Their overriding goal is not enlightenment

Thursday, March 14th, 2019

The admissions scandal is an opportunity to separate the lofty mythology of college from the sordid reality:

Despite the grand aspirations that students avow on their admission essays, their overriding goal is not enlightenment, but status.

Consider why these parents would even desire to fake their kids’ SAT scores. We can imagine them thinking, I desperately want my child to master mathematics, writing and history — and no one teaches math, writing and history like Yale does! But we all know this is fanciful. People don’t cheat because they want to learn more. They cheat to get a diploma from Yale or Stanford — modernity’s preferred passport to great careers and high society.

What, then, is the point of sneaking into an elite school, if you lack the ability to master the material? If the cheaters planned to major in one of the rare subjects with clear standards and well-defined career paths — like computer science, electrical engineering or chemistry — this would be a show-stopping question. Most majors, however, ask little of their students — and get less. Standards were higher in the 1960s, when typical college students toiled about 40 hours a week. Today, however, students work only two-thirds as hard. Full-time college has become a part-time job.

If computer-science students slacked off like this, employers would soon notice. Most of their peers, however, have little reason to dread a day of reckoning — because, to be blunt, most of what college students study is irrelevant in the real world. Think of all the math, history, science, poetry and foreign language you had to study in school — if you can. Indeed, you’ve probably long since forgotten most of what you learned about these subjects. Few of us use it, so almost all of us lose it. The average high school student studies a foreign language for a full two years, but, according to my own research, less than 1% of American adults even claim they gained fluency in a classroom.

Why do employers put up with such a dysfunctional educational system? Part of the answer is that government and donors lavish funding on the status quo with direct subsidies, student loans and alumni donations. As a result, any unsubsidized alternative, starved of resources, must be twice as good to do half as well. The deeper answer, though, is that American higher education tolerably performs one useful service for American business: certification. Most students at places like Yale and Stanford aren’t learning much, but they’re still awesome to behold if you’re looking to fill a position. Ivy Leaguers are more than just smart; when tangible rewards are on the line, they’re hardworking conformists. They hunger for conventional success. From employers’ point of view, it doesn’t matter if college fosters these traits or merely flags them. As long as elite students usually make excellent employees, the mechanism doesn’t matter.

So why cheat your kid into the Ivy League or a similarly elite school? For the lifelong benefits of corrupt certification. When I was in high school, my crusty health teacher loved to single out a random teen and scoff, “You’re wanted … for impersonating a student.” If you can get your less-than-brilliant, less-than-driven child admitted, he’ll probably get to impersonate a standardly awesome Ivy League graduate for the rest of his life. Of course, the superrich parents the FBI is accusing could have just let their kids skip college and live off their trust funds, but it’s not merely a matter of money. It’s also about youthful self-esteem — and parental bragging rights.

They wanted to be nice to the Americans, but they didn’t know what to do

Sunday, March 10th, 2019

When his unit deployed, Dunlap went to Africa the long way around:

Forty days on the sea. Through the Caribbean unescorted, when German submarines were trying hard to sink one ship per day and keeping pretty close to the schedule for awhile.

[...]

[Laying in the harbor of Rio] was to be the last time we were to see a city with lights for a long time.

[...]

The port of call was Durban, U. S. A. (Union of South Africa). We had to remember the double meaning of those three letters from there on in. None of us had any knowledge of the place and most of us had never heard of it. We were learning more about the world. Durban is a quaint little jungle village of 300,000 people, with 25,000 automobiles, open-air streetcars, doubledeck busses, big movie houses, skyscraper apartment buildings with automatic elevators, a business section as modern as any American city and a climate about 60% better than Southern California. If you ever do a little embezzling or rob a bank and have to jump the old home town, go to South Africa. They even have good ice-cream!

[...]

The South Africans are large physically, and live on a larger scale than any other British colony or dominion.

[...]

Living in a game country, the attitude toward shooting is much the same as in America. There is probably more per-capita big game hunting there, and they have rifle associations, clubs, matches and an organization which corresponds to our National Rifle Association through which military equipment is available to members.

[...]

When our colored soldiers came ashore the people were somewhat stymied — they wanted to be nice to the Americans, but they didn’t know what to do.

[...]

The problem was solved for the moment by more-or-less declaring that the American colored troops were sort of “honorary Aryans” for the moment and allowing them to use all white establishments for the period of our stay.

[...]

Many native leaders have been campaigning for years for more or equal rights in the government, which of course means the end of white domination politically, should they be won.

The tattoo has a profound meaning

Wednesday, March 6th, 2019

Theodore Dalrymple was once consulted in the prison in which he worked by an inmate who was the proud father of two:

I asked him whether he still saw them: continued contact with their biological offspring being something of a rarity among the imprisoned paternal community. Instead of answering me directly, he rolled up his sleeves and pointed to two tattoos on his forearm, red hearts with scrolls across them bearing the names of his children — two tattoos among many others, needless to say. He hadn’t seen either of his children for years, and had never contributed anything to their upkeep. Indeed, the idea that he should have done so was so completely alien to him and to the mores of the world in which he moved that the thought had never crossed his mind, even fleetingly. By contrast, he obviously believed that his tattoos were a sign of genuine devotion to his children. Their names were engraved, if not on his heart exactly, at least on hearts painfully engraved on his skin, and one could easily imagine a touching deathbed scene in which he would be reunited at last with his children and would there show them the tattoos as proof that he had never really forgotten or abandoned them. They would probably accept this as having been true, and therefore forgive him his dereliction of duty.

In fact, more than 95 percent of imprisoned white British criminals are tattooed. The statistical association between tattooing and criminality is very much stronger (with the exception of that between criminality and smoking) than that with any of the more conventionally investigated factors, such as broken homes, drug addiction, low intelligence, and poor educational attainment.

[...]

Why do members of the middle classes now adorn themselves in this savage fashion? The author draws not only on her own experience, but also upon that of tattooists and their customers. She believes that tattoos have philosophical meaning for those who bear them. The philosophy in question is a witches’ brew of new age “spiritualism,” ecological paganism, elevation of the primitive, and vegetarianism. It is the kind of philosophy that emerges when religious feeling is no longer disciplined by religious ritual that is established by tradition and upheld by social pressure.

