If you want to profit from expertise, you must first tame it

Monday, June 11th, 2018

If you want to profit from expertise, you must first tame it:

To draw a line between when high expertise helps and when it potentially hinders, we first need to acknowledge that this anti-elitist trend did not emerge from nothing. ‘Experts’ as a group (if such a thing can be held to exist) have not exactly covered themselves in glory in the last few years, so the cynicism they now face is to some degree justifiable.

We need not get into the weeds here about the specific issues. But, suffice it to say, the complex manoeuvring of some extremely bright and learned people unwittingly triggered the financial crisis. Apocalyptic deadlines for climate change devastation came and went without fireworks. Election predictions on both sides of the Atlantic have been appalling, as have the predictions on the immediate consequences of those elections. Silicon Valley ‘geniuses’ plunge from one self- inflicted crisis to another. And, meanwhile, we have watched as what many people consider lunacy leaks out of the credentialed halls of academia and into the world at large.

In other words, smart people keep getting it wrong and scepticism about their competence has grown as a result. This seems to be a fairly straightforward story at first glance, and yet the public will only take their antipathy so far. Nobody says, “I want someone unqualified to be my president, therefore I also want someone unqualified to be my surgeon.” Nobody doubts the value of the expertise of an engineer or a pilot. This apparent inconsistency is what frustrates the anti-anti-elitists so much, not least because it seems to be unjustifiable.

However, it is worth drawing a distinction between these two types of expertise — the kind people question, and the kind people don’t. In short, people value expertise in closed systems, but are distrustful of expertise in open systems. A typical example of a closed system would be a car engine or a knee joint. These are semi-complex systems with ‘walls’ — that is to say, they are self-contained and are relatively incubated from the chaos of the outside world. As such, human beings are generally capable of wrapping their heads around the possible variables within them, and can therefore control them to a largely predictable degree. Engineers, surgeons, pilots, all these kinds of ‘trusted’ experts operate in closed systems.

Open systems, on the other hand, are those that are ‘exposed to the elements,’ so to speak. They have no walls and are therefore essentially chaotic, with far more variables than any person could ever hope to grasp. The economy is an open system. So is climate. So are politics. No matter how much you know about these things, there is not only always more to know, but there is also an utterly unpredictable slide towards chaos as these things interact.

The erosion of trust in expertise has arisen exclusively from experts in open systems mistakenly believing that they know enough to either predict those systems or — worse — control them. This is an almost perfect definition of hubris, an idea as old as consciousness itself. Man cannot control nature, and open systems are by definition natural systems. No master of open systems has ever succeeded — they have only failed less catastrophically than their counterparts.

Every king, queen, pharaoh, emperor, president, prime minister, and dictator-for-life in history has tried to master statecraft, and every one of them has failed. If they had not, their formula would have calcified into knowledge and rumbled on successfully indefinitely. And wasn’t such a legacy the goal of every single one of them? The better ones only failed more gradually, less bloodily, than the rest. But slowly their ideas, too, unravelled in the face of chaos. Ultimately, history has shown this to be axiomatic: the more you seek to control nature, to control an open system, the more disastrous the results.

Knowing this, it’s a wonder that humility in the face of open systems is still such a rare commodity amongst those who know them. Perhaps it’s because the Enlightenment granted us so much mastery over closed systems that we forgot the distinction existed. One could argue that we have earned our arrogance when it comes to technological progress, for instance. But just because we invented smartphones, it does not follow that we can predict the future.

This is what charisma is like in action

Saturday, June 9th, 2018

Randall Collins explains the micro-sociology of charisma:

A charismatic leader pumps up followers with emotional energy; they admire their leader and follow willingly in his or her trajectory. Emotional dominance is a different mechanism because it operates by hogging the emotional energy. Charisma includes people rather than excludes them. Durkheim would say that the charismatic leader becomes the sacred object for the group; I would say he or she is the focus of attention that sets the trajectory of the group, filling them with enthusiasm that they will accomplish something great together.

A few brief examples. Joan of Arc led French troops to assault English fortresses, not because she was a great fighter but because she carried the banner at the front, and her followers would swarm up after her because they believed she could not fail. In quieter moments, she would display her humility as an agent of God and her personal saints, by weeping in church, so expressively that everyone else would be weeping along with her. It is no exaggeration to say that she led a procession across France of crowds weeping, and rushing behind her into battle. The shared emotion of weeping — a bodily process that sweeps one out of control — was the emotional mechanism that generated the sense of religious-plus-political trajectory.

Jesus, like most charismatic leaders, was a good observer of persons; he knew who could be moved to join him, and who had something else on their mind. Jesus always seized control of the interaction by the second conversational turn: instead of replying to what someone else said, he intuited what they meant and challenged them on it. He could turn the tables even on hostile enemies by controlling the rhythm and letting embarrassing silences work against them, then seizing the moment to make his point.

Jumping to a recent example of a dominant business entrepreneur, Steve Jobs: Jobs was not an engineer or a designer, but he had excellent judgment as to who were the most creative people to hire. He recruited them, in part, by touting the revolutionary things they would invent, and offering generous shares of the profits. Above all, he challenged them to do things that they thought were impossible; his emotional domination in arguing with his technical staff was so strong that they jokingly said Steve had a reality-distortion field.

The way it worked was by an extremely intense interaction ritual in the workplace. Steve would visit the most advanced work group, look at what they had done, and start criticizing it. His comments were crude, obscene and insulting. We might think his high-tech experts wouldn’t stand for this, that they would quit or rebel. But Jobs was not the kind of boss who walks in, shouts at his workers, threatens them if they don’t do better, then slams the door and leaves. Steve would insult them until they were really angry; then he would stay and argue with them. His persistence was incredible — he would argue with them for hours. He was famous for dropping in on people and staying up all night arguing and expounding his vision. Obviously Steve has a lot of emotional energy to be able to do this: he shows the familiar pattern of the charismatic leader who doesn’t need sleep, a single-minded workaholic who never takes a break. This high level of emotional energy is the result of constantly being in the center of successful interaction rituals. But the most energizing interaction rituals are not mere emotional dominance, where everyone else’s emotional energy is crushed. Jobs wants energized workers who share his vision, technical experts who push beyond the limits of what they had thought possible.

The crucial pattern is in the time-sequence. Steve enters, and forcefully seizes the emotional center of attention. He uses negative emotions to begin with; he gets everyone seething with the same emotion, even if it is anger at himself. He gets them into an intense argument about how the thing they are inventing can or cannot be changed in ways no one has thought of before. Let us say, roughly, twenty minutes of insulting, then hours of heated argument. Over those hours, the emotions settle down; they are no longer focused on Steve and his insults, but about a vision of the piece of computer equipment in front of them, and where they can go with it. Steve did not always win these arguments; if something turned out to be genuinely impossible, he would tacitly accept that, provided they had figured out a work-around that would get them into the territory they were aiming for.

