Posts by author:

Henry

The Man with the Two-Storey Brain

by Henry on July 25, 2018

Since Holbo is encroaching on my territory by writing about Dark Web Intellectualism, turnabout is fair play. Paul Krugman’s knowledge of science fiction is vast and impressive. Still, I can’t imagine that when he tweeted this:


he knew that he was invoking one of the great (if sadly little known in this Age of Bronze) recurring characters from 2000AD’s Tharg’s Future Shocks. Alan Moore’s Abelard Snazz was the Man with the Two-Story Brain, or, as we’d say today, a Very Stable Genius, who specialized in handling “complex problems with even more complicated solutions.” For example – Snazz’s More Robots Less Crime approach, as described by Wikipedia:

On the planet Twopp, crime is so rampant that even the Prime Minister, Chancellor, and Commissioner are robbed down to their underwear on their way to visit double-brained, four-eyed “Mutant Supermind” Abelard Snazz, President of Think, Inc. The officials of Twopp ask Snazz for a solution to the planet’s crime problem. Snazz’s answer is to create a race of giant police robots, heavily armed and programmed to make unlimited arrests. Snazz is hailed as a genius by his sycophantic robot assistant, Edwin. Unfortunately, the police robots are so efficient that they arrest all of the criminals on the planet, and continue to fill out their arrest quotient by arresting citizens for minor offences, such as breaking the laws of etiquette, good taste, and grammar. With everybody getting arrested, the officials return to Snazz for help. Snazz creates a race of giant criminal robots to keep the robot police busy, thus saving innocent people from being arrested. However, the perfectly matched conflict between the robot police and robot criminals creates an all-out war which kills scores of innocent bystanders. After another visit from the officials, Snazz’s latest solution is to create a race of little robot innocent bystanders to suffer in the humans’ stead. This saves the people from harm, but it also leaves the planet Twopp overcrowded with robots. The humans abandon the planet, and when Snazz announces his idea of building a giant robot planet for them, the enraged officials have had enough and eject Snazz and Edwin into outer space.

Wikipedia fails to mention the arrests of children for removing the “do not remove” tags from mattresses, which particularly impressed me as a child. Still, the proposal for building a giant robot planet is pretty good.

The Enrightenment

by Henry on July 23, 2018

Jacob Hamburger has an article in the LA Review of Books on the “Intellectual Dark Web” which is really very sharp, but ends up in the wrong place. [click to continue…]

Would be/Wouldn’t be

by Henry on July 18, 2018

The Death of Stalin and the Trump administration have plenty in common.

What should I be reading?

by Henry on July 4, 2018

Having sent an academic book off to the publisher, I’m in what I hope are the final stages of writing a very long proposal for a commercial book based on this essay (the book will probably have less PKD, and more generic weirdness). For the last nine months or so, my reading material has been mostly recent US history, American paranoia (Jesse Walker’s book is very good), changes in American media markets, how Facebook actually works, the theory and practice of bots, history of traditionalism and lots and lots of creepy stuff on the WWW (Dark Enlightenment, MRA, GamerGate and other assorted varieties of sleaze and vileness). The result is that I’m desperate for new and different books to read, after I get the damn thing finished, as a class of a carrot to lure me over the finish line.

Books I know that I really want to read include:

Ruthanna Emrys – Deep Roots (have an ARC of it already, and it looks very, very good).
Vera Tobin – Elements of Surprise (cognitive psychology meets literature).
Dave Hutchinson – Shelter (though I’m looking forward even more to the next book in his Europe series)
Judea Pearl – The Book of Why (how we need causal reasoning and what it means).

Books that I don’t know that I really want to read, but should know, are multitudinous. Tell me about them.

Ocasio-Cortez beats Joe Crowley

by Henry on June 27, 2018

Talk away

Breakdown values

by Henry on June 26, 2018

Today’s Supreme Court decision upholding the travel ban has renewed discussion of Mitch McConnell’s decision to prevent any Obama nominee to the Court from receiving consideration, and whether Democrats should run on packing the Court to redress this. If they did, they’d surely be greeted with deploring howls from centrist opinion makers in a way that Mitch McConnell was not. Michelle Goldberg points to a similar imbalance in the “civility” debate in a really great NYT piece today.

