Trust in Experts Over People, Research Time, 28/02/2017

You know, when I look in some of those classic John Stuart Mill essays, I find a lot that’s valuable for the current era. And I also find a lot that’s racist and imperialist. It’s the mid-19th century in England – What else could I expect?

But some of the truly intriguing moments in these texts comes when they discuss an idea so outlandish, yet so strangely logical, that its utter barminess is fascinating.

One of the highlights of the Brexit campaign was hearing Michael
Gove say that the British people were sick and tired of listening to
experts. On its face, it sounds ridiculous, as if people were
purposely choosing ignorance. But that's not what was happening.
Here’s an idea that I found perfectly barmy, totally out to lunch, but which had a weird resonance today. It’s about the role of an elected parliament in the government of a really complicated society.

Mill’s talking about a society about as complex as mid-19th century Britain. New infrastructure is being developed, new technologies integrated into existing infrastructure. The social and economic networks and relationships of society are fluctuating constantly.

For him, this is a world that needs keen scientific minds and powerful research institutions to understand it adequately. And I don’t have to tell you that, if the intelligence of the average MP is a reflection of their public statements, we aren’t necessarily dealing with the world’s most swift bunch of thinkers.

And I say this as not only a democrat, but as a member of one of Canada’s major nationwide political parties. I don’t just vote in the elections of these idiots – I help find these idiots, campaign for these idiots, and work with these idiots in intense political discussions about the future of our country. These idiots are my colleagues and friends.

One day, they might even talk me into becoming one of these idiots. I’d have to be an idiot to run for office myself.

"Sick and tired of experts" was another way of saying the Tory Brexit
slogan, "Take back control!" It meant that people felt that having a
regime of technocrats manage their governance for them was a
mockery of their freedom as people. And all David Cameron
could think of for the Tory Remain platform was to talk about the
financial benefits of EU membership. Not any of those values of
peace and solidarity the EU was actually founded on, no.
Mill, one of the Western tradition’s leading theorists of democracy, says we can’t actually let these idiots make the real decisions about how to run the country. A properly run, or even half-reasonably functional, government could never exist if ordinary people were in charge of crafting laws and carrying out the business of governance.

Only expertise – technocrats, essentially – can run the government well. So you might ask why you even need a parliament or representative institutions at all?

The primary role of parliament in governance, as Mill spells it out in his Representative Government essay, is to criticize the technocrats who actually run the government on behalf of the people. Setting broad priorities, making sure everyone does their jobs well.

It’s part of the theatrical function of parliaments too. Their debates and arguments articulate the ideological divisions of the wider population. Parliamentarians play those arguments out in a straightforward way – actually arguing face to face with each other. It stands in for* the genuinely messy, potentially much more violent ideological collisions in the chaos of daily life in wider society.

* And maybe sublimates if you want to risk getting a little creepy about it.

A philosophical argument among parties in a parliament works its society through that conflict of ideas without anyone having to get shot over it. Providing anyone listens, of course.

Yet it seems remarkable to me that democracy and freedom would be such a foundational value for the originator of the modern liberal tradition, and he denigrates the real power of ordinary people to govern their society effectively. The two would make a contradiction.

I always find it curious when I see a moment in a great liberal democratic political philosopher that expresses such little faith in actual people.

Knowledge as Imagining the Possible Best, Composing, 27/02/2017

Since I’ve gotten back from Germany, I’ve been working on that post-truth article for SERRC that I’ve spoken about before. As a piece of writing, it’s another experiment that I’m glad the Reply Collective has given me a venue for.

I’m having some trouble in the first draft, though, as I try to balance two chains of argument. One is about the nature of subversion values. These are the values we associate with social progress at its grittiest – opposition and provocation of a socially conservative mainstream.

Because being openly gay – or having any kind of non-vanilla
hetero sexuality – is still a subversive act that makes social
conservatives uncomfortable and pushes difference forward in our
Through recent history in the West, subversion as a virtue and a value has been the exclusive province of groups and forces labelled progressive – the left, workers, ethnic and religious minorities, immigrants, women, LBGTQ people. Those sorts of folks.

So the content of subversive values is the imperative to point out and inadequacies of public morality. Maybe new differences have emerged in a society that now needs to accommodate these new styles of life. Or maybe people who’ve had to hide their differences because of oppression are now living openly and demanding basic equality.

Either way, the dynamic of subversion as a social process is the emergence of new differences, and the imperative to change mainstream morality to accept those differences.

Subversion values’ content faces a very different claim today in the conservative white nationalists who claim status as punks because they oppose a liberal mainstream. These people actually want to annihilate or remove differences from their society, and move toward a more homogeneous, oppressive social morality.

But because they oppose a mainstream, they associate themselves with subversion. And many of their public engagement tactics like online and real-life trolling employs literally the tactics of subversion – provoking offence to humiliate the offended and write off their own seriousness as being oversensitive, allowing them to continue spreading racism around the internet with even less push-back.

Countering the political activism of trolling is difficult – encouraging
their own trivialization in popular perception is itself a troll's weapon.
Far from "Don't feed the trolls," we need a weaponized humour that
renders them truly powerless, that mocks their power as true weakness
and reveals their confidence as over-compensation.
My second argument in this essay is about the peculiar character of what the Trump administration has labelled fake news – a new argument over the proper grounds of evidence.

In its original sense (four months ago), the term refers to the network of Russian and Macedonian meme and untrue article factories that flooded partisan Facebook pages with images and links contributing to a huge array of falsehoods and conspiracy theories in the 2016 election.

In the current sense (coined two months ago), Trump and his team have subverted the meaning of this term to refer to media outlets and institutions that produce information critical of Trump or which contradicts the preferred Trumpist world-view.

But this goes beyond simply the presentation of lies as truth, a typical propaganda move. Perhaps the original definition of fascist propaganda.

Bruno Latour's recent short article on Trumpism as the ideology of climate change denial comes close to the idea, but not quite. His argument is still stuck in that surface understanding of subversion, seeing yourself as the virtuous rebel by fighting the mainstream when the mainstream itself is becoming progressive and different.

No, there’s a deeper thing going on. Trumpism isn’t just a lie, though there are plenty of lies. Trumpist propaganda is itself a claim to truth. The truth that the mainstream media – which Trump, his spokespeople, loyalists, and supporters denounce as fake news – has failed to see.

Or in the words of Masha Gessen, failed to imagine.

The biggest blows to the liberal democratic internationalist order of the West – Trump’s election and Brexit’s referendum victory – were shocking because we did not believe they could happen. It was Trump, Brexit’s leaders, and the reactionary activists who worked for their victory who all understood the world better than the mainstream media who couldn’t imagine how their victory could be possible.

The truth that reaction can win is the truth that reactionaries recognize, and a complacent mainstream media, intellectual class, and popular morality can’t. Our blindness to that truth delegitimizes our claim to knowledge at all.

And justifies their claim to a deeper truth than any of us could know.

