Saturday, May 2, 2015

Too many tweets make a twat: ANZAC version

SBS sports reporter Scott Mcintyre let loose with a series of anti-ANZAC tweets and then was promptly sacked by SBS for breaching their code of conduct. It is helpful to be clear about the issues involved.

(1) This is not a free speech issue. Scott Mcintyre is not being prosecuted for his tweets, and it would be outrageous if he was.

(2) No one has a right to publicly breach the code of conduct of one's employer. "Right" here understood as "able to act without penalty". Australian law is fairly clear on this.

(3) Tone and context matters. The issue is not the facts of Gallipoli or other relevant history (though his cause is not helped by some factual infelicities). Being sacked for stating facts (not received in confidence) would also be outrageous. Being sacked for gratuitously insulting large numbers of fellow citizens is a rather different matter. Showing oneself blind, indifferent or ignorant of context is also an issue; particularly for someone employed as a journalist.

For example:
The cultification of an imperialist invasion of a foreign nation that Australia had no quarrel with is against all ideals of modern society.
The Ottoman Empire was at war (due to a rather complicated series of interactions) with the British Empire, which we were very much a part of and thought ourselves to be. The Gallipoli invasion was perfectly reasonable under both international law and just law theory. Fairly clearly, Mcintyre was appealing to that sort of moral childishness where war is just "doubleplusungood", but these things matter. (At the time of the invasion, said Ottoman Empire was responding to Russian advances in the Caucasus by beginning the Armenian genocide--along with the Assyrian and Pontic Greek genocides--building on a previous, and recent, history of massacre.)

Wonder if the poorly-read, largely white, nationalist drinkers and gamblers pause today to consider the horror that all mankind suffered.
SBS relies significantly on tax-payer funding and still grapples with a lingering identity issue as "ethnic media". It really does not need this sort of gratuitous undergraduate sneering.

As for:
Not forgetting that the largest single-day terrorist attacks in history were committed by this nation & their allies in Hiroshima & Nagasaki.
First, if he is referring to the death toll, actually the biggest Tokyo fire raid killed more people in a single night. Second, it was a purely American action: "this nation" had nothing to do with it except in the sense that it was done by an ally. Australian opinion at the time was overwhelmingly supportive, even grateful, since it meant that the War was over; but we were not then, and have never been since, a nuclear power. The nuclear bombings also likely saved a lot of lives, since the alternative of an invasion of Japan was, on the evidence available, going to kill a lot more people. Context matters, and it is the job of a journalist to understand that context matters. 

Which goes back to it not being a free speech issue. If Scott Mcintyre was being hounded merely for having different opinions than others, then it would become a free speech issue. But that is not why he was sacked.

(4) Whether SBS's response was proportionate is a reasonable question. Suspending Scott Mcintyre without pay would definitely have been a reasonable response. Sacking perhaps was too strong,* but one can understand why SBS did not want the issue hanging around during the Gallipoli centenary.

(5) The objections to "mythologising" history are mostly bunk. Progressives regularly mythologise history--notably indigenous history (Stolen Generations anyone? Secret Women's Business?)--and, for that matter, current events (Israel-Palestine). It is what people with strong emotional connections to events do. The objections regarding the "ANZAC myth" are clearly far more about objecting to other people's mythologising. When it comes to the public space, the Virtuous are not sharing folk.

(6) PC is not about civility. This is perfectly obvious to anyone with their wits about them, but the way gratuitous insult is invisible when it was a PC-acceptable target is, yet again, in evidence. One can criticise or demur from the treatment of matters ANZAC without sneering, being misleading or getting one's facts wrong. Which likely has the further advantage of not embarrassing one's employer: they might even have a code of conduct to try and avoid precisely such. 

(A slightly different take is here. Cross-posted at Skepticlawyer.)

* Though that also depends on whether he is teachable (i.e. would learn from the experience).

Friday, April 10, 2015

Sad Puppies

I have not been following the Sad Puppies controversy in detail, so my comments are very general. (And am so not touching Gamergate, which deals with a particularly intense subculture I have only passing acquaintance with.) However, the Hugo Awards controversy reprises similar controversies in other fields; hence the general comments.

(1) Be suspicious of arguments from quality.

Quality in artistic and literary endeavour is far from an empty concept, but it is also far from an entirely objective one.  Which leads it open to all sorts of contention and hi-jacking. In particular, it is absolutely standard for supporters of the status quo to make the argument from quality--i.e. we don't have any black/female/conservative/... writers/announcers/artists/... not because we are prejudiced against them, but because there simply aren't any that are good enough.

(2) Diversity has varied dimensions.

Racial and ethnic diversity is one sort of diversity. So is diversity in ideas. They have no necessary correlation. People of varied racial and ethnic backgrounds are likely to have varied experiences but that does not, of itself, lead to diverse ideas.

(3) Covert politicisation is easy to not see and hard to fight without engaging in overt politicisation.

All the various groups marching down the Emancipation Sequence have engaged in overt politicisation and been condemned by supporters of the status quo for doing so.

(4) Critics of Sad Puppies are using fairly standard Defenders of the Status Quo arguments.

