40 years on

by Harry on December 11, 2019

Here’s a moving, brief, piece by Paul Cotterill about his dad, who flew over Germany in WWII, loved Eurovision, voted to stay in 1975, and died 40 years ago. It’s lovely.

And it reminded me that the old people in my life (none as old as Paul’s dad would have been, and none would be pleased to be designated old, but they’re older than me, and at this point that’s enough) all voted to stay, and I know that tomorrow they’ll all be voting to prevent a Tory government, and some have been working tirelessly to that end for weeks…well, decades, come to think of it.

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Sunday photoblogging: Bristol, early morning

by Chris Bertram on December 8, 2019

watershed

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Virtue signalling and vice signalling

by John Quiggin on December 5, 2019

One of the stranger terms of political abuse to enter the lexicon in recent years is “virtue signalling”. It’s used almost exclusively by the political right and covers many different kinds of statements, actions and policies, mostly associated with the culture wars.

A particularly striking feature of this is that, until recently, “virtue” was a term primarily associated with the right. Bill Bennett (Education Secretary under GW Bush) had a big hit with The Book of Virtues back in the 1990s. He’s now an apologist for Trumpism.

It’s too complicated to cover all aspects of this in one post, but it may be useful to compare two symbolic actions

  • displaying a rainbow flag; and
  • wearing a MAGA hat.

Clearly the term “virtue signalling” would be applied only to the first of these. And this is not just a matter of semantics, as it would be if the left had a corresponding term.

People who display the rainbow flag are virtue signalling in the obvious sense of the word: the flag says something like “equal marriage is a good cause. I support it, and so should you”.

Normally, the opposing response would be to say “No, it’s not a good cause, and those who support it are wrong’

The problem for the right is that they don’t have any moral standing for a claim like this, and they know it. While many rightwingers undoubtedly believe homosexuality to be sinful, they know that this belief violates norms of equal treatment and personal freedom they claim to accept, and they therefore can’t put it forward without inviting condemnation, or at least rejection, including from their own side. So, they have to resort to terms like “virtue signalling”, in this case implying an ostentatious moral superiority, combined with hypocrisy.

And the same is true across the whole range of issues summed up in the cognate term “Social Justice Warrior”.

The MAGA hat is the mirror image of this. The MAGA hat
(unlike, say, an American flag lapel pin) is not a claim, legitimate or otherwise, to be a patriotic American. Rather, it’s a deliberately offensive statement of support for Trump’s racism, misogyny and corruption.

The whole point is to “trigger the libs” as Trump Jr’s recent book puts it. No claim to virtue is being put forward. It’s a pure piece of identity politics, making the assertion that the wearers should be treated as superior without having any actual justification for this claim, moral or otherwise. Again, this can’t be spelt out; being an explicit white nationalist remains beyond the pale, and the conduct of the Trumpists defies any credible defense.

So, the intellectual apologists of the right can only resort to tu quoque, making the claim, in various forms, that the left is just as bad as their own side. This started with the Republican War on Science, but is now virtually universal.

The point of ccusing other people of “virtue signalling” is to make this claim, without having to say what is wrong with the virtue being signalled.

Virtue signalling and hypocrisy

Most of the time, the accusation of “virtue signalling” includes an implicit connotation of “hypocrisy”. But then, why introduce a new and obscure term for something we have known about for millennia?

The answer is that hypocrisy is a specific accusation that can be backed up, or refuted, by evidence. For example, if a church leader who claims to be a Christian advocates locking up innocent children, the case is pretty clear-cut.

By contrast, “virtue signalling” is an insinuation rather than a factual claim. It doesn’t need to be backed up, and usually isn’t. If the person accused of virtue signalling on the basis of a symbolic action shows that they are in fact making costly efforts in support of their cause, these actions are just added to the charge sheet.

The charge of virtue signalling doesn’t rely on the actual inconsistencies of individuals. Rather it relies on in-group shared negative perceptions of out-groups (inner city latte sipping lefties and so on).

