I’m privileged. We are privileged beyond the dreams of kings and queens of past centuries.
Unfortunately when they tell you to “check your privilege” that’s not what they mean.
This is a phrase increasingly deployed by people (usually women – rolls eyes) with an academic background and its meaning is … liberal squid ink. If you’re telling them that Welfare was a disaster for black families (it was) and that affirmative action not only has been a disaster for many organizations, but corrodes the soul (you never know why you were hired. I have friends in that position) and institutes birth-privilege based on who your ancestors were (aka nobility) they will say “check your privilege.” This really doesn’t mean a heck of a lot. It can’t, because they have no idea who you are, or indeed if you have ever received any privilege growing up.
What it is based on is the idea that our society is so inherently racist/sexist/homophobic that just by being straight, white and male someone receives better treatment than someone else who isn’t one or more of those things.
Like most lunatic ravings of the left, it has a point, except for the “male” thing.
Is there some sort of automatic boost you get for being a member of the majority (which women are, despite being accorded minority status.) Of course. You’re a known quantity. Just by virtue of people having interacted with someone like you, you’re going to get “helpful” treatment, even if you are supposedly a minority.
The reason so many academic liberals deploy it as a war cry, though, is because they are mostly academics from – da – privileged backgrounds. This sort of “insult” is the worst they’ve ever suffered. They’ve never been low man on the totem pole with sh*t flowing downhill for things you couldn’t even vaguely control.
So they imagine these casual slights are the worst thing ever.
It’s sort of like kids who always got all the candy they wanted, feeling crushed because you said “no chocolate before breakfast.” It’s the worst thing ever, because it’s the worst they’ve ever experienced.
They also find it useful to shut up opponents because well… if they say it, any normal rational people thinks of my opening to this post. They think “Well, I am unusually blessed, maybe—”
Don’t. Just don’t. Most of the people who use “check your privilege” could buy you and sell you outright. The real “downtrodden” battling to get to the top will often have the same reaction YOU have.
The point is, we’re all equal under the law. Human discrimination is not something you can stop, but it’s also not something that is triggered to the Marxist categories of race, orientation or even class. It’s usually more subtle. I might discriminate against someone because something about him bothers me: accent, gestures, something. I might not even know why. It might be unjust.
It’s just a result of humans not being perfect. No human society can get rid of it. Giving people the power to point and cry privilege to shut others up will just privilege a bunch of academics and bureaucrats who will use it to their advantage.
When told to check your privilege, I suggest you answer “it’s fine, thank you. How about yours? A bit overlarge, no?”
Sarah A. Hoyt, “Squid Ink”, According to Hoyt, 2015-02-10.
October 21, 2016
October 20, 2016
As a specific genre, the historical novel is only about two centuries old. Historical fiction in the wider sense, though, is at least as old as the written word. The Epic of Gilgamesh, the Homeric poems, the narrative books of the Old Testament, Beowulf — the earliest literature of every people is historical fiction. The past is interesting. It’s glamorous and exciting. Perspective allows us to forget that the past, like the present, was mostly long patches of boredom or anxiety, mixed in with occasional moments of catastrophe or bliss. Above all, it’s about us.
Have you ever stared at old family pictures, and had the feeling that you were looking into a mirror? I have a photograph of a great uncle, who was an old man before I was born. I never knew him well. But in that picture, taken when he was about fifteen, he has my ears and eyes, and he’s hugging himself and looking just as complacent as I often do. I have a picture of one of my grandmothers, taken about the year 1916 — she’s photographed against a background of flags and Dreadnoughts. She looks astonishingly like my daughter. It’s only natural that I want to know about them. I want to know what they were thinking and doing, and I want to know about their general circumstances.
For most people, even now, family history comes to a dead end about three generations back. But we are also members of nations, and what we can’t know about our immediate ancestors we want to know about our ancestors in general. You can take the here and now just as it is. But the moment you start asking why things are as they are, you have to investigate the past.
