Friday, July 22, 2016

Quest for Solutions? You Ain't Gonna Get One Here

Daniel Oppenheimer:

On a gut level I care a lot more about my friends and family than I do about the masses. I view with skepticism people who want to preach to me, from on their high horse, what I should be thinking and doing in the name of justice. I see our political system as being, on balance, one of the more half-decent ones that history has produced, and I’m somewhat horrified by radicals who think that its very real and deep flaws and sins justify tearing it all down. I think human societies, like human beings, are flawed, imperfect, frail things, and as such deserve both idealistic prods to be better than they are and some measure of tolerance and compassion for the many ways in which they’ll inevitably fail.

These are all perspectives that fit comfortably under the rubric of “conservative.” Yet my overt politics are democratic socialist.

At the most conscious, explicit level I would like for the U.S. to move (democratically, with moral urgency but not haste) in the direction of those lovely Scandinavian countries, or at least my fantasy of them, where a vibrant market economy co-exists with high taxes, a generous welfare state, strong unions, tough but well-engineered regulations, appropriate urgency about climate change, egalitarian views about sexuality and gender, and a general aversion to war and imperialism.

As a young man, I used to enjoy reading hair-splitting discussions of atheism and theology. Having long since become bored with all that, I now enjoy reading attempts by other questioning folks to pin down some sort of ontology of political identity. Perhaps we can start identifying as politically queer, or politically trans, even? Poli-fluid? Stop oppressing me with your political binary! Anyway, this is the first of what will apparently be a multi-part dialogue between Oppenheimer and a couple other people, so I don't want to read too much into what must, of necessity, be very general and broad statements, but a few things do jump out at me right away.

Here, he presents his situation as a standoff between his conservative heart and his democratic socialist head. The problem, as I see it, is that this particular formulation is one big ol' begged question. I would suggest that "even conservatives" are in favor of "appropriate" urgency about climate change, "a general aversion" to war and imperialism, and other noble-sounding ideals. The question is not about whether we all, right and left, would like to see a world full of Good Things; the question is whether these things are obtainable at a reasonable cost. Contrary to many progressive polemics, conservatism is not inherently opposed to change no matter what. Even Edmund Burke allowed that societies had to be flexible enough to adapt to new circumstances. The tendency of conservatism to err on the side of caution and inertia is not the first step on a slippery slope to the social vision of Joseph de Maistre. Progressives may not dream of an actual utopia in which all problems have been eliminated, but they do seem credulous toward the possibility of optimizing our way toward a perfect balance between liberty and security, individuality and equality, and other competing goods which may very well be incapable of occupying the same social space at the same time. Conservatives, in contrast, are more likely to insist that life is nothing but trade-offs, each unsatisfactory in its own way, and to rest resignedly with the assumption that not all social ills can be cured through policy solutions.

The optimism bias, also known as the valence effect, describes the common tendency of idealists to imagine the best-case scenario resulting from their actions. The fallacy sneaks in with the next step, which is to assume that the best-case scenario is also the most likely result. What you should do, instead, is try to imagine alternatives. What happens if your actions fall short of their goals and result in unintended consequences? What sort of backup plan do you have? How do you calculate whether the possibility of failure outweighs the urge to act? A conservative might ask Oppenheimer: what happens if an increasingly-powerful welfare state becomes invasive and oppressive, and how would a citizenry which had allowed its civic spirit to atrophy find the resources to resist it? What happens when the unions become corrupt and obstructionist? What happens if taxes and regulations become detrimental to the economy? What happens if platitudes about egalitarianism turn into Harrison Bergeron-style schemes of Procrustean leveling? These sorts of questions don't have a priori answers, which is why we shouldn't be cavalier about making significant changes.

