Saturday, May 23, 2015

Your Attention, Please

Throughout most of history, the human mind has typically been capable of doing more than we demand of it. Having spent most of its existence straining to contain its energies in relatively peaceful small communities, people were limited by a lack of information, relatively isolated, with not much but their own powers of observation and minimal education to occupy themselves. We can hardly imagine it now. Their lives were mostly their family and work, usually a farm or some simple labor, plus maybe religion and limited surrounding community. Distant places were truly distant, as travel was expensive and dangerous, thus correspondingly rare. While life has not always been simple, you can see why some might come to the conclusion that all men are created equal: men have been equal enough, given how little has been required of them.

That was then, this is now: the most common issue we deal with today is overstimulation, too many demands on our focus. We really can't focus on more than one thing at a time: multitasking is bullshit. And yet we have cellphones filled with programs running simultaneously, we drive at highway speeds while radio and billboards bombard us with advertising, messaging everywhere. All this information is begging for us to notice it, and it isn't simple information like the shape of a plant or the rustle of leaves indicating a predator, the input our systems were designed to absorb. This is layered, deeply contextual linguistic and symbolic information, far more demanding of our neurons.

This is the new reality, unlike the old reality. This is among the most important ways in which our time is really, truly different than any before. Instead of running around with brains and senses overbuilt to handle the information of the natural world that surrounds us, we are running around in totally man-made circumstances, overloaded with data which our brains only half-process, coming from senses strained for bandwidth. A balance has shifted radically. Which brings us to the relatively new world where attention is a scarce resource.

The idea of an "attention economy" goes back to Herbert Simon in the 1970's, with this quote:
“ an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it."
I've been talking about the attention economy obliquely for two years on this blog, but now it's time to start hitting it directly. Some of what I post here is from my economics thesis, which was not even close to complete but pulled the issues into order. In this post, I'll focus on the problems that have not been discussed elsewhere, and deal with them in further posts. There is a lot to say, and this is just the beginning.

We have to start by knowing where the attention economy is, as a scholarly subject.

The Ideological Divide 

Since the concept of the attention economy has only been around a few decades, most of its developments and views are very contemporary. Most work has come about since the 90's, and you can find a good, fairly brief guide in Tiziana Terranova's Attention, Economy, and the Brain.

The topic started to gain traction when the internet became a thing, and there were a lot of blowhard pronouncements about the new, unlimited virtual frontiers that the internet would bring, and even more predictions of a humanity being united by the web on an individual level, entering in a new era of peace, equality, and prosperity. The technology was supposed to undermine conventional economics.

Obviously, this didn't happen. Conventional economics were reinforced, and if anything, we merely have more problems to deal with. Quite a few academic publications came out to explain it.

Two sides have developed in attention economy literature, and those sides correspond to fairly predictable left-right ideology. None of the literature actually discusses it in terms of political continuum, but the split is absolutely there.

The first side is represented by the most mainstream of books on the attention economy, Davenport and Beck's The Attention Economy: Understanding the New Currency of Business. This book places the attention economy in a commercial context, both in the way that businesses vie for your attention, but also in the way that businesses allocate the attention of their employees effectively, toward greater productivity and creativity. It also firmly establishes attention as a currency, and clearly explains the logic behind the view: attention is the means of exchange for information, it's scarce, it's more or less universally valued, and it can be invested.

There are a number of authors associated with this conventional view of attention issues, including William Ocasio, Michael Goldhaber, and Katherine Hayles. Their efforts go to streamlining conventional systems to deal with externalities, particularly distraction.

Employers have a very obvious reason to try and get attention from consumers and avoid employee distraction. In order to sell anything, you have to get customers into your store and looking at your product. That's what the entire field of marketing does, obviously. And of course, it's incredibly costly to business for its working employees to get pulled in and out of focus, worse than expected according to research on cognitive function.

On a deeper level, the proliferation of marketing tactics like spamming have created questions about ethical use of the internet. Obviously, spam and pop-ups feel like an unwanted intrusion into your surfing, but the lines are fuzzy; use of the unstructured medium of the internet has started bringing about new laws trying to set boundaries on when and how you can be contacted, and completely new, radical ideas have come about to deal with "information pollution". Ronald Coase, the economist who created the finest work on market structure known to the field, said years ago that such issues could be handled by modifying property rights and treating information overload as an externality. Goldhaber - creator of the term "attention economy" - seemed to approve of the notion of "attention bonds", basically the idea that marketers would warranty the value of their message to ensure it isn't a waste of your time.

Such ideas view interactions as exchanges of attention in a classical economic sense, and that context is used to flesh out social phenomena like the publishing industry and celebrity influence. It's explanatory and occasionally jumps into bigger questions than business and a conventional view of individual justice, but at the same time, tepid.

What these ideas have in common is a common perception of property rights and institutional structure as viable and valid concepts, to be respected and, perhaps, responsibly regulated. That perspective often ends up sounding like trendy, gimmicky, New Business buzzword spouting which hides a multitude of sins: it assumes that businesses have the prerogative to control their employees' behavior, including what they focus on, and also assumes legal individualism is the fundamentally correct paradigm within which to understand the questions of justice, while also trying to balance that individualism with the systematic needs of business and order. That's a conservative outlook.

But then there's the other side.

The high theory of the attention economy is basically owned by liberationists. The names change here: Now we have Bernard Steigler, Martyn Thayne, Jonathan Beller, Maurizio Lazzaratto, and Christian Marazzi. The latter two come from the Italian Post-Fordist movement and are deep socialists. This is as leftist as leftist gets.

Marazzi gives a taste of this kind of treatment in his book Capital and Language. He portrays the post-internet New Economy as attention capture on a grand scale, where people are essentially distracted from fundamental questions of justice by increasing demands on their minds, the separation between working and leisure time vanishing, individual lives more fully harnessed by the machinery of business and finance for profit and power.

Marazzi, along with other thinkers in this vein, sees platforms like Facebook as attention assemblages, a form of intellectual framework which engrosses the user and structures their worldview, including expectations and communicative norms. It has positive feedback (although rarely a "dislike" button), a goal of increasing interaction and connectedness, and artificially created groups both open and closed. Artificial currencies like "thumbs up" and pageviews dominate. So on the web, the exchanges that mark normal, non-commercial relationships become a part of the zeitgeist. Lots of these platforms promote certain content based on a combination of your previous activity and broadly popular activity, directing you based on where you've been and where the writers of some corporate algorithm would like you to go.

While you are immersed in this world, the corporate class has swapped your pension for a 401K which was lost after you reinvested it in the company. The boundary between employee and management, the Fordist labor division, vanished. And financial crises that had nothing to do with you eroded your position in society.

Marazzi focuses on how these assemblages distract people from social justice issues, but things go much deeper when you read Lazzaratto and Beller. The latter uses cinema as a social metaphor, calling our participation in these assemblages the cinematic mode of production. We communicate en masse, directed by capital; we view entertainment en masse, integrating it into our lives; we become consumers by social training that's nearly inescapable. Steigler called this "the proletarianization of the life of the mind". From this perspective, the entire edifice is geared towards taking the "natural" shaping of values, the desire for acceptance, and the creation of engaging content that happens in the social sphere, and directing it along capitalistic lines.

At the core of this kind of thinking is a nearly conspiratorial belief that the attention of the individual is being hijacked by self-interested institutional forces, a nefarious denial of freedom that softly forces everyone to become a depersonalized node in a machine. So intense is this point of view that Lazzaratto tried to revive Michel Foucault's idea of "biopolitics" to describe the shaping of the individual identity through institutional means.

For these people, the attention economy means social control.

Those are the two sides you can look at, if you want to investigate this subject. If you read all this and take it in as a body of work within a field, you can't help but to feel that something is missing on the liberationist side, or its' just gimmicky tactical manipulation on the conservative side.

A Complete Blank

I can tell you what's missing, easily enough. There is a complete the lack of concern for attention economics is in the realm of academic philosophy. We have a huge glut of philosophical literature coming out of universities. Go onto the big database - JSTOR - and it lists 134 academic journals on philosophy alone, most of which publish about a dozen essays quarterly. But there is no scholarly literature - none - regarding how the individual should allocate their attention. Ethics should be all over this subject, but because of how we view the relationship between ethics and freedom, there is none whatsoever.

There is a body of philosophical work focused on attention in the sense of how it works. Epistemologists love the topic, ever since William James started analyzing it over a century ago. The most recent publications sound promising: one by Sebastian Watzl from the University of Oslo called "The Philosophical Significance of Attention", and Wayne Wu's simply titled collection "Attention (New Problems in Philosophy)".

