Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

These Are the Droids You've Been Looking For

Very interesting exchange between NY Times colleagues Ross Douthat and Paul Krugman.  Douthat kicked it off with a column about the coalition that reelected President Obama, noting that Obama's coalition included a lot of people who have been failed by traditional social institutions and who are "united by economic fear."  Krugman responded by casting this as an argument for social democracy.  Douthat responded to the response, arguing that (A) what works for Sweden won't necessarily work here, and (B) in any case, Sweden enjoys stronger families than the United States, out-of-wedlock births notwithstanding.

Frequent readers will suspect that I instinctively side with Krugman, and they will be right.  But I am thrilled that this debate is happening, because Krugman and Douthat are among the best pundits in the United States, and this is basically the debate we have been waiting for.  And already the debate is generating fascinating points.  For instance, Douthat raises the very interesting point that notwithstanding its high rate of out-of-wedlock births, Sweden actually has more stable families than the United States.  (OECD report here (PDF), Reihan Salam post here.)

This reinforces something I already believed, which is that, just as liberals need to accept that science has proven that white people are racially superior to black people (right, Will Saletan?), they also need to get much more comfortable thinking about and talking about non-state norms and institutions that contribute to human thriving.  This is true for two reasons.  First, liberals are simply wrong to downplay the salutary effects of strong social norms.  Quite often those norms are complementary to, and maybe even necessary for, a well-functioning social democracy.  The government can be a powerful force for human dignity, but there is no reason to rely on it exclusively.

But also, quite often these are debates that liberals can and should win.  Conservatives sometimes pretend that all arguments about values and tradition are favorable to them.  Not at all!  Norms of egalitarianism, fairness, respect, etc. reflect core liberal values and often cut against the conservative project of replacing our shared values with the sociopathy of the marketplace.

And so let me issue just such an argument.  We all know that Sweden is less of a basket case than conservatives would predict based on its huge public sector, its widespread secularism, and its high rate of out-of-wedlock births.  Reihan Salam wants to turn this into a point about how Sweden isn't as left-wing as you might think, because it has a fairly stable family structure relative to the United States.  That's a perfectly legitimate point, but consider all the implications.  Isn't it possible that Sweden has a more stable family structure than the United States in part because social democracy, even when highly secular, is more family-friendly than free market capitalism, even when heavily inflected with religion?

In short, isn't this a case where liberal norms, institutions, and values are winning, even by allegedly conservative standards such as family stability?  And shouldn't we be ready to celebrate that and advance it as an argument for social democracy?  The thing Democrats tend to do is to note how some Republican budget cut will devastate working families, and then say something like, "And they dare to call themselves the party of family values!"  It's a good attack, but it would be much better if liberals would openly recognize the value of families and articulate a fully-thought-out pro-family agenda.  And where might you find such an agenda?  Well, I hear Sweden does pretty well, maybe their social system is worth a second look.

You Can't Handle the Truth

I wanted to write a follow-up to my post outlining my view of the truth, which needs some elaboration, and Matt Yglesias provided a good opportunity with this post on the age of the Earth (in the news because of Marco Rubio's recent difficulties with the subject, chronicled by Paul Krugman here and here).  Yglesias writes:
The key thing here is that contrary to what people often say, there’s absolutely no empirical evidence that the planet earth is 4.5 billion years old rather than 4 thousand years ago. Take the standard scientific account of what the earth was like in 2000 BCE. Now imagine that God create the universe exactly like that 4,000 years ago. He put fossiles [sic] in the ground whose state of carbon decay was just so. There’s no “evidence” about this hypothesis one way or the other. Scientific materialism just incorporates as a baseline assumption that these kind of radical discontinuities in the nature of reality don’t happen. But maybe they do?
If I were Yglesias, I would have phrased it more like this:
Well, everyone knows the Earth is 4.5 billion years old. What Young Earth Creationism presupposes is . . . maybe it isn't?
 The point Yglesias is making is rather silly, if you want my honest opinion.  But it does seem like a helpful example of how things can go astray when you rely on the correspondence theory of truth.  According to that theory, this debate about the age of the Earth can't be resolved.  You can appeal to a variety of procedural arguments, like Occam's Razor or whatever, but you can never conclusively prove things one way or the other.  This is because, to revisit my earlier point, the "truth" is meant to reside in an unknowable "real world," which could easily be a prank played by God, in which case you can't trust your senses.

