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In my last post I mentioned that I had spent a long time neglecting the actual theme of this blog, and I resolved to use that post to rectify it. Accordingly, I proceeded to go on a deep dive into what salvation might look like from a scientific perspective. Unfortunately, for all the time and ink I spent on the effort, I don’t feel it was sufficient to absolve me of my long neglect. Additionally, in my last post I mentioned in passing that there was a discussion to be had about the connection between the blog’s theme and my frequent posts on politics, but that I was going to save it for another time. This is that time, and in a classic case of attempting to strike two birds with a single stone, I am going to attempt to both further absolve myself and make good on my commitment.
Right off the bat it’s important to clarify what I mean by politics. As is so often the case, politics is one of those words which can mean a lot of different things. For instance, it can mean anything from a local school board candidate going door to door soliciting support to vast cultural changes that have a worldwide impact.
If you’ve read much of the blog I’m sure you realize that when I say politics I generally land on the vast cultural change side of things as opposed to the door-to-door school board side of things. But beyond issues of scale, there is another way in which people use the word politics, which I think is important to clarify. People also use it to mean important topics on which there is still disagreement. And because of this disagreement we are often urged to avoid talking about politics all together, because by highlighting the disagreement we may bring about this discomfort. I bring up this separate definition of politics because, a large part of what I mean when I say I’m going to talk about politics, is just me saying I’m going to talk about things that make some people uncomfortable.
Once you start looking at it that way, then you can’t talk about “Not being saved,” without causing some discomfort, which means, following the definition I just provided, you also can’t talk about it without getting into politics. Thus politics is unavoidable in the general sense, but it’s also unavoidable in the specific sense, as it implies both that the status quo won’t save us, and even more specifically that your favorite candidate won’t change the status quo. In other words, the question of salvation, particularly once you leave religion behind, as I did starting with the last post, is essentially a political question, since science only saves us if politics makes it possible.
Once you start talking about politics, while people are interested in the latest ridiculous Trump tweet, the results of the recent German election, or the latest failure to repeal Obamacare, what they’re most interested in is what’s going to happen. This is where my interest lies as well. Of course what’s going to happen depends a lot on what’s currently happening, and as a result it’s frequently necessary to wade into current events, which is where the political discomfort mentioned above generally comes into play.
At this point I was going to offer up an example of an historical event which no longer caused any discomfort and my mind immediately went to the Civil War, and I then thought, “Oh,right I guess I need to go farther back than that.” (Maybe the English Civil War?)
In addition to the discomfort, sampling the present as a way of predicting the future is fraught with all manner of uncertainty, and thus I try to confine my statements not to what’s going to happen, but rather how to develop antifragility so that it doesn’t matter what happens. That said, I can’t resist the temptation of talking about broad trends, though even in this case, I’m not trying to predict what’s going to happen, but rather develop a map of the possibilities. Accordingly I am not going to tell you whether I think Trump will be impeached (I would bet against it, but I think he’ll teeter on the edge of it his entire first term) but I will explain the various, possible futures I see stretched out in front of us. The farthest I will go in terms of prediction is to offer my opinion on the likelihood of each of these possibilities, though I have no problem if you ignore that part.
Let’s start by talking about the broadest trend of all. Which direction are things headed? I have already said that I think things have been moving leftward for a very long time, and I stand by that, but where do they go from here? Broadly there are three possibilities. They can continue to move that way, they can plateau, or they can reverse in the fashion of a pendulum.
(If you don’t agree with my claim that things are moving leftward then the possibilities are still essentially the same, it’s only the starting point that is different.)
Any look at the past will convince you that things are unlikely to plateau, and if for some reason they do, it would probably be the best outcome we could hope for. We already have a fair amount of experience in dealing with things as they are, and if they just continue in the same vein our competence will only increase.
This leaves continuing to move in the same direction or a pendulum as the two possibilities which are both likely and worrisome. Let’s talk about the pendulum first.
For a long time this is what I figured, that the pendulum had to be close to swinging back. Sure, campus radicals are getting increasingly demanding. Sure, identity politics are spiraling out of control. Sure, we have voted ourselves massive benefits, far beyond what we can afford. And sure, we live in a society with a morality that would make Sodom and Gomorrah jealous (not everyone agrees that this is a bad thing.) But all of these extremes were precisely why I thought we were near the end of the swing. And it gave me a certain amount of comfort. I don’t think I was alone in this, whenever I would bring up the latest leftist insanity with my friends on that side, often times, rather than defending it, they would agree that it was alarming, but that it was an outlier. That it didn’t represent the beginning of a trend, but rather the end of one. Which is to say they also thought the pendulum had reached the end of it’s swing and was about to return.
When you look for analogies, the closest in time and space is the unrest of the late 60s/early 70s, and certainly one can see something of a pendulum there. There was lots of societal unrest and violence (much more than today) and then it mostly went away. And then, a decade or so later, the cold war ended, and it appeared to a lot of people like we had reached a plateau, and a nice one at that.
