Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Cognitive Dissonance Judo and the Surprising Malleability of Beliefs

There are few things in this world more stable than a man’s self-image.

You might think, perhaps reasonably, that values and core beliefs are the heart of man – what’s right and wrong, how he ought to act.

You might think, if you’re more scientifically inclined, that facts are the core – bare understanding of the basic reality of the world from which people figure out the rest.

But the psychology of cognitive dissonance doesn’t work that way.

What is stable, rather, is the conception of self. Usually, but not always, this is based on flattery and conceit. I am clever. I am pretty. I am moral. I am loved by those around me (or at least those of good character and judgment).

Whatever you like about yourself, in other words.

And the rest of reality – morals, beliefs, the whole lot – typically gets fitted in around that.  This isn’t to say that morals don’t actually matter, of course. Just that in this fallen world we live in, men make their rationalistions in quite predictable ways.

A beliefs-centred view says that a man starts with morals – that it is wrong to commit adultery, for instance. Believing this, he refuses to cheat on his wife. Having not cheated on his wife, he views himself as a good man and a good husband.

A self-image-centred view says that a man begins with the view that he is a good man and a good husband. He has a tentative view that adultery is wrong, and because he is currently satisfied with his wife (and also because there is no convenient way to have an affair with someone hot), he doesn’t feel the need to cheat on her. Having not cheated on her, he affirms the view that refraining from adultery is an important moral issue, and a key part of what makes him a good husband.

As long as a man doesn’t commit adultery, it’s very hard to tell these possibilities apart.

But what happens when a man’s marriage starts to deteriorate, and he ends up cheating on his wife?
The beliefs-centred view is a Dostoyevsky novel. It says that he will be wracked with guilt, and view himself as being an immoral and unworthy person.

The self-image centred view says that, rather, he will update his views on what is right and wrong to maintain his self-image. Having committed adultery, adultery must not be so bad after all, at least in the circumstances when he has done it. Perhaps it’s okay if the marriage has already broken down. Perhaps it’s okay as long as nobody finds out. Perhaps it’s okay if they were going to get divorced anyway. The beliefs about right and wrong can change. The only thing that can’t change, however, is his view of himself.

Like all models, this simplifies reality. Some people, especially the more introspective and intellectually honest, really do get wracked with guilt after doing bad things. Dostoyevsky didn’t imagine it out of whole cloth.

But looking at the world, how many husbands having affairs seem to be wandering around like Raskolnikov, torn up over their infidelities and unable to get up from bed? Is it more or less than the number that seem to have a spring in their step about finally getting laid again, and don’t seem much troubled by the fact that this flies in the face of the solemn vows they took years earlier?

And all of this has a lot to do with the leftist holiness signaling spirals that seem to characterize the early 21st century so vividly.

In order to gain status over one’s rivals, and signal ever greater fealty to the principles of progressivism, modern society has the need to change one’s opinion suddenly on all sorts of matters, firmly and publicly committing to the new zeitgeist and denouncing those not on board with the program. Cognitive dissonance being what it is, the targets of progressive ire are always those recalcitrants not on board with the current program today- the kulaks still to be beaten. The targets are definitely not the exact same progressives, like themselves, who in prior years held exactly the same views as the reactionaries they now denounce. Ever hear Bill Clinton being publicly seeking forgiveness for signing the Defence of Marriage Act? Ever hear liberals renounce themselves for voting for Barack Obama in 2008 when he opposed gay marriage, even as they renounce those who vote for politicians supporting religious conscience exceptions on gay marriage today?

The need to stay high status trumps the need to stick to one’s beliefs, so the old views get jettisoned. But part of one’s self-image is usually also that one is honest and upright, someone who believes things for good reasons, not a craven fool with no fixed principles who shifts his beliefs with the merest breeze of public opinion. And so having changed views, people are positively eager to forget that they ever held their previous views. Since bare facts about the world are also easy to manipulate in the service of self-image, this turns out to not be hard to do.

As part of my low level troll’s entertainment of provoking leftist cognitive dissonance, I enjoy sometimes asking progressives enamored of the latest fashion, such as transgender bathroom rights, exactly when they started caring about this issue, and why. They almost never have an answer to this. It may be only two years ago, but their mental distortions of ego-preservation are such that these origins are shrouded in mystery, and their own previous worldview is utterly inaccessible to them. What they think now, they must surely have always thought. The alternative would be to admit that their motive for joining this latest moral imperative (even if the current stance is presumed to be correct and virtuous) in fact rests with far baser motives – following fashions, fear of being denounced themselves, signaling their virtue.  And admitting this would defeat the whole purpose.

Sure, when pressed, they can’t think of any actual conversations they held or actions they took on the crucial issue of bathroom policy before, say, 2014. But this was only because they simply hadn’t yet fully comprehended the scale of the injustice. This lack of comprehension until the New York Times came knocking might itself seem to be a blight on their moral record, but rest assured this kind of introspection is highly unusual, and nobody but the most reactionary cynics like myself is in a hurry to point it out either.

Provoking cognitive dissonance is fun, but it won’t change anyone’s mind. If you want to at least have a chance at that, you can’t fight self-image, you need to use it to your advantage. This is the judo strategy – using an opponent’s own momentum against him.

One way to do this is to force progressives to consider that they may not always be the one getting to do the judging, and will one day themselves be the judged.

In other words, take a progressive interlocutor, and ask them the following hypothetical:

Progressive causes change over time. For a long time, nobody cared about gay marriage, then all of a sudden they did. That’s fine. Let’s merely posit the following – that this process will continue. In other words, in 20 or 30 years’ time, it seems likely that progressives will have found some new moral point that they care about passionately, but which people today don’t care about at all. Who knows what it will be specifically, but assume that they will feel about it as strongly then as you, my progressive friend, feel about gay marriage now, and they will see the absence of this cause as a huge injustice. If you need to make it concrete, pick fringe views on some cultural trait and substitute it as needed as the possible change –allowing polygamy or adult incest, breaking up the family unit, lowering the age of consent to 12, mandating veganism, whatever. To be ideal, it has to be something wacky that you’ve probably never thought of, like giving the vote to children, rather than something you’ve already encountered like veganism.

So our progressive of 30 years’ time feels as strongly about this as you do today about gay marriage. You, on the other hand, believe everything that you currently do today. They will view you exactly the same way that you view people who opposed gay marriage in 1986 – as unbelievably hateful and bigoted, part of a society-wide cruelty that is almost unfathomable.

And at last, we have our question. Who’s right in this argument about voting ages or adult incest? Are you, dear progressive, hateful, bigoted and disgusting in ways you don’t even understand today, on issues that you’ve barely given any thought to, for reasons you can’t yet guess? Or is the progressive of 30 years’ time merely taking on extreme views that disrupt a reasonable and understandable social compromise today?

If it’s the latter, are you willing to commit every one of your current views to paper (no matter how infrequently you ponder them) for all the world’s future employers to see, and defend them when the social zeitgeist changes? You might get to be the Brendan Eich of 2025, fired for having an insufficient commitment back in 2016 to the cause of extending US citizenship to everyone on the planet or whatever.

At this point, one is left with only a few options.

Either one actually writes a blank moral cheque to the progressives of the future and says ‘Yes, I am hateful! I am bigoted in ways I don’t even understand! Forgive me, President Chelsea Clinton!’.

Or one admits that these changing views are not actually crucial moral issues, but in fact moral fads and fashions that people follow for reasons other than the inherent justice of the causes at issue. This, if acknowledged, begins the descent down a rabbit hole that ends up a long way from modernity.

Or one says ‘No, I’m pretty comfortable with how society is currently arranged, and don’t wish to upend everything for the whims of the progressive elite of the future’.

In the third instance, congratulations. You’re now a gay marriage opponent in 1986.

Whether this will actually change minds, of course, is far more doubtful. But I have gotten flashes of introspection out of this line of questioning, which may at least somewhat cause them to think twice about the next great trend. That’s the hope, anyway. The path to understanding is rocky and circuitous.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

The Long Shadow of Decolonialisation

As part of my ongoing attempts to join the illustrious brotherhood of the Froude Society, I’ve been reading ‘The Bow of Ulysses’, by James Anthony Froude.

