The manner of their arrival was unscripted

Sunday, April 22nd, 2018

On Friday 11th June 1999, at the headquarters of KFOR, the NATO army being assembled to act as peacekeepers in Kosovo, British Lieutenant General Mike Jackson, KFOR’s commander, and US Navy Admiral Jim Ellis, Commander-in-Chief of all Allied Forces in Southern Europe, met in a run down shoe factory just outside of Skopje, Macedonia. General Jackson’s men would begin to cross the border into Kosovo the next day — but it looked like someone else might beat them to the punch:

At about 10:35, the two men turned on one of the TVs in the operations room and tuned it to CNN to see how the press was reporting that breakthrough. What they saw instead amazed them. There, on the screen, were pictures of a column of about 250 troops and vehicles advancing out of Bosnia, with KFOR painted hastily on them. The voiceover helpfully explained that this was the Russian contingent of KFOR, which their sources said was heading to the Kosovan capital, Pristina.

This was news to both Ellis and Jackson — because KFOR didn’t have a Russian contingent.

“It was fair to say the manner of their arrival was unscripted.” Jackson commented later.

Before the two men could properly digest this, the main phone in the operations room began to ring. Simultaneously, the men realised this probably meant that the one person they didn’t want to see this footage yet almost certainly had.

When they heard the voice on the other end of the phone, this was confirmed.

“General Jackson.” Said Wes Clark, US General and NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander in Europe (SACEUR). “You will secure Pristina Airport before the Russians arrive.”

The little green men have been at this a while.

Premodern and prenationalist

Friday, April 20th, 2018

India seems postmodern and postnationalist, Steve Sailer notes, but it might be more accurately called premodern and prenationalist:

India is the land of diversity, which is another word for inequality. India is kind of a subcontinental-scale version of a Democratic-ruled American city, such as Baltimore, where world-class talent such as Johns Hopkins resides side by side with intractable social problems.

India puts much of its effort into higher education, while allowing its mass schooling to be awful. Two Indian states tried the PISA test in 2009 and both scored at sub-Saharan levels, with the northern state doing even worse than the southern state. In math, Indian eighth graders performed at the level of South Korean third graders.

India’s ruling party at present is the strident Hindu nationalists under Prime Minister Modi, who are unfashionable in the West. They are trying to introduce the kind of old-fashioned patriotic indoctrination, such as playing the national anthem before movies, that Western countries adapted a century ago.

Good luck to them. You can see why they are trying so hard to instill the kind of national pride that the Chinese accomplished through violently throwing out the foreign devils. Indian infrastructure, for instance, remains shoddy, especially its shameful lack of sewage systems.

But that’s a small price to pay in the minds of American elite opinion for India rising above patriotism.

Another feature that makes our commentariat comfortable with India is that Indians don’t seem to be all that mechanically facile, perhaps especially not the priestly Brahmin caste, with whom Western intellectuals primarily interact.

And the Indians tend to be more verbally agile than the Chinese and more adept at the kind of high-level abstract thinking required by modern computer science, law, and soft major academia. Thousands of years of Brahmin speculations didn’t do much for India’s prosperity, but somehow have prepared Indians to make fortunes in 21st-century America.


Indians are made up of roughly three groups comparable to those who populated Europe since the last Ice Age. First came hunter-gatherers, then Dravidian-speaking farmers from the Fertile Crescent in the Middle East (more Turkish for Europe, more Iranian for India). Finally, the Yamnaya steppe nomads, who were more or less the Aryans of 19th-century German racist legend, invaded both vast peninsulas.


In India, however, unlike Europe, the Aryan conquerors eventually imposed a stupendously elaborate caste system dividing the subcontinent into thousands of inbreeding jatis. While the medieval European system of Three Estates (clergy, nobility, and commoners) could conceivably have some deep Aryan ties to the four main castes of Hinduism, there’s little in Europe like the jatis.

Who are the Brahmins? They appear to be the descendants of Aryan conquerors who rigged Indian culture to keep their heirs on top for thousands of years. [...] In other words, some of the racist Aryan theories of European scholars have turned out to be partially correct.

It’s homogeneous, nationalist, and modernist

Thursday, April 19th, 2018

In an age of postmodern postnationalism, China is old-fashioned, Steve Sailer suggests:

It’s homogeneous, nationalist, and modernist. China seems to have utilitarian 1950s values.

For example, Chinese higher education isn’t yet competitive on the world stage, but China appears to be doing a decent job of educating the masses in the basics. High Chinese scores on the international PISA test for 15-year-olds shouldn’t be taken at face value, but it’s likely that China is approaching first-world norms in providing equality of opportunity through adequate schooling.

Due to censorship and language barriers, Chinese individuals aren’t well represented in English-language cyberspace. Yet in real life, the Chinese build things, such as bridges that don’t fall down, and they make stuff, employing tens of millions of proletarians in their factories.