But speaking of the progressive fascination with the supposedly-greener grass elsewhere, another problem presents itself. As I wrote elsewhere, those who would like to see the U.S. transform into a Scandinavian social democracy have to consider the implications of the fact that a numerically small, ethnically homogenous population seems to be a requirement for such a system to work. How would it translate to a nation of 320 million, bitterly riven by separatist identity politics? The obvious suggestion would be a civic creed that transcends ethnicity. Unfortunately, the only thing currently less popular among the American left than white male privilege is the idea that there was ever anything noble or worthwhile about the founding myth of America as a land of freedom and opportunity. So, if social democracy is unlikely to germinate organically from a deeply-felt common American identity, it seems that the left would have to settle for imposing it in the Saint-Simonian fashion. Hopefully, one doesn't have to be a doctrinaire conservative to look at that and say no, thanks.

This 21st century American left, which I suspect is on the rise, and will wield more influence over the next few decades than it has in the past few decades, is one I feel comfortable supporting. I think it’s a far better bet, in terms of humanizing and stabilizing American society, than the right, and felt that way even before the right attached itself to Donald Trump, who truly scares the bejesus out of my conservative self. I can imagine a future in which the left becomes powerful enough, and indulges its worst instincts enough, that I’d turn against it, but to my eyes that isn’t now. As we go forward I’ll just have to do my best to remain flexible enough in my thinking, and secure enough in myself, that I can ally with the right side, whatever that side is.

Well, fair enough, that's all anyone can really ask. Other writers whom I respect have surveyed the scene and come to the opposite conclusion. Intelligent people can amicably disagree. However, I think it may well be too early to predict exactly what Trump's effect on the right will be, especially if he loses, as seems likely. The right is hardly unified right now. A best-case — but not necessarily most likely! — scenario might lead to a more mainstream conservative party no longer primarily beholden to the religious right or the neoconservatives. And in addition, I see nothing to reassure me that the left won't continue its post-Marxist withdrawal by continuing further down the dead-end road of grievance-mongering and identitarian fragmentation while making reflexive gestures in the direction of revolutionary salvation; if anything, Trump's likely defeat will only lead to more hubristic excess. I agree with the widespread perception that progressives are primarily concerned with their image as "the good people", happy to consider themselves members of a new cognitive elite, superior to the reactionary masses. I'm even sympathetic to the idea of writers like Joseph Bottum that this tendency is largely displaced religious yearning, a lingering desire among the mostly-godless to sort the world into the saved and the damned.

All of which is to say, I remain agnostic and noncommittal. But I'm looking forward to the rest of the exchange.

I Got an Open Mind So Whyntcha All Get Inside?

Farhad Manjoo:

Though Silicon Valley has well-known problems with diversity in its work force, people here pride themselves on a kind of militant open-mindedness. It is the kind of place that will severely punish any deviations from accepted schools of thought...


[T]he novel explicitly shows people learning Doublethink and newspeak due to peer pressure and a desire to "fit in", or gain status within the Party — to be seen as a loyal Party Member. In the novel, for someone to even recognize – let alone mention – any contradiction within the context of the Party line was akin to blasphemy, and could subject that someone to possible disciplinary action and to the instant social disapproval of fellow Party Members.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Lucubratio (XXI)

Brad Warner:

To take an example related to animal intelligence, I can recall a moment around 15 years ago when I was sitting on a park bench in Tokyo eating my lunch. I was watching some crows strutting around the park looking for food. Suddenly I noticed that the very same intelligence that looked at the world through my eyes also looked at the world through the eyes of those crows.

It’s very difficult to write a good, watertight, rational kind of explanation for why I knew this to be true. It’s so unlike the way most human beings have been learning things about the world for the past few thousand years that it sounds kind of dopey. It even sounds dopey to me and I know it to be true.

...Intelligence isn’t a function of the brain. It isn’t contained there. The complexity of a creature’s brain doesn’t determine its intelligence.

