a response to “the dark side of the enlightenment”

I have seen more than a few people praise this piece, by Yoram Hazony, as having had some influence on them. So I figured I would respond to it.

The first sentence of Hazony’s piece betrays his biases. He says, “A lot of people are selling Enlightenment these days.” The use of the term “selling” here is a slight of hand, meant to convey both literal and metaphorical truth. It’s literally true that books about the Enlightenment are being sold. But more importantly, it’s metaphorically true that people don’t like being “taken in” by salespeople. Without saying anything at all, Hazony already has his readers primed for where he wants them: skeptical of those enlightenment hucksters.

Pinker addresses this form of criticism during his overview of the “negativity bias”, which psychologists have demonstrated we’re all prone towards, including Hazony. He discusses how pessimists are generally viewed as “trying to help” and having “moral seriousness”, while optimists are compared to “people trying to sell you something”. So it seems almost as though Pinker was prescient of the criticism that would eventually be thrown his way.

Much of the rest of Hazony’s piece is a strawman of Pinker’s position. For example, Hazony takes issue with Kant’s definition of reason as “universal, infallible and a priori” or “independent of experience”, but Pinker doesn’t ask us to believe in progress based on reason alone, his entire book is a masterpiece of empiricism.

He makes a case based on the data so far, and he “forecasts” rather than “prophesies” that we may see more improvements ahead if we continue employing the very same methods that have gotten us to this point. But Pinker also concedes that such progress may not come, because, “For now, we should keep in mind that a positive trend suggests (but does not prove) that we have been doing something right, and that we should seek to identify what it is and do more of it.”

Pinker’s tome is not a dogmatic embrace of any one enlightenment philosopher’s viewpoint, and so Pinker’s views should be taken up on their own terms. He recognizes that while the enlightenment made great contributions, it was hardly composed of perfect people.

He says, “The Enlightenment thinkers were all men and women of their age, the 18th century. Some were racists, sexists, anti-Semites, slaveholders, or Duelists. Some of the questions they worried about are almost incomprehensible to us, and they came up with plenty of daffy ideas together with brilliant ones. Or to the point, they were born too soon to appreciate some of the keystones of our modern understanding of reality.”

Which is why when Hazony dismisses Pinker’s embrace of skepticism as a “paradigm of how to achieve reliable knowledge” by pointing out that some Enlightenment thinkers were as “rigid as the most dogmatic medievals”, he’s missing the forest for the trees. There’s variation in personality in every group, including enlightenment thinkers. So what? The point is that when Pinker refers to “enlightenment thought”, and embraces incrementalism over revolutionary change, and the scientific method over magical thinking, he is arguing for the antithesis of what Harzony is criticizing, which makes me wonder if Harzony read the book.

Harzony attempts to round out his piece by making some empirical claims of his own. He blames the breakdown of the family on enlightenment thinking, but he fails to explain what that means. It’s a hollow statement that’s emotionally compelling but empirically empty. He ignores the fact that stasis comes with consequences too, and that traditionalism for traditionalism’s sake cannot solve novel problems. He chastises the Elites for having contempt for the people, as if this is anything new and at all undermine’s Pinker’s argument.

He points out that many “reasonable” ideas and practices preceded the enlightenment, but then ignores the REASON-ableness of the ideas, implying that they are a product of traditionalism and non-enlightenment thinking (Kant did not invent reason, he critiqued it).

It doesn’t matter that Newton was religious, when he formulated the laws of motion and universal gravitation, he did so using the principles of science and reason. He did not come to the conclusion that he can fly, simply because a dream told him that the force pulling him down was but a fiction of his imagination.

Hazony concludes with a logical fallacy, the false dilemma. He says, “You can’t have both Enlightenment and skepticism. You have to choose.” Hazony is confused. There is no skepticism if there is nothing to be skeptical of. What an odd hill to die on.


on writing well

In all my reading and writing, I have found that there are often tradeoffs between writing stylishly, which emphasizes the aesthetic; writing clearly, which emphasizes understanding; and writing substantively, which emphasizes depth. For example, the more one thinks about what they are trying to say, the less time they have to think about how they are trying to say it–and vice versa–even if momentarily.

Granted, some people are so naturally gifted that even when they are focusing on one or the other, aspects of all three shine through.  But this is just because natural talent varies in the population, and we all have a base level of ability, or knack, in each area that flows through us effortlessly; or not at all.  But eventually, one must decide to focus on one of them, two of them, or all three, and this is where the tradeoffs begin.  The less proficiency one has in a given area, the more time one must focus there versus the others to bring it up to par.

Poor writers who try to bite off more than they can chew will end up spitting out sloppy word salads that are confusing and shallow. Only the most eloquent writers excel at them all, because they are blessed with the faculties that allow them to minimize the tradeoffs. When the tradeoffs are small (i.e. high base level talent), prodigious writers are able to both articulate a thought (clarity plus substance) and say it with style.

