Month: <span>July 2020</span>

Picking an End Point for the Revolution

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For the moment let’s assume that things need to change in the US, and probably the entire world. That we have serious and urgent problems which need fixing. For most people I imagine this assumption isn’t particularly controversial, though before we proceed with it, it’s probably worth at least mentioning the idea that this assumption could be wrong, that perhaps the problems we experience are neither serious nor particularly urgent. To at least entertain the notion that things are actually awesome and all of the current turmoil is self-generated drama. That, as Steven Pinker says in the opening to his book Enlightenment Now, a “bleak assessment of the state of the world is wrong. And not just a little wrong—wrong wrong, flat-earth wrong, couldn’t-be-more-wrong.”

Of course as anyone who has dealt with self-generated drama knows, it can cause quite a few problems without necessarily being based on anything concrete. Which is to say even if we factor Pinker’s assertion into our calculations I still think it’s pretty safe to assume that things need to change. From here we can imagine two ways that this might happen. We could work within the existing system, and make gradual changes to the framework that already exists. Or we can ditch the old system and replace it with a completely new and presumably better system. 

In my last post I examined a proposal that fell into the latter category, one that proposed a completely new system of racial justice, and found that it suffered from a distressing lack of pragmatism. In this post I want to examine the general idea of completely replacing a system rather than gradually modifying the current system. And right off the bat I want to make the bold claim that a complete replacement never works, or if it does it takes so much longer than anyone ever thought it would when things began that the effect is the same.

To be clear when I’m talking about a complete replacement I mean nothing less than a revolution. Something which clearly separates one form of government and ideology from another. In the interest of full disclosure I draw most of my knowledge about revolutions from the excellent podcast of the same name by Mike Duncan, and out of the modern revolutions he covers I think three are worth discussing here: the American, French and Russian.

To begin with you may already be thinking, “But the American Revolution worked! I thought you said revolutions never worked?” I actually didn’t say that, I said a complete replacement never works. And, while it’s impossible to completely replace your system of government without a revolution, it is possible to have a revolution without completely replacing your system of government. To illustrate what I mean it’s instructive to contrast the American and French Revolutions. Why was one successful, while the other was largely unsuccessful? (Unless you consider Napoleon some sort of win condition…) This disparity would make sense if the unsuccessful revolution had occurred first. You could imagine that the second time someone attempted an “enlightened” revolution that the revolutionaries would have learned from all the mistakes of the first, and as such it would be more likely to be successful, but in fact it’s the reverse.  Another factor that might have played a role in things was the fact that the Americans were rebelling against an external power, while the French were largely rebelling against themselves. Certainly this disparity has to be taken into account, but I wouldn’t put too much weight on it. The Revolutionary War was more loyalists vs. patriots than it was colonists vs. England, and it was much closer to a civil war than an indigenous rebellion. So why did the one fail while the other succeeded?

I’ve been interested in this question for a long time, how is it that these two revolutions, so close in time and goals, had such different outcomes? Just recently I read something which seemed to answer it. It was a passage in the book, A Secular Age by Charles Taylor. It’s a massive, incredibly dense tome which clocks in at 874 pages. And I’m going to attempt to do some justice to it in the July book review round-up, but for now I just want to focus on one little part of it: a section comparing the American and French Revolutions:

The [American] revolutionary forces were mobilized largely on the basis of the old backward-looking legitimacy idea. [The revolution] will later be seen as the exercise of a power inherent in a sovereign people. The proof of its existence and legitimacy lies in the new polity it created. But popular sovereignty would have been incapable of doing this job if it had entered the scene too soon. The predecessor idea, invoking the traditional rights of a people defined by its ancient constitution, had to do the original heavy lifting…

…this projection backwards of the action of a sovereign people wouldn’t have been possible without the continuity in institutions and practices which allowed for the reinterpretation of past actions as the fruit of the new principles. The essence of this continuity resided in the virtually universal acceptance among the colonists of elected assemblies as legitimate forms of power. Popular sovereignty could be embraced because it had a clear and uncontested institutional meaning. This was the basis of the new order. 

In other words the American Revolution worked because of the things it modified rather than the things it dispensed with. The various legislative bodies present in the colonies and in the mother country formed the foundation for the new system they ended up with. Without that foundation already in place they would have found it impossible to build something new. On the other hand:

Quite different was the case in the French Revolution, with fateful effects. The impossibility remarked by all historians of “bringing the Revolution to an end” came partly from this, that any particular expression of popular sovereignty could be challenged by some other, with substantial support. Part of the terrifying instability of the first years of the Revolution stemmed from this negative fact, that the shift from the legitimacy of dynastic rule to that of the nation had no agreed meaning in a broadly based social imaginary. 

[Edmund] Burke’s advice to the revolutionaries was to stick to their traditional constitution and amend it piecemeal. But this was already beyond their powers. It was not just that the representative institutions of this constitution, the Estates General, had been in abeyance for 175 years. They were also profoundly out of sync with the aspiration to equal citizenship…That is why virtually the first demand of the Third Estate in 1789 was to abolish the separate chambers, and bring all the delegates together in a single National Assembly. 

Even more gravely, outside of [the] educated elites, there was very little sense of what a representative constitution might mean.

In both revolutions they had the idea of popular sovereignty, the difference was that for the American Revolution popular sovereignty had a “clear and uncontested institutional meaning” whereas in the French Revolution, there was “very little sense of what a representative constitution might mean.” And consequently any “particular expression of popular sovereignty” could be supplanted by any other “expression of popular sovereignty”. The American Revolution had a logical endpoint, the French Revolution didn’t. That was why one was a success and one wasn’t and it’s also the key difference between making changes within a system and trying to implement an entirely new system, as long as you keep the old system you also keep an endpoint, but once you abandon it, you also abandon any obvious markers for declaring the thing finished. 

I leave it for the reader to judge whether the current political unrest represents an example of something where the radical changes being demanded will nevertheless ultimately use the current system as a foundation, i.e. is there in fact an obvious stopping point. Or whether it falls into the category of revolutions which entirely reject the old system. Or whether it should be considered to be a revolution at all. What I’m more interested in at the moment is the historical perspective. Which takes us to the other revolution I said I was going to cover, the Russian Revolution.

There is an argument to be made that this was both a successful revolution and a revolution that thoroughly and comprehensively rejected the previous system. For myself, I would certainly agree with the last half of the argument, Russian communism was clearly something entirely new, it’s the first half that I take issue with. Yes, if your sole criteria is whether a new ideology took power, and held onto that power, it was a success, but when you consider the millions and millions of people who died in the course of making that happen, it’s not a success I think that anyone should want to emulate. And in any consideration of the Russian revolution that would be the lesson I’d want people to come away with. But if you assure me that you have absorbed that lesson, I think the lessons that came from how that revolution ended are valuable as well.

To pull all three revolutions together, and restate things: in order for the revolution to end there has to be a point where most people admit that it has ended. For the American Revolution that end point was independence and a revised system of elected assemblies. For the French Revolution they had the supposed end point of achieving popular sovereignty, but no one could agree on precisely how they would know when that was achieved. The end point of the Russian Revolution was more complicated, there was the overt and widely proclaimed goal of total economic leveling, but this was combined with the more covert endpoint of a select group of people seizing power. In making these comparisons I’m hand waving numerous very complex situations, but distilled out, I think the Russian Revolution provides two additional examples of how things might end, 1) the ideology motivating the revolution could provide a clearly defined endpoint. Or 2) the revolution could be led by people powerful enough to call a halt to things when they’re satisfied. Out of these two it is unclear if either is sufficient to end things by itself, but if one of them is, it would have to be having strong leaders.

