A place for new ideas to settle.

30 July 2014

Reason magazine still hasn't figured out how to deal with libertarianism's sordid past.

Yesterday I wrote a piece for Little Green Footballs that ended up being part 2 in a three-part series on something nasty in the publication history of Reason magazine. Namely, a "special edition" from February 1976 on historical revisionism... that ended up including some really odious Holocaust denial and reads like a Who's Who of deniers and friends-of-deniers. When called out by PandoDaily, Reason editor Nick Gillespie issued a really weak-tea response: I went back and looked into each alleged denialist contributor to the special edition, and yeah, it shouldn't have been hard for 1976!Reason to say no to these cranks, and even less hard for 2014!Reason to condemn its past self and move on.

I won't retread that specific ground here; if you're interested, read the LGF posts here[1], here[2], and here[3]. Instead, let's look more at the meta-level callout by Mark Ames at PandoDaily and response by Nick Gillespie at Reason. In my mind this encapsulates a lot of what's wrong with libertarian politics, and Internet arguments in general.

Let's start with the original piece at PandoDaily[4]. Mark Ames discovered an old edition of Reason magazine (apparently they don't have their own searchable digital archive) that featured not only contributors who were known or future Holocaust deniers, but some actual Holocaust-denial content itself.

Unfortunately, and apparently this is a pattern in his blog posts, Ames has a hate-on for the libertarian movement, and keeps making nefarious references to the Koch brothers:

Now, David Koch did found the Reason Foundation, which publishes Reason, and the Kochs are generally affiliated with the magazine and the libertarian movement at large. They also have some questionable policy goals, and do a lot of lobbying. All fair game to oppose politically. But I think it actually weakens Ames' case and makes the blog post seem more distracted, when the damage would be very much done if he just reported on what's in the February 1976 issue.
Perhaps the reason Reason’s current editor is hesitant to distance his magazine from past contributors is that some of them are still around, still running the Reason show, and otherwise remain major names in the Koch brothers’ libertarian network. Robert Poole and Manny Klausner, listed on the masthead of the Holocaust-denier issue as co-editors, also co-founded with David Koch the nonprofit Reason Foundation, which publishes Reason magazine to this day. The Reason Foundation still lists Poole, Klausner and Koch as trustees; Poole is also listed as a Reason Foundation “Officer,” alongside Reason editors Matt Welch and Nick Gillespie. The Koch brothers have donated millions to Reason, which, besides publishing the magazine, also advises state and local governments on mass privatizations of public assets and services.
It's sort of too much at once. The main story is this: Reason magazine published an issue featuring not only Holocaust deniers in persons, but actual Holocaust denial in substance, together with more general racism. And they haven't repudiated it.

Now let's look at what Reason editor Nick Gillespie actually said[5] regarding the PandoDaily piece:
If you want a preview of just how lame ideological mud-slinging is going to get over the next few years—or decades, possibly—take a look at this pair of articles penned by Mark Ames at Pando.com, a Bay Area-based website that, among other things, aspires “to bring more civility into the blogosophere.” The pieces charge Reason with being not a libertarian defender of “Free Minds and Free Markets” but a hotbed for pro-apartheid Holocaust deniers who slavishly do the bidding of David and Charles Koch (cue the monster-movie music, maestro).

Yeah, seriously. A publication that just celebrated “Marijuana on Main Street: The long, hard road to safe, legal pot,” covers the police brutality beat like nobody’s business, and criticized George W. Bush’s “disaster socialism” and his stupid wars for the entire eight awful years he was in the White House, is really a stalking horse for reactionary politics right out of The Turner Diaries.

However ridiculous such attacks may be, they are a sign that broadly libertarian ideas about fiscal responsibility and social tolerance are gaining ground in all areas of politics and culture. Indeed, as Ames frets, libertarianism is even making “major inroads into the disaffected left.”

As the conservative right and progressive left feel threatened by libertarianism, such attacks will multiply in number and intensify in venom. The main purpose is not to actually engage libertarian ideas—including once pie-in-the-sky beliefs that governments should be financially sustainable, gay people should be allowed to marry one another, and that more immigration is better than less immigration—but precisely to avoid discussing their merits.
Yes, four paragraphs variously dismissing Mark Ames as a "lame ideological mud-sling[er]" and crowing about how obviously this means libertarian ideals are going mainstream. The actual repudiation of the content boils down to "of course Holocaust denial is dumb, but it wasn't even the focus of the issue!" which strikes me as distinctly weird. And yet, how much Holocaust denial is an acceptable amount? I think the answer is, as the mathematicians say, epsilon-small.

In particular, when Gary North, open theocrat and advocate for stoning disobedient children to death (though to be fair, Reason did call him out for that[6]), called the Holocaust "the Establishment's favorite horror story" and praised the work of the author of The Myth of the Six Million (as Holocaust-denying as it seems)... that would be Holocaust denial in the pages of Reason magazine.

