Dec 29

The Journalist as Herd Creature

In September 2004, well before the elections, I wrote an essay on
the collapse of
mainstream media influence
. I predicted that the Rathergate
scandal and the Swift Boat Vets would lock up the election for George
W. Bush, despite the MSM’s most determined efforts to get Kerry into
the White House. I related this to a long-term decline in MSM influence as
plunging communications costs erode its gatekeeper role, and predicted
that decline would continue.

(For anyone who came in late, “MSM” is how bloggers abbreviate the
“mainstream media”. But that term is imprecise, because the category
actually excludes the contrarian/conservative but mainstream Fox News
and includes certain niche media outlets such as National Public
Radio. What MSM really refers to is what I have sometimes called the
“dominant media culture”. The centers of this culture are the New
York Times, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, the LA Times, ABC,
CBS, NBC, and CNN. The MSM peddles news made by and for elite
bicoastal liberals. One conservative commentator has aptly described
the MSM as an “echo chamber of left and further-left scribblers and
talkers and self-reinforcing head nodders who were overwhelmingly
anti-Republican, anti-Christian, anti-military, anti-wealth,
anti-business, and even anti-middle class”, which indictment could be
dismissed as political ax-grinding if sociological studies by the Pew
Foundation and others had not consistently shown journalists and
editors to have exactly the voting and political-contribution patterns
that description would suggest.)

Two months later, my predictions appear to have been correct, and
have been repeatedly echoed in postmortems by Democratic political
analysts. The wailing and gnashing of teeth in the MSM has been loud.
The latest eruption is from Nick Coleman of the Minneapolis
Star-Tribune, in which he frenziedly
attacks
the editors of one of the blogs that helped break the
Rathergate scandal. Coleman has been quite properly slapped around
for his frothy, hysterical. ad-hominem rhetoric by both his
targets
and many other bloggers (here
is one representative shellacking).

Coleman’s anger so possesses him that he stoops to casting
aspersions on an opponent’s genital adequacy. But spare him some pity
along with your condemnation, because his rage transparently
springs from fear — the fear that he’s being beaten at his own
game of opinion-molding by amateurs, by bloggers, by (worst of all)
Republicans.

What Coleman is acting out on an individual level is the same rage
and fear that is rippling through the entire MSM. This rage and
fear has three causes, intertwined but distinct and all readily
discernable in Coleman’s rant.

First, the MSM is reacting badly to its loss of power. Few people
would claim now what Newsweek editor Evan Thomas did less
than six months ago, that the MSM can swing a national election by 15
points in the direction it wants — not when the 2004 elections
swung by at least three points in the direction it didn’t
want.

Second, the MSM is acting from a genuine fear of the social
consequences of the loss of its power. Many of its influence leaders
genuinely believe that conservatives are evil thugs bent on plunging
the world into a theocratic, imperialist dark age, and that it
is their job to fight the good fight against this.

Third, they are most terrified of all at discovering how out of
touch they are. In the past, your typical MSMer surrounded by other
MSMers has believed that he is mildly “progressive”, merely holding
the opinions that all reasonable people hold and opposed by at most a
tiny and dismissable fringe of kooks and rednecks. MSMers are more
undone than anything else by the discovery that the mainstream of the
American population is rejecting them in droves for Fox News, talk
radio, and the blogs.

The first two causes induce fear, but I think it’s the third one
that tips it over into irrational panic. Almost all the working
journalists I’ve ever met (and I’ve met boatloads of them) are herd
creatures — they may talk about individualism and subverting the
dominant paradigm, but they have a very strong need to believe that
they’re “of the people”, simply writing the things that 99% of the
people would think and write if they were capable.

It’s a short step from this belief to Coleman’s flavor of
quasi-paranoid ranting. Anybody who doesn’t think like the MSM cannot
be authentic, but must instead be a paid or suborned tool of evil
forces. Watch for this theme to show up more and more frequently in
the next year as most of the MSM sinks ever-deeper into denial.

Dec 27

Where’s Tom Wolfe when you need him?

The Ananova site brings us this little gem:

Baseball star’s wife makes ultimate threat

The wife of a top US baseball player has vowed to have sex with all of
his team mates if he ever cheats on her.

Anna Benson, a former model and stripper who was named Baseball’s
Hottest Wife by FHM, is married to Mets pitcher Kris Benson.

She told Howard Stern’s radio show: “I told him, cheat on me all
you want. If you get caught, I’m going to s***w everybody on your
entire team. Coaches, trainers, players. I would do everybody on his
whole team.”

Stern, egging her on, asked: “Even the coaches? What about, like, the
bat boys?”

“Everybody would get a turn,” Anna pledged. “If my husband cheated on
me and embarrassed me like that, I will embarrass him more than he
could ever imagine.”

Uh huh. I see that, somehow, this woman managed to have a
career as a “model and stripper” without developing the faintest shred
of a clue how men think or respond to a challenge like this.

Bet on it. Somehere, a coalition of the most unattractive
no-hopers in the Mets organization — probably organized by some
dude with a beer gut, bad breath, and a bread-dough complexion who
harbors a long-simmering lust for the wench — is now organizing
a pool with which to engage the foxiest hookers in the Big Apple to
waylay her husband. What a pitch! Throw $50 in the kitty and
“Baseball’s Hottest Wife” will bang you too!

Think of it…everywhere Kris Benson goes, hired hotties in thongs,
lingerie, and leather will be lying in wait for him. They’ll hit on
him in bars and materialize unaccountably in his hotel room after away
games. They’ll try to give him blow jobs in taxis. Confederates
with cameras will lurk nearby.

I’m not sure which would be funnier…the version in which hubby
succumbs to some soiled lily’s charms and wifey screws her way through
the team before making an “Eeeew!” of disgust at the instigator and
splitting for Cancun with the hunky batboy? Or perhaps the version in
which hubby is cornered, hands over his crotch, by a gaggle of
rapacious prostitutes who decide they’re not being paid enough for
this shit and turn on organizer-dude to rend him limb from limb like
some posse of latter-day Bacchantes.

O the humanity. O the satirical-novel possibilities!

UPDATE: My wife Cathy, who is an actual woman, comments “You have to
wonder about her motives for making a threat like this in public. Me,
I suspect that doing the whole team is her fantasy…”

Dec 26

Hacking My Way To Stardom

This is storyboard art for a movie called Nightmask, with
the interesting property that I will probably get a speaking part in it
if it’s actually produced.

“Whoa!” you may well ask. “How does a middle-aged geek with no
showbiz history beyond a few singer/songwriter coffeehouse gigs in
his college days land a part in, you know, a real movie?”

The answer, it turns out, is by hacking for a movie star. And thereby
hangs a tale.

Back in October I was the top-billed guests of honor at the first
Linucon, a convention for SF fans and Linux hackers in Austin, TX.
First night I was there, at the invitation-only dinner for con guests,
I found that I knew a lot of them. Steve Jackson, Wil Wheaton, Howard
Tayler, Eric Flint…but there was one I didn’t recognize and she was
striking enough to make an impression:


This woman’s charm was somehow only increased by the fact that at
the time she was wearing black nerd-frame glasses; she looked like a
supermodel playing a geekgirl, a guess which I discovered was nearly
correct the next day when I found her sitting in the lobby of the
hotel tapping keys on a PowerBook. I introduced myself, asked her
name, and we were soon deep in conversation about all manner of
interesting techie things. And her name? Tamara Gorski.

Yes, that would be the Tamara
Gorski
who played Rebecca Lowell in on an episode of
Angel and Morrigan the Goddess of War (looking like Lucy
Lawless’s kid sister) on Hercules: The Legendary Journeys.
She’s also had parts in quite a few B movies over the last decade; she
told me later that she thinks she could get A-list parts if she pushed,
but doesn’t really want the pressure or the fishbowl existence that would
bring with it.

I had to admit to never having seen any of her stuff, as I don’t
watch TV at all and hadn’t caught any of her movies. This, however,
did not bother her in the least; in fact she seemed happy to be talking
to someone who was (a) a low risk for going all fanboy on her, and (b)
willing to teach her techie stuff, like how to program an automated
way to mail people electronic thank-you cards. I launched into writing
a Python program on her PowerBook to do exactly that.

That program took me about three hours to write, time scattered
over the next two days, most of it with Tamara looking over my
shoulder and (I kid you not) giggling with delight as I explained how
this or that bit of Python helped get the job done. Tamara, it turns
out, is (a) extremely bright, (b) by her own description, “shy and
geeky”, and (c) intensely curious. And yes, formerly a successful
model. So, not exactly a supermodel playing a geekgirl, more like one
really letting her inner geek out to play for maybe the first time
in her life.

Tamara loved discovering SF fandom; the atmosphere of Linucon
delighted her. “I think I’ve found my people!” she said to me Sunday
night. And I was her guide to the territory. By the time that program
was finished, we were friends.

Tamara had told me early on that she was interested in writing and
direction. She talked offhand at the con about casting me in her next
film, but I didn’t know how seriously to take that until she emailed me
a script and a character list and asked which ones I was interested in.

The plot is a sort of space opera with horror elements about a
multispecies galactic future in which vampirism is a scourge that
affects every species. The part she had in mind was Klaaghu, an
initially sinister-appearing alien who dies heroically bringing

evidence to the anti-vampire resistance. After reading the script, I
agreed that of the available roles, that one seemed like probably the
best fit. It’s a nice juicy bit part; Klaaghu doesn’t get a lot of
screen time, but he does get dialogue and a dramatic scene.

The big variable here is whether Tamara can get backers to produce
the movie. She’s planning the low-budget route, shooting in New
Zealand or Bulgaria. She’s got a natural market, as this is exactly
the kind of thing the Sci-Fi channel buys. Tamara says “If you know
anyone who wants to invest at all…there will be returns, and if it’s
someone who would get their kicks from being in the film and getting
screen credit as producer, that’s all cool and kosher.”

There you have it. Calling all dot.com millionaires: you wanna
be a movie producer? Have a part in an SF flick? Your shot at stardom
is waiting.

Dec 20

The Revenge of the Nerds is Living Well

Grant McCracken has argued in his book Plenitude that one of the defining characteristics of the last fifty years is an explosion of subcultural variety — people creating new lifestyles and new identities around occupations, sexual tastes, hobbies, genres of art and music, religions, and just about any other investment of time human beings have ever dreamed up.

When McCracken proposes that there is now as much divergence among individual subcultures in the life of the modern West as we can find among preindustrial tribes in the annals of anthropology he is probably exaggerating. Nevertheless, it is clear that he is onto something when he observes that the old idea of a ‘mainstream’ culture with subcultures developing in anti-conformist reaction to it is falling apart.

[S]ubcultures now come from the cultural system in place. The culture of
commotion is, as I have labored to demonstrate, dedicated to the production
of new and different subcultures.

SF fans. Skatepunks. Polyamorists. Gangsta rappers. Goths. McCracken certainly has this much right; there are now lots of voluntary subcultures out there that have the kind of adhesiveness once only associated with religious or tribal groupings. Belonging to them is not just a predilection like being a baseball fan or liking Chinese food, but a statement of identity with a whole social network and a set of myths and dreams and heroes attached to it.