It is perfectly possible, however, to be a vegetarian, or even to believe in witchcraft, without resort to the tattoo parlor. What makes individuals choose to undergo the painful, expensive, and virtually irrevocable process of tattooing? Having listened to an unspecified number of tattooed members of the middle classes, the author identifies several motives, all of which struck me as unflatteringly revealing of the soul of modern man.

First there is the assertion of individuality. One of the author’s informants says,

[Being tattooed] separates me from anybody else. No one else has anything like what I have. I feel a little bit different from Joe Shmoe in the street, and I guess it makes me feel special.

This is infinitely sad. That a person’s individuality should be made to depend upon so crude an outward sign as a tattoo is in fact an indication of the fragility of that person’s identity. He must feel simultaneously overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of people around him who make it so very difficult for him to differentiate himself from them, and an urgent necessity to do so. This necessity is all the more imperative in an age of celebrity, when fame and public notoriety are to so many people the only goals worth pursuing: indeed, when public adulation itself seems almost the sole guarantor of true personal existence. But their reach exceeds their grasp.

Of course, such outward signs of individuality as tattoos are inherently self-defeating. It cannot ever be long before someone has himself tattooed in a yet more startling, more “original” fashion (indeed, tattoo conventions regularly offer prizes for the “most unique” tattoo). But there is a deeper reason why such efforts at asserting one’s unique individuality are pathetically bound to fail: for true individuality does not arise from a decision to be an individual. A man who decides to be an eccentric, and therefore to behave eccentrically, is not an eccentric at all, but an actor, and usually a bad one at that. A true eccentric is a man who behaves eccentrically because it simply does not occur to him to behave otherwise.

“Personal growth” is cited as another important motive for having oneself tattooed. It is said to be “empowering.” A woman who had a bad marriage had herself tattooed with a wolf.

I ended up getting this wolf, which to me was power and strength over all the abuse and all the things that went on in my life. It was a sense of freedom… . I wanted it … to become myself.

Another woman said that her tattoo was something she did, that she brought into being, as if the fact that it was hers were a sufficient guarantee of its worth.

What is striking about these “tattoo narratives” (as the author calls them) is their vacuous egoism. The interlocutors speak, and appear to think, in pure psychobabble, that debased and vague confessional language that allows people to imagine they are baring their souls when in fact they are exposing their shallowness. This is something the author does not notice because she herself belongs to the psychobabble culture. One cannot but feel sorrow for people who think that by permanently disfiguring themselves they are somehow declaring their independence or expressing their individuality. The tattoo has a profound meaning: the superficiality of modern man’s existence.

The author entirely misses the cultural significance of the spread of tattoos into the middle classes, even though one of her interlocutors, a teacher at a university, gives her a strong clue:

I was saying, “Fuck you, school, and I don’t really care if you know I have a tattoo.” I also at this time started getting pierced because basically I’m taking my anger out on this school… . I knew it would freak them out, which gave me no small amount of pleasure.

Here we see the bodily consequence of an intellectual climate that has long extolled opposition and hostility to what exists as the only honorable and ethical stand to take towards it. Of course, such an attitude is fundamentally ahistorical and lacking in respect for the achievements of the past, and only people who live in an eternal, egoistic present moment could adopt it. (The eternity of the present moment is, of course, the key to modern shallowness.) The tattoo is thus the art form of the cultural vandal, and it is no accident, as the Marxists used to say, that the cultural vandal’s views should almost always be expressed with inarticulate sub-demotic vulgarity.

It is also no accident that some members of the middle classes should have adopted a typically proletarian form of bodily adornment as a badge not only of independence, but also of liberal virtue. A tattoo establishes them as tolerant, open-minded, and sympathetic towards those below them in the social scale: the highest virtues of which they can conceive. The tattoo thus appeals to the kind of modern bourgeois who believes that foulness of language is a token of purity of heart, or at least of sincerity. The tattoo, like the constant resort to the swearword, is an attack on bourgeois propriety, and as such a demonstration of largeness of heart and generosity of spirit.

Of course, this antinomianism (itself so tiresomely bourgeois) has a tinny ring. I am reminded of the recent obituary of a British pop star in The Daily Telegraph (the fact that this newspaper, once the favorite reading matter of retired admirals pickled in port, should carry obituaries of pop stars at all is itself a cultural shift of some significance). The subject of the obituary was said to have been so irritated by what he considered the false gentility of the school he attended that he forever after used the demotic speech of South London. In other words, he adopted, in the name of authenticity, a form of language that was not his own and did not come naturally to him. The fate of all people who imitate others to achieve authenticity is to live a lie.

Besides, the bourgeois who has himself tattooed is, as this book indicates, at least as anxious to distinguish himself from the real proletarian as he is to identify with him. The tattoo is thus to the modern bourgeois what playing shepherdess was to Marie Antoinette. The woman whose tattoo was supposed to say “Fuck you” to her university did not really want to become the janitor of her faculty building, and probably would have very little to say to him. Egalitarians usually have a very strong sense of hierarchy.

Wealthy republics do not last long

Tuesday, March 5th, 2019

Jerry Pournelle wrote Mercenaries and Military Virtue as a preface for a David Drake novel and then rewrote it into a standalone essay for There Will Be War:

A nation which despises its soldiers will all too soon have a despicable army.

The depressing fact is that history is remarkably clear on one point: wealthy republics do not last long. Time after time they have risen to wealth and freedom; the citizens become wealthy and sophisticated; unwilling to volunteer to protect themselves, they go to conscription; this too becomes intolerable; and soon enough they turn to mercenaries.

[...]

For mercenaries are a dangerous necessity. If they are incompetent, they will ruin you. If they are competent there is always the temptation to rob the paymaster.

Why should they not? They know their employers will not fight. They may, if recruited into a national army, retain loyalty to the country—but if the nation despises them, and takes every possible opportunity to let them know it, then that incentive falls as well—and they have a monopoly on the means of violence. Their employers won’t fight—if they would, they needn’t have hired mercenaries.

[...]

As Montesquieu put it, “a rational army would run away.” To stand on the firing parapet and expose yourself to danger; to stand and fight a thousand miles from home when you’re all alone and outnumbered and probably beaten; to spit on your hands and lower the pike, to stand fast over the body of Leonidas the King, to be rear guard at Kunu-ri; to stand and be still to the Birkenhead drill; these are not rational acts.

