Category: Culture

Things Are More Complicated Than You Think (BLM)

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As anyone who has read my blog for any length of time knows I’m a big fan of Scott Alexander and his blog Slate Star Codex. You may have also heard that he recently deleted that blog in its entirety in response to the New York Times insisting that they were going to reveal his real name. (Scott Alexander is just his first and middle name.) You can check out his one remaining post for his argument on why that would be a bad thing. Or any of the dozens of other articles that have been written about the subject (see for example here, here or here). I want to take things in another direction. I want to talk about what I see as an attack on reasonable debate and disagreement. And to start we need to examine why the NYT was (and apparently is) so determined to use Alexander’s real name.

The claim the reporter has made is that it’s the newspaper’s policy to include people’s real names when reporting on them. That was quickly shown to be at best a policy to which they had made frequent exceptions to, and at worst an outright lie. The NYT had previously reported on Chapo Trap House (whose book I reviewed here) and had no problem using only a pseudonym for one of the people involved there. This would appear to be prima facie evidence of bias, though it remains to be seen what sort of bias it is. We are advised by Hanlon’s Razor to avoid attributing to malice what can more easily be explained by stupidity. Despite this people have made the strong case that the planned article about Alexander is designed to be an exposé. 

If based on the foregoing we decide that the article was/is going to be an attack on Alexander, then what does that mean? I worry that it means that rational discourse is on the verge of becoming impossible. I understand that sounds like a sweeping and extreme statement, but on those few occasions when Alexander questioned the liberal orthodoxy he did it as mildly, as nicely, as rationally, and in the most limited fashion possible, and if even that makes him subject to being targeted by some place like the NYT then it’s really hard to imagine what sort of questioning is allowed. 

Which takes us to the current moment, and the hesitation I have in speaking about it. I am definitely not as mild or as nice or as rational as Alexander, nor do I expect to be as limited in scope. Accordingly, I have mostly avoided getting too deeply into the protests and the Black Lives Matter moment we’re currently having. Certainly over the last few posts I’ve mentioned it here and there in the context of my worries that we might all make the same mistake, but I have, somewhat reluctantly, decided to wade in more fully. Why? Honestly I’m not sure. It would probably be easier to just not say anything, and I fully acknowledge that it might be better for society as a whole as well. But I honestly feel that certain things are being overlooked, and that if I can see them and I don’t mention them that I’m guilty of making the problem worse through inaction. And I am fully aware that the assistance I might give to fixing a situation as intractable as the one we’re currently dealing with is so tiny as to be almost non-existent, which is exactly why it would be so easy to just pass the topic by, but I won’t. Hopefully that isn’t going to end up being a mistake.

To start, if I were to try to sum up my worries, it would go something like, “This is a very complicated problem and if we’re going to fix it we need to make sure we don’t over simplify it.” Also I might add, “Historically things done in haste and anger have often turned out bad.”

Before we can discuss why the problem is complicated we might need to identify what the problem is. And here we encounter the first thing I think people are overlooking. There are actually two problems (at least). First there’s the eternal problem of racism. Second, there’s the problem of what to do about abuses committed by police. Since these abuses appear predominantly directed at poor minorities, it certainly follows that if we can just fix the problem of racism the problem with the police will be fixed at the same time. That sounds reasonable, but we’ve been attempting to fix racism since at least the Civil RIghts Act of 1964 (CRA) over 50 years ago and it might be useful to examine why in spite of this effort and all the subsequent efforts racism still persists.

If we confine this question to just the CRA the first possibility is that it didn’t go far enough. That it needed more clauses to cover more types of behavior, that the government needed to enforce even greater integration for an even longer period of time. That it failed because the government was uncommitted. It failed because not enough pressure was applied from the top. It’s hard to imagine how that would have worked without the government being even more draconian, and isn’t that kind of the whole complaint now? One might argue that the government needed to be harsher on whites and less harsh towards minorities. Perhaps such a distinction was possible, but I’m libertarian enough to think that when you give the government more power it’s hard to keep them from using it indiscriminately. 

Also while I’m no expert on the act or the times in which it was passed, it seems like if you looked at the reality on the ground just enforcing what they did was hard enough. Certainly there is an argument that we needed to strike while the iron was hot, that we gave up before finishing the job, and that because of that we’re forced to finish it now. But once again I feel like the measures being taken back then were near the edge of what the country could handle as it was. But perhaps not, in any case nothing can be done about it now.

(The post Civil War era may have been another such missed opportunity. But discussing what should have been done then is even more fraught, so I’ll just acknowledge that’s the case and move on.)

Also, any discussion of not going far enough, immediately leads to the question of how far do we have to go? Is there some graceful and straightforward way of putting this issue to bed forever? (outside of a few extremists remaining on both sides.) Because if there is, sign me up! Let’s do that. As long as it was a fixed cost that I could conceivably bear I would happily do it. $10,000? Done. Paying $1000/year for the rest of my life? Done. Tearing down all the statues ever erected? Done. Wearing a collar that prevented me from committing microagressions? I’d certainly consider it. The problem of course is that no such solution exists, certainly not one that requires just my participation, and particularly not one that doesn’t have second order effects which might end up being far worse than the problem we’re trying to solve. (Even if I was willing to wear a collar, trying that on the nation as a whole would be unlikely to end well.)

To return to the questions I just posed, and the idea that the solution should come from the top down, the one proposal people keep bringing up as both a next step, and something of a final destination is reparations. I don’t know if I’ve heard anyone claim that it would put the issue to bed forever, but it’s hard to imagine it wouldn’t be a massive undertaking not only financially but politically, so I think it’s reasonable to expect that in order to be worthwhile reparations would have to significantly improve things.  So this is one way forward, and insofar as it costs me less than $10k up front or $1k/year per year, then I’ve already said I’m on board. So I’m more open to the idea, than I once was, but my prediction continues to be that it’s not going to be nearly as effective or as easy to pull off as people think. Though my full reasoning for that prediction is outside the scope of this post.

That covers the difficulties, limitations and hopes for a top down solution, what about a bottom up approach? Or to put it another way, have all previous attempts failed because they failed to change the hearts and minds of the individuals who were being racist. That whatever people say, their innate racism is not going to be altered by the passage of a law. That despite an attempt from the top down to enforce a lack of racism, there was still a lot of racism out there and that’s what led to all the things people complain about like white flight, aggressive policing of minorities, and a huge increase in the minority prison population. 

This leads to three possibilities, the first would be the arc of history/march of progress possibility. That people are gradually getting less racist, and as a consequence eventually this problem will go away. That the current support we’re seeing from academia, corporations, and suburban Mormon moms is evidence of the progress we’ve made. Additionally, most people I talk to about this mention the lack of racism among younger generations, and the hope it brings them. I talk about this a lot in my blog, but this is essentially Steven Pinker’s position in his book Enlightenment Now. That things are currently pretty good and if we’re just patient, and don’t do anything crazy, they’re just going to get better. The question that arises from this is, can we hurry it up? Or do we just have to be patient and mostly work for small incremental gains, for people to die off? It’s obvious that this is what’s happening right now, people are trying to hurry up, but I think the jury is still out on whether the current methodology being employed will ultimately have that effect. 

