Month: <span>September 2017</span>

Cargo Cults and the Mormon Conception of God

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I’d like to start off this week by drawing your attention to an interesting story, a story you may have already heard, the story of the Melanesian Cargo Cults. This story is so interesting that it’s been used by such luminaries as Feynman, Dawkins, and Jared Diamond. Though each has drawn a different lesson from the story. But in order to understand these lessons you need to understand the story, so I’ll start there.

During World War II, the islanders of Melanesia, many of whom had never seen an outsider before, suddenly ended up on the front lines of the most massive war the world had ever seen. As part of that war, they saw and took part in an enormous logistical chain which girded the planet. But they only saw the last few links in that chain. And from this limited vantage point, and having, for all intents and purposes, missed the industrial revolution with all its consequences, the islanders developed a religious interpretation for how “cargo” arrived on their islands.

The Cargo Cults were birthed out of this religious interpretation. Seeing numerous marvelous goods arriving on their islands: food, jeeps, medicine, you name it, but being able to only see the last leg of things. For the Cargo Cultists, the control towers, and runways weren’t components of a vast logistical chain, they were religious artifacts, temples and churches, if you will, not just one component of an infrastructure built up over decades, relying on technology which had been in development for centuries.

At this point, those of you familiar with Dawkins, may have already guessed what lesson he wants us to draw, and since he does give a great description of things, I’ll let him take over for a minute:

The islanders noticed that the white people who enjoyed these wonders never made them themselves. When articles needed repairing they were sent away, and new ones kept arriving as ‘cargo’ in ships or, later, planes. No white man was ever seen to make or repair anything, nor indeed did they do anything that could be recognized as useful work of any kind (sitting behind a desk shuffling papers was obviously some kind of religious devotion). Evidently, then, the ‘cargo’ must be of supernatural origin. As if in corroboration of this, the white men did do certain things that could only have been ritual ceremonies:

Dawkins then goes on to quote David Attenborough:

They build tall masts with wires attached to them; they sit listening to small boxes that glow with light and emit curious noises and strangled voices; they persuade the local people to dress up in identical clothes, and march them up and down – and it would hardly be possible to devise a more useless occupation than that. And then the native realizes that he has stumbled on the answer to the mystery. It is these incomprehensible actions that are the rituals employed by the white man to persuade the gods to send the cargo. If the native wants the cargo, then he too must do these things.

As Attenborough relates, the islanders came to the conclusion that the activities of the Americans constituted a religion, thus when the war ended, and cargo stopped coming, they decided to try summoning their own. Thinking, as I said, that the runways and the control towers were the key bits, they built their own, and on top of that they built fake wooden earphones, and attached them to fake radios. They also built wooden planes, and they even marched around with weapons made of wood in mimicry of the soldiers they had seen.

Of course, it didn’t work. Because the islanders could only mimic what they saw, and even then they couldn’t do it very well. They were completely unaware of the vast industrial base which lay behind all the cargo. They were a victim of Clarke’s Third Law: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Or as I often say, indistinguishable from a miracle. And, assuming it was miraculous, the islanders tried to duplicate what they took to be the religious rituals of the Americans.

Dawkins points out this connection to Clarke’s Third Law and concludes by saying that cargo cults:

…provide a fascinating contemporary model for the way religions spring up from almost nothing.

In other, words, as you might imagine, now that you know the background, Richard Dawkins uses the story of the cargo cults to bash religion. Our other Richard, Richard Feynman, derives a different lesson from the story, and uses cargo cults as a metaphor to help explain how some people go through the motions of conducting science without actually getting scientific results, coining the term cargo cult science. And, finally, Jared Diamond makes use of it in the central question of his book Guns, Germs and Steel, which opens with someone from New Guinea asking Diamond.

Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?

Diamond goes on to spend the rest of the book answering that question, and by extension explaining what the cargo cults missed about the modern world. However as interesting as all these lessons are, the lesson I want to draw from the story is not one of these three. And you may be wondering why I brought them up if I’m going to then just cast them aside. Well to begin with, at this point the various meanings which have been applied to the cargo cult story are as much a part of the story as the original events, and you only get the full sense of things by including them. Second I do it because my interpretation goes in the opposite direction of the three I just mentioned. And it really only makes sense against the backdrop of the more mainstream explanations I just reviewed. Also it’s important to occasionally be reminded that all stories are open to a wide variety of interpretations, and that these interpretations are inevitably skewed by the biases of the individual doing the interpreting. Something to keep in mind as I proceed to offer up mine.

As I said my interpretation goes in the opposite direction of the three I just talked about. All of them focused on the same things: how wrong the islanders were, how far away they were from the truth, and how unlikely they were to succeed in getting what they wanted using the tools available to them. By contrast I want to focus on how right and how close they actually were. Most people focus on the gulf between Melanesia and the industrialized nations. But I want to focus on the opposite. I want to focus on how small the difference is. And I want to do this because I think it illustrates something important about theology, especially LDS Theology.

Part of my inspiration for this topic came from my anticipation of the upcoming General Conference, which should be playing as I publish this, and part of it came from a discussion I had recently with a friend who had decided to leave the Church. What both of these things have in common are prophets. The prophetic connection to General Conference is obvious, but the prophetic connection to my friend may need some explaining.

As I said this friend had decided to leave the Church, and as I talked to him one of the things which kept coming up were statements by earlier prophets, particularly Brigham Young. He found some of these statements to be indefensible, but, only when paired with the idea that Brigham Young was a prophet. He readily admitted that other people of the same era could and did say the same things, without necessarily being a bad person, but no one could be an actual prophet and say those things, ergo the Church couldn’t be true. This is not to say that statements by Brigham Young were the only reason he decided to leave, there were other things as well, but these statements played no small role in his decision.

This is the prophetic connection to my friend’s decision, but you are probably still wondering how all of this connects to the cargo cults. As I said, unlike everyone else who has used the cargo cults as a metaphor, I want to illustrate how close the Melanesians and the Americans were, not how far away. While it is true, that from the perspective of the Melanesians that the Americans appeared to have God-like powers, they were still just men. If you had taken an islander and dropped them in the middle of New York, they would have initially been awestruck and overwhelmed, but with some hand-holding and a little time, I imagine no more than a year, they’d have been fine. The biggest problem, of course, would have been the language, not cars or electricity or indoor plumbing.

All of this is to say that there’s less distance between a Melanesian and an American than the Melanesian imagines. And in a similar way there’s less distance between an average member of the Church and the Prophet. I know that the Prophet seems like he should have all the cargo, or in other words that he should have all the answers, know exactly what’s moral and what’s not, never say anything offensive (not even 150 years later) and in general conduct himself in an unimpeachable manner. But just as Americans and Melanesians are both still just humans, your average member of the Church and the Prophet are also still just humans, and just as having planes and jeeps and bombs didn’t make the Americans omnipotent, being prophet doesn’t make the man who holds that office perfect.

Though at this point it might be worth it to look at how perfect they have been, particularly compared to the control group of other church leaders. None of the Prophets have been involved in a sex scandal (unless you count polygamy, which I certainly don’t) none have embezzled money. In fact they live pretty simply, when compared to the control group. I know some might argue, that if you discount the more distant past, that the Pope has had a pretty good run, but I think if you do much digging into the Vatican Bank, you’ll find that on the financial side of things, everything has not been as rosy as it appears. Does this make the Mormon Church an anomaly? Should this fact by itself be counted as some kind of proof for the truthfulness of the Church? Probably not, but it at least illustrates that when you’re evaluating anything you have to evaluate it not in absolute terms, but relative to everything else in the same category. And I think on that count Brigham Young and the rest of the prophets look pretty good.

Of course, I’m not the first person to make the point that there’s nothing in Mormon Theology which asserts that Prophets are infallible. And while this point is important enough to stand by itself, my true object is to aim a little higher. As you may be able to tell from the title, I’m not stopping at prophets.

However, if I’m going to proceed, eventually I’m going to run into the question of whether Mormons are Christians. And for all those people who get extremely annoyed everytime someone asserts that we aren’t, I have some bad news for you.

We aren’t… or at least we aren’t under certain definitions of the word.

Okay, calm down, and allow me to explain. As I may have mentioned, I’ve been working my way through Eliezer Yudkowsky’s exceedingly long book on rationality (only available on the Kindle, but it’s estimated to be 2,393 pages) and there is actually some interesting stuff in there. He spends quite a bit of time talking about the confusion which arises when you use one word to mean two different things. The classic example of this is the riddle: If a tree falls in the forest does it makes a sound? Which relies on using the word “sound” to mean two different things (auditory experience and acoustic vibrations). We see a similar thing happening with the word Christian.

The primary meaning of the word Christian (at least according to is “of, relating to, or derived from Jesus Christ or His teachings”, and under that definition we are certainly Christian, but there is another more technical definition of Christianity which involves professing belief in the Nicene Creed, and by extension the Trinitarian conception of God, which holds that the Father, Son (Jesus) and the Holy Ghost are the same individual. By that definition we are not Christian. If we had been around in 6th century they might have classified us as belonging to the Arian Heresy, but given that the Arians were mostly wiped out or forced to declare their allegiance to the Nicene Creed by the end of the 7th century, that’s not a term that’s in common usage anymore.

