Category: <span>Politics</span>

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ejaita goes on:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Liberals have no such simple prescription. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Traffic Lights and Modern Epistemology

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

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

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

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

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

Some possibilities:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Don’t Make the Second Mistake

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Several years ago, when my oldest son had only been driving for around a year, he set out to take care of some things in an unfamiliar area about 30 minutes north of where we live. Of course he was using Google Maps, and as he neared his destination he realized he was about to miss his turn. Panicking, he immediately cranked the wheel of our van hard to the right, and actually ended up undershooting the turn, running into a curb and popping the front passenger side tire. 

He texted me and I explained where the spare was, and then over several other texts I guided him in putting it on. When he was finally done I told him not to take the van on the freeway because the spare wasn’t designed to go over 55. An hour later when he wasn’t home I tried calling him thinking that if he was driving I didn’t want him trying to text. After a couple of rings it went to voicemail, which seemed weird, so after a few minutes I tried texting him. He responded with this message:

I just got in another accident with another driver I’m so so so sorry. I have his license plate number, what else do I need to do?

Obviously my first question was whether he was alright. He said he was and that the van was still drivable (as it turned out, just barely…) He had been trying to get home without using the freeway and had naturally ended up in a part of town he was unfamiliar with. Arriving at an intersection, and already flustered by the blown tire and by how long it was taking, he thought it was a four-way stop, but instead only the street he was on had a stop sign. In his defence, there was a railroad crossing right next to the intersection on the other street, and so everything necessary to stop cross traffic was there, it just wasn’t active. Nor did it act anything like a four way stop.

In any event, after determining that no one else was stopped at what he thought were the other stop signs he proceeded and immediately got hit on the passenger side by someone coming down the other street. As I said the van was drivable, but just barely, and the insurance didn’t end up totaling it, but once again just barely. As it turns out the other driver was in a rental car, and as a side note, being hit by a rental car with full coverage in an accident with no injuries led to the other driver being very chill and understanding about the whole thing, so that was nice. Though I imagine the rental car company got every dime out of our insurance, certainly our rates went up, by a lot.

Another story…

While I was on my LDS mission in the Netherlands, my Dad wrote to me and related the following incident. He had been called over to my Uncle’s house to help him repair a snowmobile (in those days snowmobiles spent at least as much time being fixed as being ridden). As part of the repair they ended up needing to do some welding, but my dad only had his oxy acetylene setup with him. What he really needed was his arc welder, but that would mean towing the snowmobile trailer all the way back to his house on the other side of town, which seemed like a lot of effort for a fairly simple weld. He just needed to reattach something to the bulkhead. 

In order to do this with an oxy acetylene welder you had to put enough heat into the steel for it to start melting. Unfortunately on the other side of the bulkhead was the gas line to the carburetor, and as it started absorbing heat the line melted and gasoline poured out on to the hot steel immediately catching on fire. 

With a continual stream of gasoline pouring onto the fire, panic ensued, but it quickly became apparent that they needed to get the snowmobile out of the garage to keep the house from catching on fire. So my Father and Uncle grabbed the trailer and began to drag it into the driveway. Unfortunately the welder was still on the trailer, and it was pulling on the welding cart which had, among other things, a tank full of pure oxygen. My Dad saw this and tried to get my Uncle to stop, but he was far too focused on the fire to pay attention to my Father’s warnings, and so the tank tipped over.

You may not initially understand why this is so bad. Well, when an oxygen tank falls over the valve can snap off. In fact when you’re not using them there’s a special attachment you screw on to cover the valve which doesn’t prevent it from snapping off, but prevents it from becoming a missile if it does. Because, that’s what happens, the pressurized gas turns the big metal cylinder into a giant and very dangerous missile. But beyond that it would have filled the garage they were working in, the garage that already had a significant gasoline fire going with pure oxygen. Whether the fuel air bomb thus created would have been worse or better than the missile which had been created at the same time is hard to say, but both would have been really bad.

Fortunately the valve didn’t snap off, and they were able to get the snowmobile out into the driveway where a man passing by jumped out of his car with a fire extinguisher and put out the blaze. At which point my Father towed the trailer with the snowmobile over to his house, got out his arc welder, and had the weld done in about 30 seconds of actual welding.

