Some vaguely liberal principles I seem to have found to hold up well

Saturday, 23 February 2019, 12:32 | Category : Uncategorized
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1. Human groups range from the whole human race through the nation, the city, the family and the individual (with many intermediate groupings like friendships, clubs, churches, professional organizations, corporations, international treaty organizations, etc). Larger groups often include many smaller ones. Even an individual can have subordinate sources of action, as evidenced by various sorts of involuntary impulses, internal conflicts, and indecision. Each level in this complex hierarchy has its own integrity and its own rules. The one with the greatest integrity is the human individual: the number of constituent communications among all the cells within a single human body dwarfs to insignificance even systems as complex as an ecosystem, a nation, or even the total sum of connections in the worldwide internet. Thus it is the integrity of the human individual—i.e. personal freedom–that should be considered as a sort of veto in any decision to alter the arrangements of the entire hierarchy.

2. Subsidiarity: given this range of groupings, actions are best decided on, and problems best solved, at the lowest level (in the smallest group) for which the challenge exists. Personal thoughtfulness is the best way of solving individual and family problems. Custom, courtesy, handshakes, and manners are best for dealing with many issues inside local groups. Markets should rule through most contexts between the realm of voluntary communities and large scale political constitutions; contracts (central to the market) work best for a wide range of concerted actions. A system of civil law only becomes necessary when contracts are breached. Criminal law comes into play in cases of coercion, fraud, injury or wrongful death. Constitutional law and democratic voting compete to deal with larger issues, and international law deals with larger ones still. The “higher” levels of regulation should not command the lower: the lower levels are responsible for corralling the higher levels within their own (hopefully rare) regions of legitimate authority and drastic enforcement. When the weight of the State comes down on some thoughtless local offence, huge damage is done to the assumption that human beings are free and responsible, that is, moral beings worthy of human and civil rights.

3. The market is the only system that humanity has found to engage simultaneously the judgments of the maximum number of human beings (in setting prices) day by day and moment by moment. Thus it is the most democratic of all forms of assigning value. (Democratic in Churchill’s sense that it is the worst system imaginable with the exception of all the others.) Markets are the only known antidote to tribalism (barring moral reform, which by definition cannot be enforced, since morality only applies to cases where free choice exists, and the enforcer defines the morality). Tribalism says you can kill a stranger and take her stuff. A market says that maybe you could trade for the stuff rather than risk a fight. The market is a game rather than a duel. Negotiation and compromise are forms of trading.

4. We must resist the universal human desire to call in an authority higher than that of oneself and one’s opponent in a dispute, an authority that is on one’s own side and that will suppress one’s foe. Only the prevention of force or fraud justifies such an abandonment of the local rules of play. Such invocation of a higher level is usually destructive in some way, and thus the evil that must be suppressed should be clearly greater than the evil of intervention. If you hand over power to a judge, you run the risk of corrupting the judge and damaging the tacit local consensus and the efficient harmony it supports.

5. Civilization is a good. Generally speaking, a culture that has included, preserved in itself, and amicably reconciled many other cultures is likely to be qualitatively better in the realms of value—that is truth, beauty, and goodness. Not because of any innate superiority of its members but because more human decisions and more accumulated creativity and accumulated criticism will be brought to bear in any situation. The principle of subsidiarity nevertheless protects minority holdouts against a broader consensus, so there is a necessary tension between the value of local parochial wisdom and a more global, tolerant cosmopolitan wisdom: between the dear familiarity of local arts, crafts, customs, rituals, etc, and the grand historical richness of the world’s great classical civilizations (such as Europe, China, India, the Middle East, Mesoamerica and others). Great classical civilizations are traditions of debate, of enlarging spheres of discourse, of inclusion. “The West” was made up of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of different tribal viewpoints. Likewise China, Islam, etc. The grand historical richness of the classical cultures is made up of the dear freshness of the local practices and perspectives they originally opened themselves up to. And the richness is lost when their local idiosyncratic roots are cut out or forgotten.

5. Getting our words right is not just a scholarly eccentricity but is fundamental to decent political discourse.

Three misused words:

The word “privilege” is seriously misused as a political weapon. All people have a RIGHT to be treated fairly by their neighbors and by the authorities. It is not a privilege. Indeed, many people are deprived of that right, and the law should be used severely to restore that right to them. They are not “underprivileged,” nor are those who are treated fairly “privileged.” “Privilege” implies an unfair or unjust precedence or special treatment and can thus be weaponized. But to assume that someone in proper possession of their rights is thereby unqualified to understand the plight of those who have been deprived of them clearly does not follow; indeed, the more freedoms someone has, the freer their imagination to experience the condition of others. The term “privileged” used in the current sense is harmful in another way: it (intentionally?) confuses the respect naturally given to hard work and achievement with foolish and arbitrary distinctions of class, race, and rank.

The word “appropriation” in the context of “cultural appropriation” is another innocent but weaponized feature of the current lexicon. “Appropriate” is a fancy word for “steal:” cultural appropriation means a kind of stealing that does not include physical objects but ideas, symbols, memes, styles, etc. We already have laws of copyright and intellectual property and sanctions against plagiarism, trademark abuse, ripoffs, fakes, and suchlike. Those laws should be enforced. End of story. But it’s not the end. As a weapon the word “appropriation” has done great harm and could do much more. If it is theft for a “white” person to wear a kimono, a dashiki, a war-bonnet, a cheongsam or a sari, it is theft for anyone who is not a white person to wear a business suit or an evening gown. If it is theft for a white to practice yoga or chant mantras or play jazz, it is theft for nonwhites to use the principles of science and mathematics, or to play soccer, or to speak English, for that matter. Should English people stop using the originally Latin or French words in the lexicon? It is amazing how fast any application of the idea of cultural property, beyond sensible copyright, degenerates into absurdity. All great civilizations became so by combining many different tribal memes; language itself is a way of sharing thoughts; translation is the only way brilliant literary achievements get the audience they deserve. The idea of “cultural appropriation” is a dagger aimed at the heart of the human race.

The word “identity” has come to mean almost exactly the opposite of its earlier meaning. Words do change their meaning—“awful” changed from meaning deserving of respect to deserving of contempt, and “awesome” from sobering to exciting—and that is normal. But sometimes the meaning change can be deeply toxic. “Identity” used to mean that which is unique about a human being, some kind of inner special quality that only that person contains, something whose dignity and exceptionality makes one irreducible and uncategorizable. It has now come to mean the exact reverse: the category that a person falls into that makes him or her indistinguishable from other members of their racial or ethnic or gender group. The earlier meaning seemed to value the extent to which someone did not fit into the group to which they were assigned by the public; it now seems to value the extent to which a person’s inner being, freedom of action, original ideas, and contrarian independence are subordinated to the solidarity of the race, gender “identity,” class or ethnic group to which one claims to belong. It is a clan tattoo, a uniform, not an inner spirit. It is as if we have despaired of the project of standing out, making one’s mark, and achieving something unique–and have instead turned to some readymade category to provide a substance and value that we lack as an individual. In other words, “identity” as it now stands implies that one is limited and characterized by one’s race, class, and gender. This is the same contention as that of racists, classists, and sexists.

6. Tribalism and racism are inborn among human beings as a result of our evolution. Racism, factionalism, classism, sexism, ethnocentrism are by-products of neurophysiological mechanisms that are called “discrimination” and “prejudice.” They do not need to be “taught by society;” on the contrary, all functioning societies try to suppress them at least as far as their own borders, and so they should. These discriminatory mechanisms were once survival traits and even now are often rules of thumb or the equipment for necessary first impressions. Any kind of expectation based on prior information or experience is literally prejudice. One expects to be in danger if one approaches a cliff edge or a wild animal or someone who seems to have rabies or be drugged or in a state of rage or wearing a KKK hood. One avoids a snake hardly at all on the basis of experience but on the basis of what one has heard and read from other people. If only 1/10 of the set of things of which one has just encountered an example is known to be dangerous, that is enough for a sensible human being to be suspicious. “Mostly harmless,” in Douglas Adams’ disquieting phrase, is not reassuring. But first impressions (good or bad) based on prejudice, though inevitable, are only a default state subject to review. And we also possess a strong anomaly detector, so that we are encouraged to question our own stereotypes if out of boredom alone. Prejudice is the hypothesis without which observation and experiment are meaningless. Prejudice is the first furlong of the only road to knowledge.