But it's all theory on how attention actually works in the brain, mechanically. Tons of ideas on how you can cast your attention, which has little value for ethics or social philosophy and really belongs in the hard sciences. But there are few serious questions on the concept of agency, and none which approach the attention economy in terms of the ethics behind participating in it. Epistemologists look at attention as a near-mechanical process, which basically upsets the entire Western apple cart of individual autonomy, choice, responsibility, and authenticity.

What if you assume choice? What if you aren't a determinist, at least on some level? Certainly there are a few philosophers who aren't, particularly since so many other philosophical publications try to convince people to change things, especially their minds.

So lots of philosophers assume change and self-direction are possible, but when it comes to where you should direct your attention, there is no systematic theory. That goes for society or for the individual.

So, how should attention be allocated?

In the entire field of philosophy, there is no answer.

The liberationists aren't exactly wrong, but their material is completely negative. They present problems, at least in some sense of the word. They present no solutions.

You can easily say that attention allocation should be aligned towards what you value, and that value is subjective and personal. But this is the most damaging statement possible to the idea of any ethics being objectively correct or superior and would undermine the entire field of social and ethical philosophy if taken at face value.

And it's obviously not that simple anyway. Intuitively, it's better for someone to use their attention on things like learning about public health, finding the most worthy charitable causes, and playing watchdog with public officials, instead of casting their attention towards something frivolous like celebrity gossip or chatroom shit-talking. Attention is a currency, and so its use can be seen like a more immediate analogy for how we use wealth. And there is no lack of philosophical literature on how society should use wealth. Every philosopher has an opinion, and most think their opinions are more than just opinions.

Shouldn't there be a literature on the fair and just distribution of attention, just as there is for a fair and just distribution of wealth?

The Next Step

So you see why I'm knee-deep in this subject.

Here, more than anywhere else, the conservative side has a true ideological advantage over the liberationist, left-wing side. Every organized society has already addressed attention allocation at some point, and most have addressed it the same way.

It's called a hierarchy.

William Ocasio's Towards an Attention-based View of the Firm got as close as anyone has yet... and really, he's not very close. Working hand-in-hand with the logic of institutions informal and then formal, societies have worked towards what they value by placing responsibility on an individual or group within the group and giving them the prerogative to assign roles and tasks to other parts of that group. This is naked attention allocation... and the practical definition of social power. People had to accept this or face the consequences, sometimes violence or ostracism. That's an incredibly ancient arrangement.

It's a complete arrangement, too. Role pervades everything. What we do within institutions, from marriage to business to neighborhood, is regulated by social norms that have been established and refined from that bare logic of specialization and identity millenia ago. We've been selected by our ability to deal with it, had thousands of years to get used to it. There is, despite the hype, no known alternative.

In more recent times, following the normalizing of specialization and large-scale society, particularly in the West, the game changed. Thought became complex, people justified and damned the arrangements in turn, and powerful people realized that tools other than threats could be used if you understood the value systems of the people you dealt with. Symbols gained meaning and power, awareness of self and group more important. As individuals, choice became central to our perception of control. Society has always been an attention assemblage. It reinforces itself daily and affects everything about the individual.

Social structure exists to allocate attention effectively. Everything else stems from this idea.

Attention is the reason you can have a "circle" that expands outward, from friends and family to nation or more abstract notions of a "people". The facet of existence that makes you more bound to one individual than another, the element which gives credence to people being a product of their social environment, that's attention, and attention allocation is the basis for the structuralist understanding of human behavior and society. Being a function of time, attention is also fundamentally scarce and thus zero-sum. The importance of that zero-sum nature, the cooperation and competition it produces, makes the human species what it is.

It's an easy money guess to say that a failure to understand that is why the internet didn't lead to a utopia. And Herbert Simon basically told us so two decades before the web became normal.

The depth and importance of this topic are staggering. Despite what you may have heard, it's not advisable to say that your field makes a huge, paradigm-shifting difference to basically all of the social sciences, a difference so massive that entire fields become one-dimensional studies of petty, conditional interactions of no significance in comparison. But this topic deserves it.

That's how big this is. Attention acts as a currency in most ways, the limited resource we universally exchange for information. But it is also more than a currency. It is prior to all other social currencies. Attention must be exchanged before any other exchange can take place. So attention is actually a meta-currency.

Georg Simmel's old and very long classic The Philosophy of Money takes its time in explaining that money turns subjective values into objective realities through society. Money, once again, is power. So if the formal surface currency of money holds the power to give life to your values, what kind of power does the meta-currency of attention hold?

Quick answer: it has the power to create and change those values at the source. It is the currency of your mind, and everyone else's mind. Trying to understand society without understanding attention is like trying to understand a computer without understanding electricity or binary language.

Knowing all this presents a lot of challenges, including the obvious questioning of religion and the legitimacy of authority figures, but when the self is understood as a product of attention just as much as the society, it ultimately reinforces institutions and culture.

And while society rails against any greedy, or at least unseemly, accumulation of wealth, the lustful accumulation of attention is a far greater problem. How can you deny that the time period you live in is characterized by a nearly psychotic rush of huge numbers of people to get others to pay attention to them? They'll pay money by the pile to get you to pay attention. From social media to celebrity douchebaggery, this is our culture, avoiding boredom and loneliness by watching the sensory overload fed by free market competition for your eyeballs. You wish you could control it so you could reduce the flow when you're overloaded and find something good on TV when you're bored, but the grasping flood comes at you in waves, like a stock market boom. The Christians call monetary greed "avarice"; in keeping with the idea, the best way to understand this issue is with the proper name of attention avarice.


Lots of subjects need to be addressed within the context of the attention economy. Eventually, all subjects within the social sciences need a reality check, but on this blog, we're going to start out with a few limited selections:

Gender identity and attention. Men and women operate differently in groups, and the male gender identity in particular is built for operating within a hierarchical order. Thus there are some traits of men which need to be reexamined for their value in distributing attention effectively in both large and small groups. Like a lot of this work, this is going to be an extension on the Efficiency of Being a Dick post.

A few years ago, the dichotomy of hyperattention versus deep attention went through a vogue in the media, then with flawless irony, disappeared from the landscape as we stopped giving a shit and turned our attention elsewhere. It's worth the investment to bring it up again.

Structure and Morality. This is the most pivotal topic currently undiscussed in politics, undiscussed because it seems so irrelevant in an individualist country. But it's not irrelevant at all, particularly when you start looking at the practical problems of attention scarcity.

Your work and its value. Most people would say that engineers, because of their paychecks and the tangible results of what they do, are powerful and respected. And plenty of people talk about the STEM fields and their importance. But engineers don't make the plans; they carry them out, inform the ones making the plans of what's possible. Same with doctors. We need a reality check on what positions in society actually lead to real change and influence, and in the process, we can remind ourselves why so many people are enamored with activism, advocacy, journalism, entertainment, and the risky, low-paying jobs with the potential to really change the world, for better or worse.

There will be a post on the mechanics of attention. The relationship between how we allocate attention and value merits that discussion, and there may even be some math. Yes, fucking math. To model it (see the next entry) and to otherwise rationalize it and make this useful, we need some goddamn math.

Attention and the EGM. The endogenous growth model, AKA the Romer model, is the reigning macroeconomic paradigm that is used by policymakers and by academia at large to understand economic development. What separates the EGM from earlier models - the Malthus and Solow models specifically - is that it proscribes no fundamental limit on expansion, because the key variable is neither land nor capital, but rather technology, reliant on human development and thus education. The attention economy clearly calls this idea into question.

The power of media and mass attention assemblages. This is far from a new subject, and some of the previous contributors - I'm thinking Marshall McLuhan - are brilliant and capable thinkers. But the topic is also shallow and ends up being misunderstood. Attention capture on mass scale is as old as the written word, so religion and education need to be added to the picture. But globalism has indeed changed the game.

Legitimacy and attention scarcity, also known as "why some kind of faith is necessary".

Currency systems, including money, karma, honor, favors, and whatever else comes up. All currency systems work within the attention economy and are based on shaping people's expectations, so what makes each different and which work better?

Peer pressure, social "atmosphere", learning by osmosis. 

Formal and informal hierarchy, how they work, mechanisms and underlying vulnerabilities.

Attention, agency, and structure: there is a strong need to reconcile the ideas of individualism and the structural nature of the attention economy. The relationship between individual and society can find definition in these parts.

There is obviously a lot more to talk about than just that list, but we'll get to it as we have the time. There is also a lot to talk about in the nature of liberalism, but that's not one post, it's a few. Politics can creep in at any time, because politics is - unfortunately - everywhere. Attention is an obvious bridge between the subjective and objective, so keeping opinion from fact is perpetually tricky. Academia can't tell the difference between fact and opinion, so I'm not going to promise anything disembodied.