Why do men wear collars and ties and jackets with buttons that often don’t and can’t do up? It’s because our own formal clothing stands in a direct line from the English and French court dress of the late 17th century. Why do we talk of “toeing the line?” It’s because in 19th century state schools, children would have to stand on a chalked line to read to the class. Why does the British fiscal year for individuals start on the 6th April? It’s because, until 1752, we used the Julian Calendar, which was eleven days behind the more accurate Gregorian Calendar; and the first day of the year was the 25th March. Lord Chesterfield’s Act standardised us with Scotland and much of Europe, and moved the first day of the year back to January — but the fiscal year, adjusted for the new calendar, was left unchanged.
Why was Ireland, until recently, so devoutly Catholic? Because the Catholic Church was the one great institution of Irish life that could be neither abolished nor co-opted by their British rulers. Why is the Church losing its hold? Because it is no longer needed for its old purpose. The child sex scandals are only a secondary cause. History tells us who we are. We may feel trapped by it. We may glory in it. We can’t ignore it.
Richard Blake, “Interview with Richard Blake, 7th March 2014”, 2014-03-07.
October 19, 2016
She sat silently in her rocking chair. Some people are good at talking, but Granny Weatherwax was good at silence. She could sit so quiet and still that she faded. You forgot she was there. The room became empty. Tiffany thought of it as the I’m-not-here spell, if it was a spell. She reasoned that everyone had something inside them that told the world they were there. That was why you could often sense when someone was behind you, even if they were making no sound at all. You were receiving their I-am-here signal.
Some people had a very strong one. They were the people who got served first in shops. Granny Weatherwax had an I-am-here signal that bounced off the mountains when she wanted it to; when she walked into a forest, all the wolves and bears ran out the other side. She could turn it off, too. She was doing that now. Tiffany was having to concentrate to see her. Most of her mind was telling her that there was no one there at all.
Terry Pratchett, Wintersmith, 2006.
October 18, 2016
In the 1970s, municipalities enacted new rules that were designed to protect farmland and to preserve green space surrounding rapidly growing cities by forbidding private development in those areas. By the late 1990s, this practice evolved into a land-use strategy called “smart growth.” (Here’s a video I did about smart growth.) While some of these initiatives may have preserved green space that can be seen, what is harder to see is the resulting supply restriction and higher cost of housing.
Again, the lower the supply of housing, other things equal, the higher real-estate prices will be. Those who now can’t afford to buy will often rent smaller apartments in less-desirable areas, which typically have less influence on the political process. Locally elected officials tend to be more responsive to the interests of current residents who own property, vote, and pay taxes, and less responsive to renters, who are more likely to be transients and nonvoters. That, in turn, makes it easier to implement policies that use regulation to discriminate against people living on low incomes.
Sandy Ikeda, “Shut Out: How Land-Use Regulations Hurt the Poor”, The Freeman, 2015-02-05.
October 17, 2016
The most exhausting thing about our politics these days — other than the never-ending presidential election itself — is the obsession with “shaping the narrative.” By that I mean the effort to connect the dots between a selective number of facts and statistics to support one storyline about the state of the union.
Narrative-building is essential for almost every complicated argument because it’s the only way to get our pattern-seeking brains to discount contradictory facts and data. Trial lawyers understand this implicitly. Get the jury to buy the story, and they’ll do the heavy lifting of arranging the facts in just the right way.
I’m not naive. Crafting stories to serve political purposes is as old as politics itself. But the problem seems to be getting worse. Perhaps it’s because our country is so polarized and our media environment so balkanized and instantaneous. Politicians and journalists alike feel compelled to make facts serve some larger tale in every utterance. The reality is that life is complicated and every well-crafted narrative leaves out important facts.
Jonah Goldberg, “Narrative-Building Has Become a Political Obsession”, National Review, 2016-09-28.
October 16, 2016
It would be easy to diverge from this general overview into a detailed examination of the physics. This is because Epicurus seems to have been largely right. We now believe, as he did, that the universe is made of atoms, and if we do not now talk about motion, we do talk about energy and force. His physics are an astonishing achievement.
Of course, he was often wrong. He denigrated mathematics. He seems to have believed that the sun and moon were about the same size as they appear to us. Then there is an apparent defect in his conception of the atomic movements. Does the universe exist by accident? Or are their laws of nature beyond the existence and movement of the atoms? The first is not impossible. An infinite number of atoms in an infinite void over infinite time will, every so often, come together in an apparently stable universe. They may also hold together, moving in clusters in ways that suggest regularity. But this chance combination might be dissolved at any moment — though, given every sort of infinity, some of these universes will continue for long periods.