I think this goes some way toward demonstrating another point I want to emphasize, which is that merely because I've abandoned the correspondence theory of truth does not mean I've abandoned objectivity and embraced relativism.  In fact, in many ways the concept of truth I believe in is less subjective/relative than the correspondence theory of truth, because it doesn't really allow for weird theories like Young Earth Creationism.  There are definitely some lurking issues about how we compare different models, but there is no reason in practice that the "empirical world" approach needs to be characterized by undue deference to crazy theories.

UPDATED to add:

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

If Christy Wampole Doesn't Kill the Hipsters, I Will

Christy Wampole (great name) poked a hornet's nest last weekend with a piece in the New York Times that I guess could be described as a broadside against the hipster element in society.  Wampole actually called for a retreat from all-encompassing irony, rather than the liquidation of hipsters as a class—in this, Wampole is incorrect, as we shall see.

Stephanie Bernhard took Wampole to task with a few indignant words, along the way quoting a tweet that seems to capture the way things have played out on the internet:

(The Fieri reference is to this cutting review of Fieri's new Times Square restaurant, which went viral.  The review, not the restaurant.  I actually don't think the review is properly characterized as trolling or troll-bait, but whatever.  Let Roth enjoy his moment in the sun.)

Whether or not Wampole set out to be a troll, I think it is fair to say that her piece is notably provocative.  My theory, to which I will return shortly, is that this has to do with poorly defined terms.  But certainly if Wampole set out to persuade hipsters to become fully-realized human beings, she did not strike quite the right tone.

I think this is all rather unfortunate, as I find myself in almost total agreement with much of Wampole's piece, right down to the acknowledgement that my furious hatred of hipsters stems from my recognition of hipsterish tendencies in myself.  I mean, recently I considered buying a Romney/Ryan t-shirt, and I like to mimic Stalinist propaganda for humorous effect.  What is wrong with me?  (Seriously, what is wrong with me?  I really want to know.  Except, look, I am beginning to suspect that I already know the answer, and just can't admit it to myself, okay?  So let's move on.)

What I think we have to do is distinguish between different aspects of the irony/hipster superstructure.  In short, I think a lot of the outrage directed at Wampole stems from haziness about two questions:  How broadly are we conceiving of the hipster population?  And what exactly is it about irony that is so objectionable?

I believe that Steph is thinking in generational terms, as though we are all hipsters (and certainly Wampole doesn't discourage this interpretation—I am not one to psychoanalyze, but perhaps Wampole's deep self-loathing causes her to lump herself in with the real hard cases).  But as Steph convincingly argues, our generation is far from terrible.  Wampole's point gains more traction if we view hipsters as a small subset of the population.  And you know exactly the ones I mean.  These are decidedly not the kind of people you would have found in Zuccotti Park or at the Obama campaign.  In fact, I've never seen genuine hipsters do anything that might redeem their lamentable existence (not, by the way, that I think Zuccotti was very productive, but the point is they were earnestly trying).  The best we can hope for is that the hipsters will come to their senses, acknowledge that they are utterly contemptible little shits, and go full-on Profumo for the rest of their execrable little lives.

So I think we have cleared that up to everyone's satisfaction.  The trickier questions involve the causes and consequences of the pervasive irony that we seem to have embraced.  Here, one wishes for a more fleshed-out theory of what we are talking about and how it came to seem so all-encompassing.  But I will say this much.  We live in a world of severe and visible tension between the way things officially are and the way we know them to be.  We can see the cables connecting, for instance, the pharmaceutical companies and the "trustworthy" institutions of the medical establishment.  We have watched the media disappear up its own ass, its pathetic need, its desperation to entertain exposed for all to see.  It is frozen in a kind of self-aware obscene tableau, as if we were playing a game of pornographic charades.