What do both of these stories have in common? The panic, haste, and unfamiliar situation caused by making one mistake directly led to making more mistakes, and in both cases the mistakes which followed ended up being worse than the original mistake. Anyone, upon surveying the current scene would agree that mistakes have been made recently. Mistakes that have led to panic, hasty decisions, and most of all put us in very unfamiliar situations. When this happens people are likely to make additional mistakes, and this is true not only for individuals at intersections, and small groups working in garages, but also true at the level of nations, whether those nations are battling pandemics or responding to a particularly egregious example of police brutality or both at the same time.

If everyone acknowledges that mistakes have been made (which I think is indisputable) and further grants that the chaos caused by an initial mistake makes further mistakes more likely (less indisputable, but still largely unobjectionable I would assume). Where does that leave us? Saying that further mistakes are going to happen is straightforward enough, but it’s still a long way from that to identifying those mistakes before we make them, and farther still from identifying the mistakes to actually preventing them, since the power to prevent has to overlap with the insight to identify, which is, unfortunately, rarely the case. 

As you might imagine, I am probably not in a position to do much to prevent further mistakes. But you might at least hope that I could lend a hand in identifying them. I will do some of that, but this post, including the two stories I led with, is going to be more about pointing out that such mistakes are almost certainly going to happen, and our best strategy might be to ensure that such mistakes are not catastrophic. If actions were obviously mistakes we wouldn’t take those actions, we only take them because in advance they seem like good ideas. Accordingly this post is about lessening the chance that seemingly good actions will end up being mistakes later, and if they do end up being mistakes, making sure that they’re manageable mistakes rather than catastrophic mistakes. How do we do that?

The first principle I want to put forward is identifying the unknowns. Another way of framing this is asking, “What’s the worst that could happen?” Let me offer two competing examples drawn from current events:

First, masks: Imagine, if, to take an example from a previous post, the US had had a 30 day stockpile of masks for everyone in America, and when the pandemic broke out it had made them available and strongly recommended that people wear them. What’s the worst that could have happened? I’m struggling to come up with anything. I imagine that we might have seen some reaction from hardcore libertarians despite the fact that it was a recommendation, not a requirement. But the worst case is at best mild social unrest, and probably nothing at all.

Next, defunding the police: Now imagine that Minneapolis goes ahead with it’s plan to defund the police, what’s the worst that could happen there? I pick on Steven Pinker a lot, but maybe I can make it up to him a little bit by including a quote of his that has been making the rounds recently:

As a young teenager in proudly peaceable Canada during the romantic 1960s, I was a true believer in Bakunin’s anarchism. I laughed off my parents’ argument that if the government ever laid down its arms all hell would break loose. Our competing predictions were put to the test at 8:00 a.m. on October 7, 1969, when the Montreal police went on strike. By 11:20 am, the first bank was robbed. By noon, most of the downtown stores were closed because of looting. Within a few more hours, taxi drivers burned down the garage of a limousine service that competed with them for airport customers, a rooftop sniper killed a provincial police officer, rioters broke into several hotels and restaurants, and a doctor slew a burglar in his suburban home. By the end of the day, six banks had been robbed, a hundred shops had been looted, twelve fires had been set, forty carloads of storefront glass had been broken, and three million dollars in property damage had been inflicted, before city authorities had to call in the army and, of course, the Mounties to restore order. This decisive empirical test left my politics in tatters (and offered a foretaste of life as a scientist).

Now recall this is just the worst case, I am not saying this is what will happen, in fact I would be surprised if it did, particularly over such a short period. Also, I am not even saying that I’m positive defunding the police is a bad idea. It’s definitely not what I would do, but there’s certainly some chance that it might be an improvement on what we’re currently doing. But just as there’s some chance it might be better, one has to acknowledge that there’s also some chance that it might be worse. Which takes me to the second point.

If something might be a mistake it would be good if we don’t end up all making the same mistake. I’m fine if Minneapolis wants to take the lead on figuring out what it means to defund the police. In fact from the perspective of social science I’m excited about the experiment. I would be far less excited if every municipality decides to do it at the same time. Accordingly my second point is, knowing some of the actions we’re going to take in the wake of an initial mistake are likely to be further mistakes we should avoid all taking the same actions, for fear we all land on an action which turns out to be a further mistake.

