Category: Politics

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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The Pendulum

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I.

Have you noticed that Stoicism appears to be “having a moment” as the kids say? I’ll admit I’m not entirely sure I understand why. I know this is just my personal observation, but when I was in college, my impression was that someone was as likely to identify an epicurean as declare that they were a stoic. But now, just a couple of decades later, you’ve got people like Ryan Holiday who’ve built their whole careers around evangelizing Stoicism. 

As I said, I’m a little vague on why it’s suddenly so popular. I would assume that the political situation has something to do with it. (Hegel thought that Stoicism is a philosophy for times of de-democratization.) Which makes it interesting that it seems to have started before things got nasty or at the very least well before the election of Trump. I also suspect that it’s a response to the culture of victimhood, or to rephrase it in less loaded terms. Some people put a lot of weight on what has happened to you and your ancestors and the whole point of Stoicism is the opposite. They’re focused on minimizing the importance of external events. Thus one possibility is that it may have become more popular as a way to push back on the trend of victimhood.

Lest there be any confusion, speaking just for myself, I’m a big admirer of Stoicism. Though I know that there are some who will claim that Stoicism and Christianity are incompatible. A point I’ll return to before the end. That wrinkle aside, during a recent period of severe economic distress I took great comfort in the writings and advice of the ancient stoics. I also particularly like their emphasis on moderation, and insofar as stoicism is resurgent because of the current political moment I hope that it acts as a moderating influence on both sides of things. As this recent quote from Holiday’s Daily Stoic newsletter illustrates, moderation has a lot to recommend it.

We often hear people speak of wisdom, justice, and courage, but rarely do we hear people praise moderation. Moderation is the best kept secret and perhaps the most underrated value in modern society. It might not be the most exciting principle, but locating this middle ground—the golden mean—has the capacity to make the largest difference.

II.

The idea for this post came to me a while ago. I was at a dinner party and a debate started over the effectiveness of psychedelics, in particular, how much insight they actually provided. On one side were people who felt like psychedelics triggered a feeling of “insight” without providing any actual epiphanies. On the other side were people who felt that they had received genuine wisdom while under the influence of these drugs. As you might have guessed I was on the first side, and I argued for my side of things with particular vigor, leading someone to ask, “Why do you care? What’s your stake in this argument? So what if the actual insight gained from ingesting psychedelics is less than what was claimed?”

Something about the way the question was stated lead to a genuine epiphany. (Not the fake kind you get with psychedelics. Kidding… sort of.) And I realized that, while I do genuinely care about getting as close to the truth as possible, in this particular case, it was more about where I felt the “pendulum” was on the issue. What’s the pendulum you ask? Well if moderation is “the best kept secret and perhaps the most underrated value in modern society” then the idea of the pendulum is even more secret than that. 

Generally speaking, on any given issue, one side or the other has the momentum, and they use that momentum to push laws and culture and even public opinion as far as they can in their preferred direction. Metaphorically you might imagine the pendulum of a clock. The true believers think that it should be all the way over to one side (or perhaps the other) while the person who values moderation knows that it never stays on one side or the other for very long, and that the harder you push it in one direction the more violent the eventual swing back ends up being. The stoic, who values moderation, wants to keep the pendulum as close to the middle as possible. Doing so also has the benefit of lessening the disruption and violence associated with large swings back and forth. How is this accomplished? By taking the opposite side of the issue from whichever side is ascendant, and switching when the other side is ascendent.

Returning to the debate on psychedelics, we can now break down the many things one should consider when arguing for moderation rather than for a specific ideology:

  1. What’s the truth? I do think that the insight granting powers of things like LSD and psilocybin are overrated and prone to overfitting. I am arguing for the truth, but as I pointed out, my argument had more vigor because I thought the people I was with needed more convincing on this point, not because the argument was more true than other arguments I might make. 
  2. Who are you trying to convince? And what represents a moderate position for them? The dinner party attendees, other than myself, were all late 20s/early 30s (and yes, I worry about being the creepy old man). All of them regularly read Tim Ferris (speaking of stoics) and other individuals who espouse LSD microdosing as being the greatest thing ever. If I were among a bunch of church attending mother’s I probably would have been arguing the other side, that LSD will not cause your child to become a serial killer or act as a gateway to heroin. This is the classic, Devil’s Advocate position, and it’s always useful for someone to take this position, though, I will admit, that people often overdo it.
  3. What direction is the pendulum moving? Obviously in this day and age there’s no one overarching opinion on drugs and the war on drugs. It’s a no man’s land in the cultural war just like everything else. But for people in the demographic I mentioned above, most feel that the war on drugs has been an abject failure, that way too many people are locked up for drug related offenses, and that stuff like LSD should not only be legal, but that it has the power to revolutionize the world. Needless to say I think it’s more complicated than that.

This probably seems like a lot of effort just to justify being a jerk at a dinner party, but of course the difficulty of dealing with drugs and their many positive and negative effects, and the subsequent swinging of the pendulum too far to one side or the other has a long, long history. Perhaps the best large scale illustration of this would be Prohibition. It was and is clear to everyone that alcohol is responsible for numerous harms, and that for the vast majority of people, alcohol consumption is a net negative. But just as clearly, in retrospect, making it entirely illegal was swinging the pendulum too far. More recently it swung too far in the other direction when it came to prescribing opiates. And now, again in retrospect, everyone agrees that we were too lax there.

III.

If you’re with me so far and you agree that moderation is valuable, and that it’s sometimes useful to view things as swinging between two extremes like a pendulum, then where should we go from here? Or stated more directly how do we go from applying this at dinner parties to applying it to the world as a whole? 

Mostly it’s the same list, only massively larger in scale:

  1. It is still important that regardless of what direction you approach things from that your arguments are true. In particular I recommend being up front about the pendulum model. “Oh, I’m not in favor of large scale drug legalization by any means, but I think creating safe injection sites is a way of balancing both justice and reality.”
  2. The terrain is still important. Supporting a Democrat in Utah is very different from supporting a Democrat in California. In the first case you are almost certainly pushing the pendulum back towards the center, in the second case you’re much more likely to be pushing it towards the end it’s already at.
  3. The final point, figuring out where the pendulum is headed, is a lot more difficult when we scale up to the nation as a whole. In 1920 the support for prohibition was pervasive enough that three-fourths of the states in addition to two-thirds of congress voted to ratify the Eighteenth Amendment. I assume, though I wasn’t there, that in 1919 it would have been pretty easy to know which direction the pendulum was headed. I think our increasingly fractured society makes that task more difficult. For example, you would assume, based on recent mass shootings, that the pendulum is heading towards more gun control, but also nothing concrete has actually happened yet, and certainly some people have gotten more opposed to gun control recently.

Additionally there’s one other thing that shows up more often at the state and national level than at the dinner party level. At the dinner party level you can take a very nuanced position, even going so far as to mention the fact that what you’re really interested in is moderation, not the ultimate and final triumph of one ideology or another. But at the national level, generally such nuance is not available. Generally you have two, and only two, very blunt options (more if you take my advice and vote third party, but that has its own issues.) There is no option that moves the pendulum exactly as far as it needs to go to return to the center. (And, of course, even if there was such an option, the mere fact of your vote does very little to bring it to pass.) Rather your two options are:

  1. Move the pendulum farther along the path it was already on. Even if it’s not very far.
  2. Move the pendulum back the other way. But perhaps in such a way that you completely overshoot the moderate middle.

Trump vs. Clinton was very much the situation above, but it’s not the only time it’s happened either. Frequently, you only have one choice to move the needle, and it’s not a great choice, but you may feel that the pendulum has swung so far in the wrong direction that if you don’t try moving it back in the other direction the moderate middle may be lost forever, or out of reach for a very long time.

I expect that this explains much of Trump’s appeal. That, as a said before, Trump was a speculative attempt to complicate in a situation where on most issues the pendulum has been traveling left for a very long time. 

IV.

There’s one final benefit to everything I’ve mentioned so far, beyond just greater moderation, and whatever benefits that entails. Arguing from the standpoint of the pendulum is also great practice for steelmanning and passing ideological Turing Tests. Both ideas are closely related, but the first is the opposite of strawmanning, that is rather than putting forth your ideological opponent’s weakest arguments you assemble and put forth their very strongest arguments, even if it’s a position you oppose. On the other hand an ideological Turing Test makes reference to the original Turing Test, where a computer could be said to be intelligent if it was indistinguishable in conversation from a person. To pass an ideological Turing Test you need to be able to explain an ideology so well that you are indistinguishable from a true believer of that ideology.

As you might imagine both skills come in handy when you’re pushing for moderation, when, depending on the position of the pendulum, you may be arguing for two completely opposite positions. In a larger sense, pushing for moderation forces you to think of reasons why the conventional wisdom might be incorrect. Why, in 1919, despite massive support, nationwide prohibition would be a very bad idea. Why the same thing might be true of issues today which also enjoy massive support, and which appear to have the wind on their side. It requires taking all of the criticisms and putting them into the best light, of understanding them as well as the people who advocate them.

V.

Finally, as I mentioned in the beginning, there are some who will claim that stoicism and Christianity are incompatible. As one example of this, I remember expressing admiration for the poem Invictus by William Earnest Henley while I was in the Missionary Training Center for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS) prior to serving my mission, and having one of the other missionaries mention that Orson F. Whitney, one of the early apostles, had penned a response to Invictus pointing out that (at least for the Christian) without Christ it didn’t matter whether you were the “captain of your soul”, you still weren’t going to make it to your destination. Whitney and this missionary have a point, but I still don’t think it’s a bad thing to occasionally reflect on the radical responsibility advocated by “Invictus”. 

No, where Whitney and this missionary have a point is precisely with respect to the topic we’ve been discussing, moderation. Despite some LDS individuals declaring (incorrectly) that “moderation in all things” is part of our canonized scriptures. There are some areas where moderation is not appropriate and in fact the Bible agrees with me:

I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot.

So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth.

I know that a lot of my readers aren’t believers, but if you are going to be part of a religion; working and hoping for ultimate salvation, then moderation is the last thing you want. If God exists, then nothing about our relationship with him should be moderate. That said, it’s certainly not the way the world is going. Instead, more and more I am seeing the opposite: moderation in religion (particularly Christianity) and extremism everywhere else. And that’s perhaps the final lesson: it’s necessary to be moderate even in our quest for moderation.


The pendulum on these closing “jokes” is firmly on the donate end of things. So don’t donate. I don’t need your money. I’m solidly middle class without your money, and retiring on my writing income is a stupid plan. If you’re actually contrary enough that these arguments produce the opposite effect you can donate here.


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.


The Solution to Conflict is More Conflict

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A few weeks ago I read the book American Carnage by Tim Alberta. Alberta is the Chief Political Correspondent for Politico, and the book was a fascinating look behind the scenes of politics since the 2012 election. If you’re like me, you might expect the book to answer the dominant question of the day, which might be stated “Why has politics gotten so nasty recently?” But, to my surprise, after reading it, I ended up wondering about almost the opposite. “Why isn’t it always this nasty? What kept it civil for so long?” As I considered those questions, in the light of everything else I know (or at least suspect) I came up with a theory. A theory that answers those questions and also the question of why it’s gotten so nasty recently. A theory I’m going to share with you in this post, but before I get to it I need to lay some groundwork first.

To begin with, we’re a nation of nearly 330 million people. We have farmers, tech workers, hunters, inner city gang members, entrepreneurs and factory workers. And while we’re unlikely to have 330 million distinct political ideologies it seems equally unlikely that we would end up with just two. This is part of what I mean when I ask, why wasn’t it always this nasty? Or to borrow from Alberta, why didn’t the “carnage” start sooner? 

Coincidently there’s been a couple of different articles written recently which have touched on this very subject, and while I think both has touched on some part of the puzzle, I don’t think either has put things together in quite the same way I intend to do, but reviewing the pieces they have contributed will help provide the foundation for the theory I’m proposing.

To begin with, I’m obviously not the first to question whether something deeper is going on. Whether something fundamental has shifted in the way modern democracies operate. Frequent commenter Boonton pointed me to a story on Vox, The Anti-liberal Moment by Zack Beauchamp which is probably worth reading in its entirety if you have time, but for the moment I want to just review the author’s starting point because it very much describes the same problem I’m seeing.

Beauchamp starts off by talking about the Weimar Republic and the rise of Hitler. 

One contemporary observer, a legal theorist in his mid-30s named Carl Schmitt, found the seeds of the crisis within the idea of liberalism itself. Liberal institutions like representative democracy, and the liberal ideal that all a nation’s citizens can be treated as political equals, were in his view a sham. Politics at its core is not about compromise between equal individuals but instead conflict between groups.

