The Final Word on American History

To all the fearful bleating about how to teach our history, I offer the following approach. Remember, the favorite tactic of the Right, at this point in history, is to run down the clock with blather, then declare righteous victory (cousin of the Gish Gallop, I believe). So my approach may seem controlling, and it only works if the other party allows it. The way to pressure them to allow it, is for each step to be so obvious that arguing it is idiotic, even from their point of view.

  1. Was there an institution of slavery at the Founding? Well, sure AND WE ARE AGAINST IT.
    • You may get into a Whole Thing about Lincoln here. The point, as I said, is to waste time while shouting “Lincoln!” over and over. You could say, Yes, but the Founders. May work, may not.
  2. Okay, good. What percentage of our population was enslaved? (this is a number question, so answering it righteously is hard) About 20%. In Virginia, in 1790, about 40% of the population was enslaved Black people (see here). About 2% were free Blacks. (NOTE — you’ll find that talking about numbers at any length, say three numbers, throws some sand in the gears of righteousness).
  3. Were slaves granted freedom to worship however they chose? No. Could they pick whichever job they liked? No. Could they speak out or publish? No. Could they freely assemble? No. Could they pick whom they married? No. What do we call this kind of society? It still exists, in North Korea. Soviet Russia even resembled this. We have a name for it: Totalitarian Dictatorship. 20% of the population was being subject to Totalitarian Dictatorship. Not so cute when you put it that way.
    • You could compare slaves lots with Soviet Russians. Worse off? Insufficient data… My Old Friend would try to steer this by comparing. An effective counterargument is, Compared to What? Slaves were badly off… compared to what? Soviets were badly off… compared to what? And he would say that comparing them to each other is somehow Not Fair.
  4. What were the anti-colonialists fighting for? Um… taxes? That’s the usual answer. But also ideals! Lofty ideals. That certainly helps the image of what might otherwise seem kind of mercenary. I mean, colonists had every freedom granted British citizens, except they did not have a vote for Parliament. Arguably, they had more freedom than a British citizen in England, in that the Crown was months away by sea. My non-historian’s impression is that they were fighting for not a whole lot. Look at Canada — they did, and are doing, just fine

So, what we get is that people running, or profiting from others’ running, a Totalitarian Dictatorship were fighting a war to keep from paying taxes (if you were rich) and for High Ideals (if you were not rich; the poor always get the High Ideals while the rich get the money).

So that’s the Story of our Founding™. A whole separate and much more difficult question is how to teach this to children. My Old Friend says, correctly, that a nation’s history is supposed to be a binding story for its citizens, starting in childhood. So the question is, how much lying is OK, how much omission is OK, how much distortion of emphasis is OK? I mean, if we can lie in order to make little patriots, why not tell them that their ancestors battled Sauron in Mordor for the freedom of Middle Earth? As a story, it works.

Let’s agree that’s too far. How about a nice little White Lie? Like the rickety structure of lies that eventually led to Gone With the Wind? That has traditionally been considered an acceptable pack of lies, because it doesn’t deny the existence of the institution, it just makes declarations about things that are hard to check, like intent, attitudes, and moods. Since so little documentary evidence exists about slaves’ feelings, and none at all about the internal mental states of, well, anyone really, you can say whatever you like. And if anyone argues, you can always be indignant!

Note that it took Germany 20 years to start teaching about its shameful history. A whole generation of Nazis had to die off before the paradigm could shift, to use Kuhn-speak. To its national credit, they then did teach it, resulting in much gnashing of teeth and the (I suppose) inevitable push-back, resulting in the Alternativ für Deutschland party, a neo-Nazi party wearing an anti-immigrant fig-leaf.

More to come…

The Power of Hyperbole

I used to listen to Sam Harris’s podcast. I had admired his atheism books, at the time when teaching evolution in schools was a whole thing, and he, along with Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel Dennett were the 4 Horsemen of the New Atheism.

His podcast was interesting, until, I speculate, he interviewed Charles Murray. He was then accused of being, if not a White Supremacist himself, at least in league with them or at the very least, one of their Useful Idiots. In any event, after that, whenever he had a woman on, he would, kind of whinily, ask whether she thought he was a White Supremacist… he wasn’t, right? How could anyone think that! It became a whole thing.

Around that time, he became quite alarmed at the rise of what we now call Cancel Culture, and bemoaned that when he tweeted something a lot of people didn’t like, he’d get a lot of very negative responses (Is it being “ratioed”? Not sure about the term…). He called this a Twitter Mob, and said it was like “public defenestration.”

As I was driving to or from work and heard this, my first thought was, no it’s not. It’s nothing like public defenestration. Okay, it’s public, but you survive a Twitter flame war. You walk away. He used other comparisons, too: guillotining, lynching. And… no. It’s not like being guillotined, because that KILLS YOU. Having people call you a douchebag, unpleasant as it certainly must be, doesn’t kill you.

