Aug 29

Getting Orwell Wrong

The interpretation of George Orwell could be a paradigm for how dead literary figures get knocked from pillar to post by the winds of political interpretation. During his lifetime, the author of 1984 and Animal Farm went from darling of the left to exile for having been willing to write the truth about Communist totalitarianism in allegories too pointed to ignore.

With the end of the Cold War, forty-two years after Orwell’s death, the poisonous fog breathed on Western intellectual life by Soviet agents of influence slowly began to lift. It became possible to say that Communist totalitarianism was evil and had always been evil, without being dismissed as a McCarthyite or reactionary not merely by those agents but by a lot of “no enemy to the left” liberal patsies who should have known better. In this climate, Orwell’s uncompromising truth-telling shone even more brightly than before. For some on the left, belated shame at their own complicity with evil transmuted itself into more adulation for Orwell, and more attempted identification with Orwell’s positions, than at any time in the previous fifty years.

Then came 9/11. Orwell’s sturdy common sense about the war against the fascisms of his day made him a model for a few thinkers of the left who realized they had arrived at another of Marx’s “world-historical moments”, another pivot point at which everything changed. Foremost among these was Christopher Hitchens, who would use Orwell to good effect in taking an eloquent and forceful line in favor of the liberation of Afghanistan and Iraq. For this, he was rewarded with the same vituperation and shunning by the Left that had greeted the publication of Orwell’s anti-totalitarian allegories fifty years before.

Hitchens, who coined the term “Islamofascist” for the ideology of Al-Qaeda and its allies, is in particular responsible for having given renewed currency to the following Orwell quote addressing the war against the Nazis:

Pacifism is objectively pro-fascist. This is elementary common sense. If you hamper the war effort of one side, you automatically
help out that of the other. Nor is there any real way of remaining outside such a war as the present one. In practice, he that is not with me is against me.

Reading it in its original full form, in a 1941 essay Pacifism and the War published in Partisan Review, only makes it clearer how directly the quote applies to the War on Terror.

Stung by this, various creatures of the pro-Islamofascist Left (and, alas, some liberal and libertarian patsies who should have known better) responded by asserting that Orwell repudiated this position in his 1944 essay As I Please. But a careful reading of this essay shows that there is less here than meets the eye.

What Orwell actually warns against in this essay is not the concept of “objective pro-fascism”, it is any unwarranted leap from noticing that someone is objectively pro-fascist to assuming that the person is intentionally pro-fascist. Orwell explains that confusing these categories is dangerous because it can cause you to mis-predict peoples’ behavior.

There is nothing exceptionable here, and nothing that repudiates the substance of the earlier quote. Yes, Orwell does observe “I have been guilty of saying this myself more than once”, but his “guilty” is a rhetorical flourish, a setup for his real point about confusing effects with intentions.

Both essays are examples of the determined stab, straight through cant to the heart of the matter, that Orwell did so well and so consistently. It was perfectly consistent with the rest of his work for him to observe that there is such a thing as objective pro-fascism, then insist that we not confuse that condition with intentional treason.

As for those who would like to use this “retraction” to take Orwell out of the fight…your behavior is objectively pro-fascist in precisely the sense he intended. At the very least, it is evidence of careless reading and sloppy thinking.

Aug 29

Pretty People Behaving Stupidly

I’ve been learning about the romance genre recently. I have no intrinsic interest in it at all, but I have an intelligent friend who plows through romances the way I read SF, and we’ve been discussing the conventions and structural features of the genre. Along the way I’ve learned that romance fans use an acronym TSTL which expands to “Too Stupid To Live”, describing a class of bad romance in which the plot turns on one or both leads exhibiting less claim to sophont status than the average bowl of clam dip.

My wife and I have parts in an upcoming live-action roleplaying game set in early 16th-century Venice. As preparation, she suggested we watch a movie called Dangerous Beauty set in the period. I couldn’t stand more than about 20 minutes of it. “It’s just,” I commented later “pretty people behaving stupidly.”

On reflection, I’ve discovered that PPBS describes a great deal of both the fiction and nonfiction I can’t stand. It’s a more general category that includes not just TSTL, but celebrity gossip magazines, almost every “romantic comedy” ever made, and a large percentage of the top-rated TV shows (especially, of course, the soap operas).

Obviously there’s a huge market for this stuff. I must be from Mars or something, because I don’t get it. How is wallowing in PPBS any different from going to the zoo to watch monkeys masturbate?

B-but… half my readers are probably spluttering, “…those are monkeys. PPBS is about people. Their hopes, their loves, their foolishness and dreams.” Yeah. And your point is? The entire emotional range of PPBS is duplicated in the social dynamics of any chimpanzee band; that’s exactly what makes it so boring.

There is nothing there about what actually makes us human, neither the good stuff like science and art and discovery nor the bad stuff like warfare and governments. In a universe of satoris and supernovas, the people who produce and consume PPBS only care about who slept with or dissed or made up with who.

I find that truly sad.

UPDATE: I’m a shadow Tourette’s Syndrome case, not a shadow autist like many other geeks. Nevertheless, this description of neurotypicality seems relevant.

Aug 28

Katrina and the Kos

About twelve hours ago I toyed with the idea of writing a satire in
which the Bush-haters blame W. for the magnitude of the disaster
bearing down on New Orleans. I discarded the idea on the grounds that
it’s (a) not funny, and (b) not believable enough. I mean, who could
really imagine that theory even from a barking moonbat?

Shows you what I know. One of the contributors at Daily Kos has already
flung those feces,
before Katrina lands, yet. And — here’s the funny part —
the charge is already falsified by the facts on the ground.

I’m not a fan of George W. Bush. But when his opponents are
this transcendently foaming-at-the-mouth idiotic, it’s hard not to
wind up supporting him.