One could say that Steve Jobs was extremely egotistical, but his ego was in his products; and these were very much the products of a team, as cutting-edge as he could assemble. His core team became so convinced that Steve could do anything that they stuck with him, even in the dark days when he was forced out of Apple by the marketing and financial managers he had brought in to handle the non-technical side. It would be superficial to say that Steve Jobs achieved success by abusing his employees. He used very confrontational tactics to stir up emotions, but his secret was that he never walked away from them: but always saw the argument through to a shared resolution.  He was an expert at provoking intense interaction rituals.

This is what charisma is like in action: it energizes a group, along a trajectory that they believe will be a glorious success.

Voter issue preferences have almost nothing to do with who gets elected or what gets passed as law

Monday, June 4th, 2018

Xiaoyu Lu explores the cognitive dissonance of overseas Chinese students.

The rebellion against liberal democracy of these four individuals does not fit into prevalent narratives that portray Chinese overseas students as isolated, materialistic and politically insensitive. Their critical reflections came from genuine transnational exposure. However, does it mean that they became more nationalistic and supportive of China’s system? There is a further layer of complexity: most of the returnees I talked to insisted on their liberal values, agreeing on fundamental ideas of an open and inclusive society. In other words, they believed there was still a political gap for China to fill, but not one that followed a Western standard. This picture is perhaps troubling for both home countries and host countries, as they aligned with no particular model.

What they rebelled against was not the existence of a common value. Rather, it was the sense of superiority, the idea that there was no alternative, and the belief in liberal democracy as an orthodoxy,which they found frustrating. They became disillusioned with Western liberal democracy, because it did not live up to the promise of being a liberating force. Instead, they felt it limited democracy to a particular geography, history and set of institutions, which denied the participation of others. Their views underlined the tension between contemporary democratic values that reflect human universals, and the parochial politics that excludes so many people from claiming citizenship of a global community.

Their dilemma was how to express alternative views against liberal democracy while not being the proponents of political repression. Like me, they questioned a singular understanding of democracy, yet wanted to avoid relativism. They were hesitant to criticise the Chinese government, but also didn’t want to unquestioningly accept it. Their transnational encounters made them open to pluralism, and tolerant of multiple views and values, yet their pluralism was not always compatible with contemporary liberal democracy. Above all, they rejected that a single model or idea from another country could be the saviour for China. Rather, they are much more nuanced: double dissidents in an age of globalisation.

Hat tip to T. Greer, who has much more to say:

A few thoughts:

1) Interesting how almost every single one of these people conflates liberalism with democracy. It is quite possible to have deeply illiberal democracy. That might even be the global norm — especially for places with newly minted middle classes.

2) Democracy as practiced in the West is, in my humble opinion, better than other systems for mostly one reason: it provides a system of conflict resolution that does not require coups, civil wars, or violent suppression of the other side to manage disputes or power transitions.

3) Compare the track record of the United States (especially the northern half) and the British dominions with almost any other political regime on these grounds that has ever existed over a three-century period, and you will see the value of this quite quickly.

4) Democracy promises 3 political ideals that hold great power over the imagination. Some of these ideals are more strongly realized than the others in 21st-Century government. None, however, are guaranteed results of representative democracy.

They are: liberty, equality, and self government.

I suspect that disillusionment with democracy and liberalism writ large comes with the feeling that the gap between one of these ideals and the reality yawns to wide — or a disenchantment with the ideal itself.

Of the three, Western democracies have probably done the best at preserving liberty. This is the one I miss most while in China. My life is deeply affected by my inability to worship as I would like, to speak as I would like, and to associate with whom I will.

Libertarians will criticize Western governments for being too hostile freedom writ large, but for most people these things are protected. By and large, Westerners are also free from arbitrary detentions, torture, and have protections like habeas corpus, etc. These things matter.

You can hypothetically have all of those things in a non-democratic system. On the eve of WWI, most Europeans did have them, or something close to them, even though the amount of democratic influence differed strongly empire to empire (Russians are an exception).

You could feasibly have a non-democratic system in China that protected these things — just as you could feasibly have a democracy that did not.

This brings us to the next one. Equality.

Trouble with equality is everyone has a different definition of it. You can do complete economic equality on the one hand down to a much more restricted version of pure legal equality on the other. The definition I think is most meaningful is the one Tocqueville keyed in on.

Worth reminding ourselves that what Tocqueville found so extraordinary about America was not its freedoms — in some ways, he would claim, Americans were less free than folks who lived in aristocracies, as aristocrats have a much greater tolerance for heterodoxy than democratic politics ever allows. No, what impressed Tocqueville about America was its equality. He thought Americans were economically about equal — or at least they had equal economic opportunities. Later studies of economic inequality in the antebellum era have proven this notion wrong.

But Tocqueville made that inference from a solid observation: Americans of different classes were regarded as *social* equals. One can exaggerate that claim, of course. Class existed in the 1830s. But the difference between the USA & Europe was vast.

The reasons for this sense of shared social equality (disclaimer about white men, blah blah blah) came mainly from three sources: The first was that most Americans were functionally independent. They owned their own farms or shops. They were their own bosses.

So even if you met a millionaire, you could fool yourself into thinking you were his equal, because he did not control you — you controlled you.

This version of independence mostly disappeared by the 1920s in the USA. Populists tried to stop its leaving, but they failed.

Second reason: Americans were legally equal. One man, one vote. All shared the same liberties. This one has largely stuck around.

Third reason: Americans were possessed with this ideology of social equality. This ideology originally proposed that any white man was the social equal of any white man simply by merit of being a white man. Voting rates were so high in the late 1800s partially because they were strongly associated with manhood.

Well, women got the vote & the ideology changed a bit, but mostly stuck around. In America you could see that by the polls asking folks if they considered themselves middle class — both the poor and rich insisted on it, even when, statistically speaking, it wasn’t true. America wasn’t that much more economically mobile in earlier ages — people just really believed it was, and in many locales, especially rural ones, tried hard to downplay local differences.

But I suppose that’s mostly gone now in America, and I’d suggest, France. Amy Chua’s “market dominant minority” model is helpful here.

So whether you measure it in social terms or economic terms, mod democracy doesn’t really deliver on the equality thing.