I became disenchanted with him, unsubscribed from the podcast.

He was using a rhetorical technique called hyperbole. Exaggeration for effect. Except, it’s also a lie. If he had said, I was so upset I wanted to die, that might be hyperbolic but still true. But using defenestration is a bit unfair to people who have been publicly defenestrated. What would they say? Wow, that was terrible; just like being the target of mean tweets. Doubt it.

During the pandemic, we have seen similar hyperbole on the part of those who don’t want to wear masks or get vaccinated, but still want to visit stores and restaurants. For them, it’s either like slavery or like the holocaust. Like that rather dim lady who sold yellow stars with “vaccinated” on them.

I never meet people like that, here in West LA, but when I read about them, I suppose they have to use hyperbole, because if they didn’t, they’d seem like idiots. If they carried signs that read, I don’t like wearing masks, they’re uncomfortable and make me sweat! Or I don’t want to get vaccinated, because my tribal affiliation makes that a difficult choice! that would be honest, but they wouldn’t seem quite as heroic.

If I ever meet one of these people, and my family is not around, I would go up to them and say, I understand you’re upset, but whatever the thing is like, it’s not like slavery or the holocaust. Rather, it’s like something you don’t want to do for reasons that have more to do with tribalism than anything else. Put that on your sign.

American History for Dummies

I can’t say I never learned American History, but I learned it in a weird way. I went to a French school, the Lycée Français de New-York, so American History was an afterthought. In fact, one year, we learned about it in French! There were no American History textbooks (at that level) written in French, so our history teacher wrote one, and it was published by the same firm that did our yearbooks; so it was that format — oversize and floppy. I wish I still had it; what an oddity.

Also, neither of my parents were Born in the USA™. My mother was Canadian, and left Quebec City… not for Freedom in America, but for Culture in New York. And she kept her Canadian citizenship her whole life. So while I would hear about American Revolutionaries struggling for Freedom against the Tyranny of the British crown, I also heard about how Canadians did pretty well without a revolution and made themselves a really nice country, all things considered.

My father was born in Germany of Austrian Jewish parents. Because my paternal great-grandfather, Arthur Basch, got US citizenship in 1867, when he came over to sell wine to San Franciscans during the Gold Rush, my grandparents and my father were US citizens and, I suspect, not citizens of either Germany or Austria. So when they, like quite a few Jews in that part of the world, decided to go somewhere else, they came to the US. Not for Freedom — they would have been just as free in Palestine or England or Australia or any number of other places — but because that’s where Arthur had gone, because that’s where the Gold Rush was.

So I learned about American History from a remove. And yet I never questioned, or thought much about, frankly, the claims that the revolution was fought for Freedom. I never thought, but wait! What about the 20% of people here who were slaves? What about their freedom?

My old school friend CK, who studied history in college and is one of the more patriotic people I know, says that this conception of American History, due to the 1619 Project, namely that the Revolution was fought in large part to preserve the wealth produced by slavery, has the wrong context. He says that slavery was a constant through human history until the Enlightenment, and vigorously promulgated by Islam (among others). Only in the European West was it even possible to conceive of an end to slavery. So, instead of thinking of the American Revolution as a battle to preserve slavery, think of slavery in the West as a slowly crumbling institution, thanks to the necessary precondition of the Enlightenment; the institution of slavery finally collapsed, albeit with resistance, because of the Civil War. After all, among the 13 colonies, there were states that abolished slavery in ~1776; Vermont was the first. And they also fought the Revolution, though obviously not to preserve slavery, which they opposed.

Sidebar: The idea that there was no opposition to slavery except European and only after the Enlightenment may have a lot of truth. It may also be the result of our cultural preconceptions — because we didn't learn Islamic history in school, we wouldn't have learned about any Islamic abolitionists. Same for Indian or Chinese or anything else. See this handy Wikipedia page on abolition. So there may be some confirmation bias. Of course, while apparently there were Islamic abolitionists in the 17th Century, I don't know how effective they were, and they may (I guess it's obvious I don't know much about them) have been responding to the European Enlightenment. Note that the last country to outlaw slavery was Mauritania in 2007, and apparently it is still a struggle. And the last time a slave was in the White House, I believe, was when an Arab potentate visited the White House with his entourage (I think this was in the 20th century). Time and progress are neither a circle nor an arrow, but a big chaotic complicated mess.

Of course, conservative voices (whatever that even means these days) have resisted the casting of shade on the Founding Fathers with the argument that, “Be Fair! While we know better now, you can’t judge people then by our standards! Slavery was perfectly normal then!”