Berlin Visions, Jamming, 25/02/2017

In our entire time in Berlin last week, I don’t think the GF and I went more than a few meters into West Germany. Our hostel was in the east, the Holocaust Memorial and Brandenburg Gate are in the east, all the clubs where we partied were in the east, my old friend Grey’s apartment is in the east.

The early morning hours of Berlin.
Well east. Almost the definitive east. It may have been because we visited him at 11.00 on a Sunday night, but we got off the U-Bahn on a street of near-total darkness and utter quiet. Streetlights were spare, and every building was more shadow than stone.

And this was still in the centre of Berlin, only a few subway stops from Alexanderplatz.

We were visiting Grey’s house by surprise. I knew he lived in Berlin, but I thought he’d already be in Singapore for his art show before we arrived. Biennale was flying him across the world for this exhibition, so he had connections. But not much money, since his apartment building’s stairwell was covered with splotches of white spackle over the faded blue concrete.

I feel as if Grey likes it that way. If he had Hurst-level money, I don’t think he’d know what to do with it. You can’t take as many drugs as that money could buy and live longer than a year. Unless you’re David Bowie.

One of my most pleasant experiences in Berlin was visiting the Cold War museum at Checkpoint Charlie. It was the most blatantly touristic think I think I did in the whole country, but it was a marvellous laugh.

A grizzled hipster democrat in the Kaltkrieg Museum.
What I enjoy most about it was that the entire site was an enormous middle finger to the politics of the police state. The fall of the Berlin Wall was the climax of the collapse of brutal police states that dominated the societies of eastern Europe for half a century. There’s a cartoonishly artificial photo stand where actors dressed as Soviet soldiers will pose for pictures with you. The block features a McDonald’s, whose exit doors feature small signs at eye level reading, “You Are Now Leaving the American Sector.”

Let the victory of democracy over communist police states ring with hipster re-enactment actors and immaculate fast food bakeries.

I had an idea for a film while dancing in a techno bar. A comedy that turns into an action movie that turns into a love story.

A Jewish-American girl with a German father goes to Berlin to study chemistry on a scholarship. During a term’s break, she meets an incredibly good looking Arab-German at a club, and they decide to travel together around the EU for the week.

In Slovakia, they run into a gangster who’s a good friend of the guy – he smuggled him and his entire family into Dresden from Syria in the back of a truck, and has since risen to a mid-level position in a Russian-run human trafficking circuit. But our touring couple has seen too much and now has to go on the run.

Our very authentic first meal in Berlin – döner kebabs and salad at a
Turkish-owned shop.
The old human trafficking friend is put in charge of killing them both, but he actually likes them and doesn’t want to have to hurt his friend over a mistake. So when they all find each other again in Amsterdam, he gets himself arrested and takes the rap for everything. So our American and Syrian live happily ever for the next few years anyway.

The last scenes of the film would be a silent walk the couple takes through the exit maze of Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial, then a shabbas meal when she invites him to join her at a local Chabad House.

Have I mentioned the Holocaust Memorial? I didn’t take any pictures because I felt like my camera phone skills couldn’t do the place justice. But it is harrowing.

Since Germany – for obvious reasons – had no right to any artifacts of the victims themselves, they recreated the experience of the Holocaust through reconstructions of victims’ letters and displays of representative families from throughout Europe.

In one room, victims’ letters are blown up to the size of floor panels, backlit displays that you must stare into to read as you walk over them. These dim floor panels are the only light sources in the room.

Darkness is everywhere. An adjacent room is a lit only by the appearance of names projected on a wall-sized screen. Each name has a brief story of a few sentences in German and English, read out loud from a recording that plays from speakers at the corners.

The narration describes who each person was and what happened to them in the war. The Memorial says in a descriptive panel that it will record these brief accounts for every recorded victim of the Holocaust. Listening to the entire finished product would take more than six months.

You leave the coat check and gift shop and emerge into a graveyard. We were there at night, among the last visitors at the end of Sunday. It had been raining all day, a dark mist drifting over the city from the Baltic Sea. Air chilled you, a still, unmoving prickling against the skin. The black stones dripped with water from the rain falling all day.

Row on row of smooth black stone whose only features were the tracks of the rain. They were ten feet tall, blocking almost all light from the street lamps and nearby buildings. Just enough light to tease its existence, not enough to see.

On the train to Berlin from Amsterdam, we saw countless flat fields. Some were planted with solar panels or windmill generators. Most were featureless, their grass almost grey as well as green. We couldn’t help but imagine how many mass graves were under those fields.

Men, women, and children, naked and huddling together in the rain, yanked apart, crying. Hearing bang after bang getting closer and closer until nothing. Blood pools in the dirt like water, bodies crush together under falling clumps of dirt. That was the filthy work of the Holocaust, the endless drudgery of bullet after bullet.

With nothing but cement, the attentive visitor to the Holocaust Memorial will learn something of what it means to be one of the anonymous dead. Motionless under the soil of Europe.

I’m Part of Another Generation that Fights Nazis, Advocate, 20/02/2017

But this time, the war is on the home front.

I haven’t posted in a few days because I’ve been busy on our European vacation. Since Friday night, the GF and I have been in Berlin, and we’ve spent almost all our time in the old GDR section of the city. Staying in a hostel just across the street from Alexanderplatz.

This vacation isn’t just to relax and party, though there’s been plenty of that. Sunday afternoon, we toured the Berlin Holocaust Memorial, which walks you through the genocide with representative stories of families in the installations.

Graphic photos of women who had been forced to strip naked and die in ravines, shot in the head one by one. Families herded into vans and suffocated with carbon monoxide.

As we were on the train from Holland, I’d look out at the fields – bleak, flat, featureless, grey with the rain and clouds. Even the fields that had been converted into wind and solar farms appeared haunted. As if I could see shadows of hundreds of thousands of dead silently screaming between blades of grass.

Your eyes feel the chill when you know what happened in those empty fields decades ago. Grass rippling with spirits.

A photo of the Jewish cemetery in St Louis where hundreds of gravestones
have been vandalized.
It was violence motivated by rage. Hatred boiled in a nation’s soul until it combusts. An explosion of bubbling blood, splatters that leave burn scars on the flesh of a country.

Saturday morning, I read the news and saw that there was a rally against the existence of Islam in Canada. The protesters held signs and chanted slogans that Muslims were all terrorists, rapists, hated women, and held “anti-Canadian values.” Screaming these slogans, they blocked worshipers in their building during Friday prayers.

The protest was organized by such congenial organizations as Rebel Media and Rise Canada, the latter of which is a group that specifically promotes the notion that all Muslims believe in instituting Saudi-style Sharia law across Canada.

When I read this story, I posted a pretty angry note on Facebook. Because despite the explosion of counter-protestors the next day, this is something we should be angry about. I’m here in the country that planned, organized, and led the Holocaust.

After a year of following the rise of Donald Trump, and a year before that of following the rise of alt-right white nationalism, and investigating the ideological and philosophical roots of this new, terrifying movement, I’m prepared to call it what it is.

This is 21st century Nazism.

