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There is no lack of explanations for what happened in 2016.  All the major groups have their version of it.  The centrist-Democrat political establishment one goes something like this:

“The Democrats failed to understand the economic anxiety voters in the Midwestern states felt as a result of globalization.  Donald Trump tapped in to these fears and won by turning out the midwestern white vote.”

That seems pretty reasonable.  But the more liberal, socialist-leaning elements of the Democratic party have a slightly different explanation:

“The people in the midwest were turned off by the flawed ‘establishment’ candidate Hillary Clinton, who they viewed as untrustworthy and unlikely to bring economic reforms that they wanted.  This depressed voter turnout, allowing Trump to capitalize on latent racism.”

This is pretty much the same thing, only it puts a little more blame on the Democrats and offers an implied prescription for the direction of the Party.

The Republicans, of course, have their own view as well.  It can be summarized as follows:

“The working men and women rose up to vote out the politically correct big government agenda of the Democrats, and supported a successful businessman who will put their interests first and bring back jobs and opportunity, and who is not afraid to say what he thinks.”

All of these explanations are fairly similar.  In an increasingly rare event in politics, all sides are in agreement on the basic facts; that Trump won, that Clinton lost, and that the Midwestern states were the reason why. They are all describing the same event, and so arrive at a set of explanations that satisfactorily summarize the same results in a way that suits their respective worldviews.

Each explanation seems plausible. Which one to use depends on the target audience, but any one of them could work in a typical piece of political analysis.

But chances are, you don’t want typical political analysis.  If you did, you would be reading CNN or Fox News or Huffington Post or Breitbart or some other site.  You’re here because you want more than a summary. You want to understand 2016 in a larger historical context, and to know about the economic, cultural and philosophical forces underpinning the shocking electoral result.

In other words, you want to know what really happened.

(more…)

Hypothesis: The majority of the problems in the world are caused by two types of people: Bureaucrats and Total Crazed Fanatics.

By Bureaucrats, I mean go-along-to-get-along careerist types, who will follow their bosses’ orders no matter how stupid or evil they are, and who will go “by the book” no matter what. These are the types of people who operate on mantras like “no one ever got fired for buying IBM“. They are prone to groupthink and “not my department”-style passing the buck.

Adolf Eichmann is an example of this type carried to the very extremest evil.

Total Crazed Fanatics, on the other hand, feel accountable to no one except themselves.  They will stop at nothing to get what they want, even if it is considered immoral or evil.  TCFs are relentless and will use any means necessary. They are also usually prone to wanton cruelty and violence.

Most of the infamous dictators in history fall into this category, including Hitler, Stalin, Caligula, and so on. But you can see this personality type on smaller scale in anyone who uses bully-style tactics.

Moreover, there is an ecosystem of sorts that evolves between these two types that guarantees the continued production of both bureaucrats and TCFs, in the sense that strong bureaucratic systems with lots of rules are usually created to constrain TCFs. But because bureaucrats are cowards, they will yield to someone who applies enough pressure–that is, someone crazed and fanatical enough. So bureaucracies exist to stop TCFs, but ultimately cause more extreme TCFs to emerge in response and topple them.

What do you think?  Is this hypothesis correct? Does it explain most (or any) conflicts you see in the world, or not?

(Note: This occurred to me while thinking about Max Weber’s classification of authority. I recommend reading about that, whether you agree with my hypothesis or not.)

 

 

Pilate therefore said unto him, Art thou a king then? Jesus answered, Thou sayest that I am a king. To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth. Every one that is of the truth heareth my voice.

Pilate saith unto him, What is truth?

–John 18:37-38, King James Version

After a lecture on cosmology and the structure of the solar system, William James was accosted by a little old lady.
“Your theory that the sun is the centre of the solar system, and the earth is a ball which rotates around it has a very convincing ring to it, Mr. James, but it’s wrong. I’ve got a better theory,” said the little old lady.
“And what is that, madam?” Inquired James politely.
“That we live on a crust of earth which is on the back of a giant turtle,”
Not wishing to demolish this absurd little theory by bringing to bear the masses of scientific evidence he had at his command, James decided to gently dissuade his opponent by making her see some of the inadequacies of her position.
“If your theory is correct, madam,” he asked, “what does this turtle stand on?”
“You’re a very clever man, Mr. James, and that’s a very good question,” replied the little old lady, “but I have an answer to it. And it is this: The first turtle stands on the back of a second, far larger, turtle, who stands directly under him.”
“But what does this second turtle stand on?” persisted James patiently.
To this the little old lady crowed triumphantly. “It’s no use, Mr. James – it’s turtles all the way down.”

