Category: <span>Culture</span>

The Missing Piece of the Present Moment Is Religion (But Not in the Way You Think)

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I.

This post is a continuation of the last post, but it’s okay if you came straight here without reading my previous post. When you’re writing you always have a destination in mind, and sometimes that destination seems pretty close, and you figure you have time to take a detour, so when you pass a sign that says, “World’s Largest Ball of Twine! 25 miles!” You think, “Sure we have time to go see that,” but the next thing you know you’ve not only spent hours traveling back roads, but you’re deep into the competing claims over which ball of twine really is the biggest, and you decide to travel to all of them, and… Well you get the picture. 

With that introduction, if you understandably decide not to go back and read the last post, here is a distillation of the three claims I made: 

  1. Uniting large groups of people is very difficult, and it’s a project that ultimately comes down to your foundational epistemology. How does a system construct the truth which goes on to inform its policies?
  2. When looking at these foundational epistemologies technocrats would seem to have an edge because in theory they arrive at the truth, they don’t construct it. But not only does their method have some notable blind spots, it’s also not very good at uniting the masses. It may, in fact, have the opposite effect. 
  3. Religion is something that is both very good at constructing a truth framework and uniting people, and that is what we used to have in this country in the form of a patriotic civic religion, but that recently we had abandoned it, and the hole left by its absence is large contributing factor in the current unrest. 

To give you an example of what I mean here, let’s take something smaller than an entire theory of government. The above is also essentially the point I’ve been making when it comes to the Modern Monetary Theory (MMT), the alternative macroeconomic theory that’s been much discussed recently. It may be that the MMTers have genuinely figured out some more accurate model for how government debt works. (Though I doubt it, even Krugman has referred to it as Calvinball.) But more important than the accuracy of the idea, is how it ends up getting translated when it filters down to citizens/voters. The average voter has no interest in the actual wonky policy debate. They have no understanding of monetary supply or inflation or the dollar’s status as a reserve currency. Consequently they’re either going to ignore the whole debate, or it’s going to get translated into something they can understand. The most likely candidate for the latter is a conviction that deficits don’t matter and the government can spend whatever it wants, and so what possible reason could there be for not spending money? Particularly if people are in need.

Now of course it’s going too far to say that this conviction would be equivalent to a religion. It may be easier at this stage of things to view such an idea as a myth. A myth which is a distortion of MMT, but which arises out of it in a fairly natural fashion. And even if we imagined that people could understand all of the ins and outs of Modern Monetary Theory, you can see how the myth is much more appealing. Not merely is it simple and straightforward, but it appeals to their self-interest. When given a choice between doing the hard work of understanding the in-and-outs of things, listening to the experts, or believing a simple and compelling myth. Most people are going to go with the myth. Technocracy imagined that most people even even if they’re reluctant to do the hard work, will still go with believing the experts, but that’s simply not the case, 

What’s actually happening is that people are choosing between two myths. The other myth is a myth about debt. It is also simple and compelling. It says that debt is bad. As it turns out that’s not the case, governments need to be able to borrow. This is what makes it a myth, but it’s nevertheless a simple and straightforward idea that people can organize around. Experts, such as they are, may direct people towards one or the other myths, but essentially they’re a side show. 

II.

As I mentioned in that last post there are lots of books that speak to the importance of religion, but since we’re starting with myths and working our way up to religions, let’s start with Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari. In yet another stab at explaining the uniqueness of humans Harari puts forth the idea that our uniqueness comes from our ability to craft these myths. That through myth-making we can create imagined orders and frameworks, which allow us to exceed the limits set by the natural order. You might notice that this is very similar to the other candidate for “human uniqueness” I recently mentioned in my review of The Secret of Our Success by Joseph Henrich. For Henrich it was culture, for Harari it’s myths, but as you can imagine the two end up having substantial overlap.

Now, in the interest of full disclosure, it’s been awhile since I read Sapiens, and my note taking back then had not reached its current heights. Fortunately I did come across a blog post where someone had summarized the book. Accordingly, for convenience, I’ll be referencing that rather than Harari’s book. 

In doing so let’s review what we’re trying to do. Our overarching question is how do we beneficially unite large groups of people. Well setting aside the “beneficial” bit for the moment. Historically, uniting people above the level of a tribe has always begun with the application of force, or at least a form of power which was ultimately backed up by such force. I’ve talked about this before at some length, but as it turns out, even though in that last discussion I peeled away the veneer of democracy, I didn’t go deep enough. There was at least one more layer. From the Sapiens summary:

A natural order is a stable order. There is no chance that gravity will cease to function tomorrow, even if people stop believing in it. In contrast, an imagined order is always in danger of collapse, because it depends upon myths, and myths vanish once people stop believing in them. In order to safeguard an imagined order, continuous and strenuous efforts are imperative. Some of these efforts take the shape of violence and coercion.

To say that a social order is maintained by military force immediately raises the question: what maintains the military order? It is impossible to organise an army solely by coercion. At least some of the commanders and soldiers must truly believe in something, be it God, honour, motherland, manhood or money.

To maintain an imagined order, we need people who believe in it – the military, the elites, and the peasants.

In other words behind the threat of force is a myth that makes the force cohere into something useful, and beyond that myths are ultimately responsible for all cohering even if you’re not talking about the military—as our recent myth-induced chaos bears testament to. But if all power structures are ultimately built on a foundation of belief in some myth, then what myth forms the foundation of a modern technocracy? I suspect the answer is that there isn’t one, and as I concluded in my last post, this lack represents its fundamental weakness. But it’s only fair that we consider some possibilities before definitely concluding that.

III.

A technocracy is rule by technical experts. So perhaps the foundational myth is in the power of experts. Like all good myths this would be one with quite a bit of truth behind it. But is that all that’s required for a good myth? That it be a simplification of some more complicated truth, designed for easy ingestion by the masses? Probably not, at least as I consider examples of unifying myths, the amount of truth they contain seems mostly incidental to their success. What really seems to determine how successful they are is the emotional appeal of their core idea. To return to the other two frameworks I talked about in my last post: national greatness and Trumpism. The former’s emotional appeal is right there in the name. The powerful idea that the United States is a nation with a destiny! While the latter both borrows the appeal of the former—Make America Great Again—and the age-old appeal of unifying around a single, charismatic figure. In this case the idea that Trump is a transformative figure in his own right, something of a Moses who will set his people free. Do you see any similar appeal around the idea of “listen to the experts”? I don’t. It sounds more hectoring than inspiring, as I think recent events have shown.

What if we take it back a step and make our unifying myth the myth of science. Well we’re immediately faced with an oxymoron, since science is all about puncturing myths, or at least getting to the bottom of them. Which is to say the great strength of science, that it is self-critical, is exactly what we don’t want in this situation. It prioritizes doubt, but unity requires at least some degree of certainty. You can neither imagine someone storming the Capitol in the name of science nor facing down such a mob in the name of science either. You can imagine both happening in the name of justice or duty, but not science. 

Perhaps technocracy can unify people using the myth of progress? This seems like the best candidate, and to the extent that technocracy has been successful this is probably the unifying myth it has drawn on. But I think there are several reasons to think that this myth isn’t really capable of “going the distance” as they say. First off, while progress doesn’t come embedded with quite the same level of doubt as science it still invites a certain amount of criticism and reflection. All of which is to say that people feel they should be able to measure progress, and that, because it’s “progress” every time they measure it, there should be more of it. This gives progress a certain fragility. As long as progress is obvious it makes a great unifying myth, but if it stalls or reverses or takes a form that’s difficult to quantify, it’s utility as a myth quickly disappears. Also what if you end up with progress in some areas, but not in others? And what if some groups are doing great while things are getting worse for other groups? Suddenly progress isn’t unifying, it’s divisive. Which, once again is something we’ve seen play out in recent events. 

Perhaps the key problem with all of these myths is that in order for a myth to be useful it has to inspire people during both the good times and the bad. It has to not merely unify people when things are going great—nearly anything will work for that. No, it’s when times are tough that a unifying myth is put to the test. Does it continue to function when unity is both important and difficult? In order to do this there has to be something about the myth which encourages sacrifice, or at the minimum naturally assembles people into teams. One could argue that a great nation shouldn’t have to sacrifice, but at least that myth encourages everyone to want their nation to win, and from there the necessity of making sacrifices becomes pretty obvious.

In the final analysis technocracy may be antithetical to both unity and sacrifice. Under the idea of national greatness we’re all citizens, all part of the vast arc of destiny that has carried the United States from a hall in Philadelphia, through numerous wars against evils like slavery and facism, all the way up to walking on the Moon. Trumpism is not nearly so majestic, but it nevertheless formed people up into teams and gave them a goal to strive for. Even democracy at its most vanilla puts forth the idea that every voter has a part to play in government. But a technocracy contains none of these elements. The average citizen isn’t part of something grand they’re just a piece in a puzzle the technical experts are trying to solve. Through their behavior they may make the puzzle easier or more difficult to solve, they are not the prime movers in the story. They’re not the people playing the game of chess, they’re the pieces on the board. (I can’t decide if using the word “pieces” in two different contexts is clever or confusing…)

There is one other important point to be made in this discussion: unity can either be something which is cultivated internally or it can be imposed externally. I’m not going to spend a lot of time going down this path since I covered it in a previous post, but I would argue that the long period we’ve experienced without any wars has also contributed to our lack of unity. War’s have rarely been truly existential threats for the United States, but even so, knowing that great harm will befall you unless you pull together with the rest of the country is a powerful motivation to do just that. And as I mentioned in the last post, it is during such times as war, or in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 that the feeling of national greatness always reached its peak. 

At this point you may agree that myths are useful, you may even agree that technocracies are bad at cultivating unifying myths, but you might still think that they’re more effective, by virtue of the fact that they’re based on science, evidence and data rather than conspiracies (Trumpism) or a history which has been white-washed of all the bad things (national greatness). That in the long run technocracies will be a better framework for beneficially unifying people than any framework which relies on simplifying myths. This would appear to be the contention of a lot of people, and one of the great debates of the age. Let’s see if we can get to the bottom of it.

IV.

To start with I’m going to jump ahead somewhat. I’m going to go straight from talking about myths to talking about religion. Ideally I would carefully build that progression, but I think it’s pretty obvious that religions are collections of myths. Myths which happen to be based on eternal truths if you’re a believer, or myths which may nevertheless be useful even if you’re not. But clearly everything I said above about myths—that they are coherent, easy to understand, and inspiring during both good times and bad—also applies to religious beliefs. It might even be useful to think of religions as mythplexes—aggregations of useful myths. 

If we accept that religions are the preferred framework for managing people via myths, then that’s what we should be measuring technocracies against. And unless I’ve completely missed the point, its supporters make the fundamental claim that technocracies are better than religions at unifying large groups of people. Regardless of whether we’re comparing it against traditional religions like Hinduism or Christiantiy. Or comparing them against civic religions, like the ideology of patriotic national greatness which held sway in the US until very recently. Though calling this a “fundamental claim” may give an inaccurate impression of how much attention technocrats pay to this comparison. I think most of them consider this superiority so blindingly obvious as to be unworthy of discussion, not something people are still fighting over. If this is the case, where are technocracies superior? What standards are we using for our comparison, and how does one even make the comparison? If we have a modern Scandanavian technocracy on one side, and, say, Christianity on the other, what are we looking for?

Obviously this is a big subject with a lot of potential areas where one could focus. Also it’s one where my opinion by itself isn’t worth very much. Fortunately, as I mentioned in the last post there are numerous books that have weighed in on this subject. Though before I dive in, it’s obvious I’m biased on this subject, and it’s almost certain that this bias extends to the selection of books I’ve read. So the fact that I can come up with far more books making the case for religion, than making the case for secular technocracies, may say more about me than about the state of scholarship on the subject. Accordingly if you know of any books making the case for technocracies which I haven’t read please let me know. The chief one I’m aware of is Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker, and I’m not going to spend any time with it, because I already did a whole post on it, and this post is focused on the religious side of the debate. 

With those biases noted, let’s take a look at what we’ve got. I’ll be covering a lot of books, so by necessity I’m going to be brief, but in nearly all cases I’ve reviewed these books already and I’ll link back to those, more extended discussions. And in the one case where I haven’t discussed the book I’m about to so you’ll just have to tune back in at the beginning of March. 

Let’s start with the book in this last category, a book I just finished The WEIRDest People in the World, by Joseph Henrich. This one has a particularly interesting contribution to make on the topic. First off it makes the claim that just about everything you might think of as attributes of a modern technocracy is the result of Western Christianity’s “Marriage and Family Program” (MFP). That this MFP produced WEIRD people, an acronym which stands for:

  • Western
  • Educated
  • Industrialized
  • Rich
  • Democratic

These five words are also among the first words someone might think of when describing a technocracy, which would mean that technocracies aren’t in competition with religions; they are in fact only possible after hundreds of years of religious influence! Now this still leaves open the argument that technocracies are the stage of evolution past religion, that they are an improvement, which we will get to in a minute, but at a minimum I think anyone making this sort of argument would carry the burden of proof.

Beyond this WEIRDest People also spends a lot of time pointing out the enormous changes religion was able to make through the MFP, taking thousands if not tens of thousands of years of kin based organizational structures and remaking them into structures capable of much greater cooperation across a much larger number of people. Exactly the sort of beneficial organization I keep referring to.

As long as we’re on the subject of Henrich, his other book, Secret of Our Success, makes the strong case for the power of cultural evolution to organize societies as opposed to the method of rationally arriving at solutions and policies. Does not the former essentially describe the development of religion? While the latter is nearly an exact description of the technocratic mindset?

A Secular Age, by Charles Taylor, makes much the same point as WEIRDest People, though from a very different angle. In Taylor’s case he spends 900 pages disproving the idea that secularization is a story of subtracting the bad bits of religion (for our purposes, if we equated “bits” to “myths” that’s pretty close to the mark). In place of this he argues that secularization has been an additive process, that everything associated with it was built on a vast foundation of progress that was driven by religion in all of its aspects. 

Clash of Civilizations by Samuel Huntington, makes the comprehensive claim that civilization is impossible in the absence of religion. That all civilizations have to be built around the framework of a common system of myths and beliefs. 

That’s four books, to these we could easily add four more: Marriage and Civilization by William Tucker, together with Sex and Culture by J.D. Unwin which (along with WEIRDest People) all make the point that monogamous marriage is critical to civilization as we understand it. Perhaps technocracies share religion’s dedication to this subject, if so I’ve yet to come across any evidence of it. There’s also Seeing Like a State by James C. Scott, which is yet another indictment of technocracy’s ability to plan and manage complex societies, with illustrations of how long it takes for such failures to manifest. Finally there’s Tribe by Sebastian Junger, which speaks to the deep dissatisfaction and the lack of unity so many people experience while living in modern technocracies. 

To these eight I could add still more, but that’s enough for now, and as I said, my own studies of this subject may be biased, and if so I welcome correction. But, as far as I can tell, religion has been absolutely critical to developing the society we currently have and we abandon it in favor of a secular technocracy at our peril. Though as I said perhaps technocracy is a natural evolution from where we were. Either an advancement which eliminates the need for religion or one which ushers in some new quasi religion which will fill the hole left by traditional religions.

V.

Even the most cursory review of the state of the world would have to conclude that technocracies are not doing well. This is not their moment, and it’s hard to discern any sense in which they have allowed us to transcend the need for myths and religions. They have not demonstrated any permanent and unshakable advantage over previous forms of government. In fact, at the moment they seem very shaken. But even more than their current distress, we get the best evidence in favor of my thesis when we look at what has shaken them. 

Obviously, I am most familiar with the US, and here, when you dig into what’s happening to shake the foundations of the technocratic order, it’s myths as far as the eye can see. There’s the myths underlying Trumpism, which were powerful enough to rally 74 million voters. There’s the myths of police violence against minorities, but particularly blacks, which were powerful enough to give us a whole summer of protests. There’s the myths of a socialist revolution sweeping away late-stage capitalism in an environmentally friendly way, which have provided enduring support for Bernie Sanders and The Squad. And somewhere in there, there is still the myth of national greatness, and American exceptionalism.

Like all good myths these are all based on a significant body of truth, but that’s not what makes them powerful. Technocrats who come along and point out Trump’s flaws, or that the circumstances of some of the police shootings were not quite as egregious as has been claimed, make very little headway against these myths. More facts are not what the people crave. They obviously crave something the technocrats have a difficult time providing. 

To these observations we should add the point that technocracies have not been around for very long, and while perhaps this means we should give them more time—that they have not been given a fair chance. I view it in the opposite fashion. Whatever success they have had, has been during a brief period of exceptional peace and stability. This has provided the illusion that they work, when, as I already pointed out, in good times nearly every system works. 

Taken together it seems pretty clear that technocracies are not an advancement which have allowed us to abandon myths and religion, that we still need them as much as ever and technocracies cannot fill that hole. So what about the idea that we might be transitioning to a new civic religion? 

I first encountered this idea in the Slate Star Codex post, Gay Rites Are Civil Rites, which right off the bat is a very clever title, particularly given the subject matter. In the post he argued that the old civic religion of national greatness and patriotism, which I’ve spent so much time talking about with its emphasis on patriotism, American History, and a parade on the 4th of July might be getting replaced by a new civic religion which emphasizes tolerance, progress towards the future, and a parade celebrating Gay Pride. For a label you might call it Wokeism, or the Religion of Progress, but regardless of what you call it or what you think about it’s chances for success, it’s a fascinating idea. If you’re interested in the nuts and bolts I would urge you to read that post, because I’ve only scratched the surface. But I do see several issues with the idea:

  1. As I keep pointing out, one of the key features of a religion is that it works during good times and bad. How does wokeism encourage sacrifice? And not just the sacrifice of advantaged groups for those that have been disadvantaged but the sacrifice of all of its adherents in exchange for something they believe to be the greater good?
  2. And while it’s possible I could have made this clearer, it’s not that we need a religion, it’s that we need a religion that can unify us all, in the way that national greatness used to unify the nation or the way Christianity unified the West. At least so far whatever Wokeism is, it’s been pretty divisive.
  3. Even if we grant that it’s a new and better religion which has arrived just in time to replace the old and make us an even better nation. Transitioning to a new religion is not something to be undertaken lightly. Look at everything that went into the creation of the civic religion of patriotism: a revolution, a war, the creation of a new nation built exclusively around the religion, not to mention the extraordinary people. Just George Washington’s contribution as the first president was a huge factor. One that would be difficult to replicate. 

Put all of this together and the best case scenario is a tumultuous and contentious transition to a new set of myths with unknown efficacy, and it could end up being something far worse than that. The American Revolution was the best case scenario for transitioning to a new religion. If you want the worst check out the Russian revolution and its aftermath. Still it’s fair to ask what our actual options are.

That’s a tough question. I still think it might be easiest to retreat back to a religion of national greatness, but I’m worried that Trump has rendered that idea permanently toxic to at least half the country. There are of course traditional religions, and perhaps that’s a closer destination, but it doesn’t feel like it. It feels like the path to that destination has been lost for a long time.

I wish there was a simple answer. But I think the overarching lesson here is that, in our hubris, in our certainty that we could just sit down and invent the perfect system, we ended casting aside the only thing that really could have saved us. 


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Technocracies Are Cool, but Are They Effective?

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I.

I was on a Discord chat the other day and someone exclaimed, “man substack is like too much content”. When he said that I knew exactly what he meant. At the moment when I’m writing this I have three substack newsletters waiting to be read in my inbox. Two are 4500 words and the “short” one is 3900 words. They all arrived today. Given that the average page of a book is 250 words, that’s over 50 pages of material which has arrived just today. 

(Before we get any farther, let me be clear. I realize that I often publish stuff which is that long, and I am infinitely grateful that anyone reads it. But you will notice that my newsletter is always less than 750 words and only comes out once a month. So while I am a hypocrite about many things, this hypocrisy does not extend to newsletters.)

The newsletters are not merely “too much content” they might also be “too much” to digest. Recently the value of technocracies seemed to be having their moment in my corner of the zeitgeist, and these same newsletters were holding forth on the value of that construct. One writer, somewhat in contradiction of previous comments he had made, was saying they were good. Another writer was also arguing that they’re good, but only so long as their policies are legible. And yet a third was saying that the first two have merely defined technocracies as governments that implement policies they like without describing what principles unite those policies. 

As if that weren’t enough I’m reading or have recently finished several books which would appear to weigh in on the topic. There’s: Seeing Like a State, which seems to be on the anti side of the technocracy debate. Secret of Our Success, also anti. The follow up to that book, WEIRDest People in the World, which so far also seems anti. (Representative quote, “What doesn’t happen is that rational parties sit down, put their heads together, and hash out effective institutional design.”) Island of the Blue Foxes, the story of mid-18th century Russia spending 1/6th of their annual budget on the ill-conceived mission of sending three thousand interpreters, laborers, mariners, surveyors, scientists, secretaries, students, and soldiers on a scientific expedition across Siberia. (Though with that many people invasion may be a more appropriate term than expedition.) Reviews for the latter two books will be coming soon, but once again both seem to make a powerful argument against big top down programs of the sort we imagine coming out of a technocracy. 

