Sleuthing Out Bad True Crime

I tuned into Netflix’s latest true crime offering, Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel, and almost immediately realized it would be rubbish. The tip off was the meandering opening, wherein a number of interchangeable talking-heads sputter in awe at the mysterious evil lurking the halls of the hotel. What could possibly cause it to become a focal point for murders, suicides, and drug dealing? Poverty. My guess is poverty.

Another tip-off was the presence of so many internet gawkers in the opening crawl, rubbernecking at the death of Elisa Lam. Now, I cannot claim any moral superiority over other people fascinated by macabre stories about human suffering, since I often succumb to the same bile fascination. My complaint is that YouTube personalities and podcasters typically add nothing to a true crime program. Even in the slightly better docuseries Don’t F**k With Cats: Hunting an Internet Killer (2019), where the internet sleuths were directly involved in the case, they quickly become irrelevant to the investigation that ultimately caught Luka Magnotta. At least we got a hilarious clip of a well-meaning internet sleuth failing to pronounce Etobicoke.

Building a quality documentary around bile fascination is not easy. The best true crime documentaries, to my mind, have something to say about their subject, the times they lived in, and the events that transpired. I don’t just mean a recap of historical events, or recounting of the crime, but something to say about the politics, history, sociology, or psychology of the crime. This is a problem bad true crime programs share with most true crime YouTube shows and podcasts, which are often little more than a dramatic reading of a Wikipedia page. If I wanted merely some facts and conjecture, I’d just read Wikipedia.

Compare, for instance, Neflix’s The Ripper (2020), or Ted Bundy: Falling for a Killer (2020). Peter Sutcliffe and Ted Bundy were active during roughly the same period, which might explain some of the shared themes between these documentaries. One pervasive theme is misogyny. In both cases, there were female witnesses and victims who approached police long before the murderers were apprehended, but they were ignored and dismissed. So, in addition to the misogyny that informed the murderer’s crimes, a more subtle version held back the investigations and permitted more people to be killed – women, naturally.

I state this theme more bluntly here than it appears in these two documentaries, and it’s far from the only value added by the documentarians to their retellings of the crimes. I don’t mean to suggest that there is anything morally wrong with enjoying less cerebral meditations on vicious crimes – my point is aesthetic. Better true crime programs have something interesting to say about their subjects beyond reveling in the gory details.

Reading Log – February 10th, 2021

Back to candidacy paper readings today. I’m working on a paper related to philosophical intuitionism and epistemic self-defeat. That is, I’m interested in arguments concerning whether arguments undermining intuition (in the technical, philosophical sense of the word) are ultimately self-defeating since they must rely on intuition. I actually began the Smithies paper a couple days ago but set it down halfway through due to its length. The Smithies piece didn’t turn out to directly relate to my project as much as I’d hoped, but was still an illuminating read in the vicinity since it discusses intuitionism. The Zouhar reading relates directly to my project, and while I disagree with most of what he has to say that’s what makes his essay interesting and valuable.

  • Smithies, Declan. “On the Global Ambitions of Phenomenal Conservatism.” Analytic Philosophy, Vol. 60, No. 3, 2019. 206-244.

This is the longest standalone article I’ve read while reading for my candidacy paper. It’s an attack on Michael Huemer’s theory of ‘Phenomenal Conservatism,” though it’s also a companion piece to Smithies’ book The Epistemic Role of Consciousness (2019), given that he’s continually referring the reader back to the book for the details on his own theory of “Accessibilism,” which features prominently in the article. It’s probably for the best since the article is long enough – though too much of its length is repetition of the same ideas. I should say something about substance instead of complaining about the style and length. Although Smithies attacks Phenomenal Conservatism his own theory still takes intuitions as evidence, so it’s not a direct challenge to my own thinking. His claim that intuitions lack presentational phenomenology, and are in that way dis-analogous to perception, does seem to raise some problems for proponents of sui generis intuitionism, however.

  • Zouhar, Marian. “On the Alleged Indispensability of Intuitions to Philosophy.” The Balkan Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 7, No. 1, 2015. 37-44.

Zouhar’s target is George Bealer’s argument that modal intuitions are indispensable to philosophy. He think that Bealer is mistaken since certain philosophical arguments can be formulated without referring to intuitions. Likewise, Zouhar thinks modal intuitions can be arrived at through induction, without the need for intuition. I think Zouhar misses the point of Bealer’s arguments, but I haven’t read all of the relevant Bealer yet so I could be wrong. Regardless, certain modal intuitions (about, say, the necessity of accepting the conclusion of a sound argument) do seem indispensable to philosophy and argumentation in general. Zouhar states that we can simply “assume” these things without evidence, but that seems an abandonment of the search for answers rather than an actual one. There are real concerns that “intuition” might not be a reliable source of evidence, but I don’t think denying the need for evidence is a plausible alternative. Still, a very helpful read!

Reading Log – February 9th, 2021

I intended some time ago to begin a daily log of what I was reading, both to remind myself and to record some thoughts before I moved onto the next thing the following day. Today I took a break from reading for my candidacy paper to re-read material for a publication.

