You are not allowed to be a selfish individual

Thursday, January 18th, 2018

Three weeks after college, Karin McQuillan flew to Senegal, West Africa, to run a community center in a rural town — which was, in the words of the Peace Corps doctor, “a fecalized environment“:

In plain English: s— is everywhere. People defecate on the open ground, and the feces is blown with the dust – onto you, your clothes, your food, the water. He warned us the first day of training: do not even touch water. Human feces carries parasites that bore through your skin and cause organ failure.

We may have a shorter, pithier term for that in English. I don’t know if the French have a term with the same je ne sais quoi:

Last time I was in Paris, I saw a beautiful African woman in a grand boubou have her child defecate on the sidewalk next to Notre Dame Cathedral. The French police officer, ten steps from her, turned his head not to see.

Senegal was not a hellhole, though:

Very poor people can lead happy, meaningful lives in their own cultures’ terms. But they are not our terms. The excrement is the least of it. Our basic ideas of human relations, right and wrong, are incompatible.

As a twenty-one-year-old starting out in the Peace Corps, I loved Senegal. In fact, I was euphoric. I quickly made friends and had an adopted family. I relished the feeling of the brotherhood of man. People were open, willing to share their lives and, after they knew you, their innermost thoughts.

The longer I lived there, the more I understood: it became blindingly obvious that the Senegalese are not the same as us. The truths we hold to be self-evident are not evident to the Senegalese. How could they be? Their reality is totally different. You can’t understand anything in Senegal using American terms.

Take something as basic as family. Family was a few hundred people, extending out to second and third cousins. All the men in one generation were called “father.” Senegalese are Muslim, with up to four wives. Girls had their clitorises cut off at puberty. (I witnessed this, at what I thought was going to be a nice coming-of-age ceremony, like a bat mitzvah or confirmation.) Sex, I was told, did not include kissing. Love and friendship in marriage were Western ideas. Fidelity was not a thing. Married women would have sex for a few cents to have cash for the market.

What I did witness every day was that women were worked half to death. Wives raised the food and fed their own children, did the heavy labor of walking miles to gather wood for the fire, drew water from the well or public faucet, pounded grain with heavy hand-held pestles, lived in their own huts, and had conjugal visits from their husbands on a rotating basis with their co-wives. Their husbands lazed in the shade of the trees.

Yet family was crucial to people there in a way Americans cannot comprehend.

The Ten Commandments were not disobeyed – they were unknown. The value system was the exact opposite. You were supposed to steal everything you can to give to your own relatives. There are some Westernized Africans who try to rebel against the system. They fail.

We hear a lot about the kleptocratic elites of Africa. The kleptocracy extends through the whole society. My town had a medical clinic donated by international agencies. The medicine was stolen by the medical workers and sold to the local store. If you were sick and didn’t have money, drop dead. That was normal.

So here in the States, when we discovered that my 98-year-old father’s Muslim health aide from Nigeria had stolen his clothes and wasn’t bathing him, I wasn’t surprised. It was familiar.

In Senegal, corruption ruled, from top to bottom. Go to the post office, and the clerk would name an outrageous price for a stamp. After paying the bribe, you still didn’t know it if it would be mailed or thrown out. That was normal.

One of my most vivid memories was from the clinic. One day, as the wait grew hotter in the 110-degree heat, an old woman two feet from the medical aides – who were chatting in the shade of a mango tree instead of working – collapsed to the ground. They turned their heads so as not to see her and kept talking. She lay there in the dirt. Callousness to the sick was normal.

Americans think it is a universal human instinct to do unto others as you would have them do unto you. It’s not. It seems natural to us because we live in a Bible-based Judeo-Christian culture.

We think the Protestant work ethic is universal. It’s not. My town was full of young men doing nothing. They were waiting for a government job. There was no private enterprise. Private business was not illegal, just impossible, given the nightmare of a third-world bureaucratic kleptocracy. It is also incompatible with Senegalese insistence on taking care of relatives.

All the little stores in Senegal were owned by Mauritanians. If a Senegalese wanted to run a little store, he’d go to another country. The reason? Your friends and relatives would ask you for stuff for free, and you would have to say yes. End of your business. You are not allowed to be a selfish individual and say no to relatives. The result: Everyone has nothing.

The more I worked there and visited government officials doing absolutely nothing, the more I realized that no one in Senegal had the idea that a job means work. A job is something given to you by a relative. It provides the place where you steal everything to give back to your family.

I couldn’t wait to get home. So why would I want to bring Africa here?

(Hat tip à mon père.)

A desperate attempt to outrun a nuclear missile

Wednesday, January 17th, 2018

Jason Scott Jones was taking out the trash on Saturday morning when he received the now-infamous warning:

“Ballistic missile threat inbound. Seek immediate shelter. This is not a drill.”

“So it’s today,” I thought. I’m a student of the bloody twentieth century, a hundred years of genocide, democide, and total war. I’ve lived on Oahu for almost 30 years, in sight of Pearl Harbor. It’s still a key target for surprise attack today. I’ve long thought that Oahu could be the spot where the next great tragic war begins — though not where it ends. Decades of thinking on this inspired me to write a book on the subject with John Zmirak, The Race to Save Our Century. I also recently co-authored a white paper outlining a path to abolish city-busting, strategic nuclear weapons.