Of course, that argument is inconsistent with the one above about the Revolution — it is not fair to judge the slave-owning Founders by our modern standards, but how about if we judge them by contemporaneous New England standards? If states then were abolishing slavery, then slavery was hardly completely normal and not worth mentioning.

I’m (obviously, maybe?) not a historian, but I have studied human behavior (I was an actor and a playwright). As I look at the period of the founders, I detect ambivalence and cognitive dissonance. After all, our founding documents don’t mention slavery, yet they included many provisions which enabled and strengthened it, such as the 3/5ths rule or the 2nd Amendment.

That’s an interesting argument, that the 2nd Amendment was drafted to protect the rights of slave States to have militias to crush slave rebellions; Patrick Henry certainly said that. Other Founders said other things too, so the best gloss I can put on it was that crushing slave rebellions may not have been the only reason we have the right to bear arms, but it was certainly one of them. I don’t know that the people of Vermont were especially worried about Federal troops coming into Montpelier, while Georgians were certainly concerned.

And given the ambivalence I detect in the Founders’ attitudes about slavery (they didn’t want to get rid of it, but they didn’t want to explicitly acknowledge it either), I wonder if the non-slavery-crushing justifications for the 2nd Amendment were feeble post-hoc rationalizations. Maybe, maybe not; would be an interesting American History PhD project for someone.

Given all of this, it is fair to de-romanticize the Founders and the Revolution. By the standards of the time, the (slave-owning) Founders were morally repugnant slavers, and the Revolution was fought, at least in part, to preserve a police state. Gradually, states began to abolish slavery, but the remaining slave states fought fiercely for their right to impose tyranny, using the glorious Constitution as their shield and sword.

I think one can still love one’s country, though in a mature adult way — not by imposing a mythic gloss on it, so that nothing done in its name was ever bad or wrong, but in accepting its flaws and trying to remedy them. As we grow up as individuals, we sometimes learn to do that with our parents: Dad may have been a superhero when we were children, but we might learn that he cheated on Mom, that he gambled away our college fund, that maybe he slacked off at work, that he drank and hit us… there is a gamut of human frailty and even sin to which we and our parents and loved ones are subject. But we love them anyway! Same is true about ourselves — I think we can love ourselves despite our faults and flaws, and only if we do that can we make the effort to improve.

The same can be true of our hometowns, our states, our religions, our ethnic groups, or any other groups with which we feel affinity. We don’t have to find them blameless to love them. It can be a struggle: as the President of Germany once said, sometimes you can only love your country with a broken heart. I feel drawn to Israel, but not because it’s perfect or beyond criticism, even fierce criticism. NB: I’ve never been, and have no plans.

That’s all well and good for grown-ups. But how do you teach children who may not be able to process all that nuance? My friend CK says that, traditionally, history classes are taught as a way to bind children to their country and each other. I guess I see that, but I didn’t experience it myself — my history classes were all about the French Revolution and Napoleon. I didn’t feel “bound” to much at all. And yet I am proud to be an American, though I have no illusions about the terrible things it has done, starting with slavery and its treatment of indigenous peoples. Keeping that in mind (using the “yes, and” of improv, maybe the best argumentation technique ever), we can still be aware of a complex, contradictory panoply of people, characteristics, and events.

But… none of that helps the children. I think there are two possible approaches, the first hard, the second much easier.

(1) Do not deny the wickedness of the slave system and do not deny its existence: instead, emphasize the slaves’ courageous attempts to free themselves, while not ignoring the Bad White Men who moved to stop them. In other words, do not interpret them as victims requiring rescue by Good White People; the “virtuous victimhood” trope is quite as sickening as that awful actress, formerly of The Mandalorian, saying that she’s not anti-Semitic, why, if she had been in Germany in WWII, she would have used her martial arts skills to protect the “gentle Jews!” Ugh, ptui. I’d rather talk about the Warsaw Uprising. If ever there were Good Guys and Bad Guys, the Southern slaveholders must be seen as Bad Guys. Too comic-booky? We are talking about primary school, and any attempt to frame them as other than Bad Guys is sickening. You could say, well, to be fair, they were getting very rich off their slaves, so what do you expect; not a good lesson for kids. So sentimental portrayals of the antebellum South are out. Gone With the Wind? Out. Song of the South? Out. Benjamin Franklin on abolition, not just that kite business and a printer? In. Northern states that abolished slavery in the first decades of the Union? In. George Washington and securing his wife’s slaves in PA? In. Kids should not be protected from contradiction. And we should completely expunge Parson Weems‘ hagiographical fictions.

