Frankly, Rationalists Should Be Less Aspirational…

Scott Alexander writes with some frustration on smug critics of the “rationalist” movement, who, for him, criticise its supposed utopianism and arrogance without acknowledging its efforts to avoid such errors. I think there is value in their attempts to objectively analyse data and investigate the biases that make such efforts difficult. Even so, I remain critical. He writes:

…consider the possibility that the rationalist community has a plan somewhat more interesting than just “remain blissfully unaware of past failures and continue to repeat them again and again”.

Later adding:

We’re almost certainly still making horrendous mistakes that people thirty years from now will rightly criticize us for. But they’re new mistakes. They’re original and exciting mistakes…

The word “exciting” does not excite me here. Mistakes can be exciting in the science lab, where errors in experiments do not have significant adverse implications. Mistakes in the wider world can be calamitous, and leave people too poor, sick and, well, dead for excitement.

My problem with rationalists is less that they repeat mistakes than they put themselves into positions where they unnecessarily risk inventing new ones. Advocacy for everything from open borders to polyamorous relationships strike me as being examples of this inclination towards offering grand ideas to solve problems that did not need solutions. (If someone wants to be polyamorous that is their business, but the comment you can find through the link is an obnoxious example of the tendency of some rationalists to act as if it is the most desirable condition. I do wonder if they know how badly it can be tried.)

More Oakeshottian acceptance of the familiar and sufficient helps us to avoid the most egregious errors of overanalysis and optimism. But to learn this rationalists might have to stop being so consciously and ambitiously “rational”; to stop abstracting, questioning and deconstructing and engage with their surroundings at the risk of indulging those tribal and presentist biases that often make life worthwhile. Most of them do this already but they should learn to love it.

Posted in Rationalism, Scepticism, Uncategorized | 7 Comments

Cat-Owning Journalists Lecture Married Man…

Vice President Mike Pence has caused controversy by saying he does not eat alone with women other than his wife and he does not drink alcohol outside of her presence. Me, I thought the second claim was the weird one. I never want to eat with other women if I have a partner but not drinking with the boys? That is another thing.

What about the dining business then? Firstly, I want to note a peculiar trend of people describing their own circumstances and then being attacked as if they had demanded that everyone else adopt them. Pence said these were his arrangements, not that they should be universal. Is it not conservatives who find it difficult to live and let live? Get off his back.

People who have mocked Pence underestimate temptation – not just sexual temptation, which, in our pathetic culture, is all we have heard about, but romantic temptation. Marriage, I suspect (as someone who has never been there) is to some extent reliant on people not just being in love with their husbands or wives but repressing those parts of themselves that could love anybody else, or, indeed, even imagine loving anybody. I do not think I am projecting when I claim that spending time with people of the opposite sex can make this more difficult, and if Vice President Pence believes it would for him I think he is commendable.

Traditionalists should have to courage to admit that lasting monogamous relationships are far from easy or ideal. If they were then Britain and the United States would have not have one in two marriages ending in divorce, with far more people going separate ways and never being married. All couples are different and will have different boundaries but at the very least it is more respectable to be overcautious than to end up boffing interns in the Oval Office – still less sending naked selfies to teenage women.

Posted in Family, Sex, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Sad Old Man Syndrome…

I’m perversely fascinated with the Twitter biography of leave.EU communications director Andy Wigmore.


Where to start? I thought only ageing masochists called themselves “bad boys” – and if he thinks Trump feels anything more than vague insecurity about his hair loss when he hears the word “Wigmore” he is fooling himself.

The British right suffers from SOMS (Sad Old Man Syndrome), a curious disorder that makes grown men crave attention, bicker petulantly and, in general, behave as if politics is a giant playground. UKIP is imploding like a 5-a-side football in which every each spotty goon wants to be the next Lionel Messi and I think it will spread more and more to the Conservatives. Politicians are especially vulnerable to this because politics attracts people with complexes about power.

Posted in Britain, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

NLSJ, Motherhood Edition…

One aspect of the neoliberal subsumption of feminist ideas is the demeaning of motherhood. Raising children, it is often argued or implied, is not enough for one’s existence to be meaningful. One must also work.

That is true for some people, of course – and many other have no choice in the matter – but for everyone? No. The idea that work need more be meaningful than family is so ludicrous that it crumbles on inspection. Families, after all, are something many people pay enormous sums of money to maintain. Work is something we are paid to do. Even if, like me, you are blessed with enjoyable and fulfulling work you expect money in return. No one is so mercenary about their children. Why? Well, there’s no money in them. But they are also more meaningful.

