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Thursday, May 31, 2012

Individualism, lost privilege, and the Leviathan

by John MacBeath Watkins

Our system of government and way of life was described by the first great thinkers in the liberal tradition, Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, as the result of a social contract that was needed so that individuals could join together to protect their rights to life, liberty and property.

In Hobbes' Leviathan, the social contract was everything. In Locke's Second Treatise of Government, it was only almost everything.

So why are we, in this modern age, so focused on individualism?

It has happened before. In the late 19th century, the peculiarly American version of Social Darwinism posited that individuals earned exactly their deserved place in society. It was a philosophy that gave great comfort to the comfortable, but afflicted the afflicted.

Then, the age of the New Deal came along, and people started thinking about helping each other out, and leveling the playing field.

And now, we have about as many people selling the Social Darwinist snake oil as we did in the Gilded Age, under different labels such as Objectivism and libertarianism.

What happened?

My own theory is that this is a response to confusion about who is an American. Both the 19th century's Gilded Age, and our new Gilded Age, are eras in which a high level of immigration has undermined the negotiating leverage of people who work for wages. They have become times in which nativism seeks to exclude the immigrants, and the wealthy seek to justify the morality of their good fortune.

Why do people oppose welfare? Because they worry that the money will be spent on people who don't deserve it -- people who are not like them.

Of course, it's not just immigrants. Conservatives, mainly older white men, oppose feminists and worry that they won't be able to compete on a level playing field because minorities will be given preference. What this means is that the preference once given to white men is being given to others.

The median income for white male workers employed full time is now about what it was in 1973. This is graphically illustrated by a chart from Marginal Revolution, a blog that should be in your bookmarks (follow the link and mouse around on the site, it's worth it):

Now compare this to a chart from the same source for women:

But of course, women still earn less than men. The gains women have made had to come from somewhere, and they came not from the income men made, but from increases in income they might have made. I suspect that if Alex Tabarrok had done a similar chart for other groups who still earn less than white male workers, but have made gains, the chart would look much the same.

And I'm all in favor of equal pay. The thing is, we should not ignore the fact that more equality means, for some, a loss of privilege. And David Frum is on the case when it comes to how this is expressed:
A lot of effort has been invested since 2009 to create a narrative of white endangerment and beleaguerment. The Drudge Report showcases selected local police blotters to create an impression of an intensifying criminal rampage by blacks against whites. Rush Limbaugh very explicitly describes the Obama presidency as a project of racial revenge. Fox News suggests the same idea more obliquely. The theme is taken up—with appropriate euphemism—by elected politicians and some conservative writers as well.

What's going on is obvious to all, but of course any mention of what is being done is met with indignant denials.
In some ways, the individualism produced by resistance to change turns out not to be individualism at all, just nostalgia for lost privilege, and insistence that efforts to level the playing field are unfair.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Let There Be Light (1946), a film about psychological casualties of war

Here's something for Memorial Day, a film by John Huston about the psychological casualties of WW II. About 20% of WW II casualties were what is now known as PTSD. The film was suppressed from when it was made in 1946 until 1980, when the copies available were so bad that they were pretty much unwatchable. The National Film Preservation Foundation has now restored it.

Why not nukes?

By Jamie Lutton

I read online that a local nuclear power plant had been licensed to run another 20 years.  The reactor, located in the Hanford reservation, is called the  Columbia Generating Station   It has been licensed to operate through 2023.  And it supplies about 10% of the electricity used in Washington State.

This news item inspired me to write about atomic energy.

I don't think I can change any minds here. but with the advent of global warming there is a new urgency to bring up atomic energy use, and promote it. .

I used to keep my mouth shut about nuclear power. Openly supporting nuclear power is like belonging to a small and unpopular religion, with an unsavory reputation. There is a great similarity in the shocked looks and dead silence  that follows any  remark supporting 'the faith'. This often results in being dropped as an acquaintance.

As I am only one person, I was resigned to hearing considerations of about nuclear power being distorted, dismissed and demonized around me.  Preferring to retain my friends, I would avoid the subject entirely.
I  did read books about on nuclear power, both pro and con, and could not find enough evidence to change my mind. The risks and likelihood of deaths and damage to the environment are much smaller with atomic energy than with burning coal and oil. And I will try to make the case for atomic power, (briefly), here.

About a decade ago news reports started saying that global temperatures were inching up, year by year. This was traced to atmospheric CO2 levels rising due to hydrocarbon burning worldwide.

Also, the ocean worldwide is becoming slowly more acidic, from absorbing carbon dioxide from the air. This condition of the ocean slowly kills off shellfish, coral, and other sea going animals and plants. 

So, I expected the environmentalists world wide would rapidly change their minds about, and embrace the use of nuclear power. It has been stated over and over in all the news outlets that the Earth's biosphere is in the grip of an emergency.

Nuclear power plants, though not cheap, could be put online fairly quickly, and if enough were built, coal fired power plants and natural gas plants could be shut down permanently all over the world,  since they are directly linked to the heating of the Earth and the damage to the biosphere.
Car design and production could be switched to building electric cars  This could easily be accomplished, if all nations turned their intellectual power and will to the project.

But there was a strange disconnect here.  Everything I have read says any further  heating of the atmosphere will lead to disaster. 
But the powers that be  exhibit a strange reluctance to act.  From the mouths of the scientists who have studied global warming there is not call for this one action that could actually reduce our 'carbon footprint' on the Earth.  Instead I hear that in many countries, such as France, people are calling to shut down the nuclear power plants that are running, rather than build new ones in other locations.
I say, follow the money. There is too much money involved in the production of energy. We send a trillion dollars a year to Saudi Arabia alone, to buy oil from them.