The Chinese seem, on average, to be good with their hands, which is something that often makes American intellectuals vaguely uncomfortable. But at least the Chinese proles are over there merely manufacturing things cheaply, so American thinkers don’t resent them as much as they do American tradesmen.

Much of the class hatred in America stems from the suspicions of the intelligentsia that plumbers and mechanics are using their voodoo cognitive ability of staring at 3-D physical objects and somehow understanding why they are broken to overcharge them for repairs. Thus it’s only fair, America’s white-collar managers assume, that they export factory jobs to lower-paid China so that they can afford to throw manufactured junk away when it breaks and buy new junk rather than have to subject themselves to the humiliation of admitting to educationally inferior American repairmen that they don’t understand what is wrong with their own gizmos.

Reich doesn’t yet have much ancient DNA from China (the Chinese government tries to limit high-tech grave-robbing to Chinese researchers), but the basics are evident. The mighty Han ethnicity, which Reich describes as “the world’s largest group with a census size of more than 1.2 billion,” originated among two separate peoples: millet farmers on the Yellow River and rice farmers on the Yangtze River.

But over the past 5,000 years or so, the two original groups have largely merged genetically into one Han race, so only a north-south cline is left.

Why? The Chinese seldom had many caste restrictions on marriage; the Emperor would assign China’s most eligible bachelors, his mandarin bureaucrats, to rule regions far from their families to cut down on nepotism; and China was gifted with excellent east-west water transport on its rivers, and augmented that with the ancient north-south Grand Canal, which runs for 1,100 miles.

That all contributed to blending together a rather genetically homogeneous nation.

This Chinese lack of diversity is out of style, and yet it seems to make it easier for the Chinese to get things done.

When the press hates you, it doesn’t matter

Monday, April 16th, 2018

It seems to Nassim Nicholas Taleb that the conventional press is dead:

And let me give you the evidence: we did an embargo on the book [Skin in the Game]. We did this for several reasons. The first one is what I call the IYI syndrome. In the past, my targets in The Black Swan were academic/finance people.

In Fooled by Randomness, the targets were rich idiots. Who — anyway — by now are poor. But — a rich idiot at the time. So,  journalists, you see, they loved it: “Someone is going against power, and it’s not us.” So phase one, they loved it. Although I criticized journalism, they said I was criticizing someone else.

In phase 2, I went against economic people who use the bell curve… and statisticians. And again, journalists cheered.

Now phase 3 — phase 4 actually — I went after the classes of people that include some people who review books. Therefore, I did not want to give them the chance to play with the book.

So we did an embargo.

What happened in London is someone managed to get a copy of the book. And sure enough, in succession, on the publication date, you had The Economist, The Financial Times, and The Guardian trying to hammer the book.

In spite of that — or maybe thanks to that — the book was the best seller in London. Now, surprisingly, the book was not reviewed in the United States. Nobody heard of it. And guess what? It was also a big surprise in the United States.

Which tells us something: When the press hates you, it doesn’t matter. It’s a very nice experiment. You can bypass conventional media by staying in the online field.

I still think the cover of the book should have been a beaver, raccoon, mink, and chinchilla all playing cards.

To have a great man for a friend seems pleasant to those who have never tried it

Wednesday, April 11th, 2018

In January 2017, Ryan Holiday was offered a potential position inside the newly forming Trump administration as communications director for a cabinet member, and he surprised himself by even considering it:

In the ancient world, as is true today, navigating political chaos was a pressing dilemma. Philosophers were forced to decide whether to participate in, resist or simply endure the political rulers of their time. Socrates, the incorrigible free spirit, was a soldier in the Peloponnesian War and a citizen who lived through Athens of the Thirty Tyrants. Aristotle, who wrote brilliant works on justice, happiness and government, worked for Alexander the Great, a murderous warmonger.

Or consider the case of Seneca, a man whose political life mirrors much of the chaos of the Trump administration. In A.D. 49, the well-known writer and Stoic philosopher was recalled from exile to tutor the successor of the emperor Claudius, a promising teenager named Nero. Like many people today, Seneca entered public service with ideals mitigated by a pragmatic understanding of the reality of the politics of his time.

Although just a few generations earlier, the Stoics had been ardent defenders of the republican ideals (Cato, Seneca’s hero, famously disemboweled himself rather than live under Julius Caesar), by Seneca’s time most of these objections had become futile. As Emily Wilson, a translator and biographer of Seneca, writes: “Cicero hoped that he really could bring down Caesar and Mark Antony. Seneca, by contrast, had no hope that he could achieve anything by direct opposition to any of the emperors under whom he lived. His best hope was to moderate some of Nero’s worst tendencies and to maximize his own sense of autonomy.”

We can imagine, too, that he saw the inexperienced Nero as an opportunity to advance his own interests and influence. Only time would reveal that fusing his fate to Nero was a Faustian bargain.