(2) Forget about it; US History can’t be taught as a binding experience, because that just propagates lies. Avoid stories and narrative entirely. Teach names, dates, places, and maps as a memorization exercise. Give no stirring tales of the wonderful Rise of Freedom, because they are not actually true and the lie is too obvious to be convincing; if you’re going to lie to your children, make it convincing at least. Also don’t tell sickening one-note horror stories. Just names/dates/places/maps. Be sure to include non-Whites, women, and the First Peoples. And don’t just focus on Great Men, also heavily weight stories of regular people.

It seems more and more obvious to me that the American Revolution fight for “freedom” was also a fight to protect the evil twin of America — the slave-owning South was a totalitarian dictatorship and police state. Its elites, yes, even those Founders who owned slaves, knew this; even as they grew rich off this system, they were influenced by the Enlightenment. So I suspect they were in the grip of a powerful cognitive dissonance, morally, and resorted to lying and dissembling, probably justifying it to themselves every step of the way. They had to find non-slavery-justifying text for every measure they took to protect slavery. We see that same tendency today, using fiscal arguments to justify denying government largesse to non-Whites.

A Theory about modern trends in the Republican party

Imagine a child of distant, busy parents, who is desperate for love and approval. What skills might this child develop? I think they would try to say and do things that make people react in an approving way. They would become very sensitive to people’s reactions to them.

If they were clever, they might learn that you can say a bunch of things quite fast, one after another, and look for reactions. When there is a positive reaction, double down on whatever statement got that reaction. If there is a negative or no reaction, just jettison that line. It’s a simple evolutionary algorithm.

Thus is born a bullshit artist and con man. That’s how we get a Trump.

I guess it’s an effective tactic to get people to have positive reactions. I think the twin skills, rapid bullshit generation coupled with hypersensitive reaction assessment, are pretty rare. A lot of Republican politicians are trying to emulate him, with varying success. I think the trend is to try to craft bullshit in private based on some kind of ideology, which only captures a piece of the art. Yes, Trump didn’t give a rat’s ass about whether what he said was “true”, but he also didn’t really care whether it was ideologically correct. His imitators have learned that lying doesn’t matter, but they are constrained by caution and by ideology, as well as by the limits of their own imagination.

And the perfect response to being called on for a lie: Outrage! How DARE you! Seems to work. Kavanaugh was a kind of field test, and now it’s used far and wide.

Final note – this is part of the skillset of a mentalist! That’s how they convince you they’re reading your mind: they say a lot of things that might be true and read your reactions. If something doesn’t get a reaction, they quickly move onto the next thing, maybe with a slight headshake, like “where did that signal from beyond come from.” If they do get a reaction, they double down and try for detail. I’ve seen mentalist acts, and it is uncanny (which is the whole idea). Naturally, people get the idea that the mentalist is “saying what I’m thinking”, and it feels intimate and moving.

It’s a neat trick.

The Perfectly Good Business (PGB)

There is such a thing as a Perfectly Good Business. It provides a Perfectly Good profit for its owners, a Perfectly Good living for its workers, a Perfectly Good product for its customers at a Perfectly Good price. It is a Perfectly Good neighbor to its community.

Obviously, the people running this PGB are total suckers. If a private equity (PE) firm sees such a business, you’d have one of those sequences from old cartoons where the PGB suddenly looks like a lollipop or a T-bone steak. Or maybe a pigeon.

I mean, if they’re providing a Perfectly Good living to its workers, clearly too much is going toward labor and those workers need to make less. If they’re unionized, the anti-union arsenal needs to be brought into play to crush the union.

If they’re providing a Perfectly Good product, there is money that can be squeezed out there. Can’t we reduce the quality? Why should it be Perfectly Good? Can’t it be made crummy, but spend some more on IP lawyers and marketing to mask that?

And, worst of all, if it’s a Perfectly Good member of its community, there’s certainly money to be made there. Why can’t it dump its waste into the groundwater, if that would save some money? After all, the people around are too poor to sue if they get cancer, and our lawyers can always twist the statistics to hide the cluster.

And all that money that comes from impoverishing the workers and denying their bargaining power, from reducing quality, from being a bad neighbor, all that new wealth and profit can go to some douchebag on Sutton Place who was clever enough to see this opening.

Lies and Belief

Lies are quick and easy, truth is slow and laborious. Lies are fun and sticky and quick, truth is complicated, counterintuitive and boring.

What is a lie? What is belief?

I think we know why people have the feeling we call “belief” — either a statement conforms to what we already believe (confirmation bias), or believing it somehow profits us (motivated thinking); we tend to believe things that are easier to remember (availability bias and the illusion-of-truth effect); we believe statements by people who resemble us (need citation); we trust and believe people whose names are easier to pronounce (need citation). We believe thing that create adherence to a group to which we belong. None of these have anything to do with a belief being what eggheads call “true.”

