Sunday, April 29, 2007 12 Comments

Terminology and an open floor

The other day I tried to design a paranormal-independent terminology for talking about the phenomenon we call "religion." I suggested calling a received belief system a "kernel" and an institution that transmits received beliefs a "monitor."

On further reflection I don't like "monitor." Too many things are called monitors. (In case anyone cares, what I meant was not the square thing that sits on your desk and shows you my blog, but a virtual machine monitor - an ancient, rather mainframey terminology.) But I'd rather go with a hardware analogy - "repeater." (See the Wik.)

If any of my readers (perhaps two or three have stuck around after the Andrewlanche) has any better suggestions, I am certainly open to them. (Unqualified Reservations is not a mere outlet for my deranged, extremist rants. It is a community of individuals whose goal is to learn, grow, and change together. Please let me know if I'm layin' it on too thick.)

So a religion is a kernel, and a church is a repeater. But not all kernels are religions, and not all repeaters are churches.

The interesting question then becomes: how do we separate repeater and state?

The floor is open for your comments. Also, in case you have any large chunks of text from obscure Eastern European novels to paste into the window, this is not only allowed, it is encouraged.

Journalistic independence

All decent, reasonable men are horrified by the idea that the government might control the press.

None of them seem concerned at all that the press might control the government.

(If aphorisms are your bag, Deogolwulf is your man.)

Saturday, April 28, 2007 8 Comments

Jaroslav Hašek and the kernel-monitor meme

The other day I suggested that "religion" is a useful concept only if you're interested in theology, which I'm not.

The post was probably too long, and it certainly confused some. So let me try and summarize.

First, I argued, "religion" is the study of the thoughts or actions of paranormal entities. If paranormal entities were observable, they wouldn't be paranormal. Beliefs about paranormal entities ("Baal hates Jews") are only relevant to the observable world inasmuch as they imply beliefs about the observable world ("To please Baal, we must burn the Jews"), and thus motivate actions in the observable world (burning the Jews).

So why do we categorize other's beliefs first and foremost by their positions on the paranormal? Why not focus on beliefs about the real world, which are what actually affect us?

Second, I argued, this irrelevant categorization is dangerous, because it impairs our ability to recognize patterns across the categorical boundary. When comparing two delusions, when one is "religious" and the other is merely "fallacious" (ie, it purports to be derived from pure reason but in fact is not), we have a hard time deciding which of the two is more dangerous.

"All that is necessary for the triumph of evil," said Burke, "is for good men to do nothing." Well, technically, he was right. But in practice evil will do a lot better if it can get the good men to side with the greater evil, and fight against the lesser. Being, of course, evil, it seldom overlooks this device.

This is a nasty situation. And I think it calls for a remedy which is too drastic for most household uses, but which has to be retained as the philosopher's last resort: inventing new words.

I actually prefer to borrow words from other fields. As a computer programmer, I have an enormous stock of gobbledegook to choose from, from which I choose "kernel" and "monitor."

(It's a waste of time to go into the technical meaning of these words. There is an analogy, but it's very loose.)

Let's say that a religion is a "kernel" and a church (the institution, not the building) is a "monitor." But let's try and define these words without reference to the paranormal world.

Your kernel is your set of received beliefs about the real world. A belief is "received" if you got it from someone else, if it is not something you observed or decided yourself. I always hate using the word meme, because it makes me sound like an asshole, but there's no denying that it says "received belief" with a lot fewer wiggles of the tongue.

A kernel has two parts: the set of statements (about the real world) that you consider true or false, and the set of actions (in the real world) that you consider righteous or wrongteous. The Greek words logos and ethos are handy here. We can speak of a "logical kernel" and an "ethical kernel."

(I believe these concepts are human universals - that is, the words "true" and "false", "right" and "wrong" translate into all languages. If you disagree, you're welcome to, but I wonder how you can function at such a refined philosophical level.)

The interesting question is: where do you get your kernel? How is it, as it were, installed?

Installing memes is a privileged operation. It requires trust. Some people believe everything they hear - or, worse, read on the Internet. But most of us are a little sharper than that.

You have three basic classes of trusted party: your parents, your friends, and the monitor or monitors which you credit.

A monitor is a trusted institution. You apply some intrinsic credibility to the memes this institution distributes. Trust may not be boolean. It just means that you are more likely to install a meme into your kernel if you get it from a monitor to which you ascribe some trust level, than if you, say, read it on some anonymous blog. If you ascribe any trust at all to any monitor, we'll say you credit it.

For example, I am not a physicist. So if I have to believe something about physics, I may turn to Luboš Motl or Peter Woit. I trust these people - on the subject of physics - not because I know them personally, but because Harvard was willing to hire the one and Columbia the other. This is pretty strong evidence that Harvard and Columbia are in the monitor business, and that I credit them - at least on the subject of physics.

You may find it interesting to try to describe the kernels and monitors you see in the world around you. Discuss. (I always wanted to say, "discuss." And now, thanks to Blogger, I can.)

But all this philosophy is thirsty work. I could certainly use some Laphroaig, and as a matter of fact I think I'll have some. Who says it's too early in the morning? I'd share, but unfortunately the Internet, "series of tubes" though it may be, isn't very good at routing Scotch.

So instead I thought I'd appropriate a bit from the Great Czech Novel: Jaroslav Hašek's The Good Soldier Švejk (1923). As you'll see, it's highly pertinent. However, it can't really be described as philosophy, so if your only interest in Unqualified Reservations is in the deep-thought department, class is definitely over.

From page 136:
In the evening they received a visit from the pious chaplain who had wanted to serve the drumhead mass for the sappers that morning. He was a fanatic who wanted to bring everyone close to God. When he had been a catechist he had developed religious feelings in children by slapping their faces and there had appeared from time to time in various journals articles about 'the sadistic catechist', 'the slapping catechist'. He was convinced that a child learns the catechism best with the help of the birch.

He limped a little on one foot, which had been caused by a visit made to him by the father of one of his pupils, whose face he had slapped for having expressed certain doubts about the Holy Trinity. He got three slaps on the face himself. One for God the Father, a second one for God the Son and a third for the Holy Ghost.

Today he had come to lead his colleague Katz on to the right path and to have a heart-to-hard talk with him. He began it with the remark: 'I'm surprised that you've got no crucifix hanging there. Where do you say your breviary prayers? And there's not a single portrait of the saints on the walls of your room. What's that hanging over your bed?'

