A place for new ideas to settle.

31 October 2014

Fiction Friday - 31 October 2014

I've written some fiction stuff that might still be worth reading, but I don't consider it finished because not many people have read it at all. So I might as well keep up my post schedule and devote Fridays to publishing poems, excerpts, or serializations that I've written. Comments and critiques are welcome, or just ignore me on Fridays.

The Black Sorcerer of Doom's Barrow, pt. 2

The door, for all its massive size and stony bulk, slid aside easily at Tyr's sinewy insistence. The sepulcher's antechamber yawned ahead of him, devouring all the light from outside. Heeding the sparrow's advice, Tyr wrapped a bundle of reeds and lit them with flint and steel, and carried the improvised torch into the gloom. The graven sarcophagi of long-dead men lined the walls in their square slots, dreaming of some forgotten era of bone-garnished warlords and green stone idols to strange gods. In some places the granite coffins lay smashed on the floor, the bones in a jumbled heap; victims of ancient tomb-robbers. The chamber seemed to stretch on forever, always sloping gently downward into the barrow. The darkness pressed in on all sides, until Tyr could only see the torch in front of his face. He heard the sparrow tell him about the darkness being a magical thing, enhanced by some spell to blot out all light.

But I can see a light ahead, Tyr replied; and indeed, a white light glimmered ahead. The sparrow chirped something that faded to silence as the light grew brighter. It grew brighter and drowned out even the torch and Tyr's hand that held it. He threw up his other hand to shield his eyes from the blinding radiance...

Tyr awoke to a mottled, odious face. He tried to shout, but his mouth was gagged; he tried to move, but his limbs were shackled. He cursed himself silently, for not thinking to look for traps in the crypt. It had not been any spell or arcane device that had overcome him, but simple low cunning: a spring-activated puff of some noxious gas that rendered him unconscious in the clutching hands of this thing that now peered through filmy eyes at him. As creature turned and shuffled away, and Tyr saw that its body was mostly hidden beneath a frayed sackcloth cloak. Nevertheless, certain lumpy protrusions and odd geometries suggested a wholly inhuman form, and the hero's mind recoiled at the sinister implications. His stomach, meanwhile, recoiled at the musky odor, damp rotting wood and sulfurous ash, that permeated the room.

Now the creature reached towards a rusty iron cage, which held the motionless form of the sparrow that had been Tyr's guide. He had no time to wonder whether the sparrow was alive or dead before the creature, with quick, stilted movements, snatched the bird from the cage and stuffed it into its puckering, toothless mouth. As Tyr looked on in horror, the creature made horrific sucking sounds and, at length, vomited forth the sparrow's mucous-covered skeleton, scoured clean of meat and sinew as if it had been dipped in acid.

It was at that moment, a moment nearly unlike any other in his life, that Tyr Haefest felt a needle of fear stab his heart.

But then he heard stone scrape on stone, and a portion of the far wall slid aside to reveal a black-robed and hooded figure. Tyr's heart jumped in his chest; this must be the Black Sorcerer himself! The squamous creature dropped the sparrow's bones and loped off into the revealed hallway. The Sorcerer, meanwhile, shuffled forward, the folds of his cloak obscuring any sight of skin, until he was face to face with Tyr. A noxious breath exuded from the cavernous hood, but still Tyr could not make out face nor even eyes in that void.

-what is your name-

The voice whispered through his mind, as surely as if the Sorcerer had spoken; only he hadn't.

-what is your name-
Again, the voice, but nothing under the hood had moved; not a mouth, nor a tongue.

-what is your name-

The voice, for a third time; Tyr could think of nothing else but to send his thoughts back at it. I'm Tyr Haefest of the Empyrean Highlands, he thought; Are you the Black Sorcerer who inspires such fear in the local villagers, and despoils the earth, and pollutes the sky with your foul communions?

-and if i am-

It was not a question so much as a challenge. Tyr thought nothing for a moment, then gathered his courage. I will defeat you, he thought; I have come to rid these lands of your plague.


The laughter thundered in Tyr's head; he thrashed in pain, strained against the shackles, but could not escape that immediate, agonizing mirth that clawed at his consciousness.

-you cannot defeat me for my god has made me strong-

The voice had dropped back to a whisper, but now it carried a venomous edge to it, a gloating tone that hinted at far darker realities than Tyr cared to dream of. Still, he refused to relinquish all hope to this monstrous magician, this speaker to nameless gibbering entities.

There is no god of Light or Shadow who would grant you even the slightest boon, he thought. Pious fury welled deep within his soul.

-but why pray to light or shadow-

-why send witless hopes at witless children of a noise in the dark-

-when i have communed with powers you cannot even fathom-

-powers who have slumbered but stir towards awakening once more-

-against whom your gods are not more than irritations-

-parasitic annoyances like ticks or lice-

-needle points against the flesh of the dragon-

-and i who have launched my mind my consciousness across the vast stellar bleakness-

-that stellar wasteland-

-the ultimate void beyond infinity-

-i have contacted those sleeping giants-

-the titans of chaos-

-yes the crawling chaos whose names even your pestilential gods fear to speak aloud-

-the consumers of creation-

-and the destroyers of order-

-the subsumers of form and substance who exist beyond the coil of time space and causality-

-they have granted me powers-

-beyond the ken of mortals or contrived immortals-

-and the immortality that only the outer dark can provide-

-i will consume your body and your soul until nothing remains-

-no metaphysical detritus for your scavenger gods to squabble over in their petty disputes-

The words, though nothing had been spoken, pattered against Tyr's mind like heavy rainfall, an offbeat staccato pulse that telegraphed nothing short of madness; that purest form of insanity that only the Outer Dark could provide. Against such a foe, weaponless...

Except that his sword was still in its sheath, and the sheath was still attached to his belt. The Sorcerer, in his madness and hubris, had not disarmed him! Tyr felt relief flood through him, a rising tide of calm that drowned out the cacophonous sibilance of the Sorcerer's gibbering thoughts. But he dared not think of any way to escape and defeat the Sorcerer while the black-robed magician still faced him. Tyr didn't know how this peculiar mind-to-mind communication worked, but he guessed it passed through the eyes somehow, or at least the attention; maybe it was like the sign language known to the tribesmen of the Southlands?

Now the Sorcerer turned away, evidently having run out of meaningless (or all too meaningful) ramblings to project onto Tyr's psyche, and busied himself with a strange machine that squatted in the room's far corner. With the connection broken, Tyr pushed his mind to work faster and faster on a plan of escape, and with any luck, the defeat of the Sorcerer himself.

Perhaps the fiend's hubris and madness could be turned against him. Tyr had heard terrible stories, nothing more than furtive whispers really, about the consequences of offering one's soul to the roiling black energy of the Outer Dark. Its powers were truly great, it was said, but greater still was the price on the mage's soul, whose vaulting ambition exceeded all caution. For the things that lurked within that chaos never ceased in their hungering; their entropic cravings had no bounds. All too easily could one of the nameless spawn of that legion of blasphemous unintelligences infiltrate the soul, and fester like an antithetical cancer until finally the star-fiend burst forth and rampaged until its anarchic essence burned through the fleeting form it had carved from its host's viscera and spirit.

If Tyr could play the devil's advocate, and entice the Sorcerer to such self-destructive folly... but he had no time to consider an alternative, for the Sorcerer had turned back towards him, and held his gaze from beneath that inscrutable hood. In his hands, which Tyr saw were skeletal, leprous, and scabbed, the mad magician clutched a bizarre and dreadful instrument, whose hellish purpose Tyr could only guess at.

-i will consume your body and your soul until nothing remains-

-no metaphysical detritus for your scavenger gods-

But why use a mundane implement, Tyr thought, trying hard not to let a trace of fear or doubt creep into his mind; Why resort to the forms of this world when you can call upon the Outer Dark itself?

-do not presume-

-do not presume-

-do not presume-

-my powers indeed reach beyond this dismal husk of a world-

-and now i will consume your body and your soul until nothing remains-

But why limit yourself? Tyr thought; Are your powers limited to just extracting my soul and destroying my flesh?

-do not presume-

-do not presume-

-do not presume-

-allow me to show you what my god has given me-

There was a darkling in the room, a sense of dimming, yet no lights had gone out. Tyr realized he felt... thin; stretched, as though the very walls of reality were wearing away. He struggled against his iron bonds, struggled to breath, but a weight (that was yet weightless) had settled inside his breast. The Sorcerer had cupped his cankerous tapering fingers together, and was channeling that most forbidden of magic, the tainted effluence of the Gods Who Were Before The Gods, the mind-shattering entities of the Outer Dark. But to what end, Tyr did not know, and that lack of knowledge was a howling vortex, driving a hurricane of panic inside his head.

-do you feel it-


-tyr haefest of empyrea-

-do you feel the power of my god-

-do you feel the power of my god-

-do you feel it now-

-do you feel it now-

-do you-

-do you-


There was no purpose, Tyr realized, as the blind energies reached a fatal crescendo, and the weight had begun to pulse an insidious ostinato in counterpoint against his heartbeat. The Sorcerer had called his bluff all too well, and was simply trying to channel as much power as possible. The plan was going to work; but how would Tyr know—

Then the Sorcerer's arms flew apart and locked rigid at an angle away from his sides, palms towards Tyr. His head jerked back and the hood sloughed off to reveal, not the wrinkled and puckered face of an elderly sage of forbidden arts, but the pockmarked and scarred face of a young girl—

Then Tyr realized that the Sorcerer didn't “kill” the village elder's daughter, but she had been seduced by the agents of Chaos and turned her back on kin and community—

Then something exploded out of the Sorcerer's chest.