Arguments such as: nothing to see here, those over there just troublemakers subverting standards of quality, they are politicising what as working just fine ... . Which, of course, makes said critics the Embattled Establishment. Not the self conception the Virtuous like to have, but that does not make it any less true.

quick Google suggests that mainstream media coverage has been largely fairly awful--engaged in identifying who are the Bad Guys and holding the status quo to be unproblematic (which, by definition, means that no critique thereof has any legitimate basis).  But that is also a recurring pattern when the media is largely on the side of the status quo.

Would it be better if the Hugo Awards had not become subject to overt politicisation? Probably: but folk should have thought of that before they began judging writers by their personal beliefs (or rumours thereof). But that is the problem with Virtue signalling: it is subject to Virtue inflation--both in ever finer moral distinctions (such as making a big moral deal over the difference between "coloured people" and "people of colour") and ever broader range of social matters to signal Virtue over. To be ever more socially invasive is it basic logic.

Particularly as part of Virtue signalling is to hold that the said Virtuous have a monopoly of moral legitimacy, so it is just fine to exclude folk of different views from social goods. But other folk may care about their, for example, SF too, and are likely to respond.

For a useful corrective, recovering a sense of nuance and moral diversity, I recommend this essay by Jonathan Chait on the dynamics of US culture war debates. Or, in other words; people have differing views: get over it and lets get back to SF as fun.

ADDENDA: George R R Martin on the controversy.  Larry Correia, founder of Sad Puppies, replies.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

"Over-valued" is the wrong metric about "bubbles"--housing or otherwise.

Thinking about asset price stability is pervaded by incorrect framings. Particularly if folk start throwing around the term "bubble".

Not the fault of the central banks
One incorrect framing is "the central banks did it"; with the finger usually pointed at low interest rates and clams of "easy money" fuelling "bubbles".  Low interest rates are not a sign of "loose money". Judging the stance of monetary policy from interest rates is deeply problematic. In Milton Friedman's words:
Initially, higher monetary growth would reduce short-term interest rates even further. As the economy revives, however, interest rates would start to rise. That is the standard pattern and explains why it is so misleading to judge monetary policy by interest rates. Low interest rates are generally a sign that money has been tight, as in Japan; high interest rates, that money has been easy.
This is hardly surprising, as nominal interest rates include inflationary expectations, so will be higher if inflationary expectations are higher. During the Great Moderation, inflation and interest rates were low: in what world is low inflation a sign of "loose monetary conditions"? To quote Milton Friedman again:
After the U.S. experience during the Great Depression, and after inflation and rising interest rates in the 1970s and disinflation and falling interest rates in the 1980s, I thought the fallacy of identifying tight money with high interest rates and easy money with low interest rates was dead. Apparently, old fallacies never die.
Apparently, they don't. Yes, low real interest rates  combined with strong income expectations will lead to more use of credit, particularly to purchase assets. But central banks have no influence over real interest rates and maintaining strong (or at least stable) income expectations is what they are supposed to do. Failure to do the latter is what led to the Great Depression and the Great Recession.

So, low real interest rates (not the fault of central banks) + strong income expectation (what we want them to do) => more use of credit to purchase assets.

Does that mean we get surges in asset prices?  No, because there is the little thing called the supply side. Prices are a matter of supply AND demand.  If the supply of assets responds to the surges in demand, there are no price effects.

If the assets are slow to construct, you might get some price surges, but they are unlikely to persist once supply catches up with demand. If, however, supply permanently lags demand, then the price surges can persist (as demand is continually outpacing supply). Such as, for example, from land rationing in housing markets blocking supply from catching up to demand. (Remembering that houses are large decaying structures, the enduring asset is the land the house is on.)

About housing and "bubbles"
We live in an age of low real interest rates. The Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) has been doing an excellent job in maintaining income expectations. (No recession since the early 1990s). All our State and Territory Governments, aided and abetted by many of our local governments, land-ration. We are relatively high immigration country (and we are good at cherry-picking our migrants). Of course our housing prices have surged, and surged, and surged.

So, is it a "housing bubble", allegedly one of the worst seen? The problem is the word "bubble".  By "bubble" people typically mean that (asset) prices surge upwards, then collapse pretty quickly. The problem is that the term bubble has no useful predictive value. If we could reliably predict turning points (of prices) there would be no such "bubbles", because people would generally not purchase at a price that were reliably expected to collapse. So, the entire notion depends on unknown turning points.

The same goes with notions of "overvalued" assets. If that means anything, it means that future prices are expected to be lower. But, if that is a general expectation, they will not reach that price in the first place.

Expectations matter a lot to asset prices, because assets are things which are expected to provide enduring benefits--either as a store of value, or a producer of income, or both--over more than one time period. And we have no information from future time periods, only expectations about them based on already existing information.

Asking the right question
The question which people are fumbling towards asking is the one they should focus on directly: how stable are these prices? How vulnerable are they to new information? That is an excellent question.

In the case of new technology, very vulnerable: because, well, it is new, and thus has large amount of uncertainty (in the Knightian sense of unable to be reliably calculated). Hence new technology is a great generator of asset price instability (pdf), of asset boom and busts. One of the features of the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) was new technology in the finance industry.

If the asset prices are built on strong income expectations, they will be very vulnerable to any sudden fall in income expectations. That is, the central bank screwing up. They will be particularly vulnerable to that if the asset purchasing is highly leveraged.