If Epicurus had this first in view, what point in trying to explain present phenomena in terms of cause and effect? Causality only makes sense on the assumption that the future will be like the past. If he had the second in mind, it is worth asking what he thought to he nature of these laws? Might they not, for example, have had an Author? Since Newton, we have contented ourselves with trying to uncover regularities of motion and not going beyond these. But the Greeks had a much stronger teleological sense.
Perhaps these matters were not discussed. Perhaps they were discussed, but we have no record of them in the surviving discussions. Or perhaps they have survived, but I have overlooked them. But it does seem to me that Epicurean physics do not fully discuss the nature of the laws that they assume.
On the other hand, let me quote two passages from his surviving writings:
Moreover, there is an infinite number of worlds, some like this world, others unlike it. For the atoms being infinite in number… are borne ever further in their course. For the atoms out of which a world might arise, or by which a world might arise, or by which a world might be formed, have not all be expended on one world or a finite number of worlds, whether like or unlike this one. Hence there will be nothing to hinder and infinity of worlds….
And further, we must not suppose that the worlds have necessarily one and the same shape. For nobody can prove that in one sort of world there might not be contained, whereas in another sort of world there could not possibly be, the seeds out of which animals and plants arise and the rest of the things we see.
What we have here is the admission that there may, in the infinite universe, be other worlds like our own, and these may contain sentient beings like ourselves. And there may be worlds inconceivably unlike our own. And there is the claim that living beings arise and develop according to natural laws. Epicurus would not have been surprised either by modern physics or by Darwinism. […]
However, while the similarities between Epicurean physics and modern science are striking, there is one profound difference. For us, the purpose of science is to give us an understanding of the world that brings with it the ability to control the world and remake it for our own convenience. This is our desire, and this has been our achievement because we have fully developed methods of observation and experiment. The Greeks had limited means of observation — no microscopes or telescopes, nor even accurate clocks. Nor had they much conception of experiment.
Moreover, scientific progress was neither conceived by Epicurus nor regarded as desirable. He says very emphatically:
If we had never been troubled by celestial and atmospheric phenomena, nor by fears about death, nor by our ignorance of the limits of pains and desires, we should have had no need of natural science.
He says again:
…[R]emember that, like everything else, knowledge of celestial phenomena, whether taken along with other things or in isolation, has no other end in view than peace of mind and firm convictions.
Sean Gabb, “Epicurus: Father of the Englightenment”, speaking to the 6/20 Club in London, 2007-09-06.
October 15, 2016
Some years ago, the liberal writer Michael Kinsley described the different attitudes to free speech in the U.K. and the U.S. as follows: “In a country like Great Britain, the legal protections for speech are weaker than ours, but the social protections are stronger. They lack a First Amendment, but they have thicker skin and a greater acceptance of eccentricity of all sorts.”
Today, both sorts of protection for speech — legal and social — are weaker than before in both countries. This year, official regulation of the press was passed into U.K. law for the first time since 18th-century juries nullified press prosecutions. These new restraints enjoyed the backing not just of all the parties but apparently of the public as well.
In the U.S., the case of Mann v. Steyn, let alone a hypothetical case involving Quran-burning, has yet to be decided. But Democrats in the Senate are seeking to restrict political speech by restricting the money spent to promote it. And in the private sector, American corporations have blacklisted employees for expressing or financing certain unfashionable opinions. In short, a public culture that used to be liberal is now “progressive” — which is something like liberalism minus its commitment to freedom.
The U.S. and Britain have long thought of themselves as, above all, free countries. If that identity continues to atrophy, free speech will be the first victim. But it will not be the last.
John O’Sullivan, “No Offense: The New Threats to Free Speech”, Wall Street Journal, 2014-10-31.
October 14, 2016
Every few years, a researcher replicates a security study by littering USB sticks around an organization’s grounds and waiting to see how many people pick them up and plug them in, causing the autorun function to install innocuous malware on their computers. These studies are great for making security professionals feel superior. The researchers get to demonstrate their security expertise and use the results as “teachable moments” for others. “If only everyone was more security aware and had more security training,” they say, “the Internet would be a much safer place.”
