Wednesday, May 27, 2020

noisy extremes and the silent middle

One of the most destructive things about the internet is that it has distorted people’s views of political realities. It has led a lot of people, both self-described members of the left and self-described members of the right, to mistake the internet for reality. The reason for this is simple. They spend too much time in online ideological echo chambers. And they isolate themselves still further by being unwilling to engage in good faith with those of differing views.

Even worse they mistake the political internet, which is only a small subset of the online world, for reality.

The political internet attracts people with extreme views. Views that they cannot express anywhere else. In the pre-internet days anyone who argued for some of the extreme positions that are commonplace on the political internet would have found himself shunned by decent society. But now people with often hair-raising beliefs can find others  online who share those beliefs. So they start believing that their extremist views are socially acceptable.

What they don't realise is that the handful of like-minded they find online are often the only people in society who share their beliefs. Normal people just don't think that way.

The internet is not the real world. And the political internet is definitely not the real world. But it's easy to fall into the trap of thinking that it is. It's easy to fall into the trap of thinking that online political sites represent a sampling of the real world. They don't. Such sites are hang-outs for misfits (and I freely admit to being a misfit) and unstable people and for people consumed by irrational fears and hatreds. It's a magnet for people with marginal political and social views - marginal political and social views on both the left and the right.

It’s a particular problem for anyone who rejects political correctness. Any sane person should reject political correctness. In real life it’s increasingly difficult to do so openly. So people go online and gravitate toward far right forums. But what they often find there are not moderate reasoned rejections of the dominant ideology of political correctness but extreme and often completely unrealistic opposing views.

The end result is the perception that the political middle ground no longer exists, that most people are either extreme Social Justice Warriors or alt-righters.

But is the political middle ground really vanishing? Political extremists make a lot of noise (especially on the internet) but how many people actually support extremist positions? The extreme Social Justice Warriors and the alt-right are actually small minorities. I suspect that in reality most people support far more moderate positions. Most people do not want extreme solutions. On balance they’re probably correct to be suspicious of extreme solutions. The problem is that moderates generally do not bother with the political internet, so while most people are moderates they’re effectively invisible on the political internet.

As a result the perception that society is bitterly divided politically gains ground. Society is divided politically and those divisions can get bitter but it’s important to avoid exaggerating the extent of the divide.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

The Making of Victorian Sexual Attitudes

The Making of Victorian Sexual Attitudes is the second volume in Michael Mason’s 1994 study of sexuality in Victorian England (the first volume being The Making of Victorian Sexuality). The first volume was intended to deal with the actualities of sex in the Victorian era. This second volume deals with the ideological roots of attitudes towards sexuality.

The 19th century was as far as sex is concerned a battleground between what he describes as pro-sensualists and anti-sensualists. Mason tries his best to be as impartial as possible, describing the motivations of both camps and the ways in which their positions evolved. Obviously this was a culture war in which religion played a major rôle (although secular forces were much more heavily involved than one might think

On the whole, according to Mason, medical opinion tended to favour the pro-sensualist position. Victorian doctors were in fact surprisingly realistic about sex and were very sceptical of the chances that either male or female sexuality could be suppressed.

Mason does not deny that hostility towards sexual pleasure (the anti-sensual tendency) was immensely powerful and influential. He does however make it clear that things were more complicated than one might suppose. There were for example  a great many Christians in the anti-sensualist movement but there were also very many Christians who embraced the pro-sensualist position and saw sexual pleasure as a gift from God and therefore as a very good thing. And modern readers might well be surprised to learn just how heavily dominated the anti-sensualist camp was by political progressives, socialists and feminists (it’s easy to forget just how rabidly anti-sex 19th century feminism was).

The prostitute rescue craze is one of the odder and more interesting features of the 19th century, one to which Mason gives a great deal of attention. It has to be said that the more one learns about about this craze the more unattractive it seems. Hysteria about prostitution was on the rise and on the face of it the idea of high-minded (mostly but not exclusively Christian) missionaries attempting to save unfortunate young women from such a lifestyle sounds well-intentioned and philanthropic (if possibly naïve). In practice however the intentions of the prostitute rescuers was almost always either partially or entirely to punish the women.

Having been “rescued” the prostitutes were forcibly confined in institutions which were more often than not little better than prisons, often subject to brutal treatment. If they were lucky enough not to be physically “disciplined” they were subjected to what really does sound like a program of ritual humiliation. Prostitute rescue was particularly popular among Evangelicals (with women apparently being especially keen on the punitive aspects). There were a few attempts to undertake more purely secular efforts at prostitute rescue with Charles Dickens being heavily involved in one of the better known examples, Urania Cottage. Ironically the girls at Urania Cottage were treated no better, and perhaps worse, than those unlucky enough to end up in one of the religious penitentiaries (which was what many of them were actually called).