True, sometimes we believe statements after checking them against other statements that have passed a gantlet of tests. That’s much of science and scholarship. Nobody can know everything, so one relies on a body of credentialed individuals and an accepted body of knowledge; and we might know enough to judge whether a bit of knowledge is crazy or believable, even if we don’t understand all the details. But this is a niche definition of belief, mostly used for academics. I was going to say, for “business and academics,” since you’d think that business decisions would be driven by concern for adherence to what we like to call “facts,” but my speculation is that this is a sometime thing.

There is a belief about business that, due to the profit motive, everyone is somehow on peak performance and efficiencies are optimized. But the point isn’t to maximize to an ideal degree, but to surpass competitors. And anyone who thinks there’s not a ton of loafing and goldbricking in successful companies hasn’t worked for one. Even, maybe especially, in the C-Suite.

But anyway. There are flavors of “belief”, so when Don Jr says things about the “Democrat governor of Texas”, many people will believe that and repeat it. How many I don’t know. Would be interesting/horrifying to find out.

The power of the lie is that it is quickly made with little effort. Liars will apply a heuristic evolutionary algorithm, which is just fancy talk for come up with many lies, one after the other, with no concern for consistency, and some of them will die on the ground where they fall, and others will sprout and reproduce, like Dawkins’ memes or mustard seeds. If you only get one in a hundred or one in a thousand to take off, they are so cheap to do that this can be a successful tactic.

Telling the truth can be complicated and counter-intuitive and take energy. Telling a lie is instant and easy. See the old cliché, A lie goes around the world before the truth can put its boots on.

Just as there are people with an uncanny ability to remember and tell jokes or to tell stories in an entertaining, memorable way, there are those who are better at lying than others. Look at #45 — here is a compendium — and the various flavors of lie. Simple statements of exaggerated numbers, when few people know the real numbers. Or memorable fables of strong men weeping tears of gratitude. Compare that with Don Jr’s ham-fisted lie about the “democrat governor of Texas”.

What about the most recent Big Lie about Biden shutting off power to Texas? Where did that originate? How many people believe it? What would be actually involved in doing that?

But maybe you don’t need to be a good liar any more. Just a liar.

There is an element of religion in this acceptance of lies, as there is in the Qanon phenomenon. If you go to a religious service, and the leader of the congregation makes a statement about, say, the sea parting, it would be a serious breach of protocol to raise your hand and ask, Really? How do you know that? When the congregation is supposed to “repeat after me,” they just do; to do otherwise would be hideously disrespectful.

When I was little, my parents would send me to a friend’s house (the Kemps, if you must know) for Seders. I remember, during the ritual, asking if the story of the Exodus actually happened and everyone stopped and looked down as if I had farted. They kindly explained to me that that was not the kind of question one should ask. The question of “truth” was a rude question. Being a polite and cowardly little boy, I knew when it was time to shut up. But I didn’t understand why I had been rude for many years.

So, what does the religious right want? I mean, that it doesn’t already have…

Listening the the 538 Politics Podcast, the recent episode, What Could the GOP’s Future Look Like? Very interesting, quite right-leaning panel. One of them (I think Henry Olson) said that the clear center of the Republican Party included religious people who wanted to fight for a country where they did not feel cast out into the wilderness. They want to express their beliefs openly and in public. I paraphrase, I don’t have a transcript.

My first thought was, who’s stopping them? Anyone who wants to pray can pray, they want to tell everyone their beliefs, they can. They already have that. I suppose what they don’t have is the reaction to that that they might prefer, which is of course approbation. Not everybody will react and think, What a good person — they’re a fervent Christian, so they must be good and I’ll listen to what they have to say and (if I can get over my inner wickedness) maybe even be persuaded.

So they’re not getting the reaction they want. This is a fairly common whinge on the right (though not exclusively), where they say, What about my freedom of speech, as they’re speaking freely. What they mean is they don’t like the reaction they get to their speech, which, I emphasize, they are doing freely. The speaking I mean.

Another component is they want to feel differently. That I can’t help with. They want a country in which they feel differently… more in charge, perhaps? I would say they’re too in charge as it is. But I think that the sentiment that they want to feel less cast out is code for, they want to be more in charge and inspire subservience, if not fear, on the part of others.

I can see how a tribe held together by a belief in their ultimate victory in an eternal sphere, in which their Big Boss (God) defines morality by burning it into the very fabric of the universe, so that all those who believe differently then they are, by definition, to one degree or another, immoral. And what kind of world would it be, I ask you, if the moral did not try to impose their beliefs, by force if necessary, on the immoral? This is not a new stance. We’ve seen something like this since the dawn of religion, or with the dawn of cities, which is where this unitary punishing God took shape as a necessary adaptation to get groups greater than 150 to cooperate.

And it was a successful invention! The partisans of these religions took over in a Big Way.