Technically, though, it’s worse than that, we don’t just merely view Jesus as being subordinate and separate to the Father, we believe that there are is more than one God, and that we will eventually achieve Godhood. (Though as the article I just linked to points out, this does not make us polytheists, at least not in the way the word is commonly understood.) All of this means that, as my friend the Catholic Priest likes to point out, we both believe in Christ, but we have very different ideas about who Christ is, and what his qualities and attributes are.

To this list of our differences from “classical” or orthodox Christianity, I would like to use the story of the cargo cults to illustrate other, perhaps less well known, differences. These differences are kind of on the edge of Mormon Theology. And I think some members might even take issue with some of them. In other words I’m going out on a limb, but I think this way of looking at things not only brings many significant insights, I also happen to think that it’s true.

As I said already, the change I wanted to bring to the discussion of the cargo cults was to emphasis how close the Melanesians and the Americans are, not how far away. I extended that to a discussion of the gap between your average member of the Church and the Prophet and now I want to extend it one step beyond that. To the idea that it’s useful to view the gap between us and God in a similar light.

If we choose to go down this path, what can we learn from comparing the islander’s relationship to the Americans to our relationship with God?

To start with, let’s get one thing out of the way, though the Americans seemed to operate on an entirely different plane from the islanders, I don’t think the islanders viewed them as actual divine beings. You may think that this fatally undermines the comparison, but I still think we’re close enough. It is clear that the American’s had “powers” the islanders considered miraculous, and, furthermore, that there existed a huge gulf in understanding. And yet, as I pointed out, the actual gulf separating the two was not really so great. Certainly we can easily comprehend it from our side of the gulf, it was just the Melanesians on the other side who thought it was miraculous and incomprehensible.

In a similar fashion there is a gulf between us and God that appears unbridgeable as well, at least, from this side, but I’m going to assert that once we’re on the other side it will be entirely understandable. And just as with the Americans and the Melanesians, smaller that we think.

Claiming that, after death and resurrection, we will understand things, hints at the next topic I want to discuss. I’m not saying we will understand everything, I’m claiming that we will understand the gulf between where we are now, and where we are after exaltation, in the same way that the Americans didn’t understand everything they just understood a lot more than the islanders. But wait, haven’t we reached the point where the Americans (very loosely) represent God? And God understands everything right? That’s one of his key attributes, he’s omniscient, right? Well are you sure about that? Are we really even sure we know what omniscience means?

This is what I was referring to when I said that some members might take issue with what I’m saying, and I would urge those of you who are in that camp to be patient. Assuming I haven’t lost you, the problem is that once you are truly dealing with Infinity, with a capital I, things get really weird, really fast. For example some infinities are bigger than other infinities. Or there’s the issue of free will, many people arguing that if God knows everything that there is no free will, since we’re already predestined to do everything we’re going to do. Or, and perhaps most importantly, there’s the fact that the human mind can’t truly grasp infinity. I mean, we can understand it as a concept, but when you start to get into how impossibly large things can get, and then realize that infinity is infinitely beyond even this impossible largeness, you realize you can’t grasp true infinity.

Let’s for the moment assume that God is more in the “impossibly large” category than the infinite category. I don’t think anything actually changes about our relationship to God. As far as we’re concerned he’s effectively still both omnipotent and omniscient, just like the American’s were effectively omnipotent when compared to the Melanesians. But from a philosophical standpoint, as I’ve already pointed out, it does solve problems like free will, and as I have mentioned elsewhere it goes a long way to solving the problem of evil as well. And finally it leaves us with a God, and by extension a religion, which is not only less vulnerable to being undermined by the ideology of progress and fruits of technology, but actually ends up dovetailing quite nicely with them (a theme I also frequently write about.) In other words from an intellectual standpoint I think this view gives us a lot of useful information, but for those worried about heresy, from a day to day standpoint I don’t think it changes anything.

To conclude I’d like to briefly touch on two examples of how this theme ties into subjects I’ve covered in the past.

First, Fermi’s Paradox: I have laid claim to being the first person to put forth a divine explanation for the paradox. (Feel free to dispute that, if you dare.) And the theme I’ve been expanding on in this post is one of the reasons, I assume, why I am the first and only person to propose this explanation. If you view God as something ineffable, but also all-powerful and all knowing, it’s difficult to also put him in the category of “extraterrestrial as defined by Enrico Fermi”. It’s only when you put him in the category of impossibly advanced, but not infinitely so, in a position comparable to the one the Americans had with the islanders, that this explanation for the paradox becomes conceivable. Yielding, as I said, not only a religion which fits in better with scientific progress, but which actually, in my opinion, provides a more compelling answer than science to one of the enduring mysteries of our day.

Second, the Mormon Transhumanist Association: As I have said, I have a lot of respect for them, and I think they’re right about a lot of things. They understand that God is not some ineffable and infinitely powerful spirit. That the difference between us and God is more on the order of the difference between the Melanesians and the Americans, than the infinite gap imagined by most religions. And most crucially, that in the long run the similarities are far more important than the differences. That said, as the final lesson of the story of the cargo cults, I think the MTA, rather than reading the science and math textbooks left behind by the Americans, spend too much of their time listening to a fake radio, using their fake headphones, perched in a control tower above a runway on which no plane will ever land.

Something we all need guard against…

Some readers are like cargo cultists, they think that reading the blog is all it takes to bring the cargo, not realizing the time and effort required in the background to produce something with the pseudo-intellectual rigor of this post. If you’d like to be an American rather than an islander or if you’d like to improve the quality of my metaphors more generally, consider donating.

7 Crazy Ways Conservatives Are Secretly Just Centrists

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I’m deep enough into talking about the cultural war, and its various nooks and crannies, that I might as well keep going. In fact this whole endeavor kind of reminds me of a line from Macbeth. The line comes after Macbeth has killed King Duncan, and it has him reflecting that he has gone so far with his scheme that it’s basically just as easy to keep killing people as it would be to go back and undo the damage. Or as Shakespeare has him say:

I am in blood Stepped in so far that, should I wade no more, Returning were as tedious as go o’er.

I don’t think I’m killing people, in fact one of my primary purposes has been talking people out of violence. But it does sometimes feel like a grim business to talk about these sorts of things. Also as I have said, even if it (hopefully) isn’t a real war it definitely feels like one at times.

As long as I’m going to continue writing in this vein, I find that there’s more that I want to say about the Moderate Manifesto I mentioned last week. Primarily I want to continue talking about how the current narrative has been wrenched so far to the left that everything the author claims as moderate positions are actually things the average conservative would be overjoyed with. I do this for two reasons:

1- These are all good ideas and need as broad a distribution as possible

2- To illustrate how completely the left is winning without most people noticing. And especially to counter the idea that the left needs to win faster.

For this post, I’d like continue talking about the article by looking at his list of the seven assumptions and attitudes which characterize centrism.

The first is:

Mistrust and disdain for extreme proposals and actions. Innovative ideas and political proposals shouldn’t be discouraged, but those that require radical changes to the current status quo should be moderated to appeal to a broad constituency. Extreme proposals are often wrong, but even when they are correct, they require careful consideration and slow implementation. Violent action is almost always wrong and counterproductive, as is curbing basic freedoms that allow liberal societies to flourish.

Right off the bat it’s important to point something out about the article and the list. The author has this habit of using the extreme libertarian wing of the right to provide the examples he uses for misbehavior by the right as a whole. I would argue that this amounts to essentially a straw man. And the first point is an excellent example of how it works.

Quick name the most extreme right wing proposal you can think of… Were you able to come up with even one? It wouldn’t surprise me if you couldn’t, particularly if you eliminate libertarian fantasies. Even assuming that you could, how likely is it to actually become reality (this is why we eliminate all the libertarian fantasies). Finally, if by some miracle it did come to pass, how long would you have to go back in time before it wasn’t “extreme conservative policy”, but something the majority of people took for granted without even having to think about it?

Let’s take a couple of examples:

Abortion, specifically overturning Roe v. Wade- Is the idea that we should turn abortion back over to the states really that extreme? Remember that Roe v. Wade didn’t make abortion legal, it removed the ability of the states to make it illegal. If for some reason this still strikes you as being extreme, what are the chances of it actually happening? As I said in a previous post, we had a Republican President, a Republican controlled congress, and seven of the nine judges on the Supreme Court were appointed by Republicans, from 2003-2005 and Roe v. Wade sailed through that period unscathed. Finally if it did happen it wouldn’t be reverting us to the dark ages, we’d be reverting to 1973.

That’s a cultural issue, what about a financial issue like eliminating Medicare and Medicaid? First, while this may or may not be an extreme issue, it’s extreme enough that no one actually favors eliminating it, they mostly just want to privatize it. Given that we’re 20 Trillion in debt, and those two programs consume roughly 25% of the budget is that so extreme? I’ve already talked about the chances of it actually happening, but additionally recall that the same Republican President and Republican Congress I just mentioned not only didn’t get rid of it they added to it with the Medicare drug benefit. And finally if we did eliminate both of them in their entirely we’d be going all the way back to 1965… and I understand 50 years seems like a long time, but trust me it’s really not.