But I'll try to make it compelling, if you have the attention span to get through it.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Practically Powerless

This entire debacle over Indiana's RFRA looks like it's leading this year's category for dumbest and most extreme overreaction in the media, and thus in the population at large. You might already suspect that there are a lot of people in this country desperate to relive the Civil Rights era in a last-ditch ploy to delude themselves into thinking their lives have meaning. But for a culture to lose its collective mind over a piece of legislation so innocuous shows a next-level uproar factory in operation. I'm surprised despite myself.

Now that that's out of the way, let's talk about what this chaos means. And ignore for a little while that we just got word today that the law is being changed. I want you to know just what was so heinous that it sparked this reaction.

There are differences between the Indiana law and other RFRA's in other states, two or three of them, depending on your interpretation. And interpretation is key here. Sane articles have been written on this, so it's not a complete echo chamber. But then there's the article from The Atlantic, which has over 35,000 shares, 13,000 comments, and the most hardcore rhetoric of the bunch. It's damned instructive.

The Atlantic article claims that the Indiana RFRA and all those other RFRA's are hugely different, and they break this down in two and a half points:

  • The law allows for a business or corporation, a for-profit, to claim religious issues the same way an individual or church might. Two states exclude for-profit businesses from RFRA protection in their versions of the bill, the rest say nothing and thus leave the possibility open.
  • The protections of the law can be cited in the case of private party lawsuits. Thus, a business could hypothetically claim religious grounds for not serving an individual. If this is unique, it would imply that RFRA legislation elsewhere would be irrelevant in civil cases. Basically, so long as you weren't with the government, you could claim discrimination without respect to religious belief of the accused. Indiana's RFRA says that it matters in civil court, too.

The half-point is simply that the government need not be a part of the lawsuit for a party to make the claim, which is redundant and obvious, but which the Atlantic thought important because a suit in New Mexico was dismissed based on that technicality. 

Let's get the obvious shit out of the way here. Yes, this law was created by conservatives, and it has a lot to do with the Hobby Lobby decision. The Hobby Lobby decision - which Hobby Lobby won except in the court of public opinion - was fairly unique in that you had a big business with closely held ownership by a religious family. The revulsion that activists have towards it is not just a matter of women's rights, any more than the RFRA fracas is exclusively about gay rights. It has just as much to do with a perspective on business, which is repeatedly demonstrated in the Atlantic article.

There is a palpable disgust for businessmen running through the piece. That side refuses to accept that a business could be made up of people with a perspective of their own that demands legal protection for the law to have any kind of consistency. One would think that working for a living should yield some kind of privileges. Quite the opposite, what the article implies is that the second you set up anything more permanent than a Craigslist ad in order to make money, you simply lose your rights.

The left points at the Hobby Lobby case a lot because you're talking not just about Christian businesspeople, but RICH Christian businesspeople. Thing are tougher if you're talking about flower shops or pizza parlors owned by relatively poor people. It's actually possible to empathize with them. So given that this is an issue where logic is far less relevant than appearances in the media, some people don't buy it, even on their own side. 

The conversation is not over.

Everything in the RFRA law is meant to continue that conversation. It doesn't simply allow businesses the right to refuse service to gays at will, but sets up a framework for future lawsuits where an argument can at least be made at trial. Judges are expected to operate in a gray area between recognizing discrimination and recognizing religious objections on a case-by-case basis. That's how it works in every other state where there is an RFRA, with burdens measured on the particulars.

The difference? Indiana is daring to suggest that you can have non-leftist principles and make money at the same time, albeit with the caveat that your principles must be supported by some form of religious dogma. You can at least try to present yourself as a person. Sure, if you're talking about a big corporation or some business that has a big cultural footprint, you can expect to lose, as a judge is supposed to sniff out insincere claims and prevent discriminating behavior from becoming widespread. But if, say, you're a sole proprietorship or an S corporation with a united point of view, you might have a case.

Given the news coverage, you would think the RFRA was a slippery slope towards allowing people who run businesses to follow their own conscience. Don't worry. It's not.

The Enemy You Deserve

This entire conversation is supposed to be over, if you're on the left. It was supposed to be over with the passage of the Civil Rights act half a century ago. If you run a business, and you won't serve everyone or treat everyone the same, then you can't serve anyone.

I was, at one time, under the assumption that property rights were legitimate sources of authority, that if you owned something, you could generally decide on how it would be used, and that you could deal with others on your own prerogative. Mutual consent is fundamental. There will be laws governing certain acts, particularly where externalities are concerned, because it's not a perfect system. You might even call it amoral, because it doesn't necessarily define right from wrong, but instead creates a platform where your decisions on the matter can meet with approval or disapproval from others. 99% of the time, it facilitates and incentivizes interaction and creates clear consequences for anti-social behavior.

What we see here doesn't make these assumptions. Left wing people have this narrative of institutional business, religion, and government being controlled by a powerful minority that would divide and conquer the populace and destroy their natural state of all-encompassing love, and that's what we see here. The thought that businesspeople might end up with real power in their hands again terrifies them.

Obviously, there's nothing to fear. Almost every major business in the state of Indiana feels it necessary to criticize the new law and threaten to leave, with nary a peep out of any of them that they might use it to defend their interests. Again: they just objected to a law that would expand their own power, at least in theory. The leftists have what they want. These businesses are squarely on the left wing side, and are using their market power to scare the right wing elements of their state into changing a relatively good law that was just passed.

They are practically powerless on a cultural level. As it stands, the vast majority of the rich people in this country are unprincipled salesmen who are evidently happy to direct money and management towards production of stuff and have their money taxed for redistribution so useless people can buy that stuff, and to say that they think this is right and just. They either want to be popular or they want to live in a gated community where no one bothers them. It's a liberal wet dream.

The same is true of politicians, who have no spine whatsoever, assuming they have principles which might require a spine. They are scapegoats at best. We expect them to act as empty vessels for our conflicting and contradictory ideals, and to crush those who disagree with those ideals.

The same is true of the majority of clergy, although in the case of Christianity, particularly Protestant Christianity, they can easily argue that they are staying in line with their beliefs on most subjects. Protestant Christianity is the wellspring of most of these beliefs anyway, and the general spirit has never gone away, only the loyalty to the institution of the church. Although saying that they are simply following culture's lead is damning to their self-perception as leaders of communities, it is also very obviously true, and so it has been since before anyone currently alive was born.

And finally, it is also true of fathers. Deep down, no male today believes that their prerogative to raise their children as they think best is actually respected by society.

They've all been cowed. And they have become the perfect enemies for SJW's. Their power is just symbolic. They stand up for themselves rarely, and when they do, they shrink back into the darkness at the first sign of real trouble. They pretend to be dignified, even when reversing their own statements. Their higher aspirations are nothing more than pure utilitarian welfare and freedom of consumerist choice for all. They don't punish you or tell you it's your fault. And they will never tell you about what you can't do, even when you obviously can't. They're here for your self-esteem.

The left says they want serious vision, character, strength from their leaders. Please. I am tempted to think that this was planned, that they have systematically created a culture where anyone with the slightest bit of integrity knows to avoid formal power. But I don't think they understand the situation well enough to pull off something like that. They've built their perfect enemies by accident.

As someone who now owns a business, this annoys the hell out of me. I am incredibly selective about who I employ, and while I'll serve any customer that will pay, there's a part of my mind that wonders when the nutcases will get around to saying I have no right to discriminate against customers who happen to have no money. Applied consistently and rigorously, nondiscrimination means that anyone who does business fundamentally loses control of how they do business.

If we don't have real control over it, we shouldn't be responsible for it, either.

The original civil rights act was meant to address pervasive, culture wide discrimination based on race, one in which people were barred from entry into businesses or told to use segregated facilities because the mainstream culture they were operating in wanted nothing to do with them. It was unpopular legislation meant to force the issue, particularly in the South. Anyone who compares that situation with what's going on now should be declared insane.

Addendum: The Atlantic published an article tempering the earlier rhetoric in favor of tolerating nonessential small businesses with religious objections. That's small businesses, not big ones, so no Christian CEO's, please. They will never tolerate that. It occurs to me that this entire fracas could be avoided by simply declaring that all these nondiscrimination rules not apply to businesses that make less than a couple hundred thousand a year, have less than ten employees or so, and don't do anything that could be considered critically important. Liberals would go along with that, allowing diverse points of view, so long as they don't actually have any power. 