Frans de Waal:

Griffin was at least three decades my senior and had impressive knowledge, offering the Latin name of the birds and describing details of their incubation period. At the workshop, he presented his view on consciousness: that it has to be part and parcel of all cognitive processes, including those of animals. My own position is slightly different in that I prefer not to make any firm statements about something as poorly defined as consciousness. No one seems to know what it is. But for the same reason, I hasten to add, I'd never deny it to any species. For all I know, a frog may be conscious. Griffin took a more positive stance, saying that since intentional, intelligent actions are observable in many animals, and since in our own species they go together with awareness, it is reasonable to assume similar mental states in other species.

That such a highly respected and accomplished scientist made this claim had a hugely liberating effect. Even though Griffin was slammed for making statements that he could not back up with data, many critics missed the point, which was that the assumption that animals are "dumb," in the sense that they lack conscious minds, is only that: an assumption. It is far more logical to assume continuity in every domain, Griffin said, echoing Charles Darwin's well-known observation that the mental difference between humans and other animals is one of degree rather than kind.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

The Sigh of the Oppressed Creature

There are many things to laugh at in this Marxist rant about the counter-revolutionary wrongthink of Pokemon Go, but after some tough deliberation, I think this has to be my favorite part:

The map of your neighborhood you see when you play the game is a GPS map, something originally designed to help steer guided missiles.

It's just!... so gratuitous, so out of the blue! I mean, you expect to see theoretical jargon, you expect to see references to Marx and Heidegger, and you expect, oh my Lord do you expect to see the writer fuming about the way in which the bovine masses prefer their false consciousness and commodity fetishism to their revolutionary potential, but nothing so perfectly paints a picture in words of the futile pounding of tiny, ineffectual fists as this little aside. It's like he had a sudden attack of self-awareness, realized the absurdity of being forced to labor in the clickbait factory while holding onto a faint hope of salvation through a discredited religion, and made one last, desperate attempt, through some kind of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon-logic, to halfheartedly fling some shit against the walls of the system in the hope that something finally sticks. Yeah, man, I was ready to write you off as just another doctrinaire leftist with all that talk about changing the experience of reality from alienation to liberation, but that point about GPS, man, that really made me think, you know?

Saturday, July 16, 2016

One Thing Leads to Another

♫ You see dimensions in two
State your case with black or white 

Thirty years ago, moral panic profiteers like McIntosh and his vice squad partner Sarkeesian would have been leading the charge against subliminal messages on heavy metal records, or the epidemic of Satanic child abuse in day care centers. One day soon, we'll be able to look back and laugh at the thought that anyone took these frauds seriously. The bad news is, that will just mean that we've found a new moral panic to fixate upon. People don't "progress"; they just trade an older-model hysterical delusion in for a newer one. And so it goes.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Left, Left, Left Fight Left

We are the left!

No, we are the left!

Fellows, fellows! You're both equally delusional in your own special ways, and we love you all the same. It wouldn't be nearly as entertaining with only one of you. You need each other.

Monday, July 11, 2016

If Laurie Ain't Happy, Ain't Nobody Happy

Laurie Penny:

The isolating ideology of wellness works against this sort of social change in two important ways. First, it persuades all us that if we are sick, sad, and exhausted, the problem isn’t one of economics. There is no structural imbalance, according to this view—there is only individual maladaption, requiring an individual response. The lexis of abuse and gas-lighting is appropriate here: if you are miserable or angry because your life is a constant struggle against privation or prejudice, the problem is always and only with you. Society is not mad, or messed up: you are. Secondly, it prevents us from even considering a broader, more collective reaction to the crises of work, poverty, and injustice.