All of this is to say that the only extreme proposals which have a realistic chance of being implemented, and would therefore be of concern to the centrist, are almost entirely in the domain of the left.

Moving to the second assumption of centrism:

Mistrust of grand political theories or systems. Societies and polities are incredibly complicated and our understanding of the way social systems and human nature interact is excruciatingly limited. Grand theories are almost always incorrect, and they encourage dogmatism and extremism. Utopianism is perhaps the most dangerous and seductive kind of grand theory. Ideas that require significant harm today to bring about a better tomorrow are particularly pernicious. Uncertainty about the future requires humility and a commitment to order and well-being in the here and now.

This is another place where he uses libertarianism as his boogieman on the right, despite the fact that, before the 2016 election, the Libertarian Presidential Candidate never got more than 1% of the vote, and even in 2016 it was only 3.28%. Because, once again, we’re asking essentially the same questions: Beyond libertarianism, what are the grand political theories the centrist should worry about from the right? How extreme are these theories, really? And how much chance do they have of actually being implemented? Take an example like smaller government. Even if we grant that it’s a grand, unproven, conservative political theory (and not strictly libertarian). And even if we place this theory in the extreme category because of the harm it causes to those who rely on the government, where is the evidence that there’s the slightest danger that it will ever happen? Look at this chart of government spending and notice that first off there are only ever the tiniest dips, and that secondly there’s no evidence that when Republicans control congress that there is any discernable effect on spending.

Moving on to another example, people will often talk about the conservative hostility to public education, and during every presidential election one or more of the candidates will mention getting rid of the Department of Education. This has been going on since 1981. And here we are 36 years later and despite Republican Presidents being in power for 20 of those 36 years, it’s still going strong.

On the other hand utopianism abounds on the left. Communism is of course the largest and deadliest example, but there’s also the utopian fantasies I mentioned in my last post including the idea that all cultures are equal, or that all people are essentially equal, or that we can allow functionally unlimited immigration. Speaking of which let’s move on to his third centrist assumption:

Skepticism about the goodness of human nature. Although our understanding of human nature is limited, the best evidence, scientific and historical, suggests that humans are often parochial, tribal, and prone to violence. This does not mean that humans are unremittingly “sinful” or wicked. They are not. At times, they are peaceful and cooperative. But peace and harmony among disparate cultural, ethnic, and religious groups is an exception, not a rule. Political and cultural systems must deal with humans as they exist and to understand their basic propensities. Excessive optimism about human nature has often led to tragedy. And the current political system, whatever its failures, is often wise because it has been conditioned by years of slow experimentation with real humans. A decent society in the world is worth 1,000 utopias in the head.

This assumption, more than pervious two, appears specifically directed at the left. Though I think he ended up burying the lede. In particular I’m talking about this sentence, “But peace and harmony among disparate cultural, ethnic, and religious groups is an exception, not a rule.” I agree, and I think it’s possible, even likely that at least part of the resistance to immigration comes from an awareness of this fact. I would further argue that taking an immigration rate which is near the historic maximum (in percentage terms, the absolute numbers are unprecedented) and combining it with a progressive ideology which encourages resistance to assimilation is a bad idea.

On this point, at least, the author appears to agree, going on to say later in the article:

Take immigration as one example. It is an exceedingly complicated issue and any comprehensive immigration policy will include painful tradeoffs. If the rate of legal immigration is restricted, then many ambitious and morally upstanding people will be denied a chance to join thriving societies to fulfill their potentials. On the other hand, if the rate of legal immigration is dramatically expanded, then it will cause continued social and cultural disruption, resentment, and quite possibly lower wages.

There are many good-natured people on both sides of this debate. However, many on the Left not only disagree with restrictive immigration laws, they denounce those who support them.

This last point he brings up, about the denunciations, is a theme that has run through all of my posts on politics. The left has been very effective at not only denouncing certain forms of speech (see for instance, the pull back from using the term “illegal” with reference to immigration) but has also rendering certain discussions completely off limits (see my post about the Overton Window). What follows from this, is a situation where the left doesn’t win the battle of ideas, so much as declare the battle over and themselves the victors while the other side remains on the field. Or to put it another way they don’t win the debate they rule the subject too evil to even consider debating. Which takes me to his fourth assumption:

Desire to seek compromise and form large coalitions. Good governance and social harmony require at least an implicit consensus among the governed. Policy proposals that veer from this consensus, even if ultimately correct, threaten to alienate people and foment discontent. It is therefore crucially important to win a battle of ideas before implementing a policy that significantly changes the current status quo. This is best done by appealing to common values and bipartisanship.

You have probably seen the chart which shows the increasing polarization of politics and the lack of any moderate middle at the congressional level. On this point, at least, there is plenty of blame to go around, and I suspect that here is where I would get the most pushback if I claimed that political polarization was mostly an attribute of the left. And, it is indeed the case, that when you look at something like the debt ceiling debate and the past brinksmanship involved there (though recall that I mentioned the national debt as one place where moderation has contributed to the mess) that Republicans have been very bad at compromising. You also have a Republican primary system which increasingly rewards the most extreme candidate, meaning people are elected having specifically pledged to avoid compromise. All of this is true, and there is certainly vast room for the Republicans to improve. But once we move beyond that, we end up in an area the left is particularly bad at, building consensus.

I mentioned this already as a problem in my post about Confederate Monuments. As it turns out a majority of people want them left alone. In other words the consensus is to do the exact opposite of what’s happening. We saw the same thing with Same Sex Marriage (SSM). It was defeated over and over again when put to a vote, but then rather than waiting for public opinion to shift and a consensus to emerge, the left resorted to legalizing it through the judiciary. Based on the latest polling I think if they had waited just a few more years they would have been able to achieve consensus, win at the ballot box and avoid both the appearance of judicial activism and some degree of discontent. Might SSM still be illegal in Utah? Sure, it might, but it’d be legal nearly everywhere else. And I imagine that even in Utah there’d be something like a civil union. Would the harm really have been that great to wait a few more years? Maybe so, but if I’m underestimating the harm, I think people are even more likely to underestimate the damage that comes from not forming a consensus and routing around the ballot box. And I think this is exactly the point the author is making.

Moving on to his fifth assumption:

Pragmatic emphasis on science, evidence, and truth. Because societies are exquisitely complicated, the best social policies are arrived at through slow and careful experimentation, not dogma. Although science cannot solve all social problems, it is the best instrument we have for measuring the success or failure of particular policies. It is important, therefore, to protect vigilantly free speech and free inquiry so that the best ideas are rigorously debated in the public forum. Political ideologies tend to blind people to the best policies. One should not seek a “conservative” answer to poverty or a “liberal” answer to immigration. One should seek the best answer. It is highly unlikely that any political party has a monopoly on truth.

I suppose some people might claim that it’s not the last point which represents the biggest indictment of the right, it’s this one. I mean certainly you’ve heard of intelligent design and young earth creationism! Yes, I have heard of those things, but despite that I still think from a moderate perspective the left has a bigger problem with this than the right, despite things like intelligent design. I’m sure that some of you are wondering how I ever arrived at that conclusion. The most significant factor, for me, is the widespread censorship of science which is perceived to have a any sort of rightward bias. And a great example of this censorship is the recent incident with James Damore and Google. That incident is also something of a minefield, so I don’t intend to get too deep into things (though if there’s enough interest I might in future post). But I’m on firm ground to say that the science of gender differences is not settled science. There is plenty of evidence for exactly the kind of disparities Damore was talking about. It is an open question (actually less open than Damore’s opponents think, but that’s precisely my point.)

It is true that there are many Republicans and conservatives, and other members of the “right” who are anti-science. There may even be more of them than on the left, but as is so often the case the attacks by the Right are completely ineffective. Yes, as I mentioned there are creationists, but what have they actually done to slow down science? Where are the actual casualties? Point me to a study that was killed by creationists, or a professor who was fired by them. It just isn’t a thing.

Moving on to his sixth assumption:

A healthy admiration for patriotism and a distrust of identity politics. Nation states, although not without flaws, are one of the few social vehicles capable of forging broad identities not based on parochial tribal markers such as race or religion. They allow individuals to share in a large collective group enterprise that is admirably committed to a creed rather than ancestry. Although patriotism can be dangerous, it can also be salubrious. Identity politics tend to divide people and create bitter factions that compete for their perceived interests. Because humans are naturally tribal, this factionalism is easy to create and dangerous for a broader cooperative union among dissimilar peoples.

Now we’re back to issues where the right has a natural advantage. I once heard that a quick and easy way to determine whether someone was on the right or the left was to ask them whether they thought America was the Greatest Country on Earth (i.e. American Exceptionalism). If they said yes, they were conservative, if they said no they were liberal. Which is to say that the right has a near monopoly on patriotism, while the left has a monopoly on identity politics, both these things putting the right squarely on the side of things the author is encouraging. Out of the two I’d like to focus on identity politics. Not only do most of the people on the right think they’re a bad idea, and not only do moderates, like this guy, think they’re a bad idea, but increasingly even on the left people are starting to realize how corrosive and divisive they are.