Katz smiled: 'That's Susanna and the Elders, and that naked woman underneath is an old friend of mine. On the right there's something Japanese, depicting the sexual act between a geisha and an old Japanese Samurai. Very original, isn't it? The breviary's in the kitchen. Švejk, bring it here and open it on the third page.'

Švejk went away, and from the kitchen could be heard the sound of corks being drawn from three bottles of wine.

The pious chaplain was aghast when the three bottles made their appearance on the table.

'It's a light sacramental wine, brother,' said Katz, 'of very good quality, a Riesling. It tastes like Moselle.'

'I'm not going to drink,' said the pious chaplain stubbornly. 'I've come to have a heart-to-heart talk with you.'

'That'll dry up your throat, my dear colleague,' said Katz. 'Have a drink and I'll listen. I'm a very tolerant fellow and can listen to other views.'

The pious chaplain drank a little and rolled his eyes.

'It's a devilish good wine, my dear colleague, isn't it?'

The fanatic said sternly: 'It has not escaped me that you are swearing.'

'That's habit,' answered Katz. 'Sometimes I even catch myself blaspheming. Pour the chaplain out some more, Švejk. I can assure you that I also say: "Himmelherrgott, krucifix and sakra." I think that when you've served in the army as long as I have you'll find yourself doing it too. It isn't at all difficult or complicated and it's very familiar to us clergy - heaven, God, the cross and the holy sacrament. Doesn't that sound marvellously professional? Drink a bit more, my dear colleague.'

The former catechist sipped mechanically. It was obvious that he wanted to say something, but could not. He was collecting his thoughts.

'My dear colleague,' continued Katz, 'cheer up! Don't sit there so miserably, as though they were going to hang you in five minutes' time. I've heard about you, how once on a Friday by mistake you ate a pork cutlet in a restaurant, because you thought that it was Thursday, and how you stuck your finger down your throat in the W.C. to get rid of it, because you thought God would obliterate you. I'm not afraid of eating meat in Lent and I'm not afraid of hell-fire either. Excuse me, please go on drinking. Are you better now? Or do you have progressive views about hell and keep up with the spirit of the times and the reformists? I mean, instead of ordinary cauldrons with sulphur for poor sinners, there are Papin's pots and high-pressure boilers. The sinners are fried in margarine, there are grills driven by electricity, steam rollers roll over the sinners for millions of years, the gnashing of the teeth is produced with the help of dentists with special equipment, the howling is recorded on gramophones, and the records are sent upstairs to Paradise for the enjoyment of the just. In paradise sprays with eau de cologne operate and the Philharmonic Orchestra plays Brahms so long that you prefer hell and purgatory. The cherubs have aeroplane propellers in their behinds so as not to have to work so hard with their wings. Drink, my dear colleague! Švejk, pour him out some cognac. I don't think he's feeling well.'

When the pious chaplain came round he started to whisper: 'Religion is a matter of rational reasoning. Whoever does not believe in the existence of the Holy Trinity...'

'Švejk,' Katz interrupted him, 'pour out one more cognac for the chaplain, so as to bring him round! Tell him something, Švejk!' 'Humbly report, sir,' said Švejk, 'near Vlašim there was a dean who had a charwoman, when his old housekeeper ran away from him with the boy and the money. And this dean in his declining years started studying St Augustine, who is said to be one of the Holy Fathers, and he read there that whoever believes in the Antipodes will be damned. And so he called his charwoman and said to her: "Listen, you once told me that your son was a fitter and that he went to Australia. That would be in the Antipodes and according to St Augustine's instructions everyone who believes in the Antipodes is damned." "Reverend sir," the woman answered, "after all my son sends me letters and money from Australia." "That's a snare of the devil," replied the dean. "According to St Augustine the devil doesn't exist and you are just being seduced by the Anti-Christ." On Sunday he anathematized her publicly and shouted out that Australia didn't exist. So they took him out of straight out of the church into the lunatic asylum. More people like him ought to be put there. In the Convent of the Sisters of St Ursula they have a bottle of the Holy Virgin's milk with which she suckled the baby Jesus, and in the orphanage at Benešov, after they'd brought them water from Lourdes, the orphans got diarrhea the like of which the world has never seen.'

Black spots were dancing in front of the pious chaplain's eyes and he only came to himself after another cognac, which went to his head.

Blinking his eyes he asked Katz: 'Don't you believe in the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary? Don't you believe that the thumb of St John the Baptist, which is preserved in the Piarists' monastery, is genuine? Do you believe in the Lord at all? And if you don't, why are you a chaplain?'

'My dear colleague,' answered Katz, patting him familiarly on the back, 'until the state recognizes that soldiers who are going to their death at the front don't need the blessing of God for it, the chaplaincy remains a decently paid profession, where a chap isn't overworked. It was better for me that running around on the drill-ground and going on manoeuvres. Then I used to get orders from my superiors but now I do what I like. I represent someone who doesn't exist and myself play the part of God. If I don't want to absolve anyone's sins then I don't, even if they beg me on their bended knees. But you'd find bloody few people nowadays who'd go that far.'

'I love God,' declared the pious chaplain, beginning to hiccough. 'I love him very much. Give me a little wine. I respect God,' he continued. I respect and honour him very much. I respect no one as much as I respect him.'

He struck the table with his fist until the bottles jumped. 'God is an exalted being, something unearthly. He's honourable in his dealings. He's a radiant revelation, and no one's going to convince me of the contrary. I respect St Joseph too, I respect all the saints, except St Serapion. He's got such an ugly name.'

'He ought to apply to have it changed,' observed Švejk.

'I love St Ludmila and St Bernard,' continued the former catechist. 'He saved many pilgrims in St Gothard. He carries a bottle of cognac around his neck and looks for people caught in snow drifts.'

The conversation took a new turn. The pious chaplain started getting completely muddled. 'I honour the Innocents. They have their Saints' day on the twenty-eighth of December. I hate Herod. When the hens sleep, you can't get any new-laid eggs.'

He gave a guffaw and began to sing 'Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Sabaoth.'

He broke off at once, and turning to Katz and getting up asked him sharply: 'You don't believe that the fifteenth of August is the day of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary?'