Which leaves us with self-government. Back in the 19th c and early 20th c this was the center of the pro-democracy propaganda. Inasmuch as you say things like “we will follow the will of the people” I suppose you are still spreading it yourself.

Poli scientists Christopher Achen & Larry Bartels have a good book that shows how this a complete myth in any large scale polity, Democracy for Realists. Basically, voter issue preferences have almost nothing to do with who gets elected or what gets passed as law.

But that really isn’t what self government should be about. Self government is about communities making decisions for themselves — communities that are small enough for individual voices to be heard, and for a sense of communal identity to be formed.

Which basically means local government and civic societies. These, in my humble opinion, are where the brilliance of democracy is supposed to be — the place where democracy can make good on its 19th-Century claim to make better people out of its citizens than other regimes. But the 21st Century has done poorly here.

Civic society has been in a decline in the USA for a good six decades, and few other countries ever matched the USA at its height. And no one cares about local government anymore. Most are consolidated till they are not local anymore (story of school boards) or are subject to control from above.

Political activism is the opiate of the masses

Monday, June 4th, 2018

Jordan Peterson turns Marx on his head and claims that political activism is the opiate of the masses:

That is, it’s something people use to make themselves feel sort of vaguely good and self-satisfied, but which prevents them from engaging in the actually important work of spiritual struggle.

My interpretation of him (can’t be sure it’s right) says that he is worried that there are problems with society, and all else being equal he would like people to solve them. But he has the psychoanalyst’s usual worry that anything which is not the Work will be a defense mechanism that people use to avoid the Work. Here again I find a comparison with Lewis helpful (this is from his demon character Screwtape’s advice on how to tempt humans):

“I had not forgotten my promise to consider whether we should make the patient an extreme patriot or an extreme pacifist. All extremes, except extreme devotion to the Enemy [God], are to be encouraged. Not always, of course, but at this period. Some ages are lukewarm and complacent, and then it is our business to soothe them yet faster asleep. Other ages, of which the present is one, are unbalanced and prone to faction, and it is our business to inflame them. Any small coterie, bound together by some interest which other men dislike or ignore, tends to develop inside itself a hothouse mutual admiration, and towards the outer world, a great deal of pride and hatred which is entertained without shame because the “Cause” is its sponsor and it is thought to be impersonal.”

I think Peterson assumes that a psychologically undeveloped person starting to dabble in politics will be eaten alive by various virulent memes, chewed up, and spit out as a Hofferian True Believer in about five minutes. At best they will end up as an never-shutting-up slacktivist who calls people out for not changing their profile picture on Facebook quickly enough, and at worst as some kind of totalitarian. I think he would argue there’s a vicious cycle here — the less psychologically developed you are, the more political activism will destroy you, and the more political activism destroys you, the less likely you are to ever psychologically develop further.

One of his twelve rules, “Set Your House In Perfect Order Before Criticizing The World”, is about this, and doesn’t preclude the possibility of getting involved in politics after you’ve sorted out your own life. I don’t know what this is supposed to mean, since presumably this is an eternal project that is never completed. Clearly Peterson himself thinks he’s at the point where he can participate in politics, so I don’t know.

Do I agree with him here? From a consequentialist point of view, what would it mean to get the least psychologically developed 50% of people out of political activism? If you’re a mistake theorist, it might be great — it takes an equal number of people away from both sides, but raises the quality of discourse. If you’re a conflict theorist, it might be awful — it decreases the number of troops available to the People in their struggle to overcome inertia and fight the Elites.

Rather than try to resolve that, I would just note that “Jordan Peterson saying psychologically underdeveloped people shouldn’t get involved in politics” does not remove the least psychologically developed people from politics. It removes from politics some group of people weighted towards reading Jordan Peterson, being psychologically underdeveloped, and having enough humility to realize that they might be psychologically underdeveloped (which is itself possibly a sign of not being underdeveloped). Whether or not you think this is worth it depends on your opinion of the average Peterson reader.

We want to feel and act as if our lives have meaning

Sunday, June 3rd, 2018

When we say we want our lives to be meaningful, are we saying we want our lives to actually have meaning, or that we want to feel and act as if our lives have meaning?

Before virtuous people like ourselves slam our fists on the table and insist on actual meaning, keep in mind — don’t we have actual meaning already? Most of us would endorse something like helping others as being inherently meaningful — we might add things like creating great art, discovering new scientific truths, and the like. If we could reprogram ourselves like robots, a lot of us would just program ourselves to do whatever helps others or achieves some conception of human values most efficiently, then say “problem solved”. If there’s something left after realizing we can do that, it’s not wondering what the meaning of life is, it’s having some kind of vague emotional will to go on.

This is one reason I respect Jordan Peterson’s pragmatism on a pragmatic level, even as I think it’s a crappy theory of truth. I can imagine a version of him saying (I don’t know if the real one does) “Look, I’m giving you all of these inspirational slogans. You can pick my science and philosophy and mythography apart if you really want, but are you sure you want to do that? You’ll just ruin my attempt to inspire you, and go back to lying on the couch all day wishing you had a reason to get up in the morning.”

Maybe aliens would view it as a tragic quirk of the human psyche that we have to conflate inspiration and truth. Maybe to them, inspiration is just another genre, closer to art or poetry than to an attempt to describe the world as it is. Maybe to them, if there’s an intuitively satisfying explanation of the meaning of life, asking “Is that really the meaning?” or “Is that really true?” would be just as stupid and annoying as nitpicking the lyrics of Ode To Joy. “Ode to Joy says ‘all creatures drink of joy’, but some creatures are unhappy, and joy is not a liquid! Politifact rates your symphony FALSE.”

It’s disappointing that nobody frames it this way: “Inspiring things should be taken as a work of art and not judged on their truth value”. Instead, it’s always some formulation like “Inspiring things are true in a way different from the way factual claims are true”, at which point I have to interject that truth is a useful word and insist on defending its “factually correct” meaning.


If we can waffle between factual truth and inspirational things in a way that lets us blur the distinction, so that we feel suitably inspired without necessarily believing false stuff in a way that could ever be pinned down, is this good or bad? Should we interpret this as an intellectual failure, or a cool skill that lets you do more than rationality alone? What about the claim that “rationalists should win”?

My own position is to question whether anyone is really good enough at this not to let their inspirational beliefs bleed over into the factual world. I discuss this a little bit here.

And my position on the larger problem of meaning is to notice that my life always seems really meaningful and great when I have coffee. If I’m going to try to figure out what the actual meaning of life is, in some sort of deep principled way, I’m going to do it with as much attention to Truth as possible. And if I’m going to give myself some emotional hack that lets myself go on and continue finding life worth living, I think caffeine probably has fewer side effects than falsehood, and is just as effective.

