My Resistance To Identity Politics

There is a lot of identity politics out there. It comes in various forms, and the liberal-tarians are all united on the fact that it is good to be an “ally” to victims of certain difficult lived experiences. But just as I have resisted the inclination to call myself a “feminist” despite believing in equal rights for women, I’m not ready to sign-on to the pleas of the likes of (most recently) Jacob T. Levy. The natural question is, “Why the heck not, Ryan?” and the answer is because the evidence and the philosophy just aren’t there to support the notion of identity politics.

But does it matter? The toothpaste is already out of the tube, as the saying goes. It’s only a matter of time before everyone in the LGBTQ community gets to enjoy the same kind of social respect that we pay to everyone else, and racism and sexism is always and everywhere deplored by everyone who counts for anything. No one takes a bigot seriously anymore, not in today’s world. Despite the lamentations over Trump’s allegedly white-supremacist agenda, society as a whole wants to move on from all this bigotry. In that environment, why shouldn’t I just be simpatico? I mean, why can’t I just be a nice guy and declare myself an ally of women, of LGBTQs, of racial minorities, of religious minorities, etc.? Why hold out? Do I want to make myself look like an asshole?

In other words, why don’t I just follow where the group leads me? What’s the harm in that?

Libertarianism – the belief that people by and large ought to be left alone to pursue their own slice of happiness – deserves a unified theory. It’s almost inevitable. Despite the attempts of many to divorce libertarianism from hardcore individualism, Aristotelianism, first principles, and unfettered market capitalism, libertarianism only makes sense as the fusion of those ideas. If you remove one of those things, then you are no longer left with a consistent, coherent political philosophy. Instead, what we end up with is a contradictory mess of personal whims and wishes; but you don’t need philosophy to just believe whatever the heck you feel like. Philosophy without consistent self-reconciliation is just word salad.

Thus, to wit, I don’t want to just go along with the crowd on identity politics because, doggone it, I’m an individualist. I’m not going to just accept any hackneyed idea just because a bunch of really nice people really really want me to go with it. That kind of blind susceptibility to situational influence is what produces the Lucifer Effect, and I’m not into that. While we’re busy pitting our various political identities against each other, we’re causing a real rift between and among groups. It’s not very hard to imagine the different ways the Lucifer Effect would take hold. It ought to be resisted.

I bring this up because it highlights the importance of individualism as an idea in general, but specifically with respect to libertarianism. Without the general principle that individuals ought to be left alone, we become a teeming mass of identity-factions, each more justifiably angry than the next. The function of individualism is to diffuse the claims of specific factions and to apply broad principles of freedom to all kinds of people, no matter what their demographics happen to be. In other words, the purpose of individualism is to prevent us from getting caught up in bigotry. Inventing a complex “intersectionality” of factious identities will only serve to pit factions against each other.

What we want is to treat all people equally. So long as we’re pounding pulpits over identity politics, we’ll never get there. Separate is inherently unequal. "All collectivist doctrines are harbingers of irreconcilable hatred and war to the death."


When Your Way Out Isn't A Way Out

I followed a link on Robert Murphy's blog, and then followed another link, and then somehow I found myself on The Other Side of the Internet. I don't recommend going there often, if at all. Still, "While I'm here," I thought to myself, "I may as well see if I can learn something."

I discovered an article written by one Sophie Gray, who, in an article tellingly entitled "Why I've Stopped Posting Ab Selfies to Social Media," opens with the following:
If you were scrolling through my Instagram account on July 15th you would’ve seen a feed filled with ‘ab selfies’ with comments littered underneath saying how I’m #LIFEGOALS and have the #PERFECTBODY.
Note the link to her Instagram account. We can already tell that this story is about to veer into sadness, but if Sophie can get a few more Instagram followers, then why not, right? She continues:
But if you were my boyfriend on that very same day, you would have seen a very different story. You would have seen a very different version of me. 
You would have been the one by my side as I stood crying in the baggage claim area in the airport. You would have been the one climbing into a rental car and embarking on a 38-hour drive home just because I couldn’t get on our connecting flight home. 
And guess what? My so-called enviable thigh gap and six pack weren’t the reason I wasn’t able to get on the flight.
It was because I had a horrible panic attack on our previous flight and was a total and complete fucking mess.
At this point, the average reader is keen to learn about how the relentless pursuit of physical perfection drove this poor woman into a melt-down. But Sophie never says that. In fact, she never says anything at all about what was behind her panic attack.

Instead, she self-diagnoses as someone who has "anxiety," and provides the unreferenced statistic that "1 in 5 people are living with anxiety." I haven't fact-checked that claim, because it is completely irrelevant. It's irrelevant to my blog post, it's irrelevant to her article, and it's irrelevant to her panic attack.

Sophie uses this statistic to do a quick calculation. She states (audaciously, in bold text) that she has 400,000 followers on Instagram (product placement again), and that this implies that 80,000 of them suffer from anxiety.

To Sophie, this means that 80,000 of her followers are suffering anxiety as a direct result of, or which is seriously aggravated by, her ab selfies. So, for their sake, she's not posting ab selfies anymore.

Well, gosh, I feel better now. Don't you?

It's possible that Sophie's desire to have lots of adulating Instagram followers drove her to a panic attack. It's also possible that her relentless pursuit of a perfect body drove her to a panic attack. And it is certainly believable that the combination of those two activities drove her to a panic attack. But if so, this means that Sophie's anxiety really has nothing to do with her followers. Changing her Instagram behavior might be exactly the right thing to do - for herself. So why does Sophie decide to do it for everyone's sake but hers?

It could be that she's just fishing for positive reinforcement from her nigh-half-a-million fans. Like, she's worried about how a change in behavior will affect her social media presence, so she wants to put the idea out there to them, so that they will say, "Yes! Do it! We support you!" Maybe she just needs that kind of adulation in order to make a positive change in her life.

But notice the difference between earnestly asking for support because you feel unsure of yourself and need to make a change, versus suggesting that it's really your support network who has the real problem, and that you need to make a change for them. Both activities feel like a positive change for the better, but while the former is an acknowledgement of personal weakness and an earnest request for help, the latter is a way of spreading the guilt around.

"I had a panic attack, therefore I'm going to do something so that you don't have one, too."

No, Sophie. You had a panic attack, so you need to make a change in your own behavior to prevent yourself from having another one. I don't know how many people have had panic attacks as a direct result of seeing her Instagram photos, but I suspect the number is much smaller than 80,000 and might even be close to zero.

Of course, Sophie has an incentive to ignore this. The thought that her Instagram followers don't think she's important enough to have driven them into a panic attack is, in essence, a narcissistic injury. It means she isn't as popular and important as she wants to be.

Notice the other ugly thing about this: A woman whose ab selfies are so glorious that they send people into panic attacks is still pretty marvelous, isn't she? So even by swearing-off her selfies she still gets to proclaim her superiority over her followers.

So she covers it with a self-serving story about how her ab selfies are driving anxious fans into panic attacks and that she needs to stop, for their sake.

My prediction: Sophie will stop posting ab selfies but will not stop being anxious.


Democratic Crack-Up Boom

The Washington Post is riffing on a common theme: the plummeting popularity of democracy as a form of government. Most people agree that this is a deleterious trend, and a lot of people have been writing about what it "means."

Before we jump the gun, though, I wanted to consider a possibility that people aren't talking about at all. What if the data isn't telling us what we think it's telling us.

Years ago, I had a friend who told me her mother used to feed her candy made of carob instead of chocolate. But here's the kicker: her mother told her that the candy was chocolate. So, for years, was not particularly fond of "chocolate," because what she thought was "chocolate" was actually carob. When she finally tasted real chocolate for the first time in her life, she loved it. And she's loved it ever since.