There’s a lot of fascinating points about the overall state of the West Indies in the late 19th century. But one point that stood out for me, at least up to Chapter 10 where I am now, is the realization that the process of decolonialization started much earlier than I’d thought.

In some sense, this is a specific application of one of Moldbug’s most insightful points – that the world has been getting more left wing for much longer than most people realize. And as a result, many of the social trends that we think of as 20th century phenomena actually have roots that start much earlier. This is the kind of insight that one is likely to get mostly by reading actual historical sources. Without actually going to the original sources, the temptation will always be to just substitute the modern understanding of historical issues.

The typical narrative of decolonialism starts with the only history that most people know – World Wars 1 and 2. Britain successfully defeated the Germans in both cases, but it was so exhausted, bankrupt and out of resources that it lacked the ability and will to maintain its colonies. Hence, it granted them all independence in fairly quick succession. The start of it all seems to have been Home Rule for Northern Ireland in 1922, after which things snowballed.

This is not a silly explanation, and probably has elements of truth to it. It is indeed true, as Wikipedia will confirm, that the height of the British Empire in terms of territory was achieved in 1921

If this is the main explanation, what should we expect to be the mood in 1887, when ‘The Bow of Ulysses’ was written? We arrive on the scene when Britain had an enormous empire, having been militarily dominant in Europe for at least 80 years. Victorian England was apparently jingoistic and patriotic about its Empire, as the story goes. Presumably the Empire was a source of considerable pride and fervor.

But Froude in 1887 paints a very different picture. The West Indies are depicted as being in a state of general decay. Froude contrasts the scene in Granada with the one described by Pere Labat, a Frenchman who had visited a century earlier, and had been optimistic about what the English would make of the colony after taking it from the French:
“The English had obtained Grenada, and this is what they had made of it. The forts which had been erected by his countrymen had been deserted and dismantled; the castle on which we had seen our flag flying was a ruin; the walls were crumbling and in many places had fallen down. One solitary gun was left, but that was honeycombed and could be fired only with half a charge to salute with. It was true that the forts had ceased to be of use, but that was because there was nothing left to defend. ... Nature had been simply allowed by us to resume possession of the island.”
Froude is primarily a historian, rather than a political theorist or an economist. He has a keen eye for the nuance and differences across the various islands he visits. But even in those that have fared better, such as Barbados, there is a strong sense that decay has been building for a long time, due to an interplay of causes:
“The position is painfully simple. The great prosperity of the island [Barbados] ended with emancipation. Barbadoes suffered less than Jamaica or the Antilles because the population was large and the land limited, and the blacks were obliged to work to keep themselves alive. The abolition of the sugar duties was the next blow. The price of sugar fell, and the estates yielded little more than the expense of cultivation.”
Countries have survived economic decline, of course. But in the West Indian colonies, the economic decline has a complex relationship with the declining English population, as Froude tells it, where cause and effect run in both directions. As the islands decay, the English have less economic incentive to remain there, tending to become absentee landlords. This in turn causes their estates to decay further, which reduces the incentives of the remaining English population to stay on the island. At some point, the exodus becomes self-fulfilling – English people leave just because they expect other English people to leave.

Froude’s description of St Vincent captures this mood of slow and inevitable decline very well:
“The prosperity has for the last forty years waned and waned. There are now two thousand white people there, and forty thousand coloured people, and the proportion alters annually to our disadvantage. The usual remedies have been tried. The constitution has been altered a dozen times. Just now I believe the Crown is trying to do without one, having found the results of the elective principle not encouraging, but we shall perhaps revert to it before long; any way, the tables show that each year the trade of the island decreases, and will continue to decrease while the expenditure increases and will increase.”
How many people do you think understand that white flight began not in the 20th century American mid-west, but in the 19th century British Caribbean?

Interestingly, the paragraph above is eerily prescient in that if you alter the frankness of the language and racial attitudes, its descriptions could apply very closely to both Rhodesia and South Africa in the mid-to-late 20th century.

Declining white population relative to the black population? Check.

Slow but inexorable economic decline? Check.

Meddling with governing arrangements to try to maintain the current power structure? Check.

Ultimate futility of such changes? Check.

The St Vincent Ghost of Christmas Future does not look encouraging. It’s not for nothing that my bet about South Africa six years ago is still looking pretty good.

What is remarkable, however, is that both Apartheid South Africa and Rhodesia were crushed under the weight of progressive western opinion, even in the teeth of strong efforts from the local white population to maintain the status quo. In the 19th century, there was no hegemon to push around the British Empire, and no major outside country demanding devolution of power (other than London elites). And yet the result was the same anyway. The same red/blue tribal and ideological conflict was playing out internally within London, rather than between Washington and Salisbury.

What is most striking in Froude’s descriptions, even more than the economic aspect of the decline, is the decline of will. Even by 1887, there is the general sense that people have lost the sense of quite what the empire is meant to be for. The West Indian colonies were fought over strongly when sugar was such a lucrative crop that they were valuable as a merely economic proposition. There remains a sense of noblesse oblige in remaining to secure good government for the subjects of these islands. But as the economy declines and the cost of the proposition increases, there arises a general question – what exactly are we doing all this for?
"Languidly charming as it all was, I could not help asking myself of what use such a possession could be either to England or to the English nation. We could not colonise it, could not cultivate it, could not draw a revenue from it. If it prospered commercially the prosperity would be of French and Spaniards, mulattoes and blacks, but scarcely, if at all, of my own countrymen. For here too, as elsewhere, they were growing fewer daily, and those who remained were looking forward to the day when they could be released. If it were not for the honour of the thing, as the Irishman said after being carried in a sedan chair which had no bottom, we might have spared ourselves so unnecessary a conquest.”
And remember, this is coming from someone who was for the most part a defender of Empire.

Without an obvious answer to this question, there arises a push towards general devolution of powers towards self-government. From the white populations of the islands, the primary causes seem to be quite frivolous: fashion, boredom, a desire not to be left behind, and the possibility of securing lucrative government appointments for themselves:
“Trinidad is a purely Crown colony, and has escaped hitherto the introduction of the election virus. The newspapers and certain busy gentlemen in ' Port of Spain ' had discovered that they were living under ' a degrading tyranny,' and they demanded a ' constitution.' They did not complain that their affairs had been ill managed. On the contrary, they insisted that they were the most prosperous of the West Indian colonies, and alone had a surplus in their treasury."
"They were a mixed and motley assemblage of all races and colours, busy each with their own affairs, and never hitherto troubling themselves about politics. But it had pleased the Home Government to set up the beginning of a constitution again in Jamaica, no one knew why, but so it was, and Trinidad did not choose to be behindhand. The official appointments were valuable, and had been hitherto given away by the Crown. The local popularities very naturally wished to have them for themselves.
This passage illustrates a number of points not widely appreciated in the common narrative. Firstly, the main instigators for political self-rule in these British colonies were not organized opposition from an unhappy local black population (such as was the case in the violent overthrow of the French in Haiti), but rather local English elites, who felt they personally stood to gain from the new arrangements.

