Saturday, May 24, 2003

The Layout of the Plant

To a first approximation, the human world is a system of funnels. The mouth of the funnels can be of any width, but their outlets are always very, very narrow because human beings are only capable of processing a few bits of information a second. The content that flows through this system is further attenuated by a series of social mechanisms that constrict the effective diameter of the nozzles. The messages we receive have already been filtered thousands or millions of times, and we do our part to purify the broth of banality even more.

Friday, May 23, 2003

Truth and Lie in an Extramoral Sense

To judge by their obvious delight in the practice, you might think that the spokesmen for the Bush administration just discovered how to lie. They’re like 12-year olds who’ve just stumbled on the miracle of self-abuse and now retreat to the bathroom at every opportunity. In all probability, however, Chaney, Powell, and Rumsfeld were familiar with this basic political tool before they took office. The elaborate, studied prevarications habitual to this administrations reflect, not a change in the behavior of the personnel, but a change in the public world in which they operate. There is simply no cost to lying to the public right now. Republicans can lie about the budget as they have from the beginning. They can lie about weapons of mass destruction and the Iraqi connection to Ben Laden. They can invent and film thrilling war stories like the Jessica Lynch fable and the staged demolition of Saddam Hussein’s statue. They aren’t going to be called on these lies in any politically meaningful way and they know it.

To be fair, Republicans have never really had much of a choice in regards to veracity, though they used to pay more of a price for programmatic dishonesty. All politicians regard truth as optional, but politicians who actually work for the interests of a large percentage of their constituents can sometimes afford to play it straight. In a democracy, politicians dedicated to the defense of privilege simply have to lie. They can only prevail by force or fraud.
Metafaith of our Fathers

A revival of authoritative and authoritarian religion may be hard to credit, but that doesn’t mean that all the talk of religious revival is meaningless. It must betoken something that so many Americans want to endorse religiosity even though they certainly don’t want to live religiously. We see this in the often-quoted statistics about high rates of church attendance in the United States. The telling fact is that the self reported church attendance numbers just don’t hold up if you check them by counting the cars in the parking lot. Americans just want to believe they believe.

The Changing of the Shorts

It seems as if every analysis of the political situation begins with a phrase something like “in the wake of the shattering events of 9/11.” Even Slavoj Zizek, the left-Hegelian standup comic, fell in line by invoking the “shattering impact.” Will I suffer the fate of the Dixie Chicks if I suggest that this language is more than a little hysterical and perhaps a little hypocritical too since lots of us were and are well aware that the actual damage done to the country was not great by historical standards. On 22 August 1914, for example, the French—you know, those spineless cowards—lost 27,000 men fighting the Germans. The 9/11 attack was startling, obviously, and certainly expensive. It was also minor if, perversely, you focus on realities instead of images.

Thursday, May 22, 2003


Irving Kristol, one of the founders of the Neoconservative movement, famously asserted "There are truths appropriate for children; truths that are appropriate for students; truths that are appropriate for educated adults; and truths that are appropriate for highly educated adults, and the notion that there should be one set of truths available to everyone is a modern democratic fallacy. It doesn't work." I am not interested in trying to refute this notion—to claim that public truth telling is feasible or philosophically unproblematic would be to practice a different sort of hypocrisy—but I do think it is important to bring out one unspoken assumption of the rhetoric. The premise of the Neocons is that they represent the “highly educated adults” in the quote, that they are an august elite of philosopher kings and not simply a claque of geeks doing P.R. for billionaires.

Here’s what got me thinking about this issue. I most recently ran across the Kristol quote in an article on right wing attitudes towards Darwin. Although traditional Creationism is a bit low brow for these middle brow people who think they are high brow, the Intelligent Design movement appeals to them. Of course it may be the case that the various anti-evolutionist writers in Commentary are just practicing programmatic untruthfulness on this issue, but you get the impression that they really don’t know that the debate about evolution has been over for 120 years or so and that Anti-Darwinism only makes sense as part of a cynical culture war or as sheer wish fulfillment. Now I assume that Stalin actually thought Lysenko was right, and I expect Irving Kristol, Leon Kass, and Robert Bork have a similarly misplaced faith in Behe, Berlinski, and Dombrowski. If so, they reveal themselves to be liberal arts idiots of the first water.