Now consider the modern political landscape, where elections seldom result in any kind of measurable change, where the candidates who win the popular votes don't end up in office, where all the real power is had by the bureaucracy, not the elected officials, and where it seems that no matter what the law says, governments mostly just serve their well-connected friends, business partners, and other insiders.

And consider that this landscape is what is known to most people as "democracy." If top-to-bottom corruption, staged elections, media propaganda, and kangaroo courts are what is currently known as "democracy" in this day and age, might young people's opinion of democracy reflect what everyone keeps telling them democracy is?

In other words, isn't it possible that people are losing faith in democracy because our institutions are corrupt and are no longer democratic? Isn't it possible that people now see how ineffectual their system is, and so they are rejecting it, whatever it happens to be called?

I think this is a possibility that ought to be ruled out before we write democracy's obituary.


Getting Fitter

Getting people from fat to fit isn’t even a cottage industry anymore. I’d speculate that it’s a multi-billion-dollar industry that ranges from short workouts of the day, like the ones you’ll find at Darebee.com, to hour-long video workouts like P90X. I just opened the app store  on my phone to discover pages upon pages of reasonably highly rated free fitness apps: Couch-to-5K apps, shortcuts to size, triathlon training, diet logs, and so on, and so forth. You don’t have to look very far to spend hundreds of dollars on fitness stuff faster than you can say “Take my money, you chiseled Adonis!”

Of course, we here at Stationary Waves have long since been of the opinion that, in order to get truly fit, one has to stop beginning and start becoming an intermediate fitness enthusiast. This will help you resist the urge to start over again and again, always from the novice level. This will help you progress to a point where you add a little more to your daily routine – because, after all, your routine is now a daily one. It’s part of your life. You made it! Fitness is a regular part of your life now. You’re no longer one of those people who need to get off the couch.

What you’ll discover at that point is that you’re working out daily, and you still don’t look and feel like Duane Johnson or Gillian Michaels, you still don’t run a sub-3-hour marathon, you still can’t do very many unassisted pull-ups, and the thought of posting “workout videos” on YouTube frightens you. In short, even after you’ve been working out for a long time, you still won’t feel like an expert or a pro. You’ll still feel like a beginner.

I’ve been training hard as a distance runner since my age could be expressed in single-digits – yes, really – and even I still don’t feel like an expert. The truth is, no level of fitness ever feels like enough. There’s always some additional challenge or barrier that you can’t quite achieve, that makes you feel like a complete rookie. So we try harder.

Speaking personally, I work out during my lunch hour at work. Optimistically, you could say I have 60 minutes with which to get a great workout in – and for the last several months or years I’ve been doing just that. But lately I’ve noticed something: in order to get fitter than I am today, I need more than 60 minutes.

Now, this makes perfect sense. After you’ve conditioned yourself to an hour a day, the only way to get a better workout is to either go harder for the full hour, or stack on more time. Frankly, I’m not sure I could go much harder for my daily hour. I want to be fitter – I need another hour.

And so I continue to flirt with my on-again, off-again relationship to twice-daily workouts. I know I need them, but they’re hard. They’re hard to do, physically, and they’re hard for a diabetic like me to figure out. They’re hard to keep up in light of all my other responsibilities in life. They’re just hard. I try it, I fail, and I give up.

But, darn it, I keep trying. Maybe this time’s my chance.


Concert Review: The Aristocrats (Dallas 11/29/2016)

Last night, I had the pleasure of attending The Aristocrats’ final concert data in support of their third album, Tres Caballeros.

Dedicated readers will note that this was my second Aristocrats concert. The first occurred way back in August of 2013. By now, August 2013 seems like a world away. My daughter hadn’t been born yet; in fact, she hadn’t even been conceived. The band was touring in support of their second album. I hadn’t yet warmed up to Guthrie Govan’s playing style. In fact, here’s what I charitably wrote at the time:
The promise of guitar virtuosity was immediately fulfilled. Govan played a Charvel and a Suhr; his tone was delicious, his hair flowing in the steamy Texas heat as he shredded his way into the heart that beatin [sic] frantically against the inside of every Dream Theater t-shirt in the building. YouTube doesn't lie; the guy was phenomenal...
 But by the end of the very first song, it was obvious that this show was to be the Beller/Minnemann extravaganza.
It was interesting for me to go back and re-read that concert review, not only to remind myself of how much I’ve grown to enjoy Govan’s playing, but also to compare my early impressions of the band to what they have become over the ensuing years.

They have kept up a grueling tour schedule, not only as a band, but also in support of other musicians. Most recently, they’ve toured Europe, Asia, and Latin America. By all accounts, the tour has been a success, and I can only assume this means that the Tres Caballeros album has been a success, too.

I mention their success because my first exposure to Bryan Beller was when he was playing with an obscure Dweezil Zappa band back in the 90s, and the first time I saw him in concert was when he played a clinic at a local guitar store when I was a kid. I’ve essentially watched him go from being an obscure nobody to being a member of one of the most exciting instrumental groups on the scene, with a fan base large enough to support three studio albums, various live releases, and a worldwide touring schedule.

This is pertinent to last night’s concert. Last night, I didn’t see a band featuring the bassist of an obscure band I liked in high school. I didn’t see that band with the internet guitar guru with lots of hair. I didn’t see a struggling jazz combo trying to scrape together a living playing the darkened corners of the prog rock scene. No, I saw a fully-formed, popular, well-heeled instrumental rock outfit at the top of a game that has brought them to significant heights. The played like the world-class music act that they are today.

This wasn’t true back in 2013. Don’t get me wrong, they were still phenomenal back then. But their set reflected their comparatively lower standing. For one thing, tickets were dirt cheap and they played in a dirty bar back then; this time around, tickets were in line with what you’d expect, and the venue was wonderful. For another thing, back in 2013, the band had a certain comedic charm that permeated the entire set list, injecting each song with a zany-but-creative spirit that felt intimate and small. It was almost as if we, the audience, were included in an exciting jam session held by great musicians, which is not far off from the reality of that concert.

But today – oh, today! – the difference was palpable. The core character of the band, that humorously flavored instrumental prog-rock/jazz blend they serve to their audience, is still what it always was. But the command with which they deliver it has changed. There is confidence. There is self-awareness. The band plays like they know the audience loves them. And we do.

So what does this mean, really? Well, first of all their chops, if you can imagine it, have improved. I don’t just mean that the band seemed tight. I mean that they’re playing at a level that I’m not sure any player can compete with. Each player individually delivers such an intense onslaught of virtuosity that it can be overwhelming when they all improvise something equally godlike at exactly the same moment.

Govan seems to have lost some of the self-consciousness I felt he had the first time around, and now commands the stage like the guitar god he is, effortlessly communicating with the audience while throwing down whatever the Muse moves him to play.

Bryan Beller doesn’t hesitate to solo. You have to understand that there is an old clip floating around on YouTube somewhere in which Beller takes a “rare” bass solo during a Mike Keneally & Beer for Dolfins concert. When he’s finished, Mike Keneally steps to the microphone and promptly acknowledges that the audience has just seen something that almost never happens. The solo is good, but restrained. I wonder how the modern-day Bryan Beller would react to seeing that video today. He’s become a god of bass guitar, and his solos, along with the rest of his playing, are phenomenal, confident, brilliant, musical, and certainly unrestrained.

Drummer Marco Minnemann also seems to have undergone a remarkable change. When I saw him in 2013, he played with a certain playful zaniness. His wonderful sense of humor is still there, but his playing now seems much more forceful – perhaps because he’s playing more technically now (maybe it’s just my ears?), or perhaps because he, like Govan, has grown into his role as a member of a world-class, exciting musical ensemble on par with the best of the best. He has nothing left to convince us of anymore, in terms of proving his worth. Now he just gets to play for us, so that’s what it seems that he does, and wonderfully so.