Well, that's certainly one possibility, that there's an ancient neoliberal conspiracy, stretching all the way back to the Stoics, to keep us from rising up collectively and smashing the ruling class by deflecting our attention toward small, personal efforts at self-improvement which pose no threat to the system. But if the amount of liquid oppression in the glass of society is equal to half its volume, then it depends which part you choose to emphasize. Alternatively, it could be that you're just a congenitally miserable crank whose entire laughable, clichéd ideology is merely an attempt to transfer responsibility for your contentment to the rest of society. It might even be that your pose as the world's whiniest bodhisattva is less genuine concern for all the suffering beings in the world and more a means of making millenarian fantasies such as, uh, "the end of patriarchy and the destruction of the money system" the necessary conditions for your happiness, thus conveniently guaranteeing that you'll never have to stop complaining, and never have to risk being crestfallen should it turn out that all your revolutionary reveries came true and you were still unhappy, leaving you with no more excuses. Finally, there's the troubling likelihood that most people have considered, yet still reject, your false dichotomy of individual vs. collective well-being in favor of trying to strike some sort of imperfect balance between the two. Everything in moderation, as some damned neoliberal Greek once said.

Views Differ

What does it mean to be a black conservative? If you ask Chidike Okeem, you'll get an interesting, nuanced response. If you ask Leah Wright Rigueur, well, hey, somebody's gotta provide the bite-sized news niblets for the busy progressive, I guess. I don't want to know all the boring details, I just want to know how to signal about it!

Thursday, July 07, 2016

Verily, Verily, I Say Unto Thee

Sunday and Monday were glorious — unseasonably cool temperatures in the 60s, overcast and drizzly. We spent the days hiking in the national park. Now we've got the first truly scorching weather of the summer, perfect for spending time in the pool. Reading about stupid people saying stupid things online has taken a reduced role as a consequence. So, until I feel truly inspired to write something, here's some links that might be worth your time.

Andrew Orlowski, "The Great Brain Scandal"

Yeah, I have to say, this doesn't sound all that outlandish to me anymore.

Helen Andrews, "The New Ruling Class"

Lawrence Glickman, "Everyone Was a Liberal"

Zach Weinersmith imagines Nietzschean trucks (really, though, it's unfair to single out any one of his comics; you should just read them daily).

Likewise, David Malki on question-begging, parts 1 and 2.

Ben Sixsmith on the tiresome contrarianism of Spiked! magazine. I find them equally exasperating and stimulating, but on balance, I'm glad they exist in the media landscape.

Ed Krayewski on guns, or rather, to be specific, on empty political grandstanding, due process, and the amazing way in which people who can recite from memory a hundred reasons why the War on Drugs has been a catastrophic failure and a moral travesty can still convince themselves that a War on Guns would somehow avoid the same problems.

Sonny Bunch on "artisanship", i.e. the culture war commissars.

The older I get, and the more time I spend online exposed to the demented screechings of damaged freaks, the more I, too, appreciate emotional continence in my friends and loved ones. (Related.)

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Mornin', Sam. Mornin', Ralph

Alan Jacobs:

As a conservative-liberal-socialist, I don’t fit onto any political maps that I know of, and I am accustomed to feeling slightly out of place — more, out of focus — in any given policy debate. But despite the sizable liberal element in my own personal political constitution, in times of serious conflict — today’s Brexit contretemps, for instance — I am always temperamentally alienated from liberalism. For what distinguishes many (most?) liberals from both conservatives and socialists, as today’s social media torpedoes reveal, is genuine incomprehension that any sane and decent person could disagree with them.

Yuval Levin said once that the right and left in this country are both liberal. By this, he meant that they share a common heritage of classical liberalism, which has a conservative and a progressive tendency. They both believe in inalienable rights, representative democracy, and free markets; they just differ in the details. If that sounds ridiculously counterintuitive, it's because a lot of time and rhetorical energy has been invested in claiming that "conservatives" and "liberals", conventionally defined, occupy opposite sides of a vast, unbridgeable chasm, but it would be more accurate to see them as two wings of one political tradition, with the differences between them often being of the small, narcissistic kind. "Conservatives" do not seriously want to restructure society around the divine right of kings, a landed aristocracy, and other elements of a feudal society, nor do they yearn for life under a fascist dictator, and "liberals" do not actually want to impose a godless communist tyranny.

Yeah, that disturbance in the force you just felt was as if millions of bloggers cried out in terror upon hearing the legitimacy of their entire identity and life's work called into question. Ignore it; it'll pass.