To restate the central point, accusations of virtue signalling aren’t meant to promote actual virtue over fraudulent signals: rather to argue against virtue and in favour of vice. Those who use the accusation want to score points in favor of behavior they aren’t willing to defend openly.

In all of this, it’s worth remembering the observation of La Rouchefoucald that “hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue”. The accusation of virtue signalling represents the refusal of vice to pay this tribute.

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Ersatz Better Angels?

by John Holbo on December 4, 2019

Thanks for the good comments on yesterday’s post. Today, a brief follow-up. A discerning FB correspondent remarked I should have made the connection with my previous post – from way back in May! O, bad blogger am I – about my so-called ‘steelwool scrub’ fallacy.

These are both real, similar, they overlap, yet seem semi-distinct. Or perhaps the two ways of bringing it out just bring out different aspects of the same process. Hmmm. [click to continue…]

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Vavilovian Philosophical Mimicry

by John Holbo on December 3, 2019

It’s been months since I posted! I’ve migrated to twitter. (The flesh is weak – but feel free to follow me!)

I’m going to try to start doing the sane thing. Long posts at CT, like God’s infinite mind intended. Short thoughts on Twitter, like humanity’s mayfly attention span tolerates.

Today I propose a new term in political theory. Vavilovian philosophical mimicry! [click to continue…]

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Redemption Arc

by Maria on November 30, 2019

In June last year I gave a talk at a prize launch in Cambridge. Afterwards, I talked to a young man called Jack Merritt. Clever, energetic, and idealistic in the best possible sense, he said he was involved in some kind of criminal justice project and would like to talk more about it. I didn’t quite catch what it was about but handed over my card. A week later, an invitation arrived to speak at an event he was running in the autumn. The topic was to be something about technology and justice. Jack mentioned a piece I’d written about the Internet of Things and wondered if I could do something similar, but for his audience, a mix of current and recently released prisoners taking part in an education scheme run by Cambridge University. The project was called Learning Together. It gets university students and prisoners to study criminology together, and it’s based on reciprocity and respect.

I’ve always believed in the principle of rehabilitation, of course. Sorrow, regret, forgiveness, redemption; if we don’t practice these things individually we can’t live collectively in safety and in hope. Looking at the website, it was just the sort of project we need to have and should hope people are there to run. But I had misgivings about my own moral position. Someone I love deeply had, not long before, been the victim of a serious criminal offence. The offender was now behind bars.

Some things cannot and must not be forgiven. They don’t ever go away. Trauma is outside of time. It is always now and it has always just happened, even as we learn to build more of ourselves around it to make it smaller. There is no tidy sequential way to process, resolve and forgive. It can never have not happened. We can never leave it behind. But nor can we live inside it daily and survive. I don’t know a way to wish wholeness to those who have done such wrongs and still be a person who willingly carries some of the pain of the person I love who was hurt. I carry that pain out of love and out of my own need, because it is what is given to me to do. I don’t have the right to forgive trespasses against others and nor do I want to.

And yet we cannot throw people away.

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Seeing Like a Finite State Machine

by Henry on November 25, 2019

Reading this tweet by Maciej Ceglowski makes me want to set down a conjecture that I’ve been entertaining for the last couple of years (in part thanks to having read Maciej’s and Kieran’s previous work as well as talking lots to Marion Fourcade).

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Sunday metaphotoblogging: Wet plate collodion class

by Chris Bertram on November 24, 2019

Wet plate collodion workshop!

