Many primitive societies believe that maleficent spirits cause all sorts of human misfortune that in the modern West we have learned to attribute to natural causes — cattle dying, crops failing, disease, drought, that sort of thing. A few societies have developed a more peculiar form of supernaturalism, in which evil spirits recede into the background and all misfortune is caused by the action of maleficent human sorcerers who must be found and rooted out to end the harm.
A society like that may be a grim, paranoid place with everyone constantly on the hunt for sorcerers — but a sorcerer can be punished or killed more easily than a spirit or a blind force of nature. Therein lies the perverse appeal of this sort of belief system, what I’ll call “sorcerism” — you may not be able to stop your cattle from dying, but at least you can find the bastard who did it and hurt him until you feel better. Maybe you can even prevent the next cattle-death. You are not powerless.
English needs, I think, a word for “beliefs which are motivated by the terror of being powerless against large threats”. I think I tripped over this in an odd place today, and it makes me wonder if our society may be talking itself into a belief system not essentially different from sorcerism.
Eric S. Raymond, “Heavy weather and bad juju”, Armed and Dangerous, 2011-02-03.
October 1, 2014
September 30, 2014
I have been living with someone from the Millennial generation for the last four years (he’s now 27) and sometimes I’m charmed and sometimes I’m exasperated by how him and his friends — as well as the Millennials I’ve met and interacted with both in person and in social media — deal with the world, and I’ve tweeted about my amusement and frustration under the banner “Generation Wuss” for a few years now. My huge generalities touch on their over-sensitivity, their insistence that they are right despite the overwhelming proof that suggests they are not, their lack of placing things within context, the overreacting, the passive-aggressive positivity, and, of course, all of this exacerbated by the meds they’ve been fed since childhood by over-protective “helicopter” parents mapping their every move. These are late-end Baby Boomers and Generation X parents who were now rebelling against their own rebelliousness because of the love they felt that they never got from their selfish narcissistic Boomer parents and who end up smothering their kids, inducing a kind of inadequate preparation in how to deal with the hardships of life and the real way the world works: people won’t like you, that person may not love you back, kids are really cruel, work sucks, it’s hard to be good at something, life is made up of failure and disappointment, you’re not talented, people suffer, people grow old, people die. And Generation Wuss responds by collapsing into sentimentality and creating victim narratives rather than acknowledging the realities of the world and grappling with them and processing them and then moving on, better prepared to navigate an often hostile or indifferent world that doesn’t care if you exist.
Brett Easton Ellis, “Generation Wuss”, Vanity Fair, 2014-09-26.
September 29, 2014
In the hotly contested election of 1828, supporters of John Quincy Adams called Andrew Jackson a “slave-trading, gambling, brawling murderer.” Mac McClelland, Ten Most Awesome
Presidential Mudslinging Moves Ever, Mother Jones, (October 31, 2008).11
Jackson’s supporters responded by accusing Adams of having premarital sex with his wife and playing the role of a pimp in securing a prostitute for Czar Alexander I. Id.
During Thomas Jefferson’s presidency, James T. Callender, a pamphleteer and “scandalmonger,”
alleged that Jefferson had fathered numerous children with his slave Sally Hemings.12
Callender’s allegations would feature prominently in the election of 1804, but it wasn’t until
nearly two centuries later that the allegations were substantially confirmed.13
More recently, we’ve had discussions of draft-dodging, Swift Boats, and lying about birthplaces14 — not to mention the assorted infidelities that are a political staple.
11. Available at http://www.motherjones.com/mojo/2008/10/ten-most-awesome-presidential-mudslinging-moves-ever.
12. Monticello.org, James Callender, http://www.monticello.org/site/research-and-collections/james-callender.
13. Monticello.org, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: A Brief Account, http://www.monticello.org/site/plantation-and-slavery/thomas-jefferson-and-sally-hemings-brief-account.