As I said, I’m not ready to declare what sort of revolution is taking place right now, or if it even is a revolution. But if it is, then it would appear to be in danger of falling prey to the phenomenon I’ve been talking about, the lack of any obvious endpoint. The clearest way this manifests is in the lack of leaders, something which has been brought up a lot in this space particularly in the comments, but which seems to pass mostly unremarked upon everywhere else. Or at least I haven’t seen any really serious grappling with what this might mean in the mainstream press. Which is surprising because it represents a huge difference between past protests and now. And even if I’m over-reaching when I argue that this lack of leaders is going to make it harder to bring things to a close, I can’t see anyone arguing that it doesn’t significantly alter the dynamic. 

The effect of ideology is more nebulous, but as I argued in previous posts, the protesters seem to have a whole constellation of demands, none of which are particularly pragmatic, or even well-defined. But from a high level view, and at the risk of being too simplistic, it feels like if the French Revolution was motivated by popular sovereignty that the current protests are motivated by the idea of justice. And if anything it seems even tricker to decide when justice has been achieved than it was to establish when popular sovereignty had been. As Taylor pointed out, “any particular expression of popular sovereignty could be challenged by some other, with substantial support.” Couldn’t we adapt that, and with equal accuracy say, “any particular demand for justice could be superseded by some other, with substantial support”?

You might assert that simplifying things down to the idea of justice goes too far, that they are not demanding some form of unreachable platonic justice, for all people and for all times, that their ideology is more complicated, but if anything doesn’t that make it even worse? If the French couldn’t agree on the meaning of popular sovereignty, and the Russian revolution only stopped after millions of deaths, and the imposition of a dictatorship, what makes you think, should this actually be a true revolution, that having lots of competing ideas about what needs to be accomplished will make declaring an end to things easier?

Lest you think I’m overstating the complexity of things here is just a half dozen points from the website blacklivesmatter.com:

  1. We make space for transgender brothers and sisters to participate and lead.
  2. We are self-reflexive and do the work required to dismantle cisgender privilege.
  3. We build a space that affirms Black women and is free from sexism, misogyny, and environments in which men are centered.
  4. We disrupt the Western-prescribed nuclear family structure requirement.
  5. When we gather, we do so with the intention of freeing ourselves from the tight grip of heteronormative thinking.
  6. We embody and practice justice, liberation, and peace.

I’m not necessarily saying that any of the above is bad (though I think some points bring a lot of negative second order effects) nor am I necessarily claiming blacklivesmatter.com speaks for all of the protestors (though that takes us back to the lack of leadership) I’m saying that these points are nebulous (what has to occur for us to be sure that cisgender priviledge is dismantled?) and also numerous. 

As I mention, I’m not sure how this is going to play out over the next few weeks and months (or years). What I am saying is that if the protests are expected to continue until every item on the list is checked off, then the expected duration starts to approach infinity. Of course, no one is patient enough for an infinitely long process, which is why people want to speed things up. And that’s how we switch from gradually remaking the existing system into violently imposing an entirely new system. 

In the end, the caution I’m urging here is closely related to the caution I’ve been urging in all of my recent posts:

  • Don’t panic so much over the first mistake, that you make a second bigger mistake. While I’m not saying the excesses of the French Revolution were worse than the abuses of the Ancien Régime. It should have been possible to do something about those abuses without The Terror.
  • If you are going to try something radical, try it on a small scale rather than at the level of the entire nation. In 1900 it was reasonable to argue that Communism would be a better system of government than market capitalism, but rather than start with a modest experiment, they imposed it at the point of a gun in two of the biggest nations in the world, Russia and China, and it led to millions of deaths.
  • Things are more complicated than you think. At the time of the French Revolution, (particularly in light of the American Revolution) it may have seemed straightforward to implement something completely new, but there are always all manner of complexities and systems you’re almost entirely unaware of.
  • There are lots of different ways of viewing the world, and getting everyone on the same page is more difficult than you think. If you’re creating chaos in an attempt to disrupt the current system, how do you turn that chaos off? For the French it was essentially Napoleon. For the Russians it was Lenin or possibly Stalin. For the Americans it was elected assemblies. Who or what turns off the current chaos?
  • And of course the last post where I directly address the lack of pragmatism in the ideology of Critical Race Theory.

To all of that I would like to repeat my caution from the beginning of the post, trying to completely replace the system never works. So if we want to succeed, if we want to address the problems of police brutality and income inequality and the rest, we need to build on what we have. I know that this is not what people want to hear, but before you dismiss it, take a minute to consider the differences between the American and French Revolutions, and in particular the horrors of the Russian Revolution. I know it seems impossible to go from what’s happening now, to either the French or Russian Revolutions, but had you asked the French in May of 1789 or the Russians in January of 1917 I’m sure that what actually happened would have seemed impossible to them as well…


This is actually my 200th post. I thought about doing something meta, or special, but in the end I decided not to. However, if you wanted to give me a gift, becoming a patreon would be at the top of my list…


Liberalism vs. Critical Race Theory (A Distressing Lack of Pragmatism)

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As you may or may not have noticed one of my primary intellectual projects since the death of George Floyd has been an attempt to understand the underlying issues (some might say the underlying corruption) which lead to his death, and to further understand the various proposals being put forth for fixing these issues (or uprooting this corruption). I will say that in the beginning, my lack of understanding led me to avoid the subject, or at least approach it very gingerly, which was almost certainly the best course of action, and it might still be the wisest course of action. But given that the debate which ensued shows no signs of fading away and, added to that, recent developments like the Harper’s Letter and letters written in opposition to that letter, and violent clashes between BLM and Blue Lives Matter protesters, ignoring things seems increasingly a form of abdication, particularly when I see very important points apparently getting overlooked by everyone.

This time around my attention was drawn to these “overlooked things” by an article in the Economist: Enlightenment liberalism is losing ground in the debate about race, by Diane Ejaita. This article was sent to me by a friend who has, himself, followed a trajectory of growing disenchantment with “Enlightenment liberalism” and who appreciated this article:

I like the way this article balances the issue. The author clearly leans towards enlightenment liberalism but frankly acknowledges the fact that it has failed to bring about adequate solutions to the problems of race in America.

To begin with, he’s correct. I don’t know that I’ve seen a better attempt than this article at explaining the conflict between these two ideologies, a conflict which has gotten increasingly heated, particularly among those traditionally on the classically liberal left. And yet despite this article being as good as it gets, I believe that it contains a number of egregious assumptions that need to be pointed out. It’s perhaps arrogant of me to think that I’m the man to do it, but it really feels like someone has to. 

Before getting to that, it’s possible that you’re not clear on what the two competing ideologies are. From the article:

To understand all this, it is worth going back to the battle of ideas. In one corner is liberalism, with its tarnished record, and in the other the anti-liberal theories emerging from the campus to challenge it.

It is indeed worth discussing this battle of ideas, in fact while other things might be more important in the short term, ten or twenty years from now the results of this ideological debate will be the element that had the greatest impact on the world.

As I said, on the whole, the article was a great discussion of the tensions currently in play and why liberalism is “on the ropes”. It’s not it’s general point, but rather the assumptions and evidence used to buttress that general point that need to be reexamined. Yes there is a conflict between these two ideologies, and there should be, but Ejaita makes several points which serve to understate the strengths of liberalism and overstate the case for anti-liberal alternatives. Accordingly the rest of the post will largely be me quoting a specific passage and then pointing out what’s wrong with it. As I do this it’s possible I’ll read too much into these individual statements, that I’ll miss some of the nuances, or that my objections will veer towards stridency. Feel free to call me out on that, as I said this debate is important, and I genuinely don’t want to strawman the other side.

With all that out of the way, here’s the first statement that jumped out at me:

But [liberalism’s] poor record on race, especially with regard to African-Americans, stands out. Income, wealth, education and incarceration remain correlated with ethnicity to a staggering degree. True, great steps have been taken against overt racial animus. But the lack of progress means liberals must have either tried and failed to create a society in which people of all races can flourish, or failed to try at all.

