Horsin’ around

Hot take alert: Roy Moore pretending to ride a horse is in fact the most serious of all political issues. This is a serious argument which I am making seriously.

The first thing to consider is why a person would do such a thing in the first place, which is of course to cosplay as a cowboy. We’ve seen the same sort of thing with George W. Bush “clearing brush” or Donald Trump putting on a coal mining helmet. The political significance of these stunts is that they evoke a socially-understood image of rugged, individualist masculinity, the evocation of which acts as an argument for a particular value system. The thing is, though, if these people really did embody their stated values, there would be no need for stunts. In fact, if there existed anyone who embodied these types of values, that person would instead have risen to become the relevant candidate. The reason this never happens is that there exists no such person, which is because the set of values is question isn’t real. It can’t actually be instantiated, which is why it can’t be rationally argued for, which is why it can only exist through theatrification.

So it’s a form of lying, obviously, it’s presenting the candidate as someone they’re not, but it’s more than that. It’s mythologization as support for an incoherent system of values. The images of things like the “cowboy” and the “wild West” are forged copies of an original that never existed in the first place (one of those postmodern sociology nerds probably has a term for this, but I don’t care enough to look it up). Moore’s failure to actually ride his horse demonstrates this quite concisely. Horseback riding is a real skill, and horsemanship has a real history and real functions. Furthermore, cowboys were real people, and there really was a period of Western expansion and pioneering. But the image of the cowboy and the horse has no connection to any of this history. It merely appeals to people’s unexamined instincts in favor of positive-valence concepts like “independence” and “manliness” and “nature.” The thing is, you can make up a concept for anything, but reality is going to stay the same underneath it. The only way concepts are justified is through a connection to that underlying reality that helps people grasp it, like reins attached to a horse. When there is no such connection, evocation of the concept results only in noise, and attempts to act on it result in mere flailing, like an old man barely balancing on top of a presumably very annoyed horse.

Of course, since incoherent values by definition cannot exist, what actually happens when these people get elected is that they revert to their true values. Republicans’ recent attempts at legislation bear this out. The first thing they tried to do was “repeal Obamacare,” which was one of the false images they used to get elected. Since Obamacare is a regulations tweak and not actually its own distinct structure, there’s no such thing as “repealing” it (because the policy has already changed the landscape of American healthcare, changing it back to what it was before would not in fact revert things to the same situation.) All you can do is change the regulations to something else, which is what the actual bill ended up being. But no one actually wants that; free-market zealots just want to slash spending on poor people, and everyone else wants a real healthcare system. The fact that Republicans almost passed a nonsense bill anyway shows how deeply they’re trapped in their own image. When that failed, they moved on to their real priority of just giving money to rich people, which is not something that anyone voted for. Here, again, the constructed image of “resistance to big government” and “job creation” masks a real material policy of direct upward wealth transfer. And it’s not just that the image disguises the real policy, but that, without the image, the policy could never have existed in the first place. The present instantiation of the Republican Party only exists as a vector for this image of “fiscal responsibility” and “traditional values,” and the desires that constitute the source of that image are the real underlying problem.

Democrats have exactly the same problem, only their false image is one of “rational administration” and a “civic religion.” If recent history has clarified anything at all, it is that the actions of elites have nothing to do with expertise or responsibility and everything to do with their own class-driven ideology. Indeed, there’s no such thing as rationality in general; you have to make the decision as to what you actually want before rationality can help you get there. So again, this is a incoherent set of values, and what actually happens is, again, a reversion to the underlying dynamics. Privatization, imperialism, austerity, and wealth concentration all get framed as “smart solutions” when in fact they are nothing more than the blunt advancement of specific interests.

In order to prove that this is actually the most serious issue, I have to demonstrate that it’s global warming in disguise, which it is. Capitalism justifies itself on the basis of the imagery of prosperity and growth. What it actually is, specifically, is a schema for distributing material resources. The resources themselves, including the technologies used to take advantage of them, are just things, we can make different decisions and they’ll keep existing. So when a particular material circumstance comes up, such as the fact that continued use of our primary energy source will destroy the environment, we need to be able to adapt to that on a material basis. But the imagery of capitalism doesn’t allow for this sort of decision-making; quite the contrary, it insists that the operation of capital is necessarily correct under all material conditions. In fact, it doesn’t even allow for the possibility of anything other than automatic capitalist dynamics having any effect on the world; thus, anyone who believes this is incapable of penetrating through to reality (this one I actually know, it’s what Marxists call “mystification”). So the response to global warming, even among right-minded liberals, is to invoke the imagery of “responsiblity” and “sustainability” without any reference to the actual material changes necessary to make those words mean something.

But remember, just “doing the math” is itself a false image, because the math follows from whatever your starting axioms were. You have to have your ideas in order before anything you do is going to make any sense. Otherwise you’ll end up voting for a narcissistic billionaire out of concern for the working class, or voting for an elitist powermonger out of concern for social justice. So, in a rare and shocking turn of events, that pro-horse Twitter pile-on is actually the ideologically correct course of action. It’s isn’t enough to ignore the image in favor of the “real issues,” because as long as you try to do that, the image retains its mystique. (Also, you can only argue in terms of images anyway, because language is an image.) It usually seems like the easiest thing to do in an argument is to accept your opponent’s terms and simply show where they’re mistaken. For example, if the Republicans are trying to “reform taxes” in order to “fix the defect,” and their tax plan that adds a ton of money to the defect and doesn’t actually simplify anything, then you can just point that out. But the reason this is the easiest argument is because it’s the least effective. As long as you maintain a false image, the argument can end up going in any direction, because it isn’t based on anything. You can lose because one of the words you picked makes a particular 4.7-second clip of your speech sound bad, and someone else can win by insisting that ignoring sexual abuse is the best way to protect women.

