A problem distilled by admin:
“Extend-and-pretend” — or radically finite reality denial — is an engine of catastrophe. It enables negative consequences to be accumulated through postponement . . .
Yet the accumulation is a slow one, so perhaps there is no reason to expect a singular catastrophe recognizable as such. We’re not talking about volcanoes and meteorites but large-scale economic, social, and political phenomena. In the context of such phenomena, catastrophe, in Eliot’s words, may be a slow whimper until we run out of breath rather than a cataclysmic bang with an instantaneous reckoning.
Catastrophe—finally hitting the wall of reality—may in the end be local, diffuse, an ongoing yet controllable thing. The politics of the last decade might be read not as “extend and pretend” but as “scatter the negative consequences.” Shifting the metaphor, we should not ask “When does the pressure finally explode?” but “How do governments (and their functionaries) release steam at the margins?” Of course, we can also ask, “Where does the steam escape on its own, regardless of planned release?” The Cathedral is not stupid; perhaps it doesn’t let negative consequences accumulate so much as cook the books, fudge the ledgers, and move money between accounts (shifting metaphors again). State and federal policy as an endless series of maneuvers designed to keep the Good Ship Society afloat indefinitely, water flooding in through a thousand small holes but pumped out again through a thousand more poked by the shipbuilders.
Catastrophe is thus framed as a local event. Lehman Brothers goes bankrupt, the Fed prints more money. Another Detroit neighborhood loses electric power, another D.C. neighborhood gentrifies thanks to federal salaries. Or, in the social realm, a white Bosnian is killed in Ferguson, but now black Africans are “Christian terrorists.”
None of this is to say that a game of “scatter the negative consequences” can go on indefinitely, despite what its planners might think, anymore than a game of “extend and pretend” can go on indefinitely. But it is to say that the endgame exists, by design, on a much longer time scale than any of us realize.
One question we’re all interested in is whether or not progressivism’s social justice crusade is an earnest crusade or just a sheen to disguise the fact that social justice warriors are actually motivated by what reactionaries assume everyone is motivated by: money and power.
Via the Sacramento Bee:
State Sen. Ron Calderon accepted about $88,000 in bribes from an undercover FBI agent posing as a film studio owner and a Southern California hospital executive . . .
[The FBI affidavit] details an arrangement to funnel money for the Calderon family’s later use through a nonprofit organization run by his brother Tom Calderon. It describes an instance in which Calderon hired a female undercover agent as a staff member as a favor to another undercover agent despite her apparent lack of qualifications for the job. It says that as Calderon steered legislation, he asked those he thought would benefit to secure jobs for his children, Jessica and Zachary.
“One way you could be a real help to (my daughter) is, you got any work?” Calderon said to an undercover agent posing as the film studio owner during a June 2012 dinner in Pico Rivera, according to the affidavit.
“I told you, man, anything you can do, any help you could do for my kids is, is – you know that’s, that’s diamonds for me. That’s diamonds.” . . .
Eventually, Ron Calderon’s older brother Tom entered the picture. He is a former assemblyman who works as a consultant for businesses that lobby the Legislature.
They cut Tom Calderon in, according to the affidavit, bringing the [undercover] agent’s monthly contribution to $10,000, including $2,000 to cover taxes, $3,000 for Jessica Calderon’s “job” and $5,000 for Tom Calderon’s consulting fees. Those were to be paid through the nonprofit he runs, called Californians for Diversity. Later, Ron Calderon and the agent discussed skirting suspicion by passing money into the Calderon Group, Tom Calderon’s consulting company . . .
After the undercover agent boasted to Ron Calderon about securing $50,000 a year from a three-picture deal, the two discussed what to do with the windfall.
“I mean, if there is something that you think that I can do to help you out with that fifty each year, you tell me. And, I will set it up,” the agent said, to which Ron Calderon, according to the affidavit, replied, “Right.”
Over time, Calderon drew down the $50,000 by asking for a $3,900 deposit into the Ron Calderon for Controller 2014 committee; a $25,000 infusion for his brother’s nonprofit, Californians for Diversity . . .
The affidavit also relates how Sen. Kevin de León, D-Los Angeles, brokered a deal with Calderon following a tiff within the Latino caucus over who would serve as its chairman. Ron Calderon had been in line to become caucus chairman in December of last year. But Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, had the position and wanted to hang on to it.