Enough of that. The problem isn’t the users: it’s that we’ve designed our computer systems’ security so badly that we demand the user do all of these counterintuitive things. Why can’t users choose easy-to-remember passwords? Why can’t they click on links in emails with wild abandon? Why can’t they plug a USB stick into a computer without facing a myriad of viruses? Why are we trying to fix the user instead of solving the underlying security problem?
Bruce Schneier, “Security Design: Stop Trying to Fix the User”, Schneier on Security, 2016-10-03.
October 13, 2016
Libertarian constitutional thought is a distinctly minority position among scholars and jurists, one that at first glance has little connection with either modern Supreme Court jurisprudence or the liberalism that remains dominant in the legal academy. However, libertarian ideas have more in common with mainstream constitutional thought than at first meets the eye. They have also had greater influence on it.
This article explores the connections between mainstream and libertarian constitutional thought in recent decades. On a number of important issues, modern Supreme Court doctrine and liberal constitutional thought has been significantly influenced by pre-New Deal libertarian ideas, even if the influence is often unconscious or unacknowledged. This is particularly true on issues of equal protection doctrine and modern “substantive” due process as it pertains to “noneconomic” rights. Here, both the Supreme Court and much of the mainstream academic left have repudiated early twentieth century Progressivism, which advocated across-the-board judicial deference to legislatures. They have also rejected efforts to eliminate common law and free market “baselines” for constitutional rights.
The gap between libertarian and mainstream constitutional thought is much greater on issues of federalism and property rights. Here too, however, recent decades have seen significant convergence. Over the last thirty years, the Supreme Court has begun to take federalism and property rights more seriously, and the idea that they should get strong judicial protection has attained greater intellectual respectability. Moreover, much of libertarian constitutional thought merely seeks to apply to federalism, property rights, and economic liberties, the same principles that mainstream jurists and legal scholars have applied in other areas, most notably “noneconomic” constitutional rights and separation of powers.
Ilya Somin and David Bernstein, abstract to “The Mainstreaming of Libertarian Constitutionalism” in Law and Contemporary Problems, reposted in the Washington Post, 2015-02-20.
October 12, 2016
… we are all capable of believing things which we know to be untrue, and then, when we are finally proved wrong, impudently twisting the facts so as to show that we were right. Intellectually, it is possible to carry on this process for an indefinite time: the only check on it is that sooner or later a false belief bumps up against solid reality, usually on a battlefield.
When one looks at the all-prevailing schizophrenia of democratic societies, the lies that have to be told for vote-catching purposes, the silence about major issues, the distortions of the press, it is tempting to believe that in totalitarian countries there is less humbug, more facing of the facts. There, at least, the ruling groups are not dependent on popular favour and can utter the truth crudely and brutally. Goering could say ‘Guns before butter’, while his democratic opposite numbers had to wrap the same sentiment up in hundreds of hypocritical words.
Actually, however, the avoidance of reality is much the same everywhere, and has much the same consequences. The Russian people were taught for years that they were better off than everybody else, and propaganda posters showed Russian families sitting down to abundant meal while the proletariat of other countries starved in the gutter. Meanwhile the workers in the western countries were so much better off than those of the U.S.S.R. that non-contact between Soviet citizens and outsiders had to be a guiding principle of policy. Then, as a result of the war, millions of ordinary Russians penetrated far into Europe, and when they return home the original avoidance of reality will inevitably be paid for in frictions of various kinds. The Germans and the Japanese lost the war quite largely because their rulers were unable to see facts which were plain to any dispassionate eye.
To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle. One thing that helps toward it is to keep a diary, or, at any rate, to keep some kind of record of one’s opinions about important events. Otherwise, when some particularly absurd belief is exploded by events, one may simply forget that one ever held it. Political predictions are usually wrong. But even when one makes a correct one, to discover why one was right can be very illuminating. In general, one is only right when either wish or fear coincides with reality. If one recognizes this, one cannot, of course, get rid of one’s subjective feelings, but one can to some extent insulate them from one’s thinking and make predictions cold-bloodedly, by the book of arithmetic. In private life most people are fairly realistic. When one is making out one’s weekly budget, two and two invariably make four. Politics, on the other hand, is a sort of sub-atomic or non-Euclidean word where it is quite easy for the part to be greater than the whole or for two objects to be in the same place simultaneously. Hence the contradictions and absurdities I have chronicled above, all finally traceable to a secret belief that one’s political opinions, unlike the weekly budget, will not have to be tested against solid reality.