The fun was in full swing. More bottles appeared, and from time to time Katz could be heard saying: 'Say that you don't believe in God, otherwise I won't let you have a drop!' It was as though the times of the persecution of the early Christians had returned. The former catechist sang a song of the martyrs of the Roman arena and yelled out: 'I believe in God. I won't forswear him. You can keep your wine. I can send for some myself.'

Finally they put him to bed. Before he fell asleep he proclaimed, raising his right hand in a solemn oath: 'I believe in God the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Bring me the breviary.'

Švejk put into his hand a book which was lying on the night table. The pious chaplain then fell asleep with Boccaccio's Decameron in his hand.


(If anyone is having trouble with the Š'es, please pop by the comments section and let me know what browser and OS you're using...)

Friday, April 27, 2007 4 Comments

My new comments policy

Thanks to Andrew Sullivan for the link. Andrew's was one of the first blogs I read regularly, although that was a few years ago. My politics have since become less mainstream and his, I think, more. But for someone who (I assume) spends most of his time in DC, he is still remarkably independent-minded and often has interesting things to say.

I had assumed this URL was more or less restricted to a few marginal eccentrics, but if A-listers are going to link to it (and why shouldn't they? Who am I, Jonathan Franzen?), I'm afraid it is going to need a comments policy.

My policy is that all comments must be interesting - to people who are neither me, nor the author of the comment. When you comment, please try to keep in mind that your goal is to inform or entertain others who may be reading the comments section. I will decide what is informative or entertaining. The penalty is deletion and there is no appeal.

Please feel free to be as offensive as you want, though, whether to me or to others. One of the great things about the Internet is that it routes packets, not sticks or stones.

(Update: I've been blogging for four days and I already hate deleting comments. It makes me feel like Hitler. I may have my own crazed ideology, but I am seriously not cut out for world domination. If it's obvious to me that you believe your comment is informative or entertaining, I am very unlikely to delete it. However, I'll respond only to comments that I myself find informative or entertaining. I also discourage drive-by commenting - please comment only if you're interested in discussion.)

The essential idea of leftism

The people cry out for shorter, more controversial posts!

The essential idea of leftism is that the world should be governed by scholars.

(By "scholar" what I mean is, of course, "intellectual." But I don't like this word, for the same reason I don't like the word "liberal" - it makes me sound like Rush Limbaugh. Once any collective description acquires negative connotations in anyone's mind, it is no longer useful. Also, note that there is no meaningful distinction between a scholar and a priest.)

Can anyone find an exception to this rule - ie, a mass movement that is generally described as "leftist," but which does not in practice imply the rule of scholars, or at least people who think of themselves as scholars? Your comments, as always, are welcomed with enthusiasm.

Thursday, April 26, 2007 13 Comments

Plague of Dead Sharks, by Alan Dugan

Most people these days think poetry is shite.

Certainly our glorious educational system generates a vast supply of Soviet toilet paper, coarse on the tenders and stamped with pure nothing. Certainly our glorious publishing industry seems to delight - I'm thinking primarily of the New Yorker - in selecting the blandest and most vapid plums from this great brown smorgasbord, and presenting them to the educated elite as though they were offering a silver bowl of egg-sized pearls to the Shah of Iran.

In fact there is just as much good poetry from the late 20th century as from any other period. Possibly even more. It's just extremely difficult to find. If anyone has any pointers, please don't hesitate to leave them in the comments section!

Here's a nice bit from a poem by Alan Dugan:

Plague of Dead Sharks

Who knows whether the sea heals or corrodes?
The wading, wintered pack-beasts of the feet
slough off, in spring, the dead rind of the shoes'
leather detention, the big toe's yellow horn
shines with a natural polish, and the whole
person seems to profit. The opposite happens
when dead sharks wash up along the beach
for no known reason. What is more built
for winning than the swept-back teeth,
water-finished fins, and pure bad eyes
these old, efficient forms of appetite
are dressed in? Yet it looks as if the sea
digested what it wished of them with viral ease
and threw up what was left to stink and dry.

Now that's some damned prosody for you. And Dugan, though I get the impression he was a bit of a Marxist (something no more objectionable in a poet than Christianity), is utterly free from the noxious Hallmark-hippie sentimentality, out of Whitman by M. Valdemar, dead for at least fifty years and reeking of committee, that fills your little magazines today. If you care at all for this sort of stuff he's worth a gander.

Improper political influence over government decision-making

In lieu of the usual prolix prose, I'd like to offer any readers as yet unoffended by my irascible disposition and extremist politics the opportunity to meditate briefly on this remarkable phrase, which appeared yesterday in the LA Times.

"Improper political influence over government decision-making."

Sometimes I worry that everyone else is perfectly normal, and it's actually me who's insane. But then I read the paper and I can relax again.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007 46 Comments

Why do atheists believe in religion?

Not everyone these days believes in God. But pretty much everyone believes in religion.

By "believing in religion," I mean recognizing a significant categorical distinction between "religious" phenomena, and those that are "nonreligious" or "secular."

For example, the concepts of "freedom of religion" and "separation of church and state" are dependent on the concept of "religion." If "religion" is a noninformative, unimportant, or confusing category, these concepts must also be noninformative, unimportant, or confusing.

Since most atheists, agnostics, etc, consider the First Amendment pretty important, we can assume they "believe in religion."

My question is: why? Is this a useful belief? Does it help us understand the world? Or does it confuse or misinform us? Once again, our team of crack philosophers is on the case.

Let's rule out the possibility that "religion" is noninformative. We can define "religion" as the attribution of existence to anthropomorphic paranormal entities. This definition has its fuzzy corner cases, notably some kinds of Buddhism, but it's short and it'll do for the moment.

We are left with the question: is "religion" an important or clarifying category? Or is it unimportant and confusing?

If you believe in God, obviously you have to believe in religion. Religion is an important category because your religion is true, and all other religions are false. (As Sam Harris puts it, "everyone's an atheist with respect to Zeus.")

For atheists of the all-around variety - including me - the question remains. Why do we believe in "religion?"

One obvious answer is that we have to share the planet with a lot of religious people. If you are an atheist, there is no getting around it: religion, as per Dawkins, is a delusion. Deluded people do crazy things and are often dangerous. We need to have a category for these people, just as we have a category for "large, man-eating carnivores." Certainly, religious violence has killed a lot more people lately than lions, tigers, or bears.

This argument sounds convincing, but it hides a fallacy.