For the moment let’s assume that things have been and are progressing but that we can speed it up. How might we go about that? Well as much as it pains true believers to be reminded of this, you have to get some of the people in the middle on your side. Some of the people like me who are appalled by police abuses, and the special privileges that unions have carved out for themselves, but also think that the police are probably not modern day Nazis. And if the rest of the moderates are anything like me then extreme actions are not going to help. I know people want to go faster, but when people tear down statues of abolitionists who died in the Civil War and toss them into the lake or when Hulu removes an episode of Golden Girls that actually aimed to be sympathetic to racial issues, these things don’t make the vast number of mostly apathetic people want to go faster, it makes them think we’re going too fast. And I understand arguments about the harm of signal boosting of trivialities, like those I mentioned, but that’s the world we live in, and so we need to work around it.

Which is to say despite the urgency of the issue, I would argue that it is possible to go too fast. Though the late 60’s and early 70s are dim in most people’s minds, it should be noted that things got pretty crazy. As an example, people have completely forgotten that in 1972 we had over nineteen hundred domestic bombings in the United States. (That’s a direct quote from an FBI agent active at the time.) Furthermore, I think there’s a credible argument to be made that millions of people have died in revolutions caused by trying to go too fast. Revolutions where essentially everything the revolutionaries wanted came to pass eventually, just not as quickly as they had hoped.

Another possibility is that progress isn’t inevitable, or hasn’t been happening, but that it can happen if people rise up and make their voices heard. I understand this sentiment, but it seems belied by all the data on generational attitudes, all the progress that has been made, even if racism still exists, no what seems more likely is a third possibility, that there is a small irreducible kernel of racism in everyone. That beyond a certain point people are just selfish and stupid and no matter how bad we make them feel or how much we educate them, or how much they want to be completely free of in-group bias that the great mass of people never will be. Note that this is particularly likely to be true if we keep expanding the definition of racism. 

I understand that this is kind of a extreme position so let me offer up a couple of stories:

One of my friends is super liberal, he’s not the most liberal person I know, but he’s pretty far out there. We had a long talk over the weekend about this issue, and he was pretty strident about it. Years ago he and I were at the same wedding, and he approached a black gentleman to ask where the bathroom was. As you may have guessed this person was not part of the staff he was on the bride’s side of things (we were friends of the groom). This friend of mine felt awful for the rest of the evening, he still feels bad if I bring it up today. I see lots of stories of these sorts of small racially biased acts, and it seems that a large part of the racism people point to currently are situations similar to this. But if these sorts of things happen even to people who are firmly committed to not being racists, what kind of policy/spending/training/extreme measures are we going to have to resort to in order to purge the world of them? And do such measures even exist?

Second story, there’s a person I know, very politically active, about as liberal as you can get in Utah. Strident facebook posts about the liberal outrage de jure. They frequently go out canvassing for the local liberal candidate and one time this person came to my door and I was talking to them and they wanted me to vote for a particular candidate because this candidate wanted to turn the nearby high school which the district had closed because of falling enrollment into a community center. Otherwise they told me, it will be used to build “low income housing”. Now perhaps this person is just prejudiced against the poor, but it is of a sort with all the other examples people give, white flight, sending kids to far away schools, etc. 

What’s further interesting about both those stories is that I don’t think I’ve ever made the mistake my friend did, nor would I have used the phrase “low income housing” when out canvassing. As someone who leans conservative, or at least away from progressivism, I understand the mistakes I’m likely to make, so I police myself pretty thoroughly. 

Which takes us to the book White Fragility, by Robin DiAngelo, which I recently finished. I’ll post a review of it in the monthly wrap up, but for now I want to bring in what the book has to say about this subject. To begin with she mentions that people who think they’re not racist can be the worst of all, the ones most likely to show fragility and to come up to her after her diversity training and point out all the black friends they have or the fact that they’re Italian and Italians were once also a discriminated class. Basically to strenuously assert that they couldn’t possibly be racist. DiAngelo herself shares many stories of her own unintentional racism. Here stories are similar to the stories I mentioned above, mistakes that I don’t think I’ve ever made.

Now note what’s happening there. People come up to her after the training. And she made these mistakes despite all of her own education and efforts. If we decide to treat this as authoritative, (and I’m not saying we necessarily should, DiAngelo is just one voice among many, though a popular one). And after combining it with the stories I related, eliminating every shred of racism starts to look like a really difficult problem. And furthermore a somewhat paradoxical one as DiAngelo illustrates. Though without apparently recognizing the paradox. 

One of the things she claims is that the sorts of behavior just described are nearly ubiquitous among whites, and as such we need to get past a good and evil dichotomy, because people naturally bristle if you tell them that their evil, which is what being accused of racism equates to in this day and age. So she wants to tell them that they’re racist, that all white people are racist, but without necessarily further implying that they are also therefore irretrievably evil. But yet isn’t the idea that racism is evil, perhaps the greatest evil, the fundamental message of the protests that are currently taking place? Thus the paradox…

What I’m trying to illustrate by all of this is just how complicated the situation is, and all of the complicated ways people recommend for merely identifying it, let alone solving it. That we have somehow lumped the behavior of my very progressive friend assuming that if someone is black he has to be an employee as belonging to exactly the same category of behavior as minorities being unjustly killed by police.

Which takes us back to the beginning when I said that there are really two problems (at least). There’s the problem illustrated by the killing of George Floyd, and the problem of causal and widespread racism described by White Fragility (among other places). And I’m going to assert that trying to simplify both of these into a single problem is probably a mistake, or at least 

something that makes this effort less likely to succeed. That ideally we should focus on one problem, police brutality, rather than attempting to cure the entire country of racism at a stroke. And of course even with this focus we still are faced with a pretty complicated problem, but at least it allows us to rigorously define what we’re trying to do and track whether our efforts are working or not. Indeed I am suggesting that if we want to succeed we need to exercise as much dispassionate objectivity as possible, and I fear this is the attribute most lacking in the current climate. As an example, rather than focusing all of our efforts on a somewhat ephemeral push to defund the police, we should be able to look at various police funding levels and the various strategies implemented by different municipalities in the wake of these protests and compare them, ideally using some fairly robust measurement.

It needs to be something where the measurement is tangible (i.e. not based on someone’s perception of harm) and ideally we should zero in on the greatest harms. It should also be a measurement where we have a lot of data and it’s easy to collect more of it. Putting all this together I suggest that we should use the murder rate as a measurement we’re trying to optimize around. It fits all three of the criteria and I would think that all sides should agree that we want it to be as low as possible. Then the question becomes how do the various policy proposals affect this measurement? Particularly the massive push to defund or eliminate police?

I am not suggesting that I can solve this question in the limited space I have remaining, but at a first glance it appears that the recent unrest has, on this measure, been a bad idea. For example:

104 shot, 15 fatally, over Father’s Day weekend in Chicago (Key quote, “The weekend saw more shooting victims but less fatalities than the last weekend of May, when 85 people were shot, 24 of them fatally — Chicago’s most deadly weekend in years.” The other deadly weekend was also post George Floyd.)

Gun Violence Spikes in N.Y.C., Intensifying Debate Over Policing (Opening paragraph: “It has been nearly a quarter century since New York City experienced as much gun violence in the month of June as it has seen this year.”)

CMPD: 180+ shots fired from multiple weapons during deadly Charlotte block party (“Police say at least 181 shots were fired into a crowd of around 400 people during a block party Monday. The shooting and chaos that followed left four people dead and 10 others injured.”)

