Can’t Stop The Prophet?

So I encountered this on the weekend: Is it Wrong to Blame Islam? (sorry for the spoilers but the answer is apparently NO)

It annoyed me a bit. It annoyed me in a multi-dimensional manner. It annoyed me in its assumptions about religious history and belief. It annoyed me in its practical implications. It annoyed me because I’ve read a lot of articles like it before. Although Case claims:

“In the long run, the common good is rarely served by refusing to address serious questions, however painful they may be.”

Which implies that issues around Islam not being addressed in Western societies. I see Australian politicians saying stuff like this and doing stuff like that. I see conservative Australian media personalities talking about this constantly.

Truly, the silence is deafening.

I was tempted not to write a response. But I just know that with a little application, I can make a bad situation worse. Through out the following, I will be referring to the noted article and the steady stream of comments that I read from the conservative press here in Australia. This response has been building up for some time.

So lets start with the authors three main points:

  1. Islam is a religion built on violence.
  2. Islam is totalitarian.
  3. Muslims support terrorism.

Too Many Rappers Identities

Stop.

Before I start with the rational argument thingies, I want to ground this in my own experience*. I have not had an encounter with Islam as a thing (it is after all, not a thing but a set of ideas) – but I have had many encounters with Muslims.

I didn’t know many Muslims growing up. I grew up in an 80s provincial UK town and went to a Church of England comprehensive school. My social life revolved around the local church. I was aware that Hindus, Buddhists, and Muslims existed but I didn’t know any. I first encountered Muslims at university. Or rather, I first encountered men and women for whom “Muslim” was part of their identity. Some were from overseas. Some were the children of immigrants. But my impression of them was that they were as much “Glaswegian”, “Punjabi”, or “medical student” as they were “Muslim”. They were trying to cope with many responsibilities and opportunities at one time. “Muslim” did not seem to be the supreme identity over all that. We didn’t talk a lot about religion as I recall.

One of my best friends while living in London was a Muslim. When I stayed with him, pork was not allowed in the house. Though he drank. And he cruised voraciously for other men. Yes, he was a Muslim. But he was also Malay. And an accountant. And gay. He kept these different identities separate (the biggest wall seemed to be between his business and sex lives).

Since then I have worked with many Muslims – male and female. Some wear the headscarf, some don’t. Some drink alcohol, some don’t. Some eat pork, some don’t. Some pray 5 times a day. Some don’t. Mostly we talk about work and family and friends and some of the crazy stuff that happens in the world. Some of them I love. Some of them really annoy me. We all have roles and responsibilities. And the foods of the Lebanese and the Malays and the Egyptians and the Bengalis and the Iranians are as a tasty as I am gluttonous**.

So perhaps I am already biased. I struggle with seeing “Islam” as one thing. And I am more interested in the voices of individual Muslims and what they tell me about their experience than anything else.

It Was Written

OK. Back to me argument thing. Lets establish some ground rules. I am an atheist. I do not believe in a god nor do I believe any claims by religions that their scriptures or precepts derive from a god. For me, religions are works of human creativity and therefore insightful, perverse, beautiful, inconsistent, and ridiculous. Religious beliefs and institutions both enable and constrain us. I am therefore more concerned with what religions allow people to do and what they prevent rather than whether they are “true” or not. What are their affordances?

Effective religions last over time. The thing about an effective religion is that it has to both cover a lot of bases and also have a lot of wiggle room. Religions must offer an explanation of the meaning of life and a connection with the divine but they can’t just do that. They also have to provide support, sanction and structure for love, family, social organisation, economic activity and political violence. Those that don’t offer these things do not last long except as curios and hiding places in larger cultures – e.g. the celibacy of the Shakers.

What about these violent origins? Well, I was raised with the Old Testament – which is an incredibly violent set of texts – including murder, rape, torture, incest, war, ethnic cleansing. The will of Jehovah is regularly used to justify horrific acts. The New Testament is far less explicitly violent (crucifixion excepted) but situation of the early Christians was very different to that of the Old Testament Jews. The Jews were a middle-eastern tribe warring for their survival with other local tribes. The Christians were a sect within a largely peaceful if oppressive empire that viewed them with varieties of disinterest, homicidal suspicion and eventually opportunistic acceptance. However the relative peace of the New Testament did not stop later Christian rulers from engaging in horrific wars against others or each other and using their religion as a justification. For all its pacifist origins, Christianity has been bloody. Even states based on an ostensibly pacifist religion like Buddhism have engaged in wars, conquests and enslavement.

But how is this possible? Don’t the original scriptures of a religion completely define the actions of its followers? Well, no. The ideas underpinning these different worldviews are less important than the contexts in which their adherents live. We tend to overvalue the role of ideas in the world. Ideas are a great scapegoat. Don’t blame me, the ideas made me do it. It is as though we look at a bush fire and focus endlessly on the spark that ignited it rather than the dry brush that fuels it and the strong winds that drive it. If only the spark had been a different shade of blue, the fire would have been completely different.

This is not to say that ideas are not important. A good idea can express a common mood as yet unexpressed. Or provide a different perspective on a common problem. But ideas do nothing by themselves. Action is reserved for us.

Rappin’ Textural Literalism Is Fundamental

I suppose what we’re really talking about here is authorial intent versus reader reception. I suspect one reason why Christian conservatives are more comfortable focusing on literal readings of the Quran and their supporters in the Muslim world is their preference for literalist and orginalist readings of key documents in general (the Bible, the US Constitution). Originalist and literalist readings by their very nature tend to be conservative. But they are not the only kind of possible readings.

