One of the interesting effects of the pandemic has been the opportunity to watch formerly neutral, unpolitical things get marked as “political” and people who formerly had no opinion on them at all throw themselves onto one side or the other as though they had deep, long-standing commitments on the issue. (We have always been at war with Eastasia.)
Whether or not people should wear masks in order to slow the spread of SARS-Coronavirus-2, (the name of the disease is itself a victim of political vicissitudes, shortened to just “coronavirus” by the WHO explicitly so that people would not take it seriously,) has transformed from a matter of austere medical debate to an issue of such pressing concern that a question on the subject was actually posed to the candidates at the first presidential debate.
I don’t know about you, but I’d rather my health policies, pro or con, to be motivated by something other than the sheer naked political process involved in presidential campaigns.
Side note: the American political system was explicitly set up with the intention of preventing any one person or branch of government from wielding too much power. Debate that intention and its functional persistence in our modern system as you will, but it is clear that there is still enough plasticity left to correct for a great many deficits in any particular leader (which is good, because our leaders are mortal men with many, many deficits).
If Trump does not order a mask mandate, then so what? Wear your own mask if you want to. Shop at businesses where the employees wear masks. Sew cute masks for your relatives. Prompt your local legislature to pass mask laws. Etc. There are many, many options here that don’t involve executive orders.
The idea of a national mask mandate is rather silly, because different people live in different places with different needs. A man in Montana who sees more cows than people in his day may not get any use out of a mask, while a man in New York who rides the subway every day may have benefitted from wearing a mask three years ago.
Masks should not be a political issue and it certainly should not hinge on the whims of one man.
Frankly, I don’t think anyone (much less mask enthusiasts) expects our current president to make medical policy, nor do they want him to. I care a lot more about our president’s opinions on trade and monetary policy than his opinions about medical advice (I’ll ask my doctor for medical advice, thankyouverymuch.)
Rather, I read the question as less about medical policy and more about political tribalism: “Here are the new shibboleths of my tribe. Will you accept them, or do you reject them?”
As a new shibboleth, masks have gone through a radical political transformation since last January. At first, they were not something we thought about at all: completely neutral, a-political objects. Surgeons wore them at hospitals, motorcyclists wore them to keep bugs out of their mouths; painters wore them to avoid fumes; skiers wore them to stay warm. Occasionally you saw a photo of someone wearing a mask on the subway in China or Japan, but that was just something done over there: someone else’s customs.
Then came the SARS-2. Wuhan shut down. Alarming videos showed the Chinese police dragging people into quarantine and welding apartments shut. In the States, only the Very Online were aware of the pandemic at this point. It was obvious that whatever was going on, the Chinese took it very seriously, and this itself was concerning. Were they over-reacting, or was it actually that bad?
This was when hazmat Twitter was born. These were the folks who photoshopped hazmat suits onto their avatars and, within a few weeks, became the first to don masks in real life, adopting the habit from Asia. Hazmat Twitter was arguably motivated by right-wing concerns about foreign infection vectors, but it was also, by modern leftist standards, completely right.
Amusingly, at this point, health “experts” in the US, being career bureaucrats interested in protecting their own piece of the bureaucratic pie and not Very Online, had no idea why people were suddenly upset over some random virus in China and adopting what they no doubt saw as a strange foreign custom–hence the early PSAs advising us that masks don’t work, there’s no need to wear a mask if you don’t feel ill, and that racism is the real virus.
Then we got the videos out of Spain and Italy. Clearly this would not be a repeat of SARS-1, which was bad enough. The virus was actually spreading. Even first world hospitals were overwhelmed. Then the virus came to New York and Seattle. Within weeks, the president ordered an international travel shutdown.
This post is not meant to be a full retrospective of covid policies. We’re here to talk about masks. It was when New York hospitals started filling up that people really started taking this seriously. Suddenly that mask idea stopped seeming so dumb. That’s when masks went from being a far right-wing thing to a mainstream thing. My health-obsessed normie Republican relatives, for example, decided that masks are awesome and spent the next two months lecturing me about them non-stop (despite the fact that I do not actually go places where I would need one).
But politicians and grifters (is there a difference?) are never content to let a good issue go to waste, and folks like Anne Coulter quickly jumped on the opportunity to make a political buck by opposing the issue of the day. And if Coulter was opposed to masks, good liberals must be in favor of them.
Likewise, since the worst outbreaks were in major cities, the people who felt the most pressing need to wear masks (for their own and others’ sakes), were city-dwelling liberals. Those of us out in the suburbs or the countryside, who don’t use public transportation and encounter a lot fewer strangers in our day-to-day lives, naturally feel less inclined to fear a spray of germs every time we leave the house.
Outside the internet, where people feel compelled to make every darn thing political, I think normies of all political stripes basically still favor wearing masks in appropriate situations, with variations only in what those situations are. Eg, this poll back in July found 3/4s of respondents favored mask mandates. Dems did like masks better than Republicans, 89% of them favored masks, as opposed to only 58% of Republicans, but that was still a majority.
So we have a real difference in the need for masks, and a real difference in preferences for masks that break down along political lines, but if it weren’t for the internet, we probably wouldn’t really notice and would go about our own business, taking care of our health problems as best we can, unconcerned that some guy on the other side of the country might sneeze on us.
The evolution of the morality around masks has also been interesting to watch. I feel like I finally really understanding what’s going on in Muslim communities when people talk about the necessity of wearing hijabs or burqas.
The early masks, as adopted by hazmat Twitter, were worn to protect the wearer. This is sensible and straight-forward: no one wants to catch SARS2.
But as the vogue for masking spread, society started running out of the good masks (and besides, people wanted to reserve them for hospital workers). So people had to make do with the smaller, flimsier masks, the ones that obviously don’t block much air at all. Here the rationale changed. Masks were no longer for your own protection, but to protect others.
Why wear a hijab? So the sight of a beautiful woman does not cause a man to feel sexual attraction for someone who is not his wife. The hijab prevents sin from happening. (Note: this is not the only reason for Islamic veiling. Islam is a big religion with many religious teachings.) Why wear a mask? So that if you have covid, virus-laden spittle from your mouth is stopped by the mask. If you’ve ever had the misfortune of standing too close to someone who regularly spits while talking, you understand the idea.
The rationale here for masks and hijabs are the same: they are morally required because, despite being an imposition to the wearer, they prevent the wearer from inadvertently harming others. The mask prevents the harm of catching corona, while the hijab prevents sin. Sin, of course, leads to suffering in Hell, which to a believer is a fate worse than COVID.
Well, it’s been an interesting year. What do you think?
I recently received an inquiry as to my opinion about the “spiteful mutant hypothesis.” After a bit of reading about genetic deletions in rat colonies I realized that the question was probably referring to bioleninism rather than rodents (though both are valid).
Of Mice and Men: Empirical Support for the Population-Based Social Epistasis Amplification Model, by Serraf and Woodley of Menie, is an interesting article. The authors look at a study by Kalbassi et al., 2017 about social structures in mouse populations. Experimenters raised two groups of mice. One group had mice with normal mouse genes; mice in this group were sensitive to mouse social-cues and formed normal mouse social hierarchies. The other group had mostly normal mice, but also some mice with genetic mutations that made them less sensitive to social cues. In the second group, the mutant mice were not simply excluded while the rest of the mice went on their merry way, but the entire structure of the group changed:
Among the more striking findings are that the genotypically mixed … litters lacked “a structured social hierarchy” (p. 9) and had lower levels of testosterone (in both Nlgn3y/- and Nlgn3y/+mice); additionally, Nlgn3y/+mice from genotypically homogeneous litters showed more interest in “social” as opposed to “non-social cues” (p. 9) than Nlgn3y/+mice from genotypically mixed litters [the latter did not show a preference for one type of cue over the other, “showing an absence of interest for social cues” (p. 9)].
In other words, in litters where all of the mice are social, they can depend on each other to send and receive social cues, so they do, so they form social hierarchies. Somehow,t his makes the (male) mice have a lot of testosterone. In litters where the mice cannot depend on their companions to consistently send and receive social cues, even the genetically normal mice don’t bother as much, social hierarchies fail to form, and the mice have less testosterone.