If the asset prices are built on supply constraints, they will be vulnerable to any sudden removal of said supply constraints.

They will also be vulnerable to any sudden shift in specific demand for that asset not covered above.  For example, in the case of housing, a drop in immigration.

So, does Australia have various housing bubbles? That is the wrong question, focusing on unknowable turning points based on not yet existing information. The correct question is: are Australian house prices vulnerable to sudden downward shifts?

Absolutely: if the RBA screws up income expectations, if there is a major drop in immigration, if State and Territory governments suddenly abolish land rationing--from which they garner a lot of tax revenue plus grateful home-owning and -buying voters while political parties get a lot of funding from developers who (in a land rationing policy regime) simply have to have access to officials to operate their businesses and are willing to pay for it. (Ironically, that it is such a universal practice among our State and Territory governments actually makes its price effects more resilient, as there is unlikely to be negative signalling across markets.)

So, how likely do you think any of them are? Not very I would have thought. Ironically, the most likely is the RBA screwing up; and the most likely scenario for that is that it makes the mistake of paying attention to (via) the "it's your fault!" bubble-manics and does what no central bank should ever do--get into the "bubble-popping" game. Especially as the most likely effect thereof is to make the leveraging problem worse (pdf); potentially much, much worse.

So, do Australian housing prices make much more sense now? Isn't to useful to frame the questions in the right way? Bubble-mania, it will rot your analysis.

[Cross-posted at Skepticlawyer.]

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Virtue and jihadis

It appears, that to be a properly Virtuous Western progressive, one has to simultaneously accept the following propositions:

(1) Western killing of Muslims in military conflicts recruits for jihadis such as the Islamic State.

(2) Jihadi killing of Muslims (much more common) does not repel such recruits.

(3) The Islamic State is not Islamic.

It appears to provide a splendid example of how contradiction is not a bug but a feature of Virtue signalling--if you are prepared to swallow all this simultaneously, you are very Virtuous, a member of  Club Virtue in excellent standing. Of course, such views appear to be quite common in Muslim communities (for example, in Australia); but they are also about defending congenial belief in the face of inconvenient evidence.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Something obscurantist this way comes

Reading a book that appalls you can be a bracing experience. It was also unexpected; this is not a reaction I can remember having to a book before.

The book has a title I agree with: Ideas Have Consequences. Regarded as a classic text of  postwar American conservatism, the book is a long jeremiad at the corruption of culture and social life stemming from the nominalism of William of Ockham (him of Occam's Razor).

I have no problem with someone finding things to admire in medieval society and thought. But the notion that the passage of human history has, since the C14th, been a story of decline is such appalling nonsense that I am stunned any intelligent person can offer it seriously.

The Wikipedia entry on the author, Richard Weaver, tells us that he was both a Platonist and a defender of Southern culture. The former brings to mind Etienne Gilson's observations about Platonism in his The Unity of Philosophical Experience:
Begotten in us by things themselves, concepts are born reformers that never lose touch with reality. Pure ideas, on the other hand, are born within the mind and from the mind, not as an intellectual expression of what is, but as models, or patterns, of what ought to be: hence they are born revolutionists. And this is the reason Aristotle and Aristotelians write books on politics, whereas Plato and Platonists always write Utopias (Pp54-5).
Extending that point, as Gilson says, in his God and Philosophy:
Truly to be means to be immaterial, immutable, necessary and intelligible. That is precisely what Plato calls Ideas. (p.24)
Naturally, if ideas are so wonderful, then they are more “real” than mere transitory people: to have a “true grasp” of such wonderful ideas gives on a status far beyond that of ordinary mortals. Platonic Guardians here we come. Hence the politics of “my ideas are more important than people”. Not merely in the sense of ways of making people lives better, but in the sense of disregarding the actual consequences of one's ideas for people, of requiring people to conform to the ideas regardless of the consequences to them.

Willful blindness has consequences
Ideas Have Consequences does not argue, so much as assert; often in such rotund generalities that following how, if at all, it connects to reality is somewhat murky, to put it politely. There is a deep hankering for a sense of lost certainty that Weaver seems to believe reached some apotheosis in the C13th and began to be lost from the C14th onwards. For someone so clearly steeped in Western culture, Weaver has a remarkably poor sense of history. Far from being accidental, this poor sense of history appears to be necessary to protect his particular sensibility.

This hankering for lost certainties pervades the work, as in comments such as:
But the Symbolists retained a Romantic's interest in the intimate and in the individual, with the result that their symbols came not from some ideology universally accepted but from experiences almost private (p.82).
The notion that art based on private experience is somehow decadent or otherwise problematic is based on a conception of people-as-problem. The work is pervaded by a sensibility deeply reminiscent of Dostoyevsky's Grand Inquisitor; people have to be controlled and moulded by their betters -- particularly in their beliefs. As when Weaver asks whether literacy has value (p.94), holding that truth can only be effectively conveyed by personal teaching (thereby limiting it to the elite with the leisure to undertake it). Obscurantism as self-satisfaction is not a pretty sight.