But the good news is that you don’t have to win a triathlon when all you’re trying to do is learn to swim. You can specialize in one or two. If you’re a postmodern or highly esoteric writer, and perhaps get your inspiration from Deleuze, who once wrote, “singularities-events correspond to heterogeneous series which are organized into a system which is neither stable nor unstable”, you might focus on style at the expense of clarity and substance, and to my chagrin, there’s a market for this.  But to each her own.

If you’re a How-To writer, you might focus on clarity, with an emphasis on conveying basic information or instructions. And there’s a vast market for this in the world of self-help. But if you’re a substantive writer, you might want to convey something deeper than basic information, and this is the realm of the novel, longform journalism, science, and philosophy.

It is the realm of Nietzsche and his aphorisms, such as “He who fights with monsters might take care lest he also become a monster”; or perhaps Anne Frank, whose diary has brought tears to the eyes of millions as they imagine what it was like to write, “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world” cooped up in an attic, hiding from an evil that would just assume you dead than know your thoughts.

Obviously, reasonable minds will disagree about where, for example, clarity ends and style begins. Some may find my quote from Deleuze meaningful. Others, such as Alan Socal, may prefer to call him an “intellectual imposture”. And maybe Judith Butler is both eloquent and easy to understand for some people, even if much of her ideas are beyond comprehension for the average person. Alas, one man’s substance is another man’s pseudo-intellectual garbage heap. But the categories–style, clarity and substance–are real, and on some level, it’s up to both the writer and her readers to interpret where they begin and end.

Of course, there is always the question of whether what one has to say is worth writing at all.  And perhaps this area here is the fourth element of writing well.  But supposing it is, which of course is subjective, it’s worth considering that not all writing requires a Dostoyevsky level of effort.  Sometimes clarity is all that is needed.  Sometimes substance.  Sometimes, clarity plus substance, where the focus is on conveying something deep so that even a 5-year-old will understand.  But with that knowledge, and given the low cost of entry into the market of ideas, why not write more?


does islam cause violence? lol yes – haven’t you seen?

The question of whether Islam causes violence is a complicated one, because so many of the reasons for why human beings engage in violence emanate via shared universal tendencies. In fact, more often than not, we share such tendencies not only with our fellow human beings but also with our extended primate cousins.

EO Wilson, the founder of Sociobiology, remarked how many of such violent tendencies are context dependent and probabilistic. Hence, we can go from subdued and peaceful to bloodthirsty maniacs in a very short period of time so long as the right buttons are pushed, but even if the right buttons are pushed, it doesn’t mean that we absolutely will flip out, it just means that in such a context we would be more prone to flipping out.

For me, I am prone to violent outbursts when people cut me off in traffic, but I’ve never actually been caught up in a violent conflict because of it. Furthermore, on some occasions I don’t flip out, but my prefrontal cortex prevails over my amygdala and I stay calm, cool and collected. In other words, different parts of my brain battle it out and my ultimate behavior is the manifestation of which part wins. In cases where I flip out, violent conflict is more likely than in cases where I don’t (I’m not too worried that violence will ever happen, but it is more likely in when my middle finger is waving out the window).

So as it pertains to violence and Islam, the question is complicated by the fact that there are shared tendencies towards violence in all human groups, and by the fact that other variables matter too, such as group differences in behavior that exist apart from belief, political environment, proximity to mountains (which apparently increases the odds for conflict), culture, etc. But due to our shared tendencies, humans act according to somewhat predictable patterns of behavior depending on circumstances. I say “somewhat predictable” because the patterns of behavior are probabilistic, but still, under similar circumstances, Muslims, Christians and Jains will all act in similar ways.

But to me there is a difference between acknowledging this and engaging in a form of denialism that pretends as though belief has no bearing on behavior. This can’t possibly be the case, because human beings act in accordance with belief every day. If you see a giant chasm and you believe what you see, you walk around it (hopefully). So our behavior is not random and uncorrelated with what we say we believe. Instead, we tend to behave in accordance with how we see the world. Hence, imams will be imams, priests will be priests, and monks will be monks, day in and day out.

When it comes to overarching sets of beliefs, such as ideologies and/or religions, it seems likely to me that belief functions in the same way, such that they result in behavioral tendencies that are correlated with the belief. On some occasions, belief x might manifest in behavior y (peace), while on other occasions, belief x might manifest in behavior z (violence). But there are probably tendencies toward one manifestation over another, such that, even under similar circumstances, the Muslims will be Muslims, the Christians will be Christians, and the Jains will be Jains. The differences in how the groups manifest will often, though not always, come down to belief. The question as to whether one doctrine is prone to more violence than others, then, is a valid one that we should take seriously.

dispatches from hell (America/The West)

A terror attack in Edmonton.  A knife attack in Marseille.  Meanwhile, the Tennessee church shooter was a native of Sudan.