Conspicuously missing from the concert: the pigs. They brought out their trademark squeaky toys at a couple of moments, but for the most part stuck to their instruments. The squeaky toys were a great and important component of their old set, but the band played so well on their actual instruments that I hardly missed them. This, too, is demonstrative of their overall increased degree of polish.

The band played for perhaps two and half hours, so it was a long concert full of everyone’s favorite Aristocrats songs. By the end of the night, I loved them more than I already did, which was nice. So, for me, this new, glossy, world-class version of The Aristocrats is a wonderful development, and I can’t wait to see where the band goes next. It was a great concert.


The Left's Weird Special Language

Consent is mediated by power differentials along structural, informal, social, physical, intellectual, and other forces in clearly discernable ways. For grotesque example, if someone has power over one’s potential career trajectory, there is an incentive to feign consent to that person’s wishes, even if they do not explicitly leverage it in any way. The power is embedded even if it’s never spoken. This example is illustrative of the way that power interacts with all of our interactions and agreements, extending to more subtle and also non-sexual contexts as well.
What on Earth does this mean?

But there it is, an excerpt from this blog post, linked to by a social media friend of mine. As far as I can tell, the blog post aims to describe group dynamics within a particular set of social groups called "radical communities." The moral of the story seems to be that, despite the aim of most of these groups to promote equality of human worth, "power differentials" - i.e. informal social hierarchies - still exist within them.

On its own, this is a fairly vapid point. Human beings have hierarchical tendencies. What's interesting, though, is its peculiar terminology, which the author jam-packs into each and every sentence. It's as though the author of that blog post is writing in a foreign language.

Consider the first six words of the above excerpt: "Consent is mediated by power differentials." In that phrase, there is one "be" verb, one preposition, and three pieces of mindless jargon. As far as the average person is concerned, an equally intelligible phrase is: "Blargh is fruxled by glogg peqrum." It has the look and feel of an English language sentence, but without any insight into what "blargh" and "fruxled" and "glogg" and "peqrum" mean, it is mostly just a collection of nonsense.

So, for the uninitiated, let me attempt a translation:

  1. Consent: The act of stating that one's participation in a situation is voluntary and ongoing. When this word is used within "radical communities," it usually has a sexual connotation, i.e. giving consent is making it explicitly clear to others that one's participation the ensuing sexual encounter is voluntary and welcome.
  2. Mediated: I actually had to look this one up. Mediated ordinarily means helping to resolve a dispute between two parties. But not in this case. In this case, mediated means to bring about
  3. Power Differentials: This grandiose-sounding phrase simply means that the people in a social situation have a different status within the social hierarchy. There is a "power differential," for example, between a father and a son, although describing such a relationship in terms of its "power differential" feels like a bizarre concept to most people I know.
Putting it all together, we get this: Voluntary participation is brought about by the fact that some people have greater status than others.

That makes more sense, but now we have a new problem. The argument made in the blog post is that it's difficult for people to give valid consent in situations where "power differentials" undermine the less-powerful person's autonomy. This phrase, once translated, now means the opposite of what was intended. It says that consent is brought about by these power differentials. The author wants to say that consent happens easiest when people don't feel second-rate; what the author actually said was that their consent is brought about by the very fact that they are second-rate. Oops.

The author can be forgiven for making a little mistake with his/her terminology. In fact, any normal person out there would find it totally understandable to get lost in this thick, opaque jargon. But the author doesn't need to be forgiven because everyone within his/her intended audience knew exactly what he/she meant. It's only the rest of us who didn't get it.

This brings me to the point of my post today: There is a foreign language emerging among leftists that is utterly senseless to outsiders, which nonetheless dictates everything about their world view. Everything, right down to their ability to participate in a conversation voluntarily.

*        *        *

The media keeps trying to tell us that the current state of American politics has been brought about by the fact that social media enables us to spend all of our media-consuming time inside an echo chamber. We only hear ideas and opinions with which we agree, we never question our own side, and we certainly never fact-check it. 

But of course the media would say this: They want us to consume more media. We're already so saturated by our own echo chamber that we have no time for anyone else's echo chamber. How can the media get us clicking on more articles? By telling us that we need to consume more media in order to save America! That's not going to work. We won't be able to click our way out of this.

You can't learn Spanish by deciding one day to read a few Spanish-language articles every morning at breakfast, in addition to reading the newspaper. If you already know Spanish, then reading those articles might do you some good, but if don't know it at all, no amount of exposure to language is going to teach it to you. You need some means of determining the definition of words in order to practice understanding those words. That's why we start with elementary concepts when we learn a foreign language, and gradually build up to reading or watching the news.

Think about the implications here. The left is notorious for calling those who disagree with them "ignorant" and for pointing to shortcomings in the education system. This is no mere coincidence. It's not that non-leftists are uneducated fools, it's that they don't even understand the basics of the conversations the left has with itself. How on earth could a farmer in Middle America participate in a conversation about how to "mediate" "power differentials" in order to "empower" "consent?" The farmer isn't ignorant and he isn't a moron. The left is speaking a foreign language that means nothing to him. He doesn't understand it. He's had no exposure to it. He doesn't attend those kinds of schools, and even if he did, he would be more apt to study business, or agricultural science, or engineering, or any of the various other disciplines that do not ever use the new special leftist language. 

Just because someone doesn't know what you're talking about doesn't mean they have a problem.

It works the other way, too. This is made obvious by Middle America's perception of hipster beards:

Growing a beard is a very clear signal in Middle America. Most often, it means that you're preparing to go hunting, i.e. shooting live, wild animals with a gun or a bow-and-arrow. And most often this involves camping, which involves digging trenches and building fires and using tools and... changing a tire. In Middle America, wearing a beard is a signal of the most important aspects of manhood within that community. It's a symbol of having a certain amount of practical know-how that enables people to rely on you to get certain things done. Important things. Things you can't necessarily just call a serviceman to perform. 

But when a man in Middle America sees a hipster, basically the opposite of bearded Middle American, wearing this symbol, his reaction is to laugh at the hipster for all the same reasons: The hipster doesn't know how to change a tire, i.e. isn't educated. The hipster is the Middle American's version of a moron, someone who doesn't get even the most basic concepts.

To use the insufferable language of the leftist community, hipster beards are cultural appropriation, and distinctive cultures don't like to have their treasured symbols undermined and "subverted" through a condescending irony.

This is a valid perspective that any leftist can recognize when it occurs to any other group of people. But because this particular group disagrees with a lot of leftist public policy, the left satisfies itself by denigrating a legitimate response to actual cultural appropriation as "male fragility."

Can you imagine the audacity of having concocted an internally consistent, but highly exclusionary and - dare I say it? - marginalizing language that even has a special term for negating the criticism of the very people being marginalized? But what am I asking? Of course the left can imagine this. This is one of the core tenets of the belief system their special language is designed to describe.

*        *        *

The weird, special language of the left is a uniquely important problem here, because there are legitimate criticisms to be made about the way society operates - yes, including in those small Middle American towns where the word "beard" does not imply anything about a person's sexuality. 

The problem is two-fold. 

First, you can't slander someone and then ask them to be nice. You can't make fun of guys for going hunting and drinking Coors Lite and watching football and stuff on the one hand, and then on the other hand expect them to be receptive to a criticism of the way their society behaves. You can either make fun of people and be rude to them, or you can help them change in ways they are comfortable with. You can't do both. That's just basic common decency.

Second, you can't convince an English-speaker to have a change of heart by speaking to them in a language they've never heard before, including Chinese, Vietnamese, Gaelic, or the left's weird, special language. Despite everyone's best intentions you just simply won't be understood.