But more importantly, these domestic forces on the side of political change are notable in Froude’s description for just how feeble and absurd they are. The only reason they can succeed is that a large portion of the elite in Britain have simply lost the desire to maintain the existing arrangements. As a result, the full independence obtained for these colonies in the 20th century was merely the last step in a gradual devolution of powers that began at around a century earlier. And the devolution of powers was actually quite acceptable to London elites, because they simply couldn’t be bothered with the whole thing any more. Froude describes the upshot of the meeting he talked about in the previous quote:
"The result, I believe, was some petition or other which would go home and pass as evidence, to minds eager to believe, that Trinidad was rapidly ripening for responsible government, promising relief to an overburdened Secretary for the Colonies, who has more to do than he can attend to, and is pleased with opportunities of gratifying popular sentiment, or of showing off in Parliament the development of colonial institutions. He knows nothing, can know nothing, of the special conditions of our hundred dependencies. He accepts what his representatives in the several colonies choose to tell him; and his representatives, being birds of passage responsible only to their employers at home, and depending for their promotion on making themselves agreeable, are under irresistible temptations to report what it will please the Secretary of State to hear. For the Secretary of State, too, is a bird of passage as they are, passing through the Colonial Office on his way to other departments."
World War 1 is not even a puff of smoke on the horizon, and yet the whole scene is already laid out for us. The most interesting part of reading Froude is to compare his descriptions to how events subsequently unfolded. Devolution ended up proceeding in largely the way he anticipated, but the process has a very different origin from the standard narrative today.

The larger point that emerges is that it is a mistake to judge the power of an empire, a people or a country by its territory or strength on paper. Societal decline is a slow process of erosion over decades, as institutions and the popular will get worn down. Abandonment of territory or government is in fact better understood as the last step of the process. Inertia alone will keep governing arrangements limping along long after the will to maintain them has actually disappeared. And the will to govern, once gone, is apparently a rather difficult thing to rekindle.

If all of this sounds somewhat like the latter stages of the American empire that we find ourselves living in, there is a reason. I can see why Moldbug recommended this book so highly.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

On the Decline of Wisdom

The Dissenting Sociologist began a post recently with a quite striking sentence:
The principle that “the wise shall govern the strong” is a law of Nature so basic that human society is inoperable and indeed altogether inconceivable without it. Democracy as such is an illogical Utopian fiction that doesn’t exist anywhere and cannot. In human society anywhere we find it, men in the physical flower of their youth allow themselves to be bossed around by senior men they could easily overwhelm, and legitimate authority assumes the form of a pyramid such that positions of authority, by definition, are fewer to the extent that the scope of authority attached to them is greater."
And my immediate thought was to wonder: this is a fascinating idea. Is it actually true?

The second sentence is definitely true. Society would definitely be better ordered if the first sentence were also true. But the universe isn’t usually ordered the way we would like it.

So what would be the similar, purely positive version of the same idea that might be closer to being true? I’d say that the elite will always rule over the masses. Like most, if not all, seemingly universal truths in the social sciences, it has a somewhat tautological aspect – the elites are defined as the ruling class, because ruling itself confers status. Sometimes the rulers are priests, or warriors, or kings, or judges, or bureaucrats. But everywhere there are the leaders, and the led.

Power is always jealously sought, even if not actively contested at every point in time. And so any elite must be savvy enough to at least maintain their own supremacy against other contenders for power. If you are incompetent enough, you probably won’t stay in power that long. Strictly speaking, you don’t need to be competent at any task other than maintaining your own power. You can run your country into ruin and beggary, as many long-lived dictators have done, as long as you maintain your own power. So you can definitely have an evil, psychopathic elite. But a sufficiently incompetent elite is a fragile equilibrium, at risk of collapsing. This also is the strongest evidence against frequent claims that some or other presidential candidate is a moron – Trump, Bush, Kerry, whoever. There are simply too many other people viciously vying for the presidential job for any true moron to get that close to succeeding.

Of course, the number of true psychopaths is rather small. So most leaders will have at least some regard for their people. And so if there is a general quality of intelligence and good judgment needed to maintain power, that will hopefully flow over into competent administration of the rest of the country (perhaps one of the biggest mercies the world provides, actually). The main hitch here, of course, is that psychopaths (though numerically few) are disproportionately attracted to power, and ruthless in the methods they are willing to use to obtain it. Hence the horror of the many dictators of the 20th century, from Mao to Mugabe.

A lot of elites will have a need to occasionally augment their ranks with competent administrators who can help them secure their rule. And this is where the starting quote is quite interesting, particularly with regard to exactly what qualities are being sought. What is needed is competence. But this can come from a number of different base qualities.

Reactionaries are generally drawn to old ideas, and wisdom is one such concept. Wisdom connotes judgment, nuance, experience, and a sense of doing what is right. It is related to its less lofty and less mystical relative, good judgment (of which wisdom is in some sense the pinnacle). It is not surprising that these are also associated with age – if someone is wise beyond their years, it is because wisdom is generally thought to be more likely to reside in the elders of a society.

Wisdom, dear reader, is a quality whose heyday has largely passed. The thoroughly brilliant Google NGram viewer charts the decline for us.

It should not therefore come as a surprise to find that modern society, which places relatively less emphasis on wisdom, should also come to have less respect for the elderly relative to the young.

So if the elites aren’t selecting on wisdom, but have to select on competence (broadly defined), what else are they selecting on?

Here’s one answer:

First ‘clever’, then ‘smart’.

‘Wise’ has been more or less declining as an idea since 1820 or so. Its decline was also marked by the rise of ‘clever’ – more intellectual, but in a way that seemed to prioritise shrewdness and savvy behavior, as opposed to good judgment.

But the big rise of late has been ‘smart’. This goes mostly to intelligence, raw cognitive firepower. This is a trait that (at least at an individual level) is generally considered to be inherited at birth, and which displays itself more in youth than old age.

The modern ideal of innovative success is the young tech CEO. Mark Zuckerberg is assuredly smart, and often described as such. I have yet to hear anyone praise him as wise.

The other striking aspect of this perception is that if good decisions are thought to come mostly from being smart, then they are something that one is either just born with, or can acquire merely by turning one’s gigantic brain to the subject at hand. And since every man flatters himself that he is smart, he is thereby largely relieved of the obligation of humble study at the feet of those that have come before him. Hence the modern progressive wet dream of the show ‘The West Wing’ – brilliant young minds elevated straight from their Harvard Political Science undergrad education to being White House advisors, solving the world’s problems as understudies to a Nobel Prize Winner in Economics (or at least Hollywood writers’ limited conception of one).

Intellect alone is presumed to be able to solve the world’s problems, from Syria to Washington.

Good judgment, by comparison is considered far too prosaic a quality to be encouraged, and wisdom seems almost archaic.

I am far from convinced that this shift in emphasis has been for the good.

Monday, September 12, 2016

On Kings and the Accident of Birth

We live in an era with an extraordinarily limited imagination with respect to alternative worldviews.

In the eternal present tense of the liberal mind, the past is not only alien, but almost incomprehensible. Whig history gets imbibed deeply without even understanding what it is. The net effect is that nobody is encouraged to think honestly about why people in the past thought the things they did. Most strikingly, there is no empathy towards one’s ancestors as having genuinely-held beliefs which may have had sensible underpinnings. The only acceptable explanations are those that flatter our own conceit. So the mass of people in the past must either have been evil (by comparison with which we are virtuous), or they must have been naïve dupes who were conned by a small evil elite (by comparison with which we are savvy and worldly).

Unsurprisingly, these absurd narratives quickly run into large obstacles of incomprehension.

Take, for instance, the institution of monarchy.

Everyone who is anyone agrees that democracy is not only the most effective form of government, but the most just.

So why did absolute monarchy persist in so many countries, for so many thousands of years, if it was both unjust (and thus likely to inspire resistance) and ineffective (and thus able to be outcompeted by better forms of government)?

It’s a puzzle, no?

Let us grant something obvious, but not widely appreciated. A system of government that was able to rule France for 800 years, or rule England for similar period, must have had at least something quite significant to recommend about it. How else could it accomplish the task of administering huge countries for so long, with far weaker technologies of coordination, if it was marked only by injustice, incompetence and tyranny? Wouldn’t the people have risen up long before they did?

Here is another possibility that simply cannot be imagined by most people today.

Many absolute monarchs were genuinely popular.

Not because the people were duped. Not because they were afraid of expressing contrary opinions. Because the subjects genuinely liked their hereditary kings. Because these Kings did a good job of ruling. Not all, but many of them.

Such a possibility is highly confronting to modern sensibilities, but surely it must be considered as at least a hypothesis. The historical record is there - something kept them working for a very long time. If we can’t conceive of why kings might have been effective, perhaps this means that they weren’t effective, or perhaps we just have a failure of imagination.