Friday, March 20, 2015

Structuralist Reformation

Sometimes, it can seem like we're living through the dullest age in the history of human civilization, that nothing going on matters, that we're just killing time. This bullshit is so stupid and boring that you might want to stab yourself in the spleen with a butterknife just to make sure you haven't slipped into a coma.

Most of the topics of today, like health care policy and gay rights, are not relevant in a grand sense, but we are living through a change that IS relevant. That change is:

Structuralism is dying.

Of all the changes you can point to in the modern world, I would argue that the most important is the death of structuralism, an idea that relates to individuals being part of a large, machine-like social structure, given form by institutions which largely shape individual identity. We now live in a post-structuralist* age.

I don't specifically mean structuralism in the modern sense, but the general ideas of social structure. Modern structuralism - which is to say, structural functionalism - was an analytical descendant of a perspective probably older than the written word, the thought at the core of Plato's Republic. It is a view of society as a deeply hierarchical body where norms and values are shared and identity through specialization was expected. Hindu society is predicated on the caste system, understood through the metaphor of society as one body with different parts, as told in the Rig Vedas. Somewhat more recent, Englishman Thomas Starkey made a very similar explanation for the structure of the English state in the Reign of King Henry the Eighth, written in 1534.

This is not to say that structural functionalism is the most developed or refined of the ideas in the same family; it just happens to be the last. Linked with political conservatism, everything about the structural view has been attacked over the last half century. Quite simply, the age of individuals being part of a greater body is over. Even in cultures like China, rich with traditions of respect and conformity, globalism is pushing people towards the natural enemy of structuralism: egalitarian individualism. That's a problem, because much of morality and the human experience only makes sense through the structuralist lens.

To understand why this is happening, we need to understand a few things about structuralism, and about the academic field of anthropology, where it rose and fell.


Anthropology was created by Franz Boas, a geographer, and an observer of indigenous culture and language. When Boas began his work in the late 1800's, cultural studies were dominated by the idea that societies followed a certain trajectory over time which moved from primitive to advanced cultures - orthogenesis - and this view celebrated Western culture as the peak level of social evolution. Darwin's work, new at the time, gave fuel to these ideas: "survival of the fittest" justified colonial behavior and racially-based social inequality.

Strongly opposed to this after living with supposedly primitive tribesmen, Boas looked at social change as less a deterministic process and more a historical one, filled with circumstantial chance and adaptation. Boas wanted his field to explain cultural variation, but in his own interpretation of scientific objectivity, he did not want them to judge the value of those variations.

If you're a pacifistic person, this is a tempting way to look at societies and the differences between them. Since a culture instills values in people in a fundamentally biased manner, it is plain arrogance for any foreigner to enter an unfamiliar society, ostensibly to learn, and criticize their ways by imposing values learned in their own very different and distant culture.

The anthropological view

You can see the above perspective at work today. It's spread far enough to practically be dogma at this point. For reference, one prime-time character on TV is an anthropologist, Temperance Brennan from Bones. She's constantly comparing social interactions and beliefs she sees around her to the norms and traditions of remote tribes she has studied, and doing so as if the two societies were comparable and equal. That's not an accident. It's exactly what the field demands.

Boas, extremely critical of any sort of racism or cultural prejudice, essentially created a field wherein evaluation was considered subjective, unscientific, and wrong. Today, he is celebrated as much for his social activism as much as for his scientific findings. He humanized people Western society had previously looked down upon.


You can see where this can go wrong, of course. For one thing, this is a perspective in and of itself, and by promoting it, Boas was placing it above the perspectives of his scientific peers and basically all humanity, displacing earlier, "indigenous" perspectives. In doing this, Boas didn't rise above ideology so much as become an ideologue in his own right.

People need to believe in something, and what they believe is the key to their belonging in a group. Anthropologists believe in something, but that "something" does not see itself as culture in the same way anthropologists look at other cultures, but rather it's a culture that believes itself beyond subjectivity. It sees itself as rational, and rationality is the new righteousness.

This way of doing things in search of cultural "objectivity" is littered with paradoxes, if not outright dishonesty, and contributed to an academic subculture bent on rationalizing whatever ethics they found likable.

For another thing, the idea that a tribe in the middle of a rain forest beset with high morality rates, no industry, and constant boredom is equal to a society which built a Boeing passenger jet and developed a cure for polio does not scan for most people, nor should it. That's not simply an opinion: every time some Amazon tribe makes contact with the rest of the world and hears about what modern society has to offer, huge numbers of tribesmen leave. UNESCO exists because indigenous cultures everywhere start dying as soon as they're exposed to air conditioning, so preserving those cultures has become the job of Western institutions. Many of the people who cry the loudest for greater material quality of life and individual freedom at home also tend to cry loudly for us to preserve cultures steeped in poverty and socially enforced conformity, but somehow, a people who fancies its values universal don't see how irrational this is.

It's a bizarre way to look at the world if you actually are a part of any society, as opposed to seeing yourself as a somehow pure-minded observer. It's rooted in a very pure form of alienation. There are some elements to Boasian thinking that I strongly agree with: for example, I reject the idea that the West has developed anything resembling an objectively good moral system. In fact, I'd say that the West is radically overrated, unstable, even doomed as a society. I also respect the notion of cultural relativism, rightly understood (not misunderstood in the way that conservatives know it). But my reasons for thinking that way come from a very different place.


In this strange academic subculture where actual culture is studied, structuralism seemed like a fish out of water at times. It's not that advances weren't made: brilliant minds like Talcott Parsons and Jean Claude Levi-Strauss produced detailed theoretical insights, often in the kind of dense and unreadable prose that universities love so much, and which has polluted my own writing. Lots of garbage was created, but at times, the perspective made sense in ways no other study of society does.

Of real importance was the conflict between Bronislaw Malinowski and Alfred Radcliffe-Brown, not a personal conflict but rather a conflict between their visions of social structure. Malinowski proposed that the society existed to serve the needs of the individuals in it; obviously this perspective fits with Western orthodoxy and is widespread consensus today. Radcliffe-Brown, more exacting and less inclined to populism or being agreeable, rejected this and rejected the functionalist element of structuralism as it pertained to individuals. He posited that the individual and their needs were not the base units of society, but rather, the processes of interaction were core to anthropology: getting seriously esoteric, Radcliffe-Brown agreed with Emile Durkheim and Auguste Comte that society was a fundamentally higher "level" of reality, separate from the inorganic physical level and the biological level. Philosophers of science today call this supervenience.

I give you here the most important element of Radcliffe-Brown's perspective, one criticized precisely for its anti-individualism in the source, but simultaneously a beatific, sublime, and historically valid understanding of what a society is:
He argued that as long as a biological organism lives, it preserves the continuity of structure, but not preserve the unity of its constituent parts. That is, over a period of time, while the constituent cells do not remain the same, the structural arrangement of the constituent units remains similar. He suggested that human beings, as essential units, are connected by a set of social relations into an integrated whole. Like the biological organism, the continuity of the social structure is not destroyed by changes in the units. Although individuals may leave the society by death or other means, other individuals may enter it. Therefore, the continuity is maintained by the process of social life, which consists of the activities and interactions of individual human beings and of organized groups into which they are united. The social life of a community is the functioning of the social structure. The function of any recurrent activity is the part it plays in the social life as a whole and thereby, the contribution it makes to structural continuity (Radcliffe-Brown 1952:178).
Other conservatives who read my blogs might be tempted to vomit right about now, as American "conservatism" has attached itself to a particular ideal of individual freedom like a rabid pit bull. As Americans, they are most likely incapable of understanding what a conservative is. They've been duped into believing freedom, order, equality, and merit are compatible ideas.

These American pseudo-conservatives believe in the opposition of individualism and socialism. The reality points more towards individualist, egalitarian socialism versus identitarian, hierarchical fascism.

There is no need to make a dichotomy of individualism and structuralism, however. Placing the emphasis of governance on either the empowerment of the individual or on the preservation of the whole society are, 90% of the time, totally compatible. The other ten percent is where cultures find their identity, just as the information that separates an human from a microorganism is decided in only a single-digit percentage of your DNA's total code.


Odds are that if you're here reading this, and you know what I blog about, you can guess one topic which gave the structuralists issues: hierarchy. The most famous attempt to use structuralism to legitimize hierarchy was the Davis-Moore hypothesis, which asserted that inequality is justifiable because incentives are necessary to induce people to do difficult work, including investing their time in learning everything necessary for such work. Not all work is equally difficult, necessary, or rewarding, and thus the unequal importance of the position implied unequal compensation.