People sometimes say that humans are gods trapped in the bodies of apes, but it’s actually the opposite: we’re real physical beings bound in the invisible straitjacket of imagery. Representation is the only weapon we have, so correct representation is our only means of adherence to the truth. Ignoring that fact in favor of “facts” is its own form of false imagery. Reason is not self-evident, and the only way to manifest changes in the world is to both explore the territory and chart it out using a system and a legend that makes the map usable by other people. You have to learn how to ride a horse.

A critique of ponies

can't_you_take_a_hint

Ponies are apparently the major political issue of the current era. Some people think everyone should get a pony, others think that all ponies should be distributed exclusively to factory owners for the purpose of making glue, and still others think that ponies are nice in theory, but nobody should actually get to have a pony, because that would just be irresponsible. It’s all very contentious.

The first thing that’s strange here is that the meat of the pony is actually just the standard liberal-democratic agenda: healthcare, education, stimulus spending, and the rest of the welfare state. This is the normal stuff that liberals are supposed to be in favor of, so portraying it as magic beans is somewhat suspicious. The “free college” thing is an especially odd sticking point. We are constantly being told by mainstream politicians that education is the only viable path to the future and that anyone who doesn’t retrain themselves to meet the demands of an increasingly automated economy is going to get flattened by the steamroller of progress. But when people respond by making the completely obvious follow-up demand that education and retraining actually be accessible, they’re suddenly accused of pie-in-the-sky unicornism. The demand here isn’t for “ponies” at all; the demand is simply for oatmeal. And, at the risk of beating a dead horse, this demand is being made in a world where some people own multiple mansions with private jets to fly between them at will, while others are being evicted from roach motels and literally starving to death. If this is what we’re talking about when we talk about ponies, it’s long past time for rich fucks to pony up.

But we shouldn’t get complacent just because some people are being completely disingenuous. This is one gift horse that we really do need to look in the mouth. The facts of the matter are that America is a very rich country, and that it contains about 5% of the world’s population. It’s straightforwardly incoherent to rail against the 1% in the name of a guaranteed middle-class existence for all Americans, because middle-class America is the 1% of the global economy. I’m not saying that you’re only allowed to care about the worst things. Anything that’s bad merits opposition and anything that’s wrong merits righting. Given that we can’t transform the economy overnight, there’s nothing particularly immoral about enjoying a reasonable standard of living in America.

And it’s really bizarre and honestly very upsetting that we can’t actually talk about this. Everything is still being framed in terms of what’s good for “the economy” rather than what actually makes people’s lives better. The recent increased focus on inequality has caused a lot of people to start making the argument that inequality is bad for the economy, that it’s inefficient and decreases overall productivity. I’m sure this is true, but opposing inequality on this basis is an extremely terrible argument. When you do this, you’re completely conceding the only part of the argument that matters: the assumption that overall economic growth is the only acceptable value, and that every policy has to be justified on this basis. The omnipresence of this argument is not mysterious: it’s like that because it’s what rich fucks want. Given that rich fucks are already on top of the economy, the only thing that can further benefit them is accelerated growth. There’s only so much money you can steal from poor people, and most of it is already being stolen. So as long as the discourse remains constrained by this framework, not only ponies and oatmeal but even hay and salt licks are going to remain entirely out of our reach. The best we’re going to get is gristle.

Once we decide to take this seriously, though, it becomes incumbent upon us to ensure that we’re betting on the right horse. The thing is, America’s world-historical prosperity is not a coincidence. There is a specific material reason that America possesses enough wealth to provide everything for all of its citizens, and that reason is called imperialism. The whole “two cars in every garage” thing is an ideal of very recent vintage: it’s a direct consequence of America’s global dominance following the devastation of the second World War. America has more resources than everyone else because America takes them from the rest of the world, by force.1 So while it might seem justified to simply make the internal claim that America’s resources should be distributed more evenly, that claim rests upon the availability of those resources in the first place. In order to support such an arrangement, you’re implicitly required to support the conditions that make it possible. This is why liberals are imperialists.

(Also, this is not a theoretical point. Bernie Sanders got some positive press recently for articulating a slightly less psychotic approach to foreign policy, but that approach is still fundamentally imperialist. For people who think that Sanders represents the “extreme left,” anti-imperialism is literally an unthinkable position.)

So, in the final analysis, it is indeed the case that ponies are the ill-considered playthings of spoiled rich kids. In order to create a world that genuinely works for everybody, we have to focus on the basics. It is properly within the realm of human rights to insist that everyone should have a comfortable place to live and access to food and healthcare and maybe even internet-capable computers, but 70” TVs and new smartphones every year and overnight-shipped meal kits are things that we can only afford by offloading their real costs onto someone else. Like, the whole thing about the “information economy” or the “service economy” or whatever we’re calling it now is that it assumes that the resource extraction and manufacturing are being done elsewhere. Someone has to actually build the automated service kiosks, you know. So if we have that type of economy, what we have is precisely a global 1%: we have shit countries doing the shit work and doughy Americans yelling at their robot butlers.