Even sadder is that many of the women who ended up in these penitentiaries were not even prostitutes, merely women who had had pre-marital sex. But any kind of fallen woman was apparently still in need of the strict discipline offered by these institutions. The prostitute rescuers come across as a mixture of well-meaning do-gooders, pious humbugs and those who took an almost sadistic pleasure in the humiliation of these unfortunate women. Prostitute rescue was the result of what we would today describe as a moral panic, and moral panics do not bring out the best in people. And prostitute rescue was widely regarded at the time with scepticism, scorn and even outright hostility.

What’s also interesting is that while the anti-sensualists grudgingly admitted that a variety of factors could cause a woman to become a prostitute they held an obsessive belief that a very significant proportion of the girls took up their trade because they enjoyed sex. Whether there was any truth to this is irrelevant. What matters is that those engaged in prostitute rescue believed it. That seems to have been the driving force behind the moral panic and the thought that many of these girls might actually be enjoying their work presumably accounts for the desire to punish them rather than offering them economic assistance to find other employment.

Mason also has a good deal to say about the Owenites, probably the most well-known and most significant of pre-marxist socialists. The Owenites were all over the map when it came to sexuality but they certainly had a definite pro-sensualist tinge, which earned them a great deal of hostility from other socialists.

Mason tries to be even-handed although it’s obvious that he has considerable sympathy for the anti-sensualist position (I suspect that like most academics in the ’90s he was a bit too much under the influence of feminism).

The value of this book is that the author tries to do more than present us with a series of anecdotes (which is what you get in many other books purporting to explore this subject). While admitting that the evidence is incomplete and often ambiguous he really does try to amass as much hard data as he can, and to give us both sides of the story. In doing so he provides the reader with some remarkable and often surprising insights into a truly fascinating epoch, and a truly fascinating subject. Recommended.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

social good and individual good

I recently became involved in yet another online discussion on demographics and it occurred to me why such discussions are ultimately futile. If you’re trying to change people’s behaviour (for example by trying to persuade them to have more children) you have very little chance of success if the only arguments you can provide are that the change in behaviour will benefit society rather than benefit them as individuals. If the change in behaviour would actually be to the detriment of the individual, you have even less chance. And if the social good is a long-term good the chances of success fall to something very close to zero.

For the most part people accept social responsibilities only when they see a direct benefit to themselves. People don’t like paying taxes but they pay them anyway because they can see that they themselves are very likely to one day benefit from the things the taxes pay for - roads, schools, refuse collection, major infrastructure, police, firefighting services and the welfare state are all things that the average person can easily imagine deriving some personal benefit from.

People dislike rules and regulations but they will accept them if they see that they personally might benefit. When the wearing of seat belts and later the wearing of motorcycle helmets became mandatory people accepted this infringement on their personal freedom because they figured that the life that might be saved might be their own life, or their son’s life or their husband’s life.

People don’t like lining up for customs inspections at the airport but they believe that the importation of contraband might impact their own lives. People accept the existence of laws and police because it could be their house that gets burgled or their daughter that gets raped.

But it’s much harder to persuade people to accept limitations on their freedom if they don’t see any personal benefit. That’s largely why censorship collapsed back in the 60s. People might not have liked girlie magazines and sex films but they could not see how it would have any effect on them personally if other people wanted to buy such things. The Sexual Revolution happened not because people necessarily wanted to be promiscuous themselves but they could not see how it would affect them if other people wanted to be promiscuous.

I want to make it clear that I am not arguing that there’s no such thing as social good (or the public good if you like). I am merely arguing that any social policy that relies solely on such arguments is going to be a hard sell. A very hard sell. It’s too abstract, too long-term and people cannot see how it will impact their own lives.

Which brings us back to birth rates. It might well be a very good thing indeed for society in the long term if people had more children. But can you actually provide a convincing argument that for a couple to have more children will provide a real concrete benefit to that couple? In fact at best most couples might believe that there would be no benefit at all for them. At worst most couples might very well believe that it would make their own lives worse.

In such cases appealing to people’s public spirit, persuading them that society might benefit in the long term, is just not going to work. If you provide lavish financial incentives for having lots of kids those incentives will have to be paid for. The money will come out of the pockets of people who do not want more kids. They are, understandably, going to resent that a great deal. And obviously any drastic measures to increase birth rates (such as restricting the availability of contraception) will cause extreme resentment and even anger.