14. While President Obama isn’t from Kenya, he is a Keynesian — so you can see where the confusion arises.
Ilya Shapiro and P.J. O’Rourke, BRIEF OF AMICI CURIAE CATO INSTITUTE AND P.J. O’ROURKE IN SUPPORT OF PETITIONERS, Susan B. Anthony List v. Driehaus [PDF], 2014-02-28
September 28, 2014
It’s a perfect illustration of a major drawback of the modern egalitarian marriage: coordination failure. In a traditional household, paper towel acquisition was within the wifesphere. She monitored the stocks, arranged for any necessary purchases and put them away within a storage scheme of her own devising. No one had to discuss the distribution of responsibilities or quarrel about their execution. But egalitarian marriages split things up along the idiosyncratic preferences of each couple. That creates three problems that every couple must deal with: Negotiations, Overlaps and Gaps.
Let me make one thing clear: I am not writing a brief against egalitarian marriage. I am in one. Both of us work, often quite long hours. Both of us assume some household duties: I oversee the plant life (ineptly), buy groceries, cook, vacuum and clean out the roof gutters as necessary; my husband, who is much neater than I am, is in charge of storage, dishwashing, home electronics and the termination of any pests larger than an ant. Nor am I a Self-Hating Egalitarian; I think this is a splendid arrangement. But like everything else in life, it has drawbacks, and this one is worth noting.
Take the kitchen. I am in charge of kitchen equipment, cooking and organization. But my husband is in charge of dishwashing and storage. The result: We have a carefully thought-out scheme of What Goes Where that is completely intuitive — to me. He doesn’t know where the measuring spoons go, and half the time, I can’t find them.
We could fix this by carefully mapping out a scheme that both of us find intuitive. Unfortunately, we don’t have six weeks and a crack team of high-level diplomats to devote to the negotiations. Peter could also simply ask me where every single item goes every single time he does the dishes, but our yard is small and our basement is on a concrete slab, and I can’t figure out where I’d put the grave. So what if I haven’t seen my sifter in three months? It seems a small price to pay.
Megan McArdle, “How to Stop Money From Killing Your Marriage”, Bloomberg View, 2014-09-12.
September 27, 2014
In the present instance, going back to the liver-pill circular, I had the symptoms, beyond all mistake, the chief among them being “a general disinclination to work of any kind.”
What I suffer in that way no tongue can tell. From my earliest infancy I have been a martyr to it. As a boy, the disease hardly ever left me for a day. They did not know, then, that it was my liver. Medical science was in a far less advanced state than now, and they used to put it down to laziness.
“Why, you skulking little devil, you,” they would say, “get up and do something for your living, can’t you?” — not knowing, of course, that I was ill.
And they didn’t give me pills; they gave me clumps on the side of the head. And, strange as it may appear, those clumps on the head often cured me — for the time being. I have known one clump on the head have more effect upon my liver, and make me feel more anxious to go straight away then and there, and do what was wanted to be done, without further loss of time, than a whole box of pills does now.
You know, it often is so — those simple, old-fashioned remedies are sometimes more efficacious than all the dispensary stuff.
Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men in a Boat (to say nothing of the dog), 1889.
September 26, 2014
It is an attractive idea to bring back the traditional counties of England. It is also an attractive idea to dig up the body of the man who abolished them, Edward Heath, and stick his head on a pike, but that won’t happen either. The counties are just too small.
So if we are to have petty kingdoms, let them at least be kingdoms. Men have loved the Kingdom of Mercia. Men have died for the Kingdom of East Anglia — notably at the hands of men of Mercia, but there you go. Men of all the ancient nations of the Saxon have followed the greatest of the Kings of Wessex to glorious victory against the Vikings. Divide and conquer that, Eurocrats! Also it would serve the Vikings right for subjecting me to all those irritating pictorial instructions.
Natalie Solent, “Restore the Heptarchy!”, Samizdata, 2014-09-20.
September 25, 2014
The typical understanding of a useless degree is of a credential whose market value is close to zero. In that sense this isn’t quite economically useless. There is a market for people wielding this pseudo-intellectual nonsense. It’s not a real market admittedly but it’s a market nonetheless. There is, however, only a single market maker: The Government.