I think part of the mistake comes from misunderstanding how kings came about.

When people think about an absolute monarch in a western country, they think about establishing a monarchy today. And since they don’t know how monarchs came to exist, they substitute the following hypothetical – we take a person in society, and given them absolute power.

Let us put aside for the moment the question of whether kings actually have absolute power.

Even before that, the natural question arises in the progressive mind: who gets to be king? And since this is purely a hypothetical, the answers cover an equally large range of hypothetical figures, namely everyone in society. Giving one randomly chosen person control of everything strikes them, somewhat understandably, as risky and ill-advised.

But kings were not randomly chosen people, and it simply doesn’t make sense to evaluate monarchy as if they were.

More importantly, the ways in which kings weren’t random redound strongly to their advantage.

Who is the king today in a monarchy? The son of the previous king. Phrased only like this, it presents a chicken and egg argument that doesn’t tell us much.

Rather, to get anywhere we need to understand the origins – who was the first king in any given lineage? This is the basis from which the rest stems.

The answer, nearly always, is a great military leader, a commander of men able to unite his people into an army, and successfully coordinate them in battle to subdue their previous rulers. Robert the Bruce became king of Scotland after a ten year period where Scotland had no king. At the Battle of Bannockburn, Robert the Bruce began the battle by fighting Henry de Bohun in single combat, killing him by splitting his head open with an axe. Robert then led the Scottish troops into battle. That doesn't sound like a randomly chosen level of valor, strength, and ability to lead men. 

If I were a Scot, besieged and ruled by the hated English, I would be pretty damn pleased to have such a man in charge of my country. The fact that he wasn't elected in a vote would not trouble me one jot.

When William the Conqueror fought the Battle of Hastings, he had to rally his fleeing troops, and led the successful counterattack against the English forces. Talk about courage and calmness under pressure.

In medieval battles it was very difficult to command an army without personal courage and skill. You don’t get to be miles behind the front line, picking up a telephone and giving orders. You will be in the fray, fighting alongside your soldiers, giving wise orders, and convincing people to obey them through your personal authority. If you're insufficiently good at that job, you're dead, like King Harold

A man that can command, inspire and make wise choices in war has at least a decent shot of doing the same thing in peace. At the barest minimum, he has a much better chance of doing so than a randomly chosen citizen at the time.

In the language of economics, Kings are endogenous. It makes no sense to ask what would happen if we elevated a random person to be king. The only person who would ever get to be the first king is someone with enough personal qualities to establish themselves as such.

The person who would have had the greatest opportunity to establish himself as King of America, should he have wanted to do so, was probably George Washington. He had to tell his subordinates to address him as ‘Mr President’, not ‘Your Highness’. His stepping down, rather than ruling on until he died or was voted out, was considered very surprising. King George III said that if Washington in fact returned to his farm and thus renounced power, it would make him the greatest man in the world. One suspects he did not expect to be called on this claim.

Admit it, the prospect of King George Washington is not an immediately frightening one,. And how did he get to have this level of popular support and gratitude? By bravery and military genius. He was an outstanding leader of men long before he won an election. 

In perhaps the most credible alternative universe where America had a monarch, it would not be Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump.

It would be a descendant of George Washington.

So let’s establish that we’re reasonably happy with King Washington I. How might we feel about his descendants?

If behavioral genetics has taught us anything, it’s that nearly every personality and cognitive trait we care to measure has a significant degree of heritability. George Washington’s offspring will not be the same as George Washington, but they will share many of his traits simply due to genetics.

Not only that, but the environmental factors are also encouraging. The future kings are raised in an environment where they also get passed on to them all the cultural ideas and learning of the previous king, which again tends to reinforce the behaviours that worked the previous time. Moreover, prince regents have been apprenticed from a very young age to the task of ruling, learning the trade from those that came before. All of these factors tend to reinforce the behaviours of kings over time, and encourage whatever caused the first king to be successful to continue to be present in his successors.

But still, genetic advantages wane with mean reversion. This is the major weakness of monarchy. It also applies to family firms, where the brilliant entrepreneur is succeeded by his somewhat less successful son, and his hopeless wastrel grandson.

Acting against this, however, is an opposing force. Kings also tended to marry queens who were themselves descended from other successful bloodlines. This means that both sides of the family tree tend to be selected from people who displayed a capacity for leadership.

So we can’t even just evaluate a hypothetical King Washington X by looking at the current descendants of George Washington. The marriage patterns would likely be different, the education and training they received would be different, and thus so would the descendants themselves.

Does this mean that monarchy always worked brilliantly? No. Sometimes monarchs die before their children are ready to rule, or die without children, or have idiot worthless children. It's not perfect.

Does it mean that it almost certainly worked better than most people today imagine? Absolutely. We at least have an answer to our question at the start - why might  it have lasted so long?

Does it mean we should switch back to it? Your mileage may vary.

But don’t get this far and still ask the wrong question!

“We” will not switch back to monarchy.

Should America end up as a monarchy, it will be because a monarch worthy of the title of king has commanded the country and been elevated to the position.

And at that point, it will probably work pretty well.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

What's the value of a Bill of Rights?

The standard mythology of the right is that the constitution established separation of powers and limited government. By restricting the power of the federal government through the enumerated powers and the bill of rights, the constitution thus restricts the ability of the government to tyrannise its citizens.

Well, that's the theory. The first clue that something has gone awry in this theory is that nobody talks any more about the enumerated powers as an obstacle to tyranny. Hey, wasn't the federal government only supposed to be able to legislate on a small number of specific topics? Like, for instance, the following (courtesy of the excellent A Crime A Day)

Okay, so the Federal Government now can legislate on absolutely anything that isn't explicitly prohibited by the Bill of Rights. This may seem to violate the text of the constitution, but that's just because you haven't paid enough attention to the penumbras and emanations.

Part of what we're running into is the problem Moldbug described quite aptly - limited government is a fiction because sovereignty is conserved. Who is doing the limiting? If it's the judiciary, then the judiciary is sovereign.

There are no governments by pieces of paper, only governments by men. If the judges choose to follow what's on the paper, then the paper wins the day. If they don't, then it doesn't.

But to bring the matter full circle, are the judges really sovereign? Can they decide anything they want?

Well, maybe. Judges didn't used to be so sovereign. Back in 1832, Andrew Jackson (apocryphally) said of a Supreme Court decision "John Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it!". This was the Presidential equivalent of 'How many divisions has the Pope?'. Indeed, the similarities between the Pope vis a viz Stalin and the Supreme Court vis a viz the President are striking. There are relatively few federal officers directly answerable to the court across the land, which means that the courts are reliant on other people and branches of government to enforce their decisions. If everyone else chooses to obey, it is partly out of a) convention, and b) a quasi-religious reverence that got attached to Supreme Court decisions after Brown v. Board of Education. 

In other words, if the Supreme Court is sovereign, then it resembles the messy reality of what being King was actually like, rather than the textbook theory of absolute power. To wit, a large part of the skill of being king was knowing what orders would actually be obeyed and carried out, and limiting one's instructions to those. A king who goes too far in his estimation of his subjects' obedience and starts getting openly disobeyed won't stay as king very long.

At the moment, the Supreme Court just gets obeyed, out of a sense of duty. But if they pushed things too far in one go, that sense of duty might evaporate, and with it the whole prestige of the court.

And at last we see where written constitutions, or Bills of Rights specifically, might finally have some effect.

In particular, a statement on a piece of paper can serve as a strong coordination device- these things are disallowed under our system of government. Now, the sovereign is he who decides the exception, and a sovereign supreme court can decide when a particular constitutional provision doesn't apply.

But unlike the medieval kings (who obtained their right to be king by virtue of birth), the Supreme Court is in a bind. A substantial amount of its influence comes from the belief, even if deluded, that the court is actually following the piece of paper. Overrule that too explicitly, and the masses might lose their will to obey.