Assuming all this is accurate, Jacobs' comment clarifies for me the way that much political argument has become nothing more than fashionable posturing, an argument rooted in the idiosyncrasy of taste rather than irreconcilable principles. I, too, lean left on certain issues and right on others, but I, too, can't stand the entitled, bitter, moralistic flavor of today's Progressivism™️ — those ads with the "Now containing more social justice!" thing, the attempt to rebrand it for the millennial generation, that was all a mistake, I think. Hopefully they'll recover soon, though I'm not too optimistic over the new CEO they've got coming in, you know? We'll see, I guess, but for the time being, I'm switching to small, independent craft politics.

Anyway, without a serious opponent like fascism or communism to challenge it from without, liberalism seemingly devolves into status competition within. Everyday life proceeds as reliably and predictably as ever, even as political partisans work themselves into feverish delirium trying to portray the next election as the last chance to stave off certain apocalypse. The more our lifestyles converge, the more significance we have to invest in trivial distinctions of language, manners, hobbies, education and consumption to keep a semblance of deep, existential meaning alive. And all of these tendencies are magnified and amplified in the online world, as people separated by a mere few cubicles can spend the workday unknowingly raging at each other's pseudonyms in a blog comment section, before wishing each other good evening at quitting time and returning to their personal lives. When people are too comfortable, they get bored, and rather than do something uplifting, they create drama and conflict just to entertain themselves. That's the conservative in me talking.

Progressivism is currently in power, both politically and culturally. Power makes people stupid, complacent and arrogant. I don't think that's peculiar to progressivism. Should they ever find themselves in the political and cultural wilderness, they'll quickly relearn how to argue uphill against a hostile reception.

Friday, June 24, 2016

The Wacky Morning D.J. Says Democracy's a Joke

I've started re-reading Isaiah Berlin's books, and they're even better than my rose-tinted memory pictured them. By the way, for newer readers, it is a requirement that you, too, familiarize yourself with Sir Isaiah's works, in order to be permitted to read here. An usher will be around shortly to check that you have your copies on hand, and there may even be a pop quiz to follow. Just so you know.

Anyway, that's from Freedom and Its Betrayal, in the chapter on Claude Helvétius, a French philosopher from the mid-eighteenth century. Berlin describes him as the first utilitarian, a man to whom Bentham was deeply indebted, and one of the first to formulate the idea that politics could be turned into a science, with final answers to political questions existing a priori, waiting to be discovered by a sufficiently dedicated scientist with the proper tools and methods. For three hundred years, progressive minds have dreamed of the day when politics, with all its frustrations and compromises, could be brushed into the dustbin of history, and an elite ruling caste of enlightened technocrats could take power and give the people what they really want, as proven by the latest data and neuroimaging techniques, even if the poor, deluded cud-chewers don't know it yet, and for those who still can't adapt to the program, there's always lobotomies, of either the pharmaceutical or old-fashioned kind.

This idea is still alive and well in our own age, as a glance through this morning's news can tell you. I almost needed a lifejacket to surf the web today, what with all the crashing waves of progressive tears over the Brexit vote. Site after site featured the spleen-ventings of apoplectic proggies, furious that anything so outdated as a popular vote could have been allowed to interfere with their vision of a bureaucratic superstate. As you'd expect from uptight, moralistic prigs who spend every moment patrolling the police state of their minds, looking for any problematic words or ideas which could conceivably cause offense should they ever tunnel under the walls and wire and run amok among polite company, there has been a shuddering, gasping explosion of ecstatic release as they are finally allowed to vent their hatred of another group of people in the most positively un-enlightened language. Lower-class white Westerners? Racist white Westerners, you say? Oooooh, God, yes, okay, wait, wait, just let me slip my hand under here, and — ahhh, yes. Terminate with extreme prejudice! Scorch the earth and salt it so they can never grow back! Why did we ever let these subhumans vote in the first place?