One of the themes which has run through the last several posts, is the idea of what’s an acceptable political tactic and what’s unacceptable. And of course while there are (I hope) some absolutes when discussing this, there is also the principal that if you start employing a tactic it’s going to be really difficult to keep your adversary from using the same tactic. That is one of the big problems with identity politics, you can’t spend decades emphasizing the importance of black or latino or gay identity and not eventually have people decide that they should emphasis their white or European or straight identity. If anything, I’m surprised it’s taken this long. But once the genie was out of the bottle it was always going to be difficult to put it back in, especially if one side continues to insist on using the genie to grant wishes, while claiming that any attempt to do the same thing by the other side is literally the worst thing ever.

And for his seventh and final assumption:

A steadfast dedication to rule of law and fidelity to constitutional principles. The rule of law is one of the greatest and most fragile accomplishments of Western Civilization. It creates a sense of fairness and protects citizens from the whims of their leaders. It should be lauded and guarded against possible corrosion. And although highly educated men and women might not need base appeals to authority (“Madison wrote X, Y, and Z”), society is not comprised of only highly educated men and women. The prejudices of the people require attention and cannot be disregarded. Having a written document (or legacy of laws and principles that are venerated) that inspires reverence helps insure the preservation of the rule of law.

This is yet another thing I’ve been harping on for quite a while. And yet one more area where there is no difference between the author’s definition of centrism and modern conservatism. We see this in the DACA debate, and in the immigration debate as a whole, and I think we also see it in the subject of judicial activism. Whatever you think of the idea of a living Constitution, it’s indisputable that the right has far more concern for constitutional fidelity than the left. And the left’s hostility to First Amendment protections, under the guise of combating hate speech is only making things worse.

Just barely I used the term “modern conservatism”, and when I did so, I realized I may have too hastily glossed over the many sins conservatives were historically guilty of, and the many ways in which what I just said was not accurate (or at least less accurate) historically. This is all true, but we’re talking about a moderate way out of the current crisis, and using these historical issues as a permanent cudgel with which to beat the right, or worse, using past excesses by the right to justify current excesses by the left only deepens the crisis.

I know that if you’ve read this blog with any frequency you’ve probably come to the conclusion that I’m unrepentantly conservative, but I hope that over the course of the last few episodes I’ve show that the left has gone so far, and gotten so extreme in it’s quest for victory and a progressive ideological utopia, that the moderate course is the conservative course.

If you’re a conservative, you should donate because I just showed how conservatives are currently on the right side of everything. If you’re a moderate you should donate, because I just spent an entire post lauding the virtues of moderation. And if you’re a liberal you should donate because I did nothing but malign you and this is your chance to prove me wrong.

DACA and How Even Moderates Are Conservative

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This post is a continuation of the last post, and to begin with I think it’s worthwhile to spend some more time expanding on the idea of kicking someone when they’re down, or dancing in the endzone, and how to distinguish those actions from actions which may be annoying and even objectionable for other reasons, but are otherwise in the realm of a “fair fight”. And whereas last time I mostly focused on the left, here I’ll largely be speaking about the right.

Several people have recently asked me what my thoughts are on the end of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). And since many people view this as an example of the right kicking someone while they’re down, it seemed worthwhile to talk about it, but before diving into that aspect of it, I should mention that, in some respects, it’s an even greater example of how the media amplifies the perceived extent of the crisis, with the majority of the coverage being best compared to screaming. This screaming is nothing new in the age of Trump, but as usual it does make it hard to get to the bottom of things.

When you do take the time to strip away the accusations of racism and cruelty, it appears that Trump has done something pretty savvy, even if he’s not very good at selling it that way. (Though once again that may be as much a statement about the media as it is about Trump.) To understand why it’s savvy, a little bit of history is in order.

To begin with, DACA is not a law, it’s an exercise of prosecutorial discretion, and kind of an iffy one at that. What’s prosecutorial discretion? Well, as the executive, the president is in charge of enforcing the laws, and given that there are somewhere north of 11 million illegal immigrants he’s perfectly within his rights to prioritize the prosecution of drug dealers, and repeat offenders, and terrorists above the prosecution of those who arrived when they were children. And if that’s all it was, not only would Obama have been completely within his rights. But if Trump had later come along and prioritized prosecuting children, or even said he was going to prosecute everyone equally, that wouldn’t be so much kicking people when they’re down as it would have been just colossally stupid.

The problem and the iffiness comes in when Obama additionally decided to create a formal government program where these Dreamers (a name for those covered by DACA, for reasons which are not worth getting into) could apply for two year work permits, get social security numbers and largely behave as legal residents, though with no path to permanent residency or citizenship. This is where the iffiness comes in. The formality of the whole process makes people question whether this doesn’t go beyond simple prosecutorial discretion. And it seems obvious to many (myself included) that it’s more properly viewed as an example of the executive branch usurping the law-making power of the legislative branch.

Because of this questionable constitutionality, ten state attorneys general told Trump that if he doesn’t end DACA, they’re going to challenge it in court. And, supposedly this is what prompted his action on the topic. It’s a sign of the times, and the of war I’ve been talking about, that shortly after Trump made his announcement, other state attorneys general said they’re going to sue Trump if he does end DACA. The fact that they would even try that is a pretty big piece of evidence both for my claim that the left is winning, and also my previous points about the power of the judiciary.

Now you could argue that the demands of the initial set of attorneys general was just the cover Trump was waiting for to do the racist thing he always wanted to do, but it’s also unclear what the result of an eventual legal challenge would be, given the facts I just outlined. If Trump had decided to do nothing, certainly one scenario, would be for DACA to make it all the way to the Supreme Court, and be struck down and end immediately without the six months of warning that Trump is giving.

As far as I know there’s no reason Trump couldn’t have ended DACA immediately, but as I just alluded to, he didn’t, he is waiting six months, and he is urging Congress to use that time pass a bill replacing DACA. Now he could be insincere about this or he could be outright lying, but this is the savvy part I was talking about. Objectively DACA, as implemented by Obama, is of questionable legality, and could end up getting overturned if it actually ended up before the Supreme Court. If it were an actual law, passed by the actual legislature it wouldn’t have that problem. This is what Trump claims to want. Given all this, is Trump kicking the Dreamers or the Democrats while they’re down?

First, as you’ve probably already gathered, the six months is a very non-dancing in the endzone move, because, as I said, there’s no legal reason he couldn’t have ended it immediately, but he didn’t. Second, whether you believe his protestations or not, he is going out of his way to signal that the whole thing has left him very conflicted. Here’s what a recent article said about it:

“To me, it’s one of the most difficult subjects I have, because you have these incredible kids,” Mr. Trump said at a recent White House news conference. He said he would deal with the matter with “great heart,” but nodded to the political difficulty of doing so.

This was from an article in the New York Times titled Trump’s Soft Spot for Dreamers Alienates Immigration Hard-Liners, so if he’s dancing in the end-zone the rest of his “team” isn’t celebrating with him.

This is not to say things couldn’t change. As I pointed out part of DACA was that those who wanted to participate in it had to register. And as many people have pointed out, having registered they are now much easier to find and punish should ICE, or Trump or Sessions decide that’s what they wanted to do. Let me be clear, while I don’t think the way DACA has been handled so far qualifies as kicking people while their down, this definitely would. As the kids say, it would definitely be a “dick move”.

I know that many people are convinced, that this is exactly what will happen. Maybe… But given Trump’s statements on the subject and the irrationality of prioritizing these people ahead of criminals and terrorists and the like, I’m betting against it. This is not to say that if DACA is rescinded that there won’t be a story here and there of a Dreamer being deported, but this is one of those cases where the plural of anecdote is definitely not data. I’m saying there will be no large scale, systematic deportation of Dreamers if the program is eliminated.

Of course, in my last post, I said that in some respects it doesn’t matter what the facts are, what matters is how people perceive things, and certainly, regardless of the facts, there are people who feel that the revocation of DACA is a form of dancing in the endzone. And, to be fair, I can see where they’re coming from, though honestly this is at least as much Obama’s fault as Trump’s. Allow me to explain: if Obama had made it clear from the beginning that this was merely prosecutorial discretion, that it wasn’t a change in the law, it wasn’t a new program, that he was just temporarily telling federal prosecutors to de-prioritize this category of offenders, then things would currently be in a very different place. First the 10 state attorneys general I mentioned earlier would have no standing for a lawsuit. Second, there would be no Dreamer information for Trump or anyone else to abuse. Third, the incentives for keeping it vs. getting rid of it would be completely different, with elimination being far more controversial than it currently is. Thus, while people may view it as dancing in the endzone, if it is, it’s something of an own goal. (To completely butcher the metaphor.)

Having spent a lot more time on DACA than I intended, are there any other examples of the right, or specifically Trump, kicking people when they’re down? Or to make it even more broad, what has Trump done to deserve his evil overlord status? After discussing my DACA predictions with one of my friends I asked him that question, and he offered the memo Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued back in May as a good example of Trump being malicious. The memo he was referring to instructed Federal Prosecutors to seek the toughest charges and the maximum possible sentences available, especially for drug crimes.

