I Know Why the Caged Bird Speaks

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Maya Angelou’s 1969 autobiography, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”, is an important book to me, both for how it helped me see myself with clearer eyes and how it helped me see others with a fuller heart. Maya Angelou is part of my pack.

Here is Angelou’s best known quote. It’s not from “Caged Bird”, but it’s Truth with a capital T.

I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.

As an aside, the Wall Street version of this quote is that people will forget what you said on CNBC, people will forget your published reports and models, but people will never forget if you made them money in their personal account. But I digress.

I was thinking about this Maya Angelou quote when I was writing the other day about Fiat News – the presentation of opinion as fact by famous people for their own political or economic ends – which is the engine of the Narrative Machine and, more often than not, the bane of our clear-eyed, full-hearted lives as investors and citizens. (If you’re not familiar with our take on Fiat News, you can find recent Epsilon Theory notes here, here, and here, and the original note here.)

I think Angelou is right when she says that the most powerful messages are those that make us FEEL one way or another. But there are no overt statements about feelings in Fiat News. Quite the opposite, the hallmark of Fiat News is that it takes a feelings-heavy statement (an opinion) and masks it in a cloak of neutrality (a fact or a piece of news) so that it’s not directly making us feel anything. And yet it does make us feel! 

Thus my question: what is the relationship between facts (particularly the opinions-as-facts of Fiat News) and feelings?

Here’s Ben Shapiro’s well-known quote on that issue.

Facts don’t care about your feelings.

I’m a Ben Shapiro fan (sometimes in spite of himself), and I understand the impetus behind this statement – just because we would LIKE for the world to be soft and gentle and in line with our snowflake sentiments doesn’t mean that it IS. Or that it should be.

But I also understand this: the reason that this quote about facts trumping feelings is famous and popular and the reason that Ben Shapiro’s lectures on facts trumping feelings are famous and popular is that this statement of opinion-as-fact about facts makes us FEEL good.

Ben Shapiro is a keen metagame player.

In the construction of Fiat News, it’s the choice of facts and the choice of words that preserve the power to make us feel. It’s the cloaking of opinion with this fact rather than that fact or this word rather than that word that directs our attention to a feeling-heavy context that in turn imbues the statement with feeling, almost regardless of what is actually being said. Effective Fiat News chooses cloaking facts and cloaking words that exist within a feeling-heavy context. Ineffective Fiat News doesn’t.

Why was this photograph chosen to represent the G-7 meetings last year when hundreds of other photos, some of which showed light-hearted moments between Merkel and Trump, could have been chosen? Because it makes us FEEL. Moreover, it makes us feel negatively towards Trump, sitting there like a petulant child. It’s not a lie. It’s not a fake. It’s not “doctored”. But it definitely has an opinion.

Fiat News is not Fake News. It’s not a lie, per se. It’s a clever choice of a fact or a word to imbue the statement with feeling, not the construction of a counterfeit fact. It’s not even (necessarily) misleading, in and of itself. But the act of choosing is an act of intentional subterfuge.

In fact, the phrase “Fake News” is itself an example of what I’m talking about. It’s the Donald’s intentional choice of a word – “fake” – to cloak his opinion. Instead of saying, “I don’t think this press coverage I’m getting treats me fairly” (which is what he used to say) or instead of calling it “Unfair News” (which is still kinda gray in its feeling context), he makes the much more evocative statement that the press coverage is fake like a counterfeit coin or a forged painting. Fairness elicits medium strong feelings from lots of people. Fakeness elicits very strong feelings from everyone.

Like so many things in the Epsilon Theory world, once you start looking for the selective choice of facts and words to create a feeling-heavy context, you will see it everywhere. Because Fiat News is everywhere. Because all Missionaries think that they’re more clever than we are, that we won’t see through their act of subterfuge. Because they’re probably right.

I’ll close this note with another wonderful quote from Maya Angelou.

Never make someone a priority when all you are to them is an option.

