- Identity Politics – Left, right, and the making of Trump’s America
- Political Correctness – The tyranny of “PC culture” is real — and a threat to liberal society
- Big Government – Slouching toward illiberalism
- Campus Censorship – The purpose of higher education and why and how it is censored
- Free Speech in a Global Context – Dangerously illiberal trends in liberal societies
- Religious Liberty – The right to religious belief and expression is of first importance to a free society
- Education – School choice both manifests and strengthens the liberal order
James Kunstler’s 2005 book “The Long Emergency” made a huge impression on me when I read it in 2006. In fact, it was one of the reasons I found myself pursuing a career in cloud computing in 2007. Partly thanks to this book and a former boss from British Telekom, my business partner and I were convinced that peak oil and climate change would create a huge demand for energy efficient, carbon neutral compute resources, and cloud computing was the future.
The Long Emergency was primarily concerned with America’s oil addiction and ill-preparedness for what looked at the time to be the coming energy (oil) shock, but it also examined other threats to civilization:
- Climate Change
- Infectious diseases (microbial resistance)
- Water scarcity
- Habitat destruction
- Economic instability
- Political extremism
Every one of those is still an enormous threat.
A new book by national security veteran Richard Clarke and R.P Eddy called “Warnings: Finding Cassandras to Stop Catastrophes” updates The Long Emergency with some new features of the threat landscape.
The book starts off by asking how we can reliably spot Cassandras – people who correctly predict disasters but who were not heeded – so that we can prevent future disasters.
They examine recent disasters – like 9/11, the Challenger space shuttle disaster and Hurricane Katrina, then examine the people who predicted these events, looking or patterns. They come up with some stable characteristics that allow us to score people on their Cassandra Quotient.
The second part of the book looks at current threats, and their doomsayers, to see if any have a high Cassandra Quotient and thus should be heeded.
The threats are:
- Artificial Intelligence
- Pandemic Disease
- Sea-Level Rise
- Nuclear Ice Age
- The Internet of Everything
- Meteor Strike
- Gene Editing (CRISPR)
The bad news is that they all have high Cassandra Quotients and the scenarios in the book are plausible, science-backed and terrifying.
Artificial Intelligence as a threat hs been on my radar for a year or so thanks to Elon Musk, Bill Gates, Stephen Hawkins and Sam Harris warning of the risks of intelligent machines that can design and build ever moire intelligent machines.
Pandemic Disease has worried me since reading The Long Emergency, but I thought there had been better global awareness, especially since the world took the 2011 flu scare seriously, and Ebola and Zika. Unfortunately, we are – as a planet – woefully ill-prepared for a global pandemic. A high fatality airborne flu could kill billions.
Sea-Level Rise genuinely surprised me, especially since the Cassandra in question – James Hansen – predicted the current melting and ice shelf break-offs we see in the Arctic today…30 years ago. I even googled how high my home is above sea level after being convinced we could see 7m rises within my lifetime.
As a child of the 70’s and 80’s, nuclear horror is deeply embedded in my psyche. But I thought the risk of a Nuclear Ice Age was a pretty low risk. It turns out you do not need a large-scale nuclear exchange between the US and Russia to cause global climate chaos. A limited exchange between India and Pakistan could be sufficient to kill billions though global starvation. I was also surprised to learn that Pakistan moves its nuclear arsenal around to thwart attacks my Indian commandos in the event of a war. This raises the risk of terrorists intercepting on of these weapons on the move, and using it for nuclear terrorism.
The book does a good job of examining the incredible fragility of out interconnected IT systems in the chapter on The Internet of Everything. As an IT professional I know the reality of how fragile these systems are and we are right to be scared of dire consequences of a serious cyber war.
I do not really think about Meteor Strikes, as there is little we can do about them and they are now part of popular culture.
The final worry in the book is about Gene Editing, especially CRISPR. CRISP has absolutely marvelous potential, but it also has many people worried. Daniel Saurez even has a new book on the topic called “Change Agent“. CRISPR is could be the mother of all second order effects. Take “off target events” for example:
Another serious concern arises from what are known as off-target events. After its discovery, researchers found that the CRISPR/Cas9 complex sometimes bonds to and cuts the target DNA at unintended locations. Particularly when dealing with human cells, they found that sometimes as many as five nucleotides were mismatched between the guide and target DNA. What might the consequences be if a DNA segment is improperly cut and put back together? What sorts of effects could this cause, both immediately and further down the road for heritable traits? Experimenting with plants or mouse bacteria in a controlled laboratory environment is one thing, but what is the acceptable level of error if and when researchers begin experimenting with a tool that cuts up a person’s DNA? If an error is in fact made, is there any potential way to fix the mistake?