Though Nero had good qualities, he was obsessed with fame and had an endless need for validation. He was also unstable and paranoid, and began to eliminate his rivals — including murdering his own mother. Was Seneca personally involved in these decisions? We don’t know. But he helped legitimize the regime with his presence, and profited from it as well, becoming one of Rome’s richest men through his 13 years of service.

Seneca was torn. To the Stoics, contributing to public affairs was a critical duty of the philosopher. Could Seneca decline to serve because he disagreed with the emperor? Could he leave a deranged Nero unsupervised? In time, Seneca would also come to the conclusion that when “the state is so rotten as to be past helping, if evil has entire dominion over it, the wise man will not labor in vain or waste his strength in unprofitable efforts.”

As Nero worsened, Seneca attempted to leave. Joining Nero’s administration was easy, but an exit was not. Nero could not afford to lose his most influential adviser, or allow the perception that someone as well known as Seneca was cutting ties with him. Seneca was granted a quiet sabbatical at Nero’s whim — the modern equivalent of a jointly issued news release.

Seneca had finally come to experience the truth of the words of the Roman poet Horace, whose work had greatly influenced him: “To have a great man for a friend seems pleasant to those who have never tried it; those who have, fear it.”


In a remarkable essay titled “On Leisure,” published after Seneca retired, the philosopher wrote in an oblique way about his own experiences: “The duty of a man is to be useful to his fellow-men; if possible, to be useful to many of them; failing this, to be useful to a few; failing this, to be useful to his neighbors, and, failing them, to himself: for when he helps others, he advances the general interests of mankind.”

Removed from the day-to-day of Rome’s geopolitics (helping the many), he seemed to have a newfound appreciation for helping the few. Seneca seemed to realize only belatedly that one can contribute to his fellow citizens in ways other than through the state — for instance, by writing or simply by being a good man at home. There is some irony in the fact that as an individual, the famous letters and essays Seneca wrote would not only have a bigger impact than his work in politics but also in time would whitewash his contributions to a horrible regime.


Conspirators began to plot against Nero’s life, and Seneca, finally accepting that the monster he had helped create needed to be stopped, appears to have participated — or covered for those who did.

The effort failed but provided Seneca an opportunity: His life up to that point had contradicted many of his own teachings, but now when Nero’s guards came and demanded his life, he would be brave and wise. The man who had written much about learning how to die and facing the end without fear would comfort his friends, finish an essay he was writing and distribute some finished pieces for safekeeping. Then, he slit his veins, took hemlock and succumbed to the suffocating steam of a bath.

Another Stoic politician, Thrasea Paetus, who had chosen to challenge Nero while Seneca had collaborated, would ironically outlive Seneca by a year. His last words before his own death sentence: “Nero can kill me, but he cannot harm me.” This line had come from Socrates.

What caused the 1968 riots?

Sunday, April 8th, 2018

MLK’s assassination kicked up a wave of riots, but why exactly?

Modern thought has a tendency toward economic reductionism, viewing every historic problem as a mechanical working-out of underlying economic processes, and every solution in those terms.

After the 1960s riots, governments leaped in with public housing and economic redevelopment programs that did little to stem the decline of riot-haunted cities. After 9/11, we heard anguished discussions about poverty and economic stagnation in the Middle East. And when the United States elected Donald Trump president, reporters circled old factory towns like vultures, feasting on images of rusted-out manufacturing plants that could be fed to readers as the “reason” behind the political upheaval.

These things do matter. But in the words of sociologist Seymour Spilerman, who did some of the seminal research on the 1960s riots, they’re “background conditions.” The economic deprivation inflicted by America’s racial caste system was real and abominable — and yet, says Spilerman, “in general, it’s not economic conditions which are the immediate precipitants of riots.”

While a general level of deprivation may make riots more likely (if for no other reason than because the poor have so little to lose), variations in economic deprivation don’t. In the 1960s, blacks were economically oppressed everywhere, but there were still places where things were better or worse. So if economic conditions lead to riots, we’d have expected to see the most civil disorder in the places with the worst hardship. But that’s not what the data show.

Nor did economic factors predict when riots broke out. After all, the 1960s were a period of unusually rapid economic progress for black Americans, thanks to anti-discrimination campaigns and the Civil Rights Act. If poverty and unemployment were driving rioters, the 1960s should have been one of the most racially peaceful decades in American history.

What did cause the riots, then? Well, rage and despair and a lot of hard-to-quantify socio-political factors. But taking them all in total, I’d sum them all up with one word: respect. Whatever our economic conditions, we also want — we need — to command a certain minimal amount of admiration from our fellow citizens.


In the late 1960s, as the legal barriers fell, the gulf between legal status and social reality may have chafed more than usual.