In order for this to work, however, the issue has to be something that a) people care about enough to challenge the nobility of the Supreme Court, and b) that people can agree on widely when the provision has been breached.

So which provisions might actually have a shot at forcing the court to do something that its individual members might not prefer to be done?

In this regard, 'Equal Protection' will be almost completely nugatory as a restriction on the court's personal preferences. What the hell does it guarantee? What needs to be equal with what? In fact,the very ambiguity lets it get used as a sword, to apply whatever leftist idea is the order of the day.

So what are the two areas that the Supreme Court has blinked on, at least relative to the view that Cthulu only swims left?

The big one was DC v Heller, when the Supreme Court unusually rejected the opportunity to gut the 2nd Amendment by claiming that it only allowed people the right to join a militia. 

This would have quite likely risked a total shitstorm, because gun owners really, really care about their guns, and every single one of them would have gone insane over this. I suspect some justices recognised this, and stepped back from the precipice. 

(Incidentally, this seems to be exactly what John Roberts did with Obamacare, changing his decision at the last minute rather than risking the court suddenly becoming public enemy number one with leftists, the court's natural constituency at the moment).

The other case, curiously, is the First Amendment.

Now, on the face of it, you may think that America has all sorts of restrictions on free speech, and you'd be right.

But you can rest assured that there is nothing on the books as repulsive as Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act in Australia, or the loathsome Human Rights Commissions in Canada that Mark Steyn had to battle with for years, or the repugnant British prosecutions of people for racist tweets.

On the issues that the left cares about, America still has fewer governmental prohibitions than nearly all comparable western countries. 

Now, it may be that America is just more conservative on this stuff. But if you look at how rabidly leftists at American colleges treat these issues, or how radioactive accusations of racism are, it's hard to countenance that.

Rather, I think that Congress and the Courts haven't yet had the gumption to make a big push to overturn this, because unlike equal protection, it would be pretty indisputable that the provision had been ignored.

In the case of free speech, I am sadly pessimistic about its long term prospects. At some point, when the hysteria over racism becomes sufficiently widespread, expect the Supreme Court to carve out some unprincipled exception that 'hate speech is different from free speech'.

But they're not there yet, because it would still be a risky move. 

In the rest of the world, however, it wasn't. Without the coordination mechanism of a long-standing bright red line, people just sat there and took it.

In the US, they'll probably end up taking it too, but the piece of paper maybe bought us 20 years or so.

That may not be much in the long run, but it's something.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Making the human race better

Let me ask you, dear reader, a fairly straightforward question.

Suppose that you and your wife or husband are about to have a child. All else equal, would you like your child to be smarter, or dumber? You will love your child either way, of course, so that's not the issue. But if you could take a vitamin supplement during pregnancy that would give them an extra 10 IQ points, would you do it? Let's assume it's a wholly natural supplement. There's a risk of childhood malnutrition without it, which will permanently harm their intelligence.

Taking the supplement would certainly make their life somewhat easier, and increase the chances that they could come up with important business and scientific advances that could benefit society. Lord knows parents spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on education after the fact to try to achieve exactly the same goal.

So to ask a slightly weaker question - does the prospect of such a vitamin supplement shock, horrify and disgust you? Is it repugnant, equivalent to the Holocaust, for parents to love their children so much that they wish them to be slightly smarter? Is it wrong to wish for these benefits for your neighbour's children, or your friends' children? If you're not an IQ booster, substitute in adjectives like 'taller', 'more attractive' or 'healthier' - the logic is exactly the same.

I am pretty sure the answer to this is 'of course not'.

So now, question number two.

Would society as a whole be better off if all prospective mothers took this pill? If you could make all the children in society smarter, healthier and more attractive, would that be a net benefit to society, or not? Would that be a project that we should undertake?

As it turns out, that project already has a name.

That name is eugenics.

Eugenics is, of course, in the popular discussion on the subject, literally Hitler.

And I personally find this the most unfathomably braindead attitude I can imagine.

In the case of eugenics, the objections to it are especially vague, and seem to descend into Godwin's Law territory even faster than most political issues, because eugenics is often explicitly presented as a motivation for the Holocaust. This is of course yet one more example in a long list that support the claim that "Hitler makes everybody stupid". Hitler butchered 6 million Jews in a horribly cruel manner. Therefore, we should be entirely unconcerned with whether the human race is on net getting smarter or dumber, or whether the prevalence of genetic health disorders is becoming more common or less common. Not quite so compelling when you spell it out now, is it? That's The Magic of Hitler, that you never bothered to notice this before now.

To begin with a quibble - it's pretty bizarre to claim that the Holocaust discredits eugenics, because the Holocaust seems about the least eugenic policy I can imagine. Ashkenzi Jews have a mean IQ of 113-116 for crying out loud! I can scarcely imagine a more disgenic policy than killing them off wholesale. If Hitler was a eugenicist, he was the worst one in history, save perhaps Pol Pot, who deliberately killed anyone who seemed even vaguely smart. I don't think his monstrous actions teach us anything about eugenics.

Part of the reason for all this nonsense is that the term eugenics came to conflate two quite different concepts. The first is the general aim of improving the genetic stock of the human race. The second was a specific set of policies that got applied to do this.

If you can't change the genes of a population directly, you can still change their frequency. In terms of the existing population, we can't instantly clone adults, but we can kill them. In terms of children, we can either have policies designed to encourage more children from the people we want, or policies designed to discourage having children by the people we don't want.

Now, to give opponents their (very limited) due, a number of the policies implemented to achieve eugenic aims were in fact quite horrible. Killing entire populations is of course repugnant. Forced sterilisations of the disabled, the retarded or the mentally ill are something that we find very troubling and immoral.

Because this is a touchy subject, let me emphasise that I share the above concerns.

So for the purposes of argument, let us specify in advance, to allay any possible fears, that we shall rule out any policy whatsoever designed to specifically discourage anyone from having children, let alone killing anyone.

But what about the last category? What about just encouraging high-functioning, good people to have more children?

What in God's name is wrong with that? Why shouldn't that be something to be celebrated? Trying to bring more happy, healthy capable children into the world is about as far from the Holocaust as I can possibly imagine. So why on earth does it still get tarred with the same brush? Is it really so repugnant to increase tax breaks for rich parents? Is it appalling to run ad campaigns in low-crime-rate areas encouraging people to have more children?

Marketing and associations being what they are, I think we need a new term to describe the specific set of policies that encourage higher birth rates by well-adjusted people. I humbly submit 'progenetic policy' (a play on both genetics and progeny). But any new term would be helpful to sever people's inane association with things like forced sterilisations.

By this point in time, we have an overwhelming body of evidence from behavioral genetics that large amounts of personality traits and behaviors are significantly heritable, and have sizable genetic components. As a result, if you have more children being born with good genes, you will get more good outcomes. Isn't this something you'd want? This would seem obvious to me, but apparently it's not to a lot of people.

And the thing that is most perplexing to me about the current antipathy towards thinking about these questions is that not thinking about these issues doesn't make them go away.

Because the broader side of eugenics goes on whether you think about it or not.

There is no opt-out here. There is only eugenics, disgenics, or stasis.

Either the genetic traits associated with pro-social behavior, or IQ, or anything else, are becoming more prevalent in the population, less prevalent in the population, or they are staying at the same rate. So which is it? Which would you like it to be? When you design a new policy, it will either cause those frequencies to go up, or go down. This seems like something worth thinking about in advance.

You may not be interested in progenetics.

Progenetics, unlike Trotsky's quip about war, is not interested in you either.

But it is very interested in your children.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

OMG, did you hear what Trump said yesterday?

Why, exactly, do people spend so much time talking about the US election?

There is an argument that this election is particularly important, that the contrast between the candidates is large, and that the consequences for the US will be important. It's natural, therefore, that people should care.

There is definitely an element of truth to this. The only question is magnitude - how much does this actually explain? In the case of Americans, it's hard to say for sure.

So let's try a related question - why do foreigners spend so much time talking about the US election?