The fallacy is that the distinction between "religion" and other classes of delusion must be clarifying or important. If there is a case for this proposition, we haven't met it yet.

Peoples' actions matter. And peoples' beliefs matter, because they motivate actions.

But actions in the real world must be motivated by beliefs about the real world. Delusions about the paranormal world are only relevant - at least to us atheists - in the special case that they motivate delusions about the real world.

So, as atheists, why should we care about the former? Why not forget about the details of metaphysical doctrine, which pertain to an ethereal plane that doesn't even exist, and concentrate our attention on beliefs about reality?

If you believe that nine Jewish virgins need to be thrown into Mt. Fuji, you are, in my opinion, deluded. Whether you believe this because you are receiving secret messages from Amaterasu Omikami, or because it's just payback for the dirty deeds of the Elders of Zion, affects neither me nor the virgins.

If you believe "partial-birth abortion" is wrong because it's "against God's law," or if you think it's just "unethical," your vote will be the same.

If you are tolerant and respectful of others because you think Allah wants you to be tolerant and respectful of others, how can I possibly have a problem with this? If you stab people in the street because you've misinterpreted Nietzsche and decided that morality is not for you, is that less of a problem?

Lots of people have delusions about the real world. People believe all kinds of crazy things for all kinds of crazy reasons. Some even believe sensible things for crazy reasons. Why should we establish a special category for delusions that are motivated by anthropomorphic paranormal forces?

A reasonable answer is: why not?

Certainly, religion is an important force in the world today. Certainly at least some forms of religion - "fundamentalist," one might say - are actively dangerous. No one is actually stabbing people in the street because of Nietzsche. The same cannot be said for Allah.

How can it possibly confuse or distract us to recognize and protect ourselves against this important class of delusion?

To see the answer, we need to break Godwin's Law.

Suppose Hitler had declared that, rather than being just some guy from Linz, he was Thor's prophet on earth. (Some people would have been positively delighted by this.) Suppose that everything the Nazis did was done in the name of Thor. Suppose, in other words, that Nazism was in the category "religion."

This is by no means a new idea. Many writers, including Eric Voegelin, Eric Hoffer, Victor Klemperer, Michael Burleigh, etc, etc, have described the similarities between Nazism and religions. But Nazism does not fit our definition of religion above - no paranormal entities. This is the definition most people use, so most people don't think of Nazism as a religion.

The Allies invaded Nazi Germany and completely suppressed Nazism. To this day in Germany it is illegal to teach National Socialism. I think most Americans, and most Germans, would agree that this is a good thing.

But if we make this one trivial change, turning Nazism into Thorism and making it a "religion," which as we've seen need not change the magnitude or details of Nazi crimes at all, the acts of the Allies are a blatant act of religious intolerance.

Aren't we supposed to respect other faiths? Shouldn't we at least have restricted our unfriendly attentions to "fundamentalist Nazism," and promoted a more "moderate" version of the creed? Suppose we gave the Taliban the same treatment? What, exactly, is the difference between Eisenhower's policy and Ann Coulter's?

It gets worse. Another one of Voegelin's "political religions," which by our definition are not religions at all (no anthropomorphic paranormal entities) is Marxism. Let's tweak Marxism slightly and assert that the writings of Marx were divinely inspired, leaving everything else in the history of Communism unchanged.

Marxism, unlike Nazism, is still very popular in the world today. A substantial fraction of the professors in Western universities are either Marxists, or strongly influenced by Marxist thought. Nor are these beliefs passive - many fields that are actively taught and quite popular, such as postcolonial studies, seem largely or entirely Marxist in content.

This is certainly not true of Nazism. It is also not true of Christianity or any other "religion" proper. Many professors are Christians, true, and some are even fundamentalists. But the US educational system is quite sensitive to the possibility that it might be indoctrinating youth with Christian fundamentalism. "Creation science," for example, is not taught in any mainstream university and seems unlikely to achieve that status.

If Marxism was a religion, Marxist economics would come pretty close to being the exact equivalent of "intelligent design." But, again, Marxism as religion and Marxism as non-religion involve exactly the same set of delusions about the real world. (Of course, to a Marxist, they are not delusions.)

Should non-Marxist atheists, such as myself, be as concerned about separating Marxism from state-supported education as we are with Christianity? If Marxism is a religion, or if the difference between Marxism as it is in the real world and the version in which Marx was a prophet is insignificant, our "wall of separation" is a torn-up chainlink fence.

But there was a period in which Americans tried to eradicate Marxism the way they fight against "intelligent design" today. It was called McCarthyism. And believers in civil liberties were on exactly the opposite side of the barricades.

As non-Marxist atheists, do we want McCarthy 2.0? Should loyalty oaths be hip this year? Should we schedule new hearings?

This is why the concept of "religion" is harmful. If trivial changes to hypothetical history convert reasonable policies into monstrous injustices, or vice versa, your perception of reality cannot be correct. You have been infected by a toxic meme.

If memes are analogous to parasitic organisms, believing in "religion" is like taking a narrow-spectrum antibiotic on an irregular schedule. The Dawkins treatment - our latest version of what used to be called anticlericalism - wipes out a colony of susceptible bacteria which have spent a long time learning to coexist reasonably, if imperfectly, with the host. And clears the field for an entirely different phylum of bugs which are unaffected by antireligious therapy. Whose growth, in fact, it may even stimulate.

In the last two centuries, "political religions" have caused far, far more morbidity than "religious religions." But here we are with Dawkins, Harris, and Dennett - still popping the penicillin. Hm. Kind of makes you think, doesn't it?

(Update: before commenting on this post, please see my new comments policy.)

Tuesday, April 24, 2007 26 Comments

The case against democracy: ten red pills

Have you ever considered the possibility that democracy is bunk?

I grew up believing in democracy. I'll bet you did too. I spent 20 years of my life in democratic schools. I'll bet you did too.

Suppose you were a Catholic in 16th-century Spain. Imagine how hard it would be for you to stop believing in Catholicism.

You are a Catholic. Your parents were Catholics. You were educated by Catholics. You are governed by Catholics. All your friends are Catholics. All the books you've ever read were written by Catholics.

Sure, you're aware that not everyone in the world is a Catholic. You're also aware that this is the cause of all the violence, death and destruction in the world.