–J.R. Ross, Constraints on Variables in Syntax. 1967, via Wikipeida

Everything sticks until it goes away / And the truth is we don’t know anything.

–They Might Be Giants, Ana Ng.

I got into a debate the other day with a Trump supporter. Our disagreement was originally whether or not Russia had attempted to influence the U.S. Election by hacking into Democratic Party files and releasing them via Wikileaks.

My position was that the Russians did it. As evidence, I cited the fact that they had motive, opportunity, ability, and that the U.S. Intelligence agencies have now said that the Russians did exactly this.

My opponent conceded that the Russians did have motive and opportunity, but argued that many other nations did as well.  Moreover, he argued, there was no evidence the Russians had done it, and no one at the CIA had said the Russians did it. That was propaganda from the liberals to delegitimize Trump.

“What about the Director of the CIA saying as much?” I asked.

“Made-up story,” he countered. “Fake news.”

According to my opponent, this is a typical strategy used by Democrats to undercut Republicans who win Presidential elections.  He claims that they have done similar things in the past–for example, they told everyone that Al Gore won the popular vote in 2000.

“Al Gore did win the popular vote in 2000″, I responded.

He shakes his head.  “No–liberal propaganda.”

“You can look up the vote count online,” I persisted.

He was dismissive. “The government is run by liberals–they lie about the votes.”

It quickly became clear that there was no way we could ever conclude this argument.  Both of us had to invoke authorities the other considered unreliable. If I referred him to the National Archives count of the votes, he deemed it liberal propaganda. Similarly, if he referred me to Breitbart or Rush Limbaugh supposedly refuting the published vote tallies, I would deem that conservative propaganda.

The only way it could possibly be resolved would be if the two of us were able to personally count all the ballots ourselves. And even then it wouldn’t work–if it came out against him, my opponent would no doubt insist that liberals had secretly removed some ballots before the counting.

And when you get right down to it, I can’t absolutely prove that’s false. I can make all sorts of educated guesses, assert things with 99.99% confidence, but I technically can’t prove it beyond all doubt.

If you push it far enough, no one truly knows much of anything with “absolute metaphysical certitude”, as John McLaughlin would say.  People are just proceeding based on logical assumptions. We don’t know for absolute certain that aliens didn’t secretly replace all our family and friends with evil body doubles overnight–but it’s fair to feel confident they probably didn’t.

There’s a term for this need for absolute certainty: it’s a form of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. People with this disorder experience crippling anxiety and disturbing thoughts because they have uncertainty about something.

You have to either accept some level of uncertainty, or live a miserable life.

At the moment, the entire country suffers from this crippling anxiety because they have lost faith in all the old institutions–the Press, the Government, and even Religious organizations. (Except on the issue of abortion, where Priests and Preachers still have some influence.)

The real problem is that people have not only lost their faith in old institutions, but put their faith in new, highly dubious ones, that promise to assuage their anxieties. It reminds me of a quote often attributed to G.K. Chesterton:

When a man stops believing in God he doesn’t then believe in nothing, he believes anything.

This may not always be true of single individuals, but I think it is true of populations. Once a whole culture has lost faith in the institutions they used to believe in, they are vulnerable to being taken in by any charismatic con man with a compelling tale.

Scientific reasoning is about analyzing data gathered via scientific methods. It does not allow for appeals to authority.  However, the average person does not have time to rigorously test every single issue that might affect his or her life. This means that it is sometimes necessary to either believe authority or, if the authority is thought to be untrustworthy, find a new one. As my vote-count problem above illustrates, there are some matters that cannot be personally verified by every single person.

But, in a quest for reassurance from authority, people will not seek the authorities who give them the most truthful answer, but rather the most comforting. A man with the supreme confidence to assert “I alone can fix it”, whether he can or not, will inevitably be more popular with people adrift in a world of doubt and uncertainty than one who seems unsure.

