History, Gravity

Last week, The Institute of Public Affairs released a report on the teaching of history in Australian universities. It reminded me of my own times as a student. Particularly the day we filled a fellow undergrad’s dorm room with balloons from floor to ceiling. Both we and the IPA engaged in a top-flight, time-consuming instance of trolling. And in both instances, we were richly rewarded. While I don’t think anyone actually broke down in tears at the IPA’s stunt, they did reap a fine harvest of media corn. The ire of actual academic historians must have been an added bonus.

I’m not that interested in the conclusions of the IPA’s research but I am fascinated by what it reveals about the mindset and obsessions of Australian conservatives. In short, conservatives are obsessed with history. The History Wars raged in the early years of this millennium, providing a minor buzzing in background of Australian Idol. The IPA are attempting to revive the history wars in much the same way that Guy Sebastian’s latest album is attempting to revive his career – and with as much success. Nevertheless, the history wars will not go away for two stark reasons.

The first is ideological. Conservatives seek political legitimation in history. They are animated by a nostalgia for pasts both real and imagined. Nostalgia is a perfect word – partly because it derives from the ancient Greek for an ache for a lost home but also because it was an invention of the seventeenth century long after the ancient Greeks were dead. Reading the work of prominent conservative journalists in the News Corp press, I get the sense they long for the 50s and 60s of their childhoods (or the childhoods of their parents). Science or Economics cannot validate or embody these urges but History can. History is the main source of political legitimation for the conservative project and it therefore must be fought for.

Now this has some delicious ironies. It is ironic that conservatives worship history because so do their sworn enemies – communists. Marx proclaimed a world without God but guided by the Scientific Laws of History. Although Marx’s God feels more Old Testament, a demiurge to the conservatives’ New Testament History-as-exemplar. It is also ironic that the periods that conservatives hark back to (especially the bland bliss of Post-War Menzies) were also the times when the Western world was at its most explicitly socialist and collective. The memory can play tricks.

The second reason that the history wars will not go away are demographic. Australia has an ageing population. And as we age, we lose ourselves to history and memories. For my entire life, I have been told by old people how terrible the modern world is. The world with fewer people in poverty than ever, with reduced infant mortality and longer lifespans. This waking nightmare of bounty and ease. But when your body is failing, your loved ones are dead, and your dreams are nearly extinguished, that all sounds academic. Religion may be the Opium of the People but History is the Oxycontin of the Aged. The pull of the past will be ever stronger for a greying population. The struggle to control it will escalate.

Do not expect the history wars to disappear. If you live in and for the past (or your memory of it) then you will fight for them forever. Academic historians will be bystanders in this battle. University students will also be acceptable casualties. Good history (white blindfold, western civilization, etc) will be pitted against bad history (black armband, identity politics, delete as appropriate). The tragedy here is that while history influences the present and the future, it does not decide them. We must focus on how we forge a different future. We must seek out new mistakes to make. Or we can just fall back into the easy ways of the elaborate troll, falling back into gravitation pull of the black hole of history.

| Leave a comment

Expert Witness

The Death of Expertise by Prof. Tom Nichols is one of a number of books that refer to the tumultuous events of 2016 (c.f. at least three books about Post Truth). Prof. Nichols is an academic with a background in Russian studies and nuclear weapons policy research who teaches at the Naval War College. He’s also a conservative commentator of the “Never Trump” variety – he’s probably not expecting an NSC post any time soon.

The book identifies a decreasing respect for expertise / professionals / public intellectuals. This disrespect has three major courses that get a chapter each:

  • A higher education system that panders to its student base as consumers to be entertained rather than as learners to be taken on a journey of intellectual discovery.
  • An internet environment that enables the easy creation and dissemination of content regardless of its veracity.
  • The media landscape that is fractured, partisan and sensationalist.

