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The Tech Elite’s Favorite Pop Intellectual: Julia Galef on bringing the rationalist movement to the mainstream.

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Benjamin Wallace writes in New York:

n 2012, Julia Galef, the host of a podcast called Rationally Speaking, moved from New York to Berkeley to help found a nonprofit called the Center for Applied Rationality. It was the early days of the rationalist movement: a community formed on the internet whose adherents strove to strip their minds of cognitive biases and subject all spheres of life to the glare of scientific thought and probabilistic reasoning. Galef and her CFAR co-founders — mathematician Anna Salamon, research scientist Andrew Critch, and math and science educator Michael Smith — wanted to translate these principles to everyday life. They did this through multiday workshops, where participants could learn to make better decisions using techniques like “goal factoring” (breaking a goal into smaller pieces) and “paired debugging” (in which two people help identify each other’s blind spots and distortions).

Over the next several years, as rationalism became not only the de facto brand of self-help in Silicon Valley but also an intellectual movement followed by pundits and executives alike, CFAR’s profile grew; soon, the nonprofit was running workshops across the country and teaching classes at Facebook and the Thiel Fellowship. But for CFAR’s founders, it was the empirical confirmation of their work that mattered most. Early on, they began conducting a controlled study to determine whether the workshops were demonstrably helpful. They surveyed 40 participants, assessing their before-and-after answers to questions like “How together is your life?” and “How successful do you feel in your social life?” The study found that, one year after the workshop ended, participants showed decreased neuroticism and increased self-efficacy, but to Galef, the results weren’t sufficiently rigorous. “What was it about the workshop?” she says. “Was it the classes or hanging out with like-minded people that makes the difference?” Conducting more tests would have been too expensive. “My vision was we’d come up with hypotheses about techniques, keep the ones that work, and discard the ones that don’t. It turned out to be much harder than I’d realized.”

In 2016, Galef left CFAR, unsatisfied with what she had been able to accomplish there. Instead, she began working on her first book, which, after five years, will be published by Penguin on April 13. The Scout Mindset: Why Some People See Things Clearly and Others Don’t is a fitting debut for someone who has considered herself a “populizer” of the rationalist movement. “I take these ideas I think are great and try to explain them to a wider audience,” she says.

When we speak over Zoom, Galef is in Franklin, North Carolina, her face evenly lit by the ring lamp she travels with. Since she and her fiancé left their San Francisco studio this past July, they’ve been doing the digital-nomad thing. Right now, they are near Great Smoky Mountains National Park in a golf-course Airbnb. Galef holds her laptop camera up to the window, revealing a burbling creek outside. “It suits our personalities and lifestyle,” she says. “We both work remotely” — he’s a program officer focused on artificial intelligence at the effective-altruism organization Open Philanthropy — “we’re both introverts, we’re both minimalists, and we both like novelty.”

To the extent that the rationalist movement has been written about, its eccentricities have tended to get outsize attention: Some rationalists live in group houses with names like Event Horizon and Godric’s Hollow; polyamory and a preoccupation with the existential risk posed by AI are both overrepresented. In opposition to mainstream online culture, which believes that certain arguments should be off-limits, the rationalsphere wants to be able to talk about anything. Slate Star Codex — recently renamed Astral Codex Ten — the most prominent rationalist blog, has caused controversy by countenancing free-flowing discussion of topics such as race science and female harassment of men. And because of their devotion to hyperanalysis, some members of the community can present as arrogant and lacking in EQ.

Galef, however, is an amiable ambassador for the movement, adept at distilling its concepts in an accessible and plainspoken manner. The speech of rationalists is heavy on the vernacular, often derived from programming language: “updating your priors” (keeping an open mind), “steel-manning” (arguing with the strongest version of whatever point your opponent is making), “double-cruxing” (trying to get to the root of a disagreement). But . . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

13 April 2021 at 3:11 pm

Amazon shows how trickle-down inequality works

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Sarah Jones writes in the “Intelligencer” section of New York:

Bill Bodani liked his old job. He cleaned slag out at the Sparrows Point steel mill in Maryland, cleared the flues and the broken brick out of the blast furnace. He loved it despite the asbestosis it gave him, writes Alec MacGillis in his new book, Fulfillment. “I enjoyed the people,” Bodani told MacGillis. “They made it enjoyable. The Black, the white. It was a family thing. I don’t care if you knew them for five minutes, they took you in. No matter how bad I got hurt, or how bad things got, there was always a bright side. You had those guys with you.”

Until he didn’t. The mill closed, and Bodani needed a new job. He found one with Amazon, working in a Baltimore-area fulfillment center. He started out at $12 an hour — much less than he’d made at the mill. He’d traded his old friends for a place that would, as MacGillis put it, fire workers “by algorithm.” And Bodani had a problem. He was older, and he needed to use the bathroom more often than did his younger co-workers. When he had used up his breaks, he resorted to an undignified option. He’d piss in a corner of the warehouse, using a forklift as a privacy shield.

MacGillis completed Bodani’s story before the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union announced that it would try to unionize the first Amazon warehouse in the country in Bessemer, Alabama. Workers there reported their own versions of Bodani’s problem. The company regimented their days so strictly that they often didn’t have the time they needed to use the restroom. The union still lost, an election now contested before the National Labor Relations Board. Despite the outcome, the stories stick. Workers said they couldn’t stay six feet apart from each other in the middle of a pandemic, spoke of dirty workstations that never got clean. Amazon, they insisted, was a bad place to work. Why, then, are cities so desperate to bring Amazon home?

In Fulfillment, MacGillis, a reporter for ProPublica and the author of 2014’s The CynicThe Political Education of Mitch McConnell, offers answers. The digital economy has fattened a handful of cities while others, often old industrial hubs, fall behind. There is historical precedent for industries to cluster: “History,” he writes, “is the story of cities with the right confluence of people in close quarters to spin the world forward, whether in classical Athens or Renaissance Florence or industrial-age Glasgow.” That dynamic, however, has “trebled” in recent years, he claims, with innovation the new resource to mine. Amazon and Microsoft swelled Seattle, brought it new wealth, a new class of resident, and a new set of problems. That wealth never reached a number of Seattle’s long-term residents, who could recall an older, more livable version of a vibrant city. What dispersed out from Seattle was not wealth, either, but something else. Inequality trickled down.

MacGillis understands the bargain Amazon offers the public and explores the consequences of that bargain with a sharp, humane eye. He succeeds in telling a story about Amazon from the bottom up — the right way to scrutinize a company that projects a progressive image. Amazon wants us to believe it treats its workers well: It pays them $15 an hour now, a fact it has repeatedly tweeted to its congressional critics. Other companies, even governments, ought to follow Amazon’s stellar example, the company says. MacGillis argues that governments have already been too eager to take Amazon at its word, and that the consequences, for workers and for the places they live, have been catastrophic.

To cities in need of jobs, Amazon can look like a savior. But salvation is an exchange: a soul for a different future. MacGillis argues that this trade is good for Jeff Bezos alone; workers and cities lose out in both a psychological and material sense. Bill Bodani has nothing to offer the new economy but his body. Amazon accepts, and forces him to accept something even more nefarious than a pay cut. To take a job at the mill was to join a community. Young high-school graduates, MacGillis writes, had walked into a union and the welcoming arms of their uncles and fathers. By contrast, the warehouse is a sterile place. Workers are welcomed not with warm introductions but with “a sheet of paper scrawled with AMAZON” and representatives for an Amazon subcontractor. The job itself can be isolating, as Amazon workers themselves have reported; steep quotas and pervasive surveillance offer few opportunities to socialize. This is a useful union-avoidance strategy. It’s also a spiritual blow.

Once cities like Sparrows Point offer up their souls, Amazon gives them a cheap future. Corporations rarely make decisions out of abundant public spirit; Amazon is no exception to the rule. Instead, it eludes taxes. MacGillis calls Amazon’s approach to tax avoidance “a veritable Swiss Army knife, with an implement to wield against every possible government tab,” and the description lines up with reality. Amazon paid no federal income tax for two years before coughing up a paltry $162 million in 2019. It settles upon cities and towns like a locust, chewing up tax breaks totaling $2.7 billion by 2019, according to MacGillis. In 2018, Amazon threatened to cancel a planned expansion in Seattle, its home turf, over an employee-hours tax intended to address the city’s homelessness crisis. The city council passed it, only to reverse itself less than a month later.

In smaller cities, the costs of attracting Amazon can be especially steep. Consider . . .

Continue reading. There’s more.

Written by LeisureGuy

13 April 2021 at 2:53 pm

The radical aristocrat who put kindness on a scientific footing

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Lydia Syson has an interesting article in Psyche, which begins:

Five years had passed since Czar Alexander II promised the emancipation of the serfs. Trusting in a map drawn on bark with the point of a knife by a Tungus hunter, three Russian scientists set out to explore an area of trackless mountain wilderness stretching across eastern Siberia. Their mission was to find a direct passage between the gold mines of the river Lena and Transbaikalia. Their discoveries would transform understanding of the geography of northern Asia, opening up the route eventually followed by the Trans-Manchurian Railway. For one explorer, now better known as an anarchist than a scientist, this expedition was also the start of a long journey towards a new articulation of evolution and the strongest possible argument for a social revolution.

Prince Peter Kropotkin, the aristocratic graduate of an elite Russian military academy, travelled in 1866 with his zoologist friend Ivan Poliakov and a topographer called Maskinski. Boat and horseback took them to the Tikono-Zadonsk gold mine. From there, they continued with 10 Cossacks, 50 horses carrying three months’ supply of food, and an old Yukaghir nomad guide who’d made the journey 20 years earlier.

Kropotkin and Poliakov – enthusiastic, curious and well-read young men in their 20s – were fired by the prospect of finding evidence of that defining factor of evolution set out by Charles Darwin in On the Origin of Species (1859): competition. They were disappointed. As Kropotkin later wrote:

We saw plenty of adaptations for struggling, very often in common, against the adverse circumstances of climate, or against various enemies, and Polyakoff wrote many a good page upon the mutual dependency of carnivores, ruminants, and rodents in their geographical distribution; we witnessed numbers of facts of mutual support … [but] facts of real competition and struggle between higher animals of the same species came very seldom under my notice, though I eagerly searched for them.