In exchange for Calderon backing away from the chairmanship and allowing Lara to keep it, the affidavit says Calderon told the undercover agent that de León told Calderon he would give him a paid appointment after he left the Senate and $25,000 in “seed money” from one of the caucus accounts to “hire consultants and do presentations.”
Campaign finance records show that a fundraising committee connected to the Latino caucus gave Californians for Diversity $25,000 on Jan. 2, a month after Lara was elected to remain chairman.
Earlier this year, David Friedman found himself in a debate with two self-professed Bleeding Heart Libertarians (BHLs for short, though I can’t detect any serious differences between BHLs and pro-capitalism neo-liberals). Friedman’s main charge against the BHLs is their attempt to smuggle a concept into libertarian philosophy that is neither well defined nor given objective parameters, namely social justice. The BHL definition of social justice is reliant on vague phrases like “special concern for the poor” and “minimally decent lives.” Friedman’s point is that if social justice is to be taken seriously as a politically or economically worthwhile concept, then its definition needs to be more rigorous. However, forcing the BHLs to formulate a more rigorous definition of social justice was like pulling teeth.
Part of my criticism of [BHL] Jason’s position centered on a definition of social justice offered on his facebook page, using the term “minimally decent lives.” In his response he switches to something closer to the definition I offered from Z&T, claiming that the two are close enough to both describe the same cluster concept.
That raises an obvious question: Does he agree that “minimally decent lives” in one of his definitions is, as I argued, dishonest mush, a term implying an objective standard that does not exist? If he does agree, he ought to take his use of such a term as some evidence of a problem with the concept whose definition he is offering, for reasons along the lines of those offered by George Orwell in his classic essay “Politics and the English Language.” If your objective is to clearly express ideas that you are thinking clearly about, there is no need to use terms that are emotive but meaningless.
. . . they wanted to incorporate social justice into libertarian philosophy. So I tried to get them to tell me what “social justice” meant. To put some substance into the concept, one needs more than concern for the poor, one needs a special concern for the poor, so I asked them to explain what that meant, and they didn’t.
For BHLs, social justice is emotive but meaningless: in other words, rhetorical.
In The New Rhetoric, legal philosopher Chaim Perelman has this to say about values like ‘Justice’ as they are used in argumentation:
Their claim to universal agreement . . . seems to be due solely to their generality. They can be regarded as valid for a universal audience only on condition that their content not be specified; as soon as we try to go into detail [e.g., about social justice], we meet only the adherence of particular audiences. According to E. Dupreel, universal values deserve to be called “values of persuasion” because they are “means of persuasion which are that and no more than that; they are, as it were, spiritual tools which can be completely separated from the material they make it possible to shape . . .”
It is thus by virtue of their being vague that these values appear as universal values and lay claim to a status similar to that of facts. To the extent that they are precisely formulated, they are simply seen to conform to the aspirations of particular groups. (76)
Terms like “social justice” and “equality” get their emotive power from being vague. This is why progressives generally don’t like agonistic, logical debate. Logical debate requires precise definition of terms from the outset; but a precise definition of terms would unmask the progressive insistence on “equality” or “justice” as what it really is: special-interest pandering or, in other cases, a bizarre form of post-millennial utopianism. (I don’t mind when someone like Eric Holder tells us point blank that justice for “his people” is what really matters; at least he is honest about his partisanship, not pretending that he actually has universal aspirations when using superficially universal terms.)
All sides in political discourse make use of vaguely defined, emotive terms. “Freedom” and “duty” are popular terms on the American right. However, the test of a political philosophy is whether or not these universal values can be defined more precisely without completely negating their emotive power or unmasking them as partisan rhetoric. My own journey away from de facto leftism began with a recognition that people on the right were much more willing to delve into the first principles behind and definitions of their emotive concepts and terms. Beneath their rhetoric was more than ‘mere rhetoric.’