“Even if Bolshevism is suppressed and Fascism held at bay, the crisis of contemporary parliamentarism would not be overcome in the least,” he wrote in 1926. ”It is, in its depths, the inescapable contradiction of liberal individualism and democratic homogeneity.”

As I mentioned the question I was left with after reading Carnage was not why it was happening now, but why it hadn’t happened sooner, and in effect Beauchamp is offering the same observation, when he says, “Politics at its core is not about compromise between equal individuals but instead conflict between groups.” The natural state of politics is not compromise, it’s conflict, and that is precisely what’s happening currently between Democrats and Republicans. Further, as the quote from Schmitt points out there is an “inescapable contradiction of liberal individualism and democratic homogeneity.” With that in mind, my question might be reframed as how did we achieve democratic homogeneity for so long and why has it disappeared recently?

As part of the answer to that let’s turn now to the other article I recently read, though in this case it’s more a series of articles. After an exceptionally long hiatus, Tim Urban over at Wait but Why? has started posting what he’s calling the Story of Us. He’s already on chapter six, so I’ll obviously be touching only on a small part of what he says, and once again, I would recommend reading the series in its entirety, but here’s the small part that directly speaks to my theory. 

To begin with, he mentions an old Bedouin proverb (I actually heard that it was a Pashtun proverb, but regardless.) 

Me against my brothers; my brothers and me against my cousins; my cousins, my brothers, and me against strangers.

This proverb makes frequent appearances across the whole series, and for Urban it speaks to the formation of individuals into tribes and tribes into nations. At each stage order emerges based on external threats. Threats where whatever conflicts you have with your brother are set aside if you end up in conflict with your cousins, and those conflicts are in turn set aside if you end up in a conflict with strangers. He likens this to an elevator which move up to higher levels of cooperation and then back down when those higher levels aren’t necessary:

If you pay attention to the world around you, and to your own psychology, you’ll spot the elevator in action. Ever notice how countries in one region of the world will often despise each other, focusing most of their national dickishness on each other—until there’s a broader conflict or war in play, at which time they put aside their differences? How different sects of a religion in fierce conflict with each other will suddenly find common ground when a rival religion or other outside entity insults or threatens their religion as a whole? How about when rivalries in the world of club soccer become less heated during the World Cup? Or when political factions with differing or even totally contradictory ideologies start marching in the street, arm in arm, during a national election or mass movement? I saw the elevator shoot upwards in the days following 9/11, when millions of New Yorkers who normally can’t stand each other were holding doors for each other, showing concern for each other’s well-being, and even hugging each other in the street. I remember thinking that while an alien attack would suck overall, it would do wonders for species solidarity.

With all of the above in mind, here’s my theory:

The chief reason for the current level of conflict within the nation is the lack of external, unifying threats to the nation. 

After reframing, the question I started with was how did we achieve democratic homogeneity for so long and why has it disappeared recently? With this theory in hand, the answer boils down to: war.  Or to look at it from the other direction, the Long Peace, the lack of wars between the great powers since the end of World War II and the development so beloved by people like Steven Pinker, has, somewhat paradoxically, led to another kind of war, the current internal political war. Just as Pashtun Tribesmen will stop fighting their cousins in order to fight the Americans, Republicans will stop fighting Democrats in order to fight the Nazis. But go back to this fight once those external enemies are defeated.

You may argue that the problems with unity didn’t start in 1946, and that’s a fair point, but even though the Cold War didn’t feature any direct hostilities between great powers, there were lots of proxy wars and as someone who grew up while the Soviet Union still existed, I can tell you it definitely felt like they were a threat. As further evidence of unity I offer up the Cold War policy that politics stops at the water’s edge. Something which definitely is not in effect now, and which can’t all be blamed on Trump either.

Moving forward in time, even after the Cold War ended there was 9/11 which brought a brief period of unity as well. Though given the relative mildness of that attack (from a historical perspective) and the weakness of the supposed enemy, that unity didn’t last very long. But taken together in the past these threats have necessitated the unity we’re currently missing. That the natural state in politics, as I intuited while reading “Carnage” and as Beauchamp and Urban point out, is deep divisions and in-fighting, but these impulses are periodically checked by external threats, which have the effect of resetting relations between the internal factions.

Once this theory occurred to me several other observations and questions immediately followed. The first was the natural impulse to check it against other instances of historical internal unrest, and of course the 800 lb gorilla in this category is the Civil War. Much has been written about the severe fractures between North and South, including, above all slavery, but I don’t know if I’ve ever seen any mention that as far as external threats the mid 1800s were unusually quiet. The only countries capable of posing any threat to the US were all in Europe which was largely convulsed by revolution (the numerous revolutions of 1848) or busy in their own backyard (the Crimean War of the mid 1850s) also recall that Germany, the country destined to be the future antagonist in all the major conflicts of the next century wasn’t even unified until 1871. I find it interesting to speculate on whether the Civil War would have happened when it did if the War of 1812 had instead been the “War of 1840”…

Moving closer to our own day there was the political instability of the late 60s, early 70s, and I’ll admit that the connection here is not as clear. That, in fact, not only were we engaged in a war at the time, but most people feel that the existence of that war was a large contributor to the unrest of the time. On the other hand I don’t think that anyone considered Vietnam an actual threat. In fact I would go so far as to argue that by distracting people from the threat of the Soviet Union that the overall perceived threat level may have actually dropped. Additionally while the violence was greater than we’ve seen currently, the unrest as a whole seemed more confined, which is to say that the unrest of Vietnam was deeper, but not as wide as what we’re experiencing now, a non-trivial difference. Finally, I think there’s a case to be made that Reagan brought us out of things by placing a lot of focus on the threat of the Soviet Union, and creating a narrative that we were the good guys and they were the “Evil Empire”, precisely what you’d expect from my theory.

There is of course the other side of the theory. That in addition to telling us how a nation might split apart it also suggests how one comes together. To adapt the Pashtun saying, forging a nation would appear to involve something which turns strangers into at least cousins if not brothers. And once again the theory points to some interesting possibilities. There have been lots and lots of revolutions, and by and large, all of them have failed. Either through being overtaken by another revolution a short while later, or by being co opted by a dictator and losing sight of their original principles. Except the American Revolution. Off the top of my head I can’t think of another successful revolution where the revolutionaries said “these are our principles” and hundreds of years later those principles remain, largely unchanged in the nation created from that revolution. Can you think of any other examples? 

Why is this? Well, the other thing that appears to make the American Revolution unique (again I’m open to counter examples) is that it’s the only revolution which took place in the face of a strong external threat. Based on my theory this is precisely the sort of unique condition that would yield a similarly unique outcome.

To return briefly to Urban, as his metaphorical elevator goes higher it represents cooperation from a greater number of people, he calls these large groups of cooperating people giants, because of their power. We have lots of these giants, though we generally call them nations. Some would argue that reverence for these giants is what we call nationalism, a term that’s pretty controversial at the moment. 

But what if the only way to get the power of a giant is by way of the nation? (It’s true that other ways have been tried, mostly in the form of multinational organizations, but they’ve largely been unsuccessful.) If that’s the case nationalism starts to seem pretty important. 

And what if the only way to get a nation is through putting a group of people into a life or death struggle against some external threat? Then war starts to appear fairly important as well. 

What then happens if there are no more suitable wars or existential threats? 

One assumes that the number of people willing to cooperate would steadily decrease. That the giants would become more numerous, but also smaller. Resembling less vast colossuses, bestriding the Earth with the power to do amazing things, and more squabbling children. Which, unfortunately, is what appears to be happening, at least in the West.

I realize this all boils down to a defense of war, but this would not be the first time I’ve come to its defense. And certainly, as I pointed out then, it’s not inconceivable, given it’s historical ubiquity that things might have adapted to benefit from the presence of war and that nations might be included on that list. It is worth noting that in most civilizations and even the US until very recently it was expected that leaders would have served in the military and even better fought in one of these wars. Thus not only were nations forged by the external threat of wars, but it was presumed that leaders were as well.

If I’m correct that external threats are necessary to maintaining cooperation, for maintaining the alliance of cousins and brothers against strangers than you would expect that actual politicians would have figured this out as well, even if they don’t end up stating it in the same terms, and indeed I think we can see that happening. There are of course two ends this effort could be conducted from. You could either try to strengthen the feeling of brotherhood, or intensify the perception of threats. I want to say that in the past the former was more common (probably because there were already plenty of threats and they didn’t need any artificial boost) but these days it’s all about intensifying perceived threats. As you might imagine based on their ideologies this intensification takes different forms depending on that ideology.

To begin with, arguably the neo-cons vastly intensified the threat posed by radical Islam in the wake 9/11, and as I already said it did have the effect of, temporarily at least, uniting the country. However, when one considers the toll of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, it’s hard to imagine anyone saying that it was worth it.

Moving to more recent examples, the Republicans are clearly working to intensify the threat posed by immigration. How much you think they’re intensifying it probably depends on your own ideology. I would personally argue that while there is definitely some exaggeration at play, that there is also an actual threat underlying it all as well. Also, at least the Republicans have chosen to focus on a threat external to the country. I’m going to argue that the Democrats are also intensifying perceived threats, but in their case the threats they’ve chosen to focus on are largely internal e.g. racism and inequality (among others). 

I’m sure your own ideology will provide a ready answer as to the actual threat level these things pose, I’m more interested in the consequences of deciding to focus on internal as opposed to external threats. At first glance it would appear to be very, very bad, particularly in light of the theory I just put forth. If it’s impossible to maintain cohesion and cooperation with the lack of external threats how much more difficult will it be to maintain cooperation if, on top of that lack, you also decide to focus on threats coming from within the entity you’re expecting on cooperation from!

None of this is to say that the Republicans aren’t also engaged in intensifying internal threats, or that the threats the Democrats point out aren’t real, most of them are real and potentially very serious. Neither am I suggesting, if this focus on internal threats does result in the nation breaking up into small factions, that this is necessarily a bad thing. But if for some reason you are trying to maintain national togetherness and cooperation, I am suggesting that you should take all of the above into account as you decide what sort of things are going to help or hinder you in that effort. 

I am one of those people who think we should try to maintain as much togetherness and cooperation as possible, and my big worry in all of this is that if, in the forge of a life and death struggle, we can go from strangers to brothers, then it’s also possible to go in the other direction as well, particularly in the prolonged absence of any such struggle. And this is precisely what appears to be happening. Now I know that the Pashtuns go back to fighting their cousins as soon as the strangers are gone, and maybe that’s just what we’re seeing with Republicans and Democrats, and that if a sufficient threat emerges they will once again join forces, but such a threat might not emerge, at least not soon enough, because it also seems possible that if things go long enough and get bitter enough, that reconciliation will no longer be on the table. That, past a certain point, the ties of nationhood could be permanently severed. That it doesn’t matter how big some future threat ends up being, the many sides in the country will never again be one. In fact, there’s a lot of evidence that we may already be past that point.


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Are Modern Deviances Innovative or Catastrophic?

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The last couple of posts (not counting my monthly book review post) have covered the evolution of systems over time, though, as I’m sure you’re aware, the word “systems” covers a lot of territory. Over the last several decades and perhaps longer, there’s been a lot of attention paid to small interpersonal systems. This has led to whole industries devoted to ensuring safety in the workplace, or productivity in the office, and my first post drew on that side of things. But while I’m interested in these sorts of systems, I’m worried (like most of the rest of the country) about much larger systems. Particularly our system of government. 

Certainly we can hope and maybe even expect that improving our system of government should be similar to improving any other system. That the same tactics which work to improve airplane safety might also work to improve government effectiveness as well. But despite whatever optimism we might bring to the process it’s clear that improving a system of government is going to be vastly more difficult than improving any other system. Let’s start with a simple example:

In both of my past posts I used the example of a checklist. A checklist is one of the simplest ways for preventing deviance in a system and it requires a few things to be effective.

First, you have to have some idea of actions which need to be taken or items which need to be reviewed. And ideally, these are things where the answer is a definite “yes” or definite “no”. Either the gust-lock has been removed or it hasn’t. Either the oil is above the fill line or it isn’t. And if the answer is “no” the process for rectifying it should be straightforward. For example removing the gust-lock or adding oil, respectively. 

Second, the process for creating and updating the checklist has to be straightforward, and not prone to disagreement or ambiguity. Everyone should basically agree what goes on the list and what doesn’t and it shouldn’t take large amounts of time to reach agreement or to add the item.

Third, checklists should rectify the mistakes of the past. If a plane crashed because a cargo door was incorrectly secured, then a checklist item saying “Ensure cargo doors are correctly secured” should be added. This way at least you’re not making the same mistake again.