Kropotkin pursued this contradiction for decades. Observation and wide reading convinced him that what he’d seen in Siberia was no exception, but a rule. In the 1860s, he watched a vast exodus of fallow deer gather in their thousands to cross the river Amur at its narrowest point to escape an early snowfall. In 1882, he was fascinated by a crab stuck on its back in a tank in Brighton Aquarium; it was painstakingly rescued by a band of comrades. Kropotkin collected descriptions from all over the world of the sociable behaviours of ants, bees, termites, falcons, swallows, horned larks, migrating birds, gazelles, buffalo, colonies of beavers, squirrels, mice, flocks of seals, herds of wild horses, tribes of dogs, wolf packs, marmots, rats, chinchillas, as well as apes and monkeys. He wrote that:

[A]s we ascend the scale of evolution, we see association growing more and more conscious. It loses its purely physical character, it ceases to be simply instinctive, it becomes reasoned.

It proved impossible for Kropotkin, a man ‘amiable to the point of saintliness’ according to George Bernard Shaw, to dedicate himself entirely to the ‘highest joys’ of scientific discovery, when all around him he saw ‘nothing but misery and struggle for a mouldy bit of bread’, as he put it in his Memoirs of a Revolutionist (1899). In 1872, in Switzerland, he became an anarchist, impressed by the egalitarian fraternity he found among the watchmakers of Jura. Back in Russia, he joined the revolutionary Circle of Tchaikovsky, disseminating underground literature and lecturing to the workers of St Petersburg disguised as Borodin the peasant agitator. His propaganda landed him in prison, but he escaped in 1876 with the help of comrades. By 1883, he was a political prisoner once again, this time in France. This second confinement gave him time to develop his arguments about evolution: he started to address systematically the conflicting interpretations of Darwin emerging in different parts of the world.

In England, the biologist, anthropologist and anatomist Thomas Huxley had quickly emerged as ‘Darwin’s bulldog’. Self-described as sharp of ‘claws and beak’, Huxley was prepared to ‘go to the Stake if requisite’ to defend evolutionary doctrine. His views on human nature and political economy were defined by Thomas Hobbes and Thomas Robert Malthus: life was an endless fight for scarce resources. The libertarian Herbert Spencer likewise applied natural selection to economics, using his infamous coinage the ‘survival of the fittest’ to justify laissez-faire capitalism. Popularly labelled ‘social Darwinism’, this view became gospel for Gilded Age industrialists such as John D Rockefeller. Although Huxley himself didn’t recommend the ‘survival of the fittest’ rule as a basis for morality – quite the reverse – he certainly believed that human beings were brutal and competitive, their sociability merely a recent veneer, rationalised by self-interest.

After Huxley published his pessimistic essay ‘The Struggle for Existence and Its Bearing Upon Man’ (1888) in The Nineteenth Century, an influential Victorian monthly review, Kropotkin was in a good position to launch an attack on Huxley’s idea of nature as a ‘gladiator’s show’. By this time, having been released from prison following an international outcry, Kropotkin was established in England, becoming quite a celebrity in the socialist and anarchist circles that blossomed through the mid-1880s. He promoted his political ideas in the international Left-wing press, and cofounded a London-based journal called Freedom, but made a living writing for scientific periodicals.

Between 1890 and 1915, in a series of interdisciplinary essays, Kropotkin drew on biology, sociology, history, (anti-racist) ethnology and anthropology to argue that species can organise and cooperate to overcome the natural environment and ensure their future survival. In 1902, the first eight essays were brought together in a book entitled Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, an account of mutual support in action across the animal world (from microorganisms to mammals), ancient and modern ‘barbarian’ and ‘savage’ societies, medieval city-states and, finally, among modern humanity.

Kropotkin sought to recover an uncorrupted Darwin, whose metaphors should not be read too literally. But his call to understand compassion as ‘a powerful factor of further evolution’ cleared the way for a very particular political vision: human beings could overcome competitive struggle by voluntarily restructuring and decentralising society along principles of community and self-sufficiency.

Kropotkin became enamoured with mutual aid after reading an 1880 lecture on the subject by the celebrated zoologist Karl Kessler. Like other Russian naturalists at the time, Kessler didn’t deny the struggle for existence, but his own fieldwork in harsh and sparsely populated regions of the Russian empire strongly suggested that ‘the progressive development of the animal kingdom, and especially of mankind, is favoured much more by mutual support than by mutual struggle’. But, as Kropotkin mourned: ‘like so many good things published in the Russian tongue only, that remarkable address remains almost entirely unknown’.

Neither was Kropotkin alone politically. The historian of science Eric Johnson has recently demonstrated that . . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

3 April 2021 at 3:15 pm

“I’m finally done with the Senate filibuster. We’re running out of time to save democracy.”

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Noah Bookbinder, a former criminal prosecutor for the Justice Department’s Public Integrity Section, is the executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, writes in USA Today:

I worked as a counsel on the Senate Judiciary Committee for eight years. I heard senators that I admired repeat the apocryphal story of George Washington supposedly explaining to Thomas Jefferson that the Senate was “the saucer that cools the tea,” preventing the House from rushing through ill-advised legislation.

While the filibuster was not part of the framers’ plan — and indeed some of the framers warned against a supermajority requirement for legislation — it seemed consistent with this idea of the Senate as an intended obstacle to tyranny by a bare, partisan majority. Perhaps more importantly, I saw the cycles of control in the Senate. I saw how those tactics of delay and obstruction that drove a majority party crazy one year were lifelines when that party ended up in the minority the next

Those seemed like compelling arguments to keep the Senate filibuster, so I passionately resisted the idea of eliminating it for years. Too slowly perhaps, it has become clear to me that times have changed. The old arguments are no longer enough — in fact, our democracy might not survive at all unless Congress passes reforms that a minority seems determined to block. The Senate must get rid of the filibuster in order for us to maintain a democratic system of government going forward, and the sooner the better.

White minority wants to keep control

Our democracy already teetered on the brink when Donald Trump, who lost the 2020 presidential election by more than 7 million votes and a substantial margin in the Electoral College, falsely and repeatedly claimed to have won and then actually tried to convince officials in multiple states to overturn the results of the voting in those states.

When efforts by Trump and his supporters to undermine and overturn the election failed, Trump’s supporters switched to a quieter but no less dangerous tactic. Bills have now been introduced in 47 states to restrict access to voting, curbs which will disproportionately impact non-white voters. Many of these bills are on their way to passing. Efforts are also in the planning stages to aggressively gerrymander districts to benefit the former president’s party.

The cumulative effect of all this is to prevent a mostly white minority of Americans from losing control of the United States government. There is legislation that could prevent this, but it looks like it will be blocked in the Senate by the filibuster, something that has often happened to bills meant to advance racial equity and justice.

Now, the combination of systematic disenfranchisement of Black and brown voters, aggressive use of gerrymandering, and a system of unchecked money in political campaigns could allow a minority of voters to ensure that those who supported Trump’s abuses are ushered into control of Congress and the presidency; once in power, they have already shown their willingness to use it to further degrade checks and balances for their own advancement. The democracy as we know it might begin to crumble.

We need H.R. 1: It would maintain voting rights and voting integrity that states saved amid COVID-19

This sounds apocalyptic and maybe a little crazy. It is not. We need only look at the four years of Trump’s presidency, moving from emoluments violations, obstruction of investigations, embrace of white supremacists, and sidelining of watchdogs and prosecutors who threatened him to full-scale attempts to overturn an election and incite insurrection, to see how quickly and completely the foundations of our democracy can be shaken.

Worry about comity later

Legislation before Congress can stop all this from happening. H.R. 1, the For the People Act, contains crucial voting rights protections that will prevent many of the efforts in states to restrict the ability to vote; it will ensure fair, non-partisan redistricting and reform money in politics, as well as curbing much unethical conduct and many abuses of power. We can also shore up our democracy against attack with bills like the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, the Protecting Our Democracy Act and an act to finally grant District of Columbia residents the same rights to democratic participation that people in all 50 states have.

GOP ex-officials:We need a voting rights champion like Vanita Gupta at Justice, and fast

But if the Senate’s intractable minority is allowed to continue to prevent all legislation to protect our democratic system, we will run out of time. Efforts in the states to curb voting rights and ensure rule by a shrinking white minority will be able to take effect without any check; after the rules are changed and the deck stacked, it might not again be possible to elect a Congress and a president amenable to protecting democratic participation and checks and balances.

The stakes couldn’t be higher. The Senate must  . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

3 April 2021 at 12:47 pm

Understanding Legal Argument (1): The Five Types of Argument

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John Danaher writes at Philosophical Disquisitions:

I have been teaching about legal reasoning and legal argumentation for years. When I do so, I try to impress upon students that legal argument is both simple and complex.

It is simple because in every legal case there is, in essence, one basic type of argument at the core of the dispute between the parties. This argument works from a general legal rule to a conclusion about the application of that rule to a set of facts. Philosophers and logicians would say that the basic form of legal argument is a syllogism: a simple three-step argument involving a major premise (a general principle or rule), a minor premise (a claim about a particular case or scenario) and then a conclusion (an application of the general rule to the particular case).

Here is a simple conditional syllogism:

  • (1) If roses are red, then violets are blue. (Major Premise)
  • (2) Roses are red. (Minor Premise)
  • (3) Therefore, violets are blue. (Conclusion)

My view is that legal arguments take on a similar conditional, syllogistic form. There is a legal rule that stipulates that if certain conditions are met, then certain legal consequences will follow. This is the major premise of legal argument. Then there is a set of facts to which that rule may apply. This is the minor premise of legal argument. When you apply the rule to the facts you get a conclusion.