A “spiteful mutation” in this context is one that imposes costs not only on the carrier, but on those around them. In this case, by changing the social structure and decreasing the testosterone of the other mice.
It’s a good article (and not long); you should read it before going on.
So what is bioleninism? I’ve seen the term kicked around enough to have a vague sense of it, but let’s be a bit more formal–with thanks to Samir Pandilwar for succinctness:
Developed by Spandrell (alias, Bloody Shovel) it takes the basic Leninist model of building a Party to rule the state out of the dregs of society, and shifts this to the realm of biology, wrong-think biology in particular, building the party out of people who are permanent losers within the social order.
I think the term gets used more generally when people notice that people in positions of power (or striving to make themselves more powerful via leftist politics) are particularly unattractive. In this context, these people are the “spiteful mutants” trying to change the social structure to benefit themselves.
We humans, at least in the west, like to think of ourselves as “individuals” but we aren’t really, not completely. As Aristotle wrote, “Man is a political animal;” we are a social species and most of us can’t survive without society at large–perhaps none of us. Virtually all humans live in a tribe or community of some sort, or in the most isolated cases, have at least occasional trade with others for things they cannot produce themselves.
Our species has been social for its entire existence–even our nearest relatives, the other chimps and gorillas, are social animals, living in troops or families.
We talk a lot about “increasing atomization and individualism” in populations that have transitioned from traditional agricultural (or other lifestyles) to the urban, industrial/post-industrial life of the cities, and this is certainly true in a legal sense, but in a practical sense we are becoming less individual.
A man who lives alone in the mountains must do and provide most things for himself; he produces his own food, is warmed by the efforts of his own ax, and drinks water from his own well. Even his trash is his own responsibility. Meanwhile, people in the city depend on others for so many aspects of their lives: their food is shipped in, their hair is cut by strangers, their houses are cleaned by maids, their water comes from a tap, and even their children may be raised by strangers (often by necessity rather than choice). The man in the mountains is more properly an individual, while the man in the city is inextricably bound together with his fellows.
There isn’t anything objectively wrong with any particular piece of this (fine dining is delicious and hauling water is overrated), but I find the collective effect on people who have come to expect to live this way vaguely unnerving. It’s as though they have shed pieces of themselves and outsourced them to others.
The industrial-technological system may survive or it may break down. If it survives, it MAY eventually achieve a low level of physical and psychological suffering, but only after passing through a long and very painful period of adjustment and only at the cost of permanently reducing human beings and many other living organisms to engineered products and mere cogs in the social machine. Furthermore, if the system survives, the consequences will be inevitable: There is no way of reforming or modifying the system so as to prevent it from depriving people of dignity and autonomy.
(I have not read the whole of his manifesto, but I keep returning to this point, so eventually I should.)
How different are we from the little bees who cannot live on their own, but each have their role in the buzzing hive? (This is where the spiteful mutant hypothesis comes in.) Bees don’t arrange themselves by talking it over and deciding that this bee would be happy visiting flowers and that bee would be happy guarding the hive. It’s all decided beforehand via bee genetics.
How much “free will” do we really have to chose our human social relations, and how much of it is instinctual? Do we chose whom we love and hate, whom we respect and whom we deem idiots? Did we chose who would invent a billion dollar company and who would be homeless?
(We don’t really know how far instincts and biology go, of course.)
Any genes that affect how human societies cohere and the social hierarchies we form would likely produce different results if found in different quantities in different groups, just like the genes in the mouse models. Such genes could predispose us to be more or less social, more or less aggressive, or perhaps to value some other elements in our groups.
One of the most under-discussed changes wrought by the modern era is the massive decrease in infant mortality. Our recent ancestors suffered infant mortality rates between 20 and 40 percent (sometimes higher.) Dead children were once a near-universal misery; today, almost all of them live.
Among the dead, of course, were some quantity of carriers of deleterious mutations, such as those predisposing one to walk off a cliff or to be susceptible to malaria. Today, our mutants survive–sometimes even those suffering extreme malfunctions.
This doesn’t imply that we need high disease levels to weed out bad mutations: the Native Americans had nice, low disease levels prior to contact with European and African peoples, but their societies seem to have been perfectly healthy. This low-disease state was probably the default our ancestors all enjoyed prior to the invention of agriculture and dense, urban living. They probably still had high rates of infant mortality by modern standards (I haven’t been able to find numbers, but our relatives the chimps and bonobos have infant mortality rates around 20-30%.)
That all said, I’m not convinced that all this so-called “autistic” behavior (eg, the mouse models) is bad. Humans who are focused on things instead of social relations have gifted us much of modern technology. Would we give up irascible geniuses like Isaac Newton just to be more hierarchical? The folks implicitly criticized in the “bioleninist” model are far more obsessed with social hierarchies (and their place in them) than I am. I do not want to live like them, constantly analyzing ever social interaction for whether it contains micro-slights or whether someone has properly acknowledged my exact social status (“That’s Doctor X, you sexist cretin.”)
Today I’m using a speech-to-text app for this post because I want to see if my conversation style is different from my normal writing style. I normally have many interesting conversations here at home which I then try to write down as the posts you read, so let’s see if I get nice flow going here or if the text to speech program is good enough to actually capture what I’m saying.
Today’s topic is religion and politics. I’ve been thinking about this over the weekend–just read last Friday post about religion and politics if you need to catch up–and I think this is an important, overlooked aspect of our electoral system.
Now, EvolutionistX is officially apolitical: we try not to do it much on the day-to-day workings of politics or politicians unless those workings happened to illuminate some broader idea or concept like fear or anger, energy use or demographic change, etc.
Politics are a good way of looking at human structures, but it’s very easy to get bogged down in the details of “this program has a 2% interest rate of 1% interest rate with a delayed API” and similar such things, so you have to be careful not to let yourself get sucked in.
One of the founding concepts of this blog is that there are some very basic, foundational patterns to life that show up over and over again. They show up in nature, they show up in society, they show up in the cosmos. They are part of the basic structure of the universe because they have to do with the way energy works the way atoms and electrons work and ultimately how math works. Like they say, math is the language God used to write the universe. So, take something like the Fibonacci numbers. The Fibonacci numbers show up over and over in nature. They show up in sunflower seeds, they show up in pine cones, in the reproductive patterns of rabbits and bees, in the spirals of galaxies and in our DNA. Why?
Basically, the Fibonacci sequence (and spiral) show up so often because it’s a very easy way to build numbers, and the ratios between them are very efficient:
Some of the pictures you see claiming to be Fibonacci spirals or Golden Ratios really aren’t, because people like to claim they’re everywhere, but they’re still very common, because they’re a very simple mathematical process that can be used to build complex objects.
When we’re looking at larger scale things, like organisms or societies, the same basic rules apply. Energy is energy, no matter how big you are. Space is space. So when I look at things like politics, I’m looking more for the universal, I’m looking for the mathematical, not the day-to-day. I want see the underlying structure of the thing and what motivates that structure: Is it energy? Is it math? Is it is a geography?
(I didn’t mention geography before, but sometimes there is a river and you’re not going to cross it and that just becomes your border, and sometimes the river is easy to cross so your people live in that River Valley and the whole valley becomes the cradle of your culture.)
When I look at the electoral politics, I don’t care as much about the day-to-day workings this policy or that person. I regard that as kind of gossipy. It has its good parts and is sometimes important, but long term, most of the day-to-day political news turns out to be totally irrelevant.
I think if you really want to understand American politics you need to step back, stop thinking about the policies, and realize that what we’re looking at here in America are two or three main ethno-religious groups.
What do I mean by ethno-religious groups? The ethno-religious group is a group of people that sees itself as a coherent ethnic group that all believes the same religion. Really, religions are ethnic groups because people tend to marry people who have the same belief structures as they do.