And if you don’t respond to caffeine as well as I do, then I think the overall lesson is that the emotional problem of meaning is a basically biological one, that doesn’t connect with the philosophical problem of meaning nearly as much as you think. Get a good psychiatrist and you’ll solve the emotional problem. The philosophical problem might not be solvable, but “helping others” or “creating a positive singularity” or “[your ingroup’s political goals here]” are, though not Perfectly Objectively Grounded, grounded enough that most people don’t really want to question them once the emotional problem is solved.

I find some of Peterson’s non-truth-value-having writing effective in the same sense as caffeine; it makes me more emotionally willing to follow the truths I know I should be following. Since, jokes aside, I can’t literally be drugged 100% of the time, I appreciate that. And maybe the drug would be stronger if I were to swallow his truth-value-having claims too. But that’s not a risk-benefit profile I’m okay with right now.

We fight for status, and we fight for belonging

Friday, June 1st, 2018

Former British Army officer Mike Martin’s Why We Fight explores the evolutionary psychology of warfare:

When you dig into it and you look at the data, there’s only two things that are worth risking yourself in war for, as an individual. The first thing is an increase in social status. And the reason why that’s worth risking yourself for is as you rise up the status hierarchy, particularly as a man, and men do most of the fighting, you get more mates, more sexual mates. When you have more mates, you have more children. That’s a reason to risk fighting in war.

But there’s another reason why people fight in war. That’s to ensure that they have membership of an in-group. This in-group could be a tribe or a nation-state. It’s the same mechanism, it’s the thing that causes us as humans to feel belonging. It’s the thing that makes you feel homesick. It’s the thing that sends shivers down your spine when you’re at a political rally, or a football match, or you’re singing in a choir in church. These are the mechanisms in your brain causing you to seek to belong.

In evolutionary terms, we need to belong to groups because they’re safe. The main reason that groups exist in evolutionary terms is because they protect us from other humans who are trying to kill us. We fight for status and we fight for belonging. We’ve got these ideas that these two things, status and belonging, and humans seeking those things are what cause individuals to fight in wars.

Actually, this makes sense. Look around the world. We’ve got two global level politicians and the idea of them seeking status and having status disputes with each other is very obvious in their behaviour. Leaders seek to dominate their own groups and that’s what they do. Running for the presidency of the United States is a massive status contest, it’s gruelling.

These people are driven to succeed and they’re driven to achieve high status. The mechanism that guides this seeking status is basically testosterone. The way it works is that the more testosterone you get, the more you seek status, but it’s a feedback loop. It’s a positive feedback loop.

When you get to the top of your group, i.e. you become the leader of your country or perhaps you become the head of your tribe, it depends what scale we’re looking at, you then seek to dominate other leaders who are the leaders of other groups. This is where we see wars at a product of a status disputes between leaders playing out.

Belonging comes into play when those who aren’t leaders seek to take part in wars. We can see this played out and the rise of identity politics at the moment, particularly in the States, but also across Europe. If Why We Fight is correct and war is driven by status and belonging, we’re entering a very dangerous period of history.”

Martin has much more to say on his own site. You may recognize him from his appearance in Adam Curtis’s Bitter Lake:

(Hat tip to Scott Adams.)

They are incredible manifestations of God

Thursday, May 31st, 2018

Haaretz tells the rather sensationalistic story of Adnan Oktar, “a combination of the type of evangelical preachers one sees on American television and the head of a sex cult that objects in principle to bringing children into the world”:

The cover for all this is a singular interpretation of Islam.

Oktar, 62, who started to preach his version of the Muslim faith in Istanbul in the 1980s, has since then collected 300 “good friends,” as he terms them, who follow his path, despite accusations that they are being brainwashed and also exploited sexually and economically.

Since 2011, when his television station, A9, started broadcasting globally (with English subtitles), his religious tenets have been getting more attention in Turkey and also worldwide. Oktar focuses on activity geared to interfaith dialogue, which has put him in contact with politicians and rabbis in Israel, but in recent years he’s been talked about mostly because of his interpretation of the “covering” women should wear according to Islam – namely, anything, including the most revealing bikini. The only requirement is that it cover the nipples and the groin area.

“Women are amazing manifestations of God,” Oktar explained to me, when I met him in Istanbul in early February. “They are the most beautiful beings in the world. They are incredible works of art, created by God. They are glorious beings that should be respected, admired, loved, cherished and protected all their lives as blessings.”

Adnan Oktar with his Kittens

The best-known part of his cult are his “kittens,” as he calls them – a group of young women, heavily made up and attired in body-hugging, revealing designer outfits, who appear on his television programs listening with a somewhat glazed expression to his religious exhortations on current issues. In the breaks between his remarks, they will dance robot-like in front of the cameras. Oktar: “Cats are very cute animals, and kittens are even cuter. They are incredible manifestations of God.”

This attitude toward women has generated profiles of Oktar in the international media, with references to the “feminist” cult or the “Muslim sex cult.” Other investigative reports focused on what they described as his modus operandi. These were based on lawsuits filed against him, and included testimonies to the effect that cult members lured young women into taking part in filmed orgies, and then used the recordings to blackmail the participants into obeying Oktar’s demands.

The “Esteban Colberto” look goes well beyond Colberto Reporto Gigante.

Human action is not the only relevant parameter in human history

Wednesday, May 30th, 2018

Human action is not the only relevant parameter in human history, Razib Khan reminds us, as he reviews Kyle Harper’s The Fate of Rome:

The Fate of Rome is fundamentally a work of history, but it also takes ecology and evolution seriously. In fact, it foregrounds them. Kyle Harper makes the argument that the expansionary phase of the Roman Empire was not necessarily coincidental, or at least it was lucky indeed because there was a climatic optimum, similar to the one which preceded the demographic expansion of medieval Europe. In contrast, in the 6th century, the world went through some of the coldest years in the Holocene because of a combination of fluctuations in solar radiation and volcanic explosions. I assume that the likelihood of the latter is Poisson distributed, so the combination of decreased radiation and several successive volcanic events can be chalked up to randomness. But its consequences were not random at all.

The climatic changes can have demographic and social consequences obviously. Desperate armed pastoralists can overwhelm states, and change the course of history, just as peasants can rebel from taxes and subordination. And, pastoralists can also bring Yerisina pestis, the plague. Climate is an abiotic pressure which is to some extent an exogeneous shock which occurs randomly, and does not react to human feedback. [This is not totally true, but over the time-scales we’re talking about probably mostly true.] Disease though is a biotic pressure, and though it may relate to abiotic forces, human interaction and agency matter quite a bit.