There was a sickening wet crunch; chunks of viscera and what might have been flecks of bone splattered against Tyr's face, arms, and chest. He blinked, and then there was something that pushed and pulled and writhed and squirmed with gaping-mouthed tentacles out of the Sorcerer's robes. Its face(?) was a mass of hourglass-pupil eyes and chitinous mandibles, extending in obscene geometries out into that wriggling mass of tentacles. It roared then, an all-too-human scream erupting from an all-too-inhuman maw. Threads of spittle dampened Tyr's skin and burned like fire; but the caustic mucous ate away at his shackles, too, and Tyr twisted his upper body free just in time to avoid a swipe of the thing's tentacles. He ripped out his gag and tried to unclasp his leg shackles, but he wasn't going to be fast enough.

The thing seems blind, for all its eyes
, Tyr thought feverishly; But sooner or later one of those tentacles is going to dissolve my head or something...

Just then the Sorcerer's servant-creature shuffled in, apparently in response to the commotion. As soon as it saw its master's rigid, twitching body, and what protruded from it, the servant croaked in fear and adulation.

“Apotheosis, master!” The servant's voice was thick and wet, as though its mouth were full of swamp water. “You have achieved apotheo—”

Apparently the servant's voice was enough to provoke the chaos-spawned thing away from its blind swipes at Tyr, because it lurched backward, into the Sorcerer's chest, and erupted out the other side, flying across the room and latching onto the servant-creature's face. As Tyr tried to watch while simultaneously trying to free himself from his leg shackles, both the Sorcerer and her servant collapsed, the latter under the tentacled mass which had gouged the body cavity of the former. More sick crunching and slurping sounds echoed through the room as the servant's head — and, in quick succession, the rest of its body — was cracked open, dissolved, and devoured.

Tyr realized that his sword would probably do a fine job of shattering the rusted and acid-softened iron chain that connected the shackles to the wall; the iron crumbled under the force of his blow. And none too soon, for the aberration had finished sucking down the soupified remains of the servant and turned its ithyphallic face towards him with a ravenous look in its milky hourglass eyes. It lunged — although Tyr still couldn't fathom how such a thing propelled itself, and so fast! — and the hero met it squarely in the middle of its leap with a well timed sword swing. The thing was rent in two as the blade sheared through its gelatinous flesh, even as its acidic bile-blood corroded the metal itself. Within seconds, Tyr stood empty-handed in the middle of the barrow's moldy stone chamber, his pitted and smoking sword clanging to the floor where he had dropped it, the hideous spawn of Chaos twitching obscenely where it had landed piecemeal, and the Black Sorcerer's stiff corpse lying where she had fallen some minutes ago. Even as he stood there, Tyr could feel the black magic begin to ebb, and the foulness that had permeated the land for too long leached away. He emerged onto the downs to see the now-bright sun cutting through the fading mist, and he found his way back to the village with little trouble.

The villagers were all celebrating the end of the Sorcerer's curse when Tyr walked into the village's town hall; all except for the village elder. Only he saw the hero enter; only he met Tyr's eyes nodded once. Tyr turned around and left without speaking. He knew what the elder meant: It is done. Though Tyr's name would be remembered in this village for generations to come, the hero felt no joy in this. He could only think, as he strapped his supplies to his horse and rode off into the sunset, of the face of that girl, who by some stroke of madness gave herself over to the darkest powers imaginable. What would drive her to such lengths, he wondered, and what feelings now clouded the heart of the village elder — her father? What kind burden weighed down on a man who was forced to make the hardest choice of all: the sacrifice of his own daughter, or the sacrifice of all who had entrusted their safety in him?

And as Tyr Haefest rode away from the village of Drummond's Fen; even as new growth was visible in the cracked soil; even as the oily clouds fled the strengthening light of the sun; still a brooding darkness settled on his mind, and it felt like it would never be removed.

Author's Note: And that's the end of this little story-within-a-story. I hope it was sufficiently pulpy without being too purple-y.

30 October 2014

Statistics, women, and dangerous things

Follow-up to: Diagnosis of an overwhelming fear, pt. 1; Adventures in bad statistics, Big Gay edition


So there's a video going around. A woman dresses pretty generically—jeans, a black crew-neck shirt—and walks around New York City... and experiences "over 100" instances of street harassment in 10 hours over a few days.

I have a few problems with this methodology. On the one hand, it's great that people are documenting this sort of everyday experience: one's personal life history doesn't translate well over the Internet, so any little bit helps. On the other hand...

The big problem is with the editing. Out of nine major online media sites who reported this—CNN, USA Today, Business Insider, New York Post, Vox, Slate, Huffington Post, Salon, and Jezebel—none of them caught this on the first go around. Then Slate and Salon realized something was up: it's almost all black and Latino men.


The Jezebel writer had this commentary instead:
A few weeks ago I was at a flea market in Los Angeles. As I was buying something from a vendor, I hear a male voice saying: "Hey beautiful" over and over. The vendor I was buying from said, "I think he's talking to you."

I quickly snapped: "My name isn't fucking beautiful." The man who had yelled at me came closer and said: "I just wanted to let you know that I think you're beautiful." I said: "I don't give a fuck what you think."

A few minutes later that same man approached me to apologize. He said he wasn't trying to holler at or bother me, (lies) but just wanted to give me a compliment. I told him that my self-esteem is not dependent upon the affirmation of strangers and he should stop doing that shit to me and other women. To his credit, he was very polite and said he's trying to grow and be a better person. I truly hope that he meant that because having just one man recognize how degrading it is to do that to women is necessary.

Because this? What we see in this video—a woman unable to simply move through a single day of her life without verbal harassment? This shit has got to stop.
In the context of a video with a conspicuous demographic and socioeconomic bias... considering that the writer is probably decently well-off...

Double yikes.

In the follow-up piece on Slate, Hanna Rosin relayed the following from Robert Bliss, owner of the marketing firm that produced the video in collaboration with anti-street-harassment organization Hollaback:
He wrote, “we got a fair amount of white guys, but for whatever reason, a lot of what they said was in passing, or off camera” or was ruined by a siren or other noise. The final product, he writes, “is not a perfect representation of everything that happened.” That may be true but if you find yourself editing out all the catcalling white guys, maybe you should try another take.
Moreover, a good chunk of the stuff in the video was also "in passing" or "off camera" (definitely a few where I couldn't tell where it was coming from) so...

Yikes again.

Then, of course, there's the message at the end of the video: If you want to help, please donate to Hollaback! a non-profit dedicated to ending street harassment.

So... how exactly does one end street harassment?


The first step in solving any problem, so the engineers say, is to locate the problem. And for that we need some statistics, not on how many times women get harassed, but who harasses the women.

For an extreme analogy, imagine that someone with a hidden GoPro and a lot of ignorance (as we do seem to have about catcalls) walked in front of a Jewish person for 10 hours... in 1936 Berlin. One might notice quite a bit of harassment from non-Jewish people.

So is the conclusion "Jews are the victims of harassment by Gentiles?" only if you don't do enough research.

Back at Slate, Rosin points us to a Daily Show piece on street harassment, which she says does a better job at covering the full demographic range:
A really good video about catcalling actually already exists. In Jessica’s Feminized Atmosphere, Jessica Williams of the Daily Show covers the whole range of street harassment, from construction workers (of all races) to security guards to Wall Street “douche bags” to teenagers hanging on the corner. She and a group of women lay down pins on places in New York to avoid and by the end, the entire map is covered. There are race and class issues latent in her video, too. She is black, and the women she gathers for her discussion group are all races. But you don’t leave with that icky impression of a white woman under assault by the big bad city. Plus, she has the group demonstrate the armor they wear while walking down the street, which turns into a glorious mosaic of bitch face.
Except that the video doesn't exactly cover the whole range of street harassment: the Wall Street douchebags and teenagers on the corner and creepy old men playing chess in the park are all depicted but not actually heard. That's not to say it's not possible but the end result is the same: we only witness the act of harassment when it's coming from a fat security guard (low-income job) or black or Latino construction workers (low-income, minority)... and yet the problem is "all men."

If one could somehow become difference-blind to everything except gender, and re-watch the video carefully, one could count the numbers of male passers-by who said nothing to the woman. Then considering that these are 2 minutes out of 600, extrapolating to the average density of a Manhattan sidewalk... the proportion of catcallers is probably very low. Pithily: #NotAllMen are catcallers. Maybe 1% of men, to reference another NYC-based social justice movement, and that's being scary-generous.

Except it's not just #NotAllMen, and not just one percent of men. it seems to be #VerySpecificKindsOfMen: desperate men of a "lower sort." Or nouveau-riche overentitled human turds. Put another way: there are some men (1 out of every 100, say) who think it's a perfectly valid thing to call out at a woman that she should smile more, or that she should get his number, or whatever. But there are also men who don't do this. Who never do this.