There is a risk with calling someone a “fundamentalist”. It implies that literalist and originalist reads are “correct” and other readings are “incorrect”. Case does this in his discussion of Nasr and Nawaz. The traditionalist is some how more authentic than the reformer. This is exactly what the traditionalist will tell you. But why should we believe him and not the other?

This intellectual focus on fundamentalists is reflected in the way that many in the West talk about Muslims. We often talk “real Muslims” as being the bearded guy dressed like a 7th century Arab. The beer-drinking, bacon-sarnie consuming ones aren’t “real Muslims”. They can’t be because they neither fit in with the rhetoric of Islamic conservatives nor the image of Muslims held by Western conservatives. They get erased from the conversation when they are a necessary part that stops it all spinning into oblivion. The world is full of heretics and apostates.

Stop. Get back to the point.

OK. Is Islam built on violence? Violence is embedded in the rise of Islam. It is also embedded in the rise of Judaism and Hinduism because they began as tightly bound to political entities (nations, tribes). Christianity and Buddhism avoid the connection with violence in their early years as they are independent of a political identity. However as soon as they become bound to political entities that need to deploy violence to achieve their aims, that largely ceases to matter. Everyone’s a badass all of a sudden.

The related question is: Can someone be a member of these religions without glorifying violence? And the answer to that is also yes. Obviously. They can just skim through the bits about hacking people up for believing the wrong things. People do that all the time.

How about the claim that Islam is totalitarian? Similar deal. Some adherents believe that Islam can control all elements of a society. Medieval Christian states attempted to control the sexual, economic, legal, even culinary aspects of believer life. Some Christians look back fondly at that period and want to bring it back. The current fight in Australian about marriage equality is bringing these people to the fore of social debate and the results are not pretty. N.B. All religions describe claim to offer the truth about the world which therefore means their adherents may be tempted by totalitarianism.

However, Islamic tradition and current practice in some countries indicates that this isn’t the only way to be a Muslim. Case knows this but he wants to stress that the totalitarian trend in Islam.

But Islam as it is now is not as he would like it to be, hence the need for reform. I do not deny that Islam can be reformed, but I insist upon not speaking as if the reform has already taken place. The fact that Islam has the potential to become tolerant and non-violent doesn’t entail that it is actually tolerant and non-violent any more than the fact that a guilty man could repent entails that he has repented.

The language here is a little odd. Islam is compared to a guilty man who must repent. I’d like to see more evidence of practices from Muslim-majority countries (where tolerance varies drastically) here rather than quotes from two books by Muslim theorists. It feels like something is being moved over very quickly here. The conjunction of “non-violent” and “tolerant”. Most Muslims do not kill people. I think they’d be right to ask: “Can we expect a fair decision of non-violent and tolerant from someone that has already made their mind up? And why should we care? Who died and left you in charge?”

Terrorwrist (Beneath the Under)

And now we get to talk about terrorism.

Public Service Announcement: Killing people is bad. – I feel like I need to put that in. Just in case anyone gets the wrong idea.

I want to split things out between Western Jihadis and non-Western groups. In terms of the radicalisation of Jihadis in the West, Olivier Roy’s work is useful here. Western Jihadis do not start out their journey driven by either specific religious or political goals. The children of immigrants or else converts, they are often adrift from their worlds. Their acts of terror do not aim to achieve a specific political goal but rather a spectacular death. Their US non-Muslim equivalents shoot people in movie theatres or children in schools – events which get labelled “terrible tragedies” and never trouble the terror statistics. Roy notes the large percentage of converts who make up Western Jihadis. Since the collapse of Communism, there are pretty much two “bad-ass” options for social rebellion in Western societies – fascism and Islamism. And their bad-ass reputation rests (in part) on the constant stream of articles that disapprovingly reinforce how bad ass they are.

The next topic is conflict involving Muslims around the world. It is dangerous to wrap these conflicts into one. The story among some radical Muslims is that there is a global Islamphobia. In this view of the world, Europe, Russia, China, the US and everyone else get into a room and plot how they are going to do in the Muslims. How else to explain the persecution of Muslims in Myanmar and Thailand and Israel and Afghanistan and India and China and Russia and everywhere else? Now this is nonsense. There are struggles involving Muslim actors – often as the result of unfinished imperial business or local sectarian strife. There are many local struggles. Forces like ISIS want to paint all these struggles as the same for their own purposes. Then they can clam to speak for oppressed Muslims all over the world and justify their own tawdry existence. We must not fall into that trap and do their work for them. A conflict involving Muslims is not necessarily an Islamic conflict although both sides might try to portray it as such for their own purposes.

Finally, I want to talk about the attitudes to terrorism in Muslim-majority countries. Two Pew surveys are referred to in this article. In general, inhabitants of those countries nearer to ISIS being more solidly unfavourable than those further away. It’s important to remember that many of these countries have complicated relationships with the Western that ISIS explicitly sets itself up against. Nevermind “blowback” or the Quran as totalitarian manual, there are people in Pakistan and Malaysia and Nigeria and Indonesia that can remember their country being run by Westerners or have lived under dictators backed by the West or Russia. We are not necessarily the Good Guys. Our enemies are therefore not automatically the Bad Guys. And saying you support ISIS is different to sending it money or actively joining it in battle. How nice it would be if it weren’t so complicated.

Express Yourself

I want to move onto the practical implications of the “Islam is inherently violent, totalitarian and pro-terrorism” argument. This particular author ends with no explicit policy recommendations – which is frustrating. What does the author want?