Human civilization depends upon identifying and suppressing the most dangerous and potentially evil forms of discrimination while encouraging the kinds that make us prefer a good medication to a bad one, a good painting to a bad one, or a good law, bargain, moral act, or neighbor to a bad one. No human has enough individual experience to make these decisions, and must thus rely on social institutions like science, education, scholarship and philosophy to guide him or her. These disciplines urge us to look twice, to question our stereotypes, correct our misconceptions, test the evidence, examine the chain of reasoning, seek the unique exception that makes something itself. Such disciplines must themselves be always alert to the dangers of corrupt old habits of mind or fresh ideological passions that would rip the fabric of subsidiarity and create new unjustified prejudices.

Tribalism is especially virulent when it is found in noble and tolerant people who are aware of their own virtue and who feel totally justified in their hatred of those in whom it is lacking. Consider Himmler’s speech to the SS at Posen:

And then they turn up, the upstanding 80 million Germans, and each one has his decent Jew. They say the others are all swines, but this particular one is a splendid Jew. But none has observed it, endured it. Most of you here know what it means when 100 corpses lie next to each other, when there are 500 or when there are 1,000. To have endured this and at the same time to have remained a decent person — with exceptions due to human weaknesses — has made us tough, and is a glorious chapter that has not and will not be spoken of.

Himmler’s appeal is to the higher moral instincts. In argument, beware of appeals to morality and moral solidarity. Best is exact knowledge of the case, and failing that, an intelligent imagination. In any conversation, always believe yourself to be a worse person than your partner. Let him keep the moral advantage; this may make him a little more relaxed in the presence of different ideas, and make you more prepared to question your own.

7. Evolution, we now know, takes place at all levels, all scales, and all time intervals. The brain alters its structure by thinking. We alter our bodies by action. We alter the potentiation, activation, and suppression of our genes (though not our genes themselves) by our habit and experience, and pass these settings on to our young. Through different rates of reproductive success we alter the gene-frequency of the species. By divergence in species habit and habitat we alter our species. By genetic engineering we may even alter our genes. This multilevel alterability is the substance and complex mechanism of freedom. Thus subsidiarity holds true for our biology, from the small, local and momentary to the large, global, and epochal. Freedom operates at all scales; the future does not exist, but is made by this work. Even inanimate matter alters itself by appearing in the next moment with slightly different coordinates with respect to everything else. But allow each level its own sphere. Do not overmaster the humble evolution of a good habit. Freedom is not merely the condition of creativity; it is creation itself. If love is the highest of all virtues, what is love if it is not the willing of the loved one’s freedom to make herself as she will?

On Gibbs’ Law

Tuesday, 18 September 2018, 16:12 | Category : Uncategorized
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A Bitter Poem for our Times

Tuesday, 21 November 2017, 18:55 | Category : Uncategorized
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I wrote this poem back in Bill Clinton’s second administration, and it seems relevant now. It’s in my collection PARADISE, David Robert Books.

Go Down for the President

Go down, go down, all you little men,
Know how the women ignore you;
The President has come to town,
His sacrament is upon their tongues.

Go down, go down, all you husbands,
Cuckolds and fools of the women;
The President has come to town,
He will take care of the poor children.

Go down, go down, all you old men,
Who lost the wars they laugh at now;
The President has come to town,
He is the boy who is immortal.

Go down, go down, all you narrow men,
Who kept the promises the others broke;
All the girls just love a sailor
Who has a girl in every town.

Go down, go down, all you working men,
Who make the houses and the chairs;
The President has come to town
And they burn the chairs upon the floor.

Go down, go down, explorers, adventurers.
While you were gone the big boy came
And smiled and made himself at home,
And the women couldn’t help themselves;

Go down, go down, go down.
For when the women suckle at his breast,
The President’s who’d give away his tie,
Should not the men go down, go down?

Introducing Annemarie Estor

Tuesday, 21 November 2017, 12:21 | Category : Uncategorized
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The Lamb by Annemarie Estor

(“The Lamb” by Annemarie Estor)




Ride the End

The end is coming,
the end is coming, snorting in the rain,
with great friends and grinning fire-hooks
with a gallop on hollow ground, with the snot of the aeons!

With colossal fellows
With spatters of goo high up on their groins
with numbed knuckles, kyrie eleison!

Haul out blankets from chests,
set tree-stumps on grid-irons to dry.

Save the fire in pots
for the sun will slow down,
and the air is falling apart in crystals
and stone will become as clear as water.

And we speak of sunrise and sunset.
We believe in our deceit. For the sun doesn’t suck itself
out of the swamp on the horizon. Doesn’t quench itself in those red ditches.

It’s all just language. The sun sails on indifferent.
She hears at a distance how loudly
We call upon God, and how cutting the wind.

One seeks echoes in vaults,
another the trilling in his brain.
Some call upon whatever is hiding
beyond the slums, further yet,
where the light burns behind the last encampment.

But the sun is not ours
and God is hiding behind the fagots,
in a pleat, in clumsy chanting.

So set fire to the wings for the guests from afar.
Make meat for the battlers. Scrape out the horses’ hooves.
Give the animals blankets of felted cobwebs.
Make soup. With lots of onions. For everyone. But mainly
for whoever feels that the end is coming.

For it is coming. Not on a horse,
not on wheels; not with battering rams,
but with a pain in the flank, a twitch of capillaries,
in a bit of disturbed code. A breath in the night-fog,
a stitch in a nerve-track.

But before the end demands its toll:
Set fire to the straw!
Toss everything over the beams!
Make everyone choose: bellow or be silent.

And ride her!
Ride her, that filly, that mare!
With one body made of fifty storm-lions!

Take her hard!
Make her feel who’s boss.
Clamp your hand like a trap round her neck.
Push out her shins, sign her
to fold her arms,
and take her in the pleat that bursts open on its own.
Splash in her loins.
Tear her open, now you still can!

Pierce her!
Find there the fire in her womb.

Pierce her through!
Find language in her belly.
Language of iron, nest of blood,
radioactive vowels,
and a radiant lamb.

Annemarie Estor
Translated by Frederick Turner



Annemarie Estor (1973), is a poet, an independent researcher in cultural studies and a copy editor at the Dutch-Flemish Streven Journal. She has a PhD in the Humanities from Leiden University, Netherlands, 2004, and was a fellow of the International School for Theory in the Humanities, Santiago de Compostela, Spain, 1999. She has published three volumes of poetry, all of which were awarded or nominated for literary prizes. Her works, often long narrative or epic surrealist poems, appear at Wereldbibliotheek Publishing House in Amsterdam. Her next narrative poem, No Man’s Land Night, will appear in April 2018.






Your Money or Your Life

Monday, 10 July 2017, 23:06 | Category : Uncategorized
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As a true believer in the efficacy and beneficial effects of markets, I am obliged to say what I think a market is.

Is a mother giving suck to her baby a market? One could make arguments that pleasure is being traded on both sides, and that the mother, as with mothers of all species, is trading some of her individual survival fitness for reproductive success and inclusive fitness. But I think most would agree that these descriptions leave out much that is of the highest importance to human beings, and that different categories—love, sacrifice, creative action, spiritual communion, gift, and so on are better descriptions of what is going on.

Likewise, a dedicated poet composing a poem–or artist painting a picture, or singer singing a song–cannot be fully described as engaging in a market. To the extent that market motivations enter into the action, the action is likely to be less effective. These are gifts, and certainly there are many kinds of gift exchange economy among human beings. But that kind of economy, to be what it is, must override considerations of remuneration. Certainly, some gifts are better than others, and when transferred to the market may fetch high prices; and the market may be very helpful in establishing how much better they are. But if they lose their original identity as a gift, sooner or later their market value will fall. This is why art collectors do not erase the painter’s signature and replace it with their own: something beyond ownership is paradoxically necessary to the painting’s value. And this is why artists will starve in garrets: their art is as important to them as their life.

