The Brexit Delusion…

I live on continental Europe and have no plans to return to Britain so there is a small but real personal risk, for me, attached to “Brexit”. Nonetheless, even behind the red, white and blue veil of ignorance I have what I believe are rational concerns with the concept as well.

I think Brexit is a waste of time and a dangerous risk. Firstly, it does nothing to address Britain’s gravest problems. Many voters were concerned about freedom of movement, and there are, indeed, problems associated with it, in terms of community upheaval and working class wages. Still, the worst problems with immigration and integration have nothing to do with European immigrants. GDP? Overall they add to rather than subtracting from it. Terrorism? There have been no Polish or Czech bombers. Culture clashes? There will be no major conflicts with European migrants if somebody, for example, draws a cartoon of John Paul II. Over the last year EU immigration has fallen and non-EU immigration has risen and I fear this is a sign of a post-Brexit future.

I appreciate concerns about national sovereignty but all the major recent errors in British politics have stemmed from independent government decisions. Iraq? The government. Banking regulation? The government. Dysfunctional state services? The government. I have no faith in our sovereign Parliament as it stands.

Who are its potential leaders? Boris Johnson, a prolific cheat, a fabricator and an opportunist. Sajid Javid? Nice enough, perhaps, but basically a liberal. Jeremy Corbyn? God help us if he gets his green fingers on the country. Again, I support national sovereignty as a general rule but its value is contingent one’s representatives.

Brexiteers are bursting with misplaced optimism. More precisely, it is toxic Whiggishness; flavoured with an idealised internationalism. Boris Johnson writes, in the Telegraph, that he wants a “Global Britain,” by which he means “a country that is more open, more outward-looking, more engaged with the world than ever before.” Of course trade, diplomacy and cooperation are essential features of our future but with grave domestic crises to focus on we should be looking inwards at ourselves as much as anything. Jacob Rees Mogg MP thinks, “Europe is the past and the future belongs to China and India.” Some conservative, writing off our civilizational cousins in favour of culturally different, geographically distant powers.

I fear that British Conservatives have poured all their outrage into their conception of the EU, and all their optimism into the idea of leaving. These, in general, are displaced emotions. Even if Britain avoids the economic damage that Remain supporters have predicted – and, frankly, I doubt we will – we gain extremely little. I am not a GDPophile and think that short-term losses are many cases justified by long-term gains. But the problem, I do not see the gains here. We are left with most of the same problems, and a government ill-equipped to deal with them, and perhaps the added annoyance of a thinner wallet. The “Brexit Delusion” of the title is not believing that Brexit is good – because while I disagree that seems like far too strong a word – but that it is a huge leap forward for the nation. At best it is a baby step.

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Posted in Britain | 3 Comments

The Terrible Reality of Piers Morgan…

Insulting Piers Morgan is like whipping a masochist. He welcomes it. He thrives off it. It actually makes him stronger because he gets the attention that makes him successful. The only effective way to beat Piers would be to stop reading, watching or engaging with him, but this is a task that must be done be done collectively. An individual is a drop in an ocean of bile.

Piers Morgan is a hairy pink glove puppet, grotesquely inflated with self-righteousness and egotism. His politics, in essence, are whatever is self-serving; whatever, in other words, that will allow him to suck up to richer and more powerful people while also allowing him to grandstand as a bold moral voice. As a simpleton he has little idea of how to argue with intelligent people, and as a cog in a machine devoted to producing entertainment for the idle or idiotic he has never had to improve.

Today, he was arguing with Ash Sarkar of Novara Media; a successful little bandwagon for Corbynite polemic. The theme of the “debate” was Donald Trump’s visit to the UK and the protests that Ms Sarkar and others are promoting.

As a simpleton, Morgan has (a) an extremely superficial conception of people who disagree and (b) an overreliance on accusations of hypocrisy or double standards rather than a focus on what might be true and false or right and wrong. Thus, he charged Ms Sarkar with ignoring the misdeeds of her “hero” Barack Obama. Sarkar had a simple response to this: she was not a liberal, or even a social democrat, but a “literal communist”.

A smarter man would have seen this as a golden rhetorical opportunity. They could have pointed that in every case where its implementation has been pursued, communism has led to far worse human welfare abuses than Trump’s border policies. They could have pointed out that in every communist state that has ever existed, protests against allied powers would have ended in arrests if not executions. They could have noted the peculiarity of “communist” being an acceptable term to claim for oneself when “fascist” (which, even if one is willing to accept – as I am – that the Nazis were exceptionally evil also could have been applied to Mussolini and, perhaps, Franco, who were less destructive than many communists) would have one exiled from public life. They could have wondered why it is that Jeremy Corbyn, who is often described as believing in a kind of Scandinavian social democracy, is so often surrounded by “literal communists”.