Let’s discuss ethno-religions a bit, because some people get really tripped up by the concept (and some people already understand it because they belong to an explicitly structured one. The rest of us, like fish, are often unaware of the water we swim in.) The American perspective traditionally has been freedom of religion: that religion is a matter of conscience. Free people are allowed to freely chose what they believe in, and people use their mental faculties–intelligence, logic, reason, etc–to pick the beliefs they think are most correct. Taken philosophically, this gets into the Free Will versus Determinism debate. People like claim that they use their free will to pick their religion, but do we really believe the entire population of Pakistan chooses every single generation to be 99% Muslim? Certainly Islam is the law of the land, yet if you asked them, I doubt the majority would say that they feel compelled to be Muslim. They would say that they actually believe their religion and that they believe any rational, thoughtful person who considered all of the alternatives would simply come to the conclusion that Islam is correct. And if you asked a Christian in Inquisition-era Spain the same question, they would also tell you that any rational person, using their faculties, would come to the obvious conclusion that Christianity is the correct religion.
And yet, of course, all of these people are really just following the religion they were taught by their parents when they were children. (This was the realization that turned me into an atheist.)
Religion is a funny thing like that, but once you believe a religion, you tend to marry other people from your own religion and you tend not to marry people who have radically different beliefs. Now, you might say “oh I like the Episcopalian Church but I’d be okay with Methodist or Lutheran,” but effectively there’s no difference between a Episcopalians, Methodists, and Lutherans in modern America they. They are the same religion with very minor aesthetic differences. By contrast, if you believe God is a very harsh fellow–he doesn’t like gay people, smites people who disobey him with plagues, and wants women to wear burkas–and I believe God is a hippie guy who loves everyone and wants to hug all of the trees, our relationship might not work out so well.
People tend to marry into their own religion because they marry people with the same belief systems as themselves and because religions functionally define the boundaries of our communities and proper behavior.
If anything, the American experiment in which you can pick any religion you want and it’s assumed that people pick religions rationally is very unusual, historically speaking. Going back, every community used to have their own, tutelary deity. Athens was guarded by Athena. Poseidon, Apollo, and Aphrodite guarded Troy. And of course there are many ancient stories of people trying to score a military victory over their opponents by first stealing the statue of their tutelary deity.
This is why not making sacrifices to the local deity was considered a capital offense in the ancient world. If people turned against the deity would turn against them. Without the deity’s protection, the city (or country) would fall in battle and be destroyed. This is why Socrates was executed by Athens: they thought that Socrates was leading the citizens, the young people, into atheism, and if they became atheists then they wouldn’t make sacrifices to the city’s deities, and then the deities would abandon them and they would get conquered.
Now the Israelites went out to fight against the Philistines. The Israelites camped at Ebenezer, and the Philistines at Aphek.2 The Philistines deployed their forces to meet Israel, and as the battle spread, Israel was defeated by the Philistines, who killed about four thousand of them on the battlefield.3 When the soldiers returned to camp, the elders of Israel asked, “Why did the Lord bring defeat on us today before the Philistines? Let us bring the ark of the Lord’s covenant from Shiloh, so that he may go with us and save us from the hand of our enemies.”
4 So the people sent men to Shiloh, and they brought back the ark of the covenant of the Lord Almighty, who is enthroned between the cherubim. And Eli’s two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, were there with the ark of the covenant of God.
5 When the ark of the Lord’s covenant came into the camp, all Israel raised such a great shout that the ground shook.6 Hearing the uproar, the Philistines asked, “What’s all this shouting in the Hebrew camp?”
When they learned that the ark of the Lord had come into the camp,7 the Philistines were afraid. “A god hasa]”>[a] come into the camp,” they said. “Oh no! Nothing like this has happened before.8 We’re doomed! Who will deliver us from the hand of these mighty gods? They are the gods who struck the Egyptians with all kinds of plagues in the wilderness.9 Be strong, Philistines! Be men, or you will be subject to the Hebrews, as they have been to you. Be men, and fight!”
10 So the Philistines fought, and the Israelites were defeated and every man fled to his tent. The slaughter was very great; Israel lost thirty thousand foot soldiers.11 The ark of God was captured, and Eli’s two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, died.
The arrival at Troy of the Palladium, fashioned by Athena in remorse for the death of Pallas, as part of the city’s founding myth, was variously referred to by Greeks, from the seventh century BC onwards. The Palladium was linked to the Samothrace mysteries through the pre-Olympian figure of Elektra, mother of Dardanus, progenitor of the Trojan royal line, and of Iasion, founder of the Samothrace mysteries. Whether Elektra had come to Athena’s shrine of the Palladium as a pregnant suppliant and a god cast it into the territory of Ilium, because it had been profaned by the hands of a woman who was not a virgin, or whether Elektra carried it herself or whether it was given directly to Dardanus vary in sources and scholia. In Ilion, King Ilus was blinded for touching the image to preserve it from a burning temple.
During the Trojan War, the importance of the Palladium to Troy was said to have been revealed to the Greeks by Helenus, the prophetic son of Priam. … The Greeks learned from Helenus, that Troy would not fall while the Palladium, image or statue of Athena, remained within Troy’s walls. The difficult task of stealing this sacred statue again fell upon the shoulders of Odysseus and Diomedes. Since Troy could not be captured while it safeguarded this image, the Greeks Diomedes and Odysseus made their way to the citadel in Troy by a secret passage and carried it off. In this way the Greeks were then able to enter Troy and lay it waste using the deceit of the Trojan Horse. …
According to the Narratives of the Augustan period mythographer Conon as summarised by Photius, while the two heroes were on their way to the ships, Odysseus plotted to kill Diomedes and claim the Palladium (or perhaps the credit for gaining it) for himself. He raised his sword to stab Diomedes in the back. Diomedes was alerted to the danger by glimpsing the gleam of the sword in the moonlight. He disarmed Odysseus, tied his hands, and drove him along in front, beating his back with the flat of his sword… Because Odysseus was essential for the destruction of Troy, Diomedes refrained from punishing him. …
According to various versions of this legend the Trojan Palladium found its way to Athens, or Argos, or Sparta (all in Greece), or Rome in Italy. To this last city it was either brought by Aeneas the exiled Trojan (Diomedes, in this version, having only succeeded in stealing an imitation of the statue) or surrendered by Diomedes himself.
And in the tragedy Iphigenia in Tauris, Orestes arrives at the island of Tauris with the intention of stealing the local deity in order to make the gods like him again:
O Phoebus, by thy oracles again
Why hast thou led me to these toils? E’er since,
In vengeance for my father’s blood, I slew
My mother, ceaseless by the Furies driven,
Vagrant, an outcast, many a bending course
My feet have trod: to thee I came, of the
Inquired this whirling frenzy by what means,
And by what means my labours I might end.
Thy voice commanded me to speed my course
To this wild coast of Tauris, where a shrine
Thy sister hath, Diana; thence to take
The statue of the goddess, which from heaven
(So say the natives) to this temple fell:
This image, or by fraud or fortune won,
The dangerous toil achieved, to place the prize
In the Athenian land: no more was said;
But that, performing this, I should obtain
Rest from my toils.
Of course, being an ethno-religious group doesn’t mean a group doesn’t have policies. The ancient Athenians had plenty of policies and political debates, many of which have been preserved and can still be read. Ancient Israel had judges and laws and political disputes. So does modern Israel; so do modern Palestinians, but the conflicts between them aren’t over “policies”, they’re over each group’s right to keep living in the area, drinking the water and tilling the land. After all, these are the things people need to survive.
Anyway, Old Stock Americans who believe in the Old Stock American religion are generally whites who arrived before the 1965 Immigration Act and live outside the Northeast/major cities. They are your original colonists, settlers, pioneers, prairie migrants–the Oregon Trail type people. They all started out from different European countries: England and France, Norway and Sweden, but over here they mixed together and quickly lost those original identities they just began calling themselves “whites” in contrast with the other major groups in the US.
American Christianity is not just Christianity that happened to be practiced by Americans. The founding belief of the Puritans and Pilgrims is manifest destiny: that America, the land itself, is a gift from God to the pioneers because they were righteous people.