I remember this memo well. I was actually at a fundraising breakfast for the Rocky Mountain Innocence Center the day it was issued and the federal public defender who had invited me, told me the news. My feeling now is the same as my feeling then, this is a very bad idea. However, I don’t think it’s an instance of kicking the other side while they’re down, or even of conducting politics unfairly. I would say, rather, that this particularly policy represents a genuine difference in ideology. Session’s ideology is the War on Drugs, and while I think it has been fairly conclusively shown that this War is a failure (like so many of our recent wars) the idea of handling the drug problem in this fashion has a lot of history behind it, it’s not just something Jeff Sessions came up with to punish the poor. To be clear, I think it does punish the poor, but it’s not something specifically designed by Sessions with that end in mind.

Returning to Trump, what else is there? I know I said that I would look at things from the other side, but I’m having a hard time thinking of any more examples. Trump has made a lot of noise, and said a lot of bizarre things, but what has he done that could be considered dancing in the endzone? There’s the travel ban, which just the other day got some support from the Supreme Court, but given that the ban doesn’t even involve citizens, to say nothing of people who voted against Trump, it hard to argue that any face-stomping is going on.

Then I suppose there’s the Obamacare repeal, but, again, I’m not sure this fits any standard of gloating or unfairness, given that the Republican congress has been promising to do it for the last six years, and, perhaps even more important, given that they have so far failed.

So there you have it, I’m happy to call out instances of kicking people while they’re down on the left and the right, but I’m not seeing a lot of that actually happening on the right. If you feel like I’m missing some egregious (or even not egregious) example, please let me know, but in the absence of examples of what not to do on the edges, I’m going to spend the rest of this post looking at what should be done closer to the middle. The kind of behavior we should be encouraging regardless of our political affiliation. In this I was inspired by a recent article, Centrism: A Moderate Manifesto.

Though before I get into the article, a word about moderation. The saying, “Moderation in all things” is a phrase commonly used by Mormons. And many people, incorrectly, assume that it can be found in the scriptures, generally imagining it to be in the Word of Wisdom (the part that instructs us not to use alcohol or tobacco.) As it turns out that phrase doesn’t appear anywhere in the scriptures, nor is it especially useful when speaking of religion. No one thinks it’s a good idea to tell people to be moderately charitable, or moderately obedient, or moderately chaste. Outside of religion, there are times when it’s not even particularly useful in politics. I think the national debt is a situation where moderation has landed us at the bottom of a very deep pit. And there was no moderate course to beat Hitler. Finally, as David Lloyd George said, “There is no greater mistake than to try to leap an abyss in two jumps.” All of this is to say that moderation and moderate behavior will not solve all of our problems, but, I would argue, in the current crisis, that it would help with most of them.

In the last post I mentioned that there are some people who think that there is no war, that the truly radical elements off the far-left and far right are tiny and that we have more in common, and things are better, than we think. I dismissed this argument for a couple of reasons which I won’t bother to rehash, but I do agree that there is no giant pit, there is no Hitler, (no, not even Trump), and there is no vast abyss, at least not in the areas people are fighting about. Meaning that moderation might in fact be the best strategy, so what is the “Moderate Manifesto” and what does it recommend?

It recommends, among other things, centrism. What is centrism?

Understood properly, centrism is a consistent philosophical system that attempts to guide political and cultural systems through change without paroxysms of revolution and violence. The centrist, in this sense, believes that political and cultural progress is best achieved by caution, temperance, and compromise, not extremism, radicalism, or violence.

While the author doesn’t use this term, I think he’s basically describing what I call prefer to call gradualism. Gradualism recognizes that things will change, that, as I pointed out in the last post, statues will get torn down, moral standards will change, technology will make certain things possible which previously weren’t. But, currently, whether you call them the left or progressives or democrats, they have rejected doing anything gradually. Or to use the terms of the article, they have rejected caution, temperance and compromise in favor of extremism, radicalism, and increasingly, violence.

This injunction to slow down shouldn’t seem that conservative, but I think these days that’s the only way to view it. And this is why there are so few examples of conservatives not playing by the rules, because playing by the rules is basically all they have left. Having largely failed to conserve much of anything, particularly from the standpoint of morality, they are now happy if they can just slow things down a bit. Despite what people claim, there is no radical maneuver the right can pull which will somehow magically turn American into Nazi Germany or the Handmaid’s Tale. Instead, they’re reduced to saying, maybe if we’re going to give residency to a bunch of Dreamers we should pass a law to that effect. To which the left screams, “Racist!”

(And, again, I know I mentioned this already, but the idea that some states would claim that it would be unconstitutional for Trump to get rid of DACA really does astound me to no end.)

I would, in fact, argue, that by encouraging even a small amount of gradualism, that rather than being a “Moderate Manifesto” the article, when considered in relationship to what’s actually happening, ends up being, de facto, a strenuously conservative manifesto.

To give you an idea of what I mean here are a few examples:

The article claims that the centrist/moderate:

…like the conservative, is therefore worried about radical utopian proposals because the centrist fears that they might inspire dramatic alterations that upset a reasonably successful social order.

But then goes on to say that:

The centrist, however, is equally skeptical of radical libertarian ideas on the Right. The modern welfare state, whatever its flaws, has done a pretty good job of holding together a broad and largely urbanized society in which private charity cannot solve the worst problems of poverty.

You might assume from this that I’m wrong, that he is in fact advocating a position halfway between. The problem is that the modern welfare state is in zero danger of being rolled back to some sort of libertarian laissez faire fantasy (except, perhaps, through catastrophic collapse). And if you doubt this consider that the Republicans couldn’t even get rid of Obamacare, and that even if they did, it’s most likely replacement is universal healthcare.

While, on the other hand, we’re surrounded by radical utopian proposals, from free college, to universal basic income, to a society where people are allowed to choose their gender. Given that some of these, like the last one, have already been implemented, which ideology really poses more danger to the centrist/moderate point of view?

I think the author is aware of this issue, and he goes to great pains to distance centrism from conservatism:

But, there are two great differences between the centrism here conceived and conservatism: (1) Centrism does not loath change and (2) it does not accept a transcendental (religious) moral order.

I believe I’ve covered the first point. I think most conservatives have come to terms with change (certainly they don’t loathe it) they just ask a few things:

  • That they be able to opt out of the change, particularly if there’s no appreciable harm to anyone else (see things like the current cake fiasco)
  • That we could slow things down, I mean at least a little bit (see the last post on the statue controversy which has already progressed to the decapitation of the statue of a Spanish Priest.)
  • That if we’re going to change things, that we could at least follow the rules. (See the DACA discussion earlier in the post, but also everything I’ve said about judicial activism and the complete abandonment of the process for amending the Constitution.)

Accordingly this first difference is not as great as he makes it out to be, particularly when you look at how things actually operate this late in the game.

On the second point whatever the transcendental religious underpinnings of conservatism in the 19th and early 20th century, is anyone going to seriously argue that these underpinnings are still a factor in conservative politics today? Or that if they are that it’s had any effect whatsoever on the law? I understand his fear, but once again I think he’s taking a strong stand against something which in practical terms isn’t really a factor. I defy you to name one major US policy with a basis in religion. Abortion? Same Sex Marriage? What are the actual effects of the conservative transcendental religious underpinnings he claims to be fighting against as a centrist?

Perhaps you would point at Trump’s ban on Muslim immigration, but recall that every court in the land struck down even the whiff of a religiously based test, and that Trump is having difficulty implementing even his narrow seven nation ban.

On the contrary, as I argued in a previous post, if anyone has a monopoly on transcendental religious beliefs influencing policy it’s the left and the Religion of Progress. I refer you to that post for a more complete discussion of how the transcendental religion of the left plays out, but if you need a current example I refer you to the recent controversy around professor Amy Wax who the gall to say that certain behaviors are better than others and that certain cultures do a better job of encouraging those values. In response to this argument that all cultures are not created equal, the argument from the transcendentally religious left (though they will hardly admit it’s a religion) is that somehow, magically, all cultures are essentially equal?

The grand point I’m trying to make, is that the left/progressive side of things is so dominate, so fanatical, so radical, and there’s so much potential for violence (all the things supposedly even moderates are opposed to) that we face a real chance of having the left break the country, if for no other reason than just because how fast they insist on going. I know that all “right-thinking” people are supposed to be on the side of the progressives and social justice and against Trump. But at this point, even if you’re a moderate, I think it’s time to join with the conservatives, and to paraphrase Buckley: to stand athwart history and to at least yell, “Slow down!”

If you can at least agree, that with everything going on that at, a minimum, we need to take a deep breath, and pause for a moment to consider things, then perhaps one of the things you might consider is donating. If, on the other hand you think progress and change need to speed up, then in lieu of donating, could you email me, because I’m really curious how you got here.

Making Sure the Culture War is Fought Fairly

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Some weeks when I sit down to start writing, I feel like I’ve exhausted all of the possible topics on which I have anything interesting to say. And this will be the week when I run out. While at other times it feels like I have a huge backlog of topics, and the only question is which one I should write about first. As I sit down to start this week’s post it’s the latter situation. But I feel like if I’m going to prioritize things I should really prioritize writing about what’s going on currently, and make good on the promise, from a couple of weeks ago, when I was discussing the plethora of hate, of returning to that subject and discussing how it’s playing out currently. My timing is not ideal, since if anything right now we appear to be enjoying a temporary lull in hate and hostilities (perhaps because of Harvey?, also that was not meant to be alliterative) but I’m sure that, unfortunately, it won’t last and even if this post is not topical right this second, it will quickly become topical again, perhaps even before it’s finished.