I’ve already made this point as far as police violence goes, but we can also see it with masks. For reasons that still leave me baffled the CDC had a policy minimizing masks going all the way back to 2009. But fortunately this was not the case in Southeast Asia, and during the pandemic we got to see how the countries where mask wearing was ubiquitous fared, as it turned out, pretty well. No imagine that the same bad advice had been the standard worldwide. Would it have taken us longer to figure out that masks worked well for protecting against COVID-19? Almost certainly. 

So the two rules I have for avoiding the “second mistake” are:

  1. Consider the worst case scenario of an action before you take it. In particular try to consider the decision in the absence of the first mistake. Or what the decision might look like with the benefit of hindsight. (One clever mind hack I came across asks you to act as if you’ve been sent back in time to fix a horrible mistake, you just don’t know what the mistake was.)
  2. Avoid having everyone take the same response to the initial mistake. It’s easy in the panic and haste caused by the initial mistake for everyone to default to the same response, but that just makes the initial mistake that much worse if everyone panics into making the same wrong decision.

There are other guidelines as well, and I’ll be discussing some of them in my next post, but these two represent an easy starting point. 

Finally, I know I’ve already provided a couple of examples, but there are obviously lots of other recent actions which could be taken or have been taken and you may be wondering what their mistake potential is. To be clear I’m not saying that any of these actions are a mistake, identifying mistakes in advance is really hard, I’m just going to look at them with respect to the standards above. 

Let’s start with actions which have been taken or might be taken with respect to the pandemic. 

  1. Rescue package: In response to the pandemic, the US passed a massive aid/spending bill. Adding quite a bit to a national debt that is already quite large. I have maintained for a while that the worst case scenario here is pretty bad. (The arguments around this are fairly deep, with the leading counter argument being that we don’t have to worry because such a failure is impossible.) Additionally while many governments did the same thing, I’m less worried here about doing the same thing everyone else did and more worried about doing the same thing we always do when panic ensues. That is, throw money at things. 
  2. Closing things down/Opening them back up: Both actions seemed to happen quite suddenly and in near unison, with the majority of states doing both nearly simultaneously.  I’ve already talked about how there seemed to be very little discussion of the economic effects in pre-pandemic planning and equally not much consideration for what to do in the event of a new outbreak after opening things back up. As far as everyone doing the same thing, as I’ve mentioned before I’m glad that Sweden didn’t shut things down, just like I’d be happy to see Minneapolis try a new path with the police.
  3. Social unrest: I first had the idea for this post before George Floyd’s death. And at the time it already seemed that people were using COVID as an excuse to further stoke political divisions. That rather than showing forth understanding to those who were harmed by the shutdown they were hurling criticisms. To be clear the worst case scenario on this tactic is a 2nd civil war. Also, not only is everyone making the same mistake of blaming the other side, but similar to spending it also seems to be our go-to tactic these days.

Moving on to the protests and the anger over police brutality:

  1. The protests themselves: This is another area where the worst case scenario is pretty bad. While we’ve had good luck recently with protests generally fizzling out before anything truly extreme happened, historically there have been lots of times where protests just kept getting bigger and bigger until governments were overthrown, cities burned and thousands died. Also while there have been some exceptions, it’s been remarkable how even worldwide everyone is doing the same thing, gathering downtown in big cities and protesting, and further how the protests all look very similar, with the police confrontations, the tearing down of statues, the yelling, etc.
  2. The pandemic: I try to be pretty even keeled about things, and it’s an open question whether I actually succeed, but the hypocrisy demonstrated by how quickly media and scientists changed their recommendations when the protests went from being anti-lockdown to anti police brutality was truly amazing both in how blatant and how partisan it was. Clearly there is a danger that the protests will contribute significantly to an increase in COVID cases, and it is difficult to see how arguments about the ability to do things virtually don’t apply here. Certainly whatever damage has been caused as a side effect of the protests would be far less if they had been conducted virtually… 
  3. Defunding the police: While this has already been touched on, the worst case scenario not only appears to be pretty bad, but very likely to occur as well. In particular everything I’ve seen since things started seems to indicate that the solution is to spend more money on policing rather than less. And yet nearly in lock stop most large cities have put forward plans to spend less money on the police