Let me start with the areas where I agree with Prof. Nichols:

  • I value expertise and the pursuit of knowledge. I do not think all opinions are equally valid.
  • I have some major concerns as to the construction of our higher education systems. I do not think the focus on degree programs as an aspirational model for everyone is healthy. Some of the problems of grade inflation and campus politics are more extreme in the US market compared to Australia (based on my limited experience). However I do think the higher education market is due some kind of “crash” or at least, restructuring. The issues scene in the Australian VET sector (too much government money, too little regulation) are a small foreshadowing of the bigger falls that will come.
  • The media landscape is changing in ways that are inimical to high standards of reportage and journalism.
  • There is a break between democratic governments and their citizens. This fracture is widening in many Western democracies and will only get wider.

I want to make some notes on the form of the book:

  • Prof. Nichols is a decent prose stylist and entertaining writer.
  • Prof. Nichols is not a sociologist of the professions nor is he a cognitive scientist with insight into expertise development. In this domain, he is a dilettante. That is, in itself, not a problem although it is somewhat ironic that a book protesting the willingness of amateurs to wade into the domains of others is written by… an amateur wading into the domain of others.
  • There are some odd omissions within the book. Statistics are used but irregularly – the preference being for the sweeping assertion and a number of telling anecdotes. There is not a single chart in the whole thing.
  • The footnotes mostly refer to periodicals (e.g. The Atlantic, New York Times) rather than academic research – David Dunning and Philip Tetlock being noticeable exceptions. And why not, their work is excellent. But where is everything else? Extensive research has been carried out on the rise of the professions, their role in society, the challenge of integrating experts into government, and the opportunities and perils of technocracy. Why neglect it?
  • The whole thing feels like a 252 page “hot take” – a series of opinion columns strung together into a book. Some of it is entertaining. Some of it insightful. Some of it not much of either.

And now moving on to the content. I wish to ask a series of questions.

The first question is concerns definition. What exactly is dying? Early on, the book lumps together professionals, expertise, and public intellectuals as all things that under attack. This is… a very broad brush. Less a brush and more a mop. The book dashes from anti-vaxxers to public policy advisors to journalists. Nichols is seeking to make a grand argument about the nature of American society. This broad focus poses some risks that we will encounter very shortly.

The second question is: where is the evidence that expertise less valued now that it was in the past? There’s lots of anecdotes but little in the way of the quantifiable trend data. Which is odd because there’s a number of research polls about public attitudes to professionals. For example:

These polls shows a few things:

  • Not all professions are equal. Different professions are viewed very differently by the public at large.
  • Medical professionals remain highly trusted (and prestigious).
  • Some professions have actually grown in trustworthiness over the years – engineers being a stand out example.
  • Some professionals have not done so well. Politicians, lawyers, journalists, college teachers, and the clergy do not have great reputations. But for some groups this distrust goes back decades (trust in lawyers in 2016 is very similar to what it was in 1988).
  • I note with some amusement (& perhaps a dash of hope) in the Harris Poll that only 21% of those aged 70 or older think of “politician” as a prestigious occupation but 57% of Millennials do. Whither apathy?

These numbers do not show a widespread collapse in either trust or prestige for professionals across the board. Rather they imply the reconfiguring of the role of the professional within society. The pieces on the board are shifting around.

The third question relates to the chapter on higher education. The argument is that going into higher education (esp. lower status colleges) breeds a contempt for experts. Therefore, presumably one would expect those with “some college” would be the most hostile to experts and elites in general? I’d like to see some data supporting this proposition. In 2016 presidential election, the candidate positioned as anti-elitist also played best with those without a college education.

The final question involves taking a step back from the hurlyburly of rude people on the internet and biased news shows and asking what concerns professionals.

  • A Medscape survey identified that the key issues for doctors are: bureaucracy, long hours, and the computerization of practice. Professionals here are not concerned with mouthy plebs but rather the tensions of being a professional within an industrial-style institution.
  • Gary Klein & co write about the The War On Expertise but this war is being waged by technologists, behavioural economists, and checklist developers.
  • The Susskinds have written on the future of the professions in a manner that is both less gloomy and more far-reaching that Nichols’ book. Their point is that the models under which the professions have operated for the last 200 years are undergoing transformative change – and I agree with them. But this change is not necessarily “bad” for society as a whole. Our historical models of expertise management have left knowledge inaccessible to many.