Morgan didn’t. Seeing an open goal, he lashed the ball ten metres wide, huffing impotently about Barack Obama. If Britain should decline into a swamp of socialism and Third-Worldism one can hardly be surprised when such incurious, unprincipled and egotistic men and women have been guiding its national conversations.

Posted in Communism, Media, Personalities | 2 Comments

Antinatalism

The comfort of eternity
In darkness. Neverending rest.
Unconscious to the fire, the cries,
The coldness of a silent breast.

The simple bliss of ignorance
We treasured. Which we now describe
And measure in the poetry
Of pleasures it would have denied.

Posted in Poetry | Leave a comment

Jacobin Excuses Stalinism…

Being “anti-communist” feels like being nostalgic for a time I never knew. For all of the problems that I have with the economic and social ambitions of the modern left they bear little resemblance to those of Mr Marx. Loud denunciations of Stalin, Mao and so forth also feel a tad too easy for conservatives; allowing us to be righteous without confronting the problems that face is in the present day.

Still, sometimes we must recapture a bit of the Cold War spirit. Leftists rarely indulge in outright apologetics for Stalin and Mao but sometimes their attitude towards communist evil is so slimy and slippery that one has to pin them on the tip of a nail. Take an obituary of the Marxist historian Dominico Losurdo in Jacobin. Mr Losurdo had some interesting ideas but he was also a craven apologist for Stalin. Watson Ladd – a leftist – writes that in Losurdo’s view:

Stalin…is the Soviet Ghandi, fighting against colonialism with methods no more dictatorial than the global crisis of the 1930s demanded.

How one can align this supposed anti-colonialism with Stalin’s brutal oppression of Eastern Europeans, Kazakhs, Chechens and so on is beyond me.

Still, I would have no problem with a claim that someone had valuable and obscene ideas. What I dislike are disingenuous attempts to excuse the latter. For David Broder, a contributing editor for Jacobin:

Losurdo sought to recast our view of the twentieth century by centering it on colonialism. The Nazi war for “living space in the East” was a colonial war of aggression against the USSR…

It was a war of aggression against Poles, Czechs, Estonians and others too but Dr Broder doesn’t mention them, perhaps because Stalin’s swallowing of them after World War Two makes Losurdo’s thesis so ridiculous.

Why do we hear so much more of the Katyn Massacre or Holodomor than the slaughter of the Mau Mau or the Bengal Famine? In Losurdo’s view, to compare Stalin to Hitler was like placing Toussaint Louverture, leader of the Haitian slave rebellion, on the same moral footing as the French slaveholders, simply because both sides had “authoritarian” leaderships.

This was, without doubt, a provocative reframing.

It is not “provocative”. It is absurd and obscene. First, in what universe are we often told of the Holodomor and Katyn? As Samuel Fawcett pointed out on Twitter, if you asked the average Englishman or American if they had heard of the Holodomor they would be liable to think it was a reference to a Game of Thrones character. Second, for all might one might say about Louverture he defended his own people. Stalin massacred his people and countless foreigners who had never done so much as pose a threat to him.

Losurdo was untroubled by treading on toes but was sometimes tinged with contrarianism.

Treading on bones, more like. And I’m sure David Irving is “tinged with contranianism” as well.

While he recognized the exorbitant, paranoid aspects of Stalin’s leadership, his efforts to relativize it were often governed by a polemical zeal unjustified by the evidence marshaled. This made his reframing of Stalinism more “interesting” than necessarily persuasive.

“Exorbitant” is an interesting adjective for a mass murderer. “Interesting” is also an interesting adjective for a man who excuses the mass murderer. I know history is not a child’s morality tale with “good guys” and “bad guys” but come on. This is a man who killed thousands after laughable show trials. This is a man who worked people to death in camps. This is a man who massacred Poland’s officer class in order that its people could not resist him. This is a man who deported millions of people and allowed millions more to starve. If history has monsters, he is one of them.

Now, I do not think that modern leftists have a keen desire to establish gulags and exterminate the kulaks. Having said that, I do think this miserable sliminess betrays a keen desire to rationalise left-wing atrocities in a manner that we be abhorred if conservatives did the same for Hitler or even Franco and Mussolini. I also think that it displays the scale of a delusional ideology when an insistence on analysing “material conditions” depends on minimising or ignoring historical facts.

