A misconceived attack on libertarianism

By Lorenzo

Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay have produced a Manifesto Against the Enemies of Modernity. There is much to agree with in it but at least one part is thoroughly misconceived, which is the attack on libertarianism.

Such an attack is a strange thing to read in such a manifesto, for if any ideology seems a product of modernity it is libertarianism, an intense form of liberalism. The heroes of libertarianism are very much modern figures, with the earliest thinker being regularly invoked being C17th philosopher John Locke. Some of the more historically minded might cite the Salamanca School, but for their economic reasoning, and perhaps some of their natural law reasoning, not their Catholicism.

Indeed, the most potentially fruitful lines of attack on libertarianism would be to accuse it of being a particularly autistic manifestation of modernity. “Dissident right” blogger Zman let’s loose with a blast along those lines here.

Yet Pluckrose and Lindsay line up the libertarians (or at least a significant strain of such thought) with the premodern right:

Premodernism valorizes simplicity and purity that it imagines in terms of Natural roles, Laws, and Rights. It feels these have been subverted by the growth of institutions and complex social structures. It also deeply distrusts expertise for a wide variety of complicated reasons, including a certain self-assured and yet self-pitying resentment of sociocultural betterment, the undermining of “Natural” roles, the questioning and challenging of traditional values, and engineering in the social, cultural, and political spheres.

In the case of libertarians, particularly, a major influence is the political theory of Friedrich Hayek, who saw the increasing centralized regulation by government in the more recent Modern period as a gradual return to serfdom which threatens to bring about totalitarianism. In The Road to Serfdom, he argues, mirroring the postmodernists, that knowledge and truth is, in this way, inextricably linked to and constructed by power structures. Here and in The Constitution of Liberty, Hayek levied influential but profoundly dubious criticisms of rationalism in the forms of the expertise used in the planning and organization of socio-economic programs because, he argued, man’s knowledge is always limited. He warned that rationalism pushes a form of destructive perfectionism which disregards older traditions and values and restricts individual liberty.

The Road to Serfdom is not a very long book, yet remarkably often gets misrepresented. It is not a screed against regulation, still less against the welfare state, but against centralised economic planning. And if you think there is something wrong with the thesis that command economies and free societies (including democracy) are incompatible, I refer you to the right-in-front-of-our-eyes case of Venezuela.

It is many years since I read the book, but I do not remember any “mirroring the postmodernists” about knowledge and truth. Hayek‘s point was that command economies, by their nature, suppress and distort information, a key claim in the economic calculation debate.

The dispersed nature of knowledge was a key part of his thinking, distilled in his classic (and highly influential) 1945 essay The Use of Knowledge in Society.  Hayek’s point about the limitations of states as users and shapers of information have since been revisited by James C. Scott (no libertarian he) in his contemporary classic Seeing Like A State.


Modernity or modernism?

It is useful to distinguish between modernity, well characterised by Pluckrose and Lindsay, and modernism which can be distilled down to the presumption that new is always better. That before the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment, before the rise of modernity, humanity had failed to discover any useful about the human condition or human societies, it was all a fog of ignorance and superstition which needs to be rejected root-and-branch. It is an arrogant vice of modernity, which has been at times highly destructive and given us the recurring horrors of modern architecture.

To point out that our ancestors were not morons and failures just because they lived before modernity got underway is not to reject modernity. As some of those pre-modern legacies include Roman Law, the common law and Parliaments, not to mention Euclidean geometry and the Pythagorean scale, we are not entitled to such arrogance. Indeed, the Enlightenment itself was yet another dipping into the memory well of the Classical legacy, a feature less than entirely absent from the Scientific Revolution itself.

Limits and confidence

To explore the limits of reason and knowledge, and the limits of the human, is not to reject reason or knowledge. And there clearly are information limits on what states can manage to effectively do. The entire history of command economies is a lesson in that, which is precisely why the Beijing and Hanoi regimes have so profoundly wound back their command economies, to the great benefit of their citizens.

One of the reasons libertarianism attracts such animus is precisely because it casts doubt on the capacities of the state, which threatens confidence in many people’s favourite social transformation toy. That does not remotely put libertarianism outside the realm of modernity, still less make it premodern.

Lindsay and Pluckrose continue their attack on libertarianism:

This dim right-leaning view of individual liberty is paradoxically shared in considerable degree by the more culturally permissive premodern branch of anti-modern libertarians. Libertarians, particularly American ones, are distinguished by their insistences upon individual liberty being an unrivaled good. Yet theirs is a peculiar view of liberty that, despite being based in many of Modernity’s values, is overly narrow in its focus only upon restrictions of liberty issued by the state and thus rapidly ceases to be compatible with the institutions that enable Modernity. The oft-quoted epigram on the rattlesnake-bearing Gadsden Flag, “don’t tread on me,” is a good summary of their naively optimistic view of society: just leave them alone and everything will be fine. A similar mentality is found in the kind of Brexiter who focuses on the big themes of “independence” and “sovereignty” (going light on the details), whilst accusing everyone still unhappy about it of being undemocratic.

Which may make such folk wrong or misguided, but does not remotely make them enemies of modernity. Trying to insist that everyone line up in the “right sort” of modernity is quite different from a broad-based defence of modernity and is, in fact, somewhat antithetical to such a defence.

Modernity grew up in a period when states did far less than they currently do; in fact less than most contemporary libertarians (and certainly less than Hayek himself) would be comfortable with them doing. The claim that libertarian’s “peculiar view of liberty”  “rapidly ceases to be compatible with the institutions that enable Modernity” is a deeply dubious one. The notion of spontaneous order that such view of liberty typically rest on may well be overstated, but is not remotely an anti-modernity idea: on the contrary, it is one of the ornaments of the Enlightenment. Yes, it has some premodern precursors, most obviously in the Tao, but only those suffering from the modernist arrogance would see that has somehow disabling.

Antipathy to commerce

There is a long tradition of academics and intellectuals being antithetical to commerce. The superficial forms of the complaints change according to prevailing intellectual fashions, but the underlying complaints are remarkably consistent — merchants are amoral, they make outrageously more money than decent moral folk (such as academics and intellectuals), they get in the way of (the current scheme for) social harmony.

Commerce is indeed dynamic, risky and generates high income variance as a result. But it would be nice if intellectuals and academics could get over their angst about it: though, at two-and-half-millennia and counting, they probably won’t. But that angst spills over into denunciations of that dreaded contemporary bug-bear neoliberalism and, in this case, libertarianism.

Reading Lindsay and Pluckrose’s critique, I fail to see characteristics of actual libertarianism. One can read magazines such as Regulation, and the other publications of the Cato Institute, or Reason magazine (note the title) in vain for some attack on, or rejection of, modernity. To contest the direction of public policy, even profoundly, is not to reject modernity. Indeed, contesting the direction of public policy is almost a defining aspect of modernity.

About that state

What makes Pluckrose and Lindsay’s attack on libertarianism even more misconceived is that they complain that postmodernists are a “tiny minority” yet wield disproportionate power. Indeed, and how do they do that? Primarily through the ever-expanding organs and networks of the diversity state, notably hitchhiking on “diversity” operating as a managerial ideology.

The recent memo from the US National Labor Relations Board that stated that referring to psychometric literature on sex differences is “discriminatory and sexual harassment” is a direct attack on use of scientific evidence in debate from within the bowels of the diversity state. The attack on due process in campuses Laura Kipnis so amusingly skewers came directly from the famous US Department of Education Title IX “Dear Colleague” letter.

Where do the indoctrinated products of PoMo social constructionist university education go? Into University administration, the organs of the administrative state, and corporate HR departments working off legal mandates. All those mid-level bureaucratic positions that the administrative state multiplies so steadily. Are Pluckrose and Lindsay still going to imply that modernity requires confidence, apparently expanding confidence, in the capacities of the state for social betterment?


Having made these way-overplayed critiques of libertarianism, that critique subsequently disappears from the essay. Libertarians have nothing to do with the patterns critiqued in the rest of the essay.

This is hardly surprising, as libertarians are something of an “in between” group, tending to be economic and social liberalisers. Pro-migration, pro-free trade, pro same-sex marriage, pro drug legalisation, police-power-sceptical: in terms of the left/right divide, this is something of an “offshore balancer” role. It clearly does not intensify the left-right debate and there is nothing in this list which is, in any way, anti-modernity.

Pluckrose and Lindsay’s critique of libertarianism smacks of a lack of genuine familiarity with what is being critiqued intermixed with ideological antipathy that sits poorly with underlying message and intent of the essay which, in its own terms, is to encourage a broad coalition in defence of modernity. Sounds good to me, but let’s include libertarians in, where they belong.

 [Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]

The dissident right and the race thing

By Lorenzo

The blogger Zman provides a very useful summary of the dissident right:

If you were trying to reduce the main points of the Dissident Right with a few bullet points, it would be:

  • The people in charge have dangerous fantasies about the future of society and the nature of man
  • The mass media is just propaganda for those fantasies and can never be taken at face value
  • Race is real, ethnicity is real and evolution is real. In the main, humans prefer to live with their own kind. Diversity leads to conflict.