Among the five groups I listed more or less at random above the culture of SF fandom is a bearded grandaddy, dating back to the late 1930s and thus predating the beginnings of the modern explosion of plenitude in the 1960s. The others are all much more recent, and illustrate how new tribes can emerge to become apparently permanent features of the landscape in less than a decade.

And this brings us to the geeks. When I was a teenager in the 1970s, there was not yet anything you could call “geek culture”. Sure, there were bright kids fascinated by computers or math or science, kids who were often poorly socialized in the jargon of the day and hung together as a defensive measure; I was one of them. But we didn’t see ourselves as having a social identity or affiliation the way the jocks or surfers or hippies did. We weren’t a subculture, nor even a community; we didn’t even have a label for ourselves.

Slowly, slowly that began to change. One key event was the eruption of science fiction into pop culture that began with the first Star Wars movie in 1977. This was our stuff and we knew it, even though most of us never joined the subculture of SF fandom proper. Personal computers made another big difference after 1980; suddenly, technology was cool and sexy in a way it hadn’t been for decades, and people who were into it started to get respect rather than (or in addition to) faint or not-so-faint scorn.

You could see the trend in movies. War Games in 1983; Revenge of the Nerds in 1984; Real Genius in 1985. To kids today Revenge of the Nerds doesn’t seem remarkable, because geek culture is more secure and confident today than a lot of older tribes like bikers or hippies. But at the time, the idea that you could have an entire fraternity of geeks — an autonomous social group with reason to be proud of itself and a recognized place in the social ecology — was funny; all by itself it was a comedy premise.

The heroes of Revenge of the Nerds were people who created a fraternity of their own, who bootstrapped a niche for themselves in Grant McCracken’s culture of plenitude. The movie was an extended joke, but it described and perhaps helped create a real phenomenon.

The term ‘geek’ didn’t emerge as a common label, displacing the older and much more sporadically-used ‘nerd’, until around the time of the Internet explosion of 1993-1994. I noticed this development because I didn’t like it; I still prefer to tell people I hang out with hackers (all hackers are geeks, but not all geeks are hackers). Another index of the success of the emerging geek culture is that around that time it stopped being an almost exclusively male phenomenon.

Yes, you catch my implication. When I was growing up we didn’t have geekgirls. Even if the label ‘geek’ had been in use at the time, the idea that women could be so into computers or games or math that they would identify with and hang out with geek guys would have struck us as sheerest fantasy. Even the small minority of geek guys who were good with women (and thus had much less reason to consider them an alien species) would have found the implications of the term ‘geekgirl’ unbelievable before 1995 or so.

(There are people who cannot read an account like the above without assuming that the author is simply projecting his own social and sexual isolation onto others. For the benefit of those people, I will report here that I had good relations with women long before this was anything but rare in my peer group. This only made the isolation of my peers easier to notice.)

What changed? Several things. One is that geek guys are, on the whole, better adjusted and healthier and more presentable today than they were when I was a teenager. Kids today have trouble believing the amount of negative social pressure on intelligent people to pass as normal and boring that was typical before 1980, the situation Revenge of the Nerds satirized and inverted. It meant that the nascent geek culture of the time attracted only the most extreme geniuses and misfits — freaks, borderline autists, obsessives, and other people in reaction against the mainstream. Women generally looked at this and went “ugh!”

But over time, geeky interests became more respectable, even high-status (thanks at least in part to the public spectacle of übergeeks making millions). The whole notion of opposition to the mainstream started to seem dated as ‘mainstream’ culture gradually effloresced into dozens of tribes freakier than geeks (two words: “body piercings”). Thus we started to attract people who were more normal, in psychology if not in talent. Women noticed this. I believe it was in 1992, at a transhumanist party in California, that I first heard a woman matter-of-factly describe the Internet hacker culture as “a source of good boyfriends”. A few years after that we started to get a noticeable intake of women who wanted to become geeks themselves, as opposed to just sleeping with or living with geeks.

The loner/obsessive/perfectionist tendencies of your archetypal geek are rare in women, who are culturally encouraged (and perhaps instinct-wired) to value social support and conformity more. Thus, women entering the geek subculture was a strong sign that it had joined the set of social identities that people think of as ‘normal’. This is still a very recent development; I can’t recall the term ‘geekgirl’ being used at all before about 1998, and I don’t think it became commonly self-applied until 2000 or so.

Interestingly, the dot.com bust does not seem to have slowed down or discredited the geek subculture at all. Websites like http://geekculture.com and http://thinkgeek.com do a flourishing business, successfully betting investment capital on the theory that there is in fact a common subculture or community embracing computer hackers, SF fans, strategy gamers, aficionados of logic puzzles, radio hams, and technology hobbyists of all sorts. Just the fact that a website can advertise The World’s Coolest Propeller Beanies! is indication of how far we’ve come.

I’ve previously observed about one large and important geek subtribe, the Internet hackers, that when people join it they tend to retrospectively re-interpret their past and after a while find it difficult to remember that they weren’t always part of this tribe. I think something similar is true of geeks in general; even those of us who lived through the emergence of geek culture have to struggle a bit to remember what it was like back when we were genuinely atomized outcasts in a culture that was dismissive and hostile.

There are even beginning to be geek families with evidence of generational transmission. I know three generations of one, starting when two computer scientists married in the late 1960s, and had four kids in the 1970s; the kids have since produced a first grandchild who at age five shows every sign of becoming just as avid a gamer/hacker/SF-fan as his parents and grandparents.

Little Isaac, bless him, will grow up in a culture that, in its plenitude, offers lots of artifacts and events designed by and for people like him. He will take the World Wide Web and the Sci-Fi Channel and Yugio and the Lord of the Rings movies and personal computers for granted. He’ll probably never be spat on by a jock, and if he can’t find a girlfriend it will be because the geekgirls and geek groupies are dating other guys like him, rather than being nonexistent.

For Isaac, Revenge of the Nerds will be a quaint period piece with very little more relevance to the social circumstances of his life than a Regency romance. And that is how we know that the nerds indeed got their revenge.

Dec 16

The Racist of Earthsea

In Slate magazine, SF author Ursula LeGuin complains that the
producers of the new Earthsea miniseries have butchered her
work
. One form of butchery that she zeroes in on is by casting
characters who she intended to be red, brown, or black as white
people.

I have mixed feelings. LeGuin has every right to be POed at how
her intentions were ignored, but on the other hand my opinion of her
has not been improved by learning that she intended the books as yet
another wearisomely PC exercise in
multiculturalism/multiracialism.

I liked those books when I read them as a teenager. I didn’t
notice any character’s skin color. I would really prefer not to have
had my experience of those characters retrospectively messed with by
LeGuin’s insistance that the race thing is important.

Note: I am not claiming that all casting should be colorblind. I
remember once watching an otherwise excellent Kenneth Branagh
production of Much Ado About Nothing that was somewhat marred for
me by Branagh’s insistance on casting an American black man as a
Renaissance Italian lord. This was wrong in exactly the same way that
casting a blue-eyed blond as Chaka Zulu or Genghis Khan would be
— it’s so anti-historical that it interferes with the suspension
of disbelief. Fantasy like LeGuin’s, however, doesn’t have this kind
of constraint. Ged and Tenar don’t become either more or less plausible
if their skin color changes.

But what really annoyed me was LeGuin’s claim that only whites have
the “privilege” of being colorblind. This is wrong and tendentious in
several different ways. Colorblindness is not a privilege of anyone,
it’s a duty of everyone — to judge people not by the color of their
skin but the content of their character, and to make race a non-issue
by whatever act of will it takes. (It doesn’t take any effort at all
for me.)

If I had produced the Earthsea miniseries or been in charge of the
art for her books, I would have both (a) respected LeGuin’s wishes
about the skin color (she is the artist), and (b) regretted that she
was so stuck on the issue.

To paraphrase one of my favorite Zen Comix punchlines “I left that
issue at the riverside. Are you still carrying it?”

Dec 08

Left2Right – a critical appraisal

I’ve been reading a new blog called
Left2Right, founded in
mid-November 2004 as an attempt by a group of left-wing intellectuals to reach
out to intelligent people on the right of the American political spectrum.
It is indeed a thought-provoking read, but the thoughts they are provoking
are not necessarily of the sort they intend.

This response is intended for the Left2Right authors, so I’ll
rehearse what will be obvious to regular Armed and
Dangerous
readers; I’m not a conservative or right-winger
myself, but a radical libertarian who finds both ends of the
conventional spectrum about
equally repugnant
. My tradition is the free-market classical liberalism of Locke and
Hayek. I utterly reject both the Marxist program and the reactionary
cultural conservatism of Edmund Burke, Russell Kirk, and (today) the
Religious Right. Conservatism is defined by a desire to preserve
society’s existing power relationships; given a choice, I prefer
subverting them to preserving them.

One advantage my libertarianism gives me is that while I disagree
violently with a lot of right-wing thinking, I understand it much
better than most leftists do. The reverse is not quite as true; while
I do believe I understand left-wing thinking pretty well, most
right-wing intellectuals are not so ignorant of leftism that I have an
unusual advantage there. They can’t be, not after having passed
through the PC indoctrination camps that most American universities
have become.

A right-winger, noting the concentration of philosophy and
humanities professors in the Left2Right bios and the number of them
who list topics like “race and gender issues” as interest areas, would
say that the contributors are typical members of the elite that runs
those camps. But one of the things that Left2Right suggests to this
libertarian is that even these people are prisoners, locked in by
their own group-think. The toughest challenge they face in reaching
out to right-wingers is not a problem with right-wingers — it is the
unexamined premises and lacunae in their own reasoning.

The post
that is at the top of the blog as I write is a subtle but perfect
illustration of this point. J. David Velleman, writing on Bush
administration strategy about the liberation of Iraq, argues that they
fell victim to a philosophical error, believing that giving the Iraqi
people freedom would be sufficient to pacify the country. He writes
“These decisionmakers seem not to have considered the possibility that
freedom alone may not induce people to do wonderful things if they
lack a shared sense of confidence in the legitimacy of the social
order”.

This is a refreshing change from the dimmer sort of left-wing
narrative, in which Bush and Cheney head a sinister cabal who dream
of an American empire that enslaves the Iraqis and steals their oil
for Halliburton. It’s an intelligent criticism; possibly even a
correct one.

But…and this is a large ‘but’…the when Velleman goes on to
imply that “shared confidence in the legitimacy of the social order”
is one of the “values of the left” without which the “values of the
Right are simply not viable”, he reveals himself to be inhabiting some
sort of ahistorical cloud-Cuckoo land. He is making an archetypally
right-wing sort of argument here, one which would sound far more
likely from Russell Kirk or an eighteenth-century clericalist than from
anyone who purports to be part of the tradition of Karl Marx or
Mikhael Bakunin or Emma Goldman.