Reason also printed in that February 1976 issue an advertisement for the "Veritas Book Club" ("A New Book Club For Intelligent Libertarians"), which offers the following very, ah, informative volumes:
DARWIN RETIRED by Norman Macbeth. An extremely intelligent, well-written dissection of the Darwinian theory of Evolution, which is all but demolished by a keen legal mind. Bypassed by the scientific community who, up to now, have had nothing to say by way of refutation[...]

SPANISH REHEARSAL by Arnold Lunn. The only pro-Franco account of Spain's Civil War 1936-1939. Shows how the Communists took over the Republicans in a war that may soon be repeated[...]

THE DISPOSSESSED MAJORITY by Wilmot Robertson. The traditional American is being challenged and dismissed by a new breed of writers who hold that Wasp [White Anglo Saxon Protestant] culture is backward, "racist" and on its way out. The author, naming names defends his background and cites certain minorities that he considers unassimilable. Highly controversial.

THE RESCUE OF THE ROMANOVS by Guy Richards. New evidence to indicate that the Czar and his family were all saved, not executed[...]

ZAMBESI SALIENT by Al J. Venter. The race war in southern Africa, planned and supplied by Communist nations. White Africa is distinctly on the defensive[...]
This advertisement's a crank science and fringe politics gem all on its own, but note in particular "The Dispossessed Majority", the 1998 edition of which is available in full at The Internet Archive[7]. From pages 190 and 191:
It was educated city Jews, not hillbillies, who fueled the fires of world communism[...]

It was educated city Jews, not hillbillies who were largely responsible for foisting on the American population affirmative action, forced busing, integration of the work and learning place.

It was educated Jews, not hillbillies who composed, financed, and distributed the tasteless and soulless television sitcoms, and ran the business affairs and divided the rich take of the stoned Stone Age Negro rappers.

It was educated city Jews, not hillbillies, who persuaded the U.S. to contribute at least $50 billion to the Zionist conquest and occupation of Palestine[...]
Smell that bitter tang of anti-Semitism!

From page 234:
The worst having been done, the more dynamic Negroes are demanding redress, somewhat as undisciplined children who have lost their innocence might seek redress from parents who abandoned them. To these demands whites have a choice of four responses: oppression, which is immoral;41 integration without intermarriage, which is impossible; integration with intermarriage, which is inconceivable; and separation, which is impractical.
It's worth noting that, per footnote #41, Robertson's idea of "immoral" is a bit... odd:
It is much too late for the tactics Tacitus puts in the mouth of a Roman general endeavoring to suppress a revolt of the Gauls. [...] "Now they are our enemies because the burden of servitude is light; when we have despoiled and stripped them they will be our friends."
... I think that counts as advertisement for racism in the pages of Reason magazine. And lest anyone think that's too many degrees of separation, go back and read the description in the Veritas Book Club ad; it isn't exactly subtle. ("A New Book Club For Intelligent Libertarians"!)


1. "Awful: Reason Magazine’s 1976 Holocaust Denial “Special Issue”" at Little Green Footballs.

2. "Reason Magazine Addresses That 1976 “Holocaust Denial Edition”" at Little Green Footballs.

3. "One More Problem With That 1976 Holocaust Denial Edition of Reason" at Little Green Footballs. 27 July 2014.

4. "As Reason’s editor defends its racist history, here’s a copy of its holocaust denial “special issue”" at PandoDaily. 24 July 2014.

5. "Did Reason Really Publish a "Holocaust Denial 'Special Issue'" in 1976? Of Course Not." at Reason. 26 July 2014.

6. "Reasonable Doubts: Invitation to a Stoning" at Reason. 01 November 1998.

7. "The dispossessed majority," pp. 160, 190, 191, 234 at The Internet Archive.

23 July 2014

Adventures in bad statistics, Big Gay edition

Note: This post was adapted from a Facebook comment I made in a closed group.

In the March 2011 edition of their National Health Statistics Report, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published results on sexual identity from the 2006-2008 National Survey of Family Growth. More recently (July 2014 edition of the NHSR) they published the results of the 2013 National Health Interview Survey[1]. This got passed around with headlines like "Gay population smaller than previously thought." According to the report,

Proper counter-propaganda tactics would be to pull out other statistical nuggets for comparison. As a particularly evocative example, only 1.7% of the American population self-identifies as Mormon[1], so they're outnumbered 2 to 1 even with this maybe-lowball stat.

Similarly, the Southern Baptist churches claim roughly 16 million members, which is about 5% of the U.S. population[2]... not all that much bigger than the LGBTQ population, and probably within error bars.

If you want to deal in absolute numbers, 3.4% is something like eleven million people. For reference, that's a population bigger than the entire state of Georgia's, or if you like, enough to turn at least the following states into Godless Homosexual Utopias:

- Alaska

- Delaware

- Hawaii

- Maine

- Montana

- New Hampshire

- North Dakota

- Rhode Island

- South Dakota

- Vermont

- Washington, D.C.

- Wyoming

By a straight 1-for-1 swap of hetero people for LGB people.

So the article's remark that gays and lesbians are "a surprisingly small number given the outsized influence they have had on the nation’s cultural and legal landscape" would be almost funny if it weren't just Bad Statistics.



