Thursday, December 28, 2017

Vampire Diaries versus True Blood

I have long been fond of vampire stories, particularly films and TV shows. This is something of a cliche among same-sex attracted folk -- intimate sharing of bodily fluids in intense, often apparently orgasmic, experiences manifesting desire incorporating folk of the same-sex by powerful beings who get others to conform to those desires: what's not to like?

I very much enjoyed all 7 seasons of Buffy and all 5 seasons of Angel. The musical episode of Buffy is according to IMDB (Internet Movie Data Base) ratings, close to perfect television. And who can forget the puppet episode of Angel? I also very much enjoyed the vampire noir of Ultraviolet which, across its episodes, never used the "V-word".

When True Blood came along, billed as "vampires for adults", I was initially quite engaged. I had read and enjoyed many of the books in the Southern Vampire series by Charlaine Harris that inspired the TV series. Yet I gave up on True Blood in the 4th season.

Conversely, I had ignored The Vampire Diaries as just teen angst vampire romance. Having eventually given it a go, I am now watching the 8th (and final) season. I enjoy even more its spinoff series The Originals (now in its 5th season, though I have only seen the first two).

Which made me wonder, why did The Vampire Diaries hold my attention much more than True Blood did?

I find the IMDB ratings, if enough people rate a show, to be pretty good wisdom-of-crowds indicators of quality. The IMDB ratings (out of 10) of the aforementioned shows, are, in downward order:
The Originals, 8.3
Buffy, 8.2
Ultraviolet, 8.1
Angel, 8.0
True Blood, 7.9
The Vampire Diaries, 7.8
So, not a lot of variance; though The Vampire Diaries-Originals franchise is the most successful (producing the highest IMDB rated show of the group, though slightly lower combined rating, and more total seasons than the Buffy-Angel franchise).

True Blood and The Vampire Diaries are a mere 0.1 apart in IMDB ratings and why one engaged me more successfully than the other is not because of any clear difference in acting performances, eye candy or dialogue. Indeed, my stand-out favourite performance in either series is the (sadly) late Nelsan Ellis's performance of Lafayette in True Blood.

Nor is it a matter of moral seriousness. The Vampire Diaries has no moral centre whatsoever. (Nor, for that matter, does The Originals, which operates rather as a supernatural gangster show.)

True Blood has a much stronger queer element, starting with Lafayette, than The Vampire Diaries but that hardly seems a drawback for moi.  Nor am I one of those sad queer folk who demands queer content to enjoy something, though I devour male-male romance e-books.

The fabulousness that is
The Vampire Diaries has no moral centre, but it does have an emotional one. I have found it genuinely moving at times. Which gets to why it held my attention much more than True Blood.

First is place. Mystic Falls, the town at the centre of The Vampire Diaries, is more successfully and engagingly evoked as a place than Bon Temps in True Blood. The Originals has New Orleans, which almost counts as an unfair advantage, but has meant that The Originals continues and improves the evocation of place that worked for The Vampire Diaries.

Second, and related, is family. True Blood does not really take family seriously. It appears to, but families tend to be dysfunctional adjuncts to characters rather than engaged structural elements of the story. Vampire Diaries takes family more seriously, starting with the two central characters, the Salvatore brothers Stefan and Damon. Characters are very much placed in family contexts, with family histories which operate more than backstory props, with family being treated as a serious factor in people's emotional lives for good and ill. Which, in turn, helps Mystic Falls be a more successfully evoked place than Bon Temps.

Again, this strength applies even more to The Originals, which is centred around the original Vampire family, the Mikkaelsons. Particularly the brothers Klaus and Elijah, but extending to their father, mother, and siblings. But families as living and shaping legacies applies also to other The Originals characters, human, witch or werewolf.

True Blood, particularly in its opening credits, is more self-consciously culture-political than Vampire Diaries, which is a mixed feature, as it can get in the way of the story telling. True Blood is a bit too inclined to see the South in terms of its flaws, which weakens the show's use of family and invocation of place.

The Vampire Diaries also ends up creating a richer metaphysics than True Blood. In True Blood, supernatural creatures just are, and flit across the story more as mystery-marvels than things with a place. The Vampire Diaries, by contrast, is very much concerned to provide origin stories.

Which rather summaries why The Vampire Diaries held my interest more successfully than True Blood. It was more committed to story. Families as having stories, a specific town shaping stories, supernatural beings and structures as having stories. I stopped caring about what happened to characters in True Blood because it was too much one damned thing after another and too little people in connecting webs of people and place. For people who are inside stories have more capacity to engage than people who are story-props. The Vampire Diaries even managed to make a character who was off-screen for the last two seasons a continuing part of the story, both because of the way that was a continuing touchstone for the other central characters and because it enabled the show to return to the "diary" device by having various characters write entries to a journal of "what happened while you were away".

The character of Klaus Mikkaelson, played beautifully by Joseph Morgan, a recurring character in a couple of seasons of The Vampire Diaries and one of the central characters of The Originals, is an excellent example of character both in and driving story. He is clearly both embedded in his family and shaped by it. His life becomes focused around his (miraculous but explained) daughter. He is both highly intelligent and deeply emotionally flawed (for entirely understandable reasons: when you meet his parents, so much is explained--including why his brother Elijah is so keen to emotionally redeem Klaus). Indeed, being so smart, so cunning, yet so emotionally unbalanced, is central to Klaus's character dynamic -- he is smart/cunning enough to cope with his emotional flaws but too shaped by them to overcome them. Which generates plenty of dramatic tension, of course. But also makes him a deeply engaging, if at times horrifying, character. (Remember, no moral centre.)

The Vampire Diaries was more committed to story, which meant more committed to connections and place, than True Blood, which is why the former kept my interest in a way that the latter failed to do.

[Cross-posted at Skepticlawyer.]

