Friday, October 24, 2014

Verily, Verily, I Say Unto Thee

Isaiah Berlin was one of my most formative intellectual influences. He single-handedly engendered my enduring fascination with the history of ideas. I plan on re-reading all of his books soon, right after I get caught up on all the new books I've accumulated recently. Which brings me to my point: the NYRB has republished a short acceptance speech of his from twenty years ago which elegantly encapsulates a couple of his most fundamental, recurring themes. If you decide to go read it — and I do implore you to, as it would be bad form for me to copy and paste the entire thing, a powerful temptation indeed — you may well gain a new appreciation for the ironic wink toward Sir Isaiah contained within the name of this very blog.

Friday, October 17, 2014

All This Dog And Pony, Still Monkeys The Whole Time; We Could Not Help From Flinging Shit In Our Modern Suits And Ties

Scott Alexander:

The Red Tribe and Blue Tribe have different narratives, which they use to tie together everything that happens into reasons why their tribe is good and the other tribe is bad. Sometimes this results in them seizing upon different sides of an apparently nonpolitical issue when these support their narrative; for example, Republicans generally supporting a quarantine against Ebola, Democrats generally opposing it. Other times it results in a side trying to gain publicity for stories that support their narrative while sinking their opponents’ preferred stories – Rotherham for some Reds; Ferguson for some Blues.

When an issue gets tied into a political narrative, it stops being about itself and starts being about the wider conflict between tribes until eventually it becomes viewed as a Referendum On Everything. At this point, people who are clued in start suspecting nobody cares about the issue itself – like victims of beheadings, or victims of sexual abuse – and everybody cares about the issue’s potential as a political weapon – like proving Muslims are “uncivilized”, or proving political correctness is dangerous. After that, even people who agree that the issue is a problem and who would otherwise want to take action have to stay quiet, because they know that their help would be used less to solve a problem than to push forward the war effort against them. If they feel especially threatened, they may even take an unexpected side on the issue, switching from what they would usually believe to whichever position seems less like a transparent cover for attempts to attack them and their friends.

And then you end up doing silly things like saying ISIS is not as bad as Fox News, or donating hundreds of thousands of dollars to the officer who shot Michael Brown.

This can sort of be prevented by not turning everything into a referendum on how great your tribe is and how stupid the opposing tribe is, or by trying to frame an issue in a way that respects or appeals to an out-group’s narrative.

Excellent article. I should start reading there more often.

Of course, there are numerous factors, some hardwired into our brains, some created by our social environments, which make this phenomenon extremely difficult to resist. That is, telling people to "stop being tribal" is about as doomed to failure as atheists telling religious believers to "stop being stupid and start being more rational!" One of my personal ambitions has been to attempt to use this space in a conscious attempt to resist the gravitational pull of tribal affiliation. I think many things about writing online make it ideally suited for that goal, even though we have plenty of disappointing evidence that it can just as easily be used to reinforce the worst elements of tribalism.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

It's Just Like The West To Think It Knows Best When Answers Are Subject To Change

Pankaj Mishra:

In the 21st century that old spell of universal progress through western ideologies – socialism and capitalism – has been decisively broken. If we are appalled and dumbfounded by a world in flames it is because we have been living – in the east and south as well as west and north – with vanities and illusions: that Asian and African societies would become, like Europe, more secular and instrumentally rational as economic growth accelerated; that with socialism dead and buried, free markets would guarantee rapid economic growth and worldwide prosperity. What these fantasies of inverted Hegelianism always disguised was a sobering fact: that the dynamics and specific features of western “progress” were not and could not be replicated or correctly sequenced in the non-west.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Jotun's Law

If Godwin's is any indication, I'm sure popular usage will eventually deform this as well, but still, it's nice that someone sought to formulate it. Certainly speaks to a pressing need. 

You Say You Got A Real Solution, We'd All Love To See The Plan

Oh, I've been workin' like a rented mule. I could use some comic relief:

For the past year Brand has been airing his views on the Trews (or the True News), a daily YouTube broadcast. In recent weeks, he has discussed democracy in Hong Kong, the importance of embracing real politics by ignoring Westminster, and whether Obama should give back his Nobel Peace prize. In the book, his conclusion is simple: capitalism is kaput, celebrity charity won’t plug holes, revolution is the only solution. Yet it also feels like a bit of a cop-out: he insists all this can be achieved through love, peace and understanding.

Would he ban private education? “Yes.” And private health? “Yes.” He would “cull corporations” after they have served their purpose. Does he really believe all this can be achieved without coercion? “Yes.” How? “By focusing on the important issues. We’re not even talking about moderately wealthy people – we’re talking about a society so unequal, so ludicrous, that 85 people have as much money as the 3.5 billion poorest in the world.”

...He grins like a shark. “Yeah, I love it out here. This is where I belong. When I look at them Eton-educated people that govern us, I ain’t afraid of those people. I am excited. I’m going to enjoy this like nothing else, because for once I’m on the right side of the argument. And this is the right time. I feel it. I feel it. The means exist.”

