Category: <span>History</span>

The 7 Books I Finished in January

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  1. Supreme Disorder: Judicial Nominations and the Politics of America’s Highest Courts by: Ilya Shapiro
  2. The Secret of Our Success: How Culture Is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter by: Joseph Henrich
  3. Rhythm of War (Book Four of The Stormlight Archive) by: Brandon Sanderson
  4. The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914 by: Margaret MacMillan
  5. Nobody Wants to Read Your Sh*t by: Steven Pressfield
  6. The Minuteman by: Greg Donahue
  7. There is a God: How to Respond to Atheism in the Last Days by: Hyrum Lewis

January started off with a bang, and I was worried that there would be more bangs in between the 6th and the 20th, but fortunately things were pretty quiet. Also, as far as that subject goes I think I’ve already said quite a bit, and other people have said quite a bit more than that, so I thought I’d talk about something lighter. Since this is my book review post it always feels appropriate to talk about books and reading, so let’s do that.

January is a weird month for me when it comes to reading. Every year I have a big annual goal, plus I’m motivated to beat the previous year’s page count (last year it was 37,215, a new record). What this means is that I generally push to finish any book I’m in the middle of by December 31st, so when January dawns I’m not in the middle of any books I’m starting fresh with everything. Since some books may take me several months to finish, I end up doing a significant amount of reading in January I don’t get credit for, i.e. it’s not reflected in the books that show up as being finished that month, it shows up in subsequent months.

At this point you’re all thinking that this is exceptionally boring, and more than you wanted to know, but I do have a point, and as is so often the case that point is that I screwed up. Knowing that this is how January always goes, instead of focusing on some shorter books, I decided to read the latest 1200 page monstrosity from Brandon Sanderson. Which was so huge and started off so slowly, that there was a small chance that when it came time to do this, that would be the only book I would be reviewing. Fortunately, I was incredibly disciplined in January, and I managed to finish just slightly less than my average number of books. Though I will say that as of the 28th of last month, I had only finished three of them, the other four books were all finished during the last three days of the month…


I- Eschatological Reviews

Supreme Disorder: Judicial Nominations and the Politics of America’s Highest Courts 

by: Ilya Shapiro

256 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Supreme Court confirmation battles throughout history, with some additional emphasis on the more recent battles (This was written after Kavanaugh but before Barrett.)

Who should read this book?

People who want historical context for the current battles over nominations. Or people who want a deeper dive on what happened during those battles, along with opinion on the same from a moderate libertarian perspective.

General Thoughts

The look back through history was very interesting, and I recommend the book just for that part. Obviously contentious politics was not invented in 2016, or in 1987. It’s been around for a lot longer than that, and that goes just as much for the Supreme Court as for anything else. But it is clear that the post war years were unusually calm, and when we compare something happening today to how it’s “always been done” we’re comparing today to that post war period, if you go farther back most of the things that are happening now happened at some point historically. That said, though the fights look similar, Shapiro argues, and I agree, that the stakes are different, but before we get to that some random notes I made while reading the book:

  • Early on in the country’s history they were less concerned with the ideological balance of the court and more concerned with regional balance. It was felt that one member needed to be from Virginia, and one member had to be from New England, etc. So that regional concerns were properly protected. Interesting to think about this in the context of how balanced the current Supreme Court is on specific dimensions, for example: Ivy League vs. Non-Ivy League. (Spoiler: It’s currently 9-0. And arguably worse than that, all current justices went to law school at either Harvard or Yale.)
  • Shapiro puts forth the theory that if Reagan had nominated Bork first, and then Scalia, rather than the other way around, that he probably would have gotten both nominations through. Scalia was charming and would have gotten through regardless, and Bork, who was frank to the point of being combative, would have had an easier time if he hadn’t been the second conservative nominee.
  • Shapiro spent a lot of time praising Clarence Thomas, particularly his work ethic. (I myself have often thought that Thomas is unfairly maligned.)
  • With that partiality in mind, his take on Anita Hill and the nomination of Thomas to the bench was interesting. I had always had the impression that it came down to his word against hers, and they went with him. But Shapiro seems to indicate that there was almost no evidence to support Hill’s accusations and significant evidence contradicting it. That at best she was exaggerating incidents, and at worst she was outright lying.
  • As you might imagine, after the controversy over Merrick Garland not receiving a hearing, Shapiro spends quite a bit of time talking about nominations near the end of a President’s term. He calls it the Thurmond Rule, after it’s first invocation in 1968. And it turns out that not a lot of justices have been nominated and confirmed near the end of a President’s term. Of course having been written between Garland and Barrett he doesn’t cover the full impact of its presence in modern times. But overall the book gives an interesting history of the idea without either dismissing it or advocating for it.

Eschatological Implications

I have often talked in this space about the way in which the Supreme Court has increasingly become the de facto rulers in America, and even the way that this transition somewhat mirrors the end of the Roman Republic. This is increasingly why presidential elections are often decided by what sort of justices the president will nominate. (Would Trump have won in 2016 without this consideration?) A President’s later success is judged by what justices they did nominate. And the nomination of those justices have become far more contentious than any potential legislation because the Supreme Court will be the ones who ultimately decide whether that legislation will take effect. 

Various ideas have been offered for how to reverse this trend including getting rid of lifetime tenure, giving each president a set number of nominations, expanding the number of seats, etc. Shapiro reviews several such proposals in the book, but in the end he contends that none of the proposals is going to work as long as the Supreme Court continues to wield such enormous power. That there is no way for the nominations to become less contentious if you’re fighting over the ultimate power to decide the course of the country. Now obviously, as a well known libertarian, Shapiro is going to make this argument, but at the same time it seems self-evident to the point of being tautological. People are going to fight for power, and if ultimate power is vested with the Supreme Court, that’s what they’re going to fight over. 

The historical stuff in the book is all important because it illustrates that the Supreme Court didn’t always wield such power, and so perhaps they can return to that state. In this endeavor Shapiro praises the idea of textualism, and in particular Scalia’s championing of it. And he is very critical of Roe v. Wade, pointing to it as the point when things went off the rails. Now it is not my intent to relitigate Roe v. Wade, I have said that I don’t think it will be entirely reversed, even after Barrett’s nomination. (Though certainly if it were ever going to happen this would be the time.) Also it’s worth pointing out that even the Ginsburg thought it was a bad ruling from a legal standpoint.  All that aside, I think there’s a credible argument to be made (which is what Shapiro does) that this is when the court took a decisive turn in the direction of absolute power.

I see some similarities here to how the Gracchi brothers used their near absolute power as Tribune of the Plebs to implement their reforms. Reforms which were sorely needed. (This is what the pro choice crowd also argues.) However in the end the only response to such absolute power was for one of the brothers to be clubbed to death (the first such political violence in 400 years) and the other to commit suicide before he could be clubbed to death.

I keep bringing Rome into things because I feel like there’s this similar process happening where loopholes and legalistic interpretations are being invoked more and more rather than relying on the initial understanding of how things are expected to work. The Tribune of the Plebs was not supposed to threaten to veto everything. The Supreme Court was not supposed to invent rights from “penumbras and emanations”, the minority party in the Senate was not supposed to filibuster everything, and the Vice President is not supposed to have the power to change the counting of the Electoral Votes in such a way that it reverses the election. And yet all these things have been attempted. It’s interesting that only the last one failed.


The Secret of Our Success: How Culture Is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter

by: Joseph Henrich

446 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Another answer to the age old question of what separates humans from animals. Our contender this time is the human ability to transmit knowledge in the form of culture. That we don’t just adapt to our environments through genetic mutations but through cultural mutations as well.

Who should read this book?

Similar to Seeing Like a State, a book I reviewed last month, this book was also the subject of a Slate Star Codex review. Both reviews were so good they just about obviate the need to read the actual books. The one for Secret was thorough enough that I used it as the basis for a podcast episode of my own which, even after having read the book, I still stand by. That comparison aside if you felt the need to read one of the two books I would recommend this one over Seeing Like a State.

General Thoughts

As I mentioned I already wrote a blog post about this book. In preparation for this review I re-read that post and I think it still mostly covers my thoughts on the subject of cultural evolution. But, as not all of you will read it, and as it is pretty long. I’ll summarize my previous point.

Cultural evolution is similar to biological evolution in that it can lead to things which take up a lot of resources, but which don’t actually provide a survival advantage. The classic example from biological evolution is peacock feathers. They may be useful for convincing peahens to mate with you, but they don’t do much to help you get away from predators, i.e. it’s an adaptation which is good for the genes but bad for the individual carrying those genes. From the standpoint of cultural evolution you can imagine funny memes occupying a similar position. Being funny helps the meme to propagate, but spending all of your time on reddit consuming memes may have a negative impact on the survival of the person engaged in the behavior. As memes, and culture more broadly, can be created with less time and effort then developing six foot long feathers, one expects that maladaptive examples of the former should be more common. Accordingly, anytime we examine things that have evolved culturally whether they be traditions, taboos, flourishes, art or what have you, we are faced with two questions. Was this bit of culture useful? That is, did it help people with that cultural package survive? And is it still useful? That is, could it help us survive?

At one point the knowledge of how to make stone weapons was fantastically useful, but these days even if you could somehow acquire it, it would have no value other than as an object of curiosity. To see how we might apply it to the debates of our own day: historically there has been a strong tradition of monogamous heterosexual marriage (MHM) among nearly all cultures, especially larger ones. When we ask our two questions about stone tools the answers are obvious, “yes, it was useful” and “no, it’s not still useful” respectively. When we ask our two questions about MHM, the answers are not nearly so clear. In my previous post I gave some standards for how to answer the first question, and concluded that MHM probably had been useful, but it’s possible that it’s not still useful.

Eschatological Implications

While there is and will continue to be lots of debate over whether a particular bit of culture was useful in the past, there are vast implications for the future of any culture in figuring out what traditions and practices are still useful. I think people want to imagine that the forward march of technology has changed everything, but I strongly suspect it has changed far less than people think. While Henrich doesn’t directly address MHM, or, probably wisely for him and his career, really any of the hot button cultural issues of the day, he does address, and at significant length, how difficult it can be to determine what utility a particular cultural practice has. Things that seem clearly to be nothing more than primitive superstitions like reading animal remains to determine where to hunt, turn out to play a critical role. And as both this book and Seeing Like a State point out the negative effects of abandoning a particular tradition or practice can take decades or even centuries to manifest. 


II- Capsule Reviews

Rhythm of War (Book Four of The Stormlight Archive) 

by: Brandon Sanderson

1232 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The fourth book of a planned 10 (supposedly two five book series) in Sanderson’s epic saga of the world of Roshar, and the return of the Knights Radiant. 

Who should read this book?

If you’ve read the first three and enjoyed them you’ll probably enjoy this one, though it was my least favorite of the four.

General Thoughts

Sanderson has the life I dreamed of when I was in my early 20s. I don’t think I’m bitter about that, but I might be, so you should take that into account with this review. With that potential bitterness in mind let’s start with the bad stuff:

  • As already mentioned this was my least favorite of the four books.
  • Sanderson is great at writing action and there just wasn’t very much of it in this book.
  • I’ve had the impression since book two, but particularly after book three, that whatever character progress was made in the last book gets undone at the beginning of the next book. This is particularly true with Kaladin and Shallan.
  • I don’t have any problems with characters dying, but in high fantasy you expect characters to die in a noble fashion. Sanderson seems to do the opposite of that. (I’m thinking in particular of a specific death at the end of the previous book, but a similar thing happens in this book.)
  • There’s some big developments right at the end that feel like they came out of left fied.
  • There had to be some way to make this book shorter.

And now for the good:

  • While I can’t stand Moash and cringe every time he shows up, some of the other bad guys were really good in this one.
  • Adolin continues to be one of my favorite characters and I really liked his arc in this one.
  • Despite what I said above, this book’s resolution of Shallan and Kaladin’s arc was more satisfying than I expected. Though I fear in book five we’ll be back to square one or at least several squares behind where we ended in this book.
  • As usual Sanderson’s world-building is top notch and the way in which he expanded on the “physics” of the world in this book was both cool and interesting.

If you’re interested in having a spoiler filled discussion feel free to email me. In particular if you’ve also finished the book. I’m curious what other people think.


The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914 

by: Margaret MacMillan

744 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Events in Europe leading up to the start of World War I

Who should read this book?

As I mentioned I have read a lot of books about World War I recently. I think I would put this at the bottom of the list. Even if your interest was specifically the pre-war years I would read Dreadnought by Robert Massie before this one, despite Massie’s narrower focus. 

General Thoughts

This was the final book of my year long dive into World War I. From the previous section you may come away with the impression that I thought that it was bad. This is untrue. It’s more that the other books were all so good. This book did have lots of details about the various crises leading up to the war, particularly those centered in Austria-Hungary’s relationship to the Balkans. This included the Bosnian Crisis and the Balkan Wars.

I’m sure these events were mentioned in the other books I read, but it wasn’t until this book that I quite realized how close in time they were to the actual war. The Bosnian Crisis was 1908-1909 and the Balken Wars happened from 1912-1913. Despite this 1914 started relatively peacefully.

From this sequence I think we can draw three potential lessons:

First, each crisis depleted the “crisis handling reserves” each nation possessed. Everytime they backed down they looked weak. Everytime they peacefully resolved a crisis only to have a new one erupt a couple of years later, the tactic of peaceful resolution suffered. And after each crisis their views inevitably shifted from, “we avoided war” to, “we should have ended up in a better position or gotten more concessions”. Essentially the whole idea that peace was better gradually eroded, and it had been so long since the last war that the idea was never that strong to begin with.