So we have planet-scale problems, ingenious solutions. Instead of feeling paralysis or resignation we should accept Peter Thiel’s challenge to find the big breakthroughs, 0 to 1 intensive progress:
Progress comes in two flavors: horizontal/extensive and vertical/intensive. Horizontal or extensive progress basically means copying things that work. In one word, it means simply “globalization.” Consider what China will be like in 50 years. The safe bet is it will be a lot like the United States is now. Cities will be copied, cars will be copied, and rail systems will be copied. Maybe some steps will be skipped. But it’s copying all the same.
Vertical or intensive progress, by contrast, means doing new things. The single word for this is “technology.” Intensive progress involves going from 0 to 1 (not simply the 1 to n of globalization). We see much of our vertical progress come from places like California, and specifically Silicon Valley. But there is every reason to question whether we have enough of it. Indeed, most people seem to focus almost entirely on globalization instead of technology; speaking of “developed” versus “developing nations” is implicitly bearish about technology because it implies some convergence to the “developed” status quo. As a society, we seem to believe in a sort of technological end of history, almost by default.
It’s worth noting that globalization and technology do have some interplay; we shouldn’t falsely dichotomize them. Consider resource constraints as a 1 to n subproblem. Maybe not everyone can have a car because that would be environmentally catastrophic. If 1 to n is so blocked, only 0 to 1 solutions can help. Technological development is thus crucially important, even if all we really care about is globalization.
…Maybe we focus so much on going from 1 to n because that’s easier to do. There’s little doubt that going from 0 to 1 is qualitatively different, and almost always harder, than copying something n times. And even trying to achieve vertical, 0 to 1 progress presents the challenge of exceptionalism; any founder or inventor doing something new must wonder: am I sane? Or am I crazy?
From Blake Masters notes
“For employees (campaign staff), there is an opportunity for live-action roleplaying (LARPing) disruption instead of actually taking the existential risks of disrupting. LARPing disruption is fun..Don’t mistake LARPing disruption for the real thing.” Venkatesh Rao on “Software Adoption Bullshit” via Ribbonfarm newsletter
“The High Modernists claimed to be about figuring out the most efficient and high-tech way of doing things, but most of them knew little relevant math or science and were basically just LARPing being rational by placing things in evenly-spaced rectangular grids.” Review of “Seeing Like A State” by Scott Alexander
I first internalized the meaning of this phrase when I saw it in the Ribbonfarm newsletter above.
LARPing suddenly crystallized and gave a name to a phenomenon I have witnessed my whole life: people playing roles as though they were in a solipsistic theater, rather than living their roles.
LARPing is common amongst the wealthy, where dilettantism is endemic. I know of entire companies that exist merely to provide a realistic LARPing set for someone to play CEO / Founder, with sometimes hundreds of employees cast as actors in their personal drama.
It reminds me of the old vituperative “poseur“, but LARPing is more collaborative. You need a cast to play along. It is group or collective posing.
Great essay from Venkatesh Rao in his Breaking Smart newsletter. Here are the first few paragraphs, the rest is at the link:
2) There is an enormous itch we all seem to share, to act in the world some way. To do things that are consequential on a stage that is larger than that of our private lives.
3/ To do what philosopher Hannah Arendt called appear in public. This does not mean narcissistically inserting cough Trump cough your life story into the narrative of the world via long trolls.
4/ Instead, it means seeking to live fully in a way voluntarily recognized as fully human by others. Whether they agree or disagree with you, they acknowledge how you have enriched the human condition for all.
5/ The side-effect of Arendtian action is entering history books, but that is not its intent. The intent is to live a fully human life, in the company of a plurality of other humans, who welcome your presence.
6/ A mode of being human that transcends a life lived in private, with family, or within the closed cognitive context of a particular tribe. A mode that history has traditionally reserved for royalty.
7/ A mode of being that requires the presence of other fully human individuals around us, who also act. and act differently from you, your family, and your various tribes, in ways you cannot control.
8/ Arendtian action is a way of creating a full life for yourself that goes beyond contemplation and integrates behaviors all the way from intimate and private contexts to the worldly public stage.
9/ Arendtian action is action that allows you to feel fully human. It is not the off-by-yourself fuck-you-money action of self-isolation. It demands cultivation and use of voice. Arendtian action subsumes both mute action and empty speech.”
Interesting analysis arguing that global jihadism is a youth movement, and European jihadis are the latest in a long tradition of violent nihilists.