And the early pioneers had good reason for this belief. When they arrived, yes, there were already people here, but those people seemed to just be fading away before them. People understood that diseases like Smallpox were killing the Indians, but they didn’t understand why Smallpox was so much more deadly for the Indians. All they knew was that it was.
The Pilgrims were essentially religious refugees who crossed the ocean to escape persecution, and when they got here, they found fertile, empty land. They saw in this the hand of Providence. So American Christianity in its basic form is a lot like early Judaism, which was founded on the story of Moses leading the people out of slavery in Egypt, across the Red Sea and into the promised land. And American Christians knew that. For example, the town of Salem, Massachusetts (of witch trial fame) was named after Jerusalem.
“Salem” itself means peace, but it’s also the name of the tutelary deity of Jerusalem, Salim, which you might notice is not YHWH. “Jeru” means foundation or founding stone, so the city’s name translates to “foundation of Salim” or “city of Salim” but over the years, people have opted to interpret salim as “peace,” so that it is the “City of Peace.”
But anyway, these American pioneers saw themselves as founding the new Jerusalem, the new Zion, the new Shining City on the Hill that would be a light and a beacon to all nations. And I think the ultimate expression of this American religion is Mormonism, which replays the whole narrative again, with people escaping persecution, trekking across the wilderness all the way to Utah and then building Salt Lake City. And unlike the rest of us, the Mormons have their own prophets, their own book (a new new testament) and came up with theological explanations for the existence of Native Americans. It’s really interesting how they managed to do that, just as we came to the era of mass literacy.
Now for the rest of us, as we were discussing last week in response to World’s Greatest Dad’s interview in Parallax Optics, the era of mass literacy makes iconogenesis–the creation of new deities or cult figures–difficult. If you go back to the 1800 and look at the pictures people used to paint of George Washington, he is near deified: there are beautiful paintings of Washington ascending into heaven surrounded by angels. If you read a modern biography of George Washington, certainly he was an impressive man who lead an impressive life, but you probably wouldn’t conclude that he was on the level of Elijah the prophet. But in the popular imagination–or at least when people needed to paint him for national buildings–he approached the level being taken into heaven in burning chariots.
People had this attitude back in the 1800s that the Founding Father’s were something like the Patriarchs of Israel, that the pilgrims and later Brigham Young and his followers were something like the Israelites crossing the Red Sea and wandering in the wilderness.
By the way, we’ve all heard the story of Squanto and the first Thanksgiving, but I think people leave out a little bit that makes him such a miracle from the Pilgrims’ perspective: he spoke English.
Why on Earth would any Native Americans in the area speak English? Sure, Squanto helped the settlers plant corn, but the really important thing he was able to show them how to plant corn because he was able to communicate with them. Squanto knew English because he had been picked up by a previous group of colonists (probably some folks in Virginia,) learned English from them, and then dropped off around Massachusetts. From the Pilgrims’ perspective, this was an absolute miracle that there happened to be a guy who spoke English right where they needed him, who saved their lives after that horrible first winter killed so many of them.
American Christianity started with the Pilgrims, but oddly, their modern descendants don’t follow this religion anymore. Their religious descendants, as I’ve said, are mostly the Mormons, Southern Baptists, and similar groups. It’s very curious how that happened. (And of course I don’t mean that Mormons and Southern Baptists are exactly the same, just that they share this Old Stock American belief in manifest destiny, of going out into the wilderness and conquering the place.)
Any time people move into a place, they need some belief structure to organize their claim to the place. So Judaism makes a good model religion for a belief system based on invading the wilderness, conquering it, and saying “yes, this is the place that I own because God said so.” This is an expansion of your people rather than an expansion of ideas, so all you have to do for the religion to flourish is for your people to flourish.
On the other hand, what happens to a religion that is already established, so that after years of living in an area 400 years and the area is basically filled up? You no longer have a wilderness to expand into, and sometimes you even start talking to the people your ancestors used to fight and discover that they’re pretty decent.
As a model religion, early Christianity took Judaism, and added the concept of original sin to convince an existing population of people to convert to it. Judaism has the story of the serpent and the fruit in the Garden of Eden, but this sin was not hereditary. Christianity introduced the idea that you needed forgiveness for this sin, so its spread at least partly by convincing you that you had this sin and they could cure you of it.
We see this same pattern in modern Progressives, who have introduced the idea of an incurable original sin into the American founding mythos. If American Christianity is manifest destiny, persecuted religious group crossing the Wilderness, crossing the ocean led to their New Zion, the founding myth of Progressivism is slavery and racism. We see this in things like the 1619 Project, and if we had functional iconogenesis, the founding fathers of Progressivism, their new deities would be Saints MLK and Abraham Lincoln.
And we are very close to that, in fact. Why else would the President place a wreath at the feet of MLK’s statue? Statues don’t care about wreaths, but deities–and the people who believe in them–do.
(I hope this speech to text experiment is working. It is definitely very different from my perspective. When I write with my fingers, I can pause, sometimes I have to think hard about what I want to say and how to organize it. Right now I’m trying to figure out what I want to say on the fly, and I admit I feel untethered, unmoored. I’m not used to working like this and I hope it works.)
Anyway, when you get a new religion sweeping through the populace, it’s pretty normal for the new religion to go on a crusade of smashing up the idols of the old religion, a la Abraham and the Taliban smashing up the Bahmian Buddhas. These old deities are often deemed “devils” and “demons” in the new religion. In the US, this process involves tearing down monuments to Confederate Heroes and generally insulting the memory of the old religion’s heroes, like Thomas Jefferson and Christopher Columbus. It’s a typical process of smashing the old religion’s symbols.
But I want to get back to you the election, because people won’t shut up about it. It was more fun back when we had a dozen or so people on the primary stage. Then everyone could find at least some perspectives they liked. But now we’re just down to the last few candidates: Warren, Biden, and Sanders. People have been trying to analyze why Biden is the front runner from a policy perspective, and I think this is basically the wrong approach. Of course you have policy differences between them, and they have to be personable enough that people want to vote for them–a truly boring candidate would have trouble motivating voters to head to the polls on election day.
But I think Biden’s popularity comes not from his support for particular policies, but because he represents the Democratic establishment. He was VP under Obama, so people who liked Obama and want more of the same aren’t really rejecting Warren or Warren’s policies so much as embracing their party’s core leader. If Warren had been Obama’s VP, then I think she’d be the front runner right now.
Sanders does have different ideas from the others, and as such he is the party’s “outsider” candidate. Even if people like his ideas, he is still, from a tribal perspective, slightly outside. If we look at the most tribal voters in the US–that is, the voters who vote along the strongest ethnic lines, it’s black voters. Blacks vote overwhelmingly Democratic–something like 90, 95% of them voted for Obama. In elections where there weren’t any black guys running, blacks still vote around 85-90% in favor of the Democratic candidate. Whites are more split, voting about 55/45 or 60/40; Hispanics are in between, at around 60-75% voting for the same party. I’m pulling these numbers from memory, so don’t drag me if they’re slightly off.
Point is, the more tribal your voting pattern is, the less you are voting for “policies” and the more you are just voting for the guy who represents your side, not some outsider trying to swoop in and change things. And that’s how politics works in a multi-ethnic systems. Ethnic groups vote pretty much on party lines and just hope that their guy will enact policies that benefit them.
Just like the substantive claims of our religions, (eg, “Jesus rose from the dead,) we like to think that we actually believe the policies we claim to believe, but people can be convinced to change their opinions if someone they respect tells them otherwise. For example, the year before Trump came onto the electoral scene, my mother was in favor of helping “unaccompanied minors” coming over the border from Mexico. After hearing a few of Trump’s speeches, she decided we should build a wall. People who were telling me that Coronavirus wasn’t a big deal a couple of weeks ago have been changing their minds after seeing some of the information coming out of Italy, and people who thought it was a big deal decided it probably wasn’t after hearing Rush Limbaugh say it’s no more than the common cold.