There’s a final irony to this: Trump himself talks about the importance of making decisions while uncertain.  In The Art of the Deal, he discusses how many of his deals involve some element of risk-taking.  He says he simply makes decisions by gathering information from as many people with knowledge of the issue as he can, and then going with whatever his gut instincts tell him.

Most executives, military commanders, and other leaders throughout history learned to cope with the idea of uncertainty or risk.  They simply made the best decision they could with the information available. They did not constantly question all information or demand it be replaced with new information that was favorable to them.

(Interestingly, people like Stalin and Hitler would require that their intelligence be favorable to them, and filled most of their officer corps with politicians and “yes-men” who wouldn’t give them the full story.)

The argument strategy like the one I described above is to first devalue all information by emphasizing the tiny element of uncertainty that exists in everything not witnessed first-hand, and then appeal to charismatic and reassuring authorities who promise to fix all problems.

The best way to counter it is as follows: argue based simply on facts everyone–or at least, the person with whom you are arguing–agrees on, and extrapolate logically from there. As I said, even my bull-headed opponent had to admit the Russians had motive and opportunity for hacking the election.

Above all, when arguing with someone like that, don’t make any appeal to authority, or cite any source, because they will immediately dismiss it.

[AUTHOR’S NOTE: This is based off an old essay I wrote years ago, and didn’t publish.  I revised and updated it for the present.]

I think I have a better understanding of the so-called “alt-right”–which I refer to as “nationalists”–than most people do.  I blame H.P. Lovecraft.

I had just read his horror novella At the Mountains of Madness, and learned that certain ideas in it had been suggested to him by Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West. I decided I wanted to find out more about Spengler, so I read it.

I should note that at this point in my life I was your typical college “liberaltarian”. I thought  that all those people on the right on who hated gays and feminists and liberals in general were just ignorant, uneducated hillbillies; probably waving Confederate flags.

I have not changed my views on the issues that much since then, but I have changed my perception of my opponents. And reading Spengler was the cause.

Spengler was an immensely intelligent man, and his education was tremendous. I constantly had to look things up to be able to attempt to understand him–not just words, you see, but concepts, incidents in history, philosophies, even civilizations. Spengler was many things, but “ignorant” was not one of them.

And yet… throughout his work ran a strangely familiar undertone. The hostility to the cosmopolitan liberal, and the admiration of the people bound to the  blood and soil. The intellectual and cultural gap between Oswald Spengler and the average Trump supporter is inconceivably vast; yet the sentiments that motivate them are shockingly similar.

This, I don’t mind saying, was troubling. For if an intelligent person,  steeped in knowledge of not only his own culture and civilization, but of others, could hold these same views, it meant that one of my core assumptions was wrong. It was not ignorance which made the conservatives think as they do, but something else–something much deeper.

Spengler had done the work of a philosopher, which was to follow and articulate coherently those impulses and thoughts which motivated him. He explained, logically and thoroughly, a worldview which I could never share, but which I could now, at least, understand.

After that, I began to see many so-called “conservatives” in a different light. I sought to understand as much of their underlying motivation as I could–the unseen, visceral instinct that made some people, regardless of education or background, into what we today call the alt-right, but which might be better described as “nationalists”.

It is not easy thing to describe, and indeed I read many upsetting ideas, which I considered immoral and wrong. But ultimately, I became convinced of one thing: that this is something felt very deeply in people’s hearts, not in their minds.

This was an oddly–dare I say it–liberating moment for me. I realized that I was a liberal, and they were conservatives, and that was that.

A good deal of what is called the “alt-right” movement is nothing more than some very old philosophies, recycled for our times. The spirit of nationalism which Spengler described is not as dead as liberals believed.

I started this post with Lovecraft;  so I wil give him the last word.  From his most famous story, The Call of Cthulhu:

“Who knows the end? What has risen may sink, and what has sunk may rise. Loathsomeness waits and dreams in the deep, and decay spreads over the tottering cities of men.”

“Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it.”–Donald Trump, in his acceptance speech. July 21, 2016

The Democrats, including President Obama himself, went after Trump for this quote at their convention. In her acceptance speech, Clinton retorted that Americans fix things by working together.