I disagree with much of this myself for a variety of reasons based on Nietzsche's power teleology, but the arguments against the hypothesis are some of the worst I have ever seen in academia. Many, like systematic scarcity being artificial and stratification being useful only for keeping the elite in power, rely mostly on Marxist theory. In response to the historical fact that egalitarian societies don't exist, we have this gem of reasoning:

 The universality of stratification does not mean it is necessarily beneficial or inevitable. Just because stratification is universal does not mean it is a vital aspect or system need of society. Stratification is not positively functionally for a society--it is dysfunctional.

This is the academic equivalent of simply saying "no" and crossing your arms, maybe whining for a juice box. There is no argument here besides saying that just because it doesn't exist and never has existed -  despite thousands of hugely diverse societies having existed and competed, despite the obvious desirability of not having a hierarchy for the vast majority of society which has to obey one currently - doesn't mean that it can't happen.

People who view other cultures through the supposedly rational lens of Western academia might be arrogant enough to believe something like this. I find it far more likely that freedom and individualism are addictive ideas that have created their own mythos, and that no matter how badly egalitarian ideas fail, the narrative of a paradise for every individual on Earth will continue.


When I say that structuralism is dying, what I mean is that this perspective on what one does as a part of the whole - contribution by occupying a place in a collective with a distinct identity and values - is in the process of being rejected by cultures everywhere. To look at the world with a structuralist perspective, loyalty to institutions that provide identity are pivotal. This means nation, family, religion, employer, race, something. But such loyalties are precisely on the way out.

In the educational and working world, people never find encouragement to fill in a slot somewhere for the sake of the bigger picture of an institution's welfare. Rather, they are encouraged to pursue a passion, or more pragmatically, to pursue money. There are patriots, people who choose a career with national interest in mind, a form of structural thinking. But those people are frequently seen as idiotic tools, particularly if their understanding of loyalty includes any element of trust in authorities like government or business.

Family is obviously dying, recast as a mutable emotional bond instead of a genetic bond that implies unchangeable membership in a group. Arguing that this bond is good for society on an organizational level looks baseless and most people just don't seem to understand it, as challenges to divorce law and gay marriage have shown.

Religion is effectively dead: the remaining fundamentalists only reinforce Nietzsche's point made in The Birth of Tragedy, that obsession with a religion's truth is a sure sign of its decay. Secularism already won that game.

Government and business from the consumer side, including education and media, are healthy only insofar as they provide valuable services to the individuals taking advantage of their infrastructure. Loyalty to those institutions is invariably conditional, and those who fight against both of them prey on the fear that they might actually have control over anything.

Even the military is folding to individualism and a revulsion for punishment. Find me one influential society today who's institutions are immune from this trend. Or don't, it doesn't matter. You can't do it. No one thinks of structures as more important than the individuals in them in the modern world anymore.

This isn't quite historically unprecedented, but it's close and a few elements like the breakdown of the family really are unprecedented. So why now? Directly from the Wiki:
Structuralism has often been criticized for being ahistorical and for favoring deterministic structural forces over the ability of people to act. As the political turbulence of the 1960s and 1970s (and particularly the student uprisings of May 1968) began affecting academia, issues of power and political struggle moved to the center of people's attention.
Look familiar? Of course it does, as we know this story. And we can easily dismiss the notion that unbiased anthropological research makes any difference. This entire story is political and ideological, not scientific.

In this culture, where conflict between perspectives is encouraged in order to find the most palatable of them, accepting any authority as legitimate has become impossible. Structure is order, but structure is also inequality, and inequality is now the enemy. People studying culture and relationships should have known, but they were self-styled scientists, not philosophers, certainly not Nietzscheans or even consequentialists.

Opposing structuralism and taking its place in the anthropological world, we find an eclectic mix of ideas that loosely came to be known as "conflict theory". That umbrella term covers everything related to Frankfurt school critical theory, from world systems theory to postmodern feminism, and nearly every other ideal running through the social sciences; it pretends to objectivity only to the degree necessary to remain in the humanities department at your local university. Which is to say, not much.

Individualism and egalitarianism in theory are as inseparable as structuralism and hierarchy are in practice. And because equality sells so much better than hierarchy for those on the bottom, legitimate authority took body blows from academia, media, and the political world. It's condition looks terminal at the moment, although I wouldn't be the only one to wonder if and when society will need it badly enough to resuscitate it down the road. It won't be easy with the failure of organized religion. It will probably be functional: a crisis, manufactured or otherwise, might be the only thing to pull people in line.


This is partially the fault of the structuralists themselves. It is no surprise out of a clique of people less concerned with empathy than with viability, but they managed to be both timid and callous as they talked about their perspective. Individualists hate being told that they're placeholders in a structure that's more important than they are, and that the pains of their individual lives are not the point. There was no understanding of the individual mind and it's conflicts. The biggest mistake of structuralism was ignoring everything that critical theory talks about.

Structuralists never came up with the simple and necessary ontological arguments to affirm the mechanics of hierarchy, or go into detail about how value judgments and function were related. Thinkers like Parsons and Malinowski whitewashed the coercive, hierarchical elements of its point of view instead of meeting them straight on. There was no underlying theory of power dynamics, and little questioning about the nature of the individual's integration into the system made with the assumption that the individual is tabula rasa programmable.

The two perspectives of structuralism and conflict theory need to be integrated, even if no one wants to do it, fearing that they will legitimize human suffering. A scientific understanding of humanity with a historical perspective should do precisely that. Hierarchy is objectively necessary. Period. The end. Full stop.


Think about it for a little while, and you'll see why this matters so much. Since our cultural perspective on life is so individualistic, we are having an increasingly hard time understanding ethics and identity. You can't explain those elements of social life without understanding society as a body, one with more going on than a simple collection of people hanging out with each other for the sake of self-interest, our even out of some instinctive programming for being around others. All the divisions look arbitrary, all the traditions look irrational, all the authorities look like assholes, all the color in our culture looks like something meant to sate or manipulate our urges.

Individualism is limited like that. The structuralist perspective has major implications for Western concepts like innocence, trust, authenticity, love, righteousness, and morality, even redefining - in a very intuitive sense - what is meant by strength and weakness. It explains the necessity of loyalty in a culture which seems to not understand the purpose of it. It IS a moral view, but the teleology of morality is rather obvious if you're part of a large, multigenerational group with a legacy: morality exists for the sake of binding and preserving the whole.

I'm not trying to revive structural functionalism, as I'm not a functionalist. What I'm looking for is a theoretical basis for conservatism, for the establishment of the old understanding into the new intellectual framework. Call it hierarchical structuralism. Those necessary ontological arguments affirming the mechanics of hierarchy can be made today, which is where I'm going next. The first thing they require is simple: the integration of the attention economy.

*post-structuralist: vulgar hip-hop persona parody by a very smart artist at link

Saturday, January 3, 2015

The Year for Men

The year 2014 will not go down in history as a feminist year - not after the conservative victory in the elections - but as a matter of perception, it sometimes seemed like a really rough time to be a guy. Did you see all the gender wars bullshit that happened? Not trying to make this post a complaint orgy - I'm going somewhere with this - but it's been irritating. Look at this:

  • I've already covered the Yes means Yes legislation. The furor has died down with the law now being generally accepted; the court of public opinion is thus on lunch break until the approach proves too stringent, or ineffective at reducing women's perception of being victimized. 
  • Gamergate: No matter what you heard about gaming "journalism" and slut shaming, the takeaway from the issue is that guys have largely retreated to video games over the last couple of decades, and now, feminists are pushing into that space, too. I despise this topic and avoided it completely until coming across this article, which turned it into something a little more than the usual trolling background noise. 
  • Two videos showing women walking down the street and getting hit on went viral. The fact that the first was carefully edited to show everything in the worst possible light and the second was a proven fraud seems to matter very little, because these videos show men actually trying to get what they want, which is obviously sexist behavior.
  • Swedish prostitution law, in which buying the services of a prostitute remains illegal but offering those services is not, rose in popularity. Obviously such law is rooted in feminist ideology, so bear in mind: men exploiting women for sex is wrong, but women exploiting men for money is not.
  • Several members of the NFL have been metaphorically nailed to a wall for spousal battery, so now we have to watch really terrible commercials during every pro football game which highlight violence against women. Ray and Janay Rice started the trend and somehow, it couldn't possibly matter less that Ray had been struck several times by Janay before hitting her back on the video. His real crime is evidently being more effective in his use of violence.
  • Speaking of which, women continue to be pushed into new places in the military, this being the first full year of women in combat arms. Failures to conform to physical training standards have been blown off from several different angles, ranging from finger-pointing the patriarchy and the standards of beauty forced on women by men, to a simple declaration that being physically strong might not be necessary for physically demanding jobs. Oh, and there has been a large increase in sexual assaults in the military this year, which has increased the amount of pedantic lectures commanders and sergeants now have to give their troops. The military is also widely reported to be demoralized somehow.
  • Matt Taylor, and his amazing shirt, which has the incredible power to keep women out of STEM fields. I've made no secret of being a space exploration hawk, so you can imagine how I look at this, but the debacle actually seemed to draw the same reaction out of a lot of people who ordinarily wouldn't care about spaceflight at all. 