But this distrust of people goes with the horror of nominalism, for what would encourage a sense of the power of the particular more than taking people -- in all their variety of experience and sensibility -- seriously? Weaver again and again denounces manifestations of modern life as egotism and manifestations of a "spoiled child psychology". Yet, behind the jeremiad seems to be a disappointed scion of a culture fallen on hard times who resents that the modern world took his social toys away.

Naturally, he hates newspapers, radio, cinema, the mass technology of communication (Pp93ff); not for him Jefferson's preference of newspapers without government over government without newspapers. We are offered the banal observation that the great works of intellect are better than journalism (Pp98-9).

Naturally, Weaver also hates Jazz (Pp85ff); holds that music has been in decline since Beethoven while Impressionism is a similar sign of the degeneration of art (Pp83ff).

The book's sensibility rests on a frozen concept of social order and a hostility to cultural difference and the range of human experience. Weaver may be steeped in Western culture, but he has remarkably little sense of other cultures (which, of course, then limits his sense of his own). When he suggests that the growth of landscape painting as a sign of a loss of sense of divinity (p.88), do the rich traditions of Chinese and Japanese landscape paintings make this at all a sensible judgement?

This deeply limited sense of the past leads to a poor sense of the present, and of future prospects. Thus, the growth of democracy rather contradicts his expectations of despotism (p.91) and he is deaf to any sense of the genuine moral progress that Pinker has documented. He is blind to experience beyond that of the cultured, and privileged, Western male. So, for example, he appears utterly unaware of the imposed nature of female subordination (p.178) in what he regards as their "natural" role.

Weaver dislikes machines -- he is clearly unaware of the medieval fascination with them. He offers a ludicrously metaphysical analysis of the Great Depression and responses to it (p.144).

But this sense of loss certainties is itself deeply ahistorical. That, for example, Aquinas's thought was seriously controversial when it first appeared seems to pass him by. To the extent there were social certainties, they were certitudes based in part on ignorance and often defended by brutality.

For any serious outbreak of new knowledge and capacity encourages nominalism, as previous verities and categories are exposed as inadequate. Nominalism was as natural a result of the expansion in knowledge of the natural world and technological possibilities in the C12th Renaissance as it was to the Hellenistic Scientific Revolution or to the expansion in knowledge from C16th global exploration and the (second?) Scientific Revolution it kicked off. Nominalism--breaking things down to specific manifestations--is a way of absorbing new information and reconstructing categories better able to handle the same. This is also why becoming a nexus civilisation -- a civilisation newly connected to a range of other cultures -- so regularly leads to artistic and intellectual flowerings; it is a positive effect of the shock of the new.

If the previous conceptualisations were such eternal verities, further knowledge and experience would confirm them.  The problem is that expansion in knowledge and experience repeatedly undermined them.  For such verities and categories are creations of particular historical circumstances and rely on exclusions and ignorance to make them seem unchallengeable. The more limited and specific experience/available information, the easier certainty is because the more constrained one's experience of possibilities.

But there are also consequences for moral sensibilities and social possibilities from expanded knowledge and capacities. As the background constraints change, so do the possibilities and interactions we want to protect. Moral perspectives and social possibilities change according to constraints, possibilities and conceptions. There is nothing surprising about this.

Credence but not authority
The book encapsulates, in a particularly intense form, the difference between giving credence to the past and giving it authority. Far from being the same thing, they are, to a large degree, opposites (or, at least, antinomies). For to give authority to the past is to fail to give it full credence. To give authority to the past is choose which parts of it to give credence to. It is to impose a congenially selective sense of significance on it.

For example, how many of those opposing current claims to equal protection of the law -- often on the basis of defending tradition -- are beneficiaries of previous decisions that mere persistence through time was not enough reason to keep things as they had been? Traditions are not eternal things, they are responses to circumstances. Those responses might have been broadly based, or they might be exercises in social power. If we cannot revisit how and why they evolved, we attempt to make history the permanent possession of a given set of victors.

Due to the cognitive limitations of the human mind, reality is always going to be more complex than what the mind can grasp. The problem comes when the human mind insists on reality as conforming to those simplicities it finds congenial. The alleged respect for the past and (congenial) experience usually conceals a willful refusal to inquire into the realities of that past and what experience counts, or does not.

As I have noted before, conservatives turn out to be regularly very bad at learning from history. They tend to idolise the past in much the same way that progressives idolise the future. They are just different ways of ignoring and discounting human experiences, of sacrificing giving credence to the past in order to selectively give it authority (positively or negatively).

Not that the progressivist-modernist approach of giving the past negative authority is any improvement. On the contrary, the more such a view is taken, the more disastrous and oppressive the results are likely to be, as it gives little or no credence to the past (and all the knowledge of the human it entails), thereby making current theory the only reference point, while cutting off from consideration warnings and achievements from past experience. (Consider the way Leninism utterly disregards millennia of experience of the problems of political power.) The modernist impulse has been vastly destructive.

A form of destruction that Platonist worship of ideas feeds. Consider the society in Plato's Republic; is it not profoundly modernist, profoundly based on imposing a theory on human possibilities with pervasive discounting of past experience and institutional learning?

But obscurantism and modernism are not our only choices, no matter how much politics tends to devolve into Bagehot's stupid party versus silly party. Grounding our ideas in human experience -- all of it -- is a great barrier to sacrificing people to ideas.