Second and somehow working in the opposite direction, with each crisis that didn’t end in war, it seemed more obvious that such crises would always be peacefully resolved. And therefore (following the above) we can demand more and be more intransigent. (See the demands Austria-Hungary made of Serbia right before the war started.)  

Finally, and perhaps most troubling. In the end it would have been better for Germany to have started the war sooner. Had they begun things in 1908 Russia’s position would have been much worse, and even France would have not been quite as prepared as they were in 1914.

And of course there’s the lesson one takes away from all books on World War I. The Kaiser really made things much worse. 

I leave it as an exercise to the reader to draw parallels between all of the above and our own time, but there are a lot of them.


Nobody Wants to Read Your Sh*t 

by: Steven Pressfield

210 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

How to write well, with a particular look at the various genres of writing (Advertising, screenplays, novels, etc.)

Who should read this book?

Probably anyone who wants to be a better writer could benefit from this book. It’s short, dense with information, and entertaining to boot. 

General Thoughts

There are many self-help books out there, though sometimes they’re disguised as autobiographies. And there are many examples, particularly in that latter category of people who claim to give you the secret to success, but what their story really boils down to is, don’t be lazy and get lucky. “I worked really hard while I was at Harvard and had the good fortune to meet <Fill in name of famous person>.” The idea being that the numerous things which had to happen in order to get admitted to Harvard were not the lucky bits, it was developing a relationship with the professor while you were there.

On the other hand, occasionally you come across a book by someone who really struggled, who spent decades failing before they finally started to get a little bit of success. Who really did have to figure out how to do something, they weren’t just handed it. Steven Pressfield is in this latter category. And I find books written by such people to be both far more enjoyable, and far more useful. 

If you have any interest at all in writing I would recommend this book.


The Minuteman

by: Greg Donahue 

Only available on Audible 1 hr 54 minutes

Briefly, what is this book about?

Domestic Nazis and the Jewish gangsters who beat the crap out of them in the years before World War II.

Who should read this book?

If you’re looking for a domestic predecessor for Antifa, or you really like stories of Nazis getting punched. This is your book.

General Thoughts

During prohibition Sidney Abramowitz, aka Nat Arno was an enforcer for the Jewish mob. When prohibition ended that job largely ended as well. Fortunately for Arno shortly thereafter Hitler came to power and with that came the rise of Nazism in America. This book is the gleeful recounting of how Arno organized former enforcers like himself and other New Jersey Jews into a band of vigilantes dedicated to disrupting American Nazi rallies by throwing in stink bombs and then ambushing the attendees as they ran away—beating them with baseball bats and brass knuckles.

At least it came across as gleeful, also vigilante is my term. I don’t recall it ever being used in the book.

Everyone who reads this book understands how bad Nazis are. And I admit there is a certain pleasure at hearing how Jews “fought back” in America. But before lionizing Arno it’s important to remember that this is pre World War II. Most of the evidence we draw on for how horrible Nazis are is based on what happened during World War II, so the people beating the crap out of German Americans couldn’t use that as justification. Also Arno did it in opposition to the police, and to many leaders of the Jewish community, who thought he was making things worse. Also it’s not clear how much of this was actually fighting back. The stories of the Nazis beating up Jews are relatively sparse, but this book has lots of stories of the reverse.

All of which is to say that I think, particularly based on what was known at the time, that Arno was the bad guy. And I’m not even sure his actions are defensible even in retrospect. Certainly I don’t think Arno should be used as a role model for anyone operating today. And this book rather than dealing with any of these issues, mostly came across as a celebration of vigilantism.


III- Religious Reviews

There is a God: How to Respond to Atheism in the Last Days 

by: Hyrum Lewis

162 pages

Who should read this book?

If you’re expecting to have a debate soon with a New Atheist this is a great book to help you prepare for that debate. Similarly if you’re wondering what sort of arguments you might make against a New Atheist even if you never plans to ever use them, you might also want to read this book.

General Thoughts

This book is a pretty good collection of arguments against New Atheism. I keep qualifying that we’re talking about New Atheism and not atheism in general, because as we saw in the book The Seven Types of Atheism, which I reviewed back in October, New Atheism is only one of several types of atheism. And even John Grey who felt compelled to write a whole book on the many different types of atheism doesn’t think much of it. Which is to say the book is focused on only a narrow slice of atheism, and not a well regarded one at that. The book’s utility grows more narrow still when you consider that there is much more to winning an argument than logic and reason. It’s entirely possible that Lewis’ arguments are all but ironclad. (And indeed, particularly when paired with Grey’s, they do seem pretty solid.) Despite this I still very much doubt that if I gave this book to someone who was deeply atheist that reading it would turn him into a Christian. 

This outcome is what we would expect no matter how carefully crafted the book, but I still think that Lewis could have done better. His tone is pretty combative. A weakness he admits to in the introduction. Beyond that the book is long on argument and short on persuasive rhetoric. My own son considers himself to be an atheist, and while there were moments when I thought about trying to get him to read this book, by the end I felt that the experience would be counterproductive. 

None of this is to claim that writing such a book would be easy, merely that knowing he was being too combative it should have been possible for Lewis to tone it down more than he did.


A better writer would have taken Pressfield’s book, used the tactics therein to combine the themes of combativeness, preemptive action and Germans into some wisdom for the ages. Unfortunately I am not such a writer, if you want to help me become such a writer, consider donating.


The 10 Books I Finished in December (Along With One I Didn’t)

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  1. Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed by: James C. Scott
  2. Status Anxiety by: Alain de Botton
  3. Countdown 1945: The Extraordinary Story of the 116 Days that Changed the World by: Chris Wallace
  4. Enemy At the Gates by: William Craig
  5. Necroscope by: Brian Lumley
  6. Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process by: John McPhee
  7. Bang For Your Buck by: Stefan Gasic
  8. The Darkest Winter by: Nick Johns
  9. C. S. Lewis Essay Collection & Other Short Pieces by: C. S. Lewis
  10. Book of Mormon Made Harder by: James E. Faulconer
  11. The Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion by: Sterling M. McMurrin

Thanks to all the people who reached out and offered their well wishes about my mother. That was exceptionally kind. She’s doing much better, and has been home for awhile, though she’s still on a feeding tube because the doctors aren’t convinced that her pancreas has completely calmed down yet. But everything still seems headed in the right direction, so that’s good. And thus far she’s been able to avoid getting COVID which may be the most important thing of all. 

It’s the New Year, which is the generally accepted time for making resolutions. If you caught my last post you saw that I’m making some changes to the blog in general, but this seems the space to talk about changes I’m making to my reading ambitions. My first goal is to not start any new series until I’ve finished some of the one’s I’ve already started. Second, I’ve realized that, when studying history, it’s useful to really immerse yourself in a particular time in history or a particular historical thread. That it’s by really diving deep that you finally see patterns and people. And so while this resolution won’t preclude reading other history, I thought it might be nice to choose a historical focus for each year, something to really sink my teeth into. Last year basically ended up being World War I. This year I was thinking about doing the Romanovs. In particular, Robert K. Massie, has a four volume series running from Peter the Great up through the revolution that looks quite fantastic. I really enjoyed his books Dreadnought and Castles of Steel about the British and German naval rivalry up to and through World War I, so I’m sure I’ll enjoy this other series as well. (And yes I’m aware that this is a new series which contradicts my first resolution, but this is one of those cases where the specific overrides the general.)


I- Eschatological Reviews

Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed

by: James C. Scott

446 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

This is a book about “high modernity”, the idea that through the powers of pure reason we can figure out the best way to do things like: build a city, grow food, or manage the citizenry. In particular how these ideas and tasks are implemented via state power.

Who should read this book?

This is a pretty dry book, and while the content is super important, I’m not convinced it’s necessary to read the whole thing in order to absorb that importance. Scott Alexander of Slate Star Codex did a fantastic review and I would recommend reading that, and hopefully my review, and only then if your curiosity and passion have not yet been quenched go on to read the entire book. 

General Thoughts

This book, with its descriptions of the various methods governments have applied to manage an essentially chaotic world, seems to follow naturally from the hypothesis that the modern world is suffering from an overactive left hemisphere, which appeared previously in this space, when I discussed another book, The Master and His Emissary, by Iain McGilchrist. That book and the associated hypothesis are not mentioned by Scott, though if you keep that hypothesis in mind when reading it, Seeing Like a State ends up looking very much like a catalog of symptoms to go along with McGilchrist’s underlying disease. An exhaustive description of the damage that has been wrought by an overactive left hemisphere in the form of social engineering. Such social engineering is generally implemented through the mechanism of the state, and can be broken out into four parts:

  • A desire for legibility: This desire mostly comes because the government needs to raise money, and that’s much easier to do if you know what money there is and who has it.
  • The faith that you can make things legible: This is the essence of High Modernism, which Scott defines as “a muscular confidence in science and technical progress”.
  • The ability to enforce legibility: The existence of a strong state is necessary to even start the process.
  • A society which is too weak to resist the foregoing: Which seems like a repeat of the last point, but these efforts still work best if you have a thoroughly exhausted or cowed population, say after a big war.

The problem with all of these efforts, beyond just the violations of liberty they entail, is that it drives people to focus on those areas which can easily be made legible, i.e. measured, while ignoring those things that can’t. At its most arrogant, this is because the architects of these solutions are convinced that no measurement is necessary because through the powers of pure reason all of the problems have been solved. Those who are more humble recognize the need for measurement, but still fail to recognize both the limitations of their measurements and the way in which those measurements distort the endeavor.

All of these factors are illustrated in the example Scott opens with: scientific forestry, as practiced by Prussia and Saxony in the late eighteenth-century. At the time timber was of surpassing importance, and used for all sorts of things from fuel to ship-building. Recognizing this importance the government felt that they could increase the supply of timber by making the forests more scientific, i.e. legible. To do this they reduced everything about the forest to a single goal: “deliver the greatest possible constant volume of wood”. (Emphasis original) This focus resulted in clearing the old forest and replacing it with neat and orderly rows of Norway spruces or Scotch pines—since those trees (naively) best met their metric. As you can imagine this system ignored all of the many other things the peasants used the forest for: grazing, food, raw materials (like thatch for roofs) and medicines. 

Eschatological Implications

But more importantly it ignored and disrupted the ecology of the forest. This disruption didn’t happen immediately. In fact, it took about 100 years for the full extent of the disruption to manifest. Initially, the whole thing appeared to be a resounding success. The first generation of these “scientifically” planted forests did amazingly well, as they benefited from all of the nutrition and none of the competition. But by the second and third generations, the lack of new nutrients, along with a host of other problems, ended up fatally undermining the forests, in some cases outright killing them (they had to coin a term for it, Waldsterben). In the end, “scientific” forestry proved to be a disastrous idea even when judged by the narrow standards they had set, to say nothing of all the broader effects. All of this didn’t surprise me and it probably didn’t surprise you, but there are a couple of points that deserve particular emphasis: first that it initially worked, and second that it took so long for the ultimate failure of the idea to become apparent.

Are we currently attempting any similar experiments in imposing rationality on some natural system? Almost certainly, though a lot of what we do is difficult to classify, particularly when you’re talking about changing human behavior. How much is natural and how much is learned? If we are engaged in any such efforts, it’s probably very important to keep in mind the two points I just mentioned: It might initially look like our efforts are a great success, and it might take a long time to find out that we’ve actually made the problem much, much worse.

It might help to have an example, so I’ll wrap things up with one that occurred to me. I am not saying this is what’s happening only that if it is what’s happening this might be how it played out:

We are engaged in an effort at managing the citizenry. In particular we want to reduce racism. Those people who aren’t racist represent the clean well planted lines of Norway spruces. While those people who are a little bit racist represent the old growth forest. Initially it’s easy to clear the forest, broad laws are enacted killing the biggest offenders: businesses and institutions, but getting all of the underbrush proves difficult. Initially, just accusing someone of being a racist generally works, but after a while it becomes apparent that certain species of planets have developed a tolerance to this “herbicide”, and more and more drastic measures need to be taken. Meanwhile with less competition from other plants, the nastiest plants start spreading, but also the spruces don’t seem to be doing so well either. Rather than being naturally healthy and productive it takes greater and greater effort to fertilize them and keep them healthy. And in the end, not only do you end up with two divergent monocultures, but both are at the extreme ends of things

This may not bear any resemblance to what’s happening, and to truly extend the analogy we’d have to add in elements like social media, and politics, but as analogies go, this one has a lot to recommend it.


Status Anxiety

by: Alain de Botton

306 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The pivotal importance of status in human society. How recent developments have upset the previous status equilibrium and how that equilibrium might be restored.

Who should read this book?

This is a pretty short book on a pretty important topic. If the description of the content resonates with you at all I would recommend reading this book. 