Most human violence is carried out between members of the same group. Hence, “black on black crime” is often trotted out in the US as if it means something, even though most white crime is white on white crime and most Asian crime is Asian on Asian crime, etc.

Intergroup violence is special in that it signifies that tensions between populations are growing and intergroup harmony is breaking down. The long term consequences of an erosion of ethnic relations within a largely diverse area can be corrosive to the general health and well being of civil society.

We should pay attention to these little flash points of ethnic violence boiling over in small towns and cities across the West as signifying the possible collapse of the traditional Western ideal of “diversity is our strength.” Perhaps diversity can be a strength, but diversity can also be a weakness in that it leads to a dissolution of social trust.

If we want to have maximal diversity in the west, then it would behoove us to understand when and where and why it sometimes doesn’t lead to the good things we believe are its inevitable byproducts. That or let’s just continue doing the same things and singing carefree, happy tunes and being carefree, happy souls.

on rights and monuments

When I was in college I wrote a paper on the controversial Georgia State Flag, which at the time included a portion of the Confederate Battle Flag. Since I was attending the University of Georgia, I was right in the thick of the debate, and was familiar with the arguments that such a symbol was more about southern history than slavery.

However, my position in the paper was that state symbols should represent all people, and because the Confederate Battle Flag was also a symbol of slavery, I argued that It failed to represent all Georgians, and thus should be removed. My position was bolstered by the fact that the St Andrews Cross was added during the 1950’s, as a protest to desegregation and the Civil Rights Movement.

The state finally did the right thing and updated the flag in 2003. History was not erased because the old flag still lives on in museums, history books, and bumper stickers. There is no censorship or strictures against speaking about or displaying the old flag. History is alive and well.

Since that time, controversy over divisive art and symbols has only grown in fervor, and my position has remained mostly sympathetic to, if not overtly supportive of, movements who seek more inclusive imagery on our public lands. When it is difficult to remove divisive symbols (such as due to structural reasons), particularly ones rooted in slavery and the insubordination of blacks and Native Americans, I have supported solutions that balance things out by including historical footnotes, or diversifying the art on display.

However, I do not support movements who seek to use threats of violence or intimidation against private individuals or organizations who display controversial art, such as what is currently happening at Seattle’s Lakeview Cemetery (just down the street from me), where a confederate memorial exists. The cemetery is currently closed through the weekend due to death threats.

Today the Mayor of Seattle issued a statement calling for both the removal of the memorial as well as a Lenin statue on display in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood. No mention is made of the rights of the individual to free speech and to be free from violence or harassment. In spite of the fact that both sit on private property, the Mayor thought it was his powerless duty to command that they be removed, and thus to further contribute to the erosion of free speech norms.

While everyone is welcome to protest or critique the public display of divisive statues, monuments or other imagery, the right to display them is guaranteed by the 1st Amendment of the United States Constitution, and the protection of that right is sacred. Public officials have no place in the debate over what 1st Amendment protected behavior a private individual engages in on his or her own property.

Furthermore, using threats of violence and intimidation are hostile to the 1st Amendment, and even if coming from private citizens, such behavior is a direct violation of the sacred rights of the individual. When the sacred rights of individuals are eroded, either through state action or mob mentality, injustice occurs and the marginalized are the first to lose. This is all very ironic considering that many of the groups protesting this memorial are presumably aware of the importance of freedom of speech to the protection of the oppressed. But then again, maybe not.

Additionally, because the United States is a diverse country, people will often disagree on the meaning behind certain symbols. Oftentimes, those against the symbols will have their reasons why they are racist or derogatory, while those who display the symbols will have their reasons why they aren’t. Rarely do both sides agree that a symbol represents injustice or atrocious behavior. In those rare cases, such as the display of a Nazi Swastika, the groups who engage in the behavior are publicly shunned. No infringement of sacred rights is necessary.

But somewhere between the Swastika and Statues of Abraham Lincoln, there lies statues of Vladimir Lenin and memorials to the confederacy. Like the Swastika, many people find them to be highly offensive, and would prefer not to have to look at them at all. Unlike the Swastika, a large number of Americans embrace them both for historical, sentimental or aesthetic reasons that have nothing to do with a stated moral support for injustice such as slavery or totalitarianism. Even if these folks are wrong about what those symbols represent, the point is that being wrong is their 1st Amendment Right.