Being back in the old country, conversation over here turns to the subject of Trump with about the same regularity as it did in America. Which is to say, frequently. I have heard far more conversations about Trump than about Malcolm Turnbull, Australia's Prime Minister.

It's hard to argue that the consequences for Australia of the election are particularly far-reaching. Defense links will continue. Trade links will continue. It is certainly hard to argue that the consequences are farther reaching, in the short term, than the actions of Australia's own government.

This is the placebo test. If you take out the factor you think  is really important and get pretty much the same result, it suggests that the factor wasn't as important as you thought  it was.

So why do Australians care about American elections? Well, for the same reason that Australians listen to American music more than Australian music (see here if you don't believe me). Because it's mostly just entertainment, and the US is the cultural hegemon.

In other words, a substantial amount of the interest in politics seems to fill the role of gossip. Nobody knows their neighbours much any more, so we need to find some common ground of people to share titillating stories about what someone-or-other said the other day.

And for this purpose, anyone will do the trick. More importantly, co-ordinating on the same set of gossip topics is useful for facilitating conversation with strangers from lots of places. It's the reason why local politics made way for state politics, and state politics mostly made way for federal politics. Partly this is because of the shift in power, but partly it's just a usefully agreed-on topic to talk about.

And in the case of foreigners, it also fills another useful aspect of gossip - feeling superior to the subject being discussed. Gossip is the revenge of the powerless against the powerful, taking vicarious pleasure in their misfortunes and mishaps. Is it thus surprising that countries which are smaller and subordinate enjoy mocking the leaders of Leviathan, especially those of a conservative bent?

I think that this is one of the aspects of democratic systems that  helps explain why it's been useful to keep the form of democracy even as substantive power gets transferred to the judiciary and the bureaucracy. The Romans knew that you needed bread and circuses to keep the people occupied and in check.

Trump may or may not be a circus you enjoy per se, but that never really mattered, as long as he kept you engaged. Like all gossip, only the unusually honest will admit that they like it as gossip. Mostly it has to get dressed up in more important excuses to not feel tawdry.

The fate of the country depends on it, after all.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

The technology-dependence of sexual morality

From the distance of the present, especially for young people, the sexual morality of the past seems very odd. 

In particular, the idea of very strong and widespread norms against sex outside of marriage is something that is hard to actually conceive of.

Progressives find the idea repugnant, and can't imagine why anyone would ever have supported it.

Conservatives and reactionaries can be on board with the idea, but still, it actually stretches the imagination to think of what it would be like for everyone in Europe to agree with the idea.

But this is mostly a failure of imagination, albeit an understandable one.

What would be the minimum number of changes necessary in society that would reverse the change entirely?

You could rout all the current progressive institutions, and replace them with Islam, or the Catholic Church of 100 years ago, but these are not really minimalist changes. We want a societal Rube Goldberg machine, where we set off small changes somewhere else that get us the same outcome. 

There's an assumption buried there that the change might be reversible, of course, and perhaps it isn't.

But if it is, a good starting point is the set of things that might explain why the old regime got replaced by the new.

My suggestion - to understand pre 20th Century sexual morality, all you need to do is imagine a world without any good contraceptives, abortion, or birth control in general.

Which, by the way, was what it was like.

You can talk about the pullout method, or the rhythm method. But do you think these are going to be reliable for a teenage boy having a dalliance for the first time with a maid? Probably not.

And as soon as you do that, suddenly everything becomes obvious. 

Take away contraceptives, and sex leads to pregnancy with high likelihood. Take away reliable abortion, and everyone, rich or poor, has to deal with the the child. Take away modern wealth levels and the welfare state, and an unplanned child for a single woman is a catastrophe.

How would you, enlightened progressive, feel about your 14 year old daughter sleeping with her boyfriend if it meant a good chance of getting pregnant and needing to have the child? 

Suddenly the patriarchy doesn't seem like such a silly idea now, does it? Suddenly 'sex positive' messages to teenagers don't seem like society's number one priority, no?

But to reactionaries, the depressing flip side is also true.

Namely, if the absence of birth control was the the basis for monogamy and chastity before marriage as social norms, it's probably going to be quite hard to put that toothpaste back in the tube. You can't uninvent condoms or the pill.

This is like mass immigration - a social problem that's really a technological problem

So I predict that our current sexual free-for-all will go on at least until society degenerates to the point that it can't produce contraceptives anymore, at which point barbarism will restore chastity before marriage.

On the plus side, when this happens, it will also simultaneously solve the most difficult problem of our times, convincing rich, educated, civilised people to have more children. 

Give people the choice, and they will hack their own evolutionary reward systems and have a lot more sex and a lot fewer children.

Like Prometheus, we have stolen fire from the gods.

Like Prometheus, we cannot give it back.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Stop cheering for politicians

At the risk of cementing my place as a curmudgeon, the National Conventions of the US political parties always struck me as thoroughly bizarre. This is an entirely bipartisan feeling - they're a freakshow.

My overwhelming feeling, whenever it shows the crowd shots, is: who are all these people? Don't they have anything better to do do?

To the Australian mindset, there is something quite unseemly about turning up to cheer for politicians, especially in these degraded times. There is a reason that these events don't take place in Australia. They simply wouldn't pass the laugh test. If you built it, no one would come. This includes people who voted for the candidate.

Let the parties sort out their own tawdry affairs in private, and then we'll vote for whichever of the two repulses us less, if we're minded to do so. (In Australia, you legally have no choice on that last point)

If there is one advantage to living in a democratic age, you at least have the freedom to have open contempt for one's notional leaders without running afoul of les majeste laws or the like. This is fortunate, because the system tends to produce leaders richly deserving of the contempt that you're licensed to have.

Why throw that away for this bunch of clowns? Why act like a subject voluntarily for someone whom it is unworthy to be subjected to? Honestly, if you could actually pick a single person to be ruled by, no questions asked, would either of these two candidates be among the top 1000 people you'd pick? The top 10,000?

The rather visceral reaction I have to political conventions is, I will freely admit, a mostly aesthetic response. It seems like obvious pandering and boob bait for bubbas. Sometimes, some of the relevant applause lines strike home to me. Sometimes, they say things that seem true, and even important or compelling.

But even then, not far beneath the surface is the feeling I have during the few times I've had the misfortune to watch romantic comedies. When watching the sad bits, I sometimes feel brief pangs of sadness. But they quickly get followed by a sense of resentment of the fact that my emotions are being manipulated here, for other people's benefit, and in a crude and obvious manner.

Doubt not that this is happening to you. Even if you honestly think it's a good idea to vote for this candidate. In fact, especially if you honestly think it's a good idea to vote for this candidate.

Now, it is possible that these are generally new and interesting times, and genuinely new and uniquely worthy leaders. A lot of people on the right are really excited about Donald Trump. Maybe they're right to be thrilled.

I would caution you with the following though.

If you're honest with yourself, and remember what you felt at the time, did you not feel at least some similar excitement at Mitt Romney's speech? At John Bloody McCain? When you look back now, are you not embarrassed to have supported these shameless, self-promoting fools? One is a Democrat-lite, and the other took the 'Invade the World / Invite the World' idea so strongly that he probably would have started a war with Russia over the sinkhole that is Ukraine.

If you're a Democrat, for an equivalent test, try and summon up now the same enthusiasm for John Kerry that you had in 2004. It simply cannot be done.

With the passage of time, the raw tribalism goes away, and the sheer mediocrity of the candidates offered in democratic elections becomes strikingly clear.

So if you (like me for sure in 2008, and me to some extent still in 2012) felt some excitement at the time for those clowns, you should feel a little chastened. You might reflect that perhaps, indeed, I am one of the rubes after all, or at least am not wholly immune from rube-like tendencies. Perhaps I just like cheering for my team, and this is what I'm actually feeling right now. Perhaps most of what strikes me as absurd about the other party's convention applies equally strongly to my own.