If you haven’t already figured it out, I’m talking about the current war between left and right, between those who hate Trump and those who don’t, between the allies of social justice and its enemies, and, in the area with the most excitement, between the antifa and the white nationalists. Of course, given the emotions and the conflicting narratives, and the underlying and often hidden incentives, what’s really going on may be different from what you’ve been lead to believe.

Broadly there are actually four possibilities:

  1. There is no war. Neither side is oppressing the other. It’s all a plot being stoked by the media (the hidden incentives I just mentioned) to increase viewership. Things are generally better than they’ve ever been and if we could just get past the “Us vs. Them” mentality things would be fine.
  2. There is a war, but it’s a war where one side is clearly on the side of justice, specifically social justice. In this war the left is the good side and the right is the bad side and the sooner the left triumphs and the last of the racists and bigots and conservatives are gone the sooner we can finally reach the long promised utopia.
  3. There is a war, but it’s a war where one side is clearly right, I mean it’s in their name. It’s not called “The Right” for nothing. And the sooner we return to the values that made this country great: God, Family and Self-reliance, the sooner we can return to normalcy and get on with being the greatest country in the world.
  4. There is a war but like most wars neither side has a monopoly on justice or truth, and there are good people on both sides of it. Nevertheless it’s only getting worse and the fate of the country is tied up in the outcome.

I understand that all of these possibilities assume there are only two sides, when there are many, but, at the level of the whole country, distilling it down in this fashion is still very useful. Particularly since that’s the dominate narrative, and how the conflict is portrayed by the media.

Let’s go through the options in order, and speaking of the media, option one assumes that it’s all their fault. There is no war, it’s all an overblown product of our imagination, being stoked by sensationalized reporting. I know it’s hard to imagine, given everything you hear, that this might be the case, but there is some evidence for this position. As I already mentioned in a previous post, by any measurement it was worse during the late 60s/Early 70s. Also as Scott Alexander of SlateStarCodex pointed out recently:

you can probably piece together where I’m coming from some of the following: this estimate of about 500 people at the Charlottesville rally; this estimate of about 1100 people at a recent Satanic rally, this poll showing more blacks and Latinos agree with the white supremacist movement than whites do (probably a polling error based on random noise; my point is that the real level of support is literally unmeasurably low),

His big takeaway, is the enormous amount of press being given to anything that shows even a hint of KKK style white nationalism compared to other similarly controversial, larger gatherings, i.e. the Satanists. Now you can argue that even if a recent Satanic Rally was twice as big as the rally in Charlottesville, the reason it didn’t get any press is that nobody died. But if you’ll recall the Charlottesville rally was very much in the news before that happened, with one of the big news stories being that AirBNB had revoked the reservations of anyone suspected of being a white nationalist.

Also speaking of the Klu Klux Klan, even the Southern Poverty Law Center estimates that there are at most 8,000 members who mostly don’t get along. So if you got all of them together in the same spot you’d have as many as attended last year’s Hannibal Missouri Steampunk Festival. Which is to say that 8,000 is honestly nothing in a nation of 323 million. (Okay not literally nothing, literally 2 thousandths of a percent.) To give you a sense of their menacing power, I direct your attention to a KKK rally in Charlottesville before the one that attracted all the attention: 50 people showed up, they were matched by 1000 counter protesters. A nearby church set up a safe space which 600 people took advantage of. I don’t know if those two numbers should be added together for 1600, a ratio of 32 counter protestors for every protestor, instead of a ratio of 20. But the fact that 50 people caused 600 people to need a safe space tells you a lot about the current state of the world and is one more piece of evidence that people may be over-reacting to the threat of the far right.

Considering things from the other side, most people need no further proof then that fact that Trump was elected, to conclude that the left can’t be very threatening either. All of this is to say that a reasonable person could come to the conclusion that it is indeed option 1, there is no war. I am almost persuaded myself. Certainly, I would like to believe this. I hope that it’s true, but there are at least two good reasons to act as if it’s not.

First, whatever is going on now, by all accounts it’s getting worse, so maybe there currently is no war, but with the media stoking it, it will turn into a war eventually. Following from this, as I pointed out in my last post the medium is the message, and if today’s media can only survive by pretending one side of the country is at war with the other side of the county how long before it’s no longer pretend?

Second, and the point I come to again and again, if we assume there’s a war brewing and there isn’t than that’s a lot better than if we assume there’s no war brewing and there IS. You may object that this sort of assumption is exactly what’s inflaming things. But in reality, and this is essentially the point of this post, what I’m suggesting is the exact opposite. I’m suggesting that we have to recognize how potentially damaging this conflict is, and work to cool things down, operating from the fear that if we can’t figure out how to cool things down it could get really ugly. And, in the same way the terribleness of a nuclear war kept the cold war cool, I’m hoping the terrible prospect of an actual civil war, if we honestly engage with it, will have the same effect on the cold civil war we’re currently experiencing.

Moving further down the list, the next two options both assume that we are in fact in a war, but it’s a just war. And of course the side of justice is exactly the opposite in both of these options. And here, I am assuming, that below a certain level of support, one would move from option 2 or 3 to being more in the option 4 camp. Accordingly when I’m talking about options 2 and 3 I’m mostly talking about those people who are irrevocably in one camp or the other. The people, who on the one side, are sure we’re mere days away from a perfect re-enactment of Nazi Germany or the Handmaid’s Tale, and the people, on the other side, who are equally certain that we’re mere days away from a re-enactment of the French Revolution or of Brave New World.

I’m not sure what I can say to people in these two camps. People who firmly believe that we are in a war and that the other side is irrevocably evil, and that doom awaits us all unless they’re utterly destroyed. But if you are in one of those camps, and by some miracle you end up reading this blog, I would urge you, as I have so often in the past, to consider the possibility that you might be wrong. And, in case it’s not clear, this goes for both sides. You are not the rational, impartial, dispassionate observer you imagine. And even if you were, that neither puts you in possession of all the facts nor allows you to see the future. Consider that it’s far more likely that you are just parroting the views of whichever side’s echochamber you happen to be in. And, further, that the entire point of the echochamber is to convince you, via articles, or videos, or TV Shows that the left is about to destroy the country or the right is about to burn it down, so that you’ll read more of their articles and watch more of their videos. Finally, even though it’s a cliche, it does take two people to argue. For these reasons, I think you have to question any narrative which boils down to it being ALL THE FAULT of one side or the other.

At this point you’ve probably already figured out that I lean strongly towards option 4: we are in a war, and neither side has a monopoly on truth or good people. This is not to say that both sides have reached some sort marvelous and perfect equilibrium where they’re both equally right as well as being both equally wrong. One of them is more wrong, but neither of them is all wrong.

If you’ve been following my blog for any length of time I’m sure you’re already thinking about the two posts I made back in June where I talked about how the left is winning by nearly any measure you care to name (the election of Trump being the major exception) and how their victory is so pervasive that it’s continually shifting the entirety of acceptable public discourse in a leftward direction (the Overton Window.) This is a problem because I’m not sure that the left should win, or even what a leftist victory would look like. (At this point, if I was snarky, I could say that I actually do know, that it looks like Stalin and Mao, but that’s untrue, though not as untrue as the left would wish.) In any event, for one thing the goalposts keep moving. As I said in a previous post:

“What does winning a civil war even look like?” Does everyone have to be comfortable with the most liberal current position that exists today, because in 10 years that will be mainstream? What about 20 years from now? By that time would we all have to be comfortable with positions that even the most liberal person finds abhorrent now? [Which is, essentially, the story of the last 20 years.] What if there are people who will never be comfortable with those ideas? Do we kill them? Re-educate them? Banish them? And this all assumes something approaching a best case scenario for the left where they win and there’s no violence. Neither of which, especially the latter, is guaranteed.

But, if it’s inevitable that they’re going to win, some ways of winning are better than others. And if we’re going to have a war some ways of waging war are better than others. And I know that if you’re winning, that it’s very tempting to not want to worry about how you win, or what the eventual repercussions are if you wage war in one way versus another. When you’re in a war it’s very easy to demonize the other side. To come to the conclusion that they deserve whatever punishment they get. To draw on a football metaphor, it’s very hard not to dance in the endzone. But all of this matters, a lot. And I know that some of you will dismiss this as prejudiced, but I’m going to go on record as saying that the modern left has a hard time not dancing in the endzone.

This takes us to the recent unrest in Charlottesville and more broadly the conflict over the Confederate monuments. And I’d like to use it as an example of the what I’m talking about. First off, as I mentioned this is one of those situations where the left has clearly won. All over the country Confederate monuments and plaques are being removed, and I guarantee, they’re not coming back. This is not a temporary victory, the only question now, is not if, but when a monument will be removed. And, as usual, what’s amazing to me, is how fast it’s happening. There are essentially no examples of it happening before 2015, and then there was a flurry of monument removal in New Orleans in May, but the vast majority of the removals all happened in the course of a little more than a week between the 15th and the 24th of August.