Look at what Protestants do when they get into power. They nail genitals to the city gates. They behead their own wives. Crazy stuff! And let's not even start on the Turks...

Now suppose you're you. But you have a time machine that lets you talk to this 16th-century Spanish Catholic version of you.

How do you convince this guy or gal that the answer to all the world's problems is not "more Catholicism"? How do you say, um, dude, this Trinity thing - the virgin birth - transsubstantiation... ya know...

So you see how hard it is to explain that democracy is bunk.

Of course, I could be wrong. Who the heck am I? No one. And everyone who is someone agrees: democracy is wonderful.

So I'm not telling you that democracy is bunk. I'm just suggesting you might want to consider the possibility.

Or even just consider considering the possibility. The way you consider, like, UFOs, or something. Put it down in the "extremely improbable, but not inherently impossible" category.

One way to consider this question is to look at an alternative. You can't beat nothing with something. If you didn't believe in democracy, what would you believe in? Here's my answer. (Warning: it's long.)

Another classic approach, though, is just to write up a list of heretical theses. Red pills, you might say. It worked for Luther - why shouldn't it work for me?

I won't (in this post) attempt to explain or justify these theses. They are for you, the reader, to analyze, to justify or refute.

For convenience, I've matched each red pill with a blue pill. The blue pill represents the orthodox democratic perspective. If I'm wrong and democracy is not bunk, the blue pills are reality and the red pills are poisonous lies. Swallow at your own risk.

Ten pills:
  1. Peace, prosperity, and freedom

    • blue pill:

    • Democracy is responsible for the present state of peace, prosperity, and freedom in the US, Europe and Japan.

    • red pill:

    • The rule of law is responsible for the present state of peace, prosperity and freedom in the US, Europe and Japan.


  2. Democracy, freedom, and law

    • blue pill:

    • Democracy is inseparable from freedom and law.

    • red pill:

    • At best, democracy is sand in the gears of freedom and law. At worst it excludes them entirely, as in Iraq.


  3. Fascism and communism

    • blue pill:

    • The disasters of fascism and communism demonstrate the importance of representative democracy.

    • red pill:

    • Fascism and communism are best understood as forms of democracy. The difference between single-party and multiparty democracy is like the difference between a malignant tumor and a benign one.


  4. The nature of the state

    • blue pill:

    • The state is established by citizens to serve their needs. Its actions are generally righteous.

    • red pill:

    • The state is just another giant corporation. Its actions generally advance its own interests. Sometimes these interests coincide with ours, sometimes they don't.


  5. The power structure of the West

    • blue pill:

    • Power in the West is held by the people, who have to guard it closely against corrupt politicians and corporations.

    • red pill:

    • Power in the West is held by the civil service, that is, the permanent employees of the state. In any struggle between the civil service and politicians or corporations, the civil service wins.


  6. The extent of the state

    • blue pill:

    • The state consists of elected officials and their appointees.

    • red pill:

    • The state consists of all those whose interests are aligned with the state. This includes NGOs, universities, and the press, all of whose employees are effectively civil servants, and side with the civil service in almost all conflicts.


  7. The danger of right-wing politics

    • blue pill:

    • Right-wing politicians, and the ignorant masses who support them, are a danger to democracy. They must be stopped.

    • red pill:

    • Right-wing politicians are a classic democratic phenomenon. Domestically, they have little power and are mostly harmless. Their international adventures are destructive, but they are inescapable consequences of democracy itself.


  8. Democracy and nonpartisan government

    • blue pill:

    • True democracy is not merely the rule of politicians. For a democracy to succeed, a nonpartisan decisionmaking process is essential. Civil servants, especially judges, must be isolated from politics, or they will become corrupt.

    • red pill:

    • Democracy is politics. Any other definition is Orwellian. The absence of politics is the absence of democracy, and apolitical civil-service government is indeed better than democracy. But this is a low standard to surpass.


  9. The history of Western government

    • blue pill:

    • The present system of Western government is the result of adapting 19th-century classical liberalism to the complex modern world.

    • red pill:

    • Western governments today are clones of the quasi-democratic FDR regime, whose best modern comparisons are leaders like Mubarak, Putin or Suharto. Its origin was the Progressive movement, which broke classical liberalism, then complained that it didn't work.


  10. The future of Western government

    • blue pill:

    • The Western world is moving toward a globalized, transnational free market in which politics is increasingly irrelevant, and technocratic experts and NGOs play larger roles in fighting corruption, protecting the environment, and delivering essential public services.

    • red pill:

    • Civil-service government works well at first, but it degrades. Its limit as time approaches infinity is sclerotic Brezhnevism. Its justification for ruling is inseparable from democracy, which is mystical nonsense and is rapidly disappearing. It cannot survive without a captive media and educational system, which the Internet will route around. Also, its financial system is a mess and could collapse at any minute. The whole thing will be lucky if it lasts another ten years.

Monday, April 23, 2007 8 Comments

A formalist manifesto

The other day I was tinkering around in my garage and I decided to build a new ideology.

What? I mean, am I crazy or something? First of all, you can't just build an ideology. They're handed down across the centuries, like lasagna recipes. They need to age, like bourbon. You can't just drink it straight out of the radiator.

And look what happens if you try. What causes all the problems of the world? Ideology, that's what. What do Bush and Osama have in common? They're both ideological nutcases. We're supposed to need more of this?

Furthermore, it's simply not possible to build a new ideology. People have been talking about ideology since Jesus was a little boy. At least! And I'm supposedly going to improve on this? Some random person on the Internet, who flunked out of grad school, who doesn't know Greek or Latin? Who do I think I am, Wallace Shawn?

All excellent objections. Let's answer them and then we'll talk about formalism.

First, of course, there are a couple of beautifully aged traditional ideologies which the Internet now brings us in glorious detail. They go by lots of names, but let's call them progressivism and conservatism.

My beef with progressivism is that for at least the last 100 years, the vast majority of writers and thinkers and smart people in general have been progressives. Therefore, any intellectual in 2007, which unless there has been some kind of Internet space warp and my words are being carried live on Fox News, is anyone reading this, is basically marinated in progressive ideology.

Perhaps this might slightly impair one's ability to see any problems that may exist in the progressive worldview.