So, when someone complains about not having something, and you give them the thing, and they still complain, something else is going on.

New Gear!

I updated my tablet, from a Galaxy Tab S2 to the S5e. The S2 I bought in December 2017 when I was working in Lyon, France, and my prior Android tablet, a Dell Venue, just gave up the ghost. The S2 worked well, until the battery finally died in March 2020. I replaced the battery, which turned out to be surprisingly easy. Opening up the S2 ended up being not that hard, and the battery is right there. It was taped in, but came out vey easily. The aftermarket battery was not as long-lasting as the original, and just about now, eleven months later, is going the way of the earlier one — lots of annoying spontaneous restarts, when the device is telling me there’s 25% left.

I had been wanting a larger tablet anyway. Black Friday came and went and I didn’t see anything cheap enough. Eventually, on eBay I saw that US Cellular was getting rid of pre-owned tablets. I got one that they classified as Excellent condition, and it really is flawless.

Around that time, my newly-minted son-in-law gave me a carry pouch with the Curaleaf logo. It just fits the tablet, along with a second pocket for additional gear. I felt I needed a little keyboard… and got a Plugable keyboard. I love Plugable products, and this is just as solid and well-made as their other products. It comes in a little case that also serves as a tablet stand. Elegant! It is just on the edge of fitting in the pouch, but does (and obviates the need for a dedicated tablet stand). So I have room for a cleaning cloth and my Google Buds.

I’m on the keyboard right now. Sweet setup. Now if only I could go to Alanna’s Coffee and sit there typing… Maybe soon. My 65th birthday is May 11, and with any luck I’ll have an appointment for a vacccine on May 12.

Stay safe!


Deepfake Mythology

Yes, impeachment has become cheap. I think the Clinton impeachment set the tone. Mind you, he was a cretin, but still.

There’s an interesting trend in science fiction having to do with super-intelligence… in humans, not machines. The template was a wonderful novella (or novelette, no idea, not looking it up) called Understand. Highly recommended. His approach became the standard for movies like Limitless.

The premise is there’s a drug which increases the dendritic density of the brain. Blah blah blah. The end result is hyperintelligence.

In some of these stories, they end up running for office. Maybe that’s what we need. Someone who can play five moves ahead of everyone in the country.

But until then, anti-trust on FB. Break up the social media universe into many small bits. I believe that government needs a balance of anti-trust and regulation. You can have either one very heavily and the other light, or you can do both. I think that’s what it needs. It’s bad to do neither.

Also some kind of thought given to algorithm control. Same problem with facial recognition or any of those algorithmically driven businesses. One approach is to deny proprietary rights, like patents (I’m sure I’m using the words wrong) to algorithms. If they were totally open, we could break them apart and look inside… or pay someone to, anyway. We have as little insight into algorithms as we do into biology, which is why both of those things are lousy areas for Free Markets. You can’t have a free market if the thing being marketed is incomprehensible.

That’s why Hayek needed to come up with a Wisdom of Crowds philosophy. He knew that markets fail when the buyer is ignorant. So he figured out how the buyer wasn’t ignorant… in the aggregate.

Of course, I’m not an aggregate, I’m just me, so I’m fucked when shopping for medical care. Or algorithms.

Even if one buys the Wisdom of Crowds argument, which is perfectly good for things of which people have some understanding, like how many jelly beans are in that jar, it is also true that Crowds are cretinous. They can adopt a falsehood as quickly and easily as anything else. In fact, what a Crowd believes has more to do with how “sticky” the narrative is than with how “true” it is. Boring truths but exciting lies, is what drives the world.

Due to FB’s recent changes in its algorithm, someone can put out some crazy shit, get 10k followers or likes or whatever, right away. If they just did it for kicks and didn’t really believe it before, they believe it now. And they evangelize. Stickiest ideas win.

[Side Note: I believe Qanon started this way, by evolutionary algorithms. Plug in a few thousand notions into FB in robotically generated accounts, they get tried out and stickier ones proliferate. Less sticky one die out and are never heard of again. It’s like a deepfake mythology. If there’s a takeway from this whole email, it’s those words.]

As you know, our memories are faulty. We believe things that didn’t happen, remember things that we never saw. Our mind is a fucking mess, but perfectly functional on a day to day level.

You can’t sell a political platform on a premise of, You don’t know how to think right, people are taking advantage of that, we want to protect you. That would just be insulting.
So we need a government that is, to a degree, paternalistic, much like Behavioral Economics was, sort of. When Medicare Part D was set up, under Bush II, it gave citizens a choice of plans. It was totally clear which plans were better for whom, but we were given choices. Which choice would be first on the list? It’s well known that people preferentially pick the top choice. It would have been easy and fair and right to put the best choice first, but let people pick another one. Instead, the Bush II administration decided they should make it random. So, picking the way people are known to pick, most people would pick the wrong program for themselves. They couldn’t possibly be “educated consumers” unless they had medical degrees. And “experts”, those foul creatures, were not allowed to help; they were thwarted. It’s just not fair.