Velleman’s blythe unawareness of the reactionary tenor of his own
argument suggests more than just a ignorance of right-wing political
thinking that is crippling for anyone engaged in Left2Right’s project;
it suggests that Left thought has become so empty of any content of
its own, so stuck in reflexive oppositionalism, that all that remains
to it is to grab at any concept that can be used to oppose George W.
Bush.

In fact, this model of a Left stuck in reflexive oppositionalism is
exactly what conservative intellectuals believe about it. Their
narrative goes like this: once upon a time, Left thought was a genuine
world-system, a coherent if tragically mistaken competitor to
classical liberalism and capitalism. The Soviet Union used this
theory for evil purposes, to seduce the intelligentsia of the West and
foment among them anti-American, anti-capitalist hatred. When the
Soviet Union collapsed, the Left’s world-system collapsed with it.
All that remained was a catalogue of resentments clothed in the
tattered remnants of Marxist theory, but the Left intelligentsia never
let go of this. As the theory crumbled, the resentments
became the theory. So we are left with a Left that is more
hysterically anti-American than ever, and willing to suck up to
monstrous dictators like Saddam Hussein, precisely because it no
longer knows what to be for.

Now: reread the above paragraph, then ask yourself what Velleman’s
rhetoric will inevitably sound like to a conservative intellectual. You
will know you have gotten it when your hair stands on end.

We continue with a post
by Jeff McMahan on “Support our Troops” bumper stickers. McMahan
appears to mean well, but when writes as though he thinks that the
owners of SUVs and vans who bear these stickers are performing some
kind of Machiavellian calculation about oil-shock risks he is merely
proving that he is laughably out of touch with the thinking of
ordinary Americans.

A gentle hint for Mr. McMahan: People who own vans and SUVs
live in the suburbs. People who live in the suburbs
predominantly vote Republican; this is a cold demographic
fact known to almost everybody whose horizons are wider than those of
an average NPR radio-show host. The fact that you don’t know this, and
instead chase after paranoid all-about-the-oil theories, makes you the
sort of person conservatives laugh about and and point out as a
paradigmatic example of left-liberal cluelessness.

The ahistorical J. David Velleman speaks some good sense in

debunking a dead horse
. He may be dead-ignorant of right-wing thought
but he clearly isn’t stupid. Like all the contributors he radiates a
sense that he is honestly trying.

David Estlund’s The
First Data Point on Anti-Terrorism
starts as fairly standard-issue
Bush-bashing; he ignores the fact that, if the Bush administration was
culpable, the Clinton administration was even more culpable on the
same “knew or should have known” sort of argument. The intelligence
estimates that made al-Qaeda out to be imminently dangerous long
predate the 2000 elections.

The more interesting part of his post is his repetition of the meme
that Republicans won’t listen to arguments or evidence from
intellectuals like him. He is so full of self-congratulation about
the Bushies’ alleged inability to let the evidence lead them where it
will (and by implication, his own superior ability to do so) that he
completely misses the real reason conservative policy makers tune his
kind out.

Mr. Estlund, how can I break this to you gently…the Bushies ignore
advice from left-wing academics because they believe the source is poisoned.
They believe you hate America and want to destroy it. Given
that belief, it would be their duty to listen to your advice only with
the determination to do the exact opposite of anything you recommend.

Now, mind you, in pointing this out, I am not alleging that you
actually do hate America and want to destroy it. My claim is
that from the point of view of most conservatives, that is the only
model that plausibly explains your speech and behavior. They do not
merely pretend to believe your kind is evil as a matter of rhetoric or
tactical positioning, they actually do believe it. With the
best will in the world to listen to critics and weigh evidence, they
still wouldn’t take policy advice from you any more readily than you
would accept it from a Nazi.

(Allow me to contrast this with the position I think more typical of
libertarians, which is that left-wing academics are not evil per se
but have been so canalized by Marxist-derived ideology that on most
politico-economic issues they should be ignored on grounds of
irremediable incompetence.)

So, if you want to be listened to in Washington, your problem (one
which is general to left-wing intellectuals) is how to falsify
conservatives’ belief that you hate America and want to destroy it.
This is not going to be possible at all as long as you express
contempt for the values and reasoning ability of the majority of
Americans that voted for George Bush.

But your problem runs deeper than that. To be listened to, you
will need to demonstrate that you share what present-day American
conservatives think of as their core beliefs, including but not limited
to:

  • The practical and moral superiority of free-market capitalism
    over socialism and all other competing visions of political economics.
  • American exceptionalism — the belief that the U.S. is uniquely
    qualified by history and values to bring liberty to the oppressed of
    the world.
  • Islamic terrorism is an unqualified evil which cannot be explained
    or excused either by “root cause” analysis; further, that laying it
    to past failures in U.S. policy is a form of blaming the victim.

(Note that I am not endorsing these beliefs, simply pointing out that
conservatives generally hold them.)

As long as conservatives believe that you do not share these core
beliefs with them, they will conclude that your policy “help” on Iraq
or the War on Terror would be an active detriment. And — here’s
the hard part — they will be justified in that belief
(which, as you doubtless know, is not the same as the assertion that
the belief is confirmably true).

But you have yet another problem, which is not about the beliefs of
conservative intellectuals or policymaking elites. It is that in
rejecting the core beliefs I have pointed at, you are not merely
defining yourself out of the policy conversation conservatives are
ready to have, you are also out of step with the majority of the
American people. The voters. As long as that continues to be the
case, the Left will continue to lose elections.

Estlund’s posting responds to the previous one, in which Gerald Dworkin
says intelligent things about the Bush administration’s apparent success
at preventing major terrorist acts in the U.S., and the electoral ramifications
thereof. Excellent; if the Left is prepared to face reality this squarely,
there is hope for them yet.

J. David Velleman has more sensible things to say about the
politics of homosexuality. His distinction between the respect that
we owe “gay rights” and the problematic status of “gay pride” is
astute. I think leftists also need to understand that many
conservatives (and libertarians like myself) feel a deep and
principled revulsion not just against “gay pride” but against all
forms of manipulative identity politics, and are heartily fed up with
having leftists construe that revulsion as bigotry.

Stephen Darwall’s School
Resegregation and the Exurbs
, on the other hand, feels like an
attempt to force new wine into old wineskins. The Left’s tendency to
turn every policy argument into a diatribe about racism (too often,
racism that existed nowhere but in the Left’s imagination) was always
one of its least attractive traits. We could do without a
revival.

Again, I am not just discussing elite opinion here. If you go to
the voters with the argument that wanting to live in exurbs is
evidence of racism, they will stiff-arm you. Actually, I think it is
only the hothouse atmosphere of the academy that has kept racism alive
as a topic in American thought for the last fifteen years or so.

In Being
Forthright
, Seanna Shiffrin says nothing at all that has any
chance of increasing understanding between Left and Right, and does so
at some length. Her screed reads, to any conservative (and even to a
libertarian like me) as extended self-congratulation about how Left
convictions are so obviously correct that if leftists trumpet them
loudly enough the people will come.

This is a perfect example of the wages of groupthink. In fact, if the
six election cycles since 1980 demonstrate anything, it is that being
more “forthright” about left-wing positions is a recipe for electoral
disaster.

Kwame Appiah takes
the opposite tack
: “In these circumstances I think it would be
better to show up first with an offer to listen than with an offer to
talk.” A commenter correctly observes that this may be the most
useful thing we have heard a Democrat say since the elections.

Unfortunately, the rest of the posting is yet another narrative about
left-wing superiority, though Mr. Appiah gives it the novel twist of
ascribing this belief to right-wingers! For this he is quite properly
taken to the woodshed buy some conservative commenters.

Speaking as an observer who is (once again) not a
conservative, I salute the commenter who said “I think you go
profoundly astray in this understanding of why conservatives rail
against the liberal media. It isn’t about being liked. It is about
believing that the liberal media distorts the truth and manipulates
beliefs by using such distortions. They rail against the political and
social power which they believe is being corruptly used.

I’ll go further than that. I resent the way that the Left uses its
effective control of the mainstream media to manipulate belief even
when the manipulation advances causes I agree with —
for example, abortion rights. I don’t like “pro-lifers” and I don’t
agree with them — but that doesn’t stop me from noticing that
they get stigmatized as all being yahoos and routinely associated with
clinic-bombers by the same media that is very painstaking in
separating the Left’s violent crazies from allegedly more
“respectable” organizations like Greenpeace or PETA.

It is wise of Joshua Cohen to have noticed
that gay-marriage initiatives probably actually hurt Bush rather than
winning him the election. If the Left continues to comfort itself by
believing its only real problem is with Christian evangelicals, it will
slide further into denial and irrelevancy.

The American rejection of what Cohen calls “progressive values” is
much, much broader based than that. As an agnostic Wiccan who thinks
the War on Drugs was a huge toxic blunder, I am not personally
thrilled about this development, but I recognize it as fact
nevertheless. Mr. Cohen is to be commended for urging this unwelcome
news on the Left.

On the other hand, J. David Velleman’s post
on the Academic Bill of Rights does not go nearly far enough. His is
a more sophisticated form of defensive crouch than the outright denial
we usually see, but merely admitting that “large regions of the
humanities and social sciences have become increasingly ideological,” doesn’t
even come close to addressing the actual magnitude of the problem.

I am, in an important sense, an applied humanist/sociologist. My
analysis
of the anthropology and sociology of open-source software development
has a significant reputation in academia; it has been cited with the
coveted adjective “seminal” and spawned quite a number of master’s and
doctoral theses. My work has required that I enter the conceptual
world of modern “humanities and social sciences” — not merely to
theorize about these disciplines, but to use them in ways
that have helped trigger transformative changes in the software
industry.

I have immodestly set forth these qualifications here because my
experience requires an even stronger indictment than David Horowitz’s,
let alone the mild one that Mr. Velleman will admit. I have
encountered entire academic fields that have been effectively
destroyed by Left politics, in the sense that they can no
longer talk about anything other than power relations. Postmodern
literary criticism is only the most obvious example; for that matter,
postmodernist anything is reliably a nihilist swamp obsessed
with ‘agendas’ and ‘power relations’ to the exclusion of its
ostensible subject matter.

Here’s one that affects me particularly: the damage done to
cultural anthropology has been horrific, with the perverse effect of
making my amateur and tentative essays in it look far stronger than
they would have if the field were actually healthy.

I don’t have a fix for this problem. But I do know that more than any
mere housecleaning is needed. Some of these dwellings are so rotted out
that they will have to be razed and rebuilt before they are habitable
by anything but political animals.

Don Herzog is right to ask, in
Religion and politics
, exactly what conservatives want when they say
Americans should agree that we a “Christian nation”. This is exactly the
sort of question that the Left, if its continued existence is to mean
anything useful, should be pushing.

J. David Velleman makes the surprising concession
that Roe V. Wade was bad politics and bad law. As a pro-choicer who
nevertheless agrees with conservatives on this point (and largely for
the reasons Velleman states), I have been wondering when the Left
would begin to wake up on this point.

Groupthink shows up again in Gerald Dworkin’s Less
contempt; more mutual ground
. I’m thinking in particular of his claim
that “Both those who advocate gun-control and those who oppose it can
agree that trigger-locks and other safety devices are desirable.”