Whenever someone suggests that I’m some do-gooding humanitarian, I correct them: “No, I’m just trying to save my children.” Oahu is a small island. But it’s one of the most important strategic locations for the projection of U.S. power to the East, confronting both North Korea and China. Knowing that, you come to accept a grim reality: Oahu is one of the most likely flashpoints for the start of World War III.

So when I saw the alert on my iPhone, I faced it with the same realism that wise Midwesterners greet tornado warnings. And like them I had a plan.

I rushed into the house. “Kids, get in the car. Babe, grab the case of water bottles.” They knew the drill, and soon the minivan was fully loaded. I filled water jugs, two mugs of coffee and grabbed my 9mm.

I was rushing to shelter my family behind the Waianae mountain range. That might shield us from whatever was about to hit Pearl Harbor. We had 10 minutes, I calculated, to get there, and hide in the Makua Cave.


As we made the turn into the shadow of the mountain, I felt we’d won a small victory. The first missile must have been intercepted. Or else the inept North Koreans had dropped a rocket in the middle of the Pacific. Before the next wave of missiles hit, we would make it to Makua Cave.

My hopes that this was a false alarm were fading. “If this were a hack or a hoax, the government would have texted us already.”


Just as we pulled up to Makua Cave, my cell phone rang and the State of Hawaii finally let us know that this had all been a big mistake.

In 38 minutes I’d gone from rolling out my trash can to loading five of my seven children into our minivan in a desperate attempt to outrun a nuclear missile. I’d heard my oldest daughter’s voice for what I thought was the last time. I’d given her and my mother-in-law a destination I knew offered nothing but hope. And I’d watched a total stranger turn away from safety to go try to save his wife.

(Hat tip to T. Greer.)

Having Will Smith as the star is the antidote

Monday, January 15th, 2018

Z Man describes Netflix’s new Will Smith movie Bright as Alien Nation with Orcs and Elves instead of space aliens:

The Elves are the Jews of this imaginary world, as they are smart and run everything.The humans are the whites, keeping society running, while the Orcs are the blacks, occupying the underclass and subjected to discrimination.


The interesting thing about this movie, though, is they don’t present the multicultural future as a paradise of diversity. Instead, it is more like Brazil where the underclass is huge and the middle class is small and fragile. In this context, the Elves live in beautiful gated communities, away from everyone else. The humans and Orcs are mixed up in the squalor, with the humans having a marginally better existence. It is a future where diversity is tolerated out of necessity, but everyone dreams of their own ethnostate.

The other strangely realistic aspect is the gross inequality. The Elves live like royalty, as they are at the top of the social order. They are clean and white and orderly. Everyone else is dirty, dark and disorderly. The implication is that the Elves pit Orcs and humans against one another, in order to exploit them. The result is the world extreme diversity is a world of poverty, for all but the elite. Imagine if the whole country was like New York City, where the elite live in penthouses and everyone else in tiny apartments.

That’s the reality of multiculturalism. The hidden cost of maintaining order inevitably bankrupts the middle-class. The people at the top are always getting their beak wet first and they will do what they must to protect themselves and their position. That means the cost of maintaining order falls on the middle, which quickly disappears. University towns exist in idyllic diversity, because billions are hoovered out of the surrounding economies to support the paradise. The university town scales up to be Brazil.

The movie does not spend much time contemplating the Elf class. All we learn is they live apart, but control society, with the help of human assistants. They do give us a surprisingly frank portrayal of the Orcs. They are physically superior to humans and they have an affinity for hip-hop culture, but most are too dumb to do anything other than menial jobs. The Orcs are so obviously a deliberate analog to modern blacks that I’m shocked they get away with it. I guess having Will Smith as the star is the antidote.

I’m reminded of the original Star Trek and how it could tackle current issues by applying even the slightest patina of sci-fi. For instance, Let That Be Your Last Battlefield features half-black, half-white people who hate the half-white, half-black people who share their planet — so it’s just a silly TV show! Nothing to worry about, sponsors!

Do research before taking vengeance

Sunday, January 14th, 2018

The New York Times interviews Niall Ferguson about books:

Which historians and biographers do you most admire?

Amongst those currently writing, Simon Schama stands out as the Dickens of modern historiography: bewilderingly erudite and prolific, passionate in his enthusiasms and armed with the complete contents of the thesaurus. We agree to disagree about politics. I have also hugely admired Anne Applebaum for her trilogy on the Gulag, the Soviet takeover of Eastern Europe (“Iron Curtain”) and, most recently, the Ukrainian famine (“Red Famine”). Walter Isaacson has established himself as the great American biographer of our time. “Leonardo da Vinci” is his best book, I think. Whereas the earlier books were pure journalism, he is now showing academic scholars how to write accessibly about subtle and even recondite subject matter. I read quite a number of biographies while researching “The Square and the Tower.” My favorite was probably Michael Ignatieff’s on Isaiah Berlin, which led me into the vast, delightful rabbit warren of Berlin’s correspondence.

What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?

I own books by a number of people who have insulted me in print, but I don’t think it is all that surprising that I do research before taking vengeance.

Of the books you’ve written, which is your favorite or the most personally meaningful?

Volume one of “Kissinger” is the best thing I’ve done. Second prize goes to the first volume of “The House of Rothschild.” Both these books were constructed on a foundation of prodigious research. But I am also very fond of “Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power,” because it so infuriated a certain species of second-rate professor of post-colonial studies — though not so much that they actually read the book.