1. Original CDC study (pdf)

2. World - Government Survey: Gay Population Smaller Than Previously Thought

3. The Atlantic - Americans Have No Idea How Few Gay People There Are

4. Wikipedia - The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints membership statistics (United States)

5. Wikipedia - Southern Baptist membership

21 July 2014

REVIEW: The Golden Compass vs. "The Golden Compass"

So the Freethinkers of WWU started a summer book club, and July's title was The Golden Compass, by Philip Pullman. I had read the entire His Dark Materials trilogy way back in middle school or something, or at least I thought I had---certainly The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass, but this re-reading of The Golden Compass felt particularly fresh and new. I suspect much of it came from my being an adult and noticing a lot more about Pullman's writing. In particular, he's a really good writer, somehow laying down prose that's simply structured without being dumbed down in any way. At points I wondered just why anyone thinks this is a "children's" book series.

Having finished that, and having enjoyed it immensely, I decided to watch New Line Cinema's film adaptation. I remembered it being visually excellent but otherwise forgettable. What I hadn't realized watching it as a kid, and what I realized now with such a close juxtaposition of source material and adaptation, was that the film version betrays almost everything about the book.

This isn't entirely new criticism: even when it came out, the film was seen as coming off as somehow more stridently anti-religion than even Pullman's original, by trying to bend over backwards and avoid explicitly calling the Magisterium a religious organization. I'll get to that particular issue later, because the problems go far deeper.


So how does the film betray the message of the book? Let me count the ways...

They tried to make it like The Lord of the Rings. From a purely business standpoint this sort of makes sense, because this was a New Line production and at this point (2007) the Lord of the Rings movies' epic success had worn off. But the biggest issue is that this is not just "not Lord of the Rings in a superficial sense." In fact, Pullman explicitly wanted His Dark Materials to be opposed, in a thematic sense, to C. S. Lewis' Narnia books, and implicitly this means they're opposed to the kind of story that Lord of the Rings is. While Lyra Belacqua is prophesied to do great things, it's not a Chosen One narrative and the alethiometer (i.e., the "golden compass") is not the frickin' One Ring.

Oh, but the movie tries so damn hard to cram in the LotRisms: Eva Green ("Not Galadriel we swear!") does a weird little prologue-narration about how there's only one alethiometer left in the world and "the art of reading them was lost." No it wasn't; in the novel there's explicitly a code-book in Geneva, and it's more that adults in general can't intuitively use it without the book, whereas Lyra (and implicitly any other sufficiently bright child) can do so. Oh, and probably the Dust thing has something to do with it. This thematic switcheroo is part of a larger problem; other LotRisms are merely annoying.

They destroyed Lyra's agency. I don't know how many examples of this I can list, without going incoherent. But I think one scene in particular stands out. When Lyra and the other children escape Bolvangar (the "experimental station" where they experiment with severing children from their daemons), they're confronted by the Tartar guards. (In the film it's a small army of Tartars because of course it is.)

In the books, Lyra saves everyone by starting a snowball fight, so that the Tartars can't see or fight straight. Then the Gyptians and witches and Iorek Byrnison the armored polar bear show up and turn the tide of battle, so Lyra and the children can escape.

In the films Lyra just sort of stares at them, and Roger comes up and takes her hand as they prepare to defeat the Tartars with the POWER OF FRIENDSHIP or something. Then the witch-queen Serafina Pekkala and the Gyptians and Iorek and everyone show up and there's a big battle and the kids get away. But Lyra does nothing, except glare at a Cossack, and Roger's little sign of friendship does nothing to convey how Lyra (at least in the books) has started to grow into a leader.

They ruined much of the symbolism of Part III. Part of this is because they crammed the Svalbard duel between Iorek and his rival Iofur (Ragnar in the film) between the Samoyed raid and Bolvangar---that is, the Samoyeds take her to Svalbard across a hundred miles of frozen ocean because that's totally more plausible I mean because the filmmakers wanted to put that showcase bear-fight scene in the movie and save the rest of Part III for the sequel. They drag her to what's either a glacier version of Petra, or a Gothic representation of the real-world Svalbard seed bank. It's all very, ah, Moria-esque, and King Ragnar (Iofur in the books) is quite regal on his throne, if arrogant and paranoid and power-mad.

Here's the thing: in the book Pullman makes it very clear that Iofur is a degenerate. The bears have no palace traditionally: they're fucking bears, but with opposable thumb-claws and a talent for making badass meteoric-iron plate armor. Moreover, the bears are explicitly not anthropomorphized in the books: more than once Iorek is described as fearsome and somewhat inscrutable; he invites Lyra to play-fence with him to demonstrate that you cannot trick a bear.

Iofur/Ragnar, though, wants to be a human, with a daemon of his own. (By comparison, Iorek and presumably other bears consider the armor to be their "soul.") He orders a palace built, but it's a bird-shit-stained mockery of a human building. He tries to mimic human institutions, but this becomes a sort of Cultural Revolution where none of his bear advisors know what's acceptable and what's not. (This allows Lyra to bluff her way into Iofur's/Ragnar's throne room, through some quick thinking.) It's this desire to be not-a-bear that Lyra exploits, and tricks Iofur/Ragnar. In the film it's waaaay more straightforward and dumb, and again undermines Lyra as a protagonist.