In abstract form, all legal arguments look like this:

  • (1) If conditions A, B and C are satisfied, then legal consequences X, Y and Z follow. (Major premise: legal rule)
  • (2) Conditions A, B and C are satisfied (or not). (Minor Premise: the facts of the case)
  • (3) Therefore, legal consequences X, Y and Z do (or do not) follow. (Conclusion: legal judgment in the case).

To give a more concrete example, imagine a case involving a potential murder:

  • (1*) If one person causes another person’s death through their actions, and they performed those actions with intent to kill or cause grievous bodily harm, and they had no lawful excuse for those actions, then they are guilty of murder and may be punished accordingly.
  • (2*) Cain caused Abel’s death through his actions and in doing so he intended to kill and acted without lawful excuse.
  • (3*) Therefore, Cain is guilty of murder and may be punished accordingly.

Simple, right? Unfortunately it is not. Although this basic argument is the core of all legal disputes it is not the totality of those disputes. The problem is that legal rules don’t just show up and apply themselves to particular cases. There are lots of potential legal rules that could apply to a given set of facts. And there are lots of qualifications and exceptions to legal rules. You have to argue for the rules themselves and show why a particular rule (or major premise) should apply to a particular case. In addition to this, the facts of the case don’t just establish themselves. They too need to argued for and the law adopts a formalised procedure for establishing facts, at least when a case comes to trial.

In this two-part article, I want to examine some of the complexities of legal argument. I do so first by examining the different kinds of argument you can present in favour of, or against, particular legal rules (i.e. for and against the major premise of legal argument). Understanding these kinds of arguments is the main function of legal education. People who study law at university or in professional schools spend a lot of their time examining all the different ways in which lawyers try to prove that a certain rule should apply to a given set of facts.

Several authors have presented frameworks and taxonomies that try to bring some order to the chaos of arguments for legal rules. I quite like Wilson Huhn’s framework The Five Types of Legal Argument, which not only does a good job of reducing legal argument down to five main forms, but also identifies all the different ways of arguing for or against a legal rule within those five main forms. I’ll try to explain Huhn’s framework, in an abbreviated fashion, in the remainder of this article. I should say, however, that I have modified his framework somewhat over the years and I’m not entirely clear on which bits of it are his and which bits are my own modification. Most of it is his. Some bits are mine (and most of the examples are ones that I use in my teaching and not ones that come from Huhn’s book).

1. Argument from Text

For better or worse, law has become a text-based discipline. There are authoritative legal texts — constitutions, statutes, case judgments and so on — that set down legal rules. Consequently, one of the most common forms of legal argument is to identify the case-relevant legal texts and then use them to figure out the relevant rule. This is the first type of legal in Huhn’s framework and perhaps the starting point for most legal arguments.

Here’s a real example. Suppose . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more, since he describes all five types of argument.

Written by LeisureGuy

31 March 2021 at 7:29 pm

The Awe Before There Are Words

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MIT Press has an article excerpted from Shierry Weber Nicholsen’s book The Love of Nature and the End of the World, “a psychological exploration of how the love of nature can coexist in our psyches with apathy toward environmental destruction.” The article begins:

To move from speechlessness to speech requires a person — perhaps a wiser part of ourselves — who can hear and receive our experience. As we are heard, we become able to hear our experience ourselves. In the beginning, however, is speechlessness, unformed experience no doubt both beautiful and terrifying. Silence sometimes means that there are no words yet.

Awe touches us even more deeply than a felt love, yet it is deep in darkness. It is not simply unspoken; it is speechless. A friend tells me that she cannot describe her feeling for the natural world as love. It’s not love but awe, she says. She is simply struck speechless at the sight of a heron lifting its wing. Awe-struck, she is incapable of saying more.

In part, awe does not have words because it is utterly private, not “for show.” But it is more than private. It is an involuntary speechlessness. That we seldom find the sense of awe in our talk about the environment may be due in part to our diminished capacity for awe, but it is also due to the inherent speechlessness that awe brings us to. We cannot even put words to it ourselves. It is not surprising that we do not speak of it to others.

Awe is the sense of an encounter with some presence larger than ourselves, mysterious, frightening and wonderful, numinous, sacred. It is the sense of something that we are not capable of containing within our capacity for thought and speech. In awe, one’s self is felt only as something small and incapable, speechless, perhaps graced by the experience but unequal to it.

Awe makes us feel amazed, astounded, struck dumb. Joseph Campbell’s term aesthetic arrest, which denotes something similar, conveys this sense. We are stopped in our tracks. The words amazed and astounded both suggest a blow to one’s normal mental functioning, as when one is literally stunned or struck or loses one’s normal orientation (as in a maze). In his book “Dream Life,” Donald Meltzer, the influential psychoanalyst, tells the story of a little boy whose therapist, in a gesture out of the ordinary, wiped his face. The boy sat there “amazed.” How are we to understand this? Meltzer quotes from the Talmud, the Jewish book of law“Stand close to the dying, because when the soul sees the abyss it is amazed.” For the soul of the one dying, death seems an “unbearably new” experience. When a particular emotion has never been felt before, it will not immediately yield its meaning, says Meltzer, and the psyche responds with amazement.

The notion of an experience that does not immediately yield its meaning is the key to the speechlessness of awe in the face of the natural world. While awe stops us in our tracks, this is not the end of our experiencing but rather a beginning. Somehow . . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

27 March 2021 at 4:29 pm

Is Consciousness Everywhere?

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MIT Press has an article adapted from Christof Koch’s book The Feeling of Life Itself. Koch is chief scientist of the MindScope Program at the Allen Institute for Brain Science. It begins:

What is common among the delectable taste of a favorite food, the sharp sting of an infected tooth, the fullness after a heavy meal, the slow passage of time while waiting, the willing of a deliberate act, and the mixture of vitality, tinged with anxiety, just before a competitive event?

All are distinct experiences. What cuts across each is that all are subjective states, and all are consciously felt. Accounting for the nature of consciousness appears elusive, with many claiming that it cannot be defined at all, yet defining it is actually straightforward. Here goes: Consciousness is experience.

That’s it. Consciousness is any experience, from the most mundane to the most exalted. Some distinguish awareness from consciousness; I don’t find this distinction helpful and so I use these two words interchangeably. I also do not distinguish between feeling and experience, although in everyday use feeling is usually reserved for strong emotions, such as feeling angry or in love. As I use it, any feeling is an experience. Collectively taken, then, consciousness is lived reality. It is the feeling of life itself.

But who else, besides myself, has experiences? Because you are so similar to me, I abduce that you do. The same logic applies to other people. Apart from the occasional solitary solipsist this is uncontroversial. But how widespread is consciousness in the cosmos at large? How far consciousness extends its dominion within the tree of life becomes more difficult to abduce as species become more alien to us.

One line of argument takes the principles of integrated information theory (IIT) to their logical conclusion. Some level of experience can be found in all organisms, it says, including perhaps in Paramecium and other single-cell life forms. Indeed, according to IIT, which aims to precisely define both the quality and the quantity of any one conscious experience, experience may not even be restricted to biological entities but might extend to non-evolved physical systems previously assumed to be mindless — a pleasing and parsimonious conclusion about the makeup of the universe.

How Widespread Is Consciousness in the Tree of Life?

The evolutionary relationship among bacteria, fungi, plants, and animals is commonly visualized using the tree of life metaphor. All living species, whether fly, mouse, or person, lie somewhere on the periphery of the tree, all equally adapted to their particular ecological niches.

Every living organism descends in an unbroken lineage from the last universal common ancestor (abbreviated to a charming LUCA) of planetary life. This hypothetical species lived an unfathomable 3.5 billion years ago, smack at the center of the tree-of-life mandala. Evolution explains not only the makeup of our bodies but also the constitution of our minds — for they don’t get a special dispensation.

Given the similarities at the behavioral, physiological, anatomical, developmental, and genetic levels between Homo sapiens and other mammals, I have no reason to doubt that all of us experience the sounds and sights, the pains and pleasures of life, albeit not necessarily as richly as we do. All of us strive to eat and drink, to procreate, to avoid injury and death; we bask in the sun’s warming rays, we seek the company of conspecifics, we fear predators, we sleep, and we dream.

While mammalian consciousness depends on a functioning six-layered neocortex, this does not imply that animals without a neocortex do not feel. Again, the similarities between the structure, dynamics, and genetic specification of nervous systems of all tetrapods — mammals, amphibians, birds (in particular ravens, crows, magpies, parrots), and reptiles — allows me to abduce that they too experience the world. A similar inference can be made for other creatures with a backbone, such as fish.

But why be a vertebrate chauvinist?  . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

27 March 2021 at 4:01 pm

What is this? The case for continually questioning our online experience

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Dan Nixon has an interesting piece in Perspectiva. He notes:

What is this? is part of the Digital Ego project.

Read & download the essay as a PDF here: What is this? The case for continually questioning our online experience

At the link in the first line you will also find an audio file of his reading the piece, along with the piece itself, which begins:

It is all too easy to take what we see for granted. Even the most basic act of perception can encompass so much more than at first seems to be the case. ‘Seeing is more than a physiological phenomenon’, the American photographer Dorothea Lange once remarked. ‘We see not only with our eyes but with all that we are and all that our culture is’. We might even say that our human being is, to a large extent, a matter of human perceiving; as the philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin put it, the totality of life lies in the verb “seeing.”

This ‘frame’, life as seeing, is well suited for efforts to understand the various ways in which our digital technologies are shaping our lives at the deepest levels. Checking in with so many feeds and updates throughout the day, our everyday experience has become increasingly fragmented; in what can feel like a digital ‘hall of mirrors’, it is ever harder to see things in an integrated way. Meanwhile, our social fabric is increasingly tugged by divisive forces that split us apart and encourage us to see past each other entirely.

Underlying both sets of issues lies the particular logic of a digital media ecosystem through which everything comes to be viewed, at some level, in terms of data. As the philosopher Luciano Floridi notes, digital technologies ‘make us think about the world informationally and make the world we experience informational’.