There is a more to it, but those are the three main items that come up over and over among writers in the Dissident Right. The people in charge, of course, dispute these and consider them to be ignorant, paranoid and immoral. Question the browning of America and you’re a dumb racist. Notice that mass media often looks like a coordinated public relations campaign and you’re branded as a paranoid. Of course, anyone mentioning the realities of race and sex is the branded a Nazi or white supremacist.

A useful summary, because pithy summaries of positions from the inside are almost always a helpful addition to understanding and debate. One of the ways, for example, you can tell that much academic writing about “neoliberalism” is worthless is the lack of forensic analysis of what alleged neoliberals write.

Pithy summaries tend not to be the places for nuance. But what I found useful in Zman’s summary is it pinpointed for me why I read a lot of “dissident right” stuff but do not identify with it.

I read a lot of it in part because they often are willing to consider facts and concerns which conflict with the progressivist piety display politics that dominate so much of the media and elsewhere (and help provide strong coordinating effects). Also because I do think said politics include some dangerous fantasies about the future of society and human nature. And because I do think that ethnicity is real and evolution is real.

Against social constructionism

Continuing with points of agreement, evolutionary psychology tends to have not nearly enough history or comparative anthropology in it (see a useful discussion here), but social constructionist viewpoints (which have been widely adopted in much of the humanities and social sciences) are both false and toxic. False because there are inherent structures which cannot be wished away by human will and action. Such as an inherited cognitive architecture, as famously put by biologist E.O.Wilson (pdf):

What I like to say is that Karl Marx was right, socialism works, it is just that he had the wrong species. Why doesn’t it work in humans? Because we have reproductive independence, and we get maximum Darwinian fitness by looking after our own survival and having our own offspring.

(Often paraphrased as “wonderful idea, wrong species”.)

This inherited cognitive architecture (a result of the biology required in order to have big brains so anything can be socially constructed in the first place) extends to differences in the distribution of cognitive traits between men and women, differences which are actually larger in prosperous, developed societies (pdf), likely because less social constraint means underlying biological differences are more directly manifested.

Another structural constraint is the limitations on knowledge, as discussed by economist-philosopher Friedrich Hayek in The Use of Knowledge in Society and by historical anthropologist James C. Scott in Seeing Like A State. Which, combined with the incentive issues, generates the economic calculation problem.

Because toxic

Social constructionist views tends to be toxic because they have a powerful tendency towards manichaean views of human society and action. If social structures are fully plastic to human action, then all bad outcomes are the result of human action (typically, someone else’s human action) and could be eliminated by correct human action.

So, the evils and problems of the world gets analysed in terms of malign human action and are deemed to be soluble by unified human action. Hence the tendency to talk as if all the problems of the world as are the result of malign human action-and-feeling (racism, sexism, etc) which require unified action to eliminate, including the convergence of all forms of social action towards proper social harmony. Hence there is no part of human society that should be outside the convergence towards harmony, or the elimination of alienation, or whatever the end goal is that will, as the saying goes, immanentize the eschaton.

If one wants to know where the contemporary drive to find “sin” in everything (sinful jokes, sinful games, sinful shirts, sinful words, sinful statues, sinful opinions, etc) comes from, the widespread adoption of social constructionist ideas is a key element. Particularly coming out of feminism, which has become a central driver of progressivism; hence the shift from talking of sexism to talking of misogyny: criticising men is feminism, criticising women is misogyny.

For those interested in historical patterns, the first great success of the women’s movement (women’s suffrage) was, in the US, followed by their next great success, Prohibition, the war against the (mostly male) demon drink (see an amusing essay here). In our time, the massive expansion in opportunities for women in recent decades (essentially, since the pill [pdf]) has been followed by the campaign against the (very male) demon domination (and who, unlike the demon drink, also has a race and a sexuality). As was the case with the war against the demon drink, the “cure” for the demon domination is proving to be much worse than the actual extent of the problem in Western societies.

Needless to say, analysing all human and social ills in terms of malign will and bad feelings is toxic to open debate, or even elementary civility. Given that Stalinism was intensely social constructionist, and that, especially in France, there was not much temporal gap between adhering to Stalinism and jumping into postmodernism and post-structuralism, it is not surprising that we are seeing a revival of Stalinist rhetorical constructs, such as hate speech and massive over-use of the “Fascist!” label, and of neo-Lysenkoist biological denialism.

As an aside, while I disagree on a couple of points (patriarchy is not in the interest of every man, for example, particularly not in its polygynous form) what the authors of this analysis call their biosocial theory is an analytical approach I heartily agree with.

But about that race thing

Where I fail to get on board with the dissident right is the race thing. Yes, race is real in a (fuzzy boundary) sense, it is just not real in the sense they mean. That is, race does not usefully aggregate causal factors together, it is not a causal unit. Ethnicity does: ethnicity reaches back deep into our evolutionary history. Ethnicity was how we scaled up beyond foraging bands. Judges 12, the story of shibboleth, is an ethnic cues story. We are the cultural species, so of course ethnicity matters.

From the C18th onwards, race was basically constructed within Western thought as a meta-ethnicity. The analytical trouble with that is, doing that takes us further away from actual causal factors. To the extent that white means anything analytically useful it means of European origin: referring to civilisational and ethnic traits, not racial ones. And, even there, it often makes a major difference which Europeans. To put it another way, even if the US was “lily-white”, it would be unavoidably diverse, and unavoidably ethnically diverse.

Terms such as white and black abstract away from people’s cultural and civilisational heritage. In the hands of the fighters against the demon domination, that is often the point, as it helps with the malign-feelings-and-will social constructionist shtick. But no-one who takes the heritage of Western civilisation seriously should play that game for a moment.

Nor, even in the US context, is the term black any better than white. Do you mean recent African immigrants, who tend to be well-educated, have intact families and do well in the US? Do you mean Afro-Caribbean immigrants, who achieved their freedom from slavery a generation earlier and whose ancestors live and voted in polities where they were fully integrated into local politics? Or do you mean Ebonic-Americans, the descendants of slaves whose ancestors went through the oppressions of Jim Crow? Because they are quite different groups. And the last are very much an ethnic group, an American nation, and can only be understood through the prism of ethnicity, not race.

Diversity: it depends

As for the problems of diversity, they are not generic or automatic. I seriously doubt that the importing of highly educated East Asians or South Asians is any threat to the fabric of American society. Nor are the various minority strains of Islam (IsmailisIbadisAlevisAhmadis) likely to be a problem. Their permanent minority status means that aspiring to domination (see below) is suicidal, and has long since been adapted out of their varieties of Islam.

Hispanics in the US are a little more complex, but mainly because of the consequences of illegal immigration in creating black markets in labour and of blocking voter control over migration policy. Have effective border control plus explicit selection and the problem largely goes away. How am I so confident? Because Australia and Canada manage much higher rates of immigration than the US with far less social and political angst. (Though Australian states continuing to restrict land supply to drive up tax revenue while failing to provide adequate infrastructure, leading to mounting congestion issues, is putting that under some pressure.)

Hispanic migration in the US is, by the way, not a crime problem. Indeed, a plausible interpretation of urban progressive support for Hispanic migration, legal or otherwise, is not only because it provides cheap labour, but because if Hispanics replace Ebonic-Americans in an urban area, the crime rate plummets.

The serious problems with diversity in the US largely comes down to two things: Ebonic-American crime and [though the problem is obviously much larger in Europe] mainstream Sunni Islam.  (Twelver Shia Islam also, but that is a somewhat more complex story as much of the difficulty with that diaspora is the Iranian regime using it as a base for its violence.)

Due to progressivist piety displays, it is very difficult have any sort of public conversation about the realities of Ebonic-American crime (that, for example, African-Americans are about 13% of the US population and generate about half its homicides), even though such crime has been a major element in urban dynamics in the US for decades. The dissident right will at least talk about it, if often not in a very analytically useful way.

The problem with mainstream Islam is simple: mainstream Islam is a religion of domination (men over women, believers over non-believers) and the problems generated by Islam and Muslims around the world are overwhelmingly rooted in that. It is why the difficulties with mainstream Islam are orders of magnitude greater than those with Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, etc. But progressivist piety display makes it almost impossible to have any sort of public conversation about the difficulties that mainstream Islam being a religion of domination generates. And so back again to why I read the dissident right.

Steep status hierarchies

The irony is, that Ebonic-American crime and the problems with mainstream Islam likely have overlapping causes. In both cases, as is normal in human societies, the crime and violence problem is overwhelmingly concentrated in young males.

Poverty has less to do with crime than is often thought, but income inequality has quite a lot (pdf). Moreover, if one thinks in terms of status or dominance hierarchies (which are connected to income inequality but not limited to it) the patterns begin to make more sense. (Effectiveness of police and criminal justice systems make a major difference–see the New York success–but I am ignoring that for the moment.)

Confront young males with a steep (i.e. hard to climb) dominance/status hierarchy and violent behaviour becomes far more likely as it shifts the threshold where aggression turns into violence. This is a major generator of violence in polygynous societies, for example, where elite male acquisition of extra wives and concubines massively reduce the prospects of young, low status males for sex and marriage. Islam’s preferred solution was to export the problem, as ghazis fighting the infidel, degrading infidel border regions and taking infidel women. Hence Islamic martyrdom is dying while killing infidels and promises houris in Paradise.