Others who make these arguments often imply:

  • Primarily, Western states must prevent Muslim immigration. Muslims are a fifth-column within our societies that undermine democratic norms and present an unacceptable security threat. Any targeting of this group is valid.
  • Secondarily, Western states must view Muslim-majority nations as implacably hostile unless they renounce their views. The Muslim world is the new Evil Empire, a latter day Soviet Union.

I want to briefly talk about my disappointment with conservative responses to public Muslims in Australia. Theoretically, if you want to reform Islam then you should be supporting Muslims who engage with Western public society constructively. Such people are gold – role models to those who identify with them and potential bridge builders with their co-religionists. Two recent examples in Australia are Waleed Aly and Yassmin Abdel-Magied. Both are accomplished and articulate. And both have been mercilessly slated by the conservative media in Australia – unaustralian, terrorist sympathising, the works. The message to other Muslims in Australia is clear: You will never belong here. However hard you work or however much you achieve, the only chance that we might accept you is if you give up everything that makes us feel uncomfortable. And then we might not change our minds.

Who could refuse such a tempting offer?

In general, Western societies need to up their game in terms of how they engage with their Muslim communities. This is theoretically easier for countries such as the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand where citizenship is not based on ethnic identity – but it is not necessarily the case in practice.

For some local background on this, Sami Shah’s Islamic Republic of Australia is well worth a listen and a read. Shah is an atheist emigrant from Pakistan who now lives in Australia. He is not spruiking for Islam but he’s interested in the story of Australian Muslims.

Contract On The World Love Jam

What if the pessimists are right? What if Islam is inevitably violent, totalitarian and terrorist? Well, there are 1.6 billion Muslims in the world and everyone is completely screwed. That’s it. Nevermind “addressing serious questions”, start buying bundles of barbed wire, drums of water and semi-automatic weapons.

I don’t want to whitewash the situation. Many Muslim-majority countries have a stack of problems – corruption, dictatorial regimes, a lack of civil institutions outside the state or religion, sectarian strife within their own borders, and conflict with their neighbours. Women are often treated badly. And religion is used as to tool to reinforce these negative patterns.

However. We need to stop talking about Islam. Or rather we need to stop talking about Islam likes it’s one monolithic block that we can decode and frame purely from a few carefully-selected verses from the Quran. We need to recognise the plurality of Muslim majority nations. We need to support Muslims whose ideas and actions resonate with our own – rather than those who simply have the most oil as we do currently (something I do agree with Mark Steyn about). We need to stop acting like the most conservative and regressive Muslims are the real ones and the rest are just “fakes”.

The blame game is a lot of fun to play but we need to find new games if we want to move forward. The really hard conversation might not be the one that you were angling for.

*Yes. Every single thing I write is about me. Always. That’s not going to stop.

**This unholy tastiness is doubtless a secret Islamist plot to give me Type 2 diabetes. Each samosa a suicide snack down my rapacious gullet. Truly it will be greeted with 72 raisins in paradise.

ADDENDUM – 22.08.2017

One thing that is not clear in the above rant is that I think there is a valid point of that states that there are obviously illiberal strains of thought and practice among Muslims. To say that “Islam is a religion of peace” is more a statement of intent than a statement about all possible interpretations. Graeme Wood’s noted piece on ISIS in The Atlantic is relevant here.

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Relationship Status: It’s Complicated

Adele Webb has an engaging article on The Conversation about ambivalence towards democracy among electorates. It’s the start of something but by no means the end. Have a read and then consider my response here.

There’s a challenge with applying a psychological concept like “ambivalence” to groups. Electorates will have “mixed feelings” about issues almost as a matter of a definition. They are after all, made up of many different individuals with differing goals. It’s more unusual to find things about which an electorate is “unambivalent”. Commentators frequently opine that “the people have spoken” – suggesting a single, clear order when the experience is more like a cacophonous choir of voices producing an outcome that no one individual may have desired. It’s noisy.

So when we talk about ambivalence among voters – are we talking about an aggregate view or the attitudes of individuals? Webb elides the distinction between the two but I think she wants to talk mostly about individuals. She gives an example based on her field work – where middle-class Filipino voters want civil liberties but not too much freedom. She sees those as contradictory and I can see why but of course they may not be. Voters often want more freedom and resources for themselves but fewer for other people. This is only contradictory if you assume their desires are universalist rather than selfish. After all, it’s not people like us that are a threat to order. It’s them. Over there. Webb does allude to this later on when she talks about conflict over definitions of who “the people” actually are.

I’d like to add that there are different forms of ambivalence. There is the hot, intimate ambivalence of loving and hating someone intensely. Then there is the cool, distant of ambivalence towards the far away. The ambivalence that many citizens feel towards democracy feels more like the latter than the former. The disconnection makes it easy for emotions to change. Democracy becomes a screen on which we project our desires and fears rather than a space in which we interact with each other – “voters [are] transformed into… passive bystanders”. Indeed the promise of populist leaders is to rekindle the passion, to hold their followers closer, sweep them off their feet and carry them over the threshold into the centres of power. They don’t necessarily keep their promises. Treat ‘em mean ‘n’ keep ‘em keen.

I completely agree with Webb that this ambivalence should not be seen as irrational on the part of voters and it should be taken seriously. Rather it should be understood and worked with. Likewise, many will are disappointed with democracy. The compromises that make up a functioning democracy are inherently disappointing. Now disappointment is not necessarily an a negative emotion but it does provoke action. The real question is whether democracies can find productive ways of managing and channeling this disappointment.

This is part of the Into The Maelstrom series.

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Quartet (A Model of Decorum and Tranquility)

Opening Ceremony

One running theme throughout this blog will be that of the impact of automation on work, politics, and society. The machines are coming – and not just for the kind of working stiffs who can’t get an article published in  their church newsletter, let alone The Atlantic or Harvard Business Review. Real people with real bylines and real influence networks might be getting hurt here.