It is within this context that Perspectiva has launched the Digital Ego project, with the aim of exploring what it means to grow and flourish as humans against this digital background to our lives. As Tom Chatfield, my co-lead for the project sets out here, this inquiry includes starting a dialogue around the ‘virtues for the virtual’ that we collectively need to cultivate. Capacities such as critical thinking, kindness, and humility seem especially important here, as does our ability to see things from multiple perspectives, to adopt a more integrated worldview, and to be okay with not knowing.

Yet underpinning all of the above, and amidst the swirl of urgent issues we find ourselves caught up in at the current time – the pandemic, taut political climates, our precarious environmental position, to name but a few – I argue here that what we need most of all is to cultivate a spirit of questioning towards our actual, lived experience in the digital sphere of our lives.

Not so much cerebral efforts to pin things down in order to get fixed answers, but an ongoing, open-ended questioning towards what’s happening in our actual experience. It’s the practice of coming back to the simple question, ‘what is this?’ over and over again, in relation to all that we encounter with and through our digital technologies.

Using this simple method, what follows is an invitation to question our actual experience at all levels: from our most mundane day-to-day experiences using our technologies, through to the less visible forces and contexts shaping those experiences. We will consider: what is the quality of the exchanges we are having online? How does a particular ‘currency of ideas’ shape how we see ourselves and others on social media platforms, and what might we experiment with here? How do our egos come to take centre-stage in our online spaces? What options do we have, amidst the algorithms and incentives underpinning our media ecosystem, for getting a more expansive view of what’s really going on?

We will end with some of the deeper questions that emerge from this inquiry, reflecting on what is problematic about the tech mindset of ‘solutionism’ and why an open-ended spirit of questioning can serve as the ideal response. Why should we be vigilant about making room for the inherent mysteriousness of our everyday experience? Why, finally, is it crucial that we consider what silence and stillness and ‘intermundane space’ look like in a digitally-mediated world?

Before exploring these different levels of questioning, let me briefly outline the general approach a little further.

Questioning as a spiritual and philosophical practice for the digital age

For over twenty years, the Zen meditation teachers Martine and Stephen Batchelor have taught the practice of continually coming back to the simple question, ‘what is this?’ in relation to one’s actual, lived experience. Through questioning, they suggest, we can learn to undercut our habitual tendency to fixate on things – to identify with some sense that ‘I am like this’ or ‘This is like that’.

This chimes with the value placed on curiosity in the West, although the form of questioning undertaken in the Zen tradition is quite distinctive. Recounting his years spent living in a monastery in Korea, Stephen Batchelor describes how ‘we would all sit in a darkened room and ask ourselves ‘What is this?’. And rest with that question. Nothing else’. In What is this? Ancient questions for modern minds, written with Stephen, Martine elaborates:

The practice is about questioning; it’s not a practice of answering… [it’s about] trying to cultivate a sensation of questioning in the whole body and mind. The anchor is the question, and we come back to the question again and again.

The practice that the Batchelors describe is a spiritual one, but a similar spirit of questioning runs through the philosophical tradition of phenomenology. Beginning with the work of Edmund Husserl around the turn of the 20th Century, phenomenologists emphasise the need to . . .

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24 March 2021 at 2:14 pm

Why is Amazon so terrified of workers forming a union?

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Here’s my take on it: my article in Medium’s “Age of Awareness.”

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16 March 2021 at 9:03 pm

The Bayesian Trap

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13 March 2021 at 4:33 pm

What Is Life? Its Vast Diversity Defies Easy Definition.

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Carl Zimmer writes in Quanta:

People often feel that they can intuitively recognize whether something is alive, but nature is filled with entities that flout easy categorization as life or non-life — and the challenge may intensify as other planets and moons open up to exploration. In this excerpt from his new book, Life’s Edge: The Search for What It Means to Be Alive, published today, the science writer Carl Zimmer discusses scientists’ frustrated efforts to develop a universal definition of life.

“It is commonly said,” the scientists Frances Westall and André Brack wrote in 2018, “that there are as many definitions of life as there are people trying to define it.”

As an observer of science and of scientists, I find this behavior strange. It is as if astronomers kept coming up with new ways to define stars. I once asked Radu Popa, a microbiologist who started collecting definitions of life in the early 2000s, what he thought of this state of affairs.

“This is intolerable for any science,” he replied. “You can take a science in which there are two or three definitions for one thing. But a science in which the most important object has no definition? That’s absolutely unacceptable. How are we going to discuss it if you believe that the definition of life has something to do with DNA, and I think it has something to do with dynamic systems? We cannot make artificial life because we cannot agree on what life is. We cannot find life on Mars because we cannot agree what life represents.”

With scientists adrift in an ocean of definitions, philosophers rowed out to offer lifelines.

Some tried to soothe the debate, assuring the scientists they could learn to live with the abundance. We have no need to zero in on the One True Definition of Life, they argued, because working definitions are good enough. NASA can come up with whatever definition helps them build the best machine for searching for life on other planets and moons. Physicians can use a different one to map the blurry boundary that sets life apart from death. “Their value does not depend on consensus, but rather on their impact on research,” the philosophers Leonardo Bich and Sara Green argued.

Other philosophers found this way of thinking — known as operationalism — an intellectual cop‐out. Defining life was hard, yes, but that was no excuse not to try. “Operationalism may sometimes be unavoidable in practice,” the philosopher Kelly Smith countered, “but it simply cannot substitute for a proper definition of life.”

Smith and other foes of operationalism complain that such definitions rely on what a group of people generally agree on. But the most important research on life is at its frontier, where it will be hardest to come to an easy agreement. “Any experiment conducted without a clear idea of what it is looking for ultimately settles nothing,” Smith declared.

Smith argued that the best thing to do is to keep searching for a definition of life that everyone can get behind, one that succeeds where others have failed. But Edward Trifonov, a Russian‐born geneticist, wondered if a successful definition already exists but is lying hidden amidst all the past attempts.

In 2011, Trifonov reviewed 123 definitions of life. Each was different, but the same words showed up again and again in many of them. Trifonov analyzed the linguistic structure of the definitions and sorted them into categories. Beneath their variations, Trifonov found an underlying core. He concluded that all the definitions agreed on one thing: life is self‐reproduction with variations. What NASA’s scientists had done in eleven words (“Life is a self‐sustained chemical system capable of undergoing Darwinian evolution”), Trifonov now did with three.

His efforts did not settle matters. All of us — scientists included — keep a personal list of things that we consider to be alive and not alive. If someone puts forward a definition, we check our list to see where it draws that line. A number of scientists looked at Trifonov’s distilled definition and did not like the line’s location. “A computer virus performs self‐reproduction with variations. It is not alive,” declared the biochemist Uwe Meierhenrich.

Some philosophers have suggested that we need to think more carefully about how we give a word like life its meaning. Instead of building definitions first, we should start by thinking about the things we’re trying to define. We can let them speak for themselves.

These philosophers are following in the tradition of Ludwig Wittgenstein. In the 1940s, Wittgenstein argued that everyday conversations are rife with concepts that are very hard to define. How, for example, would you answer the question, “What are games?”

If you tried to answer with a list of necessary and sufficient requirements for a game, you’d fail. Some games have winners and losers, but others are open‐ended. Some games use tokens, others cards, others bowling balls. In some games, players get paid to play. In other games, they pay to play, even going into debt in some cases.

For all this confusion, however, we never get tripped up talking about games. Toy stores are full of games for sale, and yet you never see children staring at them in bafflement. Games are not a mystery, Wittgenstein argued, because they share a kind of family resemblance. “If you look at them you will not see something that is common to all,” he said, “but similarities, relationships, and a whole series of them at that.”

A group of philosophers and scientists at Lund University in Sweden wondered if the question “What is life?” might better be answered the way Wittgenstein answered the question “What are games?” Rather than come up with a rigid list of required traits, they might be able to find family resemblances that could naturally join things together in a category we could call Life. . . .

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9 March 2021 at 6:15 pm

How to Put Out Democracy’s Dumpster Fire

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Anne Applebaum and Peter Pomerantsev write in the Atlantic:

To read the diary of Gustave de Beaumont, the traveling companion of Alexis de Tocqueville, is to understand just how primitive the American wilderness once seemed to visiting Frenchmen. In a single month, December 1831, Tocqueville and Beaumont were on a steamship that crashed; rode a stagecoach that broke an axle; and took shelter in a cabin—one of them bedridden from an unidentified illness—while the nearest doctor was a two-day hike away. Yet they kept meeting people whose resourcefulness they admired, and they kept collecting the observations that eventually led Tocqueville to write Democracy in America—the classic account of the ordering principles, behaviors, and institutions that made democracy function within this sprawling country.

Tocqueville’s interest in American institutions reflected more than mere curiosity: In his native France, a revolution launched with similarly high ideals about equality and democracy had ended badly. His parents had nearly been guillotined during the wave of violence that followed the momentous events of 1789. By contrast, American democracy worked—and he wanted to understand why.

With the wholesale transfer of so much entertainment, social interaction, education, commerce, and politics from the real world to the virtual world—a process recently accelerated by the coronavirus pandemic—many Americans have come to live in a nightmarish inversion of the Tocquevillian dream, a new sort of wilderness. Many modern Americans now seek camaraderie online, in a world defined not by friendship but by anomie and alienation. Instead of participating in civic organizations that give them a sense of community as well as practical experience in tolerance and consensus-building, Americans join internet mobs, in which they are submerged in the logic of the crowd, clicking Like or Share and then moving on. Instead of entering a real-life public square, they drift anonymously into digital spaces where they rarely meet opponents; when they do, it is only to vilify them.

Conversation in this new American public sphere is governed not by established customs and traditions in service of democracy but by rules set by a few for-profit companies in service of their needs and revenues. Instead of the procedural regulations that guide a real-life town meeting, conversation is ruled by algorithms that are designed to capture attention, harvest data, and sell advertising. The voices of the angriest, most emotional, most divisive—and often the most duplicitous—participants are amplified. Reasonable, rational, and nuanced voices are much harder to hear; radicalization spreads quickly. Americans feel powerless because they are.