General Thoughts

De Botton starts his argument by asserting that our perception of poverty, failure and inequality has changed. That the stories which formed the dominant narrative of status in the Christian West from the moment it became Christian, all the way up until the middle of the 20th century, have recently completely flipped, such that poverty, failure and inequality are viewed exactly the opposite of how they once were. And while it was only in the last century that these new narratives became ascendent, de Botton asserts that the change began in 1776. That’s the first time status went from being based on a fairly rigid class structure to something you could earn, largely through the possession of money but also merit. And it started us on a path of rejecting the old stories and substituting the new. Those old stories were:

  1. The poor are not responsible for their condition and are the most useful in society
  2. Low status has no moral connotation
  3. The rich are sinful and corrupt and owe their wealth to their robbery of the poor. (A view most prevalent between 1754 and 1989)

The three old stories were replaced by three new stories, where the exact opposite is claimed:

  1. The rich are the useful one’s not the poor (a position commonly associated with Adam Smith)
  2. Status does have moral connotations (i.e. the concept of a meritocracy)
  3. The poor are sinful and corrupt and owe their poverty to their own stupidity (the idea of prosperity gospel, and, for a time, Social Darwinism)

Now I think reducing everything to these three new stories overlooks a host of complexities. Obviously some people still believe in the old stories, and even those people who are accused of believing the new stories will still put a farmer ahead of Jeff Bezos in their moral hierarchy. But as an explanation just of status, it explains a lot. Particularly how each of these new stories end up maximizing our anxiety around status.

To put it another way, status, self-esteem and identity, now rarely depend on the role you were born into and the community you grew up in. Instead all three depend on your “performance in a fast-moving and implacable economy.” And that dependence is multi-faceted. Your success requires a combination of:

  • Talent, which is fickle
  • Luck, which is random
  • Your employer’s whim’s
  • Your employer’s profitability
  • The global economy

As a way of quantifying these factors along with the influence of the modern “stories”, de Botton offers the following formula:

Self-esteem = Success/Pretension

Out of all this we can start drawing some conclusions. First, while I definitely think we still need a generous helping of the first set of stories, I’m not sure that the second set of stories were all bad. In fact it seems that if pretension stays relatively constant, and success is manageable, tying it to self-esteem may be a good thing. It may in fact be argued, as many people have, that the way capitalism harnesses our drive for status and self-esteem has led to enormous increases in the standard of living, and to significant progress in general. But as I said this is easier to pull off if pretension is kept constant and success is within reach. However, as is so often the case, social media has completely changed that equation. Our pretension is fueled not just by our local community, but by everyone social media allows us to interact with from the high school classmate that’s moderately more successful than we are, but who we wouldn’t be aware of in a previous age, to instagram influencers showing us the inner workings of lives we previously wouldn’t even have been able to imagine, but to which we now have ring side seats. 

On the other side of the equation, the level of success any given person feels has also decreased. The mechanisms are similar, though I think they somewhat predate the rise of social media. There was a time when you were considered a success if you had just graduated from college, but this turned into needing to go to a good college, and then one of the best colleges, and then getting a great job, etc. This is also a huge topic with lots of additional complexity that I’m just glossing over, but it seems clear that over the last few decades success in a relative sense has become far more difficult to achieve.

When we combine increased pretension with decreased success we end up with low self-esteem, which is essentially status anxiety.

Eschatological Implications

Nothing about current trends gives me much hope that this problem will get better in the future, which means the best course of action is to figure out how to mitigate this status anxiety. What tools are available to make us care less about success and be less pretentious. The book explores five possibilities:

  1. Philosophy
  2. Art
  3. Politics
  4. Religion
  5. Bohemia

Let’s quickly examine each of them:

Philosophy: As de Botton says, “Philosophy is what allows you to interpose reason in between other’s opinion of you and your self image.” And certainly I think status anxiety has been one of the things driving the renewed popularity of Stoicism. That said, I don’t think people cultivate a philosophy as such or really any philosophy at all.

Art: Here de Botton claims that, “Art is what reverses the new stories of failure back to the old stories of failure.” Once again this is useful, but I think for art to be an antidote to status anxiety it can’t be superficial, and I’m reasonably certain that at the moment superficial art is outcompeting the kind of art de Botton is recommending.

Politics: It seems clear that whatever power politics once possessed at reducing status anxiety, it has that power no longer. 

Religion: Religion seems to take all of the best aspects of the first three options and combines them into the perfect anti-status anxiety package. Religion is philosophy, but of a form that’s palatable to everyone. It’s art, but only of the profoundest sort. It’s politics, but with a focus on service rather than competition or power. None of which is to say that religion doesn’t have all manner of issues, but when compared with the other options it seems clearly superior. Nor should the supernatural elements of religion be overlooked. As de Botton says in the book:

But when belief in an afterlife is dismissed as a childish and scientifically impossible opiate, the pressure to succeed and find fulfillment will inevitably be intensified by the awareness that one has only a single and frighteningly fleeting opportunity to do so. In such a context, earthly achievements can no longer be seen as an overture to what one may realize in another world; rather, they are the sum total of all that one will ever amount to.

Bohemia: If religion is the best option, bohemianism seems to be the one that’s the most popular. But while it appears reasonably effective at rejecting pretension and conventional definitions of success, it doesn’t strike me as being very good at creating something to take their place. Meaning, as far as I can see, while there are a lot of casual bohemians, I think there are very few true bohemians. Certainly far less than the number of true believers. And my sense is to really reduce status anxiety being a casual bohemian doesn’t cut it. On the other hand religion would appear to have some utility at nearly every level of belief.


II- Capsule Reviews

Countdown 1945: The Extraordinary Story of the 116 Days that Changed the World 

By: Chris Wallace

320 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The final days of the Manhattan Project and Truman’s decision to use the bomb.

Who should read this book?

If you’re interested in the story behind the dropping of atomic bombs at the end of World War II then this is a pretty good book for that, though if you were only going to read one book I would recommend The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes instead. The advantages of this book would be that it’s shorter and has more details on Truman and how he grappled with authorizing the use of the bomb.

General Thoughts

As you can see from the title this is a book about the 116 days immediately preceding the bombing of Hiroshima, and all the people whose efforts contributed to that event: the amazingly skilled pilots, the women working at the Oak Ridge plant refining uranium, the scientists who were worried about whether it would actually work, the little girl who was in Hiroshima when the bomb was dropped, and above it all, Truman. Who went in a very short time from not even knowing the bomb existed to having to decide whether to use it. While at the same time trying to fill all the other huge holes left by FDR’s death.

It’s all pretty fascinating stuff, and Wallace crafts it into a compelling narrative. Though the aspect that resonated with me the most was how much the Manhattan Project ends up being a microcosm of the entire American experience of World War II, and the wars since then. It is not my intention to argue that the US had it easy during the war. Obviously lots of people died and many sacrifices were made. But it was still a very different endeavor for the Americans than for any of the other belligerent nations, and the Manhattan Project is the prime example of that. In the course of the project whole towns were constructed, and then, in the case of Los Alamos, staffed by the most brilliant minds of that, or really any other era. Billions of dollars were spent, and tens of thousands of people were employed. As one example, to make sure everything went smoothly they took some of the very best pilots and put them into a special unit dedicated just to dropping the atomic bomb, and then gave them months of practice time to perfect that one mission. No other belligerent could have done any of these things, let alone all of them. 

I bring all this up because of another book I read this month, Enemy at the Gates, which is the story of the Battle of Stalingrad. The contrast between the two stories, though both took place during World War II, couldn’t be more stark, and it occurred to me that if the Manhattan Project is an analogy for the American experience of war, that Stalingrad is the analogy of the war for just about everyone else, certainly the Germans, Russians and Japanese, but even, though to a lesser extent, the British.

Countdown 1945 is in many ways a book about how lucky we’ve been, and how easy we’ve had it. The question is can our luck continue to hold? Either through the absence of war or being lucky with wars that are far away, and against opponents where our technology and industrial strength are overwhelmingly superior. I’ve always thought that the answer is probably no, our luck won’t continue forever. And at its core what Countdown 1945 is mostly about is a different era. One we won’t ever see again.


Enemy At the Gates 

by: William Craig

460 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

The Battle of Stalingrad. You might be familiar with the 2001 movie of the same name about a sniper duel during that battle, but if that’s what you were expecting, the story of the snipers is only a very small part of a horrifically bloody battle.

Who should read this book?

This is another great historical book about an amazing historical event. The kind of book that makes me wonder why I read anything but history. If you like history at all you’ll like this book.

General Thoughts

The Battle of Stalingrad represents part of World War II and indeed part of war in general that the US has never really experienced. At least not since the Civil War, and probably not ever, particularly when you’re talking about the civilian experience of war as opposed to the military experience. From the book:

As for the civilian population of [Stalingrad], a prewar census listed more than 500,000 people prior to the outbreak of World War II. This number increased as a flood of refugees poured into the city from other areas of Russia that were in danger of being overrun by the Germans. A portion of Stalingrad’s citizens were evacuated prior to the first German attack but 40,000 civilians were known to have died in the first two days of bombing in the city. No one knows how many died on the barricades or in the antitank ditches or in the surrounding steppes. Official records show only one stark fact: after the battle ended, a census found only 1,515 people who had lived in Stalingrad in 1942.

Those are pretty staggering numbers particularly when viewed as a percentage. No matter how optimistic you are about the initial evacuation and other mitigating factors it seems hard to imagine that more than about 20% of the pre-war civilian population survived the battle, and it could easily be as low as 2%. As bad as Stalingrad was it was only a small part of the overall horror of the eastern front. Again just speaking of civilian fatalities it’s estimated that 13.6 million died on the Soviet side. Perhaps the actual number is lower, but no one thinks that it’s much lower. 

Now, compare all of this with US civilian fatalities during World War II, which amounted to 12,100 people. Which is less than the documented civilian deaths in the first day of Stalingrad. And of those 12,000, three-fourths were in the merchant marines, so not exactly the women and children people generally imagine when they think of civilian casualties. As traumatic as Pearl Harbor was for the nation, only 66 civilians died in that attack. 

From a military perspective the US was not quite so lucky, and some of the beach landings, particularly in the Pacific were especially horrific, but even here the disparity is stark. The US had 400,000 military deaths. Germany (a nation significantly smaller than the US) had 4.4 million and the Soviet Union had 8.8 million deaths. And the latter two numbers are on the low end of the estimates.

In addition to the two books I read last month which touched on this subject I also heard a talk in church which tied into things. It was an older gentleman and as part of the talk he told the story of his father’s experiences during World War II. As part of his story he read a letter from his father which had been written on Christmas 1943. His father, an anti-aircraft specialist in the Pacific Theatre, was bemoaning the fact that his Christmas gifts had not yet arrived. The gentleman said that as he considered this story about his father he was moved to ask, “How much suffering can this young man from Idaho endure?” 

That question is actually the same question I have as well, though on a much larger scale. How much suffering could we as a people endure? What would Americans do if we are ever confronted with war as terrible as that waged by the Germans and Russians in the streets of Stalingrad? Could we endure it? Would we rise to the occasion? Or would we collapse?

The year before this man’s father wrote that letter, Christmas of 1942, the Germans at Stalingrad had been encircled and their Italian, Romanian and Hungarian allies were already being carted off to brutal Siberian POW camps where cannibalism would become the norm. Long before Christmas of 1943 the Germans would have joined them, and they’d have a lot more to complain about than tardy gifts. Out of three million German POWs, 1 million would die, and 1 million would still be in these camps as of 1946. So the answer to the question “How much suffering can this young man from Idaho endure?” I don’t know, but for lots of other people in World War II the answer was a nearly unimaginable amount. 

I suspect that his father and the rest of the US military would have been able to endure that suffering. Fortunately the Manhattan Project meant that we never found out. That we don’t have stories of the horrible Battle of Tokyo to set alongside stories from the Battle of Stalingrad. The question is not whether 1940’s USA could have endured it, the question is whether 2020’s USA can. Let us hope we never have to find out.


Necroscope

By: Brian Lumley

400 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

A young man who can speak with the dead gets entangled in the cold war battle between British and Soviet paranormal espionage agencies.

Who should read this book?

I don’t know that I’m the best person to comment on this. Necrosope was first published in 1986, and is the first book in a series which ended up at 18 volumes. So I would not be offering advice merely on this book, but in a sense commenting on the whole series which I am ill-equipped to do. I will say that reading this book did not immediately fill me with the need to read the next book in the series.

General Thoughts

I enjoyed the book, but I wasn’t blow-away by it. There was too little urban fantasy and too much urban horror for my tastes. Also the best part of a book like this: one in which a young person discovers that they’re different, that they have powers that most people don’t, that they’re part of an ancient and secret world, etc. Is getting to be inside their head and experience their amazement as this world is revealed. Necroscope more or less entirely skips that part of the story, which ends up being my biggest criticism of the book. I guess the only additional thing I have to add is that the book is supposed to be vaguely Lovecraftian. I only came across this information after finishing the book. I think, had I gone into it with that knowledge, it would have improved the story.


Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process 

by: John McPhee

192 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

Draft No. 4 is a series of autobiographical essays about the process of writing. 

Who should read this book?

Not me, I didn’t finish it. I suppose if you’re a big fan of McPhee you’ll probably enjoy the various vignettes, but I found it to be heavy on the memoir and light on the practical advice.

General Thoughts

From time to time books get added to my list because I hope they’ll improve my writing. This was one of those books, and it’s possible that if I hadn’t expected it to fulfill such a specific role that I might have enjoyed it. But after getting pretty far into things and discovering very little practical writing advice, my initial expectation had already hardened too much to switch to considering it as a delightful collection of stories about writing. Consequently I ended up setting it aside.

Lest there be any mistake, he does talk at great length about how he writes. But he doesn’t put much effort into generalizing his writing methodology into usable advice. And in fact some of his writing methodology is so specific that it would be impossible to implement. For example he spends an entire chapter talking about KEdit. An ancient program that was heavily customized for him by a now deceased colleague, which apparently has a user base of McPhee and maybe five other people. I guess if you squint, this does translate to a general lesson of “customize your tools”, but following his advice any more closely is essentially impossible. Which is to say lots of people are looking for advice on writing tools McPhee’s is, “Well I recommend a piece of software you’ve never heard of, can’t get, and which is only really useful with a ton of customization I can’t even talk you through because someone else did it for me and they’re dead.” 

