Sunday, April 26, 2015

Some allegorical thoughts on the anniversary of the massacre of Armenians that may or may not be a genocide, depending on whom you ask

Scene: Kiev, 1933. It is the height of the Holodomor. Two Ukranian men, Aleksandr and Dmitriy, both lie hopelessly prone on the side of a road. They are emaciated to the point of looking like skin-covered skeletons. They are, in the words Solzhenitsyn used to describe many similar people in Russian prison camps over those and subsequent years, 'last-leggers'.

Aleksandr: Dima, I don't think we have long for this world.

Dimitriy: I suspect you are right, my friend. I can scarcely move, and haven't eaten for weeks. I fear this is the end.

Aleksandr: Before we go, there is one question I have been pondering in my delirious state, and it will sadden me if we die before we get an answer. Might you help me puzzle over it a while?

Dimitriy: Of course, Sasha. What breath I have, I give to you.

Aleksandr: I have been trying to figure something out. Why did Stalin do this to us?

Dimitriy: Do you mean how can such evil exist in the hearts of men, and how can God let such misery go on?

Aleksandr: No, not that specifically. I mean, what precise feelings and motivations do you think Stalin had in his heart of hearts at the time he issued his orders to murder us? Do you think his aim in this massacre might have been one of... racism?

Dimitriy: Perish the thought, Sasha! We are all Slavs, so there is clearly no racial component to the mass murder by Russia of three million odd Ukranian souls.

Aleksandr: But there surely is at least a national angle to it, which makes it racism in the loose sense that people use the word these days, no? The murders show a clear intent to kill a large part of our nation, for no motivation other than hatred of us as a people.

Dimitriy: You worry too much, my friend. Stalin's policies of deliberate farm collectivisation and punishing reduction in rations to targeted areas, which will clearly result in mass starvation as predictably as the laws of thermodynamics continue to operate, do indeed cause our bellies to be distended in a grotesque manner as we rapidly approach a miserable death. But assuredly Stalin's actions are merely due to a desire to stamp out excessive civil unrest in Ukraine, and to stem potential protests aimed at the continuation of his unjust and barbarous rule. While there is a related question as to whether these actions may indirectly constitute racism if the uprisings he is crushing can be described as being due to Ukranian nationalism, I feel this is merely misdirection. Stalin would have gladly done the same thing to groups of Russians who acted the same way. Not only would, come to think of it, but did! It's all in the Gulag Archipelago. Exactly this same kind of starvation is going on as we speak in the gulags all over Russia for all sorts of people of many nationalities who may or may not have posed a similar remote threat to Stalin's rule. Given such context, this makes his actions here in Ukraine merely mass murder, and nothing more.

Aleksandr: Oh, thank goodness for that! Because if I thought that this agony I am experiencing were due to sufficiently racist motives that historians of the future might label it as genocide, I sure would feel a lot worse right now.

Dimitriy didn't answer, as he was dead.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Sentences not normally uttered in these pages

A really excellent column by David Brooks today, entitled 'The Moral Bucket List'.
But if you live for external achievement, years pass and the deepest parts of you go unexplored and unstructured. You lack a moral vocabulary. It is easy to slip into a self-satisfied moral mediocrity. You grade yourself on a forgiving curve. You figure as long as you are not obviously hurting anybody and people seem to like you, you must be okay. But you live with an unconscious boredom, separated from the deepest meaning of life and the highest moral joys.
True indeed.

It seems to me that the main time you hear the concept of 'character' being used these days is when ironically describing some unpleasant experience as being one that 'builds character'. It is rare to hear it talked about as a set of moral virtues that one ought to spend time contemplating and working on.

This is a great shame. The enormous rise of narcissism in our society is in some sense the receding shoreline that gets exposed when the other higher purposes and virtues that people used to live for are all stripped away. We only think of ourselves, about ourselves, and in the interests of ourselves, because there is no longer anything else worth aiming for.

The good news is, this ennui is fixable.

The bad news is, changing yourself is hard, unsparing work.

The good news is, the work itself has its own joy, and is most of the solution to the ennui you'd been feeling.

Read the whole thing.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

First World Problems: Immigration

There exists a continual tension among respectable social scientists when trying to understand what influence culture plays on the world. One must navigate between the Scylla of assuming that only that which is easily measured is real, and the Charybdis of seeing nothing but the unmeasured everywhere.

The Scylla is that of the uber-economist who denies that ideas like culture are meaningful, testable, or important. Human behavior is pretty much reducible to incentives. If he’s feeling a little bit expansionist in his gaze, said uber-economist might admit that psychological biases and market frictions sometimes prevent the proper response to incentives. But other than that, there’s very little else important that determines variation in human behavior. Social changes are best understood as merely changes in technology, cost structures, and resources.

One version of this, which sounds almost like a straw man (but I assure you is not), is that policy should treat people as wholly economic units. When setting immigration policies, there are no differences whatsoever of any importance between a thousand laborers from El Salvador, a thousand laborers from Sudan, or a thousand laborers from South Korea. The variation in visa requirements for nationals from such countries to enter the US suggests that the powers that be do not appear to wholly share this view. The fact that, notwithstanding setting policy based on the presumption of some differences, nobody in any position of authority is willing to publicly assert the existence of such differences, let alone elaborate on exactly what they are, tells you everything you need to know about how policy in this area ended up in such a mess.