This doesn't include the range of disposable digs that just pops up when I check my email on Yahoo or some such, everything from lists of old advertisements designed to oppress women to stories about entitled girls suing their parents for college tuition money, and winning.

I could tell you that a lot of these stories unfairly stereotype men, who like women have the inalienable right to be viewed as individuals. Most men, husbands and engineers included, did not instigate the issues at hand and do not treat women the way the stories imply. To talk about domestic violence and casual sexism from scientists and engineers uses the exact same psychological tool feminism supposedly abhors, but you already knew that.

I could tell you that there are a host of other issues, like child custody and college graduation rates, where men are discriminated against and have fallen badly in contrast to women. Men are just people, most of whom have very little power. For the media to expose one side of these issues so much more voraciously than the other is a sign of entrenched political interests, but you already knew that, too.

I could even tell you that this expectation that men discipline themselves, sacrifice their own welfare, and cater to the interests of women is opposed to the same underlying arguments that give feminism its ideological foundation, but certainly you've figured that one out.

It's all garbage. Calling out feminism for hypocrisy is too easy, and it can imply agreement with their egalitarian ethos; at the very least it basically says that you think their argument is coherent. Men's rights-style arguments always use the same ideological foundation as feminism to support their case. 

That moral position, that foundation, needs to be rejected by men. It's a dull, tired, trashy narrative and any man who uses it - any man who calls on his own weakness, gullibility, or ignorance as a defense against responsibility or plea of innocence - is presenting more of a problem than a solution. Men are judged and expected to be productive. This is not something we shy away from. It's just that an actual masculine worldview is so rare that we lost the ability to define why it has value. Since there is no widespread ideological principle to ground a case for the masculine perspective, seeing things that way just feels like reactionary dickishness for its own sake, with no critical thought. Instead, when most men think, they think like women, using the Judeo-Christian moral sensibility. That's the only paradigm we know.

If you want to argue as a man, try it from a different angle. For example, when it comes to work and opening up "sexist" fields, someone should have said by now that military integration and the Taylor situation show why women, particularly feminists, are incompetent before they even try. They're building excuses, and men hate excuses. The military and space exploration are difficult, important jobs that demand real dedication, not just feel-good "go team" cheerleading. To do them well, you should be willing to die at your post or your desk, breaking yourself for something that matters more than your personal welfare. Feminists show no desire to live this life.

Imagine someone so offended by a shirt that they don't investigate the hard sciences as a career choice. Imagine this highly sensitive person working with other engineers on projects for years, dealing with deadlines, criticism, and cost constraints. Do you really think anyone so petty will be a major part of some future Martian colony project?

Imagine a female soldier trying to find a way out of taking a physical to determine if she can carry a 95 lb rucksack or, worse, blaming the patriarchy for her comparatively poor muscle mass. Is this a soldier who will provide covering fire and deal with being triangulated by machine gun positions so others in her unit can flank and destroy the enemy?

Just because it's hard as hell, painful, dangerous, loaded with obstacles, with a small chance of success is no reason not to get it done. Men hate excuses. Even if they happen to be legitimate problems. 

These jobs are not rewards. They are not cushy opportunities for glory and material wealth that men have conspiratorially reserved for their own kind. These jobs are grave, heavy responsibilities. Opposition in your career from random chance, project failure, and infighting is normal. You don't start at the top of any institution that performs this work, no matter your gender. No one clears a path for you. Help isn't always around the corner. And I promise you, Matt Taylor took very personal responsibility for his work. He would not have left it unfinished to take maternity leave or quit because someone in the department was making sexual advances. The work is who he is. People like that deal with sleep deprivation and blood pressure problems and a lack of social life as a matter of course. That's the price for doing something relevant. The attitude on display from the critical feminists is precisely the opposite of that attitude.

To say that men need to be shielded from pain and pressure through legal means and social activism, the way 2014's headline stories so clearly imply women need it, is an insult to men. We're better than that. We built your world. Telling men to be like women is idiotic.

Maybe it's time to stop attacking men for having power, or denying that their power is real, and instead try to understanding why they have had so much of it for so long. Spoiler alert: it has little or nothing to do with muscle mass (or contraception, Clarissa). The narrative of implied violence that the tastemakers use to explain away the strength of men throughout history is oversimplified and barren of dignity. We can do better. And men should do better, no matter how hard it is.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

More Books

If you look to the right, down a little ways, you may notice that I added some new books to the Amazon widget. A couple of people have actually used this thing, I never stopped reading, and I hadn't updated it in over a year, so this seemed like a good time.

The first book I put on there was The Unintended Reformation, by Brad Gregory. Gregory is a historian teaching at Notre Dame and a genuine Catholic who wrote the book to explain how what we know of as the modern world, a haven of secularized consumerism, came to be due to the effects of the Protestant Reformation. As the title suggests, this wasn't the intent of those names we associate with rebellion at the time - Luther, Zwingli, and to a lesser extent, Calvin - but the effects of Reformation DID result in schisms, the disempowerment of Catholicism, and eventually, the disempowerment of Christianity altogether.

Lots of reviewers knock Gregory's effectiveness as a writer because despite his rather intense passion for the big Church and his flawless scholarship, he doesn't sell Catholicism very effectively. I think those people take Gregory to be more of a partisan than a quality academic. But he doesn't turn the book into a theology lesson: the strongest attacks are on principles of non-contradiction, the mutation of Catholic concepts like caritas, and the gaping holes in the modern world's understanding of itself. I couldn't agree more with that last point.

Even if it doesn't sell you on Catholicism - and it probably won't - the book's most intriguing implied statement is made in favor of having a strong formal institution to resolve debates and allow a culture to develop a sense of itself, a learned institution and not a democratic one. It is, in essence, an argument for hierarchy. Naturally, I'm smitten.

The second book is an odd thing called Red Plenty, by Francis Spufford. Although technically a work of fiction, the book is basically a collection of intertwining narratives about the lives of people in the Soviet Union, written to clarify both how the Soviet economy worked (or didn't work) and how people's attitudes were. Spufford digested an awful lot of material writing this, and it shows. So it's both fictional and, for most people, an introduction to a subject with many details based on fact.

My strongest interest as a historian has been the economy of the Soviet Union. Early on, I wondered why it didn't work better than it did. Later, as I shed some delusions about people, I marveled that it worked at all. Spufford brings all this to life, and while he is occasionally unfair towards those he writes about and too triumphalist on America, excessively interested in examples of Soviet scientific oppression like the hysteria driven by Lysenko's genetics, he is still clearly well versed on the facts and details. I learned new things about uprisings and policy I didn't know before.

For example: most people associate the Soviet Union with bureaucracy, but in reality, there were distinctly anti-bureaucratic features to the culture. Those dealing with the government were explicitly trying to be treated "as human beings" instead of as dehumanized numbers in the bureaucracy's rule-based grist mill, so party members were theoretically given wide latitude to deal with problems and complaints presented by those who sought them out. Thus, people had to develop personal relationships with those in party positions, instead of going through a maze of impersonal regulations. The result of this was a lot of mini-fiefdoms within the machinery, tiny lords ruling over their tiny areas of responsibility; basically, a major reason for the worst examples of incompetence and disorganization was totally humanist in character. There's lots of that, actions with unintended consequences, throughout the book.

From the role-swap of buyers and sellers to the personality quirks of Khrushchev, Spufford humanizes all this admirably. The only serious flaw is how excessively Western some of his characters are; it was written by a Westerner, specifically a Westerner who has not known all that many Russians very well. It's missing the attitude those who study the country know, for the sake of making it more relatable to an American audience. Still, great book.

If you want that Russian attitude, a third book on the list has it in spades: Monumental Propaganda, by Vladimir Voinovich. Taking place in the Soviet Union for the most part (except for some parts later after it collapses), this couldn't have possibly been written by anyone who didn't have close understanding of the country's culture.

Written through the eyes of an unemotional partisan named Aglaya, the book moves through seventy years of history and seems to encapsulate everything important that happened during that time. Here, the attitude is sharper, more realist, less grounded in any sort of idealism. It's extremely funny at times, too, absurd and beautifully drawn.