You are trying to escape your shame with pride

Friday, April 6th, 2018

Pride is considered not just a deadly sin but the worst deadly sin, and Scott Alexander has always been confused about this:

In his Book of Ratings, Lore Sjoberg asks pretty much the same question I would:

I’m not sure how pride works. Do you go to hell for saying “this is a pretty tasty three-bean salad I’ve made, if I do say so myself,” or do you have to say “why, I bet this is a better three-bean salad than GOD could make”? And what about self-esteem? My high school counselors were always pushing self-esteem on me. Were they pawns of the Adversary?

I’ve been watching Avatar: The Last Airbender recently, and Uncle Iroh said something that helped pride click for me:

You are trying to escape your shame with pride. But pride is not the opposite of shame. Pride is the source of shame, the other side of the same coin. It is deep humility that opposes both of them.

If I had to choose the exact passage of Lewis’ that this reminded me of, it would be the one where one of the blessed is trying to convince one of the damned to stay in Heaven, and the damned soul keeps thinking up all of these worries — for example, that as a damned spirit it’s grown ghastly and transparent, and finally the blessed soul asks “Could you, only for a moment, fix your mind on something not yourself?”

What I’m getting from Uncle Iroh’s quote is that pride and shame are both about obsessing over yourself and your status — in the one case how great you are, in the other case how lowly you are. What he’s calling humility is thinking about something outside yourself; devoting your life to some purpose other than self-promotion.

But the spirit in Lewis’ book never answers the question, and I’m not sure what the answer is. How do you go about trying to think of something that’s not yourself? If you think “Okay, gotta get to Heaven, so I’ll start thinking about Jesus”, you’re focusing on how to get yourself to Heaven. If you think “I wanna be a nice person, so I’ll give to charity”, you’re thinking about how to make yourself nicer. I wonder to what degree this is what the Protestants mean when they say that salvation is entirely by grace: you can’t get there from here, if you’re thinking entirely about yourself there’s no way to bootstrap yourself to thinking about other things.

Am I reading this at a level of philosophical sophistication greater than that in the text itself? I don’t think so. Lewis starts off with some boring straw men (the passage with the liberal clergystrawman was particularly grating) but then he does a commendably good job of examining the hardest possible cases for his theory of self-absorbedness. One of the damned souls is a mother whose son died when he was young; the mother spent the rest of her life mourning the son in the worst possible ways: refusing to do anything happy or fun, telling all her living children they could never live up to the dead son’s example, chiding anyone who acted happy as being insensitive to her misery. And so she went to Hell. It sounds harsh to send someone to Hell for being excessively sad that their son died, but Lewis did a good job showing how what looked like caring about another person (the son) was really self-absorbedness: trying to prove to everyone how righteous and sensitive she was and give herself an entitled position as the Poor Grieving Mother. She had built an identity as a Wronged and Bereaved Person, and she continued mourning not out of love for her son but in order to protect that identity. Lewis’ mantra that you have to shed your identities in order to become enlightened blessed was a constant theme, and the mother went to Hell not for loving her son but for loving her identity as the Wronged and Bereaved Person, which was in a way a sort of pride.

I interviewed at another psychiatric hospital yesterday, and we were discussing some of the cases there, and one thing that struck me was the similarity of Lewis’ idea of pride to the psychological idea of the defense mechanism. You have something bad happen to you — some threat to your self-esteem — and instead of rolling with it and saying “Yeah, I guess I’m not quite as great as I thought” you come up with some narrative that preserves your self-esteem. One of Lewis’ characters in Divorce is a good example: he was a poet, he wasn’t successful right away, so he decided he was a soul too pure for this world and that everyone else saw his inherent goodness and envied him and was in a conspiracy against him and that’s why they were mean to him. Or when some of the damned first found themselves in Hell, instead of admitting they had made a mistake they told themselves that because they had their freedom there and didn’t have to worship God, it was the real Heaven, and the people in the place above who said they were in Heaven were just deluded goody-goodies trying to sound better than everyone else. Or another guy who had known a criminal in life, found the (repentant) criminal in Heaven, and then went back to Hell in a huff because going to Heaven would legitimize the system that said a criminal got better treatment than upstanding law-abiding citizens like himself. It helps clarify an idea I wrote in another article, that “people aren’t just seeking status, they’re seeking the ability to believe that they have status.”

In Lewis’ Hell, the reason people don’t choose to go to Heaven even though the gates are open is that they’d have to abandon their defense mechanisms. They’d have to admit that there’s no conspiracy of jealous people against them and maybe they just weren’t that good a poet. Or that they’re in Hell because they were bad people, not because Hell is super awesome.

It has nothing to do with making good three-bean salads. Lewis’ Hell is full of people who are too proud to admit they were wrong.

I think I’m good at admitting I’m wrong in philosophical debates, but The Great Divorce made me realize how terrible I am at it in my personal life and in my quarrels. Once I had a good idea what pride was and what to look for, it was depressingly easy to find it in myself.