And we are unmoored from traditional sources of identity, traditional conceptions of how to live our lives.  How to be in the world.  We have no real convictions, no real confidence in the superiority of our way of life.  And we have become paralyzingly aware of how plastic our identities are.  Unlike previous generations (I assume), we don't even bother to pretend that it is odd that we quickly pick up the accents and locutions of those around us—indeed, it would strike us as odd if we didn't.  We understand that this is how people are.

But these are causes, not consequences, and I think our resort to irony is completely understandable in light of them.  It is not too different from "appreciating" campy things, although it has a harder edge than I am led to believe "camping" used to have.  (As a side note, one of the really terrible things about hipsters is the sense that they are mocking the people they imitate, that a lumberjack who likes PBR would likely be insulted if he spent any time with them.)  This ironic distance is just a way of navigating the terrible, made-up world we live in.

I end up in basically the same place as Wampole, but I don't see irony as particularly toxic, except (as noted) where it involves stupid hipster shit.  The problem is what it displaces, what gets left behind.  If you use irony as a kind of safety valve or a way of making sense of the world, but you are still genuinely, earnestly passionate about the Democratic Party, or gay rights, or Methodism, then you are not part of the problem.  You just need to make sure you are balancing your cleverness and performance art with some real human engagement and emotion.  There must be some Tolstoy in you.  Think of Colbert—over-the-top performance art and irony mixed with genuine political feeling and engagement.  If you haven't struck that balance, then, as Wampole says, you must change yourself quietly, from within.  And I mean it.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

You Want the Truth?

I am not trained in philosophy, and I am not well-read in it either.  Moreover, I'm going to make no real effort to represent ideas accurately or fairly, fit my ideas into philosophical traditions, or defend them against what may very well be devastating critiques.  So take this post with a huge grain of salt, and apologies for mangling various ideas.  That said, this is basically what I believe about the world.

1.  Start with a "correspondence theory of truth."  That is, truth is a correspondence between statements/ideas and a mind-independent "real world."  So if there is an apple on a table in the "real world," then the statement "There is an apple on a table" is true, regardless of whether anyone has seen the apple on the table.  On the other hand, if there is no apple on a table, then "There is an apple on a table" is false, regardless of whether people believe it to be true.

I won't worry about the precise nature of the "correspondence" required by this theory.  However, let's focus for a moment on "mind-independent."  The idea is that the real world is "out there," and while you can change the world (for instance by picking up the apple), you cannot change it internally (merely by observing it or thinking about it differently).  My very crude understanding is that quantum physics puts some pressure on this concept, but in any case we will attack it from a different angle.

Note that "reference" becomes very important in this framework, because you can make true statements only if you can successfully refer to things "out there" in the real world.  This raises interesting issues, but I will ignore them for now.

Note also that if you use the correspondence theory to argue about what is true and what is not, you are probably arguing about what is in the "real world" and what isn't.  For instance, does the "real world" include "moral facts," such that one can make "true" statements along the lines of, "It is wrong to make fun of James's physiology"?  And in fact, it turns out that these unanswerable questions ultimately undermine the whole theory, as I will argue in the next step.

But before moving on, I hope that the appeal of the traditional "correspondence" approach is obvious.  And in fact, I think that when all is said and done, we operate on the basis of something very like the traditional approach.  It's true that I will argue for discarding it, but having done that, I think we have to adopt something very similar.  I think this is why the "naive" view of the world is sufficient for all day-to-day purposes, and people don't generally get into trouble by taking it literally.

2.  The problem with the correspondence theory of truth is that it makes truth inaccessible to human minds, because the "real world" may be remote from our observations.  An easy way to see this is to use the traditional "brains in a vat" thought experiment.  Imagine that we are all just brains in a vat, being fed electrical impulses that give us sensations of tables, chairs, apples, etc.  In reality, nothing exists but the vat, the brains, and wires feeding electrical signals into the brains.  In this world, one could not make true statements about apples on tables, because in the "real world" there would be no apples or tables.