This second problem is proving to be really hard for the left. They can't seem to separate the important principles of their world-view from the weird, special language used to describe those principles. It becomes something of an existential struggle: If you try to describe equal rights for women without using the word "feminism," then leftists become incensed. "We need feminism!" Fine, but how are you going to convince people whose only exposure to that term has been a decided rejection of everything they happen to love about the women in their lives, who cook, clean, stay home, have kids, and don't necessarily get a college education? What will you say to people who don't understand your weird, special language?

And so, instead, the left too often descends into the first problem: insulting and condescending to the "rural" people who disagree with them. It's hard to make a persuasive case to someone from what we now recognize is a completely different culture, but it's easy to make fun of them for being foreigners. Ordinarily, the left understands this. But just try to get them to admit it if the "foreigner"  happens to be white, or male, or Christian.

I don't doubt that these whites and Christians and males are privileged groups. But you still need to talk to them


Psychological Rejection And The Election

This is a blog post for two of my friends.

The thinkpiece-writing world continues to struggle in vain for viable explanations of the Trump "phenomenon."

My preferred explanation that a popular television personality won an election by telling a lot of people what they wanted to hear. It's not even an American precedent. Remember Ronald Reagan? Remember Arnold Schwarzenegger? Al Frankin? We don't need a more complicated explanation for Trump "ism" than that. People got tired of voting for shysters in suits, even pantsuits, and decided to go for a TV personality instead. Plus ├ža change, plus c'est la meme chose.

But the explanations continue.

One of the more interesting explanations I've read about - from folks like Jeffrey Tucker, for example - is that the voting public rejected a Hillary Clinton presidency, along with everything that represents. The argument is that Clinton was the worst kind of Washington insider: secretive, cronyish, corrupt, and motivated more by her own private financial interests than by a desire to serve the public. She was said to have been cavalier about toppling Middle East dictators and plunging innocent people into failed states. She help the US government sell white phosphorus to Saudi Arabia, which it later weaponized and used in its campaign against Yemeni factions. She was, in short, the worst kind of Washington insider we could ever imagine electing. Or at least, that's how the argument goes.

For the record, given the small margins by which US presidential candidates typically win popular votes, I think this case is grossly over-stated. But it is a compelling story, at least.

In light of this concept, I started thinking about the reactions we've observed from people who worry about a Trump presidency. Yes, there are the protests and the occasional riot, but those are less significant to me than the tears, the candlelight vigils, the deep sorrow and pain that some feel at the prospect of a Trump presidency. There have been many credible reports of people in the transsexual community contemplating suicide. Children of racial minorities have reportedly been in tears, worried that the storm troopers will come for them, or for their parents.

One of the reasons I think we've seen this reaction is that, for many people on the left, rejecting a Trump presidency would have been the same kind of repudiation of a set of ideas that Tucker and others talk about when they say voters rejected Clintonism. Think about it: if your highest ideals involve racial and cultural inclusion, and kind and gentle speech, and a commitment to the idea that "rhetoric matters," then the 2016 election might have represented an important opportunity to reject the kind of racist thuggery that many of us believe has dominated American politics for a long time.

It's understandable, then, that such people would react as they have. Their opportunity for transcendence suffered a total defeat. And it was, make no mistake, a religious belief that they held, dressed up in all the same language and motives.

Well, they wanted a moment of transcendence, and they lost it. I don't think we should revel in their misery. I don't think we should dismiss their concerns or roll our eyes or turn it all into a meme, and the reason I think so is because tomorrow it will happen to us, whoever "us" is.

I'm an individualist, which means nobody agrees with me, and this sort of systemic moral failure happens to me literally every time there's an election. It's old hat to me. The faith some of these left-leaning people have in government has been lost to me for years, decades. Wouldn't it be wonderful if we were all less collectivist, less enthralled by identity politics, less narcissistic, less unkind, more open to hearing new ideas, more receptive to criticism, less inclined to reach for a Big Stick when someone stands athwart of our objectives? Wouldn't the world be terrific if it were a completely different place?

This is the sort of false hope that arises when people lack a true religion, and probably explains why I get along better with social conservatives than I do with social liberals, even though I am more inclined to agree with social liberals. Religious people already accept that humans are sinners and that the only way we'll experience Paradise is if the big man upstairs decides to extend us an invitation. Another way of putting this, in Lacanian language, is that social conservatives are better equipped to deal with lack.

Social liberals, by contrast, tend to be secular people whose only hope of experiencing a better world is to make it happen in the here and now. I sympathize with them, but they're doomed to be disappointed for their whole lives because they've failed to absorb Lacan. They can't deal with lack. When a person like Trump wins an election, it's a terrifying and humiliating defeat, an interruption in the great course of Progress, which they hope will lead them to Paradise.

It is a silly vision. And if you're an atheist like me, you're inclined to disbelieve liberal transcendence for the same reason you disbelieve the Judeo-Christian world-view: It's a nice story, but it ain't gonna happen.

At least the conservatives have their faith, though, and that helps them through the rough times.


What Do We Tell The Children?

A number of people have asked me privately what we should tell our children about the fact that Donald Trump is now the president-elect. This question seems to presuppose that children are waiting for us to explain something. They’re not. As difficult as it might be for some of us to understand, children really care very little about politics. Any attempt you make to provide an “explanation” for the outcome of an election, beyond the mere fact that more people voted for X than for Y, is an attempt to indoctrinate your kids. Don’t do that.

In a recent article in The New York Post, Karol Markcowicz writes:
Dr. Jonathan Friedman, director of psychology with The COR Group, advises, “Parents should make every effort to shield their children from the vitriol and mudslinging of politics, particularly during a campaign as divisive, salacious and ugly as this one has been.”

Amazing that this has to be said.

It’s hard to totally shield our kids from politics’ ugly side, but we certainly shouldn’t be the one emphasizing it to them to make our own political point. Friedman says “rather than communicating harshly about those with whom they may vehemently disagree, they can instead emphasize the importance of everyone having a right to express their opinion through their vote, and how sacred this right is to us all.”
Children need to be reassured and protected. If you’re wondering what to say to reassure them and protect them from the current political climate, then maybe you need to ask yourself why your children are already so invested in politics in the first place.

This is a particularly important message for those friends of mine who are teachers as well as parents. As teachers, we are entrusting you to present school curricula to our children. That’s it. We don’t need you to be friends with them. We don’t need you to provide them with a moral framework (that’s our job as parents). We certainly don’t need you to arbitrate the outcome of an election. We don’t need you to go out of your way to explain something to them just because they asked. A mature person in an influential teaching role ought to be able to say, “Most of us adults struggle to find rationality in politics; it is understandable that you kids are having a hard time. The truth is, you may never figure it out for as long as you live. The best we can do is wait and see what happens. If you have more questions, I encourage you to talk this over with your parents.”

Children don’t think the way adults do. To us, an election is about competing ideologies. We think that people voted for Trump because those people are racist idiots. Or we think people voted for Trump because the liberal elites aren’t listening to them. Or we think that Wikileaks and the FBI engaged in a conspiracy to topple Clinton. This is nuts. Ask yourself: do you really want your child to think like that? They are living comparatively idyllic lives. True, many of them will have to face discrimination, and many of them are dealing with it now. Do you really think you’ll be able to explain the eons-old faults of the human condition to them in the context of a single US presidential election? Please…

I don’t think people are truly looking for an explanation to give to the children. I think they are looking for an explanation to give to themselves. That’s perfectly understandable, but it’s important to remember that, and to avoid drawing our children into our own personal existential crises. That causes harm to them. They deserve better from us. We have to think through the complexities of the world on our own time, away from our children. Anything less puts them at risk.