Naturally, all this has led to lots of pained disapproval from self-appointed guardians of civility. A Washington Post editorial urged the protesters to think about the precedent they are setting. “How hard is it to imagine, for example, people who strongly believe that abortion is murder deciding that judges or other officials who protect abortion rights should not be able to live peaceably with their families?” it asked.

Of course, this is not hard to imagine at all, since abortion opponents have assassinated abortion providers in their homes and churches, firebombed their clinics and protested at their children’s schools. The Roman Catholic Church has shamed politicians who support abortion rights by denying them communion. The failure to acknowledge this history is a sign of the reflexive false balance that makes it hard for the mainstream media to grapple with the asymmetric extremism of the Republican Party.

One of the big disputes among liberals and the left today is over norms. Some people who hate Trump, hate him because he is trampling over the norms that have previously restrained presidents and politics, and want a return to the status quo ante. Others hate Trump because they see him as the manifestation of a problem that has been there for a very long time – that the norms governing US politics have been systematically imbalanced in ways that favor the right, and that we’d be better off without them. This dispute has plenty of political dimensions – one of them is strategic. You can think of norms, like any informal rule or institution, from a game theoretic perspective, and see them as an equilibrium that represents the relative bargaining power of the two main parties in American politics. In this kind of analysis, as per Jack Knight and others, relative bargaining power depends on the breakdown values – the payoffs that people receive in the event that no agreement is reached. The less that I care over whether an agreement is reached or a norm is maintained, the more bargaining power I will have to shape that agreement or norm, so that it favors my interests rather than the other party’s.

Much of the implicit argument of ‘normcore’ people on the liberal side of politics has been that liberals and the left need these norms more than the right, because without them, we’d be even worse off than we are. In other words, liberals and the left are in a strategically weak position. They want to reach an agreement far more than conservatives do. Accordingly, conservatives are going to be able to bargain harder, because they are more indifferent to breakdown than liberals or left-leaning people are. From the normcore perspective, even if it is going to be a pretty cruddy deal, it is better than no deal at all.

But there’s another way to think about it. The more unbearable that status quo politics are, the less value there is to liberals and the left in reaching an accommodation. Under this logic, things are pretty shit already. They might be even more shit if we refuse to play ball, but who knows? Things couldn’t be much worse than they are – so why not try something different? The more that norms become a threadbare justification for a situation that is effectively that preferred by the side that is prepared to play hardball politics, the more likely that the other side is going to want to start playing hardball politics too. Their breakdown values are going to be higher when everyday politics is visibly breaking down.

I’ve seen (although I can’t find it right now) polling data suggesting that liberals, who have historically been much more interested in reaching agreement with the other side than conservatives, have now converged upon conservative preferences. The various self-organizing groupings around the country don’t seem to me, from what time I’ve spent with them, to be particularly ideological (for better or for worse). What they do seem to be is completely uninterested in compromise with the Republican party in its current configuration. Leaders like Pelosi and Schumer seem to be more attuned to the people writing hand-wringing editorials about civility than to the people whom they’re supposed to be representing. That’s probably not going to work out too great for them.

The Example of Charles Krauthammer

by Henry on June 22, 2018

There’s a case to be made, though a limited one, for de mortuis nil nisi bonum. There isn’t any such case for actively misrepresenting the public record of a writer, as Peter Wehner does for Charles Krauthammer in today’s New York Times. Wehner says:

In an age when political commentary is getting shallower and more vituperative, we will especially miss Charles’s style of writing — calm, carefully constructed arguments based on propositions and evidence, tinged with a cutting wit and wry humor but never malice.

None of this is true. Krauthammer’s writing was a wasp’s nest of chewed over paper, spittle and venomous indignation. It employed spleen as a poor substitute for critical intelligence, characteristically and systematically misrepresented the evidence to the point where it was impossible not to think that he was deliberately lying, and was thoroughly riddled with malice. His vicious insinuation that Francis Fukuyama was an anti-Semite is one example of the last. His mendacious vendetta against Hans Blix, who had the impertinence to be right about WMD in Iraq (Krauthammer later preferred to brush his own WMD claims under the carpet), is another. There were many more. The best that can be said is that Krauthammer was a clear writer, not in the sense that he was usually a clear thinker, but that it was clear who his enemies were; that he was intelligent enough to have known better, and that very, very occasionally, he did. While his personal qualities may have made up for his faults as a writer to those who loved and admired him, as a public figure and as a public intellectual, he was and will remain an example to be avoided rather than emulated.