Who never do this. Ever.

I think it's vitally important to figure out the difference.


We're told that men are taught that it's fine and manly to call out whatever they want to women passing by. I accept that; but I was never taught that. Yet I was never taught "don't call out at women," it wasn't even a reflex or easy trap to fall into. If anything my parents just taught me "don't talk to strangers."

It also wasn't something I passively picked up. I knew what catcalling was, of course; but even in Tex Avery cartoons—not all that progressive, I mean blackface galore—catcallers and wolf-whistlers seemed like obvious sleazeballs. There's a reason that the prototypical catcaller (not just in my mind but in popular depictions) is a blue-collar working stiff, often a construction worker (WARNING: TVTropes link):
Parodied in Psychonauts; one Paper-Thin Disguise used by the G-Men of the Milkman Conspiracy level is that of a construction worker and he says, "Look at that woman's breasts. They are enormous."
Seriously, the Milkman Conspiracy level of Psychonauts is just wall-to-wall hilarious. Along with, you know, the rest of the game. It's on Steam now, you have no excuse.

Okay, so that's my experience and a bit of my gaming preferences. I know it doesn't generalize well but then again I don't think I'm magically in a Very Special Category of guys who naturally just don't bother catcalling: I have never experienced a member of my social group, anywhere, catcalling anyone. The times I've witnessed catcalling as a third-party, well, it was the "lower sort" of guy doing it.

Even the director of the video agrees that it's a small minority of #AllMen doing the actual catcalling, but of course you don't need a big proportion to ruin a woman's day. (In fact we would expect it to be only a small proportion of men, otherwise it'd be way harder to deny.)

So just why do #JustTheseMen catcall? (I promise I'll stop with the hashtags now.) I think culture is it; but it's not as easy as saying "society teaches men that this is okay." And it's not just one culture. There are multiple avenues to an environment where catcalling is okay; for example:

Culture 1. Manosphere entitlement. This is PUA / Wall Street douchebag culture (though it might have overlap with the next culture below), and the most individualistic. An entitled d-bag (red pill optional) is taking a shotgun approach to picking up women, and legitimately things he deserves their attention. This is the attitude most often attributed to all catcallers by the likes of Jezebel, which coming from mostly upper-middle-class college educated women unfortunately has the side-effect of making more lower-income catcallers look, ah, "uppity." The solution here probably is someone giving them a verbal slap in the face.

Culture 2. "Macho" culture. This is more obvious in other countries (Italy, Spain, Latin America...) but it's not necessarily unique to Romance-language cultures, they're just stereotyped about it. In this sense, "macho" culture is one where a man proves his masculinity to his male peers by catcalling. How much of this is influenced by economics, I'm not exactly sure. But to the extent that this is social, the solution involves positive role models.

Culture 3. Desperation. Much as panhandlers "harass" passers-by with all sorts of phrases, sometimes rather insistently, sometimes catcallers are just that desperate that they've disengaged that part of their brain that would otherwise not say anything to strange women. Very few people in the working-class-and-higher bracket would ask every person passing by for a free meal, right? Or stand out by the off-ramp to see if anyone can give them some free money... Deprived of dignity, at that point, why not? Maybe someone will be charitable. The solution here is—say it with me now—eliminating poverty, you know, the Hard One.

Certainly nobody wants to endure a deluge of unsolicited comments, especially not ones of an overtly creepy-sexual nature. But is it wrong to also think, watching these sorts of videos: Wow, society has really failed that guy, if he thinks yelling at random women is a worthwhile effort?

Again, the point is: it's not "men in general," but neither is it "men at random." It seems rather predictable; predictable implies preventable.

But first it's important to really get a handle on the problem. If the causes of catcalling are as deep as I suspect, "teaching men not to catcall" is as ineffective—and perhaps as inadvertently callous—as teaching homeless people not to panhandle. Better, I think, to change the environment so that they have no reason to catcall, and I don't mean taking women off the street.

(And this is where, if I were more of a hack, I would springboard into a whole ball-pit of pet policy options. I am not a hack. The policy ball-pit is elsewhere.)

27 October 2014

How should we morally reject slavery and tyranny?


The other day (N.B. months ago at this point) I got into a very interesting discussion with C. Michael Pickens, a prominent member of the Washington State Libertarian Party, on what principles should form the proper ground of a theory of liberty. In his original Facebook post, Michael claimed that "Liberty is an optimistic concept based on the philosophy of self-ownership." Someone else asked whether liberty could be grounded in concepts of free will and autonomy; Michael replied that these are themselves based in self-ownership.

In the discussion, I (and the other guy) both raised the possible issue of indentured servitude—I had in mind specifically the condition of indentured servants during the early American colonial period, which was a condition of chattel slavery in all but name. Michael wasn't arguing that slavery was permissible—obviously it isn't, regardless of your libertarian principles, unless you're a Confederacy-fetishist douchebag like, say, this guy—but rather that selling yourself into indentured servitude is not wrong and should be permitted.

But there's more than one road to liberty, and I think I have some axioms that lead to libertarian conclusions while also disallowing both slavery and indentured servitude.

As I learned by reading Michael Sandel's book Justice: What's the Right Thing To Do?, libertarian philosophies actually come from two distinct strains of thought in the Western tradition. One way, derived from the concept of natural law, argues that there are inherent (or God-given, depending on who you ask) moral truths about humans that cannot be denied. In particular, natural-law libertarians often cite self-ownership as the basis for libertarian politics; and indeed, this is what Michael Pickens said.

Now there's another road to liberty, through theories of utilitarianism. This may strike readers as counter-intuitive, because utilitarianism as expounded by, say, the likes of Jeremy Bentham ("maximize pleasure and minimize pain for the greatest number of people") or collectivist planners in Communist governments, doesn't seem very libertarian at all.

However, no less than John Stuart Mill (he of "On Liberty") arrived at libertarianism by concluding that liberty was the best way of maximizing each individual's utility! Moreover, you can follow the reasoning of Ludwig von Mises and F. A. Hayek in the calculation problem: ceteris paribus, nobody knows what an individual wants better than that person themselves, so in general it's better to let people do as they will as long as it doesn't interfere with anyone else.

I think that preference or desire utilitarianism (which says basically "act in such a way that satisfies more preferences than it thwarts") makes the path clearer, though any other utilitarian formulation can do the job.


The problem with the doctrine of self-ownership, as I see it, is that it smells like a motte-and-bailey: where one explanation is given that's controversial and desirable, but when challenged one retreats to a safer and easily-defended explanation. Let me elaborate.

Self-ownership, literally understood, means that each person holds property rights to their own body. This is then extended, so that each person holds property rights on stuff they make or improve (e.g., a homestead), et cetera. It is often claimed that self-ownership is the necessary ground of all other liberty:
Bound up in the principle of freedom of association is every defining libertarian principle: self-ownership, the meaning of property titles, and nonaggression. [Lew Rockwell, "What Libertarianism Is and Isn't," 31 March 2014]
And moreover, self-ownership libertarians often exhibit a curious narrowness, haughtily disdaining anything but the relationship between a man, his property, and the State:
Libertarianism is concerned with the use of violence in society. That is all. It is not anything else. It is not feminism. It is not egalitarianism (except in a functional sense: everyone equally lacks the authority to aggress against anyone else). It has nothing to say about aesthetics. It has nothing to say about religion or race or nationality or sexual orientation. It has nothing to do with left-wing campaigns against “white privilege,” unless that privilege is state-supplied.

Let me repeat: the only “privilege” that matters to a libertarian qua libertarian is the kind that comes from the barrel of the state’s gun. Disagree with this statement if you like, but in that case you will have to substitute some word other than libertarian to describe your philosophy. [Ibid.]
It's fortunate for Rockwell that libertarianism (in his words) has nothing to do with aesthetics, because he has really poor taste.

Self-ownership is also co-morbid with a high frequency of intellectual arrogance and, ah, dubious sweeping assertions about other philosophies:
The principle of self-ownership is one of a handful of principles that guide a Libertarian. To date, no one has presented any refutation of the principle, and it is a fundamental principle that makes slavery immoral, whereas, all claims dismissing self-ownership give a moral free-pass for slavery.
Slavery often has a subtly different meaning, specified as "forcefully or nonconsensually directing the actions of another," for a simple reason. If you believe in self-ownership as literally meaning "you hold property rights in your own body," there's nothing stopping someone from selling themselves into indefinite servitude: slavery, in all but name. Michael Pickens confirmed this view:
You can do whatever you want as long as you don't infringe on the person or property of another. Many people have sold themselves into debt slavery.
I have huge moral reservations against any path that leads to permitting indefinite servitude, a bona fide road to serfdom, because it's entirely possible to follow that to an end that's just feudal hierarchy all over again. Looking back over the last six thousand years of history, I think we've had enough feudalism.

The issue boils down to a key feature of property rights, which is that property rights can be transferred. If you take a strong view of ownership, it follows that one can literally give up ownership of oneself. If human self-ownership is of the same character as, say, human ownership of a chair, then self-ownership can be given up irrevocably just as the chair can: it doesn't return to being your chair unless actively sold back to you.
Another potential issue facing the strong view is that property rights include the right of arbitrary disposal. That is, and strong-view libertarians usually hold this, that an owner can do absolutely anything with his property as long as it doesn't hurt anyone else. If he wants to destroy his chair, that's fine, he owns it. If he wants to pollute his pond, also fine.