It made me think of the philosopher Thomas Carlyle and the “Great Man Theory of History“.  Carlyle stated that “The history of the world is but the biography of great men”.

This theory was popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. After that, it fell out of favor, with most philosophers and historians preferring theories that emphasized societies and cultures as a whole.  What Carlyle would call “Great Men” were products of their times and places.  Often, they just happen to be overseeing the culmination of events that were many years in the making.

“If Napoleon did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him,” in other words.

But though it has long been out of favor with most historians, the Great Man theory has never totally disappeared among nationalistic elements of society.  I’m not sure why, but believers in what is usually called “Right-Wing Authoritarianism” seem predisposed to favor this theory.  Maybe because it complements the strong patriarchal nature of such movements.

Whatever the reason, Trump’s claim and Clinton’s reply underscore a profound philosophical difference between the two parties.  (Not that Trump is aware of it–it came across as more of his usual bragging–but it spoke to something deeper in the political divide.)

I was thinking today about some of the great thinkers in history, and how the vast majority of the great minds had so little access to information compared to the average person in the present day.

It’s sort of sad when you think about it.  Take any great thinker from history, and then think about the logistics required for him or her to get the level of education they received.  They had to go to school, study, get books from libraries–if they were available at all.  If you were reading and you found a word you didn’t know, you had to go find a dictionary and hope you could find it in there. Not to mention that the mundane day-to-day tasks also took longer and were more difficult.  And yet, there were people thinking deep philosophical thoughts, inventing new technologies, writing great books, founding nations, etc. etc.

Compare them to me: I have almost instantaneous access to all the recorded knowledge in human history via the internet, I can have it translated instantly if need be, and I can do it while sitting at my desk.  On paper, I should probably be more well-educated and accomplished than the entire population of the world in the 1600s.  But I’m not.  If somebody from past times came to the present, they’d be appalled by how little I’d done with the wealth of resources I have.

Suppose John Locke had been able to access the internet.  He probably would have invented the perfect system of government in 10 minutes, if he kept up his past rate of productivity. How many times over could the great economic minds have solved the U.S. economic crisis in the time I spent watching cat videos?

I feel like an under-achiever, I guess is what I’m saying.

There are two definitions of the word “cynic“.  There is the modern definition, which says a cynic is someone who believes people are motivated by selfishness, and tends to assign impure motives to everyone.  And then there is the classic Greek definition that a cynic is someone who rejects all else in the pursuit of virtue.

It’s ironic that the latter definition means “idealist”, which is the opposite meaning of the former definition.  Language is funny.

But I was thinking that some cynics–in the modern sense–are really disillusioned idealists.  I have a friend who is like this.  This person is someone who  wants people and institutions to live up to ideals, but is too smart to willfully be blind to the fact that they don’t.  So, they are cynical about them because they are so disappointed they are not trying to reach the ideal.

Not all “modern” cynics are like this. Some of them never even consider the possibility of things living up to the ideal–they just expect everything to be motivated by self-interest.  To these cynics, the concept of an ideal is absurd–there are no ideals; just fables people make up to sugarcoat their true motives.

These are two different personality types; even though both could be considered “cynics”.  I am not claiming credit for realizing this–it’s probably something I heard somewhere a long time ago and can’t recall the source. But it occurred to me the other day while thinking about my friend, and it seemed the kind if thing we could have an interesting blog discussion about.  So, I ask you readers: does this seem like an accurate description of people you know?

Joseph Epstein, writing in the WSJ, waxes nostalgic for the heyday of the White, Anglo-Saxon Protestants:

Under WASP hegemony, corruption, scandal and incompetence in high places weren’t, as now, regular features of public life. Under WASP rule, stability, solidity, gravity and a certain weight and aura of seriousness suffused public life. As a ruling class, today’s new meritocracy has failed to provide the positive qualities that older generations of WASPs provided.

I recommend reading the whole article, but the cliffs notes version is this: WASPs used to run the country, but now they don’t and instead the country is run on a ‘meritocratic’ basis, meaning that people achieve high status through competition, not family background.  But the ‘meritocracy’ is producing selfish people who don’t care about the greater good, whereas the bygone WASP leaders had a sense of social responsibility.