They twisted Pullman's message about religion, authority, and power. In the books, the Magisterium is the successor institution to the Catholic Church. No longer hierarchical, but implied to have even tighter control over every aspect of daily life in Europe, the Magisterium is said to play various sub-factions against each other to devise new and better ways of maintaining order---Mrs. Coulter's General Oblation Board is one such faction. In addition, the Magisterium's influence is so pervasive that science never broke free from the auspices of the church: "experimental theology" is the name for science in Lyra's world. (Though, it should be noted, that science wasn't exactly stifled; they know about particle physics and have digital computers.)

The film botches this horribly. The Magisterium is only called "the ruling power" or "the authority" and never explicitly a church, though their agents do speak of heresy quite a bit. The Master of Jordan College claims that the Magisterium has no power within the college halls, and intones something about freethinkers. Bullshit; in the books Jordan is just as steeped in the culture as everyone else, though also just as embroiled in the subtle politics of the Popeless Magisterium. Lord Asriel is portrayed as a heroic freethinker scientist, openly challenging the Magisterium, where in the books he's something of a megalomaniac, callous and amoral, and is shipped off to Svalbard for heresy. One of the big whammies of the book is how much Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coulter are so similar in their goals and ethics.

Meanwhile the Magisterium is portrayed, literally, as a shadowy cabal who love control for the sake of control. In this scene, they openly explain to themselves and the audience how all they really care about is maintaining authority. Without reference to religion, as in the book, there's simply no other motive other than "they're actually just plain evil." Pullman, meanwhile, leaves open the possibility that many if not most of the Magisterium's clergy simply believe that Dust is the physical manifestation of Original Sin, and want to cleanse it from future generations. (Certainly there are enough power-hungry people involved, but his portrayal is a far more complex thing.) In other words, by trying to avoid religious controversy, the filmmakers managed to advance every sophomoric anti-religious stereotype. Oops.

So, my seven-years-later retrospective review of the film is: 1.5 / 5. Don't bother. The books are so much better.

16 July 2014

Why culling Earth's human population isn't rational


In a discussion on Facebook tangentially related to my last blog post (insofar as it was about how political views aren't rational for a lot of people), my friend Briana made the following comment:
I've never seen it [politics] as rational... there is an ideal that it can be, but I've never seen it in practice. Otherwise, we'd have started culling our own populations by now.
I objected pithily that we don't need to cull humans because humans are capable of using birth control (including the decision not to reproduce), to which she elaborated:
No, we cull other animals because we don't mind killing them from a moral standpoint (i.e. we are less repulsed emotionally). If we did mind as much as we do for ourselves, we'd find other ways to manage their populations like we do for ourselves. Culling is the rational choice (most economical, quickest and easiest). Finding other ways to appeal to our personal security that are less effective, take longer, and are more costly is the irrational but morally acceptable choice.

It reminds me of that study posted a while back (in Freethinkers?) about the difference in choices for moral dilemmas depending on the language used. Essentially, that showed the less "personal" the dilemma was, the easier it was to make the rational choice about it. Most political issues are very personal in order to get people interested (this is where your boring thing comes in) and so positions are irrationally conceived.

I'm not saying we should cull humans, btw, I mean, I think "rationality" is put on too much of pedestal by western society. [Link added.]
My reaction to that last statement is... complex. On the one hand, there's a strain of Western culture that does exalt "rationality," or at least it exalts the appearance of rationality. But there are broad currents of general anti-intellectualism in Western (particularly American) thought (cf. Richard Hofstadter's essay) so it's not so easy to say one way or another.

But that gets us too far afield of the primary question: is culling Earth's human population rational?



But let me elaborate why.


First, let's consider why we cull any populations at all, from deer to kudzu vines. I can think of several primary reasons:
  1. The species is overfeeding;
  2. The species is overbreeding;
  3. The species is detrimental to human life or civilization.
Of course, overzealous invocation of reason #3 can lead to, say, too-sparse population density of natural predators, which leads to reasons #1 and #2.

For example, the deer population has exploded in the wake of overhunting wolves. The deer population, freed from natural predators, will fluctuate wildly as they overeat the local foliage and then starve to death. This is essentially reason #1.

As another example, nitrate fertilizer runoff into the Mississippi delta has resulted in vast algal blooms. These blooms rapidly deplete the oxygen in the local volume of water, killing all the fish. It's not that the algae has no natural predators, but an outside influence is greatly increasing its reproductive rate. This is essentially reason #2.

As for reason #3, consider smallpox or polio. As these are infectious diseases that cause widespread human misery, we culled their population to near-zero in the Western world (to extinction in the wild, in the case of smallpox).

Note, though, that really all these reasons involve human civilization. And fair enough; as far as we know, we're the only species with a meta-level concern for other species, even one rooted in self-interest.

Now let's examine each of these reasons in turn, vis-a-vis the human population.


Question #1: Is the human population overeating?