If someone won’t tell you their opinion directly … if they feel the need to cloak their opinion in a carefully chosen context of affect-laden words or facts … they are treating you instrumentally, as an object to an end. You are an option to them, not a human being that matters in your own right. You are a sale. You are a vote.

The Missionaries will probably get away with their intentional choice of words and facts to make us feel the way they want us to feel, in service to their own political or economic goals. They’re VERY clever coyotes, and our social animal brains are hard-wired to respond to much of this. We’re going to have to accept this as part of our larger social world.

But we don’t have to accept it as part of our pack.


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Mark Kahn
Member
Mark Kahn

Ben, two thoughts on another outstanding In Brief piece.

One, does Ben Shapiro credit the source of his quote to the famous quote from John Adams: “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence[?]”

Which, just my guess, is probably a riff on an ancient Chinese proverb as they seemed to be putting those out even before the Greeks got a chance to grab all the good quotes.

And, two, Fiat News has an echo to your comments from a long ago ET piece “The Play’s the Thing:”

“There has to be a middle ground between being a Cynic and a Fool, some way of playing the game without losing one’s soul. Recognizing that all of us human animals, including me and including you, are playing multiple multi-level games … well, that seems like a good start to me. The Truths in life are still death and taxes (and maybe compounding returns). Everything else is theatre, where honesty (with a small h) and truth (with a small t) are probably the best we can achieve. And that’s not so bad.”*

Since reading that 2014 piece, I see “small ts” and “small hs” everywhere, all the time. It’s become hard not to see them as almost every argument you agree or disagree with has a small h or t at its core (being human, you’ll notice their smallness more in the ones you disagree with). Not the same thing as Fiat News, but a lot of Fiat News is built up around small t and h arguments presented as big t and h ones.

I lied, one more (very quick) thought. To not talk in narratives and to not argue from small ts and hs requires more engagement and more of a time commitment to build out a comprehensive argument than most people are willing to give.

* It would be good to have font, indentation, etc., capability in this response section. Or, perhaps, these capabilities exist and I’m just not seeing them or it’s an issue with my operating system.

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Michael
Member

Mark – you can use html tags to do this (see this for bold https://boldlentil.wordpress.com/2008/06/26/how-to-comment-in-bold/) and italics is emphasize. I tested it in my comments below.

So to bold you would place < b > in front of and < /b > behind the text. Use em for italics. Some recommend strong not b for bold.

This site is WordPress so there is probably a plugin that puts a little format bar in the comment box to save people having to learn HTML.

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Mark Kahn
Member
Mark Kahn

Michael, thank you, Mark

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Peter Perez
Member
Peter Perez

Ben- Love your line, “but people will never forget if you made them money in their personal account” which should be stated as: “never forget if you didn’t beat/match the index in the most recent few years…even though you’ve given them 80% (including the past few crummy years) of the S&P’s return with half the risk/volatility since Q1 2000”. I feel like that caged bird! To your point…Bogel et al’s assertion re indexation will be shown to be “fake news” in the fullness of time!

Haul-ass, bypass, and re-gas!

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Thomas
Member
Thomas

I assumed Maya Angelou’s best known quote was, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.”

Ben Shapiro showed us who he is way back in 2005, “Americans must realize that empire isn’t a choice: It’s a duty.”

Too bad that concept doesn’t seem to have much salience within the context of an integrated world economy. No empire would seem to have much long term staying power in a system that has already colonized all of its easy growth territories. And Shapiro only seems to be miming what far more frightening characters like Kissinger or Madeline Albright actually put into practice. Yet those who insist Perception > Reality and Man > Nature continue to loudly proclaim that we must always and forever Go Forth!