Finally on top of all of this, there’s the position I’ve taken on this subject already in my various posts. How do these newsletters (Presumably written by people whose opinion I admire, otherwise why would I subscribe?) and these books serve to update my old beliefs? Is anything I’ve read strong enough to overturn one of my beliefs in its entirety? To make me recant one of my previous posts. Unlikely, though I should be careful not to rule that out. But short of reversing my position I still should be updating my beliefs based on this new evidence, but that requires understanding what all of these multitudinous claims are evidence of. I’m sympathetic to the argument presented by the third newsletter that they don’t really represent arguments for or against technocracy, because no seems quite able to agree on exactly what technocracy is. Still the arguments are probably evidence of something, but already it’s obvious that we’re travelling through a complex intellectual landscape.

Furthermore, if this is the situation I’m in, as a bona fide pseudo-intellectual, imagine the situation of someone without such mastery of facts and reasoning? What are they to make of these various arguments? You may accurately assert that most people, even if they’re familiar with the word “technocracy” have very little interest in debates over its efficacy as a system. But the argument I’ve been describing is taking place as part of a larger discussion, one which they are interested in. A discussion that has been front and center since November 3rd: 

How do we come together as a people and enact long term, beneficial policies?

II.

Years ago, a very wise friend of mine made the assertion that the crisis of modern politics was a crisis of epistemology. His politics are very different from mine (though they appear to be converging in weird ways recently) and I suspect that my bias against those politics made me overlook the prophetic character of his words. But I’m paying attention now because everything he has foretold has come to pass. But before we go any further, we should define epistemology for those few who are unfamiliar with the term. This is not the first time I’ve brought up the topic. The last time around I defined it as: the investigation of what distinguishes justified belief from opinion. Which is a pretty good definition (and one I stole from Wikipedia). But recently, I encountered the idea that epistemology can be broken up into three questions. And this may be an easier jumping off point for the discussion I want to have. These three questions are:

  1. What is knowledge?
  2. Can we have knowledge?
  3. How do we get knowledge?

It is assumed that if we can identify knowledge and acquire it, that we can then go on to apply that knowledge to our various problems in the form of policies, and all epistemological frameworks are designed to bridge that gap. But as we’ll see the chasm between facts and policies is wider than people realize, and this even if we assume that we actually can reliably acquire facts, which is by no means certain. 

This is clearly a place where some examples are in order. My first example is from a previous post on the topic. While I included it there as something of an aside—an idea that occurred to me while I was writing, but which I hadn’t given much thought to—it has since grown to seem more and more germane. This is the epistemological framework of national greatness. 

For this example I want you to picture old school patriotism. The kind one would have experienced during World War II, or in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. But also the lower intensity form that was ubiquitous in the 50’s. This is the framework that prevailed in my primary education up at least though High School. It was a civic religion where the Revolutionary War was the creation myth, the Constitution the tablets of Sinai and the Founding Fathers its prophets. With that picture in your mind let’s return to our questions and see how this framework treats them.

  1. What is knowledge? Knowledge consists of the principles that went into the foundation of this country. The way those principles were used to do good things and improve the world.
  2. Can we have knowledge? We can not only have this knowledge, it is our duty as good citizens to acquire a good civic education. To understand the Bill of Rights and the Constitution
  3. How do we get knowledge? By studying the history of the country. Noting the throughline of principles from the pilgrims to the founders through to the present day. And how all of this makes the United States unique and special.

When it came time to translate this knowledge into policies, that was relatively easy. Not because specific policies are obvious but because it acted as a religion, and in so doing encouraged belief and unity. This provided a foundation for agreement between various policy makers and had the power of creating a united front out of the entire country, for example the one presented to Russia during the Cold War. The benefits of this framework are less about getting everything right than in acting together. 

Our second example is more recent, it’s the epistemological framework of all the Trump supporters who believe the election was stolen. While this isn’t entirely accurate, for the moment let’s label this framework as Trumpism. Being more nascent, it’s contours have not quite come into focus, but you have the same process going on:

  1. What is knowledge? Knowledge consists of the things those in power don’t want us to know—the methods the elites use to retain power, and oppress the common man.
  2. Can we have knowledge? Yes, but not by listening to the mainstream media. We have to actively seek out the truth, which is only available through people on the fringe, who are constantly being censored.
  3. How do we get knowledge? By diligent search; by looking at the facts behind the scenes; by putting together the pieces of the conspiracy.

When people use this framework, the knowledge thus acquired translates into knowing “what needs to be done”. These are policies but they are necessarily of a desperate and radical nature because this epistemology encodes the idea that we are already at war. Or that in any case if we’re not at war with the elites they are already at war with us. That this is a life or death struggle, an existential crisis, requiring extraordinary measures.

The final example is of course a technocracy, which at least as I understand it, looks something like this:

  1. What is knowledge? Knowledge consists of things we have uncovered using the scientific method.
  2. Can we have knowledge? Yes, but “we” should be construed fairly narrowly. This is not populism. We’re not aggregating the knowledge of the masses. We’re relying on the knowledge of experts.
  3. How do we get knowledge? By funding research; by collecting sociological data; by studying what other countries do. 

Advocates of technocracy assume that their methodology results in purer knowledge than the other two examples, and that the purer the knowledge the better the policies which derive from that knowledge. I think this often leads its advocates to be lazy, to assume that pure knowledge will naturally lead to good policies without much in the way of additional effort, which leads them to emphasize some things and neglect others. But of course the other frameworks do the same thing, each choses something different to focus on. 

III.

Technocracies seem to focus on the input. If we just make sure that we have truth going in the one side, then good policies will automatically come out the other side. This is why I was so impressed when Matthew Yglesias pointed out that policy has to be legible. Impressed enough that I wrote a whole post on it. Because this is one of the key weaknesses of a technocracy, it’s not enough to just work on the inputs into the system you have to polish the outputs as well. Implementation matters. And while I say this is a key weakness it’s not the only weakness or even the biggest weakness, it may just be the most obvious. No, the fatal weaknesses of technocracy are far more subtle, and often in the areas that look like strengths to its practitioners. As the first example of this, they emphasize measurement and accuracy, but by limiting themselves to what can be easily measured it fatally undermines both the inputs and the outputs. But as they emphasize inputs, let’s start there.

It would be nice to imagine that by using the epistemological framework of science that we can extract pure Truth and that having done that we can filter it through the medium of experts, generating perfect policies on the other end. But of course for all it’s strengths science does generate pure Truth, it generates a collection of insights with various levels of confidence, and these insights are only those which can be gathered using certain methodologies, in narrow domains while working under obvious limitations. 

As an example of how this operates we need merely look at how the pandemic was handled. We can measure the number of deaths, hospital capacity, and the rate at which the disease spreads, but we can’t measure the psychological toll of isolation, non-standard schooling, and a hundred other second order effects which will only manifest years later. So we focus on what we can measure, deaths. This is good and proper, but no one should pretend it’s perfect or that we have somehow arrived at an optimal solution to the problem. And of course it’s worse than that. Because as it turns out the technocrats have not even been particularly good at managing the problems they’re supposedly good at. You can blame Trump all you want, but it was technocrats who told people that masks weren’t effective, that travel bans were a bad idea, and possibly the least technocratic state in the country, West Virginia, is doing the best on vaccines (Wait, scratch that, my own home state of Utah apparently passed them recently… But WV is still second.) And don’t even get me started about the slow vaccination rate in Europe

This problem becomes even more difficult when you move from hard sciences like epidemiology to the social sciences. At least with the pandemic you had deaths to track and a virus to sequence. Tracking polarization is significantly more difficult and error prone, and there is no gene we can sequence which will allow us to target the source of the despair and anger which has been on display recently.

All of the foregoing is indisputably true, but proponents of technocracy will still argue that it’s better than Trumpism at solving this despair and anger. But is it? First there’s an argument that technocracy created those problems in the first place. Under a very narrow definition of technocracy it may be possible to argue that it didn’t, but expand it out a little bit and it’s hard not to see a correlation (even if causation is difficult to prove). Perhaps you remain unconvinced, but one still has to ask, “Better in whose estimation?” It would be unsurprising if the technocrats thought it was better, but what about the people actually experiencing the despair and anger?

If we take the people who stormed the Capitol as a representative sample, 60% of them, according to data compiled by the Washington Post, had prior financial troubles. Why would they blame technocrats for these troubles? Well let’s look at other data, this time from the RAND Corporation who found that if the income trends which existed from 1945 to 1974 had just continued to the present day that the bottom 90% would have ended up with $47 trillion dollars more in aggregate taxable income. Instead that money ended up with the top 10%. If you were going to apply a label to the top 10%, “technocrats” is as good a description as anything else. Certainly the voting pattern of the top 10% would skew heavily technocratic.

Interestingly technocracies are very good at taking numbers like this and inputting them into their system. We hear all about rising inequality, but under technocracy how do those inputs turn into outputs which actually end up reducing despair and anger? So far there doesn’t appear to be much evidence that they do.

All of this is not an argument to switch from technocracy to Trumpism. I’m making a point about the blind spots of both frameworks. The blindspots of Trumpism are easy to spot. The blindspots of technocracy are less obvious, but they are even more consequential. Trumpism has really never been the law of the land, even while Trump was president. The same can not be said of technocracies, which are in power all over the world, including the US.

Having covered the problems with the inputs, what about the outputs?

IV.

It’s easy to imagine that if you just have all the information about an issue that the policies for dealing with that issue will be obvious. But it’s also possible that there is no connection between facts and policies. In one sense this is just the old saw that correlation does not equal causation. In a larger sense we’re talking about making a connection between how things are and how things ought to be, what’s often referred to as the Is-ought problem, or Hume’s guillotine. It’s called that because Hume was the first to point out the impossibility of logically deriving a morale system from a starting point completely lacking in morality, for example, raw facts. That no matter how good the inputs into a framework, if they didn’t come with some morality attached, no morality will emerge out the other side. 

Now this is not to say the technocracies have zero embedded morality but, if you think back to the epistemologies of the three different frameworks, it’s clear that it has the least built in morality of any of them and the morality it does have is pretty sterile. On the other hand Trumpism is essentially a moral crusade. I think it’s pretty embryonic and poorly considered, and while Trump himself was able to get it started, and in fact proved fairly adept at it. He seemed unable to hammer it into anything effective. Which is to say, it doesn’t appear that either technocracy or Trumpism has a great plan for getting unity back. This leaves our third framework, national greatness. Thus far I haven’t spent much time talking about it, but it also has quite a bit of embedded morality, which provides interesting lessons for our current crisis, and those lessons are even more pertinent when we contrast it with a technocracy.

It might be most useful to start with a discussion of why we largely abandoned the framework of national greatness. After 200 or so years of using this framework as our default what made us decide that it was inadequate? As far as I can tell it was because of the morality embedded in its epistemology. In putting together its knowledge base it was decided it would be better (i.e. more moral) to overlook some inconvenient facts. For example the treatment of Native Americans; the restriction of suffrage to white, land-owning men; and most of all slavery, including the fact that most of the founders were slave owners. But that was part of the point, whereas technocracy emphasizes increasing the accuracy of the inputs, national greatness emphasized the efficacy of the outputs. This framework sacrificed accuracy for unity. But by embedding moral decisions in the inputs they were able to more easily output morality on the other side. Put more simply they created a civic religion, this is more important than it seems, since historically religions have always been the best place to put moral content.  

Contrast that with a technocracy which mostly eschews morality, and the morality it does put forth is limited to material issues, issues which are unavoidably competitive. (As much as self help gurus might preach otherwise, most people still have a zero sum mindset.) Accordingly not only is it a weaker morality than that put forth by a framework of national greatness, what morality it does contain serves to divide rather than unite. 

This finally takes us to the biggest weakness of a technocracy, it is not a religion. This is obviously a controversial assertion. Particularly since its supporters view this as one of it’s greatest strengths, but it is nevertheless true. 

V.

Even if you accept that some form of religion is the only way out of this mess—even if it’s an ersatz one like the civic religion of national greatness. We’re still a long ways away from anything approaching a concrete solution. And I’m already a couple of days past my self imposed deadline for this post, so we’ll have to explore what that might mean in our next post. But obviously I can’t just leave it here. So allow me to briefly toss out some thoughts to give you a sense of where I’m headed.

I imagine that some of you are still a long way away from believing that religion is the answer, so any post on this subject is going to have to spend at least some time creating that foundation. But I think there are plenty of books that make this exact argument. Just drawing on books I’ve reviewed there’s Clash of Civilizations, A Secular Age, Marriage and Civilization, Sex and Culture, Secret of our Success and the one I’m currently working on The WEIRDest people in the World. 

A quote from that last book seems particularly appropriate at this moment:

…throughout human history, rulers needed religions much more than religions needed rulers.

However important some sort of religion might be, our options are limited:

  • It seems difficult to imagine that we could go back to a unifying ideology of national greatness, and arguably that’s what Trump was trying to do. It’s possible to imagine that someone other than Trump might have been able to pull it off, but now that we’ve had Trump I think he might have burned that bridge.
  • It seems equally difficult to imagine some large scale return to an existing religion, however much some believers might wish for this. 
  • If we can’t retrace our steps is there some new religion we’re travelling towards? This is an interesting idea and one I’ve covered already in this space, and which I’ll certainly return to in the next post. But for now let’s just say that even if we can make such a transition it’s likely to involve serious upheaval if not actual bloodshed. (And perhaps this is what’s already happening.)

Everyone agrees that the country is sick. This might seem like a radical (not to mention underdeveloped) proposal for its cure, and in some respects it clearly is, but on the other hand I’m merely suggesting that we should look another look at what worked for thousands of years. 


I have a framework as well, I input books on one end of things and spit out posts on the other. This is just one of many possible frameworks. Other people input sanctimoniousness and spit out judgement. Still others input hot takes and spit out even hotter takes. If you think my framework is better than those and worth supporting consider donating


Parenting, Wildfires, and Politics

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I- The Last Psychiatrist

For many years, in various contexts and in various forms, people have been recommending I read The Last Psychiatrist. A blog that ran from 2005-2014 before suddenly stopping. It was rumored that the sudden end was because someone had threatened to get the author in trouble with his work, or perhaps he did get in trouble at his work, but was able to negotiate leaving up the archives. In any event, I recently added it to the list of tabs I open every morning to start the day and, finally, I’ve gradually been working my way through it. It is quite good, and I can see why people have been recommending it for so long. Thus far I have particularly liked his three part series, The Most Important Article On Psychiatry You Will Ever Read. Perhaps, since I brought it up, you’re wondering what makes this article so important? Well it’s all about how adding more of a drug frequently doesn’t increase whatever that drug’s initial effect was. That in fact adding more might produce entirely different effects, because the drug will have saturated the initial receptors and adding more causes it to bind to different receptors causing, correspondingly, different effects. As a more simple example: doubling the dosage does not double the effect it may give you a completely different effect. 

However important and fascinating that subject is, for this post I’d like to use a different observation of his as a jumping off point for expanding on some of the themes I’ve explored in my last couple of posts. This observation of his concerned parenting, particularly parents who are psychiatrists. 

SOME psychiatrists think/try to do something noble (criticize behavior and not the child itself) but they are HUMAN, and get tired. They will eventually get angry, and, from a kid’s perspective, when the parent gets angry is what matters. What did I do to piss Dad off?

The opposite of this, call it the non-psychiatrist parent, is calm, then gets a little angry, a little more angry, a little more angry, then yells, screams. There’s a build up. A few years of this and you realize that there are some things that make Dad a little angry, and other things that make him really angry. There’s normal, varying levels of human emotion to different situations.

But the child of a psychiatrist doesn’t get that. He gets binary emotional states. “Lying is not acceptable behavior.” Later: “Yelling loudly is not acceptable behavior.” Later: “Picking your nose is not acceptable behavior.” Later: “Stealing is not acceptable behavior.” What’s the relative value? A kid has no idea– he thinks the value is decided by Dad, not intrinsic to the behavior. “Eating cookies before dinner is not acceptable behavior.” Later: “Kicking your brother is not acceptable behavior.” 

Ok, now here it comes:

After seven or eight or twenty five “not acceptable behavior” monotones, Dr. Dad can’t take it anymore; he explodes. “Goddamn it! What the hell is the matter with you?! What are you doing?!!” All the anger and affect gets released, finally. The problem– the exact problem– is this: the explosion of anger came at something relatively trivial. Maybe the kid spilled the milk.

So now the four year old concludes that the worst thing he did all day was spilled the milk– not kicking his brother, or lying, or stealing. Had he not spilled that milk, Dad wouldn’t have gotten angry. 

I imagine most people understand that this sort of radically inconsistent parenting is bad. But it’s important to recognize that it’s not just the explosion at the end that’s bad; to recognize that the answer is not to be calm all the time. And it’s not merely because it’s impossible (though it is). It’s because the calm, in the end, is just as bad. The explosion is misleading because it lays far too much emphasis on the spilled milk. The calm is bad because it doesn’t lay any emphasis on anything. Picking your nose provokes exactly the same response as stealing.

If this problem were isolated to just some portion of parents who also happen to be psychiatrists it wouldn’t be worth bringing up. But I think such attitudes are found among a large number of parents in general. And even beyond that the ideas and practices motivating these parents have seeped into institutions, policies, behavior, and culture. That it’s a deep ideological vein running through modern western culture at large. Despite this ubiquity there’s no easy label for it. However, despite this difficulty, that’s precisely what this post sets out to do. To help with that, let’s turn to another example, one that would initially appear to have nothing to do with parenting.

II- California Wildfires

Last year was so full of catastrophes that the California wildfires, which might normally have dominated the news, now seem largely forgotten. Perhaps not by people in California, but with everything else that’s been happening, I doubt many outside of the state have given them more than a moment’s thought over the last few months. But, again, that’s just a measure of how relatively bad everything else has been. The California wildfires were objectively terrible, even if they did produce some truly spectacular pictures. Generally, when something is that bad you look for ways to stop it from happening. Which takes us to the subject of wildfire control and suppression.

This is not the first time we’ve covered that subject in this space. It’s come up a few times in the past, including most recently in December of 2018 at the end of modern California’s  deadliest and most destructive fire season. (2020 was twice as big in terms of acres burned, but lower in terms of damage and fatalities.) In that post I mostly looked at the debate over whether more logging would have helped, a subject which, even after 2020, is still very controversial, but what seems less controversial is the idea of controlled burns. 

As most people who’ve paid any attention to the subject are aware of, the problem of wildfires, while multifaceted, can actually be made much worse by the process of fighting those same fires. This seems counterintuitive and indeed for many years, the U.S. Forest Service had a very aggressive approach, unofficially known as the 10 a.m. policy, which directed that wildfires be extinguished no later than the morning after their discovery. As you can imagine, throughout most of history, forest fires were not extinguished by the next morning, and moreover forests have not evolved with Forest Service policy in mind. Predictably, at least with hindsight, this approach resulted in many second order effects, similar to those created by the discipline of scientific forestry I mentioned at the beginning of the month in my review of Seeing Like a State. In both cases it’s clear that when you start to mess with the way forests operate naturally you end up with numerous unintended consequences. In this case aggressively fighting fires ended up creating at least two consequences of note: First, it resulted in an accumulation of deadwood because there were no fires anymore to periodically burn it out. Second, the population of the forest changed from a small number of large trees (30 or 40 per acre) to a large number of small trees (1000 to 2000 per acre) because fires used to periodically clear out smaller trees as well.

Both of these together mean that fires, when they do happen, can end up being extraordinary destructive, with both far more fuel available from the accumulated deadwood than would normally be the case and smaller trees which catch fire more easily and burn hotter (as anyone who has started a fire with kindling can attest to.) Additionally large trees which have spent hundreds of years surviving normal fires are no match for these super fires fueled by the proliferation of smaller trees and accumulated deadwood.

Obviously there are many ways to deal with this problem. There’s the logging I focused on in my previous post. Also you can be less aggressive in fighting fires. For example, if fires start naturally, you could let them burn. There are, however, several problems with this. To begin with we’re long past the point where we are dealing with “natural” fires. Most fires are going to be too hot and destructive to just leave alone. Also people find it extraordinarily difficult to not intervene. (Which is one of the first hints to where all this is headed.) Which takes us to…

III- Controlled Burns

As an alternative to just letting the fire burn as it naturally would you could try and manage the burn, not immediately put it out, but not let it get out of control either. All of the same difficulties present themselves along with a host of additional difficulties. By the time you discover the fire it may already be too late. It’s probably fire season and there are numerous fires to fight and we can’t spare the manpower to carefully manage them, but rather we need to extinguish them as soon as possible. Also fires are most likely to happen when conditions are dry and there’s more than the average amount of fuel which is the worst time to attempt any management of them.

