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?”


“I can’t run, can’t hide, can’t get away.

It must be my destiny.

The same thing happens to me every day.

Bad Karma comin’ after me…”

–Warren Zevon, “Bad Karma” 1987

Do you ever get the idea that your life runs in cycles?  By that I mean, do you get the feeling you live predictable cycles of good times and bad?  My blogger friend Thingy and I have discussed this possibility before on her blog.  (Sorry I can’t find the post to link to Thingy–I couldn’t remember the title.)

It’s roughly a five-year cycle for me, as near as I can tell, and I’m approaching a downswing.  So I guess this is a roundabout of way of saying there could be light posting here for the next month or so.  I’ll try to post at least once per weekend, but I can’t be sure.  Don’t worry though; past history indicates things will improve after that.

I’ve written recently about books by Upton Sinclair and John Steinbeck—these books, especially the former, were very much in the school of “populist” socialism.  Indeed, the big reason for the existence of socialism was the treatment of impoverished workers after the industrial revolution, It was driven by humanitarian and charitable impulses.

But then, you have the other sort of socialism, the one advocated by people like Oscar Wilde, who saw socialism as a way of establishing an intellectual aristocracy—people would be afforded comfortable livings from redistribution of wealth, and so have time for intellectual pursuits.  Now, admittedly Wilde saw this as a universal scheme, with the labor to be done by machines.  But then you had people like H.P. Lovecraft, who would probably want the division of labor to be based on racial lines, in keeping with their usual prejudices.  And people like George Bernard Shaw, who were a bit of both.

Socialism was very much in vogue among intellectuals in the late 1800s and early 1900s, but there were (at least) two distinct kinds of socialist thought: the populists, “help the workingman” socialism and the “socialism is the new aristocracy”, elitist socialism.

These really are two very different aims, and it’s odd that people with these aims should have found common cause.  But one of the things people didn’t realize—at least until the 1930s and ‘40s, at great cost—was that “socialism” was really a very flexible concept; which could be used in service of all sorts of ideologies.

I have no point here.  Just musing.

Say “hullo” to Oswald Spengler,

The philosopher of doom.

 Step out of your offices

And listen to his prophecies

And you’ll be overcome with gloom.

Say “hullo” to Oswald Spengler,

Sit with him and drink some wine.

Listen to him quoting Goethe

As you look out on the Erde,

And watch the West decline.

Say “hullo” to Oswald Spengler,

World’s first Prussian Socialist;

He called for interactions

Between these sep’rate factions,

And alas, he got just what he wished!

Say “good-bye” to Oswald Spengler;

He’s a rather Gloomy Gus.

I don’t like him, nor need you,

And I think it’s also true

He would not think much of us.


My mention of Ayn Rand in my post about The Jungle and Patrick Prescott’s comment about it set me thinking: what if Ayn Rand’s efforts to ridicule socialism went further than anyone realized?  What if the style of her books, with their interminable preaching and sprawling, momentum-killing speeches detailing various points of philosophy and economics, were meant as a deliberate counterpoint to socialist novels that did the same thing?

Look at some of the covers of Rand’s books, especially this edition of Atlas Shrugged, and notice how much it looks like Soviet propaganda art.  The structure and marketing of these books was ironically basing itself off of socialism’s propaganda.

Even Rand’s “fan club” called itself “the Collective”–again, a joke, since they were a collective of radical individualists.  They were always mocking socialist ideas and terms, so why not in the very style of the books themselves? And, most interesting of all, what if the increasingly totalitarian bent of “The Collective” was just an elaborate satire on how socialism itself went from being a theory-based social movement to a fanatical, quasi-religious cult based on the worship of idols like Marx and Lenin.

Maybe Rand was pretending to be as much of a zealot as the collectivists she hated.  Maybe she was the Sacha Baron Cohen of her time, deliberately playing a certain role to reveal something about her audience.  Like Orwell’s Animal Farm, she was showing how the principles of an idealistic revolution give way to less rational behavior in the end.


A guy I know once told me that he thought Star Trek: The Original Series was a “fascist” TV show.  I asked him to elaborate, and he listed me some reasons:

  • All the heroes are military personnel.
  • All of them belong to a socialist federation
  • They all wear uniforms that signify their rank within the rigid hierarchy.
  • The main hero, Capt. Kirk, is a Carlyle-esque “Great Man” figure. A masculine paragon of excellence, who often triumphs through a Nietzschean casting aside of Spock’s “logic” in favor of genuine emotion.

I didn’t buy it then and I don’t buy it now, but it’s a fascinating argument.  Of course, I made some counterpoints:

  • The Federation is clearly supposed to be a neo-liberal society, built on tolerance and understanding between different groups.  It is more like an idealized version of the United Nations.
  • The Enterprise’s goal is ostensibly exploration and understanding, not conquest.
  • The real “fascist” version of Star Trek was shown in the famous “Mirror, Mirror” episode, in which the war-like crew of the parallel universe Enterprise fit the Fascist bill much better.
  • Besides this, there at least two other episodes where they bump into copies of the original fascists and the most famous of the “modern day” fascists.
  • The show’s values were generally liberal and progressive, as evidenced by the diverse cast and certain moments like Kirk and Uhura’s kiss, which was very controversial at the time.