America's hikikomori are the nihilistic
vanguard of Trump's revolution, applauding
the mass murder-suicide of the human race. To
them, it's becoming a hero.
Islam and Muslims are this movement’s most up-front enemy, though there’s plenty of anti-Semitic filth spewing from the mouths of these wretched grannies. Hate crimes against Jews have exploded across America, and Jews have been harassed in my home of Toronto as well. If you defend these actions in the name of free speech or free expression, you're enabling Holocaust behaviour.

As of my writing this, the post is about 50 comments deep, and includes a surprising number of people defending their right to scream acid hate at people while they pray. And I’m not about to debate these people as if their views are reasonable positions.

I’m not about to treat people who call for the entire expulsion of an ethnic-religious group from my country as deserving of my respect. The next time one of these rallies happen and I can physically make it there, I will show up with a Canadian flag screaming “Nazi scum fuck off!

But I’m not taking some kind of “regressive left” stand against freedom of speech here. For the last week, I’ve been posting about my reading some classic works of John Stuart Mill, one of the founders of liberal free speech values, talking about how he links freedom of speech with the responsibility to build a peaceful society.

As Karl Popper picked up the idea, freedom of speech can’t allow the freedom to advocate shutting down freedom of speech, belief, or expression.

Most people still don’t realize the horrifying roots of the “free speech” rhetoric that racists today use to defend their right to call for mass-deportation and the banning of religious practices.

I hope you’ll read this piece on the history of 4chan culture, the community of people who form the hard core of the modern “free speech” movement online. If I can summarize, they are the wasted of the modern economy.

Unable to build a decent life for themselves according to 20th century standards of success, they’re trapped in a gig economy that keeps them underpaid and impoverished. Socially awkward, they’ve lived in internet forums for literally decades now.

They’ve given up on life in the real world, and support destructive, racist politics because they literally have nothing else to live for. This is a world where suicide and murder-suicide is called “becoming a hero.”

The 4chan fascists of the 21st century want only to laugh while the
world burns in an orgy of violence, suffering, hatred, and rage. You
know – for the lulz.
I’ve seen a few articles since the rise of Trump that have returned to Hannah Arendt to understand contemporary authoritarianism. But I think the better guides are Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari.

They wrote about fascism as the political expression of Freud’s death drive. The militarism of Nazi Germany was a cultural expression of a death wish – murder-suicide on a national, and hopefully global scale.

The Trumpists of 4chan desire the same thing – they want to spur racism, hate crimes, violence, authoritarian clampdowns on democracy and resistance, economic and ecological collapse, the end of human civilization. All because they have no hope left. That’s what it means to live for the lulz.

I will fight this with every ounce of energy I have. Even though I’m not even sure if we can ultimately win. Forces of tolerance, acceptance, and real freedom – the freedom that is bound up in responsibility and ethics – may win some victories.

But it’s entirely possible and quite probable that the destructive processes in Earth’s climate can’t be held back from catastrophe any long. And Trump may still do too much damage to the world with American military and ecological destruction while he’s in power to overcome. We may lose. It may be impossible to win.

But I’d rather go out fighting for what’s right than give in to despair. I’ve fought despair too hard in the last few years to let those forces have that victory over me.

We are one people in all our great human diversity. We can live in a world of peace, brotherhood, and fairness.

And you Nazi punks, fuck off!

Our Individual Freedom to Be Good to Each Other, Research Time, 16/02/2017

I'd say one of the most frustrating parts of modern politics* is how absolutist basic liberal principles have become.

* That’s separate from the infuriating, horrifying, terrifying, enraging, and fucking hilarious.

That’s not to say that there aren’t milquetoast, bland, emptily shiny liberal politicians or parties anymore. But that middle-of-all-roads multifaceted hypocrite new liberal with a vague conscience where it’s mostly expedient** doesn’t have the loudest voice in the liberal brand anymore.

As people, we humans tend not to understand that absolutisms of any
value corrupt that value and make it completely dysfunctional. I don't
actually think Milo believes what he says he does – I think he's a con
man playing riots for cash.
** Bill Clinton administration, basically. And Jean Chrétien.

Guess who I’m about to name as that loudest voice of liberal values today. Of course I’m going to say Milo Yiannopolous.

How could such a wildly racist, flamboyantly transphobic, rich dick, gaygeoisie, misogynistic professional bastard represent liberal values? I don’t mean the liberal values of openness or diversity. I just mean the one liberal value that seems to have become the only one that matters among the new generation of radical liberals.

Free speech. Milo promotes himself as a free speech absolutist – his tours are performance art spectacles of boiling bile, bombs that clear a safe space for the most vile ideas and epithets that the human capacity for hatred can produce. From a particular perspective, it’s an important human service.

From more sane perspectives, it’s a glaring demonstration that absolutism of even the most straightforward benefits – freedom itself – can become cancerous to free society.

These thoughts turn over in my mind as I read On Liberty. It’s one of the texts considered at the centre of liberal political philosophy itself. Its ideas inspire a tradition of popular thought that includes literally billions of people now.

I’m curious to know how a typical Milo fan would respond when he reads Mill writing that our obligations to be benevolent to others always takes precedence over our self-interest and self-care. That an essential part of living in a society means we have to help our neighbours before we help ourselves.

Our personal freedoms don’t force our responsibilities into the backseat.

And Mill considers it a mark of maturity to accept this attitude that my responsibilities to my neighbours, friends, and countrymen take precedence over my more selfish desires. Which implies pretty clearly that if Mill were to meet Milo or his fanboys, he would consider them the most immature man-babies he’d ever seen.

It wouldn’t necessarily be the content of what the Milo contingent says and screams that bothers him. Mill was quite the racist himself, as I can tell when I read some parts of his Representative Government essay.

No, Mill’s shock would be at their sheer obnoxiousness, violence, their collapse of their own souls’ decency into the crumpled ego of self-absorption. The absolutism of free speech*** creates a twisted, crumpled soul who believes that his only worthwhile expression is how loud and how much he can scream.

*** Or at least one kind of absolutism, the worst kind of absolutism we have to deal with today.

You go back to Mill, one of the roots of liberalism, and you find that our freedoms are limited by whether they’ll do harm. Most often, we consider that harm an active assault, and Mill gives those examples. But he also talks about systemic avoidance of harm.

Here’s a vital moral responsibility we all share in our society of liberty – educating the next generation of our entire society to be morally better than we were.

That’s a standard to which Milo and Steve Bannon would have you rather fall well short.

Adventures in Cinema and Film Writing, Composing, 14/02/2017

I’ve got plenty more to say about the classic John Stuart Mill books that I’ve been revisiting. There’s actually a lot of interesting stuff in there, but I’ll get back to that tomorrow. Today was an especially busy day, and I didn’t get the time to go over my notes in the detail I want to before I write a good philosophy post.

No, today was a day of progress in my cinema projects. Since the start of this year, I’ve been able to make some real, decisive strides in getting You Were My Friend made. There are multiple people I’ve met in Toronto’s and Hamilton’s arts community who are interested in helping me make it, whether as crew or advisors.