This paragraph manages to be contradictory, and overly simplistic at the same time. In one breath it mentions the “great steps” which have been taken against “overt” racial animus, and then goes on to speculate that liberalism might have failed to try “at all”. Which is it? Because it clearly can’t be both. Or does all of this hinge on the overt part? Is it that liberalism has failed to make any attempt at eradicating inner racism? First, efforts were being made to police language, jokes and attitudes as far back as the 70s. So, secondly, it seems clear that the answer is that they tried and failed, because third, it’s an exceptionally difficult problem, and it’s not as if “anti-liberal theories emerging from campuses” have stumbled on a fool-proof way of accomplishing it which people have just refused to adopt. If anything they seem equally clueless, a point I’ll be returning to.

Ejaita goes on:

And although slavery is a near-universal feature of pre-Enlightenment societies, the Atlantic slave trade is notable for having been tied to notions of racial superiority.

This is a very strange sentence. Is she actually implying that enlightenment societies, which she admits are the only societies where slavery ended up not being “nearly universal” should nevertheless share equal (or perhaps greater?) guilt with pre-Enlightenment societies because the slavery of those societies wasn’t racist? First I’m not entirely sure it’s as clear cut as she claims, every civilization had an out-group that they considered worthy of enslavement, and while I’m no expert on this, I’d be surprised if there weren’t other examples of enslavement based around race. And there was certainly enslavement based on nationality and religion. Also even if the Atlantic slave trade was uniquely bad because it was based on racial superiority, do the enlightenment societies not get any credit for being the first societies to put and end to it? And in the case of the US, at the cost of hundreds of thousands of lives?

The article then spends a few paragraphs talking about colonialism, and insofar as The Economist is a UK publication that makes sense, but even in the UK, I don’t think it does much to illuminate the problem, and it’s a particularly weird tangent when you turn to a discussion of the United States. I haven’t heard any reports of Filipino grievances being part of the recent protests, and while the Puerto Rican independence movement was a big thing in the middle of the last century, including an attempted assassination of Truman, the last time a vote was taken on independence 60% wanted to be a state and only 5.5% wanted independence, and that percentage has been stable going all the way back to 1967.

After this detour into colonialism, Ejaita makes her way into the 60s and discusses the civil rights era and affirmative action. Shortly thereafter is also when the main competitor to liberalism enters the story:

As the gains of the civil-rights era failed to translate into sustained progress for African-Americans, dissatisfaction with liberalism set in. One of the first to respond was Derrick Bell, a legal scholar working at Harvard in the 1970s. “Critical race theory”, which fused French post-modernism with the insights of African-Americans like Frederick Douglass, an abolitionist and former slave, and W.E.B. Du Bois, a sociologist, then emerged.

Over the decades other concepts like intersectionality (“A black woman could lose a case of discrimination against an employer who could show that he did not discriminate against black men or white women”) have been added to this package, until eventually:

[C]ritical race theory has flourished, spreading to education, political science, gender studies, history and beyond. HR departments use its terminology. Allusions to “white privilege” and “unconscious bias” are commonplace. Over 1,000 CEOs, including those of firms such as JPMorgan Chase, Pfizer and Walmart, have joined an anti-racism coalition and promised that their staff will undertake unconscious-bias training (the evidence on its efficacy is limited). Critical race theory informs the claim that the aim of journalism is not “objectivity” but “moral clarity”.

There’s a lot to unpack here… First off, if critical race theory is ubiquitous, why is it also largely ineffective? We come to this conclusion based not only on the fact that injustice is still ubiquitous (should we not be able to point to someplace as a success story? Perhaps academia?) but also the admission of the article itself, which offers one concrete recommendation and then goes on to say, “the evidence on its efficacy is limited”. Are you beginning to see a thread? Critical race theory (CRT) seems big on rhetoric, but short on practical solutions. Secondly she makes this incredibly sweeping claim in the last sentence, that the “aim of journalism is not ‘objectivity’ but ‘moral clarity’”. If clarity is not objective it can only be subjective, and subjective clarity seems at best an oxymoron and at worst the sort of thing that proceeds all of the worst revolutionary excesses throughout history. Beyond this, attempts to achieve “moral certainty” stretch back at least to the Greeks, so I’m inclined to doubt that we’ve suddenly solved it in the last few decades with the invention of CRT. 

In fact, that last sentence actually reminds me a lot of the most striking passage from Bari Weiss’ resignation letter:

Instead, a new consensus has emerged in the press, but perhaps especially at this paper: that truth isn’t a process of collective discovery, but an orthodoxy already known to an enlightened few whose job is to inform everyone else. 

Weiss offers it up as a criticism but Ejaita seems to be offering up a functionally identical statement, and touting it as a strength. It can’t be both, and it seems far more likely for it to be the former than the latter. Moving on: 

The philosophical mechanics that bolt together critical race theory can be obscure. But the approach is elegantly engineered into bestselling books such as “How To Be An Antiracist” by Ibram X. Kendi and “White Fragility” by Robin DiAngelo.

I have not read Kendi’s book, but I did read DiAngelo’s and it was anything but elegant. Not only is her argument undermined by the paradox I mentioned in that previous discussion. (Racism is fantastically evil. All white people are racist. But white people are fragile if they ever react negatively to being accused of racism.) But she frequently admits as part of the book the same thing mentioned in the article, that her trainings don’t appear to have any noticeable effect on people’s attitude, to say nothing of actually solving the problem. 

I think you’ve probably long ago been able to see where I was going with all of this, but before we get there, one more quote from the article:

The appeal of critical race theory—or at least its manifestation in popular writing—is partly that it confidently prescribes what should be done to fight injustice….

Liberals have no such simple prescription. 

Here we see, spelled out, my central problem with CRT. From everything I can see the situation is exactly the opposite of the section I just quoted. Enlightenment liberalism has a whole host of pragmatic techniques and suggestions which have been tried and tested over hundreds of years. CRT is the side that appears completely lacking in pragmatism.

Let’s compare, liberalism’s first great idea for fighting injustice was very straightforward, let’s end slavery. Which they did. No only is this a “simple prescription” but it’s very important to remember that before liberalism, as the article itself admits, slavery was nearly universal. Liberalism is essentially the first system to come up with this idea and implement it on a large scale. 100 years later when that didn’t work liberalism next recommended passing laws that further outlawed discrimination, while also allowing for positive, “rectificatory justice” (a phrase from the article) like affirmative action. Finally, underlying all of this was the commitment to a free and open exchange of ideas so that if there were any areas where we hadn’t arrived at the truth, we eventually would. I bow to no one in my criticism of the idea that enlightened liberalism is some sort of unstoppable force. I think there’s all sorts of reasons why it’s force might be spent, but it should at least get credit for what it already accomplished!

In the other corner, critical race theory, which as far as I can tell has three major practical, policy recommendations: unconscious-bias training, defunding the police, and reparations. We’ve already discussed how evidence for the effectiveness of the first is limited. Defunding the police is an interesting idea, which I’ve expressed support for trying on a limited basis, but I have yet to see someone offer up a community or nation as an example of where this is already working (most examples I’ve seen of better policing involve giving the police more money) which makes it less a practical suggestion than an untested hypothesis. Finally there’s reparations, which again, is an interesting idea, but from the standpoint of practicality, it’s a nightmare of genealogy, logistics, history and ideology.

Now to be clear, here is what I’m not arguing. I’m not arguing that liberalism is fast. I’m not arguing that there are no blind spots. I’m not arguing that eventually liberalism will fix everything if we just wait long enough. I’m not even arguing that CRT doesn’t have anything useful to add to policies and behavior. Rather what I am arguing is that most of the criticisms of liberalism which have gotten so much attention over the last few weeks share a distressing lack of pragmatism. And that people don’t even seem to be aware of this weakness. Arguing, as for example in this article, that it’s in fact the other way around, that CRT has “confident prescriptions”, that it’s possible that liberalism has “failed to try at all” and that CRT brings a “moral clarity” which has somehow been overlooked for centuries. 