Needless to say, the strong-view conclusion is heading way into the political fringe. Softer views often modify the claim slightly, and claim that it's more metaphorical than literal. But then it's a sort of special pleading, where "ownership" means something special when applied to humans, and something different when applied to anything else.

The conversation about voluntary indefinite servitude was where things started to get interesting. Specifically, the idea that at some point in time t = t_0, you have sufficient moral agency to agree that, for all time t > t_0, your property rights are at the disposal of another person.

But there's a very open question: are the "you" of t = t_0 and the "you" of t = t_1 > t_0 actually the same person? What right does the t_0-you have to abridge the agency of all future you's? I think not; and in fact, indefinite servitude fundamentally being coercion of all your future selves seems like a damn good reason to morally reject such servitude. Sure, it seems morally obvious to us in this time and place that slavery, no matter how "voluntarily" agreed to, is wrong; but can we defend this position even on another set of terms?

I think we just did.

23 October 2014

"Excessivisms," cargo cult politics, and #GamerGate (but maybe not how you expect)

Yes, this is where I'm going to express an official blog-opinion on #GamerGate—in the most abstract way possible. [WARNING: This post is very long... one might even say excessively so.]


Richard Feynman, in a 1978 commencement address at Caltech (and also in the last chapter of his book Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!), describes a phenomena he calls "Cargo Cult Science":
I think the educational and psychological studies I mentioned are examples of what I would like to call cargo cult science. In the South Seas there is a cargo cult of people. During the war they saw airplanes with lots of good materials, and they want the same thing to happen now. So they've arranged to make things like runways, to put fires along the sides of the runways, to make a wooden hut for a man to sit in, with two wooden pieces on his head to headphones and bars of bamboo sticking out like antennas--he's the controller--and they wait for the airplanes to land. They're doing everything right. The form is perfect. It looks exactly the way it looked before. But it doesn't work. No airplanes land. So I call these things cargo cult science, because they follow all the apparent precepts and forms of scientific investigation, but they're missing something essential, because the planes don't land.
"Cargo cult science" is a very specific kind of pseudoscientific mentality, where "pseudoscience" is generally considered to be appropriating the "form and trappings" of science without what Feynman called (read this in a heavy Brooklyn accent) "a kind of scientific integrity... a kind of bending over backwards." Pseudoscience is a spectrum disorder (with notoriously fuzzy boundaries between it and the "true" sciences), from cranks who think they've overturned all of physics but are being suppressed by the Establishment, to woo-meisters who claim that quantum physics proves that we are all one with the Universe, to people who really really want their claims to be scientific for their own sake, but miss the whole point of science, the "bending over backwards" to accept evidence before conclusions.

This last group are the cargo-cult scientists. The Pacific Islanders who got their society to build bamboo runways, for example, probably didn't have any malicious intent to deceive the aviation community. They recognized that airlifts of cargo were a pretty good thing to have, and tried to get more by mimicking the conditions that generated them in the first place.

Similarly, a good portion of the Western areas of study that Feynman calls out—education, criminal reform—probably aren't inhabited by willful deceivers. Oh sure, there are certainly those who set out with an ideal and want to "prove" it right by twisting data to fit their preconceived notions, but certainly there are many teachers or social workers who just want something that works.

They just don't know how to sort the gems from the junk.


Massimo Pigliucci, a biologist and philosopher of science at CUNY-City College, describes a viewpoint called "scientism":
I have never understood why there is so much confusion about the definition of scientism. I just looked it up in my basic Apple dictionary, and it is crystal clear: “Excessive belief in the power of scientific knowledge and techniques.” The devil, and much of the discussion, of course, is in the details.
He goes on to discuss an "alphabet soup" of varieties of (possibly) scientistic thinking, from the reasonable:
A. There is a thing called “science” with its own characteristic features distinctive enough to distinguish it from other human practices.

Yes, there is. While it is true that scientific thinking, broadly construed, is continuous with human thinking in general (how could it be otherwise?), it should be uncontroversial (although it actually isn’t) that the kind of attention to empirical evidence, theory construction, and the relation between the two that characterizes science is “distinctive enough,” as John puts it, to allow us to meaningfully speak of an activity that we call science as sufficiently distinct from, say, plumbing, literary criticism, or mathematics.
To the outrageous:
V. A highly worthy life is one guided by a scientific outlook on the world.

Baloney. Plenty of people have lived highly worthy lives (ethically, I presume) that were not guided by the scientific outlook on the world. Pretty much anyone before the Scientific Revolution, for instance. And a number of other prominent and ordinary human beings since. Moreover, a lot of pretty bad stuff has been done by people who wholly embraced the scientific worldview, even without bringing in the Nazis again. And that, of course is because the connection between science and values is tenuous at best, and certainly not determinant.

W. The worthiest culture for humanity is the one technologically controlled by the scientific worldview.

This is simply a version of (V) above on steroids and applied to societies rather than individuals, and it is hence unacceptable a fortiori.

X. The most thoroughly scientific culture should displace and marginalize all other cultures across humanity.

See comment regarding (W) and bring it up a few more notches.

Y. The supremely scientific culture should eliminate all rival cultures and control the destiny of humanity.

A few more notches…

Z. The supremely scientific culture should control the course of humanity as well as all posthuman sentient forms of life, including AI life forms, that may arise from humanity.

Turn it up to the point of shouting a very clearly resounding “go to hell” response.
If there's a unifying theme to all of these positions, one more concrete than the Apple dictionary definition, it might be this:
A viewpoint may be called scientistic (or scientism) if it includes the following positions:

For any given question, there is a science-based (or seemingly science-based...!) answer. Morality? Science will answer it! Call this position one of "(scientistic) existence."

2. Moreover, science-based (or seemingly science-based) answers ought to be the first kind of answers sought to any given question... if any other answers are even admissible! Call this position one of "(scientistic) primacy," or in the case of the more exclusive position, "(scientistic) uniqueness."
Anyone who has studied mathematics might be familiar with "existence-and-uniqueness" proofs. The names seem appropriate enough here for our characterization of scientism. Indeed, this may allow us to generalize to a larger category of viewpoints, as we'll see below.

Why did I say "seemingly science-based" in the characterization? Well, nobody said that scientism had to be scientific! In fact, bragging that scientific methods can totally be brought to bear on (e.g.) a being that exists completely outside our reality, is utterly without scientific merit.

Science operates under a methodology of naturalism: that the only things we can test are objects and processes in the natural world, and if we can measure or test it, then it's of the natural world. (Abstract study of pattern and structure is mathematics; abstract study of "what," "why," and "ought" (for example) is philosophy.) By asserting that science could test for the existence of Yog-Sothoth, the scientist-ist(???) is actually making a philosophical (read: non-scientific) claim: that Yog-Sothoth is of the natural world.

Or, if Yog-Sothoth is still outside our reality, then suddenly science has burst the bonds of methodological naturalism and everything is science. What's the point of words then?

The essential nature of scientism is one of unwarranted excess: caught up in the deserved success of science, one excessively broadens the scope of scientific inquiry. This can happen regardless of whether or not one happens to understand any aspect of science at all.


Michael Sandel, a political philosopher at Harvard, writes about the "moral limits of markets" in an article for The Atlantic:
Some say the moral failing at the heart of market triumphalism was greed, which led to irresponsible risk-taking. The solution, according to this view, is to rein in greed, insist on greater integrity and responsibility among bankers and Wall Street executives, and enact sensible regulations to prevent a similar crisis from happening again.

This is, at best, a partial diagnosis. While it is certainly true that greed played a role in the financial crisis, something bigger was and is at stake. The most fateful change that unfolded during the past three decades was not an increase in greed. It was the reach of markets, and of market values, into spheres of life traditionally governed by nonmarket norms. To contend with this condition, we need to do more than inveigh against greed; we need to have a public debate about where markets belong—and where they don’t.

Sandel's critique suggests an analogous characterization to scientism, like so:
A viewpoint may be called marketistic (or marketism) if it includes the following positions:

For any given question, there is a market-based (or seemingly market-based...!) answer. Morality? Create a market to allocate it! Call this position one of "(marketistic) existence."

2. Moreover, market-based (or seemingly market-based) answers ought to be the first kind of answers sought to any given question... if any other answers are even admissible! Call this position one of "(marketistic) primacy," or in the case of the more exclusive position, "(marketistic) uniqueness."
The parallels become clear: what Sandel and others may call market triumphalism, or market fundamentalism (a misreading of what "fundamentalism" is, I think), I'm choosing to call "marketism" in a conceptual alliance with "scientism." Certainly there's a good reason for this. Marketism (née market fundamentalism) is yet another case of unwarranted excess. Overconfident from the justified (yes, you leftists!) success of fair markets (yes, you anarcho-capitalists!), marketists decide to set up markets for every little thing. Figure out that a good can be divvied up, and The Market will divvy it up according to The Market's will.