Much of what people believe comes from the other people around them, so political beliefs get bound together in these weird packages. Like, someone starts out uncomfortable with homosexuality, and from there they go on to decide that the second amendment is really important and yay bump stocks, even though these two issues really have nothing in common except that they are both thought to be important by the same tribe of people. Likewise, someone who is gay will likely come out against racism and Islamophobia, even though there’s not only no connection between the two, but Muslims are actually not terribly friendly to gay people. That’s tribalism for you.
And that’s the end of my text. I hope this experiment worked; I’m feeling a bit feverish, so let’s hope it’s not coronavirus and take a break. You all stay safe, stay indoors, don’t hoard the toilet paper, and don’t cough on each other.
Everyone is talking about eugenics, so I thought I’d dive into the mix.
It’s one thing to deplore eugenics on ideological, political, moral grounds. It’s quite another to conclude that it wouldn’t work in practice. Of course it would. It works for cows, horses, pigs, dogs & roses. Why on earth wouldn’t it work for humans? Facts ignore ideology.
The first difficulty in discussing eugenics lies in the fact that different people use the word to mean different things. It does no good to use one sense of the term when replying to someone who meant something completely different, so we’re going to have to start with a range of definitions:
Selective breeding to positively influence the distribution of traits in the gene pool
Anything that positively influences the distribution of traits in the gene pool
Purposefully removing specific negative traits from the population
Anything undertaken to increase desirable traits in the population
Valuing one human life over another
Killing off “undesirable” people
Although the dictionary definition is closer to number 1 or 2, most of the time when people use the word “eugenics”, they mean it in the sense of something coercive and unpleasant. When someone decides that they would rather marry and have children with someone they find attractive than someone they find unattractive, they don’t regard themselves as practicing “eugenics,” though they are making a decision about which traits they are passing on to the next generation.
Even aside from disagreements over definitions, people become emotional about eugenics. Many people are incredibly bad at separating moral and factual statements. Much of the opposition to Dawkin’s suggestion that eugenics works is not actually about whether it works so much as moral outrage over the idea of harming innocent people. They hear “eugenics,” and their brains jump to “gas chambers.” In contrast, when people hear of ways to improve traits that don’t involve harming specific people, they tend not to call it “eugenics.”
For example, suppose we found a vitamin that could reliably make people smarter, so the government decided to use tax dollars (personal sacrifice) to provide vitamins to everyone, even the poor. Most people would think this was fine because it’s a net positive.
Yes, this example doesn’t involve genetics, but it would change the distribution of traits in the population and it would make everyone smarter. It’s also something we already do: we put iodine in the salt, vitamin D in the milk, etc.
Now suppose we could use magic CRISPR bots to remove a person’s propensity to develop Alzheimer’s, fix heart disease, decrease their chance of cancer, etc. Maybe the CRISPR bots are delivered in pill form. If these pills fixed problems like trisomy 21, genetic mental retardation, genetic vision and hearing loss*, etc., most people suffering from these conditions would freely chose to take the pills and would consider them a miracle. If they couldn’t afford them, I think most people would support using tax dollars to fund these treatments in the same way that we pay for normal medical care. Access to CRISPR bots to correct severe genetic defects would soon be considered a basic human right.
These treatments would be true eugenics, but likely wouldn’t be controversial because they wouldn’t directly harm anyone (at least until athletes started using them in the same way they currently use steroids).
By contrast, people would object strongly to something like a government board that gets veto power over who you get to marry–or that decrees whom you must marry. This would be a significant personal sacrifice with a very nebulous promise of social benefit. This is the sort of thing people are actually objecting to.
*There is some pushback against mechanical (surgical, etc) attempts to fix certain disabilities. Some people in the deaf community, for example, do not think there is anything “wrong” with them and have complained that giving people implants to fix deafness is “genocide” against their community. While this does nothing to the genetics of the population, they clearly feel like it falls under the general category of trying to get rid of deaf people, at least as a culture. This objection is fairly rare, however.
The question of whether “eugenics works” depends on both how you define eugenics and “works”. Certainly if I had supervillain-like powers and an island full of captive humans, I could selectively breed them to be taller, shorter, prettier (by my standards,) etc. Could I breed for personality? Absolutely. We’ve bred for golden retrievers, after all. I wouldn’t be able to breed for anything I wanted: X ray vision probably isn’t possible.
But we live in the real world, where I don’t have god-like superpowers. In the real world, it’d be governments doing the eugenics, and I have some serious doubts about the abilities of real-world governments in this regard.
I noticed a while back that many of the people who fit roughly into the “global warming skeptic” category don’t disagree entirely with the idea, so I wanted to investigate more deeply. Here are the preliminary results of my poll:
A. I do believe, but I don’t admit it because I think libs are trying to use GW for political ends I disagree with
B. I believe, but I want the Earth to get warmer because winter sucks
C. I believe, but I don’t think it’s going to be a big deal/there’s nothing I can do about it
D. I stopped paying attention to environmentalists sometime around 1995 because their predictions always fail to come true
E. People who claim to believe in global warming don’t actually act like they believe it, so I don’t, either
F. I don’t find the science/evidence I’ve seen convincing
G. The Earth is too big for humans to have an effect
H. Something else I will explain in the comments
Thanks to everyone who participated. Many people went into detail about their opinions rather than pick any of the given options, which was great because it helped me see flaws in the poll and get a deeper insight into what people are thinking. In retrospect, C should have been broken into two options and there should have been another option similar to A but is “I don’t believe it because I think libs are just using it to push a political agenda.”
That said, here are the rough results after smooshing people’s responses into the closest categories:
A. Disagree w/ politics: 27
B. Winter sucks: 14
C. No big deal/can’t change: 32
D. Lost credibility: 10
E. Don’t act like they believe it: 11
F. Science: 17
G: Earth too big: 3
H. Cult: 7
I. Real but not caused by humans: 3
J. It’s real: 4
Qualitatively, rather than quantitatively, I think results broke down into three main categories: 1. disagreement with libs about politics/solutions, 2. personal credibility of the global warming advocates, 3. science.
Under disagreements, many people noted that global warming gets used to advocate almost solely for leftist causes like socialism, while other important solutions are ignored, eg, @CamperWatcher27′s take:
It’s a true scientifically proven crisis, the solution for which just happens to be implementation of every left wing wishlist item. It mandates no policy sacrifice by the left whatsoever, it’s almost too good to be true.
A couple of people noted that often the solutions, like shipping plastic trash to China so it can be burned under the guise of “recycling”, do more harm than good, and many people noted that there is effectively nothing they can do about China’s pollution, eg @laikasrefectory’s opinion:
I do, and I find the evidence convincing, but find fault in where fingers are pointed, and agree that the topic is weaponised. The West could stop all emissions tomorrow and we’d still be fucked thanks to China and India.
Many readers complained that environmentalists aren’t in favor of building more nuclear power plants, limiting immigration, or virtually any other “right wing” position that would also help the environment.
Personal credibility of environmentalists turned out to be more important than I expected. People didn’t just object that global warming advocates don’t actually act like they believe in global warming (I just finished talking to a relative who is both concerned about global warming wiping Florida off the map and preparing to fly around the world for an international vacation), but they also objected on the grounds that global warming is a “cult” or “religion.” (This was a little annoying from the coding perspective because it doesn’t answer the question–believing that Christianity is a religion doesn’t stop Christians from believing in it.) I interpreted these responses, therefore, as “this is a belief system that those people hold an I don’t happen to hold it,” just as I might respond if suddenly put on the spot and asked why I don’t believe in shamanism.
There were also people who remembered fears of “global cooling” in the 70s or had grown weary of the media habit of attributing practically everything bad that happens to “climate change,” even when there’s no way to prove it causally. A good example from @punishedkomrade:
The exaggerated predictions of doom, combined with the unseriousness of “solutions” (eg We need socialism to save the Climate! Ew, not nuclear!) leads me to ignore the issue
Then there’s the science:
For liberal democrats, better scientific comprehension is associated with higher belief in the threat of global warming
This is quite remarkable. You might think that more intelligent people would hold more similar opinions, since we all have access to the same scientific material (more or less). Instead, dumb people take more moderate stances while intelligent people throw themselves toward their tribe’s extreme.
