If, as the Army tests of conscripts showed, nearly 50 per cent. of American adult males never get beyond the mental development of a twelve-year-old child, then it must be obvious that a much smaller number get beyond the mental development of a youth at the end of his teens. I put that number, at a venture, at 5 per cent. The remaining 95 per cent never quite free themselves from religious superstitions. They may no longer believe it is an act of God every time an individual catches a cold, or sprains his ankle, or cuts himself shaving, but they are pretty sure to see some trace of divine intervention in it if he is struck by lightning, or hanged, or afflicted with leprosy or syphilis.
H.L. Mencken, “The Nature of Faith”, Prejudices, Fourth Series, 1924.
August 29, 2015
August 28, 2015
… I read a lot of history and thus know a fair bit about how weather impact has been perceived by humans over time. It is a fact that the 20th century was an abnormally lucky hundred years, meteorologically speaking. The facts I managed to jam into tweets included (a) the superstorm that flooded 300 square miles of the Central Valley in California in the 1860s, (b) rainfall levels we’d consider drought conditions were normal in the U.S. Midwest before about 1905, and (c) storms of a violence we’d find hard to believe were commonly reported in the 1800s. I had specifically in mind something I learned from the book Wicked River: The Mississippi When It Last Ran Wild, which relays eyewitness accounts of thunderstorms so intense that travelers had to steeple their hands over their noses in order to breathe air instead of water; but a sense that storms of really theatrical violence were once common comes through in many other histories.
We had a quiet century geophysically as well — no earthquakes even nearly as bad as the New Madrid event of 1812, which broke windows as far north as Montreal. And no solar storms to compare with the Carrington Event of 1859, which seriously damaged the then-nascent telegraph infrastructure and if it recurred today would knock out power and telecomms so badly that we’d be years recovering and casualties would number in the hundreds of thousands, possibly the millions.
(I’m concentrating on 19th-century reports because those tended to be well-documented, but earlier records tell us it was the 20th century calm that was unusual, not the 19th-century violence.)
The awkward truth is that there are very large forces in play in the biosphere, and when they wander out of the ranges we’re adapted to, we suffer and die a lot and there really isn’t a great deal we can do about it; we don’t operate at the required energy scales. For that matter, I can think of several astronomical catastrophes that could be lurking just outside our light-cone only to wipe out all multicellular life on Earth next week. Reality is like that.
Eric S. Raymond, “Heavy weather and bad juju”, Armed and Dangerous, 2011-02-03.
August 27, 2015
In order to understand the Spanish Inquisition, which began in the late 15th century, we must look briefly at its predecessor, the medieval Inquisition. Before we do, though, it’s worth pointing out that the medieval world was not the modern world. For medieval people, religion was not something one just did at church. It was their science, their philosophy, their politics, their identity, and their hope for salvation. It was not a personal preference but an abiding and universal truth. Heresy, then, struck at the heart of that truth. It doomed the heretic, endangered those near him, and tore apart the fabric of community. Medieval Europeans were not alone in this view. It was shared by numerous cultures around the world. The modern practice of universal religious toleration is itself quite new and uniquely Western.
Secular and ecclesiastical leaders in medieval Europe approached heresy in different ways. Roman law equated heresy with treason. Why? Because kingship was God-given, thus making heresy an inherent challenge to royal authority. Heretics divided people, causing unrest and rebellion. No Christian doubted that God would punish a community that allowed heresy to take root and spread. Kings and commoners, therefore, had good reason to find and destroy heretics wherever they found them—and they did so with gusto.
One of the most enduring myths of the Inquisition is that it was a tool of oppression imposed on unwilling Europeans by a power-hungry Church. Nothing could be more wrong. In truth, the Inquisition brought order, justice, and compassion to combat rampant secular and popular persecutions of heretics. When the people of a village rounded up a suspected heretic and brought him before the local lord, how was he to be judged? How could an illiterate layman determine if the accused’s beliefs were heretical or not? And how were witnesses to be heard and examined?
The medieval Inquisition began in 1184 when Pope Lucius III sent a list of heresies to Europe’s bishops and commanded them to take an active role in determining whether those accused of heresy were, in fact, guilty. Rather than relying on secular courts, local lords, or just mobs, bishops were to see to it that accused heretics in their dioceses were examined by knowledgeable churchmen using Roman laws of evidence. In other words, they were to “inquire”—thus, the term “inquisition.”