Friedman’s debate with the BHLs demonstrates that the rhetoric of social justice is indeed built upon smoke and mirrors and does not even try to correspond to reality. There are no first principles or attempts at precise definition because the entire progressive political philosophy finds its reason-for-being in emotion and subjective moralistic judgment. For example, Friedman persuasively argues that when progressives talk about the human right to “minimally decent standards of living” or to the meeting of “basic needs,” they really mean humans have a right “to live in a way that I, an upper-middle class leftist, would vaguely recognize as comfortable and meaningful.” There is no attempt to give a precise calculus to the concept of a “decent standard of living,” no attempt to define or to formulate the cost of “basic needs.” Why? Because then they would start to sound like Friedman:
A reasonably objective definition of “basic needs” might be “enough food and shelter so that their lack would not greatly reduce your life expectancy.” To make it more precise, replace “greatly reduce” with “reduce at least in half relative to those who had such food and shelter.” What would that work out to?There are parts of the U.S. where housing is pretty cheap, down to about $100/room/month, probably less if I searched further. Assume that people are packed in ten beds to a room, along the lines of housing for tramps in London as described by Orwell in Down and Out in London and Paris. That gets annual housing cost per person down to about a hundred dollars.On further thought, that’s too high. There are parts of the U.S. where the weather is temperate enough so that living outdoors, perhaps with a roof to shelter you from the rain, is not a serious risk to health. So all you need is some empty land in such an area, enough roofs for everyone to huddle under when it rains, and local authorities willing to put up with the land being used as a refuge for the homeless. Cost per person close to zero. Add a little for porta-potties and a water supply.
The emotive power is gone, and with it goes the entire power of progressivism.
It’s human nature to be wooed by the power of emotive words and symbols. The power of religion likewise finds it fuel in the emotional needs of human beings. The value of a religion, like the value of a political philosophy, lies in its willingness to delve logically into the nature of its emotive terms and concepts, to prove that its emotive aspects do not rest upon rhetorical smoke and mirrors but rather correspond in some way to reality. (Whether those proofs are successful or not isn’t the point here.)
Humans have an uncanny ability to turn on the ‘logical’ or ‘realist’ part of their brain in one domain, but to shut it down entirely in other domains, to rely instead on emotion and subjective judgment, allowing themselves to be wooed by emotive words and symbols that in other contexts would send their logical brains into critical overdrive. It’s one thing to let the logical brain get turned off when attending to the kinds of needs fulfilled by religion—a recognition of sin, a need for forgiveness, a need for community, a need for spiritual comfort, et cetera. I think the needs fulfilled by religion are inherently emotional, inherently a-logical (I wouldn’t say illogical). And anyway, how a man works out his salvation is a private affair between him, his God, and perhaps his family. If such a process operates on emotion, what do I care? It doesn’t affect me, nor does it affect the world at large.
The trouble with progressivism is a) that it is emotive, b) that it is (unlike religion or right-wing populism) emotive and built on smoke and mirrors—emotive but meaningless, as we just saw—and c) that its meaningless emotionalism is designed to be coerced into the political workings of Western society.
Maybe coerced is the wrong word. There have been fights between left and right, yes, but the history of the West for at least 200 years has been the history of ever-leftward movement. An obvious reason for how the left took and kept power (not the only reason, of course) is that progressivism is, as Friedman points out about Bleeding Heart Libertarianism, vague enough to be emotionally satisfying.
Progressivism is feel-good words, feel-good symbols, feel-good rallying, feel-good values. What does it matter if progressivism takes reality into consideration? It feels fucking good. It satisfies the emotional needs of guilty egalitarians. It is emotive but meaningless, sure, but like I said, humans are perfectly capable of turning off the demand for meaning in order to satisfy the demand for emotional fulfillment.
Progressivism is a political platform of irrational emotion and subjective moralistic judgment. The history of progressivism’s leftward march is the history of people turning off their logical brains and booting up their emotions. Okay for religion. Bad for socio-political policy.
I’ve withheld comment on the George Zimmerman trial because it’s not an edifying subject—it’s intellectual junk food, a soap opera. I agree with James Goulding that our blogs should elevate the discussion, which, if we want Dark Enlightenment ideas to spread, is a better strategy than writing screeds about “the Jews control America!” or “fuckin niggers at it again!”
However, the latest round of Zimmerman punditry deserves comment.