There are a lot of questionable things about Epstein’s argument. His criteria for who is and is not a WASP  is a bit weird.  His reasons for why the WASPs stopped running the country are murky.  Even his proof that the WASPs were better at running the country is shaky.

I will address that last issue first. His strongest evidence for the superiority of WASP governance is the claim that “The last unashamed WASP to live in the White House was Franklin Delano Roosevelt”.  (He claims the last WASP President was George H.W.  Bush, but he was apparently ashamed of it.)

Well, many historians would definitely agree that no President since FDR has done as good a job as he did.  But was that because he was a WASP?  And if so, what exactly was it that made the WASPs so good at it?

Is Epstein trying to say that Whites are better at running society? That’s going to be a rather controversial claim, but if that’s what he wanted to say, why didn’t he come out and say it, instead of dancing around the issue?

Maybe it’s the “Anglo-Saxon” bit of the equation?  Again, that’s going to be controversial, and it has the added problem of being more obscure.  People barely think about the distinction between “Anglo-Saxon” and, say, “Celtic” anymore, and so who is going to know the difference? And again, what is it about Anglo-Saxons that would lead to them being better leaders?

Or again, maybe it’s the “Protestant” bit. Max Weber wrote about “the Protestant ethic”, and how Protestant beliefs fueled the growth of  capitalism.   This actually seems like the most likely explanation for the purported dominance of the WASPs.  Accumulating a lot of money would certainly have been helpful to their success, and perhaps the religious underpinnings would explain the supposed selfless aspect of the WASP-run society.

But Epstein never advances any of these theories in that article. He just writes that the WASPs were better at running the country for some reason. But why?  He never explains.

Personally, I think that the whole WASP thing is a red herring that Epstein fell for.  The real phenomenon he is talking about is the transition from a society based on family heritage to one based on… what, exactly?

Throughout the article, Epstein keeps alluding to the dominance of the WASPs giving way to the “meritocracy.” This is a suspiciously squishy word, and I think it’s telling that he keeps using it.  It’s in keeping with the general vagueness of the article, but I think it’s important to briefly explain just how useless the word “meritocracy” is.

The idea of “meritocracy” is that status should be gained through merit. How could you possibly have a problem with that? You couldn’t–that’s just it; it’s one of those political terms that’s so generic nobody can disagree with it.

The top tier of any given society will always think it is a meritocracy. For instance, in the 1500s, the official line was that the King was the King and everyone else was a peasant because it had been so ordained by God.  And really, what could be more meritocratic than that?

As long as society has winners and losers, the winners will always think they got there by “merit” of some sort.  The nobility of past times didn’t go around saying “yes, some of the commoners really have more merit than we do, but we’re not a ‘meritocracy’, so we get to rule anyway.” They simply defined “merit” as “ancestry”.

The funny thing is, Epstein is attempting argue against the meritocracy, but he doesn’t really have the words for it.  One can’t argue against “meritocracy” as such, because that is tantamount to saying “I don’t want the best person for the job”.

I think a better word for what Epstein is attempting to talk about is “oligarchy”.

The Greek philosopher Aristotle had the idea that there were three “types” of constitutions (or governments): Royalty, Aristocracy and Constitutional Government. But of these three types, there were also perversions, these being Tyranny, Oligarchy and Democracy, respectively. (This handy chart on Wikipedia explains it.)

Note that in their “True” forms, these governments are supposed to work for the “common good”, but their “Perverted” forms work for the few at the expense of the many.  Basically, the phenomenon that Epstein is attempting to describe is the change from an aristocracy to an oligarchy.

I think this dichotomy makes far more sense, although I am still not convinced that it is actually true. And even if it is, Aristotle himself is a bit vague on why these things happen.  Assuming that this is even accurate, it still does not clarify anything.

Remember what I wrote earlier: the strongest evidence for Epstein’s thesis is that historians and political scientists widely agree that no President since FDR has done as good a job as he did.  Epstein seems to assume that this was because FDR was an “unashamed WASP”. But that is assuming too much, in my opinion.  Rather, we should simply ask: “why is it that none of the administrations that succeeded Roosevelt lived up to that standard?”