I confess that these observations are less hard and fast and certainly less scientific than I would have liked. But if it was easy to know how we would end up making the second mistake we wouldn’t make it. Certainly if my son had known the danger of that particular intersection he would have spent the time necessary to figure out it wasn’t a four way stop. Or if my father had known that using the oxy acetylene welder would catch the fuel on fire he would have taken the extra time to move things to his house so he could use the arc welder. And I am certain that when we look back on how we handled the pandemic and the protests that there will be things that turned out to be obvious mistakes. Mistakes which we wish we had avoided. But maybe, if we can be just a little bit wiser and a little less panicky, we can avoid making the second mistake.


It’s possible that you think it was a mistake to read this post, hopefully not, but if it was then I’m going to engage in my own hypocrisy and ask you to, this one time, make a second mistake and donate. To be fair the worst case scenario is not too bad, and everyone is definitely not doing it.


Churchills, Hitlers, and Hedonists

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I.

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

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

(h/t: Bruce G. Charlton)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

II.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

III.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is the way the world ends

This is the way the world ends

This is the way the world ends

Not with a bang but a whimper.


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


Predictions: Looking Back to 2019 and Forward to 2020

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At the beginning of 2017 I made some predictions. These were not predictions just for the coming year, but rather predictions for the next 100 years. A list of black swans that I thought either would or would not come to pass. (War? Yes. AI Singularity? No.) Two years later I haven’t been wrong or right yet about any of them, but that’s what I expected, they are black swans after all. But I still feel the need, on the occasion of the new year, to comment on the future, which means that in the absence of anything new to say about my 100 year predictions, I’ve had to turn to more specific predictions. Which is what I did last year. And like everyone else (myself included) you’re probably wondering how I did. 

I started off by predicting: All of my long-standing predictions continue to hold up, with some getting a little more likely and some a little less, but none in serious danger.

After doing my annual review of them (something I would recommend, particularly if you weren’t around when I initially made those predictions) this continues to be true. As one example, I predicted that immortality would never be achieved. My impression has always been that transhumanists considered this one of the easier goals to accomplish, and yet we’ve actually been going the opposite direction for several years, with life expectancy falling year after year, including the most recent numbers.

As I was writing this, the news about GPT-2s ability to play chess came out. Which, I’ll have to admit, does appear to be a major step towards falsifying my long term prediction that we will never have a general AI that can do everything a human can do, but I still think we’ve got a long way to go, farther than most people think.

I went on to predict: Populism will be the dominant force in the West for the foreseeable future. Globalism is on the decline if not effectively dead already.

I will confess that I’m not entirely sure why I limited it to “the West”. Surely this was and is true. The historic general election win by the Tories to finally push Brexit through, the not quite dead Yellow Vests Movement in France and the popularity of Sanders, Warren and Trump in the run up to the election are all examples of this. But it’s really outside of the West where populism made itself felt in 2019. One example of that, of course, are the ongoing protests in Hong Kong, as well as protests in such diverse places as Columbia, Sudan and Iran. But it’s the protests in Chile and India that I want to focus on. 

The fascinating thing about the Chilean protests is that Chile was one of the wealthiest countries in South America, and seemed to be doing great, at least from a globalist perspective. But then, because of a 4% rate increase in public transportation fees in the capital of Santiago, mass protests broke out, encompassing over a million people and involving demands for a new constitution. I used the term “globalist perspective” just now, which felt kind of clunky, but it also gets at what I mean. From the perspective of the free flow of capital and metrics like GDP and trade, Chile was doing great. Beyond that Chile was ranked 28th out of 162 countries on the freedom index, so it had good institutions as well. But for some reason, even with all that, there was another level on which it’s citizens felt things were going horribly. It’s an interesting question to consider if things are actually going horribly, or if the modern world has created unrealistic expectations, but neither is particularly encouraging, and of the two, unrealistic expectations may be worse.