It is evident here that Mr. Dworkin has no idea what pro-firearms
activists like myself actually believe. It seems likely he has never
actually spoken with one; otherwise he would know that we regard
trigger locks as bad things, because they reduce the utility of
firearms for one of their principal purposes — self-defense. If
your friendly neighborhood junkie breaks into your home and menaces
your family with a knife (or, as in one recent case, a branding iron)
you need to be able to get the weapon into play fast.
Trigger locks and soi-disant “safety devices” primarily benefit
criminals by reducing their risks.

In fact, we regard the push for trigger locks as an underhanded
attempt to make self-defense impractical so that popular support for
firearms rights will lose a major prop. If Mr. Dworkin had ever discussed
this issue outside a UC Davis faculty meeting, he would probably know
this.

In Not
Too Bright
, J. David Velleman misses a central point about
American hostility to the “intelligentsia” because he falls back into
the comforting Left groupthink about the Christian evangelicals and
“moral values”.

I’m an intellectual myself, not a Christian, not a conservative.
Yet I understand the emotion Mr. Dworkin reads as
“anti-intellectualism”; I even sympathize with it to some extent. It
is a folk reaction to what Julian Benda called le trahison
des clercs
. The West’s intelligentsia — not all of it, but
enough of it to tar all of us — was a willing accomplice in the
terrible totalitarian crimes of the 20th century. Today, the same
segments of the intelligentsia that cooperated with Stalinism are
issuing apologetics for al-Qaeda. (This is not just metaphorically but
literally the case, as the pedigree of A.N.S.W.E.R. and the
“Not In Our Name” organizers shows.)

Until the academic Left faces up to the evil at the center of its
own history, it will completely fail to understand why
“anti-intellectualism” is common even anong people who find Christian
“moral values” argument as off-putting as I do.

We could ask for no better illustration of the blindness induced by
comforting groupthink than Elizabeth Anderson’s
What Hume can teach us about our partisan divisions
.

She writes “If interests were all that divided us, the Democratic
Party (what there is of the Left that has institutional power) would
enjoy an overwhelming majority, since it represents the interests of
the bulk of the population, while Republican policies favor mainly the
rich. Most people understand this, and the Left can offer sound
arguments and evidence to persuade those who disagree.”

I am not a Republican. I have never been a Republican. But claims
like this, presented as though they are unassailable fact, utterly
infuriate me. And if they infuriate me, imagine how they
would affect an actual conservative!

As a matter of political economics, I believe that the high-tax,
high-spending policies of the Democrats benefit nobody except
a small class of elite parasites and a slightly larger one of welfare
clients; the “bulk of the population” gets shafted, forced to pay the
bill for redistributive programs that wind up doing net damage to
society. Nor is there any reason, given that the Democrats now rely
more on wealthy contributors than the Republicans, to credit the
worn-out canard that Republicans are tools of the rich.

It is not, however, the factual falsity of Ms. Anderson’s claim
that is most infuriating, but its smugness, its blind arrogance,
its casual assumption that no reasonable person could possibly
disagree with the premises. Anyone who decides to reject Julian
Benda’s analysis need look no further for an explanation of
American anti-intellectualism than this. After reading it, I’m
almost ready to torch the nearest ivory tower myself.

It is a good thing that the skein finishes (actually, begins) with
David J. Velleman’s honest puzzlement about conservative notions of “absolute
evil”; otherwise, with the taste of Ms, Anderson’s purblind parochialism
in my mouth, I might have to conclude that Left2Right’s project is
unsalvageable.

What can we conclude from Left2Right’s first three weeks of
postings? My own evaluation begins with praise: comparing with what I
read elsewhere, I think these writers truly do represent the best of
the modern Left. I see more willingness than I might have expected
to honestly question some of the Left’s sacred cows.

Unfortunately, the news is far from all good. Too many smug
shibboleths are also being repeated here. There is too much talk and
not enough listening – not enough attempt to engage the Right’s
beliefs (as opposed to a comforting left-wing parody of those beliefs).

Kwame Appiah is right. If you really want to build a healthy
dialogue with the right-wing majority in America, you need to approach
them not to teach but to learn.

Nov 18

What happens if the Democrats collapse?

I’ve written several blog essays recently
[1]
[2]
[3]
[4]
pondering the deep trouble the Democratic party is in. I believe,
on current demographic and political trends, that their problems
are going to get worse and might actually prove terminal —
especially if the Republicans have the strategic sense to run Condi
Rice for President or Vice-President in 2008.

I’m not going to rehearse all their problems here. Instead I’m going
to try to think through some scenarios for what U.S. politics might look like
after a Democratic-party collapse, and discuss why I think they are
plausible or implausible.

The common premise for all of these scenarios is that the Democrats
collapse or split into warring factions once they discover that they
just cannot win elections any more. The party breaks apart along the
Democratic Leadership Council vs. hard-lefty split that’s been the
main axis of tension within it since the 1980s. The variables are
about what happens to the left-wing and centrist/DLC factions
afterwards. I’m taking for granted that the handful of
Zell-Miller-like conservative Democrats left in congress would jump
the aisle to the GOP.

Case Gray: Republican Triumph

In this scenario, the left faction runs off to the Greens and
minor Red parties such as the Socialists. The centrist/DLC types go
Republican or exit politics. This one is a recipe for really
long-term Republican-party dominance, with the Greens retaining some
degree of clout in a handful of coastal cities and university towns;
it’s the Karl Rove wet dream.

I rate this one moderately likely, and I’m not happy about that.
It has benign possibilities, but it has fairly ugly ones too. Which
we get depends on whether small-government conservatives or the
Religious Right get the upper hand in the GOP’s factional struggles. The
former seems more likely (especially since all those ex-Democrats will be
pulling against the Religious Right). But the latter possibility is
actually fairly scary.

At the worst-case end, we’d end up in the theocratic U.S. of Robert
Heinlein’s Revolt in 2100. Mind you I think this is
highly unlikely, and the widespread lefty panic about it seems to me
to be mainly hyperventilation and hysteria — they’d have
you believe it’s happening right now, whereas I see a decade
or more before the threat could become acute. But it remains an outside
possibility.

The more likely long-term outcome would be that the Republicans themselves
split along small-government vs. cultural-conservative lines.

Case Green: Green Party Triumph

The Democratic-left refugees run more to the Reds. Greens get some
of them, but absorb a larger cohort of the centrist/DLC refugees and
evolve into a stronger and less left-wing party as a result, one with
prospects to increase its mass appeal. In effect, they become the
successor party of the Democrats and the familiar Democrat/Republican
seesaw resumes, with the Greens out of power most of the time.

I rate this one very unlikely. The problem is that if it were
possible for the DLC to come up with a new, centrist platform and stem
the long-term decline in their base, this scenario (dump the lefty
moonbats and reposition) is exactly the scenario they’d be engineering
themselves as a means of institutional survival. Since they
don’t seem to be able to manage it, I doubt the Greens (who are even more
Red-infiltrated than the Democrats) could either.

Case Gold: Libertarian Party Triumph

The left runs to the Greens and Reds. The centrist/DLC types join
the Libertarians. Small-government-Republican types drift to them, a
process which accelerates as it gradually weakens the holdouts inside the GOP.
At equilibrium, the Libertarians effectively replace the Democrats while
the Republicans become more and more a hard-right party of evangelicals
and nativists.

The key to Libertarian success in this scenario is gun owners.
This is the largest single captive bloc in the Republican voter base
at 50% of American households, one no less a politician than Bill
Clinton has identified as the swing group in the 1994 election and
subsequent Democrat disasters. The Libertarians succeed by prying
them loose from the Republican base.

As a libertarian and a gun owner, this is the one I’d most like to
see. However, I rate it unlikely. While I believe libertarian ideas
could be much more effectively marketed than they are, the LP has
proven almost comically inept at actually doing so. Post-9/11, its
isolationist foreign policy is a non-starter as well; I do not think
Americans will buy this until they perceive that the threat of Islamic
terror has been broken.

I’m, frankly, skeptical that the LP can overcome its own history
effectively enough to grasp this opportunity. But I’d love to be
wrong about this.

Case Red: Reds Triumph

This is Michael Moore’s wet dream — a major comeback for American
Marxism. It only happens if the Angry Left turns out to have been correct
about the DLC/centrists sabotaging their efforts to tap a huge pool of
naturally leftist voters. After the centrist/DLC types have faded from the
scene or gone to the GOP, one of the Red parties successfully markets
itself not just as a replacement for the democrats but in a way that
peels off a significant part of the Republican voter base.

I’ve listed this one for completeness. I think it’s wildly
unlikely, because I think the Angry Left’s belief that it can become
the vanguard of a mass movement is a drug dream. I don’t believe
there is any group in the majority-Republican voter base that is
vulnerable to a Marxist pitch, so even if they cornered all of the
Democrat base they’d still be in a minority position.

Case Blue: New Centrists

The lefty refugees dissipate themselves among the Reds and Greens.
The centrist/DLC types either keep the Democratic rump or boot up a
new party that abandons the socialist-economics and identity-politics
side of the Democrat platform, fights the War on Terror hard, and
remains strongly liberal shading towards libertarian on other social
issues. The result is, in effect, a new party of classical liberalism
— the Barry Goldwater Democrats.

As in Case Gold, their key tactical move is to peel gun owners out
of the Republican base. Over time, small-government Republicans drift
over from the GOP, which goes harder-right in consequence.

Nowadays I think this one is more likely than Case Gold. The key
to it may be the blogs, in which I see a kind of pro-War-on-Terror
libertarian centrism emerging as a new political force. The blogs
have been far more successful than the Libertarian Party at creating a
movement with mass appeal, quasi-libertarian attitudes, and enough
influence to have already arguably scuttled one presidential campaign
(Kerry’s, over Rathergate).

Case Blue is different than Case Gold in that the new centrist
party is not tied to libertarian ideology and pursues a
neoconservative foreign policy. This is the future in which “Glenn
Reynolds for President!” doesn’t sound crazy.

Nov 16

Condoleeza Rice in 2008!

So Condi Rice is going to replace Colin Powell as Secretary of State.
I have to think this means she’s being groomed for the Republican ticket
in 2008.

Well, I hope so anyway. I know very little about her, but I’ve discovered
that I really want to have a ringside seat on the farcical hijinks
that will certainly ensue if the Republicans run a black woman for President,
or even Veep.

Just so my position is clear, it is quite unlikely I’d vote for
her. As in, not unless the Libertarian candidate is a werewolf or
something. It’s just that the thought of Democratic strategists
having shit fits over the hemhorraging black vote greatly amuses me.
The panic and confusion that would reign on the New York Times
editorial page as their political-correctness bias clashes
(for once) with their anti-Republican bias would be good for many
guffaws. I might actually listen to NPR just to hear them choking.
In general, just watching the machinery of smug left-wing duckspeak
seize up and damage itself on Condi’s blackness would be
delicious.