The final option is scheduled, intentionally set, controlled burns, and in the wake of 4.4 million acres burned, $12 billion in property damage and 31 fatalities in 2020 (on top of 2 million acres, $26 billion and 103 fatalities in 2018) most people are asking why we don’t do more of them. Or as this article from ProPublica puts it, They Know How to Prevent Megafires. Why Won’t Anybody Listen?

This article contains a lot of interesting and frustrating observations, but let’s start with the answer of why there aren’t more scheduled, controlled burns. To begin with the article mentions how lucrative and exciting seasonal firefighting is, but:

By comparison, planning a prescribed burn is cumbersome. A wildfire is categorized as an emergency, meaning firefighters pull down hazard pay and can drive a bulldozer into a protected wilderness area where regulations typically prohibit mountain bikes. Planned burns are human-made events and as such need to follow all environmental compliance rules. That includes the Clean Air Act, which limits the emission of PM 2.5, or fine particulate matter, from human-caused events. In California, those rules are enforced by CARB, the state’s mighty air resources board, and its local affiliates. “I’ve talked to many prescribed fire managers, particularly in the Sierra Nevada over the years, who’ve told me, ‘Yeah, we’ve spent thousands and thousands of dollars to get all geared up to do a prescribed burn,’ and then they get shut down.” Maybe there’s too much smog that day from agricultural emissions in the Central Valley, or even too many locals complain that they don’t like smoke. Reforms after the epic 2017 and 2018 fire seasons led to some loosening of the CARB/prescribed fire rules, but we still have a long way to go.

Of course it’s worth pointing out that the impact to air quality from what actually happened last year is vastly worse than whatever would have resulted from a controlled burn (and the reason the pictures are so breathtaking). Which presumably means that in the end, those who are worried about clean air made the wrong call. 

I mentioned at the beginning that I was going to be drawing on my two previous posts. I’ve already made a connection to my discussion of Seeing Like a State, now it’s time to draw on my last post, Everything Should Be Made as Simple as Possible, but No Simpler. In that post I described three hierarchies of systems:

  1. Natural
  2. Legible
  3. Controlled

Let’s go through each of these with respect to wildfires:

Most people, including myself, are kind of fuzzy on how wildfires worked in a “state of nature”, and in retrospect I was negligent in not paying more attention to it when I last visited this issue. At the time I assumed, now that the problems of being too aggressive with wildfire suppression were blindingly obvious, that things have gotten better. That we had switched to focusing just on fires that were going to threaten houses. But the ProPublica article claims otherwise:

We keep doing overzealous fire suppression across California landscapes where the fire poses little risk to people and structures.

Well that seems misguided, but of greatest interest was the gap between where we are and where things were in the “unspoiled” past.

Academics believe that between 4.4 million and 11.8 million acres burned each year in prehistoric California. Between 1982 and 1998, California’s agency land managers burned, on average, about 30,000 acres a year. Between 1999 and 2017, that number dropped to an annual 13,000 acres.

So not only has the acreage of prescribed burns been going down over the last couple of decades, but also, even as bad as last year was, it was on the very lowest end of the estimate for the number of acres which burned historically. 

I assume that comparing last year’s fires with historical fires is something of an apples and oranges comparison. Since last year’s fires were burning in areas with the aforementioned accumulation of fuel, while historical fires would have presumably been milder. Though if we’re trying to look on the bright side, we should at least be able to say we met our historical fire budget last year. But it’s also clear that it would be unthinkable to do that every year. Which is to say, even if we hadn’t drastically altered the makeup of the forests, the idea returning to the natural system is ludicrous. 

Even if by this measurement we did meet our “burn budget” for 2020, we’re still left with the question of what we’re supposed to do in all the other years? The gap between 13,000 acres and 4.4 million acres (to say nothing of 11.8 million) seems entirely unbridgeable. But we should still try, and this takes us to the other two systems: legible and controlled. Let’s start with controlled.

I would argue that when the ProPublica article describes the system where thousands of dollars can be spent preparing for a burn only to have it stopped because of air quality issues or complaints from local homeowners that this is the controlled system. The system which, as described in my last post, consists of layering on more rules: “If people are worried about the discretionary use of power, you need to make sure the decision-makers go through an elaborate compliance checklist.” Such a controlled system is exactly what you would expect from California, which leads all other states in the number of regulations it imposes. And also, just as you might expect, this system is not working. So if a natural system is inconceivable and a controlled system doesn’t work, what might a legible system look like?

I don’t know that I have the requisite expertise to answer that, and it’s somewhat tangential to the actual point of this post, but as long as we’re here I might as well offer an opinion. To begin with I think incentives should be better aligned such that more money and prestige is available for prescribed fires i.e. more focus on preventing less on curing. And further that prescribed fires should be exempt from air quality regulations, or at least the bar for preventing them should be much, much higher. Finally I would urge people to remember that a legible system is not the perfectly just system, it’s not even the perfect system, it’s just a system that will get used. But it turns out, somewhat paradoxically, that making things simple can be quite complicated.

IV- Our Other Attempts at Controlling Nature

I have spent so much time on the subject of managing wildfires because it’s fascinating, and also because I assume that many people, after reading my review of Seeing Like a State and hearing about the scientific forestry debacle of late 18th century Prussia, would assume that we can’t possibly be doing something similar, and yet, the management of wildfires would seem to be a failure of almost exactly the same sort, going so far as to also center on controlling the natural life cycle of forests. Does the discussion serve any purpose beyond that? Well while I have already admitted that I don’t have the expertise to talk about a legible system for fighting fires, I am very interested in fighting political unrest. And I sense there are parallels between what’s happening to our country, what the Last Psychiatrist described as happening with parents, and what’s happening with wildfires.

In the case of parenting, interestingly enough, the parent stands in for both those perpetrating the unrest and those trying to control the unrest. You might say that the parent is the country while the children he inconsistently parents are nature, and after attempting to maintain calm for so long, now we’re at the end of our rope, where all it takes is split milk to set us off. That we now suffer paroxysms of rage around mask wearing. And even the other stuff, like the actual pandemic, racial injustice, and election malfeasance are things we dealt with much more calmly in the past, even though it was all happening on a much larger scale. Both parenting and wildfires suffer from trying to impose too much control.

The parent assumes that if they are always in control that they’ll achieve better outcomes, but they can’t always be in control, and on the rare occasions when they’re not it wipes out all the benefits (which were questionable already) of those periods when they were calm. The Forest Service assumed that if they immediately took control of fires that they would have better outcomes, sadly it worked exactly the opposite. Now we’re in a situation where we have some ideas for making it better, but it’s not just wildfires we’re trying to control, we also want to control air quality and public opinion. So what are we trying to control in politics? Well similarly, a lot of things, but foremost among them, it appears that we are trying to control bad opinions, all the way down to the level of microaggressions. We don’t just want to keep our child from stealing we want to keep them from rolling their eyes behind our backs as well. That, as I mentioned when reviewing Seeing Like a State, we’re trying to get rid of all of the awful underbrush and create forests with straight lines of perfect trees.

Now perhaps even though we haven’t succeeded in doing this as parents, or with fighting fires, that we’ll nevertheless succeed at doing this politically. Perhaps, having driven bad thoughts from mainstream media to Fox, and more recently from Fox to OANN and NewsMax, that we are just one step away from driving them out of the country entirely. Perhaps having driven “the crazies” from Twitter to Parler and now having shut down Parler, we can declare victory. We have extinguished the big wildfire and all future wildfires will be small and easily managed. Society has regained its calm and now all issues, including our misbehaving children, will be treated with dispassion. It’s always possible this is how the rest of the decade will go, but this doesn’t seem to be how things are playing out. Merely expressing disapproval for certain opinions doesn’t make them go away. The measures which we have adopted may slow the transmission of such ideas, or peel off individuals whose fidelity was only lukewarm, but as I pointed out, the underbrush that’s left will be of the hardiest and most noxious varieties. And if it gets even the smallest opening it will overwhelm your carefully curated rows of trees. Or start a new fire in some undetected part of the forest that will be raging out of control by the time you discover it.

Trump is the perfect example of this effect. Going into 2016 it seemed that things were calm. And all manner of bad thoughts like racism and being against immigration had been banished from the halls of government, even among Republicans. And when Trump came along the idea that he would win the Republican Nomination to say nothing of the presidency was considered akin to his chances of playing in the NBA Finals. But as it turned out, it was a hot, dry summer in California, and over the years a huge amount of deadwood had accumulated and Trump was not just a match, he was a flamethrower, and more importantly a flamethrower who got 74 million votes. And perhaps we just need to pass more laws, and kick more social media platforms off of AWS, and the calm we hope for will return, and those 74 million people will vote for Mitt Romney in 2024. I doubt it, and is that more likely if Romney runs on the same platform as he ran on in 2012? Or is it more likely if he adopts some of Trump’s policies, like building the wall, but perhaps without Trump’s special brand of flamboyance? Should we prefer this Romney to Don Jr. running? What exactly are we hoping will happen in 2024?

All of which is to say, I’m not arguing that the wildfire currently raging is good. I’m just arguing that it exists, and that previous methods of fighting it have very probably made it worse. And now we need to ask, what represents a prescribed burn in this analogy? What would represent good parenting? This is a vast topic, and deserves more space than I have left, but let me just offer one example. It seems clear to me that in the past free speech has served in this role. And I’m fully aware that this time when we prepared to do our prescribed burn, as we have in the past, we found that Mark Zuckerburg had poured gasoline on all the accumulated deadwood and Jack Dorsey had used a helicopter to scatter cherry bombs in the area. And as a consequence, free speech isn’t looking so hot (get it?). But we still need a system. We have ruled out allowing nature to operate unchecked, and on the opposite side our attempts at a controlled solution, at extinguishing all fires as soon as they appear is even worse.

What we need is a legible system, and as it turns out free speech is legible. Under the three standards I brought up in the last post it is both accessible, accountable and achievable. Though, as with the other systems we looked at, the accountability does need some work. And insofar as the internet has changed things it has strengthened accessibility at the expense of accountability. And yes, free speech is another fire, but the point of all of this is that we need small, manageable fires if we want to keep giant conflagrations from consuming everything. 


Lest there be any confusion, my parents were fantastic. I was a little shit, but they were great and continue to be great. In fact they even donate my patreon. If you want to be as great as they are, consider doing the same. 


Everything Should Be Made as Simple as Possible, but No Simpler

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I.

My father spent many years working for himself as a management consultant. He wasn’t one of these people that advised CEOs on vision, instead his specialty was shiftwork. Companies that operated around the clock, 24 hours a day seven days a week. Quite frequently he ended up having to work with unions which was its own special brand of crazy, particularly if layoffs were involved.

During the winter of 1990, after the holiday rush was over, it was my turn to get laid off. Beyond all of the normal annoyances which accompany getting laid off, I was also annoyed because I felt that I had been laid off in favor of people who were worse than me at the job, but had greater seniority. So I asked my dad why companies did it that way. He explained: because it was a system which was easy to understand for all of the parties. Competence is fuzzy, and it can be hard to judge even if you’re not the person being judged, and no one has an accurate view of their own competence, but seniority is a bright line. Even if it has to come down to the difference of a few days, it’s clear who’s been working there longer. It’s clear to management, it’s clear to the person being laid off, and it’s clear to that person’s wife or husband. That last bit may be the most important of all, your significant other isn’t going to get angry about your lack of seniority, but they may get mad if they feel you were slacking off or alternatively if there was some favoritism involved. And, as we’ll get into, managing anger is a pretty important part of any process.

II.

Last week I was reminded of this story by an article Matthew Yglesias posted to the subscribers of his new newsletter, Slow Boring. The article was titled Making policy for a low-trust world. (Fortunately this was one of his public posts so you can easily read the whole thing if you want.) His subject is pretty clear from the title, and it touches on something real and pressing (moreso after the events of the 6th) how do you carry out policy when people don’t trust those in power? 

Yglesias offers up two options:

  1. Layer on more rules: “If people are worried about the discretionary use of power, you need to make sure the decision-makers go through an elaborate compliance checklist.”
  2. Fewer and far simpler rules or what Yglesias calls “it does exactly what it says on the tin” approach.

Yglesias favors that latter and offers up three steps for doing that:

  • It’s easy for everyone, whether they agree with you or disagree with you, to understand what it is you say you are doing.
  • It’s easy for everyone to see whether or not you are, in fact, doing what you said you would do.
  • It’s easy for you and your team to meet the goal of doing the thing that you said you would do.

The shorthand for these steps might be accessibility, accountability and achievability. (Yeah, I got cute and chose three words that began with “a”.) And Yglesias goes on to show what this looks like when applied to vaccine prioritization (he’s been a big proponent of simply prioritizing by age), the fiscal stimulus/PPP program, quantitative easing, and finally local infrastructure. It’s good stuff, (Tyler Cowen called it the best short essay of the year so far) and as I said it’s not paywalled so you should just go read it.

All that said, I want to take things in a somewhat different, and broader direction. First I should mention that I was saying something very similar in a post from 2017. (Truly I was ahead of my time.) Without getting too deep into the weeds (for that read the original post, I think it holds up really well) I was comparing the book Rationality: AI to Zombies (RAZ) something of a bible for rationalists and bayesians with the actual Bible. And basically arguing that RAZ and rationality in general were examples of Yglesias’ first option for dealing with the world. While they aren’t exactly making a compliance checklist (though I think some of that is in RAZ) they are trying to craft a decision framework for every eventuality. Contrariwise the Bible is an example of the second option. Obviously a totalizing religion is going to have a hard time always complying with all three of Yglesias’ steps, but it is pretty rare for someone to say they don’t understand Christianity (step 1-accessibility). And most people (especially non-Christians) feel perfectly comfortable identifying if someone is being Christian (step 2-accountability). Most of the trouble comes in the execution (step 3-achievability) which does create some unfortunate hypocrisy, but hypocrisy is not actually as bad as people want to claim.

All of the steps are important, but as you might have already guessed step 1, understanding the plan, is the most important not only because the remaining steps build on top of it, but also it’s the chief thing differentiating the two options. And it’s not even all of step one, within that step there is one word that’s more important than all the rest… “everyone”. In my aforementioned post, I pointed out that this was a key difference between rationality and Christianity. As an example of what I mean by this the story of someone in jail converting to Christianity or some other religion (see Malcolm X) is so common as to be a cliche. The story of someone reading the 2300 pages of RAZ and converting to bayesianism is so counterintuitive that I’m sure they could make a TV show out of it. Something similar to My Name is Earl (which was cancelled too soon by the way). In other words it’s not enough that your system is understood by bureaucrats, or people who’ve read the right hundred posts on social media (or 4chan) or the right 2300 page book. It has to be something everyone (or at least a percentage in the high 90’s) can understand.

III.

What’s interesting about Yglesias’ essay is that, despite the timing, he didn’t apply this framework to the election, which, for me, is the obvious place to do so. And you can see that this was basically what I was getting at in my post Voting as a Proxy For Power. I offered up three potential systems for deciding who had won. Which, if we restate them in Yglesias’ framework might look like this:

System 1: Elections as they are supposed to work

  1. Accessibility: We’re going to count up all the votes in the individual states, assign the electoral votes from that state to the one who got the most individual votes, and then whoever got the most electoral votes is president.
  2. Accountability: Each party gets to have observers at critical locations to confirm whether we did the above. (I understand that there are disputes about how well this worked, and in general step 2 in this system is weaker than I would like. But in theory counting votes should be something that can be transparent.)
  3. Achievability: Counting votes is a relatively straightforward exercise, and while it’s not unheard of for people to have questions (see hanging chads) nearly everyone feels confident about their ability to do it, and in fact the people who pushed back most vigorously on accusations that the election was stolen were frequently the election officials

System 2: Voting as a proxy for power

  1. Accessibility: We’re going to have a smooth, non-violent transition of power, as opposed to what happened historically.
  2. Accountability: We’re going to use voting and democracy to grant legitimacy to the person taking, or keeping that power. In a way that’s convincing (particularly to the elites in the media and government who are custodians of the power) even if it’s not perfect.
  3. Achievability: Everyone has done a good job if power is peacefully and smoothly transferred.

Once again the most difficulty comes on step two, but as you can see, this system is arguably actually even simpler and more straightforward than the first. Now let’s look at what Trump and his supporters actually tried:

System 3: Overturn the election by any means necessary

  1. Accessibility: We are going to get to the true winner of the election by uncovering proof, filing lawsuits, creating spreadsheets, tweeting out accusations, spreading innuendo, and crafting conspiracies. As a result of one or all of these plans the election will be given to Trump by the courts, or the state legislatures, or the Insurrection Act, or the military, or Mike Pence, or occupying the capital, or Trump himself in some bold stroke we didn’t even see.
  2. Accountability: Everyone can tell that it’s still working as long as any of the foregoing still has the slightest chance of working, and if all of them have been eliminated, then Trump supporters will provide you with six other possibilities you’ve never even heard of which are the real way to tell that it’s working, and unless every one of these possibilities has been made physically impossible by the laws of nature the plan is still working.
  3. Achievability: People working in this system should: Stop the count (except for a few days in AZ, in which case you should keep counting); release the Kraken; wait for the courts; wait for the state legislatures; watch Mike Pence; disregard everything that happened before January 6th (it’s all happening after that); gather in DC; storm the Capitol; wait for Trump’s instructions on Twitter; realize the video of Trump conceding on Twitter is a fake; and finally pay attention to the Emergency Broadcast System.

As you can see despite cramming this into Yglesias’ framework this is the first option he talked about, the idea of layering on more rules, though in this case they’re layering on every conceivable option so that no avenue for victory is left unexplored. And the point is, it’s so easy to convince yourself that this system has to work. That surely if you just account for every eventuality, mistakes won’t be made. Or if you pursue every possible avenue for victory one of them has to work out. But this is one of those times when no plan survives contact with the enemy. Your rules, checklists, and plans don’t exist in isolation, at some point they have to be understood and implemented. When the rubber actually hits the road, the additional complexity is a liability not an asset.

As we have seen in the days since the election, you can be the biggest Trump supporter there is, firmly believing in both his genius and in the fact that the election was stolen, and it still should be obvious at this point that the third system was never going to work because it entirely ignored the all important task of being something everyone could understand. And not merely does it need to be something your supporters can understand, it needs to be straightforward to understand and implement for all of the organizations you need to have on your side to be President when the smoke clears (regardless of whether it’s an election or a revolution/coup). The military can easily understand systems one and two, but even if you assume that they’re mostly on Trump’s side, how are they going to enact system three? Are you sure they’re not going to be confused by Christopher Miller, the acting Secretary of Defence, the guy Trump put in after the election (according to his supporters as part of the whole secret plan) saying:

I strongly condemn these acts of violence against our democracy. I, and the people I lead in the Department of Defense, continue to perform our duties in accordance with our oath of office, and will execute the time-honored peaceful transition of power to President-elect Biden on January 20.

How is anyone trying to execute on system three not going to be confused by that? Trump and his followers have weaponized complexity, but they haven’t figured out how to target anything with it yet.

Okay, as you might be able to tell I’m a little annoyed. And to be fair complexity has been weaponized for a long time, it might in fact be a serviceable definition of postmodernism. But we’ve certainly reached some kind of landmark.

Before I move on, a few notes about stability and history. First off I think we’ve had stability for so long that most people don’t realize how bad a non-peaceful transfer of power is. So let me be clear, I have strong misgivings about Biden, and Democrats, and progressives, and wokeism, and policies like student loan forgiveness, and reparations, etc. etc. But I would take Biden with a filibuster proof Senate majority composed entirely of Andrea Ocasio Cortez clones over full on civil war which ends up being as bad or worse than the last one. And I’d certainly take what we ended up with (President Biden and Democratic control of the Senate) over a repeat of the violence of the late 60’s/early 70s. For example 1972 when there were 1900 domestic bombings. Now unfortunately we may get both but I don’t think storming the Capitol made either Biden’s presidency or domestic terror less likely. 

On the other side of the coin people forget how difficult it is to actually pull off a coup or a revolution. I think people imagine that the French Revolution, for example, looked similar to last Wednesday’s march on the Capitol. That some people spontaneously rose up, and the next thing you know the whole government had changed. One day there was the monarchy and the next there wasn’t. But in reality the revolution was largely a very gradual process whereby the Estates General was replaced by the National Assembly which was replaced by the National Constituent Assembly which was replaced by the Legislative Assembly, and so forth and so on until eventually ten years later you get Napoleon, and for the first three years of that period the King was still around.

Mostly I point all of this out to add another angle on how dumb Trump’s plan really was. Not only was it very unlikely to work, it would have been horrible if it had.