The existential considerations we ought to be thinking about are incredibly important. I encourage everyone to please think them through. But if you’re not there, if you’re still struggling to make sense of it all, what makes you qualified to deliver a message about world politics to impressionable young children?

What should we tell our children? We should tell them, “I love you. Please don’t worry too much about these things. Please treat other people with kindness and respect. Please go outside and have some fun.”


Some Post-Election Thoughts

I had written emphatically that there was no real difference between Hillary Clinton's policies and Trump's rhetoric. In light of a Trump victory, it bears repeating myself somewhat by saying that I expect a Trump presidency to provide all of the pitfalls of a Clinton presidency. So while I am mildly encouraged that we avoided a Clinton presidency, I am disappointed that we have to endure a Trump presidency instead.

At Marginal Revolution, Tyler Cowen provides a list of people he says "will" rise in status. Confusingly, he says that this is the list of who will, but of course he's making a prediction. So doesn't he really mean it's a list of who should?

Anyway, I thought I might provide a list of people who have elevated in status in my eyes as a result of this election:

And here's my list of people who have fallen in status in my eyes as a result of this election:

  • Silicon Valley libertarians
  • The media (hard to believe they could fall any further, I know)
  • Wishy-washy leftists who call themselves libertarians but work to undermine the cause of liberty. (Names redacted.)
  • Will Wilkinson
  • Anyone who ever said that a vote for Clinton was a vote for people who are happy with the status quo.
Having said all that, I want to discuss a few reasons to feel optimistic about the results of the election.

First of all, there is a good possibility that the leftists' defeat will leave them angry enough to want to thwart Trump at every turn. This is good! Perhaps they will start to become more skeptical of government in general and seek to limit its power and/or replace it with local alternatives. For example, California voted to legalize marijuana. That's not just a win for liberty, it proves to a very leftist state that they can get the kind of policies they want if they only choose to act locally, rather than hammering their views down on the rest of the country from top.

Second of all, the mere farce of having a reality TV star like Trump in the White House ought to be enough to encourage everyone, of all political stripes to become more uneasy with federal power and to become interested in limiting it. Obviously the Will Wilkinson angle loses out here. "What if we can't shrink government?" is a dumb question to ask at the moment Donald Trump ascends to the seat of the most powerful person in the world. Now is the exactly the right time to ignore people like Will Wilkinson. And it's obvious enough now that the argument simply speaks for itself.

Finally, this has been an enormous win for Wikileaks and the power of open-source journalism. Emboldened by their success, they might continue to up the ante, do even better work, and the public may finally come around the prospect that change is possible


Election 2016: Some Musings

There is no hope in politics. To the extent that individuals are at all capable of changing the world for the better, that change has to come from within us, not from our interaction with the system. Another way to say this is, "We can make the world a better place by being better people."

It seems every election teaches me something important. When Barack Obama was elected the first time, I was incredulous that people would vote so overwhelmingly in favor of someone with such empty rhetoric. I had to admit that many of my assumptions about people were wrong.

The story this year for me has been how many otherwise-intelligent people are willing to go to bat for Hillary Clinton despite the evidence everywhere, including a massive Wikileaks expose, of her corruption and dedication to war. I expect very foolish people to buy into the Clintonian rhetoric and ignore the evidence. I do not expect outspoken critics of war, corruption, and the shortcomings of politics to double-down for Hillary Clinton. It was an important lesson for me to learn because it showed me that what most people are interested in is not truth or politics, but about maintaining their own self-serving beliefs, no matter how ridiculous they become in the face of evidence.

And no, this is not an endorsement of any other candidate.

So, where does that take me? Over the process of this particular election cycle, I have gradually noticed that the people with the sanest, most stoic, and most consistent viewpoint are the people I had grown most skeptical of: The Jeffrey Tuckers, the Justin Raimondos, the Daniel Sanchez's, and so forth. In short, the 2016 election cycle has pushed me marginally closer to anarcho-capitalism. Don't get me wrong, I'm not an anarchist. But still.

Part of this is due to their consistence. The group of people who are consistently against war and in favor of freedom and trade is the group I want to listen to. The problem with the other groups is not that I disagree with them, but that the reasons we disagree change based on whatever their preferred candidate is saying. That is, they are susceptible to political argumentation, whereas people of principle are not. I don't personally care to debate things with people whose underlying beliefs change on a whim. There's nothing to debate there, no substance behind the opinions, only an ether.

Another part of this is that, over the last couple of years, people like David Henderson, Jeffrey Tucker, Robert Murphy, and Jason Kuznicki have come out unabashedly in favor of common decency. Not just "decency in politics" or being polite, but practicing decency and good behavior as a necessary ethical component of a good, well-rounded personal philosophy. I shouldn't have to waste space contrasting that position against those who live life any other way, so I won't. Decency is the right thing to do. Their decency is winning me over.

Finally, if ever there were an argument for more competition in politics, for a less-powerful government, for more trade and less war, more industry rather than idleness and for freedom rather than compulsion, this election is it. The only people who have been unwaveringly ready to call this out are the an-caps.

No matter what happens at the ballot box today - and I am predicting a Hillary landslide - my opinions have been swayed by the decency and effective, consistent argumentation of the most radical libertarians. That my own, personal electoral outcome this year.


Science Puzzle

From Gizmodo.com:

On November 14th, skygazers will witness the closest full moon, or “supermoon,” of 2016. But more excitingly, it’ll be the closest full moon since 1948—and we won’t get another one like it until 2034.

So it's been 68 years since an orbital perigee, but the next one will happen just 18 years from now? I can't think of why that might be. Does anyone out there know?


The Real Problem With Partisanship

If you read the same websites I do, then you’re probably very familiar with arguments against strong partisanship. These arguments typically focus on the idea that having too much exposure to arguments that support our pre-existing beliefs make us ill-equipped to consider arguments opposed. Thus, when we feel partisanship, we’re taken further away from the objective truth. In other words, we’re mislead into false beliefs.

A good example here would be the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq prior to the Iraq War. Evidence of chemical weapons was found in Iraq, although reasonable people can certainly disagree as to whether this evidence is consistent with pro-war claims about WMDs. Evidence of WMDs once having been in Iraq is not the same thing as evidence of WMDs currently being in Iraq. We’ll never know the exact truth here, but we can come to reasonable conclusions based on the objective facts. The problem is that one side of the discussion – typically the Democrats – insists that “there were no weapons,” while the other side of the discussion – typically the Republicans – insists that “we found them.” Both claims are absolutely false. The truth is, we found inconclusive evidence.

So, as I was saying, this is the kind of thing that is usually pointed to as evidence against being overly partisan – we draw false conclusions and then argue about them passionately. But I have another, even better reason why we shouldn’t be overly partisan that has nothing to do with reaching the wrong conclusion on a particular dispute.

We should avoid partisanship because our political parties betray our loyalty by using it to stay in power and then burdening us with taxes, regulations, and costs that have nothing to do with our reasons for being partisan.

An example of this would be the public’s perception of the Republican Party in Texas. The reasons people in Texas are Republicans include: They are social conservatives, they believe in small government, they believe in the Second Amendment, they are in favor of small business, they oppose abortion, and so on. As you can see, these are the reasons most people in general are loyal Republicans.

While people in Texas are faithfully voting to re-elect their Republican state politicians, those politicians are becoming entrenched in the state politics here. That is, they are becoming susceptible to corruption, as any career politician who sits in the same office year after year is bound to do. This has nothing to do with whether or not these politicians are “Republicans;” if the people of Texas only ever voted for Democrats, the same level of corruption would exist, and only the rhetoric would change slightly.