At the same time, though, people also shouldn’t be obligated to constantly hustle in order to scrape together enough paychecks to survive, or spend eight years bullshitting for the sake of an official certification entitling them to an entry-level office job, or maintain an impeccably professional social media profile to prove right-thinking. Most of the “privileges” of our first-world society are actually shit deals. This is the truly pathetic thing about liberals: the unrealistic utopia they’re trying to sell us isn’t even any good. It’s a lame horse. So we can not only fulfill our moral obligations by evening things out on a global scale, but also provide a preferable alternative to the sad future of austerity and apps by making an actual good deal: dignified living in exchange for civil responsibility. This is the real positive argument that we have at our disposal, and making it effectively requires us to dispense with fantasy and describe the world as it really can exist, and how we really can get there though a long, determined march over the dead bodies of billionaires. Rather than a pony, then, what we need is something more like a pack-bearing mule. It won’t be any of the obvious choices on display; it’ll be a hybrid creature, something that we wouldn’t have expected to exist at all. I’ll be slow, and it won’t be pretty, but that’s okay, because it won’t be for show. For the first time in human history, it will be something that works.

As always, this brings us to the real problem, which is, as always, global warming. American-style outsized resource utilization is not just unfair, it’s literally destroying the world. This is also not a coincidence. The thing about fossil fuels is that they provide an immense amount of energy in a very small and effective package. Their existence is a great boon for humanity: everything about our modern lifestyles relies on the unprecedented amount of energy generation that they afford us. The problem is that, due to the aforementioned social arrangements, this boon has been largely squandered. We’ve used it to drive an unhealthy amount of growth solely for the sake of rich fucks’ desires for ego gratification and escapism. A responsible long-term plan would have used this energy to develop a global infrastructure for keeping everyone fed and healthy and then worked on converting that infrastructure into a more2 sustainable form. This is the kind of bootstrapping that actually works. If we had ever tried to do that, we’d already be done. Again, that’s what’s so frustrating and sad and insane about this whole arrangement. There never should have been a problem in the first place, but we went to the maximum amount of effort in order to create one, and we did it for no reason. We weren’t outmatched or conned; we didn’t make mistakes or fail to figure anything out. The reason the planet is burning is simply that we’ve shoved it into an oven.

As mentioned, the focus right now is on finding “solutions” to “problems” within the existing liberal-capitalist framework, and global warming is the strongest and most important example of why this won’t work. I’ll do you a favor and spare you the full rehashing, but the basic problem is that, while increasing the use of renewables is nice, what we’re ultimately going to have to do is stop using fossil fuels entirely, which is incompatible with a growth-based capitalist framework at all, let alone with the maintenance (and, indeed, promotion) of billionaire lifestyles. Global warming is just plain not a solvable problem within our current societal configuration. The society in which it is solvable has not yet been instantiated, and doing so will require destruction as much as creation. We are facing an Old Testament-level threat, and we require an Old Testament-style solution. We don’t need a pony here so much as we need four horsemen.3

This is extraordinarily important to keep in mind in the current context of “the resistance.” The particular grotesquenesses of the immediate present are strongly motivating a desire to get things “back to normal,” and even those attempting to look forward – the people who are increasingly being called “the left” – are mostly doing so within the parameters of the not-quite-discredited liberal-capitalist consensus (the fact that “socialism” now means “going halfway back to the New Deal era” tells you everything you need to know here). Certainly, some of the “norms” being “eroded” are in fact real accomplishments that we need to preserve, but a norm isn’t a good thing just because its a norm. The more important concern here is that our world was birthed wrong in the first place, resulting in many more and more important norms that are not mere politenesses but are in fact the carrots and sticks spurring us on down our current path to destruction. Most of these are still being upheld, and any real future requires their eradication. If humanity is to have any hope of tightening the widening gyre, the center must not hold.

 


  1. Nowadays this is generally indirect, modern imperialism is less about pillaging and slave labor and more about opening up markets, but the basic idea is the same, and economic force is still force. Also we still have slave labor in America through the prison system, so there’s that too. 
  2. Nothing is literally sustainable. Ozymandias, entropy, etc. 
  3. Global warming is the third horseman, by the way. The first is conquest, a.k.a imperialism. The second is war, which is the state of nature that the world descends into when imperialism inevitably fails (for something that’s supposedly about spreading civilization, it’s a notably uncivilized endeavor). The third is famine, or more broadly resource depletion, which is what’s going to happen when we lose half of our agricultural yields, all of our port cities, and exist at the mercy of constant natural disasters. So, y’know, we’re getting there. The fourth is what happens after that. 

Bigmouth strikes again

google_memo_guy_be_like

The Memo of Doom has occasioned more commentary than anyone requires regarding anything, and that’s actually the main problem. Parsing individual claims in a situation like this tends to involve ignoring what the text actually does as a rhetorical action. So I think it would help to review some of the general principles at work here.