Looking over this list it’s obvious that each of these things becomes much more difficult when you’re talking about a government. If we go back through the list:

First we need a list of actions and the actions need to be definitive. There’s problems on both sides of that mandate. You can imagine an action item “Is there a healthy debate about the issues affecting the nation?” Probably most people agree that that item should be on the list, but even if that’s the case answering the question with a straight yes or no becomes very difficult. If by some miracle there is a consensus, for example if we can definitively answer “no”, as increasingly appears to be the case at the moment. At that point, we still have a problem with the other side of the mandate. Adding “healthy debate” is not as straightforward as adding oil. It doesn’t come in convenient containers at any gas station.

Second on the list was the process of adding to our checklist. Once again this is (understandably) difficult when you’re talking about a system of government. For example, some people feel very strongly that giving women an absolute right to choose whether to continue a pregnancy should definitely be on our checklist. But there are a lot of people who think it’s equally important for that item not to be on the list or for it to be on the list, but in a limited fashion. As we have seen coming to any certain conclusion has been very difficult. And this difficulty pervades everything about systems of governments, from making necessary changes to recovering from deviations, as we will soon see.

Third on our list was rectifying the mistakes of the past. Here we have at least two problems. To begin with, there’s a real lack of data. Nations and systems of governments don’t fail nearly as often as planes crash, and even if we’re talking about minor failures like financial crises they’re still relatively rare events. And when failures do occur the causes of an economic crash are much more difficult to pinpoint than the causes of a plane crash, which is the other problem. Take the Great Depression as an example. Despite decades of study, there’s still considerable disagreement about what caused it, and whether FDR’s policies helped or hurt. It would certainly be nice if there was some “secure cargo door” equivalent we could add to our economic checklist that would prevent the economy from crashing in the same way it did in 1929, but I don’t think there is, or there are many items, and not everyone can agree on them.

The point in going into such depth on this one example is that it’s the simplest example, the one most easily understood and implemented, and yet even this most basic method for preventing  deviance in a system of government ends up being riddled with potential problems. But perhaps having a governmental checklist seems silly to you or perhaps it’s hard to imagine how it would work, so let’s turn to something more concrete, the Amendments to the US Constitution. 

In essence the amendments are a checklist, or at least as close as we’re likely to get when you consider a governmental system in its entirety. And if you consider them in this fashion then the failures I listed above are immediately obvious. To start with, while the amendments are admirably clear, particularly when compared with previous attempts at this sort of thing, they’re not unambiguously clear. What does “freedom of the press” mean in an age of social media. What precisely constitutes “cruel and unusual” punishment? 

Moving on, perhaps the most obvious issue is that we have largely lost the ability to add to this checklist, at least when it comes to anything important or anything which is the tiniest bit controversial. Instead of adding amendments, the current method for changing the constitution mostly involves the Supreme Court broadening the interpretation of what’s already there. I would assume that we can all agree that this is happening, but once you get beyond the mere fact of its existence, deciding whether or not it’s a deviance or how things were always supposed to work, and further, if it is a deviance, whether it’s been normalized, and whether that might actually be a good thing, probably depends a lot on your political ideology. A subject we’ll return to momentarily

Finally there’s the issue of using the amendments to rectify mistakes. Anyone looking at the list of amendments, will quickly realize that while some of them are incredibly farsighted, others, for example the Third Amendment, are targeted towards rectifying very specific mistakes from the time just before the Revolution. And of course the 21st amendment is the greatest example ever of this process, and when combined with the 19th amendment represent the ideal of how this whole thing should probably work. But, if, as I argued above, the process of adding amendments is beyond repair, how do we go about rectifying mistakes which have only been uncovered more recently? Here again the Supreme Court comes into play but to an arguably even greater extent because now the ideology of the court becomes a factor, with some things viewed as unassailable rights or fantastically awful mistakes depending on which judge is speaking. A situation which goes a long way towards explaining why the last few nominations have been so contentious. And also, in my opinion at least, further evidence that this state of affairs is a deviation from how things were originally intended to operate.

As I have argued all of this represents a deviance in the system, particularly if we use the most neutral meaning of the word, i.e. doing things differently from how they have been done in the past. Given this, what are our options for dealing with a given deviance? Broadly speaking there are two we can correct it or we can normalize it. Unfortunately, as I’ve just spent several hundred words demonstrating, correcting it appears to no longer be an option, absent some fairly sweeping changes (for example a constitutional convention.) Which leaves normalizing it. 

This is where we connect the first post in this series with the last one. If you’ll recall in the first one I argued that the normalization of deviance is generally a bad thing, and something you need to continually guard against because, unless checked, it will gradually creep into whatever system you’re using and fatally undermine it. On the other hand, in the second post I showed that, occasionally, normalization of deviance leads to an altogether better system. Certainly you could imagine that as the English parliament grew stronger in the years before the revolution and things inched towards greater democracy, that this could have also been labeled a deviance from how the monarchy was supposed to work. And that further each time one of parliament’s new powers was solidified through usage that it could have been viewed as normalization of that deviance.

Several points jump immediately to mind. The first and perhaps the most petty, is that based on the events of the last few weeks and months I don’t think the UK parliament is the thing that comes to mind for anyone when asked to summon forth examples of well functioning systems of government.

Next, when you get into the history of these deviations to the English system of government you immediately realize how gradual they all were. I don’t think the same can be said of the deviations we’re currently experiencing. Not only are they comparatively rapid, but they’re numerous. A point I’ll return to.

For most people of a conservative bent it’s the rapidity of the change rather than change itself that raises concerns. It is possible to change a system of government suddenly, but it rarely works and it’s always bloody. 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…

Still, there are many people who are probably not comfortable in using deviance, even in its most neutral sense, to describe what’s happening. Everything is just progress, and the faster we progress the better. That most of our attempts to metaphorically keep planes from crashing is better understood as being equivalent to refusing to move from propellor driven engines to jets. This is a valid point, how do we distinguish between harmful deviance and innovative deviance? How can we tell whether our current course will lead to civilizational catastrophe or a communal utopia?

As I alluded to previously, introducing numerous deviances all at once seems particularly fraught if you’re trying to make this evaluation. As has been pointed out, the modern world is fantastic by most measures, but which recent deviation accounts for the innovations we see? Does science or women’s suffrage explain the current technological bounty? I lean towards the first, but it could easily be both, or neither. And if the modern world has problems, which it clearly does, even if these problems don’t pose an existential risk it would be nice to know their source. Is the current increase in suicide cultural? Entirely the fault of the opioid epidemic? Or something else?

The argument people are making is that we’re now smart enough to only deviate in ways that make sense. We’re not doing the equivalent of going into an upside down loop in order to lock our wheels, we’re only doing things that are clearly good ideas. Well, as both I and the original author pointed out, all deviations seem sensible initially, until you’re 300 feet off the ground and about to crash. And frankly even if we are going to go by that standard, do our current deviations actually meet this criteria? Does having completely open borders make sense? Does the increasing number of transgender people make sense? Does Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) make sense? (Probably not, if even Krugman thinks it’s ridiculous.)

It seems worth spending some time on that last one, since it would appear to be something of the platonic example of normalizing deviance. Under any normal financial system one of the checkboxes would be “Do you spend less than you make?” Now I can certainly see an argument that for the government the standard might be somewhat different, perhaps “Is the budget deficit percentage less than the rate of inflation?” But MMT goes way beyond that to “Is inflation at a reasonable level? This would appear to be both a gross deviation from how things have normally been done, and also, by wrapping it in the MMT ideology, one of the more bald faced attempts at normalizing a deviance I’ve ever seen as well. All that said, as I pointed out in the previous episode, there is some chance (I would argue a very small one) that they’re right, that it will in fact work better. That this is one time when we’re not headed for destruction, but when we’re actually pushing through to a new and better system on the other side. But how likely do you actually think that is? And not just with MMT, with any of the things I’ve mentioned?

Still you may have noticed that while I’ve danced around things, I still haven’t answered the fundamental question of how can you tell? How can you know whether the deviance you’re normalizing will lead to civilizational catastrophe or a communal utopia? And I’ve avoided answering it largely because it’s very difficult to tell. However, in closing I will offer some pointers for some things you might want to consider:

  1. Generally, it’s probably not going to lead to catastrophe, but on the other side, it’s NEVER going to lead to a utopia.
  2. Trying numerous radical changes all at once never seems to work. For example, we seem to be combining radically different immigration norms, with extreme changes in culture and extreme government spending all at the same time.
  3. The best deviations are one’s where the benefits are massive and straightforward. For example ending slavery. 
  4. Related to that, it’s also great if they’re easy to understand. In particular I think MMT, whatever its brilliance absolutely fails this test.
  5. Is there an asymmetry between failure and success? Is failure catastrophic, even if it’s unlikely? Is success only marginally better even if it’s nearly certain?

Should you have any other points you feel I should add to this list, or any considerations you think I’m missing I’d be happy to hear about them. But if we take just this list, I don’t see any reason to consider current deviance as anything other than dangerous.

To end where I began, we’ve got an old broken down aircraft. There’s a checklist for keeping it running, but people can’t agree on what the items on the checklist mean. We can’t change the items on the checklist even if we could agree. And there’s a huge debate on what things constitute mistakes and what things constitute progress. The plane is still flying but increasingly the pilots are focused less on flying and more on debating the condition of the plane, and whether the duct tape on the rudder is a bad thing or the latest in aircraft technology. And as one of the passengers, I gotta tell ya, I’m pretty nervous.


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Is There a Utopia out There After All?

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For those people who are just joining us, I’m an active member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or “Mormons” as most people know us. And deep in its heart of hearts this blog is built around Mormon apologetics, though much of the time you have to squint quite a bit to see it. Last week I said I was going to talk about how communism might be implemented, which makes this a weird time to remind people I’m a Mormon, since, at first glance, Mormonism and communism would appear to have absolutely nothing in common. Rather, if anything, the recent past is full of well known Mormons who were extremely anti-communist. Ezra Taft Benson, the thirteenth president of the Church had a particularly strong reputation for being opposed to communism, penning such books as An Enemy Hath Done This as well as being (for awhile) a big supporter of the John Birch Society. But once you go farther back in Church history, the picture looks different.

In the early days of the Church, on and off starting in 1830, but reaching a peak between 1874 and 1877, Brigham Young (the second president of the Church after Joseph Smith) implemented something called the United Order. Now, since that time, the Church has taken great pains to clarify that this was not Marxist communism, and indeed there are many differences, some subtle, some less so. But it was a collectivist arrangement as well as an attempt to practice Christian communalism (the Christian part is one of those less subtle differences), so it had lots of elements in common with communism. But all that aside, it was nevertheless an attempt at creating a society which worked better than the one they already had in place. Of moving from one system to a better system, but whatever its aspirations and whatever its differences, similar to communism, it failed. 

Based on these failures and other similar failures it’s easy to assume that communalism/socialism/communism will never work. Indeed there’s a meme going around, where they take the list of 7 things every kid needs to hear, initially created by Josh Shipp, which is full of advice like telling your kid you love them and you forgive them, and replacing one of the items with “Communism has failed every time it was tried.” And to be fair, perhaps every kid does need to hear that. I’m certainly no fan of Communism. I would even go so far as to argue that it’s worse even than most people realize, but as I have previously pointed out, this fact wasn’t apparent at the beginning. Nor was it apparent at the beginning of our own republic that it was going to be a success, and yet in the intervening years it clearly was.

In all these cases (and there are many more) people were trying to move to a new system, one which fixed some of the weaknesses of the old system. And most of the time when people make this attempt, it fails, somewhat unusually the American Revolution succeeded. A group of people did move to a different system, and whatever your complaints about the founding and the founders it was definitely a better system as well. You might label this system democratic capitalism, and while the United States was the first to try it on a large scale (a point we’ll get to) many nations, though not all, have gone on to adopt it. When one sees how successful it’s been, it’s worth asking why no one did it sooner and why some nations still haven’t done it.

Starting with the first question, people had tried democracies and republics before, but the conventional wisdom at the time of the revolution was that democracy could only work on a small scale, in places like Switzerland or Ancient Athens. This thinking explains why we ended up with a republic and not a democracy and is one of the reasons why the battle between Jefferson and Hamilton was so fierce, but regardless of the measures they took to mitigate the perceived failures of democracy or the passion they brought to the task of ensuring the success of the new country, it was still a huge risk. So why did it work in North America, but not in Afghanistan, or Venezuela, or for that matter Russia in the 90s?

Speaking of that time period in Russia, I just got done reading the book Once Upon a Time in Russia: The Rise of the Oligarchs―A True Story of Ambition, Wealth, Betrayal, and Murder. (I’m still playing around with how I’m going to do book reviews, so I may or may not end up doing a full review later.) The book discusses the chaotic time right after the fall of the Soviet Union and what came out of that chaos. In a very real sense, the Russians were trying to accomplish the same thing that the early Americans did. They were attempting to transition from one, obviously broken system to a presumably new and better system. In this effort they had lots of people willing to help, and the citizens really wanted to make the transition. Beyond that, there were lots of successful countries to copy from. And despite all of these factors very few people would look at Russia today and consider it a fully functioning constitutional democracy. What happened? Why did they fail?