The contemporary polygyny of the Arab oil-rich states, reducing the number of marriageable women in other Arab societies (i.e. importing extra wives and exporting any resultant violence problem, a different way of exporting the problem), likely has rather more to do with endemic instability in the Middle East than the Israel-Palestine conflict, which has dwindled to a tedious border dispute. But, thanks to the Christian sanctification of Roman marriage patterns, European cultures have been monogamous for over a millennia (or, in the Graeco-Roman Mediterranean littoral, for over two millennia), so even considering that the dynamics of polygyny might matter does not occur to most Western folk, while “blame the Jews” is practically programmed in.

Alas, the notion that Muslim men should be able to sexually exploit infidel women is a religious-cultural script that continues to be regularly activated: such as in the “grooming gangs” of Britain where the British state has racked up decades of failure because progressivist multiculturalism and anti-racist pieties were much more important than protecting thousands of indigenous British girls and some Sikh girls from rape, abuse and systematic enslavement for the purposes of prostitution. Even when the issue began to be broached, much of the media, led by the BBC, continued to talk “Asian gangs”, thereby slandering Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs to avoid identifying that those convicted are at least 90% Muslim, though recent reporting is a bit more informative. (In the Netherlands, such human trafficking, also primarily of underage girls, is known as the loverboy phenomenon, with the perpetrators tending to be Moroccans, rather than Pakistanis; though in both the UK and Netherlands Muslim men of a variety of ethnic backgrounds have been convicted.)

[Criminals normally prey on victims within their communities. To systematically prey on victims outside their communities is highly unusual.]

Given the range of difficulties with Muslim migration, that even in Australia, voters are not keen on (pdf) Muslim migration, and European voters tend to be against it, is not surprising.

Continuing on the status/hierarchy issue, it is not hard to see that the post-slavery history of young Ebonic-American male violence might have something to do with the very steep status hierarchies they have faced in US society. Nor that significantly lower average IQ as social rewards to education and cognitive capacity have increased might sharpen that effective steepness of status/dominance hierarchies even though overt, and particularly institutional, racism were massively declining. With the male status-seeking of gangs and the income opportunities of black market narcotics (and the inherent violence of [pdf] black markets) adding to the mix.

Similarly, young Muslim men, raised as “golden sons” in Muslim families within the culture of a religion of dominance (men over women, believers over non-believers) might confront the gap between that and how status hierarchies in Western societies actually work and become potential ticking time-bombs.

But to even consider these possibilities involves committing a plethora of thought crimes against progressivist pieties. So, back to reading the dissent right but not identifying with them.


[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]

ADDENDA Short version: as I say here, as soon as a social issue is framed in terms of race, one has dumbed down the discussion.

A comment on border walls

By Lorenzo

This is based on a comment I made here.

The success of Israel and Hungary in putting up border barriers has been cited as evidence in favour of President Trump’s proposed Mexican border wall.

West Bank barrier

A counter-argument raised against such citing is that those walls are much smaller than the Trump proposal. It is true that the US-Mexican border is 3,201km long, while Israel has 1,004km of border barriers (708km on West Bank, 245km on Egypt border and 51km on Gaza border) and the Hungarian border barriers are 523km (175km on Serbian border and 348km on Croatian border)–actually, slightly less if one includes natural barriers.

What is missing in this simple comparison is relative populations. Israel has 1,004 km of border wall with a population of 8.5m, so 8,500 people per km of wall.

Hungary has 523km of border wall with a population of 9.8m, so 18,700 people per km of wall.

Hungarian border barrier

The US-Mexico border is 3,201km long and the US has a population of 325.7m, which would be 101,800 people per km of wall.

Given that Americans are also, on average, richer than Israelis and Hungarians, the proposed Mexican border barrier is, in fact, “smaller” with respect to population and GDP than either the Israeli or Hungarian cases.


Another argument sometimes mounted against border barriers or border enforcement is that a significant amount of illegal immigration comes from visa overstayers and other people who have legally entered for one purpose but extend their stay beyond their legal entitlement. While this is true, it is no argument against border barriers, which can (as the Israel and Hungarian cases demonstrate) be very effective in stopping illegal border crossings. That they do not also stop overstaying merely tells us that such barriers are not a complete solution to all illegal immigration.

It is also reasonable to regard the two types of illegal immigration differently simply because the overstayers have at least passed some level of entry scrutiny. Moreover, it is a bit difficult to do things such as various forms of infrastructure when you don’t even know how many folk are in the country. (And the notion that the social infrastructure of being a successful country is infinitely flexible, so can deal with any level of inflow of any type, strikes me as just nuts.)

Incorporating or denigrating

The Australian and Canadian experiences suggest quite strongly that effective efforts against illegal immigration can actually help the pro-immigration cause because it does not make ordinary voters feel they have no say. Making voters feel helpless and ignored is not good for politics in general and the politics of immigration in particular. While de-legitimising considering the downsides from migration helps along the process of spectacularly screwing up migration policy.

Design proposal for Mexican border barrier.

Of course, if your main operative concern regarding immigration is to show how righteous you are, then making the “unrighteous” feel helpless and ignored, indeed, rubbing their noses in how much their views (and votes) don’t count, may be much of the attraction in the first place. (The term undocumented migrants is a nicely Orwellian way of saying “and your votes shouldn’t count”, though it is only part of the use of language to promote voter irrelevance on migration matters.)

But that sort of moralising arrogance, and contempt towards fellow citizens, is not helpful; however strong and appealing it may be among “progressive” folk. It helps give support for the very populist politics that they so deride; but even that can also be a good outcome for them, as it “confirms” their contempt for their fellow citizens which has become so much an integral part of contemporary “progressive” politics.

Far from comparative size stopping the successful Israeli and Hungarian border barriers being evidence for a Mexican border wall, the Mexican border wall is (relative to population and GDP) actually as “smaller” proposal than either.


ADDENDA: An unusually sensible piece on The Wall.

An amusing post about the success of physical barriers.

The latest poll is from 2012, but includes previous polls and suggests strong support for enforcing laws against illegal immigration.

[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]

Luke Cage: a view from Harlem

By Lorenzo

With the expansion in cable television, and the even more recent rise of online television, we live in a golden age of television. The range of TV series, including high quality TV series, available is unprecedented.

Marvel v DC

I have a weakness for police procedurals, crime shows and superhero shows (though not the animated versions). Among the “big two” comic conglomerates, DC comics has had a longer record of TV success than Marvel, though Marvel has started to expand its television presence. DC is doing particularly well in TV series at the moment. From the success of Arrow (2012-), DC has spun off The Flash (2014-), Legends of Tomorrow (2016-) (the core of the so-called Arrowverse) plus creating Constantine (2014-15) and Supergirl (2015-). From the DC imprint Vertigo Comics comes Lucifer (2015-), which is the most wickedly funny of the various current set of comic series (as is only proper).

DC’s most iconic comic characters are Superman (1933) and Batman (1939). In terms of current TV series, Supergirl is, of course, Superman’s cousin while Gotham (2014-) is the story of the path, starting with the death of the Mr & Mrs Wayne’s, of Bruce Wayne to becoming Batman. The previous great C21st DC superhero TV success being Smallville (2001-2011), the story of Kal-El/Clark Kent’s path to becoming Superman.

Outside the Christopher Nolan Batman films, Batman Begins (2005), The Dark Knight (2008) and The Dark Knight Rises (2012), Marvel has done much better in recent films than DC, both in fan/critical response and box office. The standout exception for DC being Wonder Woman (2017), which was not merely a great superhero film, but also a great war film. Otherwise, the recent DC outings have been too dour, too pedestrian: reasonable B-grade films, although with block-buster budgets, but nothing special.

Apart from the first Captain America film, The First Avenger (2011), the various Marvel Cinematic Universe films have been more fun, better received by the fans, and generally bigger box office than the recent DC film efforts. My favourites are Doctor Strange (2016) and Deadpool (2016), but I have enjoyed them all.

Their film success has encouraged Marvel to produce various TV series. They started with a direct leverage from the successful Avenger movies, with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (2013-) and Agent Carter (2015-2016) plus a group of specifically New York focused series; Jessica Jones (2015-), Daredevil (2015-), Luke Cage (2016-), Iron Fist (2017-) who converge in a group series The Defenders (2017-). Marvel has also launched The Punisher (2017-) as well as an explicitly X-men series, Legion (2017-).

I have been watching (on DVD); Arrow (2012-), The Flash (2014-), Legends of Tomorrow (2016-) and Gotham from DC comics plus Daredevil (2015-), Luke Cage (2016-) and Jessica Jones (2015-) from the Marvel universe.  I have also been watching, and greatly enjoying, Lucifer (2015-).

In the case of Jessica Jones (2015-), I only watched it because some of the events referenced in Luke Cage (2016-) happened in the first season of Jessica Jones (2015-). Although I watched all the first season of Jessica Jones (2015-), I found it at times a difficult watch. Not because it was not well done–it is very well done–but because the mind-controlling psychopath Kilgore (wonderfully played by David Tennant) was an uncomfortable villain while I found Jessica Jones’s abrasive inability to manage people effectively frustrating: too much overt emotion, too little thinking it through. Luke Cage’s caring calm was distinctly more engaging.