Wikipedia contributors, recyclers, scientists, secret donors, teaching nuns, voters, and many other kinds of people do work that is effective, coordinated, and valuable but cannot be marketized without harm to the work itself. There are things that money can’t buy. The invisible hand works, and works well, but it works on markets and not necessarily on other things.

Take a different sort of case: is an armed holdup a market? “Your money or your life” does have the form of a market offer, but we would not call it a market. You have a free choice, Mr. Bond: Give me the secret code or die a lingering death. This is a joke because with a gun to our heads, or to the head of a loved one, we are not free. Our life has infinite value to us, so the invisible hand, which works with admirable efficiency in comparing relative quantities, must fail. The infinite is not comparable with the finite. Mr. Bond might well be prepared to die for the sake of his duty, as the artist for his art, but his judgement here is between two qualities (two Cantor cardinalities of infinity, a mathematician might say) and not between two quantities.

Again, an invading army can offer us a choice—of cooperation or death—but this is not a market choice.

So in a sense the term “free market” is redundant. A market is not a market unless it is free. The mother, the artist, the holdup victim, and Mr. Bond are not free to choose, but constrained by love or art or mortal fear or duty, whose valence is infinite compared with a quantifiable price. They’re not in the market.

We have established, then, what is a market. A market is an exchange that is a.) free and b.) a matter of finite quantities. If an exchange is free and a matter of quantities, both sides must profit, if only in their own estimation (and what other estimation counts in a free legal action?). The market is the realm of nonzero-sum games. Neither gifts nor holdups can substitute for them.

Two immediate political implications derive from this proposition. The first is that medical care cannot be marketized. With the nicest possible motives, doctors and hospitals are essentially saying “Your money or your life.” They have a gun to our heads, and even more important, to the heads of our loved ones. (There may be a sort of weird auction going on within the mind of an organ donor or terminal patient, weighing the “price” of another person’s life against our own, but as we have already seen, these comparisons are between qualities, not quantities.) In the world of health care we are not free.

Sometimes—often, in fact—we must weigh finites against infinites, quantities against qualities. This is the absolute precondition of being a human being with a body and a conscious self. We make laws that implicitly balance levels of highway safety (whose effect is life or death) against the cost and convenience of travel, doing business, etc; and we weigh the health hazards of the food we eat against the cost of food. But those exchanges—life for money—are not market transactions. Even in practical money terms health care must weigh finites against infinites.

So I have reluctantly come to the conclusion that health care cannot be a marketplace, because it is not a field in which we are free, and not one in which we are dealing only with comparable finite quantities. Given that medical care is ultimately not a market, and not subject to market discipline (we would pay anything to save our child’s life), we must resort to other means of allocating the real material quantities—of equipment, trained expertise, facilities, etc—that medicine needs.

All political communities have already decided that some functions are necessarily reserved to the government. Government by definition possesses a monopoly of coercion, which it executes through its police, its army and its judicial system, thus taking care of those exchanges that are not of the market kind, such as the holdup and the invading army. At least we elect the people who can hold a gun to our heads. Government rightly enforces building safety standards, toxic materials disposal, epidemiological restrictions, and the like. We are coerced by falling buildings, invisible toxins, and infectious diseases, and we give our governments coercive powers to resist them.

But the power of life and death possessed by the medical profession is not delegated to it by the government. It is like a police force or an army not subject to the elected government; potentially a rebel force! Since the medical system has a gun to our heads, and we as individuals have neither the knowledge nor even the legal right in most states to take the gun away, government must protect its monopoly of coercion by taking over the gun on our behalf. To transfer the gun to insurance companies (which, to be fair, are necessary and valuable market participants) does not help: it simply places the ultimatum in less caring hands.

A single payer system is the only rational basis of medical care.

Given that medicine is very expensive, this essentially means rationing. I used to think that a market solution to the problem of health care might be possible, until I realized that perfect health care—basically, healthy and certain immortality—has no upper limit in terms of cost. Its cost is potentially infinite. The human body is the most complicated thing in the known universe, and to understand it well, and thus to be able to heal it from all its ills, would be a task costing many many trillions of dollars. Even if we spent the entire gross national product on medical research, neglecting farming, manufacturing, and all our other activities, we might take a century to fully understand the human body. And of course to withdraw all those trillions of dollars from the economy would result in mass starvation, economic collapse, and chaos, which would at once halt the research project.

We have a case where a finite and comparable resource—capital—must be allocated to competing infinite and incomparable needs. As we give only to our democratically elected government the power of life and death in the case of the police and the army, so we must give government that power in the case of health care. We know that to do so will instantly invite corruption, rent-seeking, favoritism, discrimination, extortion, nepotism, etc, etc, which always accompany coercive power. But it’s the best we can do. Government does have means of estimating whether a given medical expenditure would save more lives than would be lost by withdrawing those financial resources from other necessary activities, such as farming, transport safety, water supply, education, etc. Though lives can not be balanced against amounts of money, amounts of money can be balanced against each other when no net lives will be lost or saved. Democratic government is tasked to find out the tipping point and try to keep us there.

We would indeed need to strive to maintain in the medical sphere (or create where it is lacking) the kind of professional honor and reputation culture that we find in the legal profession, in the professoriate, and in the military, at their best, as checks on the natural corruptions of power. Perhaps we could find ways of weakening the government in other ways to compensate for its now explicit medical control over who lives and who dies.

The other implication of our answer to the question about what is a market involves the need to work. If a citizen is coerced to work at a certain job by the need to survive and/or feed a family, then he or she is not free to choose. This predicament is that of a large fraction of humanity, but its pervasiveness is no objection to the point here. If we are not free to choose which job we take if we are qualified, or, more generally, free to choose whether or not to work at all, then we cannot be part of a market.

Markets, as economists tell us, are ways to involve the maximum number of human minds and wills in the decision on what should get made and done and passed around. In a functioning market, what millions of individual people want, what they feel they need, what they can do, what they can invent, and what means are at hand to do it, are marvelously integrated, as if by a distributed computational device or information processor- the invisible hand- into a set of simple quantitative price signals, comprehensible to all. But if the components of the device are damaged or corrupted by the threat of death, the individual sources of the information skewed by coercive forces, the resulting signals will be wrong. Since freedom of choice is a necessary precondition of the choosers involved, who are both the hardware and the sources of information of the processor, a system of unfree choosers does not constitute a market.

We must thus find a way of relieving the coercive circumstances that skew the choices of individuals and make them fail to function properly. The way that has been suggested by perceptive thinkers on both the right and the left is the guaranteed living wage, or better, a guaranteed dividend from the profits of the collective economic enterprise we call our nation. The idea of the dividend is important, because it is a way of improving the market, not by-passing it. Markets are based on ownership: as owners of our nation we are entitled to our own share in its profits.

If the participants in the market are freer, the market becomes more of a market. Given the power of free choice, workers could turn down jobs that do not match their human dignity or wages that are not proportional to the value they are creating, their refusal thus helping to give an accurate picture of what labor really costs. The ratio of how human attention and creative action are valued against consumer goods would be rectified. Among other things, such a change would constitute a huge economic boost to the development of robotics, and a rise in disposable income and thus in the size of the market and the opportunities for the introduction of new products, services, inventions, and forms of creative action and desire. Children would be valued more, if only because they would themselves have an income. A golden age of capitalism would be the result.

The increase in individual power that would result from such a change would, as a serendipitous by-product, constitute exactly the kind of diminution of the power of government that we were seeking as a compensation for its unfortunate increase as the new wielder of medical life and death. Citizens, by virtue of their dividend as owners of their nation, would have become empowered to choose what jobs they are willing and able to take, and thus able to stand up for themselves by individual strikes and boycotts rather than rely for their protection on political demagogues and bureaucratic government agencies.