On one level the failure to successfully transition came from numerous sources:

  • Yeltsin tried to reform the economy too quickly. 
  • The West offered a lot of useless advice, but not much actual help
  • Rather than creating prosperity for everyone the reforms made most people poorer while creating vast wealth for a few oligarchs. 

And if the economic problems weren’t bad enough, there was also:

  • Corruption
  • Terrible infrastructure
  • Weak respect for the law
  • And the general hangover of 70+ years of Soviet dysfunction. 

But considered from another angle the failure was caused by just one problem: Transitioning to a new system requires more than just ideology, it requires an enormous web of systems to support the ideology.

If we consider Russia and Eastern Europe, based on the things I read both at the time and since then, they would have liked nothing more than to have transitioned to mature capitalism, with public corporations, investors and a stock market. Instead they ended up with oligarchs and Ponzi schemes. Why? Because, among other things, they didn’t have a robust legal system, with things like contract enforcement, or a justice system free of corruption. And even if they had possessed all those things the actual logistics of a fully operational stock market are not trivial either. And this takes us to the answer to the second question I posed above, if democratic capitalism is so successful why hasn’t every country transitioned to it?

Certainly there are some countries where it’s not in the leader’s best interest to make the transition. (See my review of The Dictator’s Handbook.) And accordingly they prevent it from happening, but by all accounts Yeltsin and Gorbachev desperately wanted to make this transition yet were unable to because they didn’t have the necessary institutions, customs and attitudes in place. 

Thus far most of what I’ve said is not particularly original, though given how much blood and treasure we’ve spent failing in exactly this fashion in Iraq and Afghanistan, perhaps these ideas are more obscure than one would think. Or perhaps those people trying to move from one system to the next recognize that supporting institutions are necessary, but feel that they should be easy to create. In any case at some level people have dramatically misjudged things, and as a consequence caused all kinds of problems. But, while that is definitely an interesting subject, it is not the subject of this post. No, in this post I want to approach things not from the perspective of what’s possible now, but from the perspective of what might be possible in the future.

I started off talking about communism and communalism, and asserting that attempts to implement them had repeatedly and spectacularly failed. But couldn’t the same thing be said about large scale democratic capitalism before the creation of the Constitution? What was different in 1788? The argument I’ve presented thus far is that the necessary framework of supporting institutions, cultural systems and laws finally existed which would allow it to succeed. From this it follows that it’s possible that there is a similar combination out there, waiting to be implemented which would allow communism or communalism to actually succeed as a system of government. 

I stole this idea from friend of the blog Mark over at Pasteur’s Blend. Here’s the paragraph where he explains the core idea

But what if there’s another way to look at it?  If it’s true that any system of government requires specific institutions to be successful, we should apply this same understanding to communism.  Certainly the Russian experience demonstrated that capitalism requires certain institutions or it won’t work well. We might look back to attempts at establishing communism through this lens and say, “Of course it didn’t work, they didn’t have the institutions required for making it work.”

To be clear, I’m not asserting that there are definitely institutions out there which would make communism/communalism work. (And specifically work better than democratic capitalism.) Only that there might be. There are still several reasons that such a system of government might be impossible.

For one, while this is an interesting possibility, it’s not even clear that this is how it normally works. The founding of the United States may be a unique exception. As I said above, we have lots of examples of failed attempts to dramatically transition from one system to another and very few examples of where it succeeded. Most of the time when we look through history it seems clear that most systems “evolved gradually” rather than “changed suddenly”. And I see very little evidence that this is the way things are evolving.

Speaking of which it should be pointed out, additionally, that there is no reason to limit this to communism/communalism, if progress and technology are going to create the culture, institutions and systems necessary for a dramatic shift to a new system of government it would seem that libertarianism is at least as likely as communalism, if not more so. 

Finally, you’ll notice that when I talk about the “web of support” required to make a certain system work, that I go farther than Mark’s original idea and toss in culture as well. Certainly culture played a huge part in the successful formation of the United States, and equally it has always been the biggest problem with the successful implementation of any form of communalism. Or as Madison put it, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.”

All this said, it is possible that a communist utopia will arrive as soon as we have the appropriate institutions and the right attitude. But, more broadly, it has to be acknowledged that even if we’re unlikely to transition to some dramatically better system of government after the fashion of the American Revolution, technological innovation is continually providing us with lots of tools to make our current system better. And this is the point where, finally, as promised, this post ties into the last post. This post is an argument against my last post. On one hand, as we saw in that last post, if system goes on long enough, it starts to accumulate deviations and those deviations end up being normalized. This leads to cycles where greater deviations eventually lead to catastrophe followed by retrenchment around improved norms. On the other hand technology gives us ways to mitigate system deviations, and may in fact provide a completely new and better system which will replace the old system before it fails catastrophically. Which would have the effect of breaking the cycle.

As a brief example, the last post spent quite a bit of time talking about plane crashes. One of the key methods for preventing these crashes is the checklist, and while the core technology for maintaining a checklist has been around since the invention of writing, it’s clear that even in the case of a simple system like this that technology has made things easier to implement and maintain. Consequently, there is less incentive for deviation because not-deviating requires only minimal additional effort. All of this then presumably pushes back potential catastrophes.

As is so often the case, all of the above takes us back to the same question we return to again and again, “Will technology save us?” And as usual, my answer (and I believe the safest way to bet) is, “We are not saved.” Nevertheless, as I repeatedly point out, I could be wrong. (That’s why I mention betting.) 

There is no way to know how the future will turn out, but I think it is safe to say, as I did in my very first post, that we’re in a race between technological salvation and technological catastrophe. Meaning that, at least at first glance, there’s nothing particularly new about the topic of this post. I’ve been talking about this exact issue since the very beginning. It’s therefore reasonable to ask what this latest twist adds to the discussion. To begin with, I spend a lot of time in this space discussing different ways for catastrophe to occur, but not very much time on how it might be avoided. How the cycles of civilization, which have been present throughout all of recorded history, might be broken. Part of the reason is that there are always more ways to fail than there are to succeed. But part of it is also probably a genuine bias on my part. Thus, when I encountered this idea I thought it was worth investigating as a counterweight to that bias. 

Beyond that, the key difference between this discussion and what I’ve written before, is that lots of people imagine that technology alone might save us. Particularly something like fusion, or superintelligence. I think there were a lot of people who thought the internet might even fill this roll. In contrast, the current discussion involves things which are helped by, but don’t require technology. Just institutional and cultural changes which might be brought about by sufficiently motivated individuals, allowing us to imagine “salvation” in a form which doesn’t hinge on one dramatic technological development. Technology is still very important, perhaps the most important element of the modern world, but many of the most impactful systems, as we saw with the checklist example (but also democratic capitalism) don’t necessarily require any specific technology. And, with technology appearing ever more destructive to systems, particularly political systems (think the polarization brought on by social media) this sort of salvation starts to appear more and more like our best hope.

However, in order to take this hope seriously you have to assume that we’re going to break out of the cycles and patterns that have defined human existence for thousands if not tens of thousands of years, that this time really is different. That, despite recent evidence to the contrary, technology will assist rather than hinder setting up the institutions and culture required to finally make the leap to a dramatically better system, a communist or a libertarian or a “something else” utopia. Or that, at a minimum, we’ll create something less earth shattering, but which nevertheless manages to save humanity from itself. Because that’s looking like an increasingly difficult task.

In my next post I’m going to finish out the series by examining that challenge, in particular the practical difficulties of implementing new systems, the historical cycles such systems would have to contend with, and the conflict between the new and better ways we’ve developed for managing those systems and the inevitable temptation to deviate from them, and to call those deviations “normal”.


Perhaps we will push through to a communist utopia where money is meaningless, but until that time we’re stuck with the next best system, democratic capitalism, which requires exchanging money for things you want to see more of. On the off chance this blog is in that category consider donating.


Normalization of Deviance and the Modern World

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I recently read an article titled How I Almost Destroyed a £50 million War Plane and The Normalisation of Deviance. The article opens with the story of a multinational military exercise, which the author, Tim Davies, participated in back in the mid 2000s. As part of this exercise, everyone was assigned to a specific jet, and if your jet was having problems you couldn’t switch. This is, unfortunately, exactly what happened to the Davies.

Our jet had a problem with the undercarriage or landing gear – it wouldn’t lock up under normal flight conditions; the wheels couldn’t be stowed away.

The engineers had found significant and unfixable wear to the mechanical uplock. It would only lock up under 0g and this would mean that I would have to bunt the aircraft, nose down, towards the ground whilst selecting the gear ‘up’.

(For those unfamiliar with the term, a bunt is half an outside loop, meaning you start out straight and level, then dive in a curve, eventually ending upside down.)

With this “solution” in hand and not wanting to be grounded for the remainder of the exercise Davies (and his Weapons Systems Officer) decided to try it out. And lo and behold, it worked. They’d have to do it every time they wanted to fly, right after takeoff, at the point when they had the maximum amount of fuel (five tons), but they had figured out a way to keep flying. So that’s what they decided to do. And this, if you haven’t guessed, was a deviation from the normal guidelines for safely flying a £50 million war plane.

Despite comments from other pilots, and the concerns of their Programme Director, who Davies managed to avoid, they continued performing this maneuver, and everything went great until the last day of the exercise when the weather was worse than expected. It was then, while performing the maneuver, that they entered a cloud, and when they finally emerged from that cloud Davies realized he was in a very bad place.

We were low on energy and the nose was rising too slowly to recover the aircraft before we would hit the ground.

The Ground Proximity Warning System sounded.

‘WOOP, WOOP – PULL UP, PULL UP!’

‘7, 6, 5 – that’s 400 ft Tim!’, called my WSO.

The jet was shuddering against my demands, it just didn’t have the performance to pull out of the dive.

The cockpit was silent. To make things worse, due to our high rate of descent, we were well outside of any ejection option.

I quickly selected full flap and slats to increase the lift over the wing.

The sudden increase in lift meant that the nose started to pitch faster towards the horizon.

A bad picture was starting to look better.

Eventually I levelled the jet at around 2-300 ft above the ground and gradually I climbed us back up into cloud.

The gear had never locked up. It was going to be a long, and a very quiet, journey home.

Why had all this happened? How had it come to pass that in addition to almost destroying a £50 million war plane, he had almost killed himself and his Weapons Systems Officer? It happened because they had taken that initial deviance and normalized it.

I was an experienced pilot but in the bracket where my over-confidence could well have been my downfall. The longer we’d continued performing the manoeuvre the more confident we’d become at doing it.

We had convinced ourselves that the rule breaking was for the benefit of the exercise and that what we were doing was essential.

But I’d almost destroyed a £50 million aircraft.

My actions in performing a zero ‘g’ bunt after take-off, in order to secure the gear, as outside of the rules as it was, had become the normal way to get airborne – I thought that what I was doing was right.

But I was wrong.

Knowing what happens it’s obvious he was wrong, but it’s also easy to see where it might not have been quite that obvious the first time he tried it. And it’s equally obvious where this problem might not be limited to flying. Life is full of very important rules for how things should be done, but it is also full of situations where it would be convenient and seemingly harmless to violate those rules. The initial violation almost always appears to be minor and in any event it will obviously be only temporary, but once we’ve done it the first time it becomes even easier to do it again and again and again… Until, before you know it, we’ve “normalized the deviance”. 

That article offers this formal definition for the normalization of deviance, from Diane Vaughan:

Social normalization of deviance means that people within the organization become so much accustomed to a deviant behaviour that they don’t consider it as deviant, despite the fact that they far exceed their own rules for elementary safety.

Vaughan coined the term “normalization of deviance” in the course of reviewing the organizational and management failures which lead to the Challenger and Columbia disasters. This is yet another example where it’s easy to identify which choices were wrong in hindsight, but apparently more difficult to avoid making those ultimately fatal decisions in the absence of such foreknowledge. And while there is some utility to identifying the problem after it’s happened it’s vastly preferable to identify it before the disaster. With that in mind I’m going to attempt some identification in advance. Also while the examples I’ve offered thus far, and most of the examples you’ll find, deal with small scale “deviance normalization”, as you might imagine I’m far more interested in whether we have any deviance normalization going on at a societal level.

Let’s take the last point first, what would it look like to normalize deviance at the level of a whole society? 

Let’s start by dipping back into the article. One of the things Davies mentions is how it can be very difficult to define what deviant behavior is at the extreme ends of things. While he admits that his take off maneuver was very obviously deviant, what if you’re trying to perform that evaluation on one of the military’s flight demonstration squadrons? In America we have the Blue Angels and the Thunderbirds, in the UK they have the Red Arrows, and Davies was involved in an inquiry after two of his friends were killed. As part of that he spoke to other people tasked with assessing the standards of the Red Arrows, one of them:

…told me that, when assessing a Red Arrows pilot, he found himself upside down at 100 ft over RAF Scampton’s runway in formation with two other jets only a couple of feet away.

