Tuesday, March 31, 2020

ideology and pandemics

One of the more depressing things about the modern western world is the way everything has become politicised. Art is politicised. Sport is politicised. Science is politicised. The weather is politicised. Everything is judged not on the basis of evidence or on the basis of right and wrong but on whether it’s consistent with one’s pre-existing ideological position.

This has become depressingly apparent in responses to COVID-19. Particularly in the US (where the politicisation of absolutely everything is further advanced than anywhere else). To Democrats everything President Trump has done has been wrong, because he’s Trump. To the MAGA cultists everything President Trump has done has been right, because he’s Trump. To them everything is the fault of the evil Democrats.

We’re even seeing ideological divides in people’s views of the seriousness of the pandemic. To some extent people’s responses are conditioned by their emotional outlook, but then their emotional outlook is largely what determines their ideological position anyway. Those who insist that the disease is no big deal are not interested in any evidence that contradicts their view. Those who insist that the disease is the worst thing ever are also not interested in any evidence that fails to support their view.

It’s even more evident when it comes to people’s reactions to the economic consequences, with economic rightists insisting that saving the economy comes first and with their opponents insisting that destroying the economy is worth it if it saves lives. Neither side is interested in rational argument or compromise.

There are also those, especially on the Right, who are determined to blame it all on an evil Chinese communist plot. And there are those who are determined to blame it all on the Americans. In neither case is there any evidence for such assertions. Conspiracy theories abound.

The one thing that is clear is that societies that are highly politicised are incapable of reacting to an actual crisis. Emotional responses, cheap political point-scoring and indecisiveness followed by blind panic have characterised the responses of western governments.

I’m not taking a personal position on any of this. I have no idea if the optimists (“it’s a nothingburger”) or the pessimists (“we’re all doomed”) are right. I have no idea if the economy is capable of recovering from a shutdown. I do think however that we’d be well advised to put politics to one side.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

the obligatory COVID-19 post

I’ve been avoiding the COVID-19 situation but I guess it’s not really possible to ignore it. I’m not going to offer any opinions or predictions on the pandemic itself because it’s a subject I know nothing about. I’m also not going to offer any prognostications about the effects on the economy because again I’m not an expert.

Instead I’m going to talk about the possible long-term political, social and psychological effects.

This seems like it would be a very good time for a politician to be in Opposition (or to be a presidential contender rather than an incumbent president). No-one can be certain if the worst case scenarios are plausible, or whether the optimists are right, or exactly at which  point in between two extreme possibilities the truth might lie. Any policy has to be to some extent an educated guess. If a government guesses wrong it’s likely to pay a high political price. If the pessimists prove to be correct and the death toll is high governments will be blamed for doing too little too late. If the optimists prove to be correct and the death toll is low governments will be blamed for trashing the economy for no good reason. Governments and leaders that guess wrong are likely to end up being ex-governments and ex-leaders. If governments wait for more data and the additional data suggests that the pessimists were right then they have to take even more extreme steps the would have been needed if they had acted earlier. Such a government is going to look indecisive, and in a crisis that’s political death.

Of course if a few governments and prime ministers fall it doesn’t really matter, but the long-term consequence is likely to be populations with even less faith in government than they have now.

The long-term social and psychological effects on ordinary people could also be dire. People are worried but that anxiety could easily turn to anger, and human nature being what it is that means people will look for scapegoats. We’re already seeing an intensification of the generational hatreds that have been building for a while. This is particularly so on the dissident right with many younger people openly celebrating the idea of a disease that they think and hope will kill off the hated Boomers. We’re seeing a very ugly side of human nature coming to the fore.

We’re also seeing lots of crazy conspiracy theories. That’s been happening for quite  wile but COVID-19 has kicked it into top gear. As a result of this disease we’re going to see a decline in trust of government and a lot more people buying into conspiracy theories. Of course governments in the West are handling the crisis very poorly but much of this is down to plain old-fashioned incompetence and political cynicism. Governments and political leaders don’t know what to do but they are desperately keen to be seen to be doing something. Especially in the West where they dithered for weeks instead of taking a few simple useful steps right at the beginning (such as shutting down all air travel both International and domestic).