Moreover, there is no way to distinguish our world from a brain-in-vat world, so we don't really know whether you can make truthful statements about apples on tables.  It is hard to see how you can convict anyone of perjury in a world that adheres to a correspondence theory of truth.  "Truth" is a concept that cannot be grasped by human minds.

3.  So the next step is to abandon the "mind-independent" aspect of the "real world."  Instead, we turn to an "empirical world" tied to observations that humans make.  This means that even brains in vats can live in a rich "empirical world" populated by tables, apples, etc., and they can make true and false statements about those objects.  Truth is something that humans can understand and evaluate based on empirical evidence.  We can resume putting people on trial for perjury.  (Note that even if you reject the kind of exotic thought experiments on which I based point 2, you still have the problem that understanding the "real world" requires access to that world, and so at best we can only discuss a model of the "real world" derived from our observations, at which point the jump to the "empirical world" is basically accomplished.)

4.  But while the empirical world is based on observational data, a person's empirical world is not merely the sum of his observations.  This is because the observed world is "thin," containing little of the information that we need to evaluate statements and beliefs.  For instance, I have no direct observational basis to believe that bones contain calcium, or that Romania is north of Bulgaria.  On a deeper level, any kind of functioning empirical world must assume that the future will resemble the past, for the reasons advanced by Hume.  And yet we cannot observe the future to confirm that this is so.

Instead of being an aggregation of data, the empirical world is a model extrapolated from observational data (some of which, by the way, is discarded because it doesn't fit the existing model—for instance, dreams and hallucinations).  And now we come to a key point:  modeling is not an exercise in reproducing the world with exactitude.  First of all, as discussed, there is no meaningful sense in which there is a world to reproduce.  But more importantly, modeling is more art than science, and modelers make all kinds of trade-offs for which there is no "right" choice.  Modelers must try to achieve some balance of predictive power, tractability, "fit" with other models, etc.  These are value judgments, and different models will be appropriate for different circumstances and different people (just as one person might want a road map and another might want a topographical map).

5.  So the empirical world is "value-laden" in that it reflects the modeler's subjective choices.  The fact/value distinction must either be abandoned or must be stated with considerably more nuance than it traditionally has been.  (Alan, take note.)  Moreover, there is no longer any separation between statements/beliefs and the world they describe.  You can think of the empirical world as a filter that is applied to beliefs/statements, and if they pass the bar, they become part of the empirical world (and are then used to evaluate other beliefs/statements).  It is like filling in a crossword puzzle:  the solution to one puzzle becomes a clue in another.

Now the empirical world comprises a bunch of statements/beliefs, and so "truth" doesn't inhere in the relationship between the two.  Rather, "true" is a squishy word used to describe an empirical world that is "healthy" or "useful" or simply "good."  (Pragmatism about truth.)  But what makes one empirical world better than another?  Well, an empirical world is probably not very good if it directly contradicts a lot of observational data.  But once you zoom in and try to make fine-grained distinctions, you rapidly lose traction.  This means that there is, in the abstract, potential for a kind of everything-goes subjectivism that repels most people.  In practice, we deal with this in a variety of ways (more below).

6.  It is useful to bifurcate the discussion into two branches:  the individual pursuit of "truth" and truth as a social convention.  For individual purposes, information that comes from other people is merely additional data, and the individual has to assess it according to his model.  You probably want to build a model in which other people exist, and in which observations that they report can sometimes clear the hurdle and become part of your empirical world.  But basically each person carries around his own empirical world with him.

Communities care a lot about truth, though, so they have developed their own empirical worlds, which include a "persuasive" or "rhetorical" element that is not as important for individuals.  That is, provability becomes important in a social context, because we don't want to take action until something has been demonstrated to be true (to our satisfaction).  Thus reasonable doubt and peer review and replication studies.