This and the next question are really two sides to a more general question: What is the earth's carrying capacity for humans (HCC), and is the current population above or below that capacity? And this is a really hard question to answer. Other species only have limited ability to change the environment or adjust their own behavior patterns, compared to humans. So algae can cause blooms and deplete oxygen, but there's no Algal EPA or Algal Greenpeace warning against the dangers of oxygen depletion to the local waters. Deer can defoliate a local grove, but there's no Deerpartment of the Interior to re-plant those ferns and bushes.

In short, the HCC is only contingent on current human activities and behavior patterns, which are themselves changeable as technology is invented, science advanced, and culture shifted. A quick look at recent history shows, contra pessimists on all fronts, that we have made stunning progress in a few areas.

Incidentally, HCC has been estimated as high as 10 billion people, so we're not quite there yet. Let's put this question in the Maybe pile.

Question #2: Is the human population overbreeding?

Okay, so we may not be facing a Malthusian crisis right now, but maybe it's only a generation or two away. Except that human societies tend not to reproduce too much if they're sufficiently well off. Hans Rosling, in particular, has made much of the fact that rich countries (the West, but this is also evident in the middle economies) are at or even below replacement rate; he projects that the human population will hit a steady state (about as many births as deaths, year over year) around... 10 billion people.

Of course, it's all contingent on technology, culture, and so on. But notable in Rosling's analysis was that his model depended only on economic choices made by women, that is, whether or not to have children.

I'm a fan of Rosling, so I'll commit to No on this one.

Question #3: Is the human population detrimental to human civilization?

Well, this is a fascinating question. Personal preferences and moral sentiments (more on those later) point me towards No but I don't really know how to nail this one down, so I'll answer Mu.

But I also don't want to be glib. Various ideologies really do have various and definite answers to this question. Most broadly, Western liberalism would answer No: humans are on the whole virtuous and productive and we like civilization, liberalism tends to say, so therefore the more humans living together and doing things, the better we all are.

Western conservatism would probably answer Yes: humans can't in general be trusted to get along, so it's better to live in small close-knit groups and make sure nobody else touches your stuff. Large populations tend to be chaotic and therefore dangerous to stability. Neo-reactionaries (N.B. Scott Alexander is not a reactionary) seem to be less inclined to beat around the bush here.

Western leftism would probably answer No, but. Humans are useful and human society can be coordinated in a virtuous way, but you have to make sure your humans are doing it the right way first. So in general, a random newcomer human should be regarded with suspicion because they're Schroedinger's shitlord until proven otherwise. (Leftists also don't understand quantum physics, but then again nobody does.)

American libertarianism would probably answer either way, depending on how much any given American libertarian is convinced that non-libertarians are statist low-information sheeple. Heh.


There's another thing; culling isn't the only form of population control. This is especially important if your reasons for concern are more like #2 or a soft version of #3: if you can just keep the population from actually getting to a crisis point, that'd be much easier for everyone.

So we try to spay and neuter our domesticated animals, for example, rather than throw bags of kittens into the river or whatever. I mean, people still do that, but in places where veterinary clinics are easy to come by it's kinda frowned upon.

With humans, we have several programs of population control:
  1. Wealth. Yes, the more well-off a woman is, the less likely she is to have more than a couple kids. See this excellent presentation by Hans Rosling, detailing the negative correlation between per capita income and children per woman. So strong is this correlation, in fact, that it kinda trumps the following, more proximal reasons.
  2. Abstinence/celibacy. We can choose not to reproduce. Not every species is so lucky.
  3. Contraception and abortion. We have the ability to prevent or terminate pregnancies at will. Again, not every species is so lucky.
  4. Sterilization. A more permanent solution than contraception and a less ephemeral than a vow of abstinence. Historically our society has even done it to people without their consent.
  5. Infanticide. Also a permanent solution. Also grisly as hell, and unfortunately not a thing of the past. At least it's not institutionalized.
  6. Genocide. Just remember that as soon as you start killing people in other countries, the world won't stand for that after a few years. Stupid man...

Now let's move on to practical considerations. Somewhat paradoxically we'll ignore stuff like legal restrictions (systematized mass murder is, after all, a crime against humanity) and step into hypothetical territory. The first thing to note is that humans have moral sentiments. In particular we have a sense of fairness, and a compassion for those close to us. A program of culling, absent any otherizing propaganda, is bound to generate lots of fear and vengefulness.

Moreover it would be hard to convince a typical human to just start killing other humans, even with mildly good reasons. You'd need inevitability on the order of a trolley problem, except that really any good reason (a true Malthusian catastrophe) has a relatively long time horizon, so Joe Schmo will probably opt to do nothing (proximal agency in a mass murder is way worse than distal generalized suffering).

One might say that moral sentiments are irrational. I don't think that's right; I think they're arational, that is, decoupled from rationality. Rationality is a pattern of thoughts, while moral sentiments are feelings, or at least they originate as such. Yet they do have a place within rationality, because they provide evidence for shaping our beliefs. If I strongly feel that something is unfair, for example, that's a signal to investigate further. Yes, it may be that our moral sentiments are at times too coarse or misdirected. And they can be trained or retrained, like any other perception. But, properly considered, they're just another tool in the rationalist's toolbox.