On the dissident right we’re also seeing people celebrating COVID-19 as a means of stoking racial hatred. Now whatever your views on immigration and diversity might be (and I’m not a fan of either) encouraging more racial hatred is not something that any sane person wants to see. We already have quite enough.

Overall I think the long term result will be that people will become more anxious and more irrational, more unpredictable and more inclined to believe crazy stuff. Even if the coronavirus thing is dealt with successfully one way or another in the next few months those long-term consequences may be not just long-term but permanent.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

conspiracies or just the march of history?

When you look at the state of society today it’s tempting to look for a sinister explanation. This is an especial temptation for political dissidents who are all too prone to see it all as the result of some kind of conspiracy. It’s an especial temptation to blame mass immigration and our demographic collapse on a conspiracy. Some blame the demographic collapse on feminism, some see it as a Jewish plot, or a communist plot, or a CIA plot or blame it on “cultural marxism” but the truth is that you don’t need a conspiracy theory to explain it (and in my view if a conspiracy theory is not needed to explain something then the conspiracy theory becomes very dubious).

In fact much of this is simply the result of impersonal social, cultural, political, economic and technological changes which began towards the end of the 18th century. The Industrial Revolution and the urbanisation that accompanied it destroyed traditional community ties. The gradual decline of Christianity had the same effect. The growth of capitalism encouraged a view of society in which the success of both society and the individual are measured in purely monetary terms. This led to a fall in birth rates which was already becoming apparent in places like France before the end of the 19th century.

The growth of mass media (mass-circulation newspapers in the 19th century, movies in the early 20th century, television in the mid-20th century) encouraged consumerism and hedonism and added further impetus to the tendency to measure success in dollars. This was always going to have the effect of making people even less interested in having large families.

The explosion of higher education in the post-WW2 period added more fuel to the fire. Both men and women were encouraged to put career success ahead of family.

And then there was contraception. Contraception certainly was possible before the 1960s. It was inconvenient and not entirely reliable but it was enough to allow people to drastically reduce the number of children they were going to have. The contraceptive pill appeared in the early 60s and that was the icing on the cake. Eventual demographic collapse became inevitable.

None of these things can be blamed on conspiracies. And most of these things were seen by most people at the time as being essentially positive. In retrospect they contained within them the deeds of disaster but the long-term consequences were simply not foreseen.

Much the same can be said of the collapse of the social fabric. All of the factors listed above, but especially the contraceptive pill, made the Sexual Revolution of the 60s possible (and probably inevitable). Without the Sexual Revolution and the contraceptive pill Second Wave feminism would hardly have been possible. And once the Sexual Revolution and the contraceptive pill had irreversibly transformed sex into a recreational activity the Gay Liberation movement of the 70s became more or less inevitable. The gradual relaxation of censorship was arguably another inevitable result.

What we see today is what happens when a culture is transformed from one based on a traditional model of society into a society based on modernity. It’s not pretty, it’s unsustainable and it’s likely to end in catastrophe but it’s not easy to see how any of it could have been avoided. It’s certainly difficult to see how a society that embraces modernity, democracy and capitalism can avoid such a fate.

Perhaps we will eventually adapt to modernity and learn to mitigate its worst features. And perhaps we won't.

Thursday, March 12, 2020

the strange triumph of the pale stale males

The race for the Democratic nomination in the US has become a two-horse race. A race between two pale stale males. Which has amazed the dissident right. For several years they’ve been predicting that no white man could win the Democratic nomination ever again. They’ve been predicting that only DOCs (Democrats of Colour) or women or homosexuals could ever win the nomination because the party is now dominated by the Coalition of the Fringes.