Explain how a ~400ppm (0.04%) trace gas acts as a “control knob” on global temperature. Explain why CO2 has a greater effect than water vapor.
Explain why models that do not factor in cloud albedo can be considered reliable in long-term prediction of climate.
Explain why solar output is considered generally irrelevant by the model makers despite being measurably variable.
Explain why substantially higher CO2 in the past on Earth did not cause Earth to become a Venus-like hothouse as predicted by some models.
These are the sorts of questions that I eventually started asking as the time to DOOM compressed. Sure the climate changes, it always has. The CO2 hypothesis however is based almost entirely on vastly incomplete models and I find it unconvincing on a basic thermodynamics level.
I believe in global warming (specifically, I believe the claims of climate scientists that the Earth is getting warmer and it is caused by humans), but I can’t answer these questions. I believe because scientists I know in real life respect other scientists who think global warming is real. By contrast, none of the astronomers I know in real life have ever mentioned the sun causing global warming. This is a chain of trust (or authority), not first-hand knowledge and understanding of climate data. I suspect something similar is going on for other people–which science they find credible is determined by which scientists they find credible.
This chain of trust is interesting, because it relates back to different groups of people being, essentially, separate. There are other cases where different groups have different chains of trust–obviously Israelis and Palestinians believe different news sources about the region. There are black communities on the internet that also have their own “science” with its own separate chain of trust, usually centering around claims that melanin has fantastic powers and that white people kidnap black children to harvest their melanin (I think this claim was motivated by confusion about the difference between melanin and melatonin, which you can buy at the store). Native Americans also distrust mainstream science (especially genetics) and don’t include it in their chain of authority, though they don’t tend to replace it with anything in particular.
If you happen not to find any scientists credible (or you just aren’t into science), then your next fallback is judging the kinds of people who advocate for global warming (well, advocate for doing something about it,) and their policy solutions. If the upshot of global warming advocacy in your real life is an “energy and water efficient” clothes washer that has to be run twice for every load of laundry because it doesn’t use enough water to get the soap off, you’re going to be pretty darn skeptical of this whole deal.
Obviously my poll isn’t terribly scientific or accurate, but I think it’s close enough to capture the zeitgeist. So if anyone reading this actually wants to save the planet, then I think the first thing you (and others) should do is disentangle global warming and politics. Don’t make global warming a reason to vote left–this is making the survival of our planet dependent on irrelevant questions like “Do you like gays?” Come up with ideas that appeal to people from both sides of the political aisle, like using nuclear power to achieve energy independence. Second, you need to act like you actually believe it. Stop flying. Stop buying products made in China and shipped across the ocean in great big carbon-belching container ships. Ride your bike to work. Then, maybe, people will take you seriously.
This goes for the news, as well, and is why your older relatives send you so many stupid email forwards about politics and are irrationally hung up on whatever the news is talking about today. Their ability to understand what they are viewing declines while their fear of it increases. (Do not be cruel in return; they cannot help that they are aging.)
People blame political craziness on young people, but we have never before in all of history had such a large percent of the population in mental decline–and it is only going to get worse.
Something is going on with my generation, and possibly the next, where a variety of apparently disparate things- ghosting, fear of phone and in-person communication, rise of mental health issues, horror at speech- seem to hint at some underlying emotional derangement. https://t.co/viYuSzKmti
It’s not just at Middlebury. As Sailer notes in his review of Haidt’s The Coddling of the American Mind:
A remarkable fraction of current articles in The New York Timesand The New Yorker include testimony that the author feels emotionally traumatized, which is stereotypically attributed to the malevolence of Donald Trump. But the evidence in The Coddling of the American Mind points to the second Obama administration as being the era when the national nervous breakdown began.
The authors cite alarming evidence of a recent increase in emotional problems. For example, the percentage of college students who said they suffered from a “psychological disorder” increased among males from 2.7 percent in 2012 to 6.1 percent by 2016 (a 126 percent increase). Over the same four years, the percentage of coeds who saw themselves as psychologically afflicted rose from 5.8 percent to 14.5 percent (150 percent growth).
Sailer blames the Obama administration, eg, the DOE releasing new definitions of “sexual harassment” that depend more on emotion than reason, but this is only playing kick the can, because why would the Obama DOE want to redefine sexual harassment in the first place?
So I propose a slightly different origin for the current hysteria:
If you incentivise lying, you get more lying. If you incentivise social signaling, you get more social signaling. The next thing you know, you get a social signaling spiral.
So people start lying because it gets them status points, but people are kind of bad at lying. Lying is cognitively taxing. The simplest way to make lying less taxing is to believe your own lies.
So the more people get involved in signaling spirals, the more they come to believe their own lies.
Meanwhile, everyone around them is engaged in the same signaling spiral, too.
People get their view of “Reality” in part by checking it against what everyone else believes. If everyone in your village says the stream is to the east, even if you’ve gotten turned around and feel like it’s to the west, you’ll probably just follow everyone else and hope you get to water. If everyone around you is lying, there’s a good chance you’ll start to believe their lies.
(Let’s face it, most people are not that bright. Maybe a little bright. Not a lot. So they go along with society. Society says eat this, don’t eat that–they trust. Society is usually right about things like that, and the ones that aren’t die out.
Trust is key. If you trust that someone has your back, you listen to them. You take advice from them. You might even try to make them proud. If you don’t trust someone, even if they’re right, you won’t listen to them. If you don’t trust them, you assume they want you dead and are trying to trick you.
Since our system is now full of liars, trust is suffering.)
Eventually there’s just one sane person left in the room, wondering who’s gone insane: them, or everyone else.
In the case of the “mental health breakdown” on the left, it’s a combination of the left lying about its mental health and believing its own lies about things that are bothering it.
But what incentivised lying in the first place?
Sailer dates the emergence of the insanity to 2012-13, but I remember the emergence of the current SJW-orthodoxy and its rabid consumption of what had formerly known as “liberalism” back in the Bush years, back around 2003. I was surprised at the time by the speed with which it went mainstream, spreading from “this thing my friends are arguing about” to “everyone on the internet knows this.”
Zuckerberg launched “TheFacebook”, featuring photos of Harvard students, in 2004. From there it spread to other prestigious schools, and opened fully to the public in 2006. Because of its real name policy, FB has always incentivized people toward holiness spirals, and it began with an infusion of people who already believed the SJW memeplex that was hot at Harvard in 2004.
At this point, it’s not necessarily Facebook itself that’s spreading things, and it was never just facebook. There are plenty of other social media sites, like MySpace, Reddit, and Twitter, that have also spread ideas.
The lethality of disease is partially dependent on how difficult it is to spread. If a disease needs you to walk several miles to carry it to its next host, then it can’t go killing you before you get there. By contrast, if the disease only needs you to explode on the spot, it doesn’t need to keep you alive long enough to get anywhere. Where population are dense, sanitation is non-existent, and fleas are rampant, you get frequent plague outbreaks because disease has a trivial time jumping from person to person. Where populations are low and spread out, with good sanitation and few vermin, disease has a much harder time spreading and will tend to evolve to coexist with humans for at least as long as it takes to find a new host.
For example, chicken pox has been infecting humans for so long that it is adapted to our ancestral tribal size (which is pretty small,) so it has developed the ability to go dormant for 20 or 40 years until a whole new generation of uninfected people is born.
AIDS kills people, but because its method of transmission (mostly sex) is not as easy as jumping fleas or contaminated water, it takes a long time. People who’ve caught bubonic plague generally die within a week or so; untreated AIDS patients last an average of 11 years.
The internet has allowed memes that used to stay put in colleges to spread like wildfire to the rest of the population. (Similarly, talk radio allowed conservative memes to spread back in the 80s and 90s, and the adoption of the printing press in Europe probably triggered the witch hunts and Protestantism.)
Anyway, this whole SJW-system got perfected on social media, and strangely, much of it is dependent on this performative mental illness. Eg, in “Don’t call people with uteruses ‘women’ because that’s triggering to trans people,” the mental illness claim is that the word “women” is “triggering” to someone and therefore ought to be avoided. The word “triggered” means “to trigger a panic attack,” as in someone with PTSD.