[...]

On the evidence, peace is a purely theoretical state of affairs whose existence we deduce because there have been intervals between wars.

[...]

When Appius Claudius told the Senate of Rome that “If you would have peace, be thou then prepared for war” he said nothing that history has not repeatedly affirmed. It may be wrong advice. Certainly there is an argument against it. But I think there is no argument at all against a similar aphorism: “If you would have peace, then understand war.”

Which is to say, understand armies; understand why men fight; understand the organization of violence.

[...]

We lost in 1965, when we defeated the guerillas, but failed either to take North Viet Nam or to isolate the battlefield. We tried to defeat hornets by swatting them one hornet at a time, a tactic that cannot possibly work. You must either burn the nest or retire behind window screens.

[...]

History has never been kind to wealthy republics. We can hope we are an exception.

People who work together don’t need diplomats

Monday, March 4th, 2019

It’s a lot harder to pull off a twist ending today than 60 years ago. I was reminded of this while reading Philip K. Dick’s “The Defenders,” in There Will Be War. World War III has continued, with all the humans living deep underground, while an army of radiation-shielded robots, or leadies, continues the fight on the surface. Eight years in, some suspicious humans come to the surface to survey the devastation:

“As soon as you left, the war ceased. You’re right, it was a hoax. You worked hard undersurface, sending up guns and weapons, and we destroyed them as fast as they came up.”

[...]

“You created us,” the leady said, “to pursue the war for you, while you human beings went below the ground in order to survive. But before we could continue the war, it was necessary to analyze it to determine what its purpose was. We did this, and we found that it had no purpose, except, perhaps, in terms of human needs. Even this was questionable.

“We investigated further. We found that human cultures pass through phases, each culture in its own time. As the culture ages and begins to lose its objectives, conflict arises within it between those who wish to cast it off and set up a new culture-pattern, and those who wish to retain the old with as little change as possible.

“At this point, a great danger appears. The conflict within threatens to engulf the society in self-war, group against group. The vital traditions may be lost—not merely altered or reformed, but completely destroyed in this period of chaos and anarchy. We have found many such examples in the history of mankind.

“It is necessary for this hatred within the culture to be directed outward, toward an external group, so that the culture itself may survive its crisis. War is the result. War, to a logical mind, is absurd. But in terms of human needs, it plays a vital role. And it will continue to until Man has grown up enough so that no hatred lies within him.”

Taylor was listening intently. “Do you think this time will come?”

“Of course. It has almost arrived now. This is the last war. Man is almost united into one final culture—a world culture. At this point he stands continent against continent, one half of the world against the other half. Only a single step remains, the jump to a unified culture. Man has climbed slowly upward, tending always toward unification of his culture. It will not be long—

“But it has not come yet, and so the war had to go on, to satisfy the last violent surge of hatred that Man felt. Eight years have passed since the war began. In these eight years, we have observed and noted important changes going on in the minds of men. Fatigue and disinterest, we have seen, are gradually taking the place of hatred and fear. The hatred is being exhausted gradually, over a period of time. But for the present, the hoax must go on, at least for a while longer. You are not ready to learn the truth. You would want to continue the war.”

[...]

“It’s a certainty that the Soviets have been tricked, too, the same as us. But we have found out. That gives us an edge over them.”

[...]

“With a hundred top-level men, we could take over again, restore things as they should be! It would be easy!”

[...]

“As you can see, the Tube has been shut. We were prepared for this. As soon as all of you were on the surface, the order was given. If you had gone back when we asked you, you would now be safely down below. We had to work quickly because it was such an immense operation.”

“But why?” Moss demanded angrily.

“Because it is unthinkable that you should be allowed to resume the war. With all the Tubes sealed, it will be many months before forces from below can reach the surface, let alone organize a military programme. By that time the cycle will have entered its last stages. You will not be so perturbed to find your world intact.

“We had hoped that you would be undersurface when the sealing occurred. Your presence here is a nuisance. When the Soviets broke through, we were able to accomplish their sealing without—”

“The Soviets? They broke through?”

“Several months ago, they came up unexpectedly to see why the war had not been won. We were forced to act with speed. At this moment they are desperately attempting to cut new Tubes to the surface, to resume the war. We have, however, been able to seal each new one as it appears.”

[...]

“People who work together don’t need diplomats. They solve their problems on the operational level instead of at a conference table.”

[...]

“It is the goal of history, unifying the world. From family to tribe to city-state to nation to hemisphere, the direction has been toward unification. Now the hemispheres will be joined and—”

[...]

“Hundreds of centuries of bloodshed and destruction. But each war was a step toward uniting mankind. And now the end is in sight: a world without war. But even that is only the beginning of a new stage of history.”

One more illustration of the utter moral worthlessness of both Spain and Germany

Sunday, March 3rd, 2019

The Spanish Civil War came up here recently, so I was attuned to the topic when Jerry Pournelle brought it up in the preface to his own “His Truth Goes Marching On” in There Will Be War:

The Spanish Civil War was, to a generation of American liberals, a matter of evil vs. good. The Falangists were evil; the Republicans were good; and there were no compromises. Hemingway tried to show that it wasn’t that stark, although his sympathies remained with the Republicans. George Orwell went into more detail. He showed the naked cynicism of the Communist elements of the Republic, but no one wanted to hear his message, and to this day most believe that his (largely unread) Homage to Catalonia condemns only Franco.

The world could never forget Guernica, and to prove it we had Pablo Picasso’s masterpiece hung in the Museum of Modern Art. Guernica was a Basque fishing village bombed by units of the Luftwaffe’s Condor Legion. The town was largely destroyed, and the incident was seen as one more illustration of the utter moral worthlessness of both Spain and Germany. Picasso’s violent painting, showing men and animals disjointed and scattered, was very effective in stirring up sympathy for the Republicans and hatred for both the Germans and Franco.

Picasso's Guernica

Later it came out that the town had been occupied by Republican military units, that at least part of the destruction came from the detonation of Republican munitions stored there, and there was a strong suggestion that retreating Republican engineers had dynamited other structures not damaged by the air raid. Whatever the truth of Guernica, the destruction there was not large compared to the damage sustained by Sidon, Tyre, and Beirut during the 1982 Israeli campaign, and was trivial compared to the damage done Tokyo in the fire raids, or the devastation of Hamburg and Dresden.