Another benefit would be the necessary dismantling of much of the present welfare state, both as a way to help fund the national dividend and as a natural “withering away” for lack of demand. If all citizens have a sound living income, they can fend for themselves rather than be wards of the state. State power would be significantly diminished by the withdrawal of its welfare function.

Another way in which our system could become a better market is in the more accurate estimate of collective loss and profit. The concept of the national dividend would draw attention to the expense of national resources such as clean air, water, habitat, etc, as the loss side of the national balance sheet. Businesses would rightly be charged for their use of these collective properties instead of arbitrarily taxed to raise money for government ideas-people to spend. And on the other hand, the collective profit—the ways in which technological advances make a cell phone more valuable than it was ten years ago, for instance, or the money saved by safer self-drive cars, or the slow accumulation of value in our art galleries and libraries–would also be recognized and play its proper part in the budget. At present citizens (with some exceptions like the state of Alaska) are not permitted to receive the dividends accruing to their collective investment in their state, and the change would redress a long injustice. The true profit of statehood or nationhood would then be acknowledged and reckoned in to the balance-sheet, thus correcting an ancient distortion of our collective system of exchange and making it more of a market.

The water in a complex system of pipes and cisterns has no trouble finding the most perfect surface level as it is filled, and does so almost instantaneously if there are no blockages in it. Individual water molecules, reacting with each other and with gravitation, perform this feat with no Maxwell’s demon ordering each molecule to its prescribed station. If there is an infinite amount of water, there can be no surface level; and if there are blockages, the correct surface level cannot be achieved. In this analogy, the pipes constitute the market, the surface level the best level of prices and wages, and the water molecules the buying and selling population. The requirements for establishing the surface level are thus a finite (if increasing) quantity, and freedom. Freedom requires the removal of obstacles such as health threats and the existential need to work, and their assignment to different systems of decision making.

A market cannot bear the infinites imposed by the fear of death: a single-payer state system of health care and a universal living dividend will free the market to do what it does best.

Fact and its Enemies

Monday, 10 July 2017, 20:43 | Category : Uncategorized
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It is becoming obvious: a large part of our population has been persuaded that all of our systems for establishing facts are tainted, biased, and/or mendacious. This skepticism extends not only to the findings of natural science, but to those of journalism, law, history, medicine, agriculture, and economics. This is an era of “alternative facts,” “fake news,” “phony research,” “hoaxes,” photoshopping and conspiracy theories. Malign intentionality is attributed to uncomfortable statements of fact, and statements of false facts are forgiven if they support our side of the battle. No statement is taken at face value, the personal is the political; objectivity is impossible, so it is a lie when anyone claims it. “Essentialism”—the claim that something is something and not something else—has become a term of abuse. The normal reaction to a statement with which one disagrees is: “he’s only saying it because…”

If one checks Ngram for words denoting veridicality and verification, some very interesting trends reveal themselves. What is clear is that the words for the process of establishing what is the case, irrespective of how we feel about it–“evidence,” “fact,” “prove,” “proof”–have sharply declined in use since the ‘sixties, while the words expressing the personal sensation of the actual—“real,” “reality,” “experience”—have increased. “Truth” and “true”, words expressing personal commitment, sharply declined after the ‘sixties, possibly because of the increasing unfashionability of religion, but in the early part of the twenty-first century there has been a sharp and remarkable rise in the use of both. It’s true for me, they say, and increasingly it’s true for us. “Reason” declined dramatically in the ‘sixties, but has made a slight comeback. Evidently we now think we have some new truths. “Logic,” oddly enough, continued its slow rise: I believe because of the increasing use of the word in the form: “the logic of,” usually with the cynical meaning of a rationale supporting a bad practice. “Logical,” however, declined. The greatest casualty overall has been the word “fact,” which, already in decline throughout the Twentieth Century, collapsed more steeply in the ‘sixties and never came back.

The loss of faith in factuality is not confined to any part of the political spectrum (or to be more exact, the political color wheel or color solid). Denial is everywhere. Here is a loose list I have compiled from recent experience in the Web.

Climate change denial
Holocaust denial
Evolution denial
Racism (as denial of the biological fact of the equality of the races)
Sexism (as denial of the biological fact of the equality of the sexes)
Antisemitism (as denial of the biological fact of the equality of the races and of the huge cultural, economic, intellectual and aesthetic contributions made to the world by this small “tribe”)
The diversity movement (denial that there are better, and worse, cultural ways of regarding the world)
Denial that there are any benefits of the nation state (radical libertarianism, anarchism)
Denial of the systematic inefficiency and/or corruption of any state
Denials of scientific findings by the anti-GMO movement
The anti-immunization movement
Denial of the deterministic causality of many events in the physical universe
Denial of the reductive method as one way of finding the truth
Denial of emergence in the universe, and of top-down causality
Denial of the possibility of different lawful outcomes of physical causes.
Free market denial—the refusal to admit the proven benefits of free markets
Denial of the validity of the legal system, as inevitably a political instrument: skepticism of the validity of jury trial, the rights of the accused, etc
Journalism denial: the belief that there cannot be such a thing as an honest journalist
Denial of the enormous economic benefits of immigration
Moon landing denial
Denial of the value of families and marriage
The refusal by the anti-bank faction to believe in the proven benefits of banking
The gold bug belief system and other denials of the validity of a fiat or illocutionary currency
Philosophical opposition to biological and neurological understandings of human behavior
Misology: the belief that language cannot grasp reality at all
Spirit denial: the denial that the term “spirit” refers to anything

Let it be said right away that reasonable skepticism is essential not only in assessing the conclusions of fact-based inquiry, but also crucially in the discovery of facts themselves. (Scientists love to pick nitpicking holes in each other’s theories and experimental practice, and lawyers love to refute each other’s logic or grasp of precedent. And this practice is constitutive of science and law.) Some of the denials listed above may be more or less justified and may be vindicated by later study. The point here is not the extent to which the denial is itself innocently biased or strategically founded on ulterior motives, which may be the case either for the proponents of a fact or for its opponents. What is at issue, I believe, is something more fundamental: whether the establishment of what is a correct view of things is possible at all, or even desirable if it were possible.

Shouldn’t morality, ethics, override cognitive accuracy? This sounds promising, but put it into concrete cases: Shouldn’t we go on doing what is, according to our moral system, the right thing, even if the facts make such actions totally destructive? Shouldn’t we go on sending food to famine areas in Africa even when it ruins local farmers and provides warlords with a monopoly of the food supply? The experience of Communism is very alarming in this respect: make the peasants equal and starve them to death. Sow wheat in the tundra because agricultural theory is a wicked and essentialist capitalist illusion. Do we applaud or condemn the hung jury in the Cosby case, weighing two centuries of lynchings against millennia of abuse against women—instead of whether he did it or not? Out of concern for the happiness of her students, shouldn’t a professor avoid telling them the truth, lest it “trigger” their traumatic memories? But then, couldn’t one accurately describe education itself as a process of triggering?–that is, the presentation of information that was previously unknown to or denied by the student, and thus at least surprising, often shocking, and humiliating in its implication of the student’s prior ignorance?

More dangerously still in my opinion, aren’t different groups of people entitled to have their own narrative of reality, a hermeneutic system incommensurable with that of others? Why dangerous? Because the only rational behavior for such a group would be war against every other group, since in this view there is no common touchstone for agreement and basis of mutual accommodation. Their narrative might include the destruction of ours—how could we know, not sharing it? Better to get them before they get us. Pure pluralism is great in theory, but a recipe for eternal bloodshed in practice.