I ask if he normally talks so fast. “Yes. Yes. So now, why I’m excited and why I endorse not voting, is because the farther politics drifts to the right, the better it is. Good. Antagonise people. Let’s get to the point where people are no longer just satisfied with iPods, iPads, iWatches. To the point where people go, ‘I’ve had enough.’” Is he advocating rioting? “It doesn’t have to be through rioting. It can be through total disobedience, non-payment of taxes, non-payment of mortgages.”

...Another man approaches: “Got any spare cash?”

He hasn’t, because he’s celebrity royalty. “I ain’t got a penny, mate. You got any money, Simon?”

Brilliant, I say, digging into my pocket. I’m interviewing you about the revolution and you’ve not got a couple of quid to give to this fella.

As Brand talks to the homeless man, the posh boy says Brand has got a touch of Marx, Che Guevara and Jesus. “But really, parallels shouldn’t be drawn because he’s in a league of his own.”

Hmm. I think I'd go for the John Lennon comparison instead. I could totally see Russell protesting a war by staying in bed for a week, or singing "Imagine no possessions" while owning an air-conditioned closet for his fur coat collection.

As amusing as Brand is, it must be said that his is just the kind of mostly-inoffensive naïveté you expect of entertainers. I'm more incredulous at the fact that the Guardian considers this kind of thing important enough to devote a lengthy article to. I tend to read them, especially their Comment Is Free section, primarily to make myself feel better about the vapid state of American media.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

While I'm Still Standing You Just Fade Away

Abram Shulsky:

To gain an understanding of this phenomenon, we can look at a strange aspect of liberalism’s “victory”: the constant appearance of counter-ideologies that have arisen in reaction against it. Despite its overall success, liberalism has for two centuries been dogged by a series of counter-ideologies. So far, they have all been defeated, but sometimes only at great cost. Fascism and the various forms of communism and leftist extremism were the major counter-ideologies during the 20th century; varieties of extreme nationalism played a similar role during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Various other intellectual trends, including some without comparable but still not trivial political significance, such as the Romanticism of the early 19th century and related forms of bohemianism and avant-gardism, might also be considered in this context.

However varied they are, these counter-ideologies generally share a sense that liberalism’s protection and privileging of individual self-interest as opposed to the common good (however defined) makes it ignoble; potentially or actually unjust; and chaotic or anarchic and hence ultimately weak. This sensibility is evident in the pejorative meaning of the term “bourgeois”: someone who is so immersed in the pursuit of petty material concerns that he is blind to both nobility of soul and the claims of social justice.

Roughly speaking, there are two ideal types of counter-ideologies: those holding that liberalism is too disorganized to work well and hence cannot survive, and those fearing that liberalism will succeed (or has already succeeded) and will diminish human life as a result. These sound like mutually contradictory objections, but by calling them ideal types we recognize that in practice most counter-ideologies have elements of both: Liberalism is bad because it is successful in forcing or seducing people to adopt a “bad” way of life, but its faults mean that it will fail eventually.

...In general, critics saw liberalism as too disorganized and anarchic to survive because it left individuals too free to pursue individual interests at the expense of a concern for the common good. As we have seen repeatedly over the years, it is easy for liberalism’s enemies to underestimate a democracy’s geopolitical (including military) strength as a result. The advantages of a less centralized political and economic system reside in the fact that, once galvanized by a common threat, such a system can make better use of the various talents of all members of society. This truth is easily overlooked by those who adhere to this critique of liberalism.

I clicked on this article with no particular expectation, only to find it very interesting, dare I say fun to read. Perhaps your experience might be similar should you care to give it a look-see.

Monday, October 06, 2014

What A Bellend We Have In Peezus

As longtime readers know, I have always been uncomfortable with the progressive enthusiasm for silencing and marginalizing dissenters and opponents. In a neoliberal age, of course, we're happy to let market forces do our censoring for us, because, hey, it's only a problem if it's the government trying to shut you up. At any rate, the point here is not to rehash that debate, just to note a different flaw in my argument: in order to convince people to adopt a more generous spirit of free speech, one would have to appeal to people who actually cared about principles, who aimed for consistency, who felt troubled by looking like the most brazen hypocrites. But you can't shame the shameless:

Ethical journalism is not about silencing people who disagree with you — this is a censorship campaign, pure and simple. We can see through your mask…and boy, do you make it easy.

It's not fair when our tribal opponents use the advertiser boycott to their advantage and succeed at it! Only we righteous ones get to do that! This man has all the intellectual conviction of a windsock.

But wait! There's more!

"Those people are a bunch of rapists."


"OK, phonies. Same thing, really."

You know, if I honestly believed that sexual assault and rape were nearly-invisible epidemics, I would be furious at seeing imbeciles like this frivolously throwing the word "rapist" around as a loose synonym for "people I dislike". If I found myself doing this in a moment of madness, I would be aghast at the thought that I might be undermining a cause I care deeply about through my selfish stupidity. But it would be prematurely cynical, in my view, to suggest that this proves that Peezus doesn't actually believe his own bullshit, let alone care about it. I think he does care about what he imagines is a widespread social wrong. I think he's just too stupid to realize he's not helping.