Feb 04

Mapping the Dark Enlightenment

The Dark Enlightenment is a group of thinkers and blogs that has aroused a fair amount of controversy in the last several years. Most people who write about them from the outside piously dismiss them as a gang of crypto- and not-so-crypto- fascists, or a sort of grunting neanderthalism dressed up in intellectual clothes. The reality, as usual, is not so simple.

I’ve been meaning to write about them for a while, and the first question I’m going to raise is whether they meaningfully present a single subject at all.

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Feb 01

Down the feminist rabbit hole

I fell down a rabbit hole today. By reading this: An Incomplete Guide to Feminist infighting. Bemused, I chased links and read manifestos and counter-manifestos for a couple of hours until the sources just began to repeat themselves. But in some respects my confusion was just beginning.

As I was falling through all these diatribes like Alice wondering how deep the rabbit hole goes, one of the thoughts uppermost in my mind was Poe’s Law: “Without a blatant display of humor, it is impossible to create a parody of extremism or fundamentalism that someone won’t mistake for the real thing.”

There was no humor down this rabbit hole. I found myself in the land beyond parody. On this evidence, I suspect it would be nigh-impossible to write a literate spoof of modern feminism that even many of its disputants wouldn’t blithely mistake for a real ideological position. And I found myself thinking of the Sokal Hoax.

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Dec 23

De-normalizing dissent

I really hadn’t been planning to comment on the Duck Dynasty brouhaha. But conservative gadfly Mark Steyn (a very funny, witty man even if you disagree with his politics) has described the actual strategy of GLAAD and its allies with a pithy phrase that I think describes wider circulation – “de-normalizing dissent”.

OK, let’s get the obvious out of the way first. Judged by his remarks in Esquire, Duck Dynasty patriarch Phil Robertson is an ignorant, bigoted cracker who reifies almost every bad redneck stereotype there is. His religion is barely distinguishable from a psychotic delusional system. Nothing I am about to say should be construed as a defense of the content of his beliefs.

On the other hand, Steyn has a point when he detects something creepy and totalitarian about the attempt to hound Robertson out of his job and out of public life. True, nothing GLAAD has done rises to the level of state coercion – there is no First Amendment issue here, no violence or threat of same in play.

But what GLAAD and its allies are trying to accomplish is not mere moral suasion either; they’re trying to make beliefs they disapprove of unspeakable in polite society by making the consequences of expressing them so unpleasant that people will self-censor. In Steyn’s well-chosen phrase, they’re trying to de-normalize dissent.

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Aug 30

Fixing the fast-food strike

So, thousands of fast-food workers are out on strike against the national burger chains, demanding that their wages be doubled to $15 per hour. But the national chains don’t control employee wages; how much to pay their people is in the hands of local franchise owners,

Therefore, if you are one of the concerned, caring, and vastly indignant activists behind this strike, I’m here to tell you that your social-justice problem has a simple solution. Take out a loan (or put together the money from your like-minded activist friends), buy a franchise from one of the chains, and hire workers at $15 an hour.

There, that was simple, wasn’t it? You’ll make money hand over fist and demonstrate to all those eeevil corporations that they can too pay a “just wage”; they just don’t want to because they’re greedy.

Or…maybe not. If it were that simple, everyone would be doing it. The commercial landscape would be alive with virtuous workers’ collectives paying their members fat wages and thumbing their noses at top-hatted plutocrats. Why doesn’t this happen?

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Aug 27

Hunger Games for real

“Students can only have one serving of meat or other protein. However, rich kids can buy a second portion each day on their own dime.” This is from coverage of Michelle Obama’s national school-lunch regulations.

Protein-starving the peasantry so it will remain docile and biddable is a tyrant’s maneuver thousands of years old. I was unaware until today that this has become official policy in the American public school system.

How clever of them to sell it as a healthy-eating measure! That’ll get all the gentry liberals on board; of course, their kids will be buying that second serving.

Jul 17

Objective evidence against racism

A theme I have touched on several times in my blogging is that the best way to defeat racism and other forms of invidious discrimination is to develop and apply objective psychometric tests.

Usually I make this argument with respect to IQ. But: one of my commenters, an obnoxious racist who I refrain from banning only on free-speech principle, recently argued that drug use should be (as, in fact, it now often illegally is) treated differently by police depending on the subject’s race.

His argument (if you want to call it that) is that blacks, due to a low baseline level of self-regulation, are significantly more prone to criminality and violence than whites when intoxication further impairs that ability. Thus, the law should treat these cases differently as a matter of public safety.

As presented, this prescription is racist, repugnant, and wrong. Because even if you believe that blacks as a group have less ability on average to self-regulate, this belief tells you nothing about any individual black person. Acting on it would infringe the foundational right of individuals to be treated equally by the law.

But now let’s perform a thought experiment. Actually, a couple of related ones.

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Jul 06

After such knowledge…

I have read very little in the last few decades that is as shocking to me as this: Essay by a teacher in a black high school.