Ideas do have consequences, and Weaver's massive discounting of human experience in the service of the authority of a past so selectively considered as to be a grotesque work of fiction is no way to understand the past, the present or prospects for the future. Weaver's book may have helped kick off postwar American conservatism but it is also a window into its flaws and limitations.

[A previous version was posted at Skepticlawyer.]

Saturday, March 28, 2015

The nonsense debate over whether the Islamic State is Islamic

Despite claims that political correctness is merely about politeness and not offending folk, the Virtue-signalling that underlies political correctness corrupts public debate in various ways--it puts a criteria (status-as-Virtuous) above facts, it elevates intent over consequences and it sets up various taboos and ludicrous moral distinctions. Such as, for example, the claim that there is some great moral difference between "coloured people" and "people of colour".

It also creates fundamentally silly public debates, such as over whether the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is, as it obsessively claims to be, Islamic. 

Pernicious identity
Is ISIS mainstream Islam? Clearly not; it regards itself as being at war with mainstream Islam that has allowed itself to be corrupted by unbelief. Is it supported by most Muslims? Also, clearly not. But Islam, like Christianity, is a broad religion with a long history. Just because something is not mainstream, and is supported by only a minority of believers, does not mean it is not of that religion, or grounded in a particular variant or strain within it.

Note that this debate over what is "really" Islamic is not a debate which has anywhere near the same salience regarding Christianity or Judaism. It is a manifestation of an "essentialist" claim that would be derided if used elsewhere--the sort of folk who worry about what is "really" or "authentically" Muslim or Islamic would typically be very hostile to debates about what was "really" or "authentically" English, British, Australian, Western etc and likely to be highly contemptuous of attempts to exclude folk who do bad things from being Christian, Jewish, Western etc on the basis of some claim that they were not "authentically" such.

Islam is the easiest religion in the world to join: simply publicly make the profession of faith, the Shahada, ("there is no God but Allah and Muhammad is messenger of God") and one has submitted and become a Muslim. There are various fringe groups that many Muslims do not regard as Muslim (the Alawites, for example) because of various doctrinal additions they adhere to, but that is a common feature of religions. (How many Christians do not regard Mormons as really Christian?)

Islam is a hard religion to leave--the traditional penalty for apostasy is death. That, in itself, just makes it a monotheistic religion, as Christianity and Judaism have historically embraced the "apostasy warrants death" view.  The difference with contemporary Christianity and Judaism is that many Muslims still believe apostasy warrants death and various Islamic countries still make such apostasy a crime (up to, and including, the death penalty).

If adherents to ISIS profess their belief in Islam (as they clearly do) and are not apostates (as they clearly aren't) then they are Muslim. Just as ISIS is clearly a manifestation of Islam as a civilisation. (Of Islamdom, so to speak.) Indeed, ISIS itself is part of a long history of violent, purifying movements that claim to go back to the "original" and "authentic" Islam (such as the Almoravids, Almohads, Safavids, etc).

Graeme Wood's long essay in the Atlantic about ISIS made its Islamic nature and concerns very clear.  It has provoked various responses, such as by Mehdi Hasan in the New Statesman, which itself led to a response by historian Tom Holland also in the New Statesman, which has led to further responses. Such as this blog post.  

Both Mehdi Hasan's piece, and the response to Tom Holland, want to claim that if something is not mainstream, orthodox or supported by a majority of Muslims, then it is not Islamic. As any historian will tell you, that is a nonsense restriction. Something can be not mainstream, not orthodox, not supported by a majority, yet clearly be of that religion. If one simply wants to make clear about ISIS not being mainstream, orthodox, or supported by a majority of Muslims, then there is lots of evidence for that. It is making the extra claim that it is "not Islamic" which is the nonsense, which is going a step too far. 

Why go there? Some reasons are alluded to in the blog post responding to Tom Holland--the desire not to taint all Muslims with the sins of some Muslims. First, note that this touching concern is not a general one--Western civilisation, for example, is clearly regarded as tainted by any bad thing any state or group therein has done. (Indeed, all white folk are apparently tainted by any bad thing any white person has done.) Second, this is almost childishly simple-minded: of course such a broad religion as Islam has many strains within it. This is attempting to ignore the reality of Islam in favour of some childish, cardboard-cut-out version of it. (And we are back to Virtue-signalling setting up a criteria above truth.)

Medhi Hasan's piece essentially ignores the entire history of Islamism/political Islam/Muslim fundamentalism. Which also means ignoring decades of resistance and opposition within Islam (both as a religion and a civilisation) by Muslims and people of Muslim heritage to political Islam/Islamism/Muslim fundamentalism. Mention is made of most of ISIS's victims being Muslim--which is most emphatically true of political Islam in general--but that decades-long specific history of opposition is glossed over or ignored. 

Why? First, because it gets in the way of "blame the West". It is strange how Muslim deaths due to Western actions are supposed to inspire support for ISIS, yet apparently Muslim deaths by ISIS only count as a sign of ISIS not being Islamic. Looking at the decades-long history of Islamism/political Islam/Muslim fundamentalism tells a much more complicated story than "blame the West". However inconvenient that might be, for example, for Virtue-signalling. 