Clearly our capacity for compartmentalization saves us, much of the time, from a literal enactment of our denials. The phenomenologist disbeliever in the determinism and quantifications of physical science rides in an airplane which, if an enormous pyramid of scientifically-established deterministic facts were not true enough, even to several decimal points of quantification, would plunge at once to the ground. The believer in strict universal determinism uses a cellphone that would not work without the constitutive randomness of quantum mechanics. The anti-immigration racist watches the bracero fix her roof. The brilliant opponent of the institution of marriage got his clarity of mind from growing up in an intact and functioning family. The ex-Baptist atheist learned independence of mind by rebelling against a corny Baptist Dad who loves her. The closet anti-Semitic opponent of banking cashes her checks through an institution in whose absence no culture has been able to create a society larger than a village. The climate change denier moves inland. The evolution denier gets an antibiotic against a bacterium that has evolved into a new resistant species. The protectionist drives his Toyota to the Trump rally. The American Foucauldian social scientist judges the quality of a fine sake or a correct yoga pose, ignoring his own conviction that cultures are incommensurable. The vaccination denier’s unvaccinated children are healthy because all of her neighbors’ children are vaccinated. The red state’s economy is supported by blue state cities and taxes. The inevitably biased journalist’s “lies” are refuted by another journalist’s courageous hard-hitting ”objectivity.”

No. The problem now may not simply be that we are saved from our denials by our capacity to ignore them in practice, but that we may now have constructed a strange sort of justification for the rejection of any fact we don’t like. We may now be able to practice intellectual hypocrisy not only by human inadvertence, but advertedly and with good conscience.

I first became aware of the peculiar complexity of this problem during the Iraq War. I had concluded, rather late I am afraid, that it was not a good idea and that there probably were no weapons of mass destruction. I was therefore opposed to the policy on what I took to be factual grounds, and was looking for a presidential candidate of either major party—or preferably, a viable one from a third—to correct the grave mistake. What I could not understand was the nature of the accusation against the President and his team: that they were lying. It was now clear to me that many of our Iraqi allies were lying, but I did not believe for an instant that the British and German intelligence services were lying, or that Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld or Powell were lying either.

Certainly, I was aware that when we want to believe something, evidence in support looms larger than evidence opposed or absence of evidence itself; having been down that route myself a few times, I could empathize with it in others. But I know that I was not lying in the past when I had taken as true an appealing idea that had some decent evidence for it but turned out to be wrong. I had, for instance, taken as gospel the idea that our genes determine our development in partnership with our environment, but did not know the major role that the regulatory genes and other epigenetic factors could play in producing hugely different outcomes from the same set of genes. Lamarck was, after all, partly right. I was not lying when I insisted on the determinative power of the genes: I was wrong.

And clearly Bush, Cheney, Powell, Blair, Chirac, and all the other national leaders were wrong too. But not (necessarily) lying. I felt that it would be ungenerous to the people who were making the accusation of lies that they were simply cynical, that they knew that their enemies were sincere, and wanted to paint them as evil rather than stupidly naïve. If so, the critics would have been lying themselves, on a matter just as important as the original mistake. What had happened, I realized, was that the word “lie” had changed its meaning.

So they must have been meaning “lie” in the (new) sense of “a sincere belief in a wrong fact, motivated by a corrupt point of view,” or something similar. In other words, it is the moral disposition of the person that determines the truth of what they say, not necessarily the evidence or reasoning by which they arrived at it or whether they actually believe it. The moral disposition of Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Blair, etc, was evil and thus anything they said was a lie, even if they believed it, with evidence. They would be saying the same thing even if they didn’t believe it, and so we might as well condemn them for lying anyway, even if they didn’t feel that what they were saying was a lie.

But if “lie” had changed its meaning, “truth” must have too. And here, as I tried to work this out in the following years, I had the help of a brilliant comedian, Stephen Colbert. His coinage, “truthiness,” was, I think, profound in two ways, one that he intended and another, even more important, that he didn’t.

The first of the two meanings of “truthiness” is the nature of something that sounds true but isn’t. It describes the attempt to dress up in all the robes and accouterments of truth—apparent evidential support, institutional décor (like the impressive furniture and equipment of the newsroom), the scientist’s apparently innocent objectivity, the power suit, the vocabulary of the blunt policeman, the polysyllables of the scholar, the judicial verbiage of the court system, the more-in-sorrow-than-anger nobility of the patriot, the pose of the hard-hitting honest reporter—something that ain’t so. Colbert hit this perfectly with his new word.

But the point of “truthiness” in this sense is that it hijacks the prestige of the existing system of factual discovery and factual explanation. Hypocrisy, said La Rochefoucauld, is the tribute that vice pays to virtue. The truthy liar at least knows that there is a truth and what it might sound like, and may even respect the critical truth-creation process that she mimics. She steals, but she is not under the illusion that she really owns what she has stolen.

The other sense of “truthiness” is more alarming. What if truthiness is truth? Think of a star defense lawyer, whose genuine duty it is to make the most convincing argument possible for a defendant whom he knows is guilty as sin. For a sophisticated jury, he will use subtle psychological or philosophical or sociological arguments; for an ignorant and naïve jury he will revert, like Johnny Cochran, to the ancient authority of rhyme: “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.” But what if the attorney, winning case after case, has been at it so long that he has now convinced himself that the verdict actually creates its truth, retroactively, so to speak, and he, the lawyer, must disbelieve his own lyin’ eyes? Since the personal is the political, and everything is in framing and context, and framing and context are determined by society, and society is determined by economic interest, and economic interest is determined by the construction of knowledge, and that construction is determined by coercive power, and coercive power comes from the support of the coercer’s followers–the only alternative to something that is truthy is something that is even truthier.

Our defense attorney has now crossed a threshold. He is now no longer a hypocrite. He is a pragmatist. If the appurtenances of truth actually work and socially construct the reality, maybe they’re not fake after all? Maybe rhetoric determines truth, and logic and evidence are the handmaidens of rhetoric, to be used or not according to the moral demands of the moment. The god of the gaps will take care of the holes.

How did we get here? The story I have to tell is one that will not please many people, especially those on the Left who are well justified in their outrage against the blatant contradictions of the Trump regime. For it was the Left in the first place that supplied the philosophical weapons that are now being used against it (and against the old Right too). As Marx put it: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.” (Thesis 11.) Fox News is the perfect incarnation of the idea of the social construction of reality. Its method is deconstruction, and its ideology is the Foucauldian concept of the regime of power and knowledge. And the other network media are now trying to catch up.

Go back to the baby boom and the G.I. Bill, when millions of Americans went to college for the first time in their family’s history. Universities and colleges, forced to expand, were desperately seeking faculty. The humanities and social sciences still possessed enormous prestige, and they seemed easier than “plastics.” So those disciplines went through a wild and sudden expansion in the numbers of their participants. But they only seemed easier than science and math. Many people first entering the arcane mysteries of literature and the foundation-questioning disciplines of historiography and sociology—both students and their new faculty—naturally felt a certain resentment at having to abandon their family and folk traditions of knowledge and belief. I was teaching them myself at the time, and the reaction was clear. In self-defense many adopted the pose of revolutionaries against the dead white europhallogocentric capitalist male hegemony. After all, that hegemony had tried to draft them into that horrible war—what allegiance did they owe to Western Civ? For at the same time Lyndon Johnson was escalating the Vietnam War, using all the rhetorical skills that he was also employing to bring about racial equality in the South. The left, largely (and ironically) imported from Europe, as the anointed victor over Nazism and fascism, provided the intellectual muscle; and the methods of mass persuasion, used so well by Lenin, Mussolini and Hitler, all of them self-described socialists, provided the method.

As the new generation matured, its heroes deconstructed, one by one, the traditional sources of certainty. Herbert Marcuse undermined the traditional idea of liberal toleration as a means to reach the truth by debate (see his astonishing essay “Repressive Tolerance”); Ken Kesey trashed our trust in psychiatry; Rachel Carson made farming an ethical problem; revisionist history made us cynical about any kind of history; Timothy Leary questioned our sense of reality; Marshall McLuhan made us redirect our attention from the message to the medium; Evelyn Fox Keller made science relative to gender; Thomas Kuhn historicized science, and Paul Feyerabend and Bruno Latour undermined the idea of scientific objectivity; congressional districts were gerrymandered to satisfy moral claims against racial inequality; Stanley Milgram showed that rational dissent from evil is a minority trait in human populations; in anthropology departments cultural differences were treated as determinative of reality; race, after having been rejected as a criterion of worthiness in favor of the “content of one’s character,” rose again as the epitome of identity politics, relativizing all speech to the color of one’s skin; and then we had Jacques Derrida, attacking any kind of signification, and Paul de Man with his radical defense of dishonesty.