Posted in Uncategorized | 7 Comments

The Intellectual Dark Web…

The first and most obvious thing to say about the “Intellectual Dark Web” is that it is an awfully pretentious and self-serving name. The odour of smugness that it emanates is symptomatic of a deeper rot: a self-satisfied Whiggishness that encourages its adherents to think themselves paragons of epistemological rectitude. This means a lot of liberal and positivist platitudes are elevated to the realms of deep profundity, and glib bandwagon leapers like Dave “let’s talk about talking about ideas” Rubin are elevated to the realms of intellectuals. Perhaps this is a less political than aesthetic problem. Can you restrain your cringe when Michael Shermer tweets, of the uninspiring New York Times columnist Bari Weiss:

Do you have Weissophobia? There’s something you can take for it: reason-contin and science-codone. But be careful: [Wiess’] writings are addictive.

Am I petty? Yes, perhaps. But this self-satisfaction bleeds into IDW analysis, such as Sam Harris’ stubborn misunderstandings of moral philosophy, or Christina Hoff Sommers’ adamantine obliviousness to cultural trends.

Still, I like a lot of people on the Intellectual Dark Web. Quillette is an excellent magazine; not just because, and sometimes in spite of the fact, that they publish me. Jordan Peterson is an interesting man with a lot of valuable advice. Joe Rogan has a very entertaining podcast.

More importantly, the Intellectual Dark Web is right where a lot of other influential people are wrong. Its members are far from uniform in their opinions but there are basic premises they share. First, and most importantly, debates of factual matters should not be encumbered by censorship. Second, social inequalities cannot be wholly explained by structural discrimination. Third, social science has taken an anti-scientific, reductionist and authoritarian turn towards Marxian and third worldist analysis.

Those premises, which would be hard if not impossible to frame as controversial for the average man or woman, are still anathema for the contemporary left. It is obvious from Henry Farrell’s recent Vox essay that the enormous range of factual premises and moral preferences which people who accept these propositions might hold, ranging from those of the liberal Steven Pinker to those of the Alt-Right Richard Spencer, are, for him, if not equivalent then eerily similar in ideological terms. Farrell seriously thinks a movement helmed by Jewish intellectuals like Bret and Eric Weinstein, Sam Harris and Christina Hoff-Sommers might collapse into quasi-fascism. A challenge to the closed-minded hard left consensus that prevails in the universities and seeps into social and corporate life is welcome even if it is so far from being optimal. At least I can be sure most members of the Intellectual Dark Web would take my criticisms with good grace, whereas I suspect five minutes with the average leftist would be enough to provoke a storm of coffee mugs.

Posted in Ideology | 13 Comments

Defending Men From Their Defenders…

Lads. Fellas. Brothers. Men. Put down that six pack of beer. Throw away that football. Lock up those assault weapons. Feminists are here to help. Yes, it might have looked like some of them were hostile to the male sex but they really care for us, and they feel our pain, and they want us to change.

“Patriarchy,” we are told, “Hurts men and boys, too.” According to the influential feminist writer bell hooks, in her book The will in her change:

Learning to wear a mask (that word already embedded in the term ‘masculinity’) is the first lesson in patriarchal masculinity that a boy learns. He learns that his core feelings cannot be expressed if they do not conform to the acceptable behaviors sexism defines as male. Asked to give up the true self in order to realize the patriarchal ideal, boys learn self-betrayal early and are rewarded for these acts of soul murder.

That word is already embedded in the term “masculinity” if you pronounce it like an ageing English gentleman but that is an aside. The author Tim Winton makes a similar argument in his recent essay on what is known as “toxic masculinity”:

…when they’re feral creatures, kids are reservoirs of tenderness and empathy. But some do turn into savages. And sadly most of those are boys. They’re trained into it.

Really? Boys can be tender, and empathetic, and their violent tendencies can be exacerbated by abuse and neglect, but the idea that “feral creatures” must be trained into being “savage” is absurd. Children, and especially male children, have innate aggressive tendencies and must be trained not to express them in too violent ways.

I doubt that many children had more pacifistic parents than mine and yet video evidence records my youthful self punching my best friend in the side of the head. My mum and dad worked not to expose me to excessive violence yet it was a constant battle with my warlike ways. Mum was delighted when I bought the video game Worms, imagining that it involved a lot of peaceful burrowing in the drilosphere, and was disappointed to be told that Worms was a surreal display of aggressive annelids armed to the tails with guns.