Second, because something the critics within Islam of Islamism/political Islam/Muslim fundamentalism typically do not do, is try and deny that it is Islamic. They are all too aware of its religious nature, its religious claims, its attempt to hijack Islamic identity.

Indeed, it is Islamism/political Islam/Muslim fundamentalism's claim that to be the "true", "authentic" Islam which is so telling about its Islamic nature. The claim that it is not Islamic is mere propaganda, and pretty transparent mere propaganda at that.

Denying agency
One can also see the pernicious effects of Virtue-signalling at work in the juxtaposition of the notion that we should respect folk of different cultural backgrounds and then ignore the history of, in this case, an entire civilisation. Except as a victim-foil to Western history. It is preserving Muslims as sacred victims.

As an aside, Judaism, Christianity and Islam have a long history of teaching each other bigotry and techniques of bigotry. "No rights for queers, pagans and apostates" was something Christianity learnt from Judaism and both passed on to Islam. The techniques of dhimmi treatment was Islam extending, formalising, regularising and theologising the treatment of Jews in the Christian Eastern Roman Empire. From which systemisation, the Catholic Church, at the Fourth Lateran Council, adopted the idea of special clothing for Jews (to which it, of course, added Muslims where Sharia specified Christians). Anti-black racism was pioneered by North African Muslim writers to justify mass enslaving (rather than converting, so making them ineligible to be slaves) of sub-Saharan Africans and continues to exist within the Arab world. But to grasp the back-and-forth history, one has to see Islam as a civilisation in its own right; not reduce Muslims to dependant causal puppets, merely reacting to Western actions.

One can see a socio-political point in trying to excise Islamism/political Islam/Muslim fundamentalism from Islam, but such strategy is not truth. Nor is it remotely plausible outside those who are keen on Virtue-signalling. (Including, of course, the view that Islam is inherently virtuous.) This is just another version of the No True Scotsman fallacy.

In the West, people of Muslim heritage who are critics of Islamism/political Islam/Muslim fundamentalism typically find they are subject to various ways of "managing" them; typically to preserve a positive image of Islam. The notion that there is a single Islamic identity (and it requires protection) actually ends up doing much of the work of Islamism/political Islam/Muslim fundamentalism for it, since they are so insistent that there is only one "authentic" Islam, which they represent. 

The response to that is not to make the (false) claim that adherents of Islamism/political Islam/Muslim fundamentalism are not Islamic, but to contest the claim that Islam is just one identity. To pretend that Islam is entirely unproblematic, that there are no problematic or awkward ideas within it, is not the clever, adult thing to do; it is childish. It puts Virtue-signalling over truth. (It also feeds into Islamist/political Islam/Muslim fundamentalist claims about true Islam as social harmony, a cure to social alienation.)  Muslims are not children and we should not implicitly, or explicitly, treat them as such.

[Cross-posted at Skepticlawer.]

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Why, in the PC universe, there is a paucity of bad Muslims.

Jeffrey Herf (Professor of History, University of Maryland) recently suggested that President Obama apply the same standards to Christianity and Islam. This is a delightfully naive suggestion.

First, there seems to be a belief among various Western leaders that criticising any strain within Islam is somehow a criticism of all Muslims. This is, of course, pathetically condescending, but is an understandable result of the application of identity politics to Muslims as an undifferentiated group.

Second, the Obama Administration--whose utterances make sense if treated as the faculty lounge mutterings of a mediocre university Sociology department--is clearly pervaded by the use of such identity politics as a device for signalling virtue.

Third, considering strains within Islam as problematic leads naturally, and awkwardly, to critical analysis of the ideology of the Iranian regime. And that would not be helpful, to say the least, to the Administration's (apparently increasingly desperate) desire to achieve some sort of over-arching deal with Iran. (That is, the Iranian regime which most Iranians have come to loathe.)

Invisible Islamism
In the PC universe, as instanced by the rhetoric of the Obama Administration, there is no such thing as bad Muslims, because if you are really bad then you are not really Muslim--hence the Islamic State is "not Islamic", it is a perversion of a great (un-named) religion. Conversely, Jews are not victims because they are Jews, they are unlucky victims of "random" attack. Yet, three Muslims are killed, and the President is all about folk not being targeted for their religion. This refusal to talk in terms of Islamic origins and Islamic motives is clearly considered and continuing policy.

This is part of a much wider pattern, where Western liberals, progressives and folk of the left (with a few honourable exceptions) refuse to talk seriously about (often even notice) Islamism/political Islam/Muslim fundamentalism, much to the deep and abiding frustration of their confreres in the Islamic world. When individual Muslims do bad things, their Muslim identity is often downplayed or ignored.

Critics of political correctness delight in pointing out such absurdities and contradictions, but they do not understand: those contradictions and absurdities are not a bug, they are a feature.

Signalling virtue
First, the point of political correctness is to signal virtue (or, rather, Virtue with a very capital 'V'). Precisely because the point is to signal Virtue, by adapting Xavier Marquez's theory of cults of personality as loyalty signalling, we can see how the willingness to embrace absurdities and contradictions just demonstrates how committed to being Virtuous you are.