So, Texas Republican politicians end up doing a lot of crooked things. They force the state government into massively expensive projects that benefit their well-connected friends at the expense of the rest of the population of Texas. They divert development projects and money to their friends, rather than opening things up to fair competition. They take on spending initiatives that don’t need to be taken on, merely because their friends will benefit. It is the typical, sleazy business that corrupt politicians always engage in, no matter what party they belong to or what part of the world they are from.

The simplest solution to a problem like this is to vote the incumbents out of office. In many cases, this might mean voting for a Democrat, or a Libertarian, or a Green, or an independent. In other words, it might involve voting for people who do not share your party affiliations. But, on the other hand, they are far less likely to be already-entrenched in the hidden infrastructure of corruption, the machine run by the Republican incumbents currently in power. So, even if these new folks wanted to be corrupt, they are less able to be so because they have to build their corruption from the ground floor.

In practical terms, this means that by voting out the incumbents, you will end up with less corruption and less wasteful and predatory spending. All you have to do is find the strength to vote for a politician who does not completely agree with you on social conservatism, or the Second Amendment, or abortion, or etc.

I’m not saying that those other issues aren’t important, I’m simply saying that we have to make a rational assessment of the circumstances. What impacts you every day? Abortion? Gun control? Or an endless sea of road construction that is only happening because the corrupt politicians are in bed with the construction companies? It’s possible that abortion or gun control affects you more than this endless wasteland of construction costing you time and money, and in some cases loss of life from traffic accidents, on a daily basis. If so, you should definitely vote according to your needs on abortion or gun control.

I suspect, however, that for most people, the immediate and every-day corruption that is making our lives miserable is a more pressing concern than any of those wedge issues that inspire you to re-elect the corrupt politicians you keep voting for. In that case, I might humbly suggest that you vote for someone else this time.



Over-training is when you have worked your body hard, consistently, and it struggles to recover from each subsequent workout. The most telltale sign of over-training is an overall feeling of sluggishness when you work out. Your muscles burn and you feel tired, even if – or especially considering that – you aren’t doing anything particularly challenging, by the standards of your recent activities. You may experience other minor symptoms – aches and pains, sore muscles or joints that don’t seem to ever fully recover, headaches, sleep disruptions, and so on. But the major sign of over-training is that weird and otherwise-inexplicable sluggishness.

Over-training does not mean that your training level is “too high.” It does not mean that you over-extended yourself or did too much, too soon. Over-training does not happen as a result of doing something wrong or failing to do something right. All it really is is a situation in which your body can’t or won’t recover from whatever it is you’ve been doing. A person can be over-trained with even light levels of activity. Taking adequate-enough and frequent-enough rest days can definitely help prevent over-training, but at the same time it’s important to remember that failing to positively increment your workouts – i.e., doing the same thing over and over again – can also produce over-training.

In short, training is a complex series of steps designed to produce a particular outcome. Like diabetes management, it requires constant attention to detail. Things can fall off your radar and undermine your training goals. You might spend one too many nights staying up a little too late. 15 minutes here, 30 minutes there, and then after a couple of weeks you discover that you aren’t adequately rested. You might be attempting to increase your weekly mileage, and fail to pay attention to the rest your muscles need. You might eat too much of one thing or not enough of another, and tip the macronutrient balance out of your favor. Or you could get slightly off track on multiple factors, where no one thing would be enough to push you off, but the combination tips the scales.

Many casual fitness enthusiasts don’t appreciate this enough. An Olympic athlete can sometimes have his or her training regimen worked out for years into the future, including workouts, meals, rest days, and everything else. To achieve that level of fitness requires not only the foresight to be able to plan it out and the physicality to be able to deliver, but also enough luck that nothing unpredictable interferes with the best-laid plans. Even small divergences from a years-long training regimen can result in over-training. These are the fourth- and fifth-place finishers, athletes who are good enough to have won on any other day, but on that particular day a multiplicity of factors conspired against them.

The point is, if you feel over-trained, it’s not necessarily your fault.

How you choose to respond, however, is definitely within your control. Over-training means you need rest, and plenty of it. You need good food and lots of water. You need a regular pattern of sleep and lower-than-usual levels of emotional stress. Take the time to let your body recover. Remember, you’re not injured and all is not lost. You just need a short spell of time to let your body get back to doing what it does best.

As you might imagine, this blog post was inspired by… me. After three months of dedicated, fast, hard training, my muscles don’t want to work anymore. I can’t increase my weekly mileage, because my legs won’t move any further. I can’t even maintain my mileage from two or three weeks ago because each day it’s a struggle. I haven’t lost any speed or strength, but I simply don’t feel right. When that happens, injury often follows unless I take the time to give my body rest.

So, for the next two weeks, I’m taking a much-needed break from exercise. I’ll be eating good, nutritious food, drinking lots of water, eschewing alcohol and soda, and just generally trying to do my body right. I expect to come back feeling stronger at the end of the two weeks, and at that point, I might be ready to train for something fun, like a half-marathon or something. We’ll see.


There Are Two Kinds Of Runners

Sometimes it seems as though there are two kinds of runners in the world.

I read a lot of articles about “advice for running.” Judging by the sheer quantity of such articles, it appears that a large segment of the population wants to “start running,” but doesn’t know where to begin. I’ve written my own unique take on this, through various posts over the years. Before I get to the “two kinds of runners” I’ve been thinking about, let’s quickly review my core advice to new runners:

Advice To New Runners

Run Instead Of Jogging

One look at the definition of “jogging” on Wikipedia should make clear why I advise people against jogging. Jogging is like running, only at slower speeds and with worse form. You might not be ready to run fast, but bad form is sure to produce chronic running-related injury.

Instead of jogging, you should practice running from the very first moment you pick up the sport. Don’t adopt the silly postures of a jogger, just put your shoes on and go. You probably won’t have perfect form when you start out, but at least you’ll be on a path toward better form. Jogging, by contrast, forces you to condition yourself to bad form. Don’t do it.

Don’t Walk/Run; Run Until You Can’t Run Anymore, Then Walk

Also, don’t run/walk. Walk/running was invented to help people cross a finish line when it was unlikely that they had the physical conditioning to finish the race the ordinary way. That in and of itself should raise a red flag in your mind: If you’re not in good enough physical shape to complete a test of running ability, then you shouldn’t take that test in the first place!

The reason why walk/running doesn’t work is because it teaches you how to stop when you’re tired, instead of continuing on. If you want to run a mile, but you get tired and have to stop running every other block, why would it make sense to develop a training strategy in which you stop every other block? No, the key to running the full distance is gradually increasing the distance over which you can run without stopping.

So, instead of walk/running, I recommend simply starting with something easy and do-able, like 3 minutes of running, and then spending the rest of your workout walking. The next day, do 4 minutes of running, and then walk the rest of the way. Then 5 minutes of running, then 6, and so on. In as little as 30 days, you’ll go from nothing to being able to run a full 30-minute workout. Much better.

Accept The Fact That Running Is About Overcoming Adversity

I can’t tell you how often people have said to me, “I wish I could run, but I just can’t. It hurts.” If pain avoidance is of great importance to you, then running should fall low on the list of things you attempt. You may as well hang up your sneakers right now and go to the beach. Running involves overcoming the urge to stop – the same urge that many call “pain.”

If you’ve never done much cardiovascular conditioning before, then your lungs are going to burn when you first start running. As you improve, the burning will go away right up to the point where you start running faster, and then it will come back. Breathing hard and pushing yourself makes your lungs burn. That’s just what it does. Your heart will pound in your chest. This is not always a pleasant sensation. Sometimes it, too, hurts. As you become a better runner, the pounding will lessen for the same level of activity, but as you push yourself harder, so, too, will your heart beat harder. This is the nature of cardiovascular exercise. Accept it.