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Islam as Philosophical Dead End

Classical (622 to c.940) and early medieval Islam was a civilisation and period with a rich philosophical tradition. Yet Islam became a philosophical dead end, an example of how societies, indeed, an entire civilisation, can stop supporting philosophy as a significant autonomous realm of enquiry. Islam is a civilisation where religion swallowed philosophy, with consequences we are still living with.

That Islam as a civilisation developed a rich philosophical tradition is obvious and well-documented. Thinkers writing in Arabic were particularly important in reconciling Aristotelianism with monotheism. Ibn Rushd (Averroes) (1126-1198) in particular was very influential in Latin Christendom. So much so that St Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), in his writings, would refer to Aristotle (384-322 BC) as The Philosopher and Ibn Rushd (Averroes) as The Commentator.

Yet that rich philosophical tradition dwindled away to vanishing point. It did so as the result of interaction between ideas and social change.

The social dwindling

The social change was the dwindling away of any basis for supporting scholarship and learning outside explicitly Islamic religious schools. The movement to a fief-based military administration reduced administrative bureaucracies, by far the most significant basis for non-religious intellectual life within Islamic societies, while dominance by Turkish-speaking warlords, from the time of the Seljuqs (1037-1153) onwards, led to a surge in ostentatious support for religion by rulers making up for their non-Arabness via ostentatious religious adherence and patronage.

The shock and devastation of the Mongol invasion (much larger and far more traumatic than Crusader seizure of narrow coastal strips), including the sack of Baghdad (1258), the only time the capital of a living Caliph had fallen to non-Muslims, aggravated these trends. The Mongol invasion and conquests, particularly the violent ending of the Abbasid Caliphate, apart from a sad shadow-line in Cairo, both disrupted what non-religious scholarly networks remained and encouraged a retreat into an intensified Islamic identity. These processes are well set out in Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia's Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane by S. Frederick Starr.

The religious trumping
The two philosophy-swallowing ideas developed from the Ash'ari Islamic school, being given their civilisation-winning form by al-Ghazali (c.1058-1111). The moral claim was that revelation was the only ground for ethical judgement. This effectively eliminates moral arguments as the West understands them (indeed, as all the origin civilisations for philosophy—the Hellenic world, northern India and China — understood them). It is why Islamic states are the only ones who have seen fit to issue an adjusted form of the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam, because all ethical arguments and claims have to be grounded in revelation.

The metaphysical claim is that Allah is the source of all non-human causation. Not merely the ground of causation in the Aristotelian sense, but literally the immediate cause of everything that happens. Allah remakes the world at every moment; what we see as causal patterns are merely the habits of Allah, which Allah can change at any moment.

Unsurprisingly, the dwindling away of philosophy also saw the dwindling away of science within Islam, as intellectual effort was directed back into religion. Especially as law was part of religion and religious scholarship, apart from elements (qanun) allowed to operate in the silences of Sharia.

In this way, Islam pre-eliminates competition to itself from within Islamic society. It does so by eliminating the category of moral arguments beyond itself and allocating all non-human causation to Allah. So the levers to replace religious grounding of social and physical understanding which led to the Western Enlightenment are absent within mainstream Islam, as they have no resting points. Especially as the Quran is held to be the literal word of God, a manifested miracle, written in a single language and, according to mainstream Sunni thought, outside time, so far more insulated from critical scholarship than the Christian scriptures.

Adoption aborted
The expansion of the non-religious intelligentsia from the early C19th onwards that the (much delayed) spread of the printing press and efforts of modernising rulers created in the Middle East appeared to give the basis for Islam as a civilisation to “catch up” with the West. A modernising intelligentsia did develop, but largely as a by-product and support for modernising regimes and states.

This centrally-organised, copycat modernisation largely failed to put down deep roots in Islamic societies. Worse, it became tied to success of those states and regimes. (In some ways, a repeat of what happened to the original wave of reason-based modernisers, the Mu'tazila of Classical Islam: Islam is a civilisation of strong recurring patterns.)

Islamic Enlightenment: the Struggle between Faith and Reason, 1798 to Modern Times by Christopher de Bellaigue provides a history of this modern abortive Enlightenment: an informative and perceptive review is here.

The Islamic world became dominated by fascist-analogue regimes. But defeat in the Dictators’ War (1939-1945) had rather discredited Fascism and the Soviet bloc was willing to supply arms and support to friendly regimes, so socialism became the dominant rhetorical flavour of non-monarchical regimes in the Islamic world. (Note that I mean socialism in its command economy sense rather than its “free-floating good intentions insulated from any failures” sense.)

But Arab socialism fared no better than its alternatives elsewhere; though, being less actually socialist, rather less catastrophically so. In the West, the failure of socialism led to postmodernism and its close associates, such as Critical Theory. In Islam, the failure of socialism led to political Islam (Islamiyya) and to a search for a purified Islam (notably the Salafi and Deobandi movements).

This was somewhat less of a difference than it might appear, as al-Ghazali’s causal analysis was grounded in essentially the same epistemologically sceptical argument about what we can know from observation later developed by Hume (1711-1776), which so influenced Kant (1724-1804) and from there led to postmodernism.

Moreover, Critical Theory permits no moral argument beyond itself, as the purpose of all “proper” intellectual endeavour is to support the struggle against oppression and any critique of that goal is, by definition, illegitimate defence of exploitation and oppression. An attitude which has seeped into the wider society (particularly the "cultural commanding height" industries of media, education, entertainment and IT) to the extent that start-up entrepreneur Sam Altman can report that it is easier to discuss heretical ideas in China (under a Leninist regime) than in Silicon Valley in California.

Monarchy, mosque and military
So both mainstream Islam and PoMo progressivism pre-eliminate competition. In Islam, outside the monarchical societies, the weakness of civil society leaves politics suspended between mosque and military. (The monarchies tend to have richer civil societies precisely because the monarchies both incorporate and balance between mosque and military and failed to wage quite the war on traditional society that the modernising military regimes did.)