How on earth was he supposed to know if this was normal?

How indeed? Davies doesn’t say except to point out that no organization is ever so specialized that it’s beyond needing external assessment. But the question of evaluation at the extremes is an interesting one, since that appears to be where modern society has ended up. In the same way that there’s not a lot of flight data for going hundreds of miles an hour, 100 ft off the ground with other aircraft only a couple of feet away, there’s not a lot of historical data about being able to form ideological echo chambers with anyone on Earth, with the ability to instantly communicate to any of those people, all while having less and less ability to know if that communication is actually truthful. That seems kind of abnormal or deviant, but how do we know?

To take another more recent, and perhaps more concrete example. News recently broke that Facebook paid contractors to transcribe it’s user’s audio chats. (Most of the other tech companies have been similarly accused.) Is this just a cool thing we can now do which well help Facebook deliver content people will appreciate more? Or is it a horrible invasion of privacy? Regardless of your answer to that question, it shouldn’t change when we get to the point where the transcription doesn’t require contractors; when there’s an AI that can do it. But I think it will. Perhaps more importantly, to get back to Davies’ point about needing external assessment, what do you think Facebook’s answer would be to these questions? (Spoiler: They think it’s awesome, particularly if they could get an AI to do it.) Pulling all this together, my first stab at spotting a normalization of deviance before it happens it to point out that technology is going to create a lot of “deviance” and that it’s going to be difficult to recognize, particularly if we don’t demand external assessment.

From there let’s move on to politics. To start, one imagines that deviations from the norm accumulate the longer an organization is around, and that this would apply at least as much to governments as it would to corporations, and probably much more so. As I have pointed out in the past, the United States and its government is older, relative to other nations, than most people think. All of this means that there should be plenty of examples of accumulated political deviations which have been normalized, and indeed I can think of several. I intend to provide a couple of examples of what I mean, but before I do, it’s important to point out that each could easily be the subject of its own post, and that by necessity, I am going to be leaving a lot of things out. Also, I’m sure that whether you view something as a deviation which has been normalized depends on your core political leanings.

With those caveats aside let’s start by talking about criminal justice. There are lots of things I could talk about in that space, but I’m going to focus on plea bargaining. Currently over 95% percent of federal cases end in a plea deal rather than a trial, and it’s not much better at local level. My sense, when I first thought of this as a potential deviation that has been normalized, is that it had only gotten this high recently, but when I looked into it I discovered that as long ago as 1945 it stood at 70%, and that it actually dipped to 63% in 1982 before starting a steady rise to where it is now. 

(I just gave two links to what appear to be the same statistic from the same governmental report, but while they agree on the general trend there’s a lot of variation in the statistics. For example, the Washington Post has it at 85% in 2000 while Albany University has it at 95% in 2000. Strange, but it doesn’t matter very much to the point I’m trying to make.)

Despite the fact that I was wrong about the increase in plea bargaining being a recent phenomenon, it was nevertheless definitely not a part of normal jurisprudence at the time of the Constitution. Once you start to dig into the history of it, it turns out that it wasn’t practiced with any frequency until “well into the nineteenth century“ and it didn’t come to the “attention of the public” until the 1920s. When “the general reaction-of scholars, of the press, and of the crime commissions themselves [which had publicized the practice]-was disapproval.” On top of this, apparently as late as 1958 it looked like the Supreme Court might declare the practice to be illegal, and while it didn’t, it didn’t formally sanction the practice until 1970. And while it seems normal now, this is all a deviation. The original guidelines for “safe jurisprudence” (similar to the rules for safe flying) included lots of rules about trial by jury, how the jury should work, the rights of the accused, what was and wasn’t permissible evidence, etc. But, at some point, after the system had been working well for possibly as long as a century, someone came along and said, “Wouldn’t it be easier if we skipped the trial and you just agreed to plead guilty to X, and in exchange we’ll make sure that your punishment is only Y?” And it was easier that once. In fact it was probably eminently sensible. But now, a century or more later, the original concept of trial by jury is used, at most 5% of the time (here’s yet another set of numbers from the NYT saying it’s 3% of federal cases and 6% of state cases) and the deviation has been made into the norm.

Why hasn’t this deviation been corrected? Probably because it only harms (or is perceived to harm) the powerless. Insofar as plea deals (and the associated practice of charge stacking) are bad they’re only bad for potential criminals. Not necessarily a coalition which is essential to anyone staying in power (see my review of The Dictator’s Handbook) and possibly a coalition whose support you would actively avoid.

The question of who the deviation harms is an important one, and comes up again when discussing my other example, though in a more complicated way. What is this example, you ask? It’s the current and growing practice of ignoring immigration laws. As with plea bargaining it’s somewhat difficult to tell exactly when or how this deviation started, but it’s easy enough to imagine why. Immigration enforcement is difficult, with lots of areas of questionable morality, and hard choices that have to be made. Still the current state has not existed for all that long. While the first sanctuary city was Berkeley in 1971, and a few other cities adopted that designation in the 1980s, most cities and states didn’t get serious about it until the 2010s. Meanwhile in the 90s there was serious concern about the state of US immigration policy. From Wikipedia:

The U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform, led by former Rep. Barbara Jordan, ran from 1990 to 1997. The Commission covered many facets of immigration policy, but started from the perception that the “credibility of immigration policy can be measured by a simple yardstick: people who should get in, do get in; people who should not get in, are kept out; and people who are judged deportable are required to leave”. From there, in a series of four reports, the commission looked at all aspects of immigration policy. In the first, it found that enforcement was lax and needed improvement on the border and internally. For internal enforcement, it recommended that an automated employment verification system be created to enable employers to distinguish between legal and illegal workers. The second report discussed legal immigration issues and suggested that immediate family members and skilled workers receive priority. The third report covered refugee and asylum issues. Finally, the fourth report reiterated the major points of the previous reports and the need for a new immigration policy. Few of these suggestions were implemented.

The yardstick mentioned in the article could be used in a Trump campaign ad, and indeed last year Trump put out a presidential message honoring Barbara Jordan, which upset numerous people since Jordan was a black female Democrat. It would certainly be hard to imagine someone similarly situated today being a Trump supporter, or even making similar recommendations. Indeed these days, many people consider it inappropriate to even use the word illegal. But, beyond what I’ve said so far, I don’t think it’s worth going into a deep dive on how this is a deviation which has been normalized, since I suspect you either already entirely agree with me or are never going to agree, but I would like to look at who it harms.

I said earlier that the harms of this normalization are more complicated. In particular there are a lot of fairly powerless people who are helped, and indeed that’s a good argument for the continuance of the practice. But beyond that there are also a lot of powerful people who benefit as well, and that, more than the powerless people it helps, is why it continues. As I pointed out in a previous post, other than Trump and a handful of other politicians, the lax enforcement of immigration is something which is supported by nearly every member in congress despite a majority of actual voters being against it.  The harm, or perceived harm, all falls, once again, on a group of people who have largely been without power, that is until Trump came along. Which is to say even if you don’t see any other harms from this particular normalization of deviance, it probably pushed Trump over the top in the last election…

Finally when we’re talking about deviations being normalized it’s hard not to turn our minds towards behaviors formerly classified as deviant. The entire culture war revolves around this process, and obviously there are quite a few people who believe that quite a few activities should not have been normalized. That “progress” is just another word for the greatest “normalization of deviance” of all. There are of course an equal if not larger number of people (depending on the country) who think this is ridiculous. It would be nice if sheer numbers could decide the issue, but I don’t think they can. All of these issues remain contentious, but, for the moment, let’s assume that in addition to being (at one point) labeled as deviations, that they are actual deviations. What would this mean? In the story I started with, that deviation almost led to a fatal crash. Is that also what we should be worried about here? Perhaps, perhaps not. The modern world is very different from the world of even 50 years ago, accordingly I would never claim that the normalization of these particular deviations will inevitably result in a “crash”. They may in fact be desirable in our current situation. Still, as I have repeatedly pointed out, there just might have been a reason for declaring these behaviors “deviant” beyond just massive historical bigotry. 

If we were to systematize all of this, you could imagine that things might operate in a cycle. Some “bad thing” happens, and as a result rules are put into place to ensure that particular “bad thing” doesn’t happen again. Initially, when the memory of the “bad thing” is still very fresh, those preventative rules would carry a great deal of weight, people would be eager to follow them, and they certainly wouldn’t be viewed as a burden. Gradually, however, the connection between the rules and the “bad thing” would fade in the minds of those forced to follow the rules. These rules would start to appear more onerous and less necessary. As this process continues, eventually rules start being broken. Initially this rule breaking wouldn’t cause any harm, and the longer things went without any harm the more the process of rule-breaking accelerates. All of this would continue until eventually, the “bad thing” the rules were trying to prevent, happened again. Naturally the rules would be reimplemented (and perhaps strengthened) and the cycle would begin anew. 

I’m obviously not the first nor the last to suggest that history, behaviors, and events might be cyclical, but my particular suggestion would be that while this is certainly true, it is also horribly complicated. Yes, history does move in cycles, many, many cycles which overlap, feed on one another and are weak or strong at various times and places. For the next couple of posts I’m going to examine a couple of other cycles and look at which might be strong or weak in our own day and age. As a teaser, in my next post I’m going to talk about how a nation would successfully implement communism. 


There might be some who argue this entire blog is a normalization of deviance! 

*Something*

*Something* 

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The Rise of a Civic Religion

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I.

If you’ve been following along for any length of time, you know that I live in Utah, a state which has a number of interesting qualities, particularly when it comes to politics. To begin with, as you’re all probably aware, Utah is not a swing state, its electoral votes have gone to the Republican Presidential candidate in every election since 1968. Now, Trump may change all of that (though based on the current crop of democractic nominees I’m guessing that he won’t) but Trump’s standing in Utah is a topic for another time. As an additional peculiarity, and something that most people don’t know, Utah is the only state where Clinton came in third place to Perot in 1992. But of all the political oddities peculiar to Utah, the one I want to focus on is lawn signs.

If I’ve done my job right, you are now overcome with curiosity and wondering what possible peculiarity there might be when it comes to Utah and lawn signs. Well to begin with, after considering everything I’ve already said, one would naturally assume that if there was any place where you would expect to see lawn signs for the Republican Presidential Candidate it would be in Utah. And yet, at least in Salt Lake, I not only don’t remember any signs for Trump in 2016. I very clearly remember there being no signs for McCain in 2008 when he was running against Obama. Why, in one of the most reliably Republican states in the country, would there be no lawn signs for the Republican Nominee? 

One possibility is that I’m just wrong, there were lawn signs and I just didn’t see them or don’t remember them.

Or perhaps, knowing how solidly Republican Utah was, the campaign didn’t bother to send any lawn signs to Utah. But if that’s the case why were there plenty of Obama and Clinton lawn signs? Wouldn’t the same not-worth-fighting-over logic apply?

Maybe it’s the fact that I’m in Salt Lake, which is actually pretty blue. Sure, the state is pretty Republican, but perhaps Salt Lake City might as well be San Francisco. Well, if we look at the actual numbers we find that Obama did in fact win Salt Lake County, by the massive margin of 0.1%, 49.2% to 49.1%. In 2016 the margin was greater, 41.99% to 32.96% but that’s still a fair amount of Trump supporters, for there to not be a single yard sign.

As you can tell, none of these three theories seems very compelling, at least to me, but there is another theory that I like better. A theory which combines signalling, with what it’s acceptable to signal. If we start from a very naive view of things, we might expect that the number of yard signs would be proportional to the percentage of eventual voters, but this is obviously not the case. In San Francisco, of those who voted for either Clinton or Trump, one in ten voted for Trump, but I would be willing to bet a very large sum of money that one in ten election signs in San Francisco were not similarly in support of Trump.

If visible signs of support are not proportional to eventual vote totals what does determine people’s desire to signal and the acceptability of such signalling? You might think that if each candidate will eventually get a roughly equal number of votes, that the visible signs of support would also be equal, and that from this point of rough equilibrium, visible support would drop off faster than actual support as one candidate ended up in the minority. That basically, as one candidate’s majority becomes greater and greater, signalling support for the minority candidate has less and less utility. But in the example I just gave from Salt Lake City, McCain and Obama’s eventual support was as close to even as you can get, and yet I would swear that I didn’t see a single McCain campaign sign. Is it possible that it’s disproportionately beneficial to signal support for a Democratic candidate and disproportionately harmful to signal support for a Republican candidate? 