The last five years has seen a small industry emerge in books on this topic – many written by economists. The first such book we will look at is Average is Over by Tyler Cowen. I am acquainted with Cowen’s blog and podcasts so I knew the Prof Cowen was… unusual in his ways of thinking. This book is a testament to the benefits and limitations of his approach. It also highlights some common assumptions about Our Glorious Robot Tomorrow (OGRT) that may or may not be true.

I Know Him So Well

The book falls into three parts:

  1. The rise of intelligence machines and how they change the dynamics of the labour market. Basically, if the machines can do your job, you are in big trouble. If the you can work with these machines, $$$ for you.
  2. How individuals can work with these machines.
  3. The impact of this new order on immigration & trade, education, science and society at large.

The second section is both extensive and narrow. The author spends much time discussing the world of… chess. In particular, the differences between traditional chess (two people, a board, some pieces) and freestyle chess* (all of the above but also computer programs such as Rybka or Shredder). This partly because chess is one of the first intellectual activities to be fully revolutionised by chess – but mostly because its an area that he knows extensively. Indeed, the book comes most alive in domains where the author has actual lived experience (e.g. chess, teaching economics). While freestyle chess is worthy of examination, not all jobs of the future will be like this.

In other subject areas, such as living in favelas, he presents as less informed. It would be great if he could do some more primary research into the issues that he raises. Starting in economics, then dipping your toe into the real world, followed by a hurried return back to economics is unsatisfying. Machines have been automating roles in manufacturing for decades – What does that look like? How do people cope? What happens next? These questions can be addressed with a little investigation.

Merano

Let me say that I agree with Prof Cowen that the structure of our labour markets are likely to be transformed. And as he is quite explicit in saying, these changes do not bode well for many in the developed world. Our economies have offered reasonably well-paid jobs for people without advanced education. In the future, these may not exist.

Cowen’s world is basically consists of a small number of intelligent machines wrangers and a large number of people providing services to them. I’d call the latter wage slaves except that they probably won’t be on wages – microsegmented piece rates with surge drops in value will be more likely. Jobs in the middle of the market – the “good jobs” that certain senior world leaders have promised to their populaces – may well evaporate.

Some parts of this book have aged very badly in the last four years – the line “hardly anyone hates free trade these days” on p. 176 being a standout. Some of the discussion of MOOCs now feels superceded by the reality of these platforms – although his general discussions around the role of the lecturer shifting from expert to coach very much resonated with me.

One Night In Bangkok

I found myself emphatically agreeing and vehemently disagreeing with Cowen – often in the same sentence. This sense of cognitive whiplash became most acute in the final chapter. As a solution to growing differences in income and wealth, the author proposes that the US create low-cost housing favelas in the sunbelt states around Texas. People will cope with reduced healthcare by eating less junk food and exercising more – woe betide them if they get a medical condition despite living lives of modern virtue. He also predicts that an ageing population will mean less violence. But that, of course, misses the high rates of gun ownership among the elderly in his nation.

What I find disappointing in this final section of the book is an unwillingness to explore different options. A placid, unequal world is assumed rather than different scenarios being actively considered. New coalitions and new forms of politics are ignored. Everything will stubble on as the cognitive elite mind-meld with machines whole everyone else watches TV.

Truly, the future is a second rate cyberpunk novel from 1987.

All this may sound unduly negative. There are ideas in this book worth savouring – with a pinch of salt.

*For which wikipedia offers the more enticing of option of “centaur chess”.

(Googling “centaur” yield far more porn than I had, with obvious naivety, expected. Thank you, internet)

This is part of the Into The Maelstrom series.

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Fear of Politics (2) – We Had To Destroy The Polity To Save It

Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice, and moderation in the pursuit of justice is not a virtue

I am not really equipped to write about conservative dogma. I consume a great deal of it passively like the cigarette smoke in the pubs of my teens but its not my nature milieu. However it is an important spot to visit on our tour. We may return to rubberneck at some point in the future.

Can I mention Donald Trump? I don’t think I have a choice. If any event ever suggested to me that the Western world had gone over the catastrophic fold then it was November 2016 and the resistable rise of the Man in Orange.

There were few intellectual defences of The Donald in 2016. It’s not like he had coherent policies to promote – he simply said whatever came into his head in front of a crowd. If they cheered, he’d say more of it. He’s not so much a man as a brute force reinforcement learning algorithm, presidential campaign as A/B test – the logical conclusion of years of focus group-driven policy development.

Are You Ready? OK. Let’s Roll.

There was one piece – The Flight 93 Election – published on the Claremont Institute web site. The piece was pseudonymously ascribed to Publius Decius Mus. It begins by painting the gloomiest picture of America, some of blend of Bosch and Munch with all the potential fun of that pairing removed:

Illegitimacy. Crime. Massive, expensive, intrusive, out-of-control government. Politically correct McCarthyism. Ever-higher taxes and ever-deteriorating services and infrastructure. Inability to win wars against tribal, sub-Third-World foes. A disastrously awful educational system that churns out kids who don’t know anything…

If that sounds like someone’s inaugural address then: SPOILERS.

What is the cause of this woe? Well, “virtue, morality, religious faith, stability, character and so on” is out and “paternalistic Big Government and its cannibalization of civil society and religious institutions” is in. And the author is particularly excoriating about conservatives. They are, at best, impotent idealists being crushed beneath the jackboots of a all-conquering Left. At worst, they are Quisling collaborators with Hillary Clinton.