Watching Republican racist/nativist types hold their gorges down
for the sake of party unity would be entertaining too, but probably
much less so as that type seems rather rare these days. In lieu of
that, I’d just have to content myself with the screams of insenate
rage that would issue from the neo-Nazis at Stormfront. Why, they might be
almost as angry as the “Bush=Hitler” crew over at Democratic
Underground. With any luck we might actually get to watch a few of
the vicious morons on both sites die of thundering apoplexy.

Truly, what’s not to like?

There are, of course, excellent reasons for the Republicans to try
this maneuver. Mainstream blacks are far more socially conservative
than most of the other interest groups in the Democratic coalition. I
personally do not consider this is a good thing, but there is no
denying that it makes them pretty ripe to be the next demographic that
gets chiseled out of the party (following southerners, rust-belt
blue-collar whites, and most recently Catholics).

But having a corner on the black vote is important to the Democrats
for more than just raw poll numbers. On it, now that the whites at
the bottom of the socio-economic scale have gone majority-Republican,
rests their last tenable claim to be the Party of the Oppressed. This
claim has become so important to their image and internal mythology that,
without it, the Democrats might very well collapse.

Who’s going to be their next favorite victim group to hang this
myth from? Homosexuals won’t do; there are too few of them at 4%.
The Jews wouldn’t do either, at 2%, even if the Dems hadn’t gotten
badly tainted by the creeping anti-Semitism of their own left
wing. Hispanics used to look promising, but they’re in a late stage of
assimilation and obviously headed the way of the Italians or Irish –
they won’t remain an ethnic voting bloc for even another decade.

It’s hard to peddle your outfit as tribunes of the disadvantaged
when your main powerbases are the public-employee unions, Hollywood,
and the Upper East Side. The Republicans have gotten pretty good at
nailing the Democratic leadership as the spoiled children of wealth
and privilege even with the blacks in the Democratic column;
without them, it’s just going to get uglier. And Condi Rice would be
the perfect wedge candidate.

Your average Democrat’s reflex seems to be to blame the sinister
machinations of Karl Rove for this state of affairs. The trouble with
this theory is that Clarence Thomas, Colin Powell, and Condi Rice do
actually exist. They’re not just fantasies, and they
represent a degree of access and power black people never had under
any Democratic administration.

Cynical tactical positioning? Maybe. Who cares? No matter what
the Republicans mean by it, the cause of equality gains and the
hate-spewing race-baiters on the left and right lose. Condi in
2008!

Nov 15

Hurray for Dollywood

Hot damn! I wonder if this
here post by Iowahawk
means I’m gonna git me someplace near here
in Pensylvay-ni-ay that can serve up a decent mess of Texas
barbeque
?

Put me down as a proud purple-stater. I like guns, but I hate
country music. I love burnt-ends sandwiches, but I despise chewing
tobacco. I agree that Waffle House makes the breakfast food of the
gods, but I loathe fundamentalists. I not uncommonly use “y’all”
rather than “you” for the second person plural because it’s clearer,
but I assume people who use “y’all” for the second person
singular really are dumb hicks.

Demography is not destiny. I was born in the Yankee heart of
Boston, I went to an Ivy League university, I’m a fluent writer and
speaker, every house I’ve lived in in the U.S. has been within a
hundred miles of the Atlantic, and I’ve never had a manual-labor job
in my life. By all that’s stereotyped I ought to be a member in good
standing of the chattering classes and the tribe of fuzzy-sweater
liberals, sucking up NPR and voting for Kerry like all decent
blue-staters were supposed to.

I’m not quite sure how I escaped this fate. It wasn’t by becoming
a conservative, oh dear no. I’m a radical Wiccan anarchist with a
sexual style that your average red-stater wouldn’t even know the right
words to describe (yes, I’ve checked). Right-wingers appall me
— most are so narrow-minded that they don’t even have a prayer
of understanding how narrow-minded they are. They live inside cages
and never see the bars.

So instead of repudiating my blue-state pedigree by turning into
some sort of repellant young-conservative lizardoid, I grew into
someone half-blue, half-red. My wife Cathy thinks my father’s
influence had a lot to do with that, and she’s probably got a point.
He grew up hardscrabble poor in the red counties of rural central
Pennsylvania during the Great Depression, clawed his way out to a
profession in coastal blue-land with drive and brains, and married an
upper-class girl with the looks of a movie star. Men like that don’t
fall for easy, comfortable answers in politics or anywhere else.
Among the traits I inherited from him are a contrarian streak, a
studied and stubborn refusal to fit into anyone’s tidy categories, and
some bedrock respect for red-state virtues.

Iowahawk ends his brilliant satire with the line “After the toilet
backed up, I think he got my point”. Whether intentionally or not, he
perfectly illustrates the single most important advantage of red-state
culture and politics. It’s an advantage my father understood, and he
passed that understanding on to me.

Here it is: your average red-state prole’s world-view may be
strangely cramped, and is too often shot through with bizarre and ugly
superstitions like creationism — but within his limits he
is in contact with reality. On the other hand, your average
elite blue-stater — insulated by wealth and a complacent
mainstream media and thick layers of theoretical artifice —
understands everything except reality. Which is great if
what you need is irony or wit or skilled navigation through a maze of
social constructions, but not so useful when you need a toilet
fixed.

There’s nothing new about this dance. Aristocrats and yeomen have
been doing it since the days when Sumer was the new kid on the block.
The anti-red-state squawking now being emitted by blue-state pundits
in the wake of Kerry’s defeat can be summed up as a fearful cry of
“The peasants are revolting!” It isn’t really about political
geography but about class and class snobbery.

And you know what? Class snobbery pisses me off, especially when
the people peddling it are vapid ninnies whose smugness about their own
sophistication doesn’t conceal their complete failure to get a grip
on reality. Apparently it pisses off Iowahawk too — his satire
doesn’t conceal a dark delight in the thought of all those blue-state
aristo parents wringing their hands.

So, even though I’ll never be one of them, my response to
Iowahawk’s satire is to root for the Neckies. Being one of them by
birth myself, I have long since taken the measure of the blue-state
elite. They’re more interesting to hang with, they tell better jokes,
they understand all the finer things in life — and it’s past
time for this country’s Y’alls to be rubbing their noses in the fact
that they’re mostly full of shit.

Nov 13

Islamofascism and the Rage of Augustine

In response to a long, thoughtful post on religion and democracy. a commenter on the Belmont Club wrote:

A favorite criticism of Christianity is to point to the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition and claim that these events are somehow proof that Christianity is by nature “just another violent religion”. This is both an intellectually shallow and dishonest assessment, since this criticism ignores that fact that these institutionalized excesses did not occur until a full 1000 years into the history of the Christian religion.

The commenter, a Christian apologist, missed or evaded an important point that is relevant to the question of living with Islam and how we cope with the ideological problem of Islamic terrorism. It is indeed true that early Christianity committed only small-scale atrocities against its own ‘heretics’, rather than the really large-scale ones against Jews, witches, and other soi-disant unbelievers that came to characterize it later on. But in interpreting that early period, we need to bear in mind that Christianity changed in fundamental ways after the Donation of Constantine.

I think the turning point was Augustine, though you can see a prefiguration of his ideas in Paul of Tarsus. By making the theology of Fall, sin, and guilt central to Christianity, Augustine transformed it from a relatively harmless mystery cult into a successful monster. Islam underwent a very similar transformation during the early years of the Ummaiyyad caliphate, from a splinter of Monophysite Christianity no more bloody-minded than most tribal cults of the time to a new prosyletizing religion of especially virulent and violent stripe.

Both religions, in their “mature” forms, became strikingly similar to their most important ancestor, which was not Judaism but Zoroastrianism. Augustine was a former adherent of one of the Zoroastrian splinter groups, the Gnostics of Manicheus. He imported Manichean dualism into Christianity almost entire. One can read Zoroastrian descriptions of heaven, hell, angels, the devil, and the fate of sinners from 900 years before Christ and recognize them; they are like nothing else in world religion but very much like Christianity after Augustine, the Christianity that made the Book of Revelations part of its canon.

The Zoroastrian influence on Christianity had always been important. Early Christians had adopted Zoroastrian customs and terminology, especially under the influence of the cult of Mithras which was probably their most important competition in the early centuries. That’s where we got the Sunday sabbath and our words for “priest” and “pope”; even the Eucharist reflects a Mithraic initiation ceremony called the Taurobolion. After Augustine, the Manichean, quasi-Zoroastrian elements of Christianity became dominant and the massacres began, gradually increasing in tempo.

Part of the reason for the reconvergence with Zoroastrianism was doubtless functional. Zoroastrianism had been the state religion of the Persian Empire. It was designed to reinforce the authority of the Priest-Emperor over his vast multi-ethnic rabble of subjects, placing him at the apex of both secular and spiritual authority (and, indeed, making them indistinguishable). The emperors of Rome and the early Caliphs faced a similar set of problems, and enlisted the same kind of religious absolutism as a tool of totalitarian social control.

It was Augustine’s theology of sin and grace that sharpened that tool into a blade. In a nutshell, it reduces to this: (1) We are all sinners, broken and wrong. (2) To escape this condition, we must not only obey authority but internalize it. (3) Even if we succeed at (2), only the whim of divine authority can save us, and that whim is beyond human ken. The tyrant can never be called to account, and to act against him is to be damned.

Worse: in Augustinean theology, the intention to sin is as bad as the act. It is not sufficient to behave as though we believe when we really don’t. It is not even sufficient that we allow authorities to coerce us into believing absurd things or performing atrocities in God’s name. We must conform not only outwardly but inwardly, become our own oppressors, believing because it is absurd. The God-tyrant can never be rejected even in our own minds, or we are damned.

Only when we have installed the sin/guilt/thoughtcrime monitor in our own heads will we be even potentially among the saved. There is a straight line that connects Zoroastrian dualism and Augustine’s sin-centered theology with the Islamic concept of “sarfa” (turning away from God) and Communist talk of “false consciousness” — at some level, the mechanisms to run any stable totalitarianism have to look alike, because they’re all designed to control the same wetware.

The alliance now forming between the Islamo-fascists and the hard left should surprise nobody who understands the deep structure of either belief system. Both are, fundamentally, designed as legitimizing agents for tyranny — memetic machines designed to program you into licking the boot of the commissar or caliph that stomps you. But outside of a tiny minority of the brave (Robert Ingersoll) or the crazy (Nietzsche) Western intellectuals have averted their eyes from this truth, because to recognize it would almost require them to notice that the very same deep structure is wired into the Gnosticized Christianity of “Saint” Augustine — and, in fact, historically derived from it.

Hence the shared Christian/Islamic propensity for putting unbelievers to the sword for merely unbelieving. You will search in vain for such behavior among post-Exilic Jews, or Taoists, or animists, or any other world religion. Only a religion which is totalitarian at its core, fundamentally about thoughtcrime and sin and submission, can even conceive of a need to murder people wholesale for the state of their unbelief. The massacre on St. Bartholomew’s Eve and Stalin’s liquidation of the kulaks were of a piece, both jihads against thoughtcrime.