However, different communities can build different empirical worlds, and those empirical worlds can compete.  In fact, in a sense a lot of ideological fights come down to struggles over the definition of a society's empirical world.  Moreover, it is quite common for people to use rhetoric from the correspondence theory of truth when fighting over society's empirical world.  For instance, the "reality-based community" (the term raises some interesting questions about how the public views "the truth").  In general, this fight over our shared empirical world is fought on many fronts, with practically every weapon imaginable.  A lot of people use deplorable tactics, but there really isn't a way to keep the fight "pure."  A lot is at stake, and it is almost impossible to carry the burden of proof for very long.  So a tremendous amount of effort goes into burden-shifting and re-framing.

7.  In practice, it is hard to see any problem with using the correspondence theory of truth as shorthand for a more nuanced view.  This is basically the model that most of us adopt as our "empirical world" in any case—a "real world" that we observe and try to predict, as if it were the mind-independent world we started with.  Dropping mind-independence is conceptually interesting but doesn't change very much in daily life.  I am quite ready to call people "wrong" and to base this claim on the fact that their statements don't align with reality.  So what is the practical upshot of all of the preceding discussion?

I can only speak for myself, but I have found this way of looking at things to be liberating.  I am less judgmental about different ways of viewing the world (there is some "signal" to be gained even from viewpoints that are mostly wrongheaded), and I take a broader view about what constitutes knowledge.  There is no "one true rationality," and claims along those lines, which attempt to monopolize the discussion, are immediately suspect.

I am also more willing to be judgmental about "normative" questions, since in my mind there is no longer a sharp distinction between those questions and factual ones.  "Facts" are tools to help you navigate life, and values are roughly the same thing.  Both are to be assessed on their overall "healthiness" and not on some metaphysical property that can't be observed.  By their fruits you shall know them.  But I admit that all of this is more of a re-framing than a revolution.

Thursday, November 08, 2012

Democratic Politics, First in a Series

I have promised to write a post on why I think it is almost always a mistake to vote for a third-party candidate in a U.S. presidential election.  I am finding it remarkably difficult to articulate my point, though, so I will write a series of posts outlining my broader beliefs about democratic politics (short version:  I think its merits are greatly under-appreciated).  Instead of mounting a concise, rigorous argument, I will try to make my point more obliquely, by way of several historical examples.  However, I will start with a simple statement of my argument.  And that argument is that democratic politics, however flawed, is among the most powerful institutional safeguards of human dignity, and that third-party candidates in the United States are generally not engaged in democratic politics.  Candidates like Jill Stein, I will argue, are not so much politicians as they are repositories of moral rectitude.  In the same way that Wu Tang Clan ain't nothing to fuck with, moral rectitude is nothing to sneeze at, but in most circumstances it can't compare to the sheer power of electoral politics.

On the day after the 2012 election, Matt Yglesias posted this to Twitter:

Now clearly the concept is inspired, and the video makes excellent use of American music.  But what actually moves me the most about this video is the way all the people proudly hold up their voter registration cards.  If you are a French conservative, that is the scariest thing in the video, because it is a demonstration that these people have power and intend to exercise it.  This is what is so beautiful about democracy, for all its flaws.  Power flows through the people and reflects their values and interests.  Injustice can still happen, but if people can vote, they are much, much less vulnerable to oppression.  And the resources of the French state are deployed in a decent, humane way that would have been unimaginable in the days of French monarchy.  That's democratic politics, and that is what people like Jill Stein are asking voters to turn their backs on in the name of moral righteousness.  That's a trade I can imagine making in extremis, but Stein has a very high bar to clear, a very high burden of proof.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Romney's Weakness

Another thought on Romney's campaign.  In a lot of ways, I think this NY Times story about a gay foreign policy spokesman who was hounded out of the Romney campaign is emblematic of the relationship between Romney's natural instincts (he had no qualms about hiring a gay man), the right wing of the Republican Party (which freaked the fuck out), and Romney's unwillingness to stand up for his beliefs (he didn't support the spokesman and acquiesced in his resignation from the campaign). This played out again and again throughout the campaign, until Romney finally made vague gestures toward moderation in the first debate. But even after that, he remained beholden to the extremists who dictate the policy positions of the GOP, and he wasn't strong enough to chart out a different course that might have appealed to the electorate.   As Tony Blair would say:  weak, weak, weak.