From the perspective of secular authorities, heretics were traitors to God and king and therefore deserved death. From the perspective of the Church, however, heretics were lost sheep that had strayed from the flock. As shepherds, the pope and bishops had a duty to bring those sheep back into the fold, just as the Good Shepherd had commanded them. So, while medieval secular leaders were trying to safeguard their kingdoms, the Church was trying to save souls. The Inquisition provided a means for heretics to escape death and return to the community.
Most people accused of heresy by the medieval Inquisition were either acquitted or their sentence suspended. Those found guilty of grave error were allowed to confess their sin, do penance, and be restored to the Body of Christ. The underlying assumption of the Inquisition was that, like lost sheep, heretics had simply strayed. If, however, an inquisitor determined that a particular sheep had purposely departed out of hostility to the flock, there was nothing more that could be done. Unrepentant or obstinate heretics were excommunicated and given over to the secular authorities. Despite popular myth, the Church did not burn heretics. It was the secular authorities that held heresy to be a capital offense. The simple fact is that the medieval Inquisition saved uncounted thousands of innocent (and even not-so-innocent) people who would otherwise have been roasted by secular lords or mob rule.
As the power of medieval popes grew, so too did the extent and sophistication of the Inquisition. The introduction of the Franciscans and Dominicans in the early 13th century provided the papacy with a corps of dedicated religious willing to devote their lives to the salvation of the world. Because their order had been created to debate with heretics and preach the Catholic faith, the Dominicans became especially active in the Inquisition. Following the most progressive law codes of the day, the Church in the 13th century formed inquisitorial tribunals answerable to Rome rather than local bishops. To ensure fairness and uniformity, manuals were written for inquisitorial officials. Bernard Gui, best known today as the fanatical and evil inquisitor in The Name of the Rose, wrote a particularly influential manual. There is no reason to believe that Gui was anything like his fictional portrayal.
By the 14th century, the Inquisition represented the best legal practices available. Inquisition officials were university-trained specialists in law and theology. The procedures were similar to those used in secular inquisitions (we call them “inquests” today, but it’s the same word).
Thomas F. Madden, “The Truth About the Spanish Inquisition”, Crisis Magazine, 2003-10-01.
August 26, 2015
Obama was alluding to FDR’s famous promise (at Oglethorpe University in 1932) to pursue “bold, persistent experimentation” to end the Great Depression. Roosevelt’s vow was itself a homage to the reigning philosophical pose of American liberalism at the time: pragmatism. Self-anointed champions of the “pragmatic method,” the progressives believed they were anti-ideologues, experts and technicians using the most scientifically advanced methods to replace the failed liberal-democratic capitalism of the 19th century. Words like “philosophy,” “dogma,” “principle,” and “ideology” were out, and terms like “progress,” “method,” “action,” “technique,” and “disinterestedness” were in. When Herbert Croly, founder of The New Republic and author of the progressive bible The Promise of American Life, was accused of violating liberal principles when he supported Italy’s great modernizer, Benito Mussolini, Croly replied that the flagship journal of American liberalism was in fact “not an exponent of liberal principles.” Indeed, “if there are any abstract liberal principles, we do not know how to formulate them. Nor if they are formulated by others do we recognize their authority. Liberalism, as we understand it, is an activity.”
This has been the primary disguise of liberalism ever since: “We’re not ideologues, we’re pragmatists! And if only you crazy ideologues” — “market fundamentalists,” “right-wingers,” “zealots,” “dogmatists,” etc. — “would just get out of the way and let us do what all smart people agree is the smart thing to do, we could fix all the problems facing us today.” It’s a variant of the old “scientific socialism” that exonerated the Left from the charge of ideological bias. “We’re not seizing the means of production and these great vacation homes because we want to — it’s science!” The subtext is always clear: People who disagree with liberalism do so because they are deranged, brainwashed, corrupt, selfish, or stupid. In his 1962 Yale commencement address, President Kennedy explained that “political labels and ideological approaches are irrelevant to the solution” of today’s challenges. At a press conference the previous March he had told the country, “Most of the problems … that we now face, are technical problems, are administrative problems.” And therefore we needed people like him and his Whiz Kids to “deal with questions which are now beyond the comprehension of most men.”
“Pragmatism” and “ideology” have themselves become clichés. Liberals are smart and realistic because they do smart and realistic things; smart and realistic things are the things liberals do. Conservatives, meanwhile, are ideologues who don’t live in the reality-based community; the things they do are by definition ideological, because conservatives do them.