Neo-Marxism

by Henry on May 23, 2018

A couple of days ago, Andrew Sullivan delivered a blast against “neo-Marxism”:

The idea that African-Americans have some responsibility for their own advancement, that absent fatherhood and a cultural association of studying with “acting white” are part of the problem — themes Obama touched upon throughout his presidency — is now almost a definition of racism itself. And the animating goal of progressive politics is unvarnished race and gender warfare. What matters before anything else is what race and gender you are, and therefore what side you are on. And in this neo-Marxist worldview, fully embraced by a hefty majority of the next generation, the very idea of America as a liberating experiment, dissolving tribal loyalties in a common journey toward individual opportunity, is anathema.

There is no arc of history here, just an eternal grinding of the racist and sexist wheel. What matters is that nonwhites fight and defeat white supremacy, that women unite and defeat oppressive masculinity, and that the trans supplant and redefine the cis. What matters is equality of outcome, and it cannot be delayed. All the ideas that might complicate this — meritocracy, for example, or a color-blind vision of justice, or equality of opportunity rather than outcome — are to be mocked until they are dismantled. And the political goal is not a post-racial fusion, a unity of the red and the blue, but the rallying of the victims against the victimizers, animated by the core belief that a non-“white” and non-male majority will at some point come, after which the new hierarchies can be imposed by fiat.

[click to continue…]

Witches!

by Henry on May 18, 2018

This New York Times profile of Jordan Peterson is a masterful exercise in giving the subject sufficient hemp to twine into rope and then loop around his neck. This bit provides a nice excuse to talk about one of my favorite books in the social sciences.

Mr. Peterson illustrates his arguments with copious references to ancient myths — bringing up stories of witches, biblical allegories and ancient traditions. I ask why these old stories should guide us today.

“It makes sense that a witch lives in a swamp. Yeah,” he says. “Why?”

It’s a hard one.

“Right. That’s right. You don’t know. It’s because those things hang together at a very deep level. Right. Yeah. And it makes sense that an old king lives in a desiccated tower.”

But witches don’t exist, and they don’t live in swamps, I say.

“Yeah, they do. They do exist. They just don’t exist the way you think they exist. They certainly exist. You may say well dragons don’t exist. It’s, like, yes they do — the category predator and the category dragon are the same category. It absolutely exists. It’s a superordinate category. It exists absolutely more than anything else. In fact, it really exists. What exists is not obvious. You say, ‘Well, there’s no such thing as witches.’ Yeah, I know what you mean, but that isn’t what you think when you go see a movie about them. You can’t help but fall into these categories. There’s no escape from them.”

[click to continue…]

Dark Web Centrism

by Henry on May 9, 2018

My new piece in Vox:


Bari Weiss, an opinion writer and editor at the New York Times, created a stir this week with a long article on a group that calls itself the “Intellectual Dark Web.” The coinage referred to a loose collective of intellectuals and media personalities who believe they are “locked out” of mainstream media, in Weiss’s words, and who are building their own ways to communicate with readers.

The thinkers profiled included the neuroscientist and prominent atheist writer Sam Harris, the podcaster Dave Rubin, and University of Toronto psychologist and Chaos Dragon maven Jordan Peterson.

The article provoked disbelieving guffaws from critics, who pointed out that cable news talking heads like Ben Shapiro have hardly been purged. Many words could be used to describe Sam Harris, but ”silenced” is not plausibly one of them.

Some assertions in the piece deserved the ridicule. But Weiss accurately captured a genuine perception among the people she is writing about (and, perhaps, for). They do feel isolated and marginalized, and with some justification. However, the reasons are quite different from those suggested by Weiss. She asserts that they have been marginalized because of their willingness to take on all topics, and determination not to “[parrot] what’s politically convenient.”