The problem is that when people make decisions based on their own personal interests they are behaving rationally. You might not like their decisions but they are rational. And, from an individual perspective, doing things for society’s long-term benefit is irrational. It might be necessary for the good of society to persuade people to have more children but persuading them to do so when they are convinced that it will be to their own detriment is going to be very very hard. Maybe even impossible.

Again I stress that I’m not arguing in favour of putting personal interests ahead of society’s, but that is a perfectly natural thing for people to do.

Friday, May 8, 2020

conspiracies or opportunism or does stuff just happen?

Human beings have a natural inclination to see patterns in the events of history, including (or perhaps especially) in the case of recent history. We like things to make sense and we dislike the idea of randomness.

When major social or political changes occur we therefore like to assume that they could not possibly have just happened. Someone must have planned them.

This way of looking at social change seems to be very popular on the far right. Since most of the social changes that have occurred since 1945 are changes that the far right does not approve of (and I must admit that they have valid reasons for disapproving of many of those changes) they must have a sinister explanation. Somewhere there were men in smoke-filled rooms plotting these changes.

In reality what appear to be vast organised conspiracies are often simply the result of individuals acting out of what they perceive to be their own self-interest. In many cases even these individuals are not behaving in any kind of planned way but simply behaving opportunistically.

Take immigration. Why is it so difficult for immigration restrictionists to make any real headway? Surely the answer must be that immigration is part of an organised conspiracy to destroy the West, or to genocide white people, or to usher in an international Communist dictatorship? In fact to a large extent the explanation is that a large number of individuals and corporations and small businesses (and particularly in the US farmers) have all concluded that immigration is in their interests. They are all pulling in the same direction on this issue because they all think they will personally benefit, not because they are part of a sinister organised plot.

Or take the current COVID-19 crisis. There’s a popular view on the far right that there’s an organised globalist conspiracy to use the crisis as an excuse to further the globalist agenda (there are even some who think the crisis was entirely cooked up by evil globalists). In fact this seems very unlikely. What seems more likely is that some large corporations have seen the opportunity to advance their own interests by supporting lockdowns in order to destroy unwanted competition. Other have seen it as a chance to collect handouts from government. It’s mostly been pure opportunism. It’s difficult to see how the lockdowns are good for globalists in general. Quite the reverse. It seems likely to be a setback for globalism. But if a particular corporation sees an opportunity to benefit from the overall economic carnage they will of course take advantage of it.

There are even conspiracy theories to explain declining white birth rates. Apparently it’s all part of an evil plot for white genocide. The problem with these conspiracy theories is that they don’t explain why birth rates for many non-white populations have declined even more sharply than white birth rates. In reality it’s likely that declining birth rates are the result of a number of long-term social, technological and economic changes which were in themselves ideologically and morally neutral - urbanisation and improvements in contraceptive technology being quite possibly the biggest single factors (although quite a few other factors have doubtless contributed). The conspiracy theories are not just unnecessary, they don’t fit with the facts on the ground.

In most cases self-interest and opportunism are better explanations than conspiracies. But they don’t appeal to people who want ideological explanations.

Friday, May 1, 2020

the truth about the Cold War

The outburst of rampant Russophobia in recent years, and now the equally virulent outbreak of Sinophobia, suggest something extremely interesting about the Cold War. Here’s my theory.

The Cold War had nothing to do with ideology. Americans did not hate the Russians for being godless commies. The proof of that is that today the Russians are hated for being Christian capitalists. The Chinese were also not hated for being godless commies. Today the Chinese are godless capitalists but they’re more hated than ever.

The Russians were hated and feared for daring to be a geopolitical rival. They were hated for not accepting the US as global hegemon. That’s mostly all there was to it.

The Chinese were hated and feared during the Cold War because they seemed to be a potential geopolitical rival. Today they’re hated and feared for daring to be an economic rival.

In the case of the Chinese there’s also unquestionably an element of good old-fashioned racism. It’s not socially acceptable to be openly racist any more but you can get away with it if you can make it look like it’s not really racism.

If the Soviet Union had embraced capitalism back in the 1950s it would have made no difference. They would still have been a geopolitical rival and would still have been hated.

Of course to be fair all great powers hate and fear rivals if those rivals seem to be growing in strength. There was hysteria in Britain at the beginning of the 20th century when Germany dared to construct a strong navy. And the British hated and feared Tsarist Russia throughout the 19th century because they saw Russia as a rival imperialist power.