Note I am not saying this proves anything one way or the other, I am suggesting that it’s enough evidence to create caution in how we proceed and what we encourage. It also does appear to point towards what some people have called the Ferguson Effect, the idea that when cops are placed under increased scrutiny following a major incident of misconduct they back off from policing, and that this has the effect of encouraging more crime. In support of this I offer not only the above stories, but this study that came out in June that found when a police department is investigated in the normal course of events, that police department improves. Unless the investigation comes after a “viral” incident in which case:

In stark contrast, all investigations that were preceded by “viral” incidents of deadly force have led to a large and statistically significant increase in homicides and total crime. We estimate that these investigations caused almost 900 excess homicides and almost 34,000 excess felonies.

To reiterate, in putting this out there I am not claiming to have proved anything, except perhaps the idea of a link between police and the murder rate, and the idea that caution should be exercised. I am definitely not claiming that we should roll over and let the police get away with whatever they want. I’m saying that it’s a complex system, with significant costs if we get it wrong. And that what we really need to do is split things up into tractable problems, and then apply as much rational examination of the data as possible, the kind of stuff where Scott Alexander of Slate Star Codex was a viking, before he felt forced to take his blog down.

I certainly hold out hope that policing can be done better. And in fact I would be very surprised if there aren’t all sorts of improvements what can be made, but when it comes to the more radical proposals, I’m inclined to adapt a phrase from Churchill:

Many forms of policing have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that current policing is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that it is the worst form of crime prevention except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.… 


If you actually like Churchill, and some of the other people whose statues are being threatened (Lord Baden Powell anyone?) then consider donating. I promise that I will never use that money in the removal of any statues.


COVID: What Does Victory Look Like?

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I experienced a certain amount of reluctance when I decided to do another post on COVID-19. For starters not only is everyone kind of sick of hearing about it, but there is also a credible argument to be made that the biggest problem right now is just how many different opinions there are when it comes to the crisis. That what we might need are fewer opinions, not more. If this is the case then adding my opinion to the hundreds that are already out there just makes the problem worse, not better. Of course, as you can see I overcame that reluctance, and decided to go ahead with it. I hope that doesn’t end up being a mistake.I suppose you’ll have to read it and decide for yourself. 

Part of the impetus for this post came from reading Ross Douthat’s latest, and an excerpt from that article might help set the stage.

“Americans play to win all the time,” George Patton told the Third Army in the spring of 1944. “That’s why Americans have never lost and will never lose a war. The very thought of losing is hateful to Americans.”

That was in another time, another country. When Patton spoke the United States was still ascending, a superpower in the making. But once our ascent was complete, our war making became managerial, lumbering, oriented toward stalemate. From Vietnam to Iraq to Afghanistan to all our lesser conflicts, the current American way of warfare rarely has a plan to win.

Maybe the America of mass mobilization belongs as much to the past as Patton, MacArthur, Ike. But nothing that’s happened so far in this crisis proves, definitively, that we the people lack the will to win — especially when the alternative is just enduring, and dying, for months and months to come.

So as we look for a post-lockdown strategy, maybe what we’re actually looking for are leaders — be they governors or legislators, Trump and his appointees or the Democratic nominee for president — willing to embrace the old-fashioned idea that in this struggle, as in the wars our country used to wage, there is no substitute for victory.

That was the first two and last two paragraphs from his article, and I hope you (and he) will forgive the length of the excerpt, but his point was an important one. There is no substitute for victory and we should be doing whatever it takes to get there. The problem, at least for me, and I assume a lot of people, is that it’s not clear how to get there with the America we have, and it’s even a little unclear how to get there period. 

In answer to this last statement a lot of people will retort, “Well what about South Korea, Taiwan and China?” Haven’t they been victorious? So let’s start there. First, we need to be clear that we can’t trust all of the information coming out of China, which I’ve mentioned in previous posts. But that issue aside, these countries are fantastic examples of what to do and I think the US should be emulating their example as much as possible. And that when Douthat talks about a lack of leadership it’s the failure of our leaders to aggressively follow these countries’ examples, particularly in the case of masks which I blogged about previously. But also in areas like testing and tracing. So the solution is just “copy Taiwan”? End of story? Unfortunately there are two reasons why it’s not that simple. First, there’s the idea I already alluded to, America is a very different place than Taiwan or South Korea. But beyond that, and important to mention, the final tally of deaths is not in yet, and until it is, the possibility remains that we should be emulating Sweden not South Korea.

Before people start accusing me of wanting old people to die, let me offer some clarifications. First, if I was given absolute control over the US pandemic response I would definitely be trying to emulate Taiwan (for those who didn’t follow the link, they’ve had 440 cases with 7 fatalities so 1/10,000th as many deaths with 1/15th the population of the US). Second, it’s important to remember that it’s not today’s death toll that matters, it’s the final death toll. And it’s not even the final death toll from COVID-19, it’s the final death toll from all the things we do. If suicides go up, our numbers should do their best to reflect that, and ditto if traffic fatalities go down. And it’s not even the final death toll from all causes, what really matters is the final toll period, what did that path cost us when all is said and done. This is the hardest thing of all to quantify, particularly since as much as people hate to put a dollar value on human life, in some fashion, at least, economics has to be part of that calculation.

For the moment imagine that the window for containing the virus is past, that it’s too widespread and too deeply entrenched and there are too many asymptomatic carriers. That a vaccine ends up taking years or being outright impossible. That despite our best efforts (and recall we’re a long way even from that) the virus can only eventually be stopped through worldwide “herd immunity”. That as great as Taiwan’s measures are, they eventually fail and when the final tally is made, their death rate ends up being essentially the same as Sweden’s. If that’s how it plays out, one would expect Sweden to reach this immunity much sooner than Taiwan. What will that mean for them? If the death rate ends up being essentially the same for both countries won’t people end up envying Sweden rather than Taiwan? Because they didn’t have to deal with years of heightened precautions which ended up being pointless?

I suspect that this last point is not one people think about a lot. When you consider what it takes to maintain a system like the ones these countries have in place, it’s neither cheap nor unobtrusive. There’s definitely got to be some downside, some drag, consequences to the perpetual uncertainty, where years go by with lockdowns imposed and then lifted, continual monitoring and screening, closed borders, no really large gatherings, etc. And to reiterate if these methods work, then that’s great, and that’s the path I would prefer to take, but what if ultimately they don’t? What if Taiwan and South Korea end up with the same basic death rate as Sweden, but had to suffer through years of ultimately futile precautions as well?

The point being that, while I would definitely prefer to implement the South Korean or Taiwan approach, there is still an enormous amount of uncertainty, and a lot we don’t know. Consequently I’m grateful that both Taiwan and Sweden are out there and that they’re trying different approaches, because ideally we’d learn from both in constructing our own response. Which takes us from the “how do we get to victory” problem (answer: it’s complicated, and a lot of questions remain) to the question of how do we get there with the America we have? How do we turn the current quagmire into victory? 

One of the things that characterized all of our past victories, to one degree or another, is sacrifice. But what does sacrifice look like in the current crisis? Are the Swedes sacrificing? Are the Koreans? I’m not sure. What about the US? I can certainly think of one example of sacrifice, which got a lot of press, both because people love stories of sacrifice, and also because so far I don’t think there’s been a lot of them. (i.e. demand far outstrips supply) It’s the story of the workers who lived in the factory for 28 days making polypropylene to get turned into PPE.