The story mirrors the Spanish Civil War, but in a sci-fi setting:

By the next morning two men had toes shot off and had to be evacuated.

They lay on the hill for a week. Each night they lost a few more men to minor casualties that could not possibly have been inflicted by the enemy; then Stromand had two men with foot injuries shot by a squad of military police he brought up from staff headquarters.

The injuries ceased, and the men lay sullenly in the trenches until the company was relieved.

No one quite knows where the great captains come from

Thursday, February 28th, 2019

Jerry Pournelle included Poul Anderson’s “Marius” in There Will Be War and wrote this preface to it:

In every generation there are those who can lead men to Hell. There are never many, for the secrets of that kind of leadership have not been written in books. No one quite knows where the great captains come from. They appear when needed — or they do not, and homelands die.

The great captains are not immune to the temptations of power; indeed, for those who can lead men to Hell, there is always the suspicion that they might be able to lead them to Heaven. If the generals do not think this way, we can be certain they will have followers to suggest the possibility.

Great soldiers are not often great governors. Sometimes they are: Julius Caesar was certainly preferable to most of his immediate successors and predecessors, Washington was certainly an able president, Mustapha Kemal was the best governor Turkey ever had. England has had able soldier kings. Napoleon reformed French society and developed a code of laws that has spread throughout the world, making one wonder what might have happened had the Allies left him in peace after his return from Elba.

Far too often, though, the habits of military power have been ingrained, so that the great captain becomes tyrant or incompetent — or both — as head of state.

The story involves a coup, in post-World War III Europe, to replace a benevolent dictator, before strongman politics become too ingrained. The academics behind the coup understand symbolic sociology — something like Asimov’s psychohistory.

Pournelle felt that the usual understanding of the story, that the scientific faction’s win was a win for humanity, was a misunderstanding:

Pareto, whose theory of the circulation of elites makes more sense than most contemporary sociology (and is worth a great deal more study than it receives), died in 1923. He was more interested in the description of society than in prescriptions for its change; to the extent that he was on record as favoring any social scheme it was classical liberalism of the sort espoused by Dr. Milton Friedman in this era.

[...]

Pareto wrote: “Had Aristotle held to the course he in part so admirably followed, we would have had a scientific sociology in his early day. Why did he not do so? There may have been many reasons; but chief among them, probably, was that eagerness for premature practical applications which is ever obstructing the progress of science, along with a mania for preaching to people as to what they ought to do — an exceedingly bootless occupation — instead of finding out what they actually do.”

[...]

Fourre and Valti are more concerned with theory — such as how many representatives shall be sent to the United Nations — than with such practical matters as rats and plague. And thus Fourre slays his oldest friend. Which of them is Marius?

Peace does not depend on integrated coexistence

Saturday, February 23rd, 2019

A recent study looks at the wisdom of the aphorism that good fences make good neighbors:

We consider the conditions of peace and violence among ethnic groups, testing a theory designed to predict the locations of violence and interventions that can promote peace. Characterizing the model’s success in predicting peace requires examples where peace prevails despite diversity. Switzerland is recognized as a country of peace, stability and prosperity. This is surprising because of its linguistic and religious diversity that in other parts of the world lead to conflict and violence.

Here we analyze how peaceful stability is maintained. Our analysis shows that peace does not depend on integrated coexistence, but rather on well defined topographical and political boundaries separating groups. Mountains and lakes are an important part of the boundaries between sharply defined linguistic areas. Political canton and circle (sub-canton) boundaries often separate religious groups. Where such boundaries do not appear to be sufficient, we find that specific aspects of the population distribution either guarantee sufficient separation or sufficient mixing to inhibit intergroup violence according to the quantitative theory of conflict. In exactly one region, a porous mountain range does not adequately separate linguistic groups and violent conflict has led to the recent creation of the canton of Jura.

Our analysis supports the hypothesis that violence between groups can be inhibited by physical and political boundaries. A similar analysis of the area of the former Yugoslavia shows that during widespread ethnic violence existing political boundaries did not coincide with the boundaries of distinct groups, but peace prevailed in specific areas where they did coincide. The success of peace in Switzerland may serve as a model to resolve conflict in other ethnically diverse countries and regions of the world.

Simply encourage stupidity in the name of moral superiority and let basic human laziness do the rest

Thursday, February 21st, 2019

The most important aspect of the Grievance Studies hoax, Steve Sailer suggests, is the triumph of the very term “Grievance Studies”:

Google searches show that the term “grievance studies” appeared only 85 times in the history of the internet before they announced their hoax last October, but 89,700 times since then.

Ironically, the various institutions out to punish the trio of hoaxers for their impudence are just making the term Grievance Studies even more memorable in the highbrow public’s mind.

The importance of names is underrated. When something doesn’t have a name, humans have a hard time noticing a pattern. It’s hardly impossible — otherwise we’d never develop names in the first place — but names exist to make thinking easier.

[...]

The usefulness of having a term for a thing is usually subsumed into the never-ending debate over “linguistic relativity” that has enveloped such famous thinkers as Franz Boas, Edward Sapir, Benjamin Whorf, Alfred Korzybski, Noam Chomsky, and Steven Pinker.

Indeed, we could probably use a separate word for the modest assertion that having a name for something makes it easier to notice that would distinguish it from the more ambitious theories about how the structure of different languages supposedly influences or even determines how their speakers experience reality.

In 1911, Boas, the great cultural anthropologist, reported that on Baffin Island the Eskimos have more words for “snow” than do English-speakers. Whether or not that is true has been debated ever since: In reality, English, a world language with a vast vocabulary, includes a huge number of technical terms, many devised by skiers or alpinists, for talking more productively about different types of snow. Ski resorts, for example, use terms such as “base snow,” “frozen granular,” and “packed powder” to communicate conditions to customers.

But comparing a small Eskimo language to mighty English could be misleading. In contrast, it seems highly plausible that Eskimo dogsledders could well use more terms that distinguish between different kinds of snow than, say, the Maasai of Kenya, who could likely get by with just one word for that white stuff visible on top of Mount Kilimanjaro.