In this new wilderness, democracy is becoming impossible. If one half of the country can’t hear the other, then Americans can no longer have shared institutions, apolitical courts, a professional civil service, or a bipartisan foreign policy. We can’t compromise. We can’t make collective decisions—we can’t even agree on what we’re deciding. No wonder millions of Americans refuse to accept the results of the most recent presidential election, despite the verdicts of state electoral committees, elected Republican officials, courts, and Congress. We no longer are the America Tocqueville admired, but have become the enfeebled democracy he feared, a place where each person,

withdrawn and apart, is like a stranger to the destiny of all the others: his children and his particular friends form the whole human species for him; as for dwelling with his fellow citizens, he is beside them, but he does not see them; he touches them and does not feel them; he exists only in himself and for himself alone, and if a family still remains for him, one can at least say that he no longer has a native country.

The world’s autocracies have long understood the possibilities afforded by the tools tech companies have created, and have made use of them. China’s leaders have built an internet based on censorship, intimidation, entertainment, and surveillance; Iran bans Western websites; Russian security services have the legal right to obtain personal data from Kremlin-friendly social-media platforms, while Kremlin-friendly troll farms swamp the world with disinformation. Autocrats, both aspiring and actual, manipulate algorithms and use fake accounts to distort, harass, and spread “alternative facts.” The United States has no real answer to these challenges, and no wonder: We don’t have an internet based on our democratic values of openness, accountability, and respect for human rights. An online system controlled by a tiny number of secretive companies in Silicon Valley is not democratic but rather oligopolistic, even oligarchic.

And yet even as America’s national conversation reaches new levels of vitriol, we could be close to a turning point. Even as our polity deteriorates, an internet that promotes democratic values instead of destroying them—that makes conversation better instead of worse—lies within our grasp. Once upon a time, digital idealists were dreamers. In 1996, John Perry Barlow, a lyricist for the Grateful Dead and an early internet utopian, predicted that a new dawn of democracy was about to break: “Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind,” he declared, a place where “the dreams of Jefferson, Washington, Mill, Madison, DeToqueville [sic], and Brandeis … must now be born anew.”

Those ideas sound quaint—as outdated as that other 1990s idea, the inevitability of liberal democracy. Yet they don’t have to. A new generation of internet activists, lawyers, designers, regulators, and philosophers is offering us that vision, but now grounded in modern technology, legal scholarship, and social science. They want to resurrect the habits and customs that Tocqueville admired, to bring them online, not only in America but all across the democratic world.

How social media made the world crazier

In the surreal interregnum that followed the 2020 election, the price of America’s refusal to reform its internet suddenly became very high. Then-President Donald Trump and his supporters pushed out an entirely false narrative of electoral fraud. Those claims were reinforced on extreme-right television channels, then repeated and amplified in cyberspace, creating an alternative reality inhabited by millions of people where Trump had indeed won. QAnon—a conspiracy theory that had burst out of the subterranean internet and flooded onto platforms such as YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram, convincing millions that political elites are a cabal of globalist pedophiles—spilled into the real world and helped inspire the mobs that stormed the Capitol. Twitter made the extraordinary decision to ban the U.S. president for encouraging violence; the amount of election disinformation in circulation immediately dropped.

Famously, he found many of the answers in state, local, and even neighborhood institutions. He wrote approvingly of American federalism, which “permits the Union to enjoy the power of a great republic and the security of a small one.” He liked the traditions of local democracy too, the “township institutions” that “give the people the taste for freedom and the art of being free.” Despite the vast empty spaces of their country, Americans met one another, made decisions together, carried out projects together. Americans were good at democracy because they practiced democracy. They formed what he called “associations,” the myriad organizations that we now call “civil society,” and they did so everywhere:

Not only do [Americans] have commercial and industrial associations in which all take part, but they also have a thousand other kinds: religious, moral, grave, futile, very general and very particular, immense and very small; Americans use associations to give fêtes, to found seminaries, to build inns, to raise churches, to distribute books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; in this manner they create hospitals, prisons, schools … Everywhere that, at the head of a new undertaking, you see the government in France and a great lord in England, count on it that you will perceive an association in the United States.

Tocqueville reckoned that the true success of democracy in America rested not on the grand ideals expressed on public monuments or even in the language of the Constitution, but in these habits and practices. In France, philosophes in grand salons discussed abstract principles of democracy, yet ordinary Frenchmen had no special links to one another. By contrast, Americans worked together: “As soon as several of the inhabitants of the United States have conceived a sentiment or an idea that they want to produce in the world, they seek each other out; and when they have found each other, they unite.”

In the nearly two centuries that have passed since Tocqueville wrote these words, many of those institutions and habits have deteriorated or disappeared. Most Americans no longer have much experience of “township” democracy. Some no longer have much experience of associations, in the Tocquevillian sense, either. Twenty-five years ago, the political scientist Robert Putnam was already describing the decline of what he called “social capital” in the U.S.: the disappearance of clubs and committees, community and solidarity. As internet platforms allow Americans to experience the world through a lonely, personalized lens, this problem has morphed into something altogether different.

Could these platforms have done more? As a matter of fact, Facebook keeps careful tabs on the toxicity of American discourse. Long before the election, the company, which conducts frequent, secret tests on its News Feed algorithm, had begun to play with different ways to promote more reliable information. Among other things, it created a new ranking system, designed to demote spurious, hyper-partisan sources and to boost “authoritative news content.” Shortly after Election Day, the ranking system was given greater weight in the platform’s algorithm, resulting in a purportedly “nicer News Feed”—one more grounded in reality. The change was part of a series of “break-glass measures” that the company announced would be put in place in periods of “heightened tension.” Then, a few weeks later, it was undone. After the Capitol insurrection, on January 6, the change was restored, in advance of Joe Biden’s inauguration. A Facebook spokesperson would not explain to us exactly when or why the company made those decisions, how it defines “heightened tension,” or how many of the other “break-glass measures” are still in place. Its published description of the ranking system does not explain how its metrics for reliable news are weighted, and of course there is no outside oversight of the Facebook employees who are making decisions about them. Nor will Facebook reveal anything about the impact of this change. Did conversation on the site become calmer? Did the flow of disinformation cease or slow down as a result? We don’t know.

The very fact that this kind of shift is possible points to a brutal truth: Facebook can make its site “nicer,” not just after an election but all the time. It can do more to encourage civil conversation, discourage disinformation, and reveal its own thinking about these things. But it doesn’t, because Facebook’s interests are not necessarily the same as the interests of the American public, or any democratic public. Although the . . .

Continue reading. There’s much, much more.

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9 March 2021 at 2:07 pm

As did the Great Depression, the pandemic year may bring a sea-change in how the public views the role of government

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Prior to the Great Depression, much of the public had the idea that people who needed help were shiftless and lazy. Since they themselves did not require help, and since they lacked imagination, insight, and contact with those who did need help, they disapproved of government programs to help such people. “They don’t need help, and if they do, it’s their own fault,” was pretty much the sentiment.

But when the Great Depression hit and millions and millions were out of work and unable to find jobs, the public slowly realized, “Wait a minute. All these people cannot be shiftless layabouts.” And for some, the realization was particularly forceful, because they themselves had lost their job and their farm and their home, and they knew that they were not at fault — that it was due to forces beyond their control — and that the government not only could help them, the government had a responsibility to help them. That’s why they pay taxes: so that there will be a government organized and empower to help the public — or, as the Constitution so clearly states, to “establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility” and “promote the general Welfare.”

The Biden stimulus relief plan that the House will vote on tomorrow so that President Biden can sign it into law is a clear sign that the public supports and even expects the government to step up and help out when things fall apart. Certainly this view is not universal: every single Republican Senator voted against the plan, and when the Texas power grid failed, the view of many conservatives matched that stated by Rick Perry, that people would be happy to freeze to avoid government help. That is not, if I read the mood of the country correctly, not a view widely now shared by the public.

The election next year will be interesting. I expect that Republican Senators who are running for re-election and Republiccan Representatives will be faced with the question, “Why did you vote against Biden’s stimulus relief plan? It saved our bacon, and you voted against it.” An answer of “I voted against it because I didn’t need it and none of my donors needed it” will not, I think, pass muster.

And regarding how government can help the public, this report in Yahoo News is interesting.

Written by LeisureGuy

9 March 2021 at 1:41 pm

“Falsification” falsified: The abuses of Popper

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Charlotte Sleigh, professor of science humanities and honorary professor in history at the University of Kent, UK, has an interesting essay in Aeon, one that made me rethink the idea of falsifying hypotheses in the Popperian sense, though it obviouslly is still important to search for disconfirming evidence to test hypotheses, whether in marketing, science, or relationships. She writes:

If you ask philosophically minded researchers – in the Anglophone world at least – why it is that science works, they will almost always point to the philosopher Karl Popper (1902-94) for vindication. Science, they explain, doesn’t presume to provide the final answer to any question, but contents itself with trying to disprove things. Science, so the Popperians claim, is an implacable machine for destroying falsehoods.

Popper spent his youth in Vienna, among the liberal intelligentsia. His father was a lawyer and bibliophile, and an intimate of Sigmund Freud’s sister Rosa Graf. Popper’s early vocations draw him to music, cabinet making and educational philosophy, but he earned his doctorate in psychology from the University of Vienna in 1928. Realising that an academic post abroad offered escape from an increasingly antisemitic Austria (Popper’s grandparents were all Jewish, though he himself had been baptised into Lutheranism), he scrambled to write his first book. This was published as Logik der Forschung (1935), or The Logic of Scientific Discovery, and in it he put forward his method of falsification. The process of science, wrote Popper, was to conjecture a hypothesis and then attempt to falsify it. You must set up an experiment to try to prove your hypothesis wrong. If it is disproved, you must renounce it. Herein, said Popper, lies the great distinction between science and pseudoscience: the latter will try to protect itself from disproof by massaging its theory. But in science it is all or nothing, do or die.