I spent yesterday at a wet-plate collodion workshop. Wet-plate collodion was the process invented by sculptor Frederick Scott Archer in 1851 and, though it became obsolete very quickly, was widely used in the United States to produced cheap tintypes, including during the civil war, and by Julia Margaret Cameron. It was quite a thing to do. First we had to clean our 8×10” plates meticulously using a mix of chalk dust and alcohol and then we practised balancing and moving a marble on the plate so that we’d be ready to spread the collodion suspension acrosse the surface evenly (you tip a pool into the centre and then move it around to coat the plate without going back on yourself). Then the plate gets dipped in a silver compound to make it sensitive and it gets put into a plate holder for a view camera. The view camera (a big beast) is set up and once you are ready to expose the plate you pull on a sheet that blocks the light whilst covering the lens with something (as a makeshift shutter) and then expose for the appropriate length of time. Conditions were poor – overcast, rainy and cold – bad for the chemicals and bad for a process that relies on high levels of UV light, so my portrait (of another class member) here took 35 seconds. And then it is back into the darkroom, pouring on the developer, waiting for the image to appear and then fixing it and washing it (and hoping the delicate emulsion doesn’t just run off down the plughole). It is a direct positive process, but actually you can see the image as positive or negative depending on whether you have a black or white background behind the plate. Great fun! I’ve heard it said that there are more photographs now taken every 5 seconds than during the entire 19th century: I can see why.

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Russia or California ?

by John Quiggin on November 23, 2019

Would Republican voters rather live under a government like that of Russia, or one like that of California? This sounds a bit like those polling questions we used to laugh at, such as the 2009 finding that 14% of New Jersey Republicans thought Obama was Antichrist and 15% weren’t sure. But it actually reflects the choice Republican voters may well be facing.

Update: I was worried that I might be going over the top with this post. Immediately after putting it up, I found Bret Stephens saying much the same thing, (substituting Ukraine for Russia) in the New York Times. Not that I need Stephens’ endorsement, but obviously these thoughts are in the air. Also, I think Noah Smith mentioned the California scenario a while back, but I couldn’t find where. End update

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A cage went in search of a bird

by Maria on November 18, 2019

Publishing here my afterword for “2030, A New Vision for Europe”, the manifesto for European Data Protection Supervisor, Giovanni Buttarelli, who died this summer. The manifesto was developed by Christian D’Cunha, who works in the EDPS office, based on his many conversations with Giovanni.

“A cage went in search of a bird”

Franz Kafka certainly knew how to write a story. The eight-word aphorism he jotted down in a notebook a century ago reveals so much about our world today. Surveillance goes in search of subjects. Use-cases go in search of profit. Walled gardens go in search of tame customers. Data-extractive monopolies go in search of whole countries, of democracy itself, to envelop and re-shape, to cage and control. The cage of surveillance technology stalks the world, looking for birds to trap and monetise. And it cannot stop itself. The surveillance cage is the original autonomous vehicle, driven by financial algorithms it doesn’t control. So when we describe our data-driven world as ‘Kafka-esque’, we are speaking a deeper truth than we even guess.

Giovanni knew this. He knew that data is power and that the radical concentration of power in a tiny number of companies is not a technocratic concern for specialists but an existential issue for our species. Giovanni’s manifesto, Privacy 2030: A Vision for Europe, goes far beyond data protection. It connects the dots to show how data-maximisation exploits power asymmetries to drive global inequality. It spells out how relentless data-processing actually drives climate change. Giovanni’s manifesto calls for us to connect the dots in how we respond, to start from the understanding that sociopathic data-extraction and mindless computation are the acts of a machine that needs to be radically reprogrammed.

Running through the manifesto is the insistence that we focus not on Big Tech’s shiny promises to re-make the social contract that states seem so keen to slither out of, but on the child refugee whose iris-scan cages her in a camp for life. It insists we look away from flashy productivity Powerpoints and focus on the low-wage workers trapped in bullying drudgery by revenue-maximising algorithms. The manifesto’s underlying ethics insist on the dignity of people, the idea that we have inherent worth, that we live for ourselves and for those we love, and to do good; and not as data-sources to be monitored, monetised and manipulated.
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The architecture of exclusion

by Chris Bertram on November 11, 2019

I have another piece on the LRB blog about the deaths of migrants in Essex recently. It was important to register a correction because early information about the nationalities of the dead was incorrect, but it also gives an opportunity to say something more about why migrants have to use people smugglers if they want to escape persecution or seek out opportunities in wealthy democracies.