Okay, that's two examples—enough for any mathematician. Let's generalize! I'm going to be cute and call both of these viewpoints specific examples of excessivism. (Get it?) So here's the rule:
An excessivism is a viewpoint about specific kind of human inquiry or decision-making process—call this process P—that includes the following positions:

1. For any given question, there is a P-based (or seemingly P-based) answer. Call this position one of "existence."

2. Moreover P-based (or seemingly P-based) answers ought to be the first kind of answers sought to any given question... if any other answers are even admissible! Call this position one of "primacy," or in the case of the more exclusive position, "uniqueness."
Now we can pull back and give a succinct description of the previous examples:
The excessivism of science (that is, scientism) asserts the existence of a uniquely science-based solution to any given problem.

The excessivism of markets (that is, marketism) asserts the existence of a uniquely market-based solution to any given problem.
Isn't that tidy? Again, the potential problems with these sorts of viewpoints are manifold. Maybe there is no such solution—science being dragged over the demarcation line well into philosophy territory where it shall not tread, for example. Maybe there are other kinds of solutions, ones that are just better—markets usually seem to "work," but sometimes the results are rather perverse; other options, like social norms and values, might be more harmonious.


David Brin, in his political writing and blogging, often champions the notion of accountability arenas, which he suggests deserve the lion's share of credit for the dominance of the post-Enlightenment neo-Western civilization:
Consider four marvels of our age -- science, democracy, the justice system and fair markets. In each case the participants (scientists, litigants, politicians and capitalists) are driven by selfish goals. That won't change; not till we redefine human nature. But for years, rules have been fine-tuned in each of these fields of endeavor, to reduce cheating and let quality or truth win much of the time. By harnessing human competitiveness, instead of suppressing it, these "accountability arenas" nourished much of our unprecedented wealth and freedom.
We've already seen too-confident idolizing of science and markets. Complete the pattern. We've probably heard talk of America being an overly litigious society, or that such-and-such politician wants to "legislate morality." That's an excessivism of law. But do we have a good concept of an excessivism of politics? Sure, there's plenty of hand-wringing (or reassurances to the contrary) about "polarization," but that's a symptom, not the actual disease:
The excessivism of politics (that is, politicism) asserts the existence of a uniquely politics-based solution to any given problem.
But here, I think, we see an overwhelming case of pseudopolitics as the driving force behind political excessivisms in the real world. Simply put, I think there's been a mutation in how people see the nature and product of the political process, and it's become rather malignant. More than ever, politics is war and arguments are soldiers. It's not that politics in Washington, D.C. was ever that much different in generations past; but that more things became politicized.

In this way we've shifted our guiding metaphors: politics is no longer "the art of the possible" but rather "war by other means." Less Bismarck and more (inverted) Clausewitz.

We might think of the "true" (or at least, old) political process as optimizing for agreement—not necessarily the happiness of the parties involved, but at least an agreement to a certain policy package knowing that it's the best they can do. You won't please everyone (anyone?) with three-quarters of what you want and a few million dollars of pork-barrel spending for the opposing committee chair, but you'll at least accomplish more than nothing.

But here's the problem: in this brave new game of pseudopolitics, the end state of the conflict is not agreement, but unconditional surrender. And under this view, combined with the political excessivism (asserting the existence of a uniquely politics-based solution to any given problem), we have that any given problem can be solved by splitting into two sides and browbeating each other until Our Side wins and Their Side loses. And remember, there are no noncombatants—this is total war.

[A small digression: I should note that my characterization of the political process is not precisely "democratic," and in fact the most vulgar forms of democracy are exactly the kind of cargo cult politics I'm describing now. I'm thinking more of small-r republicanism: the democratic process is more of an accountability measure to attain some level of representativeness.]

It's a cargo cult because rather than getting at the true mechanisms of politics—compromise and grudging concessions—it's taking literally the narrative of politics. Our Side will win, because we are righteous; Their Side will lose, because they are wicked.

And I hate it because the only real winner is the Narrative itself. Like Chambers' King in Yellow it "could not rest until it had seized the minds of men and controlled even their unborn thoughts." I hate it because anything that seems to serve the Narrative could have been done precisely for that reason. Certain individuals or groups are seen as victims and held therefore beyond reproach; and yet every accusation at their abusers now has the unspoken possibility of falsehood. Every coincidence becomes a conspiracy. Every setback becomes enemy action.

There are no exceptions or excuses.

I hate this. The Narrative is such an easy tool of agency-denial: "You can't really mean that, I've decided you should have been on Our Side, so Their Side must have corrupted you. You're no longer protected, and moreover, you're unclean. You too must be destroyed." It's simply not possible to have complex thoughts once the Narrative has infected the body of rhetoric. Complex thoughts might contain bits that help Their Side, so complex thoughts are forbidden.

Finally we arrive at #GamerGate as merely a worked example in my burgeoning theory of people taking things I like and using them wrongly. At the risk of debasing Feynman, I'm going to paraphrase him in describing a more general phenomenon than #GamerGate:
On Social Media there is there is a cargo cult of people. Learning history in high school they saw society change for the better, and they want the same thing to happen now. So they've arranged to make things like protests, to criticize their opponents, to make a new jargon. They're doing everything right. The form is perfect. It looks exactly the way it looked before. But it doesn't work. Society isn't changing like it did . So I call these things cargo cult politics, because they follow all the apparent precepts and forms of politics, but they're missing something essential, because the problems don't go away.
When you combine the politics is war metaphor with the personal is political, it seems like the result is politics is total war. Now nothing is safe from politicization, even some things that probably aren't amenable to politics. In all corners of society we have people mobilizing against a dire threat to their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor. And conversely, no action can be seen as neutral—if it doesn't help Us, then it must be helping Them, even if only because it's not directly helping Us!

In this war, which is not waged on a physical battlefield, all sides see fit to deploy whatever superweapons they can assemble and bring online.

We saw this thing start, arguably, with a slightly unhinged bitter ex-boyfriend inveighing against his ex-girlfriend, claiming that she was a hypocritical adulterer who slept with game reviewers to get good press for the game she developed. (Superweapon: The Scorned Lover)

We saw the right-leaning blogosphere glom on to the growing chorus of generalized "something ain't right" against games media, and the chorus was hereby christened #GamerGate. (Superweapon: The -Gate Suffix)

We saw the retaliation by journalists and commentators, declaring that "gamers are dead" as an identity and that to be a "gamer" meant to be an evil mutant misogynist neckbeard lardbucket with no friends and a terminal case of needing-to-be-bullied:

Then, in response to Biddle's really-not-funny tweets, Adobe requested that Gawker Media remove the Adobe logo from an image on their site, and tweeted the following:

How did The Verge, an online publication on the anti-GG side of the aisle, report on this?

Software company Adobe has implicitly voiced support for vitriolic "consumer revolt" Gamergate. After being asked by Gamergate supporters to drop sponsorship for Gawker Media, the company said that it was not actually an advertiser, but would ask Gawker to remove an Adobe logo from its site. Gamergate supporters were protesting a series of tongue-in-cheek tweets by Gawker-affiliated Valleywag editor Sam Biddle, jokingly calling to "bring back bullying" of nerds.
Yes, this action by Adobe is implicit support for #Gamergate, while Biddle's tweets are "tongue-in-cheek" and "joking." This is the kind of politicized shit we see from, like, gun-nuts. (Pro-gun or anti-gun, either way.) If you don't agree with this specific thing on one side, you must before the other side, you evil mutant!

Let's recall the "culture" framework I used in my post on gun culture: ownership of guns validates one's character, and many problems can be solved by the possession and use of guns.

What about "gamer culture"? [X] of video games validates one's character, and many problems can be solved by the [X] of video games.

Hm. There's a problem here: it feels right, like there's an analogous statement for this sort of potentially-toxic cultural attitude. I'm just not sure what the actual connection to video games is. It's not simply owning a lot of games: I own a lot of games (thanks for nothing, Steam sales) but I haven't played most of them (yet) and moreover I don't consider myself a "gamer" per se. It's not simply enthusiasm for games, at least not just any kind of game: one sort of has to be highly enthusiastic for a definite class of games, and maybe even make a show of disdaining other classes of games. And it's not simply skill at playing games, though that is a sort of factor: certainly "gamers" tend to be into the more "hardcore" games.

Here's the disturbing thought: what if "gamer culture" is actually 'gamer' culture? That is: Identifying as a 'gamer' validates one's character, and many problems can be solved by associating primarily with other 'gamers.'

Yup. I think we've got it. The seeds of politicization were planted deep in the past.

Consider the following metaphor:
A group of friends, tired of being picked last for sports and generally left out of other kids' fun, decided to build a treehouse in the branches of a huge oak tree at the local park. It was modest, but they had a roll-up rope ladder and secret pass-codes and developed a close, shared community. Eventually other misfits joined this treehouse club, and some moved on, but the general rules of the club stayed the same. Shared experience created shared norms.

Then other kids noticed how much fun the treehouse club seemed to be having. The oak tree was quite large, so other treehouses started popping up in its branches. This didn't bother the original club very much—they had their secret pass-codes and so on, but it was kinda lame how the new treehouses had rigid ladders and ramps to get from one to the other, rather than just climbing through the branches. It wasn't that difficult once you got used to it!