Of course, as much as gender has natural roots its growth has societal influences, and it would be ludicrous to claim that there are no pernicious pressures on male development. “Pickup” culture, for example, harms women who are exploited and abused and it also harms men. A study by Y. Joel Wong and others from Indiana University Bloomington found that attempts to conform to a “playboy” model of masculinity were unfavourably associated with mental health. (This finding, of course, would not surprise or discomfort conservatives.)

This study was reported as proving that “toxic masculinity…hurts men”. In fact, Wong disagreed concluded that researchers should “disaggregate the generic construct of conformity to masculine norms and…focus instead on specific dimensions of masculine norms.” We can debate the possible implications of this but one thing it discredits is sweeping negative conceptions of masculinity. I wish Winton had read it before writing:

Can we wean boys off machismo and misogyny? Will they ever relinquish the race, the game, the fight, and join the dance? I hope so.

One can be too competitive, of course. This enables zero-sum bias, conflict and narrow-mindedness. Yet what is wrong in essence with racing and playing games? Introverted or uninterested boys should not have to join in, of course, but sports-mad and war gaming boys should not feel compelled to dance, write poems and sing. One cannot shake the sense that progressives extrapolate from boyish pursuits like football and wrestling to international trade and international war, and imagine that if boys are taught to dance, and cry, and love they will grow up to help build an egalitarian world. It is socialism through the school yard.

Men commit suicide at higher rates than women. Women attempt suicide at higher rates than men but their attempts are considerably less effective. A factor many people think has underpinned the difference is the greater male tendency towards stoicism. Men are less inclined towards expressing their emotions, it is claimed, and so so their feelings build up and explode in self-destruction, often exacerbated by drugs and alcohol.

There is evidence that emotional suppression contributes to suicide risk. This is a real concern. Yet sweeping assertions that “real men cry” and “men need to learn to cry” strike me as superficial. First, there are other reasons why men commit suicide at greater rates than women. Men are likelier to use more effective methods like firearms or hanging. Men are likelier to have autism, which, tragically, and I hope preventably, entails a higher risk of suicide. Second, I wonder if stoicism can be balanced with expressiveness; if we can foster an ethic of endurance that encompasses the need to express one’s fears and frustrations to loved ones.

Life is hard. In all likelihood it is going to get harder. There is value in tolerating hardship even if we must accept that many people have too much to bear and none of us can do so without some assistance. We must help to foster strong relationships, familial and fraternal, which have weakened in a fragmentary age. We must offer opportunities for fulfilment. We must, yes, remind ourselves that no man is an island. But this can be done without a radical restructuring of masculine norms. The existence of bigorexia, a real problem for men, does not mean going to the gym is unhealthy.

It is far from unrealistic to imagine parents and educators imposing heavy-handedly “sensitive” new norms on boys. The New York Times reported that “many of Sweden’s government-funded preschools are doing what they can to deconstruct…gender differences.”At some preschools:

Boys and girls…were separated for part of the day and coached in traits associated with the other gender. Boys massaged each other’s feet. Girls were led in barefoot walks in the snow, and told to throw open the window and scream.

Boys, and men, need guidance and support, for our own sake and for the sake of those around us, but we should not leave the task to people whose unashamed and, indeed, enthusiastic bias is towards problematisation. It is a caring, compassionate and empathetic exercise in throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Posted in Mental Health, Sex | 3 Comments

What is Scientism, And Why Is It Bad?

The charge of scientism is both unreflectively made and unreflectively dismissed; wielded by cranks and bores and brushed off by the smug and the superficial. Given this, its meaning, and its significance, is unclear. Some believe, indeed, that it has none. Steven Pinker says it is “more of a boo word than a label for a coherent doctrine”. Daniel Dennett says it is “an all-purpose, wild card smear”.

One can readily accept that foes of scientism have sometimes resembled cranky farmers, standing in their fields and screaming, “Get off my land!” Nonetheless, the charge is meaningful, and often necessary.

Pinker was mistaken in suggesting that there is no doctrine that could be called scientism. Some philosophers, indeed, have accepted the term. In its substantive form, scientism is a radical kind of verificationism, the idea that meaningful statements must be verifiable through scientific methods. Metaphysical, moral and aesthetic statements, then, are meaningless on anything but an emotional level. Some are unashamedly convinced that this is true. Alex Rosenberg’s The Atheist Guide to Reality was a book-length argument for scientism that promoted what he called “nice nihilism”. Somehow the perspective never quite caught on.