And with that, let's consider one possible moral argument against culling the human population. Again, that the suggestion seems ludicrous and horrible to so many people, is evidence that maybe it's a bad suggestion. (To be fair, though, there are enough things that seem horrible at first glance, which are actually good in some way. So it's worth checking out.)

Suppose that we decide to build Ultron, a machine intelligence with a mission to save the human race who decides that the most efficient way to do that is to just start killing the least useful humans until we reach parity. Ultron has enough processing power to calculate all this stuff out to arbitrary precision, so we know it can't screw up too badly.

Well, again, unless Ultron decides that it also needs to propagandize everyone, there would be a massive freakout backlash that would probably cause even more death and destruction than intended by the culling program.

But let's imagine further that, since Ultron is a very powerful machine intelligence, it can cull instantly with micromissiles: whirr-bang, you're dead, no announcement necessary.

What sort of world would this be? It's one in which a hard lower limit has been set on the value of human life, enforced by death. Does this promote human virtue, to know that you're only alive because a distant power deemed you useful? That if you slip even slightly over that line, you're damned to die by what amounts to a cold, utilitarian god?

This is not a world I want to see. It's a mockery of civilization. It's worthless to humanity, and in it, humanity is worthless.


Note that we gave our hypothetical killing Mind zero compassion and arbitrary computing power. Humans have compassion (among other moral sentiments) and finite computing power, indeed very limited computing power. There's no guarantee that we can create a perfectly utilitarian machine intelligence. And this program failed even with zero compassion and arbitrary computing power!

But don't think that I'm going to fall prey to #humanormativity here. Already we're loath to cull species that are close to us in sentience (it helps that many of these are endangered). Better if we could limit our killing even further, while still managing ecosystems and our place in them.

Except pathogens. Fuck those guys.

12 July 2014

God, guns, gays, and 500lb. gorillas


Robin Koerner, a liberty-minded Brit whom I heard speak at last year's Washington State Libertarian Party convention, has a new article out at Huffington Post called Your Problem With Guns or Gays Is Not Political. Given my moderate bias against guns, shockingly, I kind of agree with him. But I also think this is a case that nicely illustrates how the personal is (sometimes) political.

I recommend that you go read the whole thing, but I also want to excerpt some juicy quotes. First, Koerner describes his own British noncommittal stance towards guns. As he puts it, "guns feature nowhere in British culture." I expect that most Americans would in practice find "taking tea" a bit odd, even though we academically know what it is from various imported movies and television shows, and many Americans like tea. But then Koerner gets into the meat of his point:
Many decent people who have no interest in guns simply can't imagine what it must be like to be someone who is passionate about something whose primary purpose is to kill people. Although the gun debate is waged using words, logic and fact (by both sides, to different ends, of course), the arguments constructed using these three tools are not what brings people to their pro- or anti-gun position. Rather, most people are emotionally or intuitively committed to a position first and deploy these tools retroactively in defense of their position. Despite what we like to think, we form most if not all of our political views this way. Studies show, time and time again, that David Hume was right when he claimed:
[A]s reasoning is not the source, whence either disputant derives his tenets; it is in vain to expect that any logic, which speaks not to the affections, will ever engage him to embrace sounder principles.
What most anti-gun people are really feeling (rather than thinking) is that there has to be something strange about you if you like guns. I mean, why would you get turned on by something whose primary purpose is to kill people? If you do, you can't be like me. You are sufficiently different that I am suspicious of your worldview, or your motives, or both. You are culturally "other." [Highlighting and hyperlinking added.]
If your primary intuition about guns is "guns are designed to hurt or kill things," and you are separated from gun-loving people by vast inferential distances (in other words, a cultural divide), then it's easy to fall prey to the correspondence bias: You must love guns [which are designed to hurt or kill things] because YOU MUST LOVE HURTING OR KILLING THINGS OH MY GOD YOU'RE AN EVIL MUTANT!


Having pleaded his case in a sort of rightish way, Koerner pivots and accuses right-wingers of doing the exact same thing with respect to the LGBT "subculture"!
Just as gun owners form a kind of (albeit highly porous) subculture, the LGBT community does so too. Some people who have been brought up in a socially conservative or religious subculture simply can't imagine being able to do (let alone actually doing) the things that those in another subculture (LGBT) do as a matter of course. Again, if I can't even imagine your experience or desires, then we are deeply culturally separated. Just as gun-control advocates feel a twinge of disgust, or at least condescension, toward the culture of gun owners, some of our religious friends feel similarly about the LGBT subculture. Of course, "disgust" is a very strong word, and most of us sublimate it deeply, but it captures the sense that the division among our "political" subcultures is more visceral than rational. Reason is applied later to justify in the conscious mind the position that the subconscious makes us emotionally comfortable with. [Again, highlighting added.]
N.B.: At this point it's probably crucial to make a distinction here. Koerner is not as far as I can tell, saying that "being gay is (merely) a lifestyle choice." But the LGBTQ community, as a community, gives rise to a spectrum of certain lifestyles and cultural attitudes. That's the similarity being pointed out.

