrained their use of sound
    To something less than merely noise
    Unorganized and bound
    To grotesque facial grimaces
    And gestures unprofound

    They’d slap their foreheads; roll their eyes;
    In slack-jawed pantomime
    Of something they’d done yesterday
    While only killing time
    In mindless mimicry that had
    No reason and no rhyme

    “I’m all like going ‘duh’,” they’d say,
    Which usage left aghast
    Their teachers who had worked so hard
    But realized at last
    That Boobies couldn’t separate
    The present from the past

    In cultures that have languages
    Like Chinese, French, and Basque
    Linguistic tools like verbs and nouns
    Perform the needed task
    Of formulating answers to
    The questions Boobies ask

    But Boobies need their hands and feet
    To illustrate their themes
    They “point” and “walk” and “pose” because
    They’ve no semantic memes
    To pass among themselves for use
    As metaphoric schemes

    They live imprisoned in the Now,
    All Boobies preordained
    To do the things their parents did,
    Each generation chained
    To labor on a treadmill
    Giving up what they had gained

    The rooster crowed; the sun came up
    Which taught them quite a lot
    The cows came home; the sun went down
    Which didn’t teach them squat
    At sunrise they began to learn
    At sundown they forgot

    They could not tell this day from that
    They had no memory
    Each moment died at birth and left
    No known posterity
    The Boobies had no ancestors,
    No living history

    They could not tell where they had been
    They knew not where they went
    As far as they could figure out
    Each thought came to them sent
    Prefabricated “up above”
    From “Heaven’s” firmament

    This made them existentialists
    A philosophic breed
    Who dealt in isolated facts
    And never saw the need
    To add their observations up
    Into a larger creed

    Yet starting at the other end
    As Plato chose to do
    With abstract “essences” and spooks
    And “gods” not real or few
    Would only have made matters worse
    By proving falsehood true

    The Boobies just threw up their hands
    And thought whichever way
    Which made it easy for the priest
    To hold them in his sway
    Performing magic rites that made
    The sun come up each day

    The Boobies let their children grow
    As they themselves had done
    By joining dots with crayon lines
    And having lots of fun
    While limiting arithmetic
    To just the number one

    “It’s all the same!” the Boobies cried;
    And they believed it, too;
    Which made their basic monism
    So easy to imbue.
    “If everything is One,” they said
    “Who needs the number `two’?”

    And so the Boobies on this isle
    Endured the Dumb disease:
    A simple, savage livelihood
    That mainly served to please
    The tribal chief and witch doctor
    In their concerted ease

    Michael Murry, “The Misfortune Teller,” Copyright 2006

    “Binaries”? What “binaries”?

    “One ring to rule them all, one ring to find them. One ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them. In the land of Mordor, where the shadows lie.” — J. R. R. Tolkien


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