The use of “triggered” in most of these cases is absolutely false, but people claim it because it gets them their way.
And if people are lying a bunch about having mental illness, and surrounded by nasty, toxic people who are also lying about mental illness, and if lying is cognitively taxing, then the end result is a lot of stressed out people with mental issues.
Note: I am not entirely satisfied with the phrasing in this post and would be happy to hear alternate articulations.
I have noticed that many unproductive conversations involve two people arguing about a phenomenon at two different levels of analysis.
Trivial example: You tell your children to “hold still” for a photo. One of them, inevitably, responds that “it is impossible to hold still because they are above absolute zero.”
“I’m holding still,” and “I am not holding still (because I am above absolute zero),” are equally true statements in different contexts. In the context of a photograph, you are only supposed to be as still as you can be. This is understood from context; no one feels it necessary to explain that you don’t need to stop the rotation of the Earth (which carries us along at a fast clip,) the beating of your heart, or the vibration of your atoms every time a picture is desired.
In the context of grains of pollen suspended in “still” liquid, the unstoppable motion of individual atoms does need to be noted and explained, as Einstein did in 1905.
The claim that Brownian Motion prevents you from holding still for a photograph is wrong, but the claim that it prevents grains of pollen from holding still in liquid is correct. Likewise, the claim that you are holding still for a photo is correct–and the claim that the pollen is still because you are holding the water still is wrong.
The weather is hard to predict, but I can predict with great certainty that July in the northern hemisphere will be hot, and next January will be cold–and vice versa for the southern hemisphere. These are different levels.
I recently read a well-written essay that I can’t find now but would like to link to if someone has it on the difficulties of discussing pretty much anything with certain types of people.
The discussion went like this:
Ordinary person: The sky is blue.
Academic: Excuse me? Do you have a source for that claim?
Ordinary person: What? The sky is blue. Everyone knows that.
Academic: For starters, there’s no such thing as “the sky.” The solid blue dome that ancient people thought surrounded the Earth is just an illusion created by the scattering of light. If you went up there, you’d discover that there is no “sky” to bump into. You’d just keep going straight into space.
Ordinary person: You know perfectly well that the term “sky” just refers to that expanse of blue we see over us.
Academic: Do you even know about Rayleigh scattering? The “blue” color is just an illusion due to the scattering of light. At night, when there’s not enough light for Rayleigh scattering, the sky is black. Man, you need to get out more.
These two people are both correct, but they are arguing at different levels. In normal, everyday conversation, the sky is, indeed, blue. People understand you perfectly well if you say so, and people also don’t call the sky blue while stargazing or watching a beautiful sunset.
People who are studying the way air molecules scatter light, by contrast, need to talk about the color of the sky in more technical detail in order to do their jobs.
Thankfully, no one actually gets into fights over the color of the sky because most people (even small children) understand the social context of communication. The point of speech is not to Say True Things, but to be understood by another person. If the other person understands me, then my words have done their job. If the other person does not understand me, then I need to rephrase. If I insist on speaking about something at a different level from what the other person is talking about, then I am being an ass who contributes nothing of worth to the conversation. (Note that we consider a consistent pattern of such conversational dysfunction, without inability to correct it, a symptom of mental disability.)
This normally understood conversational feature breaks down under three circumstances:
1 Confusion. Sometimes when we learn something new, like “color is an illusion,” it takes us a while to reconcile the new and old pieces of information in our minds.
Science, and thus our ability to learn technical information about the world, is a very recent invention on the scale of human history. A hundred years ago, people didn’t know why the sky is blue; two hundred years ago, they didn’t know what stars are made of. They didn’t have technical answers; they only had he lower-level explanations.
So it is understandable that people, especially students, sometimes take a while to integrate new information into a coherent view of the world, and in the meanwhile respond at incorrect levels in conversation. (Nerds do this a lot.)
2 Cognitive dissonance. This is similar to confusion, but happens because people have some reason–usually political bias–for wanting a particular answer. People may be genuinely confused about colors, but no one experiences cognitive dissonance about it. People experience cognitive dissonance about questions like, “Are men and women the same?” or “Do gun restrictions save lives?”
It is much easier to invoke confused logic to support your points when you want a particular outcome for political reasons.
3 Deception. This is confusion on purpose.
There is an old story that when Denis Diderot was in Russia, visiting the court of Catherine the Great, he managed to annoy her majesty via his arguments in favor of atheism. Catherine called upon the great mathematician Leonard Euler to defend God. Euler proclaimed, “(a+b^n)/n = x, therefore God exists,” and the great but mathematically uninclined philosopher left in confusion.
The story is probably not true, but it illustrates the principle: sufficiently complicated arguments can confuse non-experts even when they are totally irrelevant. (Related: SSC post on Eulering.) Switching levels on someone is a fast and easy way to confuse them, especially if you have studied the subject more than they have.
People do this when they want a particular outcome, usually political. For example, people who want to promote trans rights will recount an array of technical, medical intersex conditions in order to claim that the biological categories of “male” and “female” don’t exist. Of course, the biological categories of “male” and “female” do exist, as do people with rare genetic disorders; the one does not disprove the other, and neither tells you what to do about anything trans-related.
I feel like there needs to be some efficient (and recognized) way of saying, “Yes, this is true, but on a different level from the one I am addressing. At the level I am addressing, this is false.”
Dignity seems like an under-developed concept in political discussions relative to its importance in basic human interactions.
Dignity is close to honor.
There are many polls and quizes that attempt to determine your political values or orientations along axes like Tradition vs Choice or Authority vs Freedom. Haidt’s framework of moral attitudes highlights five realms:
• Harm/care. It is wrong to hurt people; it is good to relieve suffering.
• Fairness/reciprocity. Justice and fairness are good; people have certain rights that need to be upheld in social interactions.
• In-group loyalty. People should be true to their group and be wary of threats from the outside. Allegiance, loyalty and patriotism are virtues; betrayal is bad.
• Authority/respect. People should respect social hierarchy; social order is necessary for human life.
• Purity/sanctity. The body and certain aspects of life are sacred. Cleanliness and health, as well as their derivatives of chastity and piety, are all good. Pollution, contamination and the associated character traits of lust and greed are all bad.
Authority/respect gets closest to what I mean by dignity, but in the US, we tend only to think in terms of respecting those higher than us in the social order.
I am thinking of a more comprehensive respect; an essential dignity that all people possess or should be encouraged to possess.
When you talk to the poor, the aged, the infirm, what do they want? An end to suffering, of course–but also dignity.
Our desire for dignity explains a variety of otherwise inexplicable political phenomena. Why do whites focus more on the actions of a New Zealander who kills Muslims than a Nigerian who kills Muslims, for example? Because whites feel that the misbehavior of the New Zealander reflects badly on them; their collective dignity has been lowered. The actions of a Muslim or a Nigerian don’t reflect on non-Muslims or non-Nigerians; whites feel no collective shame or guilt over these incidents.
(Note: “white” and “Muslim” are not exclusive categories and plenty of Muslims have pale skin, but I lack better terminology.)
Similarly, much of the liberal opposition to Trump probably stems from a perception that he is undignified.
People don’t need to be at the top of the hierarchy to be treated with dignity; good social norms, I suspect, can help people respond to and treat people lower than themselves with respect, as well.
Our society seems to be engaged in an absurd dance where people fight for honor and respect by demanding it from people significantly lower than themselves on the social totem pole. For example, a female professor complains about a university janitor who assumed she was merely the wife of a male professor; a black woman complains that the minimum wage shop employees didn’t let her into the shop after closing time; another professor harasses road crew laborers over a “men at work” sign. These absurd cases all involve women trying to assert power over people who have far less power than themselves in the first place, like a prince having a peasant executed for getting mud on his boots.
Of course, our system doesn’t simply content itself with declaring divine right; it insults us by also claiming that these peasants are the ones with the real power.