IV.

Perhaps, despite its appropriateness, you’ve noticed that I’ve avoided using the word “legible”, as in “Yglesias is contending that policies need to be legible”, which I’ve expanded to the idea that “the transfer of power should be legible”. Even though it’s basically the perfect word to describe what he and I are talking about. I’ve avoided using that word because this post unfortunately fell immediately after my review of Seeing Like a State by James C. Scott. which is critical of the idea of trying to impose legibility on a natural system. And thus that word, right at this moment, has some baggage, and I wanted to make sure I’d laid the foundation of my thinking before I introduced it. But I do think we should consider Scott and the claims made in Seeing Like a State when discussing Yglesias’ framework, because it’s important to identify when “legibility” is a problem and when it’s an asset. 

Perhaps the biggest thing to keep in mind is that there’s a great deal of difference between efforts to make the citizenry legible to the state as opposed to making the state legible to the citizenry. In the former case the benefits accrue to the state, and in the latter they accrue to the citizenry and I’m almost exclusively talking about the latter.

Additionally, legibility is one of those things where you should apply as much as is needed but no more. In a sense it’s closely related to the idea of subsidiarity, that programs should be implemented as close to the problem and the people affected as possible. Legibility should be as close as possible to the way nature already works. 

It might help to think of there being three possible levels:

  1. Natural
  2. Legible
  3. Controlled

As it says in the Federalist papers, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.” Which get’s at the first and third levels. If men could be trusted to behave without any government that would be the best solution, and this is the state of nature as described by Scott, and the philosophy of anarchists and libertarians (though to different degrees). If on the other hand angels were to govern men, then we could give them control of everything knowing that we would never need to second guess them, and it wouldn’t matter how complicated those controls became. But since there are no angels in sight, the middle ends up being the goldilocks spot described by Yglesias where there are rules and policies, but they’re easy to understand. They’re legible but not complicated.

As I was working through this post it occurred to me that Yglesias’ framework can be applied to the recent reckoning on race, though I’m sure he’d probably rather not go there, and even I am only mentioning it as an observation rather than any kind of recommendation. 

What I’ve noticed is that as things have progressed since the death of George Floyd, the complexities of race have become very apparent. A few examples: There’s been a tendency to separate people as being either white or people of color (POC) and yet Asians who would be considered POC have much higher median household incomes than white americans. Affirmative action largely benefits people who are already in the upper middle class rather than minorities that are truly disadvantaged. When it comes to reparations there are all sorts of complexities. Does Oprah get reparations? Do people who recently immigrated from Africa, and have no enslaved ancestors get reparations? And what about the Native Americans?

I’m not saying these problems are insuperable, I’m just pointing out that they lead to exactly the sort of rules layering that Yglesias pointed to as being bad. On the other hand, the old standard of being completely colorblind is legible, straightforward and a perfect example of Yglesias’ criteria. But as I said I’m merely observing, not recommending.

V.

After taking the Yglesias framework up a level, and using it to consider the recent unpleasantness (i.e. from policies to the choosing of people to enact those policies). I think we can take it even one step higher, to the level of values.

As I was working my way through all of this I was reminded of my post on the justice/mercy dichotomy. As usual when I wander this far afield everything I say is pretty speculative, but I once again see a situation where there’s too much focus on justice and not nearly enough focus on mercy. To begin with, while I understand it’s hard for some people to understand, the riot that happened last week, insofar as it had a motive other than “riot tourism” (I forget where I saw that phrase but it seems apt) was motivated by justice. All or nearly all of those people are convinced, deep in their bones, that the election was stolen. That Trump actually won, but the Deep State contrived to make it appear as if he had lost. That if they had been able to sway enough of the senators to change the outcome of the electoral vote counting and give Trump the win, that this would have been just and proper. Now you can go back and read the previous post if you want an explanation for all the reasons why the modern world has made this path particularly easy to follow, and not just for Trump Supporters. So to an extent everyone is obsessed with justice. The problem is that justice and mercy are opposed. You can’t have both. And what we needed last week, and really since the election is more mercy.

Of course calls for the left/Biden Administration/institutions to be merciful to Trump supporters are legion. And while I think that’s an area where we should err on the side of mercy, in this space I’m going to argue that actually it’s Trump and his supporters who need to be more merciful. I understand that some people don’t think that’s possible. They think mercy is something that can only be granted by the people in power to the people who aren’t in power. But in reality mercy can operate even if you’re the weaker party. As long as you have some power you can decide to forgo using it and exercise mercy. Even if you have less power than your opponent, as long as you have any power you can use it to cause harm. Deciding to not to is an act of mercy. As such, conceding is an act of mercy, directed both at the other side (even though they won) and at the nation as a whole. And it’s actually more important if you think justice has not been served. Anyone can be merciful if they think they’re in the wrong, it’s being merciful when you think justice is on your side that poses all of the difficulties. 

So what does all of this have to do with legibility vs. complexity? I would argue that mercy is legible. Forgiveness is easy to understand. On the other hand justice, true justice, is enormously complicated. And I’m not arguing that we should abandon our quest for justice. I’m just pointing out that when Yglesias was calling for a framework that could easily be understood that he was also calling for mercy. 

As I’ve said this is all on the highly speculative end of things. And I can completely understand that in calling for mercy, particularly from the weaker party, I am in a sense calling for people to accept some injustice, and of the worst kind too: that committed by the strong against the weak. But perhaps, by flipping the framing such that Trump supporters are the ones who are being asked to meekly submit to injustices (whether perceived or real) and to do so for the good of the country, those most inclined to object to my conclusion might be induced to see that it contains a sliver of wisdom.


Perhaps the appeals I make at the end of every post also suffer from the weakness of being too complicated, so let me try Yglesias’ framework:

  1. I’m asking for money so I can prove to my wife that I’m not wasting my time.
  2. You’ll know it’s working by my periodic mentions of having a wife in the present tense.
  3. You can execute on this plan by going to https://patreon.com/jeremiah820 and clicking on one of the “Join” buttons.

Review of Irreversible Damage by Abigail Shrier

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For those who read my last post, you know what’s coming, a review of Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters by Abigail Shrier. I debated whether I should follow my standard review format, and after much back and forth, I decided to not only follow it, but add a section, so let’s start there:

Briefly, what is this book about?

Shrier is arguing that there has been a huge increase in the number of female teens identifying as transgender, and that this increase is not a result of long standing gender dysphoria, but rather the typical confusion and discomfort associated with puberty combined with a culture that celebrates transgender individuals. That in essence going through puberty is tough and being trans allows them to put that out of their mind while also being cool. Or in words of one of the teenagers she interviewed:

I don’t know exactly that I want to be a guy. I just know I don’t want to be a girl.

Who should read this book?

At the top of my list would be those people who instinctively recoil from Shrier’s argument, And who feel that all, or at least the vast majority of female teens who come out as trans are doing so for good and healthy reasons. BUT who are intellectually rigorous enough to want to be able to steelman the arguments of those on the other side. In saying this, I’m not saying that this book represents a perfectly crafted treatise, free from shortcomings, the book has many. But at the moment it’s the only book length treatment of the argument I’m aware of, and if you want to craft an understanding of the strongest argument being made, this is a critical piece of that. Also I think whatever imperfections it does have are magnified by how contentious the issue is. In my opinion, its mix of data and anecdotes is well ahead of the average Malcom Gladwell book, but he’s saying things people mostly want to hear. The same can not be said for this book, which because of how contentious it is, get’s held to a much higher standard, with any flaws serving as an excuse for dismissing the entire book.  I would urge you not to do that, but to approach the materially charitably. Someone, rather than spewing out 280 character “hot takes” on Twitter, has gone to the trouble of putting together 264 pages of material in support of their point. Isn’t that what we all say we want these days?

Beyond that, I would actually say that everyone should read this book. And yes the people I talked about in the last paragraph are included in the set of everyone, but I don’t know that just saying “everyone” would have been an effective persuasion technique for the aforementioned group. But for those who aren’t in that previous group, who may be wondering, “Why should I read it?” My argument would be that anytime a consensus starts hardening around a simple narrative, that it’s the duty of everyone in a healthy society to make sure that this narrative isn’t too simple, that important complexities and second order effects are not being overlooked and above all that the consensus itself is not mistaken. Because as I have pointed out it’s always worse when everyone makes a mistake than when only a few people make a mistake. And this seems like a situation where the consensus is wrong, and a large mistake is being abetted by this incorrect understanding. And the more people we have thinking about the problem the more likely we are to catch and arrest the mistake, if one is in fact being made.

General Thoughts

That, of course, is the key question, who in all of this is making a mistake? Is Shrier making a mistake? Or are doctors, transgender influencers, psychiatrists, the teenage girls claiming to be trans, and the culture at large making a mistake? Stated that way, Occam’s Razor would suggest that Shrier is making the mistake. But clearly, the fact that I’m devoting a whole post to the issue, would suggest that I don’t think that’s the case. Why is that? What makes me think that all of those groups might be making a mistake? What is it that suggests to me that Shrier might be right and all of those other people might be wrong?

Let’s start with Shrier. First, it’s important to note that her focus is very narrow. I think that many people, myself included, thought that the book would be a general indictment of all people identifying as transgender, but instead Shrier goes out of her way to make it clear that there are people who genuinely suffer from gender dysphoria, and for those people it’s possible that surgical transition might be the right choice. Her focus is not on those people, but rather the book seeks only to examine teenage and college age girls who identify as transgender, and whether they may be under the influence of a peer contagion effect, i.e. the obvious fact that teenage behavior can be influenced by the attitude of their peers. And Shrier’s not even arguing that all girls who “come out” as transgender are suffering from this peer contagion effect, only that many of them probably are, and that if we can identify that segment, we can end up with a better outcomes overall both for those girls and for society as a whole.

(Side note: In this post when I’m speaking of teenagers or teenage girls, I’m also including people in their early 20’s, but it seems cumbersome to have to write out “teenage and college age individuals” every time. Also while the phenomena Shrier is describing continues into the early 20’s it start’s much younger, and if policies, procedures and attitudes need to change that would probably be the place for it to happen.)

Beyond the narrowness of her focus, the other thing Shrier brings to the table is her own set of groups. The labels for the groups on her side of the issue are a little more convoluted, and they lack expert credentialing, but it’s an important list nonetheless. It includes the parents of transgender teens, detransitioners, and even some well known trasgender activists. And yes, also in that mix are some doctors, psychiatrists and a significant, though at this point, not dominant part of the culture.

Beyond all of this, having read the book, I think she has science and data on her side. For some people the idea that doctors and psychiatrists are driven by fads is obvious, to say nothing of how fad-driven the culture at large is. For others the burden is on those questioning the “experts”. I’m unlikely to sway the people in this latter category in the course of a single blog post, let alone in the course of a few paragraphs, but perhaps an example might help. 

In one of my previous posts (a few years back at this point) I talked about the opioid epidemic. I had just read the book Dreamland by Sam Quinones (still highly recommended by the way), and the misuse of science in service of prescribing opioids documented by that book was insane. From that previous post: 

[T]he misuse of science, hinged on placing far too much weight on a one paragraph letter published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1980 which claimed that opiates only ended up causing addiction in 1% of people. Getting past the fact that the author never intended it to be used in the way it was, to base decades of pain management on one paragraph is staggeringly irresponsible. Even more irresponsible, when the pharmaceutical companies got around to trying to confirm the result they found that it didn’t hold up (to no one’s surprise) and they ended up burying and twisting the results they did get. The number of people that died of accidental overdoses directly or indirectly from this misuse of science is easily six figures, possibly seven, particularly since people are still dying. Of course in addition to the misuse of science there was the over reliance on science. I assume that on some level the pharmaceutical companies knew that they were not being scientific, but countless doctors, who were either naive or blinded by the gifts provided by the pharmaceutical company chose to at least pretend that they were doing what they were doing because science backed them up.

From this there would seem to be no question that doctors can screw up in a fashion which is both enormous and coordinated. As far as psychiatrists and therapists, it would appear safe to lump them into this same category of “medical professionals”, particularly given that the litany of their mistakes is just as long if not longer than the doctor’s. From our original list of people opposed to Shrier’s interpretation we still have to address the teenage girls claiming to be trans, transgender influencers, and the culture at large. We’ll come back to those claiming to be trans in a moment. Transgender influencers are probably the least objective actors in all of this, and anyone looking for evidence from that quarter is going to have a very hard separating the facts from the bias. Which leaves only the culture at large, and while their record of failure might be more forgivable than that of the doctors (who are expected to know better) it’s probably more extensive. Also isn’t this what we’re here to discuss? Whether current culture might be wrong on this topic?

It’s entirely possible that you’re still skeptical that all those people could be wrong, if so, let’s try approaching it from a different direction. The one thing we do have a pretty good handle on is the enormous increase of people identifying as trans and seeking treatment. Some statistics from the book to chew on:

  • Previous to the last five years the accepted statistic for the prevalence of gender dysphoria was 0.01 percent.
  • The prevalence of those identifying as transgender has increased by over 1,000 percent.
  • In Britain the increase is 4,000 percent.
  • 2% of highschool students now identify as trans.
  • Between 2016 and 2017 gender surgeries for natal females quadrupled. 
  • As of 2018 there had been a 4,400% rise over the previous decade in teenage girls seeking gender treatment.
  • “Before 2012, in fact, there was no scientific literature on girls ages eleven to twenty-one ever having developed gender dysphoria at all.”

Taken together, even if you don’t agree with every point, or the conclusions Shrier draws from this data, the fact that there has been a significant increase in the number of people identifying as transgender and that this increase has been particularly notable among teenage and college age girls is hard to deny. (Nor do I think that many people do.) Something has changed dramatically over the last few years, and it’s worth identifying what that something is. I myself took a stab at this a couple of years ago in a two part post (1, 2) and at the time I came up with seven possible explanations, if you’re curious what they were I would direct you to those earlier posts. (Shrier’s explanation is a combination of my 5th and 7th explanations.) My point this time around is more narrow: If you don’t accept Shrier’s explanation for the increase what explanation are you willing to offer in its stead? And does this explanation fit the available data better? 

Here we return to considering the evidence provided by all of the girls who identify as transgender. One of the chief arguments against the idea that it’s some sort of crazy fad is that no one would go to all the trouble of binding their breasts, or taking hormones, to say nothing of actual surgery, if they weren’t serious. On its face, this argument seems reasonable, but on the other hand it’s important to remember that these are teenagers we’re talking about. A group not known for being exceptionally far-sighted or clear-thinking. A group who has no problem modifying their bodies with tattoos or piercings, which from a long term perspective seems very similar to binding, and at first glance binding probably appears less permanent.

As far as hormones, there seems to be every reason to suspect that teens view them similarly to other drugs they might consider ingesting, with if anything a bias to view them as less harmful than average because they are perceived to be both natural and corrective. Given that teenagers frequently make irresponsible decisions about drugs which are perceived as being neither of those things, anyone who argues that we can count on them to make responsible, well-informed decisions about trans specific drugs like puberty-blockers and hormones has got to be joking. 

When we finally extend this into the category of actual surgery, one would hope that there would be lots of safeguards in place before doing something so potentially life altering, but there are certainly many examples of people who had surgery and later regretted it, including the case of Keira Bell which was recently adjudicated in Britain. We’ll discuss Bell more later, but if we accept the “between 2016 and 2017 gender surgeries for natal females quadrupled” statistic mentioned above, unless we can come up with a better explanation for the increase than the one offered by Shrier it seems like we’re forced to assume that upwards of 75% of surgeries were conducted as part of this trend rather than being conducted on people with actual dysphoria. And that assumes that the 2016 numbers represent a floor, if the trend was already in motion at this point then it may be more than 75%. Finally is there anyone out there that thinks the number of surgeries has gone down since 2017? I wouldn’t bet on it.

You might be willing to grant my general point that teens are dumb, but still not be convinced that they would be dumb in precisely this way, which is certainly a reasonable objection. Out of all the ways for them to misbehave how does it come to pass that they choose this one? At first glance it seems uniquely harmful and misguided, but as it turns out, for reasons still very much in debate, teenage girls seem particularly susceptible to engaging in harmful trends. In modern times we’ve seen significant problems with anorexia nervosa, bulimia, and cutting. Go just a little ways back in time and there was a huge fuss around repressed memories, particularly in conjunction with satanic ritual abuse and as far back as the late 1800’s we see this same group suffering from an epidemic of neurasthenia (essentially fainting and weakness). While we don’t have the space for a deep examination of the similarities between all of these conditions and Shrier’s hypothesis, it does seem clear that it’s not unheard of for a large number of teenage girls to engage in irrational and damaging behavior, that there is a precedent.

As I mentioned the debate is still raging on many of these issues, but we do have some pretty good theories for how a trend like this manages to spread. First, the term we’ve already encountered, the idea of peer contagion. If the massive increase was due just culture becoming more tolerant, if peers had nothing to do with it, we would expect the distribution of transgender teens to be fairly random and uniform. Instead we find, according to the book, that the prevalence of transgender identification within groups of friends is more than 70x the rate you would expect.

Also, while the idea that teenage behavior can be influenced by the attitude of their peers is almost the definition of teenage behavior, the modern world has introduced at least a few other things which contribute to and exacerbate the problem. The first, and most obvious is social media. Shrier provides the statistic that 65% of adolescent girls who decide they’re trans do so after a period of prolonged social media immersion. I understand that this is definitely a statistic which is subject to interpretation, for example what qualifies as “prolonged” and “immersion”? But it’s easy to see many different ways in which social media might contribute, first it makes the contagion part of the peer contagion effect worse. Social media does a great job of connecting people who feel different and marginalized. Everyone can easily imagine how this might be a force for good, but it’s clearly also something which can cause a lot of harm, by seeming to pathologize and amplify uncertainty that might otherwise be just a phase. Stepping into this highly connected environment are transgender influencers, who Shrier spends a lot of time discussing. These individuals have all the incentives in the world to make transitioning seem like a wonderful experience that solved all of their problems.

Finally social media allows people to compare themselves with the whole world, amplifying the peer part of the peer contagion phenomena. Currently, if a teenage girl is wondering if she’s “girly” enough, she can compare herself to the top 0.01% of all the girls in the world through the medium of things like Instagram. A situation where it is vastly easier to make comparisons and decide that you don’t measure up.

Related to this, but at the extremes, there is also the ubiquity of pornography to contend with. Shrier theorizes, and I think it’s a theory deserving consideration, that most pornography has the effect of making sexual activity as a hetrosexual female seem pretty unappealing. Not only is there an enormous amount of porn focused on various forms of humiliation, I also imagine there’s a perception that intimate moments are very likely to be recorded, leading to the very real fear that they will be added to the ranks of women being humiliated. Also a greater and greater majority of teenagers have no experience with sex outside of pornography. This quote from the book is too good not to include:

Many of the adolescent girls who adopt a transgender identity have never had a single sexual or romantic experience. They have never been kissed by a boy or a girl. What they lack in life experience, they make up for with a sex-studded vocabulary and avant-garde gender theory.

Finally, the general point I keep returning to over and over in this space, 100 years ago this issue, to the extent that it existed, was entirely different. Most of the things which are now central to people’s perception of what it means to transition hadn’t even been developed. There was no testosterone, no puberty blockers, and definitely no surgeries. If a significant and growing number of people now feel that they need these things which 100 years ago didn’t even exist, it would seem to say a lot more about the current age than some deep biological truth.

If at this point you are at least willing to entertain the idea that Shrier might be right, that some teenage girls are going to decide that they’re transgender for reasons other than actual gender dysphoria, and consequently any transition is going to end up being a mistake, and that the less these girls transition the better. If you’re willing to consider all of this what do you do now?

Certainly one of your first impulses would be to attempt to identify those individuals who won’t benefit from transition, who are using transition to avoid their problems rather than solve them. In these cases you wouldn’t “affirm” their new gender, or call them by different pronouns. You would take steps to keep them from binding, and definitely do everything in your power to prevent them from taking any drugs which might cause, as the title of the book suggests, irreversible damage. 

If you could be sure that you had accurately identified them then such steps would hopefully be uncontroversial. (I’m not sure that this would be the case, but one could hope). No most of the controversy comes over that first step. Even if we are convinced that there are people in this group, how do we identify them? From what was discussed above, and in other places in the book it sounds like there are a few attributes that set this segment apart:

  1. The transgender identification seems to come out of nowhere.
  2. It follows a period of intense social media consumption.
  3. It is closely associated with not fitting in, discomfort with the changes brought on by puberty, or outright depression.
  4. Friends or other peers of the teen have also recently announced that they’re transgender.