But running also works out several muscle groups, and if you haven’t worked those muscle groups out recently, then your muscles are going to be sore later on. That’s because working out your muscles involves literally tearing them down and causing your body to rebuild them in a better way. Tearing your muscles down hurts. It just does. It burns initially, as your legs are filled with acid, and then it aches later on as your muscles try to recover. But this is exercise – it comes with the territory. Drink a big glass of water and put your big-kid pants on.

And finally, in some rare cases, some people just haven’t figured out how to put one foot in front of the other without a jarring impact with each foot’s landing. This is a form problem, caused by that person’s erroneously engaging in jogging as opposed to running. See above.

Two Kinds Of Runners

Now that we’ve been through a brief recap of my philosophy toward taking on the sport of running, I’d like to discuss a pattern I seem to have noticed among people who run.

Some runners enjoy the process of throwing themselves into a new running challenge. For example, on one of my running routes, I get to run over a big, long, steep downhill portion. This is a lot of fun because I get to run very fast with minimal effort. If I run the same route in reverse, I’ll have to run up that same hill, which is obviously much more difficult. Some of us look at a challenge like that and think, “That’s going to be really, really hard… THAT’S AWESOME!” Another group of us would refuse to even consider running up a big hill unless they absolutely had to, and they’d hate doing it every step of the way.

When I was a young runner, my friends and I used to like to challenge each other to seemingly ridiculous running-related tasks. We’d take our most-hated workout and encourage each other to do it twice in a row. We’d carry each other up staircases while running. We’d make a joke of extending our workouts 50%, 75%, 100%. When some of us would cut through corners when turning  on city streets, the others would shout, “You’re only cheating yourselves!” In short, anything that made running more difficult, and more painful, and more of a workout was something that we took on eagerly, with a laugh.

It shouldn’t surprise you to learn that we who did this ended up being the faster runners; nor should it surprise you to learn that those of us who approached running this way are still running a lot in our thirties and haven’t put on a lot of excess weight. Those who spent their time mainly avoiding hard work and socializing-while-jogging have ultimately not stuck with running in the long term, and were never really good at it to begin with. One has to wonder whether they ever even enjoyed it.

It’s tempting to say that only one of these two groups is “the group of real runners,” but that isn’t true. Anyone who runs is a runner. The reason I choose to delineate between the two groups is because their disposition toward running is wildly different. When you read HuffPo articles about walk/jogging, you’re reading an article that is intended for people who have to plead and bargain with themselves in order to run. They’re articles for people who have a low tolerance for pain and adversity (at least as far as running goes), and who are not innately driven to challenge themselves on their own.

Such HuffPo articles might be a great benefit to that group of people, but it’s important to remember that there is another group of runners out there. That other group is comprised of the people who enjoy making their runs extra-long, or extra-difficult, or extra-painful simply because the challenge appeals to them. They’re the ones who always talk about endorphins, and about how much they love running.

So, if you’re a member of the “easy does it” group, and you’re imagining that one day you’ll morph into the other kind of person, then my advice to you is to adopt the strategies and proclivities of that group. If you find you enjoy it, you’ll stick with it. But it’s equally likely that you won’t end up being one of those crazy-runner-types, and if so, you may as well admit that to yourself. It’ll make you happier.


Some Links

  • I may have lost the battle, but it looks like I won the war. (Less cryptically: Adam Gurri is now arguing for exactly the same position I outline in these 1, 2, 3, 4 posts which he previously argued against.)
  • David Henderson made me aware of this wonderful piece by Justin Raimondo, at Antiwar.com.
  • Speaking of David Henderson, here he is arguing against what I can only describe as Scott Sumner's unique take on politics. Scott Sumner says additional stuff I disagree with in the comments.
  • And to sort of highlight Henderson's point, here's an example of how keeping pressure on bad politicians leads to the kind of outcomes that incentivize them against future bad behavior.


We Are All Data Analysts Now

Here’s a quote from a recent op-ed about Peter Theil and the US presidential election:
My guess, based on zero data, is that, had I mentioned Peter Thiel one year ago, only a handful of readers would have recognized his name. And, had I told you that he was one of the founders of Paypal and the first investor in Facebook (he’s even portrayed briefly in The Social Network), my guess, again based on zero data, is that your opinion of him would have instantly improved. “Tell us more about this Thiel,” you would say.
Forget about Peter Thiel and Donald Trump for a moment, and just pay attention to the phrasing in that passage. The author uses the phrase “based on zero data” not once, but twice. Of course, substantiating the author’s “guess” with empirical research is a pretty silly concept. It’s not relevant to the thrust of the article. I choose to highlight it here, however, because it reveals something about our modern perspectives. In a bygone era, an author might have chosen to say “I suspect,” or “I’d wager,” or “I’d venture to guess…” but today, this author – along with many people out there – choose to stipulate that they are saying so in spite of not having analyzed the matter empirically.

The implication here is that analyzing the data is the conceptual default. Welcome to the modern age. We are all data analysts now. The question from here is how we can expect this fact to color our perspectives.

Recently, someone on my Facebook feed made a jibe at a certain kind of person for believing a certain kind of thing about the Cold War. The jibe was that sociologists should study why that certain kind of person had reached a certain kind of conclusion, followed by a very ideologically charged epithet for the Soviet Union. Because I happen to know people were alive during the Cold War who grew up in countries that benefitted from Soviet foreign policy, and because I happen to believe that Westerners do not have the total story regarding Soviet foreign policy, I added a comment on Facebook suggesting that the hypothetical sociologist should include the perspectives of residents of the Third World.

This comment resulted in immediate demands for which people, which country, which events, I was thinking of. Naturally, I avoided naming specifics – not because I couldn’t give them, but because I didn’t want a debate about the merits of a particular Cold War policy to distract from my real point, which is that one’s perspective on the Cold War is invariably shaped by which narrative one most identifies with. In the US, we’re accustomed to thinking of the USSR as an “Evil Empire.” In the Third World, the question really comes down to which major world superpower had the biggest impact on one’s country – and was that impact positive or negative? This is why Nelson Mandela famously chose to work with the USSR despite Western objections, because the Soviet Union had helped Mandela’s cause when no one else would. You could argue that Mandela was a communist and the Soviet Union helped him only for that reason, but again this really only distracts from my point. My point is that the USSR wasn’t a villain to everyone. Anyone interested in a complete history of the Cold War ought to do a proper accounting of everything.

But my point fell on deaf ears because all anyone could do was demand which country, which events – empirics, empirics, empirics. Let’s see the data and analyze it. Hand it over. This speaks to the core cognitive problem we face today: we approach everything as though we are data analysts. That makes us very good at solving problems that can be solved by data analysis; it makes us horrible at solving other kinds of problems.

Similarly, I came across a recent Facebook post (a public one, so feel free to hunt it down if you’re so inclined) by Less Wrong religious leader Eliezer Yudkowsky, arguing that everyone should vote for Hillary Clinton because the downside risk of a Donald Trump presidency is World War 3. That’s not an exaggeration – that really and truly is what Yudkowsky said. Of course, the reality is that World War 3 may happen – or not – regardless of which candidate wins the election. The only reason Yudkowsky counts this as a risk of a Trump presidency, and not a Clinton presidency, is because Yudkowsky is biased. This should be perfectly clear because, as I just said, World War 3 can happen under any set of assumptions; Yudkowsky only includes that set of assumptions in his estimation of a Trump presidency.

But, remember, this is how Bayesian reasoning works. Yudkowsky is willing to bet on WW3 + Trump, and unwilling to bet on WW3 + Clinton; ergo, it is more probable until he decides to “update his priors.” He thinks it, therefore it is. Now we can finally see that Bayesian reasoning, when done incorrectly, is basically magical thinking.