The job prospects go beyond employment directly by the state, they extend into the quasi-government sector, what is sometimes politely referred to as the wider public service. There is a whole eco-system of NGOs, quasi-governmental organizations and ad hoc committees that thrive upon the government teat. Since their work has no objective value, and the criteria for employment is vague at the best of times, hiring managers fall back upon a tried and true screening methodology: A piece of paper issued by a government backed institution.
So for those of you following along at home: A government financed body creates make work. In order to handle that made-up work new workers are hired. Those workers have certificates in make work from government financed educational bodies. This is the great circle of statist BS that spins around our the modern world without beginning or end. There is precious little justice in that.
Richard Anderson, “The Justice Makers”, Gods of the Copybook Headings, 2014-09-19.
September 24, 2014
People who were charged with a crime in England used to be told by the police that they did not have to say anything, but that anything they did say might be taken down and used as evidence against them. I think we should all be given this warning whenever we use a mobile telephone.
Theodore Dalrymple, “Nowhere to Hide”, Taki’s Magazine, 2014-02-23
September 23, 2014
September 22, 2014
Years ago, when I was at university, I asked one of the older professors of history what he thought about the changes in the student body over his career. This gentleman, a word entirely applicable to him, said that when he started teaching in the early 1960s he would flunk between a quarter and a third of his first year classes. Faster forward to the early 2000s and he rarely flunked a student. I jokingly asked him if that was because young people are smarter now than they were forty years earlier. He found my little joke rather too funny.
He confided in me that in the late 1960s the president of the university did the rounds. He explained that he was receiving pressure from the provincial government. Too many students were going off to university and then failing to graduate. The logical inference would have been that the high schools had either failed to prepare these students, or that the students were not academically capable or inclined. Political logic, however, is not like ordinary logic. It works by different rules. A government minister couldn’t admit that many public high schools just weren’t good enough, or that little Johnny was a bit daft. That would have contravened the egalitarian ethos of the age. So if the high schools couldn’t be fixed, they’d fix the universities instead.
Now by fix they didn’t mean improve. Nope. They meant dumb down. Now this was at one of the most prestigious universities in the land. You can well imagine that dumbing down at such a place was bad enough, dumbing down at less academically selective schools would be the equivalent of destroying virtually all academic rigour. This dumbing down also had the added advantage of filling in all those empty spaces left when the Baby Boomers graduated.
Richard Anderson, “The Shadow of Truth”, The Gods of the Copybook Headings, 2014-03-28
September 21, 2014
September 20, 2014
It always does seem to me that I am doing more work than I should do. It is not that I object to the work, mind you; I like work: it fascinates me. I can sit and look at it for hours. I love to keep it by me: the idea of getting rid of it nearly breaks my heart.
You cannot give me too much work; to accumulate work has almost become a passion with me: my study is so full of it now, that there is hardly an inch of room for any more. I shall have to throw out a wing soon.
And I am careful of my work, too. Why, some of the work that I have by me now has been in my possession for years and years, and there isn’t a finger-mark on it. I take a great pride in my work; I take it down now and then and dust it. No man keeps his work in a better state of preservation than I do.
But, though I crave for work, I still like to be fair. I do not ask for more than my proper share.
Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men in a Boat (to say nothing of the dog), 1889.
September 19, 2014
I recall, in the very early days of the personal computer, articles, in magazines like Personal Computer World, which expressed downright opposition to the idea of technological progress in general, and progress in personal computers in particular. There was apparently a market for such notions, in the very magazines that you would think would be most gung-ho about new technology and new computers. Maybe the general atmosphere of gung-ho-ness created a significant enough minority of malcontents that the editors felt they needed to nod regularly towards it. I guess it does make sense that the biggest grumbles about the hectic pace of technological progress would be heard right next to the places where it is happening most visibly.