Matthew Yglesias, who is, if possible, an even whiter Spaniard than I am, writes the following in a post entitled “Bayes’ Theorem for Dummies”:
I think what Cohen really means to be arguing isn’t so much that neither he nor Zimmerman are racists, but that racism is the correct social and political posture. That white people have good reason to fear black men, and that therefore all black men should be put in a subordinate position. But as a logical argument, Cohen here is falling afoul of very poor statistical inference . . .
. . . the fact that young black men are disproportionately likely to be involved in violent crime in no way licenses the inference that you should stop random black men on the street and begin treating them like criminals.
For example, since moving to a majority black city 10 years ago, it is the case that 100 percent of the people who randomly assaulted me on the street were African-American. And yet that was a single incident on one day out of thousands. The overwhelming preponderance of black men I walk past on the street on a day-to-day basis—even the young ones, even the ones wearing hoodies—aren’t committing any violent crimes. If I were to start questioning every single black male teenager I come across as a criminal suspect, I would very much be engaged in unreasonable behavior.
The critique is elementary. Formally, we may say that Zimmerman confused Pr(A|B) with Pr(B|A). Colloquially, we can summarize Yglesias’s critique thusly: “Even if most criminals are black, it doesn’t follow that most blacks are criminals. So it’s simply not logical to profile every black person you meet as being a criminal threat.”
Yglesias probably thinks his point is unanswerable. I’ll give him credit for at least attempting to return an element of logos to the seething pathos of this turgid affair. However, like the young college girl who first discovers that American settlers didn’t treat the natives too kindly, Yglesias is satisfied with setting his feet into the cement of his first rational step and not moving anywhere else.
From my perspective, his point is entirely answerable, and on purely rational grounds. It’s all a matter of returning logic to its context and filling in the priors.
First, Zimmerman was not following “all black men,” as Yglesias implies later in his post. Zimmerman was following a singular young black male, dressed in ill-fitting clothes, wandering a suburban neighborhood at night after a recent streak of burglaries committed by young black males in his neighborhood. 100% of recent burglaries had been committed by a marked population that constituted only a small percentage of the community’s whole population. Trayvon Martin, at various points of description, fit the marked “profile” of recent burglars.
As commenter Cail Corishev writes at Sailer’s:
I’m writing a Bayesian spam filter (based on Paul Graham’s Plan for Spam), and “profiling” is exactly what it does. There’s no one word that guarantees that a message is spam. But if a message contains 10 words that appear frequently in spam, and it doesn’t contain any words that appear exclusively in non-spam, the probability that the message is spam will be very close to 1.
That’s what profiling means. It doesn’t mean, “Stop all blacks because blacks are more dangerous than other groups”; that’s what liberals like Bloomberg do because they’re trying to avoid profiling. Profiling would have a cop say (pulling percentages out of my hat for the example), “Ok, there’s a young black man walking down the street in this neighborhood, so historical data says there’s a 5% chance that he’s up to no good. That’s not nearly enough to suspect anything. But he’s also wearing a hoodie, which adds another 5% (whether he’s black or white), and he’s hiding his face (another 3%), and keeping his hands shoved down deep in his pockets (another 10%), and his sneakers look brand new, which we’ve been told to look out for because a store was knocked over last night (another 20%). Let’s pull over and ask him where he’s headed …. Okay, he doesn’t seem to know this neighborhood (another 20%) so let’s chat with him a bit more…. Ok, he showed us what he was holding in his pockets, and it was liniment and denture cream that he said he’s taking to his grandma whom he’s staying with a few blocks from here (-30%), and he seemed friendly and relaxed while we talked to him (-10%), and offered to show us the receipt for his shoes (-30%). Seems okay, tell him to have a nice day.”
My limited knowledge of Bayesian statistics is, indeed, that it provides a framework for working with multiple priors for coming up with an averaged statistical probability. In other words, its entire point is to move away from the kind of decontextualized logic that Yglesias invokes, a logic that would make sense as a critique if Zimmerman (or anyone) had indeed been following every black male he met on a daily basis. But no one does that, so Yglesias’s invoked logic is really just a shot at a strawman.
Second, until the fight itself, Zimmerman’s actions were quite modest. The act of “profiling” or “being suspicious” is an act of personal caution, not a willful attack on someone else’s personal rights. (My crossing to the other side of the road while being approached by a group of young black males does not in any meaningful way affect the young black males. Zimmerman’s following Trayvon did not affect Trayvon.) Without his strawman (stop every black on the street!), Yglesias, I imagine, might modestly modify his claim: Zimmerman’s decision to follow Trayvon, or my decision to cross the street, remains illogical because, well, the same old same: “just because criminals are often young black males, most young black males aren’t criminals!”