As for conservatism, not all Muslims are terrorists, but most terrorists are Muslims. Similarly, not all conservatives are cretins, but most cretins are conservatives. The modern American conservative movement - which is paradoxically much younger than the progressive movement, if only because it had to be reinvented after the Roosevelt dictatorship - has been distinctly affected by this audience. It also suffers from the electoral coincidence that it has to despise everything that progressivism adores, a bizarre birth defect which does not appear to be treatable.

Most people who don't consider themselves "progressives" or "conservatives" are one of two things. Either they're "moderates," or they're "libertarians."

In my experience, most sensible people consider themselves "moderate," "centrist," "independent," "unideological," "pragmatic," "apolitical," etc. Considering the vast tragedies wrought by 20th-century politics, this attitude is quite understandable. It is also, in my opinion, responsible for most of the death and destruction in the world today.

Moderation is not an ideology. It is not an opinion. It is not a thought. It is an absence of thought. If you believe the status quo of 2007 is basically righteous, then you should believe the same thing if a time machine transported you to Vienna in 1907. But if you went around Vienna in 1907 saying that there should be a European Union, that Africans and Arabs should rule their own countries and even colonize Europe, that any form of government except parliamentary democracy is evil, that paper money is good for business, that all doctors should work for the State, etc, etc - well, you could probably find people who agreed with you. They wouldn't call themselves "moderates," and nor would anyone else.

No, if you were a moderate in Vienna in 1907, you thought Franz Josef I was the greatest thing since sliced bread. So which is it? Hapsburgs, or Eurocrats? Pretty hard to split the difference on that one.

In other words, the problem with moderation is that the "center" is not fixed. It moves. And since it moves, and people being people, people will try to move it. This creates an incentive for violence - something we formalists try to avoid. More on this in a bit.

That leaves libertarians. Now, I love libertarians to death. My CPU practically has a permanent open socket to the Mises Institute. In my opinion, anyone who has intentionally chosen to remain ignorant of libertarian (and, in particular, Misesian-Rothbardian) thought, in an era when a couple of mouse clicks will feed you enough high-test libertarianism to drown a moose, is not an intellectually serious person. Furthermore, I am a computer programmer who has read far too much science fiction - two major risk factors for libertarianism. So I could just say, "read Rothbard," and call it a day.

On the other hand, it is hard to avoid noticing two basic facts about the universe. One is that libertarianism is an extremely obvious idea. The other is that it has never been successfully implemented.

This does not prove anything. But what it suggests is that libertarianism is, as its detractors are always quick to claim, an essentially impractical ideology. I would love to live in a libertarian society. The question is: is there a path from here to there? And if we get there, will we stay there? If your answer to both questions is obviously "yes," perhaps your definition of "obvious" is not the same as mine.

So this is why I decided to build my own ideology - "formalism."

Of course, there is nothing new in formalism. Progressives, conservatives, moderates, and libertarians will all recognize large chunks of their own undigested realities. Even the word "formalism" is borrowed from legal formalism, which is basically the same idea in more modest attire.

I am not Vizzini. I am just some dude who buys a lot of obscure used books, and is not afraid to grind them down, add flavor, and rebrand the result as a kind of political surimi. Most everything I have to say is available, with better writing, more detail and much more erudition, in Jouvenel, Kuehnelt-Leddihn, Leoni, Burnham, Nock, etc, etc.

If you've never heard of any of these people, neither had I until I started the procedure. If that scares you, it should. Replacing your own ideology is a lot like do-it-yourself brain surgery. It requires patience, tolerance, a high pain threshold, and very steady hands. Whoever you are, you already have an ideology in there, and if it wanted to come out it would have done so on its own.

There is no point in starting this messy experiment only to install some other ideology that's the way it is just because someone said so. Formalism, as we'll see, is an ideology designed by geeks for other geeks. It's not a kit. It doesn't come with batteries. You can't just pop it in. At best, it's a rough starting point to help you build your own DIY ideology. If you're not comfortable working with a table saw, an oscilloscope and an autoclave, formalism is not for you.

That said:

The basic idea of formalism is just that the main problem in human affairs is violence. The goal is to design a way for humans to interact, on a planet of remarkably limited size, without violence.

Especially organized violence. Next to organized human-on-human violence, a good formalist believes, all other problems - Poverty, Global Warming, Moral Decay, etc, etc, etc - are basically insignificant. Perhaps once we get rid of violence we can worry a little about Moral Decay, but given that organized violence killed a couple of hundred million people in the last century, whereas Moral Decay gave us "American Idol," I think the priorities are pretty clear.

The key is to look at this not as a moral problem, but as an engineering problem. Any solution that solves the problem is acceptable. Any solution that does not solve the problem is not acceptable.

For example, there is an existing idea called pacifism, part of the general progressive suite, which claims to be a solution for violence. As I understand it, the idea of pacifism is that if you and I can not be violent, everyone else will not be violent, too.

There's no doubt in my mind that pacifism is effective in some cases. In Northern Ireland, for example, it seems to be just the thing. But there is a kind of "hundredth-monkey" logic to it that consistently eludes my linear, Western mind. It strikes me that if everyone is a pacifist and then one person decides not to be a pacifist, he will wind up ruling the world. Hmm.

A further difficulty is that the definition of "violence" isn't so obvious. If I gently relieve you of your wallet, and you chase after me with your Glock and make me beg to be allowed to give it back, which of us is being violent? Suppose I say, well, it was your wallet - but it's my wallet now?

This suggests, at the very least, that we need a rule that tells us whose wallet is whose. Violence, then, is anything that breaks the rule, or replaces it with a different rule. If the rule is clear and everyone follows it, there is no violence.

In other words, violence equals conflict plus uncertainty. While there are wallets in the world, conflict will exist. But if we can eliminate uncertainty - if there is an unambiguous, unbreakable rule that tells us, in advance, who gets the wallet - I have no reason to sneak my hand into your pocket, and you have no reason to run after me shooting wildly into the air. Neither of our actions, by definition, can affect the outcome of the conflict.

Violence of any size makes no sense without uncertainty. Consider a war. If one army knows it will lose the war, perhaps on the advice of some infallible oracle, it has no reason to fight. Why not surrender and get it over with?

But this has only multiplied our difficulties. Where do all these rules come from? Who makes them unbreakable? Who gets to be the oracle? Why is the wallet "yours," rather than "mine"? What happens if we disagree on this? If there's one rule for every wallet, how can everyone remember them all? And suppose it's not you, but me, who's got the Glock?