I almost admire Sarrah Marquand, of the Australian Daily Telegraph, for being so blunt about the monetary motives behind her idea to ban stay-at-home motherhood. It causes “potentially large losses to the economy” she says. So, get women out of their homes, away from their kids and into offices. Think of how much more fulfilling their lives will become. And think about the rise in the GDP!

Posted in Family, Uncategorized | 4 Comments

Neither Forgiving Nor Forgetting…

Sinn Féin, under the leadership of Adams and McGuinness, pulled off a neat trick, earning praise for their role in ending Northern Irish violence while escaping blame for having caused it in the first place. It makes a lot sense for politicians to accept this little game now decades of appalling violence have ended. But what is politic can also be disingenuous.

To be sure, this picture is by no means black and white. Republicans, and Catholics in general, had faced grave abuse, at the hands of loyalists and of the British army. (In the Falls Curfew, for example, four civilians were shot for doing nothing more than being outside.) I can understand why alienated Catholics were attracted to the IRA, and admire their courage, ingenuity and selflessness. They were daring, dedicated, romantic and wrong. Their goal of a united Ireland was arrogant and absurd as a minority within a minority, and their methods, which included bombs in restaurants and pubs, and murders of young women and old men as well as British soldiers, were abonimable.

Adams and McGuinness earned themselves some credit by accepting negotiations, and dragging their comrades towards a peace settlement. Even if they thought the IRA was doomed militarily, at least Britain was spared the horrors of its death throes. Still, the credit one deserves for ending violence is limited if one has caused it. How much thanks should you give me if I stop punching you?

What disgusts me, even if I respect their political gifts, is the extent to which they have avoided blame. Adams, especially, behaves as if the IRA were always saints and never sinners. Sinn Féin still lament the shooting of IRA members in Gibraltar, which, in fairness, might have been unjustifiable. But no one denies that the IRA men and women were planning to bomb the weekly parade of a military band. Would that have been more legitimate than their killings? I propose that it would have been less.

In one article, in 2012, Adams referred to an event where “two armed British soldiers attacked mourners” but were “overpowered and killed by the IRA”. Corporals Howse and Wood had blundered into a funeral procession when IRA members, enraged by an attack on a funeral three days before, pulled them out of their car, stripped, punched, kicked, shot and stabbed them. A priest who intervened was told to stop or be murdered as well.

I understand why McGuinness is being praised, having died, after a longish life, of natural causes. But I hope we do not forget the people who died young, in violence, for no good reason.

Posted in Britain | 4 Comments

Poundshop Patriotism…

In some ways, the idea of a Royal Yacht is an effective metaphor for Britain. We have all but given up on the Royal Navy, once a symbol of British innovation, adventurousness and power, but we might invest in a Royal Yacht: a pretty, quaint and rather pointless little plaything for the rich.

I will give Boris Johnson a little credit for suggesting that it could be funded by donors and not the state. But, regardless, this could be the clearest case of what I call poundshop patriotism: a nationalist attitude that is less concerned with the health of our institutions that with little novelties: a Royal Yacht; a Blue passport; a poppy that demands and signifies less than a handkerchief. It might play well with the papers but it’s useless.

Posted in Britain | 4 Comments

On Inevitablism…

The socialist author and academic Mark Fisher, who died earlier this year, wrote an engaging little book called Capitalist Realism which argued that neoliberalism has sustained itself by propogating the belief that there is no alternative to its ideas and institutions. Of course, I don’t think there is an alternative to capitalism – but capitalism can take different forms and I agree that Western culture has absurd conceptions of what is and is not thinkable. Preemptive war, for example, is always on the table, but rail nationalisation is an eccentric idea.

Thinking about Fisher’s book, after his tragic death, it struck me that inevitablism is one of the more powerful weapons in our rhetoric. It entails a sly shift from what is desirable to what is unavoidable; disheartening one’s opponents with the thought that resistance is doomed. Liberals use it, with their “wrong side of history” rhetoric. Emmanuel Macron, for example, claims that Europe “must get used to” mass immigration. But he means that it should. Hiding the should-must gap is what makes inevitablism work.

Posted in Politics, Rhetoric, Uncategorized | 7 Comments