He mentions many more books.

Most of the content was about cooperation, egalitarianism, and gender equality

Friday, January 12th, 2018

Andrea Migliano, an anthropologist at University College London, wanted to know what qualities the Agta — Filipino hunter-gatherers — most value in their peers:

So, her students asked 300 Agta to name the five people they’d most want to live with. They also asked the volunteers to nominate the strongest people they knew; the best hunters, fishers, and foragers; the ones whose opinions are most respected; and the ones with most medical knowledge. And finally, almost as an afterthought, they asked the volunteers to name the best storytellers. That, they assumed, was something relatively unimportant, and would make for an interesting contrast against the other more esteemed skills.

In fact, the Agta seemed to value storytelling above all else. Good storytellers were twice as likely to be named as ideal living companions as more pedestrian tale spinners, and storytelling acumen mattered far more all the other skills. “It was highly valued, twice as much as being a good hunter,” says Migliano. “We were puzzled.”

Fortunately, she had been working with Agta Aid, a nonprofit organization that had been trying to preserve the Agta’s oral stories in written forms. “We asked them if we could have a look at the stories they were collecting, and we realized that most of the content was about cooperation, egalitarianism, and gender equality.” The male sun and female moon divvy up the sky. A pig helps its injured friend — a sea cow — into the ocean so they can race side by side. A winged ant learns that she is not above her other wingless sisters.

These themes aren’t unique to the Agta. They’re also present in around 70 percent of the stories that Migliano compiled from work with other hunter-gatherer groups. “Hunter-gatherers move around a lot and no one has particular power,” she explains. “You need ways of ensuring cooperation in an egalitarian society, and we realized that you could use stories to broadcast the norms that are important to them.” People can use religion to achieve a similar end, enforcing good behavior through fear of a punitive deity. But Migliano points to research suggesting that high gods are a relatively recent invention, which emerged once human societies became large. Small communities like the Agta don’t have them. Instead, they use stories for the same purpose.

The Quiet American and the Ugly American made one flesh

Wednesday, January 10th, 2018

Max Boot’s The Road Not Taken looks back at Edward Lansdale, the model for both The Quiet American and The Ugly American and the major proponent behind the “hearts and minds” approach to counter-insurgency that the US never quite followed:

Born in 1908, Lansdale had, by the age of thirty-three, lived through a family breakdown, adventured on both coasts, and worked as an adman in San Francisco. Having given up a reserve Army commission before World War II, he found a route back in after the attack on Pearl Harbor through the newly created Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the forerunner to the CIA. Lansdale parlayed wartime assignments researching and gathering intelligence on Asian societies from San Francisco and New York into a 1945 assignment to the Philippines.

His next decade is the stuff of counterinsurgency legend. Lansdale bucks the bureaucracy, ignores protocol, and cultivates a deep understanding of the country, its people, and the grievances igniting the proto-communist Huk rebellion. (He also begins an affair with Filipina Patrocinio “Pat” Yapcinco Kelly, which he and Boot credit as an essential ingredient in his success. Boot has many of their letters, which bring freshness and poignancy to his story.)

The Philippines is where Lansdale first pilots what he calls his “whole of government approach” to countering insurgencies and stabilizing friendly regimes. He identifies and grooms an obscure congressman, Ramon Magsaysay, as the country’s savior and promotes his candidacy in what is ultimately a free and fair — though OSS-funded — campaign.

Magsaysay’s slogan — “All-Out Force or All-Out Friendship” — exactly encapsulates Lansdale’s approach. Lansdale had no problem with military force — though he preferred advisers, infiltration, and subversion to large-scale ground troops — or with bribery and intense outside engagement in a nation’s affairs. He twinned this with insistence on developing broad-based political support for partner governments and urged attention to effective government, apparently clean elections, and stringent avoidance of civilian casualties. Washington could achieve those goals, he repeatedly proposed, by going outside its military, intelligence, and diplomatic bureaucracies to send a “small team of winners,” backed at the highest levels, to identify, promote, and support new leaders in the country under threat.

In the Philippines, this plan works splendidly. Magsaysay is popular, the Huks are defeated, Manila institutions seem to grow stronger. Soon Lansdale is off to Vietnam, where he arrives just as the country has been partitioned, an independent government replaces French rule in the South, Ho Chi Minh’s communists do the same in the North, and massive refugee flows are commencing. For the next two years, Lansdale builds his intimacy with South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh and uses every trick of nation building and skullduggery to advance him at the expense of Viet Cong fighters, warlords, criminal gangs, the French, and, finally, even his own American colleagues. In 1955, when Eisenhower is on the brink of approving a counter-Diem coup, Lansdale successfully reverses these orders.

But the 1955 success is Lansdale’s high-water mark. Vietnam’s Diem doesn’t give Lansdale’s theories of popular legitimacy the same enthusiasm he gives to recruiting warlords. At home, Lansdale gains promotions and extraordinary access to a string of presidents and cabinet officials but suffers a reputation for insubordination and even nuttiness. His career detours into CIA scheming to assassinate Castro, and his later efforts to resuscitate support for Diem fail, with one of his old team members engineering the 1964 coup and Diem’s brutal killing.

When Lansdale finally returns to Vietnam in 1965, he cannot win support for his “hearts and minds” programming either from his American colleagues or the swift succession of military rulers in Saigon. As Marine Philip Caputo explains, “Our mission was not to win terrain or seize positions, but simply to kill: to kill communists and to kill as many of them as possible.”