It's filled with black humor and raw, unvarnished truth, including the non-stupidity of Stalin and the tendency of activist reformers to revise their own history. The last part of the book - when discussing "cages" - gives the best discussion I've ever read on how power works in society from the perspective of those who are weak and vulnerable. There is no bullshit, just reality; every review of this book seems to misunderstand the core of the thing as I read it, but it is not the work of a fantastical dreamer. If you've been drowning in saccharine American optimism for too long, buy this and come back to Earth for a while.

There are more books I added to the list, and more to add later. Take care.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Yes means Yes?

The latest work of legislation on the docket for all-American teeth-knashing seems to be the "Yes means Yes" law ostensibly created to reduce sexual assault and rape on college campuses. I would typically not care, as the law is presently consigned to relevance only on California university campuses and I am thankfully now away from college altogether. Besides, I've got shit to do. But there are a few characters I generally respect, such as Dalrock, who strongly object to it, so I gave it a look. Doctor Who can wait a while.

Good thing, too. This story has taught me a lot. For example, good sex evidently requires letting go of self-consciousness, according to sex therapists, not a surprise to me but surprising that someone licensed by the state would admit it; this has all sorts of interesting implications. It also taught me that even morons can see that the inflated sexual assault figures for campus coeds are bullshit, which is mildly encouraging.

Or is it?

It is not a surprise that the manosphere, along with some conservatives, are basically up in arms about a law which places college males in such a vulnerable position. Of course men hate it. But what is a surprise is that lots of moderates and feminists hate this law, too. Why? The arguments come down to two things. One seems to be a simple concern for the mood: no one wants to fuck up good sex by constantly asking for permission.

The other argument comes down to "due process," and everyone outside of radfems gets to yell about that: Vox, National Review, USA Today, everyone. Since all this is happening at the institutional level of the university, without the cops being brought in, the only thing at risk is expulsion; thus, the standards of evidence can be lower. Burden of proof is now on the accused. It's just a college tribunal, but as a practical matter, being found guilty would still be damning, as the record of the tribunal would still be available for future employers and not being able to get a college education is presently considered damn near a death sentence. And while avoiding the civilian legal system means being able to circumvent constitutional rights, there are clearly some feminists who want to alter social norms through this ruling, possibly bringing new expectations on the courts. So either no one will take this seriously at all, or sales of nanny cameras to frat boys is set to explode. It's a ruling built to fundamentally disempower men.

Faced with the power to technically destroy men without a serious standard of evidence, some feminists, and many normal people, now find themselves terrified of what their own kind are actually capable of. If there's any legislation capable of making America hate feminism, this kind of legislation would do it.

It's not historically unusual for a power class to use slanted law to attack their enemies, but feminist women are not a typical power class, in that their legitimacy is predicated on NOT actually seeming to have power. Feminists ostensibly want equality, but along comes a law where - due to an institutional technicality - the presumption of innocence is dead, where punishing false testimony would be actively prevented by a media terrified of actually causing harm to a woman, and where the future of the (ostensibly male) accused obviously has no bearing on the proceedings, while the future of the (ostensibly female) accuser is the entire point.

People look at this and know that feminism has gone too far. It's too uncomfortable. If the intent of the law passes into culture, the male sex drive will be hammered down by effective criminalization, simply because the weakest of women want absolute control over the sexual context of every situation they find themselves in, ie a forced repeal of the "consent tax". All this garbage mixes effortlessly with liberal delusions of all stripes, but it's become too obvious: this is not equality.

I don't think many students will take this seriously. The ones who do will be facing the full reality of sex in the 21st century: trust, especially of men, is impossible. Given how loud this has been shouted by feminists, they get scared of how they will look. De Toqueville looks like a prophet; that's a big problem, because normal people despise the idea of every relevant interaction of our lives being regulated within an inch of its life.

De Toqueville assumed that America would require such minuscule regulations precisely because hierarchy was so antithetical to America. He was partially right, which is why we are where we are. But the regulations themselves must come from somewhere, and they are coming from liberal feminism. There is no escaping hierarchy. There is only an escape from formal hierarchy, from honest hierarchy, from accountability.

Feminists could swoop in and save the day after enough men have been tarred and feathered by false accusations, and everyone realizes how stupid it is. That would make them look good. But more likely, we're just going to get used to it, and women will grow in to their explicit legal power in sexual matters. They have an interesting win-win scenario, so long as the bulk of them look at this current rule and say "wait a minute" while passively allowing it to become the norm. Believing in the righteousness of their egalitarian cause, they probably don't consciously know what they're doing, but subconscious plans may have been laid, with or without consent.

In the long run, a few might realize that the old ways, the evolved courtship rituals prior to the 20th century - where long, drawn out interaction was the norm; where emotional vulnerability from women was assumed, and demanded tender advances; where women were expected to be responsible for abstaining from sex given their sexual power; where family name and reputation meant that men guarded their aunts and daughters and sisters; where chaperones and parlor rooms actually had use; where there is no substitute for long established knowledge of another person's character - worked the way they did for a reason. We don't have any greater prerogative to trust each other now than we did then. Less, actually. So what was the point?

Lots of people think the 60's meant that pointless restraints had been lifted. They weren't pointless. They were necessary. Of all humanity's absurd hopes for potential freedom, sexual freedom is the most extreme in its hopelessness.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Back to Life

I haven't posted in a while, and this requires some explaining.

The last several months have been the busiest I have ever experienced. I launched a small business, a vape shop, in February. Originally intended to be open a limited number of hours and with a limited selection, I opened it in a decent-sized city where there were no other vape shops operating. Out of the sheer inertia created by heavy demand, it has grown into a respectable business, and I've learned more about how to vaporize propylene glycol and vegetable glycerin than any human should ever need to know.

I also became a staff sergeant in my guard unit, which did its final qualification on our recently acquired Bradley fighting vehicles in the last month. I've learned more about how to use a chain cannon than any human should ever have to know, and by the way, it's fucking fun.

I started attending church late last year, by invitation, and stopped attending a couple of months ago. The services and beliefs didn't much surprise me, but I learned some things about myself, namely that I don't belong there. I doubt I will ever go to church again, and that's not a statement of exasperation or dislike for it so much as a statement of ending a personal project. There's a lot to say about that.

The real kicker, though, is that I finally graduated from college. I now have bachelor's degrees in history and economics, with a 3.7 GPA, Phi Beta Kappa, all that.

College hasn't been the stress test I expected. I attended a major state university with a very good academic reputation, but it's still 2014 and higher education dived for the lowest common denominator long ago. So thanks to the Post-9/11 GI Bill, the last five years have been something of a vacation, with just one year of that time occupied by an easy National Guard deployment to Africa to make the vacation slightly more exotic. My courses held some challenges, particularly the math, which is a language I continue to struggle to gain proficiency in. But all told, college was easy.

Easy does not mean that I enjoyed it, and it doesn't mean that I didn't leave tired and frustrated.

This is the tale of an education that both failed and succeeded. My education succeeded because there was a lot of thinking going on in that place, which educators say is what they want. For me, the combination of lots of free time and a near-obsession with figuring shit out, born of intellectual competitiveness, drove me to take a good but rough understanding of society and move quickly towards cartoonishly overanalyzed geekery. My education failed in that, upon serious analysis, the ideas on the shelf available for me to buy, basically Western intellectual orthodoxy, which looked good on impulse, turned out to be garbage, the products of shoddy, slapdash workmanship meant to sell to fools and not actually use for serious work. I actually went in with far more faith in the Western intellectual tradition and the American way of life than I left with.

As a thinking individual - ostensibly what the university system is trying to produce - I had a choice between accepting what I saw as bullshit on faith, assuming they knew more than they let on, or rejecting it and alienating myself a bit from the culture which both supports and is informed by that system. Showing my arrogance, I took the latter.

More than with actual church, my time in the Church of Reason made me an apostate.

When I started back to college after my time on active duty, in 2009, I was for all practical purposes a moderate liberal. The issues didn't bend me out of shape too much, but I thought exploitation of lower classes was a serious problem, I thought entrenched interests among the rich and powerful prevented their potential from being realized, and I thought that competing private interests, mostly in business and religion, created needless waste and pain all over the place. Solving these problems was a matter of logic and what is loosely known as "common sense."

The way I saw it, these were not perspectives grounded in the usual Western bias towards vulnerability, cooperativeness, individualism, or any of the other "underdogmatic" traits; such thinking had not occurred to me yet. Instead, I saw those problems as genuine systematic weaknesses. It was a matter of changing our social system to be more powerful and effective, not slagging it or gaining any kind of recompense for victim groups. I've rarely given a shit about that. So while I was practically a liberal, I wasn't ideologically a liberal. I wasn't interested in anything but functional power. I left social issues alone and based my thinking on a good-natured "live and let live" approach, at least at first.