I’m well aware that this is mostly based on a single observation, so one point of this post is to see if anyone else has a similar experience to mine, where you live in a city with lots of Republican voters, but very little visible evidence of these voters? I suspect there are a lot of examples of this. I would even go so far as to say that I’d be surprised if anyone’s experiences didn’t match my own. That is, the percentage of visible support being less than the percentage of actual support given as votes. Beyond the reluctance of people on the right to visibly signal, even while in the majority, as I described above, I have also noticed the opposite situation with those on the left, actual eagerness to signal, even while in the minority, and I would be curious to hear about other people’s experiences. Assuming that all of the foregoing is correct, why might this be?

II.

As part of my answer I’d like to start by relating yet another observation, this one much more recent. As I mentioned in the post just before this one I spent the first few days of August at a gaming convention. (Which convention is probably easy enough to figure out, but I shall leave it unnamed for a variety of reasons.) I’ve been attending the same convention for many years, and for as long as I can remember people have been attaching ribbons to the bottoms of their badges. Generally these ribbons represented one or the other niches at the convention. As an example, a fan of Settlers of Catan might have a ribbon each for brick, lumber, wool, grain, and ore. Last year I noticed some new, rainbow colored ribbons. (You can probably already guess the nature of the ribbons.) One said “Gaymer”, and for those who weren’t actually gay, there was an “Ally” ribbon. Somewhat subconsciously I added these as another niche. There were fans of Settlers of Catan and there were people who wanted to combine LGBT advocacy with their gaming. 

When I attended this year, I quickly realized that I had been wrong. Last year, I saw just a few people wearing these ribbons and while I hesitate to put forth any hard numbers, my guess would be that, at most, 5% of badges had one of these ribbons last year. And, as I said, I subconsciously added it as another niche.

This year, the number was much higher, again I’m reluctant to put forth a hard number, but it could have easily been 25%, and perhaps higher. Also this year a new variety of ribbon had been added which allowed people to announce their preferred pronouns. (I was surprised by the number of They/Them ribbons I saw.) Once again I’m dealing with only a small amount of data, but at a minimum I’m already curious about what this percentage is going to look like next year. 

All of this is to say that it seems unlikely that the actual number of gay gamers and their allies has quintipled since last year. No it’s more likely that the phenomenon of rainbow ribbon badges and republican candidate lawn signs are actually similar, that both come down to signalling, and what it’s acceptable to signal, or more accurately what it’s unacceptable to signal. As an example of what I mean, imagine that I printed up some ribbons that said “Straight” or “Not an Ally” or “Gamers opposed to Same Sex Marriage”. (That last one wouldn’t fit on a badge, and I think the difficulty of signalling opposition illustrates my point.) But to return to my point can you imagine how unacceptable it would be to signal opposition to LGBT tolerance? And, in fact, I think this leads to the point I’ve already noted, that not only would it be entirely unacceptable to wear any of the ribbons just mentioned, that it’s becoming increasingly unacceptable to not have an “Ally” ribbon showing your support. 

It’s not hard to imagine that this might happen at a gaming convention which mostly skews younger and “woker”, but I believe it’s happening more widely, and that’s why I started out by talking about the lawn signs. This is not only, I would submit, an example of the same thing, but furthermore an example illustrating how long this has been going on for and in places you wouldn’t expect. To be clear, what I’m arguing is that just as it is becoming increasingly unacceptable to not signal support for LGBT issues, that it was already unacceptable for many years, even in very conservative states to visibly signal support for Republican Presidential Candidates. Once again, why might this be?

III.

On one level the answer to this question is that both stories are just examples of the ongoing social progress that has been happening for decades if not centuries, but I find that particular answer lacking. In the first example, it’s not that people are changing how they vote it’s that they’re changing what they’re willing to visibly signal. In the second example, we see a trend (which to be fair, may or may not continue) where once again people expect certain signalling above and beyond someone’s actual behavior. In other words, in both cases, we’re not seeing “progress” in behaviors or progress in what’s allowed, in part because both of these have just about topped out, we’re seeing “progress” through an increasingly unified idea of what attitudes and beliefs it’s acceptable to display openly. That most individuals have moved beyond expecting to be allowed to do and believe certain things, to fashioning a set of attitudes and beliefs which they expect everyone to adopt.

Thus far none of this is particularly new or surprising. Conservatives and other people worried about overactive political correctness have long warned about this transition from allowing people to do certain, previously taboo, things to demanding that everyone enthusiastically support people doing these certain things. But I want to go beyond just identifying the trend, or expressing short-term alarm to categorizing the trend as something specific, consequential and long-term.

A few posts ago I touched on Scott Alexander’s idea that social justice might be a new civic religion. For this to be the case, if social justice is going to supplant the old civic religion of patriotism, it has to be growing. It has to be vibrant and powerful. It has to be able to sweep the old civic religion away. It has to be able to dominate the “signaling space”. In both of the examples I provided this is what appears to be happening. That what people support has decoupled from what people decide to signal. That these examples illustrate not a change in inner beliefs or behavior, but the rise of a different public dogma or in other words a new civic religion.

Now perhaps you think I’m going to far, and certainly there’s a lot of discussion about what makes something a religion, and wading into that is way beyond the scope of this post, but the expectation that everyone will outwardly display specific beliefs has to be a big part of it, particularly in the case of civic religions.

Pulling everything together, I increasingly agree with Alexander that social justice is a nascent civil religion, that the lawn signs and the badge ribbons should be considered as evidence that something new is dominating the signalling space and that these are examples of the presence and growth of this religion, a different, more extreme, and more cohesive phenomenon than the generic social progress we’ve seen previously. 

Before moving on, I should mention that I’m fully aware that just as one swallow does not a summer make, neither does two examples a civic religion make. But my guess is that at this point you’re in one of two categories. Either you can think of a dozen other examples of this and you’re nodding along in agreement, or you’ve completely dismissed my point as conservative paranoia. And in neither case will providing more examples move the needle very much. Assuming that you’re one of the people who’s nodding along, the next question, once we’ve figured out why it’s happening, is to ask what happens next?

IV.

If you are in the “conservative paranoia” camp, and you’ve made it this far. I’ll start off with the possibility you might actually like. It’s possible that what happens next is that, by degrees, we enter a social justice utopia. That all the things people hope for come to pass as people “join” the new religion. That systemic racism is done away with, along with all other forms of bigotry. That gaps in pay and education between minorities and genders vanish. That when everyone is an “Ally” there are no LGBT issues because that distinction no longer makes any sense. That everyone is treated with fairness and kindness and as a result global peace and prosperity will reign. That, in essence, I end up being wrong about everything. This would be great. I could stop writing, buy a nice recliner and finally catch up on all the TV shows people keep recommending to me. Unfortunately, despite my desire to finally watch all six seasons of the Sopranos, nothing about how events are playing out leads me to believe that this possibility has any chance of happening.

Another possibility would be some kind of fusion between the new civic religion and the old, that patriotism and the 4th of July meld with social justice and gay pride to form some hybrid civic religion, better than the old civic religion, or maybe just able to thread whatever needle we’re going through now, and get us to something resembling normality after Trump, but if anything this seems less likely than the previous possibility, given how irreconcilable the differences between the two sides appear to be. Also while I’m not an expert on the rise of new civic religions, I don’t get the sense that “peaceful fusion with the old religion” is something that ever happens. Part of the problem is a relative paucity of examples. I think historically actual religions were the norm and that replacing an actual religion with a civic religion is a relatively new innovation, but insofar as we have examples, most of them have been bloody. Which takes us to the next possibility.

Having talked a lot about possibilities which are unlikely, let’s turn to a possibility that seems more and more likely. Widespread and perhaps even bloody conflict between the two civic religions, old and new. Obviously on some level this is bad, but an argument could be made, that on net, the outcome in its totality might be good. I was having a discussion with a friend recently on this very topic where he made just such an argument. In the course of the discussion, I had brought up previous upheavals which occurred as countries switched civic religions. In particular the decades of revolution that France went through as it, arguably, switched from the civil religion of the monarchy (or the empire) to the civil religion of liberté, égalité, fraternité. Revolutions in which hundreds of thousands of people died (millions if you include the Napoleonic Wars). My friend argued that as bad as all this was that in the long run the French were better off going through all of it than remaining under the monarchy as it stood in 1788. Perhaps this is true, though I’m not the best person to ask. I have a tendency to give fewer points for historical wrongs than other individuals. Also this imagines that there were only those two options, but in reality there were lots of options, and among all the various options I suspect that there were several which would have given them the same amount of liberté, égalité, fraternité with less violence. 

Which is to say, even if conflict is inevitable, it would be nice if we could minimize the actual bloodshed and violence. Given that conflict seems to have already begun this is the course I’m continually advocating for, pointing out that this may require us to end up with two civic religions, which are separated in some fashion. To me this seems markedly better than re-enacting any of the revolutions of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. But in order to do this, I think it’s necessary, first of all, to slow down the pace of change, something the adherents of social justice seem disinclined to consider.

Of course, as I alluded to just now, all conflicts eventually end, and usually (though not always) one side is victorious. What happens if the religion of social justice is eventually victorious? It is certainly possible that conflict, even very violent conflict, could end up being a roundabout way to arrive at the first possibility, the social justice utopia. That in the end, just like the French (if my friend is to be believed) we’ll be better off, despite whatever blood that gets spilt. But we should also consider the possibility that if social justice is triumphant we will end up with something closer to a dystopia instead. Recall that both facism and communism were essentially civic religions. And that communism, at least (but perhaps facism also) promised justice. It wasn’t social justice, it was economic justice, but how sure are we that if the civic religion of social justice ends up triumphing (with or without conflict) that it won’t fail in a similar fashion? In other words, one possibility is that the new religion does wipe out the old one, but that this ends up being a very bad thing.

V.

In the end, the question of whether we’re witnessing the rise of a new civic religion is an important one. Because if we are then the best historical evidence would indicate that such transitions are rarely accomplished without extreme upheaval. Looking back, I probably should have spent more time discussing historical examples of religious transitions, rather than spending so much time on a couple of marginal examples of the current evidence. (Though I find both examples fascinating.) And perhaps I will dive more into the historical record in some future post. Though I can already tell that it will offer very little comfort.

As one final possibility, there is, as always, a very good chance that I’m wrong, that we aren’t currently in the beginnings of a conflict between the old civic religion of patriotism and a new one of social justice. But if I am wrong about things, my guess is that it’s because I’ve vastly undercounted the number of new civic religions, that rather than one new civic religion we might actually end up with dozens, all in competition. Certainly we’ve seen evidence of that happening in the past when the previous civic religion began to run out of steam. Toss in the internet and social media this time around and we might end up with a lot more of it. And while I personally think that one in particular deserves most of the attention, it’s hard to say what will happen.

I guess the one thing I didn’t spend a lot of time was the weakness of the old civic religion, so let me share one brief, final anecdote. On Sunday I happened to be rewatching The Avengers. (Yes, I know I could be watching the Sopranos instead, but I can rewatch The Avengers while doing something else.) And there’s a scene where Agent Coulson mentions to Steve Rogers that they have a new uniform for him, and Rogers responds by asking, “Isn’t the Stars and Stripes a little old fashioned?” I remember being struck by this question, since it gets to the root of the problem. When even Captain America is questioning the power of the flag you know that the current civic religion is getting near the end of its lifespan. And it’s imminent death leaves us with some very important questions to consider, perhaps the most important facing our country right now:

  • How will it die?
  • Is that death going to be violent?
  • And, what comes after? Will it be a utopia or a dystopia?

As you can probably guess, going to gaming conventions to make sweeping predictions about colored ribbons is not cheap. If you’d care to assist me in that endeavor consider donating.


Punctuated Equilibrium and Memetic Accumulation

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A few posts ago I talked about memetic evolution. As a result of this post one of my readers, Mark, and I had an in depth discussion about what mechanism, exactly, I was trying to describe and whether there really is such a thing as memetic evolution. Mark is a scientist specializing in oncology research (he also has a blog, which you should check out) and he pointed out that evolution is exceptionally complicated and that many people use the term to describe lots of things that aren’t actually evolution by natural selection. Particularly when they’re trying to use it by way of analogy which I was. As part of our discussion a lot of things were clarified for me, and I think I’ve tightened up the analogy and hopefully gotten rid of most of the issues Mark pointed out. This post is about sharing the additional insights which came out of that discussion.

I.

Mark was, of course, correct, there are in fact lots of pitfalls involved in the discussion of evolution and selection, and even if you manage to avoid making any big mistakes there are still numerous specifics that can trip you up as well. For example, most people don’t realize that there are two competing theories regarding the rate at which evolution occurs. And the difference between these two theories turns out to be very important. Not only in general but also for the point I want to make.