And the answer: By “it” I mean Trumpism, broadly defined as secure borders, economic nationalism, and America-first foreign policy. Because:

2016 is the Flight 93 election: charge the cockpit or you die. You may die anyway. You—or the leader of your party—may make it into the cockpit and not know how to fly or land the plane. There are no guarantees.

Lets consider this analogy for a moment. Flight 93 is a reference to the Sept 11 2001 attacks. The most wrenching event in recent American history. Flight 93 did not reach its intended target because the passengers stormed the cockpit, losing their lives in the process. What does this mean? Well, Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party are terrorists. The threat that they pose to America is so great that they must be stopped by any means necessary.

There is a difference between Flight 93 and the 2016 election. 44 people were killed on that flight on Sept 11. Simply looking at the GOP plans for healthcare, tens of thousands may die as a result of the 2016 election. The GOP seem unable to pass a repeal bill despite controlling all the arms of government but for how long can the US rely on the incompetence of its legislators? It is not clear how many deaths Donald Trump would ignore in order to remain president but I would not put my life in his hands.

And what of the American people? They are not to be trusted. The author notes that: If you haven’t noticed, our side has been losing consistently since 1988. Which is true and note true – the GOP has only won one plurality (2004) in a presidential election since 1988. However, following the 2016 elections, they control the presidency, both Houses of Congress, 33 State governorships and 32 State legislatures. Hell of a way to lose.

However if the GOP is losing, the author doesn’t question whether this indicates that the electorate doesn’t want what’s being offered – it’s simply a sign that conservatives aren’t pushing hard enough. Just one last rush towards the cockpit and either everything will be fine or everyone will be dead. Definitely no need to review the policies and the messages. Listening is for wusses.

Bracing For Impact

Michael Anton doesn’t matter much. Being the house intellectual in a milieu (or melee) that despises intellect, structured thought, and even basic reading is presumably as welcome as being a vegan at a slaughterhouse. But the Flight 93 essay matters because it demonstrates the visceral desperation and fear of democracy that many conservatives have.

It is a weird form of cognitive dissonance. The world is about to end. The foreign, gay, socialistic hordes threaten us from all sides. The true keepers of Western, Christian tradition are our last, best hope. And yet. Conservative parties rule in the US, the UK and Australia. Business interests face little in the way of regulatory control. Explicitly racist and white supremacist groups act in an ever-bolder manner. Mainstream conservatives may find them deplorable* but they are reluctant to call them out for fear of losing their votes.

Now to an extent, this is simply the discomfort faced by someone losing a privileged position. But it also allows you to position yourself as a victim. And it justifies an anti-democratic standpoint. With the nation so imperiled, whatever we do to save it must be right.

In America, this takes the form of widespread voter suppression activities by the GOP. There is little or no evidence that voter fraud occurs in the US. And yet a political party is using fear of voter fraud to deliberately disenfranchise social groups who it believes would vote against it. It does seek to engage with them or change its policy framework. It seeks simply to ensure their voice is neither heard nor counted.

We can see an echo of this here in Australia, in the struggle over same sex marriage. Australians have gone from being moderately against the idea to moderately for it. We used to think it was a bit weird but then Steve and Troy invited us over for a barbie and, though Troy’s a Bombers fan, they seem like good blokes and why shouldn’t they be married, eh? Some conservatives have decided that this is all a bit much. They don’t want to thrash it out in parliament and so now we are stuck with some non-binding postal vote. The whole situation feels like a chase scene in an action movie where the fleeing villain throws ever more ridiculous items (chairs, tables, little old ladies) in the path of his pursuer. What next, a same sex marriage non-binding karaoke sing-off?

Losing Altitude – Random Notes

1. The author of the article is actually Michael Anton, a GOP speechwriter and finance communications guy. Likes: suits and ethnic homogeneity. Dislikes: San Francisco and non-conservatives. Now a major communications guy at the National Security Council. Anton’s apocalyptic style is fine with me but he should really grow a pair of balls and write “balls”, not “thymos”. I keep my lemongrass and ginger tea in something that sounds like that, not my martial spirit. One gets the sense that were he teleported back to Flight 93 on 11 Sept 2001, he would not storm the Al Qaeda-held cockpit for fear of ripping his hand-tailored jacket. “We may be freedom fighters, but we are not animals”.

2. Publius Decius Mus as pseudonym choice. PDM was, like the Flight 93 passengers, another martyr. This time a Roman general who rode his steed directly into the enemy Latins**, sacrificing himself for the cause of victory. It would be fair to say that Anton has an obsession with violent sacrifice in his writings – although whether he will continue to use the PDM analogy after a Neo-Nazi fatally drove his horse, er, car into a crowd of peaceful protesters remains to be seen.

3. The Claremont Institute itself is… interesting. There is an East Coast – West Coast feud in America that I was unaware of until last year. Not the one between Biggie and Tupac. No – while the participants of that battle had an equal predilection for expensive gentlemen’s clothing – this new one featured spats between white men. The disciples of Leo Strauss to be exact. Strauss was a Central European emigre philosopher to the US who influenced many individuals who became key figures in American conservatism. The disciples split into East Coast and West Coast grouping. Notable East Coast Straussians included Allan Bloom and Paul Wolfowitz. This group eventually became synonymous with the NeoConservative movement that reached its apogee during the reign of George W Bush – and the mess that was the invasion of Iraq.

Meanwhile, a West Coast group formed under Harry Jaffa, an academic ultimately based in California. Jaffa was linked to conservatives such as Barry Goldwater. Four students of Jaffa created the Claremont Institute. Apparently the Institute has been an abysmal failure as, according to its own website, “For over 100 years, conservatives have been losing the battle of ideas, and with it, our most precious freedoms“. And precious bodily fluids. Please give generously.