There are a variety of possible explanations for the speed with which things have changed. Perhaps every individual community, all suddenly and simultaneously realized at around the same time in mid-August (perhaps it had something to do with the eclipse) that though they had sat there unmolested for decades that Confederate monuments were bad and they had to come down immediately. This is regardless of who the monument was for or what it represented, or the community the monument was in. Or perhaps, and this seems more likely. The left saw that they had some momentum with the fatality in Charlottesville and they decided to use it to strike as fast as the could. To put it another way, the left saw that they had the right down, and decided to get in as many kicks as they could.

There are certainly people who would strenuously deny that this is what the left is doing, but in a sense it doesn’t matter. What matters is whether it feels like that to those on the losing side. If it does, then unless you plan some sort of massive Orwellian re-education, or worse some sort of bloody purge, you’re still going to have to live with these people, regardless of what happens with the monuments.

(I should interject here that everything I’m recommending applies to the right as well, but currently the left is more in need of the message both because of current events and the long term trends.)

Perhaps, it’s easier to understand my point if I frame it in terms of trade-offs. These statues and plaques have been up for decades, what harm would it cause to leave them up for another year or two? Whatever your answer (and I assume the answer has to be “small to nonexistent”) that’s what you’re balancing against the benefits of going more slowly. The benefit of having an actual public discussion, of giving people time to educate themselves, and may be tossing up a ballot initiative this November, or even next and allowing people to actually vote? Especially given the fact that the majority of Americans want the monuments to stay?

This may seem like a small thing and perhaps it is, but recently same sex marriage and transgender bathroom access, played out the same way, moving quickly from no one even considering the idea, to all “right thinking” people agreeing with it, with no space for any discussion in between. And heaven help you if you decide to try and discuss it now.

I understand, who cares what those racist rednecks think. Who cares if they’re upset by this. There’s no room for their hate speech or their hate groups or their hateful thoughts. (And as I pointed out, hate is now the ultimate sin and the root cause of all our problems.) And you are entitled to your opinion, I suppose, but before you get too deep into your hate of the haters I’d urge you to consider the fact that these people have a lot of guns. I know no one wants to think about a situation where suddenly the number of guns is a factor, but this is where we get back into trade-offs. Is the harm of the monuments so great that it’s better to tear them down immediately than spend a few months trying to peel off some of the more moderate individuals?

Speaking of moderates, as I already pointed out, most people want to leave the monuments alone, and I assume from that, that most people don’t even have a dog in this fight. They’re not a white nationalist nor a mask wearing member of the Black Bloc. They’ve never been to a protest and they don’t see any reason for that to change. Instead, their goals include saving up for a trip to Hawaii, or getting into a good college, or losing 30 lbs. Even if they knew who Nathan Bedford Forrest was they would have no interest in trying to tear down his statue. All of this means that they’re not in the business of picking a side, to say nothing of joining a side, but they should be in the business of trying to prevent whatever is going on from ruining that trip to Hawaii, or their college admissions, or even their diet.

How can you do that? You do that by playing referee. By making sure things are fair. I know that everyone has their own definition of fairness, but I think most people would be happy if you just applied the same standard to both sides. And if you’re unclear on what standards to apply, as it turns out the First Amendment is a great source. The Founders tackled this same problem and enshrined their standards for fairness. It even talks about “the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” In light of what happened in Charlottesville, I think the key word is “peaceably”.

If you want a more modern spin, there’s the standard I mentioned a couple of posts ago which I borrowed from the rationalist community:

Bad argument gets counterargument. Does not get bullet. Does not get doxxing. Does not get harassment. Does not get fired from job. Gets counterargument. Should not be hard.

This means making sure both sides have their say. (For a great example of this read Charles Murray’s article about his speech at Harvard.)

And, it means you need to point out violence on both sides.

And if eventually the succession of California makes your trip to Hawaii impossible and you decide that you have to pick a side. If you’ve made sure to support the ability of both sides to peaceably make their case then at least you’ll have access to as much information as possible when it does come time to make that decision.

And beyond all this, I think occasionally you have to call an excessive celebration penalty, when someone dances in the endzone.

I rarely dance, in the endzone or otherwise. If that kind of thing is important to you, consider donating.

The Trend of Sexualizing Children

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The germ of this post came many weeks ago when my aunt sent me a link to an article on PJMedia. Before I go on, my sense is, that PJMedia is one of those places that a certain category of people are going to dismiss out of hand, because of its conservative bias. Though, if you haven’t noticed, I go out of my way to acknowledge that most places and people are biased, especially me. As my small way of counteracting that, I try my best to point out where I think my biases lie and where I think the biases of those I quote from lie.

In that spirit, as I said, PJMedia is obviously a conservative website, and the article has the sort of biases you would expect from conservative media. But in saying this, I should also hasten to point out that another underlying theme of this blog is that not all biases are bad. This is particularly the case in situations where an unbiased view is impossible, like predicting the future. You have to be biased, because being accurate isn’t possible given, that the future hasn’t happened yet. Consequently you only know whether you were too optimistic or too conservative in retrospect. Given that, you can only choose the bias with the lowest aggregate downside. To sum up, I want to make it clear upfront that the article is biased, but also that that may not be a bad thing.

With that caveat out of the way let’s finally move to a discussion of the actual article. The article was drawing attention to and commenting on a video, trending at the time on YouTube, which featured parents teaching their pre-teen kids about masturbation. From the article:

The YouTube video flits backs and forth, showing five different parent-child groupings, with parents telling children about masturbation, including how-tos, discussions of how many times they masturbate, and sex toys. Many times, the parents mime the actions of sexual intercourse and masturbation to illustrate how dildos and other sex toys are used.

From the reactions of the children it seems clear that these were not kids who came to their parents with a question. This is not an example of children who wanted to know about the subject and this is just their parent’s genuine attempt to honestly answer those questions (which was then coincidently taped for the benefit of posterity.) These are pre-teen children who were sat down in front of a coffee table loaded with assorted paraphernalia including, as was mentioned, a dildo. And, who, also, as far as I can tell, had very little concept of what masturbation is, before being given an in-depth, and frankly excruciating explanation. Which the children react to as expected, with nervous giggling, discomfort and in the case of one girl, who looks like she’s 9 years old, if that, repeatedly putting her head into her hands in disbelief.

Upon first having your attention drawn to the video you may have any number of reactions. One of which might be to wonder what the point is. It doesn’t appear to be done for comedy, it’s not like that “children react” video series where kids encounter things like rotary phones and VCRs, no, from what I can tell these people seem to genuinely believe that pre-teens need to be educated on this subject and that this education should be filmed for the benefit of society at large.

The PJMedia article mentions that this is not an isolated example. And they link to a previous article of theirs which outlined all of the graphic articles which had been recently published by Teen Vogue, drawing particular attention to one that explained the RIGHT way to have Anal Sex (emphasis in the original.) They also draw their readers attention to a decision by National Geographic to feature a 9 year old transgender girl on their cover. I can see where some people might feel that this last point is different than the previous examples, and I’ll get to that, but let’s return to the video, as I said my first thought was to wonder what the point was.

There are obviously some people, the makers of the video at a minimum, who thought it was a good idea. Based on the number of likes the video got, the video makers are not alone in this, though they are in the minority. At the time of this writing the video had 90,000 dislikes to 20,000 likes. So while the people who dislike the video are clearly in the majority, there are still some people who think this is a good idea, perhaps even something that people should be doing more of.

On the other hand there are 90,000 people who disliked the video. And out of those I assume that most of them, like myself, found a video featuring squirming pre-teens being taught about masturbation to be appalling. But just as we earlier wondered why the 20,000 people who liked the video thought it was a good idea, we might wonder exactly why the 90,000 people who disliked the video thought it was a bad idea.

At the extreme end we have people who fall into the PJMedia camp, who disliked the video not merely because it was appalling on it’s face but also because it was one more piece of evidence supporting the decline of society as a whole. Other people may have found the video to be appalling, but don’t think it says anything special about the state of the world. Finally, some might have disliked it just for the discomfort it caused the child actors, or because they thought phrases like “choking the chicken” were lame, or because of its production values.

I’d like to focus on the second group for a moment, because I encounter them all the time. I know many people of my generation (and younger) who, if told about this video, would be quick to agree that it was a bad idea, and who might even go so far as to agree that it’s appalling, even loathsome, but who will then quickly assure me that there’s nothing to worry about because the video is an outlier. It doesn’t represent some larger societal trend, all it represents is that there are a few idiots out there with access to a camera and a computer.

This attitude fits in well with the attitudes of groups and people I’ve described in previous posts. The people who think that, while the road is bumpy, technology and progress just keep making things better. On this particular subject they might point out that the teen birth rate is at an historic low, and use this as evidence that even if tasteless videos of the kind we’ve been talking about are getting made that they don’t appear to have had any effect on this most important metric of teen sexuality.

One might even imagine them saying something like, “Only prudes and people who hate pleasure are interested in restricting sex for it’s own sake, if teenagers aren’t bringing unwanted children into the world what do you care how much sex they have?”