Eventually the whole oak tree contained a vast network of treehouses, and the original treehouse was swallowed up by the newcomers. "Why don't we play together?" the new kids asked. "No, go away!" the treehouse club replied; "This is our special club."

The new kids—some of whom were just the sort of kids who rejected the club before—laughed: "That's stupid! Everyone has a treehouse now. You're just weird about it."
That's part of the situation as I see it: gamers have constructed a whole culture on the idea of an identity, self-constructed and defined by separateness and exclusivity! But now geek culture has become boring: it's in the mainstream now, but with none of the individual context that gave the source material its original potency. (Formative experiences aren't transitive between people, especially adults.) Now the identity defined by separateness and exclusivity is neither separate nor exclusive. It's a crisis.

For an especially explosive reaction, add in a cadre of inveterate politicizers, the "culture warriors" of the right-wing and the "social justice warriors" of the left. Now it's an identity crisis and a two-fronted Manichean battleground. Let the total war commence.

20 October 2014

Atheism doesn't mean you're smart

Now I've gone and done it. This week I've found myself in tiresome social-media sparring matches not once, but twice, over matters I thought were relatively uncontroversial. I should have learned that lesson a long time ago, perhaps, but in this case it was strange: my interlocutors this time were atheists, and we were debating philosophical points. And yet, for all that they were nominally in my own "tribe," they weren't, and in the end I found them more distasteful than the far-left social justice crusaders of yesteryear.


I'll start with one that didn't actually involve me, except on the side. Michael Luciano, a staff writer at The Daily Banter, wrote a piece called Atheists Don't Owe Your Social Justice Agenda a Damn Thing, criticizing social-justice-oriented atheists for presuming to speak for all atheists. I think he was only partially right: it does seem a bit presumptuous to say that one can only be a "good atheist" (or the favorite passive-aggressive title, "decent human being") if one signs on to a whole slate of political views, since nothing about atheism (read: not believing that a god exists) implies a particular politics—except for being against theocracy, probably.

To the extent that there exists a movement to help and support atheists and people recovering from religion, that movement should recognize that "being atheist" means different things in practice for different kinds of people, because of what community they've become alienated from.

Basically, if there's a group promoting social justice for atheists per se, they need to make sure they meet the needs of all atheists and not just white upper-middle-class atheists. That just makes sense, and that's exactly the problem being addressed at conferences like Moving Social Justice (a Washington Post article on which Luciano's piece linked to). Moreover, atheism in practice and experience is often quite anti-religion—really, anti-religious-privilege: it's not just convincing people that it's okay to give up belief in a god they were probably forced to believe in as a kid, it's more about convincing people that churches are not the Last Bastion of Social Welfare and Moral Values in their communities.

On the other hand, there are people who try to emotionally blackmail every atheist into jumping on board with the "social justice agenda," and while they're perfectly valid in wanting more support, their tactics are just stupid. Not everyone is willing or able to volunteer for charity.


The first run-in was in a skeptics' meetup group on Facebook, with respect to a Skepchick blog post on the above-mentioned spat: Decent Human Beings Owe Our Social Justice Agenda Everything. The headline is approaching the Platonic ideal of trollsy clickbait—excellent buzzword-to-emotional-blackmail ratio—and the content itself is heavy on the condescension of one who simply cannot be proven wrong. But I was more concerned about what the Facebook user posted as an addendum to the link:
Sometimes people ask why we as skeptics or as atheists also emphasize social justice issues. This article does a good job of addressing that question.

It's true that a person can be a skeptic or an atheist without sharing progressive or pro-social values such as feminism, anti-racism, etc., but it's also the case that we're under no obligation to identify, associate, or ally with people who don't share our values just because they happen to be skeptics or atheists.

I care about promoting skepticism and science as a way of reducing the harm of false beliefs for everyone, not just as a way of getting the benefits of more accurate beliefs for myself. This [...] group has always been a place for like-minded science enthusiasts to socialize, but I think one key to the group's success is that our like-mindedness extends beyond our shared knowledge about pseudoscience and logical fallacies, and includes humanist values such as equality, justice, and fairness. If that excludes or annoys some skeptics and atheists who don't share those values, I'm okay with that.
This struck me as potentially problematic, because it's trivially true that even people who share humanist values might disagree on political means for realizing those values in society. So I was worried that this was an admission of a sort of "shun the nonbeliever" policy, and voiced that concern. He responded with this:
I'm not saying there's a black-or-white distinction or litmus test, but I know that some people who initially disagreed with some of our progressive views later came around to agree with us after discussing them, while others tried and failed to make effective counterarguments, and eventually left the group. We don't have a purity test for membership here, though.
And that's fine. There's still the possibility that "others tried and failed" could mean "others had criticisms but were browbeaten until they left" but that's a judgment that I can't pass, having not met up with anyone from the group in public.

Then another group member challenged my motives in asking the question, insinuating that I really meant to ask something else. I tried to convey my seemingly-trivial thought—that moral philosophy is sufficiently non-obvious that even reasonable people can disagree without one being a moral asshole—but he decided that I just hadn't read enough philosophy:

For additional context, he recommended that I read Plato, John Stuart Mill, and John Rawls by way of background material. As it turns out, and as I had said in the fist post of that screenshot, I read Michael Sandel's Justice: What's the Right Thing To Do? which provides and excellent primer on the Greeks, Mill, and Rawls, and I don't know what a "pre-Socratic" position is. It just seemed really uncharitable.

Then he blocked me, because there's no better way to demonstrate one's intellectual superiority than flouncing, especially when flouncing from an argument one started oneself. Moral of the story: an atheist with a bachelor's degree in philosophy is a very dangerous beast.


The second time was me getting sucked into a Twitter argument against @SecularOutpost, whence this selectively-edited Storify story in which user @toxicpath doesn't understand jokey metaphorical language. In case anyone was concerned, I wasn't actually side-eying my computer screen, and my eye was nowhere near ready to pop out.
Hey look! That's me!
Here @toxicpath reveals his agenda, which is 100% not aimed at the truth, but at politics and "winning." If this was Reddit, he'd be all about pwning fundies. An agenda that centralizes the presupposition that all theists are bullshitting—that is, making statements with no regard or care for the truth of those statements—denies the agency of theists who are genuinely concerned about the truth. Of course, one hopes that this concern for what's really true will lead them away from theism, but that's a long road.

It also creates needless tension and fractiousness on political issues. For example, if there is a Biblical precedent for some welfare program, I'm not going to fight about it if the program is sound. And obviously that means it has other, non-Biblical reasons for being a good policy.

But what did @SecularOutpost get on about? Simply put, it's that if Theism (as a philosophical proposition) includes the detail that "God would desire to create conscious creatures," then the fact that conscious creatures exist (that'd be us!) is some evidence for Theism. (I'm capitalizing "Theism" for the purposes of this post; I have perhaps a clearer distinction saved for later.) Naturalism (the metaphysical position that there is no "supernatural" reality, it's just the universe and its natural laws) does not necessarily imply that consciousness will arise in anything. (Indeed, the seeming uniformity of natural laws together with the seeming rarity of conscious creatures in our universe would imply that consciousness is highly unlikely on Naturalism.)

For the wonks out there: When I say "x is evidence for a hypothesis H," I mean that the existence of observation x increases the likelihood that H accurately describes reality. Given that "conscious creatures exist" is logically baked in to that particular formulation of Theism, Pr(conscious creatures | Theism) = 1 whereas Pr(conscious creatures | Naturalism) ≤ 1, in fact probably strictly less.

It's about as trivial as saying "the fact that the sky kinda looks like a dome is evidence for the hypothesis that the sky is literally a glass dome"—if the sky didn't look like a dome, then the Glass-Dome-Sky hypothesis would be even more unlikely than it already is a priori. And that's where @toxicpath and his fellow too-political atheist Twitterers went astray: every hypothesis has a prior probability, that is, how likely you think it is before any additional evidence comes your way. This probability then gets smacked around by observations in accordance with Bayes' theorem. We do this naturally quite often: start with an assumption based on your prior experience and expectations, then update based on new observations. Human brains aren't great at Bayesian epistemology, but it's good to try.

For a basic formulation of Theism—there exists a supernatural agent that can intervene in the natural world by temporarily suspending the known laws of physics—the prior probability is, well, exceedingly small. Even if you start at a modest or high likelihood of this Theism being true, you run into lots of apparent contradictory observations in the real world that demand apologetics or special pleading (this Being is special, it's the only thing that can intervene in this way, etc. etc.). Special pleading should be considered a heavy tax on the likelihood of a proposition. And note that this Theism doesn't include a specific plan, chosen people, interventions, morality, etc. etc. all of which would heavily tax the likelihood of the claim.

Personally I have several very strong reasons for not buying into religion, that go beyond mere epistemological stuff—though I set the likelihood of (e.g.) Christian Theism at epsilon. But that's for a later post.


The common thread here, as I see it, was a refusal by both parties that weren't me (natch) to engage in a little principle of charity—in the first case, the guy assumed I was like any number of previous posters who had been disingenuous, and called me out for something I (thought I) wasn't; in the second case, the guy seemed to operate under the definition "evidence for hypothesis H == reason to believe H" which I thought was needlessly political, but moreover kept dismissing these sorts of thought experiments as "fantasy." As if that would make us change our minds!