I have no informed, meaningful opinion on Brexit, and my guiding assumption is that, as usual, the loudest, boldest predictions making the rounds right now are likely to be wrong, and the eventual results, once we've attained enough perspective to judge, will likely contain surprises no one anticipated, but which will seem obvious in hindsight. I realize that can't compete with lurid prophecies of apocalypse and revolution, but I never said I was a pundit. No, what interests me is, one, as already mentioned, the way in which the ideas of a three hundred year-old philosopher are still entirely relevant today, and two, what this says about the political left in general.

Christopher Lasch, as I noted recently, wrote about how, a century ago, just before technocratic liberalism was about to reach its zenith, strangely enough, the mood among progressive thinkers was already shifting, becoming gloomier and self-pitying. As Lasch said, the Nation in 1922 was already developing the progressive aesthetic which loves to portray itself as a small, beleaguered outpost of impeccable taste and civilized values marooned in a wasteland of fundamentalists, rednecks and other savages. Even more recently, though, Peter Dornan, in the course of demolishing Naomi Klein's latest screed, said it succinctly: the left has adapted to powerlessness. It has largely given up on seeing itself as the true vox populi, wanting nothing to do with those unwashed barbarians, and seems to be content with impotent fantasies about a society in which social scientists and academics have finally taken over the government. As he says, this is why a book like Klein's, an incoherent grab-bag of sloganeering, wishful thinking and leftist bromides can find praise along the entire spectrum of left-wing media; it's not like anything's riding on it, after all. None of them expect it to be taken seriously or acted upon. It's merely a way of signaling one's membership among the elect, whether you wrote the book or whether you just wave it.

Jonathan Bronitsky said in a recent book review:

To this day, liberals and their other non-revolutionary siblings on the left might disagree with communists over the extent to which the state should engineer “fairness,” yet they still share with them a vision of what constitutes fairness and an image of a properly re-engineered people. For all ideologies of the left are tied to the Enlightenment, with its emphasis upon predetermined progress via reason and the accumulation of quantifiable knowledge.

"They still share with them a vision of what constitutes fairness and an image of a properly re-engineered people." This, more than anything, is what strikes me about today's left. They may have been forced to grudgingly admit that the state couldn't remold society from the top down, but they have yet to admit that their ideal of what a just, equitable society would look like is incoherent. A chimera. A crackbrained fantasy. Like Wile E. Coyote, they're running in place in midair, afraid to look down lest political gravity finally kick in. Thus the insular, self-congratulatory smugness. Thus the self-serving mythology about how only they can truly be opposed to all the insidious -isms which haunt the world like the imps and demons of a bygone age. Thus the need to make a virtue out of necessity — when confronted with their failure to persuade a majority of people to support their views, rather than adjust their tactics and redouble their efforts, they rationalize it as further proof that they're just too pure for this fallen world.

Bear in mind, I'm not saying there aren't perfectly valid-but-tediously-wonky arguments to be had over marginal tax rates and other specific policies. I'm talking about progressivism as an identity, as a surrogate religion, as the tiresome posturing that dominates social media. I'm talking about people who still, after three centuries, refuse to lose faith in a future Newton of politics who will finally reduce the maddening, complicated business of living and cooperating together in society into a few clear, inviolable rules that can be objectively applied by the credentialed experts. That vision appalls me, and furthermore, as Ben Cobley says, I don't see any meaningful way to disentangle an essence of progressivism worth keeping from the insular, identity-obsessed cult it has become.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Radio Free Thought

Well, well, well. In news that will shock absolutely no one, another right-wing, pro-family, homophobic fundamentalist preacher has been outed as a participant in the sinful lifestyle he railed against from the pulpit. Except by "right-wing", we mean "left-wing". And by "pro-family", we mean "conspicuously poly".  Also, by "homophobic fundamentalist", we mean "doctrinaire social justice-atheist".

(With apologies to the original.)

...adding, this is a pretty good summary too.