Islam conceals this less well than Christianity or Communism ever did. The very name, “Islam”, means “submission”. But when Christian evangelists called the destruction on 9/11 God’s punishment for feminism and homosexuals they were singing from the same hymnbook, channelling the same authoritarianism and “ancient religious rage” that Margalit and Buruma’s essay Occidentalism quite correctly diagnosed at the roots of fascism.

It is not difficult to recognize in that rage something deep, twisted, sick, and anti-human, and condemn it for the psychosis it is. It is more difficult, but necessary, to recognize Augustine’s theology of submission — and the concept of “islam” that Islam derived from it — as one of the most subtle and deadliest symptoms of that pychosis, one which leads to massacre as surely as a stab wound bleeds.

Totalitarian religion and democracy are not, in the end, compatible. Free people cannot — indeed, must never — submit in the way that Zoroaster, Augustine, Mohammed, and Stalin required. The Founding Fathers understood this, and when George Washington wrote “The United States is in no way founded upon the Christian religion” on a diplomatic message to the Knights of Malta they were expressing it.

Islamic terrorism is forcing us to face this fact. But we will not be able to understand and squarely confront the evil at the heart of Islam, Naziism, and Communism, until we face the fact that all three of these monsters are Augustine’s progeny, and that same evil is embedded in Christianity itself.

Nov 05

Mobilizing the Poor and Other Delusions

Yesterday a Democratic friend of mine emailed me in part: “There is a big constituency of poor people who are just not making it at all.” This is one of the American Left’s conventional dogmas — that there is some vast ocean of descamisados out there waiting to be mobilized into a political force that will sweep away all those nasty uncaring conservatives.

I laugh when I hear or read things like this, because — unlike most Americans — I know what real poverty looks like. I have lived in poor countries. I’ve seen the shantytowns that surround Caracas and the acres of concrete Stalinist shitboxes that ring Eastern European cities; I’ve played scoppa with rural peasants in Southern Italy who are worn out from toil at forty.

We have nothing like that here. Our poor people are fat. They have too much to eat. They have indoor plumbing and houses and cars and televisions. Real poverty no longer exists in the U.S. at any level above statistical noise, and hasn’t since civilization reached the last pockets of the Appalachians during my childhood.

This has political consequences. Mainly, that you can’t get American ‘poor’ people angry enough about their economic situation to make a voting bloc or a movement out of them. In fact, in the U.S. the poor are more conservative than the rich. American lefties think this is because the poor suffer from anti-revolutionary false consciousness, but this is exactly the kind of patronizing piffle that just lost lefties the 2004 elections. The truth is that in their calculus of their own interests, other things are more important to the American poor than bringing down the bloated plutocrats. In this particular election, those other things included supporting the liberation of Iraq and opposing gay marriage.

Believing that poverty is a live political issue is a form of self-delusion by elite liberals for which conservatives should be very grateful — it leads liberals into vast wastes of effort. But it isn’t just liberals who get taken in. A conservative friend who was in on the email discussion said to me, in effect, “But what about the homeless?”. His argument was that homeless people are America’s ‘real’ poor, and he has a point. The trouble with taking that argument any further is that there are too few homeless people to have any effect on politics other than as an emotive issue that wealthy white activists can flog to make themselves feel more virtuous.

And there will never be a politically significant homeless population in the U.S., for simple and obvious climactic reasons. Over much of the U.S., if you can’t find shelter, winter exposure will kill you fairly quickly. On the coasts you need to be south of about latitude 40 for survivability. The winter-kill zone reaches further south in mid-continent. There’s a summer-kill zone, too, that includes a lot of the Southwest.

If you can’t pay for a roof over your head, you have either build one or borrow one somewhere that the owners aren’t around to object. Wigwams would be conspicuous even if homeless people knew enough woodscraft to build them, so building is largely out. In general, finding a sheltered space to sleep where nobody will hassle you is quite difficult outside of large cities and not easy even inside them.

To check this theory, I went and looked for homeless population counts on the web. Leaving out the most obvious noise — figures pulled out of thin air by advocacy organizations with a drive to inflate them — I found almost no hard numbers.

Yes, you get people throwing around figures in the two million range. They’re bullshit. If we had that many homeless it would have obvious consequences we’re not seeing. Like, corpses littering the streets of Philadelphia on January mornings.

One reference said San Francisco, which has a reputation for a particularly large and visible homeless population, counted 4,535 in December 2003. In 2003, the New York city government estimated 1,560 people sleeping on the streets in Manhattan (at latitude 41 Manhattan is well into the winter-kill zone). I recall Philadelphia counting 3,500 a few years back. That’s numbers 1, 14 and 5 of the nation’s fifteen largest cities by population. Extrapolating from these, I’d bet the nationwide homeless count is almost certainly less than 40K, probably less than 20K.

Which brings me back to my original contention that real poverty is statistical noise in the U.S. Even if the homeless population were an order of magnitude larger than I’m estimating, you cannot build a political base out of 400K people in a nation of 300 million. There’s no electoral traction in one tenth of one percent, especially when most of the rest of the country has more or less correctly written off the homeless as largely being composed of addicts and the mentally ill.

Americans aren’t stupid. They know there has been genuine, large-scale poverty in this country’s relatively recent past — the folk memory of the Great Depression is still with us. They know there are lots of places in the world where the plight of the poor is still a genuine problem today. But that contrast only makes the posturing of today’s self-designated advocates for the American “poor” look more like a form of careerism, moral vanity or one-upmanship. Which, in most cases, is exactly what it is.

UPDATE: Supporting evidence for the nonexistence of real poverty in the U.S. here. Some commenters pointed out that my estimate of homelesness may be low because two of my three baseline cities are in the winter-kill zone. The main point, though, is that the homeless population is not within an order of magnitude of the numbers needed to have an an electoral impact.

Nov 03

Are the Democrats becoming a regional party?

The 2004 elections are over. Bush won, of course, but I want to focus on an interesting question raised by the red-state/blue-state map of the outcome. It looks suspiciously as though the Democrats are on their way to becoming a regional party.

Specifically, a regional party of the urban Northeast and the West Coast metroplexes. The state-by-state voting patterns since 1980, and especially in 2000 and 2004, point clearly in this direction. The Democrats have lost the South, and they’re losing their grip on the Upper Midwest — Daschle’s loss to Thune and the size of Bush’s margin in Ohio are leading indicators.

I’ve written a couple of previous blog essays on the hole the Democrats are in. They have serious problems. Ronald Reagan peeled away the (private-sector) union vote after 1980; today they’re losing the blacks over gay marriage and the Jews over Israel and the Terror War. Their voter base is increasingly limited to public-employee unions and brie-nibbling urban elites — they’re no longer the party of the common man but of the DMV, Hollywood and the Upper West Side.

The state-level election results reinforce this picture, and I predict that county-by-county numbers will make it even more obvious, especially when correlated with SES. Add to this a serious structural problem, which is that their street-level cadres are largely drawn from a hard-left contingent that wants to pull their platform even further away from anything most Americans will vote for.

This was very clear here in Malvern; even in this staid suburb the Democratic pollwatchers looked like Central Casting’s idea of a fringy radical, bushy-haired and besweatered and festooned with paranoid slogan buttons. The DNC used to rely on unions to supply troops at campaign time; they can’t any more, so they have to lean on organizations like MoveOn.org and Democratic Underground.

Even this they could survive if the mainstream media retained the ability to deliver the 15% swing for Democrats that Evan Thomas of Newsweek boasted of a few months back. But the all-too-blatant partisanship of CBS and the New York Times actually backfired this time, most obviously when the bloggers caught Dan Rather trumping up an anti-Bush story on obviously-fake documents. I think Instapundit is on to something when he says the longest-term result of this election will be the collapse of mainstream-media credibility. With that will go one of the most effective weapons the Democrats have.

A serious rethink of the Democratic platform is in order. The smartest single move they could make is to try to peel off the single largest bloc of Republican-leaning voters — gun owners like me. Bill Clinton has pointed out that alienating the 50% of American households which own guns lost the Democrats the 1994 elections and has cost them critical swing votes in every national election since.

The sane thing for the Democrats to do would be to go unreservedly pro-Second-Amendment. Alas, I do not think they are a sane party any more.

UPDATE: My prediction about the county-by-county numbers proved correct,
according to USA Today’s
map.

Oct 19

Predictability, Computability, and Free Will

I’ve been reading some philosophical discussion of the free-will/determism question recently. Quite a number of years ago I discovered a resolution of this question, but never did anything with it because I assumed I had simply reinvented a well-known position and could not really contribute anything to the debate. However, the research I’ve done recently suggests that my resolution of the question is actually a novel one.

Like a lot of philosophy, the discussion of free will and determinism I’ve seen founders on two errors. One of this is Aristotelianism, an attachment to observer-independent two-valued logic in a system of universal categories as the only sort of truth. The other is a tendency to get snarled up in meaningless categories that are artifacts of language rather than useful abstractions from observed reality.

In this essay, I hope to show that, if one can avoid these errors, the underlying question can be reduced to a non-problem. More generally, I hope to show how ideas from computability and complexity theory can be used to gain some purchase on problems in the philosophy of mind that have previously seemed intractable.

Formulating The Problem

The free-will question is classically put thus: do we really have choices, or are our actions and behavior at any given time entirely determined by previous states of the universe? Are we autonomous beings, who ourselves cause our future actions, or meat robots?

The second way of forming the question gets at the reason most philosophers have for finding it interesting. What they really want to know is whether we cause our own actions and are responsible for them, or whether praise, blame, and punishment are pointless because our choices are predestined.

Thus the free-will question, which is traditionally considered part of metaphysics or the philosophy of mind, is actually motivated by central issues in moral philosophy. At the end of this essay, we will consider the implications of my proposal for moral philosophy.

Classical Determinism And Its Problems

The ways philosophers have traditionally asked these questions conceal assumptions that are false in fact and logic. First, the evidence says we do not live in the kind of universe where classical determinism is an option. In almost all current versions of physical theory there is an irreducible randomness to the universe at the quantum level. Thus, even if we knew the entire state of the universe at any given moment, its future states would not be determined; we can at best predict the probability distribution of those states.

Another characteristic of quantum theory is that observation perturbs the system being observed. Let’s sidestep that for the moment and introduce the concept of a perfect observer, with infinite computational capacity and the ability to take infinitely precise measurements in zero time without perturbing the system under observation. In a universe with quantum randomness, even this perfect observer cannot know the future.

Matters are worse for imperfect observers, who have only finite computational capacity, can take only finitely accurate measurements, and perturb what they measure when they measure it. Even in theories that preserve physical determinism, imperfect observers have two additional problems. One is that they perturb what they observe; the other is sensitive dependence on initial conditions.

Two physical systems that are measurably identical to an imperfect observer and evolve by the same deterministic laws can have different futures because unmeasurably small differences between their present states are chaotically amplified over time — and some of those unmeasurable differences may be produced by the act of observation!

Even in the absence of sensitive dependence on initial conditions, though, an imperfect observer’s attempt to predict the future may fail without warning because his finite computer loses information to round-off errors (there are more subtle limits arising from finite storage capacity, but round-off errors will stand as a readily comprehensible representative of them). And like it or not, human beings are imperfect observers. So even without quantum indeterminacy, we cannot know the future with certainty.