The revival of the headscarf both speaks to the power of Islam and the revival of political Islam. (Trying to spin it as some sort of manifestation of female power is pathetic, even given that reveiling has largely been driven by [pdf] expanded education and employment opportunities for women, as it is a response responding to the power of Islamic belief.) That the Islamic world still has significant patches of relatively low literacy rates (especially for women), and (in the case of the Arab world) a strikingly low rate of translation of non-Arabic books, does not help the develop of non-religious thinking and ideas within Islamic civilisation.

What intellectual life there is within Islam remains trapped within the concerns of the early Western Enlightenment—how to replace and overcome religious grounding of social and physical understandings versus how to insulate religion from the pressures of modernity—and remains without the levers that the Western Enlightenment relied on. While there is some dim possibility of a moderate modernising approach developing, Islam is not likely to stop being mostly a philosophical dead-end civilisation any time soon.

[Cross-posted at Skepticlawyer.]

Monday, December 18, 2017

Origins of philosophy

This very short post by philosopher Stephen Hicks states that:
*Metaphysically*, philosophy was born with Thales and the Milesians. *Epistemologically*, it was born with Parmenides and the Eleatics.
The Milesian school began around 600 BCE on the coast of Asia minor. The Eleatic school began around 500 BCE about 1100 kilometers west in the southern Italian peninsula.
He also has a nice post on what distinguishes philosophy from pre-philosophic thought.

There are three original cultures with serious philosophical traditions -- Greece, northern India and China. Their philosophical traditions all started in periods of small, competing polities sharing a common language and culture: the Archaic Period in Greece (776-480 BC), the Srmana Period in northern India (700s-332BC ) and the Spring and Autumn Period in China (771-456BC).

The contiguous time periods are very noticeable. One can see why German philosopher Karl Jaspers came up with the notion of an Axial Age. As for what they have in common, one is that they all had contact with the militarised pastoralist societies which developed as a result of the invention of the composite recurve bow and effective deployment of mounted archers. They were periods of increased urbanisation (particularly noticeable in India but also in the Hellenic world.) They were all places that developed coinage but that was after philosophy and is a natural response by urbanised trading polities to intense inter-polity competition.

In the case of China, the focus was on competing autocracies developing out of a vassalage-and-honour ("feudal") system. So Chinese philosophy focused on how to live and what to serve (Confucianism), how to rule (Legalism) and how to navigate serenely a world of flux (Taoism).

India had a range of types of polities, including deliberative assembly republics. The Vedic order was collapsing and being challenged by new ideas, notably Buddhism and Jainism, followed by the Brahmin response, which led to what is known as Hinduism or better understood as the Hindu synthesis. This clash of ideas, ways of thought, ways of being governed, led to the very rich Indian philosophical tradition, ranging from mathematics to ethics to metaphysics but with a strong tendency to an otherworldly focus.

The Hellenic world (which ranged from Spain to Crimea) also had a wide range of types of polities, but much less religious flux, resulting in a very rich philosophical tradition ranging from mathematics, to ethics to metaphysics but with a stronger element of epistemology than elsewhere and a more this-world focus leading to proto-science and (if physicist and historian of science Lucio Russo is correct) a full-blown Scientific Revolution in the Hellenistic Period.

Philosophy starting in culturally linked competing jurisdictions makes sense because:
(1) thinkers could move from less friendly to more friendly locales;
(2) diversity of polities led to more chances of "positive mutations" (i.e. mixtures of circumstances and institutions provoking, or friendly to, more intense and broader reasoning);
(3) common language facilitated far more connections between thinkers and ideas.

India and the Hellenic world had a far richer range of polities than China, leading to a much broader range of experience and examples for reasoning about social and political matters. The effect was much stronger in the Hellenic world, which had few significant monarchies and which was in contact with a much broader range of societies and geographies than northern India and far more so than China. In particular, the sheer number of polities with deliberative assemblies made the politics of persuasion a much stronger factor. This encourages thinking about rhetoric but also public reasoning in general.

So, it is not surprising that the Hellenic world had a somewhat broader ambit of philosophy than India and that both had much broader than China. Nor is it surprising that philosophy, as with other forms of human creativity, tends to operate more strongly in periods of polity diversity and competition.

[Cross-posted at Skepticlawyer.]

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Sex and gender

This is based on a comment I made here.

If you think the bodies are sexed (clearly true) and psyches are sexed (a bit murkier, but broadly true) then it is easy to get more than two genders.

Male (male in body and psyche)
Female (female in body and psyche)
Third (body and psyche don't match).

Plenty of human societies have worked on that basis.

You can even work on a simple matrix and get four genders (male-male, female-female, male-female, female-male). But third gender classification (really "other") is more common.

And some societies, without going all the way to third gender, have operated on sub-genders (e.g. males held to belong to a separate category because, hey, not sexually interested in girls). Western notions of sexuality are a way of modifying gender identity.

Sexuality or gender?
Back in the C19th, with the intersection between growing anthropological awareness of other societies' takes on gender with a critical mass of urbanisation, secularisation and communication making gender/sexual minorities more able to begin to organise, there was an argument in Western circles about whether queer folk should be treated as third gender. The notion of "homosexual" (and its derivatives, heterosexual and bisexual) won out, as it seemed more scientific and less of a shift of basic presumptions.

What we are seeing is a revisiting of that debate. Unfortunately, it is turning up on the wrong side of postmodernism, so rather than being grounded in ethnography and empiricism, it is all about feelz and discourses. Hence the ludicrous explosion of "genders".

What has not helped is that feminism has tended to talk so much about the penis & vagina, which actually do not mark the differences between males and females nearly as much as people think, as they both perform the same functions (bring gametes together, provide sexual pleasure). One's an innie (so receives) and the other's an outie (so penetrates), but they otherwise perform the same functions. If you take that as the key distinguishing feature between male and female, then, if one surgically turns one into the other, you have changed sex.