Those markers all seem pretty suspicious by themselves, but if all of them manifested together, it’s hard to imagine that we wouldn’t want to exercise caution. The problem is how do we accurately gauge which of these things might be true in any given case? Particularly if we’ve already decided that the teens themselves are confused and motivated to conceal things? For me the best resource would be the parents, and as a parent myself I am entirely aware of all the things I don’t know about my kids, but most of the things mentioned above should be reasonably obvious to any parent actually paying attention, particularly the first one. And herein lies one of the biggest problems with how things currently work. Even if teachers, therapists and doctors were inclined to push back, which they’re apparently not, parents still appear to be the last to get consulted on how to handle their child’s issues.

Irreversible Damage is as much a book about the parents of these teens as it is the teens themselves, and given that many (though not all) of these teens were unwilling to talk to Shrier she spends a lot of space on interviews with the parents. And while this does leave her open to charges of bias, there does seem to be a pretty consistent pattern:

Teen decides they’re transgender. They start going by a new name and new pronouns at school. This is not communicated to the parents. Parents eventually find out. None of the parents Shrier included (perhaps for obvious reasons) are hardcore conservatives who kick their kid out of the house, they’re generally the kind of people who vote Democrat and volunteer for Planned Parenthood. The parents are unsure how to react, but decide that they should call in outside help in the form a therapist or psychologist. They expect that this person will “get to the bottom of it” but instead they immediately start affirming the new gender identity and discussing drugs like puberty blockers or testosterone. Again without really involving the parent. Beyond all of this, Shrier points out that much of transgender advocacy has an anti-bullying element to it, following from this parents are oftentimes identified as the biggest bully of all. Which is to say, you’re taking the best resource for identifying that segment that might not benefit from transition and, at best sidelining them, and at worse demonizing them.

Now, as I mentioned this description of things probably has some baises: from the sources, the author and my own attempts to abbreviate it for impact and space, but Shrier did base much of this on responses to a survey of 256 parents of transgender teens, conducted by Dr. Lisa Littman, of Brown University. Here are some of the results:

  • Over 80% female
  • Mean age 16.4
  • Most lived at home
  • Vast majority had ZERO of the DSM-5 indicators of childhood gender dysphoria (six is necessary to qualify)
  • 1/3 had no indications of gender dysphoria even immediately beforehand
  • Majority had a diagnosed psychiatric condition, almost half were engaged in self-harm
  • 41% had expressed a non-hetrosexual sexual orientation before identifying as trans
  • 47.4% had been formally assessed as gifted
  • 70% belonged to a peer group where at least one friend was trans, in some the majority of friends were trans
  • 60% said it brought a popularity boost
  • 90% of parents were white
  • 70% of parents had bachelor’s or higher
  • 85% of parents supported same sex marriage
  • 64% of parents were labeled transphobic for asking the child to take more time to figure it out, etc.
  • Less than 13% believed that their child’s mental health had improved 47% said that it had worsened.

Littman conducted this survey as part of an attempt to quantify what she’s taken to labeling Rapid-onset Gender Dysphoria (ROGD, and I’m realizing I should have introduced that term much earlier in the post, but it’s too late now). Littman is one of the many researchers interviewed by Shrier, and her story might be a whole post on it’s own, but whatever else you may say the book is not composed of data-free rants from the fringe, people have done some actual legwork here.  Nor does the main recommendation of greater parental involvement in decisions of this magnitude seem like too much to ask.

Still even were this to happen it’s clear that debate would continue to rage over how best to tackle the problem. And many people would continue to insist that even if a person has only started identifying as transgender because of peer contagion, that there isn’t any harm in expecting people to switch to a new name and a new set of pronouns. This argument might have some merit, but many people go on to make this same argument about puberty blockers. Similarly arguing that there’s very little downside; that it’s just a way of hitting a pause button while the teenager in question makes up their mind. But here we get to another one of the book’s significant assertions: puberty blockers are not a way of buying time in order to make a decision, they are a decision. Shrier asserts that nearly 100% of teens who are put on puberty blockers go on to transition further. Now compare this to the old methodology which did not affirm the new gender or use any drugs. The methodology used on people who suffered dysphoria from a very young age, those cases which don’t appear to be ROGD, i.e. which didn’t come as a surprise to the child’s parents. Under this methodology 70% of people grew out of their dysphoria, which was not only longer lasting, but arguably more deeply entrenched!

While reading this book I discussed it’s conclusions with several of my friends. Most were open to the idea that Shrier (and Littman and the rest) might have identified a real problem, but they questioned its impact, in particular they felt that the number of teens who engaged in transitional steps beyond just a change of names and pronouns, and perhaps binding was relatively small. And to be clear I too very much wish there was more data on how common these things actually are, but let’s go through each step of transition and see what can be said about it.

Change in pronouns: The friends who I talked to were willing to accept the argument that puberty blockers are probably bad, but see changing names and pronouns as just common politeness, with no chance of doing any lasting harm. Similar to giving the kid a nickname. Well according to Shrier even just doing a “social transition” can be remarkably sticky. I, for one, think this makes sense, what kid is going to want to publicly back down and admit that they were wrong? Even if it wasn’t a matter of great cultural controversy, which teen voluntarily chooses to look foolish about even small things? And this is a great big thing! Plus it’s a well documented psychological phenomenon that once you make a decision various biases kick in to confirm and strengthen it. Accordingly, I think even this step requires serious consideration. Certainly it shouldn’t be taken on a whim.

Binding: This is another place where I really wish there was better data. I got the impression from the book that most teenage girls who decide to identify as transgender go on to bind their breasts. Perhaps this impression is based on the further impression that teens view it as being relatively harmless. But impressions all the way down is not the way to construct a compelling argument. In any case regardless of its prevalence, it’s not harmless, and can cause: “Fractured or bruised ribs, punctured or collapsed lungs, shortness of breath, back pain, and deformation of breast tissue.” Though again I don’t have any data on how often these complications occur.

Puberty Blockers: I’ve already mentioned Shrier’s worry with respect to puberty blockers, that they’re not working in the way people expect. Here side effects (other than the gigantic one of stopping normal development) are not very well documented, but appear to include loss of bone density, and interference with brain development which may affect intelligence. But here, at least, I did manage to find somewhat better data on how many of the teens in question end up taking them. An article in The Economist claims that half of all children referred to a gender-identity clinic ended up starting puberty blockers, and that such referrals have increased 30-fold over the last decade. 

Testosterone: Again good data on how many trans people are taking testosterone is hard to come by, but it’s yet another drug where there are clearly some pretty serious side effects. “Heightened rates of diabetes, stroke, blood clots, cancer, and… heart disease.” Because of the side effects to reproduction many women end up having “prophylactic hysterectomies”. And lest people think they can try it for awhile, and then change their mind, even a couple of months can produce permanent changes to facial hair, voice and genitals. 

Surgery: It seems both obvious that this is the rarest step taken by those who are transitioning, particularly phalloplasty or “bottom surgery”, but also that this is where the potential for causing “irreversible damage” is the greatest. Particularly since, as demand has increased it has outstripped the supply of skilled surgeons, leading to even worse outcomes. And certainly there are stories of people who have gone this far, and decided that it was all a horrible mistake. For example Keira Bell, who we’ll get to in a minute.

Doing nothing: I left this for last because after everything that was just mentioned including the 70% of people who grow out of dysphoria under this course of action. It may seem inconceivable that this isn’t the recommended course of action for all teenagers claiming to suffer from gender dysphoria. But there’s one big reason why it’s not. Everyone, but particularly the parents, are terrified that their teenager will commit suicide if they don’t allow them to start transitioning or take puberty blockers. Here Shrier makes perhaps the most important claim of all:

There are no good long-term studies indicating that either gender dysphoria or suicidality diminishes after medical transition.

Lest you think that this claim is unforgivably tainted by Shrier’s biases, in the review of the book which appeared in The Economist, they said the same thing: the research does not back up the claim that failing to affirm increases the risk of suicide. I understand The Economist is not completely free from biases either, but it’s as close as you’re likely to get in this day and age.

In fact, for those who don’t feel like reading the entirety of Irreversible Damage the two Economist articles I already mentioned represent a pretty good summary. In particular their article on the Keira Bell case has some startling quotes, and since it’s already far too late to keep this post from being gigantic and further as a way of reducing the potential bias of relying on a single book, I figured I might as well include some of them:

In 2018 Andrea Davidson’s 12-year-old daughter, Meghan, announced she was “definitely a boy”. Ms Davidson says her child was never a tomboy but the family doctor congratulated her and asked what pronouns she had chosen, before writing a referral to the British Columbia Children’s Hospital (BCCH). “We thought we were going to see a psychologist, but it was a nurse and a social worker,” says Ms Davidson (both her and her daughter’s names have been changed). “Within ten minutes they had offered our child Lupron”—a puberty-blocking drug.

…other transitioners come to see such procedures as a mistake. Claire (not her real name), now a 19-year-old student in Florida, started on testosterone aged 14 because of a loathing for her body. (She was also deeply depressed.) “I felt it was the only option, especially with the insistence that having dysphoria meant you are irrevocably trans and thus you will probably kill yourself if you don’t transition.” Obtaining hormones was easy, she says. “They pretty much gold-stamped me through.” Then, aged 17, her dysphoria disappeared. “I felt extremely lost. I had never heard of this happening.” She came off testosterone, embraced her identity as a lesbian, and is furious. “It is the medical industry and the general social attitude towards dysphoric people that failed me.”

The court concluded that blockers almost always lead on to hormones…

In America intervention was boosted by the Affordable Care Act of 2010, which banned health insurers from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. In effect, they were thus obliged to cover hormones for people who say they are trans just as they provide contraceptive hormones for women.

In 2018 the American Association of Pediatrics (AAP) said that all medical evidence supports the “affirmative” approach. But according to a detailed rebuttal by James Cantor, a Canadian sexual-behaviour scientist, none of the 11 academic studies of the subject reaches that conclusion.

I could go on, but I think it’s past time to wrap this up. I will include one final thing, some predictions:

  1. The number of angry detransitioners will continue to grow, and they’ll be in the news more.
  2. We’ll see more court cases similar to the Keira Bell one, and courts will start imposing age restrictions for various treatments.
  3. Possibly as early as 2021 the doctors, in an attempt to keep the courts from over-reaching will start changing their standards
  4. 20 years from now, and possibly a lot sooner, this phenomenon will be viewed as a cautionary tale of putting ideology before data.
  5. And beyond that this whole thing will be viewed by transgender activists as having ultimately harmed the cause.

I need some feedback here. This went on for a lot longer than most of my posts, was that good or bad? Should I add the “what this book was about” section to all of my reviews? I’m making a few tweaks in 2021 (details to come) and your feedback will help me with that.

Feel free to email me at We Are Not Saved (all one word) at gmail.


Have We Run Out of History and Legitimacy?

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Sometimes when I sit down to start a post I have something that’s dying to get out, something which I feel must be said, and as quickly as possible. In my assessment of social media I assume that many people feel this same mix of necessity and rapidity, and that it’s probably just as illusory for them as it is for me, but without such illusions no one would ever write anything. At other times I’m not sure what to write about. One might imagine that in these instances that I would decide to write nothing, but that never happens. Perhaps it should, but I tell myself that my writing is as much for my own education as it is for the education of others, and as such I should maintain the habit regardless of whether I feel particularly driven to write at any given moment.

All of this is a way of explaining that when I sat down to write this post I found myself in the latter category, wondering what to write about. Which is not to say there was no subject that seemed important enough to write about, but more that there were too many important subjects at that moment, and I’ve already talked about them, and worry I’m out of anything unique or noteworthy to add. As a further drag on my desire I worry that my own methodology for speaking about things might be getting overused, that is digging into the deeper implications of some book I’m reading, or alternatively exploring the ramifications of the political crisis de jour. But I’ve decided that rather than avoiding this tendency that, at least in this post, I’m going to double down on it, and combine a discussion of a book I’m reading with a discussion of the latest political crisis! I’m sure you’re all very excited.

The book is The End of History and the Last Man by Francis Fukuyama. In the past I have made light of the contention Fukuyama makes right in the book’s title. That we have reached the “end of history”, but my criticisms were probably misplaced and mostly due to me having an overly simplified view of what he was saying. After discovering that his point was more complicated, I vowed to read the book, which I did while at the same time working on this post. 

Fukuyama’s chief argument is that, at the end of the cold war the hybrid system of capitalism and liberal democracy didn’t have any obvious competitors. That no other ideologies remained which had a credible claim for being the better system. The book was written in 1992, when the Chinese communist system was still looking somewhat shaky in the wake of things like Tiananmen Square. In the intervening years I think it’s made a credible run at providing a competing vision of governance, but a specific discussion of China will have to wait for another post (probably not the next post which will be my September book review post, but the post after that.) However, in 1992 things were very different and there was lots of room for hope. Thus one obvious criticism of the book is that it suffers from being too close to things.

At the time, this idea that capitalism and liberal democracy had won, was treated as great news. The cold war was over. We didn’t have to worry about being eventually overwhelmed by communism or alternatively perishing in a fiery apocalypse brought on by two irreconcilable ideologies. Unfortunately in the midst of all this optimism, a new problem emerged, and this is where Fukuyama’s book is at his best. (Chapter 28, “Men Without Chests”, which discusses Nietzsche’s view of things, justifies the entire book all by itself.) This new problem might be stated: If what we have is as good as it’s going to get, if we’ve reached an ideological dead end, what happens if it turns out not to work either? What if we discover that liberal democracy itself is ultimately fragile in a similar fashion to all previous types of government? (Perhaps the fragility just takes longer to manifest?) If this turns out to be the case, then there’s really no refuge left. To put it another way, since the Enlightenment, people have aspired to a liberal democratic government as an ideal, even more so after 1776 when it was apparent that it was actually possible. And it was felt that if a nation ever managed to make that transition that things would vastly improve But if, as seems to be currently happening, liberal democracy starts breaking down, then what’s left to aspire to?

I know some people still aspire to communism but that carries a host of issues, including it’s record of failure, and the difficulty of assembling a broad enough base of support. Beyond that there are proposals for a variety of untried systems, or for massive changes to liberal democracy, but the proposals seem unlikely to work in anything close to the fashion their advocates envision, and making massive changes seem at best a method of buying more time, not anything that changes liberal democracy from something which can fail into something which can’t.

In examining this question of whether democracy too might fail, or whether it’s already failing, it’s useful to consider why previous systems of government failed. Fukuyama mainly ascribes these previous failures to a lack of legitimacy. In particular the 20th century saw lots of totalitarian states. These states derived their legitimacy from several things, economic growth, stability, and particularly the point of a gun. What didn’t play any part in their legitimacy were big ideas which persisted when those other three things went away. Because eventually all three of those things will go away.  Even rule at the point of a gun isn’t sustainable forever. (Though as North Korea illustrates it can be sustained for a very long time.) To a certain extent communist regimes had big ideas like equality and plenty for all, but these big ideas never panned out, even after decades of effort. Also it’s difficult to combine maintaining something at the point of a gun while also claiming that it’s really the big idea that keeps everything going. Which is to say it’s tough to believe in the utopia of Communism when your country is being run by Stalin.

Previous to democracy and communism, and even well into the 19th century, there were monarchies, which operated under big ideas like heredity and the divine right of kings. (And the fact that the vast masses of people couldn’t do much about the system even if they wanted to.) Whatever their source, according to Fukuyama, these big ideas provide a long-term source of legitimacy, similar to a cash reserve that can be drawn on when things get bad. In the case of the monarchy, even during a revolution, these big ideas were in play, and a relative of the previous king started from a much stronger position than some random individual, or even some random noble. In the same way that someone who won an election (even if that election was suspected of being rigged) has far more legitimacy than the average individual these days. But this isn’t the only source of modern legitimacy. When things were tough for the Soviet Union during World War II they could draw on the idea that they were fighting fascist hordes who wanted to wreck their communist utopia, and probably they drew on their sense of national pride as well. Finally, the point of a gun was almost certainly in there as well. This is still Stalin we’re talking about.

This last example brings up the idea of necessity, which is related, but somewhat different than legitimacy. As I pointed out in a previous post, one possible reason for why we’re so disunited at the moment is that there’s nothing forcing us to be united. No external threat we need to face. Post Pearl Harbor and with literal Nazis in charge of Europe, it was probably pretty easy to be united, and as far as I can tell there were very few questions of where the government derived its legitimacy. And the point that Fukuyama makes in his book, is that while some external threat exists, or alternatively when the economy is booming and times are really good, it’s easy for any form of government to seem legitimate. They’re performing the core tasks that governments need to perform. It’s when times get tough and there’s nothing external to unite against that totalitarian governments end up being more fragile than liberal democracies because there’s no underlying big idea to draw on to keep things together if, say the economy tanks. 

If, as is the case today, the country feels no necessity to unite in the face of an external threat, because there are none. And further, if the economy is not booming and things are not going well, at least for the vast majority of people. And finally, if the government is (hopefully) not being maintained at the point of a gun. Then the only difference between a totalitarian regime on the verge of collapse, say the Soviet Union in 1988, and us, is our big ideas. And if they truly are the only thing standing between us and collapse, then it’s probably a good idea to examine what those big ideas are and see how they’re holding up.

One of the big ideas is permitting free and open debate. The assumption being that if all the information is out there that people will eventually make the right decision. I don’t want to spend a lot of time on this particular idea because it’s something which I’ve talked a lot about in the past, and it’s also something that’s being talked about a lot by people other than me, but it seems clear that this is one big idea that’s looking pretty shaky. Not only is it harder and harder to separate good information from bad, but there’s a significant push to restrict speech and information above and beyond that. 

Another big idea is using elections to ensure the peaceful transfer of power. This isn’t looking that great either. Certainly Trump’s recent statements undermining this idea are alarming, but when Hillary Clinton is saying that Biden should not concede the election “under any circumstances” I’m not sure 100% of the blame can be placed on Trump for the erosion of this idea. My current prediction is that the 2020 election will continue to fulfill this function, but it’s hard to argue that this idea isn’t getting weaker each cycle.

Yet another important big idea is equality of opportunity. Of all the ideas that existed at the time Fukuyama wrote his book, this is the one that has undergone the most sustained attack, particularly from the perspective of the ongoing racial inequalities. Though in Fukuyama’s defense he foresees that this might be the case:

Moreover, even American democracy has not been particularly successful in solving its most persistent ethnic problem, that of American blacks. Black slavery constituted the major exception to the generalization that Americans were “born equal,” and American democracy could not in fact settle the question of slavery through democratic means. Long after the abolition of slavery, long, indeed after the achievement of full legal equality by American blacks, many remain profoundly alienated from the mainstream of American culture. Given the profoundly cultural nature of the problem, on the side both of blacks and whites, it is not clear that American democracy is really capable of doing what would be necessary to assimilate blacks fully, and to move from formal equality of opportunity to a broader equality of condition.

However, having mentioned it as a possibility, he doesn’t seem to think it poses much of a problem long term. Yes, it comes up a lot, but only in very general terms, he definitely didn’t foresee what’s happening now. And of course maybe he’s right, and in the end current unrest may have very little long term impact. Perhaps I’m as blinded by the events of 2020 as Fukuyama was by the events of 1989. In his case it ended up creating too much optimism, perhaps in my case it’s creating too much pessimism. But for the moment let’s imagine that the possibility Fukuyama brings up in the book is in fact a description of our current reality, that American democracy is not “capable of doing what would be necessary to assimilate blacks fully, and to move from formal equality of opportunity to a broader equality of condition.” What then?

Well, insofar as big ideas confer a reserve of legitimacy, to be drawn on when times are difficult (which they seem to be) the disappearance of this idea, perhaps more than any of the other big ideas, may leave us without any reserves of legitimacy. The equivalent of a totalitarian government dealing with a popular uprising. Indeed many people would describe it in just these terms, but I don’t think any of those people have actually ever lived somewhere truly repressive. 

The recent death of Ruth Bader Ginsberg brings up the final big idea I’d like to cover. (To be clear there are lots of big ideas underpinning liberal democracy, but I think even the ones I’ve neglected to mention are passing through a period of unusual weakness.) This final big idea is the rule of law. Now of course Republicans would be quick to point out that in confirming her replacement they aren’t violating any laws, and this is entirely true, nor did they violate any laws when they refused to hold a hearing for Merrick Garland, nor did the Democrats violate any laws when they failed to confirm Robert Bork, nor will they be violating any laws if they retake the Presidency and the Senate and pack the courts. But laws, particularly laws as elegantly devised and as pithy as the Constitution aren’t designed to cover every conceivable eventuality. Accordingly part of the “rule of law” big idea is the awareness that laws are surrounded with certain understandings, norms, and even a layer of civility and cooperation which keeps things from descending into a contest of merely seeing who can get away with the most the fastest. 