The old Robert E. Howard version is actually pretty much what happened

Thursday, April 5th, 2018

David Reich’s Who We Are and How We Got Here addresses some fascinating questions of prehistory, and reviewing it gives Steve Sailer the opportunity to repeat what he’s found in his own reading:

For example, India played a large role in the development of European conceptions of race. In 1786 British judge William Jones delivered a lecture in Calcutta suggesting that Sanskrit, Greek, and Latin were all descended from the same lost language, a ghost tongue now called Proto-Indo-European.

Jones went on to hypothesize that an ancient invasion of Dravidian-speaking India by Proto-Indo-European-speaking Aryans from Iran could help explain the curious distribution of language, skin color, and caste within the Hindu world today.


Hitler thus culturally appropriated the Hindu swastika.

Since 1945, the notion of Aryan invaders has been unsurprisingly unpopular.

In Europe, anthropologists have promoted the “pots not people” theory to argue that trade and changes in fashion must explain why Corded Ware pots suddenly showed up all over Europe about 4,900 years ago. (So did battle axes; indeed, early scientists called this the Battle Axe Culture. But that sounded too awesome. Hence, more recent academics renamed it after its pottery style to make these brutal barbarians sound dweebier and thus less interesting to boys.)

In India, the notion of Hindu culture as a giant conspiracy by Aryan invaders to enshrine their descendants at the top of the social order for the rest of eternity perhaps struck a little too close to home.

But Reich’s laboratory has found that the old Robert E. Howard version is actually pretty much what happened. Conan the Barbarian-like warriors with their horse-drawn wagons came charging off the Eurasian steppe and overran much of Europe and India.


Much more acceptable to Indian intellectuals than the idea that ancient conquerors from the Russian or Kazakhstani steppe took over the upper reaches of Indian culture has been the theory of Nicholas B. Dirks, the Franz Boas Professor of History and Anthropology at Columbia, that the British malignantly transformed diverse local Indian customs into the suffocating system of caste that we know today.

Now, though, Reich’s genetic evidence shows that caste has controlled who married whom in India for thousands of years.


This is in harmony with economic historian Gregory Clark’s recent discovery in his book of surname analysis, The Son Also Rises (Clark loves Hemingway puns), that economic mobility across the generations is not only lower than expected in most of the world, but it is virtually nonexistent in India.

Just as you’d imagine, Reich found that the highly nationalist Chinese turn out to be genetically quite homogeneous, while the Indians are genetically diverse due to caste divvying them up into thousands of inbreeding groups.


In general, “migration” and “mixture” tend in Reich’s book to serve as euphemisms for genocide of the native males and rape of the native females. Reich lists numerous examples from around the world where genetic data show that newcomers enslaved or murdered the local men and turned their women into concubines.

Fortunately, for the past 4,500 years, “ancient Britons harbored a blend of ancestries very similar to that of present-day Britons.” The Roman conquest didn’t leave much of a genetic mark, and the later Anglo-Saxon, Danish, and Norman invaders were genetically similar enough to earlier Britons that geneticists have only recently begun to disentangle them.

After 1066, the island race enjoyed a long halcyon era without new invaders raping and pillaging. But all good things evidently have to come to an end. As Benjamin Schwarz has pointed out, “In fact, Britain today receives more immigrants in a single year than it did in the entire period from 1066 to 1950.”

Reich is upset that his genetic discoveries have more or less upheld the old German archaeologist Gustaf Koussina’s theory that Germans were descended from Aryans.

How to deal with the misery of existence and transmute it into something holy

Wednesday, April 4th, 2018

Jordan Peterson is very conscious of his role as just another backwater stop on the railroad line of Western Culture, Scott Alexander explains:

His favorite citations are Jung and Nietzsche, but he also likes name-dropping Dostoevsky, Plato, Solzhenitsyn, Milton, and Goethe. He interprets all of them as part of this grand project of determining how to live well, how to deal with the misery of existence and transmute it into something holy.

And on the one hand, of course they are. This is what every humanities scholar has been saying for centuries when asked to defend their intellectual turf. “The arts and humanities are there to teach you the meaning of life and how to live.” On the other hand, I’ve been in humanities classes. Dozens of them, really. They were never about that. They were about “explain how the depiction of whaling in Moby Dick sheds light on the economic transformations of the 19th century, giving three examples from the text. Ten pages, single spaced.” And maybe this isn’t totally disconnected from the question of how to live. Maybe being able to understand this kind of thing is a necessary part of being able to get anything out of the books at all.

But just like all the other cliches, somehow Peterson does this better than anyone else. When he talks about the Great Works, you understand, on a deep level, that they really are about how to live. You feel grateful and even humbled to be the recipient of several thousand years of brilliant minds working on this problem and writing down their results. You understand why this is all such a Big Deal.

You can almost believe that there really is this Science-Of-How-To-Live-Well, separate from all the other sciences, barely-communicable by normal means but expressible through art and prophecy. And that this connects with the question on everyone’s lips, the one about how we find a meaning for ourselves beyond just consumerism and casual sex.