Man in a hoodie

Luke Cage is an unusual superhero in at least two respects. First, no mask: he is just an African-American man in a hoodie. Second, no special name; Luke Cage is the name he already goes by around first Hell’s Kitchen, in Jessica Jones (2015-), and then Harlem (though it is not his legal name).

That Luke Cage is of African descent is less unusual: Marvel is bringing out a Black Panther film this year. Luke Cage does have special powers (bulletproof and unusually strong), the result of a freak medical experiment/accident, but that is hardly an unusual superhero back story.

(As an aside, I have come to very much dislike the use of white and black as racial terms. As journalist William Saletan nicely puts it, race is not a causal unit. It does not even bundle causal units together in other than the crudest of fashions. The terms white and black strip people of their cultural and civilisational heritages–we do not, after all, use the term yellow races any more. In the case of the US, white bundles people of European heritages together while black bundles people of various African heritages together–whether the descendants of slaves who have been in what is now the US for centuries, more than enough time for ethnogenesis; more recent Afro-Caribbean migrants further removed from the experience of slavery and with no Jim Crow in their history; or recent African immigrants who tend to be highly educated and highly successful.)

The character of Luke Cage was introduced in Jessica Jones (2015-) where he ran a bar in Hell’s Kitchen. By the time the Luke Cage series starts, he has moved to Harlem and is sweeping hair in a barber shop and dishwashing at the Harlem Paradise nightclub.

People and place

As a TV series, Luke Cage has some notable features. The first is much less of “quick cuts” approach to scenes and shots in this online series than is usual in TV shows: there is much more lingering use of camera angles. Second is the on-screen music is much more front-and-centre. In particular, the scenes at the Harlem Paradise night club include guest singers, whose talents are showcased rather than touched-upon background. But not only there: a rap artist rapping at the end of a radio interview gets the same showcasing.

The third is a very solidly African-American perspective. This is a series very much placed in Harlem, and the history of Harlem is not one of slavery or Jim Crow; they were things that happened elsewhere. There is much reference to “black” history in the series, but it is a running reference to the achievements of notable African-Americans. The invoked public history is a heroic history of example and achievement, not a victim history of oppression.

A recurring touchpoint within the series is that of missing fathers. Only about 30 percent of African-Americans are now born in wedlock. If one wants to see communities experimenting with large-scale dispensing with fatherhood, then African-American communities are it. Not encouraging examples, and certainly Luke Cage as a TV series treats missing fathers as a lack, a failure, a flaw and a burden.

A continuing theme in the series is the use of the word nigger (or nigga).  Luke Cage (Mike Colter) himself refuses to use it, and Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodward), the Harlem councilwoman with the crime family background, announces to her night club-owning crime-boss cousin Cornel “Cottonmouth” Stokes (another fine performance by Oscar-winner Mahershala Ali: but all the leads are well-played) how much she despises the word in one of the first scenes of the series. Cottonmouth himself says in that same scene that “it is easy to underestimate a nigger, you don’t see him coming”. The characters who embrace crime and violent street bravado are the ones that bandy the word about.

Civilised order versus gangster barbarism is very much a theme of the series (roughly as many African-Americans identify as conservative as identify as liberal). Doing work is a character positive, as is running a (small) business. Liberty versus coercion is also a theme in the series; though coercion in the broad, not merely state coercion. The oppressed/oppression language of politics which African-American life is so often framed by appears lightly in the series, and then in the context of cops and young black males.

But the series refuses to indulge in easy racial stereotypes–the most dire case of police brutality is between a large African-American detective and a teenage African-American boy, while good and evil, strength and weakness are treated as orthogonal to race or ethnicity. The police themselves are portrayed as people, not stereotypes.

The writing and acting are generally excellent. But fine acting has become the norm in the better TV series from the US. The days when you watched American shows for the bang-bang and car chases and British shows for the acting and the wit have long since passed.

Fathers may be significantly absent, but family is not. Cottonmouth’s erratic, almost febrile, violence makes so much more sense as you learn his (and his cousin’s) family backstory. While Luke Cage’s own family drama turns out to be central to the story arc of the first season (and, it is hinted at in the last episode, perhaps longer).

The contrast between a grandmother who corrupted her family and a father who failed his sons is another example of the series refusing to indulge in easy stereotypes. As is detective Misty Knight’s (Simone Missick) wrestling with being in the system yet dubious of it after she is confronted by betrayal from within it and Luke Cage’s example outside it.

Natural versus imposed diversity

I enjoyed the intelligence and story-first approach of the series. It is also an excellent example of the correct way to do “diversity”: make sure story comes first and diversity comes naturally out of it.

If one is clever about it, one can successfully alter, for example, the sex and race of iconic characters. A classic example is Lucy Liu‘s wonderful Joan Watson in Elementary (2012-) which–like the mostly superb Sherlock (2010-)gives us a contemporary Sherlock Holmes; but a recovering drug addict Sherlock who lives in New York and has a sober companion hired by his father as a condition of living in one of his brownstones foisted on him. Enter the (former) Dr Joan Watson who has giving up being a surgeon to be a sober companion and through whose eyes we find out about Sherlock. The dynamic works and is a great basis for storytelling. It is also nice to see two attractive (heterosexual) characters of the opposite sex in a strong and dynamic relationship with absolutely no hint of sexual tension.

(Pausing here for fan joke: Joss WhedonSteven Moffat and George R.R. Martin walk into a bar and every character you’ve ever loved dies.)

Both DC and Marvel comics have falling readerships. Marvel in particular has gratuitously failed to leverage the success of its movies. There has been too much of “we command the cultural commanding heights and we are going to show our institutional dominance” approach of expanding diversity by obliterating historical voices (as in gratuitously changing the sex/race/sexual/gender identity of iconic characters) and too little  increasing the range of voices with their own inherent stories.

In other words, too much of the rebooted Ghostbusters model and not enough of the Mad Max; Fury Road example. The two films’ respective IMDB ratings (5.3 and 8.1) and box office results ($229m worldwide on a $144m budget–it failed to make its production budget in the US–versus $379m worldwide on a $150m budget; remembering that you have to add on about 50% to the production budget to include distribution costs) indicate which is the more successful road to go down.

Because it is the path more respectful of story: respectful of function and purpose which is audience-directed, not gratuitously imposed moralising, which is self (“look at us”) directed. Luke Cage is first and foremost good storytelling, which is how it is able to invoke people and place so well, and do it with a clear and engaging voice.

[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]

ADDENDA: Ooh, the irony, the lesson:

Every year, the LGBTQ+ advocacy group GLAAD recognizes and awards a selection of television shows, films, and books that feature powerful portrayals of queer people. This year, a number of Marvel’s comics were recognized for the contributions they’ve made to queer culture, but those nominations were bittersweet for one incredibly disappointing reason: They’ve all been cancelled.

The founding falsities of postcolonialism

By Lorenzo

In his discussion with anthropologist Philip Carl Salzman, evolutionary psychologist and YouTuber Gad Saad offers (at 8.48) the following:

By the way, in terms of generative grammar, whenever when I see the word ‘post’ before anything then that raises a flag that it’s bullshit. So post = bullshitpostmodernismpostcolonialismpost-structuralism. So, maybe Chomsky can one day weigh in on why the introduction of post implies that we are going to generate nonsense.

As it happens, Chomsky is not a fan of postmodernism: he is too much of a member of the Enlightenment left for that.

I have been less than impressed with my encounters with postcolonialism. It seems to be based on three fundamental errors: the Marx Mistake, the Lenin Error and the Fanon Fallacy.

The Marx Mistake

Marx’s conception of the state, so memorably set out in Chapter 1 of The Communist Manifesto (pdf) (1848) held that:

The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.

A useful (if somewhat grammatically challenged) summary-discussion of the Marxist approach to the state is here and a pithy summary is here. At its simplest, the underlying causal structure is that the production technology produces the class structure which produces the state. So that, while there is some scope for independent action by holders of state power, the class structure is prior to, and helps structure, the state.

Which is, for most of human history, simply false. For most of human history, the dominant creator of class structure was the state itself because the state was, until very recently, the dominant generator of surplus (that is, resources beyond the needs of basic subsistence) and surplus is the basis of social hierarchy.

Human societies, up until the break out of human productive capacity beginning in the 1820s, were basically Malthusian in their dynamics. More production led to more babies. The only way to systematically extract surplus was to extract resources before they were used to support more babies and, until very recently in human history, by far the dominant extractor of surplus was the state itself.

The state was originally an extractive parasite which needed to keep its host population controlled (or at least docile) and producing, as set out nicely in historical anthropologist James C. Scott‘s recent work Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earlist States. Political economist Omer Moav and his colleagues have been developing models of original states as using coercive extraction to get (pdf) around Malthusian constraints including the importance of how vulnerable crops were to expropriation (pdf).