Despite the existence of these many pressing problems I just pointed out (and the many I didn’t), it’s common to hear people counter that things aren’t as bad as they were in the late 60s/early 70s, and certainly they’re nowhere near where they were on the eve of the Civil War. (I’ve even done it myself on occasion.) But if, as Fukuyama asserts, it’s less about the amount of blood being spilt and more about the amount of legitimacy in reserve, then we might actually be closer to disaster than we were in either of those cases. For example, however intense the violence got during the late 60s/early 70s, all of the “big ideas” were significantly healthier. Free and open debate was taken to be an article of faith by the media and those in power, and it was a particular cause of the left (see for example the Free Speech Movement). I don’t recall any big worries about the peaceful transition of power, but that says more about us than about them, that the subject has even come up. Moving on to equality of opportunity, certainly the Civil Rights act didn’t solve everything, but I would nevertheless argue that people were significantly more optimistic about it solving the problems of racial inequality than anyone is about anything involving race right now. Finally, as has been well documented, despite whatever other unrest was going on, partisan rancor was not nearly so severe. Further, I can only conclude, based on all the people arguing that the Senate has historically “never done this”, or “never done that”, or “always done something else” that this history of greater cooperation they’re referring to includes that period in the late 60s and early 70s. 

As far as the Civil War. Here the case for big ideas is even stronger. So strong, that, speaking personally, I’ve always had a hard time entirely wrapping my head around it. This is a situation where, speaking just of soldiers on the Union side (it being dangerous to say much of anything about the Confederacy these days) 360,222 were willing to die, just for the big idea of preserving the United States. For those with more modern sensibilities it would be easier to understand if you imagine that they were dying for the big idea of ending slavery and indeed that was the thing underlaying the entire war, but for the average Union solider the priority was preserving the country. They were fighting and dying for the big idea of American exceptionalism. This takes on added significance when you recall that the 360,000 who died came out of a far smaller population, about a tenth of what it is today, meaning that would be equivalent to 3.6 million dying today.

If all of the foregoing is correct and legitimacy is really the thing that matters, and liberal democracy, especially American liberal democracy, is suffering a crisis of legitimacy, what can we do about it? The totalitarian governments which had recently fallen when Fukuyama was writing his book were able to shift from totalitarianism to liberal democracy. But as I pointed out at the beginning, if Fukuyama is correct and liberal democracy represents the end point of progression, then there is no system we can switch to. We’re at the end of things, and if that system doesn’t work then there’s nowhere else to go. 

Some people seem to imagine that communism is still an option, and perhaps it is, perhaps it just needs certain institutions, technologies and attitudes which didn’t exist the last time it was tried. An idea I explored in a previous post, despite this it’s still a pretty far-fetched idea. 

Other people think that there’s a way of combining critical race theory with liberal democracy to produce a new system which would finally fully assimilate blacks in a way that actually led to equality of condition. When I say that some people think there’s a way to do this, I’m actually not sure anyone seriously thinks it can be done, the conflicts between the two systems are essentially irreconcilable, but it represents the vague desires of everyone with a “Black Lives Matter” sign in their yard. Which is to say, it’s a great idea, but from the standpoint of this post, even if it were possible, the system would end up possessing neither the big ideas of liberal democracy nor the big ideas of critical race theory. I understand this last bit is a claim that probably needs more support than I’m giving it. But my post Liberalism vs. Critical Race Theory covers a lot of that territory.

As perhaps the most radical option of all, conceivably you could ditch liberal democracy entirely, and switch to a system whose legitimacy rested on the big ideas of Critical Race Theory. Fukuyama actually covers this possibility, though not directly:

At one extreme, the Marxist project sought to promote an extreme form of social equality at the expense of liberty, by eliminating natural inequalities through the reward not of talent but of need, and through the attempt to abolish the division of labor. All future efforts to push social equality beyond the point of a “middle-class society” must contend with the failure of the Marxist project. For in order to eradicate those seemingly “necessary and ineradicable” differences, it was necessary to create a monstrously powerful state. (emphasis mine)

Again, I understand that this point deserves more support than it’s getting, and again I would direct you to my previous post

After surveying our various options, it would seem that if our reserves of legitimacy are depleted that there are no good options, of course other than somehow refilling those reserves, of restoring the big ideas enough so that they can once again act as a source of legitimacy. Put that way, there are obviously lots of people working on the project. But unfortunately I’m not seeing many signs that they’ve been at all successful.


There is one other system that seems to possess some reserves of legitimacy, (though how large these reserves are is anyone’s guess) that system is Chinese Communism. But as I alluded to near the beginning I’m saving that for the post after next. If you have any concerns that I might run out of steam before then, consider donating.


The Problem With Solutions

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Some of you may recall my review of The Lessons of History by Will and Ariel Durant. If you don’t, allow me to summarize. It was a book which contained an enormous amount of insight, assembled during the decades they spent studying historical events and societies, and while reading the book I spent the vast majority of that time in deep appreciation of their scholarship and wisdom. That is until the last chapter when they decided that they would close out the book with some very specific policy proposals. These recommendations were made at the tail end of the Civil Rights Era during Nixon’s presidency, and perhaps times were more different than I imagine. But reading them now, most of their suggestions appear hopelessly naive, combining both insane ambition with a fundamental misunderstanding of human nature. As an example I offer up their very first suggestion:

Parenting as a privilege and not a right. People should have to pass physical and mental tests before being allowed to breed.

(And you thought the resistance to masks was intense! How would one enforce this? Compulsory abortions?)

At the time I think I wrote the suggestions off as an artifact of the time in which they were writing, when great big government initiatives still looked like an effective method for problem solving. (I guess some people continue to hold this opinion, but I’d venture to suggest that even hard core advocates of government solutions would still blanche at proposing that people pass tests before being allowed to breed.) Since reading Lessons of History I have noticed a similar pattern in other books:

  • There was Technopoly (reviewed here) where Postman’s solution was to implement education standards so comprehensive and ambitious that no child could possibly be expected to meet them. 
  • There was The Hour Between Dog and Wolf (reviewed here) where the solution was extensive hormone testing of traders and other risk takers before allowing them to continue to take risks.
  • Finally, and the most extreme example I’ve encountered thus far, there was Civilized to Death by Christopher Ryan. I’ll be reviewing it at the beginning of October, but the solutions offered were so bad that I was really left with no choice but to write this post.

Before I get into my severe problems with Civilized to Death, let me be clear. All of these books were dead on in bringing to light the subtle problems of modernity we’re currently grappling with. And they were additionally very useful in identifying the source of these problems. Their utility is great enough that I would recommend reading all three books. As examples of my regard, I wrote a whole post in support of Amusing Ourselves to Death and I’ve recommended Hour Between Dog and Wolf to friends of mine who I thought were dealing with chronic work-induced stress. Civilized to Death is very similar in this regard. It’s a great book for countering a certain brand of modern optimism, like that displayed by Stephen Pinker, in his book Enlightenment Now, an optimism I myself have frequently taken issue with. Civilization does have an enormous number of ill effects, and Ryan does a great job of pointing these out. But in the process of doing this he also makes three big mistakes:

  1. In numerous places Ryan uses examples of a recent increase in some negative outcome in support of his premise that civilization is bad. But given that he basically belongs to the Jared Diamond, “The invention of agriculture was the worst mistake in the history of the human race” school, and defines civilization as everything that has happened since. It seems unlikely that, say, empathy decreasing by 40% over the last 30 years, has anything to do with our abandonment of a hunter-gatherer lifestyle.
  2. As I’ve said before I bow to no man in my desire to criticize Steven Pinker, but Ryan fundamentally misrepresents Pinker’s argument, and ignores significant sources of pre-agricultural death.
  3. Ryan’s solutions are entirely too small to deal with the size of the problems he points out. If we accept his premise that a hunter-gatherer society is the ideal state for human beings, how on earth do we get from 7.8 billion people being supported by a massive system of agriculture, to some, presumably vastly smaller number of hunter-gatherers?

In this post I mostly intend to talk about this third mistake, though I’ll have to bring in a lot of discussion of his second mistake in order to establish why the solutions are inadequate, so let’s begin there.

Ryan points out repeatedly that hunter-gatherers experienced essentially zero population growth, which he contrasts with the high population growth rate of agricultural societies, at one point describing it as the equivalent of a pyramid scheme, with more and more people needed to support the people already alive. It should be noted that in order to have zero population growth two children per woman have to survive until they themselves can reproduce. Which means that if hunter-gatherers had more than two kids that there was some death happening and if they had a lot more kids than that, then zero population growth corresponds with a lot more death.

Ryan’s own description of how things worked has hunter-gatherer women experiencing a later menses, at around 16, leading to their first child at 17. This was followed by three to four years of breastfeeding which was generally effective in keeping them from getting pregnant again. Once the child was weaned the whole process would begin anew. If, from this, we take five years as the maximum interval between offspring, and assume that they’re having children until their late 30s. (Both of which seem very conservative.) Then that gets us a total fertility rate (TFR) of 5. That’s my back of the envelope calculation, and after a little bit of looking around I found this paper which asserts that the !Kung have a TFR 4.69, which the paper’s authors consider to be on the low end of what they had expected. So rounding it off to 5 to match the other estimate seems pretty reasonable. Contrast this with the modern TFR necessary for zero population growth of 2.1, and we’re forced to conclude that deaths from all causes are 150% higher in hunter-gatherer tribes than in modern nation states.

Now Ryan is not entirely naive, he knows that there’s more death among hunter-gatherers than among modern individuals in a developed society, but he excuses this by pointing out that it’s mostly it’s children under the age of 15 who die:

Lest I be accused of romanticizing prehistory, let me be clear on this point: Foragers pay a very high price for their remarkable health, happiness, and personal freedom. And that price is exacted in a most precious currency: dead babies.

Among the aforementioned Hadza of Tanzania, for example, where researchers found amazingly healthy children, about one out of every five infants born dies in its first year, and 46 percent don’t make it to the age of fifteen—rates that reflect the median values for a broad survey of foragers. There’s nothing funny about that.

For the moment let’s set aside the discussion of whether this is a cost people would be willing to pay in 2020 for “remarkable health, happiness, and personal freedom”. Because despite his candor, this isn’t the whole cost. Even if we assume, what I feel is a pretty conservative TFR of 5 then 46% of people dying by the age of 15 only gets us down to 2.7 which means that we still have 26% of everyone remaining that’s going to die without reproducing if the population is to remain flat. This remainder is non-trivial, the Black Death is generally assumed to have killed about 50% of people, which means that you’re looking at the equivalent of half of that, for all of the thousands and thousands of years during which humans pursued a hunter-gatherer lifestyle.

In comparing this to the Black Death, I don’t mean to imply that they all died due to disease. A study of history and archeology reveals that these additional deaths include every member of the big four: famine, pestilence, plagues, and war. (This despite Ryan’s assertion that war does not exist among hunter-gatherers, a blatant falsehood which could easily be the basis of a completely separate post.) The point being that this lifestyle, in addition to being exceptionally dangerous for the young, was exceptionally dangerous for everyone. Further this wasn’t some ecologically-perfect-in-harmony-with-nature-flat-population-for-thousands-of-years system. Where once you adapted to the occasional death life was great. This was the occasional, but very brutal up and down of feast and famine, where a population might quickly double and then just as quickly be slashed to a quarter of what it once was. Which is to say that once you start to leave the realm of infant mortality many of the deaths were due to enormous catastrophes, not isolated events.

Now to be clear, I am not saying that the mere fact of these deaths completely refutes Ryan’s argument. Certainly he has a point about many things, which is part of why it was so frustrating. Much of what he talked about in the book was important and necessary, but at a minimum he should have done a better job of acknowledging the arguments on the other side. There should have been a whole chapter, or maybe even several on this issue, instead he literally spends three paragraphs on it, all the important bits of which I included above (the first of the three paragraphs is his attempt at lightening the subject by talking about the dead baby jokes which started to appear in the 60s, though I remember hearing them in the 80s. Thus his inclusion of the phrase, “There’s nothing funny about that”.)

Now the choice between the modern lifestyle of a developed nation, and the hunter-gatherer lifestyle espoused by Ryan is far more complicated and actually far more difficult than just the trade off between “remarkable health, happiness, and personal freedom” and nearly half of all people dying before the age of 15 and another quarter dying in some other horrible fashion, but even if we were to restrict it to this vastly simplified construction, it’s still devilishly difficult to imagine a solution to this conundrum that would have any chance of being implemented, but Ryan attempts it anyway, and he comes up with…

  • Greater acceptance of death: Get rid of almost all end of life interventions and implement universal access to euthanasia.
  • Treat schizophrenia as something sacred and awesome.
  • Psychedelics
  • Something, something, peer networks, something, something, Kickstarter

In contrast to the other three books I mentioned, Ryan suffers from an appalling lack of ambition. Not only are none of these items likely to make the slightest dent in (what he claims to be) an eight thousand year old problem but most of them are not even particularly novel.

Greater acceptance of death: I understand that while Granny is dying it’s difficult to make the decision to end life support, and thus at the moment of decision people end up requesting a lot of end of life interventions, but my sense is that outside of that, most people agree with Ryan on end of life care. As far as euthanasia, it’s important to once again reiterate that this is a need that has only developed over the last few decades. If he wants to talk about problems in that time span I’m all ears, as I have noticed the same trend and problems in that category are presumably far more tractable.

Treat schizophrenia as something sacred and awesome: This seems like a weird hill to die on. As far as I can tell the incidence of schizophrenia is just over 1% of the population, and even then, not all schizophrenics hear voices. While I can certainly see where our treatment of the mentally ill could use a lot of work, I’m not sure how this even relates to Ryan’s core topic.

Psychedelics: I’ve been meaning to do a blog post on psychedelics for quite a while but I’ve never gotten around to it, at least I don’t think I ever did. After 200+ posts I’m having a hard time distinguishing between what I wrote about and what I’ve only thought about writing. To be honest psychedelics intrigue me, but the idea that they have any impact at all is still reasonably controversial.  

To preview the post I may never get around to writing, the big excitement these days is around microdosing, and while I think we are getting some interesting data from that, it feels like something that would be really hard to separate from the placebo effect. On the other side I know a lot of people took magic mushrooms or LSD in doses large enough to hallucinate and swear that it changed their lives. When I asked them to get concrete about that, did it make it easier to stay in relationships? Were they more productive, less angry, etc? They normally get pretty evasive. As one example there was someone I knew really well for over a decade, that I worked with and talked to on a daily basis. He claimed that he had had a life changing psychedelic trip, so I asked him, as a close observer of you, what difference should I have noticed? And despite emphatically claiming that it really was an amazing life altering event, in the end he couldn’t come up with anything that I, as a close external observer, would have noticed.  

One final point, while, as I said, psychedelics represent an intriguing avenue, it’s hard to see that it has much to do with why hunter-gatherers had (according to Ryan) such awesome lives. Until they come up as a potential solution Ryan doesn’t even mention them (that I recall and the index of the book bears that out). 

Something, something, peer networks, something, something, Kickstarter: I understand that I’m being somewhat snarky here. But Ryan appears to be falling into the same trap that those he criticizes keep falling into. (And to be fair he acknowledges this possibility.) That the distributed, less centralized world of the internet will somehow bring about a future Utopia. And I might grant him this if he didn’t provide so much data in his own book that contradicted this. Because every time he made the sloppy mistake of giving data on how bad things have gotten over the last decades (in support of trends spanning thousands of years) he undermined the argument that recent developments have the potential to make anything better. At best one might imagine that these changes have brought some positives (which no one, not even me denies) but these positives appear to be getting completely swamped by the negatives.

To reiterate, Ryan does bring up some interesting ideas in his chapter on solutions, but none of them would make my list of the top 20 things to change about the modern world, nor would the problems he’s focused on make that top 20 list either. From this you may gather that I have multiple top 20 lists, unfortunately not, I was only using the term metaphorically, but we have reached the point where it’s time to put up or shut-up. It’s easy to criticize other people’s solutions as being too ambitious, or not ambitious enough, it’s a lot harder to offer solutions of your own. But having come this far I pretty much have to. Though I am going to wimp out somewhat by offering standards for good solutions rather than specific solutions themselves (though from my standards you can probably infer the solutions.) So let’s finish the post off with some things good solutions should include. Though before I do, one final caveat, these aren’t all the elements a good solution should include but rather, a selection of things which I feel are frequently overlooked.

Solutions should be incremental: This is one of the things that Ryan get’s right in his book. He even brings up the idea that we have a certain rate of change we can manage when adapting to different circumstances and that recently this has been overwhelmed, as things have started to change at a rate faster than what we can adapt to. Of course, it would be inappropriate to let him off the hook completely. He mostly seems to assume, despite granting the presence of gradual adaptation, that we have yet to adapt the changes wrought by agriculture.

Solutions should not overlook the obvious: Any proposed solution is very likely to fail for some unforeseen reason. Perhaps you’ll get lucky and your solution will be the one that finally succeeds, but if it is going to fail, it should at least fail for some subtle and hard to predict reason, not an obvious reason that can be foreseen by nearly everyone. As long as we’re picking on books, Peter Zeihan’s book, The Accidental Superpower (which I reviewed here) fell into this trap. Though he was more offering predictions than solutions it’s nevertheless notable how glaring the absence of nuclear weapons was from his geopolitical assessments. Something very similar happened with the Iraq War. The naivete about how difficult it would be to rebuild the country in the wake of Sadaam’s overthrow is still breathtaking. 

When suggesting solutions, understand the level at which the problem occurs: If many of our problems are due to no longer being hunter-gatherers that’s a problem that operates on so vast a scale as to essentially be immune to solutions. That said, there might be things a given individual can do, and to the extent Civilized to Death focuses on things at that level it’s a great book. To give a more subtle example, the other day I saw a mother on twitter urging people to “raise their sons to be men”. Her daughter had been out on a date where the boy broke down and cried because of the pressure attendant to dating. And then later this same boy provided a pizza dinner at his house despite knowing that the girl had celiac’s disease. Does anyone imagine that this boy’s parents are singularly incompetent? Or that he would have broken down and cried had this been an example of courting in 1880? I think the answer is clearly no to both. But by the same token the daughter almost certainly wouldn’t have had celiac’s if it was 1880 either. While clearly the problem of the weeping boy is somewhat more tractable than the girl with celiac’s. Both problems, the one she was excusing and the one she was condemning, are very much a product of the time and environment we live in.

Understand that every solution assumes a certain set of values: I’ve spoken before about the difference between optimizing for happiness and optimizing for survival. From my discussion of Civilized to Death you can probably guess that Ryan thinks we should optimize for happiness, and that if we could be much happier then it’s worth having nearly half of everyone die before the age of 15. To begin with I’m feeling pretty good right now, so while I can imagine that I would be happier as a forager, how much happier could I be realistically? Even if I could be twice as happy would I trade that for two of my four kids dying? And then of course the real kicker, is that There’s a good chance I wouldn’t exist at all in Ryan’s ideal world. Even if we assume that somehow I wouldn’t have ended up horribly near-sighted and food for tigers. There are a whole host of profound philosophical issues in this discussion, and it’s fine for him to advocate for one side over the other, but he should at least acknowledge that there’s a debate to be had.

If you’re really serious about a solution you should grapple with all of its implications: Closely related to the above, if you want your solutions to be taken seriously then you should make sure to explore all of the potential consequences of those solutions. I was reminded of this recently by an episode of the podcast Planet Money, where they explored how the Black Death had done an unprecedented job of reducing income inequality by killing 50% of all workers. When you break Ryan’s arguments down there would appear to be a lot of parallels between what he’s advocating and this situation. For example as I pointed out above even if you neglect the deaths before the age of 15, hunter-gatherers default to half a black death all the time. Ryan very conveniently gives lots of anecdotes about how awesome the forager life is, while never giving an example similar to the one I just gave, illustrating all of the implications of his advocacy.

And of course this is exactly the problem, it’s very difficult to disentangle your biases from the solutions you choose to offer. I think Civilized to Death is a rather stark example of authorial bias, but all of the other books I mention also clearly have their biases, and I’m obviously not free from bias either. So what’s the solution to bad solutions? What’s the meta-solution? I have already offered a few ideas, but beyond that, I think the most important thing is to exercise humility. I understand that it seems like kind of a cop-out to point out problems and then refuse to offer solutions, but I think it’s equally clear that a bad solution is worse than no solution at all.


There is one thing though, one solution so powerful that it will solve global climate change, bring harmony to US politics, justice for the oppressed and beyond that universal wealth and happiness. What is it? Donating to this blog. Don’t believe me? Well have you tried?


Justice, Mercy, Data, Evidence, BLM and QAnon

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On occasion, if you read blogs written by rationalists, you’ll come across posts that start with a notice about their epistemic status. This is particularly the case when such status is still fluid, i.e. the post is highly speculative. Given that this might be the most speculative post I’ve ever done, perhaps I should follow suit:

[Epistemic status: wildly speculative, mixes religion, science, and neurology in a way that is almost certainly overly simplistic, and furthermore advances a “this explains everything” argument which obviously overlooks much of the subtlety and complexity of our moment. All that aside I think there’s something to it….]