@toxicpath also made some rather interesting philosophical assertions, like:
"Know for sure" even! Of course, I do think that consciousness can arise perfectly naturally—in fact, that consciousness itself is nothing else but a natural process, however complex and beautiful—but it doesn't really help to claim certainty.

It all comes down to something my friend Caitlyn was fond of saying: "Atheism isn't codeword for smart." Matt Dillahunty of The Atheist Experience calls atheism "Answering the easiest question in the universe." And yet, because of the vast majority of people out there who believe in some higher power, atheists tend to think very highly of their intellectual powers. These mantras serve as helpful correctives: Atheism doesn't mean you're smart. Skepticism doesn't mean you're smart. Rationalism doesn't mean you're smart. Being smart doesn't mean you're more likely to be right—in fact, there might be a slight bias towards the negative, since smart people are better at rationalizing motivated beliefs.

I don't even claim to be an exemplar of good discourse in either of these, though of course I'd like to believe that I did a good job. I just want to share my astonishment that even metaphysics and metaethics can be politicized.

17 October 2014

Fiction Friday - 17 October 2014

I've written some fiction stuff that might still be worth reading, but I don't consider it finished because not many people have read it at all. So I might as well keep up my post schedule and devote Fridays to publishing poems, excerpts, or serializations that I've written. Comments and critiques are welcome, or just ignore me on Fridays.

The Black Sorcerer of Doom's Barrow, pt. 1

The seer spoke:

This is the tale of Tyr Haefest and the Black Sorcerer of Doom's Barrow. Know it, traveler, and know it well.

Tyr was a man of broad chest and mighty thews, whose name was known from the chill wall of ice in the farthest North to the sun-kissed dreaming seas to the South. A demon-slayer was he, they said. A vanquisher of the agents of Chaos and the Outer Dark, they said. A true champion, they said.

On his wide-ranging journeys he never declined to aid even the lowliest peasantry, if some evil threatened them. He wandered according to the will of the Light Immaculate, and feared no evil, for no evil could long stand before this bronze-skinned warrior from the Empyrean Highlands. But one day word reached his ears of a great servant of the Crawling Chaos, a black-robed and hoary sorcerer who set the gibbering Squamous One high in his counsel. Through his wickedness, the countryside for miles around had darkened and withered. Crops grew sickly and rotted on the vine, if they grew at all. Maggots and flies, rats and carrion-crows, such vermin became the lords of this blighted and sorrowful land. And the people suffered. Those who stayed found lesions and boils on their skin, and their skin grew ashen and gray. Their hair thinned or turned bone-white. Their children sickened and some died. The dead began to stir unquietly in their graves, and some clawed their way to the surface, hungering for living flesh. Smoky clouds obscured the sun, which now resembled a jaundiced and rheumy eye, as corpses were burnt in great heaps to ward off the unclean and restless dead. Many villagers fled for the safety of sunnier lands, where goodness still held back the forces of Chaos. None dared to challenge the hideous shaman who lived in the ruined sepulcher called Doom's Barrow, for as they said, that place was fouler than all the Six Hells combined.

And so Tyr Haefest felt a chill rattle his spine as he rode into the village of Drummond's Fen...

The village seemed almost deserted when Tyr arrived. He only knew the villagers' presence when a few peeked out their windows, only to quickly dart away like furtive rats or thieves in the night. The hero called out a great Halloo! but it was long before anyone dared meet him in the village green. Nothing in the village, Tyr saw, was “green” any more. The buildings were all run down, their thatched roofs falling in. The people were all weary beyond their years, their faces lined and aged as if they were twice their true age. There were no children among them.

“Why have thee come, stranger?” The oldest man asked. He had been a the head of the group that greeted Tyr, and the first to clasp the hero's hand in welcome. But he also wore suspicion on his brow like a regal crown, and his eyes said Stay away, traveler, there is no happy hearth in this place.

“I see that this land is plagued,” Tyr replied, his deep voice rolling forth like thunder. “And I intend to cure it of that plague.” Some of the villagers stepped back without thinking, for the village had not heard such vigor and courage in a voice for a very long time.

“Thy spirit is well met,” the elder said. “But the Black Sorcerer of Doom's Barrow is not a one to abide questing heroes. His wrath, should he meet thee, would be swift and terrible. If thee value life, or even if thee want a quick and noble death, do not challenge him; his dominance over this land is all but complete. Nay, do not try to lend me a comforting hand, for he has taken my daughter, my only joy left in the world. She is dead, by his hand; and I can only weep for the fate of this land and all who live in it.”

“Then why do ye stay?”

“Because we have nowhere else to go.”

Tyr spent the next three days among the villagers of Drummond's Fen, talking with them, breaking bread with them, and learning more about the Black Sorcerer and his malignant ways. Each day, Barrec the village elder begged Tyr to leave, to flee the village and its surroundings, to never return to this cursed place. But Tyr would not hear of it, and finally, on the evening of the third day, the village elder relented.

“If thee must throw thy life away, at least do not go unprepared,” said he. “The Black Sorcerer is a master of trickery, and he will beguile your mind and ensnare your thoughts as easily as a spider snares the fly. Take this charm; may it shield your eyes and your mind from such evil hexes.” And he gave it to Tyr, who stuffed it in his belt pouch without hardly looking at it.

“I thank ye, good elder,” the hero said. “But I have challenged many a fell creature, and never have I needed the aid of unnatural things. Mayhap I will defeat this Sorcerer just the same.” But he still kept the charm in his belt pouch, for fear that the elder's words would ring true in the end.

As the night sky cloaked the village like ebon fabric, Tyr prayed to the Light Immaculate for guidance and a blessing to ward off the ancient evil that had found its ally in the Black Sorcerer.

“Blessed Light, Dawn of Creation,” he prayed. “Never have I wished for your blessing more than this night, for I fear terribly that the village elder speaks true, and that this Black Sorcerer will prove to be my unmaking. Send me a blessing, that I might defeat him and restore your Light to this dusky land.”
Tyr's prayers did not go in vain. The Light's blessing greeted him as the sun rose bleak and gangrenous over the distant hills.

“Awake, champion, awake!” A tiny voice sang in his ear. He opened his eyes and saw a sparrow staring back at him. Tyr heaved a great sigh and rolled his eyes toward the heavens.

“I thank ye, O Light of Ages, for this wond'rous gift,” he said, but secretly he doubted. How would a tiny bird aid him against a fearsome sorcerer? Still, his courage never faltered, and in no time at all Tyr and the sparrow had set off for the fens and Doom's Barrow that lay beyond.

“Light, what manner o' witchery be this?” Tyr rumbled. This was the fourth time he had tried to cross the Dreaming Fen and assail the dreadful Barrow itself, but on every attempt a curious fog had come up. He had stumbled out of the fog each time and each time had ended up at the far edge of the fen, no closer to the Barrow than when he first started.

“Have faith, o champion,” the sparrow trilled. “Take out the wooden charm the village elder gave thee, and the safe path through the fen shall reveal itself.”

“Would ye bet any tail feathers on it, wee birdie?” The wandering hero snorted. His life was devoted to slaying magic, not using it. Still, if it took one lesser evil to put down a much greater one — and in Tyr's mind, right now there was no greater evil than that which emanated from the forbidding Barrow across the marshes — then he would have to use the dusty trinket the tottering old man had given him.

With tender care he withdrew the charm from his belt pouch. It was a basically a hoop, a single sapling curved back on itself, with colored string crisscrossing the inside like a mangled spider-web. Some curious metal and wooden shapes hung off the bottom, and strange symbols were carved in them.

“A dream catcher,” the bird sang. “The mists that choke the fen are the condensed dreams of the villagers, their nightmares of the Barrow made real. The dream-catcher will stave off the misty phantasms and shew thee the true path.”

“But the villagers had this all along,” said he. “Why didn't they use it themselves?”

“Because none were as brave or as strong as thee,” the bird replied. “Come! I will take the dream catcher and lead you onward.” And with that, it plucked the charm from Tyr's hand and flew off into the mist.

Cursing, the hero followed, and soon was surprised; the mists parted before the bird and the charm as though they were a scythe cutting through a field of wheat. In no time at all, the fen lay dreaming behind them, and Tyr stood before the terrible gate to Doom's Barrow.

Author's Note: I'm trying to be a bit archaic or pulpy-sounding with this narration. Something like Robert E. Howard's Conan or Solomon Kane stories. I want it to be slightly ridiculous, but not distractingly so.

16 October 2014

Diagnosis of an overwhelming fear, pt. 2

In my previous post I wondered about the common feminist narrative of an overwhelming fear: that women face so many threats and imminent dangers that it's mentally exhausting just to get through the day.

Rather than diagnose that directly (because politics is war and arguments are soldiers) I want to examine another case of overwhelming fear: that of white male reactionaries. Why? Well, because I'm going to give a presentation on neoreaction later this month, but also because this is prima facie a "safer" discussion topic.