I will admit to personally loving that story, and I’d love to expand the example into some broad lesson, but I’m not sure if it scales up. Are there other critical factories that could do the same thing or something similar? Perhaps, and I’ll get to that later, but I think this issue of sacrifice is at the root of the leadership problem Douthat mentioned in the article I quoted from originally. That good leaders inspire sacrifice, and sacrifice is how you win. 

This is certainly not all a leader does, but in a crisis like this I’d be willing to bet that it’s a big part of it, and to the extent that it is we’re still left with two problems. Finding a leader who can inspire the entire nation to sacrifice and figuring out what sort of sacrifice this leader should be advocating. 

As to the first, Trump is clearly not that leader. I will admit, in the past, to being something of a Trump apologist, which is to say, I think he’s an awful person, and an awful president, but I didn’t think he was Satan incarnate, and, also, like many people, I thought labeling him as such made it more difficult to call out actual Satans. I still basically feel that way, but it’s apparent that his failings, which are many, have been magnified by this crisis and that if, as Douthat claims, victory requires some amount of leadership, say a Patton or a MacAuther, a Roosevelt or a Kennedy (which is not to say that those people didn’t have their own failings) that we have been saddled with basically the opposite. Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear that Biden is such a leader either. But as I said it’s still not clear what the ideal leader should be doing. Even if we assume that we had the required leadership, what sacrifices would this leader ask of us? 

The largest crises of the past were all wars and the sacrifice people were asked to make was death, or at least the risk of death. And people volunteered in their thousands and tens of thousands, to personally risk death. Today no one is being asked to do that (there are some proposals asking for healthy people to volunteer to be infected, but they’ve gone nowhere) and it’s impossible to imagine any leader suggesting it even obliquely. And to be clear I’m not arguing that they should, I’m just pointing out how off limits it is. Is it so off limits because when it comes down to it there’s really not that much similarity between a war and a pandemic? Or is it off limits because this is 2020, not 1918?

Those are interesting questions, in particular what did happen in 1918? Was leadership an important part of things? Was there a Churchill equivalent who rallied an entire nation? As far as I can tell the answer no. And what’s even more interesting is that despite all of the current sturm and drang, the 1918 pandemic, which was vastly worse on every measure, ended up mostly being forgotten. Up until possibly the last few months, if you had asked people to name the greatest disaster of the 20th century almost no one would have said the Spanish Flu, and most wouldn’t have said it even if you’d asked them to list the top ten disasters. 

(If you want hard numbers as of 2017 there were 80,000 books on World War I, and 400 on the Spanish flu, and most of those had been written since 2000. Alternatively just do a Google search for: spanish flu forgotten.) 

What are we to make of that fact? Why didn’t the Spanish Flu loom larger in the collective imagination? Is it because it came and went so fast? (The majority of deaths took place in a 13 week period at the end of 1918.) Is it because it was largely a solitary crisis? Should the level at which something is remembered be used as a proxy for how bad it was? Apparently not, because the Spanish Flu was really bad. Should it be used as a proxy for how impactful it was? One would think that this is almost the definition of memory. Does that mean the Spanish Flu didn’t have that much of an impact? Maybe?

Frankly I’m not sure what to make of this, nor do I intend to use it in service of some sweeping recommendation or conclusion. But it’s something I haven’t seen mentioned elsewhere, and it feels important. 

In the course of writing this post I was more thinking through things than holding forth on some pre-formed opinion. And in the course of that, I think what I’m inclined to do is offer a caveat to Douthat’s call for leadership. I don’t think we need leadership in the traditional, “rally the country”, “call for sacrifice” sense. What I think we need is smart and effective leadership (man did we end up with the wrong president in this crisis). Which is easy to say and hard to do, so allow me to explain. 

Vox.com recently published a list of recommendations on how to beat COVID. It included the things you might expect, universal mask wearing, more testing, contact tracing, etc. But it also included things like removing restrictions on outdoor spaces and spending a lot of money. And these latter two in particular begin to touch on what I mean by being smart. But before we fully switch to that topic, it also illustrates one last thing about sacrifice.

You can imagine that it’s a sacrifice to wear masks, or to stay at home. We might also have to make sacrifices to ramp up testing and tracing. But none of these things really fit in with how sacrifice has worked historically. For one thing they’re not particularly demanding, nor are they particularly… flashy. But more than that, most of the time when we imagine sacrifice we imagine shared sacrifice. A band of brothers, or living in the factory for 28 days to produce material, or even a group of founders working crazy hours on their startup. All of the things we’re being asked to do, in addition to being fairly low effort, are also pretty solitary as well. You would think that if the measures being recommended required less effort that this would be a good thing, but I get the feeling that it’s not. That we’re actually having a harder time unifying because less is being asked of us and what’s being asked of us doesn’t require us to come together.

So if having a charismatic leader inspiring us all towards victory through the medium of shared sacrifice is out, then we have to be smart. We can imagine achieving victory through enormous effort, lockdowns that lasted months, 99% mask and handwashing compliance, quarantining people centrally, and everything else we could think of. In other words a plan where we’re not sure which measures are the most effective, but we do them all just to be sure. The problem is that this has a high social and emotional cost. A charismatic leader, and a lot of unity might allow us to pull it off anyway, but we don’t have those. This being the case it suddenly becomes a lot more important to pick our battles, figure out what really works and emphasize those things. It becomes far more important to be smart.

Above I mentioned Vox’s recommendation that we allow people outside, and this is exactly the kind of thing I’m talking about. Despite very little evidence of transmission out of doors (a study of over a 1000 transmissions in China found only one case where it happened outside) numerous jurisdictions have closed outdoor spaces, and we’ve probably all seen alarmed stories about packed beaches, which to begin with, aren’t that dangerous, and also aren’t that packed, they just look that way because of what amounts to photographic trickery (i.e. a telephoto lens). 

If we had unlimited reserves of patience, then it might not matter if we did some things that are dumb, but we don’t. Accordingly we should be picking our battles, and from what I can tell the battle over outdoor spaces is not one I would pick. It’s not smart, and unfortunately since the beginning of the crisis it would seem that most of what the government has been doing is not particularly smart. 

I’m not going to spend any time revisiting the testing failures, or the ridiculous regulatory hoops people have to jump through, or really the massive failure at all levels. But the story of the only domestic mask manufacturer is interesting. Because it combines a little bit of everything. This is a company who ramped up production and staff and made huge sacrifices in 2009 during the swine flu pandemic. But the minute it was over the company just about went out of business because all the people that had previously been desperate for masks at any price, all dropped the company in an instant once it was over. This meant the company had machines they still owed money on, and way more staff than was needed. After massive layoffs and other restructuring the company survived, but only just barely. 

Thus, it shouldn’t be surprising that this time around the company is not willing to do that. They want long term contracts. As an example of how this has played out. When the pandemic was first ramping up the company approached the government with an offer to use their mothballed machines (evidently left over from 2009) to make seven million N95 masks a month. And the government basically blew them off. And in fact as near as I can tell those machines are still sitting idle. 

If this was an isolated story, or if there were lots of problems at the beginning, but eventually we got our act together, it would be one thing, but each day brings a new story of how we’re not being smart. Like the story on Friday about the FDA shutting down a well-regarded COVID testing project in the Seattle area. This seems beyond merely not being smart and well into the territory of actively being stupid.