Many things came together to create the theory I’m about to expound. And I’m hoping that if I lay these things out as sort of a foundation, that you might see the same connections I did. So let’s start with that.

I.

I just barely mentioned religion, and we might as well get that out of the way. For the non-religious out there who might be worried, I assure you that the religious element is not necessary for the rest of the argument, but there’s a specific parable I heard long ago that encapsulates what I think is one of the central insights. This parable was given in a speech all the way back in 1977, by Boyd K. Packer, an apostle of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS/Mormon). It went something like this:

There once was a man who wanted something very much, and went into debt to get it. Under the terms of the debt, payment was due in its entirety many years later. And while the debtor didn’t entirely ignore the debt, when it eventually came due he had paid off only a small faction of it. And it was only then he realized that if he couldn’t pay the debt in full that the creditor would send him to prison. In deathly fear of being imprisoned, he pleads for mercy. In response the creditor demands justice. Both justice and mercy are important principles, but it’s clear that in this case you can’t have both, if the creditor forgives the debt, that’s merciful, but it would ignore the justice of his claim, on the other hand if the creditor throws the debtor into prison this would be just, but no one would say that it is also merciful. 

Fortunately a friend of the debtor intervenes. He pays off the creditor, thus fulfilling the demands of justice, while also rescuing the debtor from prison, and thus also fulfilling the demands of mercy. In the process he restructures the debt into something the debtor can conceivably pay. (This being a religious parable the friend represents Jesus, and his paying off the debt is analogous to the way in which Jesus paid for our sins.) For our purposes I want to take away three things:

  1. The conflicting demands of justice and mercy.
  2. The need for a third party to resolve this conflict.
  3. The idea that mercy doesn’t eliminate the debt, but it does restructure it into something that can be paid.

The next piece in my foundation is the play Fences by August Wilson. I first saw it at the nearby Pioneer Theater a few years ago, and I remember, at the time, expecting it to be about a noble black father and his family who had been thwarted by 1950s racism. And to a certain degree it was, but the main character, Troy, was also a deeply flawed individual, and at the time I left with mixed feelings. It was hard to take the side of someone who *spoiler alert* had cheated on his utterly faithful wife, Rose, only admitted to the affair when his mistress got pregnant, refused to stop seeing his mistress even then, and finally, when his mistress died in childbirth, asked his wife to help raise a child that wasn’t hers. But then, a few weeks ago, I watched the movie adaptation with Denzel Washington as Troy and Viola Davis as Rose (btw I cannot praise the acting highly enough, they were both beyond amazing) and I finally realized that rather than marring the play, Troy’s “sins” were what made the play a masterpiece.

This realization had an interesting impact on the way I view the current BLM protests, and while I understand trying to make this connection might get me in trouble, I think it nevertheless might be an important one. That first time around I wanted Fences to be a straightforward tale of injustice, of a black family and a black father that could have been successful except for the injustice of racism. In a similar fashion I think the people protesting also see things as a straightforward case of injustice, of black families who could have been successful except for the injustice of racism. Not only is that narrative attractive, it’s simple, probably too simple, because just like the story of Troy in Fences, the story of race and racism is a complicated mix of justice and mercy, of things that should have been done much better, and other things where people did the best they could. In the play Rose knew that despite all the wrongs which had been done to her, that it was still important to keep her family together, and that justice for Troy would have meant injustice for the daughter, and so she raised the daughter of her husband’s mistress, but in the process declared to Troy, that “you’re a womanless man.” Thus mercy and justice were both served but it took the sacrifice of a third person.

Unfortunately, no straightforward policy recommendations fall out of this observation. Though I think the need for more mercy among all the parties to the current unrest is self-evident. I also admit that it’s not entirely clear who the third party is that needs to make a sacrifice so that both justice and mercy can be served in this situation. But despite that it does serve as another point towards my claim that perfect justice is not only unattainable, but in conflict with many other important values, especially mercy. 

The final piece of the foundation is a book I’m reading, The Master and His Emissary by Iain McGilchrist. It’s a book about hemispheric differences within the brain, and it’s yet another one of these very dense, massive books, clocking in at nearly 600 pages, and as I alluded to I’m not done, but for the purposes of this subject McGIlchrist makes two very important points. First that hemispheric differences are real, though much more nuanced than popular culture has led us to believe. And that the increasing dominance of the left hemisphere is responsible for much of what makes Western culture unique, but also responsible for much of what ails it as well.

As I said it’s a massive and densely argued book, and I’ll get into it more in my month end round-up, but for our purposes the key difference between the two hemispheres is that the left is the half that focuses in on something, and breaks it down into parts, while the right is the half that assembles discrete things into a coherent whole. The title of the book comes from a story Nietzsche told about a spiritual master who manages a large domain, and while his concerns must be for the whole domain, and everything associated with it, he does occasionally need to focus on specific places, and urgent issues. To do this he appoints an emissary who can act in his name and go forth to deal with localized problems, or perhaps gather the knowledge the master needs. In this analogy the right brain is the master, and the left brain is the emissary, but McGilchrist contends that the emissary has usurped the authority of the master, and it’s this imbalance, this perversion of the way things should work that’s causing many of our modern problems. 

It’s at this point, in an attempt to ground my theory in actual neurology, that I make my biggest conceptual leap. And believe me I’m aware that I’m doing it, but I’m hoping that you’ll at least stick with me to the end of the post before you pass judgement. That plea in place, my core observation is that we are currently suffering from an overactive drive for justice, and that at a larger level this overactive drive for justice is part of a dangerously ascendant left hemisphere. That to a certain extent we have a neurological problem. More controversially, I’m going to make the claim that it is useful to equate left hemisphere attributes to the concept of justice and right hemisphere attributes to the concept of mercy. 

It’s not my intention to give a full review of McGilchrist’s book at this point. For the moment I just want to bring him in as a buttress for my theory, but in order to do that, some additional context would be helpful. McGilchrist places the start of this trend of leftward ascendence at the start of Western civilization and philosophy, especially Plato, and in bringing his book to bear, I’m not willing to go that far, but we don’t have to in order for this theory to have some predictive power. You can even imagine that the left and the right hemisphere’s are in perfect harmony up until the end of the last century, all you have to accept is that the left hemisphere is all about the specific. It’s the half of the brain that reaches out to grasp something. And my argument is that even if this “grasping” nature is unchanged since our first ancestors descended out of the trees, that modern technology, and social media in particular has led to a sky-rocketing in the number of things available to grasp. That a profusion of stories, and anecdotes, and data, and hypotheses and accusations rather than being our salvation is proving to be our doom.

II.

While the three things above proved to be the theoretical foundation of my hypothesis, the practical expression of it hit me while I was putting together my last post. For those who may have missed it, I spent nearly 5000 words examining just one tiny set of data: police officers killed since 1965 by left or right wing extremists as reported by the Anti-defamation League. It is possible that I exhausted what could be said about those numbers, but I suspect not, and even if I did, I reached no unassailable conclusion. At best I demonstrated that the ADL had incorrectly interpreted the numbers to emphasize right-wing extremism, but that was about the extent of it. So I spent 5000 words on a very focused examination of a small set of data, and ended up without much to show for it, and as I went through this laborious exercise, it hit me, data isn’t the solution, it’s the problem

That’s a pretty bold statement, and many people are going to start by questioning not the last half of that statement but the first half, the idea that the bulk of people have an ideology driven by evidence and facts, so let’s start by tackling that. Obviously the scientific revolution happened centuries ago, but I would argue that it didn’t percolate down to the “masses” until after World War II. As just one data point, the number of people graduating from high school doubled between 1940 and 1970 going from around 40% to around 80%. As a consequence of this and other trends just about everyone absorbed some part of the scientific method, with all of its associated recommendations: backing up arguments with data, the way in which biases can influence data, etc. And not only was the importance of the scientific method impressed upon the minds of nearly everyone, more importantly, they also had revealed to them the great reward this methodology could provide. If it were followed it would spit out the (blog) Truth. And once you had the (blog) Truth, you could use it to pursue (blog) Justice! Furthermore, and most distressingly, if your Justice was based on objective, data-driven, verifiable (blog) Truth, there would be no need for mercy. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

This state of things was already pretty well developed when the internet, and later social media arrived on the scene, and their advent only served to make things worse. First by creating an even greater emphasis on data and evidence. (I know that the internet seems like a cesspool of biases and baseless insults, but it’s also equally full of people challenging and/or providing evidence for every assertion.) And second by vastly increasing the amount of data available. 

This is the world we live in. For what still seem like very good reasons, we have spent decades emphasizing the values of science, testing, experimentation, data, etc. And we expected this sanctification of data to lead us to an evidence based progressive and technological utopia. But it hasn’t happened and for the longest time the feeling has been that we’ve just needed to push harder. Place an even greater emphasis on evidence and rationality, but I would say that among the many “gifts” 2020 has brought us, one would have to be a realization that this approach is definitely not working. Why? 

Well after reading McGilchrist, one theory would be that this whole drive is not a solution to the problem, but a symptom of it. That an emphasis on evidence, and discrete bits of data has not come about because we’re all committed scientists, but because it’s the perfect tool for an out of control left hemisphere trapped in a positive feedback loop. In other words, and I want to be very clear about this, what we’re seeing is not a failure of science but a perversion of it. Certainly the behavior we’re seeing is exactly how McGilchist describes what happens when the emissary usurps the master. From the book we read that:

  • The left hemisphere offers simple answers.
  • The left hemisphere needs certainty and needs to be right.
  • The left hemisphere is not keen on taking responsibility.
  • The left hemisphere is conformist, largely indifferent to discrepancies. 
  • The left hemisphere [possesses a] narrow focused attentional beam.
  • And finally, Reductionism has become a disease, a viewpoint lacking both intellectual sophistication and emotional depth.

I assume that at this point most people would like to see these points applied to something specific. Something that’s happening right now. So let’s take that most infamous of all current conspiracy theories: QAnon

III.

It’s possible that you are entirely unfamiliar with the QAnon theory, or that you only recently heard about it after Marjorie Taylor Greene, a supporter of the theory, won the Republican primary for Georgia’s 14th Congressional district, putting her on a probable path to win the election in November in heavily Republican Georgia. And to be clear I’m not claiming to be any kind of expert but I think I know enough about it and have interacted with enough people who believe it to explain how it fits into the framework I laid out above. 

To begin with I need to start by clearing up some misunderstandings and incorrect assumptions. The most common being that the conspiracy is baseless. And before you unleash on me, allow me to explain what I mean by that. When talking about QAnon people will mention that it’s fringe, or crazy, or something else essentially synonymous with the sentence immediately following the initial description in the Wikipedia article, “No part of the theory has been shown to be based in fact.”

I fully agree with all of these statements, but the problem is that this leads people to misunderstand the phenomenon, to assume that QAnon supporters are ignoring data and evidence, when in fact it’s the opposite they’re fixated on the data and evidence. This is not to say that the evidence and data would not be more properly characterized as a collection of anecdotes, or that it fits into anything resembling a broader model of the world, or that it’s not entirely circumstantial or that the evidence doesn’t follow from the theory rather than the theory following from the evidence. But rather to say they’re fixated on data and evidence in exactly the fashion you would expect from an overactive left hemisphere after reading McGilchrist’s book. Returning to the attributes I pulled from McGilchrist’s book:

The left hemisphere offers simple answers.

The whole point of conspiracies is they offer simple answers. The idea that there’s a worldwide cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles who are running things, and that Trump is the only person who can stop them, is a pretty simple tale of good and evil. 

The left hemisphere needs certainty and needs to be right.

There is a lot of uncertainty in this world, and whatever else may be said of QAnon, it’s a worldview that’s far simpler than the real one. Further it allows people to justify their support for Trump. He wasn’t the best out of two bad options, he’s the only thing standing between us and Satanic pedophiles. And voting for him was the right thing to do.

The left hemisphere is not keen on taking responsibility.

Trump has made numerous mistakes as president. With QAnon it’s easy to avoid responsibility for those mistakes because they were all in service of a much more important goal. It’s everyone else that needs to be held responsible for tolerating the worldwide cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles.

The left hemisphere is conformist, largely indifferent to discrepancies. 

Certainly among some groups being a QAnon supporter is being a conformist, but obviously being indifferent to discrepancies is the attribute that really applies here because there are lots of discrepancies.

The left hemisphere [possesses a] narrow focused attentional beam.

This may be one of the best descriptions of what QAnon looks like that I’ve come across, it’s a narrow focused beam of attention which has all the time in the world to think about Epstein and the people who associated with him and very little time for anything that doesn’t fit the theory.

And finally, Reductionism has become a disease, a viewpoint lacking both intellectual sophistication and emotional depth.

Replace reductionism with QAnon and the statement remains just as true.

But beyond all of this, and most important for my purposes, QAnon is a search for justice. To the extent that Epstein and his many crimes serve as the kernel of QAnon, you could say that justice obviously wasn’t served. Epstein was a very, very bad dude. And while I’m not certain he didn’t kill himself (how could you be) I don’t think we can discount it either. But they have taken this kernel and allowed their left-brained thirst for justice to grow so large that it encompasses incidents and individuals who almost certainly were guilty of no more than being naive or in the wrong place at the wrong time, or maybe even nothing whatsoever. But I would still argue that justice is a huge part of it. It’s a simple theory where they end up in the position of both being the only ones who are right, and also the heroes. And in addition to bringing to justice all the pedophiles they also get to reverse the grave injustices which have been done to Trump, who really has been the target of an enormous amount of hate. How much of that hate is deserved or whether hate is ever appropriate I leave for the listener to decide.

Now, lest you think that this is only a phenomenon of extremists on the right, I would argue that if anything the list is more widely applicable to what’s currently happening on the left. At the risk of making this post ridiculously long (too late?) Let’s go through the list again and apply it to the current protests. 

The left hemisphere offers simple answers.

“White Fragility” and “Systemic Racism” are all pretty simple and straightforward answers to what is actually a devilishly complex problem. To this you might add assertions like, “Race and Gender don’t exist.” A statement that simplifies things almost to the point of ridiculousness. 

The left hemisphere needs certainty and needs to be right.

Obviously as I go through this list, the observations being made are my observations. But when I see the protesters chanting and yelling, the overwhelming impression I come away with is their absolute certainty in the justice of their cause, and their unassailable moral correctness.

The left hemisphere is not keen on taking responsibility.

George Floyd had a large amount of fentanyl in his system, but to even suggest that he might have been the tiniest bit responsible for what happened to him is essentially inconceivable. (Which is why, to be clear, I am also not suggesting that.) And in a broader context any discussion of responsibility that doesn’t involve racism by white people is also inconceivable. 

The left hemisphere is conformist, largely indifferent to discrepancies. 

The degree and speed to which people pledged their support to Black Lives Matter was frankly astonishing. It would be difficult to find something post 9/11 which had greater public support. Nor is there much tolerance for discrepancies, for example the inconvenient discrepancy in the narrative illustrated by the Ferguson Effect. Something I keep bringing up.

The left hemisphere [possesses a] narrow focused attentional beam.

As many people have remarked on, it was amazing how fast attention shifted from COVID to BLM. And how long that beam has been focused on a single killing, when killings of one sort or another happen nearly every hour of every day in the US.

And finally, Reductionism has become a disease, a viewpoint lacking both intellectual sophistication and emotional depth.

I believe I covered this one in my post, Things Are More Complicated Than You Think (BLM) and also several of the posts that followed it. 

After applying this list to both sides, I feel like McGilchrist’s theory has a lot of explanatory power. That people are looking at the data and evidence, but in a monomaniacal fashion which throws away the actual world which is messy, nuanced and complicated and replaces it with a simpler world of good guys and bad guys, of righteous acts and heinous atrocities. That, in other words people have dispensed with mercy, and are interested only in justice. They have beheld the world and passed absolute judgement upon it.

IV.

We covered a lot of territory in those first three parts so I’m going to try to bring it all together, but let’s take a different path. This time around let’s start with people doing things we disagree with and consider stupid. Let’s assume that we’re even correct, that these things are stupid, that we’re not suffering from our own biases, our own overactive left-hemisphere. How do we get these people to stop doing these stupid things? One method, which has been drilled into us since we started school is to prove that these things are stupid. How do we prove that these things are stupid? With evidence and data!

But we immediately run into several problems with this approach.

  1. There are mountains of data out there, and not only is that mountain growing it’s growing faster than it ever has.
  2. Even if the majority of the data supports one position there is always going to be data that supports the opposite position. Plus point 1 makes it even more difficult to survey enough data to determine what constitutes a majority.
  3. The only choice left is to focus in on a selection of data or to prioritize certain pieces of evidence over other pieces of evidence.
  4. But as I showed in my last post, not only can a narrow focused reading of the data back up nearly any position, but it becomes a positive feedback loop of validation and the push for more focus. This is particularly dangerous if McGilchrist is right about the prevalence of overactive left hemispheres.
  5. Even if McGilchrist isn’t right, we still have to grapple with things like confirmation bias, selection effect, echo chambers and the memefication of discourse.

As I went through that list I kind of ended up lumping together both sides of things. As in the side where you dispense wisdom and the side where you receive (or gather) wisdom. But both suffer from the same problems. Whatever knowledge you’ve received through this method is bound to be fragmentary and biased, but in spite of this it also ends up laden with certainty, both because of its perceived scientific basis, but also because, as we’ve seen, that’s how the left hemisphere operates. And then when you turn to the project of dispensing that info, of explaining what a just world looks like, you run into the same problems, and that’s even if the person you’re dispensing it to is a blank slate. It’s actually far more likely that they have followed this same procedure and ended up with their own completely different vision of a just world, also imbued with the certainty that comes from focused but fragmentary evidence.

This idea that people don’t respond to facts and evidence is well covered territory (though hopefully I’ve approached it from a very different angle) and is so often the case, Scott Alexander, of Slate Star Codex’s contribution to the discussion is particularly brilliant. He argued that rhetoric and other similar tools are available to both sides and indeed any side of a debate, and thus the side you’re on accrues no inherent advantage by using these tools. But if the tool you’re using is the truth, then it does give you an advantage over those without it, even if that truth is hard to communicate, and percolates outward only very slowly. I have no strong disagreements with this view and indeed I’ve forwarded that post to many people, but I think it needs to be amended to include everything I’ve mentioned above.

More specifically I would argue that there’s a way of getting at something which feels a lot like the (blog) Truth, through a method that looks a lot like Science! A way that comes naturally to us, probably because we’re dealing with an overactive left-hemisphere, but that this is exactly the path that helped to get us into this mess. And that the most natural takeaway of a post like Alexander’s is to put people on this same path. I would amend it to guide people towards a path that is more subtle, and less certain, but that ultimately leads to deeper truths. If McGilchrist is correct it’s because this would be a more right-brained approach, but even if he’s not, I think it’s clear that we’ve been way too focused on data and evidence, and not enough on a broader picture of the interrelated nature of the world. Or to put it even more simply, that Alexander’s rationalism is best applied in service of mercy not justice. (For awhile that last bit was going to be the title of this post.)

This post is already 50% longer than one of my normal posts, and those were already too long. So I’d better wrap it up. Though I had a lot more thoughts on this subject. Some of which will hopefully appear when I review The Master and His Emissary, some of which may be developed in future posts. (This post should be considered a very rough draft of these ideas, a first pass on a collection of topics that’s pretty complex.) And some of which I’m going to quickly spit out here at the end.

  • I’m not sure how well it worked to frame all of this as a conflict between mercy and justice, but if this idea is to have any impact, it has to eventually take a form that’s easy to understand. Mercy and justice was my stab at that.
  • To put this in context with some of my other recent posts. One of the most important developments of classical liberalism is the creation of mediation and the rule of law, which acts as the third party I mentioned at the very beginning the party required to balance the demands of justice and mercy which are otherwise incompatible.
  • One problem with a more right brained approach is that if the right brain is The Master in charge of the entire empire, that empire is vastly greater today than it was for our hunter-gatherer/agrarian/medieval-village-dwelling ancestors. And it might be that it’s too big and too complex to allow for a return to a “right-brain” mode.
  • I think there’s an interesting connection between this topic and the discussion of theodicy that I mentioned in my review of A Secular Age. Theodicy deals with the evil in all of us, and mercy and justice are ways of coming to terms with our own evil. I mentioned that lately an alternative has come to the fore whereby if someone takes on the mantle of victimhood they can claim absolute innocence while placing 100% of the guilt on their oppressor. This is both, justice taken to its extreme, as I’ve discussed, and also a pretty left-brained view of things as well.

If you’ve made it this far I appreciate it. This ended up rougher and more scattered than I had hoped, that said I think I’m on to something here, and I’d love to know if you agree, and love to know even more if you disagree, and particularly what part you disagree with. If you take away nothing else I hope that in some respect I demonstrated, however strangely, the importance of mercy. Something that seems like a quaint and outdated concept, but perhaps that just means that it’s needed now more than ever.