The Nation has a very good profile of Karl Polanyi, the mid-20th century left-wing Austro-Hungarian sociologist and economic historian.
“…[Polanyi] had been a violent critic of the gold standard—which, like the euro, restricted a nation’s capacity to inflate or deflate its currency based on the needs of its citizens. In his classic of economic history published in 1945, The Great Transformation, Polanyi showed how the gold standard made it impossible for nations to manage their own economies and how it often encouraged the retraction of welfare. It also empowered a small group of financial elites over the rest of society. Given their access to credit, bankers—rather than politicians and civil-society activists—became the country’s most powerful decision-makers. “Under the gold standard,” Polanyi complained, “the leaders of the financial market” find themselves “in the position to obstruct any domestic move in the economic sphere which [they happen] to dislike.”
…But Polanyi’s Great Transformation was not all dark prophecy; it also offered us some insight into how societies rebelled against this marketization of social life. The free-market economy, Polanyi argued, not only empowered financial elites and commodified social goods; it also created a countermovement in which bodies of people emerged, demanding that the state protect them from the market.”
Polyani’s observation that free-market economies tend to oligarchy but they also generate their own resistance, came to mind whilst listening to a recent episode of Open Source with Christopher Lydon. Lydon was interviewing Yale historian Timothy Snyder about his new book “On Tyranny, Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century” (here is the originating Facebook post).
Synder’s entire book is an historian’s warning that Trump represents a serious threat to democracy, with 20 idea about how to prevent a Trump presidency devolving into a Caesarian tyranny. Snyder believes Trump’s early actions are a coherent stress test of the democratic institutions. He is feeling the edges of his power, taking stock of the strengths of his opposition. Snyder believes only civic resistance can deflect the Trumpist power grab.
The book is full of gems. I learned that the founding fathers – heeding Plato – never expected democracy to last as long as it did.
It brings to mind a wonderful passage from The Lessons of History by Will and Ariel Durant. Much of this is eerily familiar:
“Plato’s reduction of political evolution to a sequence of monarchy, aristocracy, democracy, and dictatorship found another illustration in the history of Rome. During the third and second centuries before Christ a Roman oligarchy organized a foreign policy and a disciplined army, and conquered and exploited the Mediterranean world. The wealth so won was absorbed by the patricians, and the commerce so developed raised to luxurious opulence the upper middle class. Conquered Greeks, Orientals, and Africans were brought to Italy to serve as slaves on the latifundia; the native farmers, displaced from the soil, joined the restless, breeding proletariat in the cities, to enjoy the monthly dole of grain that Caius Gracchus had secured for the poor in 12 3 B.C. Generals and proconsuls returned from the provinces loaded with spoils for themselves and the ruling class; millionaires multiplied; mobile money replaced land as the source or instrument of political power; rival factions competed in the wholesale purchase of candidates and votes; in 53 B.C. one group of voters received ten million sesterces for its support. When money failed, murder was available: citizens who had voted the wrong way were in some instances beaten close to death and their houses were set on fire. Antiquity had never known so rich, so powerful, and so corrupt a government. The aristocrats engaged Pompey to maintain their ascendancy; the commoners cast in their lot with Caesar; ordeal of battle replaced the auctioning of victory; Caesar won, and established a popular dictatorship. Aristocrats killed him, but ended by accepting the dictatorship of his grandnephew and stepson Augustus (27 B.C.). Democracy ended, monarchy was restored; the Platonic wheel had come full turn.”
At one point Lydon asks,
“Are we sleepwalking still, is there something to be said for a riled up citizenry?”
Snyder replies in the affirmative, and observes that in the anti-Trump reactions he saw unprecedented speed (airport protests) but also numbers and intelligence (large scale, multi-partisan alliances in the Women’s March). He also talked about the role of lawyers, pointing out that in 1930’s Germany the legal profession acquiesced then enthusiastically collaborated with the Nazis, whereas the Trump era has the legal profession leading the fight in the form of lawyers helping travel ban victims or judges blocking executive orders.
This lends some evidence to my feeling that Trump, far from being the ultimate defeat for the American left, could herald their ultimate triumph.
Hear me out here.
Now the corruption – Russian interference, Oligarch money – and his lack of intellectual substance, disorganization and personality flaws will all be exposed.
The Trump effect is already damaging Populists in Europe. Trump may have helped in Wilder’s defeat in The Netherlands and he may well help sink Le Pen in France too. Merkel, despite domestic terror, is booming again in the polls.
I think the mood driving populism is still there. If Populism is a reaction to elites, globalism, industrial automation, immigration, cultural and political alienation, then we can expect it to intensify as the agonists are strengthening.