George Orwell, “In Front of Your Nose”, Tribune, 1946-03-22.
October 11, 2016
[P]olitical correctness represents something far more profound than its critics appreciate. The victory of PC is built upon the demise and decay of traditional forms of authority and traditional forms of morality. It is parasitical on what we might call the crisis of conservative thought. In fact, I would argue that the power of PC is directly proportionate to the weakness of the old, taken-for-granted forms of morality.
I can understand the temptation to present political correctness as simply the imposition of a stifling framework by small groups of illiberal liberals, to see it as the conscious project of a cut-off, head-in-the-clouds middle-class elite determined to remake everything and everyone in its own image.
Yet to look at political correctness in that way only — as a kind of new Ten Commandments enforced by tiny elites — is to miss what is the foundation stone of PC, the ground upon which it is built. Which is the inability of the traditional moralists to justify themselves and defend their way of life and moral system. It is that inability which, towards the end of the twentieth century, created a moral vacuum that was filled by instinctive and often kneejerk new forms of moral control and censorship.
Because when you have a profound crisis of traditional morality, which governed society for so long, then previously normal and unquestioned ways of behaving get called into question. From speech to interpersonal relations, even to nursery rhymes — nothing can be taken for granted anymore when the old frameworks have been removed. All the given things of the past 200-odd years start to fall apart. Political correctness is really the scaffolding that has been hastily erected to replace the old morality. It represents the tentative takeover by a new kind of modern-day moralist. And the end result is undoubtedly tyrannical and stifling and profoundly antagonistic both to individual autonomy and freedom of speech.
That is why political correctness is so hysterical, so intolerant, so keen to govern everything from how professors communicate with their students to whether teachers can touch their pupils to when it is acceptable to say ‘blackboard’ — not because it is strong, but because it is weak and isolated. It has no real roots in society or history, like the more traditional forms of morality did. It enjoys no popular legitimacy or public support; in fact, the phrase ‘political correctness gone mad’ rather reflects the disdain amongst large sections of the public for today’s new speech codes and behaviour etiquette. It is the shallowness of PC, its parasitical nature, which makes it so insatiably interventionist.
Because at a time when it is no longer clear what is right and wrong, what is good and bad, who is respectable and who is not, then everything is thrown into a kind of moral chaos, giving rise to a weird hunger among the new elites to clamp down on and closely govern what were previously considered to be normal interactions that required little, if any, external intervention.
Brendan O’Neill, “The new war against PC – it’s too late and it’s picked the wrong target”, Spiked, 2015-01-29.
October 10, 2016
Did you know it is 2015 and people will still criticize you for getting facts off of Wikipedia?
I’m not even talking about controversial conclusions, like “on balance, the research about gun control shows…”. I’m talking about simple facts.
A: “China is bigger than the United States”
B: “Where’d you hear that one, Wikipedia?”
B: “You expect me to believe something you literally just took off a Wikipedia article?”
Yes. Yes I do. I could go find the CIA World Factbook or whatever, but it will say the same thing as Wikipedia, because Wikipedia is pretty much always right. When you challenge Wikipedia on basic facts, all you do is force people to use inconvenient sources to back up the things Wikipedia says, costing people time for no reason and making them hate you. There may have been a time when Wikipedia was famously inaccurate. Or maybe there wasn’t. I don’t know. Wikipedia doesn’t have an article on it, so it would take time and energy to find out. The point is, now it’s 2015, and the matter has been settled.