Implausible deniability

Various strains of activism in the recent past have succeeded wildly at inculcating the idea that “equality” is a good thing and “discrimination” is a bad thing. It’s actually difficult to remember that this is a very modern idea; for most of human history it was exactly the opposite: the idea was that everyone had their divinely-ordained place in the world and the right thing to do was to treat everyone according to their formal status. Of course, it’s much easier to get people to mouth positive-sounding platitudes than it is to actually change their minds (let alone their behaviors), so the practical result of this is that everyone, up to and including literal Klansmen, always says that they “don’t have a racist bone in their body” and they’re “all in favor of diversity” and they’re “just being realistic” and etc. In fact, this effect is so strong that even unrelated arguments get cast in the same language; for example, conservatives will complain of “discrimination” against their “minority viewpoints” which reduces “diversity.” The fact that such statements are always present all the time means that they do not discriminate between disparate situations. Both racists and anti-racists are equally likely to say that they oppose racism, so a statement of opposition to racism proffers no information about which kind of person you’re talking to. So, given that such statements encode no information, the only rational thing to do is to ignore them completely.


Pure ideology

Anyone who uses the word “efficiency” is trying to sell you a bridge. Efficiency is a technical concept referring to a process’s ratio of inputs to outputs. An alternative process that costs half as much but delivers the same results is more efficient, despite being not more productive; an alternative with twice the cost and three times the output is more efficient despite being more costly. But in order to make such a determination, you must first specify which inputs and outputs you’re looking at. If you care about reducing pollution, then the question is which options give you the greatest reduction for a given cost. If you care about getting a product to market quickly, then the question is which options reduce your production time by the greatest amount. If you care about preserving a particular rare resource, then the question is which process uses the least of that resource, regardless of other costs. “Efficiency” doesn’t mean anything until you’ve made such a specification.

Due to the nature of the society that we live in, it’s common to talk about efficiency in terms of monetary expenditures and corporate profits. When people talk about whether something is “efficient” or “effective” or “a good idea” or any number of other vague references, they are often implicitly talking about corporate productivity. This is usually an unexamined assumption: people don’t consider the fact that not everything has to be discussed in terms of what’s good for rich fucks. So people often argue that diversity1 is more “efficient,” meaning it helps corporations make more money. Certain types of people will argue that engineering is actually about communication and problem-solving, and diverse opinions and traditionally feminine skillsets are more valuable in that endeavor – in other words, they’re better for the company. This may be true (though I don’t think you can really make a general determination about this sort of thing), but if you actually care about equality, it’s a bad faith argument. Anti-discrimination is the thing you care about; it’s your output. The question is not which amount of diversity results in the greatest profits, but rather which structures most effectively reduce discrimination.

And there’s even another layer on top of that, which is that corporate productivity isn’t one thing either. You could, hypothetically, design a facial recognition system that works really well on Europeans and not very well on Asians, or you could design one that works passably well on everybody. You can’t “compute” which of these is better, you have to make a values-based judgment as to which one you prefer. If Google adopts a particular set of policies and thereby becomes super productive while also being super discriminatory, that’s perfectly “efficient,” but it’s also a bad outcome for everyone except Google. Seeing as our current social system rewards monetary success2 at the expense of all other metrics, this is the kind of thing we need to be on guard against.


Manifesto Syndrome

Everyone thinks that their opinions are “thoughtful” and “nuanced” and “fact-based,” and that anyone who disagrees with then is a shallow ideologue who hasn’t done their homework. It’s temping, then, to express this by writing something extremely long. I mean, if you write 10,000 words about something, it has to be nuanced, right? It can’t just be a simplistic expression of unexamined prejudices. Anyone who dismisses it on that basis clearly didn’t read the whole thing.

So obviously writing a ton of words isn’t the same thing as actually saying something worthwhile, but it goes even farther than that: the act of writing a big long manifesto is itself a statement about the underlying topic. It’s the statement that there exists a big long manifesto’s worth of discussion to be had, when that is not necessarily the case. I talked about this earlier with regard to rape apologetics. Trying to “cover the whole story” by including a detailed examination of the rapist’s perspective makes the implicit statement that that perspective is valid. And this can then become a defensive gesture that prevents you from reassessing your own argument, because anyone dismissing you just “doesn’t appreciate the complexity of the topic.” That might be true, but they might be right anyway.

The fact that you sometimes need a certain level of detail to make a point does not entail that anything with that level of detail is necessarily making the same kind of point. When you fail to examine your assumptions, it’s possible to make a lengthy, nuanced argument that says nothing.


Act like it

Speech is a physical phenomenon that occurs in the real world. In no case is the content of speech ever a “pure idea”; it is always an action that has a particular effect, which is partly (and often mostly) determined by the context in which the action takes place. You can’t “neutrally” argue about whether black people have lower IQs than white people in a society with a history (and present) of using intellectualism as a vector for dehumanization. Whining about how it’s “unfair” that you can’t just have a “reasonable discussion” doesn’t change that. I mean, it really is unfair that you can’t bring up certain topics without engaging with racism, but tough shit. You have to decide whether you care more about racism or more about masturbating over bell curves.