The Magic of Illusion!

We all think that what we experience during our waking hours is the World. This is called naive realism. I could link to Wikipedia for this, but I’ll let Googling be an exercise for the reader.

The gist is we see stuff, we think stuff, we don’t ask too many questions. In some corner cases, such as hallucinations, we may have good reason to question what we see, hear, and think. Other than that, it’s taken as given, and it works pretty well. We see a crack in the sidewalk, we avoid it because we might trip and hurt ourselves. We look at our plate and decide what we want to eat.

Our thoughts do interfere with our perceptions of things. We stereotype people and may see them in different ways depending on our preconceptions. We may cross the street to avoid a scary empty house, and have no good reason to do that but have a feeling in our gut. The house is just a house, but we have a network of thoughts and memories having to do with empty houses, with childhood stories, with imagining who might be in it, even if we don’t see anything.

That’s one level where our perception is not purely seeing and dealing with the fact of the material world in front of us, but is brightly colored and lit by our thoughts that might be completely wrong or inapt to the situation.

There are scientists (here’s a link to an interesting presentation) who go further, and say that what we are not actually perceiving the world with our senses directly at all, but it all gets processed by our brain’s operating system, and that what we experience in our conscious minds is an artifact of that operating system. That it has much less to do with the actual world than we’d like to think.

Important note—None of this has anything to do with intelligence. You could have the most impressive ability to process data, to retain information, and also have your perceptions heavily colored by your mental life. Someone might be a brilliant and very successful businessman or lawyer and yet see the world through a scrim of illusion. They may see numbers on a spreadsheet with perfect accuracy, but see the reality behind those numbers in a way very different from someone else.

It is a truism that a lawyer’s job is to tell a story. They have many facts in front of them and, like a Tarot card reader, make up a story incorporating all the facts. If the story has narrative juice, that makes it compelling. Does it have a hero with believable motivations? Are the obstacles facing them shown in the evidence? Is there a satisfying resolution? All these make a story sticky where a list of facts would be nearly impossible to remember.

How do you remember the alphabet if you’re in pre-school? You sing it. A pattern of notes is imposed on it, you find rhymes, and that makes it memorizable. So the lawyer who crafts the better story wins the case. They may have to run the facts through a process like an audio equalizer, where you adjust all the various tones and pitches until you get just the sound you want. Anyone who has ever participated in a story-telling event, like The Moth, knows this process. Life doesn’t often present us with great stories. A story is a synthetic thing, crafted out of events in order to produce the desired effect in an audience. Great storytellers may do this intuitively; the rest of us work hard at it, with mixed effect. I’ve been to, and told stories at, a number of Moth events, and it is remarkable how some people—people with the most ordinary lives—manage to tell amazingly wonderful stories. And there are plenty of examples of people who have lived through amazing events, can only tell fairly boring stories about them.

This process of telling stories, and of running the facts of life through an equalizer in order to produce memorable stories, happens all the time in our brain. As we exist and move through our days, we hear a narrative in our head. That phenomenon is called the Left-Brain Interpreter (LBI). Here’s an article I could understand, and I’m no neuro-anything. Our LBI produces post-hoc rationalizations for our instinctive actions, and we seize on that narration as the “reason” we did something. I think we kid ourselves if we think that reason is at all real. Actually, I think consciousness is, if not a complete and total illusion, than an intermittent thing, only sparking up every once in a while, and when it is alive, feeding us lies.

I believe that what we do when we meditate is to quiet down the jabbering of our LBI and make an attempt (however feeble!) to perceive as best we can without mediation. Of course, what we might be perceiving (see above) is artifacts generated by our brain’s operating system, but still, the mental state we labor to invoke via meditation may be the closest we can get.

Okay, why is this interesting? Aside from, consciousness and thoughts and human behavior are interesting.

My prior post was about Kenin Spivak’s letter to Columbia Magazine. It caught my eye because he graduated from the same school (Columbia College) in the same year (1977) that I did. I didn’t know him—he graduated in three years (I took the usual four), he was pre-law (I was Physics with some Medieval Studies courses and a lot of theater), and he did law school and business school in three years, simultaneously (I think this was an actual program, so maybe not quite the miracle I thought at first… still, pretty impressive!).

So, you know, smart. Driven. Energetic. Ambitious. And smart, very very smart.

Yet this letter is borderline loony. See my previous post for details. And it made me wonder what’s going on in his head?