Popper warned scientists that, while experimental testing might get you nearer and nearer to the truth of your hypothesis via corroboration, you cannot and must not ever proclaim yourself correct. The logic of induction means that you’ll never collect the infinite mass of evidence necessary to be certain in all possible cases, so it’s better to consider the body of scientific knowledge not so much true as not-yet-disproved, or provisionally true. With his book in hand, Popper obtained a university position in New Zealand. From afar, he watched the fall of Austria to Nazism, and commenced work on a more political book, The Open Society and its Enemies (1945). Shortly after the war, he moved to the UK, where he remained for the rest of his life.

For all its appealing simplicity, falsification was quickly demolished by philosophers, who showed that it was an untenable way of looking at science. In any real experimental set-up, they pointed out, it’s impossible to isolate a single hypothetical element for disproof. Yet for decades, Popperianism has nonetheless remained popular among scientists themselves, in spite of its potentially harmful side-effects. Why should this be?

If you ask philosophically minded researchers – in the Anglophone world at least – why it is that science works, they will almost always point to the philosopher Karl Popper (1902-94) for vindication. Science, they explain, doesn’t presume to provide the final answer to any question, but contents itself with trying to disprove things. Science, so the Popperians claim, is an implacable machine for destroying falsehoods.

Popper spent his youth in Vienna, among the liberal intelligentsia. His father was a lawyer and bibliophile, and an intimate of Sigmund Freud’s sister Rosa Graf. Popper’s early vocations draw him to music, cabinet making and educational philosophy, but he earned his doctorate in psychology from the University of Vienna in 1928. Realising that an academic post abroad offered escape from an increasingly antisemitic Austria (Popper’s grandparents were all Jewish, though he himself had been baptised into Lutheranism), he scrambled to write his first book. This was published as Logik der Forschung (1935), or The Logic of Scientific Discovery, and in it he put forward his method of falsification. The process of science, wrote Popper, was to conjecture a hypothesis and then attempt to falsify it. You must set up an experiment to try to prove your hypothesis wrong. If it is disproved, you must renounce it. Herein, said Popper, lies the great distinction between science and pseudoscience: the latter will try to protect itself from disproof by massaging its theory. But in science it is all or nothing, do or die.

Popper warned scientists that, while experimental testing might get you nearer and nearer to the truth of your hypothesis via corroboration, you cannot and must not ever proclaim yourself correct. The logic of induction means that you’ll never collect the infinite mass of evidence necessary to be certain in all possible cases, so it’s better to consider the body of scientific knowledge not so much true as not-yet-disproved, or provisionally true. With his book in hand, Popper obtained a university position in New Zealand. From afar, he watched the fall of Austria to Nazism, and commenced work on a more political book, The Open Society and its Enemies (1945). Shortly after the war, he moved to the UK, where he remained for the rest of his life.

For all its appealing simplicity, falsification was quickly demolished by philosophers, who showed that it was an untenable way of looking at science. In any real experimental set-up, they pointed out, it’s impossible to isolate a single hypothetical element for disproof. Yet for decades, Popperianism has nonetheless remained popular among scientists themselves, in spite of its potentially harmful side-effects. Why should this be?

It was a group of biologists that gave Popper his first scientific hearing. They met as the Theoretical Biology Club in the 1930s and ’40s, at the University of Oxford, at house parties in Surrey, and latterly in London too. Popper visited them both before and after the war, as they wrestled with evolutionary theory and with establishing connections between their different biological specialisms. During the prewar period in particular, evolutionary biology was – depending on one’s outlook – either excitingly complex or confusingly jumbled. Neat theories of Mendelian evolution, where discrete characteristics were inherited on the toss of a chromosomal coin, competed to explain evolution with arcane statistical descriptions of genetic qualities, continuously graded across populations. Meanwhile the club’s leading light, Joseph Henry Woodger, hoped for a philosophically tight way of clarifying the notoriously flaky biological concept of ‘organicism’. Perhaps Popper’s clarifying rigour could help to sort it all out.

It is a striking fact that Popper’s most vocal fans came from the biological and field sciences: John Eccles, the Australian neurophysiologist; Clarence Palmer, the New Zealand meteorologist; Geoffrey Leeper, an Australian soil scientist. Even Hermann Bondi, an Austrian-British physical scientist, who operated at the speculative end of cosmology. In other words, it was the scientists whose work could least easily be potted in an attempted laboratory disproof – Popper’s method – who turned to Popper for vindication. This is odd. Presumably, they hoped for some epistemological heft for their work. To take a wider angle on the mystery, we might note the ‘physics envy’ sometimes attributed to 20th-century field scientists: the comparative lack of respect they experienced in both scientific and public circles. Popper seemed to offer salvation to this particular ill.

Among the eager philosophical scientists of the Theoretical Biology Club was a young man named Peter Medawar. Shortly after the Second World War, Medawar was drafted into a lab researching tissue transplantation, where he began a Nobel-winning career in the biological sciences. In his several books for popular audiences, and in his BBC Reith lectures of 1959, he consistently credited Popper for the success of science, becoming the most prominent Popperian of all. (In turn, Richard Dawkins credited Medawar as ‘chief spokesman for “The Scientist” in the modern world’, and has spoken positively of falsifiability.) In Medawar’s radio lectures, Popper’s trademark ‘commonsense’ philosophy was very much on display, and he explained with great clarity how even hypotheses about the genetic future of mankind could be tested experimentally along Popperian lines. In 1976, Medawar secured Popper his most prestigious recognition yet: a fellowship, rare among non-scientists, at the scientific Royal Society of London.

While all this was going on, three philosophers were pulling the rug away beneath the Popperians’ feet. They argued that, when an experiment fails to prove a hypothesis, any element of the physical or theoretical set-up could be to blame. Nor can any single disproof ever count against a theory, since we can always put in a good-faith auxiliary hypothesis to protect it: perhaps the lab mice weren’t sufficiently inbred to produce genetic consistency; perhaps the chemical reaction occurs only in the presence of a particular catalyst. Moreover, we have to protect some theories for the sake of getting on at all. Generally, we don’t conclude that we have disproved well-established laws of physics – rather, that our experiment was faulty. And yet the Popperians were undaunted. What did they see in him?

The historian Neil Calver argued in 2013 that members of the Royal Society were swayed less by Popper’s epistemological rules for research than by his philosophical chic. During the 1960s, they had been pummelled by the ‘two cultures’ debate that cast them as jumped-up technicians in comparison with the esteemed makers of high culture. Philosophy was a good cultural weapon with which to respond, since it demonstrated affinity with the arts. In particular, Popper’s account of what came before falsification in research was a good defence of the ‘cultural’ qualities of science. He described this stage as ‘conjecture’, an act of imagination. Medawar and others made great play of this scientific creativity in order to sustain cultural kudos for their field. Their Popper was not the Popper of falsification at all, but another Popper of wishful interpretation.

Although important to its participants, the two cultures debate was a storm in an institutional teacup.  . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

27 February 2021 at 1:01 pm

Posted in Philosophy, Science

Is the GOP an Authoritarian Party?

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Michael A. Cohen (the journalist, not the lawyer) writes at Truth and Consequences:

In 2018, two Harvard political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt published a book titled “How Democracies Die.” The two authors examined how democracies have historically fallen victim to the pull of authoritarianism. They argue that the process does not usually occur via a military coup but rather through the ballot box and the gradual erosion of political norms and capture of democratic institutions by would-be autocrats.

Levitsky and Ziblatt lay out four key warning signs of authoritarian behavior, as documented below:

The authors, whose book was published in early 2018, conclude that Donald Trump had demonstrated all four types of behavior. He refused to accept credible electoral results; described partisan rivals as criminals; endorsed violence by his supporters; and recommended restrictions on civil liberties, threatened media organizations and praised repressive measures in other countries.

In the three years since the book appeared, Trump exhibited even more antidemocratic behavior. But looking at this chart again raises a more pressing question: has the Republican Party become an authoritarian political party? Let’s take a look at this one by one (I’ve added in italics all the questions asked by Levitsky and Ziblatt that could be answered yes).

“Rejection of (or weak commitment to) democratic rules of the game.”

  • “Do they reject the Constitution or express a willingness to violate it?

  • “Do they suggest a need for antidemocratic measures, such as canceling elections, violating or suspending the Constitution, banning certain organizations, or restricting basic civil or political rights?”

  • “Do they attempt to undermine the legitimacy of elections, for example, by refusing to accept credible electoral results?”

On Jan. 6, 139 House Republicans and 8 Republican senators voted to reject certified – and credible – election results from Arizona and Pennsylvania. That is 65.8 percent of the GOP caucus in the House and 16 percent of Senate Republicans. Over the weekend, Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, who is the number two ranking Republican in the House of Representatives, refused to acknowledge that Joe Biden had legitimately won the 2020 election.

It’s essential to recognize that this is a shift in Republican behavior. While Trump consistently lied about the 2016 election, claiming, for example, that there had been massive fraud and he had actually won the popular vote, other Republican leaders largely rejected or refused to endorse Trump’s argument. In 2020, while they didn’t go as far as Trump did in trying to steal the election, their refusal to acknowledge Biden’s victory and votes against certification represented an unambiguous effort to delegitimize an electoral result. The trend seems to be picking up steam among down-ballot Republicans. This past week, former Senator David Perdue of Georgia announced that he would not be running for his seat again, but in his statement suggested that he had lost because of “illegal votes,” which is a completely false assertion.

On the question of antidemocratic measures that seek to restrict basic civil or political rights, Republicans have engaged in a feeding frenzy since the 2020 election.

  • According to the Brennan Center for Justice, which tracks anti-voting measures, “thirty-three states have introduced, prefiled, or carried over 165 restrictive bills this year.”