I never thought we had reached a plateau, as I said I figured there was a pendulum, and on a long enough time horizon, this is still my model for what I expect to happen, but lately I’ve become more aware that there’s no law that says a pendulum has to swing back before it causes too much damage, and in fact perhaps the metaphor of a pendulum is fatally flawed, since pendulums are so regular in their return that we use them to keep time. Whereas if there is a pendulum in human affairs, I doubt it has any kind of regularity, and in fact it can go on long past where we think it should, before it reaches it’s maximum.
The maximum I mentioned in the late 60s/early 70s was relatively mild, but if you look back through history you’ll realize as social unrest goes, it was the exception rather than the rule.
It’s far more common for millions to die before things start to swing back than it is for the revolutionaries to be co-opted by academia and Reagan to be elected. Also, it’s important to point out before we get any farther that to describe human affairs and political upheavals as things which travel only along one axis and which have a definite end point and a smooth progression is also a vast oversimplification of how these things normally work as well.
As I already mentioned, belief in a pendulum isn’t limited to people on the right. In addition to using the idea of small pendulum swings to dismiss the worst excesses of their “side”, people on the left also fear a large swing which will undo many of gains they’ve made. And it’s certainly understandable that many of them view the election of Trump as the beginning of exactly that. Going back to what I said in the beginning. I’m assuming that the left has been ascendant for awhile, but the possible directions are the same regardless of your initial assumptions.
For those who are on the left, and who feel that they’re nearing the end of a swing, the next thing to consider is what can be done about it? Unfortunately, part of the idea behind the pendulum is that its swings are inexorable, that once stuff starts to reverse, you can’t stop it. I assume that despite this that there will be people who try. I also wonder how much of the current frenetic pace of the left is driven by the idea of a coming reversal, and a consequent desire to “get theirs” while they still can. For example, maybe tearing down confederate monuments has to be done now before the pendulum swings the other way and white supremacists retake power. As I have said before I don’t think this is very likely, but it is a narrative of the whole situation which is somewhat more flattering than the dancing in the endzone narrative, though, if you do think the pendulum is going to swing back then it may be a bad idea to antagonize your future insect overlords. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist a Simpsons reference.)
For myself over the last few years I’ve become less convinced that things are about to swing back the other way. And unlike most people, I view the election of Trump not as evidence of a rightward swing, but rather as evidence that the pendulum still has a long way to go. I’ll offer still more evidence for this in a bit, but before I do I want to point out that the two choices we have remaining to us, history as a pendulum or history as a leftward trend which goes up forever, are indistinguishable unless the pendulum is already at the end of it’s swing. In other words if you’re not at an inflection point you’re on a slope and the only question is how steep the slope is. Which means, what all of this really boils down to is, what does our present slope look like, and is there any evidence that it might be flattening?
I mentioned “leftist insanity” previously, along with the observation that people on that side of things often use a variant of the pendulum theory to dismiss this insanity, particularly when it comes out of academia. Oftentimes they justify it by mentioning that college students are young, and that they’ll grow out of it. If it turns out to be a professor, they might counter with pointing out that professors are not elected officials, and that, moreover, their influence is very limited. Or they may directly reference the idea of a pendulum by saying that this is just a temporary spike in attention being paid to social justice, and that it’s confined to a limited number of universities and colleges and those have always been places where extreme ideas are discussed, so forth and so one, But in any event, they will contend that there’s nothing to worry about.
I confess that this argument has its merits. Academia is in something of a bubble, and what goes on there is less of the metaphorical “canary in the coalmine” and more a metaphorical “weird cousin who spouts conspiracy theories and refuses to work for the man.” Of course this doesn’t mean that the bubble doesn’t create problems, just that it may not be predictive. And so for quite a while I’ve been keeping my eye open for something crazy which wasn’t ultimately about academia. Some of the coverage of the Antifa has definitely fallen into this category, and there’s also the occasional journalist from a left wing network who will end up saying something which really should be outside the bounds of polite discourse. But none of this really affected actual elected officials, or the actual government, until the cartoon controversy in Illinois.
My guess would be that you probably haven’t even heard of this controversy. I only came across it myself by trolling through my contacts in the resistance, and consequently re-telling is in order.
Back in August a libertarian think tank called the Illinois Policy Institute (IPI), an organization which largely concerns itself with issues like school choice and charter schools, published a editorial cartoon, which was so explosively racist that the following things happened:
- The Illinois Governor, Bruce Rauner, who despite being a Republican, is an outspoken critic of Trump, spent untold hours and days defending himself against accusations of racism related to the cartoon. “Wait,” you’re thinking, “how did the Illinois Governor get wrapped up in things?” Well he donated money to the IPI and hired some people who used to work there. So yeah, there’s a connection, but I don’t see anything that implies responsibility, I mean he didn’t retweet it, or like it and he certainly didn’t draw it. In fact I’ve seen no evidence he was even aware of it, before people started complaining. It was enough that he was connected to the organization who did publish it. And believe me if you know anything about politics, it’s often times easier to identify which organizations a politician isn’t connected to then which ones they are.