But the current right-wing populists are fairly or unfairly associate with the Populist Khan of Khans Donald Trump. As he flounders, he could take down the entire right-wing populist surge with him.
This leaves an opportunity for the the populist left, and within that opportunity there are also dangers.
Jordan B Peterson, Dave Rubin, Sam Harris and others argue very persuasively that contemporary leftists also have a decidedly authoritarian bent.
The grim mirror image of Trumpian tyranny we have the left’s Neo-Stalinist assault on free speech, SJWism, essentialist identity politics, obsession with race/gender/privilege, racism and anti-Western obscurantism.
Can the center reassert itself? Can a principled, moderate left emerge? Are we like 1930’s German’s, facing a choice between two violent revolutionary anti-democratic ideologies: Nazism and Communism.
dare we hope for something good to come out of all this, or is it going to be the perpetual power of nightmares?
If the left can evolve out of identity politics and rediscovers its principles, embrace true pluralism and welcome true diversity, then it could be facing a golden age. If the US Democratic party can transform itself from being the party of white urban elites and minorities into a party that also genuinely represents the interests of rural people, the white flyover citizenry, and the poor – regardless of provenance – then it could be a generational political force.
Today’s left are Orwellian Nationalists. They assume that “human beings can be classified like insects and that whole blocks of millions or tens of millions of people can be confidently labelled “good” or “bad.””
If it doubles down on PC, intersectionality and identity politics, it is doomed. Either it slips into leftist tyranny or dies with a whimper, on the scrap heap of ideas. The former entails bloodshed and civil war. The latter a triumph for Trump.
I hope a reformed New Left can emerge, recognizes the importance of individualism and embraces a principled politics of the 21st century based on science, reason and genuine democracy based on strong institutions.
Which will it be?
“All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.”
WB Yeats, “Easter, 1916”
“What rough beast, its hour come round at last, Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”
WB Yeats, “The Second Coming”
I noticed three articles this week on the theme of privilege and leftist ideology as religion.
One of my favorite public intellectuals, Jonathan Haidt, has a video in the Wall Street Journal (paywall)
Jonathan Haidt on the Cultural Roots of Campus Rage – “ An unorthodox professor explains the ‘new religion’ that drives the intolerance and violence at places like Middlebury and Berkeley.”
On Twitter, Peter Boghossian points out that he called this first, back in 2016:
The concepts of Original Sin and privilege are identical except that they operate in different moral universes. In familiar religions, Original Sin is something you’re born with. It’s something you can’t escape. It’s something you can’t really do anything about – except be ashamed. It’s something you should confess and try to cleanse yourself of. It’s something that requires forgiveness, atonement, penitence, and work. It’s something, if you take it to heart, for which you will browbeat others.
For many contemporary left-situated activists, privilege occupies the same role in a religion of contemporary identity politics. There is no greater sin than having been born an able-bodied, straight, white male who identifies as a man but isn’t deeply sorry for this utterly unintentional state of affairs.
Finally, “The last thing on ‘privilege’ you’ll ever need to read” is a book review of Phoebe Maltz Bovy’s “The Perils of "Privilege": Why Injustice Can’t Be Solved by Accusing Others of Advantage”.
Only one thing worries me about the cloud: It facilitates state control because Cloud Computing reverses the decentralization (distribution) of computer power that heralded the internet. I think I got this fear from Cory Doctorow and his “The coming war on general computing.”
Anyway, maybe it is just a phase. Distributed Computing may very well be making a comeback as we see the end of Cloud Computing.
“World War III will be a global information war with no division between civilian and military participation.” -Marshal McLuhan
“By “nationalism” I mean first of all the habit of assuming that human beings can be classified like insects and that whole blocks of millions or tens of millions of people can be confidently labelled “good” or “bad.” But secondly — and this is much more important — I mean the habit of identifying oneself with a single nation or other unit, placing it beyond good and evil and recognizing no other duty than that of advancing its interests. Nationalism is not to be confused with patriotism. Both words are normally used in so vague a way that any definition is liable to be challenged, but one must draw a distinction between them, since two different and even opposing ideas are involved. By “patriotism” I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people. Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally. Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality.”
The pool of acceptable hate groups has shrunk down to the dregs now: old white men. Not even hillbillies and Chavs are acceptably odious anymore. As a white middle-aged middle-class heterosexual cis-gendered able-bodied capitalist property-owning politically slightly-right-of-center male atheistic Westerner, I am a member of the most universally despised minority in history.
Get your insults in while we last. The mantle of victimhood cannot be withheld forever….