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Monthly Archives: March 2015

Harry Lee, Rest in Peace

The great man is dead. I had my issues with the man, and I believe that history will not be kind to him. His great work in Singapore will soon be undone. His successors will not have his genius or drive; and soon a targeted Progressive onslaught will bring leftist agitation, an untethered press, and electoral change.

I think it’s wrong to see him as a reactionary politician. He completely lacked any appreciation for traditional culture; in fact much of his work was about breaking the spine of the local Chinese associations, forbidden their dialects, their economic bases, and subsuming all ethnic and racial communities into his vision of a modern, English speaking nation.

He is more rightly viewed as the ultimate Legalist scholar, in the Chinese tradition of government. Unlike Shang Yang, who was ignominiously killed after finishing his work, or Han Fei, who was murdered before he could realize his vision; Lee Kuan Yew had absolute power in his person, and held power until his death. And he achieved the great legalist vision of achieving a wealthy and ordered society through skillful government, unapologetic about his ultimate authority and recourse to violence.

What really marked his name among this circles is not his success at government. Singapore is far away, has a very peculiar set of circumstances, so LKY’s model most likely isn’t applicable to other locations or scales. It is also likely to unravel in the next decades, unable to resist leftist entropy.

What was most admirable about Harry Lee (the name he preferred, his first language was English), was his intelligence, his powers of perception, and his will to speak his mind. His views on good government, or race and human equality are so fresh, bright and insightful, that one often yearns for a dictator if only to have a public figure willing to speak his mind.

How do I wish we had leaders who spoke like this:

A good speech like this would do more than all our blogs combined. Alas we will never have it.

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Corporate Leftism

I guess we’re all aware of this not-Onion piece of news:

http://www.unz.com/isteve/starbucks-to-encourage-baristas-to-discuss-race-relations-with-customers/

The original press release is here:

http://news.starbucks.com/news/what-race-together-means-for-starbucks-partners-and-customers

I think the most productive way of thinking about this is asking: what would a Martian think? What are these humans up to?
A second-best option is to put yourself in the place of a 18 year old Chinese high school kid studying for an English exam. He reads this:

“we at Starbucks should be willing to talk about these issues in America,” Schultz said. “Not to point fingers or to place blame, and not because we have answers, but because staying silent is not who we are.”

What does that even mean? “staying silent is not who we are”? Why is a nominalized verb phrase the referent of “who”? And why is that verb the subject of “are”? English very hard mom do I really have to study abroad?

One of the best book of the 20th century was The Selfish Gene, because it gave a good explanation of human behavior in zoologic terms. Sex relations, tit-for-tat. Dawkins got a bit lost on Memetics though. Surely brains don’t get infected just like that. That’s where Haidt, Atran and others are trying to solve the problem. Humans are social; social behavior is complex, but it’s still mechanistic. And that’s why signalling explains so much.

So why is Schultz doing this? Running a bunch of absurd sentence without propositional value on the national press, making all their employees feel awkward, and I guess most of the executives feeling confused.

Either he is:
1- A true believer (whatever that means)
2- He has actual intelligence that this will sell, or at least produce enough attention that will eventually produce higher revenue.
3- Signalling to his wife, his friends, his fellow country club members how holy he is
4- Sending a probe inside his corporate HQ to see how his executives react to his nonsense; and thus appraise their loyalty.

 

Number 4 is the famous story of Zhao Gao, the eunuch in charge of the recently unified Qin empire, who brought a deer to court and asked everyone what they thought of his magnificient horse. Those who didn’t agree it was a horse were summarily executed.

My point here is that our brains have a little module which harbors miniature Chinese eunuchs who throw stupid ideas around just to see how people react. And that’s a reason why people generally dislike high standards of evidence. That’s just no fun. It’s not useful for social life. But absurd ideas and empty speech are very, very useful.

PS: Note how Schultz in the video says: “All our forums have been unscripted, but they’ve all been exactly the same.” No kidding. Now why would that be?

Bonus: Taiwanese animation news on the subject

Religion is absurd. But we need it anyway.

Watch this.

This comes from this video, but I took the time to edit out all other speakers; it really boggles the mind why Atran even agreed to share the panel with that borderline retarded drivel. But I must also thank that he had the patience to listen to that drivel so that we can listen to his superior insight.

I’ll transcribe most of it here for those who can’t watch the video; but do watch it when you can.