  • In Georgia, Republicans have proposed “tougher restrictions on both absentee and in-person early voting.” The legislation would create a new photo ID requirement for absentee ballots, shrink the window in which one can request a ballot, limit the use of drop-boxes, and prevent early voting on Sunday, which has traditionally been when many Black voters go to the polls.

  • In Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis has put his support behind legislation that would enact a “slate of new voting restrictions that would make it more difficult for voters to receive and return mail-in ballots in future Florida elections.”

  • In Arizona, GOP state legislators are pushing a bill requiring absentee ballots to be notarized, putting in place tougher voted ID requirements, and eliminating no-excuse absentee voting. Similar legislation has been introduced in Georgia, North Dakota, and Oklahoma.

  • In Iowa, legislation has been proposed to cut mail-in and in-person early voting from 28 to 19 days and prohibit absentee ballot request forms from being sent to eligible voters.

  • South Carolina Republicans would make it harder to satisfy witness requirements for absentee ballots and impose a signature matching requirement. This measure has already been rejected by a federal court.

Republicans have, of course, been doing this for years. But the 165 bills imposing greater voting restrictions is more than a fourfold increase from a year ago – and appears to be a direct response to the party’s failure to hold the presidency in the 2020 election. This represents an ongoing effort to restrict basic civil and political rights.

“Denial of the legitimacy of political opponents.”

  • “Do they claim that their rivals constitute an existential threat, either to national security or to the prevailing way of life?

  • Do they baselessly describe their partisan rivals as criminals, whose supposed violation of the law (or potential to do so) disqualifies them from full participation in the political arena?”

During his Jan. 6 speech that incited the Capitol riot, Trump told his supporters to “fight like hell, or you won’t have a country anymore.” In the past, he has referred to Democrats as “treasonous,” “anti-American,” and “enemies.” The implicit message is that turning the country over to Democrats would, in effect, destroy America, i.e., constitute an existential threat.

It’s a notion that Republicans have taken to heart. According to . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more, and it’s worth pondering — are we witnessing the end of US democracy?

Written by LeisureGuy

25 February 2021 at 10:39 am

Walter Lippmann on the uses of power

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Walter Lippmann was what we would now call a public intellectual of the early and mid twentieth century. (I owe to one of his dicta that “so” must be used instead of “as” following a negative: “I am as good as he but not so good as she” — a rule I now habitually follow.)  He wrote a thoughtful piece in 1922, which begins:

The democratic fallacy has been its preoccupation with the origin of government rather than with the processes and results. The democrat has always assumed that if political power could be derived in the right way, it would be beneficent.

His whole attention has been on the source of power, since he is hypnotized by the belief that the great thing is to express the will of the people, first because expression is the highest interest of man, and second because the will is instinctively good. But no amount of regulation at the source of a river will completely control its behavior, and while democrats have been absorbed in trying to find a good mechanism for originating social power, that is to say, a good mechanism of voting and representation, they neglected almost every other interest of men. For no matter how power originates, the crucial interest is in how power is exercised. What determines the quality of civilization is the use made of power. And that use cannot be controlled at the source.

If you try to control government wholly at the source, you inevitably make all the vital decisions invisible. For since there is no instinct that automatically makes political decisions which produce a good life, the men who actually exercise power not only fail to express the will of the people, because on most questions no will exists, but they exercise power according to opinions that are hidden from the electorate.

If, then, you root out of the democratic philosophy the whole assumption in all its ramifications that government is instinctive, and that therefore it can be managed by self-centered opinions, what becomes of the democratic faith in the dignity of man? It takes a fresh lease of life by associating itself with the whole personality instead of with a meager aspect of it. For the traditional democrat risked the dignity of man on one very precarious assumption, that he would exhibit that dignity instinctively in wise laws and good government. Voters did not do that, and so the democrat was forever being made to look a little silly by tough-minded men. But if, instead of hanging human dignity on the one assumption about self-government, you insist that man’s dignity requires a standard of living, in which his capacities are properly exercised, the whole problem changes. The criteria that you then apply to government are whether it is producing a certain minimum of health, of decent housing, of material necessities, of education, of freedom, of pleasures, of beauty, not simply whether at the sacrifice of all these things, it vibrates to the self-centered opinions that happen to be floating around in men’s minds. In the degree to which these criteria can be made exact and objective, political decision, which is inevitably the concern of comparatively few people, is actually brought into relation with the interests of men.

There is no prospect, in any time which we can conceive, that the whole invisible environment will be so clear to all men that they will spontaneously arrive at sound public opinions on the whole business of government. And even if there were a prospect, it is extremely doubtful whether many of us would wish to be bothered or would take the time to form an opinion on “any and every form of social action” that affects us. The only prospect which is not visionary is that  . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

24 February 2021 at 1:14 pm

How to be an Atheist in Medieval Europe

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While it’s unlikely that you will encounter that situation, the lecture itself is quite interesting. For one thing, it shows how cultural memes tend to remain inchoate until the currents of cultural evolution move them into a definite shape/voice/role. Moreover, this is one of a collection of interesting lectures from Gresham College, which has offered free public lectures for over 400 years. From Wikipedia:

Gresham College is an institution of higher learning located at Barnard’s Inn Hall off Holborn in Central LondonEngland. It does not enroll students or award degrees. It was founded in 1597 under the will of Sir Thomas Gresham, and hosts over 140 free public lectures every year. Since 2001, all lectures have also been made available online. . .

The seven original Gresham College Professorships that date back to the origins of the college are as follows:


These original endowed chairs reflect the curriculum of a medieval university (the trivium and quadrivium); but as a place for the public and frequent voicing of new ideas, the college played an important role in the Enlightenment and in the formation of the Royal Society. Early distinguished Gresham College professors included Christopher Wren, who lectured on astronomy in the 17th century and Robert Hooke, who was Professor of Geometry from 1665 until 1704.[6]

The professors received £50 a year, and the terms of their position were very precise, for example:

The geometrician is to read as followeth, every Trinity term arithmetique, in Michaelmas and Hilary terms theoretical geometry, in Easter term practical geometry. The astronomy reader is to read in his solemn lectures, first the principles of the sphere, and the theory of the planets, and the use of the astrolabe and the staff, and other common instruments for the capacity of mariners.[7]

Today three further Professorships have been added to take account of areas not otherwise covered by the original Professorships:

Commerce, established in 1985.[8]
Environment, established in 2014.[9]
Information Technology, established in 2015.[10]

The great seal of my alma mater, St. John’s College, Annapolis MD, shows seven books, which represent the trivium (grammar, rhetoric, and logic — the language arts) and the quadrivium (arithmetic, astronomy, geometry, and music — the mathematical arts), along with a balance (representing the sciences), with the device “Facio liberos ex liberis libris libraque.” (“I make free men from children by means of books and a balance,” though in fact the college has been co-ed since 1951.) The curriculum (which has no electives) centers on those disciplines, which students learn through reading closely and discussing the canonical works of the Western canon. (“Reading closely” becomes “listening thoughtfully” in the case of music, drama, the weekly Friday night lecture, and of course in the discussions.)

Written by LeisureGuy

21 February 2021 at 10:21 am

T.S. Eliot and the Jews

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David P. Goldman has an interesting essay of literary criticism in First Things, which begins:

There recur in the work of ­T. S. Eliot two obsessions that make one cringe: his Jew-­hatred and his contempt for Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The first is sometimes excused as a reflection of ambient prejudice, the second as critical crankiness. In fact, these obsessions have a common source. The characteristically Jewish contribution to Western literature is the tragicomedy, which reached one of its peaks in Hamlet. Just as he disliked the Jews in general, Eliot rejected what might be termed the Jewish sensibility in culture.

None of this would concern us if Eliot were not the author of some important poems and even more important lines. There is no question about Eliot’s rank among the leading English-language poets of the past century, nor about his critical acumen. The issue is the end to which he directed his ability.

If the canonical definition of anti-Semitism is hating the Jews more than is absolutely necessary, the word surely applies to Eliot. One finds the stray smirk about Jews in the verse of ­Belloc and Chesterton, but Eliot, as Anthony ­Julius observed, makes Jew-hatred into art. No other poet employed so great a talent to elicit as much loathing as Eliot did in the “Bleistein” poems. First published in 1920 and reprinted in all subsequent editions of Eliot’s poetry through 1963, “Burbank with a ­Baedeker: Bleistein with a cigar” depicts a “­Chicago Semite Viennese” tourist on the Rialto Bridge in Venice, a nod to Shylock. He is less than a rat: “A lustreless protrusive eye / Stares from the protozoic slime. . . . The rats are underneath the piles. / The jew is underneath the lot.” Eliot revisited ­Bleistein in his masterwork, The Waste Land. The passage was dropped from the initial printings on the advice of Ezra Pound, who thought it too inflammatory, but it appeared posthumously in the annotated edition:

Full fathom five your Bleistein lies
Under the flatfish and the squids.
Graves’ Disease in a dead jew’s eyes!
When the crabs have eat the lids
Lower than the wharf rats dive
Though he suffer a sea-change
Still expensive rich and strange.

This reverie over a Jewish corpse parodies the tender account of the drowned Phlebas (“who was once handsome and tall as you”) that appears elsewhere in The Waste Land.

There have been any number of anti-­Semites among the important poets, but none evinces quite so much hatred—not Lope de Vega when he needles Cervantes over his Jewish heritage, nor Quevedo when he mocks Gongora’s long nose and alleged aversion to bacon, nor Shakespeare in depicting ­Shylock, who suffers and bleeds like all men. Eliot gloats over the piscine eyes of a crab-eaten Jewish corpse, lampooning Ariel’s Song in The Tempest. An antipathy upon which a talented poet lavishes such invention goes beyond mundane bigotry.

Eliot’s Jew-hatred was racial. It was not (as Harold Bloom claimed) “simply a mark of the authenticity of his Neo-Christianity.” This is evident from his imagery, full of horror at the stereotypical appearance of Jews, and is explicit in his 1933 lecture, “After Strange Gods.” In it he claimed:

The population should be homogeneous; where two or more cultures exist in the same place they are likely to be fiercely self-conscious or both to become adulterate. What is still more important is unity of religious background; and reasons of race and religion combine to make any large number of free-thinking Jews undesirable.