Pulling everything together, it’s not entirely clear what the article’s point is. There are lots of parts (like the ones I’ve quoted) where Ejaita frames things as a contest between liberalism and anti-liberal theories, in particular CRT, and indicates that the latter has the edge in this contest. But then in the concluding paragraph there’s no mention of the competition or of anti-liberal alternatives:

Plenty of people are trying to work out what [putting right past failures] entails, but the practicalities are formidable. Having failed adequately to grapple with racial issues, liberals find themselves in a political moment that demands an agenda which is both practically and politically feasible. The risk is that they do not find one.

I couldn’t agree more that the “practicalities are formidable” and that the “political moment…demands an agenda that is both practically and politically feasible.” What I don’t understand is what Ejaita means by that very last sentence. I see three possible interpretations:

  1. The “risk” being discussed is a risk to the project of liberalism. If it can’t come up with an “agenda which is both practically and politically feasible”, it and its supporters will be sidelined, similar to what happened to, say, communists, but the world as a whole will pivot to anti-liberal theories and be fine. 
  2. Despite significant discussion of alternatives to liberalism, Ejaita understands that it is really the only game in town, and the risk to us all is that if it can’t figure out how to fix racial disparities there’s nothing concrete to take its place and we’re all doomed.
  3. That despite only mentioning liberals in the concluding paragraph, the point of the article is that all ideologies find themselves in this same political moment with the same demands for an “agenda which is both practically and politically feasible” and the “risk” is that no ideology will find itself adequate to the task, and we’re all doomed. 

You can see how the text seems to point strongly in the direction of the first interpretation, which in my opinion is naive to the point of being dangerous. Because as far as I can tell a practical and politically feasible agenda is precisely what CRT and anti-liberal theories lack. My own opinion would be closer to the second interpretation, and it is possible that’s what she’s saying, certainly if you consider the final paragraph in isolation, that seems like the most straightforward reading. 

But if we grant that CRT or something similar is a viable alternative (frankly, I’m not convinced that it is) then it should be held to the same standards of practicality and political feasibility as liberalism, or what I pointed out as the final interpretation. But neither this article nor the many supporters of anti-liberal theories seem to be demanding that standard or putting forth this interpretation of our “political moment”. But the risk that no ideology will find itself equal to the task is very real.

I understand the concerns of my friends and of this article and others like it about the weaknesses of liberalism, but if the choice is between something which has been working (albeit nowhere close to perfectly) for centuries, and something entirely unproven, with recommendations that are either vague, radical or both, I choose to be a defender of liberalism.


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Traffic Lights and Modern Epistemology

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The other day I was on Hacker News, and someone had taken advantage of the Ask HN feature  to inquire where they could go for dispassionate discussion now that Slate Star Codex was gone. I have tried to go back and find that post, and I couldn’t, so I may be misrepresenting some of the details here, but if my memory is correct the top comment was by someone who made the point that a dispassionate discussion of something could only occur if it didn’t involve the people affected, which was exactly the wrong way to have a discussion and what has been happening with too many social issues up until this point. Implied further in this comment was the idea that dispassionate discussion was the wrong way to solve a problem.

This comment brought up an important and necessary point… Up until the moment where it started talking about solutions. Certainly you wouldn’t want to exclude the people affected by an issue from a discussion of that issue. Even if, and perhaps especially if, the issue made them angry, and the discussion ended up not being dispassionate because of that anger. But at a certain point, what we really want to do is solve the problem in the best fashion possible, which requires objectivity, and yes, some dispassionate discussion. In other words it may be perfectly justifiable for people to be angry; it may be and probably is important for them to have their say, to explain exactly why they’re so angry; but in the end anger is rarely the best strategy for solving the problem. In fact, if you allow the most angry to dominate the discussion, you’re far more likely to end up with a really bad solution than the best solution.

Perhaps an analogy would help to illustrate what I mean. To leave my neighborhood and head south I nearly always have to stop at a particular traffic light. On occasion I end up waiting at this light for what seems like forever, because it’s heavily biased in the other direction. As the minutes drag on (full disclosure: I believe the longest I’ve ever waited is a hair under three minutes) I get understandably annoyed, and sometimes, if I’m already in a bad mood, by the time the light changes I’m pretty angry.

The other morning that’s exactly what was happening, I was waiting at this light for what seemed like a very long time and getting increasingly annoyed at it. But this time I noticed something, after all that time when it eventually turned green, there were only two cars waiting, me and another guy opposite me, while during the time I had been waiting many cars had passed in the other direction. Which led me to wonder if perhaps, when considering all the traffic that passed through that intersection, if the system made sense. This was actually not the first time I had had this thought (though it was the first time I noticed how meager the traffic was on my street) but it’s easy to forget the system as a whole when you’re being inconvenienced by one part of the system. 

But what does it mean for the system to “make sense”? Or to consider my specific case, I was angry at this light because it was constantly causing me discomfort, but I had never really engaged with the question: what system should be used to calibrate that light? 

Some possibilities:

  1. Would you calibrate it based on time of day? (Indeed if you show up before 6:30 the light just automatically changes as soon as someone approaches the intersection, and I definitely prefer the system in operation before 6:30 to the one after.) 
  2. Would you base it on what the city council felt was fair? Perhaps take a vote on the calibration of every intersection? Maybe even expand that vote to everyone? 
  3. Perhaps, rather than try to optimize every intersection you might just place every street into one of three buckets based on the level of traffic, perhaps high, medium and low, and then categorize intersections based on a matrix. The intersection of two high traffic streets would get one setting, while the intersection of a low traffic street with a high traffic street (my intersection, presumably) would get a different setting.
  4. Would you measure traffic in each direction? Track the time each car had to wait, add it together and try to make the two directions equal? (i.e. If I have to wait for three minutes then that’s fair if it equals 6 cars waiting 30 seconds in the other direction).
  5. Similar to the foregoing but with a different metric, you might be trying to minimize the pollution generated by idling cars, and while time spent waiting would be part of it there might be other factors as well, like managing how many cars are accelerating after being stopped.
  6. Finally, we might use anger as our guide for adjusting the light. Perhaps the method just mentioned of aggregating the wait times in both directions never makes the people going the other direction annoyed, but makes the people going my direction furious. You might try to optimize for lowest aggregate anger, and find that you could make people going the other direction stop more often without an appreciable increase in their anger but with a significant reduction in my anger.

Beyond the methods mentioned above there are still other standards I didn’t mention, for example I had a co-worker many years ago who was convinced that businesses paid the city to increase stoppage at nearby intersections as a form of advertising. The point being that, while it would certainly be unfair if I had no say in how this traffic light worked, the problem of calibrating even a single traffic light is pretty complicated one. It may be that when you really dig into things, the best system might end up being one which causes me quite a bit of delay. And as you can see, even deciding on the system to decide if a delay is justified is complicated.

All of the foregoing falls under the heading of epistemology: the investigation of what distinguishes justified belief from opinion. Am I justified in believing the traffic light is unfair, or is that just an opinion, how do we define what’s fair? I might prefer it if the light just changed as soon as I approached it, but that system is almost certainly not optimal during rush hour. I might accept that total aggregate time is a good way of determining fairness without necessarily being happy about it, and depending on the evidence, I’m sure I could be talked into a road classification system of three categories, on the basis that the measurements required for other systems are difficult to make. In fact, I’d probably be okay with any of the methods I mentioned (not the businesses paying for stoppage one of course, and the aggregate anger one probably leads somewhere bad as well). Of course, part of being this magnanimous is that this issue is very low stakes. 

But what if the stakes were much greater? What if I was convinced that one method for determining the length of a traffic light increased the chances of me dying at the intersection? Or that another method might cut economic growth in half? I might be far more invested in how this decision was made, and far less likely to accept any old system. And it gets even worse when all methods have seriously bad outcomes and we’re being asked merely to choose which bad outcome we prefer. I might choose a small increase in the fatality rate over halving economic growth, whereas someone else might make the opposite choice, and assume I’m a horrible person for putting people’s lives at risk.