Different arguments can be levelled against the idea. Raymond Tallis, the philosopher and neuroscientist, rejects the modern tendency to spurn metaphysics. “Fundamental physics,” he has claimed, “Is in a metaphysical mess and needs help.” As an example he offers “recent attempts to explain how the universe came out of nothing, which rely on…the inexplicable free gift of the laws of nature waiting in the wings at the moment of creation.” To be sure, such a view has opponents – like James Ladyman and other advocates of naturalized metaphysics – but the very argument illuminates the relevance of philosophy and not just the empirical sciences.

The most egregious forms of scientism, though, are superficial and unsystematic: not embracing Rosenberg’s reductionism wholesale but extending the proper limits of the natural sciences by inflating the value of quantifiability.

Take Sam Harris’ attempt to solve the is/ought dilemma, which smuggles ethical assumptions into what he claims is a scientific argument. He is right, of course, that science can help us to determine what is good, by, for example, telling us what is most probable to maximise pleasure and minimise harm. The “is” part is not entirely unconnected from the “ought” part. Yet Harris is more tendentious when he tries to bridge the gap, writing, in The Moral Landscape:

To say that morality is arbitrary (or culturally constructed, or merely personal), because we must first assume that the well-being of conscious creatures is good, is exactly like saying that science is arbitrary (or culturally constructed, or merely personal), because we must first assume that a rational understanding of the universe is good. We need not enter either of these philosophical cul-de-sacs.

This is a strange comparison. What is at issue in Harris’ unscientific alternative universe is not the epistemological value of science but the extent to which men value epistemology. If we made a collective judgement that the sky was green it would remain blue nonetheless. If people did not value the well-being of conscious creatures, though, what scientific basis would it have as a moral criterion?

Granted, people tend to care about their own well-being, though even here conceptions of “well-being” are contentious. There are some grounds for agreement – no one would suggest it might enhance well-being to be burned alive – but elsewhere things are murkier. Naive utilitarianism has no defence against coercive wireheading.

Even trickier for Harris is the difficulty (I would say impossibility) of making a scientific case for universalism. Even if one cares about one’s own well-being, and the well-being of one’s friends and family, one might not care about the lives of strangers. Harris writes:

...to say that we ought to treat children with kindness seems identical to saying that everyone will tend to be better off if we do…

I am not at all convinced that saying we out to treat children with kindness is identical to saying everyone will tend to be better off if we do. Beneath the modern world, which is so good for many of us, are the bones of millions of starved, neglected, overworked or outright murdered children. No believer in natural selection could be confident we would be better off if those kids had received more kindness.

More significantly, Harris overlooks the question of how kind men and women are and should be towards different children. Mums and dads prioritise their childrens’ interests over those other people. One cannot scientifically determine the extent to which we should restrain natural human favouritism.

“Resisters to scientific thinking,” Steven Pinker has observed, often object that some things cannot be quantified”:

Yet unless they are willing to speak of issues that are only black and white and to foreswear using the words more, less, better and worse (and for that matter the suffix -er), they are making claims that are inherently quantifiable. 

As I have written, “better” and “worse” are not always quantifiable concepts. Nor are “uglier” and “more beautiful”. Yes, our aesthetic ideas, to some extent, are products of our evolution. Yet one could not make a solely scientific argument for Turner’s paintings being more beautiful than Thomas Kinkade’s. Thank God! What could reduce the value of a work of art more savagely than the official application of a unit of aesthetic worth? The shiver that ascends one’s spine in the presence of beauty would shrink before the presentation of scientific data.

Science alone cannot determine what is valuable, nor can it be the sole guide of rational decision-making. In his book Rationalism in Politics, Michael Oakeshott observed that knowing recipes and knowing how to cook are very different things. No sensible person would deny the value of systematic evidence in politics. Yet a danger of scientism is that it encourages analysis abstracted from experience; obscuring the complexities of practical wisdom. An example of this dangerous tendency was provided by the academic architects of the Vietnam War, who, David Halberstram suggested in his book The Best and the Brightest, created “brilliant policies that defied common sense”.

The boorish yet brilliant Nassim Nicolas Taleb has written of the randomness and risk that makes a scientific comprehension of all the variables of political calculuses difficult if not impossible. This does not make science irrelevant but illuminates the needs for robustness and restraint to protect us against hubris.

To criticise scientism is not to criticise science. One is able to acknowledge its explanatory power without being forced to accept its predominance.

Nonetheless, people who value philosophical, historical and artistic concepts should not be afraid to maintain their relevance. In his essay “The Two Cultures” CP Snow observed the separation of the sciences and the humanities. I hope there can be a “third culture”, which some aspire to build, but its existence depends on two collaborators meeting and not one culture imagining itself as a conquering hero.

Posted in Rationalism, Scepticism, Science | 3 Comments