Jonah Goldberg, excerpt from The Tyranny of Clichés, published by National Review, 2012-04-22.
August 25, 2015
Many years ago, when I was more reckless intellectually than I am today, I proposed the application of Haeckel’s biogenetic law — to wit, that the history of the individual rehearses the history of the species to the domain of ideas. So applied, it leads to some superficially startling but probably quite sound conclusions, for example, that an adult poet is simply an individual in a state of arrested development — in brief, a sort of moron. Just as all of us, in utero, pass through a stage in which we are tadpoles, and almost indistinguishable from the tadpoles which afterward become frogs, so all of us pass through a stage, in our nonage, when we are poets. A youth of seventeen who is not a poet is simply a donkey: his development has been arrested even anterior to that of the tadpole. But a man of fifty who still writes poetry is either an unfortunate who has never developed, intellectually, beyond his teens, or a conscious buffoon who pretends to be something that he isn’t — something far younger and juicier than he actually is […] Something else, of course, may enter into it. The buffoonery may be partly conscious and deliberate, and partly Freudian. Many an aging man keeps on writing poetry simply because it gives him the illusion that he is still young. For the same reason, perhaps, he plays tennis, wears green cravats, and tries to convince himself that he is in love.
H.L. Mencken, “The Nature of Faith”, Prejudices, Fourth Series, 1924.
August 24, 2015
Thing is, since we don’t live in the far off frozen wastelands like you, it’s not “sweating for a few days”; here it would be sweating for a few months. Or practically the whole year in places like Miami, New Orleans, or Houston.
There’s a reason the population of our industrialized North massively outnumbered that of the South in our Civil War: Because before air conditioning, not many people chose to live in places where the summertime climate can kill you dead. It’s certainly not conducive to industry or a modern economy.
Why is there a stereotype of Southerners talking slowly and ambling languidly, rather than hurrying about like chattering New Yorkers? Because acting like that between May and September down around Atlanta or Birmingham is courting heatstroke.
Air conditioning didn’t just help the modern Sun Belt economy, it’s practically solely responsible for it. Twelve US states are partially or entirely located below the 35th parallel north; the only parts of Europe that far south are Crete and Cyprus, which are not areas known for contributing to the industry of the continent.
Conversely, only our northernmost tier of states is above the 45th parallel: Oregon and Washington, Montana, the Dakotas, parts of Minnesota and Wisconsin and Michigan, a bit of New England… You know what I noticed in Washington state? Neither of the houses I visited had A/C. Nor did the abode of friends in New Hampshire, until they added a window unit upstairs recently to make the occasional summer heat wave more bearable in the loft bedroom. Do you know where the 45th parallel crosses Europe? The French Riviera. Balmy Lombardy. The pleasant Piedmont.
Tam K. “Heavy Smug Emissions”, View From The Porch, 2015-08-13.
August 22, 2015
August 21, 2015
For all the talk we’ve heard in recent years about Canada’s slide into supposedly “American-style” gutter politics, the sort of garish gestures described above are completely unknown north of the border. The Canadian version of a controversial “stunt” involves Stephen Harper sitting down at a piano and playing a pop song. And when Elizabeth May embarrassed herself with her Welcome Back Kotter shtick, most observers responded to this brief spasm of theatricality with stunned mortification and pity.
I suppose the closest thing that the federal Tories have to a controversial populist is Minister of Employment and Social Development Pierre Poilievre, who shocked the Canadian pundit class by, wait for it, conducting a ministerial press conference wearing a golf shirt emblazoned with the Conservative Party logo. His party is so obsessed with milking partisan advantage from their expanded Universal Child Care Benefit that Poilievre actually travelled to a Winnipeg production facility so he could pose for pictures with the freshly printed cheques. The stunt was fantastically grubby. But the least that can be said for it was that the UCCB is an actual component of government policy. Better a printing press, I suppose, than a snowball, a chainsaw, a flame-thrower, or a gun.
As Canadians, we’d like to think that Donald Trumps don’t infect our politics because we are smarter and saner than Americans. But the real reason is structural. Republicans and Democrats elect their presidential candidates through the grass roots, which means that populists do occasionally hijack the process. In our parliamentary system, on the other hand, the major parties are heavily whipped entities obsessed with brand preservation. And the party leaders who go on to become premier or prime minister are selected at convention proceedings closely supervised by risk-averse party grandees. The result is a menagerie of bland, polished, disciplined wonks and career politicians such as Stephen Harper, Christy Clark, Rachel Notley, and Kathleen Wynne. (It’s no coincidence that the most interesting and thoroughly disgraced politician in modern Canadian history, former Toronto mayor Rob Ford, existed completely outside the party system.)