If this isn’t the kind of crisis we can get through with shared sacrifice; and if we don’t have the leadership to pull it off even if it was; and if we don’t have much in the way of leadership period; and if we’re not being smart, where does that leave us? For myself it leaves me reluctantly considering the Swedish approach. If nothing else at least it’s straight forward. And remember, no one is forced to do anything, people are free to take as many precautions as they want. And yes, I understand this does not entirely protect people from the actions of others, but recall that it’s not as if Sweden has zero restrictions, in fact I would hazard to say that if you compared what Sweden is doing now with what municipalities did in 1918 that they would look very similar. Recall that when people talk about the cities who had it the worst in 1918, they’re talking about cities which had parades in the middle of the pandemic, which I’m pretty sure even Sweden is avoiding.

Combine this with the point I made earlier about how little impact the Spanish Flu had on people’s memory of the 20th century, and I’m inclined to be cautiously optimistic. What do I mean by that? Am I suddenly advocating for the Swedish approach? No, but I fear that after a lot of groping around doing stupid and counter productive things that we’ll end up there eventually anyway. It may never be the de jure policy, but I think it will increasingly become the de facto policy. (Also, people do what they want more than governments are willing to admit. People start taking precautions before lockdowns begin and stop taking them before the lockdowns end.) In other words, in contrast to my normal position, I’m offering up reasons to be cautiously optimistic. Of course I have to be alarmed about something, so if I’m not alarmed by how poorly we’re handling things, even now, what am I alarmed about?

Well, I’m out of space, so I’ll have to write more on this topic later (and it won’t be my next post, that’s already spoken for) but I’m becoming increasingly alarmed that in the process of fighting the pandemic we’re going to make an even bigger mistake. What might that mistake be? Well keep your eye on this space, but I’ll give you a hint: As you might imagine I’m not a fan of the colossal amounts of spending we’ve engaged in to fight the pandemic. A world with pandemics is well covered territory, a world where money has ceased to have any meaning. less so.


As sick as you probably are of hearing about COVID-19, you’re probably even more sick of hearing me try to come up with a clever request for donations. Too bad, just like the pandemic, it’s still a long way from running it’s course, lots of stupid choices are being made, and at some point I’m imagining you’ll just want to get it over with. 


Review: Sex and Culture, or Greatness Through Sexual Frustration

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When people consider what’s wrong with the world there are three schools of thought. The first, which I’ve mentioned frequently, and the one championed by Steven Pinker in his books, The Better Angels of Our Nature and Enlightenment Now, is that there’s nothing wrong with the world, that things are as great as they’ve ever been and almost certainly just going to keep getting better. The other two schools of thought are not quite so optimistic, some people feel that there certainly might be problems with the world but mostly it’s things we’re aware of and if we could just get our act together, nothing we can’t solve. Other people don’t think that there might be something wrong with the world, they think that there is definitely something wrong. And furthermore that we might not even be aware of how bad those problems are, and those we do have a handle on are proving to be largely intractable. 

From what I can observe the vast majority of people fall into one of the latter two camps. And I sincerely hope that all of them turn out to be wrong and Pinker turns out to be right, but as you may have gathered I don’t think he is, and I don’t think they are.

If you’re like me and in the something is definitely wrong camp, the next obvious step is to figure out what that something is. This is the whole point of the discipline of eschatology, at least as I practice it, and there are of course numerous candidates, everything from runaway environmental damage, to the looming threat of an eventual nuclear war, to a breakdown of culture and morality. And it seems only prudent to examine each and every candidate in as much detail as possible, in order that the true illness at the heart of modernity (assuming there’s only one, there could easily be more than one) might be diagnosed and treated as soon as possible. Before the condition is terminal. I understand that this is a profound oversimplification of what this process looks like, if it’s even possible, but regardless of the difficulties involved in correcting the ills of the world, the process can’t even begin without identifying the problem in the first place.

The book Sex and Culture by J. D. Unwin, written in 1934 while Unwin was a professor at Cambridge, is one theory of what the problem might be, and one that, so far as I can tell, has not gotten a lot of attention. This is almost certainly because Unwin’s claim is entirely at odds with modern thinking, what is that claim you ask? 

That a culture is successful to the extent that it restricts pre-nuptial sex. 

I assume that most people can immediately grasp why such a claim has been almost entirely ignored. If not, imagine any current professor getting up and attempting to present this as a topic up for debate at any university or college. And yet, as I pointed out, if we care about the health of society, and we’re not convinced that everything is going smoothly, we really should examine all possible threats, even the ones most people find horribly old-fashioned and retrograde. (In fact, I would argue, especially those threats.)

I said the claim was almost entirely ignored, fortunately Kirk Durston wrote a post about it, which brought Sex and Culture to my attention and convinced me to read it. Though, on doing so, I discovered another reason why the book was largely forgotten. It is not an easy read, and I don’t think I would recommend that you try. The majority of the book is an exacting and detailed examination of the traditions and behavior of 80 different “uncivilized” cultures. So detailed that even I skimmed some of the chapters.

Given all of this, I imagine you’re unlikely to read it, so it’s up to me to tell you what it’s about. Though I would also strongly recommend Durston’s post in addition to mine. 

For my part, I’m going to start by asking, “Why do nearly all cultures have traditions and taboos around sex?” From a straight evolutionary perspective you might imagine that other than some incest prohibitions to prevent genetic issues, that more sex would equal more babies and that greater reproduction confers an obvious benefit to survival. And yet over and over again, regardless of the society we find taboos around sex. With, historically, the strictest taboos being found in the largest civilizations.  Why is that? Unwin wondered the same thing, and Sex and Culture is his answer. It’s obvious from the book that the first step he took was to make an exhaustive study of all the anthropological reports he could get his hands on. I’m sure that quite a bit of newer information has come out since then, but based on what was included in the book it’s hard for me to imagine that he overlooked much of anything that was known at the time.

(As a side note, I didn’t realize until I linked to Unwin’s entry on Wikipedia for this post, but the book was published only two years before his death at the age of 41. One wonders what he might have done with the idea if he’d had several more decades.)

In any event after engaging in a massive survey of the anthropolocial data his conclusion was that more energetic and advanced societies are characterized by greater restrictions on pre-nuptial sex. From that conclusion you might imagine that the book is written primarily from a religious perspective, or as a commentary on modern sexual mores, but that’s not the case at all. In fact one of the reasons for the book’s length is that he goes to great effort explaining what measures he has taken to make his cultural survey as scientific as possible. He throws out a lot of cultures because he doesn’t think there’s enough information.  He also spends quite a bit of time examining the various ways in which the information could have been corrupted by issues of translation and data collection. Furthermore he simplifies his criteria to things that are easy to observe, meaning both that such behavior is more likely to have been accurately reported, and that comparisons between cultures should be relatively accurate.

As I said, out of all of this he is mostly interested in information on a culture’s sexual taboos, but if he merely categorizes cultures according to this single measure all he has shown is that different cultures have different taboos, what he needs is a second measurement to set against a culture’s sexual behavior as an independent guide for how advanced a culture is. The methodology he arrives at is actually pretty clever. He observes that every culture has to deal with two questions:

  1. What powers manifest themselves in the universe?
  2. What steps are taken to maintain the right relationship with these powers?

From these questions he derives four “cultural conditions”, the first three are:

  1. Deistic: Cultures which build temples.
  2. Manistic: Cultures which do not build temples but which do engage in some form of post funeral attention to their dead. (i.e. ancestor worship).
  3. Zoistic: Cultures which do neither of the above.