The car companies in this country are indirectly owned by the oil companies.
Like cell phones that are sold cheap so that the company who owns the cell phone service makes money on the two year contracts,  automobiles  are being built, not for the markup on the manufacturer of the vehicle,, but for the gas that the owner of the car must buy.
And people have been sold a bill of goods as far as the safety record of atomic power and nuclear reactors. I surmise that perhaps a few journalists could have been bought off. this is scandalous surmise, but there is at least one president in history for this, in John Kenneth Galbraith's The Great Crash, written in 1954, It was found that business journalists then were paid off to write articles in newspapers and magazines the market was sound, right up to and including the time of the big crash of September 1929. 

So I distrust breathless journalism when real money is involved and giant corporations are threatened by a rival technology.
The accidents that have happened, including the Tsunami flooding of the Japanese reactors, are minor compared to the damage that oil and coal burning does to the Earth's biosphere every year, let alone the damage due to global warming to come.

But these deaths do not seem to count, when compared to nuclear power.  There is the worry that nuclear waste would have to be stored for 100,000 years, when it could easily be encased in glass, and dropped into a deep trench in the ocean, where it could do no harm. Or buried in an inert salt mine  Or in the case of a breeder reactor, the fuel can be treated and reused.
But all over the world, people are dropping dead because of bad air. Now, not in the future.  According to Google, the World Health Organization reports that 2.4 million people die every year world wide from bad air. 14 people die every day in this country alone from asthma, and those deaths are usually triggered by air pollution.
So, the supposed risks of nuclear power plants dim in the light of deaths that occur all around us, by the millions every year, let alone  the deaths that will come as ocean levels rise and the ice at the poles an in Greenland  melt, and raise the ocean levels everywhere.
If we want safer nuclear power plants, or plants that do not use radioactive fuel, such plants are within our reach, if we spent the money on researching and developing them.  That would take a huge outlay of money, but the will is not there.
There are many people who think global warming is a scam, they don't think it even exists.  They think it was all made up. The skeptics think that some of the experts just want to make a dime off an invented crisis.
They argue in the press and online with those supporters of the evidence that global warming isn't even ''real'' Perhaps they see experts avoid real solutions, so they figure there is no problem at all.   This is an unfortunate reaction, but understandable that some people would doubt the motives of those who say there is disaster on the horizon.
As Karl Marx said 'old technology is the natural enemy of new technology'.  There are other great historical examples of entrenched interests  fighting change. Thomas Edison himself favored direct current rather than alternating current, and tried to block development of the later, as he had invested the direct current.

The nuclear power debate is the most stark reminder of Marx's therom. The evidence clear that  Climate change is a world wide emergency, right now, not tomorrow,  and that we could easily kill off the oceans and  induce a runaway greenhouse effect.  But logic has not been brought to play, only knee jerk responses to perceived risk.

Talking about or writing about nuclear energy use, in a positive way, draws the same level of derision and disbelief as talking about the proofs for evolution with a different sort of audience. Using Google again, only 40% or so of the American people *believe*, or accept that evolution is real. About the same percentage think the same way about the usefulness and ultimate safely of nuclear energy. In both cases, it is a case of poor education and misunderstanding,
A few years ago, I phoned my dad and said "Dad, Dad, some of the Green party has come out in favor of nuclear power!." This, of course, was a joke. A black one.

He is gone now, but maybe public opinion is changing. My business partner sent me two links to articles about how nuclear power is being 'considered'  in the fight against global warming. But he is still not convinced. Neither are most of my other friends. My friends are very smart, so I despair that anyone in power will do the math, and act to prevent disaster.  I am no scientist, only a reader of science, and don't have the much influence. But in the name of the 14 people who will drop dead of asthma today in America, I ask you to look at global warming, atomic power, and think about what kind choices we are making for future generations.

Friday, May 25, 2012

The bicameral mind and the strangeness of being human

by John MacBeath Watkins

On Radio Lab the other day, I was listening to Lauren Silbert, a Princeton neurologist, talk about using brain scans to compare what happens when people listen to a story to what happens when someone tells it. She scanned her brain while she told the story, then scanned the brains of others as she told the story to them.

One particular woman, also named Lauren, proved to be almost a brain double, displaying the same patterns of brain activity when listening to the story as Silbert displayed while telling it. As it happens, the two women had little in common. The second Lauren was just a really good listener, a person who, when listening to a story, slipped into something like a dream state, as if she were experiencing the story herself. She also reported sometimes achieving a similar state while playing soccer.

This, in my opinion, ties in with a very interesting book, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, by Julian Jaynes. Jaynes defined consciousness as self-consciousness, a sort of metaphorical space in your head that narrates your life. His claim was that this was a fairly recent development, from about 1200 B.C.E.

Prior to that, Jaynes claimed, the mind worked differently, in something like a dream state, with the gods talking to people and telling them what to do, just as recounted in the Iliad. He hypothesized that the right brain equivalent of the left brain's language centers would be the source of the auditory hallucinations that told people what to do. These would be the right brain counterparts to the left brain's Wernicke's area and Broca's area. These parts of the right brain are, in modern humans, pretty much dormant, but it goes against the theory of natural selection that these areas exist without purpose.

From Wikipedia:

Jaynes wrote, "[For bicameral humans], volition came as a voice that was in the nature of a neurological command, in which the command and the action were not separated, in which to hear was to obey."[1] Jaynes argued that the change from bicamerality to consciousness (linguistic meta-cognition) occurred over a period of centuries beginning around 1200 BC. The selection pressure for Jaynesian consciousness as a means for cognitive control is due, in part, to chaotic social disorganizations and the development of new methods of behavioral control such as writing.[citation needed]

The need for self-awareness, therefore, came from a world that was changing rapidly, Jaynes speculated, and by the time the Odyssey was written, the story was about an individual meeting unexpected dangers who had to think about his own life.

When I read Jaynes many years ago, the whole thing seemed far-fetched to me, and completely unprovable. However, some of his neurological predictions that he made have proven true.