I also haven’t sent any bones to my Patreon donors in a while, which I really should. They haven’t gotten any special projects since my previews of Class reviews. Not only that, but I feel like I let them down with the Class reviews, because it turned out to be kind of a mediocre show by the end.

It would be a very personal writing project for me, since watching
Kubrick's films as a child were almost a religious experience for me.
Not in terms of receiving some kind of dogma, but as a mystical
experience. I knew I wanted to do something creative with my life
after seeing his work.
So here are a few thoughts about a project I’ve been thinking about doing since late last year. You’ll be quite surprised, as no one has ever thought of doing such a thing before – philosophical essays about the films of Stanley Kubrick.

Seriously, though – What would distinguish that from any other set of blog posts written by Ras Trent college intellectuals from a haze of weed smoke at 1.00am? I joke, but it’s a valid question.

It’s not like there already aren’t a healthy amount of film studies books and articles written about philosophical ideas in Kubrick films. It was one of the earliest “Pop Culture Thing and Philosophy” books.

The books like the one I linked above are mostly of the tired format of using a theme, image, or event from his films as an example to illustrate some concept in a philosopher’s work. Usually, those essays are based on bog-standard, boring takes on the concepts, which makes the essay suitably uninteresting.

When I wrote a chapter in one of those books, I at least used a less stereotypical, more interesting take on my philosopher of choice.

But here’s my take. First, the structure. I’d have a few broad concepts in mind, through which I want to read Kubrick’s films, and treat those films themselves as philosophical explorations of the ideas.

I think the first essay I write will be the one on The Shining. The idea
for this book first came to me when I read about how much Stephen King
hated Kubrick's The Shining, even though King's book was actually
kind of terrible, and his own television adaptation was awful. Kubrick
could tell the story of a father trying to kill his family better than King
because Kubrick was actually capable of accepting the horrible truth of
that narrative: that a father could genuinely desire to kill his family.
So I’d write an essay on each feature film in Kubrick’s corpus. And each essay would consider, to a greater or lesser focus depending on its prominence in the film, the same three ideas. 1) Accepting abyss of a godless existence. 2) Kubrick’s vision of humanity and the wider universe as machines. 3) Kubrick’s lurking concern for justice, particularly regarding violence against women.

I also want to touch on the nature of adaptation, a key part of Kubrick’s creative method. I think of it as a collaboration, and Kubrick often did collaborate with the author on the film’s production when they were still alive. But it would also be the story of Kubrick becoming so much better at telling the story he’s adapting than the original creator.

The essays won’t be so straightforward as to deal with each of these in sequence. Each essay will be long – 5-8000 words. It will weave all these elements together into a narrative of each film’s existence. Each film will be an opportunity to see the assemblage of all these parts, from a different perspective.

The goal would be to reveal a vision of Kubrick as an artist and a vision of his art that is more complete and complex than ordinary, sequential essay writing can provide. Like seeing all sides of a building at once.

I think I’ll get started on it soon. I'll offer previews to Patreon sponsors, and possibly start a Kickstarter alongside it to fund an Amazon release.

Freeing Your Mind Is Building Your Mind, Research Time, 13/02/2017

Still reading through some old John Stuart Mill essays, the classics you know. Still finding interesting stuff that can be politically relevant today in unpredictable ways. Like the chapter in On Liberty about personal development.

Sounds a bit like a self-help book, doesn’t it?

It's another one of those parts of On Liberty that no one reads when they’re introduced to Mill in university classrooms. The third chapter is full of ideas that don't fit easily into the standard definition of Mill – utilitarianism, liberalism, freedom of opinion, “shouting fire in a crowded theatre.”

We have a history of saviour and hero stories all over our mythology,
images of ourselves brought to a higher intensity – less petty, more
noble. Or at least stories about how to become more noble. I'm not sure
what, if any, significance there might be to the fact that a lot of these
characters in our contemporary popular cinema are played by
Keanu Reeves.
You know what Mill is doing in that third chapter of On Liberty? He’s building a fully materialist image of humanity. And here’s the type of materialism I’m talking about.

He describes humanity as a creature capable of greatness in understanding, science, morality, and character. We have the potential for utopian civilization. Our potential is grounded in our drives and our mind – our desires and our power of thought.

When we bring our desires to their highest intensity, we can achieve incredible power. When we train our mind to become the most enlightened, we can achieve incredible intelligence. When we develop our conscience to its greatest moral sensitivity, we can achieve incredible ethical balance.

When such an intelligent mind guides powerful forces of desire, we can achieve real, comprehensive greatness as individuals and as a society. A mind and body acting at their highest powers, in harmony with each other – the elegant creativity of explosive power with self-disciplined mind and conscience.

Our political leaders in these reactionary times clearly never learned that lesson.

In this conception of humanity as potentially perfectible, Mill has become something of a transhumanist. Human knowledge can perfect us, rise us above the filth we all too often drag ourselves into when we think our greed and violence makes us great.

Again, this is something that most of us – especially our political leaders – need to learn. Humanity can become angels if we perfect our knowledge and our moral conscience.

You know, I remember reading Nietzsche
remarking how much he hated English
political philosophy generally, with a
peculiarly hot venom for John Stuart Mill.
Yet when I read Mill's account of how to
perfect humanity's character – especially
how materialist, how machinist his
conception of reality is – it reminds me of
Nietzsche's thought and tradition. Not
anything worth defending as an
academic thesis. Just a little parallel that
tweaks my thoughts.
And this is entirely a material process – we don’t need God or any god to perfect human nature. Just the progress of science and a society-wide commitment to comprehensive education, political engagement, and introspective moral exploration of our responsibilities to our fellows.

It’s incredible how typing a single sentence can make you feel so pessimistic. I wonder if you felt pessimistic reading it.

But that pessimism only comes from how terribly unlikely that kind of scientific and moral enlightenment appears to us today. Human society may change, but the highest potentials of human existence are always present in each of us.

The really hard part of all this is, looking around at the chaos, oppression, and war of modern politics and society, how on Earth do we get humanity on track for perfection?

When I wrote Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity, I ended with a chapter that discussed how to cause epic, significant political change in your society. The only way it could be effective – a revolutionary transformation that would not only upend and reorient all traditional values and ways of life, but actually stick – is changing people’s character.

Utopias is a follow-up book in that it's fundamentally about what the most noble human character would be – from personal and political perspectives. I may follow Utopias with a book exploring the highest human nobility from a divine perspective. But that's a 2030s project.

Perfection is the long, difficult, slogging process of actually challenging people in whatever media will most open up their self-skepticism* and changing minds. You reach out to people in the most effective way possible with words that will nudge them toward their higher, more noble possibilities.

* If they’re still capable of such a thing as doubting themselves, or considering that they might be making a mistake. Hardly a universal aspect of human nature these days, if ever.

But we have to believe it’s possible. Otherwise, no one will ever even try.

Free Speech Martyrs in History III: The People, Research Time, 10/02/2017

Running through some lessons from the classics – John Stuart Mill.

Socrates made for a prime example to argue for freedom of speech because the subsequent history of Western philosophy has shown just how right he was. His principle that you should always probe and question the unquestioned dogmas of your society became a cornerstone of philosophy as a tradition and democracy as a value.