What’s really extraordinary about the current contest is not just that it has ended in a triumph of the pale stale males but that the DOCs and the women did so incredibly badly. In fact they did so badly that none of them seems especially likely to win the nomination in 2024 either. It seems quite possible that the pale stale males will remain in control for quite some time.

This has come as a shock to dissident rightists. It’s also come as a shock to Elizabeth Warren, who genuinely seems to believe that her presidential run was derailed by sexism.  If sexism really had been the decisive factor then that would suggest that the Democratic Party is a seething hotbed of sexism. Which must be alarming to feminists who were under the impression that it was the Republican Party that was the seething hotbed of sexism. Whatever the reason there’s no question that the speed with which the wheels fell off Warren’s campaign was startling. She was looking good until the serious campaigning started. Once that serious campaigning got under way she crashed and burned almost immediately.

One possible explanation is that political campaigning is a game at which old white men excel, and that perhaps women don’t do well. Joe Biden has been playing the game of politics for half a century. He knows all the tricks. Campaigning comes naturally to him. Female candidates on the campaign trail tend to look uncomfortable.

A look at the Anglosphere over the past couple of decades tends to confirm this. The careers of Hillary Clinton, Theresa May and in Australia Julia Gillard all ended ignominiously. Those three women had proved themselves to be very adept at political infighting. They successfully clawed their way to the top. But when they had to hit the campaign trail they didn’t look very impressive.

Maybe it’s not that old white men are good at this game, but rather that a certain type of male personality is very good at it. To be a successful politician requires the same skill set that makes a successful whore. A good whore tells her client, “I’ll be whatever kind of girl you want me to be.” A successful politician tells the voters the same things. Being a political whore seems to come naturally to a certain type of male personality. Perhaps they’re psychopaths. Women politicians don’t seem to be as good at that game as the men. Maybe there aren’t enough female psychopaths.

Maybe the age of the pale stale males is passing away but it seems to be taking its time.

Friday, March 6, 2020

democracy quotes

Democracy quotes.

“Our great democracies still tend to think that a stupid man is more likely to be honest than a clever man, and our politicians take advantage of this prejudice by pretending to be even more stupid than nature made them.” - Bertrand Russell

“The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” - Winston S. Churchill

“The liberty of a democracy is not safe if the people tolerated the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than the democratic state itself. That in its essence is fascism: ownership of government by an individual, by a group, or any controlling private power.” - Franklin D. Roosevelt

“Our form of democracy is bribery, on the highest scale.” - Gore Vidal

“In a democracy the majority of citizens is capable of exercising the most cruel oppressions upon the minority...and that oppression of the majority will extend to far great number, and will be carried on with much greater fury, than can almost ever be apprehended from the dominion of a single sceptre. Under a cruel prince they have the plaudits of the people to animate their generous constancy under their sufferings; but those who are subjected to wrong under multitudes are deprived of all external consolation: they seem deserted by mankind, overpowered by a conspiracy of their whole species.” - Edmund Burke

“Propaganda is to a democracy what the bludgeon is to a totalitarian state.” - Noam Chomsky

“Does history record any case in which the majority was right?” - Robert A. Heinlein

“In a society governed passively by free markets and free elections, organised greed always defeats disorganised democracy.” - Matt Taibbi

“In a democracy, someone who fails to get elected to office can always console himself with the thought that there was something not quite fair about it.” - Thucydides

Sunday, March 1, 2020

Talleyrand quotes

Some quotes from Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-PĂ©rigord (1754-1838).

“Politics is the systematic cultivation of hatred.”

"God gave humans language so they could conceal their thoughts from one another.”

"Mistrust first impulses; they are nearly always good.”

"Since the masses are always eager to believe something, for their benefit nothing is so easy to arrange as facts.”

“Diplomacy is the art of saying ‘Nice Doggie!’ till you can find a bigger stick.”

"The art of statesmanship is to foresee the inevitable and to expedite its occurrence." -
Charles Maurice de Talleyrand