 

I think truth and reason have always been slaves to the passions (…) truth is not very much a part of how humans deal with things except at a very mundane level; we have to know what’s true when we cross the street; but the quest for truth is subject to persuasion and victory in argument. And I think what’s really has motivated human beings out of the caves, what’s driven their civilization forward, what drives political movements,  as well as religions, are transcendental beliefs, that go beyond material self-interests of people or even evolutionary concerns like fitness.

Humans had had our present bodies for 200,000 years, but were still stuck in Africa; while our more primitive cousins such as homo herectus or Neanderthals are roaming around the planet, homo sapiens are down to 2,000 souls,  on the verge of extinction, and then bang, around 70,000 years ago, out of Africa, and then in the blink of an eye in geological terms, there’s flying to the moon.

How did this happen? Obviously there was some kind of computational mutation in the brain that allowed for language and theory of mind (I know that he knows…) that allows for deception and construction of an imaginary world. The interesting thing is the human ability to form larger and larger groupings, and to be able to sacrifice themselves for this non-genetic and increasingly anonymous strangers. And that’s what allowed human beings to dominate the Earth, and dominate the rest of their competitors.

So how did that happen? And what is it based on? Well certainly religions are only one part of it. Nations, for example, the idea of the nation itself, is sort of a middle ground between transcendental movements like human rights, which are initially based of absurd ideas, such as “humans are equal”, we have all these “God given rights”, and anthropomorphic gods. It has characteristics of both of them: the nations feel, the nations do things, the nations demands of you. And it’s not just metaphorical. But religions are basically the foundation of this; we have gone a little beyond this in Western societies, but not much.

And let me tell you how I think it’s been so successful. First of all there wouldn’t have been any societies without religion, without transcendental beliefs. Which are absurd. They have to be preposterous. The basic tenets are not false beliefs. They are preposterous beliefs. Something like Aristotle’s category violations, a “four-footed idea”. It’s not something that even has truth conditions. So it’s open to interpretation, which makes it so adaptable. That’s why you have sermons, and imams, and rabbis, and priests, giving you every week a new version of what it actually means, because the foundations of them are meaningless.

But you need meaningless ideas, unfalsifiable, and unverifiable. Otherwise, it’s a mere social contract of convenience which has an exit strategy and people can defect any time they want. Once you buy into this apparently absurd beliefs, and think about it, the more apparently absurd they are, the deeper the trust they engender. And stronger the societies are in competition with other societies. And Darwin of course was the first to point this out in The Descent of Man, saying : why do the heroes and martyrs come into being? They are willing to die and commit to this… what? What are they dying for? They’re not dying even for their families, because they know they are gonna die. They are dying for abstract ideas, abstract causes, which no other creature but man re subject. And human beings will do their utmost exertion for ill or good, not for the sake of kith and kin, but collectively for the sake of abstract ideas. And these abstract ideas are unverifiable, and unfalsifiable

The nation, is again one of them, and so is human rights. In the middle of the 18th century, a bunch of European intellectuals decided that all men are created equal, they are endowed by their Creator, or Providence, with [the right of ] life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But for 99.5% of human history, there were cannibals, oppressed minorities, unequal and suddenly a bunch of intellectuals decide to engineer society so it would be different. It worked, but it was based on an absurd idea to begin with.

[…]

You can see that during the course of history, moralizing gods become more important as civilizations grow. Could civilization continue to advance? Well we haven’t found anything other than belief in transcendental ideas. The idea that human rights is qualitatively different than all the other transcendental ideas I just don’t buy. I once interviewed the head of a white supremacist movement in the US, and he told me “evil is the failure to participate in a race war”. And there was a whole nation of people who actually believed this, and their soldiers by the way were the strongest fighters in the world because they truly bought into that. Human rights and civilization is a very intermittent phenomenon. It’s working now for a bunch of reasons, which is the overwhelming military might and economic power of the Western alliance, but it is a fragile thing. Democracy is not assured by any means. And the idea of human rights as something that is practical is true. It is been made practical it has been socially engineered to be practical. Look at the framers of the Declaration of the Rights of Man. The debates. Or the debates of the Continental Congress about how to frame the Declaration of Independence. The word they used was “sacred”. It was Ben Franklin who imposed “self-evident” because it seemed more rational and it was easier to sell to his philosophical society. But these were sacred ideas, unverifiable, unfalsifiable and which they pledge their honor, their lives and their fortunes. What other things are we willing, besides our own family, to pledge our lives, our honors and our fortunes? To some other contract of convenience? No. It has to be something that moves us, that moves people, that moves nations. And I think for that, we need such ideas.