One of the major problems that this results in is the idea of “proving” things. After all, “proof” is undeniably objective, so it has to be valid in any possible context, right? But arguing within this framework in the first place necessarily imposes an extremely high standard on whatever it is that “requires” proof, while also slipping in underlying assumptions that are not only not proven, but not even argued for, because you can’t start the discussion without some kind of grounding. With regards to global warming, for example, the underlying assumption is that we have to have capitalism, and the debate is only about whether the negative consequences have been “proven” to a high enough standard to require us to do anything about it. The idea of it being the other way around – of the potential environmental impact preemptively discrediting capitalism – is not a permissible line of argument. And since the future is indeterminate, the more responsible standard is one of risk mitigation: to the extent that our current system of production has possible negative consequences, we should be working to make them less possible. Insisting on “proof” biases the potential responses heavily toward not doing anything, because you’re never going to be completely sure about what’s going to happen. It’s important to remember that the popularly-cited 2° target is not the “everything’s okay” threshold; it’s the catastrophe threshold. If the living standards of humanity in general were really what we cared about, we would have been taking major steps long before Armageddon became a visible possibility, without requiring any sort of “scientific consensus.”

The big catch is that responding to these sorts of shenanigans carries the same caveats. A point-by-point refutation might seem like the most “thorough” way of debunking a claim, but as an action, it implicitly concedes the very point under discussion: that it’s all very complicated and we ultimately just don’t know whether women are good enough to deserve equality. If you’re writing a scientific rebuttal to something, you’re validating the point that scientific debate is the right way to handle it – doing that constitutes having that debate. And while science is all well and good, its modern prominence tends to function as a dodge away from moral issues. You can’t ever “conclude” scientifically that women are definitely being discriminated against, but you can make the moral case that certain behaviors are harmful to human development and ought to be combated. When you don’t do that, you leave people’s existing ideological assumptions in place, which generally means that people reading the discussion will see a bunch of charts on one side and a bunch of charts on the other and go on believing what they already believed anyway.

In order to deal with the amount of noise we all have to deal with these days, you have to remember the basics. You have to figure out what your actual priorities are rather than just accepting the parameters of whatever discussion you happen to be having at the time, and you have to take the specific actions that will advance those priorities rather than just saying the thing that seems like the right answer. Failure to do this is one of the reasons why, despite the wild open-endedness of the internet, everything feels stuck. And it’s why, despite the outcry and the rebuttals and the firing, the true goal of the Google memo has already been accomplished: we’re still having this discussion.

 


  1. For the sake of conciseness here I’m conceding to the use of “diversity” as an imprecise blanket term for various forms of social equality; I trust we’re all capable of keeping the problems with this in mind while focusing on the main argument. 
  2. And it’s actually even worse than that, because financial capitalism has decoupled economic productivity from monetary reward, so current “successful” companies are the ones that are the best at extracting money from investors rather than the ones that actually make things that help people. We are all Juicero now. 

Against facts

The acquittal of the officer who murdered Philando Castile is as unsurprising as it is unbelievable. It’s exactly the same grotesque spectacle that we’ve seen played out so many times before – but it wasn’t supposed to be. This time was supposed to be different.

Castile was pulled over for a routine traffic stop; he allegedly “fit a profile” or something, like, we all know what was really going on there, but the point is that the officer was just going through the usual checks and had no reason to expect an altercation. Castile was compliant, but he knew he had a problem: he was carrying a legal firearm, and he knew that if the officer saw it unexpectedly and got nervous, things could easily become unmanageable. So he did literally the only thing he could: he disclosed the existence of the weapon and proceeded carefully. And then he was shot to death.

In every previous case of this nature that has attracted mass-media attention, there has been some kind of controversial factor for people to argue about. Eric Garner and Alton Sterling were engaged in illegal activity; Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown allegedly assaulted their killers; Tamir Rice was supposedly brandishing a toy gun. None of these provide actual good angles – at the very least, they all require you to argue that minor transgressions are deserving of an instantly-applied death penalty without trial – but they’re all technically something. It’s broadly conceivable that a person of honorable intentions could make the good-faith argument that these were individual tragedies and not indicative of a widespread social calamity. But when you make an argument of the form, “if the victim engaged in certain behavior, then the killing was justified, so there’s no real political problem,” you are implicitly conceding that, had the victim not engaged in the proscribed behavior, then there is a real political problem.

That’s why the Castile case was supposed to be different. Castile committed no crime and did everything right, so there is simply nothing available on the “if” side to lead to the “then.” In which case the battle lines should have been drawn differently. The “all lives matter” crowd should have had no problem taking Castile on as a martyr and rallying for reforms to prevent such unacceptable occurrences. This should have been the thing that overcame the perils of “race relations” and provided an example that everyone could agree on. But of course there was no such reconciliation. The sickening thing about this case in particular was that nothing mattered; everything remained as it was and the same vile story was recited yet again, and yet again faded away with no conclusion in sight. The unavoidable inference, then, is that the facts of the case simply do not matter. Everyone has already decided what they believe, what policies they support and what catastrophes they are willing to countenance, and nothing is going to change that. And of course one must be honest enough to apply the same standard to one’s own side: had definitive evidence emerged that Michael Brown really did rob a convenience store and then bum rush a cop, that wouldn’t have changed the substance of the critique or the need for political action. In no case, then, are the facts of the situation ever relevant. There is only ideology.