Fortunately, great philosophers have spent many long hours pondering these details. The answers I give you are theirs, not mine.

First, one sensible way to make rules is that you're bound by a rule if, and only if, you agree to it. We don't have rules that are made by the gods somewhere. What we have is actually not rules at all, but agreements. Surely, agreeing to something and then, at your own convenience, un-agreeing to it, is the act of a cad. In fact, when you make an agreement, the agreement itself may well include the consequences of this kind of irresponsible behavior.

If you're a wild man and you agree to nothing - not even that you won't just kill people randomly on the street - this is fine. Go and live in the jungle, or something. Don't expect anyone to let you walk around on their street, any more than they would tolerate, say, a polar bear. There is no absolute moral principle that says that polar bears are evil, but their presence is just not compatible with modern urban living.

We are starting to see two kinds of agreements here. There are agreements made with other specific individuals - I agree to paint your house, you agree to pay me. And there are agreements like, "I won't kill anyone on the street." But are these agreements really different? I don't think so. I think the second kind of agreement is just your agreement with whoever owns the street.

If wallets have owners, why shouldn't streets have owners? Wallets have to have owners, obviously, because ultimately someone has to decide what happens with the wallet. Does it ride off in your pocket, or mine? Streets stay put, but there are still a lot of decisions that have to be taken - who paves the street? When and why? Are people allowed to kill people on the street, or is it one of those special no-killing streets? What about street vendors? And so on.

Obviously, if I own 44th Street and you own 45th and 43rd, the possibility of a complex relationship between us becomes nontrivial. And complexity is next to ambiguity, which is next to uncertainty, and the Glocks come out again. So, realistically, we are probably talking more about owning not streets, but larger, more clearly-defined units - blocks, maybe, or even cities.

Owning a city! Now that would be pretty cool. But it gets us back to an issue that we've completely skipped, which is who owns what. How do we decide? Do I deserve to own a city? Am I so meritorious? I think I am. Maybe you could keep your wallet, and I could get, say, Baltimore.

There is this idea called social justice that a lot of people believe in. The notion is, in fact, fairly universal as of this writing. What it tells us is that Earth is small and has a limited set of resources, such as cities, which we all want as much of as possible. But we can't all have a city, or even a street, so we should share equally. Because all of us people are equal and no one is more equal than anyone else.

Social justice sounds very nice. But there are three problems with it.

One is that many of these nice things are not directly comparable. If I get an apple and you get an orange, are we equal? One could debate the subject - with Glocks, perhaps.

Two is that even if everyone starts with equal everything, people being different, having different needs and skills and so on, and the concept of ownership implying that if you own something you can give it to someone else, all is not likely to stay equal. In fact, it's basically impossible to combine a system in which agreements stay agreed with one in which equality stays equal.

This tells us that if we try to enforce permanent equality, we can probably expect permanent violence. I am not a big fan of "empirical evidence," but I think this prediction corresponds pretty well to reality.

But three, which is the real killer - so to speak - is that we are not, in fact, designing an abstract utopia here. We are trying to fix the real world, which in case you hadn't noticed, is extremely screwed up. In many cases, there is no clear agreement on who owns what (Palestine, anyone?), but most of the good things in the world do seem to have a rather definite chain of control.

If we have to start by equalizing the distribution of goods, or in fact by changing this distribution at all, we are putting ourselves quite unnecessarily behind the 8-ball. We are saying, we come in peace, we believe all should be free and equal, let us embrace. Put your arms around me. Feel that lump in my back pocket? Yup, that's what you think it is. And it's loaded. Now hand over your city / wallet / apple / orange, because I know someone who needs it more than you.

The goal of formalism is to avoid this unpleasant little detour. Formalism says: let's figure out exactly who has what, now, and give them a little fancy certificate. Let's not get into who should have what. Because, like it or not, this is simply a recipe for more violence. It is very hard to come up with a rule that explains why the Palestinians should get Haifa back, and doesn't explain why the Welsh should get London back.

So far this probably sounds a lot like libertarianism. But there's a big difference.

Libertarians may think the Welsh should get London back. Or not. I am still not sure I can interpret Rothbard on this one - which is, as we've seen, in itself a problem.

But if there is one thing all libertarians do believe, it's that the Americans should get America back. In other words, libertarians (at least, real libertarians) believe the US is basically an illegitimate and usurping authority, that taxation is theft, that they are essentially being treated as fur-bearing animals by this weird, officious armed mafia, which has somehow convinced everyone else in the country to worship it like it was the Church of God or something, not just a bunch of guys with fancy badges and big guns.

A good formalist will have none of this.

Because to a formalist, the fact that the US can determine what happens on the North American continent between the 49th parallel and the Rio Grande, AK and HI, etc, means that it is the entity which owns that territory. And the fact that the US extracts regular payments from the aforementioned fur-bearing critters means no more than that it owns that right. The various maneuvers and pseudo-legalities by which it acquired these properties are all just history. What matters is that it has them now and it doesn't want to give them over, any more than you want to give me your wallet.

So if the responsibility to fork over some cut of your paycheck makes you a serf (a reasonable reuse of the word, surely, for our less agricultural age), that's what Americans are - serfs.

Corporate serfs, to be exact, because the US is nothing but a corporation. That is, it is a formal structure by which a group of individuals agree to act collectively to achieve some result.

So what? So I'm a corporate serf. Is this so horrible? I seem to be pretty used to it. Two days out of the week I work for Lord Snooty-Snoot. Or Faceless Global Products. Or whoever. Does it matter who the check is written to?

The modern distinction between "private" corporations and "governments" is actually a rather recent development. The US is certainly different from, say, Microsoft, in that the US handles its own security. On the other hand, just as Microsoft depends on the US for most of its security, the US depends on Microsoft for most of its software. It's not clear why this should make one of these corporations special, and the other not-special.

Of course, the purpose of Microsoft is not to write software, but to make money for its shareholders. The American Cancer Society is a corporation, too, and it has a purpose as well - to cure cancer. I have lost a lot of work on account of Microsoft's so-called "software," and its stock, frankly, is going nowhere. And cancer still seems to be around.

In case the CEO of either MSFT or the ACS is reading this, though, I don't really have a message for you guys. You know what you're trying to do and your people are probably doing as good a job of it as they can. And if not, fire the bastards.