As an aside, whether states have stopped, and to what degree, being extractive parasites requiring docile-and-producing populations is very much a live question. One can, for example, reasonably see the decay of Detroit as a parasitic (mainly city) state apparatus bleeding the life out of a weak civil society undermined by economic changes that the state impedes adjustment to.

Historically, the only competitors to state taxation in producing surplus was various forms of non-state labour bondage (serfdom and slavery) and trade. The former because key to labour bondage is to extract surplus from labour generally paid at subsistence levels; expropriating, as much as is practicable, any scarcity premium from labour. (There is some complexity with regard to use of slaves in more skilled situations [pdf], but it is still about coercive extraction of surplus.) Some of the surplus was then used to maintain the control over those in bondage, the rest to support elite social niches.

While this could create social groups that the state had reasons to bargain with, the support of the state itself was usually required to maintain the labour bondage. The Black Death (which greatly increased the scarcity value of labour because it killed people, not land, machines or coins) failed to see a return to serfdom in Western Europe as the various crowns failed to support the smaller landlords in their demands to re-impose serfdom because it was not in the various crowns’ interests to do so.

Trade also produced surplus because it was too variable (essentially, too risky) to be reliably babied-away and often required larger (i.e. surplus-including) social niches to operate.

Even in societies with significant non-state control of surplus, avoiding autocracy and tyranny was a perennial concern, precisely because of the continuing power of the state apparatus. But the entire issue of how to manage state power becomes a non-issue if one believes altering the class structure eliminates the problem, because the state “ultimately reflects” the underlying class structure. The entire history of Leninist tyranny flows from that misconception, in tandem with the necessity to hugely concentrate power to achieve the justifying social transformation.

By stripping away private economic activity, Leninist states were not being cutting edge modernisers, they were being profoundly atavistic. So much so, that the one remaining full-deal Leninist state is a hereditary theocratic autocracy (with deified rulers–an eternal President and eternal Secretary-General): the most atavistic version of the state.

So, a founding mistake of post-colonialism has been to fail to see the state as an structure with its own support and dynamics, not as some reflection of class or race. (Note that class-analysis is inherently superior to race-analysis because class analysis does actually connect to, or bundle together, things which could reasonably be causal units: race does not.)

The Lenin Error

The Lenin Error flows from the Marx Mistake. This was to see imperialism as primarily an economic-class phenomenon.

Imperialism is fundamentally a state phenomenon. Imperialism is what states do, whenever they able to do so in an extraction-positive way. States of all types of social arrangements and economic bases have engaged in imperialism. As soon as there was states, there was imperialism.

As historian Niall Ferguson has observed, imperialism is the least distinctive feature of Western civilisation. The remarkable things about Western territorial imperialism are:

  1. How successful it was.
  2. How comparatively little effort that success required.
  3. How much richer post-Imperial Western societies became.

Atlantic littoral European states (plus Russia) managed to occupy, directly or via neo-Europes, most of the globe. That is a striking level of success, unparalleled in human history.

Yet, at no stage, was the major military effort of any European society deployed against a non-European or neo-European society. European global expansion was achieved while European military forces mostly faced off against other European military forces.

Both these features are products of the same feature: Europe developed incredibly effective states. Since imperialism is what states do, those European states with avenues of geographic expansion (Atlantic littoral states and Russia) produced very, very successful imperialism. Hence also the greatest danger to European states being other European states, and so being where most European military effort was focused.

Looking at the alliance structure among the European Great Powers prior to the Dynasts’ War (1914-1918), if extra-European imperialism was the key thing, Britain should not have been allied to France and Russia, who were its main imperial rivals outside Europe. It was internal European state dynamics which drove the alliance structure because the biggest threat to any European state was other European states.

And what happened when the European states abandoned those territorial empires? They got richer. Indeed, some of the richest European states never had any colonial possessions outside Europe (Switzerland being the most striking example). While the state with the longest extra-European empire (Portugal) was one of the least-rich of European societies by the time it lost its empire.

Imperialism had much less to do with the wealth of European societies than trade (which did not require an empire; though sufficient state effectiveness and military power could certainly motivate imperial expansion to capture revenue from trade) and production within Europe (which also did not require an extra-European empire).

If we see imperialism for what it is, a manifestation of state action, then the history of European imperialism becomes much more explicable. Moreover, one can see that European imperialism is an unusual manifestation of imperialism (albeit still state-based), which is a much wider historical phenomenon that has no intrinsic connection to being European, to “whiteness”, or to capitalism.

Not that Western states entirely gave up imperialism as they gave up their colonies. It is just that Westerners were, and remain, much better revenue-extraction targets than non-Westerners, so Western states shifted more to colonising their own societies. That Otto von Bismarck (1815-1898), as Chancellor of the Second Reich, and Eduard von Taffe (1833-1895), as Minister-President of the Austrian Empire, were founders of the welfare state is something to pay a bit more attention to.

Successful imperialism came late to Euro-Mediterranean Christendom cum Western Civilisation. From the C7th to the C16th, it mostly lost ground to a civilisation genuinely structured, from its origins, for imperialism, Islam. But, if one is committed to the Lenin error of imperialism as an economic-class phenomenon, then the imperialism of Islam vanishes from sight, as it is based on religion; particularly Sharia (from its origins, and in its nature, an imperial legal system), marriage laws and the consequences of polygyny in generating predatory males with no local wife prospects whose external aggression was then sanctified (including expropriating infidel women). Hence Islam, which was born in imperialism, aggressing against every culture and civilisation it came up against in its first millennia: something it never rejected, it just came up against European states who had (after a millennia) evolved into better predators. Mainstream Islam is a religion of dominance: which is the source of all the difficulties Islam is currently generating.

The Fanon Fallacy

The Fanon fallacy comes from Frantz Fanon‘s (1925-1961) writings, particularly his The Wretched of the Earth (1961): some apposite quotes are here. The Fanon Fallacy is to mistake rhetorical justification for something’s underlying nature. In particular, to see imperialism as a “white” phenomenon.

First, race is not a causal actor. It does not even bundle causal units together in a useful way. Plenty of Europeans were the victims of imperialism by European states (the Irish, Highland Scots, Welsh, Bretons, Basques, Catalans, Corsicans, Slovenes, Slovaks, Czechs, Croats, Estonians, Lithuanians, Latvians, Finns, Poles, Ukrainians …).  Hardly surprising, as imperialism is what states do, not races.

Indeed, the Dynasts’ War (1914-1918) was not sparked by extra-European imperialism, it was sparked by intra-European imperialism.

I call it the Dynasts’ War because it was sparked by dynastic regimes under pressure from social changes, regimes that attempted to harness mass sentiment to preserve their regimes and ended up being swallowed by those sentiments: having mobilised mass sentiment requiring vindication-by-victory  they were then trapped by those same sentiments, so forced to continue the war to the bitter end (of their regimes). I dislike the term World War because the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-1748) and the Seven Years War (1756-1763) were at least as global as the 1914-1918 conflict.

It is true that racial arguments came to be used (mostly after the fact of conquest) to explain and justify European and neo-European imperialism. But justificatory rhetoric says something about audience for the rhetoric and the purposes of those using the rhetoric, it does not explain the underlying thing. Moreover, it is normal for imperialisms to have a central group who are mobilised to support the imperial project by status, career, resources and rhetoric.

In particular, it is normal for imperial state societies to generate justificatory rhetoric which exults the imperial culture and denigrates external or peripheral cultures. Chinese intellectuals, for example, did so for millennia; something that James C. Scott discusses in his wonderful The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia.

The Fanon Fallacy takes the (largely ex-post) imperial rationalisation and sees it as structurally central: it functionally accepts (though morally reversing) the racial framing of later European imperialism and mistakes it for the underlying causal reality.

In fact, race is a counter-productive rhetoric for imperialism to adopt, as it seriously impedes incorporating the conquered into the imperial project. Racial conceptions of imperialism–compared to, say, religious or cultural ones–generate a much sharper contrast between conquerors and conquered while obscuring the nature of imperial conquest, turning it from a state action into a race action.

What destroyed European territorial imperialism was the consequences of the Dictators’ War (1939-1945), particularly the interruption of colonial control due to conquest of European metropoles and Japanese expansion and Nazi imperialism giving imperialism a bad name among the populations of imperial powers while validating resistance to imperialism. Other factors included: the increased cost (both physical and moral) of control due to the spread of communication, transport and military technology; the falling benefit of territorial control due to both the expansion of communication and transport technology and (despite the two great wars) continuing expansion of productive capacity in Europe and the neo-Europes relative to many imperial holdings (particularly in Africa).

US naval hegemony providing a guarantee of access to oceanic trade also helped to reduce the benefit of extra-European territorial control. Inside Europe, the consolidation of ethnic nations meant that states could achieve a higher revenue/expenditure trade-off if their citizens shared a common language and culture. All of which was about the dynamics of states and domestic politics and nothing to do with race.

Between the Marx Mistake of failing to see that states have generally been central to class structures (a pattern that Leninist states, ironically returned to and exemplified), the Lenin Error of seeing imperialism as class-economic phenomenon rather than first and foremost a state one and the Fanon Fallacy of mistaking the largely ex-post imperial rationalisation of race as a causal feature of imperialism, it is not surprising that I have been serially underwhelmed by post-colonialism as a basis for analysis.