Except, of course, you haven't. People have just been surgically adjusted to better support a change of gender identity. Which, if we had a three gender system, would be fine--it would then get rid of those tedious and fruitless debates about who is a "real woman".

What really distinguishes male from female are testes, ovaries and mammaries. And no trans surgery actually provides those, just the external form of them. Hence trans surgery does not actually change one's sex, just physical form to support a change of gender identity. Something that there is a long history of via castration, such as eunuch priests and hijras.

All about the mammaries
Rather than the penis and vagina, the key for understanding the statistical patterns of cognitive differences between men and women is, in fact, the mammaries. (Mammaries are on the sex that gives birth, so that they are right there when the baby emerges.)

We are the cultural species, that is the secret of our success. To be the cultural species, we need big brains. So big, that they have to keep developing outside the womb.

Which requires extended childhoods, which leads to the oddness of the human mammaries--they are unusually large and prominent, they don't change shape all that much when lactating, and they can keep operating for years at a time to support those long childhoods. Hence female homo sapiens are the childminding sex. But we are the cultural species, which means we are the public space species. If one sex is the [what is compatible with] childminding sex, then the other will be the "everything you can't do while minding kids" sex, which makes it (the males) disproportionately the public space [i.e. outside household and immediate surrounds] sex.

In subsistence societies, producing the next generation requires a lot of available resources and attention. So, until the dramatic changes in production and reproduction technology over the last two centuries, the allocations of roles by sex in human societies has radiated out from [what was compatible with] childminding.

We have been the cultural species for many, many generations. Thousands of generations. Easily enough time to select for variated cognitive patterns. And even more than our long pregnancies, our long childhoods has driven that (hence mammaries being the most biologically important driver of cognitive differences).

So, irony of ironies, the biology required to be a species which can socially construct so much means that cognitive differences between men and women cannot be entirely socially constructed. Even more ironically, in societies of mass prosperity, the statistical cognitive patterns of men and women are becoming more divergent (pdf), not less, just as the notion of presumptive sex roles is being abandoned.

But these are very complex mechanisms, with a lot of overlap, and nature is always "throwing" the "genetic dice". Moreover, genes are not molds, they are recipes. So the "epigenetic dice" is also being "thrown". And all before we get into social and environmental influences. Hence psyches not lining up with biological sex in neatly differentiated ways. Nor, for that matter, does physical sex always line up in neatly differentiated ways.

Hence needing some language to talk of the people who do not fit. Having a third gender category does solve a lot of problems, which is why so many societies developed it. But that does not excuse the multiplying genders nonsense.

[Cross-posted at Skepticlawyer.]

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Black Lives Matter and the destruction of social capital

Recently read the following comment:
A second example i’ll give is Black Lives Matter. One is labeled racist/white supremacist/white nationalist/nazi if you say “no, All Lives Matter.” But the problem isn’t a devaluation or disrespect to the grievance (at least in all instances as it is implied) — it’s the selection of the name. ... In the BLM case, the name is overly narrow and the counter argument is equally disparaged. I’ve gotten into some heated discussions with Black/All/Blue lives matters all in a group and I posed a simple question: If the movement had started as “Police Accountability Matters” with the exact same issue to be resolved, would they react different — and all 3 opposing views suddenly agreed, everyone suddenly stopped the name calling and “arguing” and started discussing the pros & cons of ideas on how to solve the problem. They were all getting too hung up on the word selection and arguing about the rationality of each other based upon different interpretation of what the label meant.
Which fitted what had struck me about BLM, which is the destruction of social capital involved: that is, of positive social connections, of networked reciprocity.  

Social capital can reasonably be called capital, because it is a form of the produced factor of production (distinct from land, which is the acquired-from-nature factor of production, and labour, which is the reproduced factor of production). Other things being equal, the higher the level of social capital, the better functioning a society and the better prospects for a social group.

When the mainstream gay and lesbian community was seeking to achieve decriminalisation of their erotic lives, relationships with the police were crucial, for good and ill. The police were used to persecute the queer community, leading famously to the Stonewall riots

As the process of legal and social normalisation of homosexuality became increasingly successful, relationships with the police were still crucial, as gays and lesbians were particularly vulnerable to, and specifically targets of, violence. So the gay and lesbian communities worked to build better relations with the police. This was largely, and surprisingly quickly (as social change go) highly successful, leading to, for example, police contingents marching in Pride marches. In my own city of Melbourne, there has recurrently been a police show on the local gay and lesbian radio station, Joy FM, either as part of the regular program grid or as podcasts.

Along comes Black Lives Matter, who began to stridently object to police marching in uniform in Pride marches, which was an attack on, and seen as such, the connections built up between queer communities and police forces. In other words, an attack on built-up social capital.

Black Lives Matter was founded by three women, two of whom identify as queer. It was founded and spread largely through social media, which means via a communication mechanism with the most limited level possible of social connection and still communicate. Black Lives Matter has also been a disaster for the African-American community and relations with the police. The attack on queer-police social capital was a relatively minor part of a wider social capital disaster, a disaster which can be measured in hundreds of lost African-American lives from the post-BLM surge in homicides in various cities with high African-American populations such as Baltimore and Chicago. The increased death toll in dead African-Americans (1,800) for two years (2015, 2016) is more than half the estimated African-American deaths (3,446) from lynching in the decades 1882-1968.

The disaster came from (1) a gross mischaracterisation of a (highly variable by region and jurisdiction) problem with police use of deadly force; (2) a ludicrously simple diagnosis of the cause (racism); and (3) a misplaced approach (demonising police and actively seeking to reduce police interactions with African-Americans at which it has been all too successful). If one wanted a test case of what is wrong with intersectionality in a time of social media outrage, this is it. Attempting to operationalise intersectionality, notably via social media, in the form of BLM, has a much higher body count since 2014 than any form of white racism.