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Sunday photoblogging: Montpellier courtyard

by Chris Bertram on November 10, 2019

Montpellier courtyard

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Oops

by Maria on November 9, 2019

Historic apologies get a lot of pushback, both from those who point out that saying sorry only happens when everyone who did it is dead, and nothing is ever learned, and from the fundamentally unapologetic amongst history’s apparent winners. Apologising for something you’ve just done or are about to do takes a lot more guts. But I’ve been wondering over the past couple of weeks whether Brexit negotiations with Ireland especially, and with the rest of the EU would have gone differently if at the beginning of major speeches, press conferences and working meetings the UK interlocutors had had a policy of starting with something like’

“We’re sorry. We know you didn’t ask for Brexit and that it harms you and costs you. We’re still doing it, but we acknowledge and are sorry about its unasked for consequences for others.”

And then getting on with the business of the meeting. Of course, to even conceive of acknowledging the harm and cost of brexit to others would require fundamentally different people to have been in charge. But even the act of saying this might have changed the understanding of those imposing their harms on the rest of us, and would certainly have done a lot to make other countries and institutions want to play nice. We’re emotional creatures, at the end of the day, and it’s more than just manners to acknowledge the harm we cause to others. The life you save just might be your own, etc. etc.

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My colleagues put together a free MOOC that gives an introduction to the relationships between economic inequality and democracy (in particular political equality). I saw them working very hard over the months – it’s a hell of a lot of work to make a MOOC, even more so if you do this as a voluntary add-on to your regular work. Hence I’d like to salute them for their efforts, and share this with you since I’m a big fan of all things open access. I do not doubt that this will be interesting for people who are new to this question – which does not include most of the readers of this blog since we’ve been discussing these issues here repeatedly. But if you know people who might be interested, do let them now. There is no required background, and the MOOC is offered for free. More information below the fold.
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George Monbiot writes movingly about how the habit of Britain’s (well, mostly England’s) upper middle and upper classes of sending their children to boarding school from the age of seven onward causes profound emotional damage and has created a damaged ruling class. He’s not the first to notice this. Virginia Woolf drew a very clear line between the brutalisation of little boys in a loveless environment and their assumption as adults into the brutal institutions of colonialism. It’s long been clear to many that the UK is ruled by many people who think their damage is a strength, and who seek to perpetuate it.

I was at a talk last week about psychoanalysis and The Lord of the Flies. The speaker convincingly argued that much of what happens in that story happens because most of the boys have been wrenched from solid daily love before they were old enough to recreate it. It’s a pretty compelling lens to see that novel through and it reminded me of a teaching experience from a couple of years ago.

I was teaching a post-grad course on politics and cybersecurity and did a lecture on the Leviathan and how its conception of the conditions that give rise to order embed some pretty strong assumptions about the necessity of coercion. Basically how if you’re the state and in your mind you’re fighting against the return of a persistent warre of all against all, your conception of human behaviour can lead you to over-react. Also some stuff about English history around the time of Hobbes. I may have included some stills from Game of Thrones. During the class discussion, one person from, uh, a certain agency, said that yes, he could see the downside, but that Hobbes was essentially how he viewed the world.

Listening again to the tale of sensible centrist Ralph, poor, benighted (but actually very much loved by his Aunty and from a solid emotional background) Piggy, the little uns, and the utter depravity of it all – and also having forgotten the chilling final scene where the naval officer basically tells Ralph he’s let himself down – something occurred to me.

Lord of the Flies is many people’s touchstone for what would happen if order goes away, even though we have some good social science and other studies about how, at least in the short to medium term, people are generally quite altruistic and reciprocally helpful in the aftermath of disaster. Lord of the Flies is assumed by many to be a cautionary tale about order and the state of nature, when in reality it’s the agonised working out of the unbearable fears of a group of systematically traumatised and loveless children.

Lord of the Flies isn’t an origin story about the human condition and the need for ‘strong’ states, though we treat it as such, but rather is a horror story about the specific, brutalised pathology of the English ruling class.

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