The Fate of Rome clearly hinges on abiotic factors as initial drivers: a good harvest is good for the state. But the biotic factors, disease, are partly under the control of the state. The Romans did not have germ theory, and were under constant stress due to the high pathogen load, especially of the cities. Harper presents the evidence of high mortality within Roman society well. Because of the endemic ubiquity of disease even elites were impacted by it. But Rome was not just affected by endemic ailments, it was subject to pandemics and plagues.


One of the major insights that Kyle Harper reiterates is that these plagues, these pandemics, are a feature/bug of the Roman imperial system. They are not just the consequence of simply settled agricultural society. As described in books such as Pandora’s Seed, agriculture and settled society transformed the lifestyles of human groups, and many diseases which were rare in hunter-gatherer populations probably became common among farmers. But The Fate of Rome the author argues that pandemics were a novel outcome of complex imperial state-systems with long-distance trade-networks. Small-scale pre-state Neolithic chiefdoms did not have the scale and interconnections to foster plague.

Mass pandemics of smallpox, plague, and influenza are then aspects of civilized life, not, settled agricultural life. This puts the argument of Charles C. Mann in 1493 into greater focus. It wasn’t just more extensive and intensive agriculture in the Old World which left Amerindians vulnerable, it was also that the Old World had thrown up several massive imperial systems which had incubated pandemic producing pathogens (smallpox and influenza epidemics were a major issue in New World societies). These were unleashed at once upon New World societies.

It also suggests to us why adaptation seems to be occurring in the last few thousand years. Bouts of plague which persisted for generations may have driven immunological responses.

Kyle Harper also seems to agree with the general thesis in The Fall of Rome that this period in European civilization was in some ways proto-modern, with economic specialization resulting in a modicum of affluence in ways unimaginable in times before, or after. Trade and some level of mass production allowed British peasants to eat off tableware that was standardized, and not homemade. In contrast after Britain’s post-Roman regression a more local economy had to step in. The most curious fact from The Fall of Rome is that pollution in British ponds did not attain Roman levels until the early modern period, with the rise of industrialization. Again and again The Fate of Rome emphasizes that social and economic complexity achieved in the Roman Empire was not attained in Europe again to the same scale as the early modern period.

Roman wealth was fundamentally due to the returns on scale and specialization that are the hallmark of Smithian growth. Though the Romans did invent a few things, Roman prosperity was not fundamentally driven by innovation. Rather, the Roman peace was a framework for trade and exchange that took advantage of abiotic clement conditions (the Roman climatic optimum highlighted in The Fate of Rome).

But this political system had biotic costs, as well as being subject to biotic shocks. Though Romans may have been wealthier than their Iron Age predecessors in things, and also wealthier than their early medieval successors, they were also a smaller people. Using isotope data Harper suggests that this is not due to Malthusian immiseration as the imperial population pushed up against food supply. Apparently Romans did not subsist on gruel alone, but ate a fair amount of meat, especially pork. Rather it was the high pathogen load enabled by the advancement of Roman urban life and its scale. Rome was a world of intense morbidity.

The most common findings are thought to require special explanation

Tuesday, May 29th, 2018

An undergraduate philosophy major at Columbia has written a piece about the racism treadmill. How many minds will it change?

But the premise built into the thinking of Coates and Kendi is false. I call it the disparity fallacy. The disparity fallacy holds that unequal outcomes between two groups must be caused primarily by discrimination, whether overt or systemic. What’s puzzling about believers in the disparity fallacy is not that they apply the belief too broadly, but that they apply it too narrowly. Any instance of whites outperforming blacks is adduced as evidence of discrimination. But when a disparity runs the other way — that is, blacks outperforming whites — discrimination is never invoked as a causal factor.

Here’s a clear example of the disparity fallacy: a recent study by researchers at Stanford, Harvard, and the Census Bureau found that, “[a]mong those who grow up in families with comparable incomes, black men grow up to earn substantially less than the white men.” A New York Times article attributed this disparity to “the punishing reach of racism for black boys.” But the study also found that black women have higher college attendance rates than white men, and higher incomes than white women, conditional on parental income. The fact that black women outperformed their white counterparts on these measures, however, was not attributed to the punishing reach of racism against whites.

Economic disparities that favor blacks have been reported for decades, yet they have rarely if ever been attributed to anti-white systemic bias. A 1994 New York Times article reported that, among college graduates, black women earned slightly more money than white women did. In addition, the economist Thomas Sowell has pointed out that, as early as 1980, U.S. census data show black college-educated couples out-earning their white counterparts.3

The black/white unemployment gap provides an even older illustration of the disparity fallacy. Many commentators have reflexively attributed the modern unemployment gap to systemic racism. But in historical eras with far more racism, the gap was reversed. According to Sowell, “[b]lack unemployment rates were lower than that of whites in 1890 and, for the last time, in 1930.”4 Facts like these, however, are never explained in terms of discrimination in favor of blacks. Indeed, why progressives only commit the disparity fallacy in one direction is never explained. What the writer Shelby Steele has said about progressives and racist events is equally true of statistical disparities that disadvantage blacks: When they learn of one, “they rent a jet plane and fly to it!”

It’s a sign of the poverty of our discourse on racial progress and inequality that the rarest findings are thought to be normal, and the most common findings are thought to require special explanation.

Indeed, it is rare to find any two ethnic groups achieving identical outcomes, even when they belong to the same race. A cursory glance at the mean incomes of census-tracked ethnic groups shows Americans of Russian descent out-earning those of Swiss descent, who out-earn those of British descent, who out-earn those of Polish descent, who out-earn those of French descent in turn. If the disparity fallacy were true, then we ought to posit an elaborate system that is biased towards ethnic Russians, then the Swiss, followed by the Brits, the Poles and the French. Yet one never hears progressives make such claims. Moreover, one never hears progressives say, “French-Americans make 79 cents for every Russian-American dollar,” although the facts could easily be framed that way. Similar disparities between blacks and whites are regularly presented in such invidious terms. Rather than defaulting to systemic bias to explain disparities, we should understand that, even in the absence of discrimination, groups still differ in innumerable ways that affect their respective outcomes.

Man’s age-old belief in serial immortality

Saturday, May 26th, 2018

The Third Great Awakening dispensed with man’s age-old belief in serial immortality:

Whatever the Third Great Awakening amounts to, for better or for worse, will have to do with this unprecedented post-World War II American development: the luxury, enjoyed by so many millions of middling folk, of dwelling upon the self. At first glance, Shirley Polykoff’s slogan — “If I’ve only one life, let me live it as a blonde!” — seems like merely another example of a superficial and irritating rhetorical trope (antanaclasis) that now happens to be fashionable among advertising copywriters. But in fact the notion of “If I’ve only one life” challenges one of those assumptions of society that are so deep-rooted and ancient, they have no name — they are simply lived by. In this case: man’s age-old belief in serial immortality.