BLM manifests intersectionality’s indifference to problems of social order, the presumption of malice in “explaining” social outcomes and the attendant sacred victims without social or moral agency (particularly not negative agency). Despite the burblings of such as Ta-Nehisi Coates, the biggest danger to “black bodies” comes from other African-Americans, not the police. The main line of defence against that danger is not Twitter outrage, but the police themselves. The BLM reduction of social “analysis” to Manichean duality (evil, racist police v oppressed “blacks”) is a disastrously false simplification that directs attention and effort away from approaches which have some chance of being effective and towards a wildly simplistic and divisive outrage disastrous in its effects.

As psychologist Jonathan Haidt points out (pdf), the point of sacredness is to remove from trade-offs (or strongly resist any trade-offs) and a functional social order is all about managing trade-offs.

One of the ongoing problems in African-American communities is their low levels of social capital. It is hardly surprising that a political campaign based on attacking existing social capital turns out to be disastrously counter-productive. On the contrary, it seems a sad irony that communities suffering from low levels of social capital spawned a political movement destructive of social capital.

More accountable police forces better connected to their local communities can have considerable success in reducing crime. But that requires building broad coalitions focused on creating connections, not parading moralised differences. Presuming malice, undermining connections, poisoning interactions may be be congenial to the playbook of TwitterIntersectionality; to a time of cry-bullies, point-and-shriek, the oppression Olympics and moralised identity hierarchies. But it is not remotely a path to better social outcomes.

[Also published at Skepticlawyer.]

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

The persistence of (belief in) socialism

I find the persistence of belief in socialism surprising (an example here), particularly given that Venezuela and North Korea both, in their different ways, display, yet again, the disastrous results in poverty, human misery and tyranny of "actually existing socialism": that is, state domination of the economy. The lesson of Venezuela is, if anything, even stronger, as it is an example of the "democratic path to socialism".

Now, it is possible that by socialism such folk mean something other than a state-run and dominated economy, but if they do, they need to pick a different term because that is what, socialism, in practice, means. Trying to get it to mean something else this late in its history is not practical. And using socialism as a placeholder term for some unspecified system of "common" ownership is empty moral self-indulgence parading as political commitment.

Recently, I had drinks with a very well-read friend who grew up in the Soviet Union and so has some lived insights into this. He made two very cogent points:

(1) What other language of justice-inspired of major social change is there? There remain all sorts of reasons to be morally repelled by aspects of contemporary society: what is the alternative political vision for a post-capitalist society? If there isn't any, then "socialism" wins by default, as it has no effective competitor in the moral marketplace.

(2) For the Left, history is not the past, it's the future. For folk like my friend and I, history is what happened in the past, from which we can learn and draw lessons. For the Left, history is what is going to happen, it is what has an arc that bends towards justice while the past is something to be judged, censored and transcended.

(As an aside, it is a nice illustration of a wider tendency for secular appropriation of religious ideas that Barack Obama liked quoting Martin Luther King who was quoting Theodore Parker on the arc of history bending towards justice, but turned what was a "kingdom of God" religious point into a very different secular claim.)

This second point coincides with something I had noticed about modern progressivism--what I had come to think of as the history is their bitch phenomenon: the recurring confidence that, if their policies are adopted, the legacies of the past can be swiftly surmounted. But [alas for such hopes] history happened, lives on, and provides a rich source of lessons: history informs and constrains.

If, conversely, history is the future and the past is a record of sin and failure, of Haan history, to be judged, censored and transcended, then elevated hopes for what their policies can achieve, including the persistence of belief in socialism, is much less surprising.

But no more justified. Wishing does not make it so, and a lack of an alternative articulated vision of a post-capitalist society does not make socialism a worthy project. The unending record of failure of actually existing socialism is not some weird happenstance, it reveals key features of the entire project of socialism, as things show their nature in their history.

Four strikes
The first error is the implicit notion that public (which functionally means state) ownership of the means of production will somehow abolish selfishness, sociopathy and psychopathy. On the contrary, it creates a single, all-encompassing hierarchy for the self-servingly ambitious to climb. Socialism does not lock out selfishness, it gives it the keys to the entire kingdom. Socialist states always end up creating corrupt and exploitive hierarchies in particularly pathological manifestations of the late Jerry Pournelle's Iron Law of Bureaucracy or sociologist Robert Michels' Iron Law of Oligarchy.

The second error is that state ownership destroys key information for the functioning of an economy. This is the Mises-Hayek socialist calculation point. As is common for these sort of predictions, Mises and Hayek underestimated the ability of people to make adjustments, to get around the inherent dysfunction of the system they are stuck in, but Mises and Hayek correctly identified an inherent and deeply dysfunctional flaw in the entire project.

The third error is to wildly overestimate the capacity of the state apparatus to efficiently use the information that is available to it. Anyone who deals with government bureaucracies (or any large bureaucracy) will be familiar with this phenomenon. But the effects get much worse when government bureaucracies are the only significant users of information in the society and have coercive power backing them. Historical anthropologist James C. Scott's Seeing Like a State is a classic analysis of the problems involved, which extend beyond his revealing analysis and are compounded when the state is the (formal) economy.

The final point is the emptiness of the notion of democratic socialism. Socialism is inherently tyrannical, Hayek's Road to Serfdom point. The point is often somewhat obscured by the tendency to see democracy as some teleological endpoint of the arc of political history, whose apotheosis is finding the "correct" system for counting votes to elect officials.

Moving from theory to history, democracy is a system for entrenching and operationalising the broadest level of social bargaining and there can be no effective social bargaining with or within a state that runs everything. In a state-dominated society, due to having a state-run economy, there is no independent basis of social information and action outside the all-encompassing state, so no basis for genuine social bargaining. Democracy will never tame socialism, socialism will always eat democracy.