The Wiped Slate

But wait, there’s more. There is considerable scholarly evidence that pre-colonial patterns and institutions have continuing effects on contemporary human societies (see herehereherehere, and here). Including that whether a culture used plough-based farming or not influences contemporary attitudes on the status of women. Or that the length of time since a human population adopted farming has a significant long-term impact on average life expectancy.

This is not to claim imperialism and colonialism had no continuing effects–see here (pdf) for a study on how being ruled by the Ottomans continues to have adverse institutional effects. But there is an obvious importance gain for postcolonial studies to talk up the effect of colonialism on previously subject peoples. Which leads to what we might call the Wiped Slate Effect: treating colonialism as if it was by far the dominant moulding experience of colonial societies and that experience as unrelievedly negative. Clearly not true–Afghanistan (until the Soviet-Afghan War of 1979-1989), Iran (apart from the brief Anglo-Soviet occupation 1941-6) and Thailand were never subject to European territorial occupation, yet are hardly profoundly different from their neighbours, who were subject to such occupation.

The Lenin Error and the Fanon Fallacy both encourage tendencies to the Wiped Slate Effect. But so does Marx’s view of modes of production being socially dominant, as in this 1853 piece on British rule in India:

All the civil wars, invasions, revolutions, conquests, famines, strangely complex, rapid, and destructive as the successive action in Hindostan may appear, did not go deeper than its surface. England has broken down the entire framework of Indian society, without any symptoms of reconstitution yet appearing. This loss of his old world, with no gain of a new one, imparts a particular kind of melancholy to the present misery of the Hindoo, and separates Hindostan, ruled by Britain, from all its ancient traditions, and from the whole of its past history. …

Those family-communities were based on domestic industry, in that peculiar combination of hand-weaving, hands-spinning and hand-tilling agriculture which gave them self-supporting power. English interference having placed the spinner in Lancashire and the weaver in Bengal, or sweeping away both Hindoo spinner and weaver, dissolved these small semi-barbarian, semi-civilized communities, by blowing up their economical basis, and thus produced the greatest, and to speak the truth, the only social revolution ever heard of in Asia.

Lenin, of course, derived his analysis from Marx.

Which is not to say that Marx in anyway romanticised what the British found in India:

we must not forget that these idyllic village-communities, inoffensive though they may appear, had always been the solid foundation of Oriental despotism, that they restrained the human mind within the smallest possible compass, making it the unresisting tool of superstition, enslaving it beneath traditional rules, depriving it of all grandeur and historical energies. We must not forget the barbarian egotism which, concentrating on some miserable patch of land, had quietly witnessed the ruin of empires, the perpetration of unspeakable cruelties, the massacre of the population of large towns, with no other consideration bestowed upon them than on natural events, itself the helpless prey of any aggressor who deigned to notice it at all. We must not forget that this undignified, stagnatory, and vegetative life, that this passive sort of existence evoked on the other part, in contradistinction, wild, aimless, unbounded forces of destruction and rendered murder itself a religious rite in Hindostan. We must not forget that these little communities were contaminated by distinctions of caste and by slavery, that they subjugated man to external circumstances instead of elevating man the sovereign of circumstances, that they transformed a self-developing social state into never changing natural destiny, and thus brought about a brutalizing worship of nature, exhibiting its degradation in the fact that man, the sovereign of nature, fell down on his knees in adoration of Kanuman, the monkey, and Sabbala, the cow.

The British were part of the arc of history heading in the proper direction:

England, it is true, in causing a social revolution in Hindostan, was actuated only by the vilest interests, and was stupid in her manner of enforcing them. But that is not the question. The question is, can mankind fulfil its destiny without a fundamental revolution in the social state of Asia? If not, whatever may have been the crimes of England she was the unconscious tool of history in bringing about that revolution.

Here we see Marx the historicist, who did so much to infect the social science and humanities with the bug of moralised ideology, where approved (typically highly moralised) framing dominate fact and evidence, whose proponents look for footnotes to fit in with the framing rather than following the evidence wherever it leads. Framing dominating fact is something that the Marx Mistake, the Lenin Error and the Fanon Fallacy are all manifestations of and which post-colonialist analysis is pervaded with.

Fortunately, there is still plenty of empirical scholarship out there which is far more useful in understanding the world around us than any amount of portentous post-colonialism parading as useful scholarship.

[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]

Vampire Diaries versus True Blood

By Lorenzo

I have long been fond of vampire stories, particularly films and TV shows. This is something of a cliche among same-sex attracted folk — intimate sharing of bodily fluids in intense, often apparently orgasmic, experiences manifesting desire incorporating folk of the same-sex by powerful beings who get others to conform to those desires: what’s not to like?

I very much enjoyed all 7 seasons of Buffy and all 5 seasons of Angel. The musical episode of Buffy is according to IMDB (Internet Movie Data Base) ratings, close to perfect television. And who can forget the puppet episode of Angel? I also very much enjoyed the vampire noir of Ultraviolet which, across its episodes, never used the “V-word”.

When True Blood came along, billed as “vampires for adults”, I was initially quite engaged. I had read and enjoyed many of the books in the Southern Vampire series by Charlaine Harris that inspired the TV series. Yet I gave up on True Blood in the 4th season.

Conversely, I had ignored The Vampire Diaries as just teen angst vampire romance. Having eventually given it a go, I am now watching the 8th (and final) season. I enjoy even more its spinoff series The Originals (now in its 5th season, though I have only seen the first two).

Which made me wonder, why did The Vampire Diaries hold my attention much more than True Blood did?

I find the IMDB ratings, if enough people rate a show, to be pretty good wisdom-of-crowds indicators of quality. The IMDB ratings (out of 10) of the aforementioned shows, are, in downward order:

The Originals, 8.3
Buffy, 8.2
Ultraviolet, 8.1
Angel, 8.0
True Blood, 7.9
The Vampire Diaries, 7.8

So, not a lot of variance; though The Vampire Diaries-Originals franchise is the most successful (producing the highest IMDB rated show of the group, though slightly lower combined rating, and more total seasons than the Buffy-Angel franchise).

True Blood and The Vampire Diaries are a mere 0.1 apart in IMDB ratings and why one engaged me more successfully than the other is not because of any clear difference in acting performances, eye candy or dialogue. Indeed, my stand-out favourite performance in either series is the (sadly) late Nelsan Ellis’s performance of Lafayette in True Blood.

Nor is it a matter of moral seriousness. The Vampire Diaries has no moral centre whatsoever. (Nor, for that matter, does The Originals, which operates rather as a supernatural gangster show.)

True Blood has a much stronger queer element, starting with Lafayette, than The Vampire Diaries but that hardly seems a drawback for moi.  Nor am I one of those sad queer folk who demands queer content to enjoy something, though I devour male-male romance e-books.

The fabulousness that is Lafayette

The Vampire Diaries has no moral centre, but it does have an emotional one. I have found it genuinely moving at times. Which gets to why it held my attention much more than True Blood.

First is place. Mystic Falls, the town at the centre of The Vampire Diaries, is more successfully and engagingly evoked as a place than Bon Temps in True BloodThe Originals has New Orleans, which almost counts as an unfair advantage, but has meant that The Originals continues and improves the evocation of place that worked for The Vampire Diaries.

Second, and related, is family. True Blood does not really take family seriously. It appears to, but families tend to be dysfunctional adjuncts to characters rather than engaged structural elements of the story. Vampire Diaries takes family more seriously, starting with the two central characters, the Salvatore brothers Stefan and Damon. Characters are very much placed in family contexts, with family histories which operate more than backstory props, with family being treated as a serious factor in people’s emotional lives for good and ill. Which, in turn, helps Mystic Falls be a more successfully evoked place than Bon Temps.

Again, this strength applies even more to The Originals, which is centred around the original Vampire family, the Mikkaelsons. Particularly the brothers Klaus and Elijah, but extending to their father, mother, and siblings. But families as living and shaping legacies applies also to other The Originals characters, human, witch or werewolf.

True Blood, particularly in its opening credits, is more self-consciously culture-political than Vampire Diaries, which is a mixed feature, as it can get in the way of the story telling. True Blood is a bit too inclined to see the South in terms of its flaws, which weakens the show’s use of family and invocation of place.

The Vampire Diaries also ends up creating a richer metaphysics than True Blood. In True Blood, supernatural creatures just are, and flit across the story more as mystery-marvels than things with a place. The Vampire Diaries, by contrast, is very much concerned to provide origin stories.

Which rather summaries why The Vampire Diaries held my interest more successfully than True Blood. It was more committed to story. Families as having stories, a specific town shaping stories, supernatural beings and structures as having stories. I stopped caring about what happened to characters in True Blood because it was too much one damned thing after another and too little people in connecting webs of people and place. For people who are inside stories have more capacity to engage than people who are story-props. The Vampire Diaries even managed to make a character who was off-screen for the last two seasons a continuing part of the story, both because of the way that was a continuing touchstone for the other central characters and because it enabled the show to return to the “diary” device by having various characters write entries to a journal of “what happened while you were away”.