The last section of Nick Land's summary of neoreaction (also known as NRx or the "Dark Enlightenment") includes a "multi-part subdigression into racial terror," and attempts to explain the deeper motivations behind stuff like John Derbyshire (formerly of National Review) giving his son "the Talk" about basically avoiding black people unless a few prove themselves sufficiently safe to befriend. For the record, here's part of what Derbyshire had to say in that piece, which he wrote for the far-right Taki's Magazine:
(10a) Avoid concentrations of blacks not all known to you personally.
(10b) Stay out of heavily black neighborhoods.
(10c) If planning a trip to a beach or amusement park at some date, find out whether it is likely to be swamped with blacks on that date (neglect of that one got me the closest I have ever gotten to death by gunshot).
(10d) Do not attend events likely to draw a lot of blacks.
(10e) If you are at some public event at which the number of blacks suddenly swells, leave as quickly as possible.
(10f) Do not settle in a district or municipality run by black politicians.
(10g) Before voting for a black politician, scrutinize his/her character much more carefully than you would a white.
(10h) Do not act the Good Samaritan to blacks in apparent distress, e.g., on the highway.
(10i) If accosted by a strange black in the street, smile and say something polite but keep moving.
It beggars belief to anyone even mildly acquainted with liberal values, but that's precisely the neoreactionary's point: that there exists a claustrophobic meme complex of "progressivism" which meets any challenge with overwhelming moral outrage.

In an interview with Gawker, Derbyshire laid out in a less bulleted-list form the narrative of white man's fear:
My own sense of the thing is that underneath the happy talk, underneath the dogged adherence to failed ideas and dead theories, underneath the shrieking and anathematizing at people like me, there is a deep and cold despair. In our innermost hearts, we don’t believe racial harmony can be attained. Hence the trend to separation. We just want to get on with our lives away from each other. Yet for a moralistic, optimistic people like Americans, this despair is unbearable. It’s pushed away somewhere we don’t have to think about it. When someone forces us to think about it, we react with fury. That little boy in the Andersen story about the Emperor’s new clothes? The ending would be more true to life if he had been lynched by a howling mob of outraged citizens.
Meanwhile, Nick Land and the self-identifying neoreactionaries lament the failure of civilization that has created the urban hellscapes that are anathema to white folk and something something basic human decency:
In much of the Western world, in stark contrast, barbarism has been normalized. It is considered simply obvious that cities have ‘bad areas’ that are not merely impoverished, but lethally menacing to outsiders and residents alike. Visitors are warned to stay away, whilst locals do their best to transform their homes into fortresses, avoid venturing onto the streets after dark, and – especially if young and male — turn to criminal gangs for protection, which further degrades the security of everybody else. Predators control public space, parks are death traps, aggressive menace is celebrated as ‘attitude’, property acquisition is for mugs (or muggers), educational aspiration is ridiculed, and non-criminal business activity is despised as a violation of cultural norms. Every significant mechanism of socio-cultural pressure, from interpreted heritage and peer influences to political rhetoric and economic incentives, is aligned to the deepening of complacent depravity and the ruthless extirpation of every impulse to self-improvement. Quite clearly, these are places where civilization has fundamentally collapsed, and a society that includes them has to some substantial extent failed.
The forecast is bleak; and according to at least one Gallup poll, the neoreactionaries may be on to something. (Note also that it wouldn't be so hard to transmute Land's quote to one about, say, rape culture, without too much word-swapping, and be not too far off from the kind of #YesAllWomen-type fear narrative from part 1. This is surprising—one would expect lefty feminists and hard-right neoreactionaries to disagree about everything—and should give us pause.)

We're at the point where 83% of non-Hispanic white people and 60% of black people say that differences in socioeconomic attainment between blacks and whites were most likely do to something else other than discrimination. Still, we should note that "something else" is a very big space of possibility; I tend to think that systemic differences are by now more likely to be the structural "fallout" from decades of overt and active discrimination in law, but the individual experience may well be dominated by petty, individualized discrimination (cf. the famous series of studies comparing otherwise-equal resumes or housing applications).

And yet, this part of Land's NRx summary is disturbing partially because it contains some not-obviously-false observations about cultural tendencies:
Question: What is America’s race problem?

Answer-1: Black people.

Answer-2: White people.
The combined popularity of these options is significantly expanded, most probably to encompass a large majority of all Americans, when is taken to include those who assume that one of these two answers dominates the thinking of the other side. Between them, the propositions “The problem would be over if we could just rid ourselves of black hoodlums / white racists” and / or “They think we’re all hoodlums / racists and want to get rid of us” consume an impressive proportion of the political spectrum, establishing a solid foundation of reciprocal terror and aversion.


Not that these ‘sides’ are racial (except in black or white tribal-nationalist fantasy). For crude stereotypes, it is far more useful to turn to the principal political dimension, and its categories of ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ in the contemporary, American sense. To identify America’s race problem with white racism is the stereotypical liberal position, whilst identifying it with black social dysfunction is the exact conservative complement. Although these stances are formally symmetrical, it is their actual political asymmetry that charges the American race problem with its extraordinary historical dynamism and universal significance.

That American whites and blacks – considered crudely as statistical aggregates — co-exist in a relation of reciprocal fear and perceived victimization, is attested by the manifest patterns of urban development and navigation, school choice, gun ownership, policing and incarceration, and just about every other expression of revealed (as opposed to stated) preference that is related to voluntary social distribution and security. An objective balance of terror reigns, erased from visibility by complementary yet incompatible perspectives of victimological supremacism and denial. Yet between the liberal and conservative positions on race there is no balance whatsoever, but something closer to a rout.
These are the sort of observations that engender small, nagging anxiety in my mind. Not because they might point at true facts about the relative states of "black America" and "white America," but because they seem just true enough, even when investigated to a certain degree. Yes, I worry at a meta level because I'm just that weird.

My more general worry is that our civilization's tough social-political problems are coated in a blubbery layer of ostensible facts that just serve to confirm biases, and that just below that layer (which few ever drill down to, because confirmation bias is a great and terrible power) are surprising facts that explode lots of preconceptions. Facts that, I might hopefully add, are happier endings than a death spiral of reciprocal terror such as neoreactionaries fear.

It's analogous to the history joke that "In elementary school you learn that the American Civil War was about slavery; in high school you learn that it was about states' rights; in college you learn it was actually about slavery." Or the not-actually-formalized joke that college anthropology departments spend most of their time disabusing students of the too-easy conclusions they reached in ANTH101 Introduction to Cultural Anthropology. That is, what if some necessary facts are simply buried too deep in the literature to make it out to the general person on the street? I don't think there's any too-simplistic gloss of, say, Hilbert space, that I could explain to a middle-class, middle-aged person who probably forgot or else deep-cached 80% of their college algebra course.

The neoreactionaries take seriously the fears and anxieties of so-called bitter clingers: a fear that Real America (or civilization, for the ecumenical) is collapsing around them, that their quality of life will suddenly take a sharp nose-dive with no end in sight. That the Wrong Sorts of people are to blame, and that there's an unbridgeable gap between the fearful and the Wrong Sorts. Not just wrong, but alien. The modern situation is against Nature in a very basic, Great Chain of Being sort of way.

Because Land doesn't cite any actual studies, one might be tempted to dismiss his narrative as pure fantasy. But there are studies; for example, in mock trials with varying narratives of sexual assault, it has been found that reactionary-type women are the most likely to acquit a male defendant when the female plaintiff was said to have offered only "token resistance." Why is this? The Yale Law School's Cultural Cognition Project explains:
Roy Black famously secured an acquittal for William Kennedy Smith through his adroit selection of a female juror who met this profile and who ended up playing a key role in steering the jury to a not guilty verdict in her role as jury foreperson.

Experienced defense lawyers know that when the college football payer is on trial for date rape, the ideal juror isn’t Kobe Bryant; it’s Anita Bryant.

Women with these hierarchical outlooks have played a major role in political opposition to rape-law reform too.

These are Todd Akin’s constituents, “women who think that they have in some ways become less liberated in recent decades, not more; who think that easy abortion, easy birth control and a tawdry popular culture have degraded their stature, not elevated it.” Because of the egalitarian meanings rape reform conveys, they see it as part and parcel of an assault on the cultural norms that underwrite their status.
And we liberals, we progressives? We scoff and dismiss these fears as the phantasms of doddering old-timers on their way out, fundamentalist throwbacks who think everyone else catching up means they're losing ground. But why should we dismiss the fear? Why should we minimize and not try to diagnose? When did we liberals, we progressives, decide that some people are just beyond help? Especially when it's sort of expected that we uncritically accept the lived experiences of certain (the neoreactionary would call them "Cathedral-approved") identities?

Sometimes it's because we like that certain groups are afraid. Ezra Klein, of all people, wrote that the recent "Yes Means Yes" sex law passed in California helps women by making men afraid. Ffear in the Other Camp is taken as a sign that Our Side is winning, because arguments are soldiers, and no concessions may be made to the enemy. There are no Geneva Conventions for politics.

I say this is wrong, and not just wrong, illiberal. Fear is the currency and reaction fuel (ha) of reactionaries. The promise of liberalism is to free ourselves from fear; why should we try to instill fear in others? And so we should try to dispel and banish fear. All the better if the fear turns out to be mistaken (as the reactionaries' seems mostly to be), but we should take fear seriously.