Of course this is not a new problem, rather it’s a very old problem, and in the past intractable problems have been solved by things like war, enslavement, dictatorial powers, and just about any other injustice you can imagine. But over the last several centuries we developed some tools for avoiding the worst of those injustices. Things like freedom of religion and speech, widespread democracy, rule of law, etc. Now I’m not suggesting that any of these things are free of flaws, they are in fact riddled with them, but before we cast them aside it’s important to remind ourselves how bad it was historically.

At this point it would probably be beneficial to talk about epistemology using examples of things people are actually getting worked up about, rather than the example of a nearby traffic light. In doing this I hope to pick topics where the differences in opinion are easy to see, but not so great that they overwhelm the discussion, I’m not sure I’ll succeed in this, so I ask for some patience as I proceed. With that said let’s look at some current events through the lens of a few different epistemological frameworks.

One well known framework that seems to be getting a lot of attention these days is the one Scott Alexander described in his post Conflict vs. Mistake (link goes to an archive.org version since SSC is still deleted, and the NYT still hasn’t published its article). It’s a pretty good post and you should probably just read it, but for those that don’t. It describes two ways of viewing political struggles, mistake theory and conflict theory: 

Mistake theorists treat politics as science, engineering, or medicine. The State is diseased. We’re all doctors, standing around arguing over the best diagnosis and cure. Some of us have good ideas, others have bad ideas that wouldn’t help, or that would cause too many side effects.

Conflict theorists treat politics as war. Different blocs with different interests are forever fighting to determine whether the State exists to enrich the Elites or to help the People.

Clearly my description of the traffic light issue is a description from the perspective of mistake theory. (Though the aggregate anger methodology comes close to conflict theory.) That there is some optimal way to time traffic lights, and we just need to figure out what it is, that there is no war between people traveling north and south at the intersection and those traveling east and west. But of course when you scale things up, things become a lot more muddy, which takes us to the subject of statues. 

As I believe I mentioned, one of the statues which got torn down was that of an abolitionist who fought and died in the Civil War. People operating from mistake theory will describe that as a mistake and go on to identify similar mistakes on both sides of the issue. It was a mistake to put up statues to Confederate generals. It was a mistake (a very bad one) when George Floyd was killed, so if we can identify what statues are mistakes and which are not, we’ll take the former down and leave the latter alone, and if we can identify the policies and training and culture which lead to Floyd’s death we’ll fix those too and eventually we’ll be able to put the whole issue to bed.

On the other hand, from the conflict theory side of things focusing on mistakes is just a way of getting back to the same crappy status quo as soon as possible. Of deflecting the discussion away from systemic racism into a discussion of whether people went too far when they tore down the statue of Frederick Douglass. Of a path that leads to a few tiny reforms, but that basically keeps the same corrupt police around doing the same awful things. Conflict theory would go on to say that TV networks didn’t do dumb things like remove episodes of Golden Girls, Community and 30 Rock, because they’re combatting racism, they did it because they’re obviously on the side of the elites, and doing that deflects attention away from real grievances to trivial ones. And finally, that it doesn’t matter which statues get torn down, because tearing down statues is a great way of showing passion, and passion is the only thing that’s going to sustain the unity of the oppressed long enough for them to get what has long been denied them. 

When considering this dichotomy of mistakes vs. conflicts, it’s hard for me not to see the world through the lens of mistake theory, and I think most of my posts, including this one, naturally proceed from that epistemology. But in my more pessimistic moments it seems obvious that at some fundamental level it’s all about conflict, and always has been, and that the enlightenment tools I mentioned earlier, like freedom of speech, etc. were just exceptionally clever ways of masking the conflict, or that they contained the conflict, but only temporarily. Or perhaps they represent a Noble Lie, an ideology that is fundamentally untrue, but which works to maintain social harmony.

As something of an aside, it’s interesting to note that you can see this epistemological split in the political parties, and it appears to be widening. On the right clearly the Trump/alt-right branch are the conflict theorists, and the Mitt Romney/Neo-con branch are the mistake theorists. While on the left Obama/Biden/Clinton are largely mistake theorists, while Sanders and the people currently protesting are conflict theorists. I couldn’t say what this means for the country as a whole, but it’s probably bad.

Mistake vs. conflict is not the only way of looking at things, though it covers a lot of territory, and the next framework I describe may just be a subcategory of it.

There was a time, and I’m old enough to remember it, when the history of the country was pretty sanitized. People who talked about Washington didn’t mention his slaves, and when discussing JFK you didn’t mention his mistresses. Manifest destiny was the obvious next step in the progress of the nation, and the cowboys were always the good guys. I want to call this an epistemology of national greatness. That what was true, or at least what was emphasized were those things that made the country and its history look noble, and of course this took in all the things that led to the formation of the US, so Columbus is obviously a great figure with statues and holidays, not the first in a long line of bad Europeans. 

Of course this way of determining truth or what to celebrate and emphasis isn’t particularly scientific, or empirical. And so at some point in the last century (almost certainly before I was in school, but these things take a while to trickle down) that narrative switched to an emphasis on not only uncovering the bad things, but emphasizing them to make up for lost time. Of making sure that when you talk about Jefferson his affair with Sally Hemmings has a prominent place. That when talking about westward expansion you discuss the Native Americans and broken treaties for at least as much time as you discuss the settlers, and so forth.

What’s interesting about this, and really why I’m talking about this framework at all, is that it turns out it’s much more difficult to achieve agreement and unity under this system than using the national greatness system. You would think that by really emphasizing facts, that it would be easier to get people on the same page, but it’s actually harder. Under national greatness, if someone or something was important in the history of the country then they’re worth celebrating. It’s a narrative that’s self reinforcing. We celebrate important events and people. How do we know they’re important? Because we celebrate them! But once you pivot to facts you can generate all manner of narratives. 

How does the fact of Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemmings relate to the fact that Jefferson was the author of the Declaration of Independence? Oh, and are you 100% sure Jefferson did have a relationship with Hemmings? Under the standard of national greatness the narrative is easy, Jefferson was important in the history of the country so we celebrate him, and put up statues and monuments to him regardless of his failings, which we either ignore or mention in some footnote. Under a standard of using the facts to determine whether we should celebrate Jefferson, we can come up with at least a dozen narratives, and each one has a different recommendation for what to do with the Jefferson Memorial. And to be clear I’m not saying this is bad, I prefer to get the facts out, but when you compare the America of today with the America of, say, the 60s one of the big differences is the shift from a patriotic, national greatness epistemology to this one.

As one final thought before we move on, I’ve never quite understood why the North was so willing to spend massive amounts of blood and treasure to prevent the South from seceding. But just now I reconsidered it through the epistemological framework of national greatness and it clarified things in a way that nothing previously had, which is not to say I don’t still have questions, but viewing it through that lens was very illuminating.

The final framework I want to consider is the one I mentioned in my previous post, If We Were Amusing Ourselves to Death in the 80s, What Are We Doing Now? And rather than rehashing it in its entirety, I’m more interested in taking another crack at answering the question what are we doing now? For those that haven’t read that post it was a discussion of the book Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business by Neil Postman, published in 1985. Postman’s thesis is an extension of Marshall Mcluhan’s observation that the “medium is the message” and boils down to the idea that there is a “connection between forms of human communication and the quality of a culture.” For Postman, culture was of a higher quality when communication largely took place via print (newspapers, books, etc.) and that it took a dive in quality with the introduction of the TV. From the book:

[U]nder the governance of the printing press, discourse in America was different from what it is now—generally coherent, serious and rational; …under the governance of television, it has become shriveled and absurd…like the printing press, television is nothing less than a philosophy of rhetoric. To talk seriously about television, one must therefore talk of epistemology. All other commentary is in itself trivial. 