The character of Klaus Mikkaelson, played beautifully by Joseph Morgan, a recurring character in a couple of seasons of The Vampire Diaries and one of the central characters of The Originals, is an excellent example of character both in and driving story. He is clearly both embedded in his family and shaped by it. His life becomes focused around his (miraculous but explained) daughter. He is both highly intelligent and deeply emotionally flawed (for entirely understandable reasons: when you meet his parents, so much is explained–including why his brother Elijah is so keen to emotionally redeem Klaus). Indeed, being so smart, so cunning, yet so emotionally unbalanced, is central to Klaus’s character dynamic — he is smart/cunning enough to cope with his emotional flaws but too shaped by them to overcome them. Which generates plenty of dramatic tension, of course. But also makes him a deeply engaging, if at times horrifying, character. (Remember, no moral centre.)

The Vampire Diaries was more committed to story, which meant more committed to connections and place, than True Blood, which is why the former kept my interest in a way that the latter failed to do.


[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]

Islam as philosophical dead end

By Lorenzo

Classical (622 to c.940) and early medieval Islam was a civilisation and period with a rich philosophical tradition. Yet Islam became a philosophical dead end, an example of how societies, indeed, an entire civilisation, can stop supporting philosophy as a significant autonomous realm of enquiry. Islam is a civilisation where religion swallowed philosophy, with consequences we are still living with.

That Islam as a civilisation developed a rich philosophical tradition is obvious and well-documented. Thinkers writing in Arabic were particularly important in reconciling Aristotelianism with monotheism. Ibn Rushd (Averroes) (1126-1198) in particular was very influential in Latin Christendom. So much so that St Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), in his writings, would refer to Aristotle (384-322 BC) as The Philosopher and Ibn Rushd (Averroes) as The Commentator.

Yet that rich philosophical tradition dwindled away to vanishing point. It did so as the result of interaction between ideas and social change.

The social dwindling

The social change was the dwindling away of any basis for supporting scholarship and learning outside explicitly Islamic religious schools. The movement to a fief-based military administration reduced administrative bureaucracies, by far the most significant basis for non-religious intellectual life within Islamic societies, while dominance by Turkish-speaking warlords, from the time of the Seljuqs (1037-1153) onwards, led to a surge in ostentatious support for religion by rulers making up for their non-Arabness via ostentatious religious adherence and patronage.

The shock and devastation of the Mongol invasion (much larger and far more traumatic than Crusader seizure of narrow coastal strips), including the sack of Baghdad (1258), the only time the capital of a living Caliph had fallen to non-Muslims, aggravated these trends. The Mongol invasion and conquests, particularly the violent ending of the Abbasid Caliphate, apart from a sad shadow-line in Cairo, both disrupted what non-religious scholarly networks remained and encouraged a retreat into an intensified Islamic identity. These processes are well set out in Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia’s Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane by S. Frederick Starr.

The religious trumping

The two philosophy-swallowing ideas developed from the Ash’ari Islamic school, being given their civilisation-winning form by al-Ghazali (c.1058-1111). The moral claim was that revelation was the only ground for ethical judgement. This effectively eliminates moral arguments as the West understands them (indeed, as all the origin civilisations for philosophy—the Hellenic world, northern India and China — understood them). It is why Islamic states are the only ones who have seen fit to issue an adjusted form of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam, because all ethical arguments and claims have to be grounded in revelation.

The metaphysical claim is that Allah is the source of all non-human causation. Not merely the ground of causation in the Aristotelian sense, but literally the immediate cause of everything that happens. Allah remakes the world at every moment; what we see as causal patterns are merely the habits of Allah, which Allah can change at any moment.

Unsurprisingly, the dwindling away of philosophy also saw the dwindling away of science within Islam, as intellectual effort was directed back into religion. Especially as law was part of religion and religious scholarship, apart from elements (qanun) allowed to operate in the silences of Sharia.

In this way, Islam pre-eliminates competition to itself from within Islamic society. It does so by eliminating the category of moral arguments beyond itself and allocating all non-human causation to Allah. So the levers to replace religious grounding of social and physical understanding which led to the Western Enlightenment are absent within mainstream Islam, as they have no resting points. Especially as the Quran is held to be the literal word of God, a manifested miracle, written in a single language and, according to mainstream Sunni thought, outside time, so far more insulated from critical scholarship than the Christian scriptures.

Adoption aborted

The expansion of the non-religious intelligentsia from the early C19th onwards that the (much delayed) spread of the printing press and efforts of modernising rulers created in the Middle East appeared to give the basis for Islam as a civilisation to “catch up” with the West. A modernising intelligentsia did develop, but largely as a by-product and support for modernising regimes and states.

This centrally-organised, copycat modernisation largely failed to put down deep roots in Islamic societies. Worse, it became tied to success of those states and regimes. (In some ways, a repeat of what happened to the original wave of reason-based modernisers, the Mu’tazila of Classical Islam: Islam is a civilisation of strong recurring patterns.)

Islamic Enlightenment: the Struggle between Faith and Reason, 1798 to Modern Times by Christopher de Bellaigue provides a history of this modern abortive Enlightenment: an informative and perceptive review is here.

The Islamic world became dominated by fascist-analogue regimes. But defeat in the Dictators’ War (1939-1945) had rather discredited Fascism and the Soviet bloc was willing to supply arms and support to friendly regimes, so socialism became the dominant rhetorical flavour of non-monarchical regimes in the Islamic world. (Note that I mean socialism in its command economy sense rather than its “free-floating good intentions insulated from any failures” sense.)

But Arab socialism fared no better than its alternatives elsewhere; though, being less actually socialist, rather less catastrophically so. In the West, the failure of socialism led to postmodernism and its close associates, such as Critical Theory. In Islam, the failure of socialism led to political Islam (Islamiyya) and to a search for a purified Islam (notably the Salafi and Deobandi movements).

This was somewhat less of a difference than it might appear, as al-Ghazali’s causal analysis was grounded in essentially the same epistemologically sceptical argument about what we can know from observation later developed by Hume (1711-1776), which so influenced Kant (1724-1804) and from there led to postmodernism.

Moreover, Critical Theory permits no moral argument beyond itself, as the purpose of all “proper” intellectual endeavour is to support the struggle against oppression and any critique of that goal is, by definition, illegitimate defence of exploitation and oppression. An attitude which has seeped into the wider society (particularly the “cultural commanding height” industries of media, education, entertainment and IT) to the extent that start-up entrepreneur Sam Altman can report that it is easier to discuss heretical ideas in China (under a Leninist regime) than in Silicon Valley in California.

Monarchy, mosque and military

So both mainstream Islam and PoMo progressivism pre-eliminate competition. In Islam, outside the monarchical societies, the weakness of civil society leaves politics suspended between mosque and military. (The monarchies tend to have richer civil societies precisely because the monarchies both incorporate and balance between mosque and military and failed to wage quite the war on traditional society that the modernising military regimes did.)

The revival of the headscarf both speaks to the power of Islam and the revival of political Islam. (Trying to spin it as some sort of manifestation of female power is pathetic, even given that reveiling has largely been driven by [pdf] expanded education and employment opportunities for women, as it is a response responding to the power of Islamic belief.) That the Islamic world still has significant patches of relatively low literacy rates (especially for women), and (in the case of the Arab world) a strikingly low rate of translation of non-Arabic books, does not help the develop of non-religious thinking and ideas within Islamic civilisation.

What intellectual life there is within Islam remains trapped within the concerns of the early Western Enlightenment—how to replace and overcome religious grounding of social and physical understandings versus how to insulate religion from the pressures of modernity—and remains without the levers that the Western Enlightenment relied on. While there is some dim possibility of a moderate modernising approach developing, Islam is not likely to stop being mostly a philosophical dead-end civilisation any time soon.

[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]

Origins of philosophy

By Lorenzo

This very short post by philosopher Stephen Hicks states that:

*Metaphysically*, philosophy was born with Thales and the Milesians. *Epistemologically*, it was born with Parmenides and the Eleatics.

The Milesian school began around 600 BCE on the coast of Asia minor. The Eleatic school began around 500 BCE about 1100 kilometers west in the southern Italian peninsula.

He also has a nice post on what distinguishes philosophy from pre-philosophic thought.

There are three original cultures with serious philosophical traditions — Greece, northern India and China. Their philosophical traditions all started in periods of small, competing polities sharing a common language and culture: the Archaic Period in Greece (776-480 BC), the Srmana Period in northern India (700s-332BC ) and the Spring and Autumn Period in China (771-456BC).

The contiguous time periods are very noticeable. One can see why German philosopher Karl Jaspers came up with the notion of an Axial Age. As for what they have in common, one is that they all had contact with the militarised pastoralist societies which developed as a result of the invention of the composite recurve bow and effective deployment of mounted archers. They were periods of increased urbanisation (particularly noticeable in India but also in the Hellenic world.) They were all places that developed coinage but that was after philosophy and is a natural response by urbanised trading polities to intense inter-polity competition.

In the case of China, the focus was on competing autocracies developing out of a vassalage-and-honour (“feudal”) system. So Chinese philosophy focused on how to live and what to serve (Confucianism), how to rule (Legalism) and how to navigate serenely a world of flux (Taoism).