Nichols’ book is a missed opportunity. There’s a bigger story here than ungrateful students and mean internet comments. While he picks up on some important issues, he needs to move beyond his own preoccupations.


| Leave a comment

No End

Euan Semple asks whether we have reached The end of civilisation as we know it?

Euan’s take is that the Tech Bemehoths (Apple, Google, Facebook, Amazon) provide key parts of infrastructure globally. Our governments are out of their depth so therefore:

Are we transitioning from the nation state to some other way of maintaining and supporting our societies? How do we feel about this? Is it inevitable? Could we stop it even if we wanted?

My response to this is: Probably not.

Now where do I think positions like Euan’s have a point? Well, I agree that these companies are large and powerful. And they want to use this power to further their own ends. Google are engaged in an anti-trust battle with the EU. Facebook’s CEO seems to be contemplating running for office. However there are some things to consider.

How powerful are the Tech Behemoths really?

The 2017 Fortune 500 is headed up by retailer Amazon Walmart (whose revenues are still less than the US Defense budget). The next three companies are all Chinese energy companies (utilities and oil). Two more car manufacturers and two more oil companies round it out. With Apple coming it at #9.

Silicon Valley companies (we’re including Amazon here although it’s based in Seattle) certainly get a lot of press. And Euan and I are more likely to interact with, say, Google, rather than Sinopec on a daily basis. But we shouldn’t mistake visibility for power.

Now there are two caveats here:

  • The internet companies are still growing very quickly. Amazon, Google and Facebook may trouble the Top 10 in 5 years.
  • All companies are now technology companies to some extent. Walmart invested heavily in supply chain technology to build its market dominance. The average new car has hundreds of microprocessors in it – and the focus on driving automation is only going to increase that.

Are governments floundering?

I’m not sure this accusation is fair. Governments do suck at a lot of stuff. But then they do a lot of stuff in the first place. Govt spending equates to over a third of GDP in the US, UK and Australia. Western governments suck at developing new consumer technologies (although the US government was instrumental in growth of Silicon Valley during the Cold War). But they still deliver many services to their populations. Although a sizeable contingent of Western politicians believe that they shouldn’t and are hacking away at those services. I am not comfortable with the wholesale privatization of healthcare or education. Government may be the least worst provider of these services.

Don’t be evil?

And for-profit businesses present their own set of problems in terms of service delivery. Businesses constantly seek to build monopolistic power over their customers in order to maximise profits. They are predators that need to be held in check by competitors and government regulation. What Adam Smith termed “animal spirits” can be harnessed for the common good but this harnessing won’t just happen.

The Tech Behemoths have limited interest in the common good. They structure their businesses to pay as little tax as legally feasible in the jurisdictions in which they operate. They show scant concern for the privacy rights of their user base

Too big to fail?

Companies can collapse. They can be mismanaged. They just fall prey to bad luck. And when that happens, it can have a negative impact on their employees, customers, suppliers and creditors. But life can go on. Of course, we have learned that some private enterprises (specifically banks) are too big to fail and we have not fully accepted the implications of that discovery (and we won’t until a crisis comes along that we cannot avoid).

Governments do not have this luxury of failure. When a government collapses, you end up with Congo not Kodak. The conflict and potential violence that government holds in check – or channels productively – then explodes into chaos. I simply do not see that function disappearing.

No future?

Exactly what governments do and how they do it will change. Their relationships with technology companies will get ever more complex – and doubtless ever more adversarial, co-dependent and interwoven.

Service delivery will change. Some of this change will be good. Governments will be able to target and measure services ever more precisely should we choose to do so.  Citizens will find new ways of interacting with governments.

However these technologies also allow government to surveil their subjects to ever greater degrees. Remember the companies 2, 3 & 4 in the Fortune 500. The Chinese state has little interest in voice or people power. And Western technology companies have been happy to humour its demands if they lead to profit. Nor will alternatives to the nation state be necessarily more just or more open.

If we choose to forswear the comforts of the state, it may not be a step forward.

This is part of the Into The Maelstrom series.

| Leave a comment

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


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.

| Tagged | Leave a comment

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.

| Leave a comment

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.


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.

| Tagged | Leave a comment

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 not 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 not 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 like 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.

| Tagged | Leave a comment