His theory was that people would be capable of achieving many things in this pre-conscious state. I wonder if this resembles athletes who are "in the zone," not second-guessing themselves but flowing and acting without narrating their acts. I recall watching a basketball player, speaking of a teammate who had a particularly good shooting percentage in the game just finished, said "he was unconscious."

What if, in Jaynesian terms, he was? Much of what we do in any given day, we don't think about. When I'm walking, I don't think, push off with right foot, lift right foot and move forward while shifting weight over left foot, push off with left foot...and if I did, I'd have little of my mind left for other thoughts. I've taught hundreds of people sailing, and I always know that as long as they are thinking about which way to push the tiller, they will be crippled by a delay and by mistakes, whereas if I can get them to do operate the tiller without thinking, they will do it much better. Self-consciousness of an act allows us to analyze it and possibly come up with new insights, but it is not the way to best accomplish ordinary acts.

Much, if not most, of what the mind does is submerged, and our unconscious minds probably guide us more than we realize. I'm not convinced we even know how much our reason justifies what our unconscious decides.

And how does this tie in with learning? We learn by experience, but because we have language, we can learn by the experience of others. The second Lauren, with her ability to loose herself in the story the first Lauren told, experienced the story in almost exactly the way the teller of the story remembered it.

Silbert also scanned the brain of someone who was there when the events in her story occurred, and got no mirroring of the brain activity she had when she told it, because he had his own memories of the events in question.

So the most likely to experience the story as it was experienced by the teller is not the eye witness, but the person who wasn't there. This is a sort of mythopoetic learning which seems accessible only to those who have not already learned. It is also learning through stories.

What it is not is the sort of command of the gods that Jaynes described. But if that was part of the human experience, surely there must be humans who still experience this. What if children go through this as part of their development, and become self aware as they get older? I remember almost nothing from before I was four or five years old. Was my mind working differently before then?

My mother recounts something that used to happen to her as a girl. She would hear her mother's voice, and go in to see her mother, who said, "I was just thinking of you."

This could, of course, be telepathy, but we have no proof that telepathy happens. We do have proof that auditory hallucinations happen. Could it be that at an unconscious level, she knew it was time to come home, so she heard the command of her mother's voice and came home? If so, she would have been experiencing bicameralism.

The voice of her mother, and the sound of her own name, interacted in a way that involves sense and symbol. The bicameral mind of Jaynes' hypothesis would be experiencing symbolic thought without the awareness of thinking.

If so, it is another aspect of the strangeness of being human that we discussed here and here. And perhaps much of what the mind does is not evident to us, because when we think of thinking, we think of self-conscious narrative.

The strangeness of being human is a series of posts about the way language makes us human, giving us abstract categories we use to think and memes that make up much of what we are.

Night of the unread: Why do we flee from meaning?
The conspiracy of god, the well-intentioned lie, and the strangeness of being human
Spiritual pluralism and the fall of those who would be angels
Judging a book by its author: "Fiction is part confession, part lie."
What to do when the gods fall silent, or, the axis of ethics
Why do we need myths?  
Love, belief, and the truth we know alone

"Bohemians"-- The Journey of a Word

On being a ghost in a soft machine
On the illusion of the self

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Thomas More's battle against religious freedom and how he became a symbol in the contraception debate

by John MacBeathWatkins

(From Foxe's Christian Martyrs of the World)
It is not at all unusual for a book to be burned. It is somewhat more unusual for an author to be burned, or a translator of a book, or a bookseller, or a reader of a banned text, but all of these things have happened.

William Tyndale, who translated the Greek and Hebrew texts of the Bible into English, was burned at the stake for doing so. Some say that he was strangled first, and his remains burned only so that he could not be resurrected on Judgement Day.  (John Wycliffe had translated the Vulgate Bible from Latin into English, but Tyndale was the first to go back to the original texts for an  English translation. Wycliffe died of natural causes, but the church had his remains burned so that he would not be resurrected on Judgement Day, as punishment for his translation.)

It was of course the English clergy who most avidly persecuted Tyndale, most notably Sir Thomas More. Now More is being touted as a defender of religious freedom by the Catholic bishops who oppose requiring insurance companies to include contraception coverage in policies for institutions even if they are affiliated with the Catholic Church (the church itself is of course exempt, and no Catholic is required by the HHS mandate the bishops oppose to use contraception, although it seems that most Catholics think contraception is morally acceptable.)

The claim that More was a martyr to the cause of religious liberty does violence to history.

In addition to playing a role in getting Tyndale burned at the stake, More was responsible, as chancellor, for having six other men burned at the stake as heretics. They were heretics because they were protestant, and More was in agreement with the Catholic Church of the time in thinking that protestantism was heresy.

Henry VIII had More executed for treason because he refused to abandon the notion that the Catholic Church held supremacy over Henry VIII. It is therefore evident that More was a martyr, not for religious freedom, which he opposed, but for the notion that the Catholic Church should be able to tell governments what to do.

Which, in a way, makes him the perfect symbol for the what the Catholic bishops are trying to do. If you really want to know the attitude men like More took toward religious liberty, I suggest you read Foxe's Book of Martyrs. I suggest most modern Catholics would renounce, rather than celebrate, the actions recounted in those pages.

More here:
and here:

Friday, May 18, 2012

A Western where all the Indians are Italian

Okay, so our "first black president" was Bill Clinton, who wasn't black, our "first gay president" is Barak Obama, who isn't gay. I can't wait to see who the man will be that gets to be our "first woman president."

It's like a Western where all the parts for Indians got played by Italians.

Why I am an evangelist for poetry

 by Jamie Lutton

 I am an evangelist for poetry.  And not the moderns, though I have no quarrels with Mary Oliver and her generation. I love the dead white men  - and women - that are no longer taught or read very much.
This past Mother's Day, as all Mother's days now, was a poignant one for me.  My mother has been gone  for just over three years .