Quinn Slobodian – Globalists

by Henry on May 3, 2018

I’ve been promising a piece on Quinn Slobodian’s fantastic intellectual history of neo-liberalism in the international arena, Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism. Here it is. The short version: if you have any interest in these topics, you should buy it. The long version is below the fold. [click to continue…]

The public choice of public choice

by Henry on May 1, 2018

Years ago, I joked about coming up with “a simple public choice explanation for the emergence of public choice”. Now this: [click to continue…]

Gelman’s Law

by Henry on April 26, 2018

Here:

A quick rule of thumb is that when someone seems to be acting like a jerk, an economist will defend the behavior as being the essence of morality, but when someone seems to be doing something nice, an economist will raise the bar and argue that he’s not being nice at all.

I’ve spotted two instances already on Twitter since seeing this post this morning. See how many you can find!

The firing of Kevin Williamson has led, predictably, to outrage from other conservatives, and in particular from anti-Trumpers like Bill Kristol and Erick Erickson. I can’t help thinking that much of their outrage is rooted in fear. Conservative intellectuals are in a very awkward historical position.

It is an unfortunate, but fairly obvious truth that most intellectuals, both on the left or right, don’t have particularly original ideas. Go to the Aspen Ideas Festival, or TED, or any of their ilk and you won’t find much that is genuinely surprising or exciting. Instead, you will find a lot of people whose stock-in-trade is not so much innovation as influence.

This used to be true in some quite specific ways of conservative intellectuals. The conservative movement perceived the need for intellectuals, both to hold their own fractious coalition together through ‘fusionism’ and the like, and to justify their goals to liberals, who dominated the space of serious policy discussions, and could possibly stop them. Liberal policy types, for their part, needed to understand what was happening among conservatives, and perhaps hoped to influence it a little. The result was that conservative intellectuals were in a highly advantageous structural position, serving as the primary link between two different spheres, which didn’t otherwise come much into contact. As network sociology 101 will tell you, this allowed them a fair amount of arbitrage and enough slack that e.g. people like Jonah Goldberg were treated as serious thinkers.

Now, however, the game is up, thanks to an unfortunate concatenation of events. Conservative intellectuals defected en masse from Trump, thinking that it was a fairly cheap gesture of independence, but Trump got elected. Not only did this damage these intellectuals’ personal ties with the new administration and the conservative movement, but it opened up the way for a conservatism that basically didn’t give a fuck about policy ideas and the need to seem ‘serious’ any more. The result is that conservative intellectuals don’t have all that much influence over conservatism any more.

The problem is that without such influence over conservatives, these intellectuals’ capital with liberals and the left is rapidly diminishing too. If conservative intellectuals don’t have much of an audience within conservatism itself, why should people on the opposite side listen to them any more? Their actual ideas are … mostly not that strong. Some of them are good writers (David Frum, for example), but good writing only goes so far. The only plausible case for paying attention to conservative-intellectuals-qua-conservative-intellectuals, is that perhaps the pendulum will swing back after Trump, and the old regime be restored. That might happen, but you wouldn’t want to betting serious money on it.

If this analysis is right (and it obviously may not be) Stephens, Williamson (up until this afternoon) and the others are running on fumes. The adherents of old-style centrist liberalism might still have some nostalgia for the old days when men were real men, women were real women, and associate editors of the New Republic were real associate editors of the New Republic. But that’s a poorish substitute for actual influence and an actual audience, especially when the actual liberals and leftwingers that are the audience for publications like the Atlantic don’t want anything to do with these people. The very brightest will probably be OK – but it’ll be a cold enough future for the others.

Sam Harris and the ideology of reason

by Henry on March 30, 2018

There’s lot’s that has been said in the last couple of days about Sam Harris, and not much to say about Charles Murray, race, and IQ that hasn’t already been said over the decades. But the whole tone of his writing in this exchange, aggrieved postscript and all, is worth noting briefly as a specific example of a broader phenomenon. One of the minor plagues of our time is a specific flavor of Enlightenment Man Rationalism – see Harris, Dawkins, Pinker – in which the Enlightenment Man (gender specificity intended) casts himself as the bold-honest truth-seeker, who is willing to follow reason wherever it takes him, even if (and perhaps especially if) this upsets the vulgar prejudices of the right-thinking herd. Quite often (as in Pinker’ recent book) this is linked to a particular ideal of the Enlightenment, some of the rhetorical aspects of which do support the image of the lonely man of truth standing against the mob. [click to continue…]