Turning to India, I ended last year’s post by quoting from Tyler Cowen, “Hindu nationalism [is] on the rise, [but] India seems to be evolving intellectually in a multiplicity of directions, few of them familiar to most Americans.” I think he was correct, but also “Hindu nationalism” is a very close cousin, or even a sibling to Hindu populism, and, as is so often the case, an increase in one kind of populism has led to increases in other sorts of populism. In India’s case to increased expressions of Muslim populism. Which has resulted in huge rallies taking place in the major cities over the last few weeks in protest of an immigration law.

Speaking more generally, my sense is that these populist uprisings come in waves. There was the Arab Spring. (Apparently Chile is part of the Latin America Spring.) There was the whole wave of governments changing immediately after the fall of the Soviet Union, which included Tiananmen Square. (Which unfortunately did not result in a change of government.) In 1968 there were worldwide protests and if you want to go really far back there were the revolutions of 1848. It seems clear that we’re currently seeing another wave. (Are they coming more frequently?) And the big question is whether or not this wave has crested yet. My prediction is that it hasn’t, that 2020 will see a spreading and intensification of such protests. 

My next prediction concerned the fight against global warming, and I predicted: Carbon taxes are going to be difficult to implement, and will not see widespread adoption.

Like many of my predictions this is more long term, but still accurate. To the best of my knowledge while there was lots of sturm und drang about climate change, mostly involving Greta Thunberg, I don’t recall major climate change related policies being implemented by any government, and certainly not by the US and China, the two biggest emitters. Of course, looking back this prediction once again relates back to populism, in particular the Yellow Vest Movement, who demanded that the government not go ahead with the scheduled 2019 increase to the carbon tax, which is in fact exactly what happened. Also Alberta repealed its carbon tax in 2019. On further reflection, this particular prediction seems too specific to be something I add to the list of things I continue to track, but it does seem largely correct.

From there I went on to predict: Social media will continue to change politics rapidly and in unforeseen ways.

When people talk about the protests mentioned above social media always comes into play. And in fact it’s difficult to imagine that the Hong Kong protests could have lasted as long as they have without the presence of social platforms like Telegram and the like. And it’s difficult to imagine how the Chilean protests could have formed so quickly and over something which otherwise seems so minor in the absence of social media.

But of course the true test will be the 2020 election. And this is where I continue to maintain that we can’t yet predict how social media will impact things. I would be surprised if some of the avenues for abuse which existed in 2016 hadn’t been closed down, but I would be equally surprised if new avenues of abuse don’t open up.

My next prediction was perhaps my most specific: There will be a US recession before the next election. It will make things worse.

Despite its specificity, I could have done better. What I was getting at is that a softening economy will be a factor in the next election. This might take the form of a formal recession (that is negative GDP growth for two successive quarters) or it might be a more general loss of consumer confidence without being a formal recession. In particular I could see a recession starting before the election, but not having the time to wrack up the full two quarters of negative growth before the election actually takes place. 

In any event I stand by this prediction, though I continue to be surprised by the growth of the economy. As you may have heard the US is currently in the longest economic expansion in history. And if I’m wrong, and the economy continues to grow up through the election, then I’ll make a further prediction, Trump will be re-elected. The Economist agrees with me, in their capsule review of the coming year:

Having survived the impeachment process, Donald Trump will be re-elected president if the American economy remains strong and the opposition Democrats nominate a candidate who is perceived to be too far to the left. The economy is, however, weakening, and a slump of some kind in 2020 is all but certain, lengthening Mr Trump’s odds.

As long as we’re on the subject of the economy, I came across something else that was very alarming the other day. 

Waves of debt accumulation have been a recurrent feature of the global economy over the past fifty years. In emerging and developing countries, there have been four major debt waves since 1970. The first three waves ended in financial crises—the Latin American debt crisis of the 1980s, the Asia financial crisis of the late 1990s, and the global financial crisis of 2007-2009.

A fourth wave of debt began in 2010 and debt has reached $55 trillion in 2018, making it the largest, broadest and fastest growing of the four. While debt financing can help meet urgent development needs such as basic infrastructure, much of the current debt wave is taking riskier forms. Low-income countries are increasingly borrowing from creditors outside the traditional Paris Club lenders, notably from China. Some of these lenders impose non-disclosure clauses and collateral requirements that obscure the scale and nature of debt loads. There are concerns that governments are not as effective as they need to be in investing the loans in physical and human capital. In fact, in many developing countries, public investment has been falling even as debt burdens rise. 