I’m sure all of this will come across as some talentless amateur being too stupid to recognize the genius of one of the greatest writers of our age, and perhaps it is. Mostly what I’m trying to get across is that should you decide to read it, it’s best to go in thinking it’s a charming collection of anecdotes on the subject of writing. Not a how-to book.


Bang For Your Buck 

by: Stefan Gasic

192 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

It’s a collection of comics about investing inspired by the attitudes of Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

Who should read this book?

If you like Taleb’s stuff or if you just have a general disdain for conventional investing and economics you’ll probably enjoy these comics.

General Thoughts

Nothing in this collection was uproariously funny, but there were bits that were clever, and he does really accurately nail the idiocy of some of the usual suspects like naive economists and brain-dead investment bros. I would go on, but this post is already huge and I still have four books left.


The Darkest Winter

by: Nick Johns

320 Pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

A massive foreign hacker attack takes down power to the eastern seaboard in such a way that it will be weeks if not months before it’s restored.

Who should read this book?

I like fiction about potential future catastrophes, and for a first time author (which is what Johns is) this is pretty good. (Make what you will of the fact that I finished this, but not the McPhee book.)

General Thoughts

As I said this was a decent book, but the fact that Johns is a first time author is pretty apparent. The book drifted a lot into cliche, both in plot and characterization. You had the computer nerd who doesn’t know how to survive without his tech, the battered but defiant female. Some prepper red neck types. On the plot side society decides into anarchy surprisingly quickly, and yet in the midst of this anarchy the protagonist is constantly worried that when the smoke clears CSI is going to come in solve all of the crimes he ends up committing and put him in jail. 

In short, it had some great scenes and some decent characters, but taken as a whole it was pretty uneven.


III- Religious Reviews

C. S. Lewis Essay Collection & Other Short Pieces

By: C. S. Lewis

894 pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

A collection of short pieces by C. S. Lewis. Mostly with a religious angle.

Who should read this book?

If you’re at all a fan of Lewis this is a great collection. It’s pretty expensive in print, but it is available on Audible, and the narrator is fantastic.

General Thoughts

I listened to this once on Audible and was impressed enough that I wanted both to re-read it and have a physical copy. My wife shelled out the $100 to get it for me a couple of Christmases ago, and this last year I selected it as one of the books I would read a few pages of every day (see the quote collections from my last review post). 

On this read through I was impressed by how prescient he was. He foresaw the danger of ideological echo chambers, the debates over the utility of prisons, the tension between justice and mercy, and attacks against liberal education:

Democratic education, says Aristotle, ought to mean, not the education which democrats like, but the education which will preserve democracy. Until we have realised that the two things do not necessarily go together we cannot think clearly about education.

If you have ever read any of Lewis’ essays—or seen them, the CSLewisDoodle channel on YouTube is fantastic—then this is all of them wrapped into one glorious package.


Book of Mormon Made Harder 

by: James E. Faulconer

384 pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

This book is a collection of penetrating questions about the Book of Mormon designed to be used during a year-long course of study.

Who should read this book?

If, like me, you’ve studied the Book of Mormon many times over the years and you’re looking for a new way to approach it this is a pretty good way of getting that.

General Thoughts

This is the last of the four books I read over the course of the whole year, but out of all of them this is the only book specifically designed to be read that way. It has chapters corresponding to the old set of 48 weekly Book of Mormon lessons which was recently changed with the Come Follow Me curriculum. But as it turns out the divisions didn’t change that much, so on a week by week basis things still match up pretty well.

Faulconer doesn’t cover every chapter, and some he covers in far more depth than others, and, this is the big part, he doesn’t really give you much in the way of new information, nearly all of the content consists of questions for you to ponder as you read. Thus the title of the book. He’s not trying to smooth out the road and make things easier he’s trying to get you to work harder at really engaging with the text. I confess personally that I could have done better with that. Many days reading this book was just something to check off my to-do list, but on those times where I did really engage it was very rewarding.


The Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion

by: Sterling M. McMurrin

184 pages

Briefly, what is this book about?

This is a book that goes through most if not all of the big questions in theology—original sin, salvation by grace, the problem of evil—and shows how Mormon theology provides particularly satisfying answers to all of them.

Who should read this book?

This is a pretty dense book, and to fully appreciate it you either need a decent background in Mormon Theology and philosophy or a really deep knowledge of general Christian theology. But if you have one of those, or the discipline to look up what you don’t understand (something I resorted to on occasion) then this is a very interesting and illuminating book.

General Thoughts

In the book’s introductory essay, by L. Jackson Newell, the story is related of McMurrin being asked whether he was an atheist. McMurrin responded by quoting Bertrand Russell, who when asked a similar question, responded that he leaned towards atheism. McMurrin then went on to say, “I’m on that knife edge with Russell, but I lean toward theism.” I bring this up to point out that McMurrin was not some hardcore Mormon apologist. I would characterize him more as a sober student of philosophy and religion who happened to have an intimate acquaintance with Mormon theology having grown up in the religion and nominally continuing to belong to the church, though definitely as more of a gadfly than a leader. He was also Commissioner for Education for a couple of years under Kennedy, so he possessed at least enough mainstream credibility to be selected for that post. Bottom line for those who may fall into the later category of potential readers, someone with a general background in theology, but no specific experience with Mormonism, who may be on the fence about picking up this book, I predict it will be more objective and more scholarly than you think.

Beyond that as I said it’s a very dense book, and I really need to wrap up this exceptionally long post, so I’ll end with just a couple of quotes that I thought were particularly good:

But it is the task of religion to achieve in men that nobility of character that enables them not only to live through their severest adversity but at times even to accomplish that divine alchemy whereby they transmute loss and sorrow and tragedy into some moral good for the universe. 

My thesis is a very simple one: That the philosopher’s God, who is the explanation of the world, need not be a person; and the sanction of moral virtue need not be a personal God; but that the God of religion is a person.


When I was younger I read a lot of Tom Clancy, and I noticed that everytime a new book came out it was longer than one before. At the time I assumed it was a problem of editing, that the more successful he became the harder he was to edit. But now I notice it happening to me, and I’ve never done any editing other than self editing (at least in this space). Perhaps the length corresponds to my increasingly infantile desperation to be noticed, that it’s a sort of “Look at me! Look at me!” at ever increasing volume. If you want to help me quiet those inner demons, consider donating


Have We Run Out of History and Legitimacy?

If you prefer to listen rather than read, this blog is available as a podcast here. Or if you want to listen to just this post:

Or download the MP3


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?


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…


Books I Finished in June

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


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

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

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

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

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


I- Eschatological Review

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

By: Peter Zeihan

384 Pages

General Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

What This Book Says About Eschatology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


II- Capsule Reviews

The Good Soldier Švejk

By: Jaroslav Hasek

752 Pages

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

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

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

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

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


The Diaries of Adam and Eve

By: Mark Twain

128 Pages

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


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

By: Robin DiAngelo

192 Pages

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Guns of August

By: Barbara W. Tuchman

510 Pages

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

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

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

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


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

By: Euripides

306 Pages

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

TALTHYBIUS

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

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

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

ANDROMACHE

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

TALTHYBIUS

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

ANDROMACHE

That he shall serve some other master than I serve?

TALTHYBIUS

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

ANDROMACHE

Must he be left behind in Phrygia, all alone?

TALTHYBIUS

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

ANDROMACHE

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

TALTHYBIUS

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

ANDROMACHE

Oh, this is worse than anything I heard before

TALTHYBIUS

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

ANDROMACHE

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

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


Acid Test: LSD vs. LDS

By: Christopher Kimball Bigelow

296 Pages

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

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

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

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

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


III- Religious Review 

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

By: Don Bradley

318 Pages

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Churchills, Hitlers, and Hedonists

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I.

In August of 1941, near the beginning of World War II, before the US had even entered the war and during one of its bleakest periods, George Orwell penned an essay. This was an essay written in response to some things being said by another famous author, H.G. Wells:

Hitler is a criminal lunatic, and [yet] Hitler has an army of millions of men, aeroplanes in thousands, tanks in tens of thousands. For his sake a great nation has been willing to overwork itself for six years and then to fight for two years more, whereas for the common-sense, essentially hedonistic world-view which Mr. Wells puts forward, hardly a human creature is willing to shed a pint of blood…What has kept England on its feet during the past year? In part, no doubt, some vague idea about a better future, but chiefly the atavistic emotion of patriotism, the ingrained feeling of the English-speaking peoples that they are superior to foreigners. For the last twenty years the main object of English left-wing intellectuals has been to break this feeling down, and if they had succeeded, we might be watching the SS men patrolling the London streets at this moment. Similarly, why are the Russians fighting like tigers against the German invasion? In part, perhaps, for some half-remembered ideal of Utopian Socialism, but chiefly in defence of Holy Russia (the “sacred soil of the Fatherland”, etc etc), which Stalin has revived in an only slightly altered form. The energy that actually shapes the world springs from emotions–racial pride, leader-worship, religious belief, love of war–which liberal intellectuals mechanically write off as anachronisms, and which they have usually destroyed so completely in themselves as to have lost all power of action.

(h/t: Bruce G. Charlton)

Wells was a science fiction writer who spent his days imagining a better or at least a different future, and Hitler and the Nazi’s represented neither. Instead they were depressingly primitive and retrograde. Because of this Wells imagines that the German war machine is going to fizzle out any minute now. Orwell strenuously disagrees. In hindsight, we can see that Wells was not merely mistaken, but very mistaken. 

In this day and age, people like Wells still exist, and though they are no longer so quick to underestimate the appeal of powerful national emotions, or suffer from any difficulty imagining another Hitler (in fact if anything they may be too quick to apply that label to their ideological opponents) they still underestimate the power of those emotions and the dangers of abandoning them. Because I would submit that Orwell was correct about those who’ve settled into an “essentially hedonistic worldview” I think they would “hardly [be] willing to shed a pint of blood” or make many other sacrifices either, in defense of their ideology. 

Recall, it wasn’t just Hitler and the Nazis harnessing those emotions, as Orwell points out nationalist fervor and patriotism was just as necessary to the British and the Russians in beating off the Nazis as it was to the Nazis in the first place. The two went somewhat hand in hand. So what’s the situation now? There seems to be four possibilities:

  1. Nothing has changed. Hitler’s are still possible and if someone like him arose again, and stoked the patriotic fervor of a nation then, in response, we would see the same nationalistic unity among his opponents. That it is still possible for there to be all out war.
  2. Hitlers are possible, but the will to oppose them is not. For example perhaps you could imagine Putin or Xi Jinping mobilizing their country in the same way Hitler did, but you can’t imagine a Churchill ever again arising in Europe or the US.
  3. The reverse of the previous option. Churchills are possible, but Hitlers aren’t. 
  4. We have progressed to the point where Hitlers are no longer possible, but neither is the sort of patriotic sacrifice we saw on the other side either. That these days Churchills are just as impossible as Hitlers. Nowhere in the world will any nation ever again summon the massive and coordinated effort we saw during the World Wars. 

Let’s take those possibilities in order. As the option with the best prima facie backing the first option has to be assigned some likelihood. In other words, unless you have good reasons to believe that something has changed it’s best to assume that it hasn’t. Of course, this wouldn’t be good news. The idea that we might once again see the great powers engaged in total war, only this time with the additional excitement of nuclear weapons, should terrify anyone. But perhaps there are good reasons to believe that something has changed. I think I, along with most people, have a hard time imagining a Hitler or a Churchill emerging out of the modern West. For all his strange popularity among a certain segment of the population, Trump is no Hitler, and finding a Churchill analogy is even harder. Which is not to say that it couldn’t happen, though if it does, it would seem more likely that these individuals would unify only a segment of a particular nation. Currently there seems to be very little evidence that anyone could unite an entire western nation as Hitler and Churchill once did. 

Which takes us to the possibility that Hitlers are possible but Churchills aren’t. This seems the most awful possibility of all, and unfortunately not all that difficult to imagine. Certainly it’s not hard to construct a scenario, where 30 years from now a confident China, united by some charismatic leader, faces off against a disunited and fragmented USA. One unable to pull together as a nation, even assuming that our system could produce someone we could unite around, which it can’t. Or to put it another way, it’s possible that the developed Western countries might be uniquely skilled at producing martially impotent hedonists, unwilling or unable to be roused by national pride, while the rest of the world still maintains that ability, or at least enough of it to come out on top in a fight. 

The third possibility, Churchills without Hitlers, seems the least likely of all. For one I have a strong suspicion that Churchills only arise in the presence of a Hitler. Certainly, if we abandon our use of them as shorthand for a moment and look to the actual individuals, Churchill never would have been chosen as prime minister without the threat of Hitler. And all the other Churchillian figures I can think also only came to the fore in response to a great crisis, even if that crisis lacked an opposing villain (think Lincoln and the Civil War). If a Churchill-esque figure were to arise independent of a crisis, and attempt to enforce their vision on an unwilling populace then I think that flips them into the Hitler column regardless of the initial purity of their motives. 

II.

The final possibility is perhaps the most interesting, but also the one with the greatest number of unknowns. To be clear there are certainly upsides to dispensing with the emotions of “racial pride, leader-worship, religious belief, [and] love of war” but there are also downsides as well, and the question we have to confront is whether Orwell was right about the rest of his statement. Are these the emotions that provide the energy which actually shapes the world? And have we lost all power of action without them?