We’ll I’ll get to that, but first a brief aside about the teen birth rate. If you actually examine the chart you’ll find that there’s a lot that’s not obvious and that the statistic might not be as clean as you think. For one, as you may or may not have inferred from the name, (I didn’t) the teen birth rate includes 18 and 19 year olds. Given that the teen birth rate spiked after World War II during the baby boom years, which is precisely when the median age of marriage for both sexes was at its lowest. It’s unclear how much the historical teen birth rate was at the upper end of the teen range among “teens” who might have actually been married. It was certainly more common to get married at 18 or even 17 back then and therefore, presumably, any children born to those couples during the first year or so of marriage would be counted as a teen birth.

On the other side of things, despite going all the way up to 19 it only goes down to 15, so in those rare cases when someone younger than that gets pregnant, it’s not tracked. And if we were looking for a statistic to support our hypothesis about increasingly sexualized children and teens having numbers for that age group would be very interesting.

Still it can’t be denied that the birth rate is going down, and that’s good news, and as it turns out it’s not mostly due to abortion, which may be even better news. It appears that it’s mostly due to birth control, though there has also been a significant increase in the number teens who’ve never had sex. But to close out this aside, I will say, that a society of individuals completely uninterested in sex, or who get all the sexual gratification they need through pornography and masturbation, is not necessarily a great situation either. Which brings us back to our original subject.

As I pointed out you can break the reactions down into three groups. You have the people who we just discussed, who think the video is, at best, unnecessary, and, at worst, appalling, but that PJMedia and people like them are over-reacting. Then you have the people who think the video represents some sort of trend. With some portion of those people thinking it’s a good trend and another, probably larger portion, thinking it’s a bad trend.

Of course it’s also possible that you’re on the fence about this. You find the video appalling, but you also don’t want to over-react. Certainly throughout history there have definitely been repeated instances of the older generation overreacting to some perceived trend among the younger generations.

Accordingly, if you’re on the fence, before we determine if it’s a good trend or a bad trend, it might be useful to first determine if it’s a trend at all. And on this point I think the evidence is pretty conclusive.

Obviously if you’re trying to determine if something is a trend you look at where that thing is today, versus where it was in the past. And in this endeavor there is plenty of evidence to be found. Certainly 20 or 30 years ago, it’s impossible to imagine a video being made like the one we’ve been talking about, to say nothing of the ubiquity of hardcore pornography (a subject I’ve touched on before.)

If we want to look beyond the video, there are the other examples from the article: The Teen Vogue piece, for starters. Comparing now with 20 or 30 years ago might be difficult given that Teen Vogue has only been around since 2003, putting it, actually, close to the same age as YouTube (2005). However the parent magazine, Vogue, has been around since 1892. It would be interesting to search through the archives (I considering it, but it’s $1750) to see when the first mention of anal sex appears. I’d be surprised it wasn’t in the last 20 years, and it certainly couldn’t be more recently than the 70s. And based on the reaction, the recent article connecting teens to anal sex had to be the first time that happened.

As another, quicker, aside. I should draw your attention to the Teen Vogue response to those who were concerned by the article. Phillip Picardi, the digital editorial director posted a picture of him kissing another man (he’s gay) while flipping of the camera with his rainbow painted fingernail. That was his response to those who were concerned about the article. Make of that what you will.

In the middle of writing this, I ended up going to breakfast with a friend of mine, a friend who has never been religious, has no children and is otherwise fairly liberal, particularly with respect to morality. Given all that I thought it might be interesting to get his take on this issue, and so I described the video to him and asked him what he thought about it.

His principal objection was the age of the children, pre-teen seemed to young to him, particularly when they weren’t the one’s initiating the discussion. But, beyond that, he said something interesting. He opined that on a certain level it was imperative for the parents to provide this education because otherwise kids would pick it up from their environment, where it very well might be distorted. While some of the other things I’ve mentioned might be great examples of the severity of the trend, for me this statement encapsulates the breadth of the trend. The best argument my friend could come up with for sitting your 8 year old down in front of a coffee table full of sex toys was that if you didn’t do it someone else would.

For most of you I have probably hammered on this point far more than was necessary. Obviously it’s a trend, the only question is whether it’s a good trend or a bad trend. I would venture to say that this answer is obvious as well, but in the interests of being comprehensive, I will address one more objection before I move on to that question, the technological objection. The idea that all of the things I’ve mentioned don’t represent a change of morality so much as a change in technology. The ability of people to get their viewpoint out there, whether it’s through a YouTube video, or a blog, or an instagram post has never been greater, and consequently you are seeing things like the video and the Teen Vogue article both because just the amount of content has led to a far greater diversity of opinion, but also because you have to make things increasingly controversial to stand out.

I suppose this is possible, But certainly magazines are not a new invention. And as far as YouTube goes, it might be a different argument if I was pointing out a video that only had a few thousand views, I’m guessing that I can find just about anything if I open it up to any video, but this video has 1.9 million views. Also YouTube, has been around long enough, that I bet if such statistics were available, you would find that, as a percentage, the number of videos with an adult theme have been increasing.

In the end I’m not sure it matters. As Marshall McLuhan said, the medium is the message. In the end does it matter if declining morality creates a society willing to record appalling videos, or if an increasingly competitive media environment generates appalling videos which then lead to a decline in morality?

With that final objection out of the way, we’re finally ready to tackle the question of whether it’s a good trend or a bad trend. You can’t have come this far without knowing my feelings on the subject and I think most of you are probably already in agreement. It’s a bad trend. But can we be fully confident of that conclusion without having considered the arguments of the other side? Why did 20,000 people like the video? What were they thinking?

Interestingly enough the minute we tackle this problem we arrive at another reason in favor of it being a trend. There’s an overarching ideology to the whole thing. The ideology of choice. This is what they are thinking and this is what will be our primary subject for the remainder of the post.

At first glance you might think that allowing people a choice is great. (I assume that’s what more or less what was going through the minds of the 20,000.) Choice is good, especially, if the alternative is being forced to do something against your will. In fact such an idea is at the core of Mormon Doctrine, but, that said, there’s a large gulf between striving to make the right choice, and using choice merely as means to maximize personal convenience and pleasure.

We see this with the abortion movement, or as they like to call it, the pro-choice movement. I don’t think the ideology of choice started there, but it’s certainly an example of how it plays out. As you might have guessed from the title, within the pro-choice movement, choice is the highest and only moral value. You don’t have choice so you can make the right decision, whatever choice you make is the right decision, by definition. There is no morality beyond the choice. If it would give you pleasure to have the baby than have the baby, if it would be more convenient to have an abortion then by all means have an abortion.

It’s equally obvious how this ideology extends into most of our current societal norms. If you’re happy being married stay married. If you’re not, get a divorce. Sure it’s hard on the kids, but isn’t it harder to have an unhappy parent? (Left unsaid is whether there’s anything you can do to change your happiness.) If you’re a man and you think you’d be happier as a woman then go ahead and make that choice as well. And here is where we return to the 9 year old transgender girl on the cover of National Geographic.

When I mentioned this at the beginning of the post I also mentioned that many people would put the cover in a different category than the video. And in a sense this is true. Since teenagers have been having sex for as long as sex has existed, we have all manner of societal norms and laws around what sort of sex, and more narrowly, what sort of sex education is appropriate, but since children have been choosing their gender only since about October of last year (I understand that’s an exaggeration, but not much of one) that issue doesn’t  have much in the way of cultural norms or laws. So in that sense there is a difference. But is there a difference when discussing the trend, or the ideology of choice or, most importantly the sexualizing of children?

To give a nine year old (or in one case, a newborn) the latitude to choose their gender seems so self evidently part of the ideology of choice that no further proof needs to be offered. And I would go on to argue that if it’s part of the same ideology that almost certainly makes it part of the same trend.

I have bounced back and forth between the words convenience and pleasure when describing this ideology. Although I would argue it’s basically the same thing, the only difference being a matter of degree and not of type. Convenience being, merely, longer term and more diffuse pleasure, while pleasure is merely shorter term and more intense convenience. But distilling the entire principle down into “Do what feels good” or even “Act Selfishly” would not be far from the mark, and here we circle back to the video.

It’s obvious that the parents in the video are motivated by a desire to make sure their children are aware of all of their choices. Particularly choices that might give them pleasure. Presumably the parents of the nine year old on the cover of National Geographic have similar motivations. Though perhaps they view it as a choice which will create pleasure through the reduction of suffering. In offering their children these choices, there is no question of whether it’s the right choice, because there is no wrong choice. There’s also no consideration of whether it might lead to bad consequences, or whether they’re mature enough to handle the choice, it’s merely a question of does the choice exist, if so it’s our responsibility to make them aware of the choice, and then, whatever they choose, it’s our responsibility to do everything in our power to grant that.

News flash! Just because a kid wants something doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. Maturity is not something made up by the old to oppress the young. It actually exists. And ignoring this fact is a bad thing. Kids want things for a lot of reasons and 99.9% of the time it’s not because they know what will make them the happiest in 20 years, most of the time it’s envy, alienation, boredom, greed or infatuation. Ignoring that, and forcing decisions about gender and sexuality on them from the moment they can understand these decisions (and even that is debatable) is both irresponsible and damaging, and the exact opposite of good parenting.

Whether I’m a good parent or not I’ll let history decide. Though I probably do spend too much time on this blog. Donations help me spend slightly less time. So if you care about children at all, you should definitely donate.