The state was born in coercion and expropriation. Democracy is not some magic talisman that can somehow eliminate those features from a state in charge of everything. On the contrary, democracy becomes a casualty of the all-encompassing state becoming more intensely a system of coercion and expropriation.

These features explain socialism's history of tyranny and massive human misery. A record of human experience that any serious analysis must grapple with rather than airily dismiss.

Returning to archetype
Socialism is not a modern invention. The first states dominated their economies so thoroughly that they can reasonably be called socialist. That the remaining command economy, North Korea, has ended up with a god-king dynasty running everything is not some weird aberration, it is a return to the origins of the state once the state has become the society.

The reality is that history is not progressivists's (or anyone's) bitch: as the entire socialist project demonstrates. So, while socialism currently may be the only game around for aspirations for a post-capitalist society, it is not a game anyone should seek to play. The real work is not in trying to find a way to make socialism "work": that is a project doomed to failure and which leads only to human misery. The real work is to come up with an alternative vision of the post-capitalist future. That the state is the easiest substitute for private firms based on ownership of capital may make socialism the default alternative to capitalism; it does not make it a worthy one.

ADDENDA: Reacting against the human suffering and moral failures which are part of the rise and practice of capitalism is fine, but if one then discounts (on whatever grounds) the mass murders and starvations, human misery and tyranny which are so saliently and deeply part of the history of socialism, one's politics clearly are not based on human suffering and concern for human flourishing, but something else.

FURTHER ADDENDA: Much of the trumpeted sins of "capitalism" are either things that have no intrinsic connection to capitalism (such as slavery and imperialism: both which have proved eminently compatible with socialism) or which came from capitalism supporting more effective and capable states (such as imperialism) or have their (often worse) counterparts in other social systems, all of which further points to the doomed nature of basing or anchoring one's search for social structures more conducive to human flourishing in reaction to capitalism.

NOTE ON USAGE: Nothing above should be taken as an endorsement of the term capitalism which I dislike as it is typically ill-defined and often used to conflate phenomena together: in particular commerce and government action. Commerce cannot be relied upon to exclude people by social category, so governments have to intervene to get such results--for example, the economic side of Jim Crow or adjustment of the New Deal to disadvantage African-Americans.  Calling the results "capitalism" obscures rather than revealing.

E.O. Wilson quote: wonderful theory, wrong species.

[Cross-posted at Skepticlawyer.]

Sunday, August 13, 2017

The uselessness of "bubble" talk

This is based on a comment I made here.

If turning points in asset prices could be reliably predicted, they wouldn't happen (since no none would buy at the "about to be seriously undercut" price).

The "bubble" folk don't seem to understand that calling it a "bubble":
(1) entails not knowing when the turning point will happen;
(2) means prices are reflecting current information, not information that hasn't become available yet.

Given that it is a principle of modern physics that there is no information from the future, it hardly seems likely that economics can squeeze out such information.

The most one can squeeze out is that there may be herd effects in asset prices (i.e. people think prices will rise, act on that shared belief, so prices rise). But as we have no idea when the herd effect will stop happening (see [1]), that doesn't get us very far. After all, herd effects (possibly "flock effects", as the mechanisms seem similar to bird flock movement: a manifestation of the perennial human habit of adopting social heuristics that economise on information) can operate in either direction.

Identifying what is driving current asset prices movements, and how robust those factors are, is useful, but that is useful without adding in the "bubble" usage.

So, all a "bubble" claim ends up doing is something saying something like "I believe current asset prices are based on thinly grounded expectations which will collapse at some unspecified (indeed, unknown) point in the future". Doesn't seem to get us very far--apart from being an awful basis for monetary policy, especially given the (fairly disastrous) track record for such actions: which is hardly surprising as deliberately creating asset price instability is hardly a good basis for a stable growth path for an economy.

[Cross-posted at Skepticlawyer.]

Monday, July 24, 2017

The "race" delusion in American politics and society.

Ron Unz has produced two pieces of statistical analysis on ethnicity and crime in the US providing evidence that there is no distinctive tendency among Hispanics to have a higher crime rate, once other factors are controlled for, while there is clearly a much higher crime rate among African-Americans.

This being an American piece, anything to do with African-Americans is treated as a "race" issue, a "black" and "white" issue. Which is precisely where the whole debate goes wrong right from the beginning.

African-Americans are not, in any useful sense, a "racial" group. They are a cultural group: better labelled in a more distinctive way, such as Ebonic-Americans, so as to be distinguished from recent African migrants or even Afro-Caribbean migrants, who are culturally distinct groups with distinctively different histories and cultural legacies. Ebonic-Americans are group born out of the experience of mass slavery and the consequent trajectory of the descendants of those slaves in the US. That is precisely the distinctive social trajectory that creates an ethnic group and identity.

Those called "white" Americans are, in fact, European-Americans or Euro-Americans, an amalgam of ethnic groups who can reasonably be identified as a series of separate "American nations", as was famously done by historian David Hackett Fisher in Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America and more broadly by journalist Colin Woodward in American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America. (See summary article here.) The wave of European settlement created an amalgam population distinct from the indigenous inhabitants and those imported from Africa as slaves. The obvious way to distinguish them was by skin colour, hence the "white" and "black" appellations.

But skin colour does not act in social affairs (though reactions to skin colour can do so). It is an easy marker of (entirely unearned) status (for good or ill), but not an analytically useful term. Thus the contemporary use of "white" in academic and progressivist circles is typically a misdirecting technique wiping out any notion of cultural heritage or civilisational achievement.

Humans are primed to notice ethnic cues. Small children will generally befriend someone of a different race who speaks the same dialect before they will do so (pdf) to someone of the same race who speaks a different dialect. This is hardly surprising: our hominid ancestors were forming ethnic groups deep in our prehistory: it allowed us, the cultural species, to cooperate beyond the foraging band (the Biblical story of shibboleth is all about ethnic cues.)