I still wonder vainly if there were moments when such a fate could have been deterred. When there may have been sufficient room to make a choice freely about whether or not to treat others as options. The end of the Cold War often strikes me as the pinnacle of missed opportunities in the 20th Century. Although I sense that the algorithms shaping our sole superpower world were largely encoded in the decades before Metallica would finally get to play Moscow (https://youtu.be/_W7wqQwa-TU). More pointedly, perhaps if LBJ had not fallen prey to fiat news circa 1964 then domestic political capital wouldn’t have withered like foliage poisoned by Agent Orange and maybe America’s internal development wouldn’t have ground to a halt. Setting aside any notions of sentiment or humanity, I’ve also heard that staunch anti-war anti-imperialist Bertrand Russell was so aghast by the world-ending power of nuclear weapons that he seriously suggested for the United States to preemptively destroy the USSR’s major cities before it could achieve any comparable military capabilities. The remainder of Earth’s non-nuclear armed peoples would then resign themselves to a hopefully benevolent domination by an American empire which inevitably spreads across every continent. Shapiro would have fervently approved.

“You make your own reality and then, once you’ve done it, everyone is of the opinion that it was all so obvious.” – Brian Cox as Logan Roy in Succession (2018)

Our appetite to allow perception and feelings to govern our lives in this part of the world really does feel like something exceptional. Residents returning to Paradise and Malibu in California right now are likely regaining the very same confidence as the woman who stopped first to apply makeup before fleeing the inferno that lustily consumed her good looks right down to ash and bone. I don’t know for sure if America’s insatiable hunger for sentiment and happiness is uniquely exceptional in history, but it sure feels that way so therefore must be true. Restating what I hear from Dr. Ben’s message—if we’re going to be stuck in a world that nobody with a soul actually wants to live in then best find some good friends to do it with. A good pack being the only effective inoculation against missionary coyotes like Shapiro. Where else are we supposed to trade pop culture quotes and literary aphorisms with apocalyptic abandon? Here’s another one, the last I promise, which I’d say is a proper completion of Shapiro’s self-serving fragment about Facts > Feelings. Attempting to uncloak the metagamers carefully packaged opinions never seems to do much good or else they would’ve gone extinct long ago. But all the same, one ought never to mistake the words of a heretical pedant for those of a poet:

We would rather be ruined than changed
We would rather die in our dread
Than climb the cross of the moment
And let our illusions die.

– W.H. Auden, The Age of Anxiety: A Baroque Eclogue

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Mark Kahn
Member
Mark Kahn

“Our appetite to allow perception and feelings to govern our lives in this part of the world really does feel like something exceptional”

My father was a man forged as a boy in The Depression who lived by the ethics of hard work, integrity, honor, commitment, “your word is your bond ” (Ben, he always went to the funeral) and compassion, empathy and kindness.

That order wasn’t a mistake as my father didn’t diminish those last three, but believed you couldn’t successfully be compassionate, kind and empathetic – charitable – if you didn’t first do the hard work of earning a living and building an honest reputation. Growing up in the Depression taught him that you had to build something – a career / a skill / a way to earn a living / a reputation – to be able to practice the empathy, kindness and compassion he possessed under a hardened shell.

IMHO, and your comments touch on it, that understanding is what is slipping away from America: the understanding that, first, you have to do the hard work – earning a living and building a honest reputation for an individual / growing an economy and pushing for honor and integrity in our public institutions (companies, government and non-profits) – before you as an individual and we (as a society) can do the good of empathy, of sympathy, of charity.

Those last three are wonderful feelings, sentiments and actions, but by putting them first and diminishing and, at times, being hostile to the other ones – the ones of hard work and integrity – we are breaking our country apart as the latter are impossible without the former.

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Andrew Meyer
Member
Andrew Meyer

Thank you for incisive writing that makes me think. I wonder, what role does the audience play in this? There is an abundance of news: fiat or otherwise. If the audience selects, amplifies and rewards what it values, it is not blameless. Beyond choosing not to be a rhinoceros, surely there are other levels of responsibility.

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Michael
Member

It helps I think to point to others in discussions, how they are being played. (You have to shine the light subtly through a question and not a criticism). No-one likes to be played which may shore up the flock’s defenses. But when everyone is so polarised and “enraged” this is not easy to do. To add another Maya Angelou quote to the mix: “Try to be a rainbow in someone’s cloud.”

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Andrew Meyer
Member
Andrew Meyer

Thanks, that is a smart approach and meaningful warning.

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