Boas’ anecdote about words for snow was seized upon by Benjamin Whorf, a fire safety inspector and amateur linguist.

During Whorf’s career in the fire insurance business, his industry had helped promote a wise safety reform: The English word “inflammable” for “easily set on fire” was notorious for confusing people because the “in” prefix can also mean “not.” So “inflammable” began to be replaced on warning labels by “flammable.”

Whorf was not content with such simple applications of the obvious notion that having the right words can be helpful, but pressed on into extraordinarily abstruse questions such as whether the structure of the Hopi Indian language affects the Hopi’s concept of time (or vice versa). These higher-end issues have tended to monopolize academic debate ever since, obscuring the simpler applications of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.

At the same time, the Polish polymath Count Alfred Korzybski was putting forward a roughly comparable analysis, such as his dictum “The map is not the territory.” Korzybski’s ideas, often conveyed by popularizers such as future GOP U.S. Senator S.I. Hayakawa and Stuart Chase, about how language reform would allow us to get in better touch with reality tended to appeal less to academics than Whorf’s theory but more to science-fiction authors, such as Robert Heinlein, George Orwell, and L. Ron Hubbard.

Orwell’s famous 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language” offered the most commonsensical advice ever derived from these two parallel intellectual traditions:

If you simplify your English…when you make a stupid remark its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself.

Orwell then appended to his 1984 a dystopian rendering of his advice on the virtues of simplification, “The Principles of Newspeak,” which explains how the Party has perversely simplified English so brutally that Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence can only be expressed in a single word: “crimethink.”

It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical thought — that is, a thought diverging from the principles of Ingsoc — should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words…. This was done partly by the invention of new words, but chiefly by eliminating undesirable words…. Newspeak was designed not to extend but to diminish the range of thought, and this purpose was indirectly assisted by cutting the choice of words down to a minimum.

But the Stalinism that provided the model for 1984 was largely an effort by intellectuals LARPing as proletarians, while contemporary Intersectionality is concocted by not particularly bright people LARPing as intellectuals.

Hence, the equivalents of the Inner Party of 1984 in Grievance Studies departments prefer, rather than the radical simplification of Newspeak, to encourage needlessly multisyllabic jargon such as “problematic” and “microaggression.” Rather than make it impossible to think dissident thoughts by eliminating words, it has proved more effective simply to make clear thinking more inefficient and thus less appealing.

In 1984, radical language reform will bring about a situation in which:

In practice this meant that no book written before approximately 1960 could be translated as a whole.

But it’s been simpler in the real world merely to render the white male authors of pre-1960s texts, such as Jefferson, increasingly hateful. Simply encourage stupidity in the name of moral superiority and let basic human laziness do the rest. This was also anticipated by Orwell:

Crimestop means the faculty of stopping short, as though by instinct, at the threshold of any dangerous thought. It includes the power of not grasping analogies, of failing to perceive logical errors, of misunderstanding the simplest arguments if they are inimical to Ingsoc, and of being bored or repelled by any train of thought which is capable of leading in a heretical direction. Crimestop, in short, means protective stupidity.

Not knowing Englishmen, they had not expected trouble

Wednesday, February 20th, 2019

I’ve mentioned Poul Anderson’s The High Crusade before, and it recently came up in a comment thread, so I finally bought a (digital) copy and read it. The premise is that advanced aliens land on Earth, prepared to awe the locals, but the locals are a medieval English army, preparing to go to war. They rush the ship and slaughter the crew — save one blue-skinned prisoner:

Soldiers were trained to react when such things happened, not to think. The bow of Red John sang. The foremost demon lurched off the ramp with a cloth-yard arrow through him. I saw him cough blood and die. As if the one shot had touched off a hundred, the air was suddenly gray with whistling shafts. The three other demons toppled, so thickly studded with arrows they might have been popinjays at a contest. “They can be slain!” bawled Sir Roger. “Haro! St. George for merry England!” And he spurred his horse straight up the gangway.

[...]

The crew of the ship numbered about a hundred, but few carried weapons. We later found all manner of devices stored in the holds, but the invaders had relied on creating a panic. Not knowing Englishmen, they had not expected trouble. The ship’s artillery was ready to use, but of no value once we were inside.

Later, when the English army takes the captured ship to an alien-controlled planet, they see the same tactical flaws:

The trouble of the Wersgorix was that they had gone too far. They had made combat on the ground obsolete, and were ill trained, ill equipped, when it happened. True, they possessed fire-beams, as well as force shields to stop those same fire-beams. But they had never thought to lay down caltrops.

[...]

Yet it was scarcely fair. They had no body armor. Their only weapon for such close-in fighting was a knife attached to the muzzle of the handgun, to make a most awkward spear… or the gun itself, clubbed.

Further, the aliens don’t realize how primitive their opponents really are:

Now all the Wersgorix know about us is that we have suddenly come from nowhere and — if Branithar’s boasts be true — done what no other host has ever achieved: taken one of their strongholds! Would you not move warily, were you their constable?

In fact, the aliens struggle to accept just how brash their English foes are:

They could be a punitive expedition, I suppose. For reasons of military secrecy, they could have used one of our own ships and kept their most potent weapons in reserve. It doesn’t make sense. But neither does it make sense that barbarians would blandly tell the most powerful realm in the known universe to surrender its autonomy. Unless it’s mere bluster.

My 50th-anniversary edition opens with multiple introductions. In the first introduction, by Poul’s daughter, Astrid Anderson Bear, she mentions that the story was published as a novel in 1961 and lost the Hugo award to A Canticle for Leibowitz. I have to agree with her assessment: no shame there. (Incidentally, Canticle is not available for Kindle. My mass-market paperback is already yellowing. It seems like the kind of book that needs an acid-free paper edition — maybe the library-bound one?) Astrid goes on to describe her father’s interest in the Middle Ages:

A few years later, in May of 1966, Diana Paxson hosted friends and acquaintances at a small medieval-style tourney in her backyard, about a mile from the Grove Street house. That small gathering became known as the First Tourney, from which sprang the Society for Creative Anachronism, now a world-wide organization with tourneys and events happening most weeks, year-round. [...] And my father was an early and enthusiastic member, earning a knighthood for his fighting and additional awards for his poetry, and spent many happy hours in what is called the Current Middle Ages.