For philosophical purposes, quantum indeterminacy and sensitive dependence on initial conditions in classical (non-quantum) systems have nearly indistinguishable effects. Together, they imply that classical determinism is not an option for imperfect observers, even in the unlikely case that quantum reality is not actually rolling dice.

Non-Classical Determinism and Irreducible Randomness

Philosophers have tended to make a fast leap from the above insight to the conclusion that humans do in fact have free will — but this conclusion is a logic error brought on by Aristotelian thinking. There is an unexcluded middle here: we may be meat robots in a universe that rolls dice, both non-determined and non-autonomous.

Most people (even most philosophers) find the idea that we are puppets on random strings even more repugnant than classical determinism. In classical determinism there is at least a perfect-observer view from which the story makes sense. The religiously inclined can believe in that perfect observer and identify it with God, and the rest of us can take some sort of fatalistic comfort in the face of our adversities that things could not after all have been any different.

In the indeterminate universe we seem to inhabit, the only way for even a god to know the future would be for it to intervene in every single collapse of a quantum state vector, and thereby to create that future by a continuous act of will. But if that were so, the behavior of all the matter in our bodies could be nothing but the god’s will. We’re back to determinism here, but it’s one in which a god is the sole causal agent of everything — good, evil, and apparent randomness. Some varieties of Hindu theology actually read like this; one rather lovely version has it that the entire universe is simply the vibration of the voice of the god Atman (or Brahman) chanting a giant “OM!” and will end untold eons in the future when He next draws breath. In the West this position has been called “occasionalism”.

The trouble with occasionalism is that it’s untestable. There is no observation we can make from within the universe to establish causal intervention from outside it. If we could do so, we would simply extend our conception of “the universe” to the larger domain within which causality operates — including the mind of Atman. The testability problem would immediately re-present itself. (This, of course, is a slightly subtler version of the standard rebuttal to the “First Cause” argument for the existence of a creator-God.)

For those of us unwilling to take occasionalism on pure faith, then, free will is about the only comfort an indeterminate universe can offer. Our experience of being human beings is that some of the time our behavior is forced by factors beyond our control (for example, if we fall off a cliff we will accelerate at a rate independent of our desire or will about the matter), but that at other times we make unforced choices that at least seem to causally originate within our own minds and not elsewhere.

To carry the discussion further, we need to decide what the term “free will” means. Our challenge is to interpret this term in a way that both consistent with its ordinary use and fits into a larger picture that is rationally consistent with physical theory. Try as I might, I can only see two possible ways to accomplish this. One has to do with autonomy, the other with unpredictability.

The Autonomy Interpretation of “Free Will”, And Its Problems

Most people, if pressed, would probably come up with some version of the autonomy interpretation. All the philosophical accounts of “free will” I’ve ever seen are based on it. We have no problem with the idea that our choices are caused, or even determined by, our previous thoughts, but the intuitive notion of free will is that our thoughts themselves are free. This implies that the measure of a human’s degree of “free will” is the degree to each human being’s history of mental states is autonomous from the rest of the universe — not caused by it, but capable of causing changes in it.

There are several problems with this account. The most obvious one is that we can often locate causal influences from the rest of the universe into our mental states. To anyone who doubts this, I recommend the experience of extreme hunger, or (better) of nearly drowning. These are quite enlightening, and philosophers would probably talk less nonsense if they retained a clearer grasp of what such experiences are like.

Less extremely, evidence from sensory-deprivation experiments suggests that a mind deprived of sensory input for too long disintegrates. Not only does the rest of the universe have causal power over our mental states, but we cannot maintain anything recognizable as a coherent mental state without that input. Which makes sense; evolutionary biology tells us that we are survival machines shaped by natural selection to cope with a reality exterior to our minds. Consciousness, reasoning, and introspection — the “higher” aspects of human mental activity that mostly concern philosophers — are recent add-ons.

None of this evidence outright excludes the possibility that there is some part or aspect of our normal mental activity that is autonomous, uncaused but causal. The real problem, the problem of logic and principle, is that we don’t know how the autonomously “free-willing” part of the mind (if it exists) can be isolated from the part that is causally driven by sensory stimuli and normal physical laws.

For materialists like myself who model the mind as a kind of software or information pattern that happens to run on an organic substrate, this is an impossible problem. We have no warrant to believe that any part of that system is causally autonomous from the rest of the universe. In fact, on functional grounds it seems quite unlikely such a part would ever evolve — what would it be good for?

But the problem is not really any simpler for dualists or mysterians, those who hold that minds have some “soul” attached that is non-physical or inaccessible to observation. That “soul” has to interact with the mind somehow. If the interaction is one-way (soul affects mind, but mind does not effect soul) then the soul is simply a sort of blind pattern- or noise-generator with no access to reality. On the other hand, if mind affects soul we are right back to the beginning of the problem — is there anything in “soul” that is neither random nor causally driven by “mind”, which we already understand to be either random or causally driven by the rest of the universe?

The basic problem here is the same as the basic problem with occasionalism. Define the “causal universe” as all phenomena with observable consequences, whether those phenomena are material or “soul” or the voice of Atman. Unless the occasionalists are right and it is all just Atman saying a trillion-year “OM!”, the concept of “soul” does not actually in itself make us any space between determinism and chance. The autonomy account of free will leaves us finally unable to locate anywhere autonomy can live.

The Predictability Account Of Free Will

I have invented a predictability account of free will which is quite different. Instead of struggling with the limits of imperfect observation, I consider them definitional. I say human beings (or any other entity to which we ascribe possession of a mind) have “free will” relative to any given observer if that observer cannot effectively predict their future mental states.

By “effectively predict” I mean that the observer, given a complete description of the mind’s state and a set of stimuli applied to that state, can predict the state of the mind after those stimuli.

Since we have access to mental states only by observing the behaviors they generate, this is arguably equivalent to saying that an entity with a mind has free will with respect to an observer if the observer cannot predict its behavior. However, I specify the term “mental state” because I think the natural-language use of the term “free will” requires that we limit the candidates for it to entities which we believe to have minds and to which we thus attribute mental states.

I am deliberately not proposing a definition or theory of “mind” in this essay, because I intend my arguments to be independent of such theory. All I require of the reader’s theory of mind is that it not exclude human beings from having one.

Can There Be Minds Without Free Will?

The first thing we need to do is establish that this definition is not vacuous. Are there any circumstances under which an entity to which we ascribe mental states can fail to have free will?

A psychologist friend of mine with whom I discussed the matter reports that the answer is “yes”. The example case she reported is a bot (software agent) named Julia designed to fool people in Internet Relay Chat rooms into believing it was a person. Julia could be convincing for a few minutes, but human beings would eventually notice mechanical patterns as they came to the edge of her functional envelope. Studies of humans interacting with Julia showed that they continued to ascribe intentions and mental states to the bot even after noticing the determinism of its behavior. The study evidence suggests that they went from modeling Julia as being like a normal adult human to being like a child or a retardate.

This was not even the first such result. The AI literature reports humans projecting personhood even on much cruder early bots such as the famous ELIZA simulation of a Rogerian psychotherapist — and not giving up that attachment even after the shallow and mechanical algorithms used to generate responses were explained to them.

The reader may object, based on some theory of “mind”, that Julia did not actually have one. But it is possible that we are all Julia. Suppose that the human mind is a deterministic machine with a very large but finite number of states; suppose further that the logic of the mind has no sensitive dependence on initial conditions (that is, its states are coarse enough for us to measure accurately). This simplest-possible model we’ll call the “clockwork mind”. If Julia has a mind, this is the kind of mind she has.

In principle, any clockwork mind can be perfectly simulated on a computer. The computer would have to be more complex than the clockwork mind itself. To predict the state of the clockwork mind, just run the simulation faster than the original. But — and this is an important point — a clockwork mind cannot be predicted by itself, or by any clockwork mind of comparable power to itself. Thus, whatever viewpoint a hypothetical perfect observer or god might have, human beings have free will with respect to each other.

It is also worth noting that human beings could have clockwork minds even in a universe of chaotic or quantum indeterminacy. If you put enough atoms together, the Law of Large Numbers will normally swamp quantum effects. If you make the states of a finite-state machine sufficiently coarse, there won’t be unmeasurable initial-condition differences to be amplified. After all, clockwork does tick!

The Indeterminate Mind

It is unlikely that humans have clockwork minds. The anatomy and physiology of the brain suggests strongly that it has chaotic indeterminacy. It may have quantum indeterminacy as well (the mathematician Roger Penrose suggested this in his book The Emperor’s New Mind, one of the favored texts of the new mysterians). It is possible that the mind cannot be modeled as a finite-state machine at all.

These distinctions make little difference, because what they all have in common is that that they make the prediction problem far less tractable than for a clockwork mind. Thus, they widen the class of observers with respect to which a non-clockwork mind would have free will.

At the extreme, if human minds have intrinsic quantum uncertainty then even a perfect observer could not predict their future mental states, unless it happens to be an occasionalist god and the only cause of everything.

The most likely intermediate case is that the mind is a finite-state machine with sensitive dependence on initial conditions and an intractably large state space. In that case it might fail to have free will with respect to a perfect observer, but will have free will with respect to any imperfect observer.

Implications for Moral Philosophy

The binding I have proposed for the term “free will” does not rely on any supposed autonomy of the mind or self from external causes. From the perspective of traditional moral philosophy, it combines the worst of both worlds — a non-autonomous mind in an indeterminate universe. How, then, can humans being be appropriate subjects of praise, blame, or punishment? In what sense, if any, can human beings be said to be responsible for their actions?

The first step towards solving this problem is to realize that these questions are separable. Because we ascribe intention and autonomy to human beings and believe their future behavior is controlled primarily by those intentions, we explain acts of praise, blame, and punishment directed at human beings in terms of the supposed effects on their mental states. But this is where remembering that we have no direct access to mental states is useful; what we are actually after when we praise, blame and punish is to change observable future behaviors.

Thus, we also praise and blame and punish animals without much regard to whether they have mental states or free will. When training a kitten it is of little interest to us in what sense it might be choosing to crap on the rug; what matters is getting it to use the litterbox. Humans, like animals, are appropriate subjects of praise and blame and punishment to the extent that those communications effectively alter their behavior. The attribution of “responsibility” is at best a sort of convenient shorthand, and at worst a red herring.

In any case the question of “responsibility” is simply the question of free will in another guise, and admits the same answer within a predictive account. An observer may hold a mind “responsible” for the actions it initiates to the extent that the observer is unable to identify external causes of those actions.

This accords well with the way people normally reason about responsibility. If all we know of a man is that he murdered someone in a fit of rage, our inclination is to hold him responsible. But if we then learn that he was unwittingly dosed with PCP, we have an external cause for the rage and can no longer consider him fully responsible.

Conclusion

The predictivist account of free will I have proposed here solves the classical problems with the autonomy account of free will, accords with natural-language use of the term “free will”, and is consilient with physical theory. It does so at the cost of making the ascription of free will dependent on the computational and measurement capacity of the observer.