The husband and wife who sacrifice their own ambitions and their material assets in order to provide “a better future” for their children… the soldier who risks his life, or perhaps consciously sacrifices it, in battle… the man who devotes his life to some struggle for “his people” that cannot possibly be won in his lifetime… people (or most of them) who buy life insurance or leave wills… and, for that matter, most women upon becoming pregnant for the first time… are people who conceive of themselves, however unconsciously, as part of a great biological stream. Just as something of their ancestors lives on in them, so will something of them live on in their children… or in their people, their race, their community — for childless people, too, conduct their lives and try to arrange their postmortem affairs with concern for how the great stream is going to flow on. Most people, historically, have not lived their lives as if thinking, “I have only one life to live.” Instead they have lived as if they are living their ancestors’ lives and their offspring’s lives and perhaps their neighbors’ lives as well. They have seen themselves as inseparable from the great tide of chromosomes of which they are created and which they pass on. The mere fact that you were only going to be here a short time and would be dead soon enough did not give you the license to try to climb out of the stream and change the natural order of things. The Chinese, in ancestor worship, have literally worshiped the great tide itself, and not any god or gods. For anyone to renounce the notion of serial immortality, in the West or the East, has been to defy what seems like a law of Nature. Hence the wicked feeling — the excitement! — of “If I’ve only one life, let me live it as a ———!” Fill in the blank, if you dare.

And now many dare it! In Democracy in America, Tocqueville (the inevitable and ubiquitous Tocqueville) saw the American sense of equality itself as disrupting the stream, which he called “time’s pattern”: “Not only does democracy make each man forget his ancestors, it hides his descendants from him, and divides him from his contemporaries; it continually turns him back into himself, and threatens, at last, to enclose him entirely in the solitude of his own heart.” A grim prospect to the good Alexis de T. — but what did he know about… Let’s talk about Me!

Tocqueville’s idea of modern man lost “in the solitude of his own heart” has been brought forward into our time in such terminology as alienation (Marx), anomie (Durkheim), the mass man (Ortega y Gasset), and the lonely crowd (Riesman). The picture is always of a creature uprooted by industrialism, packed together in cities with people he doesn’t know, helpless against massive economic and political shifts — in short, a creature like Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times, a helpless, bewildered, and dispirited slave to the machinery. This victim of modern times has always been a most appealing figure to intellectuals, artists, and architects. The poor devil so obviously needs us to be his Engineers of the Soul, to use a term popular in the Soviet Union in the 1920s. We will pygmalionize this sad lump of clay into a homo novus, a New Man, with a new philosophy, a new aesthetics, not to mention new Bauhaus housing and furniture.

But once the dreary little bastards started getting money in the 1940s, they did an astonishing thing — they took their money and ran. They did something only aristocrats (and intellectuals and artists) were supposed to do — they discovered and started doting on Me! They’ve created the greatest age of individualism in American history! All rules are broken! The prophets are out of business! Where the Third Great Awakening will lead — who can presume to say? One only knows that the great religious waves have a momentum all their own. Neither arguments nor policies nor acts of the legislature have been any match for them in the past. And this one has the mightiest, holiest roll of all, the beat that goes… Me… Me… . Me… Me

Making movies for the audience Hollywood has ignored

Saturday, May 26th, 2018

Someone is finally pursuing the obvious strategy of making movies for the audience Hollywood has ignored:

Since fleeing Los Angeles in 2015 for Texas, where he grew up, Mr. Sonnier has cast himself as the producer willing to do features that others in Hollywood consider politically radioactive. In the past year, he has wrapped production on “Dragged Across Concrete,” starring Mel Gibson as a cop accused of beating a suspect, filmed a drama about militia members, and bought a script about a school shooting in which a female student wrests control of a gun and fights back.

Mr. Sonnier’s revenues from a film are a tiny fraction of those from a major studio release, but he is making money off his strategy by keeping production costs low and relying on word-of-mouth to turn his movies into sleeper hits. With a budget of $3.8 million, “Brawl” has turned a profit, says Mr. Sonnier. He says Cinestate did it by selling distribution rights to overseas markets on the strength of Mr. Vaughn’s “Wedding Crashers” fame, pocketing nearly $2 million for streaming rights from one online service and selling more than 40,000 DVDs in the first two weeks of release at big-box stores — a healthy performance in an age when few buy DVDs anymore.

Hollywood has occasionally targeted conservative moviegoers, releasing faith-based movies in specific neighborhoods or producing patriotic blockbusters such as “American Sniper.” The difference is that Mr. Sonnier is betting a whole company on a strategy of finding consumers he says are “outside the coasts,” marrying ideology with opportunism.

“The political climate brings a spotlight to these kinds of movies. We’re not shying away from that,” Mr. Sonnier says. “It’s funny that, in this moment in time, the movies we’re making are almost counterculture.”

Other studios don’t appear to be mimicking his approach, but some recent Hollywood moves seem to affirm Mr. Sonnier’s conviction that he’s tapping an underserved audience. The revival of the “Roseanne” TV series, starring the comedian Roseanne Barr as a Trump voter navigating various social issues, was part of a strategy at ABC discussed by executives at a meeting held the day after the election about how to entertain a broader swath of the nation.

The premiere episode’s top market was Tulsa, Okla., according to ABC, where it outperformed the national average by 60%.


“Sparrow Creek,” filmed in under three weeks for less than $1 million, Mr. Sonnier says, is part of a microbudget strategy he has used to profitable effect on previous movies “Brawl” and his 2015 Western, “Bone Tomahawk.”

When “Brawl” appeared on iTunes, the prison revenge movie shot to the top 10. The other titles in the iTunes top 10 at the time, “Spider Man: Homecoming” and “Wonder Woman” among them, had wide theatrical releases.


To pay the bills, he made direct-to-video shoot-’em-up films with Steve Austin, the wrestling champion.

One day, he dropped off Ms. Gerwig at an audition for Noah Baumbach’s art-house film “Greenberg,” he says, and met Mr. Austin for lunch on Sunset Boulevard. A fan approached the wrestler, had him autograph her arm and returned to show she’d had it tattooed. “Talk about walking in two universes,” he says.