I don't want to give the idea that I was surrounded by terrible people or that the professors sucked or just turn this into a rant. There are a lot of brilliant and decent people in academia. Nor was I always a fish out of water. Particularly for my first two years, I got along famously with my professors, ran ahead of the curve in my classes, mixed in with the brightest of the students with ease, terrified stupid people who made the mistake of talking, all good things. The first two years were a honeymoon period.

But I also don't want to give the too-generous impression that deep conversation about serious subjects grips every student on campus. During my time there, I was part of a group, which was maybe 2 percent of the student body along with some faculty, who was driven to dive into these things. I joined groups like the Philosophy Club. I hung out with the kids from Young Americans for Liberty, not because I'm a libertarian but because they're good kids who drink with enthusiasm and have a sense of humor; I somehow became liked among them despite spending an inordinate amount of time telling them that their point of view was idiotic. I showed up at Students for Freethought every now and then. And I was president of the History Club, which was tremendously difficult because half of that group was made up of guys who wanted to talk about war and the other half was girls more interested in softer points of culture. Interest one group, and you alienate the other; I got tired of it and gave up the position my last semester.

The discussion groups interested me more, but most of those groups didn't want to really hash out issues so much as kill time or create a forum for activism, and I despised activism on my campus. "Take Back the Night" anti-rape walks, cultural awareness for whatever brown people garnered the most empathy on a given week, and endless parades of speakers discussing the difficulty of being a Latino or LGBT or vegan or whatever in their social environment. Just listen, applaud their bravery, rinse, repeat, probably next week. I avoided it whenever possible, but when teachers are giving extra credit...

That activist streak was not what I expected out of a university. I expected something akin to dispassionate analysis of various facets of life, in an organized environment. I expected something above culture. Instead, I found a haven for emotional rhetoric gone completely out of control.

What's most grating at first about arguing with people in college is the near-complete lack of self-reflection. The sides are mostly chosen before the shit goes down, even among teenagers. One reason I don't feel ridiculous rejecting the liberal status quo is, simply put, everyone else is going with whatever they feel is right and justifying it later. Academia is not really the Church of Reason; it's the Church of Post-Hoc Rationalization. Particularly on ethical and cultural issues, a type of soft intuitionism dominates; people will jump through insane hoops when formulating an argument, just so they don't have to tolerate anything they find ugly, or listen to anyone they don't like. Piousness, loudness, and emotional manipulation of an audience, all are demanded to win, and learning anything in the process is totally optional. I don't share their taste, but even when I do, I find their methods of coming to conclusions suspect enough that I now immediately search for where I went wrong.

My favorite of all the people who embodied this was a tenured instructor of moral philosophy and open Marxist. He didn't teach philosophy. He came right out and said that he didn't do deep philosophy, and that he was a social activist. It was rather jarring that he so often did not understand the underlying principles and perspectives of his own arguments, never saw his intuitions as anything but universal, that he could so easily push them simply because they "felt right" and call it a day. I didn't take classes with him; I traded papers with him, talked with him at the department, and that was enough. His stated goals, in the first presentation I saw him give, were to disempower the police and support inner-city minorities when they rose up against their oppressors. I would never tell a story so cliched if it weren't real.

In other professors, usually in math and hard sciences, I saw a very different story. It becomes painful after a while to see a good teacher who would be stellar with good students crash against waves of apathy. There were many, many grading curves given in those classes. We all knew that the university required a certain grade distribution that the professor had to conform to, and they certainly didn't revise grades down very often. This helped me a couple of times, so don't take my GPA too seriously.

Meanwhile, the debates started to look like just a warm-up for every kid who would spend the rest of their life trying to convince people that their side was right, mostly for the sake of their own conscience, and nothing more than that. Pushing likable ideas to drum up support was, itself, the point. Democratic cultures live and die on popularity contests. Such a mindset is easily found today among middle management and customer service types in corporations everywhere. The attitude of journalists and politicians is the same thing on steroids. This preparedness to assert a perspective and make it a popular point of view are what a liberal arts education actually develops, and it's probably good in some sense that it does that much, because it does precious little else.

Socratic method is hugely overrated: when you're dealing with allies, the dialogue will be friendly and open but you will probably all have a similar perspective anyway. When you deal with enemies, you will not be open-minded towards someone trying to beat you down. Dialectic only works when you have someone who both trusts you and disagrees with you, and the feeling is mutual; how often does this happen?

After those first two years, the honeymoon was over. The Africa deployment gave me lots of free time, and I tried filling it by writing stories. In trying to create narratives, I ended up questioning them, and the rest happened quite naturally. I returned to college after the deployment - I hate leaving things unfinished - and slowly moved further to the right, seeing things differently, until I was no longer on the conventional scale of liberal and "conservative" at all.

Eventually, the thing that wears the most about the entire experience is the complaining, the completely jaded attitude towards material improvement despite avowed materialism. It's not as endemic as you may think in the classroom itself, particularly if you avoid certain areas like women's studies, which really have no reason to exist beyond encouraging revenge. Most other departments were too controlled for direct, heavy propagandizing. The classroom is, after all, an authoritarian environment, where the teacher controls the discussion and is held responsible by higher echelons if that discussion veers too much in any political direction and offends someone. Tenure doesn't get them out of everything.

But even if the classes didn't particularly encourage it, the cultural atmosphere did. Professors didn't directly state that old culture was bad and new, as yet unrealized culture of absolute tolerance good, but they found ways to emphasize material which said this, at the expense of material that did not. Emotional discord was taken as proof that there was something fucked up in the system, invariably in higher levels of the hierarchy. In such a place, the individual finds little incentive to rise to the challenges of the world; instead, they are told that the challenges are illegitimate. The world would never be a good enough environment for your specialness.

They do have an ideology, core programming, a fuzzy but nevertheless powerful lens that they look at the world through. They believe in oppression, and any other point of view is not just wrong, but immoral. My programming is more aligned with honor and brutal honesty, more accepting of struggle, more adamant about the individual proving their value to the group and its hierarchy, not resting the legitimacy of that hierarchy on how well it cares for people who believe their value intrinsic. This point of view is very old and very unforgiving. It requires real strength. Those who subscribed to it used to be seen as the ones who held society together. Now, we're just assholes. Most people think that such ruthlessness has been proven to be useless or, worse, a psychological disorder. I don't think society works without it.

One thing was for sure: I wasn't winning popularity contests with my point of view. People were never going to be convinced of something so alien, so I argued just to troll people as often as not.

The ethic of the university, modern liberalism with a handful of socialist and libertarian dissenters who really don't stray far, holds an unquestioning faith in its perspective that was, to me, anathema to the open-mindedness it professed. They were not open-minded about culture. They were preaching recycled Christian ethics, without the obligation to God. Basically, liberationism dominated, and this wasn't Brown or UCLA either, it was a relatively conservative campus.

So, in the brain and nerve center of the wealthiest, the most empathetic, the most technologically advanced, and the most powerful culture in the history of human civilization, a fresh generation of kids with too much self-esteem and no respect for their society are not directly told that it is evil, but it's implied everywhere. Nothing will be good enough until there is equality, synonymous with freedom. No formal power will be legitimate, simply because it exists, it's power, and that means a lack of equality and oppression. They will teach this to each new generation until the functional excellence of the American capital system and the military dominance of the Pax Americana is overwhelmed by pure cynicism. And they will think themselves heroes for it.

That cynicism comes from being a true believer who's culture never meets the expectations it creates for itself. That doesn't mean there's something wrong with the system, or the institutions, or the hierarchy, or anything out of the present stock of answers. It means that there's something wrong with the expectations, with the underlying values that create them, with the goals and visions driving it.

I was a Nietzschean at twenty-one, when I first read the phrase "will to power" and knew I'd found the phrase that encapsulated the most consistent explanation for human behavior I'd seen. Somehow, I thought I would find something in an intellectual environment that gave me some faith that people were aware of themselves and pursuing power well. I didn't. Instead I found a lot of self-delusion, and by the time I was done, the sport had gone out of it and I was ready to stop talking about it for a while. Maybe in that sense, my education was a success for the system, too.

Now, I have a business to run and a million projects on my mind, none of them activist and only a few of them involved with the subjects I studied. I don't know how much I'll continue to write, certainly on occasion but probably never another nine-post month or any serious publication. Some of the attention economy material may end up getting written down somewhere, but the point will be to get back to life. It will be strange to live and try to find something of value to dedicate myself to, given the way I think, because it's not my culture and I clearly don't belong here, but everyone has to adapt and I'm not exempted from it. The only thing to say is, "we'll see."

Stay tuned, more will come. Eventually.