Here’s my thinking. He was, apparently, conservative back in 1977-80 in Law School. So he didn’t come to it as an adult. He is at home in that world. Friends, family, colleagues presumably. He (I’m guessing here but he does live in Beverly Hills) plays golf with conservatives. They smoke cigars and drink fantastic single-malt whisky at lavish private clubs (I’m not criticizing! Anytime they want to invite me I’ll go and have a whiskey and cigar with them… after I get my COVID vaccination).

Now let’s zoom out for a panoramic view. There was a time when Democrats had a firm hold on Congress, by historical alliance with racist Dixiecrats in the South. Then came LBJ and Civil Rights legislation and those Dixiecrats got angry. Republicans (Nixon) saw an opening and took it. Those Dixiecrats became Republican, and that created what we now see as the 50/50 government. It also removed any incentive for Republicans to cooperate with Democrats, which they used to do, and which older Democrats (Biden) recall as the good old days when you could reach across the aisle and get things done.

It doesn’t take a degree in game theory to see how that was no longer a necessary strategy for Republicans in Congress. Now that they could win more elections and take over Congress, thanks to their co-opting of the Southern vote, incentive to cooperate vanished like the snows of yesteryear. That cooperation Biden remembers fondly was not due to some wonderful nostalgic comity, but rather it was their only route to getting anything they wanted. Now they have another, better route, they’re taking it. Perfectly reasonable.

But there were other potential voters on the table. For starters, there were Black voters, Hispanic voters, women, young people. These had traditionally been low-turnout voters, but natural Democratic constituents. Obama’s election turned out many who had no or sporadic history of voting. This gave an edge, a small one and maybe one totally dependent on Obama, to Democrats.

But they, it seems were not the only voters available. There were the famous Working-Class White voters. Not to mention disaffected groups who never saw the Government doing anything that benefited them (even, of course, as they and their parents received Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, VA benefits… well, never mind) because there were people out there they didn’t like and the Government wasn’t doing anything about that! And the American myth of the majestic individual has a powerful draw.

Among those disaffected groups were the classic American Racists—John Birchers, Klansfolk, neo-Nazis, and all their brethren and sistern.

Now, here’s a puzzler—If you’re an old-line Republican, devoted to the cult of the Tax Cut and lower regulation and the myth that your contract with your workers is an agreement reached by equals after a fair negotiation, and suddenly you look to your left and your right and you see Nazis and Klansmen, what do you do?

You could jump up in horror and say, This isn’t for me anymore. Any club that would have these monsters isn’t a club I want to be in! But it’s hard—all your friends and family are still there, and there’s a tremendous social cost to leaving the tribe. We see this with young people who leave the Satmar Hasidic sect. They lose everything and they’re barely trained to deal with the modern world.

So you don’t leave. What else can you do? You can fight to exclude them. That’s hard, too, because now you depend on their votes. And the longer you do nothing, the harder it is to do anything. After all, why did you tolerate them for so long?

You could just ignore them. Whatever…

But if you’re a thinking person, that’s hard too. So you make excuses. You put them through your Mental Equalizer. You tweak them subtly so they’re just harmless clowns. If one of them is actually violent, well, they’re mentally ill.

You also need to balance it out. After all, if all the horrible people are on your side, what does that say about you? So if you don’t fight to get rid of them and you don’t ignore them, you need equally terrible people on the other side so you can engage in whataboutism and distraction.

It’s about turning beams into motes and motes into beams, basically.

If you’re on the right, and sitting with Nazis, who can you point to on the Left? Don’t ask me, I don’t know. But if you’re Kenin Spivak, esq., it’s “anarchists.” I find this a particularly inapt scare term, because Republicans also consider Democrats the party of Big Government. Anarchists, of course, want to do away with government altogether, at least if you go by the name. But you have to find a scary enough word. I would have thought Communists would do it, because I suppose there are actual Communists out there in the wild, but they want nothing to do with Democrats either. So he says the Democrats “appease” anarchists.

It’s very weird. On the other hand, he’s a storyteller, though not a great one. He has credit for co-writing a book, a thriller (fictional) about, I believe, Canadian pharma being sent to the US? Something like that… I believe (I haven’t read it, I did read a couple of reviews) it was intended to scare people away from cheaper Canadian pharmacies and rely instead on the wildly overpriced American drugs. Anyway, I never heard of it until I looked it up.

I actually believe that he believes, on some level, in scary anarchists who want to destroy the nuclear family, rather than just people who have alternative family structures and don’t want to be denigrated or denied benefits available to other, more standard, families.

Or maybe it’s not a firm belief but a narrative that he has found useful at the Beverly Hills Country Club bar. I don’t know, I’ve never met him. I hope to, one day, and have a cigar and a whiskey while we talk about Alma Mater. And scary anarchists.