The Austin features, with titles such as “Hunt to Kill,” taught Mr. Sonnier a simple formula: budgets under $1 million and foreign-rights deals that put the project in the black before cameras roll. He deployed what he calls a “Mad Libs” plot:

“A guy named Jim/John/Jack gets out of prison/wakes up from the dead/survives and comes back to his hometown/scene of the crime/where the bad guys are and kills everyone to save his family/save himself/save someone who can’t save themselves.”

He says: “As long as we stuck to the Mad Lib, the movie sold 300,000 to 500,000 units.”

There is no ecumenical spirit within this Third Great Awakening

Friday, May 25th, 2018

There is no ecumenical spirit within the Third Great Awakening:

We are now — in the Me Decade — seeing the upward roll (and not yet the crest, by any means) of the third great religious wave in American history, one that historians will very likely term the Third Great Awakening. Like the others it has begun in a flood of ecstasy, achieved through LSD and other psychedelics, orgy, dancing (the New Sufi and the Hare Krishna), meditation, and psychic frenzy (the marathon encounter). This third wave has built up from more diverse and exotic sources than the first two, from therapeutic movements as well as overtly religious movements, from hippies and students of “psi phenomena” and Flying Saucerites as well as charismatic Christians. But other than that, what will historians say about it?

The historian Perry Miller credited the First Great Awakening with helping to pave the way for the American Revolution through its assault on the colonies’ religious establishment and, thereby, on British colonial authority generally. The sociologist Thomas O’Dea credited the Second Great Awakening with creating the atmosphere of Christian asceticism (known as “bleak” on the East Coast) that swept through the Midwest and the West during the nineteenth century and helped make it possible to build communities in the face of great hardship. And the Third Great Awakening? Journalists (historians have not yet tackled the subject) have shown a morbid tendency to regard the various movements in this wave as “fascist.” The hippie movement was often attacked as “fascist” in the late 1960s. Over the past several years a barrage of articles has attacked Scientology, the est movement, and “the Moonies” (followers of the Reverend Sun Myung Moon) along the same lines.

Frankly, this tells us nothing except that journalists bring the same conventional Grim Slide concepts to every subject. The word fascism derives from the old Roman symbol of power and authority, the fasces, a bundle of sticks bound together by thongs (with an ax head protruding from one end). One by one the sticks would be easy to break. Bound together they are invincible Fascist ideology called for binding all classes, all levels, all elements of an entire nation together into a single organization with a single will.

The various movements of the current religious wave attempt very nearly the opposite. They begin with… “Let’s talk about Me.” They begin with the most delicious look inward; with considerable narcissism, in short. When the believers bind together into religions, it is always with a sense of splitting off from the rest of society. We, the enlightened (lit by the sparks at the apexes of our souls), hereby separate ourselves from the lost souls around us. Like all religions before them, they proselytize — but always on promising the opposite of nationalism: a City of Light that is above it all. There is no ecumenical spirit within this Third Great Awakening. If anything, there is a spirit of schism. The contempt the various seers have for one another is breathtaking. One has only to ask, say, Oscar Ichazo of Arica about Carlos Castaneda or Werner Erhard of est to learn that Castaneda is a fake and Erhard is a shallow sloganeer. It’s exhilarating! — to watch the faithful split off from one another to seek ever more perfect and refined crucibles in which to fan the Divine spark… and to talk about Me.

The hippie movement was often attacked as “fascist” in the late 1960s?

Only afterward did they try to interpret the experience in the form of theologies

Thursday, May 24th, 2018

Divine ecstasy runs throughout the religious history of the past 2,500 years:

As Max Weber and Joachim Wach have illustrated in detail, every major modern religion, as well as countless long-gone minor ones, has originated not with a theology or a set of values or a social goal or even a vague hope of a life hereafter. They have all originated, instead, with a small circle of people who have shared some over-whelming ecstasy or seizure, a “vision,” a “trance,” a hallucination — an actual neurological event, in fact, a dramatic change in metabolism, something that has seemed to light up the entire central nervous system. The Mohammedan movement (Islam) originated in hallucinations, apparently the result of fasting, meditation, and isolation in the darkness of caves, which can induce sensory deprivation. Some of the same practices were common with many types of Buddhists. The early Hindus and Zoroastrians seem to have been animated by a hallucinogenic drug known as soma in India and haoma in Persia. The origins of Christianity are replete with “visions.” The early Christians used wine for ecstatic purposes, to the point where the Apostle Paul (whose conversion on the road to Damascus began with a “vision”) complained that it was degenerating into sheer drunkenness at the services. These great drafts of wine survive in minute quantities in the ritual of Communion. The Bacchic orders, the Sufi, Voodooists, Shakers, and many others used feasts (the bacchanals), ecstatic dancing (“the whirling dervishes”), and other forms of frenzy to achieve the kairos… the moment… here and now!… the feeling!… In every case the believers took the feeling of ecstasy to be the sensation of the light of God flooding into their souls. They felt like vessels of the Divine, of the All-in-One. Only afterward did they try to interpret the experience in the form of theologies, earthly reforms, moral codes, liturgies.

Nor have these been merely the strange practices of the Orient and the Middle East. Every major religious wave that has developed in America has started out the same way: with a flood of ecstatic experiences. The First Great Awakening, as it is known to historians, came in the 1740s and was led by preachers of “the New Light” such as Jonathan Edwards, Gilbert Tennent, and George Whitefield. They and their followers were known as “enthusiasts” and “come-outers,” terms of derision that referred to the frenzied, holy-rolling, pentecostal shout tempo of their services and to their visions, trances, shrieks, and agonies, which are preserved in great Rabelaisian detail in the writings of their detractors.

The Second Great Awakening came in the period from 1825 to 1850 and took the form of a still wilder hoe-down camp-meeting revivalism, of ceremonies in which people barked, bayed, fell down in fits and swoons, rolled on the ground, talked in tongues, and even added a touch of orgy. The Second Awakening originated in western New York State, where so many evangelical movements caught fire it became known as “the Burned-Over District.” Many new seets, such as Oneida and the Shakers, were involved. But so were older ones, such as the evangelical Baptists. The fervor spread throughout the American frontier (and elsewhere) before the Civil War. The most famous sect of the Second Great Awakening was the Mormon movement, founded by a 24-year-old. Joseph Smith, and a small group of youthful comrades. This bunch was regarded as wilder, crazier, more obscene, more of a threat, than the entire lot of hippie communes of the 1960s put together. Smith was shot to death by a lynch mob in Carthage, Illinois, in 1844, which was why the Mormons, now with Brigham Young at the helm, emigrated to Utah. A sect, incidentally, is a religion with no political power. Once the Mormons settled, built, and ruled Utah, Mormonism became a religion sure enough… and eventually wound down to the slow, firm beat of respectability….