There has been a great deal of recent lamentation over “fake news” and “alternative facts,” and one must concede that this is largely justified. Politicians certainly are a craven pack of liars, and people in general really do have problems getting their heads around the fact that facts are facts. But if we’re talking about politics, what we ought to be talking about is the connection between facts and political action, which is whence arises the problem: there isn’t one. Getting the facts right doesn’t help, because facts don’t matter either way to people’s political opinions. This sounds terrifying, but it actually makes perfect sense. Politics is about how we want the world to be, not how it currently is. Deciding on a political opinion means deciding in which direction you want to move. The value of facts is that they tell you how to get to what you want; they tell you where you are in relation to your goal. It’s entirely possible, perhaps even easier than not, to design counterproductive policy, in which case your actions will end up moving you in the opposite of your desired direction. Adherence to facts is how you avoid this problem. But this only becomes relevant after you’ve decided what it is you want.

The situation is often portrayed as a matter of novel facts spurring people to action. That is, everyone already believes in peace, love, and understanding, but they don’t know about the many injustices regularly taking place, so they simply need to be informed that things are going wrong in order to start doing something about it. This is wishful thinking. What the facts clearly demonstrate is that the revelation of facts doesn’t change people’s political opinions. At the end of the recent O.J. Simpson docudrama, there’s a moment when Johnnie Cochran sees then-president Clinton on TV talking about the need to address systemic racism and revise police practices, and he’s terribly gratified that the truth has finally come to light and that something can now be done about it. What’s striking about this is that people said exactly the same thing when the same issue recently started to be documented guerilla-style via smartphones and social media: now that the truth is unavoidable, things have to change. But what we’ve seen is that in neither case was this actually the case. Obviously, Rodney King and Mark Furman didn’t precipitate a solution to the problem, or we wouldn’t still be talking about it. But the current situation, where far more facts about far more dramatic occurrences are available on a daily basis, has seen no greater effect. All those cases listed above, plus others that have received equal attention and many more that have been forgotten or lost to the news cycle, were not the result of a single spate of increased attention. The issue has been risen on a regular basis over the course of many years, and the situation has never changed.

This is why the current fetish for “fact-checking” is largely misguided. It is not due to factual ignorance that people form harmful opinions. It’s much closer to being the other way around: people come to believe ridiculous things when those things align with their pre-existing ideology. Adherence to the facts can’t change this, because you have to use ideology in order to understand facts in the first place. A big table of numbers doesn’t do anything for you until you analyze it with political intent. In fact, “fact-checking” itself is a result of the same dynamic. Sociologically speaking, it’s pretty clear that the actual function fact-checking performs is liberal escapism. The people who check fact-checks are not those who require the information, but those who wish to reassure themselves that they are the good people for believing what they already believe. Liberals have already decided – in advance of the facts – that they’re the “rational” ones who “believe in science,” and the act of fact-checking allows them to perpetuate this belief.

More specifically, fact-checking as political activity is the result of a category error. It is indeed the news media’s job to report the facts and correct lies, and policymakers’ job to account for the real facts rather than the facts they wish were true. But the vast majority of us are not engaged in the activities of either journalism or policy-making, whereas all of us are permanently engaged in the activity of advancing values. Indeed, it is often our moral responsibility to ignore facts in favor of the truth. This is necessary because the world is a complicated place. It really is true that there are laws on the books prohibiting discrimination, and that there are scholarships and other programs aimed primarily at aiding black people, and that claims of disadvantage generally get sympathetic hearings in the media, and that Barack Obama was elected president twice – by healthy margins, even. But none of these facts compel the conclusion that we shouldn’t care about racism anymore.

You can dig up a real fact from somewhere or other to support basically anything. For example, false rape accusations really do happen sometimes. There’s no point in arguing whether any one case is valid or not; to fall into the trap of arguing the facts here is to fail to press the issue. The question of whether to treat rape as normal and false accusations as anomalies, or the other way around, is only answerable by ideology. You can’t engage with the issue until you’ve made that choice. (Equivocating doesn’t count as engaging with the issue; it counts as ignoring it.) And you can’t let the numbers make that decision for you, either, because you have to decide what the numbers mean. It’s true that there are more rapes than false accusations, but it’s also true that, even on the highest estimates, the vast majority of women never experience rape. The vast majority of black people never get murdered by the police, either. The numbers themselves don’t tell you what matters. Rape doesn’t become an issue once the number of occurrences rises above a certain threshold. It becomes an issue once you start caring about it.

A strong potential counterexample here is global warming. This seems to break the script: it’s genuinely novel information that could not have been reasonably foreseen, and it requires us to change our behavior and beliefs in ways that would not have been necessary without it. As Naomi Klein has it, it “changes everything.” So what’s crucial to note is the fact that the people who do “accept the facts” on global warming – who, in fact, loudly and self-importantly trumpet their fealty to the scientific consensus, as though that were something to be proud of – are doing basically nothing about it. Funding renewable energy and tweaking regulations do not come even close to addressing the true scale of the problem. The reason actions such as these are the ones being taken is that they are the ones that fit within the existing liberal-capitalist framework that basically every world leader adheres to unquestioningly. And on the other side of the ledger, liberals never seem to consider the fact that there are reasons that people resist facts. If someone encounters a fact once and ignores it, it’s pretty irrational to imagine that “explaining” the same thing to them over and over again will have any additional effect. Rather, the relevant logic is quite simple: if you believe that capitalism is a moral system, then it cannot be the case that capitalism is going to destroy the planet. It must simply be a case of certain groups gunning for competitive advantage, because that’s what happens under capitalism, and capitalism explains everything. And of course you wouldn’t be able to solve the problem with government intervention in any case, because government intervention always produces results inferior to the “natural” actions of market forces. Ideology determines both which facts are acceptable and which actions are possible.