Now much of this process was probably necessary and even beneficial in the long run: the acid of radical critique, if it cleanses only the dross from the true metal, is of great value. But if it eats the metal, then we are in trouble. We do well to inspect ourselves severely, lest we tell untruths–whether from ignorance, well-meaning bias, a desire to accommodate ourselves to our set, or stubborn hatred of our perceived enemies. But if all we have to give our children is a bunch of negative injunctions against any kind of belief in fact, we should not be surprised if they believe anything they want to believe or that serves them to believe. I speak of the generations who are now coming into power, the children and grandchildren of the boomers. For many of them the éclat of being in on the conspiracy theory and the reputation for originality that comes with lockstep contrarian orthodoxy outweigh any sense of the need to get things right.

The saddest thing to me is the loss of that old western tradition of liberal, playful, and friendly tolerance of opposing views. The free speech movement is now the property of the bigoted right, and the impulse toward enforced fascist groupthink that of the radical left. Instead of the Sproul Hall steps we have safe spaces.

Lacking any veridical and cognitive means of establishing reality, where might one go to find something reliable on which to base one’s actions? Two other means of evaluative judgement exist: the aesthetic and the moral. In fact the aesthetic is defensible as a basis: it is the way that scientists choose to concentrate on one theory over equally plausible and evidence-based one. The fact that the sun and stars rise in the east and fall in the west could, I suppose, be a coincidence—there is no counter-argument against it being so. But the Ptolemaic system is much prettier, and the Copernican system prettier still, and the Einsteinian one yet more so. Einstein maintained that his account of the precession of Mercury was so beautiful it must be true.

But America’s puritan heritage and deep habit of thought would not tolerate the aesthetic as a way of judging what is real. So the only basis left is moral. America is an admirably, even sometimes unbearably, moral nation. Of course—and here is the problem—morality can have the most horrible consequences. Consider Himmler’s speech to the Einsatzgruppen:

Most of you here know what it means when 100 corpses lie next to each other, when there are 500 or when there are 1,000. To have endured this and at the same time to have remained a decent person — with exceptions due to human weaknesses — has made us tough, and is a glorious chapter that has not and will not be spoken of. 

If reality is what the Führer says it is, then Himmler’s morality makes sense. But what if we had a better reality in mind?

And so we had what was called, around the turn of the century, “the political turn” in critical theory. Thinkers such as Stanley Fish, Richard Rorty, Terry Eagleton, and Fredric Jameson, building on the ideas of such figures as Jürgen Habermas, Antonio Gramsci, the Frankfurt School, and the deconstructionist opponents of “totalization,” “essentialism,” and “foundationalism,” argued that objective truth was unattainable, and given that it was, revised the goal of scholarship and pedagogy from what is true to what is socially beneficial and morally imperative. “We see knowledge as a matter of conversation and of social practice, rather than as an attempt to mirror nature,” says Rorty. What if our decision about what is the case were based on the moral sentiments of disgust and tenderness themselves, the “human weakness” of Himmler’s unwilling murderers? Unlike the Nazis, we have the right morality, and why shouldn’t it determine reality, since all attempts at fact are doomed to bias and contextuality?

Naturally, it would be as well at first to clothe this goal in the robes of truthiness and the appearance of logic and evidence. But a whole generation of teachers, as the new gospel filtered down from the elite universities through the teacher training colleges and the high school faculty lounges, gradually eliminated the veridical middleman and taught us that, basically, our judgement of reality and of the correct course of action should be based on two things: a moral “ugh!” factor and a moral “aww!” factor. The “ugh!” factor (now often called “triggering”) applies to anything that does not fit our feeling of niceness, and the “aww” factor applies to anything morally cuddly and sweet and nice. Trump is ugh and baby seals are aww. Racism is ugh and pink hats are aww. Or in the small Midwestern high schools: evolution is ugh and unborn babies are aww.

I do not here mean that racism and Trump and creationism should be respected, but that there are better reasons for disrespecting them; nor that baby seals and pink hats and unborn babies are not good things, but that there are excellent objective arguments for the importance of species preservation and women’s rights and birth control that are not particularly ugh or aww. Nor do I mean that Hume was wrong when he showed that moral distinctions could not be derived from reason, and that moral sentiments (aww and ugh) are an essential part of moral decision. Aww and ugh are the fuel; but reason is the steering wheel, and some objective sense of where the road is and what the obstacles are is, to say the least, desirable. Germans felt aww about Horst Wessel and ugh about Jews. We used to feel ugh about gays, and now we feel it about homophobes—now that we really do know better.

And so here we are, in the midst of a political revolution where lies are systematically promulgated and swallowed with every evidence of pleasure when they support our side—often, I believe, when part of us suspects that they are as much lies as those of our opponents. Perhaps we have even begun to enjoy our own side’s lie as a connoisseur, as being a more ingenious and deadly blow than the one we just received from the enemy. The narrative becomes more interesting than the factual events it recounts, and with a little tweaking the events can be changed if the narrative is attractive enough.

Of course, one side—the Right, or perhaps we should rather say Trump’s strange amalgam of Leninist/Mussolinian/Chavezian/Putinian protectionist oligarchic nationalism—has been distinctly worse than the other: better, that is, at the game of lies. Not that the Left has not struggled manfully to keep up. But the weapons both sides use, and the condition of veridical defenselessness both sides suffer and exploit were, alas, to a large extent the invention of the Left. When the economic and political contradictions of socialism seemed to have been decisively revealed by the great experiment of the Cold War, the Left did not give up but went on to attack the fundamental structures of rationality, evidence-gathering, and factuality themselves, as preservers of white male western straight privilege, in the hope that capitalism, now without factual foundation, might collapse and leave the field free for social justice. Instead, the more monopolistic and nationalistic of the capitalists themselves, and their supporters on the right, merrily adopted the fact-free view of the world and proved themselves more adept at using it than their teachers.

Books I do not want to read (the curmudgeon I become on alternate Thursdays)

Thursday, 25 May 2017, 10:45 | Category : Uncategorized
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Stories about dying relatives
Divorce stories
Self-justifying political/military/legal/business/finance/showbiz memoirs
Chattily written biographies
Biographies in general
Social history
Books with big explicit sex scenes
Books about Trump
Winner stories
Loser stories
Snide and sophisticated comic novels
Fantasy with no coherent fantasy physics, chemistry biology, sociology
Books about moving to the Mediterranean, learning how to live from colorful natives
Books that pretend to be war histories but that are really about oppressed minorities
Victimhood books
Enduring in the wild stories
Detective novels
Social protest science fiction about revolutions that aren’t going to happen
Science fiction based on bad science
Science fiction based on bad economic premises
Political conspiracy novels
Phony political conspiracy exposés
Uplifting religious stories
Religious conspiracy novels
Coming of age novels
Books with limited vocabulary
Books in dialect
Improbable first-person child novels
Novels with no ideas
Novels with fashionable ideas
Religiously tendentious books
Existentialistically tendentious books
Novels with no characters I’d like to meet
Any kind of clumsy writing
Lefty revisionism
Righty revisionism
Cynical love stories
Sentimental love stories
Hip insider internet books
Sports writing
Prizewinning collections of free verse poetry
Almost anything reviewed in the NYT Book Review or the NYROB
War books without detailed maps
Metrically incompetent long poems
Bad translations
Books in Deconstructionese
Books in Heideggerese
Books that leave me as ignorant as I was before I started reading them
Books about the harm done by family secrets
Books with no triumphs
Books without tragedy
Books with nothing witty or funny
Books about exploring places that have already been explored
Food books (unless they contain some ideas)
Garden books (unless they contain some ideas)
Books about animals that are palpably trying to make you help preserve them
Historical fiction in which the characters speak in modern English
Where they speak in fancy overblown English because the author thinks it sounds old
Books, especially poetry books, that try to make you think the author is a good person
Books that try to make you think the author is mysteriously profound
Books that try to make you feel guilty
Books in which the prose sounds like the excerpts read euphoniously on NPR
Books that expect you to be as fond of the author’s relatives as the author is
Travel books by people who don’t have expert knowledge of the places they write about
Travel books that implicitly sneer at you if you haven’t been there
Books that even today try to shock you

On the Virtues of Brutal Dictators and Trumpist Realpolitik

Sunday, 23 April 2017, 18:13 | Category : Uncategorized
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One of the things that happened to us in the course of our paroxysm of anguish and grief and fury after 9/11 was that we found out that there are worse things than brutal dictators. We had thought we were living in a post-historical world that would be governed by ideals of democracy, pluralism, and the UN Declaration of Human Rights. Our disagreements would be over how much to hamper the markets to provide help for the underprivileged and weak.