My first reaction was that I wanted to believe it was a bigot’s fabrication. I’d still like to believe that, but it was reposted by a black man who claims it is representative of “dirty laundry”: bad stuff [known among blacks] about black folk never to be said around whites.

My second reaction, afterwards, was: for those of us who insist that people ought to be judged by the content of their characters rather than the color of their skins, what emotionally compelling argument do we have against anti-black racism that reading this doesn’t blow to smithereens?

This is a question with more point now than it would have had thirty or fifty years ago, because of one thing this account makes harrowingly clear. White people didn’t impose the depraved, thuggish underculture it describes on black people; they did it to themselves, using a debased form of the rhetoric of white “anti-racists” and multiculturalists as rationalization.

Of course, all the rational arguments against racism are still sound; I’ve written about them pretty extensively on this blog. The mass is not the individual, etcetera, etcetera. Nothing about the ugly, barbaric rampaging of these high-schoolers predicts the behavior of the blacks of the same age or older I know from martial-arts schools, SF conventions, and other places where the lives of black individuals intersect with mine.

But if this is really where they came from – if this is what they’re right-end-of-the-bell-curve exceptions to, and that reality becomes widely known or believed – rational argument won’t be enough. How can we keep the bigots from winning?

UPDATE: I’ve replaced the link I got from the blog “Maggie’s Farm” with a link to what seems to be the original. The Maggie’s-Farm link is now behind the word “reposted”.

May 04

Destroying the middle ground, redux

A few weeks ago I blogged an alternate-history story in which the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution was abused and distorted in the same ways the Second Amendment has been in our history. The actual point of the essay, though, was not about either amendment; it was about how strategic deception by one side of a foundational political dispute can radicalize the other and effectively destroy the credibility of moderates as well.

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May 02

The true meaning of moral panics

In my experience, moral panics are almost never about what they claim to be about. I am just (barely) old enough to remember the tail end of the period (around 1965) when conservative panic about drugs and rock music was actually rooted in a not very-thinly-veiled fear of the corrupting influence of non-whites on pure American children. In retrospect it’s easy to understand as a reaction against the gradual breakdown of both legally enforced and de-facto racial segregation in the U.S.

But moral panics are by no means a monopoly of cultural conservatives. These days the most virulent and bogus examples are as likely to arrive from the self-described “left” as the “right”. When they do, they’re just as likely to be about something other than the ostensible subject.

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Apr 15

Destroying the middle ground

Here’s a thought experiment for you. Imagine yourself in an alternate United States where the First Amendment is not as a matter of settled law considered to bar Federal and State governments from almost all interference in free speech. This is less unlikely than it might sound; the modern, rather absolutist interpretation of free-speech liberties did not take form until the early 20th century.

In this alternate America, there are many and bitter arguments about the extent of free-speech rights. The ground of dispute is to what extent the instruments of political and cultural speech (printing presses, radios, telephones, copying machines, computers) should be regulated by government so that use of these instruments does not promote violence, assist criminal enterprises, and disrupt public order.

The weight of history and culture is largely on the pro-free-speech side – the Constitution does say “Congress shall make no law … prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press”. And until the late 1960s there is little actual attempt to control speech instruments.

Then, in 1968, after a series of horrific crimes and assassinations inspired by inflammatory anti-establishment political propaganda, some politicians, prominent celebrities, and public intellectuals launch a “speech control” movement. They wave away all comparisons to Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, insisting that their goal is not totalitarian control but only the prevention of the most egregious abuses in the public square.

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Apr 09

What if it really was like that?

If you read any amount of history, you will discover that people of various times and places have matter-of-factly believed things that today we find incredible (in the original sense of “not credible”). I have found, however, that one of the most interesting questions one can ask is “What if it really was like that?”

That is, what if our ancestors weren’t entirely lying or fantasizing when they believed in…say…the existence of vampires? If you’re willing to ask this question with an open mind, you might discover that there is a rare genetic defect called “erythropoietic porphyrinuria” that can mimic some of the classical stigmata of vampirism. Victims’ gums may be drawn back on the teeth, making said teeth appear fanglike; they are likely to be photophobic, shunning bright light; and, being anemic, they may develop a craving for blood…

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Apr 02

Natural rights and wrongs?

One of my commenters recently speculated in an accusing tone that I might be a natural-rights libertarian. He was wrong, but explaining why is a good excuse for writing an essay I’ve been tooling up to do for a long time. For those of you who aren’t libertarians, this is not a parochial internal dispute – in fact, it cuts straight to the heart of some long-standing controversies about consequentialism versus deontic ethics. And if you don’t know what those terms mean, you’ll have a pretty good idea by the time you’re done reading.

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Apr 01

AGW panic ending with a whimper

This is how the AGW panic ends: not with a bang, but with a whimper.