A larger impulse to remake humanity according to various ideals

Monday, April 2nd, 2018

Jordan Peterson reminded Russ Roberts that civilization is fragile:

He reminded me that it’s easy to think that everything is going to keep going the way it always has, getting slightly better and better, not just for a small slice of the population as is often claimed, but across a wide range of the population — more income, less poverty, more access to incredible technology. I’ve been an optimist for a long time based on my understanding of innovation and competition and the way they spread prosperity throughout the world as freedom has grown.

Peterson is not an optimist. I wouldn’t call him a pessimist, but he has adopted the persona of a prophet as Scott Alexander points out. He is sounding a bell exhorting us to remember that human beings have a very dark side, that the veneer of civilization is thinner than we like to think, and that humankind’s worst excesses are often justified by the noblest of motives.


I was recently at a panel discussion of the state of political and cultural life in America. All of the panelists were from what I would call the gentle left — good people to the left of center with a different world view from my own but full of compassion and good intentions. It was something of a smugfest — how sad it is that misguided people found Trump appealing. How sad it is that the right has no interest in the left while the left has been reaching out to understand how Trump voters could possibly exist. They chalked up the stupidity of Trump voters to global capitalism that had hollowed out the middle class and driven so many sheep into the arms of the Republican wolf who would only shear them and make a lovely blanket for himself.

Despite their best efforts at anthropology, the panelists were like fish in water unable to imagine what water is. The reason the right is less interested in the left than the left is in the right, is that the left is everywhere. You don’t have to take a trip to Kentucky or to a church to understand the left. The left dominates our culture — Hollywood, the music scene, the universities. And the left can’t seem to imagine that anything they are pushing for might be problematic. In particular, the radical egalitarian project is not everyone’s cup of tea. By radical egalitarian agenda, I mean equality of outcomes rather than equality of opportunity. Or that gender is a social construct.

And this brings me back to Peterson. Peterson stands athwart that radical egalitarian agenda. He’s not an elitist, particularly. But he refuses to say that 2+2 = 5. He refuses to say that gender is a choice divorced from biology, for example. But he goes further — he argues that the radical egalitarian impulse is part of a larger impulse to remake humanity according to various ideals. And he goes further still. He recognizes that this urge isn’t just unnatural. It’s dangerous.

Hell is a choice

Saturday, March 31st, 2018

The best analogy for Jordan Peterson is C.S. Lewis, Scott Alexander suggests:

Lewis believes that Hell is a choice. On the literal level, it’s a choice not to accept God. But on a more metaphorical level, it’s a choice to avoid facing a difficult reality by ensconcing yourself in narratives of victimhood and pride. You start with some problem — maybe your career is stuck. You could try to figure out what your weaknesses are and how to improve — but that would require an admission of failure and a difficult commitment. You could change companies or change fields until you found a position that better suited your talents — but that would require a difficult leap into the unknown. So instead you complain to yourself about your sucky boss, who is too dull and self-absorbed to realize how much potential you have. You think “I’m too good for this company anyway”. You think “Why would I want to go into a better job, that’s just the rat race, good thing I’m not the sort of scumbag who’s obsessed with financial success.” When your friends and family members try to point out that you’re getting really bitter and sabotaging your own prospects, you dismiss them as tools of the corrupt system. Finally you reach the point where you hate everybody — and also, if someone handed you a promotion on a silver platter, you would knock it aside just to spite them.

…except a thousand times more subtle than this, and reaching into every corner of life, and so omnipresent that avoiding it may be the key life skill. Maybe I’m not good at explaining it; read The Great Divorce (online copy, my review).


C.S. Lewis might have hated Peterson, but we already know he loathed Freud. Yet Peterson does interesting work connecting the Lewisian idea of the person trapped in their victimization and pride narratives to Freud’s idea of the defense mechanism. In both cases, somebody who can’t tolerate reality diverts their emotions into a protective psychic self-defense system; in both cases, the defense system outlives its usefulness and leads to further problems down the line. Noticing the similarity helped me understand both Freud and Lewis better, and helped me push through Freud’s scientific veneer and Lewis’ Christian veneer to find the ordinary everyday concept underneath both. I notice I wrote about this several years ago in my review of The Great Divorce, but I guess I forgot. Peterson reminded me, and it’s worth being reminded of.

The frame story of C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce is sparse but cute, Scott Alexander explains in his review:

There is regular bus service from Hell to Heaven. The damned souls from Hell take a field trip to Heaven, where they meet their blessed friends and relatives. They have conversations about their past lives and about good and evil. It is revealed that any damned soul who wants to stay in Heaven is free to do so, but in the end most of them choose to get back on the bus to Hell.

There was some theological discussion, but it didn’t seem very central. Lewis pretty much said all the Christian sects were simultaneously right about everything and it was a mystery exactly how.

So the setting was a straw dystopia and the theology was hand-wavey. The book was about morality. And like most of Lewis’ writings about morality, it was really good.