In related news, November cannot come fast enough.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Initial Thoughts on the Coup Attempt in Turkey

It is always hazardous writing about coup attempts before everything is done and dusted, but the recent one in Turkey is notable in several respects. 

Also, unusually for this type of thing, I was watching the updates in real time, so there's a few things that stuck out to me that might not be so obvious if you just read about it the next day.

The most striking thing is the extent to which everybody, myself included, misread the most important moment of the whole proceedings. 

It was this:

That is Turkish President Erdogan, giving a press conference by facetime, assuring people that everything is just fine.

Up to this point, you may recall, there had already been reports on official Turkish State TV that the coup had succeeded (past tense), that a peace council was now in charge of the country, and a curfew was in effect. The reports in the press were tending towards announcing the coup as a fait accompli.

So, given that background, what do you what do you make of this?

The popular response to this was twofold. Firstly, derision. A press conference by phone indeed is farcical. This kind of reaction was typical.


I mock, but I shouldn't. If my response had been fixed publicly in time, it probably wouldn't have looked much more sophisticated.

Second, most people looked at this and saw Baghdad Bob. It's hard to convey the impression that you're in charge of the situation from behind a phone. What it looks like is someone who's already packed their bags and is getting the hell out of dodge.

In other words, it wouldn't matter what he was saying, the real message was that it was over and the leader had fled. The coup had won.

It turns out, people were so focused on the absurdity of the situation that they missed what he was saying. 

He was telling people to take to the streets and protest, focusing on the main squares and airports.

And this was a really, really, important message to get across.

Because he had enough supporters that they really did take to the streets. You're not Baghdad Bob if you still have a massive army of supporters at your disposal, even if you are behind a phone screen.

The next thing that became apparent was something that the War Nerd has noted a long time ago - driving tanks around urban environments without infantry support, which is what the army was doing, is a recipe for disaster. This is especially true when the opponents have RPGs, but even in Istanbul there were rumors of tanks being disabled by people throwing sheets over them, pulling the crews out, etc. Not to mention the photos of civilians lying in front of tanks, daring the military to drive over them. Which it turns out they lacked the gumption to do. The apparently impregnable tanks being taken over by protestors became a really depressing metaphor for the whole event, at least if you  were hoping for it to succeed.

What's really, really important in coups is Schelling Points. Why is a facetime speech still really valuable? For the same reason that controlling State TV (which the coup plotters also did early on, and then lost) is really important, actually even more important. You thought TV was obsolete, didn't you? Not in a coup it's not.

Partly, it conveys a sense of official power. The main information outlet is now owned by the coup. Erdogan is reduced to a telephone, which is not nearly as good. So far, so good for the plotters, at least early on. 

But much more importantly, it conveys the same message to lots of people all at once. And it turns out facetime is just fine for this purpose. What the government forces couldn't do until that point was to coordinate the behavior of their supporters. When they all started hitting the streets at once, everything changed. Suddenly the military had a much bigger problem on its hands.

All security forces exist based on force projection and self-fulfilling beliefs. If everyone committed crimes all at once, the police don't have nearly enough people to arrest them all. Law and order is maintained because for the vast majority of people, each one believes that law enforcement will arrest him, John Q Citizen, if he commits a crime. Hence most people don't commit crimes, the belief in the authority of the police is maintained, and order persists. The only time this breaks is during a riot, when people realise that they can just loot stuff because there aren't enough police to arrest them all, and the police aren't doing anything anyway.

So this problem exists for security forces at the best of times. But it's even more severe during a coup.

In a coup attempt, everyone is looking to see which way everyone else is going to jump.

If people think the coup has succeeded, they will stop fighting, and the coup will actually succeed. This was what  was initially happening, as far as I can tell, in the initial stages.

But the reverse is true. If people think the coup is failing, they will resist it, and some of the soldiers will surrender to the police, and this will depress morale of the rest. Moreover, this starts to happen at the point when you're relying on the soldiers to start shooting ever more of their unarmed countrymen. That takes a lot of martial discipline at the best of times. 

What this tells you is that you can judge a lot about a coup's success just by who is making more official announcements. It doesn't even matter what they are. As soon as Erdogan's official statements started appearing regularly on my twitter feed, I strongly suspected that the gig was up.

As of writing, it's not "over" over. There keep being reports of ongoing fighting, jets bombing Erdogan's palace, jets bombing the airport (whose jets? great question). 

But you're sure not hearing anything out of the coup leaders, and that bodes very poorly for them.

You can also judge a coup's success by the passage of time. The longer it goes on, the worse it looks for the plotters. In the ideal case, it's instant and bloodless. But they're fighting to reverse the default presumption of power. When that momentum starts to falter, it can reverse very quickly.

To slightly modify the great Sun Tzu, though we have heard of stupid haste in coups, cleverness has rarely been seen associated with long delays.

Finally, there is the role of the west in all of this. 

A perennial question in matters of statecraft is the extent to which organised US power is actually running the world from behind the scenes, or catching up as a mostly clueless observer.

I don't think you and I will ever really know.

But one thing I do know is that all the official western outlets were conspicuously silent about the whole affair until after the protesters started hitting the streets. Then came the announcements that we need to support the democratically elected government of Turkey etc etc. Before that were rumors that Erdogan had been seeking asylum in Germany but his plane had been denied permission to land.

It seems that it's not just people in Turkey who are waiting to find out which way the wind is blowing. 

And because it failed, I doubt we will ever really know who was behind it. In the weird three-way war between the 1) secular parts of the Turkish military, 2) the Gulen cultists and 3) the Erdogan supporters, it's not clear whether this was group 2 alone, group 1 alone, or group 1 and 2 in combination. Erdogan is blaming this on Gulen, but he'd be crazy to not use the opportunity to consolidate his power over them, even if he thought it was the secularists.

Successful changes of government have a thousand fathers, but a failed coup is the most despised orphan of them all.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Sing, Muse, of the incompetent rage of the police shooters

To my mind, there is only one genuinely surprising thing about the recent police shootings in Dallas, which is that they were carried out with unusual competence. This is also the main reason you're reading about them. Killing multiple police all at once, at a protest that ensured there was already a media presence, is too dramatic to ignore. You can't just paint it as some 'piece-a-shit' incident gone wrong (in Tom Wolfe's memorable phrase).

This puts the media in a difficult bind, because I suspect that they very much would like to ignore this black on white rage, like they do for most such rage. The only thing that could have made it worse would have been if the shooter had used something other than a gun. In that case, progressives would have been deprived of the opportunity to at least try to redirect the conversation to gun control, and the story would already be in the process of being actively memory-holed.

As soon as the reports were suggesting a sniper from an elevated position, my guess was that whoever was doing this had some formal training with this stuff. Sure enough, the shooter was in the Army Reserves. Initial reports said that it was multiple snipers from a triangulated position, which made it even more likely. Now they're saying that it's a lone wolf, but they would, wouldn't they?

To shoot 12 officers, kill 5 of them, and hit only 2 civilians, is a surprisingly difficult task, especially if the shooter was indeed acting alone.

The typical pattern of black rage against police is far less planned, and far more likely to result in immediate arrest before actually killing many, if any, police. To take just the last couple of police shootings in the immediate aftermath, we had the following:
Authorities say a man called 911 in south Georgia to report a break-in, then ambushed and shot the officer who came to investigate. Both men were wounded in the ensuing gunfire, and both are expected to survive.
That is far closer to what I expect. Point blank, ambush, incompetent, resulting in immediate arrest.

This was his best plan to kill as many police as possible - leave a 911 call with his own voice, calling a single policeman to his own home, just to make absolutely sure the police would know who the prime suspect was in the unlikely event that he actually got away. Moreover, his choice of target was a policeman who would already be slightly on edge due to being on an active call.