Before we proceed to answer these questions it’s important to take a deeper look at where things stand in the world at the moment. To begin with, I’m not familiar enough with Russian and Chinese attitudes to know if there’s enough nationalism still remaining in those countries for a Hitler style figure to emerge, though as I mentioned above, I think it would be foolish to rule out that possibility. But for a clear example of where these sorts of emotions are still present, we need merely turn to the Middle East, with the prime example being ISIS. (Which, it should be noted, is primarily a religious phenomenon.) And it’s worth spending some time on that, because clearly Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was a modern Hitler-esque figure. Which would seem to be strong evidence in favor of the argument that Hitlers are still possible (possibilities one and two).

The only saving grace in this instance was the vast disparity in technology between ISIS and its enemies, which allowed a strange pseudo-coalition of US backed Kurds, combined with Russian backed Syrians to eventually defeat them. But it’s worth pointing out that neither the US nor the Russians defeated them directly, they had to use “emotional” proxies like the Kurds and Assad supporting Syrians to actually eliminate ISIS as a nation with territory. This would also be the time to point out that the US has been unable to defeat the Taliban. Taken together these two conflicts would appear to provide strong evidence that the emotions Orwell mentioned are still important. And leading us to answer with a provisional “yes” to his first question: “Are these the emotions that provide the energy which actually shapes the world.” Well, at a minimum they have certainly shaped Afghanistan.

Looking at the world as a whole is interesting, but I think it’s instructive to look at just the US. When asked whether our nation still contains people with the sort of emotional energy found elsewhere most people might offer up the example of the ongoing protests against Trump. Or perhaps they might point out stories of street battles between Antifa and the Proud Boys or something similar. And while these may or may not be the sort of thing Orwell was talking about, they lack another characteristic which removes them from consideration even if they are. These individuals represent factions within a nation and not the nation itself. For Churchill to rally the English, it was not enough for him to rally only the football hooligans, or the Londoners, or even all the members of his own party he had to rally the nation as a whole. Now of course he didn’t have to rally every last individual citizen, but he (and Hitler) rallied enough people that the resources of the entire nation were bent towards a single goal. Looking at the factions currently roaming the streets, do you imagine any of them will ever have enough support to unite the entire nation? I don’t.

We should, at this point, consider the possibility that there are plenty of Hitlers, and perhaps even an equal number of Churchills but that the modern world is too fragmented for one of them to ever again rally an entire nation. The causes of this fragmentation have been amply examined elsewhere. (Indeed it seems the media can talk about little else.) And, for the purposes of this post, we’re not concerned with how we got here, but only with what we do now that we are. As to that, it seems obvious that we can have hundreds of mini-Churchills and Hitlers running around, but it doesn’t matter how much power they are able to bring to bear, because when speaking of a nation the whole is much greater than the sum of its parts. The effectiveness of an entire nation is vastly greater than the effectiveness of any faction within that nation, even adjusted for size, and even if the various factions aren’t actively working against each other, which they generally are.

Does this therefore mean that the answer to Orwell’s second question is also yes? That in the absence of these unifying emotions that we have lost “all power of action”? As you’ll recall he mentioned two groups of people in his essay, those who were susceptible to nationalism and those who thought it a relic of the past. If the first group, those who are still given to emotion, are hopelessly divided, perhaps a new breed of rational individuals will step in and take their place. But of course, Orwell also claimed, speaking of this second group, “for the common-sense, essentially hedonistic world-view which Mr. Wells puts forward, hardly a human creature is willing to shed a pint of blood.” Is this claim true? I’m not sure how to test it, or what evidence to provide for its truthfulness, but perhaps if we consider one of the chief examples and advocates for this second group as an example, it will help give us a sense of things. For this purpose I’d like to consider Steven Pinker, who I admittedly pick on a lot, but he is also probably the foremost example of a public intellectual who rejects “racial pride, leader-worship, religious belief, [and] love of war” while also embracing a “commonsense essentially hedonistic worldview.” 

Given our framework, the first question we might ask is whether Pinker is a Churchill. (Or, I suppose, a Hitler, though that’s not a term to be thrown around lightly.) If he were then the discussion would be over, but I think we can safely say that he is not, at least not in the classic sense of being the charismatic leader of a popular movement. You could make the argument that while he does not have broad popular appeal, that he has had some influence on the rich and powerful. Certainly Bill Gates appears to have been influenced by his ideas. And that’s not nothing to be sure, but we’re not asking if Pinker and people like him can have any influence, clearly they can, we’re asking whether they can take the place of a Churchill and unite a nation when a Hitler shows up with his millions of men and tens of thousands of tanks. And here Pinker’s prospects don’t seem very promising. 

For there to be any hope of someone like Pinker pulling off this sort of charismatic unification you would expect to see some indications of that power already. At least one or two political parties somewhere in the world of non-trivial size dedicated to him (not merely his ideology, remember we’re talking charismatic not ideological unification) or some nation where “Pinkerism” has already triumphed, and posters of the professor are displayed prominently. Unless I’m woefully misinformed, I don’t think any of that has happened. Frankly, it’d be a nice change of pace if bands of rabid Pinkernarians (Pinkertonians?) roamed the streets violently enforcing enlightenment ideals, but as far as I can tell insofar as there are Pinkernarians in the world they are entirely unorganized, and exactly as docile as Orwell predicted they would be.

To be clear, from Pinker’s perspective this lack of rabid followers is more of a feature than a bug. Popular movements are not known for their rationality, nor are the charismatic leaders of such movements known for their restraint. I think what he’s arguing is that you can be effective, that you can generate the energy necessary to shape the world, without such things, without the fiery emotions Orwell mentioned. That you can do it based entirely on rational self interest. Perhaps, but the evidence appears to be against it. 

Previously, I discussed the difficulties of sustaining political unity in the absence of credible threats, and remarked that it seemed a better explanation than most for the current level of political vitriol. And the big question we should have after all of this, is can it be done? In a world without Hitlers and Churchills can nations still unify to get big important things done? We’ve seen Pinker’s argument for how this will happen, what does everyone else think?

III.

As you’ll recall this all started with a discussion of the possibility that the modern West, and in particular the US contains neither Churchills nor Hitlers. And, if that is indeed the case what it might mean. Orwell argues (and I think with some justification) that such a society is going to be incapable of doing anything particularly grand. He specifically mentions shedding a pint of blood, but I think that could be extended to anything which requires significant sacrifice of their “essentially hedonistic worldview” for the “greater good”. If they’re not willing to hazard the shedding of blood (theirs or others) they might also be unwilling to pay higher taxes, receive fewer benefits or put up with small amounts of inequality. 

Pinker seems to be arguing that ongoing progress will mean that they mostly won’t have to, and that whatever inconveniences remain can be calmly and rationally addressed by an enlightened populace full of calm and rational individuals. But Pinker is also one of those rare individuals who believes the only thing we have to fear about the future is fear itself. (Specifically that such fear will cause us to abandon the enlightenment values which got us here.) A far greater percentage of people think that there are lots of things to worry about in the future, and furthermore lots of problems in the present, and being able to bring together millions of people to solve these problems would sure come in handy. The question is how to get those people to bring with them homeless shelters in their thousands, and solar panels in their tens of thousands rather than aeroplanes and tanks.

Most individuals, when confronted with this question, while still opposed to actual war, do not also go on to deny its power. There’s even a phrase that gets used: “The Moral Equivalent of War”. Wikipedia has a pretty good description of its origins:

…this phrase [comes] from the classic essay “The Moral Equivalent of War” derived from the speech given by the American psychologist and philosopher William James, delivered at Stanford University in 1906, and subsequent book, published in 1910, in which “James considered one of the classic problems of politics: how to sustain political unity and civic virtue in the absence of war or a credible threat…” and “…sounds a rallying cry for service in the interests of the individual and the nation.”

(As far as I can tell Pinker is not a fan of this idea, arguing in his book Better Angels that people shouldn’t be lionizing war even metaphorically.)

This description comes from the entry about President Carter’s use of that term in a famous speech about the energy crisis. (It also resulted in people realizing that the acronym for Moral Equivalent of War is MEOW… ) Carter contended that not only was this crisis large and serious, but that it was potentially catastrophic, and accordingly, it would require the united action of all citizens to solve. His solution was to engage in something that was the “Moral Equivalent of War”. An undertaking which marshalled the resources and devotion of the entire nation without the necessity of the usual external threat. He tried to rally the American People to warlike unity and effort without an actual war. He tried to be a Churchill without there being a Hitler.

Carter was president a long time ago, and if your knowledge of that time is a little fuzzy, let me assure you that Carter was no Churchill. Even if he was, by all accounts, a good man in most other respects. On top of that, as it turned out (and this might be part of Pinker’s argument) the energy crisis turned out to be both temporary and somewhat artificial. the part which wasn’t artificial was mostly solved through gradual gains in efficiency. Not through the use of MEOW. 

These days we have people in a similar position to the one Carter faced, they see large problems on the horizon and they want to rally the US and the Western democracies in general to unify and put forth the same level of effort towards these problems that they put forth to win World War II (or start it in Germany’s case). But how do they do that without a war? How does someone become a Churchill in the absence of a Hitler? You see attempts at this sort of thing with Andrea Ocasio Cortez, and the Green New Deal, Greta Thunberg and her numerous exhortations, and Bernie Sanders and his crusade against inequality. And while these people have numerous very impassioned followers it’s clear that they’re just very successful politicians and public figures, that they’re FDR before the war, not FDR after Pearl Harbor. 

One would have to argue that someone can’t marshal the resources of an entire nation in a fashion similar to what happened during World War II without appealing to the emotions of “racial pride, leader-worship, religious belief, [and] love of war”, as was the case with Hitler. Or without appealing to a close analog, say national pride, inspiring leadership, religious belief and love of country, along with being under an immediate and clear existential threat, as was the case with Churchill.

If this is the case where does it leave us? Let’s return to the four possibilities I mentioned above, but with a more specific focus on the US.

  1. Nothing has changed. It is still possible to unite the entire country using something very similar to patriotism, but there needs to be a credible, and immediate threat. Something on the level of the Cold War might work or it might not. (It did get us to the Moon.)
  2. The US and it’s citizens have forever lost the ability to unite against a common enemy. We can no longer produce Churchills, but our (potential) enemies are still capable of producing Hitlers. 
  3. That we have passed into some new world where war is a thing of the past, there are no more Hitlers to force us to unify, but we figure out some other way of accomplishing grand things. Perhaps people are able to unify around mini-Churchills, like Elon Musk and his vision for a Mars colony.
  4. That all people everywhere are gradually giving way to the “essentially hedonistic world-view”, some nations (for example the US) are just farther along than others. But as we all gradually become lotus eaters it will turn out that there’s very little we’re willing to sacrifice, not a pint of blood, not our material comforts, in fact pretty much nothing at all.

Obviously three, Churchills without Hitlers is the one we’re all hoping for, but as I pointed out, there’s very little evidence that we’ve been able to make that pivot. I mentioned Musk, and he is an interesting figure, but having recently read the biography of Henry Ford the parallels are actually pretty striking. Which is to say I don’t think Musk is another Churchill, I think he’s just another Ford, and also as I’ve said repeatedly establishing a Mars colony is ridiculously difficult.

What I suspect and fear is that the US falls in category two or four. And I’m not sure which is more depressing. At least with possibility two, there’s always hope that in face of an aggressive China, or a resurgent Russia that though things will initially look fairly hopeless, eventually we’ll regrow our spine and summon another Churchill. Though even then it’s still difficult to imagine how things would play out, and should another world war break out the presence of nuclear weapons complicates things enormously. (Ground I’ve also covered.) But even if things went against us, I think most people would prefer if we went down fighting. 

In the end while all of these scenarios remain possibilities, as I look around I’m more and more convinced that it is just as Orwell predicted. That in abandoning nationalism and religious belief, along with other, similar emotions, that we have descended into hedonism and narcissism and thereby also given up the only things that were ever capable of unifying people around monumental tasks and grand visions. That the finale of western civilization will be just as the poet predicted:

This is the way the world ends

This is the way the world ends

This is the way the world ends

Not with a bang but a whimper.


If you’d like to encourage a little bit of fighting, or at least a little bit of curmudgeonly complaining consider donating. I promise however things end with me it will be bang, not a whimper.


We’re All Montezuma, and the Europeans Are Always Just Around the Corner

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I.

As I mentioned back in July, I’ve been listening to the Fall of Civilizations Podcast by Paul Cooper. In his latest episode he tells the tragic tale of the fall of the Aztecs. The tale of how Hernán Cortés, with just a few hundred men, and more importantly a combination of diplomacy and disease, toppled one of the world’s great civilizations in just three years. The tale of how Cortés was able to accomplish all this in such a short time, with so few men, is fascinating and appalling in equal measure.

On the other side, the doom of the Aztecs and Montezuma is both tragic, and unavoidable. Certainly they could have handled the invasion of Cortés better. By striking at the right moment they probably could have defeated him, but even if they had, the eventual outcome would not have changed. In any case, it’s hard to place much blame on either the Aztecs or Montezuma, they just had no idea what they were dealing with. And it’s really this aspect I want to focus on, how abruptly the world changed from one they largely understood to one that only existed in their nightmares. I want to focus on the more general category of sudden catastrophe. Those times when history turned on a dime. 