Everybody’s lying about the link between gun ownership and homicide

Friday, March 30th, 2018

Everybody’s lying about the link between gun ownership and homicide:

There is no clear correlation whatsoever between gun ownership rate and gun homicide rate. Not within the USA. Not regionally. Not internationally. Not among peaceful societies. Not among violent ones. Gun ownership doesn’t make us safer. It doesn’t make us less safe. The correlation simply isn’t there. It is blatantly not-there. It is so tremendously not-there that the “not-there-ness” of it alone should be a huge news story.

Gun Murder Rate Across US States

Firearm Homicide Rate vs. Guns Per Capita

This is the General Prophetic Method

Thursday, March 29th, 2018

Jordan Peterson is actually good, Scott Alexander admits:

The best analogy I can think of is C.S. Lewis. Lewis was a believer in the Old Religion, which at this point has been reduced to cliche. What could be less interesting than hearing that Jesus loves you, or being harangued about sin, or getting promised Heaven, or threatened with Hell? But for some reason, when Lewis writes, the cliches suddenly work. Jesus’ love becomes a palpable force. Sin becomes so revolting you want to take a shower just for having ever engaged in it. When Lewis writes about Heaven you can hear harp music; when he writes about Hell you can smell brimstone. He didn’t make me convert to Christianity, but he made me understand why some people would.

Jordan Peterson is a believer in the New Religion, the one where God is the force for good inside each of us, and all religions are paths to wisdom, and the Bible stories are just guides on how to live our lives. This is the only thing even more cliched than the Old Religion. But for some reason, when Peterson writes about it, it works. When he says that God is the force for good inside each of us, you can feel that force pulsing through your veins. When he says the Bible stories are guides to how to live, you feel tempted to change your life goal to fighting Philistines.

The politics in this book lean a bit right, but if you think of Peterson as a political commentator you’re missing the point. The science in this book leans a bit Malcolm Gladwell, but if you think of him as a scientist you’re missing the point. Philosopher, missing the point. Public intellectual, missing the point. Mythographer, missing the point. So what’s the point?

About once per news cycle, we get a thinkpiece about how Modern Life Lacks Meaning. These all go through the same series of tropes. The decline of Religion. The rise of Science. The limitless material abundance of modern society. The fact that in the end all these material goods do not make us happy. If written from the left, something about people trying to use consumer capitalism to fill the gap; if written from the right, something about people trying to use drugs and casual sex. The vague plea that we get something better than this.

Twelve Rules isn’t another such thinkpiece. The thinkpieces are people pointing out a gap. Twelve Rules is an attempt to fill it. This isn’t unprecedented — there are always a handful of cult leaders and ideologues making vague promises. But if you join the cult leaders you become a cultist, and if you join the ideologues you become the kind of person Eric Hoffer warned you about. Twelve Rules is something that could, in theory, work for intact human beings. It’s really impressive.

The non-point-missing description of Jordan Peterson is that he’s a prophet.

Cult leaders tell you something new, like “there’s a UFO hidden inside that comet”. Self-help gurus do the same: “All you need to do is get the right amount of medium-chain-triglycerides in your diet”. Ideologues tell you something controversial, like “we should rearrange society”. But prophets are neither new nor controversial. To a first approximation, they only ever say three things:

First, good and evil are definitely real. You know they’re real. You can talk in philosophy class about how subtle and complicated they are, but this is bullshit and you know it. Good and evil are the realest and most obvious things you will ever see, and you recognize them on sight.

Second, you are kind of crap. You know what good is, but you don’t do it. You know what evil is, but you do it anyway. You avoid the straight and narrow path in favor of the easy and comfortable one. You make excuses for yourself and you blame your problems on other people. You can say otherwise, and maybe other people will believe you, but you and I both know you’re lying.

Third, it’s not too late to change. You say you’re too far gone, but that’s another lie you tell yourself. If you repented, you would be forgiven. If you take one step towards God, He will take twenty toward you. Though your sins be like scarlet, they shall be white as snow.

This is the General Prophetic Method. It’s easy, it’s old as dirt, and it works.

So how come not everyone can be a prophet? The Bible tells us why people who wouldn’t listen to the Pharisees listened to Jesus: “He spoke as one who had confidence”. You become a prophet by saying things that you would have to either be a prophet or the most pompous windbag in the Universe to say, then looking a little too wild-eyed for anyone to be comfortable calling you the most pompous windbag in the universe. You say the old cliches with such power and gravity that it wouldn’t even make sense for someone who wasn’t a prophet to say them that way.

“He, uh, told us that we should do good, and not do evil, and now he’s looking at us like we should fall to our knees.”

“Weird. Must be a prophet. Better kneel.”