That’s from a World Bank Report. Make of it what you will, but the current conditions certainly sounds like previous conditions which ended in crisis and catastrophe, and if the report is to be believed conditions are much worse now than on the previous three occasions. I understand that if it does happen there’s some chance it won’t affect the US, but given how interconnected the world economy is, that doesn’t seem particularly likely. I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

I should mention that one of my long term predictions is that: The US government’s debt will eventually be the source of a gigantic global meltdown. And while the debt mentioned in the report is mostly in countries outside of the US, it is in the same ballpark.

Moving on, my next prediction was: Authoritarianism is on the rise elsewhere, particularly in Russia and China.

I would think that the Hong Kong protests are definitive proof of rising authoritarianism in China or at least continuing authoritarianism. But on top of that 2019 saw an increase in the repression of the Uyghurs, most notably their internment in re-education camps, and this in spite of the greater visibility and condemnation these camps have collected. But what about Russia? Here things seem to have been quieter than I expected, and I will admit that I was too pessimistic when it came to Russia. Though they are still plenty authoritarian, and it will be interesting to see what happens as it gets closer to the end of Putin’s term in 2024.

Those two countries aside, I actually argued that authoritarianism is on the rise generally, and this seems to be confirmed by Freedom House, which said that in 2018 that freedom declined in 68 countries while only increasing in 50, and that this continues 13 consecutive years of decline. You did read that correctly, I gave the numbers for 2018, because those are the most recent numbers available, but I’m predicting that when the 2019 numbers come in, that they’ll also show a net decline in freedom.

My final specific prediction from last year was: The jockeying for regional power in the Middle East will intensify.

Well, if this didn’t happen in 2019 (and I think it did) then it certainly happened in 2020 when the US killed Qasem Soleimani. Though to be fair, while the killing definitely checks the “intensify” box, it’s not quite as good at checking the “regional power” box. Though any move that knocks Iran down a peg has to be good news for at least one of the other powers in the region, which creates a strong suspicion that the US’s increasing aggressiveness towards Iran might be on behalf of one or more of those other powers.

Still, it was the US who did it, and it’s really in that context that it’s the most interesting. What does the Soleimani killing say about ongoing American hegemony? First, it’s hard, but not impossible to imagine any president other than Trump ordering the strike. (Apparently the Pentagon was “stunned” when he chose that option.) Second and more speculatively, I would argue this illustrates that, while the ability of the US military to project force wherever it wants is still alive and well, such force projection is going to become increasingly complicated and precarious.

At this point it’s tempting to go on a tangent and discuss the wisdom or foolishness of killing Soleimani, though I don’t know that it’s really clearly one or the other. He was clearly a bad guy, and the type of warfare he specialized in was particularly loathsome. That said does killing any one person, regardless of how important, really do much to slow things down? 

Perhaps the biggest argument for it being foolish would have to be the precedent it sets. Adding the option of using drones to surgically kill foreign leaders you don’t like, seems both dangerous and destabilizing, but is it also inevitable? Probably, though I am sympathetic to the idea that Trump set the precedent and opened the gates earlier than Clinton (or any of a hundred other presidential candidates you might imagine.)

That covers all of my previous predictions to one degree or another, along with adding a few more and now you probably want some new predictions. In particular, everyone wants to know who’s going to win the 2020 presidential election, so I guess I’ll start with that. To begin with I’m predicting that the Democrats are going to end up having a brokered convention. Okay, not actually, but I really hope it happens, I have long thought that it would be the most interesting thing that could happen for a political junkie like me. But it hasn’t happened since 1952, and since then both parties have put a lot of things in place to keep them from happening, because brokered conventions look bad for the party. That said, some of these things, like superdelegates, have been recently been weakened. Also Democrats allocate delegates proportionally rather than winner take all like the Republicans. Finally, it does seem that recently we’ve been getting closer. Certainly there was talk of it when Obama secured the nomination in 2008, and then again in 2016 when they were trying to figure out how to stop Trump.. So fingers crossed for 2020.