Interestingly, the podcast actually contained two examples of this phenomenon. There was, of course, the story of Cortés and Montezuma, but Cooper actually began the podcast by talking about the Chicxulub Asteroid, and the impact which ended the 180 million year reign of the dinosaurs, in a single moment of unimaginable destruction. He mentioned this, both because the asteroid impacted very near the empire of the Aztecs (albeit millions of years previously), and because it’s another example of things turning on a dime.

I understand that dinosaurs did not have the intelligence to appreciate or even notice the tiny light in the sky that would eventually end their existence, but it’s interesting to imagine what it might have been like if they had. If, say, they had possessed the intelligence of our hominid ancestors. They might have recognized that the light in the sky was something new. As it got closer and brighter they might have wondered what that meant. But would they have ever imagined that in a few short days or hours that their world would be completely and utterly destroyed? It’s only in the last century or two that we would have understood that. 

Montezuma was in a very similar position, though he had a few years as opposed to a few days, but there is still an enormous amount of dramatic irony to the story. Where we can see the impending and enormous catastrophe at the end of the story, but even at the moment of his death he still could probably only see a fraction of the oncoming calamity.

Montezuma was born in 1466, so 26 years before Columbus’ arrival, into a long string of Central American civilizations stretching back thousands of years. More consequentially, when he was born the two worlds, old and new, had been separated for more than ten thousand years beyond that. If we limit ourselves to considering just the Aztec Empire, it had been ascendent for at least a century, and reached its greatest size during Montezuma’s reign, where he ruled from the center of the largest city in the Americas. All of which is to say that things looked great for him in the years leading up to contact with the Europeans. He was the leader of his known world’s greatest empire. He had vanquished all of his rivals, and everyone treated him like a god, which absent the Spaniards he might as well have been. But in their presence it would all turn out to be meaningless.

Even though Columbus arrived in 1492, it actually wasn’t until 1517 that Montezuma first heard of the Europeans when Juan de Grijalva landed on San Juan de Ulúa. Montezuma ordered a watch to be kept, and I’m sure he was curious, but I don’t think he had an inkling that three years later, as a result of these new people, he would be dead. That one year after that his empire would be overthrown and that within 60 years 95% of his people would be dead from disease. If he had known, it’s unclear what he should have done. In many respects he was just as powerless as the dinosaurs had been 65 million years earlier. 

Certainly had Montezuma known what was coming he would have been very fatalistic, and many of the earlier historians blamed Aztec fatalism for contributing to the ease with which Cortés conquered them. This fatalism supposedly had nothing to do with the new arrivals, and was derived from the appearance of a comet, and the ending of an Aztec era. But not only has that theory been entirely abandoned by more recent scholars, it’s belied by the circumstances of the story. When Cortés first arrived at the Aztec capital Montezuma welcomed him in, thinking that he was engaging in wise diplomacy with representatives of a foreign state. Had he been fatalistic he would have attacked and destroyed them, regardless of the casualties. But he still thought that his empire was going to continue as it always had, and he was far more worried about his vassal states and what it might look like if he lost thousands of men to kill a few hundred, so he welcomed them in instead. Meaning that fatalism, which I am often accused of, probably wasn’t present and didn’t contribute to the Aztecs defeat, and if it had been present, it might have helped. 

II.

As we examine the story of Montezuma, and others like it we notice that there are three distinct stages. And that these stages are the same one’s described by Donald Rumsfeld in 2002, in his famous quote:

Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.

Rumsfeld took some flack for that statement at the time, and that whole framework is based on the Johari Window. (Which I’ve referenced before.) But I’ve always thought it represents something very important. In this case it perfectly describes the distinct stages of sudden catastrophes. 

The first stage is the unknown unknowns stage. It’s Montezuma in 1516, thinking he ruled over the greatest empire in history, and never suspecting that amongst all the things he was ignorant about, were empires far greater than his own. Empires who not only possessed superior technology, but whose citizens were carriers for a host of horrible diseases against which his people lacked all immunity. 

The second stage is that brief period between the first evidence that something new is happening, but before it’s clear how bad it is. In Rumsfeld’s construction it’s the known unknown stage. In Montezuma’s case it’s 1517-1519, when he’s aware of the arrival of the Europeans, but he’s not sure what kind of threat they pose. When his power to respond is still at its maximum, but unfortunately his knowledge, while not as bad as the first stage, is still near the nadir. 

The final stage is when the new reality has finally set in, the known known stage. The empire has fallen, Montezuma is dead, the first of the epidemics have started and the Spanish are in charge. Montezuma himself wasn’t around for this, but lots of Aztecs were. And while they still didn’t know everything they knew enough to know that Europeans were bad news. 

On top of the above some catastrophes are easier to foresee and prevent than others. Returning to the dinosaurs, that catastrophe would have been impossible to prevent even if the dinosaurs could have understood what was going on. On the other end of the spectrum, as long as we’re on the subject of Rumsfeld, the catastrophe that was the Iraq War should have been relatively easy to foresee and prevent, particularly since it was a catastrophe of our own making. The tragedy of the Aztecs is somewhere in between, though certainly closer to the dinosaur end than the Iraq War end. 

III.

What is a person living in 2020 supposed to do with all of the above? To work backwards, first we should be doing everything we can to make future catastrophes easier to see and prevent. This is a huge topic all on its own, but perhaps one example will suffice. In 1998 both Deep Impact and Armageddon were released to theaters, and it was noted at the time, that the budget for either movie would be sufficient to find all of the asteroids over a certain size that might impact the Earth. In other words for the cost of producing the movie we could prevent the events in the movie from coming to pass. Instead we made two of them. The search for asteroids is ongoing, currently the goal is to identify 90% of all asteroids larger than 460 feet in diameter by 2020 (which probably won’t happen). But if an asteroid does smash into the earth and we could have found it, but spent the money instead on making a movie about it happening, we’re going to feel pretty silly.

From there we’re not doing as well as we could on those catastrophes in the known knowns category. The chief example here is the opioid epidemic. We’ve known that opium and its derivatives are addictive since at least 1750 and yet we somehow forgot that or choose to overlook it recently and started prescribing truly insane amounts of it to people. (See my previous post about that here.) And even once we recognized the scope of the problem I think it’s fair to say that we’ve been slow to act. Which is not to say the problem isn’t complicated with a lot of moving parts. More that it’s a catastrophe in the easiest stage to deal with, it’s a known known. And if we can’t deal with catastrophes at this stage what hope is there for dealing with them early enough to prevent the damage.

The next category, known unknowns is where most of the excitement is. This is where people fight over things which might be catastrophic. Whether it’s rising right-wing extremism, inequality, AI risk, pornography or nuclear weapons. This is important work, and I hope in my own small way to contribute to it. For those with more resources, philanthropists, foundations, government, etc. I would like to see even more money and time spent on it. But it’s really the next category that represents the primary focus of this post: the unknown unknowns.

As I said, this is precisely what Montezuma was facing when he was born in 1466, and when he ascended the throne in 1502. The forces that would desolate an entire continent’s worth of people were already in motion and he had no idea. I think it’s valuable to consider what Montezuma could have done. Particularly, without assuming any additional knowledge about future events.

As it turns out science and technology in general would have been extraordinarily helpful. The Aztecs did not know the Earth was round. They did not know how diseases were transmitted. (Many anthropologists have claimed that the way the Native Americans dealt with sick people helped to spread the many epidemics.) Their metallurgy was not particularly advanced, meaning both their weapons and armor suffered. Obviously I could go on, but you get the idea.

The foregoing becomes very important if we assume that we’re in the same position as Montezuma, that there’s some unknown unknown out there waiting to pounce and spread death on a scale never imagined. Perhaps you think we’re not in this position, I doubt it. In fact, I would say that we are in exactly the same position Montezuma was, we just aren’t sure if we’re in the equivalent of 1516, 1492, or 1300. Which is to say we don’t know if something is just around the corner, if it has already started, but is decades away from manifesting, or if it’s hundreds of years in the future. But I don’t think the various time horizons, make as much difference as you think, also to be honest, just like Montezuma, I think we’re going to be surprised how powerless we feel when the crisis point arises. 

If there is hope, then it lies in science and technology, and we have to do more than talk about how cool it is, we have to use it in a muscular and aggressive fashion. Facebook and Uber are not going to save us, but fusion and putting people on Mars might. And despite our best efforts unknown unknowns are still difficult to deal with and there is no sure path to success. But there’s many reasons to believe that our current path is less sure than most. We are all of us Aztecs, and sooner or later Cortés will arrive. 


One thing you can be certain of, at the end of each post I’m going to make a plea for donations. It’s a known known if you will. If you feel even the slightest twinge of guilt, that’s also a known known, and it can be defeated far easier than Cortés.


Post Christianity

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I.

God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?

Nietzsche, The Gay Science, Section 125, tr. Walter Kaufmann

This is not the first time I have used this quote. The last time it came up, I was quick to point out that the horrible nihilism predicted by Nietzsche had not come to pass. That despite the predictions of not only Nietzsche, but many others, it is possible to be an atheist and still be good. But I was also quick to point out that this “goodness” was still largely derived from a religious foundation, and it’s unclear how long that foundation would last in the absence of a belief in God. Or to pull in another quote from Nietzsche:

When one gives up the Christian faith, one pulls the right to Christian morality out from under one’s feet. This morality is by no means self-evident… By breaking one main concept out of Christianity, the faith in God, one breaks the whole: nothing necessary remains in one’s hands.

Again, most atheists and even most intellectuals will argue that Nietzsche was once again proven wrong, that the “whole” of morality has not been broken. But it’s worth asking, as I did the last time around, is it possible that he was just premature in his pessimism? Is it possible that as we look at the fights over morality we’re having today, or the culture wars as they’re often called, that we’re finally seeing the realization of Nietzsche’s predictions.

To be clear, we have obviously been able to hang on to large parts of Christian morality, even without faith in God, the question Nietzsche asks and which deserves to be asked again, is have we been able to hang on to the necessary parts? For a while it appears we did, in part because genuine secularization at the level Nietzsche foresaw actually didn’t start happening until fairly recently. As an example, the percent of people who identified as religiously unaffiliated was flat at between 5 and 10 percent in the 20 years between 1972 and 1992 (it was 6% in 1991) before beginning a steady climb to 29% in 2018. It’s easy to maintain Christian morality if you still have a lot of Christians, but around 1992 (end of the Cold War?) it starts suddenly draining away, and it’s hard to imagine this will only affect the unnecessary bits. Christianity is leaving the stage, or being altered so completely that it can no longer fulfill its historical role, whatever that might be.

II.

From here I could go off on a jeremiad about the wickedness of the modern world, and certainly someone with the pen name Jeremiah should never shy away from that sort of thing, but in this post I want to go in a different direction. I don’t think there’s any question that Christian morality has been draining away, and many jeremiads could indeed be written on that topic, but the objective of this post is to point out the lesser known side effects of this decline, in particular how it affects the logistics of governing and of holding nations together.

To begin with, there’s the idea that all civilizations are inextricably intertwined with a specific religion. You may recall my post on the ideas of Samuel Huntington, in particular his book The Clash of Civilizations. At the time, one of the things that stood out to me about his thesis was the idea that you can’t have a civilization without having a religion to define that civilization. Or as he said:

Blood, language, religion, way of life, were what the Greeks had in common and what distinguished them from the Persians and other non-Greeks. Of all the objective elements which define civilizations, however, the most important usually is religion, as the Athenians emphasized. To a very large degree, the major civilizations in human history have been closely identified with the world’s great religions; and people who share ethnicity and language but differ in religion may slaughter each other, as happened in Lebanon, the former Yugoslavia and the Subcontinent. [emphasis mine]

Hearing of this idea you may have several reactions:

  1. You may think Huntington is right and that by losing our link to religion we’re in a lot of trouble.
  2. You may think that Huntington is right about the importance of a religion, but that Christianity is no longer the religion of Western Civilization, and that therefore we don’t have to worry about its disappearance. We have a new religion, that of social justice or something similar, and that new religion might even come with a new, global civilization.
  3. You may think Huntington was right, but that he isn’t any longer. That something has changed recently either at a political, social, or technological level which makes his assertions about religion no longer valid, even if they were at some point.
  4. You may think Huntington is right, but only in a very weak, almost tautological sense. Maybe what he’s saying is something akin to, “A culture needs a culture.” In other words, how does this argument apply in a place like China? Is Confucianism really a religion? And if it is, are the Chinese actually believers in it in the same sense that people in America are believers in Christianity?
  5. You may think Huntington is just plain wrong. This is certainly possible, but he’s got a lot of evidence on his side and the point of this post is to martial yet more evidence in his favor.

Let’s take each of these reactions in order. The first is fairly straightforward. If you believe this then you’re on the same page with Nietzsche and Huntington and for that matter, me, and any further discussion of this would just be preaching to the choir. 

As far as the second possibility, a replacement religion, I’ve already discussed it at some length, and there’s a lot of evidence that this might in fact be what’s happening. For one thing it also mostly follows the thinking of Huntington and Nietzsche. The key problem here is that I don’t think it avoids the “we’re in a lot of trouble” part from possibility one. You can read my previous post for a deeper dissection of this, but I’ve seen zero historical evidence that transitioning a civilization from one religion to another has ever been a peaceful or straightforward process.

For this possibility, the most charitable reading of history is that Western Civilization already abandoned Christianity around when Nietzsche said they would and successfully replaced it with enlightenment values. But as you may recall that transition was anything but smooth. And even optimists like Steven Pinker believe that enlightenment values are under serious attack.  