Most Republicans are appalled by Donald Trump, and rightly so: His comments about Mexico’s supposed criminal hordes only encourage the GOP’s reputation as a party for ageing white nativists. But his fifteen minutes of fame highlight the degree to which Americans trust ordinary yahoos to pick the person to run their country. It’s a right that our own yahoos will never ever have.
Jonathan Kay, “A Land Without Trump”, The Walrus, 2015-07-28.
August 19, 2015
… usually these books are simply campaign documents or, in the case of Wendy Davis’s Forgetting to Be Afraid: A Memoir, résumés for candidates who have suffered a crushing defeat or expect to suffer a crushing defeat, offering a rationale for keeping themselves in the game.
I have heard more than one thoughtful political observer lament the fact that Bill Clinton is constitutionally incapable of writing an honest book — given the man’s intelligence, his charm, and his genuinely dramatic life’s story, he might very well have written a real work of literature. But politics suffers from the same tendency toward dishonesty that U. S. Grant attributed to war: Political careers “produce many stories of fiction, some of which are told until they are believed to be true.” How many Americans still to this day believe that John Ashcroft draped a statue of Justice because he was scandalized by her bare, aluminum breast, or that he fears that calico cats are emissaries of Satan?
But, as Neil deGrasse Tyson demonstrates, in politics the truth rarely gets in the way of a good story. If ever I run for office — angels and ministers of grace defend us! — I will title my memoir Awesome American Courage: My Courageously Awesome American Story of Awesomely American Courage. Never mind that I’ve never done anything particularly awesome or courageous; Wendy Davis never really had much to forget to be afraid of, either, except, possibly, the voters.
Kevin D. Williamson, “A Plague of Memoirs: A courageously awesome American story of awesomely American courage”, National Review, 2014-10-06.
August 18, 2015
One of the most mawkish of human delusions is the notion that friendship should be eternal, or, at all events, life-long, and that any act which puts a term to it is somehow discreditable. The fact is that a man of active and resilient mind outwears his friendships just as certainly as he outwears his love affairs, his politics and his epistemology. They become threadbare, shabby, pumped-up, irritating, depressing. They convert themselves from living realities into moribund artificialities, and stand in sinister opposition to freedom, self-respect and truth. It is as corrupting to preserve them after they have grown fly-blown and hollow as it is to keep up the forms of passion after passion itself is a corpse. Every act and attitude that they involve thus becomes an act of hypocrisy, an attitude of dishonesty … A prudent man, remembering that life is short, gives an hour or two, now and then, to a critical examination of his friendships. He weighs them, edits them, tests the metal of them. A few he retains, perhaps with radical changes in their terms. But the majority he expunges from his minutes and tries to forget, as he tries to forget the cold and clammy loves of year before last.
H.L. Mencken, “Types of Men 13: The Friend”, Prejudices, Third Series, 1922.
August 17, 2015
If twentieth-century history teaches us anything, it’s that political religions spell trouble. Soviet Communism, Italian Fascism, and Nazism aren’t just called “political religions” by scholars today. In all three cases, observers at the time recognized and worried about the movements’ religious natures. Those natures were no accident; Mussolini, for instance, called his ideology “not only a faith, but a religion that is conquering the laboring masses of the Italian people.”
One reason that observers saw the great totalitarianisms as religious was that each had its idol: Mussolini in Italy, Hitler in Germany, and Lenin in Russia, followed by Stalin. Take Grigory Zinoviev’s description of Lenin: “He is really the chosen one of millions. He is the leader by the Grace of God. He is the authentic figure of a leader such as is born once in 500 years.” Stalin’s cult of personality was far more developed and sometimes explicitly idolatrous, as in the poem that addressed the despot as “O Thou mighty one, chief of the peoples, Who callest man to life, Who awakest the earth to fruitfulness.” And in Italy, writes the historian Michael Burleigh, “intellectual sycophants and propagandists characterised [Mussolini] as a prodigy of genius in terms that would not have embarrassed Stalin: messiah, saviour, man of destiny, latterday Caesar, Napoleon, and so forth.”