One can grant that the dominant medium of communication strongly impacts epistemology without necessarily granting Postman’s further claim that it’s all been downhill. Indeed I find it hard to imagine how anyone could deny the effect of the medium of social media on our current epistemology. The question I continue to grapple with, is what are those effects? I’m starting to feel pretty comfortable declaring that they’re, on net, bad but the specifics of their “badness” is something I’m still working through. I have high hopes for the grandstanding theory, which I encountered the other day on a podcast, but I’ve yet to read the associated book. I’ll report back when I do. However, it does seem certain that if nothing else, social media has fractured epistemology and discourse. That under national greatness there was obviously only one thing to do with the Jefferson Memorial, that as people started focusing more on Jefferson’s failings you can imagine the options splitting into three, to be decided by congress, leave it alone, add some additional plaques to explain things, or tear it down, and to be honest the third one would never get serious consideration. But currently I’m sure there are at least a dozen proposals, ranging from ringing it with an alt-right militia, to replacing it with a statue of Sally Hemmings, and everything in between.

There’s a quote I keep coming back to in this blog, from Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes:

Between two groups that want to make inconsistent kinds of world[s] I see no remedy but force.

I’d like to think that this statement is actually not true, that over the last few centuries we have developed other remedies besides force. Freedom of conscience (of which freedom of speech is a part) was, I believe, particularly successful. (We’re not immediately going to go to war over differing beliefs.) Solving things by voting on them was also a major step forward. But it’s interesting how, beyond all of the other ways in which these tools are under attack, they just don’t work nearly as well when you end up with more than two or three sides. When the narrative has fractured into dozens of pieces, as appears to be the case at the moment, these tools become more difficult to use. Taking free speech as an example, even if sensible suggestions are being made somewhere by someone how do you find them amongst all the yelling? And this is without the additional problem of free speech increasingly being seen as outmoded and a tool the majority uses to silence the oppressed. 

As far as voting, that works pretty well if there are only two sides. Making deals involves only two parties, and even if you can’t make a deal your side will eventually be in power and waiting your turn seems preferable to bloodshed, that’s not the case when you’re a member of one of 30 factions, also how much voting do we actually do on the most contentious issues of the day? Certainly the vast majority of social issues have never been voted on. Voting can be a tool for remedying inconsistent worlds, but you have to use it first. And added to all of this, everything increasingly seems like a zero sum game

I feel like it’s safe to say that no one is clear on where things are headed, or that it will inevitably be bad because discourse has moved to social media, but when you tie all of it together, toss in a profusion of conspiracy theories, and an exceptionally divided country, I think what can be said for sure is that from an epistemological perspective, we’re in a very weird place.

It’d be nice if things were as simple and straightforward as agreeing on a system for the traffic light. They’re obviously not, but nor do I think they necessarily need to be as complicated as we’ve made them. I think it’s easy to forget how much progress actually has been made over the last several centuries, and it’s even easier to forget how fragile that progress is.


Is it true that you should donate to this blog? What standard would you use to decide whether it’s a justified belief as opposed to just my opinion? Well, there is another framework I didn’t mention, that you uncover the truth of something by doing it. Maybe you should give it a try.


Books I Finished in June

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The Accidental Superpower: The Next Generation of American Preeminence and the Coming Global Disorder By: Peter Zeihan
The Good Soldier Švejk By: Jaroslav Hasek
The Diaries of Adam and Eve By: Mark Twain
White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism By: Robin DiAngelo
Guns of August By: Barbara W. Tuchman
Euripides III: Heracles, The Trojan Women, Iphigenia among the Taurians, Ion (The Complete Greek Tragedies) By: Euripides
Acid Test: LSD vs. LDS By: Christopher Kimball Bigelow
The Lost 116 Pages: Reconstructing the Book of Mormon’s Missing Stories By: Don Bradley


Over the last few months I’ve taken the opportunity to put a little bit of personal news into the beginning of my monthly book review round-ups. But of course what’s been happening to me personally is completely overshadowed by what’s been happening in the wider world. The biggest event being the killing of George Floyd of course. I said quite a bit about this in my last post, which amounted to, “This is a really complicated situation.” With that in mind I don’t think I’ll try to do any simplification in this space

I will say that I was very surprised by what happened at the beginning of the week in Provo. For those that don’t know, Provo is the home of BYU and often considered to be one of the most conservative towns in America. Accordingly I was a little surprised to discover that protests were even a thing there, more surprised to find out that they were still happening, still more surprised to find out that the protestors were numerous and aggressive enough to be blocking traffic, and outright flabbergasted to discover that while one of these cars was being blocked from moving, someone walked up and shot the driver

Fortunately it looks like the driver is going to be okay, but in order to get out of there he had to push through the protesters with his car and some who didn’t get out of the way were knocked aside. Honestly I think I would have behaved very similarly if protestors were blocking my car and then someone shot me. Particularly given that the gunman ran after the car and fired a second shot! (I mean what was this guy thinking?!?)

Of course, as you might imagine there was a lot of focus on the driver knocking people down, with much of the early focus on protestors who had been knocked down, and interviews where they emphasized that this was a peaceful protest. I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that if you’re blocking an intersection and banging on cars, that on the continuum between Gandhi and riot that you might be closer to the riot end of the spectrum

Beyond that I’d like to wish everyone a happy Independence Day. Apparently national pride has fallen to a record low. I know some people would suggest that this is a positive development, but I’m pretty sure it’s not.


I- Eschatological Review

The Accidental Superpower: The Next Generation of American Preeminence and the Coming Global Disorder

By: Peter Zeihan

384 Pages

General Thoughts

This book was recommended to me by one of my readers, and I couldn’t have enjoyed it more. So much fascinating discussion of geopolitical trends, the strengths and weaknesses of every country, predictions for the future, etc. It really felt like a peek behind the curtains of power, into the deep underbelly where the true engine of the world creaks away.

In another sense the book is similar to Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond, but with both a more narrow and more recent focus. Zeihan’s primary focus is geography, which permeates the discussion and informs everything from why Iran is so belligerent (mountainous agriculture leads to feast-famine cycles of aggression) to predictions about what will happen with China (the geography naturally splits the country in three sections, which will become increasingly difficult to hold together). 

I made so many notes about this book, and marked so many pages that it’s difficult to know how to summarize it or what points to emphasis. But I’ll give it a shot:

The post World War II era represents an incredibly unusual period where normal geopolitics was suspended under American hegemony. This hegemony largely relieved countries from the need to focus on military and security concerns and allowed them to turn the attention to economic expansion. It was the perfect time for it because the Americans also decided to enforce free trade. This era is coming to an end because the US doesn’t need the rest of the world, in large part because of shale (though 3d printing factors in as well) and underlying all of it, the US has the best geography in the world. 

After establishing this premise, the rest of the book examines the challenges the rest of the world will face as the US withdraws from things, and it’s been a long time since I’ve been more engaged by a book and its conclusions.

That said, even if the conclusions were engaging that doesn’t mean some of them weren’t inaccurate. I’ll get to my two major complaints in the next section, but for now let’s just focus on the critical place shale holds in Zeihan’s predictions. I don’t think I’m overstating things to say that American shale and the energy it provides is one of the top three components of the world Zeihan predicts. He devotes a whole chapter to it in the book (out of 15). And while in general it’s a very solid and compelling argument, it might entirely fall apart if oil ends up being cheaper than he expected. I’m not an expert on shale, but as far as I can, oil has to be north of $50/barrel in order for shale to be cost effective. As I write this it’s closer to $40, with it being as low as $20 earlier in the year. The point of all this is not to falsify Zeihan’s theory, but to point out that even in the near term, fairly safe predictions like: “the price of oil is going to keep going up” turn out to be subject to unexpected events. Which might point to the overarching weakness of Zeihan’s book. It doesn’t pay enough attention to Black Swans, which brings me to the next section.

What This Book Says About Eschatology

In addition to his assumptions about shale oil, where Zeihan could be wrong, but should that be the case, the consequences are low, there are at least two other areas where I think he might be wrong with far more severe consequences. 