4. Apropos of nothing, last month there was some online argy-bargy about Chris Ulhmann. He slammed the Man in Orange (so, yay) but he  had previously voiced his dislike of the Frankfurt School who “transmitted the intellectual virus to the US and set about systematically destroying the culture of the society that gave them sanctuary” (boo, apparently). Theodore Adorno (who perished shortly after an unsolicited Breast Action) was not the only German philosopher World War II refugee to the US. The legacy of Leo Strauss might equally merit Ulhmann’s words – esp. given that his followers promoted both a ruinous war in Iraq and also a president hell-bent on making George W Bush look good.

*Yes, I would a basket of deplorables. Perhaps with a Christmas ham, a jar of chutney and some assorted nuts. And no brown bread or halal-certified tahini, thank you.

**Who were not, as I first assumed, the same as the Romans – ah, the narcissism of small differences. How reassuring to know that people remain petty throughout history.

This is part of the Into The Maelstrom series.

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Class Dismissed

Given this inherent structural problem, progressives must surely seek to persuade lower class people to entertain their ideas—patiently, inventively and persistently—instead of imposing them. – From Shannon Burns – In Defence of the Bad, White Working Class

OK. Drop the mike. Go home. We’re done here. Progressives need to shut the hell up. And then maybe ask a few questions. Listen to the answers. Without interrupting. Or correcting. Telling people how wrong they are.

Just listen.

For a moment.

I’m not being sarcastic – I am not writing this on Twitter.

First, a detour.

(Failed) Experiment In Autobiography 

I am not working class. I qualify for the rank of lower middle class*. In England, the categories are clear. I went to a state comprehensive. My parents did not go to university but had jobs like “primary school teacher” and “probation officer”. I did go to university, where I had no idea what was going on – apart from the fact that I didn’t really belong there.

But I grew up in relative comfort. There was never any worries about where the next meal would come from – just that it would be terrible. Which is a massively unfair statement written just to get a cheap laugh. My mum did her best with her culinary knowledge, the produce from the local supermarkets and the time a working mum had. So I take that back. But I do get frustrated when my own son, who lives in one of the world’s great cities with access to many and varied high quality cuisines and wants to eat none of it. See how he trolls me with demands for cucumber and rice crackers. I find the words “You don’t know you’re born” start to coalesce on my tongue. Bequeathed.

I’m not working class but my dad is. He was born in a slum in Birmingham during World War II. He failed the 11 Plus. When he took it, he was as adrift as I was at uni – “What’s that bit o’ paper, our Stephen?” said his mum when he brought details of the test home. He went into the Navy (as a stoker). After watching one sailor knife another, he left. He passed some A-levels before getting a social work qualification. He shed most of his Brum accent. Although not his awkwardness in social settings with those who have more education than him, who know the right way of doing things.

He’s not part of the macho, punch-you-in-face-for-looking-at-me-funny world of the male working class. I suspect he may always have been a delicate bloom – with his love of the solitary pursuits of bicycling and beer making. If you grow up surround by people wall-to-wall then any personal space is precious. Time to yourself. Not the boss. Not your folks. Not your peers. Yours. Time to think and to dream. He’s also a storyteller. Not a garrulous, snug bar fixture guffawing with his mates but a weaver of absurdist, tall tales – especially for children. The one about the boiled beef and carrots that made a break from the kitchen to wider world still sticks in my mind although I have forgotten nearly all of it. We recorded some on a massive 70s reel-to-reel tape recorder. The tapes are probably unplayable now. He still tells stories.

Time to think and dream.

The house I grew up had had no books. There were my dad’s A-level history text books. The occasional rogue Len Deighton. And a large number of Bibles (New International Version). But not much else. However my father’s distaste for being a sports spectator (probably too… collective) meant I had to do something with my time. I bought books in ever greater quantities – I recall my mother once plaintively asking: “Matthew, don’t you think you have enough books now?”. Haha – NO. My addiction was unquenchable. MOAR BOOKS!!! Science fiction and literature and philosophy and history. I recall a pretentious urge to read Oedipus Rex and not really following the plot. Today, as a staff member at a university, I can get any book I want. Apart from the original Dead Sea Scrolls. The Inter Library Loan team could not swing that request for me. Damn them to hell.

Screw your Lexus, I can read any book I want. Who is the real winner here? Yeah? Whatever.

My childhood was not filled with fear of violence (apart from the regular nerd beatings that my mix of academic achievement and social inadequacy seemed to demand). Instead, the perennial terror was dropping from our precarious perch into the precipice below. Keeping up appearances with the constant threat of appearances falling apart. And the failure of knowing how to do so. You are only here under sufferance. We can send you back down any time we like.

My own parents could not have ideologically sounds debates about gender or race with me. My mother had insisted that they leave the Plymouth Brethren because she was not allowed to talk. My father told stories about the contempt that black prisoners had for the legal system – but it wasn’t like he hung out with the (non-Plymouth) Brothers in downtown Littlehampton. His frame of reference was as bare as the beach of pebbles of my home town. We know what’s around us. It doesn’t pay to know much more.

Working Not Working

I only know a little of working class culture before the 80s. Black and white photos. Accounts told by biased witnesses. There is a sense of something tied to place – where you lived, where you worked, where you drank, where you ate, where you prayed. A world of things. But not just of things. A world of stories. Life was not secure or safe. A public world dominated by men. A world without much in the way of privacy. A world with many threats outside.