The parallel with the way “space” and “time” are redefined in Relativity Theory is obvious. As in that theory, our intuitions about “free will” are largely valid in human-observable ranges but tend to break down at extremes. Relativity had to abandon the idea of absolute space/time; in our context, we need to abandon the ideal of the perfect observer and accept that finite computational capacity is yet another fundamental limit on theory-building.

I believe a similar change in stance is likely to prove essential to the solution of other outstanding problems in philosophy.

Oct 18

The Far Side of Irony

Having seen Team America: World Police last Friday on its
opening night, I’m amused by the mainstream-media spin that this movie
is an anti-right-wing satire too subtle for the yokels to get. In
fact, I think it’s it’s something much more peculiar and interesting
— a movie that hides a strong fundamental patriotism and appeal
to traditional values under a veneer of scatology and sexual crudity.

The MSM can’t see this, because in the MSM’s universe the kind of
patriotism for which the movie ultimately plumps is at best a joke to
be sneered at and at worst actually toxic. But the South Park guys
tip their hand early, during a sequence in which the the protagonist
Gary visits the Lincoln Memorial and other national monuments while
wrestling with a question of duty. The soundtrack is country music
of the most teeth-gritting, lachrymose awfulness — but the steel
guitars and schmaltzy vocals fail to obscure the fact that the song is
asking a serious moral question, and that the right answer (for Gary
and for the rest of us) is that he must accept his duty to defend
freedom. The entire rest of the plot follows from that decision.

This scene is a microcosm of the movie. In this satire, it’s the
satire you’re supposed to see through. Irony is enlisted to
anti-ironic purposes. In another early scene, Gary is cosmetically
morphed for infiltration purposes into a caricature of the generic
Islamo-terrorist so extreme that pained laughter is the only possible
response — and his teammates think it’s a perfect disguise. But
never once is this pointed jab at American parochialism allowed to
obscure the genuine evil of the type he is disguised as.

Throughout the film, Team America is clumsy, parochial,
hamfisted and inadvertently destructive. But this is emphasised mainly
in order to point up a continuing underlying message that it’s better
to be a dolt with traditional American intentions than a sophisticate
in the service of evil.

In this and other ways, this movie seems profoundly conservative to
me. I don’t often use the label ‘conservative’ as a compliment, but
such use is merited here. Team America knows it’s their job to defend
civilization, to conserve it. Part of the humor in this movie comes
from the contrast between that fundamental conservatism and the
profane, obscene, and jejunely disgusting moments that occupy much of
the film. These are not your father’s conservatives, a point the
South Park auteurs make early by showing two of the characters
sprinting a lust-a-thon through a marrionette kama sutra of sexual
positions.

And maybe that’s the most interesting message of this movie. We
watch it blowing up scenery in a parody of the Bruckheimerian action
flick, but what’s really being exploded is the fixed categories of the
post-1960s culture wars. The South Park guys are trying to divorce
the muscular self-confidence of a healthy civilization from the
cultural-conservative and religious fixations that confidence has
usually been married to. There is not one single reference to
Christianity in the entire movie. The good guys drink, swear, and
screw like frenzied minks, but they’re good guys just the same.

Ultimately, what matters about them most is that they never give
up and never compromise with evil. That’s what makes this vulgar
comedy ultimately a serious parable for our time.

Oct 17

Software vs. Art

Jamie Richards asks an intelligent question in response to my essay on
deadly genius in the arts:

I’m not programming-savvy at all, so maybe this is crap… what do you
think about the idea that computer programming is a cultural area
operating under the same conditions that set up the “Modernist
disruption”?

As I understand it, in the proprietary model of software building, a
company patron spends money to create products that are
“comprehensible to the patron’s peers.” In open-source software
building, programmers self-select, working on projects that are
interesting to them (art for art’s sake…). “The breakneck pace of
technological change” certainly applies to this chunk of human
history, as well.

Indeed it does, and your question is both subtle and astute.
However, you’ve missed a crucial difference between software projects
and fine art. Software has to work. Every piece of software
exists in order to achieve some instrumental goal, and can be
evaluated on how well it achieves that goal.

The vast con-game that most of modern art has become relies on a
definition of “art” that equates it with pure expressiveness. The
modern “artist” can say of some randomly ugly artifact “this is my artistic
statement, and if you don’t get it you are simply proving your own
lack of sensitivity and taste”.

Open-source hackers can’t get away with this sort of thing. If
their code is broken and crash-prone or doesn’t meet the functional
spec it claims to, nobody will take it seriously on any level at all
— much less as art. The requirement of engineering competence
has the kind of constraining and filtering effect on open-source
programming that the patronage system once did on pre-Modern art.

The really sharp reader is going to be asking, right about now,
“OK, so what about architecture?”

Architecture is like programming in that it’s a form of art that
operates within powerful functional constraints. Buildings have to
keep the rain off people, and not collapse on their heads. So why
haven’t those requirements prevented modern architecture from falling
into the back-to-zero trap, from blighting the landscape with
thousands of ugly brutalist cuboids?

We may cheerfully admit that some modern architecture is very
lovely; Santiago Calatrava’s or Eero Saarinen’s organiform buildings
come to mind. Nevertheless, to save the argument I’m making, we need
to show some relevant difference between architecture and software design.

One clue is that modern architects have not in fact forgotten how to
make buildings that fulfil the minimum functional requirements. It is only
in the aesthetic face those buildings present to the world that something
bad has happened. On this analogy, the place we should expect open-source
software to have regressed relative to the products of proprietary patronage
is in the specific area of user-interface design.

I have pointed out
elsewhere
that this is open source’s weakest area. But on closer
examination this analogy doesn’t work so well. Almost any software
user interface (UI) is more complicated and much more interactive than
a typical building’s interface — therefore, much more
constrained by the cognitive limitations of human beings; therefore,
designing software UIs is more like engineering and less like art than
designing building UIs. Thus, the idiom of software UIs is less subject
than is architecture to disruption by an expressive but deadly genius.

Oct 05

The Terror War Comes Home

For the first time in my life, I find that I am seriously considering
voting Republican in a presidential election. What has pushed me to it
is this report of shots being fired into a Bush-Cheney campaign HQ in Knoxville. TN.

It’s not the first shot fired at the Republicans. And it comes on top of a frenzy of anti-Republican hate speech that has been building even as Democrats have watched their electoral prospects sinking into a Vietnam-flavored quagmire brought on himself by the most incompetent and feckless candidate either party has fielded in thirty years.

We’ve seen three-year-old girls reduced to tears by Democratic thugs. We’ve seen swastikas burned into the front yards of those who dared to announce themselves Republicans. And all this from a Democratic left that poses as the champion of dissent.

This caps it. If Kerry is elected, the terrorists will have won.

UPDATE: As I was writing, Democratic protesters stormed and
ransacked
Bush/Cheney headquarters in Orlando. Some now face
assault charges.

UPDATE II: More
thuggishness
in West Allis, Wisconsin.

And these are the people who liken Bush to Hitler…

Sep 24

Deadly Genius and the Back-To-Zero Problem

There are entire genres of art that have self-destructed in the last
hundred years — become drained of vitality, driven their audiences
away to the point where they become nothing more than museum exhibits
or hobby-horses for snobs and antiquarians.

The three most obvious examples are painting, the literary novel
and classical music. After about 1910 all three of these art forms
determinedly severed the connections with popular culture that had
made them relevant over the previous 250 years. Their departure left
vacuums to be filled; we got modern genre literature, rock music, and
art photography.

Other art forms underwent near-death experiences and survived only
in severely compromised forms. Jazz, running away from its roots in
honky tonks and dance halls, all but strangled on its own
sophistication between 1960 and 1980; it survives today primarily as
smoothed-out elevator music. Sculpture, having spent a century losing
itself in increasingly meaningless abstraction, is only now feeling
its way back towards a figurative vocabulary; the most interesting
action there is not yet in the revival of mimetic forms but in artists
who speak the vocabulary of mathematics and machine technology.

What makes an art-form self-destruct like this? Many things can
contribute — hankerings for bourgeois respectibility, corruption
by politics, clumsy response to a competing genre. But the one we
see over and over again is deadly genius.

A deadly genius is a talent so impressive that he can break and
remake all the rules of the form, and seduce others into trying to
emulate his disruptive brilliance — even when those followers
lack the raw ability or grounding to make art in the new idiom the the
genius has defined.

Arnold Schoenberg (classical music). James Joyce (literary
novels). John Coltrane (jazz). Pablo Picasso (painting). Konstantin
Brancusi (sculpture). These men had the knack of inventing radical
new forms that made the preexisting conventions of their arts seem
stale and outworn. They produced works of brilliance, taught their
followers to value disruptive brillance over tradition, and in doing so
all but destroyed their arts.

Artistic tradition can be limiting sometimes, but it has one thing
going for it — it is the result of selection for pleasing an audience.
Thus, artists of moderate talent can imitate it and produce something that
the eye, ear, heart and mind will experience with pleasure. Most artists
are at best of moderate talent; thus, this kind of imitation is how
art forms survive and keep an audience.

On the other hand…imitation Schoenberg or Coltrane is
unlistenably bad. Imitation Joyce is unreadable. Imitation Picasso
looks like a toddler’s daubings and imitation Brancusi is ugly junk.
Worse still is when mediocre artists strain themselves to be the next
disruptive genius. And perhaps worst of all is what happens when bad
artists turn disruption into cliche.

Art forms self-destruct when enough of their establishment follows
a deadly genius off a cliff. And we had a bad streak of this sort of
thing just about a century ago; three of the four deadly geniuses I’ve
named above flourished at that time. Why then?

Tom Wolfe argued in From Bauhaus to Our House that the
breakdown of the traditional patronage system in the late 19th century
had a lot to do with the degenerative changes in modern art. Wolfe never
identified deadly genius as a core problem. but his argument readily
extends to an explanation of why deadly genius become so much deadlier
at that time.

Wealthy aristocratic patrons, had, in general, little use for
disruptive brilliance — what they wanted from artists was
impressive display objects, status symbols that had to be
comprehensible to the patron’s peers. Thus, artists learned to
stay more or less within traditional forms or starve. Evolution
happened, but it was relatively gradual and unsconscious. Geniuses
were not permitted to become deadly.

After 1900 all this changed. Wolfe elucidates some of the complex
reasons that artists found themselves with more freedom and less
security than ever before. In an increasingly bourgeois climate, the
cry went up that artistic creation must become autonomous, heeding its
own internal imperatives as much as (or more than) the demands of any
audience. The breakneck pace of technological change helped reinforce a
sense that possibilities were limitless and all rules could be
discarded.

In the new environment, artistic tradition lost much of its normative
force. “Back to zero!” was the slogan; forget everything so you can invent
anything. And when the next wave of deadly geniuses hit, there was nothing
to moderate them any more.

It is unlikely that anything quite like the Modernist disruption will
ever happen again, if only because we’ve been there and done that now. But
as we try to heal all the fractures it produced, this one lesson is worth
bearing in mind. Genius can be deadly when it goes where mere talent
cannot follow.