You can probably tell where I'm going to come down on the modern
question of what constitutes religious freedom.
In Mill’s own time, European Christianity was undergoing extreme turbulence. There were pressures to secularize society. The Vatican was straining to maintain its political control over the governments of Catholic-dominated countries around the continent. Protestant Churches were splitting faster than bacteria, frequently in violent schism.

So Mill spelled out a democratic solution to this religious turbulence – the principle that all people require freedom of opinion. This argument was centrally targeted as religious belief – each of us had to engage with the divine in our own way. It would be as unique to each person as their own identities.

But these principles – freedom to critique authority and custom, freedom of opinion and religion – faced one obstacle more powerful than any one person who disagreed. The state – the power and authority of government to enforce dogma and opinion with the police and military.

If it hadn’t been for the judgment of a state institution, Socrates would have continued annoying his neighbours. The medieval and modern history of Mill’s Europe was stained throughout with atrocities against people over religious opinion. Those atrocities were worst when one side in a religious battle controlled the arms of the state and the other side didn’t.

I feel like John Stuart Mill tends to be stereotyped really easily. I met
a few academic philosophers who called themselves "Millians" or
"utilitarians," but even these professors would discuss Mill's own
writing as if none of the complexity and difference that I find in
even a relatively straightforward work like On Liberty just isn't there.
Ask the Huguenots, for example. St Bartholomew’s Eve was one of the earliest massacres in Europe’s religious wars between Catholicism and its rebels. A massacre of thousands enabled by the Vatican and the French government.

Mill was correct that the government should never be entrusted with endorsing and enforcing any religion. It makes belief itself subject to police and military action. We make a big deal, having swallowed so much Orwellian language, about “thought crimes.”

But state enforcement of religious orthodoxy on its populations was the original thought crime. And it’s been everywhere. There are such religious enforcer governments today – Saudi Arabia to the greatest intensity, Iran with some gestures of tolerance and tolerance for mild dissent, and the creeping religious authoritarianism of Orthodox Christianity in imperialist Russia.

You don’t argue against a state that also enforces religious belief. Not if you know what’s good for you.

So that freedom of religious opinion so important to modern liberalism is always a freedom from the state enforcement of religion. It’s the refusal to follow religious authority – no matter how many or how few police departments they control – blindly, as a matter of obeying the state’s laws.

Vladimir Putin with Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill, both heads of
Russia's state institutions and government. Not constitutionally, but
culturally and politically.
Returning to this argument in the classics of liberalism shows how monstrous modern conservative talk of religious freedom is today. Their religious freedom is the freedom to discriminate – in business, hiring, any rights or responsibilities – against those your religious dogma declares the enemy.

Denying service to gays, Jews, or Muslims. Refusing to supply reproductive health coverage. And using the machinery of the state – the legal and police forces – to enforce the dogma that such denials of rights is proper.

Modern America’s fascism’s central weapon is an ironic mirroring. Call a law that enforces an oppressive religious opinion with courts and police the protection of freedom.

This is one reason why you revisit a classic icon of liberal thought like Mill in times like these. To show you how to see the world for what it is – not simply as it appears at first, inattentive, glance. Not just for what someone with an axe to grind says it is.

Now that you see it, what are you going to do about it?

Free Speech Martyrs in History II: The Heretics, Research Time, 09/02/2017

So that’s one example John Stuart Mill used to describe how the suppression of free opinion harms society. The pestering presence of Socrates’ free opinion so offended the powerful of his city that they executed him for interrogating their tired received dogmas.

Athens’ leadership executed the man whose work literally produced the Greek Enlightenment in philosophy and science. Not a smooth move, leadership of Athens.

Bill O'Reilly was pivotal to popularizing, in the mid-2000s, the notion
among America's socially conservative Christians that the religion
is under attack in America among that country's socially
conservative Christians.
And the second example? Freedom of opinion in theological beliefs – the suppression of divergent Christian faiths. It seems a bit weird today, since a contemporary reader approaches On Liberty in a world of aggressive Christianity which sees itself under attack.

That aggression is the peculiarly American Christianity – heavily influenced by radical Evangelical Christian movements. I’m talking about a North America where apparently devout Christians are advocating to make discrimination legal.

Basically, it would be legal to refuse a person service or medical care, even fire them from a job, if not refusing would contravene your religious dogma. Want to keep your job while pregnant while unmarried? Or ask me as an employer to include birth control in the health insurance package? Or be allowed in my shop while gay?

Absolutely not! Because my god says no. Far more horrifying than this, is the radical American pastors lobbying and organizing in Africa for laws declaring homosexuality illegal.

Stephen Colbert was responsible for some of the best jokes about
how hilarious this conservative American paranoia about the
persecution of Christianity really was.
Meanwhile, American Christians believe their lifestyle and moral values to be under attack. Religious pluralism or official secularism becomes attacks on the Christian character of society. Even expressing values in favour of civil liberties is seen as a violent opposition to Christianity.

All this pontificating ignores the actual violence Christians face throughout the world beyond North America. Coptic Christians in Egypt and Christians throughout the monarchist, dictatorial Middle East face violence, terrorism, and discrimination.

North Korea has a goal of utterly eradicating Christianity from the country – using concentration camps as the first go-to. That’s only two of the worst among many examples of Christians facing police state oppression because in part of their faith.

Yet Trump, O’Reilly, and Limbaugh prefer to talk about the violence of fellow Americans using secular holiday greetings.

So it can be bewildering to read Mill talking about the state suppression of Christianity in Europe. Well, I suppose I should call it the state suppression of Christianities.

Mill’s Europe in the 19th century was a time of incredible flux in Christian religion. Protestant Churches were splintering and generating constantly, with huge social strife appearing over theological arguments that today are the subject of an otaku interest.

That American Christian paranoia seems especially ridiculous when you
consider how many Christians outside wealthy Western countries face
real violence and persecution. Look at this photo of funeral services for
some of the victims of December's bombing of a Cairo Coptic Church.
The Vatican was an aggressor in a Catholic context, as it fought efforts to bring many aspects of majority-Catholic states’ laws to the responsibility of parliaments and local governments.

And there were struggles throughout Europe’s industrializing societies to force Churches to leave their authoritarian, anti-science principles behind. Well, we’d still recognize that at least.

So in a continent wracked by all these conflicts over differing religious beliefs, it was a radical act for Mill to publish On Liberty. Here’s an essay that argued for free opinion about theological matters was an important condition for building a strong society and achieving essential human goods.

An argument that religious diversity is a path to human betterment. An argument that separated truth as a subject that mattered at all to religious doctrine and practice. One believed in a religion not because it was true and should be believed by all as a basic fact, but because it was your most natural expression of your own quest for the divine.

One enemy present in both of Mill’s examples that argue the necessity of free opinion – state authority.

Free Speech Martyrs in History I: The Greek, Research Time, 08/02/2017

So what are the justifications of free speech, when you go back to John Stuart Mill himself?