I essentially have the same job she had. She took a masters in 17th century literature but did not use her degree directly. She worked as a reference librarian, which is very like being a bookseller, except the books I sell do not come back to me after a few weeks. ..She was a frustrated would-be English literature professor.
When I was a teen, she found me to be a reasonably attentive audience for her recitation of Robert Browning's My Last Duchess, a macabre short poem of the 19th century.  Or Death of the Hired Man by Robert Frost, a dark poem of the 20th. Or Cavafy's Waiting for the Barbarians, a dark and ironic poem by a Greek poet.
She would wave her cigarette in her left hand as she held the book with her right, peering at me through the smoke as she read aloud at the dinner table, often late at night, She would often repeat one line from a poem, look at me,  take a drag from her cigarette, as if she was conducting a lecture on the subject to an audience of one. She would then  take the poem  apart in front of me, like a mechanic with a car engine, demonstrating how the poem worked.  She was quite serious and deliberate when she did this.
I suspected her of brooding about many poems, the characters in it, and their fate, as she went through her day. It percolated to the surface, when she had me as an audience.    
Sometimes, with no book handy, she would recite a fragment of a  poem, look puzzled, and try to extract the whole piece from her memory, and failing, Later in life, I would hunt the poem down for her, figuring out the author and title, put it in her hand, and we would read it together. compete, completed, mended.  This gave her great satisfaction to do this, and I was often as excited as she was. So I enjoyed hunting down poems for her.  (this was before Googling was available as an option)
This sort of reverie is catching.   Anyone who knows me well has seen me grab some collection of classic poetry and read aloud from it, not even so much to sell the book as that I think anyone in earshot needed the enlightenment.  This is sometimes thought to be an obnoxious habit, but I try to restrict it to my own business.
My first project in college was to study Shakespeare's Sonnets, and  I memorized a number of them.
I had been provoked by a college friend, who was a man of one poet. He had memorized Poe in his youth, and would declaim long poems of his, like Tamerlane and The Raven, by heart, in any social gathering of two or more.   I sized the situation up, and began to memorize Shakespeare in self defense so I could defend myself, like dueling banjos. . This led soon after to ]memorizing other classic poems, mostly short ones.  Memorizing  poetry instead of just reading it or studying it for a class, say,  rearranges your thinking. Poetry displaces in an Archimedian  sense some the garbage in one's memory - the constant bombardment of commercials on TV and bad popular music on the mind.
With my parents gone, I  also don't   have anyone to help with reference questions not easily answered on by the Internet.  I used to call them up every week or so, and ask - now who was it who wrote the Oresteia - or If someone likes Philip Larkin's poetry, who should they read next
It pleased my mother, in her last decades, to be called like this. She missed the challenges that being a reference librarian gave her. . She had gone blind the last decade of her life, but her and my father's knowledge of books was prodigious.

I once when I was in college found my dad's old copy of the poems of T.S. Eliot on a shelf. It was all marked up in pencil in the margins, with many small notes over the words  I asked him if it was his copy from a college course, but he said mildly he had studied Elliot's poetry on his own as an adult, and made notes.  My parents were lucky enough to find each other in high school, and growing up and old together, they fed each others' love of books.
When I think about my own love of good books, I think about what Thomas Aquinas, a medieval philosopher,  wrote "we have seen so far, because we have stood on the shoulders of Giants". This was quote was stolen by Issac Newton and  others to express, not only gratitude, but sorrow. What is to be done when giants,  our parents or mentors  die, an leave mere mortals to hold the world together.
So, I am an Evangelist  for poetry.  I did not know till I wrote this, that both my parents were overtly teaching me to go out and teach the love of poetry. I don't know if I am as successful as they were with me, but I am not done yet.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The structure of thought and the life and death of "ghosts"

by John MacBeath Watkins

The Witch of Endor Raising The Spirit of Samuel (William Blake)

Few authors are at all prolific after their death, but  the brilliant Ferdinand de Saussure, a Swiss linguist, died before his greatest book was written. Two of his students ghosted The Course in General Linguistics about a century ago, based on notes taken in his classes.

Saussure proposed that language provides the categories we use in order to engage in symbolic thought. As a result, language both makes possible such thought and limits what can be thought. When we come up against those limits, we have to invent new language, or new meanings for old words. He further asserted that a word consists of the sign and the signed, the sign being the word that represents the idea, the signed being the underlying meaning that the spoken or written word evokes. Therefore, the structure of language is the structure of thought, and is a web of meaning rather than an accumulation of individual words.

Saussure advocated studying language synchronically, that is, at a given point in time, which permitted a study focused on the structure of language and differentiated it from philology, which studies the history of the development of language.

Structuralism is one of the most important concepts in social theory, though it has fallen out of favor. Critics have argued that it is ahistorical and deterministic; some have portrayed it as a sort of prison, a rigid framework that dictates all we can think or be. In my opinion, it need not be thought of in this way. The problem with structuralism is that theorists have given insufficient thought to where the structure comes from, ceding this to the older study of philology. To my mind, this has led political theory down a blind alley.

Anyone who speaks a language can tell you, language is not static, nor do linguists make such an error. In political theory, the most famous theorist to use structuralism used psychology as a framework as well, and used Freudian psychology at that. I don't object that Freud is old hat -- after all, he was a contemporary to Saussure -- but it does seem to me that it would be more fruitful to use ideas still widely considered true in the field if you are going to rely on psychology. One of these is the importance of play.

All mammals learn through play, a concept introduced by Karl Groos in The Play of Animals (1898) and The Play of Man (1901), this being one major difference between mammals and other types of creatures. Learning language is a form of play; play is creative and often competitive. Groos stated in The Play of Animals, "Animals can not be said to play because they are young and frolicsome, but rather they have a period of youth in order to play; for only by doing so can they supplement the insufficient hereditary endowment with individual experience, in view of the coming tasks of life."