It might be obvious how those questions about universal powers are answered at each cultural level, but in short, Zoistic cultures don’t really attempt to answer them. Manistic cultures answer it by assuming that the “powers” which were present recently, that is to say other people, are probably still around. And Diestic cultures are those who come to understand that there’s too much going on for it to just be explained by the dead, leading them to conclude that there are even more powerful forces, i.e. deities which need temples and worship. (All of this seems to point to a natural progression where monotheism would be at the very top, but Unwin doesn’t seem to go that far.)

You might notice that I said there were four cultural conditions. The fourth is Rationalistic, which is when a culture finally starts answering the two questions with the scientific method. Once he comes up with these four levels the next step is to see if they bear any relationship to that same culture’s restrictions on pre-nuptial sex, and out of the 86 cultures he studied he discovers that:

  1. All the zoistic societies permitted pre-marital sexual freedom; conversely, all societies which permitted that freedom were in the zoistic condition.
  2. All the manistic societies had adopted such regulations as compelled an irregular or occasional continence; conversely, all the societies which had adopted such regulations were in the manistic condition.
  3. All the deistic societies insisted on pre-nuptial chastity; conversely, all the societies which insisted on pre-nuptial chastity were in the deistic condition. 

Giving evidence to support this correlation takes up the vast majority of the book, but of course you’re probably not that interested in zoistic and manistic societies, and even your interest in deistic societies is probably not all that significant either, what you’re really wondering is what Unwin has to say about the sexual restrictions of societies in a rationalistic condition. Unfortunately, compared to all the other cultural conditions he spends the least amount of time discussing the rationalistic. Perhaps because he assumes that his readers would be the most familiar with it. However the book is long enough that there’s still quite a bit of discussion it’s just more scattered, and in particular Unwin never presents a bright dividing line between sexual restrictions in a diestic society and a rationalist one in the same way he does with the other conditions. Rather he explains the transition as follows (I’m paraphrasing):

The enormous energy available to a deistic society practicing strict monogamy manifests first as a dissatisfaction with the limitations imposed by their geographic environment. This leads to an initial, expansionary phase. The sort of behavior we saw from the Babylonians, the Persians, the Huns, the Mongols, etc. And, for many societies, this is where things end, as sexual taboos are loosened and things like polygamy begin to florish. If, on the other hand, they’re able to maintain the initial sexual restrictions and taboos they pass from this expansionary phase into a phase where, “The great mental energy of such a society is directed to every detail of its environment, to every item of human activity, and to every problem of human life.” This is when they pass into the rationalist condition. 

It probably goes without saying that the rationalistic condition is where you want to be, or failing that, in the deistic condition, but either way, in order for that to happen, according to Unwin, you need to have serious restrictions on pre-marital sex. And yes, to be clear, Unwin’s whole model is based on the idea that some cultures are superior to others at least according to certain measurements. And if you’re not willing to grant that I’m surprised you made it this far. 

I imagine there are some out there who would assume that, having finally reached a “rationalistic condition”, a society could ease up on the restrictions. Unwin argues that this is not the case, that within a few generations of backing off a culture begins to slip back into the “lower” conditions. How many generations? Unwin claims, “It takes at least three generations for an extension or a limitation of sexual opportunity to have it’s full cultural effect” Unwin defines a generation as being around 33 years, so three generations is essentially a century.

Before we can begin commenting on this theory there’s one other aspect which needs to be considered. Beyond documenting the relationship between sexual taboos and a culture’s condition, he also goes on to propose a mechanism for that connection. At the time the book was written Freud’s psychoanalytic system was probably the most influential system for explaining human behavior, and Unwin based his own theory on that foundation. He hypothesized that a civilization has a certain amount of energy, but all if it ultimately sexual energy (this is a Freudian theory remember). In a culture with no limits on sex, all of that energy get’s used up. But once a culture starts putting limits on things, some energy ends up unused. This energy needs to be channeled somewhere, and it inevitably ends up getting channeled back into society, creating an energetic culture. One that can expand, or build temples, or eventually, develop science.

With Unwin’s theory stated more or less in its entirety, we can now put forth how it explains what’s wrong with the world:

When sexual restrictrictions of all kinds were eliminated or lessened during the sexual revolution the energy available to our civilization was similarly lessened. This began the 100 year process of leaving the rationalistic condition and heading towards the essentially zero energy zoistic condition. 

With this explanation in hand the next step is to ask what we should do with it? I assume many people would be inclined to dismiss it out of hand. Merely including words like Freudian, and manistic, may incline them to think the whole thing is ludicrous. I suppose that’s their prerogative, but even if you reject Unwin’s data for some reason, doesn’t it strike you as odd that so many large, expansive civilizations had such draconian taboos around sex outside of marriage? I mean we’re talking Romans, Europeans, Arabs, and Chinese. In fact, can you give me a historical example of a large culture that didn’t have such restrictions? Perhaps they’re  not quite as tightly correlated as Unwin would suggest, but could it really be that they are entirely uncorrelated? With any measure of civilizational and cultural success? 

If you were going to be scientific about it, the next step would be to examine Unwin’s data. One would imagine that information on the various customs and taboos of primitive cultures has only increased since 1934 (though perhaps not as much as you might think, proximity in time counts for a lot.) Not only should it be possible to attempt a replication, but Unwin’s claims are so strong that they should be easily falsifiable. Has anyone done this? (Some cursory Google searches didn’t reveal any promising leads.)

Alternatively, and this is what I’m inclined to do, you could broadly accept his conclusion (the data seems accurate to me) but question the mechanism. One could imagine lots of reasons why sexual continence correlates with civilizational success (on certain metrics). Certainly the discipline required to abstain from sex outside of marriage might also translate into the kind of discipline that makes a country energetic. There’s also a huge body of evidence on the importance of intact families, and in particular the presence of a father. It’s certainly possible that civilizations which prohibited pre-nuptial sex ended up with stronger families which translated into stronger, more energetic cultures. If everything else Unwin says is mostly true then discovering the exact mechanism doesn’t matter very much.

To be fair, even if someone is prepared to grant the connection, we still have to grapple with the question of how things play out in the modern world. It’s entirely possible that this is something which was very important a hundred or a thousand years ago, but because of recent advances (the social safety net? Birth control?) it doesn’t matter at all now. I certainly understand the appeal of that argument, but when evidence for such prohibitions are so ubiquitous, appearing in the earliest writings we possess (and no, not just the Bible, they also appear in the Code of Hammurabi) it certainly feels like the burden of proof should rest with the people arguing that after several thousand years, things have somehow changed in the last 50. 

Speaking of the modern world, and falsification, it could be argued that we’re halfway towards falsifying Unwin’s theories ourselves since it’s been around 50 years since the sexual revolution. That being the case it’s reasonable to ask where the evidence is pointing. When we look around does it appear the Unwin was wrong or right? If you read my reviews for March, The Decadent Society by Ross Douthat was a book of nothing but evidence that Unwin was correct. Douthat makes the compelling case that the US has entered a period of stagnation, and not only does that sound precisely like the lack of energy Unwin predicted, but the timeline of the stagnation is eerily accurate as well. And, as long as we’re on the subject of last month’s book reviews, I’m also reminded of the quote I included from Will Durant: 

[Intellect] becomes an instrument for justifying impulse. If you become smart you can prove that what you really want to do, what you’re itching to do is what should really be done… The difficulty is that the intellect is an individualist. It learns how to protect the individual long before it ever thinks of protecting the group. That comes later, that comes with a maturing of the mind. A civilization controlled by intellectuals would commit suicide very soon.