In another introduction, David Drake notes that the thoughtful core of the book is that technology is not intelligence — before he shares some fun “Easter eggs” in Anderson’s work:

It was rare for a magazine to run two stories under the same author’s name in an issue: the novelette was credited to Winston P. Sanders, a pseudonym that Poul used a number of times. The name is a joke. If you’ve read Winnie-the-Pooh, you may recall that Winnie is living “under the name of Sanders.” [...] Notice the name of the monk telling the story: Brother Parvus, a church name which he tells us he took from his nickname as a layman. So: his nickname was Little. He also tells us that he was a younger son of Wat Brown. Very coyly Poul has told us that the novel is by Little Brown, a very upmarket Boston publisher who most certainly did not publish The High Crusade or anything else by Poul Anderson until quite late in his life.

Another key point of the story is that primitive institutions, like feudalism, serve a purpose and have their strengths:

Yet this realm, in theory a republic of freemen, was in practice a worse tyranny than mankind has known, even in Nero’s infamous day.

[...]

The Wersgorix had no special affection for their birthplace; they acknowledged no immediate ties of kinship or duty. As a result, each individual had no one to stand between him and the all-powerful central government.

[...]

In England, when King John grew overweening, he clashed both with ancient law and with vested local interests; so the barons curbed him and thereby wrote another word or two of liberty for all Englishmen.

[...]

The Wersgor were a lickspittle race, unable to protest any arbitrary decree of a superior. “Promotion according to merit” meant only “promotion according to one’s usefulness to the imperial ministers.”

[...]

The Wersgorix had similar weapons, of course, but less determination to use them.

[...]

But the Wersgorix were not a knightly folk. They were more prudent and forethoughtful than we. It cost them dearly.

[...]

Indeed, this race had been supreme among the stars so long that only their soldiers now had occasion to develop a manly contempt for death.

[...]

[W]hile the engines of war may change through the centuries, rivalry and intrigue look no subtler out here than at home.

[...]

Where it comes to intrigue, I’m no master of it myself, no Italian. But the star-folk are like children.

[...]

Well, on Earth there’ve been many nations and lords for many centuries, all at odds with each other, under a feudal system nigh too complicated to remember.

[...]

On our Earth, we’ve perforce learned all the knavery there is to know.

[...]

“They know so little about the detection and use of traitors out here,” he remarked to me, “that I can buy this fellow for less than an Italian city. Our allies never attempted this, for they imagined that the Wersgor nation must be as solid as their own. Yet isn’t it logic, that so vast a sprawl of estates, separated by days and weeks of travel, must in many ways resemble a European country? Though even more corruptible—”

[...]

I was thinking that the Wersgor type of government commands no fealty.

[...]

As I said before, the collapse of Wersgorixan was not unlike the collapse of Rome, and similar problems found a similar answer. His advantage lay in having that answer ready to hand, the experience of many Terrestrial centuries.

[...]

Their central government had always been a distant thing to them, a mere collector of taxes and enforcer of arbitrary laws.

[...]

Many a blueskin found his imagination captured by our rich ceremonial and by a government of individual nobles whom he could meet face to face.

[...]

Having little military tradition of their own, the Jairs, Ashenkoghli, and Pr?*tans did not realize how those cruel years welded bonds of loyalty between native peasants and English aristocrats.

This might make good reading for any high-tech force sent off to a primitive land.

Openly questioning Neovictorian’s Sanity

Monday, February 18th, 2019

I recently read Neovictorian’s Sanity. The novel is, in a sense, didactic. It purports to explain how the world really works. For instance, our narrator — and presumably our author — remembers researching the Virginia Tech shooting, where one panicked student kept repeating that “It’s okay, they’re coming, they’re coming to help us!”:

Lesson number one is, They are not fucking coming.

Our hero, Cal — who, rather ironically, goes to Stanford, not Berkeley — finds himself recruited by a “good” conspiracy (the Network, or the Outfit) to fight the “bad” conspiracy (the Order).

The “good” conspiracy seems to be based on — I kid you not — a thinly disguised version of L. Ron Hubbard and his Dianetics — in this case, Heights, the new novel by Phillip Duke, announced in Analog Science Fiction, June, 1974, which grows into the ReHumanism movement.

Cal learns a lot from the Network, as these excerpts suggest:

  • Karsten taught that history wasn’t facts, or trends, causes, war and politics, Great Men or the power of the polis; history was a method of wisdom, the deep contemplation of which enriched understanding of men, women and societies. History revealed the gold and the dross of human behavior, and enabled more effective action in every area of life.
  • For instance, we know about a number of Soviet spies that were caught, working on the Manhattan project and secret military projects and the US delegations to Bretton Woods and the United Nations. But what about the ones that were never caught? I suspect a few spies spent entire careers undercover, retired well and died comfortably in their homes in the Virginia countryside.
  • The perfect crime isn’t the crime you get away with, it’s the crime that no one knows has even been committed.
  • “The ‘unseen,’ Mr. Black, might even be a group, an organization of sorts, but one that is silent. How would we know what effect such a group has had or is having on history? We know a good deal about Templars, Rosicrucians, Freemasons, the Black Hand and so on, but what if there are other groups around, that are operating in a shadow so complete that they might as well not exist?”
  • “Don’t show your cards”
  • “Do you ever get a feeling Cal, maybe you have since you were 12, 13, maybe even younger a feeling that you were almost like an alien observing earth from a distance, that your friends and family were often strange and stupid that everyone’s just acting acting acting all the time?”
  • “Do you feel that if it was necessary and right you could physically stop someone who was doing something bad and wrong, hurting innocent people, starting a war, threatening to use nuclear weapons, something like that?”
  • And put something in there that the herd will think is innocuous, and only the aliens will understand.
  • It’s your future actions and choices and accomplishments that influenced what happened today. Physics works both directions in time — you might consider that.
  • The Outer Church and the Inner Church. It’s universal, everyone from the Greeks and their Mysteries to the Templars and the Masons and the German dueling societies and the Ivy League fraternities use some variation on it.
  • “Because social science is just a branch of the Order, and its purpose is to keep the mass fat, dumb and happy, so the Order can continue to be the Order.” “The Big Order or the Real Order?”
  • Do nothing for one breath. Do nothing, then assess, then take charge.