There was a time when people were paid by the word. This is one of those posts where I wish that was the deal I had. Instead I get paid by my patrons, if that’s you, thanks! If it’s not, perhaps consider it? These long posts are even harder than they look.


Digging Into the Data on Right Wing Extremism

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This might be a weird post. I have an idea for what direction I want to go in, but it’s also something of an exercise in thinking out loud as well. This whole exercise got started during a conversation with a friend of mine. I forget how we got on the topic, but he mentioned that from a domestic standpoint right wing extremism was a far worse danger than left wing extremism. In support of this statement he offered up the figure that 90 police officers had been killed by right wing domestic terrorists. My immediate reaction was to call “BS” on that figure, mostly because I could hardly imagine that the deaths of 90 police officers would have “flown under my radar” when the best known instance of right-wing violence, the murder of Heather Heyes by James Alex Fields Jr. when he drove his car into a crowd after the Unite the Right rally in August of 2017, had gotten so much attention.  So I challenged him to produce his source.

Eventually he pointed me at a report from the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) titled Murder and Extremism 2019 which includes a chart (page 21) showing that 59 police officers had been killed by right wing domestic extremists between 1965 and 2019, as compared to 44 who were killed by left wing extremists. (Fun exercise: See if you can spot the math errors on the chart…) As you might imagine 90 is more than 59, still as these things go it’s close. Actually the biggest discrepancy between the impression I received when having the conversation and the actual numbers was the time scale. At no point in our conversation did my friend mention that to arrive at the figure one had to go all the way back to 1965. I assumed he was talking about in the last few years, or the last decade or at a stretch maybe since 2000. And to be fair to him it’s difficult to be completely precise in off-the-cuff conversations like that, so I don’t blame him for misremembering the number or not ever mentioning the time frame. Also if we were to restrict ourselves to the period since 2000 things actually look worse for the right. With 36 deaths on that side vs. 10 on the left. In any event I’m going to admit that I was partially wrong, the claim wasn’t complete BS, but it was substantially different than what I understood his claim to be.

Of course the accuracy of that number is not what anyone is really interested in, it’s just a way of trying to get at the answer for our true question, which is: should we worry more about right wing extremism or left wing extremism? Knowing that 59 police officers were killed by right wing extremists over the last 55 years, as opposed to 90 over a shorter period of time has some utility in arriving at that answer, but that utility is surprisingly small. Primarily because the information we lack is still vastly greater than the information we have. To have any kind of confidence in an answer to our primary question of which side should worry us more, we would ideally have answers for all of these secondary questions:

  • How does violence against police compare to violence against everyone else?
  • If those are the numbers since 1965 what do the numbers look like more recently? Which way is the trend headed?
  • When the numbers are tallied how are people and incidents bucketed into left and right?
  • Out of all the harm caused by ideological extremism, what percentage of it is due to violence by extremists of that ideology, and what percentage of it is due to other factors?
  • Let’s take these questions in turn and see what we can glean from that initial paper, and maybe a few other sources besides.

How does violence against police compare to violence against everyone else?

From our initial paper we read that in 2019 there were 42 deaths from extremist violence (of which 22 came from the El Paso Walmart shooting). And that out of those 42 deaths 81% could be attributed to white supremacy. And, finally that only one death was a police officer (not part of the 81% by the way, for the first time the ADL put a police killing in the category of “other extremists”.) 

Expanding the time horizon, for the period 2010-2019, the ADL counts 330 deaths due to extremism of which they say that 78% were attributable to white supremacy. Out of that 330 deaths 21 police officers were killed (or close to that, the police numbers start in 2011 not 2010) and 11 were attributed to right-wing extremists, or 52%. So the answer, according to the paper, is that as a percentage, right wing violence against everyone else is worse than their violence against police. Though a lot then depends on how the ADL decides to classify something as right wing or left, a point we’ll get to. 

If those are the numbers since 1965 what do the numbers look like more recently?

Whenever you’re talking about numbers in this fashion, there is the temptation to shift them in your favor by choosing an advantageous starting (or ending) point for your count. As far as the police shootings, they probably start things in 1965 because the numbers aren’t available any earlier than that, but given that the left wing numbers are much higher in those earlier years it’s worth asking if the percentages would tilt even more towards the left if we went back to 1955 and the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement, or to 1920 for a full century of data, or to the turn of the century when the Propaganda of the Deed was at its height and numerous governmental officials were being killed by anarchists, including a President. And note that I’m still talking about killings of police, nor am I attempting to pass any kind of judgement on what oppression may or may not have been happening, it would just be interesting to see the ADL apply the same methodology to a much bigger data set.

That speculation aside, let’s look at some things we can do with the numbers we do have by declaring different start points. Fortunately for this endeavor I was able to find some other ADL reports on extremist violence, some from previous years, and one that was sort of summation, as you’ll see these additional reports ended up being both illuminating and confusing. I’m still going to stick with police killings just because it’s more manageable, and I’m guessing the data is cleaner as well. I’ve already talked about pushing the start date back, but what if we bring it really close? What if we look at the number of police killed in the period 2016-2019? 

Fortunately the 2016 ADL report on extremism has the same chart of police killings (it was missing from the 2015 version.) So how did things stand in 2016 as compared to 2019? As I mentioned 11 cops had been killed by right wing extremists over the last decade, as it turns out 10 of the 11 were killed before 2016. The left’s number for the decade was 8, and as it turns out, all of those deaths happened in 2016. What this means is that if we decide to just look at the most recent three years, eight times as many police officers have been killed by left wing extremists. 

To be clear, I’m not saying that this is the right way to look at things, but it is what happened during the “Trump Era”. And of course we could reverse things, if we wanted to do the same thing for the “Obama Era” and look at the period from 2011-2015 when right wing extremists had killed 10 cops and left wing extremists had killed zero. You can certainly imagine the ADL screaming about the dangers of the right wing in 2015, not knowing that in 2016 things would almost equalize. Picking start and end points matters a lot.

Moving back a little bit farther, as I’ve pointed out things are pretty close to equal for the most recent decade at 11 to 8, it’s the two decades before that where right wing extremism really looks scary. If we go all the way back to 1991 the ADL numbers climb to 52 deaths from extremists on the right vs. only 11 for those on the left. But here’s also where things get confusing. When you’re engaged in any project like this, you really want to see the underlying data, so you can independently check the numbers. I was particularly interested in the 2001-2010 period where the ADL is saying that 25 police officers were killed by right wing extremists. Especially since the ADL was only showing 16 police officer killings in the 90s which contained the most dramatic example of right wing terrorism, the bombing of the Oklahoma City Federal Building. What had happened in the 2000s that was even harder on law enforcement than the bombing of a federal building?

Fortunately I found another report on their website A Dark and Constant Rage: 25 years of Right-Wing Terrorism in the United States. This report covered the period 1993 to 2017 and included a section called: Right-Wing Terrorism Inventory, 1993-2017. This section detailed the separate incidents which went into their numbers. As you go through them you see a lot of cases where people were arrested based on their intent to commit some act of terrorism, but it never actually came to pass. A few quick examples:

  •  a plot to murder Muslims in upstate New York using a “death ray” device that would emit lethal radiation.
  • Schmidt possessed a large cache of weapons and a notebook with evidence that Schmidt was targeting Detroit-area Jewish and African American leaders. 
  • on federal firearm charges after receiving information that he was plotting to kill Governor Gary Locke. 

Given the inclusion of these numerous unsuccessful plots I assumed that if someone actually killed a police officer it would definitely make the inventory, and yet after combing through the 2001-2010 list, I could only come up with eight incidents where police officers had been killed:

For obvious reasons I would really like to know where they’re getting the other 17 killings from. I have no doubt that 17 police officers were killed between 2001 and 2010, and ended up being counted by the ADL, but why were their deaths not considered noteworthy enough to be included in the inventory? Is their right-wing connection more tenuous? To be honest I’m not entirely convinced that all of the incidents which did make the list should be considered examples of right-wing terrorism Poplawski was a domestic dispute that went horribly wrong, and the Turnidges were trying to rob a bank to pay off their debts. Regardless of whether you agree with me, I think you’d concede that it’d be easier to decide if those other 17 deaths also belonged on the list if you knew the details behind them.

Turning to the other side, the big decade for the left was 1971-1980, when 25 police officers were killed by left wing extremists. How does the ADL do in accounting for those deaths? Well, I already mentioned the eight police officers that were killed in 2016 by left-wing extremists, in the report covering that year, here’s what the ADL had to say: 

None of the police officers shot by Long or Johnson [the two 2016 perpetrators] were themselves involved in any controversial shootings; they were blameless. The killings were acts of indirect retaliation aimed at local law enforcement officers because of earlier officer-involved shootings in Dallas and Baton Rouge. These killings represent the worst spate of black nationalist-related murders of police officers since the late 1960s and early 1970s, when more than two dozen police officers, and several more corrections officers, were killed by black nationalists, particularly from the Black Liberation Army and the Black Panther Party (no relation to the New Black Panther Party). 

This is immediately followed by the same chart of police officer killings we keep referencing, and as I mentioned it shows 25 killed by left-wing violence in the 70s, and 3 who were killed in the late 60s, so 28. The “more than two dozen police officers and several more corrections officers” would seem to get us to that figure. Meaning that while 17 right-wing murders were left unspecified by the ADL in the 2000’s, when supposedly things were at its peak, we have a basic description for all of the left-wing murders when they had their peak. Now I admit that this description still lacks specifics, but at least we have some idea of where to look, I have no idea where to go to find the missing 17 on the other side of things.

This section went longer than I expected, and illustrates what I mean by thinking out loud, so to sum things up: Deciding where to draw your line can make a big difference. There are points at which right-wing extremists are way ahead and points at which the left-wing extremists are. Again this is just if we look at killings of police officers, but one assumes that you’d find much the same thing with other measurements of extremist violence. A picture that looked very different depending on where you drew the line and what you expanded your search to encompass. And that the numbers and circumstances surrounding any additional incidents you decided to bring in would be even more ambiguous than the police killings we’ve been talking about. Which takes us to:

When the numbers are tallied how are people and incidents bucketed into left and right?

It’s interesting that not just the ADL, but everyone wants to classify violence as being either the fault of one side or the other. That the ADL spends so much effort talking about the evils of right wing extremism and not the evils of violent political extremism in general.

Alternatively, if you’re really trying to target ideologies that lead to violence, I think you’d want to get as specific as possible. As I mentioned, if you just look at the last three years not only are left-wing extremists responsible for more police officer killings, but all of those killings were carried out by black nationalists, furthermore, and as we saw from the quote, according to the ADL, the last big spike in police killings by the left, in the late 60s early 70s, were also carried out by black nationalists. Meaning that one fairly compelling interpretation of the numbers would be that the left in general is very good at eschewing violence, but we should spend a lot of resources specifically to prevent violence from black nationalists. Once again, to be clear, none of this is to deny the many grievances blacks currently have, or to say that oppression doesn’t exist, but if we’re looking for patterns in the numbers, which seems to be the whole point of these reports I’ve been referencing, this pattern of violence from black nationalists does seem like one we should be paying attention to, and in fact it’s the dominant pattern if we just look at the last few years and also a very significant one if we go back as far as we have numbers.

As long as we’re on the subject of black nationalists, the character of those incidents is different as well. The two incidents from 2016 (and many of the incidents from the 70s) were ambushes that were specifically designed to target and kill police officers. From that years ADL report:

Eight police officers were killed in two incidents this past year in which extremists deliberately targeted police officers for murder. In July 2016, Micah Xavier Johnson, who had ties to black nationalist groups such as the New Black Panther Party, killed five police officers (and injured nine others) in Dallas, Texas, in an ambush attack aimed at police maintaining public order at a Black Lives Matter protest. That same month, Gavin Eugene Long ambushed and shot six police officers, three of them fatally, in Baton Rouge. Long was an adherent of black nationalism as well as the anti-government sovereign citizen movement.

Contrast this with Richard Andrew Poplawski who I mentioned above. He also killed three police officers, but under very different circumstances, Wikipedia says that the shooting:

…stemm[ed] from a mother and her 22-year-old son’s argument over a dog urinating in the house. At approximately 7:11 a.m. EDT, 22-year-old Richard Poplawski opened fire on two Pittsburgh Police officers responding to a 9-1-1 call from Poplawski’s mother, who was attempting to get the police officers to remove her son from the home. Despite Poplawski’s mother telling the 9-1-1 operator that Poplawski had guns, the police officers were not told. Three police officers were ultimately confirmed dead, and another two were seriously injured.

It later came out that Poplawski frequented right-wing web-sites and voiced racist views online but nothing about the actual killings was ideological in nature, and yet these three killings get counted and reported as being fundamentally identical in the chart we keep going back to, despite being very different. Long and Johnson ambushed the police officers they killed, Poplawski only killed them after they showed up at his house. Additionally it sounds like if the dispatcher had not neglected to tell the police that Poplawski had guns perhaps the killings wouldn’t have happened at all. This suggests that there might be a continuum when it comes to the circumstances of the killings as well, and more importantly another place where a line is being drawn. What characteristics does an incident have to possess in order to classify it as right-wing or left wing extremism?

I’ve provided a comparison related to our primary focus, police killings, what about if we widen it to other killings? Turning back to the 2019 ADL report, we see that it also has a section for incidents. These include people targeting synagogues or, the most horrible one from last year, when Patrick Crusius went into a Walmart intending to kill Hispanics and ended up murdering 23 people. These unquestionably are acts of violence in the service of extremist right wing ideology. But many of the incidents on the list seem less clear cut. This despite being listed under the heading, “The 2018 extremist-related murders preliminarily documented by ADL include:” (side note: 2018 is obviously a copy and paste error, all the incidents are from 2019) 

For example some incidents which also appear under that heading:

Anthony Voight, a member of the white supremacist Aryan Brotherhood of Texas, was arrested for the shooting murder of a man who accompanied Voight’s ex-girlfriend to retrieve her belongings from Voight’s home.

White supremacist Travers Proulx was arrested on first-degree murder charges after he allegedly stabbed his mother to death following an argument.

Keeton Waring, a reported member of the Southwest Honkeys, one of several Missouri-based white supremacist prison gangs, allegedly shot and killed another man during an argument over a missing cellphone. He has been charged with second-degree murder.

These three sound far more similar to the Poplawski murders than the Johnson and Long murders. 

Is it possible that the ADL has a bias? For many people the fact of their left-wing bias is so obvious that they wonder why I’ve wasted so much time quoting from them. For myself, I would expect that, if they were unbiased, that somewhere in that accounting of the incidents which occurred in 2019 that I would find reference to a marxist, or an anarchist or a black nationalist who stabbed their mother, or got into a violent argument over a cellphone. In the absence of that I’m inclined to believe that their statistics probably do have a left-wing bias, if that’s the case then using their biased numbers to answer our original question, “should we worry more about right wing extremism or left wing extremism?” leads to a biased answer.

Of course the idea that the ADL is biased shouldn’t be surprising. Everyone has biases. I’m sure you’d be quick to point out mine. But as a result of these biases any categorization of one murder as being a right-wing murder, while another is left wing murder (or bereft of ideology entirely) is bound to depend on where the person making that categorization drew a subjective line. But as I reflect on it, I think drawing the initial line separating the world into just two teams: right and left, may be the most damaging line of all. Rather than having everyone on the same team against all extremist violence, or indeed against all violence period, or, on the other hand, attempting to narrowly define the source of the problem so that our accusations against the innocent are minimized, we’ve got the worst of both worlds. We bind up half of everyone in our accusations, which must surely include some innocent people, while also just as surely overlooking some violence in the half we’ve declared to be “our team”.

To return to the question that started this section, “When the numbers are tallied how are people and incidents bucketed into left and right?” The answer is: subjectively.

Out of all the harm caused by ideological extremism, what percentage of it is due to violence by extremists of that ideology, and what percentage of it is due to other factors?

I’m already running long on this post, so I’ll try and keep this section much shorter than the previous two. I think the obvious answer to this question is that only a tiny fraction is due to violence by ideological extremists. Allow me to explain what I mean.

In our modern world the only people who identify as Nazis, or indeed as Communists, tend to be pretty radical (though more so in the former case than the latter), but there were times and places when such identification was not only mainstream but expected, e.g. the Third Reich and Soviet Russia respectively, and it was when these ideologies had triumphed, when they had gone from extreme to expected that the really horrific violence occurred. My takeaway from this is that what we’re really engaged in when we ask the question, “should we worry more about right wing extremism or left wing extremism?” Is a discussion on what the behavior of the extremists tells us about the direction we’re headed and the potential harm that could be inflicted once an ideology becomes more widespread. 

It’s clear that people want to use evidence of extremist violence to act as a guide for where an ideology and society as a whole is headed. And more commonly, but less acknowledged as evidence to back up their impression of where they think it’s going. But the connection between ideological extremism (even if properly attributed) and the ideology itself and society more broadly is more tenuous than people think. Compare the heights of ideological violence from the reports, with the high points of those actual ideologies. The high point of leftist violence preceded a run of right-wing presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagen, with only Carter thrown into the mix to be really confusing. On the other side the peak of right-wing police shootings happened in the 2000s, and was followed by the election of Obama. The most extreme example of right wing violence, the Oklahoma City Bombing immediately preceded the re-election of Clinton. But people think there’s a connection between that and Trump being elected 20 years later?

Obviously I was being facetious just then. My claim is not that right-wing violence isn’t increasing, it might be, and also people might be drawing the line more expansively when it comes to classifying an incident as right wing vs. left wing, as I pointed out in the examples I quoted of cellphone fights and domestic disturbances. No, my claim is that the waters are very muddy, and I don’t think some of the connections being made by organizations like the ADL are as clear as they would lead you to believe, while on the other hand I think some very clear connections are being ignored entirely, for example the Ferguson Effect. Given that I’ve already talked about it at some length, I’m not going to rehash it, but it is worth looking at what happened in St. Louis last month

Before the Michael Brown shooting, monthly homicides in St. Louis averaged around 13. Afterwards that average went up to around 18. In July they spiked to 54. That’s a marginal increase of 36 deaths, over something that was already elevated, or in other words more deaths in one month, in one city, than the worst decade of police shootings from the right and left combined. If we assume that these deaths are due to left-wing ideology, which is at least a hypothesis that can’t be rejected out of hand, then, to refer back to the question that began the section, this would be an example of where the harm caused by violent extremists is a tiny, essentially negligible fraction of the violence caused by the ideology as a whole. And of course, as I see it, the whole point of this blog has been to map out the wider and less visible harms caused by technology, progress and yes, ideology.

Conclusion

I hope this post has been interesting for you, it was very interesting for me to deeply comb through a very small set of statistics, and it led to a major epiphany, though you’ll have to wait for my next post to discover what the epiphany was. It’s possible, perhaps even likely, that this post was just a vast exercise of my own biases, which is okay, that’s part of my epiphany. But to the extent we can look past my biases I think there are still a few objective principles we can take away:

  1. Even with a very narrow focus (i.e. just police shootings) you can still pull out numerous different interpretations of what we should “really be worried about”.
  2. One way to change the interpretation is to change the start or end date you’re using for the statistics on which that interpretation relies. 
  3. Interpretation and subjectivity operate at all levels of the discourse, from the classification of individual incidents all the way up into deciding that there’s really only two kinds of extremists. 
  4. This bilateral division might be the worst possible way to divide things, maximizing both the innocent people who are declared guilty and the guilty people who are declared innocent.
  5. A point I ran out of space for, but can be seen both from the Oklahoma City bombing and from the ambushing and assassination of police officers in 2016, violence is very much subject to tail events, or black swans as they are sometimes known. Where a large part of the harm comes from only one or two incidents.

Pulling all of this together and returning to that original question, “should we worry more about right wing extremism or left wing extremism?” I think there’s plenty of reason to worry about both, that in the process of declaring something as part of one side or the other lots of bias is brought to bear, and that all of our worries or alternatively all of our assurances could look silly in the face of some future extreme event. This is one of the points I’ve made again and again. That the future will be shaped by unforeseen, extreme events, that someday, probably sooner than we expect, some ideology will be responsible for the deaths of thousands if not millions and it will make our comparison of 59 right wing police killings to only 44 left wing police killings look both quaint and naive. But this is not all, running underneath these extreme events, are broad, implacable currents, which are ultimately just as impactful, but largely dismissed or ignored by people who want to talk about whether extremism was up or down in 2019. Together these two factors combine to determine the shape of the future, and we’re not paying enough attention to either of them.


Where you draw the line makes a big difference. I have decided to draw the line at never charging for my blog, but really hoping that other people will decide to draw the line at: worth supporting anyway!


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…