Whatever the reasons were for such articles being in computer magazines, I distinctly remember their tone. I have recently, finally, got around to reading Virginia Postrel’s The Future and Its Enemies, and she clearly identifies the syndrome. The writers of these articles were scared of the future and wanted that future prevented, perhaps by law but mostly just by a sort of universal popular rejection of it, a universal desire to stop the world and to get off it. “Do we really need” (the words “we” and “need” cropped up in these PCW pieces again and again), faster central processors, more RAM, quicker printers, snazzier and bigger and sharper and more colourful screens, greater “user friendlinesss”, …? “Do we really need” this or that new programme that had been reported in the previous month’s issue? What significant and “real” (as opposed to frivolous and game-related) problems could there possibly be that demanded such super-powerful, super-fast, super-memorising and of course, at that time, super-expensive machines for their solution? Do we “really need” personal computers to develop, in short, in the way that they have developed, since these grumpy anti-computer-progress articles first started being published in computer progress magazines?
The usual arguments in favour of fast and powerful, and now mercifully far cheaper, computers concern the immensity of the gobs of information that can now be handled, quickly and powerfully, by machines like the ones that we have now, as opposed to what could be handled by the first wave of personal computers, which could manage a small spreadsheet or a short text file or a very primitive computer game, but very little else. And of course that is true. I can now shovel vast quantities of photographs (a particular enthusiasm of mine) hither and thither, processing the ones I feel inclined to process in ways that only Hollywood studios used to be able to do. I can make and view videos (although I mostly stick to viewing). And I can access and even myself add to that mighty cornucopia that is the internet. And so on. All true. I can remember when even the most primitive of photos would only appear on my screen after several minutes of patient or not-so-patient waiting. Videos? Dream on. Now, what a world of wonders we can all inhabit. In another quarter of a century, what wonders will there then be, all magicked in a flash into our brains and onto our desks, if we still have desks. The point is, better computers don’t just mean doing the same old things a bit faster; they mean being able to do entirely new things as well, really well.
Brian Micklethwait, “Why fast and powerful computers are especially good if you are getting old”, Samizdata, 2014-09-17.
September 18, 2014
Another example that I have encountered repeatedly is the Columbus myth, the belief that the difference between Columbus and those who argued against his voyage was that he knew the world was round and they thought it was flat. It is a widely believed story, but it is not only false, it is very nearly the opposite of the truth. A spherical earth had been orthodox cosmology ever since classical antiquity. The difference between Columbus and his critics was that they knew how big around the earth was, they knew how wide Asia was, they could subtract the one number from the other, hence they could calculate that he would run out of food and water long before he got to his intended destination. Columbus, in contrast, combined a much too small estimate for the circumference of the earth with a much too large figure for the width of Asia in order to convince himself that the difference was a short enough distance to make his planned voyage possible.
Why is this wildly ahistorical account so widely believed? Because it lets moderns feel superior to all those ignorant people in the past.
I could offer other examples of the same pattern, beliefs about people in the past inconsistent with the historical evidence, based on and supporting the unstated assumption of our superiority to them. It is the same motive that makes men believe they are superior to women, women that they are superior to men, Americans that they are superior to foreigners, Frenchmen that they are superior to everyone. Feeling superior feels good, and the less likely you are to confront the people you feel superior to, the easier it is to maintain it.
Men often meet women, women men, Americans foreigners, Frenchmen non-French, which can be a problem. Believing in your superiority to people long dead is safer.
David Friedman, “A Modern Conceit”, Ideas, 2014-09-16.
September 17, 2014
Allah did not create man so that he could have fun. The aim of creation was for mankind to be put to the test through hardship and prayer. An Islamic regime must be serious in every field. There are no jokes in Islam. There is no humor in Islam. There is no fun in Islam. There can be no fun and joy in whatever is serious. Islam does not allow swimming in the sea and is opposed to radio and television serials. Islam, however, allows marksmanship, horseback riding and competition …
Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, meeting in Qom “Broadcast by radio Iran from Qom on 20 August 1979.” quoted in Taheri, The Spirit of Allah (1985) p.259