What Neovictorian really has to answer for is his young protagonist’s decision to carry a 1911 with two seven-round mags.

Anyway, as I read, I like to note interesting words (or phrases) I don’t see every day:

  • peripatetic – traveling from place to place, in particular working or based in various places for relatively short period
  • gloaming – twilight; dusk.
  • so mote it be – “So mote it be” is a ritual phrase used by Freemasons, in Rosicrucianism, and more recently by Neopagans. It means “so may it be”, “so it is required”, or “so must it be”, and may be said at the end of a prayer in a similar way to “amen”.
  • contuberium – The contubernium was the smallest organized unit of soldiers in the Roman Army and was composed of eight legionaries, the equivalent of a modern squad. The men within the contubernium were known as contubernales. Ten contubernia were grouped into a centuria.

Again, the book is didactic, and that means it works in references to other recommended books:

In his afterword, he explicitly mentions his favorite authors:

In some rough chronological order they include Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Robert Heinlein, Ayn Rand, Mickey Spillane, Ian Fleming, Thomas Pynchon, Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson.

L. Ron Hubbard’s Final Blackout always makes me cry.

The late William Patterson Jr.’s fine biography of Heinlein, In Dialogue With His Century, recounts several “mystical” experiences Heinlein had as a boy. I had a few, as well.

He experienced the war at Division level

Tuesday, February 12th, 2019

Commenter Bruce thought that Glenn Gray’s The Warriors quietly disappeared after Paul Fussell tore it apart:

These troops who cried and cheered with relief [at the dropping of the atomic bomb] or who sat stunned by the weight of their experience are very different from the high-minded, guilt- ridden GIs we’re told about by J. Glenn Gray in his sensitive book The Warriors. During the war in Europe Gray was an interrogator in the Army Counterintelligence Corps, and in that capacity he experienced the war at Division level. There’s no denying that Gray’s outlook on everything was admirably noble, elevated, and responsible. After the war he became a much-admired professor of philosophy at Colorado College and an esteemed editor of Heidegger. But The Warriors, his meditation on the moral and psychological dimensions of modern soldiering, gives every sign of error occasioned by remoteness from experience. Division headquarters is miles — miles — behind the line where soldiers experience terror and madness and relieve those pressures by crazy brutality and sadism. Indeed, unless they actually encountered the enemy during the war, most “soldiers” have very little idea what “combat” was like. As William Manchester says, “All who wore uniforms are called veterans, but more than 90 percent of them are as uninformed about the killing zones as those on the home front.” Manchester’s fellow marine E. B. Sledge thoughtfully and responsibly invokes the terms drastically and totally to underline the differences in experience between front and rear, and not even the far rear, but the close rear. “Our code of conduct toward the enemy,” he notes, “differed drastically from that prevailing back at the division CP.” (He’s describing gold-tooth extraction from still-living Japanese.) Again he writes: “We existed in an environment totally incomprehensible to men behind the lines…,” even, he would insist, to men as intelligent and sensitive as Glenn Gray, who missed seeing with his own eyes Sledge’s marine friends sliding under fire down a shell-pocked ridge slimy with mud and liquid dysentery shit into the maggoty Japanese and USMC corpses at the bottom, vomiting as the maggots burrowed into their own foul clothing. “We didn’t talk about such things,” says Sledge. “They were too horrible and obscene even for hardened veterans…. Nor do authors normally write about such vileness; unless they have seen it with their own eyes, it is too preposterous to think that men could actually live and fight for days and nights on end under such terrible conditions and not be driven insane.” And Sledge has added a comment on such experience and the insulation provided by even a short distance: “Often people just behind our rifle companies couldn’t understand what we knew.” Glenn Gray was not in a rifle company, or even just behind one. “When the news of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki came,” he asks us to believe, “many an American soldier felt shocked and ashamed.” Shocked, OK, but why ashamed? Because we’d destroyed civilians? We’d been doing that for years, in raids on Hamburg and Berlin and Cologne and Frankfurt and Mannheim and Dresden, and Tokyo, and besides, the two A-bombs wiped out 10,000 Japanese troops, not often thought of now, John Hersey’s kindly physicians and Jesuit priests being more touching. If around division headquarters some of the people Gray talked to felt ashamed, down in the rifle companies no one did, despite Gray’s assertions. “The combat soldier,” he says,

knew better than did Americans at home what those bombs meant in suffering and injustice. The man of conscience realized intuitively that the vast majority of Japanese in both cities were no more, if no less, guilty of the war than were his own parents, sisters, or brothers.

I find this canting nonsense. The purpose of the bombs was not to “punish” people but to stop the war. To intensify the shame Gray insists we feel, he seems willing to fiddle the facts. The Hiroshima bomb, he says, was dropped “without any warning.” But actually, two days before, 720,000 leaflets were dropped on the city urging everyone to get out and indicating that the place was going to be (as the Potsdam Declaration had promised) obliterated. Of course few left.

Experience whispers that the pity is not that we used the bomb to end the Japanese war but that it wasn’t ready in time to end the German one.

Dune does neither

Monday, February 11th, 2019

T. Greer recently mentioned Professor Brian Smith’s syllabus for POLS 334-01, The Politics of Science Fiction, which lists these books as required reading:

Iain M. Banks, The Player of Games, Orbit Books, ISBN: 0316005401
Orson Scott Card, Ender’s Game, Tor Books, ISBN: 0812550706
J. Glenn Gray, The Warriors: Reflections on Men in Battle, University of Nebraska Press (Bison Books), ISBN: 0803270763
F.A. Hayek, Law, Legislation, and Liberty, Volume I: Rules and Order, University of Chicago Press, ISBN: 0226320863
Robert Heinlein, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Orb Books, ISBN: 0312863551
Frank Herbert, Dune, Ace Books, ISBN: 0441172717
Ursula LeGuin, The Dispossessed, Harper Classics, ISBN: 006051275X
C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, Harper Collins, ISBN: 0060652942
James Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed, Yale University Press, ISBN: 0300078153

Smith also requires students to read the prologue to Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra and sections 125-169 in The Gay Science (or The Joyful Wisdom).