Since these folks are not actually princes, though, they probably aren’t just on run-away power trips; I suspect instead that they feel a mis-match between the level of respect they want from society vs the level they get. Since they can’t get any more respect from normal avenues/their peers, they’ve turned instead to targeting the weak, like a D&D player pouring boiling water on an anthill to grind XP.
Such behavior should be called out for the undignified farce that it is.
That said, much of modern life feels designed to humiliate and degrade; the Cabrini Green housing projects were so ugly they seem intentionally soul-crushing.
RationalRevolution has an interesting article on capital redistribution with a few points of relevance to our current discussion:
Capital ownership has become increasingly concentrated throughout American history. When the country was founded roughly 90% of citizen families owned meaningful capital from which they derived income, primarily land. Today less than 10% of American families own meaningful capital from which they derive income prior to retirement. …
The other important fact that is often overlooked is the fact that over that past 100 years the portion of the population directly owning their own capital has declined at a pace that exceeds the rate of financial asset acquisition. In other words, 100 years ago a far greater portion of people owned their own business and worked for themselves or within a family owned business. The largest portion of these people were farmers who owned their own land and equipment. As small businesses were overtaken by larger corporations, more people became wage-laborers. Some of these people acquired stock or other financial assets, but the acquisition of financial assets has not offset the decline of directly owned capital assets by individuals over time. Even today, the majority of self-employed people have no meaningful capital assets. The majority of the self-employed today are primarily selling their labor, as consultants, contractors or service workers.
In other words, back in the 1800s, the vast majority of Americans were self-employed; most owned their own small farms. To be self-employed is to be your own master. Since then, the number of self-employed has declined steadily, while the number employed has generally increased. (Admittedly, the increase in people receiving wages around 1865 has nothing to do with a decline in small business ownership.) Who knows what the Uber-Revolution holds, but for now, we have transitioned from a nation of self-employed farmers to a nation of employees, and I think it’s getting to people.
Man or beast, even in poverty we can feel dignified if we have the respect of our neighbors, and even in wealth we can be degraded, degenerate.
There are a lot of political issues that hinge, to me, on dignity. Restrictions on speech are restrictions on dignity, for a free man can speak his mind and a slave cannot. A revolution in social norms, either because of technology or regime change, leaves people unsure of what commands respect from their neighbors. And in a sort of moral, spiritual sense, when we expect people to violate their own natures, we violate some essence of human dignity. Humans are not infinitely malleable; each of us has our own particular nature. A fish cannot be expected to swim, nor a chicken to fly; we recognize something cruel in expecting a rooster not to crow or a dog not to bark.
I admit this isn’t exactly fully fleshed-out philosophy.
We here at EvX try not to dwell too much on the day-to-day of politics, which requires keeping track of too many names and reads a bit too much like tabloid gossip for our comfort, but we are not insensitive to the worries of national governance.
I have maintained since the beginning that there was nothing to this Trump/Russia collusion business. Not being a devote of the news, TV or otherwise, probably helped form this opinion–nothing suggests a sudden change in Russian influence in my daily life. My neighborhood has improved slightly over the past couple of years, which might be an effect of presidential policies (or random chance.)
As we have discussed before, there are many conspiracy theories. Most infamously in my lifetime, belief that a vast, underground “Satanic Daycare conspiracy” was raping children, sacrificing elephants, and flying on broomsticks saw the light of day on mainstream TV in the ’80s and early 90s. This was not just the bread and butter of cheap talk shows, but resulted in actual criminal convictions that sent real people to prison, eventually culminating in a full-scale FBI and an FBI investigation that turned up exactly nothing, because witchcraft isn’t real. The fact that none of the prosecutors involved were put in prison for gross misconduct remains a serious blot on our nation.
Conspiracy theories arise under a number of circumstances, especially fear and confusion. If the events around you don’t make sense and you can’t explain why they’re happening, then you’re much more likely to conclude that mysterious outside forces are controlling things.
In countries with very little governmental transparency, conspiracy theories run rife–they are a sign that there is something amiss, that the people do not trust the normal operations of government and do not believe that government is operating honestly.
There have always been conspiracy theories, whether about Elvis, aliens, or Kennedy, but these have usually been embraced by people of somewhat less than credible mental stability. The fact that after the 2016 election so many otherwise intellectually normal people embraced the idea that the President of the United States was actually a foreign agent and that a foreign country had managed to “steal” the election is far more troubling. (For what it’s worth, I also thought that people who thought similar things about Obama were wrong–but those people were never given so much credence by the press and upper classes.)
That other countries would like to influence American politics is indisputable. All countries, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, encourage the US to act in their interest if they at all possess the ability to do so, and we do the same to them. All countries of any size and consequence spy on each other (much of which is just gathering intelligence reports on the state of industries and political unrest) or, if they are very closely allied, they just explicitly share information. Russia spies on us; we spy on them. About fifty other countries also spy on us, and we on them.
There is no reason to single out Russia as the sole national security threat (Ukrainian and Chinese hackers have just as much interest in our secrets;) nor to believe that they are particularly competent at swaying American voters or colluding with politicians–nor is it any more insidious when they do it than when anyone else does it.
The entirety of the “Russiagate” conspiracy was built upon the fact that Trump said a few positive things about Russia during the campaign instead of glibly posturing about shooting down Russian planes in Syria (since when did Congress vote to authorize troop deployments to Syria, anyway?) and the Russians, very sensibly, decided that they liked the guy who wasn’t trying to start a war with them. You would, too, if you were them.
Two people mutually agreeing that getting into a war isn’t in their countries’ best interests isn’t “collusion,” unless you think there is “collusion” going on with every other country we aren’t at war with. (Quick count: it looks like we are at war in 8 countries–Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia/Kenya, Uganda, and Syria–leaving 187 that we are colluding with.)
The continual demands that Trump believe the “intelligence briefings” (that we Americans conveniently couldn’t see!) that supposedly found Russian hacking or interference in our elections were idiotic from the start–obviously the leaks favored Trump, so he had no interest in denouncing them, no matter where they came from. Furthermore, we saw back in 2002-3 with the now thoroughly discredited reports that Iraq had WMDs, just how good the government/media are at promoting a completely incorrect narrative based on selective reading of intelligence reports. Anyone who has payed the remotest bit of attention over the past couple of decades should have learned a degree of skepticism by now, but some people seem cursed to make the same mistakes over and over again.
Perhaps they aren’t very bright.
Ordinarily, a conspiracy by itself does very little harm. Sure, a few people might alienate their relatives at Christmas by nattering on about Q-anon, or kill their children by refusing measles shots, but there’s little in the way of widespread damage.
But when members of Congress and the FBI begin believing conspiracies, then they have much more potential to do serious harm.
I have said many times that there are enough laws and the legal (and tax) code is of sufficient complexity that if the police want to charge you with something, they almost inevitably can–everyone jaywalks, after all. We usually trust the police to use this power for good, (catching mafia bosses on money laundering charges, for example) not evil (charging parents with neglect for letting their 9 yr old play outside in pleasant weather).
But with the advent of the never-ending special prosecutor-run investigation (pioneered under Nixon and perfected in full idiocy under Clinton), this power has been harnessed for disturbing political ends. According to Bloomberg, at least 22 of Trump’s family and associates have been investigated since the beginning of his term (not to mention the Trump Foundation, Trump Organization, and Trump himself.) Even if someone is eventually cleared of any wrongdoing, merely being the subject of an investigation is extremely expensive, stressful, and time-consuming.
Most of these investigations are not happening because someone did anything particularly wrong–no more than anyone else in Washington, given the high likelihood of any random person to have committed a crime–but because they were close to Trump, whom Democrats were absolutely convinced was a secret Russian agent hell-bent on destroying America by keeping out illegal immigrants.
And if they weren’t convinced, they were certainly happy to lie to the public in order to use it as cover to interfere with the president.
This is some banana republic level bullshit, folks.
One party leveraging the justice system to target and imprison members of the opposing party and cripple the president’s ability to act should have you concerned, whether you’re on the Right or the Left (don’t think the Right can’t use the same trick back on you).