You can start with the standard Mill that everybody gets in their undergrad classes. Freedom of opinion and its expression, even and especially when it’s unpopular, is necessary for a functional society for the following three reasons.

We learn about the heroes and martyrs of freedom and justice as if
freedom and justice were the same. While they go together, and each is
the condition of the other's possibility, they aren't the same. Here's
Nelson Mandela, one of the world's most famous rebels against
1) Some opinion contrary to the popular belief is actually the truth, and can correct a mistaken mainstream.

2) Some opinion contrary to the popular belief is false and the mainstream is true, but the challenge of those contrary ideas is needed to keep a popular truth from calcifying into an oppressive dogma.

3) Both the popular opinion and its challenger are true, and no one understands either well enough to see how they properly complement each other. But with enough work, determination, and hard public thought, the two sides of the issues can reach a new perspective where their alliance becomes natural.

Already, I’ve gone beyond the usual account of Mill’s justification of freedom of opinion. The textbooks* rarely go beyond Reason One: Some minority beliefs will turn out to be true after all.

* I really do think that humanities textbooks – the collections of excerpts and short essays, not the actual full books – are written under the presumption that students are stupid. This is why I never used a textbook in any low-level classes where I could make that call.

So this is the popular mainstream opinion about what Mill had to say about freedom of opinion. And it’s a pretty accurate view of the general popular dogma about freedom of opinion – don’t oppress my opinion, because it might turn out that you’re wrong, I’m right, and I’m entitled to my opinion anyway.

This is Kim Dae Jung in the 1970s, at a rally speaking against South
Korea's dictator Park Chung Hee. Kim spent his life as a crusader for
democracy in Korea, and went from serving several years as a
political prisoner to serving a five year term as President of the
Republic of Korea.
Except you aren’t entitled to it. Because only a few pages after going through these three reasons for freedom of opinion, Mill describes how you aren’t entitled to your opinion. It’s because every opinion should be open to critique, not just from other arguments and analyses, but from real facts that could disprove your opinion.

You’re free to form your own opinion, but you aren’t entitled never to have that opinion challenged or critiqued. That goes for mainstream popular opinion, and the opinions of isolated cranks and rebels.

But Mill is more often treated as a resource and a justification to shut down any oppression of opinion. On Liberty is, in many ways, an argument against silencing opinions. And there are many reasons why opinions can be silenced.

Mill lived in the 19th century, after all. There were plenty of dictatorships kicking around 1850s Europe – they were monarchies, but had either openly absolutist rulers or powerless parliaments. And there were plenty of oppressive theological disputes throughout Europe too.

So there were plenty of institutions and governments who were oppressing plenty of ostensibly free opinions. With all that in mind, who’s the first example Mill cites at length of a society harmed by the suppression of opinions critical to the mainstream?

A historically accurate depiction of Socrates.
The death of Socrates, the foundational story of Western philosophy. Mill depicts Socrates as the man who would have been a personal founder of a Greek Enlightenment, if the Athenian assembly hadn’t executed him for sedition against popular dogma.

The image of Socrates in the narratives of Plato – and the image that inspired the entire Western philosophical tradition – is the challenger of unquestioned dogma. And that dogma was false, or at least so simple as to become flimsy as moist tissue.

The least question could knock away the foundations of popular Greek moral dogmas. All it took was one reasonably insightful persistent critic – someone who wouldn’t give up pressing for deeper conceptions of what was taken for granted.

Socrates was a martyr for freedom of opinion in Mill’s telling. But look at the content of what he said and did. Socrates’ demand was that his society justify their moral beliefs – don’t just believe dogma because it’s given to you, because dogmatic belief leads to injustice. He was an advocate to build a more just, fair, enlightened society.

Which is different from freedom. Which is truth. . . . To be continued

What Kinds of Freedom Do We Deserve? Research Time, 07/02/2017

Another stop on my trip through the classics of political philosophy. I wanted to skip ahead to the early and mid 1800s to revisit some John Stuart Mill. I felt like it was a proper response to a political climate where riots break out at events that preach hatred as a sacred expression of free speech.

When I was working at McMaster, I worked multiple times on an introductory course on moral and political philosophy. Rowdy used a textbook with excerpts and essays that covered classics like Mill, Hobbes, and Plato alongside contemporary lights like Dworkin, and more ordinary issues-based articles.

The fight against fascism and racism gets deservedly ugly.
One of those issues that we covered were campus speech codes, an odd form of college law that doesn’t really exist in Canada. It’s most prominent at colleges in the United States, where whole forms of expression have been identified to be banned from discourse on grounds of racializing insensitivity.

Most of these codes are products of the politics of the 1980s and early 90s, and aren’t in use anymore. As you can probably tell today.

I hope Rowdy isn’t using those articles anymore, because they’re explicitly rooted in a Reagan-era context. The modern context is very different – now that white nationalism has become the dominant mode of reactionary politics in America.

I find it incredulous that all kinds of op/ed perspectives in mainstream American newspapers are so shocked – Shocked! – by the violent reactions to Milo Yiannopolous’ speaking tour.* Click that link above and read through some of the insulting, abusive rabble-rousing in the typical Milo performance.

* And remember that he’s only the most prominent of the right-wing speaking tours criss-crossing the United States, stirring up reactionary resentment and inspiring violence. Video sting journalist James O’Keefe recently egged on his audience as they brutally beat two protestors at his speech.

So I’m revisiting one of the central figures of modern liberalism, one of the most fundamental philosophers of free speech. It will inform my engagement with these toxic politics of our time as a writer, an activist, and as a person.

There’s the prologue to my Mill period. What’s the point of my doing it?

Millions of people listen to what this man has to say. So one problem with
turning back to the classic source of contemporary values is that their
noble arguments won't be prepared for the perversions modern contexts
have brought to their great ideals.
If I can say there’s a general theme to my exploring the great thinkers of liberalism and libertarianism, it’s to see the complexity that’s forgotten about in alt-right messaging.

If you look at the rhetoric that our generation of conservative provocateurs throw around about free speech, it’s a very simple idea. I mean that in the sense that it sees a straightforward imperative that in real life has many more complexities and qualifications than they acknowledge.

Here are two examples of this oversimplifying understanding that alt-right folks use to make space for their abusive, violent behaviour. Let’s start with the social media lynch mob.

From its beginning, Twitter has made a core value for its platform that it was a space for total free speech. The problem is that – having organized in other forums like Reddit, 4Chan, 9gag, Imgur – alt-right troll armies and their bots leap onto their Twitter accounts and spam a target with so much verbal abuse as to smack them in the jaw psychologically.

R U triggered, bro?

If you go back to the classical texts and try to see the original context where this free speech idea developed, you don’t read anything about this phenomenon. It didn’t exist in 1859, for God’s sake.

You get in “On Liberty” a few platitudes about yelling “Fire” in a crowded theatre that I heard so often in six years of teaching academic philosophy that the phrase lost all meaning for me. But the point is that your right to freedom of expression and opinion can’t imply a similar freedom of social speech act when the context of your action does harm.