Smith’s discussion questions often pit one text against another:

  • What hope does Nietzsche place in the coming of the Overman? What obstacles does Nietzsche suggest stand in the way of the change the Overman might bring to the world?
  • Consider the links between the Bene Gesserit plan to create the Kwisatz Haderach described in the Appendix and Nietzsche’s ideal of the Overman.
  • How do the Mentats and the Bene Gesserit appear to differ in their quest for human perfection? Why does the emergence of hierarchies based on the cultivation of extreme human talent lead back to the sort of aristocracy this novel depicts?
  • Why does it matter to Lewis that the authors of The Green Book undermine the idea that moral judgments reflect reason and emotion? What political importance does he think this has? Is Thufir Hawat an example of the sort of “chestless” person Lewis describes in the chapter?
  • How might someone following the literary and moral sensibility that Lewis fears might take root read the events of the novel to this point? The Harkonnen plot relies on the exploitation of the Atreides’ characters as much or more than it does on brute force. In what ways does their understanding rely on an understanding of the virtues Lewis suggests we need?
  • Consider Lewis’ arguments about what leads human beings to sacrifice themselves for a cause. How does this relate to the Fremen? To what degree have the Bene Gesserit and others in the novel embraced the quest for mastery Lewis describes near the end of the chapter?
  • What are the major moral features of Fremen society?
  • How does the Bene Gesserit plot to manipulate religion explain the Fremen response to Paul and Jessica?
  • What does it suggest to you that the Bene Gesserit never really articulated a reason they wanted to create the Kwisatz Haderach?
  • Lewis argues that efforts to “see through” first principles actually result in less understanding of our world than analyses that presuppose the existence of a natural law. Does this help us understand the Harkonnen’s myriad failures throughout the book in any way?
  • To what degree does Paul Muad’dib transcend the efforts of others to control him? In what significant ways do Lewis’ warnings about danger of scientific control over human life resonate in the novel? How does this seemingly differ from Herbert’s intent in writing?

I didn’t take to Dune initially, but it really stuck with me. T. Greer is not a fan:

Just don’t think Dune is that interesting in the questions it poses or deep in the answers it hints at. Really good science fiction tends to excel in the 1st; enduring literature excels in the last. Dune does neither.

Keeping someone in solitary for more than 15 days constitutes torture

Friday, February 8th, 2019

Professional gambler Rich Alati took an unusual bet:

On 10 September last year, the American was sitting at a poker table at the Bellagio in Las Vegas, when he was asked a question by a fellow professional player, Rory Young: how much would it take for him to spend time in complete isolation, with no light, for 30 days? An hour later a price had been agreed: $100,000.

Young would hand over the money if Alati could last 30 days in a soundproofed bathroom with no light. He would be delivered food from a local restaurant, but the meals would come at irregular intervals to prevent him from keeping track of time. There would be no TV, radio, phone or access to the outside world but he would be allowed some comforts: a yoga mat, resistance band, massage ball, and, appropriately for a bathroom, lavender essential oils as well as a sugar and salt scrub. If Alati failed he would have to pay Young $100,000.

[...]

Dr Michael Munro, a psychologist Young consulted before agreeing to the bet, told Young: “Even if he lasts for 30 days, it will be extremely taxing on his mental health for the short and potentially long term.”

There’s good reason for such caution. Solitary confinement is often used as punishment, most notably in the United States, where inmates in solitary are isolated in their cells 23 hours a day. The United Nations’ Nelson Mandela Rules state that keeping someone in solitary for more than 15 days constitutes torture.

[...]

But Alati was confident. He had practiced meditation and yoga, and was certain his experiences at silent retreats would help him. On 21 November, a crowd of families and friends gathered at the house where the challenge would take place. Alati and Young’s lawyers were there as well as cameramen from a production company interested in buying television rights to the story. For that reason, as well as safety, the entire bet would be recorded. Alati’s father was given the power to pull Alati out at any time should he show signs of not being “in the right headspace,” as Alati puts it.

[...]

Around the 10-day mark, Young started to worry that Alati might make the 30 days, noting he looked “totally fine”. He worried he had miscalculated: Young hadn’t known Alati – a gregarious, fast talker – for long before they had made the bet. “His personality did not reflect that of someone who was proficient with meditation,” Young said.

On day 15, Young’s voice came on over the loudspeaker. Alati jumped out of bed, happy to hear a voice that wasn’t his own. Young told Alati that he had been in for around two weeks and that he had an offer for him: Alati could leave if he paid out $50,000.

[...]

Alati waited for a few days until Young came back on the loudspeaker and asked if he had any offers of his own. Alati said he wouldn’t come out for less than $75,000, to which Young countered with an offer of $40,000. They settled on $62,400. Alati had had been in the silence and dark for 20 days.

The Complexity of the World repeatedly makes fools of them

Thursday, February 7th, 2019

Bryan Caplan is a fan of dystopian fiction, but he had overlooked Henry Hazlitt’s The Great Idea (subsequently republished as Time Will Run Back) until last December, because he had feared a long-winded, clunky version of Economics in One Lesson — but he gave it a chance, and his gamble paid off:

I read the whole thing (almost 400 pages) on a red-eye flight – feeling wide awake the whole way.

The book’s premise: Centuries hence, mankind groans under a world Communist government centered in Moscow. People live in Stalinist fear and penury. Censorship is so extreme that virtually all pre-revolutionary writings have been destroyed; even Marx has been censored, to prevent anyone from reverse engineering whatever “capitalism” was. However, due to a marital dispute, Peter Uldanov, the dictator’s son, was raised in an island paradise, free of both the horrors and the rationalizations of his dystopian society. When the dictator nears death, he brings Peter to Moscow and appoints him his heir. The well-meaning but naive Peter is instantly horrified by Communism, and sets out to fix it. In time, he rediscovers free-market economics, and sets the world to right.

Yes, this sounds trite to me, too. But Hazlitt is a master of pacing. It takes almost 200 pages before any of Peter’s reforms start to work. Until then, it’s one false start after another, because so many of the seemingly dysfunctional policies of the Stalinist society are remedies for other dysfunctional policies.

[...]

In most literary dialogues, at least one of the characters has the answers. (“Yes, Socrates, you are quite right!”) What’s novel about Hazlitt’s dialogues is that all the characters are deeply confused. Even when they sound reasonable, the Complexity of the World repeatedly makes fools of them.

The Great Idea was originally published in 1951. Stalin was still alive.