While this isn’t quite as on point as Douthat’s book, Durant nevertheless seems to be talking about much the same thing. Which takes us back to the original question, now that we have considered the candidacy of Unwin’s theory for the position of “What’s wrong with the world?” What should we do with it?

Given everything I read and everything I see, I would argue we should take it seriously. Yes, that would mean undoing the sexual revolution, which is both straightforward and also so difficult I don’t imagine that we have even one chance in a thousand of pulling it off. 


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If We Were Amusing Ourselves to Death in the 80s, What Are We Doing Now?

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When I was growing up, television was a big deal. Not like impeachment is a big deal, but more like how screen time is a big deal, and in fact worries about screen time are the offspring of worries about kids watching too much TV. But even so worries about TV were different. These days you’ll see recommendations for limiting screen time to two hours a day. When I was a kid, there was a time when I was allowed to choose an hour of TV a week, and we would make out a TV schedule at the beginning of each week. (Imagine something similar being done with screens now). To be fair, I could also watch the TV my siblings selected, which added in a few more hours. And I think if my parents decided to watch TV I might be allowed to watch that as well, but all told I think, at best, I averaged an hour a day. 

(Readers might be curious what I spent my hour on, as I recall Nova and Cosmos were big, but I also loved Robotech.)

An hour a day doesn’t sound much different from the two hours of screen time currently being recommended, but there were other, potentially larger differences as well. We mostly only ever had one TV growing up, perhaps two by the time I was in high school, and the spread among my friends wasn’t much different. There were definitely a couple of them who had zero TVs, and a few that might have had four or possibly five. But I don’t remember any of my friends having a TV in their bedroom, and, in fact, such a thing was viewed as the ultimate abdication in parenting, or at least the most extreme proof you could offer that a child was spoiled. This meant that TVs were in public, well-trafficked locations. It was very difficult to watch TV without your parents knowing about it. (Your best bet was to wait until they had entirely left the house.) 

Another big difference was what was available on TV. We never had cable, so there were only seven stations to choose from, three networks (eventually four) two PBS stations and some local station. And nothing these stations showed was particularly racy. Certainly there was no nudity and definitely no swearing. Despite this there were still shows we weren’t allowed to watch, like Love Boat and Three’s Company. Now there are a lot of things that are like TV (streaming, YouTube, etc.) and the level of choice and the amount of content is orders of magnitude greater. When I was a kid, my parents had pretty much heard of and formed an opinion about every show on TV, now such a thing is inconceivable.

I could go on from here and talk about interactivity, or how niche things can be, or the explosion of pornography but my point is not to document current conditions (which most people are familiar with in any event) but to set the scene for anyone who’s too young to remember a time before the internet. This is important because I’m going to be discussing Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business by Neil Postman. Which was written during the time I’m talking about (1985), the pre-internet era when television was ascendent. I’d like to start this discussion by quoting the entirety of the book’s forward because it may be the best opening ever for a book of social commentary:

We were keeping our eye on 1984. When the year came and the prophecy didn’t, thoughtful Americans sang softly in praise of themselves. The roots of liberal democracy had held. Wherever else the terror had happened, we, at least, had not been visited by Orwellian nightmares.

But we had forgotten that alongside Orwell’s dark vision, there was another – slightly older, slightly less well known, equally chilling: Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.” In 1984, Orwell added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we desire will ruin us.

This book is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right.

Not too long ago I came across this quote and immediately decided I had to read the book, and not necessarily because Postman was correct on every particular—for example I think we’re being ruined by both desire and fear—but because as he points out, understanding the current world is a lot more about understanding Huxley than it is about understanding Orwell. That it’s more about the explosion of options than their limitations. More about a fracturing of society, than it’s unification under a totalitarian rule. And while I do think Orwell was extremely prescient about meaning coming down to a fight over language, I think Huxley came closer to predicting that the biggest issue in that fight is the deluge of speech, not a single codification of it, as with Orwell’s newspeak

All of this may be true, but at this point you’re probably wondering what Postman actually contributes to Huxley’s original diagnosis, but more than that, you may be wondering how Postman’s analysis of the problems with TV hold up in the age of the internet and social media. Let’s start with what Postman adds to Huxley, which is mostly to add Marshall McLuhan into the mix.

McLuhan is famous for his aphorism that “the medium is the message”, and Postman is a long time fan of his, though he claims that he actually came to this conclusion while studying the bible as a young man, in particular the Second Commandment:

I wondered then, as so many others have, as to why the God of these people would have included instructions on how they were to symbolize, or not symbolize, their experience. It is a strange injunction to include as part of an ethical system unless its author assumed a connection between forms of human communication and the quality of a culture. [emphasis original]

From all this Postman derives his central claim, that the dominant form of communication in his day, TV, was worsening the quality of US culture. That by habituating people to expect that everything would be entertaining we were “amusing ourselves to death”. In making this claim, he was less concerned with “junk television” and more concerned with adding entertainment to more serious endeavors like news and education. To his view, “The A-Team and Cheers are no threat to our public health, 60 minutes, Eyewitness News, and Sesame Street are.”

The common domain inhabited by these more serious endeavors was the concept of epistemology, that branch of philosophy concerned with the study of the origins and nature of truth. Cheers and the A-Team never claimed to be dispensing truth, but that’s exactly the endeavor 60 minutes, Eyewitness News and Sesame Street are engaged in. And Postman’s claim is that dispensing truth via the medium of television is different than dispensing it via the medium of print. Here’s how Postman lays it out:

With this in view, my task in the chapters ahead is straightforward. I must, first, demonstrate how, under the governance of the printing press, discourse in America was different from what it is now—generally coherent, serious and rational; and then how, under the governance of television, it has become shriveled and absurd…for television is at its most trivial and, therefore, most dangerous when its aspirations are high, when it presents itself as a carrier of important cultural conversations… 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. 

Obviously I can’t get into all of his arguments, and in fact what I really want to get to is a discussion of the epistemology of social media and the internet, but I think it will be easier to have that discussion if we’ve covered the epistemology of the previous dominant mediums first, and at this point some examples might help.

When print was the dominant medium, then all rhetoric had to fit in with the expectations of that medium. Thus even when people gave speeches they followed the general format of a book or a very long article. The classic example that everyone has heard of is the Lincoln Douglas debates (available on Audible by the way, highly recommended). These debates lasted three hours. One person would have an hour then the other person would take an hour and a half and then the first person would have half an hour for his final rebuttal. Can you imagine anyone listening to a three hour debate on anything in this day and age. And what’s interesting is that the three hour format was the abbreviated version. Previous to this they had engaged in debates lasting seven hours. From this Postman observes:

What kind of audience was this? Who were these people who could so cheerfully accommodate themselves to seven hours of oratory? 

For one thing it’s attention span would obviously have been extraordinary by current standards. Is there any audience of Americans today who could endure seven hours of talk? Or five? Or three? Especially without pictures of any kind? Second, these audiences must have had an equally extraordinary capacity to comprehend lengthy and complex sentences aurally. 

All of this is pretty remarkable to imagine, in this day and age. When the timeframe of our political debates are all measured in minutes, not hours, and this is true even when the field has been narrowed to two competitors. But beyond a remarkable attention span Postman argues that the dominance of print led to, and in fact required a better epistemology.