The juxtaposition of the words “race” and “undesirable” as they apply to Jews had a distinct meaning in 1933. Eliot’s Victorian antecedents held no such views. On the contrary, Matthew Arnold named Heinrich Heine the true heir of Goethe (whom he thought the best modern poet and second only to Shakespeare), praising in particular Heine’s Jewish-themed poems “Princess Sabbath” and “Yehuda ­HaLevi.”

It is generally assumed that anti-Semites hate Jews not for what Jews actually are, but for what they imagine Jews to be. That was true of Ezra Pound, who imagined that Jews were usurers responsible for social crisis and war. Eliot, by contrast, hated the Jews for what they really are. In particular, he abhorred Jewish irony. Jewish humor has many facets, but its ultimate source is the paradoxical encounter of infinite God and finite man, in which there always lurks an element of the absurd. This is sharpened by the ironic distance inherent in the experience of exile. For two thousand years, the Jewish people have looked askance at the countries they inhabit. But even in their homeland they have understood themselves as spiritual strangers and sojourners in a fallen world. This is an existential dislocation, the knowledge that one is out of joint with a disordered world.

That brings us to Eliot’s other obsession. He published three attacks on Hamlet between 1919 and 1932, each stating a new reason to hate it. One is reminded of Aesop’s fable of the wolf whose shifting accusations against a lamb are easily refuted and finally irrelevant. Eliot’s first sally, “Hamlet and His Problems,” pronounced the play “an artistic ­failure” on the grounds that Hamlet lacks convincing ­motivation—is it revenge, or guilt over the behavior of his mother, or something else that Shakespeare does not quite clarify? Drawing on the dodgy scholarship of J. M. Robertson, Eliot argues that ­Shakespeare had revised and mangled an earlier revenge drama by Thomas Kyd. His 1927 essay “Shakespeare and the Stoicism of Seneca” scolds Shakespeare for having the wrong philosophy. Years later, Eliot conceded that these two early efforts were marred by “callowness” and a “facility of unqualified assertion which verges, here and there, on impudence.”

Eliot’s mature statement on Hamlet appears in his 1932 Harvard lectures, in which he denounces ­Shakespeare for violating the . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more, and it’s both interesting and illuminating.

Written by LeisureGuy

19 February 2021 at 1:58 pm

Ted Cruz Is No Hypocrite. He’s Worse.

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David A. Graham reports in the Atlantic:

Nero fiddled while Rome burned; Ted Cruz jetted to Cancún. And although the emperor was at least ensconced in a lavish, louche palace, the senator from Texas was stuck in economy class with the peasantry.

Cruz’s appeal as a politician, such as it is, has never been about being lovable or relatable, but the latest incident is embarrassing even by his standards. He was spotted on a flight to Mexico yesterday, amid a catastrophic storm that has left Texans without power, heat, and sometimes water, huddled in freezing homes and community centers as the state’s electrical grid verges on collapse. More than a dozen of his constituents have already died. Cruz is headed home today—if not necessarily chastened, at least eager to control the damage. In a statement, he said he took the trip at his daughters’ behest. Blaming your children is a curious tack for an embattled politician, but he doesn’t have much else to work with.

The pile-on was nearly as fierce as the storm. A Cruz tweet from December resurfaced in which he lambasted the mayor of Austin, a Democrat, for flying to Cabo San Lucas during coronavirus stay-at-home orders. “Hypocrites. Complete and utter hypocrites,” Cruz wrote at the time.

It is tempting to turn the “hypocrite” label on Cruz, but his sin is worse. Every politician is a hypocrite at some point. Cruz’s error is not that he was shirking a duty he knew he should have been performing. It’s that he couldn’t think of any way he could use his power as a U.S. senator to help Texans in need. That’s a failure of imagination and of political ideology.

Cruz’s approach to politics and Texas’s approach to electrical generation flow from the same libertarian-inflected, low-regulation, small-government vision. In this worldview, the government’s role is to set a set of minimal baseline requirements, offer market-based incentives to ensure they work, and then stay the hell out of the way. Cruz reveres the late President Ronald Reagan, who quipped, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.”

Consider how this works out in the case of electricity. The lower 48 U.S. states are divided into two big electrical grids—except for Texas, which maintains its own independent system. (Small, outlying parts of the state belong to the big grids.) The state maintains a separate grid to avoid having to comply with federal regulation. If Texas had been connected to the broader national grid, the state might have been able to borrow power that would have filled the hole left when large parts of the system failed in this storm: As demand for energy for heating surged, power plants went offline, equipment froze, and wind turbines froze too. Instead, Texas has experienced staggering blackouts.

Texas had ample warning that this system was vulnerable. A decade ago, another storm caused large (though smaller) failures, as the Texas Tribune explains. A report warned that the state needed to harden its grid to prepare for major storms. But the state’s regulators didn’t want to mandate upgrades. Instead, they issued voluntary guidelines to providers, and they offered financial incentives to make upgrades. This is by-the-book free-market governance: The government shouldn’t make requirements, but companies will do the right thing if it serves their business interests.

As we now know, that didn’t work. Rick Perry, the former Texas governor and U.S. secretary of energy, says now that Texans are willing to endure blackouts in order to maintain the independence of their grid. That’s a bold bet to make when hundreds of thousands of them still don’t have power.

Small government won’t just take a hands-off approach to regulation; it’s also likely to take a more hands-off approach to assisting citizens in the case of a disaster. (I’ve praised citizen-led efforts like the Cajun Navy, but they should serve as a supplement to, rather than a replacement for, government disaster relief, and all too often they have been closer to the latter.) Now Texans are turning to the government for help, but Cruz apparently didn’t see a role for himself.

Cruz’s defenders say that criticism aimed at him is nothing but point-scoring, and that there’s nothing for him to do: Any response that Cruz offered would be performative, rather than actually useful. Cruz calls himself a constitutional conservative, and it is true that nothing in the Constitution lays out a local disaster-response role for a senator.

But this dismissiveness is a double failure of imagination. First, it overlooks the importance of leaders bucking up the morale of a struggling population. Giving heart to citizens is good politics. (This lesson was not lost on Reagan, but Cruz has never had much of a way with soft persuasion.) Second, it ignores the power that Cruz holds. A U.S. senator has immense unwritten power. He can use his connections, and the doors that a Senate role opens, to call on businesses and leading citizens to get things done. He can also use his political network to organize relief efforts.

Even a non-senator can do that. Democrat Beto O’Rourke, whom Cruz beat in a 2018 Senate race, said he’d organized phone banking to check on vulnerable seniors. But such a role seems never to have occurred to Cruz. He did, however, see how government could help him—drawing on a presumably stretched-thin Houston police force to escort him through the airport yesterday.

O’Rourke is a progressive, and those on the left are ideologically more inclined toward this kind of organizing. But progressives don’t have a monopoly on soft power. The late . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

19 February 2021 at 12:23 pm

Libraries Between the State and the Multitude

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A little free library near my apartment (photo by me)

As I’ve mentioned, little free libraries are plentiful in Victoria, which has at least 400 scattered about the city. Sam Popowich looks at the practice through a Marxist lens on his blog:

Controversy over “Little Free Libraries” has arisen once again, this time in the UK. I don’t want to go into the specifics of the problem with Little Free Libraries (officially branded or not). Jane Schmidt and Jordan Hale have written a foundational article about it, which everyone should read.

What I want to get at in this blog post is what I see as a fundamental contradiction (in the Marxist sense) that keeps cropping up in the discussion. What defines a contradiction for Marxism is that the opposition it describes and the problems that flow from it cannot be resolved or fixed within the existing structure. The two poles of the contradiction are irreconcilable within the current social, political, economic, and cultural context. In the discourse around community book boxes there is an opposition between community solidarity, self-reliance, local support, etc, and public or common goods which need to be supported and maintained at a higher level, regional or national.

Defenders of the book boxes argue that they are a form of community self-regulation. Harmless at worst, helpful at best, they provide a sense of community support which is perhaps more about the affective or symbolic significance of freely sharing objects whose use-value is traditionally considered positive (books) outside the dominant structures of exchange. Looked at this way, book boxes are a form of local resistance to commodity exchange more generally, an attempt to recapture the ability of community members to relate to each other outside what Marx and Engels called the “cash nexus” of exchange. Taken to its limit, these book boxes could be seen as one element in a comprehensive network of mutual aid.

However, in a context of massive defunding and closure of state-run libraries, book boxes, like volunteer staffing of library branches, can give the state the ammunition it needs to continue to withdraw financial and political support for public good provided at scale. If book boxes can be considered libraries, then why should the government continue to support libraries? If libraries can be run by volunteers, then why should the government continue to hire trained library workers? One aspect of the geographical issue around LFL’s which Schmidt and Hale point out is that they tend to be most prominent in areas where public libraries are least under threat, and so the problem posed by LFLs to public library support is muted, obscured, or made invisible.

So the debate on Twitter often came down to the question of localism vs. state support: the benefits of communities acting together for themselves vs. the economies of scale and resource redistribution provided by a tax-funded national network of libraries. Many of the arguments tried to point out the benefits of one side or the other, without making much headway. I think the reason this argument is actually irresolvable in the current context is that it actually expresses a fundamental contradiction within capitalism itself.

Essentially, it comes down to the well-established contradiction within the capitalist economy over the question of the common/commons. Capitalism is predicated on private property, but it requires common resources in order to keep going. Control over resources is maximized by being privatized (i.e. the private owner of a thing has full control over it), but some things only work properly when they are held in common (ideological reproduction through schools and libraries, for example). One of the ways capitalism has tried to work within the terms set by this contradiction is to draw a firm distinction between the individual and the state: the individual is the private owner, the commons is managed by the state.

In Marx’s critique of civil rights, he argues that . . .

Continue reading. There’s more.

Written by LeisureGuy

16 February 2021 at 3:21 pm

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