People are not eternal; we strut our little hour or two, and are gone. Each generation must learn language, play with it, and adapt it to that generation's needs. Further, if our culture and society are a form of structure, each of us must find our place in the structure; we are not bees, born to our station. If society were static, this would be easy, as we could find a place in the structure that already existed. Society is never static. It may change rapidly or slowly, but it changes, in part because each new human being must find the meaning of its own life within the structure of society. This can be easy or painful, depending on how well one fits the existing structure, and the extent to which one must invent oneself. The need to define oneself is one of the most human of our needs. A bacteria doesn't share it, an ant is defined genetically, other primates must find their place in the social hierarchy, but need not wonder What it's All About. It is uniquely human to need to define the meaning of one's life.

We do not do this by ourselves. To a great extent, we are made up of what we have learned, from people we've met, books we've read, events we've witnessed. None of us share these elements exactly with any other human being, therefore each of us is a unique amalgam of things we've learned. This means each of us can define ourselves differently.

Richard Dawkins gave us a powerful concept for thinking about what builds the structure. His concept of memes, self-replicating strings of information, provides a way of thinking about structures that is adaptive, organic and creative. Memes come from people, who explore information, adapt it to their needs, combine it with other information, and produce new ideas. Memes have been misinterpreted; I have a book on my shelf that calls them “Viruses of the Mind.” Ick.

Memes make up the structure of the mind just as nerve cells make up the structure of the brain, and we produce them just as naturally. One might say they are analogous to both genes and cells, but that also fails to describe their importance. The structure of human thought must consist of memes of different levels forming structures of varying complexity. Every word is a meme. Letters are a meme at a level above words, because without words, we would never have invented letters for them to be made up of. I am now using letters to describe words which fit into a structure of language that enables me to communicate about memes, which concept is in itself a meme. Without those structures, I would be unable to play with the concept, but without my mind, there would be no one to play with the concept, communicate it to others, and replicate it in their minds.

This give us a concept for the importance of authorship. Consider Hobbes' concept of authority: The author of the act is the one who has the right to act, and other can be granted the right to act on say-so of that author, that is, on authority. This places authorship as one of the most important aspects of legitimate social action. For the Marxist theorist Louis Althusser, authorship was shrouded. When thesis met antithesis, it was resolved on the level of production, in a black box free of human agency. It seemed to come from nowhere and control everyone. Consider his views on family:

Does one now have to point out that in addition to the three great narcissistic wounds inflicted on humanity (that of Galileo, that of Darwin, and that of the unconscious), there is a fourth and even graver one which no one wishes to have revealed? Since time immemorial the family has been the very site of the sacred and therefore of power and religion. It is an irrefutable fact that the Family is the most powerful ideological state apparatus." (Althusser 1993 104-5).

Given the father he had, one can sympathize with his view. But something must shape our consciousness, or we wouldn't have one. Absorbing our culture from our family is not necessarily a thing that restricts our freedom. It gives us the ability to participate in culture, to be fully human.

In our actual lives, authorship is essential, because information needs a head to work in. True, we may write things down and put them in a relational database, but finding meaning is a human endeavor. We have the desire to create meaning, and find the means to do it. Playing with ideas allows us to recombine them. The inventions of our play help define us, give us our place in the world and in addition, they offer a form of immortality.

One form of immortality is to have children, and offer the future our genetic material. Because we are thinking animals and have minds shaped by of memes as well as bodies shaped by genes, we have the possibility of another form of immortality. We can pass on the substance of our thought and the patterns of our actions to others. Even if we are not individually remembered by name, each person we interact with is changed by interacting with us. Whether we are polite or rude, thoughtful or thoughtless, we imprint this on those we meet, and they can respond by copying or rejecting our actions and thoughts. We make not just our place in the world in which we move, but the world which settles in our wake.

In that wake, the ghost of our thoughts and actions lives on, whether we wish it to or not. It is a kind of involuntary (and conditional) immortality of which most of us remain unaware.

That immortality, or course, depends on the continuing existence of the structure. About 90,000 years ago, shell jewelry, use of pigments and beautifully crafted tools appeared, signaling the appearance of an advanced neolithic civilization; there is even some indication of symbolic behavior as far back as 160,000 years ago. These early signs of upper paleolithic culture disappeared, reappearing several times before civilization “took” permanently (one hopes) about 45,000 years ago. Adam Powell, Stephen Shennan and Mark Thomas of University College, London1 theorize that the repeated disappearance of cultures is related to declines in population. In other words, the structure of thought behind early neolithic civilization required more minds than existed following droughts or other disasters that reduced population below a level that would sustain it. This might be called the death of ghosts. Those patterns of thought and action that had entered the structure of thought and culture died when there were not human agents to carry them. Each time this happened, some memory must have remained, a lost Atlantis in the minds of those who carried memories of a greater time, and felt the loss of wisdom that came when the structure of that culture could no longer be sustained. Yet what greater proof could there be of the agency of human thought in the formation of structures than the collapse of structures when there are not enough human agents?

Currently we are seeing the extinction of many languages, which must involve a death of ghosts for the cultures linked to those languages. So the death of ghosts can come about from the withering of a culture without a decline in population, if members of that culture decide to participate in another culture and enrich it instead.

I use the term ghosts to emphasize the human agency of thought. We are made up in part of those we've learned from, and they live on in our minds as we live on in the minds of those we interact with. We make up the living cells of the structure, carry it, shape it, and pass it along. The ghosts of those who came before us live on in us, and we will live on in the minds of those we've shaped.

1Late Pleistocene Demography and the Appearance of Modern Human Behavior

Powell et al.
Science 5 June 2009: 1298-1301
DOI: 10.1126/science.1170165

The strangeness of being human is a series of posts about the way language makes us human, giving us abstract categories we use to think and memes that make up much of what we are.