The Economist, which (despite a recent decline) remains probably the best news magazine in the English language, now admits that (a) global average temperature has been flat for 15 years even as CO2 levels have been rising rapidly, (b) surface temperatures are at the lowest edge of the range predicted by IPCC climate models, (c) on current trends, they will soon fall clean outside and below the model predictions, (c) estimates of climate sensitivity need revising downwards, and (d) something, probably multiple things, is badly wrong with AGW climate models.

Do I get to say “I told you so!” yet?

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Jul 19

Napier’s Lesson

In the 1840s, Hindu priests complained to Charles James Napier (then Commander-in-Chief of British forces in India) about the prohibition of suttee by British authorities. Suttee was the custom of burning widows alive on the funeral pyre of their husbands. According to Napier’s brother William, this is how he replied:

“Be it so. This burning of widows is your custom; prepare the funeral pile. But my nation has also a custom. When men burn women alive we hang them, and confiscate all their property. My carpenters shall therefore erect gibbets on which to hang all concerned when the widow is consumed. Let us all act according to national customs.”

This incident, perhaps the finest single moment in the history of Britain’s relatively benign imperialism, teaches two lessons still profoundly relevant today.

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Jul 03

Why I won’t be signing the “Declaration of Internet Freedom” as it is

There’s been some buzz in the last few days about the Declaration of Internet Freedom penned by some prominent libertarians.

I wish I could sign on to this document. Actually, considering who appears on the list of signatories, I consider the fact that the composers didn’t involve me in drafting it to be a surprising mistake that I can only ascribe to a collective fit of absent-mindedness.

But, because neither I nor anyone else from the hacker tribe was involved, it has one very serious flaw.

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Apr 02

Trayvon Martin and the grievance factory

Even to a person as cynical and jaded as I have become about American politics, the brouhaha around the Trayvon Martin shooting is rather shocking. Usually, in past instances of even the most determined attempts to inflame racial hatred, there’s been at least a fig leaf of plausible deniability over the manipulation. Not this time. Not with MSNBC getting caught editing its presentation of the 911 tape to make it sound like the shooter uttered a racial slur. Not with Trayvon Martin’s photo obviously photoshopped to make him look younger, less threatening, and (ironically) more white.

I’m not going to utter or argue for a conclusion about whether or not Zimmerman shot in self-defense. We don’t know that. Perhaps he was, in fact, motivated by race hatred. The facts of the shooting will have to come clearer before that can be judged. We have more than enough facts, though, to observe and indict the operation of the racial-grievance factory, and to point a finger squarely at those who are dishonestly battening on Trayvon Martin’s death.

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Mar 12

The moral equivalent of witchcraft

The New York Times is carrying an unusually in-depth story “What Happened to the Girls in Leroy? on an epidemic of twitching, stuttering, and tics among the high-school girls of a small town in upstate New York.

The reporter didn’t go there, but I couldn’t help noticing strong parallels to what we know about the run-up to the Salem witch trials. The symptoms reported from LeRoy are very like the “sickness of astonishment” which, in the belief context of Puritan Massachusetts in the 1690s, led to accusations of witchcraft and the torture and hanging of twenty people.

Today’s verdict on the epidemic in LeRoy matches what historians generally believe about the causes of the Salem witch trials. Mass hysteria – or, in more modern clinical language, an epidemic of “conversion disorder” in which psychological stressors turn into physical symptoms through unconscious neurological mechanisms that are not yet well understood.

What is yet more interesting, but not as closely examined by the reporter as it should have been, is the secondary illness the girls induced in the community around them. Parents reaching for explanations in Salem in 1692, living within a strongly religious world-view, seized on Satan and hostile witchcraft to explain the twitching, stuttering, and tics. The parents of Leroy, in a more secular world, instantly invented an equally unfalsifiable explanation – one which tells us a great deal about the native insanities of our own time.

Yes, it’s 2012, and trace chemical pollutants have become the new witchcraft.

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Feb 21

The Grey Lady weeps for Peter Gleick

So, all last week on one of my favorite mailing lists I was hearing various climate alarmists crowing about a document leak from the Heartland Institute that supposedly prooooved that it (and by extension all other anthropogenic-global-warming skeptics) was engaging in a nefarious campaign to suppress its opponents and trash the teaching of science in the U.S.

You may, therefore, imagine my amusement when it turned out that the key, incriminating document in the Heartland dump is pretty certainly a fake. Several separate lines of evidence lead to this conclusion, including both content analysis of the document and some smelly things about the PDF metadata.

My initial reaction was: ho hum, more fraud by climate alarmists, good that they got caught again, should be entertaining to watch the mainstream media trying to suppress the story just as assiduously as they were hyping it when it looked like a good score against the eeeevil Heartland Institute and the eeevil denialists. In the normal course of events I’d have let all this pass without comment; it’s not surprising, and other than some entertaining resonances with Dan Rather’s forged TANG document back in 2004 it’s not very interesting.

That is, until yesterday’s unintentional hilarity at the New York Times.

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