India had a range of types of polities, including deliberative assembly republics. The Vedic order was collapsing and being challenged by new ideas, notably Buddhism and Jainism, followed by the Brahmin response, which led to what is known as Hinduism or better understood as the Hindu synthesis. This clash of ideas, ways of thought, ways of being governed, led to the very rich Indian philosophical tradition, ranging from mathematics to ethics to metaphysics but with a strong tendency to an otherworldly focus.

The Hellenic world (which ranged from Spain to Crimea) also had a wide range of types of polities, but much less religious flux, resulting in a very rich philosophical tradition ranging from mathematics, to ethics to metaphysics but with a stronger element of  epistemology than elsewhere and a more this-world focus leading to proto-science and (if physicist and historian of science Lucio Russo is correct) a full-blown Scientific Revolution in the Hellenistic Period.

Philosophy starting in culturally linked competing jurisdictions makes sense because:

(1) thinkers could move from less friendly to more friendly locales;

(2) diversity of polities led to more chances of “positive mutations” (i.e. mixtures of circumstances and institutions provoking, or friendly to, more intense and broader reasoning);

(3) common language facilitated far more connections between thinkers and ideas.

India and the Hellenic world had a far richer range of polities than China, leading to a much broader range of experience and examples for reasoning about social and political matters. The effect was much stronger in the Hellenic world, which had few significant monarchies and which was in contact with a much broader range of societies and geographies than northern India and far more so than China. In particular, the sheer number of polities with deliberative assemblies made the politics of persuasion a much stronger factor. This encourages thinking about rhetoric but also public reasoning in general.

So, it is not surprising that the Hellenic world had a somewhat broader ambit of philosophy than India and that both had much broader than China. Nor is it surprising that philosophy, as with other forms of human creativity, tends to operate more strongly in periods of polity diversity and competition.


[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]

Prenuptial and post-nuptial agreements in the High Court

By Legal Eagle

So, y’all would have noticed that I don’t post much on this blog any more, but I still occasionally blog over at Opinions on High, the Melbourne Law School blog covering the decisions of the High Court of Australia, where I am one of the editors (along with Professor Jeremy Gans).

I’ve just written a post on the High Court’s recent decision in Thorne v Kennedy [2017] HCA 49, in which the High Court set aside pre- and post-nuptial agreements made by an immigrant bride in deeply disadvantageous circumstances. Skepticlawyer (@_HelenDale) has described it on Twitter as combining “family law, behavioural economics, & ‘libertarian paternalism’ in just the right doses”. Here’s a taster:

There is a difficulty with the notion that parties to a marriage will effectively plan for division of property at the outset of the marriage (whether in a pre- or postnuptial agreement). The problem is that when people marry, most parties don’t expect to divorce. In Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s book Nudge (2005), it is observed that, although people are very good at anticipating the divorce rate of other couples, almost all couples are certain or almost certain that they personally will not divorce. We all like to think that our relationship are stable, and so we are bad judges of our own chances of relationship success, although we are good at judging the success of others. If we enter into a pre- or postnuptial agreement, our decisions may not be wise.

But it is also difficult to sort out entitlements after a relationship has broken down, because of what Thaler and Sunstein call the ‘self-serving bias’ problem. When a relationship breaks down, people tend to see things differently, and think that they were entirely in the right, and the other party is entirely in the wrong. A will say, ‘I never intended B to have an interest in my house!’ and B will say, ‘But A told me he’d share the house with me!’ We all suffer from this. As Thaler and Sunstein point out, after a World Cup match between Brazil and Italy, ask the fans from each country in whose favour the referees were biased, and the answers will be quite different. This is why family law cases are messy, protracted and expensive.

Go read the whole post! You know you want to!

It’s all happening

By skepticlawyer

I’m not usually given to quoting Bill Lawry around these parts, but the last week has been somewhat…busy. For good reason, though.

First, the Cato Institute published the entirety of my ‘Author’s Note’ from Kingdom of the Wicked, where – in an attempt to avoid having my writing horribly misinterpreted – I set out how I’d gone about writing my second novel, and why. The piece represents a fairly considerable piece of craft, and I’d like to pay tribute here to both Legal Eagle and Lorenzo, who read and edited multiple early revisions with a view to helping me hone it to the greatest extent possible. Cato’s introduction runs as follows:

Regular readers of Libertarianism.org may recognize Helen Dale as a recurring contributor to the site—but long before she started writing here, she was an award-winning author of fiction.

Writing fiction that feels “real” can be a tricky thing. For a fictional world and the characters in it to seem true to life, they have to behave like the real world behaves and as real people do. Authors, for that reason, have to have a theory of how the real world works, about how real people behave—even if that theory is implicit—that they can draw on to answer questions about how their fictional world works and how their fictional characters behave in it.

Humans famously disagree about how the world works—about their theories of sociology and economics, for example—and those disagreements are by nature political disagreements. This means that at least to some degree, fiction is political.

I don’t mean to sound naïve about the issue of authorial intent. Perhaps it’s better to say that a text has an implicit politics, rather than asserting that the text’s author shares those politics. But in the piece that follows—the “Author’s Note” from Helen Dale’s new book Kingdom of the Wicked—we have an author giving us a peek behind the curtain into her thinking. She tells us she deliberately constructed her story’s world while relying on a set of beliefs—about history, the law, and economics—that she describes as belonging to the classical liberal tradition. I feel confident in saying, then, despite not yet having read the book myself, that the implicitpolitics of Kingdom of the Wicked, the text, are probably quite similar to the explicit classical liberalism of Helen Dale, the author. It’s perhaps fitting, in light of that, that she wrote the book while in receipt of a three-year scholarship from the Institute for Humane Studies at Oxford University in the UK.

That’s what a piece about the process of creating a work of fiction is doing on a site dedicated to libertarianism.

Now read what I wrote.

Next, Hoover Institution at Stanford University economist Dr Mark Koyama decided to take an interest, writing what is probably the most thoughtful, erudite, and probing review of anything I’ve ever published in my 20+ year career in writing. This review proceeded to go utterly, utterly viral – first drawing the attention of Tyler Cowen at famed economics blog Marginal Revolution, and thence propagating all over the internet. Professor Cowan later linked to my Cato Institute piece (which gave Cato’s servers a bit of a workout) and also – indirectly – enriched me and my publisher via Amazon/Book Depository sales. Dr Koyama’s review is a thing of wonder, and I strongly recommend it, even if you’ve already bought and read Kingdom of the Wicked.

This question – could Rome have had an industrial revolution? – is prompted by Kingdom of the Wickeda new book by Helen Dale. Dale forces us to consider Jesus as a religious extremist in a Roman world not unlike our own. The novel throws new light on our own attitudes to terrorism, globalization, torture, and the clash of cultures. It is highly recommended.

Indirectly, however, Dale also addresses the possibility of sustained economic growth in the ancient world. The novel is set in a 1st century Roman empire during the governorship of Pontus Pilate and the reign of Tiberius. But in this alternative history, the Mediterranean world has experienced a series of technical innovations following the survival of Archimedes at the siege of Syracuse, which have led to rapid economic growth. As Dale explains in the book’s excellent afterword (published separately here), if Rome had experienced an industrial revolution, it would likely have differed from the actual one; and she briefly plots a path to Roman industrialization. All of this is highly stimulating and has prompted me to speculate further about whether Rome could have experienced modern economic growth and if Dale’s proposed path towards a Roman Industrial Revolution is plausible.

Finally – and closer to home – I wrote a piece for The Spectator on my recent Australian author tour, with all its attendant strangenesses. In it, I’ve tried to put in one place just how it is to be a writer who doesn’t fit on the accepted political spectrum, and who doesn’t adopt fashionable causes:

Author tours are funny things, especially when unexpected. 12 months ago, I’d given up on getting Kingdom of the Wicked published. I’d run through three publishers. All had acquired cold feet for a range of reasons, some silly (‘you’re too controversial’) and some genuine (‘other authors will leave our list if we publish you’). I was living in the UK – having left both Senator Leyonhjelm’s employ and Australia after the 2016 election – consulting, copywriting, and writing columns for the Speccie. If I were known at all, it was as Speccie house classical liberal, not as a Miles Franklin Award winner. Enter, stage left, Matt Rubinstein and Michael Wilkinson with an offer of publication. It’s all been a bit sudden. Walking past bookshops and seeing both my novels in display windows is frankly discombobulating.

The overseas acclaim and sales are gratifying, and the sense that economists appreciate their discipline being taken seriously and treated with generosity in fiction notable. I didn’t set out to write a ‘economics and literature’ novel, but I did set out to write a ‘law and literature’ novel. That said, I do pair legal and economic thinking a great deal, and if I belong to a jurisprudential ‘tradition’ as such, it is law and economics, coupled with a strong side-serving of legal positivism.

Photo is a Roman sculptor’s take on the Egyptian deity Anubis from the Vatican Museum. To this day I suspect he was pissed or high on the tools – Romans tended to like their faces sculpted accurately, even if the artist got to sculpt or paint something weird for the sitter’s body.