I must stress the point here. Whenever language is the principal medium of communication—especially language controlled by the rigors of print—an idea, a fact, a claim is the inevitable result. The idea may be banal, the fact irrelevant, the claim false, but there is no escape from meaning when language is the instrument guiding one’s thought. Though one may accomplish it from time to time, it is very hard to say nothing when employing a written English sentence. What else is exposition good for? Words have very little to recommend them except as carriers of meaning. The shapes of written words are not especially interesting to look at. Even the sounds of sentences of spoken words are rarely engaging except when composed by those with extraordinary poetic gifts. If a sentence refuses to issue forth a fact, a request, a question, an assertion an explanation, it is nonsense, a mere grammatical shell. As a consequence a language-centered discourse such as was characteristic of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century America tends to be both content-laden and serious, all the more so when it takes its form from print.

On the other hand, Postman argues, none of the above is true once television becomes the principal means of communication. First, as already alluded to, television has vastly shortened attention spans. Postman mentions that “the average length of a shot on network television is only 3.5 seconds”. This has apparently not changed much since then, even when talking about the news where the average shot length in 2019 is 4.8 seconds. Postman claims all of this:

…called into being a new world—a peek-a-boo world, where now this event, now that, pops into view for a moment, then vanishes again. It is a world without much coherence or sense a world that does not ask us, indeed, does not permit us to do anything; a world that is, like the child’s game of peek-a-boo, entirely self-contained. But like peek-a-boo, it is also endlessly entertaining.

Which takes us to the next epistemological change brought on by TV, that to a large extent the degree to which something is entertaining is the degree to which people consider it worthwhile, and by extension, true.

The problem is not that television presents us with entertaining subject matter, but that all subject matter is presented as entertaining, which is another issue altogether.

To say it still another way: Entertainment is the supra-ideology of all discourse on television. No matter what is depicted or from what point of view, the overarching presumption is that it is there for our amusement and pleasure. That is why even on news shows…we are urged by the newscasters to “join them tomorrow.” We accept the newscaster’s invitation because we know that the “news” is not to be taken seriously, that it is all in fun, so to say…A news show, to put it plainly, is a format for entertainment, not for education, reflection or catharsis. And we must not judge too harshly those who have framed it in this way. They are not assembling the news to be read, or broadcasting it to be heard. They are televising the news to be seen. They must follow where their medium leads.

I imagine for many people all of the above is self-evident, and that even for those that are still resistant, if we can at least agree that different messages are easier to deliver depending on the medium they’re delivered in then we can turn to the real question: Which messages are easiest to deliver over the medium of the internet and social media? And does this result in the disproportionate selection of harmful messages? Or as I put it in the title: If we were amusing ourselves to death in the 80s, what are we doing now?

Unfortunately Postman died in 2003, so he isn’t around to answer that question. On the off chance that he wrote something more germane to the question in a later work, I also read Technopoly, one of his final books, and the last one I thought would bear on this question. Technopoly is a fine book with many interesting ideas, chief among them the idea that by needing to apply discrete values to everything that we miss out on all the things that aren’t captured in those discrete buckets. That, for example, it’s very easy for a computer to deal with letter grades, but very hard for it to deal with the full nuance of everything that might appear, in say, an essay. But because so much of society is driven by technology we inevitably reduce things into a form that’s easily digestible by computers, and in the process we lose much of the potential “landscape”. That in the end we actually forget that there might be something outside of giving a letter grade, or beyond the four choices available on a multiple choice test.

That said, I came away with the distinct feeling that he was trying to write about a movie he’d only seen the first couple of minutes of. And that, while he had interesting things to say, he was forced to make far too many assumptions. And, most of all, he had nothing new to add to this particular question, so it looks like our best bet is to tackle it by extrapolation. 

Postman argues that what we should be mostly concerned with is the epistemology of a given medium, and the first thing that comes to mind when we consider the medium of social media is “fake news” in all of its many guises. (One of which may be truth disguised as falsehood.) Not an encouraging beginning no matter how you look at it. That said, to simply say that the current media environment merely creates an even worse epistemological environment is a cop-out. Things are far more complicated than that.

As we’ve seen, Postman was a big fan of long form printed content, and I would argue that among some groups this sort of content is going through a renaissance. The internet and social media are fairly text heavy. There is a lot of long form blog-style content out there that seems very popular. And, finally, there’s the popularity of podcasts, and while these are not exactly printed content, they have to be considered closer to being a book than a TV show.

Initially all of this would seem to be cause for optimism, but remember it’s complicated. First, while there may be a lot of new “readers” I think they still represent only a small fraction of the total population. Secondly, even if we just consider people who get their information primarily from the written word, you’re still looking at a huge number of very diverse sub-groups. I know that even before the advent of mass communication (Postman points to the invention of the telegraph as the start of it all) there wasn’t much unity, but there was still a lot more of it than there is now. Back then you might have the people who read the New York Times vs. people who read the New York Post. Now people aggregate at the level of individual blog fan-dom. And I dare say, despite the discipline imposed by textual arguments that each of these blogs has a slightly different epistemological framework.

Further, while there are certainly some whose preferred medium is text, perhaps even more than there were a decade ago, there are still a large number of people who get their “truth” from the TV. But even this medium is very different and more diverse than it once was. The prime example is the numerous people who get all of their information from Fox, and not just in the tuning in at 6 and 10 fashion of the past, but who spend hours watching it. Similarly, there are also people who largely watch only MSNBC or CNN, and beyond that are the people who acquire the bulk of their worldview from a handful of YouTube channels.

There are serious downsides to all of the foregoing, but at least those epistemologies might be said to lead to an ideology that’s coherent even if it isn’t desirable, and if something is coherent we might at least be able to engage with it. But I would argue that the majority of people can’t even summon this level of focus and are actually mired in the modern version of what Postman called the “peek-a-boo” effect. On TV it was most visible as part of the news, You might hear a story about some incomprehensible tragedy which would immediately be followed by a commercial for laundry detergent, or perhaps it would be time to cut to the weather, or sports. Whatever else might be said about the modern world, the typical social media feed has dialed this up to 11, where in a single glance you might see an appeal for donations towards the most recent global tragedy, a cute baby picture, and a vitriolic partisan rant. 

In other words, rather than having a single dominant medium with an associated epistemology, the modern world would appear to be suffering from severe epistemological fracture. And while, somewhere in all of it you might find epistemologies that are better than what existed during the height of television, or perhaps ones that are even superior to the epistemology of the printed word. They are being overwhelmed by hundreds if not thousands of epistemologies that are far worse. And, unfortunately, the medium of the internet and social media seem designed to privilege the bad ones, and have proven to be far more successful at incubating conspiracies than midwifing truth. 

So what is the answer to the question posed by the title? If we’re not “amusing ourselves to death” what are we doing? That’s a tough question. I said above that when Postman tried to grapple with things in his follow-up book, Technopoly, that it felt like he was trying to review a movie he’d only seen the first few minutes of. But I don’t feel I’ve seen the whole movie either. In fact I have the feeling that there’s a major twist that has yet to appear. I guess if I had to take a stab at it, I would title the current book on the subject:

Media Darwinism: Epistemology Red in Tooth and Claw!


I doubt my fan base is big enough to support its own epistemology, but I hope that if it ever does that I can at least beat out TV. If you’d like to help make that happen consider donating, epistemologies aren’t cheap, and they’re definitely not covered by my HMO.