Wednesday, May 21, 2003

Positive Feedback

Niall Ferguson, a prolific and controversial English historian, raised a considerable ruckus a few years ago by suggesting that the British and perhaps everybody else would have been better off had the Germans won the First World War, In his more recent books on economic history, he practices a different sort of revisionism. Noting that genuinely democratic governments have historically redistributed wealth from the Few to the Many, sometimes in an economically inefficient or self-defeating way, he writes as if this kind of politics was somehow a pressing issue in the 2000s. One can readily concede that populist regimes can go overboard for egalitarianism at the expense of growth or individual freedom and yet wonder what it betokens that an Oxbridge type is sounding that particular tocsin just now when the only thing remotely democratic about our rulers is their anti-elitist rhetoric. “It’s true we’re going to screw you, but we’re going to flatter you while we’re at it.”

Political wisdom is intelligence speaking to the hour. At this point, rehearsing the theoretical disadvantages of popular government is taking the wrong side. It behooves us all now to be democrats, small d and big d, not because of our traditions, principles, or even inclinations, but because our society has gotten itself into a trap and we need to get out of it. Vastly too much political and economic power has been concentrated in a relatively small group of true believers. The social system of checks and balances—the constitution that really matters—has broken down. Votes can’t compete with dollars when dollars can be converted more or less directly into votes. Public opinion can’t effectively oppose irresponsible government when it is under the spell of a ubiquitous and monotone mass media. Commercial corruption on a mass scale cannot be policed by prosecutors and judges who share in the swag. Even religion, which sometimes summons up the voice of conscience, serves instead to still the self-doubts of the oligarchs and provide selfishness and violence a convenient supernatural sanction.

Tuesday, May 20, 2003

Can’t We All Just Get Along?

I don’t know how many science fiction movies include the speech about how the human race must evolve further if we are ever to learn how to live together in peace. To the philosophical ear, this line is actually comical since it assumes that conflicts arise because of human nature and could be transcended if human nature changed. But the laws of competition are logically prior to the emergence of any animal species. We can no more escape the rules of the game than we can get 2 + 2 to equal more than 4 by dint of hard work, sincerity, and spiritual enlightenment.

In computer simulations of competitive situations, Core War addicts and their academic equivalents have never come up with a general strategy better than what they call Tit for Tat, a straightforward program of retaliation against the aggressive actions of the others. That’s the best you can do if you have no knowledge of what the others are going to do. There is a kicker, however. If all or most of the others are practicing a strategy similar to Tit for Tat, one can do better by postponing retaliation a little and thus verifying that the actions of the others have not been misperceived as they will inevitably be misperceived from time to time in any real situation. Indeed, a society of creatures that follows the modified Tit for Tat rule will out-compete a society following the pure Tit for Tat rule. The trouble is, there are always barbarians at the gate.

All of this is exceedingly abstract, but—therefore—explain a great deal of biology and, alas, history. Societies that practice some degree of mutual forbearance often prosper. In material as well as moral terms, civilization really is better than savagery. Enlightenment can never actually achieve escape velocity from the State of Nature, however, because the habit of reason necessarily weakens immunity to the thugs, eventually providing an irresistible temptation to predators internal and external.

Liberal societies have a hard time believing that their enemies aren’t just making a mistake. Believing that they can be better than their world, they fall into the sin of pride and get the bum’s rush. The thugs also suffer from vanity, believing that their strategy, which, after all, is stupidity itself, reflects talent or genius. When the victims finally fight back, the aggressors are always surprised and oddly hurt—the memoirs of Hitler’s last days in the bunker catch this tone of self-pity perfectly.