Aug 28

People Getting Brighter, Culture Getting Dimmer

In response to my previous post noting that the Flynn effect turns out to be a mirage, at least two respondents have suggested that average IQ has actually been falling, and have pointed to the alleged dumbing-down of politics and popular culture in the last fifty years.

I think both those respondents and the psychometricians are correct. That is, it seems to me that during my lifetime I’ve seen evidence that average IQ has risen a little, but that other traits involved in the “smart or stupid” judgment have eroded.

Continue reading

Aug 26

Out like Flynn

Renowned pychometrician Charles Murray has given us, in The
Inequality Taboo
, a concise summary of the most current science on
group differences in IQ and other measures of capability. Most of it
is not surprising to anybody who has been following the actual science
rather than press accounts severely distorted by the demands of
political correctness.

There is some new information here, however, and perhaps the most
interesting bit is that turns out to be much less to the Flynn effect
than meets the eye. The Flynn effect is the long-term rise in average
IQ scores recorded since IQ began to be measured in the early 20th
century. Advocates of the view that IQ is unimportant or meaningless
have seized on the Flynn effect to argue that IQ is either (a) a
statistical artifact, or (b) almost entirely environmentally driven
(and thus can presumptively be increased by correct social
policy).

Murray’s news is that the Flynn effect is not being driven by a
rise in average g, the measure of general mental ability that accounts
for over 50% of variance in almost all kinds of mental aptitude tests.
Since Spearman discovered the ‘g’ statistic, almost all psychometricians
have accepted that IQ is interesting precisely because it is a good
approxmation of g. Thus, the Flynn effect is basically a mirage —
it’s taking place in the noise, not the signal.

I’m not entirely sure what this means yet, and I don’t believe
Murray or other psychometricians have gotten to the bottom of it
either. But at minimum, it’s very suggestive that IQ differences are
either genetic or driven by environmental factors over which we have
little control. Spearman’s g, in particular, is notoriously
intractable. It is highly heritable according to separated-twin
studies. And while there is good evidence that it can be lowered from
its ‘natural’ genetic level by unfavorable environment (such as poor
childhood nutrition), it apparently can’t be raised by a favorable
one.

Indeed, Murray reports in a footnote evidence from a study in
Denmark that the Flynn effect has leveled off since the early 1990s.
Thus, it may be that we have already maxed out the effects of wealth
and better nutrition on the both the g and non-g components of IQ that
we can manipulate.

Aug 25

Blame The Audience

In Summer
Fading, Hollywood Sees Fizzle
, a writer for the New York
Times
explores the theory that movie attendance is tanking
because the quality of all too many mega-hyped “major movies” has
plunged into the crapper. Well, no shit, Sherlock — what was
your first clue? Pearl Harbor? Alexander?
Mission Impossible II? What’s really news about this story is
that it’s news — a startling break from the blame-the-audience
thinking so prevalent in Big Media over the last decade.

Continue reading

Aug 02

Libertarian realism

I hate war. Even when the results of defeat would be worse than
the results of war, I hate war. It kills people and makes government
stronger. But when the results of defeat would be worse, I face
reality and support war.

Our Islamist enemies want to kill us all — starting with Jews and
gays, but continuing to anyone who doesn’t convert to Islam and accept
shari’a and the whole nine yards. That’s not melodrama, it’s
reporting of the plain and simple statements Al-Qaeda uses in their
recruiting videos. They want to kill us all. They demonstrated
the deadly seriousness of this aim on 9/11.

The choice between “support the war” and “allow the pressure off of
enemies who want to kill us all” is not a difficult one. As a libertarian,
I’m deeply sorry we live in a world where governments are doing the fighting
for us, and I fear the consequences of the power they will amass while
doing so. But I don’t see an alternative.

If I had a magic wand that could instantly materialize a world of
private security agencies, insurance pools, and mercenaries capable of
fighting the war on terror, I would have waved it long before 9/11.
But I am not capable of changing the objective conditions of the war
any more than I am of changing the murderous intentions of our
enemies.

Though I’ve been accused of abandoning my libertarianism for a
conservative position, I still believe in the non-initiation of force
as strongly as I ever have. I saw one damn huge freaking initiation
of force on 9/11 — not just an attack on one city or one country
but an assault on Western civilization. Everything al-Qaeda’s
propaganda organs have said since confirms that is what they intend.

George Orwell, writing during World War II, wrote:

Pacifism is objectively pro-fascist. This is elementary common
sense. If you hamper the war effort of one side, you automatically
help out that of the other. Nor is there any real way of remaining
outside such a war as the present one. In practice, ‘he that is not
with me is against me.’”

If Orwell were alive today, I have no doubt he would view this war
as equally pressing, nor which side of it he would choose. And all
libertarians should heed his words. We’ve shown far too much of a
tendency to slide into denial about the war on terror and the
consequences of refusing to fight it.

Sliding off into denial and fantasyland is not noble, it’s an
abdication of our responsibility as human beings and members of a
civilization. If that denial becomes “the” libertarian position, our
statist opponents will damn us as for deserting our neighbors and our
civilization in its hour of need — and they will be right to
damn us.

Other libertarians may fail this test. I will not.

Aug 02

The “Bush Lied” lie

Today’s entry in the Belgravia Dispatch
does an excellent job of demolishing the “Bush lied, people died!”
canard so popular among the anti-war left — Greg Djerejian
echoes my own conclusions when he writes: “But if you dig into the
weeds of the investigations that have taken place — one must
judiciously conclude that he didn’t.”

But let’s suppose that George W. Bush had in fact lied about Iraqi
WMD during that State of the Union address. I long ago concluded that
I would not care if he had lied. To see why, let’s try looking at this from
George Bush’s (simulated) point of view…

Continue reading