Possibility three is perhaps the most interesting, that we needed religion, but we don’t any longer. Despite being interesting it has several things working against it. To begin with if you acknowledge that this is how things used to work, you have to come up with a credible mechanism for why things no longer work this way. Why politics and technology have somehow removed culture as a factor in maintaining a civilization. This becomes particularly difficult in light of the culture war we’re currently experiencing which has arguably been made worse by technology. To put it all together, you’re arguing that technology has made culture less contentious when the evidence all points in the opposite direction, and furthermore, in this argument the burden of proof would all be on your side of the argument. 

In discussing possibility number four I offered up China as a counterexample, and I take it seriously. No one would describe China as a particularly religious country even if you grant that Confucianism is a religion, and at first glance this seems to seriously weaken Huntington’s argument (and by extension my own) but I believe there are some additional things to consider here. First and most obviously, no one would say, as protests in Hong Kong enter their 20th week that China is a model of cultural cohesion in the absence of a religion. Second, one would assume that if you have the all-encompassing top down dictatorship like China does, having a strong religion on top of that to fall back on becomes far less important. Or to put it another way, the fight over something like abortion looks a lot different in China. Something we’ll return to in a moment.

III.

This takes us to the final possibility, that Huntington is wrong, and refuting this possibility is where I plan to spend the remainder of the post.

As a foundation to that, I’d like to talk about Power Games vs. Value Games, I’m borrowing this labeling from the current series Tim Urban is doing on Wait but Why (which I’ve mentioned before in this space). Though you can find references to the overarching concept all through my work. But Urban’s definitions are more succinct. 

The Power Games basically goes like this: everyone acts fully selfish, and whenever there’s a conflict, whoever has the power to get their way, gets their way. Or, more succinctly:

Everyone can do whatever they want, if they have the power to pull it off.

There are no principles in the Power Games—only the cudgel. And whoever holds it makes the rules.

The animal world almost always does business this way. The bear and the bunny from the beginning… found themselves in a conflict over the same resource—the bunny’s body. The bunny wanted to keep having his body to use for being alive and the bear wanted to eat his body to score a few energy points from his environment. A power struggle ensued between the two, which the bear won. A bear’s power comes in the form of being a big strong dick. But power isn’t the same as strength. A bunny’s power comes in the form of sensitive ears, quick reflexes, and running (bouncing?) speed—and if the bunny had been a little better at being a bunny, he might have escaped the bear and retained the important resource. [emphasis original]

As Urban points out this is how things are in a state of nature, and it’s mostly how things were historically. People and nations did whatever they wanted as long as they had the power to pull it off. But there is another way to resolve disputes, Value Games:

In the Power Games, people who have cudgels use them to forcefully take the resources they want. In the Value Games, people use carrots to win resources over from others.

The Value Games are driven by human nature, just like the Power Games are. The difference is the Power Games is what humans do when there are no rules—the Value Games is what humans do when a key limitation is added into the environment:

You can’t use a cudgel to get what you want.

If I want something you have, but I’m not allowed to get it by bullying you, then the only option I’m left with is to get you to give it to me voluntarily. And since you’re selfish too, the only way you’ll do that is if I can come up with a “carrot”—a piece of value I can offer—that you’d rather have than the resource I want from you. 

I will add that one aspect of Value Games that Urban doesn’t pay a lot of attention to is that such games are a lot easier to engage in if people have many values in common. It’s one thing to offer people carrots if everyone loves carrots. It’s quite another if they don’t. Or to put it another way, imagine that instead of offering carrots you’re offering pork. Your ability to trade for things you want is going to be very different depending on whether the person you’re dealing with is Catholic or Muslim. Value Games depend a great deal on having common values. This becomes even more important when you’re talking about sacred values, i.e. a religion.

Furthermore, Urban didn’t spend as much time as I would have liked explaining why you wouldn’t be able to use a cudgel to get what you want. In truth the cudgel is always an option. It always hangs in the background. All Value Games have a bit of a Power Game in them. It’s just that you’re unlikely to bring out the cudgel if the carrot is going to be more effective. Also, the more sacred the value the more likely you are to use force to defend it, making shared religious values the most important shared values of all. But once religion goes away, once people no longer have faith that there’s some supernatural source of sacred values, that foundation of morality Nietzsche talked about, then inevitably (though not immediately) Value Games become harder, and Power Games become more likely.

IV.

Let’s look at some examples of this dynamic in action. You have almost certainly heard about the tweet Daryl Morey, owner of the Houston Rockets, sent in support of the Hong Kong protesters and the controversy it caused between China and the NBA. It doesn’t take much imagination to realize that this is a Power Game. The Chinese can talk about their hurt feelings till they’re blue in the face, but in the end China wants something and they have the power to get it (withholding billions of dollars) so that’s what’s happening. 

This part is straightforward enough. But dig a little bit deeper and a few other interesting points emerge. First, China is still playing Value Games with the protests in Hong Kong, they haven’t yet resorted to the cudgel. One Value Game is with the actual people protesting and another is with the international community. In contrast the way they manage their citizens who live outside of Hong Kong largely takes the form of a Power Game. On the other side of things while the NBA is playing (and apparently losing) a Power Game with China, what was it doing when it boycotted North Carolina in 2016 for the state law which was perceived to be biased against the LGBT community? And is it hypocritical as so many people have accused?

Now I suppose that you could argue that North Carolina’s law was so much worse than what China is doing in Hong Kong that in the one case a boycott was appropriate, but in the other a groveling apology was called for, but I don’t think anyone seriously buys that. No the difference is that in the case of North Carolina, we’re still playing Value Games. The NBA was hoping that by boycotting North Carolina that their values would shift in the direction of the NBAs values. (Or what they saw as the center of gravity for the whole country. The NBA is a business after all). When the NBA caved in to China it wasn’t because of their deeply held values. (Other than their deeply held avarice.) It was because China had the power to compel them to submit. Would the controversy have played out differently if China (or for that matter the US) was Christian? One would certainly hope so. 

Let’s look at another example. I just finished reading the book Gandhi & Churchill: The Epic Rivalry that Destroyed an Empire and Forged Our Age by Arthur Herman. I’ll do a more detailed review of it at the end of the month, but right now I want to focus on the independence negotiations between the United Kingdom and India. Certainly power played a large part in these negotiations, British military power and the power of the Indian masses which Gandhi was able to effectively marshall, but it’s remarkable to what extent Christian and Hindu values played a part as well. Gandhi was a huge admirer of Christianity and of the British in general. If he hadn’t he wouldn’t have attempted his campaign of passive resistance. If you doubt this just imagine how his campaign would have gone if he had tried it with the Nazis rather than the British. 

But set aside all of that for the moment, the really interesting thing is that the two sides could sit down together. They could negotiate and reach an agreement, and this, in spite of ongoing atrocities that today are barely imaginable. When you imagine politics today, who do you imagine sitting down together? (Certainly not Pelosi and Trump.) It seems that the most alarming sign that Value Games are over and we’re in the realm of Power Games is the fact that the two sides of the current conflict can’t have those negotiations, in fact they can barely watch football together, if the recent dust-up over Ellen and Bush is any indication.

For my final example I want to revisit abortion where we appear to be on the cusp of transitioning from Value Games to Power Games. Let’s begin that examination by looking at how abortion is handled by some of the systems we’ve already touched on. 

Religion- I’m not an expert on how various religions view abortions, but I’m reasonably certain that they all take a stand on it. In other words, to return to my primary point, Value Games work better in the presence of a religion because there is an agreed upon value baseline. 

China- Given that China generally operates in a Power Game space with its population, they can basically dictate whatever abortion policy they want. At the moment it’s legal, but if tomorrow they decided to make it illegal would anyone be surprised? Would you expect massive demonstrations? I wouldn’t.

Switching to Enlightenment Values from Christian Values- What does The Enlightenment say about abortion? Is it pro-choice? I know that many people would argue that it is, but if so, it took a long time to get there. In fact, pro-choice organizations argue that abortion was basically legal everywhere until the enlightenment. After that initial rush of anti-abortion laws, it appears that the first place to make it legal in all cases was the Soviet Union in 1920 under Lenin. I don’t know about you, but I generally avoid using examples from the Soviet Union to buttress my case. After that the next place for it to be made legal was Mexico in 1931 and then only in cases of rape. It didn’t arrive in the US until 1967 when Colorado legalized it in cases of rape, incest and health of the mother. Needless to say it doesn’t sound like it was a big part of the core Enlightenment values.

All of this takes us to the battles over abortion we see today. As I said, up until recently these debates seemed to revolve around a discussion of values, but more and more they’ve moved into the realm of power. Who can do what. So far the Power Games are operating within the framework of laws, which are a form of values, but when you pay more attention to fighting over who can interpret those laws than the laws themself I think some important rubicon has been crossed on the power/value continuum

As further evidence that we have crossed over from arguing about values to exercising power I offer up the venom present in the current debate, where even repeating Bill Clinton’s assertion that abortions should be safe, legal and rare provokes enormous blowback from the pro-choice side of things. Or to frame it another way. Gandhi and the Viceroy of India, Lord Irwin were able to sit down and negotiate despite excessive violence on the side of the British and mass uprisings among the Indians. Who can we imagine doing the same today? 

V.

It’s important to note that to the extent that the West is “post-christian” it hasn’t been post-christian for very long, and it’s still unclear what system will come along and replace religion as a civilizational bedrock. Even if you don’t agree that it has to be another religion, I think we can agree that it has to be something, if we’re going to avoid slipping back into power games. And thus far the options do not appear promising:

To complete the circle, it should be noted that Nietzsche had a solution to this problem. It was the Übermensch, but it’s hard to imagine anything less likely to fill in as a core civilizational value in this day and age.

To continue with Nietzsche, people took a watered down version of his ideas, combined it with the ideas of progress more generally and came up with eugenics. And it’s hard to find a major figure who didn’t support it in the first half of the 20th century. Also, it should be noted, abortion was a major component of that movement. 

It’d be nice to say that Christianity was still powerful enough that it put a stop to eugenics. It was not, it had much more to do with the evils of Nazism, but it is interesting to note that when the Supreme Court ruled that state laws requiring compulsory sterilization of the unfit were constitutional, that a Catholic judge was the only one to dissent, and he did so because of his religious beliefs.

For those celebrating the decline of Christianity. This has to provide a cautionary tale, and, further, a strong piece of evidence that abandoning religion is more difficult and error-prone than people think. In any case it is no longer a candidate as an alternative to religion.

Moving on, other people such as Steven Pinker put a lot of stock in Enlightenment values, but they’re not holding up so well either. (Which is part of the reason Pinker had to write a whole book defending those same values.) Certainly, as I pointed out above, they seem unequal to the task of solving the current crisis.

Still other people hold out hope that some entirely new civic religion will come along, and magically solve everything. And perhaps it will, but large failures like eugenics and smaller failures like the blind spots of the enlightenment should make us cautious about the effectiveness of reasoning our way into a cohesive set of effective values. And even if that’s something we can do, the transition might be brutal.

It would appear that a return to Christianity is the only thing that’s left, but of course that’s much easier said than done and I suspect the process is past the point of no return. It part it’s because they were right, all those people who claimed that it was possible for an individual to abandon religion and still be good. The part I think they and everyone else missed is how difficult it is for a civilization to abandon religion and still be unified. 


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How Does the Bloodshed Start?

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A couple of posts ago I made something of a snarky aside about violence.

Some of my readers have questioned where I expect the blood to come from; who I expect to take up arms. And it is a subject which deserves a deeper dive, and one where they probably have something of a point. Nevertheless, it’s important to remember how civilized everyone thought things were before World War I…

I was on the verge of putting in another, similar snarky aside in my last post, when talking about violence in the early 70s, but I ignored that urge, not because I don’t like snarky asides, or because the topic isn’t important, but because, as I said, what the subject really needs is a deeper dive. The question of “How does the bloodshed start?” is a complicated one, and not something that can be answered by a few asides here and there. And it’s possible that Pinker and some of my readers are correct and the answer is, “It doesn’t.” In any event, it’s something which definitely deserves a full post. 

This is that post, and any discussion of the potential for future violence has to begin by taking into account past violence. How did it start? How bad did it  get? How did it end? Are there any similarities between it and what we’re going through now?

All of which leads me to the idea of historical cycles, another topic I’ve been dancing around over the last several posts. In fact, in several cases I’ve had long sections about them which I ultimately decided to cut because they didn’t quite fit, but I think it’s finally time to dig into the idea that there might be cycles to history, particularly cycles of violence. And if that’s the case to examine where we are on that cycle. Is our current period of political strife a high point in some identifiable cycle? Or is it something new and different?

As is so often the case, I’ll start with Scott Alexander over at Slate Star Codex, who spent a few posts recently reviewing Peter Turchin’s theory of secular cycles. In particular I want to focus on his review of Ages of Discord because as part of that review he mentions two previous periods of massive unrest which have largely been forgotten.