Here’s my second example: protests so intense as to cancel a Milo performance. It’s a simple refutation. The alt-right conflates having a platform in front of an audience of hundreds in the room and millions on the internet with basic free expression entitlements.

We have a right to free opinions, but not to a massive platform to promote those opinions. If Milo has it, then we all have it, and there aren’t too many who are financially and otherwise capable of mounting a cross-country speaking tour.

Here’s the problem. Try actually changing any red-pilled mind with these calm, rational arguments.

No Solutions II: Forgetting Our Social Selves, Research Time, 06/02/2017

What does this have to do with efficiency? In a way, it’s an expression of the stereotypical engineer’s mentality – I can figure out a solution to everything.

Here’s an example Evgeni Morozov talks about. Obesity is a serious public health problem in American society. So how does a Silicon Valley engineer and businessperson do some kind of civic duty and fix it?

Another problem with using personal smartphone apps to curb obesity
is that a lot of people who suffer most from obesity do so not because
of a personal failing that a tech fix can repair, but because of a social
cause – like living stuck in an urban food desert, or poverty in
general. In our society, the big projects like space exploration have
been left to the good mad scientists. Our government, which is
supposed to look after the public good, has been rendered incapable.
Because Silicon Valley consists, for the most part, in people who want to become billionaire businesspeople improving their society with technology. For all the examples of petulant man-children or mad scientists, most leaders and workers in Silicon Valley really want to make the world a better place.

It’s messed up, I know. But one thing I’ve learned after working in the business world is that even though it’s all hype, a remarkable number of people actually believe their own hype. So okay, you’re making the world a better place. By doing what?

Create a business that encourages people to become healthier – eat better, exercise. Social networking business ideas – ideas that work in the Facebook economy, essentially, whether in their app ecology or that take it as a model – use data and tracking to achieve their goals.

So self-tracking devices on your phones can let you monitor your consumption and exercise. Then they make a game out of tracking all this data. Earn badges for cutting down on carbs and processed foods, bonus points for eating free-range meat.

The healthy eating app is an efficient way to get people to improve their health. You just do what the game tells you when you play it. Arguing, reasoning, long sessions of training to improve your habits aren’t nearly as effective, because you have to work through them in a long, difficult process of personal growth.

Who wants that shit? Self-tracking apps become a way to replace your dietician here, parking enforcement cops there, maybe even your therapist too.

I think sometimes that when Ted Kaczynski, the radical anti-technology
terrorist, looks at the growing disaster of our planet, he smiles. As if
he was right. Morozov isn't anti-technology, and neither am I. We just
have very critical attitudes about how our technology has developed.
I'm especially upset at the ecological harm that our civilization causes,
which Morozov's beef is the moral erosion of an ideology of arch-
individuality and efficiency. There'll be some projects involving Ted
in the future. They're shaping up to be more than a little terrifying to
the human soul.
This is just one summary of examples of real businesses and apps that Morozov describes throughout To Save Everything Click Here. They all unfold in essentially the same way.

The Silicon Valley method is to develop the most efficient routes to changing human behaviour they can. That efficiency is based on manipulating behaviour, bypassing all the deliberation, self-conscious effort, and personal ethical searching that actually shapes and defines a human’s individual subjectivity.

Here’s Morozov’s whole argument in a few sentences. I mean, I had fun reading his 400+ page book, but the underlying point was remarkably simple. He discovered a lot of different perspectives on this basic idea through all his analyses of various parts of the industry.

So all that detail – how the apps encouraging the erosion of privacy interact with self-tracking approaches to civil service, public health, and education, for example – is useful in letting us see the many facets of the whole affair.

But it all revolves around one central insight: When you prioritize the most efficient way to solve problems above all else, you atrophy our moral senses of responsibility to wider society. You forget that humanity is a society fundamentally.

Ironically, you use social networking platforms to encourage people to think of themselves as disconnected individuals instead of an interdependent network. Ends up treating us as less than human.

No Solutions I: Stripping Ourselves to One Line, Research Time, 03/02/2017

I don’t know if I’d say this is continued from yesterday’s post, as much as it’s another turn around the same idea. Appropriate for a post that follows Groundhog Day.

Set the stage. So Evgeni Morozov wrote a book called To Save Everything Click Here. Steve Fuller sent me a copy, and I’ve finally got around to reading it.

An aesthetic issue. I find his writing style a little too polemic for my liking personally, as it sometimes makes him sound more like a technophobe than he really is. Because it’s clear from reading the whole book that he’s in favour of a technological society – he only has a problem with some influential business ideologies.

With the government having been systematically defunded over the last
decades since the late 1970s, it's left to private industry to build the
brighter tomorrow we all dreamed of. And it sometimes feels like
everyone except Elon Musk would prefer to build a health tracking
app they can sell to Facebook for $1-billion.
The problem ideology. Solutionism. It’s the ideology that pervades Silicon Valley culture – people as different as Travis Kalanick, Sheryl Sandberg, Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk, and Peter Thiel all think as solutionists.

What is Solutionism? In its simplest form, it’s the notion that any difficulty people encounter is to be smoothed away with the algorithmic and analytic powers of contemporary data technology.

That could come from self-monitoring, the dynamics of ubiquitous social media sharing, data analysis, or actually modifying the environment to restrict human choices from inefficient or destructive activities.

I mean it about that last issue. One of the ideas Morozov discusses to encourage people to follow the law is installing rotating cage doors in subways instead of waist-high wickets to prevent queue jumping.

That leads to another aesthetic issue. This book is too long. I mean that in the sense that it’s longer than it needs to be. Morozov’s style of exploring long lists of examples ultimately drags the book out much longer than it needs to be.

As a philosophical argument, you only need enough examples to demonstrate the point. Morozov seems to list enough examples to prove the absolute ubiquity of these ridiculous solutionist ideas all over the entire business class of the tech industry. And the examples – there being so many of them – tend to bury the core concepts of his argument, which are most important.

Do you seriously think your parking meter can help save your city from
being underfunded and disorganized? Then Evgeni Morozov will hector
To Save Everything Click Here is about a moral inversion that Silicon Valley’s ideology perpetuates. And it’s a problematic ideology – the replacement of responsibility with efficiency.

Here’s how I lay it out, and the best way Morozov himself lays it out. He returns, in several contexts throughout the book, to an approach to business ideas common in Silicon Valley culture – gamification.

Literally, you solve problems by making a game of them. Creating a set of incentives and rewards for civil public behaviour – recycling, improving energy use, improving personal health. You earn these rewards as you carry out the activities we want you to. With each item you recycle, you earn points in the game, and those points translate into real rewards.

This interplay of incentives and rewards makes activity that has previously been a moral responsibility – we work to improve the environment because we’re good citizens with duties to do so – into a prize. Instead of recycling to help our society become healthier and more sustainable, you recycle to earn direct material rewards.

The presumption underlying making civic responsibility a game: that everyone acts only for their own self-interest. Morozov never says so, but it’s that sketchy libertarian principle underlying so much of Silicon Valley culture.