Marquez's theory of cults of personality is quite straightforward. How do you signal loyalty in a situation where loyalty is compulsory? You go completely over the top. You show yourself willing to engage in positively nauseating public displays of flattery and adulation.

So, how do you signal Virtue in a situation where moralised discourse is compulsory? You get really, really finicky about the use of language and commitment to various moral mascots (to use Thomas Sowell's expression) or sacred victims (to use Jonathan Haidt's analysis).

Thus, just as cults of personality have flattery inflation, political correctness has Virtue inflation. Leading to what has been rather nicely (if amusingly nastily) described as look-at-me-I’m-the-most-special-snowflake factionalism. As Patricia Arquette discovered, when she made a short, passionate speech at the Oscars for equal pay for women. And immediately the "I'm the more special snowflake" Virtue inflation erupted. The heterosexual white woman failed to check her privilege and to get the moral ordering correct. Outraged denunciations thundered forth (all via).

All part of the PC universe, where there is a deep moral difference between "coloured people" and "people of colour". For, by keeping up with the latest usage, one signals commitment to Virtue.

Sometimes, such Virtue inflation really does simply inflate (via):
Open House is a safe space for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Transsexual, Queer, Questioning, Flexual, Asexual, Genderf–k, Polyamourous, Bondage/Disciple, Dominance/Submission, Sadism/Masochism (LGBTTQQFAGPBDSM) communities and for people of sexually or gender dissident communities.
Why not just say "queer"? Indeed, the more confronting the exoticism of a group (especially to previous moral and cultural usages), the better they function as differentiating markers of Virtue.

Which is where swallowing absurdity and self-contradiction comes in. Just as the adherent of a cult of personality goes over the top to signal loyalty to the ruler, so an adherent of the cult of Ostentatious Virtue accepts contradiction and absurdity to show their commitment to Virtue.

Which makes contemporary Islam (infected with Islamism) perfect as a marker of Virtue. To be truly Virtuous, one must understand when misogyny, queer-hatred, Jew-hatred and being anti-democratic count, and when they do not. One must understand when to See No Evil and when to see Only Evil. So, precisely because Islamism is so misogynist, so full of queer-hatred, Jew-hatred, hostility to democracy, so willing to engage in massacre, it makes "See No Evil" treatment of Muslims such a splendid marker of Virtue.  Treating Islamism--with its misogyny, queer-hatred, Jew-hatred, hostility to democracy, recurring slaughter--as ideally as a non-Muslim event (or otherwise a non-morally-significant-event) becomes part of signalling Virtue.

As Jonathan Haidt notes, sacredness involves abandoning trade-offs. The sacred victims are not placed with other mere mortals within a web of trade-offs between moral principles, but elevated to a special moral purity. So, Islam (or at least Muslim identity) purifies and ennobles in a way that Christian belief and identity most emphatically do not. As we can see in President Obama's selective silences.

Those irritating Jews
Jew-hatred, for example, becomes something of a non-issue for the Virtuous (unless specifically pressed on the subject), as it is nowadays overwhelmingly concentrated in the Muslim world, including Muslim communities in the West. Under the See No Muslim Evil approach, it becomes impossible to see that Israel is primarily not hated because of its treatment of the Palestinians; overwhelmingly it is hated because it is successful Jews--something Israel cannot do anything about, except to disappear. But to critically examine Muslim Jew-hatred would wildly get in the way of using Muslims as moral mascots and sacred victims, so such Jew-hatred (to the extent that it gets noticed at all) gets blamed on the Jews, using the fig-leaf of "anti-Zionism". Thus, nothing bad is to be inferred about the security guards outside Jewish schools and synagogues--except about Jews (via the Jewish state).

Who thereby become the only hate-target group to be blamed for being hated, via the fig-leaf of "anti-Zionism". (Which much of the European elite are happy to buy into, as they have never forgiven the Jews for the Holocaust, of which the Jewish state is a permanent reminder--the Holocaust does so get in the way of the European elite's pretensions to be the moral elite and arbiters for the globe and Jews are such a small, and declining, percentage of Europe's population.) To blame anyone but the Jew(ish state), would be to fatally undermine the See No Muslim Evil marker of Virtue.

Thus, to notice that Israel has (to put it mildly) a much better record on queer rights than its Arab neighbours, including its Palestinian neighbours, becomes "pinkwashng". To quote a Hamas leader saying, for example:
You do not live like human beings. You do not (even) live like animals. You accept homosexuality. And now you criticize us?
Is to be not playing the Ostentatious Virtue game.

Refusing to acknowledge that Islam is both a religion and a civilisation, Muslims are Virtuously defined by their religion (or some useful conception thereof), so that to criticise Islam is somehow to denigrate all Muslims. A principle not applied to, for example, Christians.

Lumping all Muslims together in a common identity does a great deal of the Islamists' work for them, as the Islamists are so very much about Islam as a single, completely trumping, identity. But, as Ostentatious Virtue puts such huge moral weight on belief, that provides another convergence between Islamism and Ostentatious Virtue. As does a sufficiently anodyne notion of "anti-imperialism"--provided one is prepared to completely toss over any notion of anti-fascism--and a shared propensity to collective moral narcissism.

