Tag Archives: Conceptual Infrastructure

Regression

I grew up in a culture and era of “progress” as a near certainty, for both technological and social progress.

That certainty was always, to a great extent, naive and myopic. The evidence for greater skepticism was always there. But the 21st century has hammered this home.

One big example, which I have expressed before, is that in the 19th century America had the cultural technology to close down and replace a major political party; at some point since then we seem to have lost that technology.

Lately I keep thinking, as American government largely acts powerless to address large supply constraints challenging our economy, that this is another cultural retrogression. Recall the major wars of the 20th century, and how American leadership wrung its hands and frowned about price increases, but remarked solemnly that “the economy was running too hot” and it was simply up to the Federal Reserve to slow it down and lower demand? Hopefully the answer is no, because that is not what happened.

Much can be said about the difference, of course, including the fact that America does not have a remotely functional political system now. That’s a kind of retrogression, itself, but it’s even broader than that, in this learned helplessness toward economic challenges which this culture actively addressed, effectively, not that many generations ago.

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American Self-Endangerment

The past day or so, despite mass shootings and plague and everything else, some journalists and Democrats have tried making a story out of “Trump expressed approval of his supporters chanting ‘hang Mike Pence.’”

This is hapless in multiple ways. There’s really nothing substantive and new, here. All the remotely significant elements, just like the larger picture of the Capitol putsch, have been in front of us since the beginning: violent attack on political leaders’ workplace, carried out by Republican base with the encouragement of Republican leaders, very willing nonetheless to extend violence including hanging to leading Republicans including Pence, and most Republican leaders more concerned with circling the wagons as a party than with anything else. None of that’s new. The basis for this “story” seems to be “The Jan 6 committee has testimony that Meadows told colleagues that Trump said something to the effect that…” Come on, how do you not finish that with “Ferris passed out at 31 flavors.”

But there is perhaps something, here, which fits into an actual meaningful pattern. The elites trying to make this into a story seem, as best I can judge, to perceive something extra alarming in the fact that Republicans are not only comfortable with violence, they’re apparently comfortable with endangerment of themselves. Shouldn’t more of them break ranks, wonder the journalists. Shouldn’t more voters be turned off, wonder the Democrats. Isn’t this attachment to closing ranks, as a greater priority than even self-preservation, disturbing to people besides us, they all ask?

The answer they miss is that such priorities are widespread in our culture, certainly among its elites including journalists and Democrats.

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Senescence

The German physicist Max Planck said that science advances one funeral at a time. I concluded, years ago, that the concept is at least as relevant in other areas of our culture as in science.

As I think lately about the related (and very convincing) suggestion that people and institutions have generally fixed toolkits, of actions and language and conceptual frameworks, the gerontocracy atop American liberalism seems like an underappreciated contributor to the present failing state.

If humans’ fixed toolkits only really change much in response to a sense of existential threat, there is probably some elasticity in what triggers that. It seems very plausible that an elderly culture of elderly people is more difficult to shake up.

A lot of US political leadership has just aged in place for 30 years. It’s easy to poke fun at this, but I wonder if this has been even more damaging than suspected.

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Perspective on Groupthink

A recent thread by Kamil Galeev is so amazingly good. People are familiar with the concept of “groupthink,” yet Galeev essentially proposes that this is not so much an error into which people can fall, as it is the normal human default, from which exceptions are possible but very challenging, and that there are reasons which explain why this is the case.

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Nemesis, or, The World of Yesterday

The book which I titled Nemesis is, at its core, about a simple idea. For three decades, a recurring vote against the sitting president’s party has been a very powerful influence within American politics, even as the culture mostly carries on as though this influence doesn’t exist.

The point of Nemesis, I suppose, is that the narratives about American politics have become badly misaligned with what’s actually going on. After setting out the case that this nemesis vote exists, and is best explained as a big vote against the sitting president’s party—rather than as a trivial thumb on the scale, or as big votes in response to policies or issues or events—the book explores what preceded this destructive force, how that old system broke down, what’s actually going on now, and what options exist now.

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Three-line program

It just becomes more and more and more difficult to take American political debate and processes seriously. As I have written, real changes are occurring, mostly dire, and I take those very seriously. But these are so detached from most of the rhetoric and rituals which just carry on.

I am reminded of this xkcd:

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The Empire never ended

“The Empire never ended” is a phrase which recurs throughout Philip K. Dick’s surreal testament/novel VALIS. Like the novel itself, the phrase has stuck with me; in the novel it refers primarily to the Roman Empire and discontinuity with the flow of time, but I at any rate also inferred a broader reference to futility and fatalism.

Whether or to what extent that was the author’s intent, it occurred to me this week that both significances are compatible with the actual persistence of the Roman Empire in the 21st century.