If it’s not going to be a brokered convention, then the candidate will have to come out of the primaries, which may be even harder to predict than who would emerge from a convention fight. Which is to say I honestly have no idea who’s going to end up as the Democratic candidate. Which makes it difficult to predict the winner in November. Since I basically agree with The Economist quote above, there is a real danger of Trump winning if they nominate Sanders or Warren. I know the last election felt chaotic, but I think 2020 will be more chaotic by a significant margin. 

All that said, gun to my head, I think Biden will squeak into being the Democratic nominee and then beat Trump when the economy softens just before the election. And I hope that this will bring a measure of calm to the country, but also I have serious doubts about Biden (my favorite recent description of him is confused old man) and I know that a lot of people really think he’s going to collapse during the election and hand it to Trump. Which, if you’re one of the Democrats voting in the primary, would be a bad thing. 

A lot hinges on whether Bloomberg is going to make a dent in the race. I kind of like Bloomberg. I think technocrats are overrated in general, but given the alternative, a competent technocrat could be very refreshing, and I can see why he entered the race. With Biden’s many gaffes there does seem to be a definite dearth of candidates in that category. Unfortunately, despite dropping a truly staggering amount of money he’s still polling fifth. In any case, there’s a lot of moving parts, and any number of things can happen, still, on top of my prediction that Biden will squeak in as the Democratic nominee, I’m predicting that even if he doesn’t a Democrat will win the 2020 election. But I guess we’ll have to wait and see. 

In summary, I’m predicting:

  • Everything I predicted in 2017.
  • A continuation of my predictions from last year with some pivots:
    • More populism, less globalism. Specifically that protests will get worse in 2020.
    • No significant reduction in global CO2 emissions (a drop of greater than 5%)
    • Social media will continue to have an unpredictable effect on politics, but the effect will be negative.
    • That the US economy will soften enough to cause Trump to lose.
    • That the newest wave of debt accumulation will cause enormous problems (at least as bad as the other three waves) by the end of the decade.
    • Authoritarianism will continue to increase and liberal democracy will continue its retreat.
    • The Middle East will get worse.

     

  • Biden will squeak into the Democractic nomination.
  • The Democrats will win in 2020.

As long as we’re talking about the election and conditions this time next year, I should interject a quick tangent. I was out to lunch with a friend of mine the other day and he predicted that Trump will lose the election, but that in between the election and the inauguration Russia will convince North Korea to use one of their nukes to create a high altitude EMP which will take out most of the electronics in the US, resulting in a nationwide descent into chaos. This will allow Trump to declare martial law, suspending the results of the election and the inauguration of the new president. And then, to cap it all off, Trump will use the crisis as an excuse to invite in Russian troops as peacekeepers. After hearing this I offered him 1000-1 odds that this specific scenario would not happen. He decided to put down $10, so at this point next year, I’ll either be $10 richer, or I’ll have to scrounge up the equivalent of $10,000 in gold while dealing with the collapse of America and a very weird real-life version of Red Dawn.

I will say though, as someone with a passion for catastrophe, I give his prediction for 2020 full marks for effort. It is certainly far and away the most vivid scenario for the 2020 election that I have heard. And, speaking of vivid catastrophes. With my new focus on eschatology, one imagines that I should make some eschatological predictions as well. But of course I can’t. And that’s kind of the whole point. If I was able to predict massive catastrophes in advance then presumably lots of people could do it, and some of those people would be in a position to stop those catastrophes. Meaning that true catastrophes are only what can’t be predicted, or what can’t be stopped even if someone could predict them. That may in fact be fundamental to the definition of eschatology no matter how you slice it, going all the way back to the New Testament

Watch therefore, for ye know neither the day nor the hour wherein the Son of man cometh. 

This injunction applies not only to the Son of Man but also to giant asteroids, terrorist nukes and even the election of Donald Trump, and it’s going to be the subject of my next post.


I have one final prediction, that my monthly patreon donations will be higher at the end of 2020 than at the start. I know what you’re thinking, why that snarky, arrogant… In fact saying it makes you not want to donate, but then everyone has to feel the same way, which ends up being a large coordination problem. On the other hand it just takes one person to make the prediction true, and that person could be you! 


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.


This is not the first time I’ve introduced an extended metaphor involving planes. If you want to ensure that these metaphors continue (and I mean really who wouldn’t?) Consider donating