The veneration of self-interest as humanity’s central drive pervades the culture. That’s true for folks all over Silicon Valley whether their explicit political beliefs are as progressive and futurist as Elon Musk or as demented and retrograde as Peter Thiel.

Is self-interest humanity’s primary drive? No. No it isn’t. Morozov cites a few solid psychological experiments demonstrating such. But that’s not how you disprove a purely conceptual question like that.

No, you disprove it in the conceptual realm. Which means you have to point out that moral motivations – drives to act in the name of benevolence – have always been real. If we were only ever truly acting in our self-interest, we never would have developed moral principles in the first place.

We never would have developed concepts of our responsibilities to others if we didn’t perceive that responsibility in our ordinary, everyday social relations. Our moral obligations to each other are real – we experience them in our social relations every day, providing we don’t have something medically wrong with us.

Through understanding the strength and interdependence of our social obligations to each other, we see self-interest as one of many possible motives in the dense network of those obligations. So if you think self-interest is the only drive of humanity, you’re cutting away a lot of human experience.

Now, what does this have to do with efficiency? . . . To be continued

The Skeptic and the Snark, Research Time, 02/02/2017

The Skeptic and the Snark are, of course, the same person. But they don’t have to be.

I’m talking about another book I’ve started reading lately, To Save Everything Click Here by the Stanford researcher Evgeni Morozov. Steve Fuller sent me a copy last year, and I’m only getting around to it now.

Morozov is a theorist of contemporary technology, and he’s written a nicely thick, comprehensive, critical, but accessibly written book about the Silicon Valley messiah complex.

There’s plenty to criticize in Silicon Valley, of course. But at the heart of all the specific idiocies and crimes of the culture is its pervasive arrogance and egotism. Mike Judge’s Silicon Valley is probably the best skewer in the comedy world. And Morozov’s book strives for the same insight in philosophical rhetoric.

Evgeni Morozov
Click Here offers a pretty comprehensive catalogue of contemporary literature boosting Silicon Valley culture’s core idealism – that a better life is a more efficient life, and that algorithmic, data-based analytics technology can build that better life.

The core of his own argument isn’t necessarily to offer a new alternative. And it isn’t to be a total techno-phobe either.* Morozov presumes to speak for the mainstream cultural instinct – that you can’t reduce humanity’s ethical existence and power of moral judgement to quantitative data analysis or technological controls.

* Even though he’s often so snarky toward his targets that he could easily be mistaken for a militant anti-technologist. Yet Ted Kaczynski himself writes with a chilling, calm frankness.

He identifies the ethical flaw of Silicon Valley’s utopianism of a perfectly efficient world as an undeserved arrogance in prescribing an entirely different moral principle to organize human society. Replacing responsibility with efficiency.

I think I may hammer out these thoughts in a little more detail tomorrow. At the moment, I’ve had a long day, and I’m too tired to get into the complexity of this idea. And it’s very complex.

Different examples Morozov explores in the book describe different aspects of this moral switch. And Morozov’s overall theme is two-fold.

First: Efficiency is a practically worse moral principle for people to adopt than our traditional morality of personal responsibility for yourself. Second: Silicon Valley utopians don’t deserve the power over the core principles of popular morality.

And I think you can reverse the order of those principles with no change in the effect. More detail tomorrow.

Humanity's Duty of Care, Research Time, 01/02/2017

I want to dive a little into Moses Mendelssohn’s account of the theoretical social contract here. Because even though most undergraduate educations in philosophy and political theory seem to ignore him, he offers a unique and remarkable take on the concept of the social contract.

And his vision is rooted in the fundamentals of Jewish ethical education. Those principles include:

Mendelssohn's conception of humanity as an inherently benevolent
creature can seem laughably ridiculous today, but only because we've
been so long accustomed to thinking that the corrupt and destructive
is normal and natural. Or natural because we've made it normal.
1) Humans are inherently social creatures.

2) Because society can only function in an atmosphere of general benevolence, humans are basically good creatures.

3) Our anger, hatred, and drives to violence and destruction are corruptions.

So where does that leave the state? How does it come to exist if it isn’t fulfilling that Hobbesian function of the monopoly on legitimate violence to protect us from our naturally violent and paranoid selves?

States emerge from societies when those societies become too complicated to organize without authorities and regulations. Mendelssohn doesn’t start from the traditional chaos and paranoia of social contract theory’s state of nature – his state of nature is a place of chaos and confusion, but not violence or fear.

Humanity’s state of nature is a society where no person or institution has any legitimacy to tell me how I’m to help my neighbours. Where no one has any right to tell me how to spend my surplus wealth and power to aid my friends and my society.

Which is fine for small group of a few tens, or even a couple of hundred. But when society becomes any more complicated than this, it can be genuinely confusing to find the best way to help the wider world.

We've let ourselves be suckered in by popular visions of humanity as
cruel, vindictive creatures.
We can never be sure if we’re giving what we’re able. Or maybe we can’t be sure if we’ve arranged our own situation to be able to give all that we’re able – if I were more ingenious about how I lived, maybe I could give more.

Most insidious, it’s difficult to know whether my acts that, from my perspective, help someone don’t actually cause indirect and systemic affects that end up harming many other people. As my social world globalizes – if only to the next neighbourhood over – I can no longer be sure of the effects of what I do.

And so government becomes the institution through which we give over our autonomy in this regard. We don’t give over all our freedoms – that model of trading freedom for security has no place in Mendelssohn’s vision.*

* Or, of course, the Jewish vision of social ethics.

Government is the institution that can mobilize the resources required to study and understand all the processes and relationships – economic, ecological, social, institutional – that constitute our complexifying society. So it’s the only institution that can mobilize the knowledge required to provide most efficiently and fairly for the common good.

Mendelssohn provides a radical vision. Especially given the mainstream political presumptions of the modern West, where government is anything but efficient. Where government is an impediment on the real source of efficiency – the market of self-interested businessmen.

We can no longer live with the cynical presumption that humanity is
inherently cruel and violent. The prospect of real violence dominating
our society is too terrifying to accept it anymore.
Mendelssohn’s thinking is a rebuke to those presumptions that a chaotic system of greedy, self-interested, short-sighted people will actually produce the most efficient, beneficial results for society.

On his premises, self-interest and greed are corruptions of the fundamental benevolence required for society to exist at all. So expecting the optimal good and benefit to come from the competitive jockeying of greedy people is a ridiculous paradox.

And Mendelssohn’s own place as a Jewish German thinker of the 1700s don’t prevent him from informing contemporary political thinking. No more than Thomas Hobbes’ place in 1600s England prevents him from being a centrepiece of introductory political theory classes today.

Mendelssohn’s concepts can fit well with some of the political theories of governance I’ve discovered over the last year. Partha Chatterjee, for example, provides an analysis of the many benefits in economic, ecological, and liberatory development government can provide when all people seek to use such institutions for overall good.

What we need today are vibrant traditions of political and moral thinking that provide a place for the productive role of governance as a means to enrich and benefit us all. Moses Mendelssohn – and the Jewish traditions of morality underlying his thinking – can be such an inspiration.