Those places are slipping. Factories get moved overseas or staffed with robots. Building sites still require men. Get yourself a trade. Get up at 5 am and have a laugh with the boys. But there are ever more call centres and old people’s homes and child care spots. These don’t require brawny arms but nimble fingers and sharp ears. These are the world of women not men. The union hall is empty. You’ll take that temping contract and like it.

The message from conservatives is that there are two kinds of working class people. The “good” type – hard-working, moral, maybe a bit of a larrikin but fundamentally right-thinking. Not interested in any hi-faultin’ ideas but a good, salt of the earth sort.  That’s you right? Of course it is. We’ll take care of you. Promise.

Then there are the “bad” ones – lazy good-for-nothings who sit on sofa taking drugs, playing Xbox and hitting their spouses and their kids while claiming the dole. Terrible people. That’s those people over there. We’ll sort them out. Promise.

There is obviously zero overlap between these two groups. And there is no way that some one could slide from group to the other. Impossible. And if they did, it would always be their fault. Always.

Talk Radio is always full of people talking. So many, many words expelled with such force. It’s not called Listening Radio for a reason.

Sometimes we drive out to my wife’s great aunt not far from Bass Hill. Her immaculately-kept three bedroom house sits with other immaculately kept houses. Her Italian neighbours keep an eye on her. We share Portuguese chicken and chips with a cold ginger beer. We talk about those living and those dead. We talk about our hopes and fears. Not all of these conversations are ideologically sound.

Just listen for a moment. There are many stories. Many hopes and dreams. Noble. Perverse. Profane. Wrong. All worth a listen.

Time to think and dream.

*Altho according to this totally scientific & atomically precise online test, I am “Traditional Working Class”: Bollocks.

This is part of the Into The Maelstrom series.

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Family Feudal Firm

The prudent, penniless beginner in the world labors for wages awhile, saves a surplus with which to buy tools or land for himself, then labors on his own account

Why don’t I watch Game of Thrones? Well…

Nothing annoys me more than when I have an idea and promptly discover that someone has already done it better than me. In this case, Elizabeth Anderson’s two Tanner lectures from 2015 and this more recent article for Vox. A brief summary of the lectures:

  • Lecture 1 discusses the association of the free market with left-wing radicals until the advent of the industrial revolution. Masterless artisans were very keen on the free market and private property because it safeguarded their autonomy from feudal, landed lords and avaricious kings. The industrial revolution changed that dynamic. Production that had previously been the preserve of small proprietors became the domain of huge corporations that could operate at scale. Private property ceased to be a place of financial refuge for individuals and was instead the branding mark of the capitalist.
  • Lecture 2 extends this notion into the present day. Business seek to control not only the behaviour of their staff in the workplace but also their actions off the clock and the ideas that occupy their minds. Anderson – in a deliciously provocative move – equates their actions with those of Communist dictatorships. Corporations act as “private governments” – states within states with their own laws, norms and mechanisms of enforcement.

The lectures are well worth reading so I am not going to rehearse their arguments here. Rather I want to riff off the analogy in the second lecture based on my 20-odd years working in the private and public sectors:

  • Virtually no workplaces follow democratic principles. Perhaps the closest I have encountered to a democratic workplace was PwC – where the CEO was voted in. The catch being that the CEO is voted in by the partners (individuals with an equity stake in the firm) and key decisions (major merger and acquisitions) were put to partnership votes. Partners make up around 10% of the firm (in Australia, about 450 of 5,000). This is reminiscent of ancient Athens where adult male citizens who had completed their military training could vote and they made up only 10% of the population (women, children, foreigners and slaves being in eligible). The division between partners and non-partners was rigidly enforced (communciations had to start with “Dear Partners and Staff”).
  • Some organisations are built around families. These tend to resemble monarchies – with a court forming around the king, sorry, managing director and rival factions led by different family members. The challenge for any monarchy is the death of the king and the smooth transition of power. Needless to say, this transition is seldom smooth.
  • Perhaps the dominant political form for many organisations is feudal. In the feudal system, resources are owned by lords. Lords may all submit to the authority of a king and pay regular tribute but they have power within their own domain. Lords will compete with each other for resources and power. They may come together to fight external threats. Individual lords may also leave the state at any time and ally themselves with enemies and take their retinues with them. Now depending on the organisation, resources may be “bodies” (staff reporting to you), customer relationships, profit & loss responsibility, revenue streams, control of physical or intangible assets, etc. Lords offer protection to those under their rule but demand loyalty and tribute in return.
  • Very few organisations are genuine bureaucracies where processes rule. Many organisations camouflage themselves as such to outsiders but do not assume that this is how insiders see them.
  • Most organisations are some mix of all of the above.

While we talk about our societies being modern and democratic, much time (perhaps the majority of lived experience) is spent in enviroments our medieval ancestors would recognise. Our lives are largely non-democratic.

Incidentally, this is why Jeffrey Pfeffer‘s work still resonates. Pferrer’s work on power has been described as “machiavellian” and this is truer than most of his commentators know. Machiavelli was a humanist operating in a time where feudal power struggles were just starting to be eclipsed by the globalised mercantilism that we know today. Northern Italy has the centre of this transformation – just as the Northern California in which Pfeffer is located is centre of our current transformation of capital. Like Machiavelli, Pfeffer is ultimately a humanist counselling future princes (of both genders) in the dark arts of statecraft. The reason that his work resonates while drawing upon pre-modern sources is that our world is fundamentally pre-modern.

N.B. These non-democratic institutions are not especially free market either. French historian Fernand Braudel theorised that capitalism is actually an anti-market – suppressing and supplanting market exchanges. Coase’s theory of the firm states that firms exist because market pricing includes expensive transaction costs that firms can avoid through control of their value chains. Only suckers buy on the market.