The comments on Steve’s post provide many obvious rejoinders, which I paraphrase here:
The vast majority of grizzly bears don’t attack hikers, so it’s irrational for hikers to carry bear spray in the wilderness!
80% of lumps aren’t cancerous, so my mom was being irrational when she got hers checked out by a doctor!
The odds of my house burning down are at least as miniscule as the odds of any random young black male being a criminal, so I guess I’m stupid for having fire insurance. I’ll cancel it right away, Matt!
So on and so forth. One might also invoke the common airline policy of not allowing adult males to sit next to unaccompanied minors. Not all adult males are pedophiles, but most pedophiles are adult males. Betting that a given adult male is not a pedophile isn’t worth the risk, and is certainly worth the minor inconvenience of asking all adult males to switch seats in the event they are seated beside a young girl traveling alone. Liability issues, you know.
And that’s what this second point is really about: the logic of damages. In a purely decontextualized way, I know that Pr(A|B) is not the same as Pr(B|A). Given certain context and content, however, betting on Pr(B|not A) may carry serious consequences if, however unlikely, I turned out to be wrong. In other words, taking minor measures to avoid the risk of certain events or probabilities, however unlikely, is not at all illogical. In fact, in many contexts, we commend people who take these measures. We call it “planning ahead” or “preparing for all possible outcomes” or “erring on the side of caution.”
This all seems to me a perfectly rational rejoinder to Yglesias’s over-simplified evocation of Bayes and its implications for how Zimmerman acted. Zimmerman’s neighborhood had recently been burgled by young black males, a small percentage of the community’s population. Trayvon Martin was a young black male, which, of course, did not mean he was a burglar. However, the possibility that he was a burglar, however unlikely, was nevertheless, given demographic reality, modest enough to warrant a few minutes of Zimmerman’s time to check him out, because not checking him out (i.e., assuming that Martin was not a burglar) might incur greater damages to the neighborhood.
Are you not rationally persuaded?!??!!?!
Nope. Not Aaron Gross, one of Sailer’s progressive trolls:
the fact that young black men are disproportionately likely to be involved in violent crime in no way licenses the inference that you should stop random black men on the street….
That’s absolutely correct. There may be other facts that imply it, but the facts that Cohen cites do not support it in any way. And it’s obvious that Cohen did get his conditional probabilities backwards, just as Yglesias pointed out. Cohen was talking about P(black|criminal), where a more relevant probability is P(criminal|black).
I haven’t read all the comments here, but from the ones I’ve read it seems that as usual, iSteve readers endorse the stupid, unsound argument over the intelligent, sound argument because the former supposedly leads to the desired conclusion.
Now, there may be a purely rational case against the one I’ve presented against Yglesias, another round in a logical tête-à-tête. However, Aaron Gross’s ostrich response is the most common one I’ve seen from the Left.
What am I to do with that? The “stupid” comments to which Gross refers lay out the same argument against Yglesias that I’ve provided here. To me, it seems like a perfectly reasonable counter-statement to Yglesias. To Gross, however, it’s the usual, unsound stupidity of biased proles grasping for rationalizations.
We’ve now reached the reason I brought this whole thing up: the incommensurable gap between me and Aaron Gross demonstrates that logic and reasoning are, in the end, absolutely worthless when it comes to arguing about social and political issues. It seems we cannot even decide on what constitutes “sound” versus “unsound” argument—on what constitutes rationality versus stupidity. More and more often, I find myself persuaded by Heartiste’s preferred tactics for cultural engagement: mockery and agitprop.
Which brings us back to the second sentence I wrote in this post: I agree with James Goulding that our blogs should elevate the discussion. But how can we elevate the discussion if the other side will never see as rational what we see as rational? What’s the point of trying to convert the Brahmins if they deride even a rational counter-statement as “stupid” and “unsound”?
At this point, I’m failing to see a point.
RELATED: Perhaps I’m being too pessimistic. William Saletan changed his mind about the Zimmerman case. (But then, Saletan is probably just a closeted reactionary.)