We began to systematically interact across the continent-wide groups we call races much more recently: far too recently and intermittently for it to be "hard-wired" into our cognitive architecture. Attempts to use implicit bias to show some deep racist cognitive programming suffers from the problem that the Implicit Association Test (IAT) has consistently failed to show the reliability (consistency across measurement) or the validity (connection to behaviour/social outcomes) to justify such use. Other attempts to make much of similarity bias have also failed to reach those benchmarks. Evidence suggests it is also relatively easy to (pdf) make other group markers trump race among adults.

Origins of racism
Due to our evolutionary history, we do have a deep tendency to tribalism or groupism. But this is a potentially "free-floating" tendency which can attach itself to all sorts of groups (such as, for example, political parties).

Racism as such was originally a product of the combination of mass slavery and universalising morality. In all its forms, racism originated as a justificatory explanation for what people were doing for other reasons. So, the first racist discourses grew up in the context of the mass slaving of sub-Saharan Africans and only appeared after the development of universalising morality (specifically, Christianity and Islam) because only a universalising morality is likely to have any problem with the systematic enslaving of others.

There was no moral problem about slavery for Romans--slaves were losers, Romans were winners, slavery was just a mark of losing. Indeed, there was so little problem that Romans ran one of the most open slave systems (pdf) in history, as freed slaves became full citizens. So much so, that people would sometimes use slavery as a path to Roman citizenship. Aristotle's attempt to provide a moral justification for slavery (as his ethical system did have a universalising tendency: hence its later incorporation into monotheist thought) just struck the Romans as Greek nonsense.

Once folk are all "children of God", then slavery causes a moral problem--why are you treating children of God as property? While there are some glimmers of racist discourse in the Roman Empire after the adoption of Christianity, the first significant racist discourse (that is, a systematic denigration by race) comes out of Islam. For example, in a C11th book of geography by geographer Said al-Andalusi (1029-1070) Al‐tarif bi-tabaqat al-umam (Book of the Categories of Nations): 
Chapter 3: Nations having no interest in science 
The rest of this [category], which showed no interest in science, resembles animals more than human beings. Those among them who live in the extreme North, between the last of the seven regions and the end of the populated world to the north, suffered from being too far from the sun; their air is cold and their skies are cloudy. As a result, their temperament is cool and their behavior is rude. Consequently, their bodies become enormous, their color turned white, and their hair drooped down. They have lost keenness of understanding and sharpness of perception. They were overcome by ignorance and laziness, infested by fatigue and stupidity. Such as the Slavonians, Bulgarians and neighboring people.
Also in this category are the people who live close to the equinoctial line and behind it to the populated world to the south. Because the sun remain close to their heads for long periods, their air and their climate has become hot: they are of hot temperament and fiery behavior. Their color turned black and their hair turned kinky. As a result, they have lost the value of patience and firmness of perception. They are overcome by foolishness and ignorance. These are the people of Sudan who inhabited the far reaches of Ethiopia, Nubia, the Zini, and others. 
Chapter 5: Science in India 
The Indians, as known to all nations for many centuries, are the metal [essence] of wisdom, the source of fairness and objectivity. They are peoples of sublime pensiveness, universal apologues, and useful and rare inventions. In spite of the fact that their colour is in the first stage of blackness, which puts them in the same category as the blacks, Allah in His glory, did not give them the low characters, the poor manners, or the inferior principles, associated with this group and ranked them above a large number of white and brown peoples.
Why were Slavs and sub-Saharan Africans being systematically enslaved rather than being conquered and/or converted to Islam (which would make them no longer able to be enslaved)? Because, the explanatory justification of racism went, slavery was what they were fit for.

Catholics were not supposed to enslave folk: so said Pope Paul III (r.1534-1549) in his 1537 encyclical Sublimus Dei. But they (and Christians generally) could trade and own slaves that other people had enslaved, so there was still a moral problem of owning fellow children of God. Add in Enlightenment notions about the rights of man and an even more serious moral dilemma was created, leading to a fairly intense racist discourse of explanation and justification--hence the Antebellum South running one of the most closed systems of slavery in human history: especially as freeing the slaves en masse would, in system based on citizen election of officials, create a serious political issue for the existing voters. Hence also the Constitution of the Confederate States of America absolutely entrenched slavery while the Jim Crow system tried to insulate Euro-Americans in the South from the political and employment implications of the end of slavery. 

Western racist discourses also arose out of the cleanliness of the blood laws in Reconquista Spain, blocking the children of Jewish converts from various positions and social benefits, creating a social cartel for the "Old Christians" and their descendants in Iberia and then in Spain and Portugal's American colonies. This language of inherited contempt, independent of religion, was then extended elsewhere in Europe to create specifically anti-Jewish (rather than anti-Judaic) discourses as a response to the disturbing social flux of modernisation and the creation of mass nationalisms.  

Maximum extents of European imperialism.
The last source of Western racism grew out of noticing that by the C19th Europeans dominated the globe, and trying to find language to both justify and explain it. It is not the case that racism caused slavery or imperialism or social cartelisation: racism was created to justify and explain the slavery, imperialism and social cartelisation that people were already doing for other reasons. (It is worth noting that the problem with Jim Crow was not that it was racist, but that it was oppressive--"race" was simply the dimension across which oppression was organised.)

As any sort of explanation for any of this, race is truly awful. Imperialism was just what states do when they can and when there is a return in it. Europe created particularly effective states, so particularly effective imperialism (much of which was directed against fellow Europeans).

Slavery is a response to control of people being more valuable than control of land (see economist Evsey Domar's classic essay on the subject) and there not being sufficient local population to bind to the land (if there is, some form of serfdom typically arises).

People can form social cartels on all sort of bases. (The current debates about the increasing lack of cognitive diversity in Western academe is precisely about a form of social cartelisation.)