Bayesian reasoning done correctly, however, can be a powerful way to solve statistical and machine-learning problems. In other words, it’s good at solving data analysis problems, but bad at solving foreign policy problems. As you can see, the problem runs deep.

It gets worse: A common trope among the libertarian crowd is that voting is ineffectual on the margin, thus it doesn’t matter whether or not you vote. But, if everyone acted on this information simultaneously, then no one would vote and the thesis would invalidate itself. So this notion is actually a paradox: completely meaningless, utter nonsense. Voting is marginally ineffectual because voting itself is effectual. Similarly, profits are maximized when the marginal profit of the next unit is zero. It would be stupid to say that “producing gallons of milk is a waste of time” just because we’ve reached the point of diminishing marginal benefit. But when we’re stuck analyzing problems from a data analysis mindset, we undermine our ability to solve problems through other means.

And that’s just politics. Think about all the other areas of our lives that are surely suffering due to the fact that we’re stuck in a data analysis paradigm.


Defensive Posturing

Image courtesy Wikipedia.org

People have a tendency to adopt whatever posture will present themselves in the best possible light. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it is inauthentic, and hence disingenuous. Confident authenticity, by contrast, would involve presenting oneself in an unassuming way, with no particular pre-determined posture, and allowing the situation to dictate how one needs to communicate to make oneself understood.

Usually, defensive posturing is forgivable. Why not make a good first impression? When meeting new people or dealing with strangers, it’s typically a good thing to smile, speak with kind, open language, be polite, and so on, so that other people can feel comfortable interacting with you. It helps build trust and ease social interaction for everyone involved. True, one might not be a ray of sunlight all the time, friendly and polite in every circumstance, and so adopting a friendly posture sometimes might be a little disingenuous in that it doesn’t accurately reflect one’s disposition at all times. But, as I said, this is forgivable since it’s done for a good purpose that everyone can appreciate. Frankly, it would be a little odd to present the full spectrum of your personality to all people in all situations.

Note, however, that these kinds of exceptions tend to involve new people, new situations, and casual interaction. In these instances, people don’t demand much from each other in the way of philosophical consistency or intellectual honesty. There aren’t many dishonest answers to questions like, “How’s this weather treating you?” As the intellectual demands of a situation rise, however, presenting oneself as authentically as possible becomes ever-more important. This is one of the reasons why formal speeches often being with an “ice-breaker,” a funny quip or engaging story that reveals the social personality of the speaker before many social graces must be set aside for an exploration of the speech’s true subject matter.

Here’s where things get interesting.

A conversation about politics, for example, requires a great deal more than social grace; it requires some knowledge of current events, relevant history, political philosophy, civics, economics, and so on. Having some knowledge in any one of these areas – let alone all of them – is enough to push the conversation into less chit-chatty territory. Politics is notoriously difficult to talk about in social circumstances precisely for this reason. One’s friends might find it inconvenient to know, for example, that minimum wage laws cause unemployment. This is a bald, empirical fact that may rub some people the wrong way, depending on their political leanings. It’s tricky to mention this fact in a way that keeps friends receptive to the point you’re making.

I know a few people who like to talk about politics, but whose dedication to social graces is strong that they can’t bring themselves to pronounce an “offending” remark such as the minimum wage statement I just mentioned. Some might goad another friend into making the statement instead, and this is a real problem, in my opinion. Instead of taking the risk of offending someone upon themselves, they out-source the job to a friend whose role in the situation is to be the patsy, the one who must offend others because the first person is too cowardly to speak his mind. It’s fair enough to think better than to speak your mind, but to make a third party bear the risk of offending solely because you yourself don’t have the guts, well, that’s pretty unseemly.

There is another, more abstract, level to this. Sometimes people will construct elaborate intellectual frameworks that look like coherent philosophy on first brush, but which later reveal themselves to be little more than claptrap designed to justify a contentious belief. Suppose, for example, that I was only able to acknowledge that minimum wages cause unemployment if I went the extra step to suggest that keeping those wages high ensures that enough tax revenue can be generated to pay social welfare to the job losers. Of course, economic theory has a response to that, as well, but then the discussion has already become more complicated. The more complicated the discussion, the easier it is to find small points of contention that provide some plausible deniability to the person who needs it.

In this way, people are able to maintain many silly, wrong, or dangerous beliefs by invoking a posture. This posture is “defensive” in that its real function is to defend the psyche against change. But it might not appear to be defensive to others. In fact, it works best when it doesn’t look defensive. People will say it looks smart, or moderate, or balanced, or well-meaning, or curious. All the while, the posturer is really just engaged in a crafty subconscious defense.


How Many Deaths Equals One Rape?

I’m compelled to write this post, even though it doesn’t represent much of a contribution to the existing material out there, including posts previously published on this website.

For me, the story of the election is how much mental gymnastics people are willing to do in order to justify voting for Hillary Clinton.

There is no question in my mind that Donald Trump is a bad man who would make a very bad president. But this fact implies nothing about Hillary Clinton’s comparative standing in that regard. Moreover, we have a mountain of historical records and evidence that suggest that Hillary, too, is a bad woman who would make a very bad president. (Nor does this fact imply anything about the quality of Donald Trump as a potential president.)

When I say “mental gymnastics,” what I’m talking about is this: We know that Hillary Clinton’s policies have led to war, destruction, and death across the globe. Her husband’s policies, too, were once derided at “globo-cop” policies that did more harm than good. The Clintons have a lot of international blood on their hands; they’ve dropped a lot of bombs. A lot of bombs.

Let’s take it for granted that Donald Trump is a racist, sexist pig who is possibly guilty of sexual assault. Here’s an ethical question I pose to my readers: How many bombs do I have to drop on innocent people before my behavior is deemed not only morally reprehensible, but as morally reprehensible as the behavior of a rapist? Think about it, I beg of you. How many people are you allowed to kill with flying robots before the nation decides that the death on your hands is on par with a hideous racist ideology or a single alleged sexual assault? Do I get to kill ten people before I’m as bad as a racist? Twenty people? Five hundred? How many thousands of deaths equal one sexual assault, from a moral standpoint?

As I just mentioned two paragraphs ago, making a case against the death-mongering policies of Hillary Clinton should not be misconstrued as an argument in favor of a Donald Trump presidency. My question is only how many atrocities politicians like Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, George W. Bush, et al have to commit before you as a human being start seeing them as the monsters that they are. A man who loudly proclaims his bigotry and brags about sexual misconduct is certainly a villain. Why do so many suppose that the others are not villains? Why do so many more suppose that dropping bombs on thousands is less morally reprehensible than a public declaration of bigotry?

Odd, isn’t it?

It is particularly odd in light of the many, many allegations of sexual misconduct – and even a few credible accusations of rape – against Bill Clinton and the fact that Hillary Clinton must naturally know how credible those accusations against her husband are; accusations despite which she chose to stay with her husband for reasons most Americans have assumed for decades purely reflect a professional ambition to rule over us.

Of course – of course – it’s difficult to know who to vote for in an election of monsters. Do you risk one monster, or the other? Do you risk voting for a third party candidate? Do you risk not voting at all? I don’t fault anyone in this election cycle for making any particular choice of candidates.

But I do fault people for handing in their principles to justify their choice. Hillary Clinton is a warmonger, a liar, and a panderer. You can certainly conclude that she is still preferable to other candidates, but you’re not (ethically) allowed to pretend that she is no longer any of those things, just because you view the other candidates less favorably. You are not (ethically) allowed to say one candidate is unequivocally worse than the other on moral grounds unless you are prepared to do the utility calculus and state in no uncertain terms that boasting of rape and racism is morally worse than killing thousands and covering up a rape.

At least, not according to my ethics.