Ultimately, Lansdale leaves Vietnam in near disgrace and lives half-forgotten in suburban Washington. He resurfaces occasionally — as the target of opprobrium during the Church Committee hearings into CIA misdeeds (including the planned Castro assassination) and as an adviser to Oliver North in the early Reagan years. When Lansdale died, the Nation magazine was one of many to offer intense but mixed eulogies, calling him “the Quiet American and the Ugly American made one flesh.”

Boot argues that heeding Lansdale’s ideas on counterinsurgency, both in specific instances and more broadly in U.S. policy, would have led to better outcomes. Lansdale himself reportedly could not sum up his approach, but Boot’s summary produces three rather simple instructions: Learn (about the society). Like (“identif[y] and cultivat[e] influential individuals sympathetic to American interests”). Listen (instead of lecturing your developing-country counterparts).

Boot marshals sharp, devastating anecdotes to show how Lansdale’s ideas were dismissed or misunderstood by his contemporaries.


Lansdale himself perfectly exemplifies the core contradictions of the American nation-building project. He sees everything he does as pointed toward democratic institutions and the superiority of representative government — yet his achievements come by hand-selecting personalities and installing them by subverting the rules of democratic governance. While his bureaucratic opponents tend to be skeptical of even the outer forms of representative government in the midst of insurgency, neither he nor they appear to have the plans or the patience to let real local institutions flourish. He castigates his opponents for their failure to perceive the role played by nationalism — but the essence of his successful operations is to reshape governments toward serving American aspirations.

Far from being a dying system

Monday, January 8th, 2018

The New York Times pokes fun at modern monarchists, but admits that they may have a point:

Their core arguments: Countries with monarchies are better off because royal families act as a unifying force and a powerful symbol; monarchies rise above politics; and nations with royalty are generally richer and more stable.

Critics say such views are antiquated and alarming in an era when democracies around the globe appear to be imperiled. The count and his band of fellow monarchists, however, are determined to make their case at conferences, in editorials and at fancy balls.

A recent study that examined the economic performance of monarchies versus republics bolsters their views. Led by Mauro F. Guillén, a management professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, the study found “robust and quantitatively meaningful evidence” that monarchies outperform other forms of government.

Far from being a dying system, the study said, “monarchies are surprisingly prevalent around the world.” They provide a “stability that often translates into economic gains”; they are better at protecting property rights and checking abuses of power by elected officials; and they have higher per-capita national incomes, the study said.

Mr. Guillén says he was “shocked” by the results, which have not yet been published. “Most people think monarchies are something anachronistic,” he said. “They think that modern forms of government are superior and have trouble accepting that monarchies have advantages.”

When he presents his findings, “there is more skepticism in the room than with the average paper,” said Mr. Guillén, who is not a monarchist. “It’s been an uphill battle.”

Clean up your room

Sunday, January 7th, 2018

Kermit the Frog — and Jordan Peterson — remind you to clean up your room:

A remarkably mild dysgenic trend

Sunday, January 7th, 2018

The Audacious Epigone looks at fertility by race and intelligence and finds a remarkably mild dysgenic trend — among whites:

Fertility by Race and Intelligence

Iran is dirt poor

Saturday, January 6th, 2018

Iran is dirt poor, Edward Luttwak reminds us:

I recently saw Iran’s general poverty at first-hand driving through one of Iran’s supposedly more prosperous rural districts. In an improvised small market next to a truck stop, several grown men were selling livestock side by side, namely ducks. Each had a stock of three or four ducks, which looked like their total inventory for the day.

That is what happens in an economy whose gross domestic product computes at under $6,000 per capita: very low productivity, very low incomes. The 500,000 or so Iranians employed in the country’s supposedly modern automobile industry are not productive enough to make exportable cars: Pistachio nuts are the country’s leading export, after oil and petroleum products.


Much of the economy is owned by bonyads, Islamic foundations that pay modest pensions to war widows and such, and very large amounts to those who run them, mostly clerics and their kin. The largest, the Mostazafan Bonyad, with more than 200,000 employees in some 350 separate companies in everything from farming to tourism, is a very generous employer for its crowds of clerical managers.

That is why the crowds have been shouting insults at the clerics—not all are corrupt, but high-living clerics are common enough to take a big bite out of that theoretical $6,000 per capita.

But the largest cause of popular anger is undoubtedly the pasdaran, a.k.a the Islamic Revolutionary Guards (IRGC), an altogether more costly lot than the several hundred aghazadeh or tens of thousands of high-living clerics.

It took a world war to educate them all

Thursday, January 4th, 2018

The Second World Wars takes an unusual approach to its subject:

Hanson starts with the idea that the Axis powers were more or less destined to lose, then works backward to understand the reasons for their defeat. The book revolves around a question highly relevant to our own brewing confrontation with North Korea: Why, and how, do weaker nations convince themselves, against all evidence to the contrary, that they are capable of defeating stronger ones?