To point out these words’ uncomfortable similarity to the journalists’ praises of Obama is not to equate the throngs who bowed down to totalitarian dictators with even the most worshipful Obamaphiles. But the manner of worship is related, as perhaps it must be in any human society that chooses to adore a human being. The widespread renaming of villages, schools, and factories after Stalin, for example, finds its modern-day democratic parallel in a rash of schools that have already rechristened themselves after Obama, to say nothing of the hundreds of young sentimentalists who informally adopted the candidate’s middle name during the presidential race. Even the Obama campaign’s ubiquitous logo — the letter O framing a rising sun — would not have surprised the scholar Eric Voegelin. In The Political Religions (1938), Voegelin traced rulers who employed the image of the sun — a symbol of “the radiation of power along a hierarchy of rulers and offices that ranges from God at the top down to the subject at the bottom” — from the pharaoh Akhenaton to Louis XIV and eventually to Hitler.
Benjamin A. Plotinsky, “The Varieties of Liberal Enthusiasm: The Left’s political zealotry increasingly resembles religious experience”, City Journal, 2010-02-20.
August 15, 2015
Denver leading 21-10, the Chiefs threw incomplete on third-and-goal from the Broncs’ 8. As the pass sailed out of bounds, Denver corner Chris Harris threw his hands up in the “I didn’t do it!” gesture. Penalty, automatic first down for Kansas City. Defenders should never make the “I didn’t do it!” gesture, which only alerts officials to the fact that they did it. In football, the “I didn’t do it!” gesture is regarded by zebras as a notarized confession after a Miranda warning.
Gregg Easterbrook, “TMQ: Super Bowl rematches rare events”, ESPN.com, 2014-09-16.
August 14, 2015
To see what I mean, consider the recent tradition of psychology articles showing that conservatives are authoritarian while liberals are not. Jeremy Frimer, who runs the Moral Psychology Lab at the University of Winnipeg, realized that who you asked those questions about might matter — did conservatives defer to the military because they were authoritarians or because the military is considered a “conservative” institution? And, lo and behold, when he asked similar questions about, say, environmentalists, the liberals were the authoritarians.
It also matters because social psychology, and social science more generally, has a replication problem, which was recently covered in a very good article at Slate. Take the infamous “paradox of choice” study that found that offering a few kinds of jam samples at a supermarket was more likely to result in a purchase than offering dozens of samples. A team of researchers that tried to replicate this — and other famous experiments — completely failed. When they did a survey of the literature, they found that the array of choices generally had no important effect either way. The replication problem is bad enough in one subfield of social psychology that Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman wrote an open letter to its practitioners, urging them to institute tougher replication protocols before their field implodes. A recent issue of Social Psychology was devoted to trying to replicate famous studies in the discipline; more than a third failed replication.
Let me pause here to say something important: Though I mentioned bias above, I’m not suggesting in any way that the replication problems mostly happen because social scientists are in on a conspiracy against conservatives to do bad research or to make stuff up. The replication problems mostly happen because, as the Slate article notes, journals are biased toward publishing positive and novel results, not “there was no relationship, which is exactly what you’d expect.” So readers see the one paper showing that something interesting happened, not the (possibly many more) teams that got muddy data showing no particular effect. If you do enough studies on enough small groups, you will occasionally get an effect just by random chance. But because those are the only studies that get published, it seems like “science has proved …” whatever those papers are about.
Megan McArdle, “The Truth About Truthiness”, Bloomberg View, 2014-09-08.
August 13, 2015
Libertarianism is not the claim that individuals are always rational, or that markets are always efficient, or that the distribution of income under laissez-faire capitalism is always “fair.” Rather, it is the claim that, despite the imperfections of private arrangements, government interventions usually make things worse. Thus, non-intervention is the better policy.
August 12, 2015
The normal man’s antipathy to his relatives, particularly of the second degree, is explained by psychologists in various tortured and improbable ways. The true explanation, I venture, is a good deal simpler. It lies in the plain fact that every man sees in his relatives, and especially in his cousins, a series of grotesque caricatures of himself. They exhibit his qualities in disconcerting augmentation or diminution; they fill him with a disquieting feeling that this, perhaps, is the way he appears to the world and so they wound his amour propre and give him intense discomfort. To admire his relatives whole-heartedly a man must be lacking in the finer sort of self-respect.
H.L. Mencken, “Types of Men 12: The Relative”, Prejudices, Third Series, 1922.