As a way of creating unearned status and effortless virtue, and justifying treating other people badly, however, racism works very well. The modern innovation is to discover that discourses of anti-racism can work just as well as techniques for moral and political exclusion: we can ignore and despise them, they're racists! (Or even a basket of deplorables.)

Illusions of race
But racist discourses of justificatory explanation left a legacy of seeing people, and talking of people, in terms of race rather than ethnicity or meta-ethnicity. Such race-talk turns out to be very useful if you want to strip away any notion of cultural heritage or civilisational achievement. Which is really useful if you want to maximise your despite of fellow citizens--you just "explain" any bad social outcome on the basis of the presumption of malice: default explanation of differentiated social outcomes in terms of the malice (i.e., racism, misogyny, various phobic views) of fellow citizens (or civilisation members). It is an excellent basis for assertion of superior status: though much less useful for serious analysis as it relies on ignoring, explaining away or otherwise discounting differences between groups that lead to variable social outcomes.

Such talk has the great virtue of simplicity—you do not have to know the details, merely what are the correct signals. (And there is no more powerful contemporary signal than hostility to racism, defined so as to function as a social signal, not for careful analysis.) In an information-dense society, where displaying cognitive competence is at a premium, such virtue-signalling [piety display] allows massive economising on information as well as providing reputation protection and expectation convergence. Hence its particular importance for participants in transnational networks and workers in areas with a premium on cognitive competence. It has the wider disadvantage of committing people to social narratives that support such signals and so blocking consideration of contrary facts or concerns.

The two unspeakable truths of "race" in the US are:
(1) If African-Americans had the same average IQ and the same crime rates as other Americans, the "race" issue would disappear (as the experience of Asian-Americans and recent African immigrants demonstrates); and
(2) it is not a "race" issue but an ethnic one--Ebonic-Americans are a distinct ethnic group while "white" Americans are Euro-Americans, an amalgam of ethnic groups.

IQ but not genes
The moment one talks of differences in average IQ between groups, the automatic assumption is that one is "really" talking about genes (and so "race"). Not so, as the evidence strongly suggests that the role of genes in inter-group differences in IQ is relatively small. For example, urbanisation had its normal effect (after a lag) in significantly raising (pdf) the average IQ of Ebonic-Americans. Moreover, children of an Ebonic-American father and Euro-American mother have significantly higher average IQ than Ebonic-Americans generally and are not significantly distinguishable in average social outcomes (pdf) than other Americans while, in the case of reverse pairings, children of an Euro-American father and Ebonic-American mothers have much the same patterns as Ebonic-Americans in average IQ and social outcomes.

It is very unlikely that these results have a genetic explanation: it is very likely that there is a cultural-experiential explanation for the first result and a cultural explanation for the last two results--likely due to the experience of slavery being highly adverse to the development of social or human capital, or mechanisms for generating the same, as well as mothering practices [patterns], given that sub-Saharan parenting patterns are very distinctive (pdf).

Indeed, sub-Saharan parenting patterns, particularly the reliance on siblings to raise younger siblings and the very limited role of fathers in parenting and the unusually low levels of maternal attention, seems somewhat programmed to, in the right circumstances, generate gang culture, which fulfil a somewhat similar role (albeit rather pathologically) to that ritual societies perform in their origin cultures.

So, Barack Hussein Obama is not Ebonic-American (his father was a, temporary, Kenyan immigrant, his mother was Euro-American). Indeed, culturally, he had a Euro-American upbringing. Hence, the US has not yet had an Ebonic-American President. Instead, from 2009-2017, the US had a two-term culturally Euro-American President of partly African descent; which fits right in with the results from the studies cited above.

If the social outcomes of African-Americans continue to be discussed in racial terms, then the debate will continue to be deeply dysfunctional, as it will direct attention to all the wrong places.

Culture as a basis for friendship and social combination, or social friction, is much more rational than skin colour. The “it’s all about race” presumes “people are identical except for race” (that being only skin deep). But they are not culturally identical, with all the implications of that.

A comment by Malcolm Gladwell is apposite:
Well, yeah, there is something — well, I hesitate to say under-theorized, but there is something under-theorized about the differences between West Indian and American black culture, the psychological difference between what it means to come from those two places. I think only when you look very closely at that difference do you understand the heavy weight that particular American heritage places on African-Americans. What’s funny about West Indians is, they can always spot another West Indian. And at a certain point you wonder, “How do they always know?” It’s because after a while you get good at spotting the absence of that weight.
And it explains as well the well-known phenomenon of how disproportionately successful West Indians are when they come to the United States because they seem to be better equipped to deal with the particular pathologies attached to race in this country — my mother being a very good example. But of course there are a million examples.
Gladwell is talking here of people of common African descent, but who come from very different experiences because of distinct historical legacies that go with, and help create, culture. For good or ill.

If we talked about race a lot less, and talked about social capital, human capital, family formation, parenting practices [patterns], and other features of culture, much more, there might actually be some progress. But the story would also become more complex, and not create an easy basis for despising fellow citizens or setting up linguistic trip-wires (micro-aggressions anyone?) in the service of moralised status games. Moreover, a people who wait for others to redeem them will wait forever. But the primary role of the modern secular religion of antiracism is not to solve problems, it is to been seen to care and play the consequent games of moralised status and despite. 

Note that nothing I write above implies that oppression is not a key part of that historical trajectory of Ebonic-American culture: on the contrary, it is crucial to understanding that legacy—hence “the weight” that Gladwell speaks of. But a legacy where the multi-dimensional burden of slavery and the social exclusions of Jim Crow are crucial, with racism as justificatory overlay.

[Also posted at Skepticlawyer.]

ADDENDA People have switched cultural identities for millennia. If we stopped calling ethnic identities "racial" then "transracialism" would make more sense, as "transethnicity".

FURTHER ADDENDA I like the way William Saletan puts it: race is not a causal unit.