Koerner goes on to share a nice anecdote about his friends, a gay couple, and their adopted daughter. His friendship with them makes the argument that children need "a mom and a dad" absurd, in his mind. Similarly his friendship with Rob, a member of Whatcom Libertarians and a proud open-carry advocate, makes strict gun-control arguments absurd.

Overall, he says, we should work towards breaking down these tall cultural barriers and bridging the long divides. That will moderate our culture a bit, and thereby moderate our politics. It's a nice sentiment, and I've even argued as much on this blog. But Koerner is committing, I think, not a false equivalence but a false... qualification? Let me explain: while he seems mostly right in identifying the nature of the divide (namely, it's cultural, born of separation), Koerner has ignored the vast differences in quality between the two subcultures. It may even be illustrative to use a third example to compare against: (Protestant) Christianity.


Doctrinal differences aside, there's a noticeable Christian culture in America, to the extent that my saying so is beyond obvious. Anyway, I want to consider how this culture expresses itself, especially outside of churches. Many Christians (#NotAllChristians disclaimer applies) are positively ostentatious with their show of faith. You've got, beyond the usual Ichthys bumper decoration, lots of pious-bordering-on-smug bumper stickers, and ridiculous displays of privilege. Going deeper, there's a faith-based subculture in America, where somehow you can't be a good person unless you believe in a Higher Power, no matter how much any two Higher Powers must necessarily contradict each other. Somehow it's less objectionable to even a fundamentalist Christian if you're a Muslim, than if you're an atheist.

It's worth pointing out, too, that this faith-based subculture is pervasive in America. To my knowledge there simply isn't anywhere in the country where you can say "yes, this is definitely the atheist part of town." Whereas, even if you're not part of the specific religion, there are houses of worship all over the place. And, thanks to the recent SCOTUS ruling, religious corporations. So there's that.

Similarly, the smaller but just as fervent "gun culture" is pervasive in America. Less so in the big cities (or at least it takes on a substantially different form within gang culture) and more so in the rural areas, but still obvious, to the point where people make a big deal out of "gun-free zones." (Can you imagine if someone actually tried to make a "God-free zone"? Oh, the wailing and gnashing of teeth!) Moreover, it's legitimately a culture: there's a prevailing belief that ownership of guns validate one's character, and many problems can be solved by the possession and use of guns.

Compare to faith-based culture: belief in god* validates one's character, and many problems can be solved by a sincerely-held belief and profession of belief in god.

[*"god" in lower case as a placeholder for any sort of higher power. In America, biased towards monotheism, "god" is the first choice for that descriptor.]

This is the sign of a robust, mature, and confident culture, but perhaps too much so. This sort of cultural attitude can lead to a sort of cultural singularity, a death spiral wherein groups of hardcore fundamentalists form within a soft milieu of moderate sympathizers. Sam Harris acerbically leveled this "moderates shield extremists" critique at American Christians in his Letter to a Christian Nation, but it has much wider applications, as the cult attractor seems like a fundamental component of human social behavior.

Needless to say, this is very bad for civilization! The death spiral is especially likely to kick in when the culture is threatened. After the initial shock, maybe some of the less-committed members leave... but that means the average member is even more committed to the cause, and the lack of voices urging restraint only pushes the entire group deeper, into extremism. This may explain the behavior of right-wing Christians who make a big deal about "[their version of] Christianity under attack" or right-wing gun advocates who make a big deal about "[their version of] freedom under attack"... pity the right-wingers, the 20th century gave them several big blows about the head on this stuff. Comparatively, the left-wing only had the failure of communism and the apparent hegemony of capitalism for big bone-deep shocks.

What I mean is that you see, where once it was never so extreme, fans of God or of guns making big, showy statements signaling that they're out and proud, as it were. There's been a recent surge in super-preachy Christian films, for example. Rick Perry's pray-the-drought-away event. The anti-abortion movement, from what I've read, has deep roots in a loss of purpose among conservative Evangelicals during the 1950s and 60s. That one guy in Florida burning a Koran because why not? Legislation against Sharia law in several states, which would be unconstitutional anyway. And those are just the examples that come to mind.

Similarly on the gun angle, the open-carry-AR-15s-to-Chiles movement. Or the "cowboy cosplayers" at the Bundy ranch (though that's a fascinating confluence of all sorts of animus). Or, indeed, open-carry at Pride parades, as the Whatcom chapter of Washington Open Carry is doing in Bellingham. (N.B.: As Koerner notes in his article, it was by invitation of the Pride coordinators.)


You may be tempted to write this of as unique to the right wing, or at least the kind of "tears" expected of privileged tantrum-throwers. But remember, the cult attractor knows no ideological boundaries. I think a bit of the same behavior is cropping up in the LGBTQ community, which if allowed to metastasize probably won't end well—it's true, contra right-wing conservatives, that LGBTQ folks don't actually have wide cultural cachet and power, whereas Christians and gun-owners kinda do.

Whence the cult attractor? Well, as you might have guessed by now, I see hints of it in the social-justice community. Fortunately, the really bad craziness is still fringe, and the mainstream LGBTQ acceptance movement is advancing apace. We have anti-gay-marriage laws falling like dominoes all across the country, and Pride parades are a roaring success—even attracting pro-gun advocates, who know positive publicity when they see it!