First in predicting American preeminence (which is right there in the title) he seems to be imagining that America will remain a unified, well-functioning state. One that intelligently pursues its global interests and acts as a single entity when it comes to foreign policy. For example when he predicts that the US will absorb Alberta, he points out how entirely sensible such a course is. And indeed from a realpolitik standpoint, it seems obvious. The kind of thing where if Kissinger were on one side and Bismarck on the other, the outcome would be a foregone conclusion. But the US is unlikely to be led by anything resembling these two individuals, and in fact it appears increasingly unlikely that the US will be “led” by much of anyone in the coming years. 

In other words, when one sees how big the partisan divide is on something like masks, it’s hard to imagine there wouldn’t be similar turmoil on something as big as annexing parts of Canada. Accordingly, before I’m ready to agree with Zeihan that the US will deftly seize the entire world in the coming decade, I’d like to see some evidence of it deftly seizing anything at all, and at the moment, such evidence is scarce. For America to be preeminent it first has to persist.

Second, while one can imagine the transfer of Alberta happening peacefully, other territorial changes Zeihan imagine seem much less likely to happen without war being declared, and from there it’s not difficult to imagine that a nation in decline might decide to use their nuclear arsenal rather than go down without a fight. As an example of what I mean consider this selection from the book:

[Japan’s] first military target is likely to be Russia’s Sakhalin Island. It is just off the coast of Japan’s northernmost Hokkaido Island, putting it well within Japan’s naval and air force power projection range. It’s infrastructure was largely built by Japanese firms, that infrastructure terminates on the island’s southern tip, the Japanese have the technical skill to keep all of Sakhalin’s offshore energy production running, the Russians do not, and Japanese nationalists still fume that the Russians seized it from Japan in the wars of the first half of the twentieth century. Securing Sakhalin would place just under 300,000 bpd of crude production and 3 Bcf/d (billion cubic feet per day) of natural gas production into Japan’s output column. Seizing Sakhalin will also permanently sever any chance of having positive relations with Moscow, but to be blunt, Moscow is five thousand miles away, so the consequences of breaking that relationship aren’t very high. 

Wait… what? The consequences for pissing off Moscow aren’t very high?! As I said I loved this book, but Zeihan has either completely ruled out the use of nukes, which is something he never even mentions, let alone explains. Or he has a major blind spot on that issue. Certainly no reference to nuclear weapons appears in the index. He does have two more recent books, including one released just this year, so maybe he has since rectified this blind spot. And I enjoyed this book enough that I definitely intend to read his other books eventually, so we’ll find out.  But beyond all that you can hopefully see what I mean. He offers up a very compelling argument based on proximity, infrastructure, history, and most of all geography for things to go a certain way. And if Russia was led by Henry Kissinger perhaps that’s exactly the way it would go. But as you may have noticed Putain is no Kissinger (though he comes closer than many of today’s leaders) and it’s hard to imagine him just rolling over if Japan tried to seize Russian territory by force. 

Perhaps another way of describing the disconnect is that Zeihan looks at the world with piercing and refreshing sanity, but the world itself just continues to get more insane.


II- Capsule Reviews

The Good Soldier Švejk

By: Jaroslav Hasek

752 Pages

This book is what Catch-22 would have been if it was written about Czechoslovakian conscripts during World War I rather than American bomber pilots during World War II. Indeed Joseph Heller said that he never would have written Catch-22 if he hadn’t read this novel first. And I swear to you I came up with that comparison before I knew this fact.

Saying that it’s the World War I Czechoslovakian Catch-22 may not give an entirely accurate portrait of the novel, but it’s the best short description I could come up with. There are also bits that remind me of Vonnegut, with maybe even smaller bits of Douglas Adams tossed in there as well. Beyond that it fits into the genre of literature, where a seemingly foolish individual ends up being the wisest character of all. And you can never tell whether these “fools” are feigning ignorance or if they’re genuinely foolish, but perhaps wise because of that rather than in spite of it. I can’t pin down a name for this genre, but it made me think of medieval jesters or maybe Sancho Panza from Don Quixote.

On top of that, it’s very discursive. The main plot is quite short, but Švejk is constantly relating some story about a villager of his acquaintance the situation reminds him of. And every time a minor character is introduced they get a whole sub-story as well. Which reminded me a little bit of Canterbury Tales or The Book of the New Sun or the stories Woody would tell on Cheers. And once again I have no idea what this genre of literature is called. (You would think that if I got nothing else out of my English degree I would at least have a better grasp of the various genres, but no…)

Beyond that, according to Wikipedia, in addition to being the greatest Czechoslovakian novel of all time (or at least the most translated), it has credible claim to being the very first anti-war novel as well. 

Having laid out this menagerie of qualities, you may still be unsure, whether you should read it. To that I would say, if you don’t find yourself in the position of Rene Zwellenger in Jerry McQuire, “You had me at ‘World War I Czechoslovakian Catch-22’”, then you probably shouldn’t. I enjoyed it, but I’m weird. Also having read the whole thing, I kind of think this is one of those cases where being a completist doesn’t add much. In fact Hasek didn’t finish the series, so rather than having a well defined plot and a dramatic ending, (though spoiler the Austro-Hungarian Empire lost.) Švejk just kind of peters out. As it’s largely a collection of vignettes, which end up being essentially equal in their satirical delightfulness, I would say that if you selected 50 pages at random you would probably get the majority of what the book has to offer, or at least a pretty good idea if you wanted to read 700 pages more of it. 


The Diaries of Adam and Eve

By: Mark Twain

128 Pages

This very short book was funny, but not uproarious, it was well written, but not a classic, and it was witty but that wit often relied on somewhat antiquated stereotypes. But it’s just slightly over an hour on Audible, and it’s by freaking Mark Twain, one of the greatest American authors. How many mediocre podcasts have you listened to that clocked in at over an hour? Whatever else may be said this book will be better than that. Accordingly, you should listen to this book. It provides a decent glimpse into an America that is all too quickly being forgotten when it is not being actively attacked.


White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism

By: Robin DiAngelo

192 Pages

In my last post I already spoke quite a bit about this book, and in particular the paradox it presents. For those that didn’t get a chance to read the last post. DiAngelo makes the claim that racism is ubiquitous among white people, and when accused of it they invariably get defensive, which is understandable if racism is evil, but DiAngelo wants to get past a black and white understanding of the problem, to an understanding that the racism of white people is largely unconscious but if you can bring it up without them being defensive, you can make people less racist. Of course the problem is that everything else in the present moment is geared towards asserting that racism is awful and murderous. Nor does DiAngelo spend much effort refuting that, and seems to want to have it both ways.

Because of this and other issues I would say that the book was mediocre. It certainly has significant value as something of a manifesto for a certain philosophy of racism and how it works. But given, as I pointed out in the first paragraph, that it’s not even particularly vigorous in defense of that ideology, I’m not sure how valuable it is even towards that end. I will say that after reading this book I think I understand racism better from what might be called an HR perspective, but if you’re looking for insight into the problems of policing, this book is essentially valueless.

You may think I’m being unusually harsh, but there’s an argument to be made that I’m actually being kind. Matt Taibbi posted an absolutely savage review of the book just a few days ago. Sample quote:

When one employee responds negatively to the training, DiAngelo quips the person must have been put off by one of her Black female team members: “The white people,” she says, “were scared by Deborah’s hair.” (White priests of antiracism like DiAngelo seem universally to be more awkward and clueless around minorities than your average Trump-supporting construction worker). 

DiAngelo doesn’t grasp the joke flopped and has to be told two days later that one of her web developer clients was offended. In despair, she writes, “I seek out a friend who is white and has a solid understanding of cross-racial dynamics.” …(everyone should have such a person on speed-dial)

I include this section because I had basically the same reaction upon reading it. Nor is Taibbi the only person to dislike the book. David Brooks, who’s conservative, but of the most moderate type called the book, “the dumbest book ever written. It makes The Art of the Deal read like Anna Karenina.” And while the book itself has a 4.2 out of 5 star rating on Amazon the top seven(!) most helpful reviews are all one star.