How accurate is Wikipedia?:
Several studies have been done to assess the reliability of Wikipedia. An early study in the journal Nature said that in 2005, Wikipedia’s scientific articles came close to the level of accuracy in Encyclopædia Britannica and had a similar rate of “serious errors”. The study by Nature was disputed by Encyclopædia Britannica, and later Nature replied to this refutation with both a formal response and a point-by-point rebuttal of Britannica‘s main objections. Between 2008 and 2012, articles in medical and scientific fields such as pathology, toxicology, oncology, pharmaceuticals, and psychiatry comparing Wikipedia to professional and peer-reviewed sources found that Wikipedia’s depth and coverage were of a high standard.
I know this because I got it from Wikipedia’s Reliability Of Wikipedia article. Go ahead, challenge me, I dare you.
Scott Alexander, “These Are A Few (More) Of My (Least) Favourite Things”, Slate Star Codex, 2015-01-21.
October 9, 2016
Question: You write that, “There was no rational explanation or single event that triggered this sudden desire to possess Jerusalem. Various Muslim factions had held it for over four hundred years.” So how and why did what later became known as the First Crusade get started?
Answer: From a Western perspective, there was a growing interest in the Holy Land. Pilgrimage to Jerusalem had increased throughout the 11th century. There was more of a focused interest on the historical life of Christ, and as a result on historical Jerusalem, than there had been earlier in the Middle Ages.
From the Eastern perspective, starting in the mid-11th century there was an incursion of, as we like to say in the historical game, “barbarians from the East,” in this case the Seljuk Turks. Their advent — their takeover of Baghdad, their embrace of Sunni Islam — destabilized the region in a way that hadn’t happened in about 150 years.
Mixed into this was the emperor of Byzantium, Alexius Comnenus, who clearly felt endangered on all fronts, [including] from the Turks. He decided that the best way to deal with that was to write to the West and to request mercenaries to help him. He framed his request in semi-religious terms, but what he was really after were hardened professional mercenaries.
Meanwhile, in the West, pilgrims were coming back with horror stories of what they’d encountered in Jerusalem. There was a sense that the city of Christ was in danger and was being polluted by these barbarians whom they barely understood. When the request for mercenaries came from the emperor, which was subsequently given a stamp of approval by the pope, it transformed into a massive military movement fought in the name of holy war.
Virginia Postrel talking to Jay Rubenstein, “Why the Crusades Still Matter”, Bloomberg View, 2015-02-10.
October 8, 2016
The book [In the Jaws of the Black Dogs, (1999)] is a compelling, unpleasant read, valuable because it tells us three things. First, that such depressions do not yield to shrink fixes, and will not otherwise “go away.” Second, that there is no “template,” for each sufferer is his own constellation of symptoms which no outsider is privileged to explore. And thus, third, the depression can be controlled and mastered, only if one grasps these things. One must, as it were, leash one’s own black dogs, and it will be neither easy nor painless. While perhaps overwritten, the book is admirable for containing no victim’s plaint, no false appeal for applause, and absolutely no pop psychology.
David Warren, “Unfinished conversations”, Essays in Idleness, 2016-09-19.
October 7, 2016
Poe’s Law is the belief that some religious fundamentalists are so stupid that it’s impossible to distinguish them from a parody.
This is all nice and well in the abstract, but when applied to a particular case, where a particular atheist has fallen for a parody site, it tends to be an unfortunate stand-in for “Some atheists are so ignorant that it’s impossible for them to distinguish religious people from a parody of religious people.” Listen:
A: “The Pope just said that everyone who isn’t creationist should be put in jail! What an outrage!”
B: “Uh, you do know that’s on The Onion, right?”
A: “Oh, well, haha, Poe’s Law, just goes to show how dumb those religious people are.”
Problem is, Poe’s Law isn’t limited to religion any more. Now it’s politics, culture, science, and anywhere else where one side thinks their opponents are so stupid it’s literally impossible to parody them (ie everywhere on both sides). You spread the dumbest and most obviously fake rumors to smear your opponents. And then when you’re caught, instead of admitting you were fooled, you claim Poe’s Law and smear your opponents even more.
On the other hand, once you’re willing to admit this dynamic exists, it can make for some pretty interesting guessing games and unintentional Intellectual Turing Tests – see the Poe’s Law In Action subreddit for some examples.
Scott Alexander, “These Are A Few (More) Of My (Least) Favourite Things”, Slate Star Codex, 2015-01-21.