Hanson begins by putting the Second World War in a “classical context.” Although it was a high-tech conflict with newly lethal weapons, he writes, it still followed patterns established over millennia: “British, American, Italian, and German soldiers often found themselves fortifying or destroying the Mediterranean stonework of the Romans, Byzantines, Franks, Venetians, and Ottomans.” In many instances, military planners on both sides ignored the lessons of the past. Some lessons were local: it’s always been hard to “campaign northward up the narrow backbone of the Italian peninsula,” for example, which is exactly what the Allies struggled to do. Others were universal. Small countries have difficulty defeating big ones, because — obviously — bigger countries have more people and resources at their disposal; Germany, Italy, and Japan, therefore, should have been more concerned about their relatively small size compared to their foes. History shows that the only way to win a total war is to occupy your enemy’s capital with infantrymen, with whom you can force regime change. Hitler should have paused to ask how, with such a weak navy, he planned to cross the oceans and sack London and, later,Washington. At a fundamental level, it was a mistake for him to attack countries whose capitals he had no way to reach.

In terms of management and logistics, the Axis powers were similarly, and sometimes quite conspicuously, disadvantaged. Before the war, the United States produced a little more than half of the world’s oil; Axis leaders should have known this would be a decisive factor in a mechanized conflict involving tanks, planes, and other vehicles. (The Nazis may have underestimated the importance of fuel because — even though they planned to quickly conquer vast amounts of territory through blitzkrieg — many of their supply lines remained dependent upon horses for the duration of the war.) In general, Allied management was more flexible — British planners quickly figured out the best way to place radar installations, for example — while the Axis powers, with their more hierarchical cultures, tended toward rigidity. Axis leaders believed that Fascism could make up the difference by producing more fanatical soldiers with more “élan.” For a brief time at the beginning of the war, Allied countries believed this, too. (There was widespread fear, especially, of Japanese soldiers.) They soon realized that defending one’s homeland against invaders turns pretty much everyone into a fanatic.

In any event, Hanson shows that the Second World War hinged to an unprecedented extent upon artillery (“At least half of the combat dead of World War II probably fell to artillery or mortar fire”): the Allies had bigger, faster factories and could produce more guns and shells. “The most significant statistic of the war is the ten-to-one advantage in aggregate artillery production (in total over a million large guns) enjoyed by the British Empire, the Soviet Union, and the United States over the three Axis powers.” Russia, meanwhile, excelled at manufacturing cheap, easily serviceable, and quickly manufactured tanks, which, by the end of the war, were better than the tanks the Nazis fielded. Many Allied factories remained beyond the reach of Axis forces. There were a few possible turning points in the war: had Hitler chosen not to invade Russia, or not to declare war on the United States, he might have kept his Continental gains. Similarly, Japan might have contented itself with a few local conquests. But temperance and Fascism do not mix, and the outsized ambitions of the Axis powers put them on a collision course with the massive geographical, managerial, and logistical advantages possessed by the Allies, which, Hanson suggests, they should have known would be insurmountable.

The Axis powers fell prey to their own mythmaking: they were adept at creating narratives that made exceedingly unlikely victories seem not just plausible but inevitable. When the Allies perceived just how far Fascist fantasy diverged from reality, they concluded that Axis leaders had brainwashed their citizens and themselves. They began to realize that “the destruction of populist ideologies, especially those fueled by claims of racial superiority,” would prove “a task far more arduous than the defeat of a sovereign people’s military.”


The Axis countries lived in a fantasy world — they believed their own propaganda, which argued that, for reasons of race and ideology, they were unbeatable. The Allies, meanwhile, underestimated their own economic might in the wake of the Great Depression. They allowed themselves to be intimidated by Fascist rhetoric; justifiably horrified by the First World War, they wanted to give pacifism a chance, and so refrained from the flag-waving displays of aggression that might have revealed their true strength, while hoping, despite his proclamations to the contrary, that Hitler might be satisfied with smaller, regional conquests. “Most wars since antiquity can be defined as the result of such flawed prewar assessments of relative military and economic strength as well as strategic objectives,” Hanson writes. “Prewar Nazi Germany had no accurate idea of how powerful were Great Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union; and the latter had no inkling of the full scope of Hitler’s military ambitions. It took a world war to educate them all.”

Better understand the mechanics of radicalization

Wednesday, January 3rd, 2018

T. Greer lists every book he read in 2017, and it’s a long list, but he picks out one book he thinks is the most important for others to read, William Freehling’s two volume Road to Disunion:

I highlighted the first volume of this book back in 2013 as one of the top-ten reads of that year; the second volume is not quite as good, but would probably make it into the top-fifteen cut for this year. Together they provide an immensely satisfying social and political history of the American south from revolution to secession.

Why this book? The national fracas over the cause of the U.S. Civil War revealed just how ill-informed we are about why that war happened. “Slavery” is the easy, obvious answer. It is also utterly inadequate: slavery and disunionism had existed since the birth of the American republic, and slavers willing to sacrifice the Union for sake of slavery had been around just as long. So why did they succeed in only in 1860—not 1789, or 1800, or 1820, or 1855? Some might answer that the South was more ‘radical’ in 1860 than decades earlier, but all that reflexive answer does is give you another question: just how did the South get that way? Radicalism does not just happen. In the South radicalism emerged because it was planned. Freehling’s first volume tells the story of the plans that failed: of attempts to get southerners of different stripes and interests to identity with “the South,” convince these converts that this magical “South” was under attack, and that the only defense of “Southern” institutions was secession. In a wonderful mix of cultural, social, and political history Freehling shows why each of these attempts fell apart. But the last group of secessionists were by far the most self-aware of the bunch. In the second book, Freehling charts the rise of a conniving group of tyrants who consciously used the history past defeats to craft a stronger, more sinister political strategy. This strategy was intended to radicalize the South and drive the Union into a crisis intentionally designed to make compromise impossible.