This struck me especially when I looked at a Wikipedia page, about the French parliament, which displayed an ornamented fasces labeled “Emblem of the French Republic.” Now, Wikipedia’s entry for the fasces itself traces this back through Roman civilization to Greek and Etruscan origins, which I will presume is historically sound. But that doesn’t exactly falsify the sense of such continuity, across millennia, as to suggest that the Empire never ended.

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How and When Do Phenomena Become Reality

I’m thinking a bit about how things become real to our culture, and what seems like a process. If there is anything here I’m only at the beginning of working it out.

What set me thinking about this, now, is the “discovery” last weekend that Russia was committing evil acts, abominable acts, war crimes, in Ukraine. Here are just a few things which preceded that early April “discovery.”

  • February 28: “Kharkiv under intense shelling by Russian artillery now. Civilian objects are targeted. Preliminary reports indicate dozens of casualties.”
  • March 1: US Secretary of State Blinken says that Russian strikes “are hitting schools, hospitals & residential buildings. Civilian buses, cars, and even ambulances have been shelled. Russia is doing this every day—across Ukraine.”
  • March 3: Video verified by The New York Times shows the bombardment of Chernihiv, Ukraine, near apartments, pharmacies and a hospital.
  • March 6: Russian forces fired mortar shells at hundreds of Ukrainian civilians as they fled.
  • March 7: Red Cross says an evacuation route out of Mariupol in Ukraine was mined.
  • March 9: WHO reports at least 18 attacks on health facilities in Ukraine since the start of the invasion; also on March 9, Russian forces bombed a maternity and children’s hospital.

I could go on, easily. On March 23, the US government formally declared that members of the Russian armed forces have committed war crimes in Ukraine. Also of course back in February Russia launched an unprovoked and unjustifiable military invasion of Ukraine—no pretexts, no puppets, just over the border with guns in hand—which is pretty much the most essential war crime of all.

But last weekend all kinds of people were shocked to discover that Russia was committing evil acts, abominable acts, war crimes.

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Unions, liberalism, and a tragic age

Last week, labor organizers finally won a vote to unionize an Amazon warehouse. Amazon, of course, spent multiple fortunes attempting to bust the union before it began (and is still trying to get the election result thrown out).

Organizers are, justifiably, very proud of their effort. They have fought and fought, losing again and again, with the unionbusting abuses by Amazon growing more and more outrageous. It is quite understandable they should feel like this is their achievement.

Yet as people celebrate victories like this, I keep feeling like something is getting left out. Even as working Americans are becoming eagerly pro-union, in relative terms, the whole foundations beneath organized labor are under an assault which has little standing in its way.

Our political system, including too much of the Democratic Party, has either dismantled collective bargaining protections or permitted their dismantling for decades. It is, again, very understandable that a lot of people fighting for these unions feel like they’re doing it on their own, without help from government, without allies among politicians. The fight is unreasonably hard, the elections are absurdly unfair, corporate employers violate rules basically with impunity.

But the very existence of rules at all, of elections which can be won, of the specific prize for which they judge the fight to be worth it—all of this is policy infrastructure which was created by politics and which politics is taking away.

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Cato, Tacitus, and Ukraine

This weekend I concluded, in tandem with various neighbors in the twittersphere, that Ukraine has very probably thwarted Russian ambitions to impose vassalage. It looks like Putin’s government is, instead, increasingly focused on simply reducing Ukraine to a desert.

The invasion has been taking on such a character for some time. Russian activity has gradually looked less and less like an invasion for conquest or regime change, and more like a punitive expedition. I have thought repeatedly of Tacitus’s remark that “they make a desolation and call it peace.”

Tacitus aside, I’m not sure that history includes many major, really close parallels with what’s unfolding in Ukraine. Armies destroying what they can’t hold is by means new, as a tactic. But the scale, here, is eye-opening. A large nation so rotten that it launches an unjustifiable invasion, without achieving any really credible pretext, then fails badly to impose its will upon a smaller neighbor, but has and is using automated destructive tools so extensive that it can level the neighbor even though the invading troops lose. The potential for that has existed for generations, at least, but I think examples of such a revolting spite campaign at this scale are few.

There are seemingly ample good reasons for such campaigns to be few. It looks monstrous, and it looks weak in important ways when such a maximalist punitive campaign is obviously resorted to as a Plan J or something, after every hope for imposing control or influence has failed or stalled. Much of the world will react to this, harshly, despite shrugging off lots of “ordinary” atrocities. Despite which, in this case, deterrence seems ineffective.

I’m not sure how many people are really processing that, yet, but if the upper levels of Russian government are set on leveling Ukraine out of spite, regardless of cost, it is in their power to do so. We need to think more about how to respond.

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