And that's what you get with actual forward planning. Without that, it's even more incompetent:
In a fourth attack early Friday, a motorist fired at a police car as the officer drove by. In all, four officers were wounded. The officer wounded outside St. Louis is in critical but stable condition. The wounded officers are expected to survive 
A suburban St. Louis police chief says a motorist shot an officer three times as the officer walked back to his car during a traffic stop.
St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar says the suspect, who is in his 30s, ``ambushed'' the officer, who is in critical but stable condition. 
Just taking pot shots with a handgun at cops who happen to be in the vicinity. Great way to end up in prison for decades with a low probability of actually killing anybody, you really stuck it to the man.

As Randall Collins noted in his excellent book (first chapter free here), the probabilities of actually hitting someone in a combat scenario with a handgun are very low. Here's some numbers from police incidents, the highest annual police 'hit' probability from a gunfight is 25%, the lowest is 9%. Now subtract out most of the formal training that police receive, and you can see why these clowns have such a low chance of success in general.

We should be thankful to have such imbeciles as enemies.

The reality is that not many people in the west, black or white, are actually ready for the effective suicide mission of shooting at the police. If you start shooting at figures of official authority, the absolute best case scenario in the overwhelming number of cases is life imprisonment. Most pathways just end up with you dead, like this, or this.

At one extreme, I suspect that most of the the low impulse control rage shootings like the above happen because the perpetrators haven't actually considered the consequences much at all. This explains why they're so poorly carried out. In the west, it's easier to find thoroughly stupid people than suicidal people.

Of course, among those that have considered it in advance, hope springs eternal in the human breast. Most people cling to some small probability that they'll actually get away, even if they don't have a clear idea of the end game.

Hence the preference for being a sniper. It was true here, it was true with John Allen Muhammad. Being a sniper allows a mental "out". Perhaps I won't get caught. Perhaps I'll shoot a few, get away, and live to tell the tale.

If you fully embrace the idea that you're going to die, you could kill a whole lot more people. You might become a suicide bomber, and drive a truck bomb into police headquarters. The optics of this are very bad, of course. Suicide bomber goes to crazy terrorist. Not a good way to spread your message, whatever exactly it is.

So America will continue to have black rage shootings. This has happened before, of course. In the 1970s, this stuff was frequent among black power groups. Just look at the Zebra Murders, which nobody much seems to remember.

The worst worry is that more shooters begin to twig onto the tactics that actually work, in which case you don't want to be around to find out what happens to a) the number of police killed, and b) the homicide rate in your city as police retreat to areas of relative safety.

For the moment, the main thing saving us is the fact that people smart enough to carry out a competent mass shooting are deterred by the fact that they're also smart enough to realise that doing so is a death sentence.

Modernity produces both blind rage and suicide in considerable quantities. It is a small mercy that these don't usually coincide in the same person.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Suffering is Interesting, Ending Suffering is Uninteresting

One of the most important statements of Buddhist philosophy is the Four Noble Truths. These were taught by the Buddha in the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, the first discourse he made to the five ascetics, who he had worked with during his first years after becoming a monk.

The Four Noble Truths are stated thus:
Now this, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of suffering: birth is suffering, aging is suffering, illness is suffering, death is suffering; union with what is displeasing is suffering; separation from what is pleasing is suffering; not to get what one wants is suffering; in brief, the five aggregates subject to clinging are suffering.
Now this, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of the origin of suffering: it is this craving which leads to re-becoming, accompanied by delight and lust, seeking delight here and there; that is, craving for sensual pleasures, craving for becoming, craving for disbecoming.
Now this, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of the cessation of suffering: it is the remainderless fading away and cessation of that same craving, the giving up and relinquishing of it, freedom from it, non-reliance on it.
Now this, bhikkhus, is the noble truth of the way leading to the cessation of suffering: it is this noble eightfold path; that is, right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration. 

Existence is suffering.

The cause of suffering is craving.

The cessation of suffering comes from the giving up of craving.

The way to give up craving and reach the cessation of suffering is to follow the Eightfold Noble Path.

These may be true. They may be false. That is up to you to decide, as the Buddha himself said.

But what is intriguing to me is the relative levels of interest in each of the Four Noble Truths. If you check Google's search results, you get the following number of hits:

"First Noble Truth" - 54,000 results

"Second Noble Truth" - 30,100 results

"Third Noble Truth" - 31,700 results

"Fourth Noble Truth" - 28,100 results

So to judge accordingly, people are far more interested to find out that the Buddha thought the world is miserable than to find out how the Buddha proposed to deal with this predicament.

Less than 60% of the people who found the First Noble Truth insightful enough to quote it displayed any interest in finding out how to actually get rid of suffering. Of course, the Buddha may just be wrong about all this. But then why quote the First Truth in the first place?

Not only that, but having gotten to the end, we're told that the way forward is the Eightfold Noble Path.

"Eightfold Noble Path" - 17,800 results

This, of course, is even less interesting to people than the Noble Truths themselves, hence another third of people drop away. Oh, you mean he was actually serious about ending suffering, and gave a detailed description of how to get there? Bah, who's got time for that!

As a result, Buddhism more or less gets reduced in the popular conception to Brad Pitt's pithy phrase in 'Se7en'
"You're right. It's all f***ed up. It's a f***ing mess. We should all go live in a f***ing log cabin."
So why is the First Noble Truth much more interesting to people than the rest?

Perhaps they don't believe the rest. This is possible, but given the frequency of repetition, I hear the Brad Pitt version quoted as if it's the actual main point of Buddhism. I think most of the 24,000 odd people who don't get past Truth #1 honestly don't know what the others even say.

If they haven't heard the other three truths, it's because they didn't resonate in a way that made people want to repeat them. So why is that?

I suspect part of it comes from what The  Last Psychiatrist said about narcissism, here:
The unconscious doesn't care about happiness, or sadness, or gifts, or bullets.  It has one single goal, protect the ego, protect status quo.  Do not change and you will not die.  It will allow you to go to college across the country to escape your parents, but turn up the volume of their pre-recorded soundbites when you get there.  It will trick you into thinking you're making a huge life change, moving to this new city or marrying that great guy, even as everyone else around you can see what you can't, that Boulder is exactly like Oakland and he is just like the last guys.   And all the missed opportunities-- maybe I shouldn't, and isn't that high? and he probably already has a girlfriend, and I can't change careers at 44, and 3 months for the first 3/4 and going on ten years for the last fourth, and do I really deserve this?-- all of that is maintenance of the status quo, the ego. 
and here:
Grandiosity is only one possible manifestation of a psychic process that went awry.  The essence, the defining characteristic of narcissism is the isolated worldview, the one in which everyone else is not fully real, only part a person, and only the part the impacts you.
Narcissism is self-protective.  It simultaneously allows for the reduction of the other to prop status, while reassuring you that this perspective is not wrong or dangerous because it's not about superiority. 

The First Noble Truth, quoted alone and out of context, can sound ego-validating. Your suffering is a cosmic truth that is inescapable! The misfortune you're suffering is pre-ordained in the structure of the universe. It's not your fault - you're perfect the way you are!

Truths two through four, however, inform you that it is your fault. Whether you find this demoralising or inspiring says a lot about you. Your misery is due to your actions and thoughts, but it's something within your power to change. That should be great news, but of course it isn't necessarily. Faced with the choice between continuing to suffer and changing oneself, are you really surprised that lots of people prefer the former?

And the number that go on to find the details of how to actually do it is smaller still.

The Buddha, of course, was not a psychiatrist in the modern sense, and The Last Psychiatrist is no Buddhist either. But they find common ground in the following observation about the modern world - the main craving that people have is not really craving for material things or money, but attachment to their ideas of self.

So it's well worth pondering The Last Psychiatrist's description for how to deal with the problem of ego:
"Help me, please, I think I'm a narcissist.  What do I do?"
There are a hundred correct answers, yet all of them useless, all of them will fail precisely because you want to hear them.
There's only one that's universally effective, I've said it before and no one liked it. This is step 1: fake it.
You'll say: but this isn't a treatment, this doesn't make a real change in me, this isn't going to make me less of a narcissist if I'm faking!
All of those answers are the narcissism talking.  All of those answers miss the point: your treatment isn't for you, it's for everyone else.
If you do not understand this, repeat step 1.