Night of the unread: Why do we flee from meaning?
The conspiracy of god, the well-intentioned lie, and the strangeness of being human
Spiritual pluralism and the fall of those who would be angels
Judging a book by its author: "Fiction is part confession, part lie."
What to do when the gods fall silent, or, the axis of ethics
Why do we need myths?  
Love, belief, and the truth we know alone
"Bohemians"-- The Journey of a Word
On being a ghost in a soft machine

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Rethinking liberal theory 8: Liberalism and individualism: The invention of the Util and the way west

by John MacBeath Watkins

Liberalism started as a way to explain why government was needed in a time when governments were facing a crisis in legitimacy.

Now, we have people arguing that government is the problem, not the solution, a motto which directly contradicts the founding thinkers of liberal thought. This can only be true if they are thinking of a different problem than Thomas Hobbes was thinking of when he wrote Leviathan.

The reason for this change is a tendency, as liberalism has developed, to place increasing emphasis on the rights of the individual, and less on the social contract.

The term liberal has quite a few meanings, and the most important founding thinkers of liberalism were dead by the time the word started being used to describe their system of thought. In the sense of tending to favor freedom and democracy, its use began in France in 1801, and it started to be used in England by its critics during the excesses of the French Revolution. Prior to that, it had been used in 16th and 17th century England as a term of reproach, referring to a lack of restraint on speech and action, a sense that is retained in the word

In our earlier ruminations on liberalism, we discussed its roots in social contract theory. As the name "social contract" implies, Thomas Hobbes was importing the values of the marketplace into the public sphere to deal with the crisis in legitimacy that struck the governments of Northern Europe in the wake of the 30 Years War and the English Civil War. Mankind had been ruled through most of history by force and faith: The strong backed by the clergy demonstrated by their strength their fitness to rule, and by the backing of God’s earthly representatives the rightness of their rule. In a time when religious rifts meant that some large portion of the populations of Northern European states would regard any ruler as belonging to the wrong church, making them apostates who could not possibly rule by the mandate of heaven. The result was constant warfare.

Hobbes and John Locke both tended to emphasize how individuals made a contract with each other to form a society, because to live in a society is far better than the war of each against all. Hobbes, in fact, insisted that the need for public order was so great that the Leviathan was needed to protect citizens from violent death, and this was the motivation for the social contract. Locke, rather strangely, made this protection of the individual's life a consequence of the states' role in defending property, because you own your life.
The rights of the individual could only exist in the context of the social contract, because without the sovereign to protect them, there was no guarantee that the individual could enjoy life itself, let alone the rights Locke insisted we were born with and could not sell, or in his quaint turn of phrase, alienate.

In modern day America, it seems that the right and left have a conversation that stays largely within the bounds of liberalism. In matters related to property, conservatives emphasize the rights of the individual and progressives emphasize the social contract, while in the sphere of criminal law conservatives emphasize the social contract and liberals emphasize individual rights. Both stay within the bounds of liberalism. Socialism, in the sense of the state (representing the People) owning the means of production, is a discredited economic philosophy, and fascism has been a discredited political philosophy for even longer. Indeed, Ambrose Bierce, in The Devil's Dictionary, made this distinction:

Conservative, n. A statesman who is enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from the Liberal, who wishes to replace them with others. [Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary, 1911]

Perhaps this is what the end of history, in Hegel's sense, looks like: Brothers battling over small differences in their interpretations of a doctrine they both accept, in which mankind has a natural right to liberty and the state exists to serve the governed. Terms like "fascist" and "socialist" are still thrown about, but not with their original meaning, instead referring to the poles of this smaller universe of acceptable debate.

The individual looms larger in this debate than it did for Hobbes and Locke, and the values of the marketplace have become such a powerful force in our model of how the world works that there are people -- libertarians -- who regard government's only legitimate role as being to protect property rights. The U.S. Constitution states that congress shall provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States, but there's a virulent strain of thought that says that while defense is a legitimate role for government, the welfare of its citizens is not.

How did we get from a philosophy based on the need for people to come together to one that insists, in some cases literally, on the sovereignty of the individual? Certainly the term "sovereign citizen" would have seemed incoherent to Hobbes; the sovereign in his view was needed by the people to govern the society they had formed, so an individual could only be a sovereign by ruling other people. But then, he was the tutor for a future sovereign, Charles II.

It can be difficult to put ourselves in the minds of people who did not work with the same concepts we do. It used to be that economics, then called "political economy," was done not based on notions of how individuals would act, but based on the way classes of people would act. Markets were understood by reference to how landowners as a class would act and how workers as a class would act, regardless of whether the economist was a liberal or a communist. This changed with the notion of marginal utility, a revolutionary concept in economics that was developed most famously by Austrians.

But before we could have a marginal revolution, we had to have a concept of utility as it related to a system of values. That was developed by the utilitarians, notably Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. Just as Adam Smith became interested in markets because, as a moral philosopher, he was interested in values, the utilitarians started with a system of moral values.

Utilitarianism maintains that to act ethically, we should consider the consequences of our actions, and the moral worth of an act can be calculated by how much happiness and how little pain results from it. It is a logical and reductionist theory that would allow someone with no moral sense -- a term which as used here means an emotional feeling about what is right -- to calculate what action is morally acceptable. Psychologists relying on ethics tests based on utilitarian ethics have found that psychopaths do better on them than normal people. Presumably this is because psychopaths have a lack the empathy that makes normal ethical responses inaccessible to them, so to pass as normal they learn to make the logical calculation utilitarianism calls for.

But of course, it is the very calculating nature of utilitarianism that makes it attractive to economists. It means that you can do math related to what people value. The utility of a thing can be measured in dollars and cents, and because you can infer the value from the financial figures, you can apply mathematics to a science of human values.