Totalitarian Othering
To take the menace of Islamism seriously would fatally undermines the See No Muslim Evil marker of Virtue. So, Islamism's ideology is ignored (or misrepresented). A useful instancing summary of said ideology is here:
In the Holy Quran, Allah (SWT) has promised the Muslim nation the authority to rule over the world based on only one condition. That condition is to follow His orders in absolute manner and not to associate any partners with Him. Because Allah (SWT) has said “Verily, Allah forgives not the partners should be set up with Him (in worship), but He forgives except that (anything else) to whom He pleases, and whoever sets up partners with Allah (in worship), he has indeed invented a tremendous sin.” ...
Once the Jews and Christians have realized that it is no longer possible for them to make the Muslims worship idols, they have invented idols in the name of various ideologies (such as Democracy, Regional Nationalism etc.) to derail the Muslims from their Fundamental Belief. They have forced others to accept their ideologies through deceptive tricks, and even by applying military force where necessary. Apart from that they, have masked their Idols in the names of “Society”, “State Governance” etc, in such a manner that unless a Muslim is highly conscious, it is not possible for him to unveil these masks. In vain he unknowingly gets trapped in the web of conspiracies of Jews and Christians. ...
A practical example is the most prevailing social order of this present world -DEMOCRACY- The fundamental guiding principle of Democracy (Stimulated by Former U.S.A. President Abraham Lincoln) is “Democracy for the people of the people by the people”. Thus, to accept Democracy is to believe that people are sovereign and the source of ALL power. Let us take a look at some statements given by majority of political scientists. From among them Austin has said “LAW IS THE WILL OF SOVEREIGN” and Jan Boda has said “IT IS THE DUTY OF THE SOVEREIGN TO MAKE LAW”. So we can understand from their statements that if the people are sovereign and the source of all power then the authority is in their hand to make law in a Democratic system. Whereas on the other hand, Allah (SWT) (the Creator of people and the Great Lord of the Cosmopolitan) has declared that “And to Allah belongs the sovereignty of the heaven and the earth, and to Allah is the return (of all).” ...
But not many people realize the clear meaning of the above Verses that, Democracy and Islam directly contradict each other. Nevertheless few people are aware of the fact that they will lose their Imaan upon accepting the ideologies (such as Democracy) of the Jews and Christians.
It is sad to say, instead of awaring Muslims of this fact, a group of people from among the Muslims, some hypocrites in the disguise of preachers of Islam, are making every effort to make the Muslims believe that “Democracy” is in congruence with Islam and it is the best system in the present situation of the world. With their misguided speech and explanations, these hypocrites are ruining and diminishing the main pillar of Imaan and Aqeedah of Muslims (Tawheed). Due to this, people who claim to be Muslims cannot understand that these ideologies are rather double-faced and controversial the Islam and with one’s Imaan. They fail to understand that it is an outright act of shirk to involve oneself in the work of constitutions based on such ideologies!
To describe such for what it is--a totalitarian project of social and global domination--is to violently contradict the game of See No Muslim Evil as marker of Virtue.  To notice the pervasive and vicious Othering involved is even more so.

Hence the antipathy to apostates such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali--by insisting on applying general moral principles to the lives of (in particular) women in Muslim communities, she utterly gets in the way of treating Muslims as a group as moral mascots and sacred victims. Thereby ignoring real victims; the oppression and misery hidden away in God-locked communities, themselves full of intense Othering.

Which means that the See No Muslim Evil as marker of Virtue becomes an exercise in systematic denial of realty, of the facts of the matter. Said denial being not just a river in Egypt, but a basic underpinning of the Obama Administration's Middle Eastern policy. 

This is not at all likely to end well.

But it manifests elsewhere. Thus Ayaan Hirsi Ali found that the Dutch government--which collected all sorts of statistics on violence--did not statistically identify (dis)honour killings because, in the words of civil servants in the Ministry of Justice:
We don't register murders based on a category of motivation. It would stigmatise one group in society. (p.296).
Just contemplate the moral calculus involved in that decision for a moment.

But the same concern over status as Virtuous versus actual lived lives and real (rather than "sacred") victims manifested in the Rotherham scandal, where racism (correctly understood as concern for one's status as Virtuous) seriously got in the way of doing anything about real victims.

It really is about a Virtual morality substituting for an elementary decency one. 

Oh, and just to be clear. Yes, I am saying that the self-righteous adherents of the cult of Ostentatious Virtue in the West care more about their own sense of warm inner glow, moral vanity and collective sense of Virtue than the brutal realities of massacre and oppression that Islamists has been engaged in for decades now, because they give those deaths and oppressions so little practical significance.
Women killed by Muslim fundamentalists in Algeria in the 1990s.

Worse, they passively or actively collaborate in the Islamist hijacking of Muslim identity (such as completely failing to put the Charlie Hebdo attack in the context of a decades-long campaign of murder and assassination against Muslim, and Muslim heritage, writers and journalists), burbling on about--utterly undifferentiated--"Muslim" sensibilities: a pattern that goes back to responses to the fatwa against Salman Rushdie. Given the manifold victims of Islamism, we can see that Muslim lives do not count if they get in the way of the game of Ostentatious Virtue; a game of never-mind-the-lived-reality-of-others, feel one's Virtue.

[Cross posted at Skepticlawyer.]