Like morality itself, [religion] is both the devil and the angel of human history. It is responsible for both. First of all, just as a matter of fact, if you look at the Encyclopedia of War, religions are responsible for about 7% of wars. So it’s not overly responsible for war across human history, and in the last century it’s been minimally responsible for wars. It’s had a comeback recently.

The content of religious beliefs are what people make of them at the moment. What they agree upon them at the moment. They aren’t fixed, they are forever adaptable. And that is why they are counterintuitive and absurd. Because if they were fixed, if you could give them propositional content, if you could falsify them, or verify them, they’d be stuck. So they have to be open.

And you can’t simply say they’re ungrounded and false beliefs. Because they just aren’t. I did an experiment after an argument with Richard Dawkins, “religions are bad memes, they are things that flow around on people’s brains, they infect them they take them over. So we made this experiment, I put on the Ten Commandments on the board, and had somebody pick up one of the Ten Commandments, like “you shall not bow before false idols”. Then someone who didn’t see it came in the room and had to paraphrase it. And we went through ten iterations of that. Then I put a whole bunch of propositions on the board, and after the tenth person I asked: what did the last person tell you? Not a single one picked up one of the commandments. Everybody had their interpretations, they all thought they meant the same thing. Like, “I should spend more time with my family”, “money isn’t everything”, whatever it was. The only people who actually recognized the originally commandments were autists. Because they literally paraphrased every version of it. Normally the way we handle religious beliefs is not fixed in some fundamental, literal sense, but to give it a sense of community for us. I’m an atheistic humanistic guy, I work with people in Al Qaeda and other groups, and I find the devotion to religious beliefs to be basically the same.

[Religion] is as part of human nature as our language, and our basic cognitive thought processes. We are group animals. When Durkheim talks about religion, he simply says substitute the word group for God, and you’ve got it. We are group animals, we live in groups and we live in increasingly larger groups of anonymous strangers. How are we gonna keep them together?

The moment we have a theory of mind, I know that you know that he knows, which again emerged probably with the faculty of language around 70,000 years ago, you have deception in line. So how do you stop defection? Now if it’s just again a social contract, where it’s a matter of convenience and utilitarian calculation, well logic tells you “let me look for a better deal down the line”. Then by backward induction, you say: “well if there’s a better deal down the line better for me to defect now”. So societies would fall apart pretty quick. So if you don’t want societies to fall apart, if you want something larger than a tribe and a family, you’re gonna need them.

There’s a prize for those who can see the connection between this and my other recent posts.

Leftism is just an easy excuse

To expand on the Maoism post. Marquez came up with the flattery inflation theory to explain how cults of personality evolve in mechanistic terms. But the same idea can be used to explain not only Red Queen spirals of sycophancy. Any ideological innovation, both in states and inside small cults or organizations, behaves under the same principles.

Any political system, any organization, even the smallest one, is going to have people in power, and people out of power who want to be in power. Or at least marginally increase their level of power.

Which means you need to challenge those who are in power. The powerful are powerful because they have organized themselves into a power coalition, bound by ties of loyalty. A solid power block where all members are strongly loyal is, for all purposes, indestructible. So the only way to challenge the powerful is to try to incite disloyalty among its members.

More likely than not, some members of the ruling coalition are not very loyal. They’d rather defect. But they can’t backstab the coalition just like that. You don’t do that; it looks bad. Your comrades will go against you. There are costs to defection.

Unless you’re not the only defector. You need a way to signal your intention to defect, so that other disloyal fucks such as yourself (and they’re bound to be others) can join up, thus reducing the likely costs of defection. The way to signal your intention to defect is to come up with a good excuse. A good excuse to be disloyal becomes a rallying point through which other defectors can coordinate and cover their asses so that the ruling coalition doesn’t punish them. What is a good excuse?

Leftism is a great excuse. Claiming that the ruling coalition isn’t leftist enough, isn’t holy enough, not inclusive enough of women, of blacks, of gays, or gorillas, of pedophiles, of murderous Salafists, is the perfect way of signalling your disloyalty towards the existing power coalition. By using the existing ideology and pushing its logic just a little bit, you ensure that the powerful can’t punish you. At least not openly. And if you’re lucky, the mass of disloyal fucks in the ruling coalition might join your banner, and use your exact leftist point to jump ship and outflank the powerful.

Note that this applies to any ideological system. In Islam, the best excuse to defect is to claim to be more fundamentalist. In Medieval Europe, is to love Christ more. In pre-WW2 Japan, it was to be a more fanatic militarist who fights for the glory of the empire.