The first of these periods was around 1920 and it included bombings by Italian anarchists, racial violence, and the Mine War. To give you a sense of the scale of the unrest, the anarchist bombings culminated with an explosion on Wall Street which killed 38. The racial violence included the Red Summer and the Tulsa Race Riot, two events, which combined to produce 1,300 fatalities and the destruction of entire black neighborhoods. I had heard of some of these things, for example I knew there was a wave of terrorism by anarchists (in particular the assassination of McKinley) and I had some familiarity with the Tulsa Race Riot, but I confess to being entirely unaware of Mine War. From Alexander’s review:

Although it started as a labor dispute, it eventually turned into the largest armed insurrection in US history, other than the Civil War. Between 10,000 and 15,000 miners armed with rifles fought thousands of strike-breakers and sheriff’s deputies, called the Logan Defenders. The insurrection was ended by the US Army. While such violent incidents were exceptional, they took place against a background of a general “class war” that had been intensifying since the violent teens. “In 1919 nearly four million workers (21% of the workforce) took disruptive action in the face of employer reluctance to recognize or bargain with unions” 

The first important point I want to draw your attention to is how unaware most people are of incidents of past unrest, even an extreme example like the Mine War. You might think that this ignorance wouldn’t be as bad with more recent events like those occurring during the unrest of the late 60s/early 70s, but Alexander includes a couple of quotes to point out that people are relatively ignorant about these events as well:

People have completely forgotten that in 1972 we had over nineteen hundred domestic bombings in the United States. 

— Max Noel, FBI (ret.)

Puerto Rican separatists bombed NYC like 300 times, killed people, shot up Congress, tried to kill POTUS (Truman). Nobody remembers it.

Status 451’s review of Days of Rage

Of course this is not to say that people have entirely forgotten the turbulence of the late 60s and early 70s, but it does appear that most people have forgotten just how violent it got. For one thing, I’ve certainly never heard any mainstream pundits bring it up when discussing current violence or future potential violence. 

These incidents are included in Alexander’s review because Turchin is primarily a student (and advocate) of cycles, and in Ages of Discord Turchin makes the claim that these violent periods, with the first around 1920 and the second around 1970, were part of a 50 year cycle of unrest and violence. Which, if true, would mean that one explanation for the “carnage” we’re currently experiencing comes because we’re nearing the next peak in that cycle. Turchin expects this to be a particularly bad peak, so while the idea of a cycle would imply that things will return to normal after the peak, it’s by no means certain that this will happen. In fact, coincidentally (or maybe not?) after I started writing this post I came across the following letter to the editor in The Economist from Paul McVinney in Accokeek, Maryland:

The most compelling explanation for the rise of today’s populism can be found in the sociological study of structural-demographic theory. In the “Ages of Discord”, Peter Turchin described how America is going through a “disintegrative phase”, last seen in the 1860s. In this phase, political fragmentation grows, social democracy declines, elites take greater economic and political power (and seek more positions than the country offers), workers suffer from stagnant wages and inequality, authoritarianism grows, and the state is headed toward fiscal crisis. Mr Turchin’s book fully explains the dynamic factors at work and is supported by much empirical data. You actually described the disintegrative phase without recognising it for what it is. This phase may not be the end of some democracies (or democracy in general), but as Mr Turchin says, there is no guarantee a country will survive it.

Whatever the utility of Turchin’s theory, and whatever it’s specificity as far as time, it doesn’t seem to be very specific on how this unrest will manifest. To be clear, I’m actually a big fan of the idea of historical cycles, and in general I think we should pay more attention to the possibility that something like that is going on, but I don’t think, even if Turchin is on to something, that his theory does much to answer our central question, “How does the bloodshed start?” It may tell us to expect it’s arrival, but it doesn’t do much to pin down what direction it’s arriving from.

The examples from the 20s and the 70s are useful guideposts, even if we end up rejecting the idea of historical cycles, but these examples only get us so far since it’s already clear that the discord we’re currently experiencing is different in many important respects. In both of the past situations you had a lot more violence than we’re currently experiencing but the unrest itself was confined to a much smaller space. You might say the discord was very deep, but not particularly wide, and as I pointed out in my last post, current political unrest appears to be exceptionally wide, but not particularly deep, at least not yet, a fairly large difference.

The other difference which occurs to me might best be understood by referring to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Maslow imagined that people worked first to satisfy physiological needs like air, food and water before moving on to needs related to safety like shelter, and from there to “higher level” needs like love and belonging or esteem. It appears that throughout history, not merely in the 20s and 70s, that unrest has generally been creeping up this hierarchy. Giving us a difference not only between those periods and our own situation, but between each other

During the unrest of the 1920s, most of the unrest revolved around people who legitimately feared for their lives, or at a minimum were losing access to shelter. For example here’s how Wikipedia describes the Mine War:

Striking miners and their families were prohibited from using company bridges and roads, as well as utilities like running water. Company guards killed several miners over the first few months of the strike, and constructed a machine gun equipped armored train known as the “Bull Moose Special”, which they used to fire upon the tent camps of striking workers.

If we move forward from there to the unrest of the late 60s and early 70s the grievances appear to be higher on that hierarchy. I agree that fear of dying in Vietnam complicates things, but domestic terrorism and Puerto Rican separatism would appear to have very little to do with that, and additionally very little to do with physiological needs or even anything related to safety. Unlike what we saw in the 20s.

This takes us to our own day, and I fear I’ll get into trouble if I spend too much time talking about the relative merits of the injustices underlying whatever current unrest exists, but I will venture to say that by any objective criteria it would fall even higher on the hierarchy than the injustices of the 70s. And much much higher than the injustices of the 1920s

I began by saying that we needed to take into account past violence, and thus far you could be forgiven if you thought my survey of past violence has been overly narrow, but I wanted to focus on more modern violence because that’s the form any violence which might erupt in the near future is likely to take. Also, I don’t think anyone questions that there was a lot of violence historically, but they do seem to forget how recent and extreme some of that historical violence was. Both of which speak to the question of how new bloodshed might start.

With all of the above out of the way I think it’s time to make a list of four possibilities for how things could go in the future:

1- There are cycles of unrest and violence and currently we’re nearing the peak of one of those cycles. However, since it’s cyclical, while there will be problems, they’ll go away (similar to the 60s/70s) and “politics” will go back to “normal”.

2- There are cycles and this one will be a doozy. So much so that things will never completely return to “normal”, and the country might not even survive. (See the letter to the editor above.)

3- There aren’t cycles, but neither is bloody political unrest a thing of the past, and sooner or later we’ll have something similar to the 70s or the 20s or heaven forbid the 1860s, it’s just a matter of time.

4- We have, for the first time in history, passed beyond violence and bloodshed. And either politics and disagreement will never get so acrimonious that people feel the need to resort to violence and bloodshed or somehow everyone has (off the record) mutually forsworn mass violence in pursuit of political ends.

Going forward we’ll spend the most time on possibility four, since that’s the basis of the original question, but the other three are interesting from the standpoint of mitigation.

Starting with possibilities one and two the answer to the question of how the bloodshed starts is the same, it starts because civilizations, in particular the United States, go through relatively predictable cycles and we are nearing the point in the cycle of peak unrest. From a mitigation standpoint the fact that unrest is cyclical is good news. Any trend is easier to deflect if you can see it coming, and if this is truly part of a cycle one might hope that we can use that knowledge and the various elements people like Turchin have identified to lessen the impact of the cycle’s peak. 

This question of mitigation is also why I separated possibilities one and two because while the cause is, in theory, the same, the outcomes are vastly different. One might be considered “tolerable” for the majority of people, while I don’t think the same can be said of possibility two. If we think the country may legitimately end we might be willing to make bigger sacrifices to prevent that, than if we assume the unrest will only be temporary. If the past is any guide you can imagine people adopting the idea that things are cyclical, and then using that as an excuse to not do anything because it will “go away on its own”. I have no strong opinion on which possibility is more likely, but I would like to discourage the idea that we can “wait it out”.  And people will be less inclined to do that if they accept the possibility that the US might not survive this latest round of unrest.

In any case, the point of this post is not to get into whether Turchin’s theory is correct. (If you’re interested in that discussion I would direct you to Alexander’s review of Ages of Discord, which I already mentioned, along with his previous review of Turchin’s book Secular Cycles.) The point is to answer the question “How does the bloodshed start?” And if you think Turchin’s ideas are plausible, then we have our answer. However, I suspect people who are inclined to believe that large scale political violence is a thing of the past are even more inclined to dismiss Turchin’s theories, which is one of the reasons why spending any more time on them is of limited utility, but let me end with this quote from Steve Sailer about Turchin (which Turchin himself approved of.)

I think Turchin doesn’t get much attention because his books are too reasonable to be easily debunked and too enormously detailed to be easily digested and too ambitious to be easily trusted.

Moving on from Turchin and his cycles we have the third possibility. There has always been large scale political violence and there always will be. And anyone arguing otherwise is mistaken, or at the very least should be forced to bear the burden of proof. As the default position, this still seems to be the safest bet and beyond that, I’m not sure what else needs to be added. The advantage Turchin has is that he has all manner of theories for how it happens, and consequently, many recommendations for what should be done. If, on the other hand you’re in the “bloodshed happens” camp, then we probably still have a lot of theories, they’re just less likely to be of any value, particularly when it comes to specific mitigation strategies.

If specific mitigation strategies are unavailable that just leaves general mitigation strategies. And one of the things I want people to take away from this post is that we seem to be undermining these general mitigation strategies right as we need them the most. When mitigation might mean the difference between a temporary state of unrest and the permanent dissolution of the nation. 

Of course it could be that this is precisely why unrest is increasing, that the lack of compromise and civility are both the symptoms and the cause of the unfolding crisis. That people have actually started viewing policies and customs which serve this mitigating function as obstacles. It’s also possible that it’s all part of the cycle I already mentioned. But, regardless, as I said just barely and in previous posts. If people were aware that violence on the order of what happened in the 20s and 70s is still on the table, perhaps they would be more willing to both compromise and exercise civility. That’s my hope at least, but perhaps I’m wrong, perhaps I’m worried about nothing. Perhaps violence isn’t on the table, that I don’t need to be worried about “How the bloodshed will start?” because it won’t. That there is either some upper limit on the kinds of emotions that could lead to violence or some limit on violence itself. Which takes us to possibility number four.

Let’s start off by covering the first half of this possibility, the possibility that there is some upper limit currently on the kinds of emotions which might lead to violence. That externally the government and technology, etc. are no more capable of stopping violence than they were during any previous period, but that people just don’t experience hate and anger to the same level they once did, and therefore would never get worked up enough to be violent. Based on the level of vitriol you see in an average day on twitter this would appear to be false on its face. Perhaps it was true at some point, that there was some historical era of good feelings, but the trend has been moving away from that for a long time, and I don’t think it’s true any longer. At a minimum I would argue that the burden of proof for this claim would be entirely on the other side, with those arguing that there is currently some cap on anger and hate.

After exhausting the other options, all that’s left is the possibility that the modern world has managed to eliminate violence and unrest in some systematic way. And the best candidate for this system would be Hobbes’ Leviathan, or as you and I refer to it, the state. I am not the only one to point out this possibility. As I mentioned in my review of his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker also believes that the modern decrease in violence has a lot to do with the modern increase in the power of the state. As I pointed out in my review, even if this is the case, are we sure that trading political bloodshed for an oppressive government is a trade we’re willing to make? In other words, yes, it’s possible that there will be no bloodshed because one side ends up being able to use the power of the state to completely quash dissent, but is that preferable? Is that somehow success?

I’d be willing to bet that not everyone or even a majority is willing to make that trade. And even if they were it’s still not clear it works over the long haul. Most people, whatever their other feelings about China would have used it as an example of a nation which decided to make this trade, and yet just recently there’s been 16 weeks of protests in Hong Kong, and apparently it’s only getting more violent.

If it is undesirable or unworkable to have the Leviathan eliminate violence, Pinker and his ideological brothers assert that the modern world eliminates violence in other ways as well. In particular conditions in the modern world are so great that there’s really nothing to be violent about. Insofar as this is similar to saying that there will be nothing to be angry about, this is another assertion that would appear to be false on its face. But on top of that, the violence of the 70s does not appear to be that much different than the violence of the 20s, and yet living conditions were dramatically better during the former period than the latter. It has always struck me (and I go into more detail in my review of his book) that the level of violence and the level of material comfort are not as closely correlated as Pinker would have us believe.

All of these issues aside, in the end I always come back to this quote from Oliver Wendell Holmes:

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

Whatever else you may say about the modern world it seems obvious that there is no universally agreed upon vision of the future, or of what constitutes morality for that matter. That we have at least two groups and probably a lot more who want to “make inconsistent kinds of worlds” and that their commitment to their particular world is only growing more intense with each passing year, if not each passing day. How do you resolve an otherwise unresolvable conflict? I am aware that to a certain extent this is why we have laws, but when you observe how acrimonious supreme court nominations have become, how confident are you that our laws will continue to serve in that capacity? Recall that Holmes himself was a justice of the Supreme Court, and even he thought the law was inadequate. Or to put it another way, how confident are you that if Ginsburg dies while Trump is still in office (and recall he could be re-elected) that the Democrats will calmly say, “Well Ginsburg died, I guess you get to nominate another justice. We’ll just try to do better in the next election”? 

Yes, it’s true that as of yet, thank goodness, we haven’t had any significant violence, but I am not convinced that this is because there’s something special and different about the modern world. In closing, I want to emphasize that last point one more time. We have multiple ideologies all on a collision course with each other, and at some point that collision is going to happen. And unless we’re very, very fortunate, when that collision inevitably happens, that’s when the bloodshed starts.


I’ve definitely fascinated by Turchin’s theories on cycles, though I have my doubts that it could be so neat and tidy. (I understand that may be the wrong phrase for periodic violence.)  But you know one cycle you can count on? That at the end of every post I’ll make some appeal, of dubious cleverness, for donations.