It is a remarkable book. It is masterfully written. It is topical. But most important of all, its concepts can be generalized. No other book has helped me to better understand the mechanics of radicalization. All Americans should be aware of these mechanics. There are eerie parallels between the principles and strategies employed by the secessionists of antebellum days and certain political groups in America today. This book will help you see them.

I suppose a more detailed exposition on that theme deserves its own post. I will not say anything more on this one. But consider buying and reading both volumes.

We need to have some rules for making some rules

Tuesday, January 2nd, 2018

A group is its own worst enemy, Clay Shirky explained, almost 15 years ago:

Now, there’s a large body of literature saying “We built this software, a group came and used it, and they began to exhibit behaviors that surprised us enormously, so we’ve gone and documented these behaviors.” Over and over and over again this pattern comes up. (I hear Stewart [Brand, of the WELL] laughing.) The WELL is one of those places where this pattern came up over and over again.


The best explanation I have found for the ways in which this pattern establishes itself, the group is its own worst enemy, comes from a book by W.R. Bion called “Experiences in Groups,” written in the middle of the last century.

Bion was a psychologist who was doing group therapy with groups of neurotics. (Drawing parallels between that and the Internet is left as an exercise for the reader.) The thing that Bion discovered was that the neurotics in his care were, as a group, conspiring to defeat therapy.

There was no overt communication or coordination. But he could see that whenever he would try to do anything that was meant to have an effect, the group would somehow quash it. And he was driving himself crazy, in the colloquial sense of the term, trying to figure out whether or not he should be looking at the situation as: Are these individuals taking action on their own? Or is this a coordinated group?

He could never resolve the question, and so he decided that the unresolvability of the question was the answer. To the question: Do you view groups of people as aggregations of individuals or as a cohesive group, his answer was: “Hopelessly committed to both.”

He said that humans are fundamentally individual, and also fundamentally social. Every one of us has a kind of rational decision-making mind where we can assess what’s going on and make decisions and act on them. And we are all also able to enter viscerally into emotional bonds with other groups of people that transcend the intellectual aspects of the individual.

In fact, Bion was so convinced that this was the right answer that the image he put on the front cover of his book was a Necker cube, one of those cubes that you can look at and make resolve in one of two ways, but you can never see both views of the cube at the same time. So groups can be analyzed both as collections of individuals and having this kind of emotive group experience.

Now, it’s pretty easy to see how groups of people who have formal memberships, groups that have been labeled and named like “I am a member of such-and-such a guild in a massively multi-player online role-playing game,” it’s easy to see how you would have some kind of group cohesion there. But Bion’s thesis is that this effect is much, much deeper, and kicks in much, much sooner than many of us expect. So I want to illustrate this with a story, and to illustrate the illustration, I’ll use a story from your life. Because even if I don’t know you, I know what I’m about to describe has happened to you.

You are at a party, and you get bored. You say “This isn’t doing it for me anymore. I’d rather be someplace else. I’d rather be home asleep. The people I wanted to talk to aren’t here.” Whatever. The party fails to meet some threshold of interest. And then a really remarkable thing happens: You don’t leave. You make a decision “I don’t like this.” If you were in a bookstore and you said “I’m done,” you’d walk out. If you were in a coffee shop and said “This is boring,” you’d walk out.

You’re sitting at a party, you decide “I don’t like this; I don’t want to be here.” And then you don’t leave. That kind of social stickiness is what Bion is talking about.

And then, another really remarkable thing happens. Twenty minutes later, one person stands up and gets their coat, and what happens? Suddenly everyone is getting their coats on, all at the same time. Which means that everyone had decided that the party was not for them, and no one had done anything about it, until finally this triggering event let the air out of the group, and everyone kind of felt okay about leaving.

This effect is so steady it’s sometimes called the paradox of groups. It’s obvious that there are no groups without members. But what’s less obvious is that there are no members without a group. Because what would you be a member of?

So there’s this very complicated moment of a group coming together, where enough individuals, for whatever reason, sort of agree that something worthwhile is happening, and the decision they make at that moment is: This is good and must be protected. And at that moment, even if it’s subconscious, you start getting group effects. And the effects that we’ve seen come up over and over and over again in online communities.

Now, Bion decided that what he was watching with the neurotics was the group defending itself against his attempts to make the group do what they said they were supposed to do. The group was convened to get better, this group of people was in therapy to get better. But they were defeating that. And he said, there are some very specific patterns that they’re entering into to defeat the ostensible purpose of the group meeting together. And he detailed three patterns.

The first is sex talk, what he called, in his mid-century prose, “A group met for pairing off.” And what that means is, the group conceives of its purpose as the hosting of flirtatious or salacious talk or emotions passing between pairs of members.

You go on IRC and you scan the channel list, and you say “Oh, I know what that group is about, because I see the channel label.” And you go into the group, you will also almost invariably find that it’s about sex talk as well. Not necessarily overt. But that is always in scope in human conversations, according to Bion. That is one basic pattern that groups can always devolve into, away from the sophisticated purpose and towards one of these basic purposes.