Maybe it’s just that everyone else is such crap at it. Maybe it’s just that the alternatives are mostly either god-hates-fags fundamentalists or more-inclusive-than-thou milquetoasts. Maybe if anyone else was any good at this, it would be easy to recognize Jordan Peterson as what he is — a mildly competent purveyor of pseudo-religious platitudes. But I actually acted as a slightly better person during the week or so I read Jordan Peterson’s book. I feel properly ashamed about this. If you ask me whether I was using dragon-related metaphors, I will vociferously deny it. But I tried a little harder at work. I was a little bit nicer to people I interacted with at home. It was very subtle. It certainly wasn’t because of anything new or non-cliched in his writing. But God help me, for some reason the cliches worked.

Great civilisations are not murdered

Tuesday, March 27th, 2018

Peter Turchin’s Ultrasociety explains how peaceful, stable societies came about:

As war created large states, empires, and nation-states, societies evolved measures to suppress internal conflict and violence. Reduced internal violence is the obverse of increased cooperation. Surprising as it may seem, the trend towards greater peace was already noticeable during the Ancient and Medieval historical eras, long before the Enlightenment of the 18th century. Of course, wars between empires dwarfed intertribal conflicts in scale. Huge armies fought increasingly bloody battles, and the numbers of casualties mounted. But the key point is that these wars moved away from imperial centers, towards the frontiers. More and more people — those living far from frontiers where battles were fought — never experienced conflict, and could enjoy relative prosperity.

There is no contradiction between larger armies and larger butcher’s bills from warfare, on the one hand, and on the other, a greater part of the population enjoying peace. What is important from the point of view of quality of life is not how many people, in total, are killed, but what the chances are that I (or you, or someone you care about) will be killed. In other words, the important statistic is the risk of violent death for each person.

War serves to weed out societies that go bad:

When discipline, imposed by the need to survive conflict, gets relaxed, societies lose their ability to cooperate. A reactionary catchphrase of the 1970s used to go, “what this generation needs is a war,” a deplorable sentiment but one that in terms of cultural evolution might sometimes have a germ of cold logic.

At any rate, there is a pattern that we see recurring throughout history, when a successful empire expands its borders so far that it becomes the biggest kid on the block. When survival is no longer at stake, selfish elites and other special interest groups capture the political agenda. The spirit that “we are all in the same boat” disappears and is replaced by a “winner take all” mentality. As the elites enrich themselves, the rest of the population is increasingly impoverished. Rampant inequality of wealth further corrodes cooperation.

Beyond a certain point a formerly great empire becomes so dysfunctional that smaller, more cohesive neighbors begin tearing it apart. Eventually the capacity for cooperation declines to such a low level that barbarians can strike at the very heart of the empire without encountering significant resistance. But barbarians at the gate are not the real cause of imperial collapse. They are a consequence of the failure to sustain social cooperation. As the British historian Arnold Toynbee said, great civilisations are not murdered — they die by suicide.

Any study of gun violence should include how guns save lives

Sunday, March 25th, 2018

Any study of “gun violence” should include how guns save lives, Paul Hsieh argues:

The numbers of defensive gun uses (DGUs) each year is controversial. But one study ordered by the CDC and conducted by The National Academies’ Institute of Medicine and National Research Council reported that, “Defensive use of guns by crime victims is a common occurrence”:

Almost all national survey estimates indicate that defensive gun uses by victims are at least as common as offensive uses by criminals, with estimates of annual uses ranging from about 500,000 to more than 3 million, in the context of about 300,000 violent crimes involving firearms in 2008.

Another study estimates there are 1,029,615 DGUs per year “for self-protection or for the protection of property at home, work, or elsewhere” excluding “military service, police work, or work as a security guard,” (within the range of the National Academies’ paper), yielding an estimate of 162,000 cases per year where someone “almost certainly would have been killed” if they “had not used a gun for protection.”

(In comparison, there were 11,208 homicide deaths by firearm in the US in 2012. There were a total of 33,636 deaths due to “injury by firearms,” of which the majority were suicides, 21,175.)

The second point he makes is that the value of firearms in the hands of law-abiding citizens should be measured in terms of lives saved or crimes prevented, not criminals killed:

As an example of the latter type of analysis, one recent Washington Post story reported that, “For every criminal killed in self-defense, 34 innocent people die”:

In 2012, there were 8,855 criminal gun homicides in the FBI’s homicide database, but only 258 gun killings by private citizens that were deemed justifiable, which the FBI defines as “the killing of a felon, during the commission of a felony, by a private citizen.” That works out to one justifiable gun death for every 34 unjustifiable gun deaths.

However, this comparison can be misleading. An armed civilian does not have to kill the criminal in order to save an innocent life. As the National Research Council notes, “[E]ffective defensive gun use need not ever lead the perpetrator to be wounded or killed. Rather, to assess the benefits of self-defense, one needs to measure crime and injury averted. The particular outcome of an offender is of little relevance.”

His last point is a bit of a political Rorschach test:

The right to self-defense does not depend on statistics and numbers.