The same dynamic fuels the flattery inflation one sees in monarchical or dictatorial systems. In Mao China, if you want to defect, you claim to love Mao more than your boss. In Nazi Germany, you proclaim your love for Hitler and the great insight of his plan to take Stalingrad. In the Roman Empire, you claimed that Caesar is a God, son of Hercules, and those who deny it are treacherous bastards. In Ancient Persia you loudly proclaimed your faith in the Shah being the brother of the Sun and the Moon and King of all Kings on Earth. In Reformation Europe you proclaimed that you have discovered something new in the Bible and everybody else is damned to hell. Predestined by God!

All of the above is bullshit. But it’s useful bullshit. And humans will believe from the bottom of the hearts any bullshit that is useful enough. There’s some individual variance in the ability to come up and sincerely believe any crap, but there’s always cathartic rituals to prove that the we’re in all in this together, this licensing you to become a true believer. At any rate, the whole point of the above is to signal your disaffection from the status quo. The precise content of your signal is irrelevant. It is completely dependent on the particular ideological ecology of your culture. But the underlying mechanism is the same. You want power, and you signal your intent in the optimal way to minimize the chances of official punishment, and make it easy for others to join your banner.

The degree to which this signals spiral into complete madness depend on how strong the ruling coalition is, and how vital it is to attain power. If the ruling coalition is solid, and has good mechanisms in place to ensure the loyalty of their members, potential defectors will be punished for signalling their intentions, no matter how embellished they are in the language of the state religion. If you are well fed and life is safe and good, there’s little incentive to defect.

However, if the ruling coalition is too large, and hence weak, dispersed, and has few mechanisms of appraising and ensuring the loyalty of its members; or if the only way of ensuring access to food, shelter and security is to have some access to political power; signalling your intention to defect by proclaiming that 5 year olds should be able to be castrated, or by proclaiming that Kim Jong Un can climb buildings like Spiderman, is suddenly a good proposition. And once you do, and succeed, everybody else will be forced to follow your banner, and the new ideological innovation will become an official article of faith. You don’t want to be the last guy that denies that Kim Jong Un is Spiderman.

And again: the precise content of the ideological point doesn’t matter. Your human brain doesn’t care about ideology. Humans didn’t evolve to care about Marxist theory of class struggle, or about LGBTQWERTY theories of social identity. You just don’t know what it means. It’s all abstract points you’ve been told in a classroom. It doesn’t actually compute. Nothing that anybody ever said in a political debate ever made any actual, concrete sense to a human being.

So why do we care so much about politics? What’s the point of ideology? Ideology is just the water you swim in. It is a structured database of excuses, to be used to signal your allegiance or defection to the existing ruling coalition. Ideology is just the feed of the rationalization Hamster that runs incessantly in that corner of your brain. But it is immaterial, and in most cases actually inaccessible to the logical modules in your brain.

Nobody ever acts on their overt ideological claims if they can get away with it. Liberals proclaim their faith in the potential of black children while clustering in all white suburbs. Communist party members loudly talk about the proletariat while being hedonistic spenders. Al Gore talks about Global Warming while living in a lavish mansion. Cognitive dissonance, you say? No; those cognitive systems are not connected in the first place.

And ideological sincerity doesn’t make sense on the face of it. Why would anything like that ever evolve? Given how ideology actually behaves, a gene that made you be coherent with your ideology can’t possibly spread in the gene pool. A gene for being able to aptly manipulate nonsensical abstract points to signal your position and intention vs. the present power structure; now that’s useful.

Leftism evolved, step by step, backstab by backstab, as Christian Europeans signalled their dislike with the status quo by gently pushing the state religion just a little bit further, in the direction most likely to get people on your side, and prevent the powerful from punishing you. Surely nobody can disagree with extending the franchise to our hard working middle class? Surely nobody can disagree with abolishing the enslavement of our fellow humans? Surely nobody can disagree with giving citizenship rights to our women? Surely nobody can disagree with stopping the criminal prosecution of homosexuals?

And so, every little step in the way, power-seekers moved the consensus to the left. And open societies, democratic systems are by their decentralized nature, and by the size of their constituencies, much more vulnerable to this sort of signalling attacks. It is but impossible to appraise and enforce the loyalty of every single individual involved in a modern state. There’s too many of them. A Medieval King had a better chance of it; hence the slow movement of ideological innovation in those days. But the bigger the organization, the harder it is to gather accurate information of the loyalty of the whole coalition; and hence the ideological movement accelerates. And there is no stopping it.