The Austrians made this concept more powerful by noting that there is such a thing as diminishing marginal utility. If I am hungry, enough food to satisfy my hunger has a certain value, and more food has a lesser value because I know it's going right to parts of my anatomy I wish were smaller, and at the extreme, if I eat too much I'll puke. You can actually chart the extent of my value for food on a supply and demand curve to arrive at the proper price. Suddenly, a philosophy that was interesting to philosophers became essential to bankers and businessmen. And since there was no unit of value called the Util, they applied the value of money to the problem of turning this into mathematical equations.

And it didn't need to regard how classes interacted. You could make calculations about how people would decide to spend their money while regarding them as an aggregation of individuals rather than as members of a class.

While this was happening in the intellectual world of liberalism, geographic mobility was rapidly increases for people in general and Americans in particular. In all of pre-modern Europe, as in most of the world, the vast majority of people lived and died in a community, often going no more than 50 miles from the center of that world in their lifetime. The opening of the American West meant that people left their communities in order to -- well, Firesign Theatre puts it better than I can:
WAGON BOSS: My fellow settlers! We stand here at the Edge O' Civilization, on the banks of the Mississippi River, lookin' West, at Our Destiny!
PIONEER: You can say that again!
WAGON BOSS: What may appear to the fainthearted as a limitless expanse of Godforsaken wilderness...
WAGON BOSS:, in reality, a Golden Opportunity for humble, God-fearin' people like ourselves, an' our families, an' our children, an' the generations a-comin', to carve a new life - outta the American Indian!

Of course, they could only do this with the support of the U.S. Cavalry (and the Buffalo soldiers) but in leaving their communities behind, they felt as if they were doing this as individuals rather than relying on the community they had grown up in. The conquest of a continent (some would say theft, but the words mean much the same) was an enterprise that only a powerful community could accomplish, but the satisfaction was quite often individual, and people therefore tended to assign credit to themselves.

The feeling of individualism in this country therefore tends to relate to our history, but the philosophy of individualism owes much to the way the values of the market have become more dominant in our society as time has gone on. As a philosophical stance, libertarian and Objectivist ideas of how the world should work are attempts to find a rational basis for society, which sounds fine to us children of the Enlightenment, until you consider that the French Revolution produced the Terror, and the Marxist revolutions that also attempted to find a rational basis for society produced worse nightmares of reason. Bierce had excellent reasons for his cynical observations of the difference between conservatives and liberals.

The irony of our present situation is that two sorts of extremists have made common cause, as conservatives who want to see the domination of traditional beliefs, social institutions and prejudices have joined with libertarians whose dream is a rational, individualist, disenchanted world that a psychopath might understand better than Edmund Burke. Burke articulated the philosophy of conservatism and a spirited defense of prejudice at a time when intellectuals like Hegel were claiming that the ideas of liberalism were triumphant.

There is additional irony in the fact that Hobbes first applied the values of the marketplace to restore legitimacy to government, and now, some people prefer to think that only the market is legitimate. The ultimate expression of this is libertarian anarchism, in which the claim is that the state is a forced monopoly, so the social contract is invalid. Rodrick Long makes the argument here. It strikes me that he gives short shrift to Hobbe's claim that a social contract was needed to protect the individual. Hobbes wrote at the end of the 30 Years War, and certainly had some idea what the breakdown of society looked like.

Libertarian anarchists are as utopian as Marxists. But whereas Marxists proposed abolishing two of society's main ways of organizing itself, property and religion, leaving only the state as an organizing principle, libertarian anarchists would remove the state, leaving the market as the only organizing principle. It is as much based on reason to the exclusion of experience as Marxism, and if attempted, would probably produce its own evils.

Links for this series:

Rethinking liberal theory 1: Thomas Hobbes, blasphemer and patriot
Rethinking liberal theory 2: The outlaw John Locke, terrorist, liberal, and advocate of freedom
Rethinking liberal theory 3: A compact to protect property, or a conspiracy to create meaning?
Rethinking Liberal Theory 4: John Milton and the many shapes of truth
Rethinking Liberal Theory 5: Adam Smith, moral philosopher of the marketplace
Rethinking Liberal Theory 6: Mythmaking and manufacturing
Rethinking liberal theory 7: Hegel, the end of history, and the triumph of the liberal idea
Rethinking liberal theory 8: Liberalism and individualism: The invention of the Util and the way west
Rethinking liberal theory 9 Property and freedom: Why language is the basis for the social contract 
Rethinking Liberal theory 10: Physiocrats & mercantilists: The economic philosophies of the founding fathers
Rethinking Liberal Theory 11:Stateless income, global capital, and the death of empires
Rethinking Liberal Theory 12:Capitalism:So much more than market
Rethinking liberalism 13: What is money? 
Rethinking Liberalism 14: Tribalism and the emerging new world order
Rethinking liberalism 15: The poverty of neoconservative philosophy
Rethinking Liberalism 16: More on the poverty of neoconservative philosophy

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Obama "bullying" incident goes up in a puff of video

I'm seeing conservatives touting a story from Dreams from my Father as evidence that President Obama "bullied" someone, thereby neutralizing the allegations that Mitt Romney bullied a gay kid.

Only that's not how the girl involved remembers Obama:

More here:

Of course, the kid Romney is accused of bullying is now dead, but he reportedly was troubled by the incident later in life, and I'm fairly certain his memories of Romney wouldn't have been anything like as fond.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Romney, "pranks" and the tortureable class

by John MacBeath Watkins

The Washington Post, in a widely discussed bit of reporting, found that as a teenager, Mitt Romney appears to have taken part in a gay-bashing incident.

The report is here, and I'm a big believer in reading original sources, so I recommend you read the story, and if you think journalism should be paid for, even click on some of the Washington Post's ads. Because this is real journalism, where you go out and ask embarrassing questions. I used to do this stuff for a living, and you'd be surprised how hard it is. It's impolite, and frowned on, and just not the done thing, and certain people count on that to keep their secrets. Journalists are hated for doing this sort of thing, and it's their job.