What would we expect, analogous to "ammosexual" gun culture, or faith-fetishizing god culture? Side by side:
GUNS: Ownership of guns validate one's character, and many problems can be solved by the possession and use of guns.

GOD: Belief in god* validates one's character, and many problems can be solved by a sincerely-held belief and profession of belief in god.

Ergo, LGBTQ: Identifying as gay, lesbian, trans*, or queer validates one's character, and many problems can be solved by adopting a non-binary identity.
Notice that this, as far as everyone understands the meanings of terms in the same way, is highly radical. (And yet the other two statements don't seem as radical in comparison! Maybe they should.) The mainstream opinion is that being gay (e.g.) is simply not a choice, and positions that claim otherwise are (sensibly, I think) relegated to the far fringe.

Curiously though, there's a dedicated sub-subculture on Tumblr (and other social media) that actually does seem to hold this belief, and (as is typical of online social-justice "discussions") rhetorically tars and feathers anyone who disagrees. In a place where you can proudly come out as a 250-personality "multiple system" of various sexualities, genders, kin types, and even fictitiousness, experimentation is sort of encouraged.

Those examples are just for the curiosity factor more than anything. There's also an apparently serious contingent of Tumblr users who believe that trans men should identify as nonbinary instead (because it's "more fun"), that you can invent as many new genders as you have computing power, and that everyone should maybe try out a nonbinary/queer identity once in a while.

I should point out that I have no idea how serious or widely held this sentiment is, as three Tumblr posts does not constitute hard evidence. But it's fascinating how similar in form they are to the guns or god crowd, even though the respective cultures are moving in opposite directions: the LGBTQ community is expanding, while the gun and god communities are (at least in their own minds) contracting.


So what's a movement to do? This is where I think Koerner is spot on (and again, I've said as much): we need to live together and be kinda boring. That sort of continuous, everyday exposure changes the culture, moderates it and makes it more tolerant, and we could use a healthy dose of moderation and tolerance in our increasingly polarized and strident politics. (And no, to your radicals out there, I don't think that's a bad thing!) Who knows, we might even sit down and get things done, like cool-headed adults.

The LGBTQ movement, by and large, has embraced this strategy. A series of tactical coming-outs, ever more people realizing that friends, family, and neighbors have a spot on this spectrum of identities, and generally eroding the authoritarian aspects of gender roles that so often cause more anxiety than harmony.

But there's always the danger of cultish extremism when faced with criticism—for their part, LGBTQ folks have weathered the storm admirably. In the other place is American gun culture, which in the minds of many is way past the safe zone and slouching towards cultishness. I can't say I have any deep knowledge of this, but I've shot guns before—pistols with my grandpa, .22 rifles at Scout camp—and yeah, target shooting is fun. I can intellectually tolerate hunting for food or population control too, although trophy hunting strikes me as part of the problem. My good friend Quinn is looking to inherit his grandfather's extensive collection of antique guns, and while he has a degree in history he's not ashamed to admit that firing them is awesome.

I still don't understand the anxiety and frustration of some conservative gun owners. Don't they know that yes, many liberals also own guns, and would be just as affronted if Obama came to take away their guns?

I do understand the "last recourse" argument for unfettered gun ownership—that in the event of a tyrannical government, the citizenry must be able to give armed resistance in defense of liberty. Okay, sure; there are several good reasons to think that shooting back would work, even when staring down tanks and drones.

But ultimately this strikes me as a kind of motte-and-bailey defense, where the most vocal gun advocates retreat to this argument when pressed about gun rights, but then actually use guns to threaten government officials or immigrants or black kids. In other words, they act in accordance with that toxic gun-culture belief—ownership of guns validate one's character, and many problems can be solved by the possession and use of guns.

One great irony is that the same conservatives who loudly express their Second Amendment liberties, are also the first to loudly express their fear that LGBTQ people will openly flaunt their gayness/queerness/transness(?!) in, say, a Chile's or Starbucks. Maybe LGBTQ people should start trying the argument that nonbinary sexuality and gender identity is our last line of defense against technologically advanced but cripplingly homophobic aliens.


Joking aside, the larger point I'm trying to sketch out is that not all expression is created equal. There's the good-neighbor sort of expression where everything becomes "normal," and then there's the loud-and-proud aggressive expression. I don't want to categorically say that one is bad and the other is good. But we should be careful evaluating each strategy for maximum effectiveness. Loud-and-proud is often accompanied by righteous anger, which has its own potential problems. Good-neighbor is maybe too slow, or ineffective in the face of an active political assault. Somehow I doubt that the abortion debate will be settled by enough good-neighbor activism, for example.

We should want to move past normalizing and into boringizing. For something to be "normal" we often imply that it's good and even desirable. I'd rather that these sorts of sociopolitical issues become boring. That clears the agora of ideas of a lot of clutter and rubble, so we can sit down and discuss the real issues like adults. And yes, maybe some of these are "real" issues! But at this point it's a mess of posturing, signaling, and cultish death spirals, so we'll never know.