Monday, January 15, 2018

On conservatism

In A Conservative Manifesto, Holly A. Case laments the divergence between modern "conservatism" and the Peter Viereck's 1940 vision of conservatism, But—I'm a Conservative!. Case argues that Viereck espoused a "spiritual" vision of conservatism, as opposed to the crass materialism of the "conservatism" of the 1940s and 1950s. Case quotes Viereck's review of William F. Buckley's God and Man at Yale to highlight the rupture:
Is it not humorless, or else blasphemous, for this eloquent advocate of Christianity, an unworldly and anti-economic religion, to enshrine jointly as equally sacrosanct: ‘Adam Smith and Ricardo, Jesus and St. Paul?' And why is this veritable Eagle Scout of moral sternness silent on the moral implications of McCarthyism in his own camp?
As quoted by Case, Viereck accused the "conservatives of the pocketbook" as divorcing property from moral responsibility and of suborning revolution instead of maintaining stability. If his chief complaint against Marxism had been against "its materialistic assault on all our non-economic values of the spirit," then how could he have seen the nascent conservatism of the 1950s — or what passes for "conservatism" in the first decades of the 21st century — as anything different?

But even Viereck's supposedly more "humanistic" conservatism is absurd and self-contradictory. His conservatism hinges on Law.
The conservative's principle of principles is the necessity and supremacy of Law and of absolute standards of conduct. I capitalize 'Law,' and I mean it. Suppose it were proved that the eternal absolutes do not really exist. Instinctively we should say: So much the worse for them. But now we must learn to say: So much the worse for existence! We have learned that from sad experience of centuries. Paradoxically, we have learned that man can only maintain his material existence by guiding it by the materially nonexistent: by the absolute moral laws of the spirit.
This old atheist's hackles rise when I hear the words, "So much the worse for existence!" For if these "eternal absolutes do not really exist," then they must come from human beings in historically contingent social, political, and economic circumstances. Specifically, those human beings who happen to have the power to enforce "eternal absolutes", and whose first concern must always be the preservation of their power at all costs. Like most self-described conservatives, Viereck suffers from a failure of the imagination. There is a vast middle ground between anarchism and mob rule on the one hand and eternal absolutes (that we must contingently imagine) on the other.

I would agree with Viereck that liberty is as much or more about discipline and restraint than it is about freedom. And I would also agree with Viereck that at least little-ell law is important to maintain discipline and restraint in a society. As an individual who depends on others for my very life, and whose lives depend on me, I want to know what other people believe I and they must and must not do (discipline) and what we may do (freedom). I want these norms to be about the same tomorrow as they are today. A body of little-ell laws, enforced by at least some violence, and subject to a deliberative process of change seems a workable way of establishing, maintaining, and, most importantly, legitimizing these norms. I can assent to the good laws not because they are Law, but because they are good. I can, in theory, tolerate the few bad laws knowing that they are susceptible to change. I do not need to believe the laws are or pretend to be "eternal absolutes"; I need to believe they are good enough for now, and can be made better.

There are excellent objective reasons why we should consider how we do things today one reasonable justification to do things the same way tomorrow, and to go beyond immediate expediency in our social institutions: bounded rationality and rational ignorance, the prisoner's dilemma, asymmetric and imperfect information, not to mention any number of cognitive biases and our abysmal lack of statistical intuition. As the saying goes, it's tough to make predictions, especially about the future*, so we have to rely — at least to some extent — on history and tradition.

*Misattributed to Yogi Berra.

But to say that law is useful is not to say that it is transcendent, even in our social imagination. The law is a tool, and however useful a tool, it is not an end in itself. When we allow law to become Law, when we think of the compromises and negotiations we have made to live together in a little more peace today than yesterday as some sort of eternal verities, we limit our legitimate growth as much as we prevent decay. Viereck is clear: "You weaken the magic of all good laws every time you break a bad one, every time you allow mob lynching of even the guiltiest criminal." What can Viereck mean but to condemn the hiding of Jews from the Nazis, the transportation of black slaves to Canada, and the execution of tyrants. The charge that Law itself is an end is nothing but a dishonest tactic to defend the privilege and power of self-appointed Lawgivers.


Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, and I've been reminded of King's remarks from Letter from a Birmingham Jail rebuking "the white moderate, who is more devoted to 'order' than to justice." This is my overwhelming sense when I read conservatives such as Viereck, who talk about Law rather than Justice. If there's anything that I can even imagine as an eternal absolute, it is Justice, not Law. Justice is about more than rules, more than just discipline and restraint. Even the most unjust can be disciplined and — at least in some things — restrained. It is possible that discipline and restraint are necessary for Justice, but unlike Law, they cannot be sufficient. In endorsing mere Law, conservatives at best set themselves too low a bar, and at worst argue that the rules matter more than the justice they should serve.


Administrators - a parable after Kafkaby Emrys Westacott
In the beginning, there were only professors and students, and relations between them were very simple. A student would give the professor half of the fee for a course at the first class, and the remainder after the last class. A few poorer students, who could not pay the full amount in cash, would sometimes bring vegetables they had grown, or a fish they had caught, and the professors accepted these graciously. The widow of a former mathematics professor pickled the vegetables and salted the fish before distributing them among the faculty.

As the college grew, so did its reputation, and as more classes were needed, more professors came to teach. To make things easier for the professors, the widow began collecting the fees and depositing them at the local bank. She also began keeping simple records. At some point, no-one could remember exactly when, the professors agreed among themselves to pay her a stipend for the services she provided.

Tuesday, January 02, 2018

Hard work and luck

In Communist China, I was taught that hard work would bring success. In the land of the American dream, I learned that success comes through good luck, the right slogans, and monitoring your own—and others’—emotions.

Puzhong Yao. The Western Elite from a Chinese Perspective

Monday, January 01, 2018

Black Mirror Season 4

Don't get me wrong: if season 4 had been Black Mirror's first, I would have called it one of the greatest science fiction shows ever. It's very very good. With the exception of "Crocodile" (a hot mess, with nothing to redeem it, and should, like "National Anthem", simply be skipped), the remaining episodes live with the best of The Twilight Zone and Outer Limits.

And yet...

The first three seasons of Black Mirror had a theme: some tech — usually something we think we might like now — made the world a horrible place, and some ordinary person was crushed by this technology. Only Season 1's "National Anthem" (terrible) and Season 2's "The Waldo Moment" (funny, but not horrifying) depart from this trope.

Season 4 completely abandons that theme for more conventional science fiction plots. Instead of a technological dystopia, three episodes, "USS Callister", "Arkangel", and "Black Museum", feature some one-off technology with unfortunate consequences for its early adopters. "Metalhead" is a post-apocalyptic chase thriller, but with little if any commentary on the present. "Hang the DJ" is a cute romantic comedy in an unusual setting, despite brushing the enslavement and murder of 2000 sentient beings under the carpet.

I don't know that Charlie Booker could have sustained the first three seasons' dystopian trope. Although still excellent overall, season 4 feels like a retreat into conventional science fiction.

Black Mirror is dead. Long live Black Mirror!

Crush the Republicans? Sure, but...

In How to crush Trump, Ryan Cooper observes that
[I]n 2020, Trump must be crushed at the ballot box. His corrupt administration must be thoroughly investigated, and any criminal acts punished.
That could happen.
More importantly, the economic base of Republican plutocracy — Wall Street, monopolist corporations, and idle rich heirs and heiresses — must also be crushed. Monopolies must be broken up, taxes on the rich and corporations dramatically increased, and the size, profitability, and power of Wall Street sharply reduced with cricket bat regulations.
Not gonna happen, or at least the Democratic party won't do it. Where do you think the Democrats' money comes from? The Democrats are just as beholden to Wall Street as the Republicans.

More importantly, politics is class struggle. The capitalist class was checked in the 20th century by the professional-managerial class, but this class is barely a class (they have lost a lot of class consciousness), and even as a class, they are cowardly and weak. Even as a coherent class, the PMC is just as afraid of the workers having any power, and they know that the firm, not the government, can best restrain the power of the working class.

The chief difference between the Democrats and the Republicans is that the Democrats are less racist and sexist than the Republicans. The Democrats are the party of and for the 1 and 0.1 percent of women and people of color; they are not the party of working people.