Furthermore, you don’t actually need the facts of global warming to make the right argument here. The problem follows directly from the general logic of capitalism. Economics has a concept called “externalities,” which refers to the effects of a trade that aren’t accounted for within the trade itself.1 A better way to understand this is that capitalism basically means that rich fucks set the agenda, and they aren’t going to account for anything that doesn’t affect their pocketbooks. Other people getting polluted or regions of the planet becoming uninhabitable are just going to end up being the cost of doing business. So if you already oppose this arrangement ideologically – if you believe that resource use should be governed democratically such that the resulting decisions take into account their effects on everyone involved – then you’ve already solved global warming. Conversely, if you believe that rich fucks should be allowed to allocate resources autocratically, but that the government should be empowered to mitigate the consquences of those decisions, then you will never be able to solve global warming, no matter how cleverly you design policy or how tightly you cling the facts to your chest, because you have already made the values-based decision to give the fox VIP access to the henhouse.

In short, facts are real, but that’s all they are. By themselves, they’re inert. If you want to apply force to something, you can’t just gather up a bunch of chemicals and expect them to leap up out of the beakers of their own accord. You also won’t know which chemicals you need until you’ve drawn up your plans. And even then, nothing will happen until you actually build the bomb.

 


  1. A professor of mine once quipped that his introductory Econ textbook had five pages devoted to externalities and five hundred devoted to the rest of economic theory, and that it should have been the other way around, since what “externalities” actually means here is literally everything in the world other than basic economic theory. 

Against science

You’ve probably heard that there was a “march for science” this weekend, and you may have asked yourself what the hell that was supposed to mean. This is one of many things nowadays that is “common sense” and “shouldn’t be a partisan issue” and “it’s so ridiculous that it’s 2017 and we’re still talking about this,” which is exactly how you know that this is not where the real issue is. That is, there’s a notion that certain strains of political thought are “anti-science,” but of course this is absurd. Science is a methodology, not a goal, and for this reason, no one is actually opposed to it as such. Republicans are more than happy to support science when it’s being used to construct giant bombs and mass surveillance tools. Nobody is insisting that these things be done according to Biblical instructions. People who have goals that they want to achieve use the means that are available to them, and science is one of those.

First of all, the specific issue we’re talking about here is global warming, which is something that we should not euphemize, as it is and continues to be the single most important issue in politics. (If we’re particularly unlucky, it will continue to be the most important issue for the remainder of human history.) There’s a lot of talk concerning a “scientific consensus” on this issue and the fact that certain politicians won’t “accept” it, but this does not amount to an explanation. Science is, again, a method that can help you understand what the situation is right now, and potentially help you figure out how to do something about it, but only after you’ve decided what it is that you’re going to do. As explained by the Big D himself, David Hume, in a much-quoted-but-apparently-not-quoted-nearly-enough passage:

In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary way of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when of a sudden I am surprised to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, ’tis necessary that it should be observed and explained; and at the same time that a reason should be given, for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it. But as authors do not commonly use this precaution, I shall presume to recommend it to the readers; and am persuaded, that this small attention would subvert all the vulgar systems of morality, and let us see, that the distinction of vice and virtue is not founded merely on the relations of objects, nor is perceived by reason.

In short, science can, ideally, tell you exactly what the present situation is, but what it can tell you about what you ought to do about it is – again ideally – exactly dick. After all, the group of people who accept the scientific consensus on global warming includes Barack Obama, who, well, I’ll be generous and not say that he did nothing about it during the time that the issue was on his desk, but considering the scale of the problem, it’s difficult to argue against the conclusion that he basically sat on his hands.

Worse, “science” is in fact the thing that caused global warming in the first place. It’s more than a little peculiar to oppose global warming by demanding more science in politics, seeing as what actually happened is that extreme advancements in industrial technology outstripped our ability to monitor and control them via policy. If it weren’t for science, if it were simply a matter of choosing a policy, no one would ever have chosen for global warming to happen. But, you’ll object, that’s not science’s fault. It was the profit motive, or human short-sightedness or whatever. You are entirely correct. To attach the label “science” to the results of a scientific process is a category error. Science is the process and is not the outcome. The first sentence of this paragraph makes the same category error. Science is not the cause of anything; it can only be the means by which a cause produces its effect. For this same reason, science cannot save us. Indeed, treating science as a real thing and not clinging to it as a fetish means respecting it even when it cuts against you – when it demonstrates that getting what you’re after requires sacrifice.

And also for this same reason, “science” cannot be the thing that our recent marchers were in fact marching for. They are making the same error: what they are actually in favor of is the results of science. A common grievance is the fact that the current administration seems to be attempting to neutralize the function of the EPA, if not eliminate it entirely. This is usually framed as an attack on “science.” But “science” and “the environment” are not the same type of thing. “The environment” is what we want; “science” is potentially how we get there (again, it can just as easily be how we don’t get there). Insisting on “more science” does nothing to oppose those who don’t want to preserve the environment in the first place.