Naturally, I think my argument stands up better.  However, my friend’s idea is still kind of interesting.  After all, despite that “peace and understanding” stuff, the Federation did find itself at war with those swarthy foreigners, the Klingons, awfully frequently.  (I think it’s significant that they changed this for The Next  Generation.)

What was the deal with the Federation?  Were they just a bunch of nice guys, or was something more sinister at work?  Does upholding the virtues of tolerance, inclusiveness and diversity except for the primitive and brutal “Others” still get you into the Tolerant Liberal Club, or does it put you in the Conquering Empire with Good P.R. Club?

Somewhere—I can’t find the exact quote, sorry—the radical libertarian Albert Jay Nock wrote that the people who opposed fascism and also supported a “league of nations” seemed to be saying that a drop of something was deadly poison, but a gallon of it was a miracle elixir.  What, Nock’s thinking went, was one-world government, a “league of nations”, if not authoritarian nationalism writ large?

Of course, Nock was wrong, at least in the case of the Earth.  For if there were a “one-world government” modeled on the United States, with each country being functionally equivalent to a State,  it would have no “Other” to make into its enemy.  It would not, as far as I can see, have the ultimate hallmark of a fascist nation: the racial or at a heritage-based class system.  This does not at all mean a one world government is a good thing, but it is not fascist.

But in Star Trek the Federation did not encompass all known sentient life in the universe, although it did seem that its doors were open to all who would join.   There were other systems of government and life-forms.  The Federation was just trying to… triumph over them.  Fascism!

There is an old quote I’ve seen attributed, probably incorrectly, to Huey Long: “When Fascism comes to America, it will be called anti-Fascism!”  I suppose you could say that is what the Federation has done, since they are committed to freedom and tolerance… and will destroy anyone who isn’t.

The new Star Trek movie Into Darkness especially seemed to accentuate the fascistic element of the series.  The grey uniforms the cadets at Starfleet wear (especially the hats), and the warmongering admiral make it seem like it’s on its way to being the Evil Empire.

I saw the original Star Trek episode “The Cloud Minders” last night.  It’s about a city in the clouds populated by artists and thinkers who devote themselves to their pursuit of beauty.  It sounds pretty awesome at first, but it comes out in the episode that the reason they are able to do this is because they have a population of people who are effectively slaves doing all the hard work for them.

The plot resolution in this episode was confusing–it was one of the weaker episodes, in my opinion–but it was certainly an interesting concept. It reminded me of the Oscar Wilde essay in which he laid out his scheme for fixing the world:

The fact is, that civilisation requires slaves. The Greeks were quite right there. Unless there are slaves to do the ugly, horrible, uninteresting work, culture and contemplation become almost impossible. Human slavery is wrong, insecure, and demoralising. On mechanical slavery, on the slavery of the machine, the future of the world depends.

Wilde wrote that in 1891, and poverty and class-inequality have still not been abolished despite massive advances in technology. Of course, the people in the Star Trek episode had even less technology than was available in Wilde’s time, let alone what they ought to have in the 23rd century.  The slave people in the episode were mining some mineral by hand. How they had created a floating city with powerful anti-gravity technology but not yet invented the shovel, I don’t know.  Perhaps it was a make-work project.

But it’s still an interesting idea, inconsistencies aside.  Wilde knew it took work to build civilization, and that somebody had to do the unpleasant bits.  He was hoping to put that job off on machines, since it’s not cruel to make them do it.

This leads to another point.  Last week, Ross Douthat wrote a column in the NYT entitled “A World Without Work”,  where he claims that it’s no longer as vital for people to work because of the nation’s great wealth.  As he writes “the decline in work-force participation is actually being made possible by material progress.”

Douthat is worried that this, though, because he fears that the very absence of having to work, being freed from the daily toil, will be harmful to people’s well-being.  It’s possible. Perhaps the very material security which is supposed to be the catalyst for civilization could instead bring about its stagnation, making people into idle dilettantes, who do nothing but write about science-fiction shows and generally have their heads in the clouds.

(Hat tip to Freddie DeBoer for the Douthat article.)

Here are parts one, two, three, and four.  But this is the key point: instead of using the usual Left vs. Right political spectrum model, use this:


I’m not even close to being the only or the first person to think of using a different, non-spectral model.  Cooper Zale at Lefty Parent had a very similar idea some years ago, only with different terminology–indeed, I am indebted to him for that post, as it helped set me thinking along these lines.  There are lots of other alternatives, as well.  And of course, any model is ultimately an incomplete approximation.  There will never be one that is perfect.

My point is simply that the “right vs. left” or “conservative vs. liberal” model is too simplistic, and not capable of actually predicting what people will do or explaining what they have done.  Einstein once said: “The supreme goal of all theory is to make the irreducible basic elements as simple and as few as possible without having to surrender the adequate representation of a single datum of experience.” (Often paraphrased as “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.”)  The spectrum model of politics is more simple than possible.