The first theory, and the one initially put forward by Darwin, is phyletic gradualism. Under this theory the creation of new species happens very gradually, almost imperceptibly as small changes accumulate over tens of thousands of years. Because of how gradual this process is, you might not end up with a clear line where you can say that one species has changed into another, and, insofar as a layman thinks about evolution with any rigor, they probably envision it working something like this.

The second theory, which was proposed only in 1972, by Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould, is called punctuated equilibrium. This theory holds that species appear fairly suddenly in response to some rare and geologically rapid event (the punctuation) and that once a species appears that it ends up being relatively stable (the equilibrium). To reiterate, I’m no expert, but it’s my impression that this theory has the most support among scientists, particularly when you’re talking about the big evolutionary events, like speciation. To be clear both kinds of evolution, gradual and punctuated, appear to be taking place, but the latter is more impactful, and more important, particularly when the survival of a given species is really in question.

Having, hopefully, grounded our understanding and discussion of evolution on a somewhat firmer footing, we are still left with the question of how much of that understanding and discussion maps cleanly to the topic of cultural evolution, and beyond that to the more speculative topic of memetic evolution. For instance, insofar as cultural evolution is adaptive, is this adaptation gradual? Or does it operate more along the lines of the punctuated equilibrium model? I’m not entirely sure what would count as hard data when considering these questions, but at the level of anecdote, I’m inclined to believe that the situation is similar to genetic evolution, both forms occur, but that the cultural selection which occurs gradually ends up being less impactful than cultural selection which happens at times of rapid change and extreme crisis.

As I said this is mostly at the level of anecdote, but consider the example of Germany. It’s hard to argue that Germany didn’t have a long martial tradition, starting with their first appearance in the records of the Roman Empire and continuing down through the centuries to the two World Wars. Would you say they still have that culture today? I think most people would agree that they don’t, and that it all changed during the extreme crisis at the end of World War II. Sure there have been many gradual changes to German culture over the years, but the fact that there’s also numerous long-standing stereotypes about Germans would seem to indicate that a relatively stable equilibrium existed as well. From where I sit, this example has all the elements you’d expect if cultural evolution also happened according to the punctuated equilibrium model.  

Another example would be the creation of the United States of America. Evolution through natural selection concerns itself with the creation of new species. The parallel in cultural evolution would be the creation of a new culture or nation, and this is an example of exactly that. And, once again, it happened over the course of a few years where things were rapidly changing under crisis conditions. Additionally what resulted was not some incremental change in English culture (though there are obvious connections) but an entirely new culture forged in the fires of the Revolutionary War and the many debates over governments and rights

The more I consider the question the more I am convinced that there are numerous examples of punctuated equilibrium with respect to cultural evolution. I suspect all of the examples of nations in crisis given by Jared Diamond in his recent book Upheaval (see my review), would end up being examples of the punctuated equilibrium model of cultural evolution as well. And of course these are successful “mutations”, if cultural evolution is anything like biological evolution most mutations are going to end in failure. Is that perhaps the best way of describing communism and fascism?

Obviously not all cultural changes are so large, as I said, I’m sure that things also change gradually, but we would appear to have less to fear from those changes. Sure the vast majority will fail just like all “mutations”, but that failure should be much easier to recover from. Much less disastrous than the analogous “speciation” of adopting something like communism.

II.

If you’ve followed me this far and you accept (even if only for the sake of argument) that punctuated equilibrium applies not only to biological evolution, but to cultural evolution as well, then we’re finally ready to revisit memetic evolution, though right off the bat I’m going to dump the word “evolution”. One of Mark’s bigger contributions in the discussion we ended up having was to point out that once we’ve reached this point that things have been stretched so far that using the term evolution conceals more than it reveals, particularly if we’re more interested in the punctuated equilibrium model of evolution. So we need a new term, but before we get to that what exactly are we talking about? And, in what sense are we talking about something separate and interesting?  

When considering the punctuated equilibrium model most of the attention ends up on the punctuation part, but what’s happening during the equilibrium part? Here I’m going to quote liberally from Mark:

[The punctuated equilibrium model] posits [that] major selection events might be somewhat uncommon.  As such, we would expect to see accumulations of multiple different mutations, all present in a species’ gene pool simultaneously.  The longer the period of time free of selection, the greater the potential for diverse new mutations within the species. Since anything directly lethal is going to weed itself out fairly quickly, this enriches for potentially-beneficial mutations.  With all these mutations lying around, it’s possible for individuals to even have two or more traits that might not be adaptive on their own but that function very well together. This period of stability can be thought of as ‘good’ in that is allows for much greater variability to enter the population.

Along comes the selection event – the filter, removing anything that can’t pass through a particular challenge – and most of that diversity disappears.  However, since the population experienced a long period of growth and mutation without being subject to a filter, it’s possible that the adaptation that made it through the filter is more complex – is a bigger change – than the kind of single-mutation adaptation you would see from a series of rapid filters.  Populations that instead pass through serial filtering events will only be able to select based on single-mutation traits.

….We expect to have multiple possible pro-adaptive traits at any given time, waiting to pass through the next, unexpected, filter and join future generations.  Thus, memetic evolution is simply a sub-process of cultural evolution. It would be as meaningless to speak of it in isolation as it would be to talk about accumulating mutations prior to selection events (filters) when speaking of biological evolution.

…Memetic ‘evolution’ is simply another name for cultural evolution prior to selecting events. 

Some of this is obviously speculative, but on the whole Mark’s comments were fantastic, and really helped me to understand something that had previously eluded me, and I agree with everything he said, with one exception… I don’t think it’s “meaningless to speak of it in isolation”. I think “it” is very important to talk about. What is “it”? What is this thing that’s worth discussing, but which is not evolution? I’m going to call it “memetic accumulation”. 

III.

For most of history the rate of accumulation for genetic mutations has probably been fairly static. I assume that during periods of greater radiation (if any) that it might have increased, or perhaps the greater the variety of life the greater the space for mutations to occur and perhaps there are other factors as well, but I don’t see any evidence that there were periods where it was significantly faster or slower. There is the Cambrian Explosion, but remember we’re talking about the rate of accumulation, not the rate of evolution or of speciation, and while it was an “explosion” for many things, I don’t think it was an explosion in the accumulation of mutations. In other words I think the rate of mutation accumulation with natural evolution has been pretty constant. 

Even when humans entered the scene and started the selective breeding of domesticated animals, this didn’t change the mutation rate, even for the animals in question. (CRISPR, however may be another matter.) We just introduced a lot more filters and selection events. So, if mutations are relatively constant in natural evolution, what about cultural evolution? Has that rate also been constant? I would argue that it hasn’t, and this, more than anything else, is why it’s worth discussing. I suppose, given the fact that humans can introduce new ideas, new potential memes into the space of culture whenever they feel like it, that there are a great many things which could affect the speed at which memetic accumulation occurs. But certainly technology and progress has to have a large impact on that speed, and almost exclusively in the direction of speeding it up. In fact, “something which speeds up the rate of memetic accumulation” is not a half bad definition of progress. But beyond that, might technology and progress have any other effect than generating ideas quickly?

With the advent of global communication and social media, we are moving ever more rapidly in the direction of creating a single ecosystem for ideas, and I don’t think we’ve fully come to terms with what that means or how it will play out. Certainly ideas propagate faster, and I would also say we end up with a handful of “apex ideas” similar to the idea of an apex predator. Which is to say that we’re in a space where a memetically fit idea is able to very quickly outcompete all the other ideas among people susceptible to that idea. (Notice the increase in the number of people who believe in conspiracy theories.) Leading to a stratification at the level of ideas rather than at the level of a community or nation. Basically, social media and global communication have allowed invasive species/ideas to go everywhere.

On top of all this there’s one final thing which needs to be pointed out, humans are more removed from issues of actual survival than ever before. Toss all of this together and we have rapid memetic generation, but which results in a relatively barren collection of a few dominant memes/ideologies, none of which are likely to have anything to do with actual survival. Now I’m aware that this is something of an oversimplification, culture is still complex and varied, and people still worry about survival, but we have nevertheless lost an awful lot of both those qualities.

Finally, if I’ve convinced you that memetic accumulation is speeding up, then even if you disagree with me about everything else, you might at least want to examine what the potential consequences of that are with respect to cultural evolution.

IV.

Having examined what the modern state of memetic accumulation is within the equilibrium part of the model, what does all of this mean for the eventual “punctuation”? How does our rapid, barren and superficial method of memetic accumulation play out when we actually run into a selection event? Into rapidly changing crisis conditions? Well that’s hard to say, though none of those elements would appear to be positive.

Just by itself, the rapid part isn’t necessarily bad. Perhaps if culture is moving rapidly, then, by the time the eventual crisis rolls around, we will be in some location uniquely well suited for surviving that crisis, a location we would not have reached had we not been moving so quickly. And certainly if there were a bunch of cultures all speeding off towards their own unique locations we might have some expectation that at least one of these locations would be exactly the spot they should be in, but this is where the lack of variety comes into play, we’re not all choosing different locations where we can survive the potential crisis, we seem to all be journeying as quickly as we can towards a small handful of locations, and the rapid bit means if it’s not the right place we will have gone an awfully long distance in the wrong direction. Furthermore, what do these locations look like? If we were really concerned about survival, they would hopefully be strongholds, but if we don’t factor in survival I would think they’re more likely to end up looking like expensive penthouses. Dwellings which look really nice and are great for entertaining, but also the last location you’d want to be in when the zombie apocalypse starts. There’s obviously still a lot of variety in these dwellings, but can anyone honestly tell me we’re not building a lot more penthouses than strongholds these days?

There also seems to be significant effort being spent on getting people to abandon locations which proved to be strongholds in the past. I think I’ve already said this, but it bears repeating, there are essentially three ways to choose a “location” we can choose them randomly, which is essentially what natural evolution is doing. We can choose one based on whether it sounds good or not, but in this sense, as I already pointed out, we’re probably not choosing a stronghold so much as a nice place to live. Or we can choose one based on what’s worked in the past. Any option where we choose is going to be better than random (one would hope) but it’s not clear to me that “sounds good” is definitely better than “worked in the past” (in fact, I strongly suspect it’s worse) and in any event it’s probably best to have cultures in both types of locations.

To be clear, we don’t know which location will best withstand the eventual crisis, because we don’t know what that crisis will look like, but you could certainly see how changing the way in which memetic accumulation happens could change the likelihood of being in the right location. And I hope we can agree on this, even if you don’t agree with me on exactly how memetic accumulation has changed

But beyond all this, there’s probably more bad news, particularly if you believe Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s contention, that in addition to changing to speed of memetic accumulation, that progress and technology has also changed the nature of potential crises as well. That we have made them less frequent, but in the process we’ve also made them larger. As a real world example, lots of people feel that there is no safe location (both figuratively and literally) if the crisis ends up being full scale nuclear war or runaway climate change (I disagree, but I’ve already covered that in past posts). Both crises that have only been made possible recently.

I will freely admit that I’ve followed a long chain of assumptions to get to this point, but strip all that away and I would contend that the two initial ideas, 1) that cultural evolution also follows a pattern of punctuated equilibrium, and 2) that technology and progress can change the rate at which cultural mutations/memes accumulate, are both pretty solid. And both of those together should be enough to introduce serious uncertainty into any claims that conditions are following some long-term, unstoppable, positive trend.

A couple of final things to think about, which I leave as an exercise for the reader:

Are we at a point of “punctuation” right now? If so how’s it looking?

Could memetic accumulation get so out of whack that it actually causes the crisis?


With this post I’ve gone a long way down a pretty obscure road. It you like that sort of thing consider donating. If you don’t like that sort of thing you should also consider donating, but I think it will make less of a difference.


How Do We Adapt to Things?

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When I started my last post I had intended to examine the various ways in which humans adapt to their environment. Four thousand words later, and I’d spent all of them on a defense of cultural evolution/tradition, which is of course just one of the ways we adapt to things, and probably (based on the comments) more interesting when considered in connection with other methods of adaptation than when considered in isolation. Though I still think my last post was important because there’s not nearly enough attention paid to cultural evolution as compared to other methods of adaptation, so establishing some kind of grounding there before proceeding will probably turn out to have been useful. But in any event, I didn’t even get to a discussion of other ways in which humans can adapt to their conditions, so I’m going to take another shot at it and see if I can do better this time. That resolution in place I’m going to immediately go in the opposite direction and spend just a minute or two clarifying some things left over from the last post.

I ended up posting a link to the last post in one of the SSC open comment threads. In addition to the link I laid out my four alternative criteria for judging a tradition. In response to this someone pointed out that in addition to being applied to same sex marriage that these criteria could also be applied to slavery: 

  1. The duration of the tradition. –> Slavery was around for millenia
  2. The strength of enforcement for the tradition. –> Escaped slaves were punished by death.
  3. The frequency of the tradition among the various cultures. –> Slavery was very common
  4. The domain of the tradition. Does it relate to survival or reproduction? –> “The Confederacy decided slavery was so vital to their survival, they went to war for it. See again the Spartacus rebellion.”