Of course there’s a complication. Democracies don’t like to be seen to be engaging in cynical power struggles with rival powers. They have to turn everything into a moral crusade. So the Cold War was made into a moral crusade.

That’s my theory anyway.

victimless crimes

Mark Moncrieff makes some interesting points about victimless crimes in his counter-post to my recent post.

I think it is true that what are usually thought of as victimless crimes are not necessarily really victimless. It depends a lot on what victimless crimes you’re talking about. He’s certainly correct that adultery is not exactly a victimless crime.

My view is that it’s necessary to consider carefully the exact nature of the possible harm done. I would divide the harm into three categories - actual physical harm, psychological harm and social harm. Actual physical harm can be regarded as something objective. With psychological harm and social harm we’re generally veering into the realms of the subjective which to me is a real problem.

Psychological harm is obviously immensely difficult to quantify. It can also be deceptive because you cannot always be sure you’re correctly distinguishing between results and causes. Take marijuana. There seems to be an association between marijuana and schizophrenia, but does that mean that marijuana causes schizophrenia or does it mean that schizophrenics are more likely to become marijuana users? Or if it doesn't cause schizophrenia maybe it exacerbates it (which is what I’m inclined to believe). And I’ve had a lesbian say to me that the problem is not that lesbianism causes mental illness but rather that women with mental health issues are more likely to become lesbians. It is also of course possible that the lesbian lifestyle exacerbates those issues (a position my lesbian friend is inclined to accept).

What about social harm? That’s even more subjective and entirely impossible to quantify. In fact if you agree with Margaret Thatcher that there’s no such thing as society you’d have to argue that there’s no such thing as a crime that does social harm. Even if you don’t agree with Thatcher (and I certainly don’t) the concept of social harm is rather nebulous.

So let’s look at some victimless crimes. Take adultery. There’s no physical harm done to any party. It’s pretty obvious there’s the potential for psychological harm to the non-adulterous spouse. But the extent of that psychological harm no doubt varies enormously. Some spouses seem to just shrug the matter off. Others are devastated. The difficulty is that it’s still rather subjective. It’s obviously real, but difficult to quantify. Does adultery do social harm? My view is that it would be a challenge to prove such a view.

What about fornication? Obviously there’s no question of physical harm. Psychological harm? I’m sceptical. Social harm? Again I’m very sceptical. What if it’s taken to the extreme of promiscuity? I think it’s possible that promiscuity is very bad for some people, but then it is also possible that it’s good for some people. For some people it might fulfil a deep psychological need. It’s also possible that some people might cause more social problems if deprived of the opportunity to be promiscuous (they might for example commit sexual assaults).

What about homosexuality? For me the key here is sodomy, since it is well established that sodomy can and does do actual direct physical harm as well as enormously increasing the chances of contracting a sexually transmitted disease. But what’s important to bear in mind here is that heterosexual sodomy carries exactly the same risks.  A very strong argument could be made that it’s a practice that should be discouraged. Lesbianism on the other hand involves zero risk of physical harm. As for social harm, it seems self-evident that spreading homosexual propaganda to children or encouraging others to adopt a homosexual lifestyle does extreme social harm. But the social harm in these cases comes from associated social behaviours rather than the sexual behaviour itself. You could argue that when homosexuals practised their lifestyle discreetly and in private the social harm done was minimal or even non-existent.

With drugs the risks of physical harm are obvious in some cases, not so obvious in others. The psychological harm is difficult to assess since the evidence seems to be all over the place. As for social harm, I’d argue that the drug culture has done devastating damage. But again when such habits were practised discreetly and in private the social harm was clearly very much less.

Of course even when you can establish that harm is being done the question of what to do about it remains. Do you criminalise the behaviour? Encourage people to seek therapy? Make the behaviour legal but strongly discourage it? The example of Prohibition suggests that legal bans can be risky and can be a two-edged sword.

The fact that something might be considered unwise or unhealthy or morally repugnant or recklessly dangerous does not necessarily imply that we should apply legal sanctions against it. I think mountain-climbing is recklessly dangerous but I don’t want to ban it. I think that drinking a bottle of Scotch a day is a very very bad idea but I don’t want to ban Scotch Whisky. On the other hand I don’t want people to be encouraged to drink a bottle of Scotch a day and I can see an argument that people should be strongly discouraged from doing so.

With most “victimless crimes” it’s difficult to make a strong case for prohibition but in some cases it is possible to mount a very strong argument for vigorous action to prohibit any attempt to encourage such activities.