Romney seems to have organized an assault on a student who was "presumed to be gay." I read somewhere that three out of four students in high school and middle school who are gay-bashed are actually straight. So if you're worried about whether the student was actually gay, don't. You see, the way bullies operate, they don't get to beat up everybody. They are supposed to have a reason. So, if you're a little different, a little lonely, a little vulnerable, you're an obvious target, but they need a justification.

In one of my favorite novels, Our Man in Havana, Graham Greene has the head of the secret police menace a vacuum cleaner salesman who has tried to get a little extra money for his daughter by pretending to have secrets to sell to the British, discussing with him the question of who belongs to the "torturable class."

Not everyone can be tortured, even in Batista's Cuba. You have to belong to a group that is considered fair game. It's the same with bullies.

Jamie has mentioned being gay-bashed in spite of being straight. It happened to me, too, and it happens to a lot of straight kids. One result is that there are an awful lot of straights out there who know from personal experience what gay kids go through, although it has to be a lot worse for those who are really gay.

I realized when it was happening that the kids beating me up were probably aware that I wasn't gay. It was just a label that allowed them to engage in a behavior that they liked. I graduated from high school with credit from five different institutions, a thing I have in common with a lot of military brats. It's not bad if the high school is full of brats, they understand. It's when you go to a high school where your classmates went to kindergarten together that this sort of thing happens. You're different, you're part of the torturable class. They just have to find a name for it.

I'm sure it's much worse when you are attacked for who you are. But the motives of the bullies don't really change because of who you are. For bullies like the 18-year-old Mitt Romney, who you are isn't really the issue so much as the fact that you are different, and vulnerable.

Romney seems to have made a calculation that he could get away with pinning down the boy who was "presumed to be gay" without being punished. He was right, he didn't get punished, because at that school, at that time, it was apparently acceptable behavior to assault someone "presumed to be gay."

In Reflections on the Revolution in France, Edmund Burke offered a spirited defense of prejudice. And in the anti-bullying law passed in Michigan recently, the Washington Post reports that:
All they need to do, according to the newly passed legislation, is claim that their bullying was based on “a sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction.”
 Conservatives have gone to the mat to defend the right to bully people as long as you do it based on "a sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction.." Because, although Burke was arguing in favor of the respect we have for authority based on the accumulated wisdom of our culture, his defense of prejudice had a lot to do with the conservative world view. It has its dark corners, like any world view, and one of them is that the "accumulated wisdom" of the culture may include cruelty to those who don't belong. They may be the wrong color, speak the wrong language, date the wrong people. People like the youthful Mitt Romney respond by saying:
“He can’t look like that. That’s wrong. Just look at him!” an incensed Romney told Matthew Friedemann, his close friend in the Stevens Hall dorm, according to Friedemann’s recollection. Mitt, the teenage son of Michigan Gov. George Romney, kept complaining about Lauber’s look, Friedemann recalled.
Because to be different is to be wrong, and a member of the torturable class.

Oh, and let's just clear up one more thing. A "prank" is a humorous incident that is all in good fun. Romney may choose to remember the incident in question as a "prank," but to its victim, all indications are that it seemed more like an assault.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

How austerity critics lie with statistics

by John MacBeath Watkins

There's a new meme going around in conservative circles. They look at European budgets and ask, "what austerity?"

And illustrate their question with this chart or the numbers that went into it:

But when we put it in Euros and include 2011, it looks like this:

And, of course, Veronique de Rugy, who compiled this data, is right about one thing. It's not so much that the budgets have been reduced as that they've been reallocated. With an unemployment rate of almost 25%, social insurance costs must be skyrocketing in Spain, and the cost of interest on the debt is skyrocketing as well. Civil service salaries have been cut, spending on everything else has been cut, but Spain's borrowing costs are high and the reason for this is that their banks collapsed, and the government decided to bail them out. Now the taxpayers are paying back debts they did not incur, because the Spanish banks borrowed a lot of money they can't repay, much of it from German banks.

Where the source for these charts is wrong is when she says this:

Following years of large spending expansion, Spain, the United Kingdom, France, and Greece—countries widely cited for adopting austerity measures—haven’t significantly reduced spending since “austerity” supposedly started in 2008.

But the Spanish debt as a percent of GDP was actually quite small before the banking crisis. Two things have pushed it up: bailing out the banks, and the decline in GDP, which in Spain is at Depression levels (from here.) After all, every fraction has a denominator as well as a numerator.

One-size-fits-all approaches to the crisis put Spain in the same category as Greece, where the government was profligate and dishonest. As Paul De Grauwe's chart shows, Spain was actually reducing its debt as a percent of GDP until its banks failed.

How would a budget look in a European country where there was no bank bailout and social insurance kicked in as the economy slowed without a major effort to reduce debt? And what would borrowing look like if they could borrow more? Probably like Germany's spending and borrowing  looked:

In 2009, right where the German budget shows the uptick we would expect from higher social insurance costs, the German budget shows an uptick where the Spanish and Greek budgets take a downturn. And remember, Spanish unemployment is much, much worse than German unemployment.

So, in countries like Spain, instead of borrowing like Germany, they are raising taxes, and instead of keeping civil servants' salaries the same, they are lowering them and spending the money on unemployment insurance and paying interest on debt, a substantial part of which was borrowed by local banks from German and French banks and loaned to citizens to buy houses they can no longer afford because they don't have jobs. And in Spain, even if you give back the house, you still owe the loan until you pay it back or die. Household deleveraging under these circumstances seems pretty much impossible.

How is that not austere?


And it turns out my favorite magazine, The Economist, agrees with me:

And they show it with charts. Go to the link to view them, you really should read it.