Libertarians spend a lot of time decrying the repressive possibilities of democratically-elected governments. And they are not wholly wrong to do so. But they have no concept of the threat posed by private governments and anti-markets. And those threats are real.

So why don’t I watch Game of Thrones? Well, after 20 years in the service of lords and ladies, citizens and monarchs, it hold no escapism for me. Even the dragons seem tame compared to the world that surrounds me. Their breath can only scold the skin, not the heart that lies within.

This is part of the Into The Maelstrom series.

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Fear Of Politics – Techno Techno Techno

A spectre is haunting us — the spectre of politics. All the powers of world have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre…

Many people seem to be afraid of politics – especially its democratic variants. It’s not just a mild skittishness, it’s full on revulsion.

Now let’s be honest. Politics is not elegant. It is a bruising, compromised business conducted by comprised people (i.e. everyone but especially politicians) who bruise readily. Democractic politics are especially messy. No one ever gets exactly what they want all the time. That is the pact you make.

“I’d have gotten away with it too if it wasn’t for you meddling voters”.

Now these politiphobes can take many forms but there is one variant that we will discuss here.

Technologists

Software engineers like certain kinds of solutions. They prefer things to be both rational and elegant. Messy v1.0 code is refactored into something tidier. And when you are coding this stuff matters. Irrational code may be difficult for others to maintain and improve. Inelegant code may impact system performance. Or, worse, other developers may make snide comments about your pull request on Github.

However politics is not rational – in a number of senses.

  • At the individual level, human beings are both rational and irrational – driven by naked calculation and furious, unconscious drives. We vote for candidates who will immiserate us financially but confirm our superiority to those with a slightly different skin tone. Our drives conflict and clash. If we get what we want then we don’t get what we want (which is why democracy is such a good fit for us).
  • At the collective level, individuals find themselves in strange coalitions. Religious moralists must do deals with those they see as sexual deviants if both face a common enemy. And of course politics is a social activity, a tribal activity – a matter of belonging as well as believing and behaving (or misbehaving).
  • At the institutional level, bodies such as parliaments, senates , government departments and courts develop over time – created to solve one problem, they morph into something else. They exapt. Sometimes into the solution to further problems, sometimes into the cause of them. However once they are established, they are often hard to dismantle because they form part of our infrastructure.

This lack of elegance and rationality disgusts engineers. Hence their constant desire to replace it with an engineered solution.

Someone must be able to create an app to fix this.

Now as we will see in a later post, there is an app that can fix this but I don’t want to get ahead of myself.

So what do our new techno overlords think? Greg Ferenstein has spent time surveying them and has found the following:

  • The tend to believe all change over the long run ends up being good.
  • They tend to believe that education can solve all or most problems in society.
  • They reject the notion that there are inherent conflicts of interests between citizens, the government, corporations or other nations.

The popularity of these ideas among the tech elite is based on their own biased experiences:

  • Change has been good for them. Otherwise they wouldn’t be so rich and powerful now.
  • Education has been good for them. Even if they dropped out of college, they were generally raised in environments that not only prized education but viewed it as accessible and made it accessible to them.
  • Silicon Valley is basically an incestuous ecosystem / echo chamber (eco-chamber?) where universities, corporations, start-ups and incubators play a game of musical chairs with money (until the music stops – and the music has been going since 2001).

These core beliefs lead to some… problems:

  • A view of change that neglects negative outcomes means that you don’t bother doing anything about them because, well, hey, everything will work out fine in the end. However in any change there are inevitably winners and losers and big changes tend to mean large numbers of one or both. Those losers are going to be really pissed off.
  • A view of ameliorating change that focuses primarily on education means that even if you do tackle negative outcomes, you will be ineffective. Don’t get me wrong, I love education. I have 2 degrees and I teach at a university for larfs. But getting trained to do a new job only works if the new jobs are there in the first place. Otherwise you’ll end up a piece of paper (or these days probably just a PDF) that not even your mum wants and a massive pile of debt to One-Eyed Vinny The Student Loan Agency.
  • This rejection of conflict prevents a productive engagement with politics. Chuck Tingle might believe that Love Is Real (as do I) but so is Conflict. People disagree – and not just because they have access to different information sources. They also have different fundamental interests. Politics is the negotiation of those interests and the first step to that negotiation is to admit they exist.

The first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem. The tech elite appear to be still in denial. With these thoughts in mind, I would suggest the following:

  • Admit that change creates winners and losers. Argue that your proposals will create more winners than losers. And give the losers something.
  • Stop banging on about education – be it college or code camps or being Peter Thiel’s cabana boy. By all means do those things, they are still worthwhile. But accept that education is not all of the solution. What else are you going to do? What structural changes are going to make beyond expecting the losers to skill up? What are you personally going to sacrifice?
  • Accept that political differences cannot be solved solely through increased information dissemination. If I haven’t had a pay raise in a decade then don’t tell me that the iPhone 6 has 8 times as much RAM as the 2007 original and therefore I must be 8 times as wealthy. “Let them eat hedonic pricing” is not a winning strategy.

Most of all, recognize that building a platform is not primarily a technological challenge. A platform is an institution made of human beings, of people. These people may be linked to each other by technology but they remain people with their interests. What can you give them that will work for you and for them? Three obvious things are voice, money, and respect.

I’m not going to ask the tech elite to be unafraid, that’s too much to ask. Instead I am going to ask them to feel the fear and do it anyway.

So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is…fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and of vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory.

This is part of the Into The Maelstrom series.

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