And then something out of some horrible old story of war and massacre happened to us, and in the center of our safest, most pluralist, most democratic sanctuaries. There it was, surreal as Bosch or Grunewald–the twin towers blazing up to heaven, like some apocalyptic artist’s vision out of the Thirty Years’ War, the destruction of the tower of Babel.

Our memories were very short, of course. Or selective. The horrors of Auschwitz and the Gulag were in another continent, and already seemed hundreds of years ago, like the Napoleonic Wars—and in any case were an aberration, a black swan, a tumor upon the body of modernity. It couldn’t happen here and now.

So for a while we became an insane scourge upon the world. Not altogether a bad thing: maybe the world needed to be reminded that a liberal and peaceful democracy is the most dangerous thing in the world if it is attacked, and people seemed to have forgotten Hiroshima. Don’t tease the animals.

Our biggest mistake was to blame 9/11 on brutal dictators. Ironically, if Afghanistan had had a brutal dictator, 9/11 probably wouldn’t have happened. The terrorists had to get out of Saudi Arabia, with its very effective brutal dictators, to be able to act freely. In any case, we overthrew, or caused to be overthrown, a whole series of brutal dictators—Saddam, Khadafi, Mubarak, etc, and tried to do the same to Assad and Khomeini.

We thought the people in those countries wanted freedom—after all, thousands of their population were trying to get into the land of the free. But we didn’t notice that millions were staying, opting to keep their brutal dictators. Why? Because they wanted to keep their cultural, religious, feudal, and tribal identities, and be protected by their brutal dictator from their neighbors in the next valley with different sheiks and mullahs and rituals and accents.

The point about brutal dictators is that to get to be one you have to act in a monstrously immoral way, and get used to being without a sense of divine restraint. You are at heart secular, having pursued the way of violence and power rather than obedience to God. So you basically have no ideological axe to grind, and as long as you have your army under strict control, and can get modern weapons by selling your natural resources, you can remain in power, and your State will not fail. You may even adopt human rights reforms, as did Mohammed Reza Pahlavi in Iran or Mubarak and Assad did in Egypt and Syria: to do so seemed to increase national prosperity and thus your own wealth. You can crush the dissent of your sectarian or ethnic populations by extermination, as the Assads did in Hama and Aleppo, or Saddam did with the Shiites in the marshes of Mesopotamia. Erdogan in Turkey has got the message.

If your country is ethnically and religiously fairly homogeneous (not a state drawn on a map by some bright colonial administrator with no anthropological knowledge at all) you might have the luck to have a priest-king instead of a brutal dictator. Members of ethnic and religious minorities might even be better off in their dhimmitude than they would be under a secular dictator. But on the other hand you’d be ruled by someone with no pragmatic restraints on his behavior. There is no brutality like religiously-commanded morally sanctified brutality. Your access to the course of moderate reform and gradual modernization would be curtailed. And sooner or later your mad Mahdi will do something idiotic on principle that a more prudent brutal dictator wouldn’t, and that calls down the catastrophic wrath of the rest of the world.

Let’s look at this from the point of view of one of the people that didn’t want to escape to the Land of the Free. If you are a religious bigot, you can’t trust the other religious bigots because you know they are just as much on a mission from God as you are, and God told them that you must be destroyed, just as He told you that they must be destroyed. But you can trust your brutal dictator who wants you to be working and paying his taxes rather than exterminating the spawn of Satan on the other side of the city. The dictator is the only one allowed to do any exterminating, and he’d rather not endanger his taxes.

So far I’ve been couching all this in the context of the Middle East today. But I could have changed the proper nouns a bit, and it would have been quite clear that I was talking about the European religious wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Before we get all shocked about how awful these religious struggles in Asia and Africa are, we should realize that Europeans slaughtered each other for four hundred years in exactly the same way: think of Savonarola burning the paintings of Botticelli, the St Bartholomew massacre, the Spanish Inquisition, and the depopulation of Germany as depicted by Hieronymus Bosch.

In comparison with this, brutal secular dictators were a blessed relief. We have forgotten the wisdom of Machiavelli and Thomas Hobbes, who were well aware of what moral right-thinking people will do to each other when there is no superordinate pragmatic coercive power to restrain them. For these thinkers, issues of rule of law and consent of the governed were irrelevant until that central coercive power is absolute. And it takes a people a long, long time to get used to being able to trust the existence of that central power, a habit whose preciousness is much undervalued.

I was an enthusiastic supporter of the Arab Spring, much to my shame. I naively thought that the Middle East could leap from feudalism and theocracy to enlightened tolerant democracy in a year or two. I should have realized that the slow process of modernization under the relative stability provided by Khadafi, Mubarak, the Assads, Saddam, and the Saudis was about the best that could be expected. It took England 600 years to get from the Magna Carta to the Reform Act of 1832, a process that included the wars of the Roses, the dissolution of the monasteries, the horrors of religious persecution under Mary and Elizabeth, the bloody Civil War, Cromwell’s brutal dictatorship, the genocides in Ireland, the American revolution, the disenfranchisement and persecution of Catholics, and much rioting and legal abuse on the way.

Maybe instead of trying to overthrow the brutal dictators of the Middle East we should have heaved a sigh of relief that at least they weren’t religious lunatics. And we should have realized that even having religious lunatics in charge is better than a failed state and civil war, which is the worst thing in the human world and the seedbed of unutterable horrors everywhere. Looking further north, imagine how much worse Russia would be as a failed state and 7,000 nuclear weapons; or what a shambles Iran would have been if the Green movement had had the same success as the Arab Spring. At least they’re not Syria or Yemen or Somalia or Libya. China thanks God for Kim Jong Un for the same reasons and would hate to have to give him up. The Russians love their brutal dictator.

All this said, we may be able to glimpse something of what Donald Trump has in mind for his foreign policy. As a predatory businessman, he already inhabits the world of the brutal dictator, firing taking the place (importantly) of murder and mayhem. In his illiterate way he has seen realities that are closed to enlightened and decent people. I think he would say something like this to himself, though in words of one syllable:

“Recognize that in a world of unscrupulous and ruthless self-interest the “high road” is just another piece of rhetoric, but one which is deeply and sometimes catastrophically destabilizing to the bargaining medium. Your international rivals, especially the most brutal and selfish ones, will be more comfortable with a predictably extortionate, self-interested, and threatening bargainer than with a truly high-minded, empathetic and generous one whom they do not understand or trust. They’re unnerved by well-meaning honest people, because they’re always wondering what their ulterior motive is, and suspecting that they’re being suckered. Hence they’re less willing to make bargains. They’d rather have another bruiser in the ring than a self-appointed umpire who won’t let them do what they’re good at. They may even do good deals under the table before the bout.

“Brutal dictators are a precious resource, because they can carry through what they promise in a deal, and shut up their own dissenting voices. If what they promise is in their own interest, they will do it, even when pretending they aren’t. Their own interest is not a mystery like theology or ethics, but measurable in money and acreage and control and weapons. So you can trust them.