The paper I’m preparing is tentatively titled “The Regress of Nationalism” and is intended for Medjunarodne Studije/International Studies, a bilingual journal that publishes articles in English and Croatian. Back in November I gave a (virtual) talk at the State (In)Stability 2020 conference at Libertas International University called “Multiculturalism and the Regress of Nationalism”, which was an early version of the paper I’m writing. The speakers were invited to submit their papers afterward for a special edition of the associated journal.

Here is what I (re-)read today:

  • Moore, Margaret. “On National Self-Determination.” Nations and Nationalism: A Reader. Ed. Philip Spencer & Howard Wollman. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2005. 221-236.

I agree with Moore that nations are best understood according to a subjective definition, but that might be all we agree on. She provides a strong argument for affording political sovereignty to nations, but I think it is misguided. In particular, I think it’s a mistake to identify the “people” who are owed self-government with a particular nation. In short, national identities are shifting, overlapping, and unstable. You can never design political boundaries that perfectly align with national boundaries, so there must be another basis for the state. In the paper I intend to argue the necessity of multicultural accommodation that can permit the multi-national coalition building required to ground a political state.

  • Trudeau, Pierre. “The New Treason of the Intellectuals.” Against the Current. Ed. Gerard Pelletier. Toronto: McCelland & Stewart, 1993. 151-181.

I first read the collection of Pierre Trudeau’s writings, Against the Current, during high-school. The critique of national self-determination he provides in “The New Treason of the Intellectuals” has always stuck with me as powerful. To briefly summarize, if the principle of national self-determination is consistently granted to national groups then each will find another minority nation within itself as soon as it achieves independence. The result is a regress with no stopping point at which a stable state can form. This is at the heart of the paper I’m working on. There is much more of value in this essay by Trudeau as well, particularly his optimistic proposal for what Canada could become.

Fake Philosophers; or, the Modern Sophist

Occasionally I happen across New Age figures that style themselves as “philosophers.” As someone whose worked hard to formally study philosophy, yet would still feel reticent to call myself a “philosopher”, this angers me.

I enjoy true crime programs, and over the past few days I watched documentaries about various cults. The Family International, Jonestown, Heaven’s Gate – like many people I have a bile fascination with the psychology of people who are led to believe something ridiculous. There are broadly two types of cult leaders: those who believe what they’re saying and those who don’t. Of my example cults only the leaders of Heaven’s Gate seem to have believed their own message. I deplore the grifters more, but believers are scarier.

Today I happened across Enlighten Us: The Rise and Fall of James Arthur Ray.

James Arthur Ray is a New Age guru who managed to get three people killed in 2010. His typical grift appears to involve motivational speaking events where people pay to hear a secularized, New Age version of prosperity gospel. By simply thinking positive you can conquer the world! Now I’ve saved you $10,000. He combined these supposed insights with “retreats” that subjected people to grueling physical and mental exertion. In the instance where he got three people killed, the retreat involved sitting in a large tent in the desert while hot coals were placed inside to warm it further.

What has this to do with the title of this entry? Ray received his first bit of fame from some self-help, motivational program called The Secret where he appeared alongside other grifters. In The Secret, Ray is identified by a caption calling him “A Philosopher.” What credentials does Ray possess? Well, he dropped out of junior college to become a telemarketer. He might as well claim to be a neurosurgeon or an anthropologist, he’s equally qualified.

Of course, the reason Ray is given this title is because it’s mysterious and mystical. Many people who have no other point of reference for philosophy might point to someone like Deepak Chopra before any academic philosopher. The popular perception of philosophers sometimes seems to be some mystic who waxes poetic about the meaning of life instead of people interested in logic, argumentation, and truth. I think a meagre portion of the blame for this situation should be pinned on actual philosophers for letting this happen.

Since the medieval period philosophy has been abstracted from the art of living. If we look at the beginnings of most philosophical traditions there is an early interest in philosophizing about how best to live. The ancient Greek Stoics, Epicureans, and Skeptics certainly had much to say on this topic, as did Confucianism, Daoism, Buddhism, and other early philosophical schools in the eastern tradition. Now, there have always been folks doing moral philosophy who offer insights into how to conduct ourselves, but even in ethics the philosophical discussions moved away from advising people on how to live.

This historical sketch is a gross over-simplification, naturally, but is only meant to be suggestive. My point is that when philosophers abdicated themselves from the task of advising people on how best to live, plenty of charlatans took up their place. Some of these charlatans even style themselves as “philosophers.” In some ways it’s unfair to compare contemporary New Age gurus to the ancient Sophists. The Sophists we meet in Plato’s dialogues have some interesting arguments, and are occasionally a match for Socrates. The New Age mystics offer nothing nearly as interesting or insightful.

However, I don’t blame those taken in by these conmen. The desire for direction and guidance in life is a real and legitimate one, which is why I think actual philosophers could stand to offer people more. That’s not to discount the importance of purely theoretical work, but I think we can strive for a better balance. The alternative is to abandon people to navigate a self-help industry of grifters and frauds, which is not ideal.