[UPDATE:  Another great example is Romney's weird courtship of Donald Trump.]

Wither the GOP

I have promised a lot of blog posts on various topics, but before I get to those I want to write a quick post on my view of the 2012 presidential election.  This isn't meant to be an explanation of why Obama won, to the exclusion of other theories—I don't pretend to have any expertise in that area.  It's just an observation that I think has some force.

It comes down to this:  the conservative movement is remarkably dickish.  I am not making a substantive point about their policies, though I think many of those policies fit the description.  I just mean that conservatives seem to take particular glee in saying hurtful or outrageous things, and I think this costs them dearly when actual Republican politicians have to ask for actual votes.

The tendency is not entirely surprising when it is observed in conservatives who aren't running for office.  If Ann Coulter delights her audience by saying a bunch of reprehensible things, and then this causes Republicans to lose their races, Coulter still gets to keep the money.  Coulter is then functioning as a parasite on the conservative movement, and in fact I think a lot of conservatives view her as such.  What is particularly pathological is when the parasites end up in an influential position in party primaries, so that candidates have to pay obeisance to the very parasites who will later undermine their electoral chances.  I think that is a fairly accurate depiction of the way the modern conservative movement works.  (In fairness, the conservative media establishment also does non-parasitic work promoting the conservative movement.  Whether it is a net positive for conservatism is debatable.)

But here's the surprising thing.  Dickishness seems to have spread to the candidates themselves, which makes it harder to view them as victims forced to endure their party's parasites.  Many of Romney's attacks on Obama were essentially dickish gimmicks.  "You didn't build that."  "Voting is the best revenge."  Both of those lines of attack were basically bullshit, depending on a tendentious and dickish misinterpretation of Obama's (admittedly clumsy) statements.  They were cheap attacks that seem better-suited to amusing conservatives than to persuading undecided voters.

More strikingly, I think, Republican primary debates basically look like contests to see who can deliver the most vicious attack lines against Democratic constituencies.  This is hard to explain, since these are candidates who will have to face the consequences of their actions!  One way to square this with the "parasites" story above is to say that candidates have to be dickish to get the endorsements of the parasites.  So Republican candidates are like those rats with toxoplasmosis who cuddle up to cats—their parasites are not only feeding off them, but driving them to political suicide.  But I'm not sure that's right.  I think it's possible that dickishness has become intertwined with the conservative movement in a fundamental way.  To some degree, conservatism is a mood, and in the United States, that mood often encompasses gleeful dickishness.

To shift gears a little, I think dickishness is generally practiced from a position of privilege.  People who are not operating from a position of power generally can't afford to antagonize other people with wanton cruelty. And so this may give a partial answer to a longstanding question of American politics, which is why practically every minority group votes overwhelmingly Democratic despite having divergent interests, beliefs, and backgrounds.  (The paradigmatic example is the coalition of Jews and blacks in urban politics, but there are many others, including the huge Democratic advantage among Asian-Americans.)  In addition to the many substantive reasons for these people to vote Democratic, maybe we can add a stylistic one:  they are not privileged, and so they are not amused by the Republicans' inveterate dickishness.  If that's true, the Republican Party's problem is both shallow and deep.  On one hand, it should be able to improve its performance without abandoning its principles.  But on the other hand, abandoning its dickishness may be virtually impossible to do.  And so the final irony:  the very people who love to castigate "black culture" have a deep cultural problem that will cost them not just the votes of blacks, but the votes of anyone who isn't predisposed to laugh when the powerful pick on the weak.