- Despite, no actual direct responsibility for the cartoon, four people from the governor’s office ended up resigning over it. As near as I could tell they resigned because they weren’t better at deflecting responsibility… for something they weren’t responsible for.
- Outside of the governor’s office, the Illinois House spent an entire day denouncing the cartoon. At one point one of the representatives, nearly in tears, called the cartoon “shit” and got a bipartisan standing ovation.
- Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel called the cartoon “unambiguously racist” and a disgrace.
- Just last week, the governor’s chief of staff resigned, in part because of the chaos caused by the cartoon.
After all of this I assume you’re just dying to see the cartoon. Well prepare yourself, for it to have caused this much fuss it has to be a doozy, right? I mean truly appalling. You’re sure you’re ready? Okay here it is.
It may be that I have talked you out of clicking on the link, that you really don’t want to see the cartoon if it’s as awful as all this. If that’s the case (and given that this post is also going to be turned into a podcast) I’ll describe it for you. The cartoon has a small, obviously black child, sitting against a brick wall in a classic pan-handler position, and in addition to the bowl at his feet he’s holding a sign that says, “Need Money 4 School.” An obviously rich, old, cigar-smoking white guy walks by and shows him an empty pocket, saying “Sorry kid, I’m broke.” While meanwhile, out of sight of the child his other pocket bulges with money. The money is labeled “TIF $”.
A rich, old white guy holding back money from public schools, which are represented by a needy minority student… Are we sure Bernie Sanders or the teacher’s union didn’t commission this cartoon? If you’re confused, so was I. Digging into it, there’s apparently some arcana involved with the TIF program and whether it actually could be diverted to public schools, but that hardly seems sufficient to raise the fuss I described above, particularly when most people’s complaints are similar to this one:
I find it hard to believe that if you’re worried about the children, that it’s because of the reference to a little know property tax program, and indeed most people seem to be concerned with the way the kid is something of a racial caricature. (Also apparently the fact that he’s wearing a Cubs hat also seems to play into it in a way that has escaped me…) I would say that I’m not qualified to comment on whether the cartoon depicted the child in an unflattering light, but the governor tried that (after saying he had nothing to do with the cartoon) and it just got him into more trouble.
That, in any case, is the story, but what point does it illustrate and specifically, why is it a different sort of story than the academic craziness you normally hear about?
Before we get into that, I’m aware that we have to worry about reading too much into a single event. As I have already said, a couple of times, you could completely disagree with me on what the current trends are. But we still have a situation where the trend has to either be getting better, getting worse or staying the same. And I know depending on the trend we’re talking about people will disagree about what’s better and what’s worse. But, perhaps if you don’t believe in my narrative of victory by the left, you can at least see this story and other’s like it as a sign that the trend of polarization, and disagreements over tiny issues is definitely getting worse, without necessarily agreeing with me that one side is winning. And, from this larger perspective, I think the evidence that we’re about to turn a corner or level off is even less compelling.
With that caveat in place I’d like to end by examining three lessons I think we can draw from this story.
The first lesson I want to draw is the one I alluded to earlier: That, political correctness (for lack of a better descriptor) has reached a new level. That outrage over a minor, and to my mind, inconsequential issue has made a major impact outside of academia. This event had definite consequences (including people losing their jobs) in the governance of our fifth largest state. And, further, since it seems to matter, it wasn’t about Trump. The Governor of Illinois, while still a Republican, had done everything possible to distance himself from the President.
The second point I want to make is about the accusation of racism. I think this is a deep enough topic, that it’s yet one more thing that deserves it’s own post (though probably not next week I feel a post about the deficit coming on.) But I think all objective observers agree that it’s something which is losing it’s meaning, and consequently in danger of losing it’s power. Certainly we have seen how Trump is largely unaffected by these accusations, and if this is yet another trend, this is one place where I think that most people don’t want the pendulum to swing back to the point where accusations of genuine racism are meaningless, but we risk that happening when we use it for something as trivial as this editorial cartoon.
The last thing I want to draw your attention to, and one which I’m always coming back to is the fragility vs. antifragility axis. As a reminder, fragility comes when you realize frequent, small, limited returns at the cost of infrequent, but large and unbounded costs. Antifragility is the opposite, you suffer frequent small, but limited costs in exchange for infrequent, but large and unbounded returns. In this scenario there was probably some small benefit to those who wanted greater attention paid to racism, but it was extremely limited, and continued incidents like this risk not only completely derailing the workings of government, but also creating significant societal divisions, over tiny issues. On the other hand, if they had ignored this cartoon, there is some cost to that, but maybe, public schools actually get more funding which appears to be what both sides want. And maybe, just maybe, the two sides are able to accomplish something together which neither could accomplish alone. Which I’m sure is a lesson with application far outside the borders of Illinois.
I’ll tell you one trend which I hope keeps increasing, the number of donors. Oh yeah! Was that too much? Maybe that was too much…