This book is interesting as one snapshot of the current moment, but I can hardly imagine that it will be remembered at all 10 years from now. 


Guns of August

By: Barbara W. Tuchman

510 Pages

If you were only going to read one history book ever, this might be it. I could fill up page after page with a discussion of this book. Tuchman does a truly unbelievable job of eloquently pulling together a whole host of people and events, using prose that strikes you again and again with it’s craft and eloquence.

Given that I could say a whole host of things about the book, but that the space I have is limited, what am I going to say? Upon reflection, I guess the most useful take away, for me, from the first month of World War I is how many incorrect assumptions governments, leaders and people had going into the war. Assumptions which were only proved incorrect in the unforgiving crucible of war and at the cost of millions of deaths. (See one of my previous posts for a discussion of war as the ultimate test of rationality.) What were some of those assumptions? 

  • The whole French plan assumed that the Germans couldn’t field nearly as many men as they actually did.
  • The Germans assumed the Russians would take six weeks to deploy, they deployed in two.
  • Everyone overestimated the Austro-hungarians
  • French war doctrine before and during the initial stages of the war all revolved around going on the offense, and emphasized bravery and guts as the key components.
  • The Germans thought the Belgians would just let the Germany army pass through their country without a fight.
  • The French and British thought that the Belgian forts would hold out for months, they held out for days.
  • The British entirely dismissed the importance of the Ottomans, and did nothing to keep them out of the war and several stupid things to bring them in.

As you can see, just a discussion of bad pre-war assumptions would take up quite a bit of space and the list above is far from complete. But after reviewing that list aren’t you struck with a profound need to know what incorrect assumptions we might be laboring under? And might the biggest one of all be that war between the great powers is a thing of the past?


Euripides III: Heracles, The Trojan Women, Iphigenia among the Taurians, Ion (The Complete Greek Tragedies)

By: Euripides

306 Pages

As I review more and more of these collections of Greek Tragedies, it starts to become harder to come up with things to say. But after saying in a previous post that “trust me, Odysseus was a jerk” one of my readers questioned first, whether he should trust me on anything, which is a fair point, and second whether Odysseus was actually a jerk or if I was applying 21st century morals to the situation. In response I offer up the following exchange between the herald of the Greeks (remember he’s on the same side as Odysseus) and Andromache.

TALTHYBIUS

O wife of Hector, once the bravest man in Troy,

do not hate me. This is the will of the Danaans and

the kings. I wish I did not have to give this message.

ANDROMACHE

What can this mean, this hint of hateful things to come?

TALTHYBIUS

The council has decreed that your son—how can I say this?

ANDROMACHE

That he shall serve some other master than I serve?

TALTHYBIUS

No man of the Achaea shall ever make this boy his slave

ANDROMACHE

Must he be left behind in Phrygia, all alone?

TALTHYBIUS

Worse; horrible. There is no easy way to tell it.

ANDROMACHE

I thank your courtesy—unless your news be really good.

TALTHYBIUS

They will kill your son. It is monstrous. Now you know the truth.

ANDROMACHE

Oh, this is worse than anything I heard before

TALTHYBIUS

Odysseus. He urged it before the Greeks, and got his way

ANDROMACHE

This is too much grief, and more than anyone could bear.

So don’t just take my word for it, It seems clear that even the ancient Greeks thought Odysseus went overboard with this act.


Acid Test: LSD vs. LDS

By: Christopher Kimball Bigelow

296 Pages

I should mention before I dive in, that this book showed up, unannounced, in the mail one day. There wasn’t even a note attached. Someone just decided to send it to me. I assume they wanted me to read and review it, but for future reference, if you’re going to do this, including a note might be nice. 

Also, I debated whether to stick this review in the religious section or keep it in the main section. As a compromise I stuck it at the end of the main section. Because, while this book does have a lot of Mormonism in it, I don’t think that a deep knowledge of the religion is necessary to appreciate it. Particularly if you’re my age or a little bit older (as is the case with the author), and even more especially if you grew up in Utah in the 80s. Because even more than religion, this book is an autobiographical retelling steeped in that time and place. And on that metric I thought Bigelow did a fantastic job. 

The book was strongly nostalgic for me, especially the first few pages, which were so evocative that I almost declared the book a masterpiece without reading any further. (In particular being reminded of the $3.35/hour minimum wage really took me back.)

Unfortunately for me and my desire to read a blow by blow retelling of my own youth, after the first couple of chapters Bigelow’s path diverges fairly strongly from my own (he jumped from new wave to punk, while I stayed with new wave). Despite this, the stories he tells are still very relatable. As I said, while the book has a fairly strong religious component, the story of someone making the transition into adulthood and not knowing what the heck they were doing, is pretty universal, and though Bigelow went a lot farther than I did in his search for meaning, I still think his stories of trying to figure things out can be appreciated by everyone.

Supposedly this is the first book in an autobiographical trilogy, and I’m looking forward to the next two.


III- Religious Review 

The Lost 116 Pages: Reconstructing the Book of Mormon’s Missing Stories

By: Don Bradley

318 Pages

I know Don Bradley, not super well, but I’ve ended up in short conversations with him a half a dozen or so times, and once he was in the group I went to lunch with at the Mormon History Association. I mention this both because it probably impairs my objectivity, but also to just put out there that he’s a super nice guy and I couldn’t be happier that he’s been able to publish this book, which as I understand it represents something he’s been working on for many, many years.

With my prejudices noted, let me say I quite enjoyed this book, in addition to learning a lot. I don’t read as many LDS books as some people I know, but I don’t remember another book length treatment of this subject, and certainly if there was one I can’t imagine that it was nearly so comprehensive. 

For those non-Mormons who may be reading this, I’ll try to briefly summarize the subject. After Joseph Smith had been translating the Book of Mormon for awhile, and had assembled a significant number of pages (116 as the story goes), Martin Harris, a gentleman who had been assisting him both as a scribe and with a significant amount of money, wanted to show these pages to his wife, who was not as excited about things as he was and kept demanding to see what he had been working on. Harris asked Joseph if he could show the translated pages to his wife, Joseph inquired of the Lord who said no. Harris persisted. Joseph asked again, and again the answer was no. Harris pleaded yet again, Joseph asked yet again, and finally the Lord said, yes. Or more likely some version of, “Fine, go ahead, but don’t be surprised if something bad happens.” And indeed something bad did happen. The pages went missing and have never been seen since. Joseph was instructed not to retranslate that section and since then they’ve been referred to as the lost 116 pages. 

One of the first things Bradley points out is that given that the current Book of Mormon is 532 pages, you might imagine that if 116 pages went missing that this represents 18% of the intended volume. But he points out that this almost certainly understates the content that was lost. The figure of 116 is probably just an after the fact estimate which may have been derived from the fact that the section which replaced it happened to be 116 pages in the printer’s manuscript. At other times it was referred to as closer to 200 pages, and also, because of the larger size of the transcribed pages even if it was 116 it would have probably translated to more than that when it was printed.

Beyond that Bradley spends most of the book attempting to reconstruct what might have been on those pages from things that were said at the time. Either by Smith or Harris, or by people they talked to and who then subsequently recorded those conversations. The narrative he pieces together is excellent and painstaking work, and beyond that very interesting. None of what Bradley assembles comes completely out of left field, but I was very impressed by how much he was able to stitch together.

Of course in a reconstruction like this, you walk a fine line between making too many connections on the one hand or on the other, making too few, of being too conservative about filling in the gaps or too liberal. If it were me I might have erred on the side of being a little bit more conserative, but as I said it’s a difficult balance to strike, and if I was writing this review a month from now, maybe I’d say it was just right. 

In any event for those who do read a lot of LDS books, or even those who only read a few, I can unhesitatingly recommend this book.


You know what else I can unhesitatingly recommend? The pot stickers at David’s Kitchen in South Salt Lake. Oh, and also I suppose donating to this blog, although if your excuse is that you need that money in order to buy the pot stickers, I’d be okay with that.