It’s almost hard for anybody who isn’t a Marxist-Leninist to really realize it

Thursday, May 24th, 2018

What is it that you understand about Stalin, at least possibly, that maybe most other economists would not?” Tyler Cowen asks Bryan Caplan:

Wow. I think that probably the single best thing is that Stalin was, in his own way, a sincere Marxist-Leninist. The ideology is not just a rationalization for totalitarianism. It’s not just a rationalization for him to loot the country or anything like that.

All the historians who know the details of Stalin’s life will say he lived very modestly. He slept on a cot. He wasn’t like a tin-pot despot, going and building palaces for himself. I think a lot of economists would just assume that the guy is living high.

Instead, it seems very much like it’s the power, and not any kind of conventional luxury, that he cares about, and that not just the general goal but even very small policy details seem to be heavily influenced by Marxist-Leninist ideology.

Caplan did find one counterexample, where Stalin dumped his ideology:

Stalin sent Beria to go and talk to one of the leading Soviet nuclear physicists. I think it was Kurchatov. He said, “So, is it true that relativity theory and quantum mechanics are idealist?” Which is something where you have to know a bunch of Marxist-Leninist philosophy to even understand the question.

The Soviet scientist says, “Well, if they’re idealist, if that’s bourgeois science, then nuclear weapons are bourgeois science, too.” “All right, fine. Then forget philosophical objections to relativity theory and quantum mechanics. If this, the science, lets us build a nuclear bomb, I don’t care what the philosophy says. We’re just going to believe the science.”

Occasions like that are fairly rare, and really, the more you study Stalin’s career, you do see, even bizarre doctrinal things like the farmers are kind of revolutionary. It’s like, “What are you talking about?”

It was like, “We have to go and set up a system based upon this, and that’s very important to Stalin in a way that it’s almost hard for anybody who isn’t a Marxist-Leninist to really realize it.”

Usually Westerners don’t have such a shallow understanding of the philosophy. They don’t realize how much of it is all part of this bizarre package. They think it’s just about high levels of redistribution, and that’s not the story.

The hippies were religious and incontrovertibly hip at the same time

Wednesday, May 23rd, 2018

By the early 1970s a quite surprising movement, tagged as the Jesus People, had spread throughout the country:

By the early 1970s a quite surprising movement, tagged as the Jesus People, had spread throughout the country. At the outset practically all the Jesus People were young acid heads, i.e., LSD users, who had sworn off drugs (except, occasionally, in “organic form,” meaning marijuana and peyote) but still wanted the ecstatic spiritualism of the psychedelic or hippie life. This they found in Fundamentalist evangelical holy-rolling Christianity of a sort that ten years before would have seemed utterly impossible to revive in America. The Jesus People, such as the Children of God, the Fresno God Squad, the Tony and Susan Alamo Christian Foundation, the Sun Myung Moon sect, lived communally and took an ecstatic or “charismatic” (literally: “God-imbued”) approach to Christianity, after the manner of the Oneida, Shaker, and Mormon communes of the nineteenth century… and, for the matter, after the manner of the early Christians themselves, including the Gnostics.

There was considerable irony here. Ever since the late 1950s both the Catholic Church and the leading Protestant denominations had been aware that young people, particularly in the cities, were drifting away from the faith. At every church conference and convocation and finance-committee meeting the cry went up: We must reach the urban young people. It became an obsession, this business of “the urban young people.” The key — one and all decided — was to “modernize” and “update” Christianity. So the Catholics gave the nuns outfits that made them look like World War II Wacs. The Protestants set up “beatnik coffee-houses” in church basements for poetry reading and bongo playing. They had the preacher put on a turtleneck sweater and sing “Joe Hill” and “Frankie and Johnny” during the hootenanny at the Sunday vespers. Both the priests and the preachers carried placards in civil rights marches, gay rights marches, women’s rights marches, prisoners’ rights marches, bondage lovers’ rights marches, or any other marches, so long as they might appear hip to the urban young people.

In fact, all these strenuous gestures merely made the churches look like rather awkward and senile groupies of secular movements. The much-sought-after Urban Young People found the Hip Churchman to be an embarrassment, if they noticed him at all. What finally started attracting young people to Christianity was something the churches had absolutely nothing to do with: namely, the psychedelic or hippie movement. The hippies had suddenly made religion look hip. Very few people went into the hippie life with religious intentions, but many came out of it absolutely righteous. The sheer power of the drug LSD is not to be underestimated. It was quite easy for an LSD experience to take the form of a religious vision, particularly if one were among people already so inclined. You would come across someone you had known for years, a pal, only now he was jacked up on LSD and sitting in the middle of the street saying. “I’m in the Pudding at last! I’ve met the Manager!” Without knowing it, many heads were reliving the religious fervor of their grandparents or great-grandparents… the Bible-Belting lectern-pounding amen ten-finger C-majorchord Sister-Martha-at-the-keyboard tent-meeting loblolly piny-woods share-it-brother believers of the nineteenth century. The hippies were religious and incontrovertibly hip at the same time.

Today it is precisely the most rational, intellectual, secularized, modernized, updated, relevant religions—all the brave, forward-looking Ethical Culture, Unitarian, and Swedenborgian movements of only yesterday—that are finished, gasping, breathing their last. What the Urban Young People want from religion is a little Hallelujah!… and talking in tongues!… Praise God! Precisely that! In the most prestigious divinity schools today, Catholic. Presbyterian, and Episcopal, the avant-garde movement, the leading edge, is “charismatic Christianity”… featuring talking in tongues, ululation, visions, holy rolling, and other nonrational, even antirational, practices. Some of the most respectable old-line Protestant congregations, in the most placid suburban settings, have begun to split into the Charismatics and the Easter Christians (“All they care about is being seen in church on Easter”). The Easter Christians still usually control the main Sunday-morning service—but the Charismatics take over on Sunday evening and do the holy roll.

This curious development has breathed new life into the existing Fundamentalists, theosophists, and older salvation seekers of all sorts. Ten years ago, if anyone of wealth, power, or renown had publicly “announced for Christ,” people would have looked at him as if his nose had been eaten away by weevils. Today it happens regularly… Harold Hughes resigns from the U.S. Senate to become an evangelist… Jim Irwin, the astronaut, teams up with a Baptist evangelist in an organization called High Flight… singers like Pat Boone and Anita Bryant announce for Jesus… Charles Colson, the former hardballer of the Nixon administration, announces for Jesus, and the man who is likely to be the next president of the United States, Jimmy Carter, announces for Jesus. Oh Jesus People.