The second basic pattern that Bion detailed: The identification and vilification of external enemies. This is a very common pattern. Anyone who was around the Open Source movement in the mid-Nineties could see this all the time. If you cared about Linux on the desktop, there was a big list of jobs to do. But you could always instead get a conversation going about Microsoft and Bill Gates. And people would start bleeding from their ears, they would get so mad.

If you want to make it better, there’s a list of things to do. It’s Open Source, right? Just fix it. “No, no, Microsoft and Bill Gates grrrrr …”, the froth would start coming out. The external enemy — nothing causes a group to galvanize like an external enemy.

So even if someone isn’t really your enemy, identifying them as an enemy can cause a pleasant sense of group cohesion. And groups often gravitate towards members who are the most paranoid and make them leaders, because those are the people who are best at identifying external enemies.

The third pattern Bion identified: Religious veneration. The nomination and worship of a religious icon or a set of religious tenets. The religious pattern is, essentially, we have nominated something that’s beyond critique. You can see this pattern on the Internet any day you like. Go onto a Tolkein newsgroup or discussion forum, and try saying “You know, The Two Towers is a little dull. I mean loooong. We didn’t need that much description about the forest, because it’s pretty much the same forest all the way.”

Try having that discussion. On the door of the group it will say: “This is for discussing the works of Tolkein.” Go in and try and have that discussion.

Now, in some places people say “Yes, but it needed to, because it had to convey the sense of lassitude,” or whatever. But in most places you’ll simply be flamed to high heaven, because you’re interfering with the religious text.

So these are human patterns that have shown up on the Internet, not because of the software, but because it’s being used by humans. Bion has identified this possibility of groups sandbagging their sophisticated goals with these basic urges. And what he finally came to, in analyzing this tension, is that group structure is necessary. Robert’s Rules of Order are necessary. Constitutions are necessary. Norms, rituals, laws, the whole list of ways that we say, out of the universe of possible behaviors, we’re going to draw a relatively small circle around the acceptable ones.

He said the group structure is necessary to defend the group from itself. Group structure exists to keep a group on target, on track, on message, on charter, whatever. To keep a group focused on its own sophisticated goals and to keep a group from sliding into these basic patterns. Group structure defends the group from the action of its own members.

In the Seventies — this is a pattern that’s shown up on the network over and over again — in the Seventies, a BBS called Communitree launched, one of the very early dial-up BBSes. This was launched when people didn’t own computers, institutions owned computers.

Communitree was founded on the principles of open access and free dialogue. “Communitree” — the name just says “California in the Seventies.” And the notion was, effectively, throw off structure and new and beautiful patterns will arise.

And, indeed, as anyone who has put discussion software into groups that were previously disconnected has seen, that does happen. Incredible things happen. The early days of Echo, the early days of usenet, the early days of Lucasfilms Habitat, over and over again, you see all this incredible upwelling of people who suddenly are connected in ways they weren’t before.

And then, as time sets in, difficulties emerge. In this case, one of the difficulties was occasioned by the fact that one of the institutions that got hold of some modems was a high school. And who, in 1978, was hanging out in the room with the computer and the modems in it, but the boys of that high school. And the boys weren’t terribly interested in sophisticated adult conversation. They were interested in fart jokes. They were interested in salacious talk. They were interested in running amok and posting four-letter words and nyah-nyah-nyah, all over the bulletin board.

And the adults who had set up Communitree were horrified, and overrun by these students. The place that was founded on open access had too much open access, too much openness. They couldn’t defend themselves against their own users. The place that was founded on free speech had too much freedom. They had no way of saying “No, that’s not the kind of free speech we meant.”

But that was a requirement. In order to defend themselves against being overrun, that was something that they needed to have that they didn’t have, and as a result, they simply shut the site down.

Now you could ask whether or not the founders’ inability to defend themselves from this onslaught, from being overrun, was a technical or a social problem. Did the software not allow the problem to be solved? Or was it the social configuration of the group that founded it, where they simply couldn’t stomach the idea of adding censorship to protect their system. But in a way, it doesn’t matter, because technical and social issues are deeply intertwined. There’s no way to completely separate them.

What matters is, a group designed this and then was unable, in the context they’d set up, partly a technical and partly a social context, to save it from this attack from within. And attack from within is what matters. Communitree wasn’t shut down by people trying to crash or syn-flood the server. It was shut down by people logging in and posting, which is what the system was designed to allow. The technological pattern of normal use and attack were identical at the machine level, so there was no way to specify technologically what should and shouldn’t happen. Some of the users wanted the system to continue to exist and to provide a forum for discussion. And other of the users, the high school boys, either didn’t care or were actively inimical. And the system provided no way for the former group to defend itself from the latter.

Now, this story has been written many times. It’s actually frustrating to see how many times it’s been written. You’d hope that at some point that someone would write it down, and they often do, but what then doesn’t happen is other people don’t read it.

The most charitable description of this repeated pattern is “learning from experience.” But learning from experience is the worst possible way to learn something. Learning from experience is one up from remembering. That’s not great. The best way to learn something is when someone else figures it out and tells you: “Don’t go in that swamp. There are alligators in there.”

Learning from experience about the alligators is lousy, compared to learning from reading, say. There hasn’t been, unfortunately, in this arena, a lot of learning from reading. And so, lessons from Lucasfilms’ Habitat, written in 1990, reads a lot like Rose Stone’s description of Communitree from 1978.