The best way to settle such disputes is by protecting the rights of individuals to display controversial imagery or art. The most powerful aspect of the 1st Amendment is the right to respond by non-violently airing your grievance in public and/or by erecting your own statues or imagery to counter those that offend you. The alternative is that we become an America of offense, where we settle our disputes through violence and intimidation rather than via the assertion of our own rights. A diverse America will need to decide which direction it wants to go.

on nazi punching

Since most people agree that Nazism and its variants are horrible belief systems, and because there is a strong historical precedent for the opposition to Nazism in this country (including actually fighting against them and winning), I would rather spend more time discussing tactics for how to respond to the neo-Nazis among us, than on why it’s bad to support Nazis, since that basically goes without saying. But just in case, I condemn all things Nazi and it’s morally depraved to support or espouse Nazi ideology.

On the violence question, there are a couple of options for us as a country. The first option is that we can embrace a norm of Nazi punching, which is the same thing as condoning violence as a means of handling some of the minority among us who espouse such an ideology. The second option is that we engage the Nazis among us in peaceful dialogue, and attempt to encourage as many of them as possible to detract from their Nazi ways by offering other forms of unity for them to rally around.

The upside of option 1 is that it will increase the risk of being a Nazi in America, and so presumably some Nazis might self-censor or otherwise conceal their Nazi ways. This is good because it might reduce the chances that more people will adopt Nazi beliefs, and minimize the possibility that our country may ever embrace a fully Nazi way of life (this would be nearly impossible anyway given that ours is a diverse society, vs Nazi Germany which was homogeneous and whose ethnic identity Nazism was built around). It’s also a positive because Nazism is a special evil whose very existence is repugnant to most of us.

On the other hand, the downside of embracing a norm of violence against Nazis is that it might increase the attraction to Nazism that some people might feel, by bringing it undue attention and by making some Nazis out to be victims that deserve sympathy, rather than revealing them as the morally repugnant people they really are. It’s also problematic because we won’t be able to change people if we don’t know who they are. We are better off allowing them an opportunity to vent, and countering their filth with reasoned argument and emotionally compelling rationales to join our side and reject the Nazi way of life.

Another salient downside is that more people might adopt the norm of violence and use it loosely against others for whom they oppose. For example, someone might invoke the norm against extremist Muslims, because many in this country find extremist Islam to be morally repugnant. We might also see the norm used sloppily so that innocent people get hurt. Everyone seems to have a different definition of who is a Nazi, and I have seen the term used more and more loosely, up to and including at least a few people who apply it to anyone who voted for Donald Trump.

Furthermore, a norm of violence against Nazis fails to take into account that Nazis, and those who get lumped in with them, will respond in kind. So we can assume that Nazi punching will result in counter punching. And since punching is really just a stand in for violence, we can expect violence against Nazis will result in counter violence against those who oppose them. Inevitably, violence would probably escalate in the absence of tolerance so that we can expect intergroup conflict to become more widespread. And while I think the probability that such violence would devolve into a full scale Civil War is extremely low, the possibility that it might manifest in asymmetric warfare (ie terrorism) is highly likely.

In conclusion, a norm of Nazi punching must be justified by weighing it against both the upsides and the downsides, and by considering both the short and long-term consequences of a norm of violence against those we oppose. Justifications for Nazi punching must be made and not just be assumed to exist because Nazis are evil (and other platitudes of virtue signaling and bombastic chauvinism).

If Nazis really were in control of the country, versus the bumbling idiot we currently have (who is most certainly not a Nazi), then the question of violence would be different. For now, most Nazis are simply losers who lack an ability to identify with wider society, so they have formed extremist groups where they can associate with others on the fringe. We are not talking about anything close to being accepted by the vast majority of Americans, including the vast majority of right wing Americans and Trump supporters. Dealing with them is objectively not the same thing as dealing with an armed state like Nazi Germany.

Perhaps the greatest false equivalency of this whole mess is that what we have here is anything close to what happened there. It’s not. And we are fools to think otherwise.

the danger of “speech is violence”

There are a number of ways to fight back against the racists and the neo-Nazis in 2017 America, but perhaps the worst, and most ineffective, is to equate speech with violence. Trust me that we don’t want to continue down that rabbit hole.

For those of you who don’t know, the notion that “speech is violence” is a meme, or disease, of rising popularity on the left, and it is in opposition to the oft cited “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” saying that many of us were brought up on. It is the philosophy that fuels groups such as the AntiFa, the left wing version of the Alt-Right.

Equating speech with violence in a diverse nation is a recipe for disaster, because it implements something akin to a culture of honor norm for offensive speech. Only in this case, one’s honor extends to their group, so offending one’s group is the same as offending one’s honor, and thus one must fight back violently to suppress the violent attacks emanating from someone’s mouth against themselves or their group. Cultures of honor have more violence because, by definition, there are more potential flash points where violence might occur.

Our society is far better off learning ways to confront those who espouse hatred non-violently, and to bring them back towards a more amenable center. The alternative is that we adopt extreme positions that force an ever greater number of people to the fringe of one side or another, and virtually guarantee future incidents like what we saw in Charlottesville. The disease is spreading. Help fight back before it takes over completely, and there is no going back.