But I have no idea what the purpose of the US is.

I have heard that there's someone who supposedly runs it. But he doesn't appear to even be able to fire his own employees, which is probably good, because I hear he's not exactly Jack Welch, if you know what I mean. In fact, if anyone can identify one significant event that has occurred in North America because Bush and not Kerry was elected in 2004, I'd be delighted to hear of it. Because my impression is that basically the President has about as much effect on the actions of the US as the Heavenly Sovereign Emperor, the Divine Mikado, has on the actions of Japan. Which is pretty much none.

Obviously, the US exists. Obviously, it does stuff. But the way in which it decides what stuff it's going to do is so opaque that, as far as anyone outside the Beltway is concerned, it might as well be consulting ox entrails.

So this is the formalist manifesto: that the US is just a corporation. It is not a mystic trust consigned to us by the generations. It is not the repository of our hopes and fears, the voice of conscience and the avenging sword of justice. It is just an big old company that holds a huge pile of assets, has no clear idea of what it's trying to do with them, and is thrashing around like a ten-gallon shark in a five-gallon bucket, red ink spouting from each of its bazillion gills.

To a formalist, the way to fix the US is to dispense with the ancient mystical horseradish, the corporate prayers and war chants, figure out who owns this monstrosity, and let them decide what in the heck they are going to do with it. I don't think it's too crazy to say that all options - including restructuring and liquidation - should be on the table.

Whether we're talking about the US, Baltimore, or your wallet, a formalist is only happy when ownership and control are one and the same. To reformalize, therefore, we need to figure out who has actual power in the US, and assign shares in such a way as to reproduce this distribution as closely as possible.

Of course, if you believe in the mystical horseradish, you'll probably say that every citizen should get one share. But this is a rather starry-eyed view of the US's actual power structure. Remember, our goal is not to figure out who should have what, but to figure out who does have what.

For example, if the New York Times was to endorse our reformalization plan, it would be much more likely to happen. This suggests that the New York Times has quite a bit of power, and therefore that it should get quite a few shares.

But wait. We haven't answered the question. What is the purpose of the US? Suppose, solely for illustration, we give all the shares to the New York Times. What will "Punch" Sulzberger do with his shiny new country?

Many people, probably including Mr. Sulzberger, seem to think of the US as a charitable venture. Like the American Cancer Society, just with a broader mission. Perhaps the purpose of the US is simply to do good in the world.

This is a very understandable perspective. Surely, if anything ungood remains in the world, it can be vanquished by a gigantic, heavily armed mega-charity, with H-bombs, a flag, and 250 million serfs. In fact, it's actually rather astounding that, considering the prodigious endowments of this great philanthropic institution, it seems to do so little good.

Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that it's run so efficiently that it hasn't balanced its budget since the 1830s. Perhaps, if you reformalized the US, ran it like an actual business, and distributed its shares among a large set of separate charities, each presumably with some specific charter for some actual specific purpose, more good might occur.

Of course, the US doesn't just have assets. Sadly, it also has debts. Some of these debts, such as T-bills, are already very well-formalized. Others, such as Social Security and Medicare, are informal and subject to political uncertainties. If these obligations were reformalized, their recipients could only benefit. Of course, they would thus become negotiable instruments and could be, for example, sold. Perhaps in exchange for crack. Reformalization thus requires us to distinguish between property and charity, a hard problem but an important one.

All this fails to answer the question: are nation-states, such as the US, even useful? If you reformalized the US, the question would be left to its shareholders. Perhaps cities work the best when they're independently owned and operated. If so, they should probably be spun off as separate corporations.

The existence of successful city-states such as Singapore, Hong Kong and Dubai certainly suggests an answer to this question. Whatever we call them, these places are remarkable for their prosperity and their relative absence of politics. In fact, perhaps the only way to make them more stable and secure would be to transform them from effectively family-owned (Singapore and Dubai) or subsidiary (Hong Kong) corporations, to anonymous public ownership, thus eliminating the long-term risk that political violence might develop.

Certainly, the absence of democracy in these city-states has not made them comparable in any way to Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union. Any restrictions on personal freedom that they do maintain seem primarily aimed at preventing the development of democracy - an understandable concern given the history of rule by the People. In fact, both the Third Reich and the Communist world often claimed to represent the true spirit of democracy.

As Dubai in particular shows, a government (like any corporation) can deliver excellent customer service without either owning or being owned by its customers. Most of Dubai's residents are not even citizens. If Sheik al-Maktoum has a cunning plan to seize them all, chain them and make them work in the salt mines, he's doing it in a very devious way.

Dubai, as a place, has almost nothing to recommend it. The weather is horrible, the sights are nonexistent, and the neighborhood is atrocious. It's tiny, in the the middle of nowhere, and surrounded by Allah-crazed maniacs with a suspicious affinity for high-speed centrifuges. Nonetheless it has a quarter of the world's cranes and is growing like a weed. If we let the Maktoums run, say, Baltimore, what would happen?

One conclusion of formalism is that democracy is - as most writers before the 19th century agreed - an ineffective and destructive system of government. The concept of democracy without politics makes no sense at all, and as we've seen, politics and war are a continuum. Democratic politics is best understood as a sort of symbolic violence, like deciding who wins the battle by how many troops they brought.

Formalists attribute the success of Europe, Japan and the US after World War II not to democracy, but its absence. While retaining the symbolic structures of democracy, much as the Roman Principate retained the Senate, the postwar Western system has assigned almost all actual decision-making power to its civil servants and judges, who are "apolitical" and "nonpartisan," ie, nondemocratic.

Because in the absence of effective external control, these civil services more or less manage themselves, like any unmanaged enterprise they often seem to exist and expand for the sake of existing and expanding. But they avoid the spoils system which invariably develops when the tribunes of the people have actual power. And they do a reasonable, if hardly stellar, job of maintaining some semblance of law.

In other words, "democracy" appears to work because it is not in fact democracy, but a mediocre implementation of formalism. This relationship between symbolism and reality has received an educational if depressing test in the form of Iraq, where there is no law at all, but which we have endowed with the purest and most elegant form of democracy (proportional representation), and ministers who actually seem to run their ministries. While history does no controlled experiments, surely the comparison of Iraq to Dubai makes a fine case for formalism over democracy.

(originally posted at over at 2Blowhards - thanks, Michael! If you have comments, there's already a thread there...)