To begin with, I found his response to the fourth point not very on point, and probably even a little flippant, but that still leaves the other three. Obviously it’s hard to talk about slavery in any fashion other than righteous flaming denunciation without it getting messy, but I guess I’m going to try it anyway. First, we need to remember that cultural evolution doesn’t care about morality, it cares about survival. Essentially what he’s arguing is that nothing immoral could possibly also be important for survival, which doesn’t follow at all. Second, this is precisely why the fourth point is important, I don’t think slavery does have any relationship to survival or reproduction. Finally, if we are going to add morality to the criteria, as this person seems to be doing, slavery has always provoked intense moral debates, while such debates over SSM are very recent.

In fact everything about SSM is very recent, which leads to the other observation I wanted to make before we move on. After finishing the last post, and discussing it a bit with some people, I realized I left out one of my main motivations. Given that it makes me look better (I think) it seemed wise to include it. I imagine that a lot of people would take that last post as evidence that SSM keeps me up at night, particularly if they also know that I’m religious. They might even assume, despite my many statements to the contrary, that I’m an extreme homophobe. But honestly, my interest is largely intellectual. I know I shouldn’t put too much weight on any one piece of data, but I keep coming back to the content disparity present in the Timeline of Same Sex Marriage article on Wikipedia. How is it that evidence before 1970 could be so slim? Not only does it represent a mere 4% of the article, but it’s clear that they were scraping the bottom of the barrel to get even that. If you haven’t bothered to check out the article here are some examples of evidence for SSM  before 1970.

  • They mention a single marriage in Spain from 1061.
  • There’s a paragraph on it being referred to in a derisory fashion to describe political opponents during the Roman Empire.
  • It appears to have been legal in ancient Assyria.
  • The emperor’s Nero and Elagabalus married men.
  • It was part of the culture of an oasis in Egypt of about 30,000 people (that is its modern population, I assume anciently it was even less).

Reviewing this list you might assume that I cherry picked the least impressive examples, but actually the list I just gave is more or less comprehensive. These are essentially all of the  examples they could come up with. How is it that something which was so incredibly rare in the past has become such a huge deal in only the last few decades? One of my commenters suggested that perhaps it had just not occurred to anyone before 1970. I suppose that’s possible but if anything that just makes things more interesting. We have lots of examples of historical taboos, I can’t think of another example of something never even being considered before the present, certainly not outside of new technology, which SSM is not.

If my interest in SSM is mostly intellectual, you might wonder if I can provide any more visceral examples, reports of traditions under threat where my reaction involves more anger. I can. In particular I remember being very annoyed by the story making the rounds last month about training being given by the New York City Department of Education where things like “individualism,” “objectivity” and “worship of the written word,” were labeled as “White Supremacy Culture”. This is only one data point, but it was a piece of data that fed into a feeling I’ve had for awhile. While I mostly talk about the erosion of moral traditions because that erosion is so obvious, it feels like there’s something deeper going on. I’ve had the sense for awhile that the attack on traditions might not stop there. And when I hear someone label objectivity as “White Supremacy” it seems to confirm those deeper fears. 

With the last post put to bed let’s finally turn to a discussion of the various ways humans can adapt to their environment.

The first and most obvious method of adaptation is evolution through natural selection, which is a large topic unto itself, so for our purposes I just want to point out a few key features. To begin with, it operates through genetic mutations, which occur randomly. Most of the time these mutations are benign, some of the time they’re maladaptive and a tiny minority of the time they’re actually beneficial. (Commentators may notice that I borrowed some of their wording.) Despite the fact that these mutations are beneficial only a tiny minority of the time, the vast majority of what we see when we look are beneficial mutations, because that’s what’s being selected for, and is in fact the definition of beneficial since in this context that just means it makes the organism more likely to reproduce in such a fashion that the gene is transmitted to the next generation. To boil everything down, at this level adaptation:

  1. Is initiated randomly.
  2. Is tested in the crucible of genetic reproduction and survival.
  3. Takes a very, very long time.

The next method of adaptation, is the one I discussed at such length in the last post, that is cultural evolution. I obviously spent quite a bit of time on it in the last post, so you would expect there wouldn’t be much left to say on the subject. But I think it’s important to draw some sharp lines about what it is and what it isn’t. To begin with, while evolution through natural selection operates on the level of genes. Cultural evolution operates at the level of practices that can be transmitted by language. Which I shorthanded as traditions, and it makes having a common language pretty important (though being able to translate might get you most of the way.) The first thing that’s interesting about this, is that it makes culture harder to transmit in some respects, but easier in others.

Genes represent a common language for everything, meaning we get them from all over the place, not merely from Neanderthals, but from viruses as well. The same can not be said for traditions. We didn’t get any traditions from viruses, and it seems pretty unlikely we got any from the Neaderthals either. This is where traditions and culture are harder to transmit, but if you speak the same language, they suddenly become much easier to transmit than genes. Which makes it faster as well. So then how is it tested? This is the part of cultural evolution where all the debate is happening, and where I spent a lot of time in the previous post. But certainly survival has to be in there, and not merely survival of individuals, but survival of the whole culture. In fact I would argue that humans being what they are, that if your culture, taken in its totality, can’t survive conflict with other cultures (i.e. war). Then sooner or later your culture isn’t going to be around and there will be no traditions left to transmit.

Beyond survival, if traditions are the unit of evolution they have to be easily transmissible as well. They also have to be sticky, otherwise they wouldn’t be around long enough to have any effect. That makes traditions sound like memes, but I think there is one big difference. I think for a tradition to be considered part of cultural evolution it has to be attached to its host’s reproduction and survival. I think a meme just has to be able to ensure its own survival.  This takes us to the final and weirdest way for humans to adapt. But before we go there let’s summarize the attributes of cultural evolution:

  1. Is initiated with some thought. “Hey, what if we tried this?”
  2. Is tested in the crucible of cultural and individual reproduction and survival
  3. Is much quicker than genetic evolution, but still kind of slow.

At last we reach the final method of adaptation, memetic evolution, and yet again I’m indebted to Scott Alexander of SSC for so clearly identifying it and I would encourage you to read the original post he did on it. But I also think there’s more to the story than what he points out, in particular I think he undersells the role of survival as the key differentiator between cultural and memetic evolution. But before we jump ahead I should explain the differences between the two as Alexander sees them. For him it mostly revolves around the idea of “convincingness”. That memetic evolution is about doing what sounds good (with competition happening around what that is at any given moment) while cultural evolution is about doing what worked in the past. 

As you can see from the previous list, cultural evolution probably starts in very much the same way. Despite this there are at least two significant differences in how this process works for each. To begin with, in cultural evolution, the space of things eligible to be considered “good ideas” is much smaller, both because of greater resistance to change and because, due to technology, the list of things which could possibly be changed is also vastly smaller. The other difference is that at some point or another the “good idea” is going to be tested to see whether it actually improves the culture’s fitness or makes it worse. Neither of these things is true when it comes to memetic evolution. In the first case it’s a difference of degree, resistance to change still exists, but it’s decreased while the list of potential good ideas just keeps growing. But in the second case it’s a difference of kind, and I would contend that with memetic evolution we have reached a point where “good ideas” are completely disconnected from fitness. The test never happens. Accordingly the attributes of memetic evolution are:

  1. Entirely idea based, with a large potential space for generating those ideas.
  2. Ideas don’t need to provide any survival value for the humans which hold them. It’s all about idea propagation, and “mindshare”.
  3. Much quicker than cultural evolution, and it can be made quicker still by technology.

While we have mostly covered the first point, the remaining two require further discussion. While I think point two is self evident, it immediately leads to a very important follow-up question, how can we get away with no longer worrying about survival? There are three possibilities:

  1. We have progressed to the point where survival is no longer in doubt, therefore we can safely ignore it. The old rules really don’t apply. Perhaps because everything promised by the advocates of posthumanism is coming to pass.
  2. Survival and reproduction and evolutionary fitness still lurk in the background, but we have managed to make significant progress in lessening their importance, allowing us to profitably focus on other things, perhaps in something akin to Maslow’s hierarchy.
  3. We can’t get away with it. Survival and reproduction are just as important as ever, but they’ve been completely overshadowed by the variety and speed of memetic evolution. That eventually cultural evolution will still be important.

You can probably guess which possibility I favor, but I’m not the only one to notice that we have developed lots of behaviors that have little to do with ongoing survival. Robin Hanson calls it Dreamtime, and describes it thusly, “our lives are far more dominated by consequential delusions: wildly false beliefs and non-adaptive values that matter.” But I’m jumping ahead, each of these possibilities has some interesting and possibly disturbing implications. 

The first possibility represents the most extreme shift. Because, as I said, the old rules don’t apply. Under the old rules it was all about us, the humans, and whether we continued to exist or not. With possibility number one it’s all about ideas, and humans are just a place for ideas to reside, and not even a particularly good place now that we have computers, which takes us to my posthuman reference. If ideas are all that matter what’s to say we even have a role in the world of the future. Certainly there are lots of posthumanists who worry that we don’t.

Under the second possibility, one imagines that, civilizationally, we’re perched near the top of Maslow’s pyramid in the areas of love, esteem and self-actualization, and that this is a good thing. But in this model the bottom level with the physical needs of food and water is still down there. Is there ever a point where we forget how to supply those needs? Certainly on an individual level, almost no one in the US knows how to grow or kill enough food to feed themselves for an extended period. We still possess this knowledge at a civilizational level, fortunately, but it’s unclear how robust this knowledge is. I say this, primarily, because it hasn’t been put to the test recently, There are lots of ways for something like this to be tested, but if nothing else in the past there were frequent wars which acted to test the mettle of a civilization. We haven’t had one of those recently, and to be clear, that’s a good thing, but it also seems like the kind of thing where the longer you go without one, the worse it is when it finally happens. And I’m by no means convinced that there will never be another great power war.

Turning to the third possibility, the first thing we need to do is decide what it means for survival to be “just as important as ever”. From one perspective, of course it’s as important as ever, as I frequently point out, if you can’t survive (and reproduce) you can’t do anything else either. So on reflection, it’s more accurate to say that the third possibility asserts that survival is just as difficult as ever. Stating it this way I assume a lot of people are going to immediately dismiss it as obviously incorrect, since that’s not what the numbers show at all. Rather they show a huge increase in life expectancy and vast decreases to most of the causes of death people had to worry about historically, like infant mortality or infectious diseases. This is a pretty good argument, but let me offer at least one counterargument (there are many).

Nassim Nicholas Taleb makes the point that technology and progress have not created any decrease in fragility, that rather, if anything, they have increased it, which would mean that, currently, survival is not merely as difficult, it’s more difficult. But what about the numbers? Here Taleb argues that though technology doesn’t decrease fragility it does allow you to dampen volatility, particularly in the short term. I say in the short term because what we’re really doing is postponing volatility and making things that much worse when whatever tools you’ve been using eventually reach the limits of their effectiveness

You can see how this all might play out using the example of nuclear war. It is widely agreed that a large part of the reason for the Long Peace is the horror of nuclear weapons. This is the low volatility. However if war ever does come the eventual volatility will be far greater than any previous war. Additionally, while no previous war ever threatened the survival of humanity, a nuclear war very well might, leading to exactly the situation I described. Survival isn’t just as difficult, it’s actually much more difficult.

The last issue we have to deal with is the speed of memetic evolution. Recall the title question, “How do we adapt to things?’ Or to take it from another angle, what are we adapting to? In the past all adaptation was in service of survival and reproduction, and the fact that cultural evolution was faster than genetic evolution allowed humans to adapt more quickly to a variety of conditions. Certainly I’m not aware of any other animals which have adapted to live nearly anywhere. But if we’re not adapting to survive in changing conditions because our survival is no longer in question than what are we adapting to? And how does doing it faster help? If anything it appears that things are reversed. That the changes brought about by memetic evolution aren’t helping us to adapt they’re what we have to adapt to. In which case, the fact that it just keeps going faster isn’t a feature, it’s a bug…

If we have passed into the era of memetic evolution. And if it has the qualities I describe. Both of which seem very likely. Then there doesn’t seem to be much of a silver lining. It would appear that the best case scenario would be to hope that we have progressed into a new and better world where ideas are the only thing that matters, and then to further hope that we can manage to find a place in that world. The other possibilities all seem to boil down to a rapidly changing world where survival is still important but the conditions we’re trying to adapt our survival to are changing with ever greater rapidity.


These ending blurbs are actually examples of memetic evolution. No, really. I never said they were good examples, in fact they’re more akin to the random mutations of genetic evolution. But maybe this is the random mutation that will work, and you’ll be convinced to donate.