“Be perfectly clear that safety takes priority over principle. The whole world is safer if the US and Russia are in agreement, because they control 95% of the nuclear weapons. Keep your potential enemies closer: you will have a much better chance at stymying them if you can bribe or flatter them into enterprises that will ruin them. Or maybe they’ll become huge profit centers in terms of trade and leverage. Nixon went to China: Trump will go to Russia. If Russians are foolish enough to want someone in charge like Putin, who will keep them poor but feed their self-esteem, why discourage them?

“Ally yourself with the toughest and most brutal dictators, because (to play on the patriotism of their own oppressed people) they’ll be happy to take on the expensive and bloody business of keeping order in the failed states, civil wars, and messianic theocracies of the world. Stay out of these yourself and make money for yourself and your country from the conflicts, while weakening your unsavory allies and draining their resources by war. Brutal dictators are addicts of power; if you’re their supplier and dealer, they’ll eat out of your hand. And they’ll do all your dirty work for you.

“Win by ‘losing.’ Pretend to fight for possession of something worthless or harmful to your own side. Then allow yourself to ‘lose.’ With Russia, for instance, hand them the tar-baby of the Middle East, which is of little value (now that fracking has destroyed OPEC) and hugely expensive in terms of money, lives, and prestige. Make this look like a concession to Putin, when actually it’s a poison pill that will destroy him. North Korea is the perfect tar-baby to give to China. Let Iran take on the happy task of uniting the Shias and the Sunnis, and welcome to it. We will weep crocodile tears at the terrible things that the brutal dictators will have to do, and look like the good guys by contrast.”

An Amazing Review

Tuesday, 28 February 2017, 11:47 | Category : Uncategorized
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Those who read Fantasy-Faction, the cutting-edge fantasy discussion blog, will know Dan Hanks’ perceptive and useful reviews. He did me the honor of looking at my new epic SF poem Apocalypse–and here is his review.

“Apocalypse is an epic poem about humanity’s struggle against the end of the world. When I was first pointed in its direction, and began reading, I was a little conflicted about potentially reviewing it here as it seemed to be too straight sci-fi for our little fantasy corner. However, there has always been crossover appeal for readers of these genres. And on finishing this magnificent work, I think it contains enough futuristic fantastical goodness to warrant serious consideration for your TBR pile.

So if you’re up for an adventure told in blank verse, written by a winner of the Levinson Prize (Poetry magazine’s highest honour), read on.


When the Earth becomes a maelstrom of storms and rising sea levels due to catastrophic climate change, some want to give up and call it a day for humanity. Yet there are also those heroic few who are determined to take action and do something about the impending apocalypse. These are the geo-engineers—men and women of creativity, knowledge and drive—who will do whatever it takes to save the planet. They will take on the challenge of bringing the planet back into balance. They will fiercely protect their work from the belligerent navies of two large nations— even if this means risking life and limb in a major sea battle. And with a new dawn of artificial intelligence on the horizon, these valiant few may make the difference between a future of human and A. I. enlightenment or a dark age of never-ending terror.


Apocalypse is strange and brilliant and possibly one of the most magnificent pieces of writing I’ve yet come across.

I’ll freely admit there is another level of intelligence at work here I could not fully appreciate in a single read through. As a Founders Professor of Arts and Humanities at the University of Texas at Dallas—and having acknowledged on his website that he is “philosophically interested in time, evolution, and self-organising complex systems in game theory and economics”—it is not surprising to find the author has been able to craft a complex, richly detailed story that may only reveal all after numerous re-reads.

His writing is also something else. In one passage, a seemingly mundane passage about salmon becomes a beautiful tale of a journey that is ‘powered by desire, drawn by mad love’. While exploration of universal themes that have long held mankind’s thoughts, offers us gifts such as ‘Time doesn’t only happen by the push of what is past, but by the pull, the draw of some unfinished absence in the future’.

There is also a passage about the deepest pain of humanity near the halfway mark that I’ll probably return to time and again as I get older, because it is encapsulates so well the beauty of life and the struggle we have with death.

A standout among the characters is the omniscient, fourth-wall breaking narrator, Nemo. He helps give the writing a raw, almost documentary feel, as opposed to the Orwellian window pane we’re used to with other prose epics. He documents (almost) everything that happens, from complex theorising in classrooms, to Antarctic sea battles between nations. Perhaps best of all, he’s a narrator with intense subjectivity for those he’s talking about, and not a little self-doubt when times get tough. In other words, he’s human.

And his exploration of humanity is perhaps the key focus of the poem. Through his eyes, we are constantly provided with hope that the team of characters assembled by our hero, Noah Blazo, can save the world, then doubt as to whether it is even worth saving—given the hostility and suffering they face from the people they are trying to save.

Because there are (of course) political factions who work against them. And although the author acknowledges this rival party of legislators might be made up of those with noble intentions, he also makes it clear they are driven by a desire to centralise their power. They see Noah’s solution driven by human enterprise as a risk to the control they currently wield.

As such, the constant frustration of decent, smart people trying to do good, while facing the hateful idiocy inherent in humanity—in order to save humanity—cut a little too close to home to be an easy read in our current political climate. But it was worth the shivers to experience an adventure that opens the mind in spectacular ways and builds to a conclusion that is at once poignant, uplifting and thought-provoking.


I am generally not a reader of poetry—or at least I’m not a good reader of poetry. So it took me a while to get beyond the writing itself and settle into this story. It also didn’t help that we jump about at the beginning a little too much, introducing new characters without really getting to know them properly just yet.

The overall narrative is also a touch uneven. The first half of the poem is relatively slow, as it painstakingly moves between characters to weave a complex plot over a small period of time. We then spend the second half of the book up against a whole new (worse) threat spread over a couple of generations, in a jam-packed, faster-paced and conceptually more exciting adventure into the unknown.

Just a little more of the second half and a tighter first half would have made for a more cohesive read, I think.


Apocalypse is a wondrous science-fiction epic, written in beautiful blank verse, exploring ideas of humanity, memory, death, hope, and extraordinary scientific thought. To quote Nemo near the end:

“The work of epic is to blaze new trails. Mark territories so that others may explore and map them, love and farm and garden.”

This epic poem does all that and more. This was less a read and more an experience. Even if you’re not a big reader of poetry, I promise this is a blazed trail you should follow.”

A guest blog from my brilliant agent, Sara

Wednesday, 7 December 2016, 12:08 | Category : Uncategorized
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Welcome to the Apocalypse!

My name is Sara Megibow and I’m the literary agent representing Fred and his amazing epic science fiction poem, APOCALYPSE. Nice to meet you all!

Fred emailed me in May 2016 to present APOCALYPSE which he called, “something you’ve never seen before.” He was right! Somewhere on page 1 my jaw dropped open in awe and somewhere on page 2 I cancelled two days of meetings to stay home and read the book. It’s been an honor working with Fred on this project and we’re happy to announce APOCALYPSE is now available in ebook, hard cover and paperback.

Why am I writing to you all today? Sometimes in art we come across a work so unique, so special that we pause and admire. Other times, we pause, admire and then want to shout to the masses. For me, APOCALYPSE is a work of genius that inspires my shout-to-the-masses response.

David Brin called APOCALYPSE a, “brilliant future-epic poem.”

Kim Stanley Robinson said, “I loved the blank verse, so supple and expressive.”

Fred’s Hollywood agent said, “WOW…just WOW!”

When talking to publishers I said, “this story is about a group of misfit scientists who collude against the government to save the world from climate annihilation.”

What will you say about this book?

Please help us spread the word! Here is the direct link to APOCALYPSE via Barnes & Noble:

And here is the direct link to APOCALYPSE in ebook via amazon:

Thank you to Ilium Press and Baen Books for their amazing publications and thank you – our beloved readers – for supporting great art!

Very sincerely,
Sara Megibow
KT Literary
on twitter @SaraMegibow