This pattern has happened over and over and over again. Someone built the system, they assumed certain user behaviors. The users came on and exhibited different behaviors. And the people running the system discovered to their horror that the technological and social issues could not in fact be decoupled.

There’s a great document called “LambdaMOO Takes a New Direction,” which is about the wizards of LambdaMOO, Pavel Curtis’s Xerox PARC experiment in building a MUD world. And one day the wizards of LambdaMOO announced “We’ve gotten this system up and running, and all these interesting social effects are happening. Henceforth we wizards will only be involved in technological issues. We’re not going to get involved in any of that social stuff.”

And then, I think about 18 months later — I don’t remember the exact gap of time — they come back. The wizards come back, extremely cranky. And they say: “What we have learned from you whining users is that we can’t do what we said we would do. We cannot separate the technological aspects from the social aspects of running a virtual world.

“So we’re back, and we’re taking wizardly fiat back, and we’re going to do things to run the system. We are effectively setting ourselves up as a government, because this place needs a government, because without us, the place was falling apart.”

People who work on social software are closer in spirit to economists and political scientists than they are to people making compilers. They both look like programming, but when you’re dealing with groups of people as one of your run-time phenomena, that is an incredibly different practice. In the political realm, we would call these kinds of crises a constitutional crisis. It’s what happens when the tension between the individual and the group, and the rights and responsibilities of individuals and groups, gets so serious that something has to be done.

And the worst crisis is the first crisis, because it’s not just “We need to have some rules.” It’s also “We need to have some rules for making some rules.” And this is what we see over and over again in large and long-lived social software systems. Constitutions are a necessary component of large, long-lived, heterogeneous groups.

Geoff Cohen has a great observation about this. He said “The likelihood that any unmoderated group will eventually get into a flame-war about whether or not to have a moderator approaches one as time increases.” As a group commits to its existence as a group, and begins to think that the group is good or important, the chance that they will begin to call for additional structure, in order to defend themselves from themselves, gets very, very high.

(Hat tip to Morlock Publishing. I told him I was reminded of Robert Conquest’s Three Laws of Politics, and Elam Bend noted that my post comes up first if you Google that term.)

Regional wars that were only with hindsight lumped all together

Monday, January 1st, 2018

It wasn’t always clear that World War II, or the Second World War, would be seen as a single, unified war, as Victor Davis Hanson emphasizes in The Second World Wars:

By 1939, Germany had entered its third European war within 70 years, following World War I (1914–1918) and, before that, the Franco–Prussian War (1870–1871). Conflicts throughout history become serial when an enemy is not utterly defeated and is not forced to submit to the political conditions of the victor, whether in the two Peloponnesian or three Punic Wars, or the later Hundred Years’ and Seven Years’ Wars. Such was the case with the preludes to World War II, when many of the major familiar nations of the European world were again at war. Germany was once more the aggressor. That fact also helped spawn the familiar idea of “World War II” and its alternative designation, the “Second World War.” Yet this time around, both sides tacitly agreed that there would not be a World War III — either Germany would finally achieve its near century-long dream of European dominance or cease to exist as a National Socialist state and military power. Yet the Allies understood history far better: In any existential war, only the side that has the ability to destroy the homeland of the other wins.

The war, also like many conflicts of the past, was certainly chronologically inexact, with two official denouements known in the Anglosphere as V-E and V-J Day. The war, like many, was also ill-defined, especially for a country such as Bulgaria, to take one minor example, which had no common interests or communications with its nominal Pacific ally Japan. Likewise, the Greeks were indifferent to the war against fascism in China, and in the same way the Soviet Union cared little whether Italy had invaded France.

Often border disputes on the periphery of Germany, ethnic hatreds in Eastern Europe and the Balkans, and political grievances and national ambitions set off regional wars that were only with hindsight lumped all together as World War II, at least in Britain and the United States. Most sides had hopes of allying their parochial causes to larger ideological crusades. But far more important, they just wanted to join the right side of strong allies that might be likely winners and divvy up spoils. General Francisco Franco’s fascist government in Spain was emblematic of such opportunism that transcended ideological affinities. During 1939–1941, Franco — despite horrendous recent losses in the Spanish Civil War and despite Hitler’s occasional rebuffs — considered possible entrance into the war on the Axis side. Franco assumed that the Allies would likely be defeated and there might be colonial spoils in North Africa allotted to Spain. He often boasted that Spain might unilaterally take Gibraltar or enlist hundreds of thousands of warriors to the Axis cause. But between 1943 and 1944, Spain increasingly began to reassert its neutrality, in recognition that the Axis powers would now likely lose the war and their war-won territories — and prior allegiance might earn an Allied invasion and with it a change of government. By late 1944, Fascist Spain was no longer exporting tungsten to Germany and was instead reinvented as sympathetic to British and American democracy and eager to become an anticommunist ally after the war.

Eric Garner’s daughter has heart attack without being “choked” or tackled

Thursday, December 28th, 2017

How should the police handle a large man who won’t comply? That’s what I asked when Eric Garner, a large man indeed, refused to comply with NYPD officers, got taken down with a headlock, and ended up under a dogpile — where he had a heart attack and died. This was described as an unarmed black man being choked to death.

Now his daughter, Erica Garner, has suffered her own second heart attack, severe enough to cause brain damage, without being “choked” or tackled. It’s pretty clear that there’s a family history of heart disease.

I still don’t know how the police should handle a large man who won’t comply, especially if he’s at risk of a heart attack.