The Charybdis, by contrast, is the non-economist, who sees only cultural decline and progress. This can take a variety of forms. There is the progressive who sees nothing but the glorious march of social justice in every economically deleterious policy from affirmative action to the rise of public sector unions, for instance. But there is also the cultural conservative who sees nothing but a steady rise in depravity and degeneracy in modern culture, often to the point of almost rhetorically waving away the enormous increases in material welfare and life expectancy over the past several centuries. Both the progressive and cultural conservative agree, however, that if we could only get people to hold the right beliefs, nearly everything could be fixed in the world.

Between these two extremes, the man of judgment must navigate a path that best approximates his understanding of reality. I vary day by day on much I lean towards each extreme. My training is that of the Scylla, but my personal reading is that of the Charybdis.

One aspect that tends to get largely ignored all around, however, is the interaction between the two ideas. How often, for instance, does technological or economic change end up driving cultural shifts? Or indeed the reverse?

As one candidate phenomena that may have a depressingly economic cause (from the cultural conservative’s perspective), consider the problem of mass illegal immigration of third world populations to the west. Whether in Europe or America, there appears to be a complete inability (and unwillingness) to enforce the border against arbitrarily large numbers of incursions from illegal third world economic migrants. The blindness of the modern left to the potential problems of this phenomena is a source of both incredulity and immense frustration to reactionaries and conservatives alike. As I have written before in these pages, the west has taken an enormous bet that it can resettle large numbers of people from countries that share very little in the way of common culture, language, or values. Moreover, it wagers that from this it can somehow produce a society that retains the strengths that made it a desirable place for people from the third world to move to in the first place. Let us take it as given that the outcome of this bet is not yet written. What, would you say, are the odds though?

Of course, if this problem were merely political stupidity by blank slate cultural Marxists in positions of power, then it is at least conceivably soluble by convincing enough people in positions of power of the potentially disastrous consequences, then the mistaken policies can be reversed.

But what if the big increase in illegal immigration is driven by mostly economic factors? Then, dear cultural conservatives, we have a larger problem on our hands.

I have to conclude, rather depressingly, that I think it is.

Why were the populations of Europe mostly stable for thousands of years? Other than the occasional invasion which radically upset the cultural and genetic balance, there’s a reason that 23andMe can say with a high degree of certainty whom your ancestors were. It’s because they mostly stayed as a culturally homogeneous group in a fairly circumscribed area.

Okay, so why did they stay in a single area, when today we move all around the place? Is it because of a firm cultural value that one should mostly mingle with one’s extended kin and clan? Partly. But I think it’s far more to do with the fact that it was both technologically infeasible and economically prohibitive for the vast majority of people to move very far from their place of birth.

In the case of seafaring voyages, this is easy to understand. Sailing any large distance was risky and difficult, and when you arrived you’d have absolutely nothing but what you brought. If the place you landed was inhabited by people who were hostile to you, they’d probably try to kill you, and they’d probably have the advantage of resources, numbers and local knowledge. Faced with that choice, you’d probably just stay put in your village too. But even travelling large distances over land created similar problems. Someone else is already on that land, you can’t speak their language, and they probably won’t be glad to see you. A single family just packing up and moving to a wholly alien land was extraordinarily unlikely.

The point is, societies in the past simply didn’t have to think about how they’d treat the problem of mass immigration. The only form of mass immigration was a military invasion, and the desirability of averting that didn’t have to be explained to people. The issue of how one should treat an influx of culturally different foreigners who came to work probably didn’t even arise to the level of philosophical speculation. I’d guess that lots of people spent their whole lives never meeting any foreigners.

The simple fact, however, is that the west is caught in a pincer movement between two economic forces. First, technological improvements in transportation have made the cost of long-distance travel get cheaper and cheaper over time. And second, the rising wealth of the third world, even when starting at very low levels, has put this journey in reach of more and more people. It’s the same question as with nuclear weapons. If they can be developed with technology and wealth available in America in 1945, sooner or later lots of countries are going to cross that threshold.

In the case of immigration, this doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to enforce the border as a western country. Israel does it quite successfully, for instance. But it does mean that the cost of doing so, in both dollar terms and political will to take actions that will strike some as uncharitable, continues to rise. It is perhaps not surprising that many countries no longer have any meaningful national will to enforce their borders.

Costs and practicality also explain why the countries with the most sensible immigration policies are the ones for which geography still presents non-trivial cost obstacles to illegal immigration. Australia continues to be hard to get to illegally (New Zealand even more so), and Canada is a long way from anywhere in the third world (and most need to cross the US to get there, at which point in the journey they’ll probably just stay where they are).

If you’re a progressive, this is all great news. We’re on our way to our cultural Marxist multicultural utopia, whatever that proves to be like in practice.

But if you’re a conservative, there isn’t much uplifting news to be had. Illegal immigration is primarily a problem of wealth and technology, and neither of those look like abating any time soon.
The only grim solace is that cultural conservatives are at least well used to depressing news by now. It’s not for nothing that John Derbyshire’s book was titled ‘We Are Doomed’.