More than that, “the environment” is not actually what we want, either. There’s always going to be an environment, no matter what. Even a Mars-like lifeless rock is still “an” environment. What we want is an environment that is good for humans, and it is here that we finally get around to imposing some fucking constraints. The thing that’s really disgusting about global warming is that rich fucks are going to be fine. They have high-tech doomsday colonies in which to while away their decadent lives while the rest of the world burns. The thing that allows them to do this is science. The other thing that allows them to do this is a hell of a lot of money – money that could be used to help the people who are actually going to get fucked to death otherwise. This is the only thing that is intelligible as a political demand. We don’t want rich fucks to jump up and down and shake their pom-poms when they see a pretty picture of a nebula. We want their fucking money. To actually argue this, though, you’d have to argue that rich fucks are not entitled to spend their money however they please – indeed, you might even end up arguing that people in general have a moral obligation to use their resources to make things better for others. And that’s just not how we do things in America.

The reason, then, that one “fucking loves science” is because it is easy to do so. Like, I wouldn’t normally do this stuff. Y’know, everything’s so partisan these days. I don’t like engaging in politics, like some kind of union laborer. It’s just that I love facts, you know? Facts are the best.1 Which, like, yeah. Facts are facts, which is why that is a worthless statement. What matters is what you’re going to do about them. And if what you want to do about them were something that the people in charge of this society were okay with, it would already be happening. If you want something different, then, you should be honest about what it is you’re saying. After all, most of the problems that we aspire to solve using science have already been solved – for some people. As William Gibson famously put it, the future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed. So if you’re going to protest, don’t settle for taking the easiest possible stance out of fear that you won’t get a sympathetic writeup in the New Yorker. Make a real claim. What you are actually in favor of is coercive economic redistribution.


  1. Like, there’s apparently a hat with the word “facts” on it, because wearing that in public will totally show everyone what a functional and intelligent person you are. 

Feel the burn

The AP fact-checked all the presidential candidates on global warming. The results are exactly what you’d expect; the only important thing to note is that this has nothing to do with “scientific literacy” and everything to do with pandering. Clinton got the highest score because she’s currently pandering the hardest to establishment liberals; Cruz got the lowest score because he’s currently pandering the hardest to the know-nothing crowd. None of these people are actually going to do anything about the issue.

Aside from that, though, there’s something a little disturbing in the perspective of the scientists who performed the review. Sanders lost points for the following statement:

“The scientific community is telling us that if we do not address the global crisis of climate change, transform our energy system away from fossil fuel to sustainable energy, the planet that we’re going to be leaving our kids and our grandchildren may well not be habitable.”

This is apparently an “overstatement,” which I guess is technically true. There will probably still be a few places on the planet that are actually livable. Given the situation, though, it’s hard to argue that a little hyperbole isn’t justified.

Here are the scientists’ criticisms of this statement:

Dessler said, “I would not say that the planet will become uninhabitable. Regardless of what we do, some humans will survive.” Harvard’s Jim McCarthy also called the comment an overstatement, as did other scientists when Sanders said it. Recent research on the worst heat projections in the hottest area, the Persian Gulf, finds that toward the end of the century there will be a few days each decade or so when humans cannot survive outside, but can live with air conditioning indoors.

Talk about cold comfort. “Some” humans will still survive, probably! It will only occasionally be impossible for people to go outside! Like, I get it. The planet is not literally going to go up in flames, and it is important to have an accurate understanding of the specific things that are going to happen. But what’s actually disturbing here is the bit about air conditioning.

It’s disturbing because it reflects an assumption that we’ll be able to do an effective job of ameliorating the consequences of global warming, even though right now we aren’t doing shit to actually prevent it. Recall that not everyone has access to air conditioning under current circumstances, even in America. The scientists here are considering the worst-case scenario, but assuming a best-case response to it. This assumption is not justified.

Our collective failure to do anything about global warming has two root causes. The obvious one is that humans are terrible at long-term planning, especially when there short-term benefits to be had by ignoring it. Not much more needs to be said about this. But there’s another problem that gets much less attention, despite how fundamental it is to everything that’s wrong with society: humans care more about their relative status than their absolute status.

This fact explains how we got into this mess in the first place. It wouldn’t really be that hard for rich fucks to create a stable, sustainable society, given the sort of resources they have at hand. It would, of course, cost them a lot of money, but they’d get a lot out of it: there wouldn’t be any railing against the 1%, they wouldn’t have to bother controlling the political process or hiring mercenaries to shut down protesters, etc. Economic activity could be redirected toward more improvements in technology and medicine, which would benefit rich fucks the most even as they also benefited everyone else. Furthermore, this wouldn’t be much of a sacrifice in practical terms, since no one can actually use the amount of money these people have. They could spend like 90% of their wealth on this and still maintain their ridiculous standards of living. They’d just be normally obscenely wealthy instead of obscenely obscenely wealthy.

And that’s the problem. Being unfathomably richer than everyone else is what actually motivates these people. In other words, what they care about is their relative status. It isn’t just rich fucks either; everyone is like this. For example, this is why poor white people can be persuaded to abandon their class interests in favor of white supremacy: it gives them someone to look down on. If they united with poor black people, they could make themselves better off in absolute terms, but then they’d all be together on the bottom; poor white people would be worse off in relative terms.

So this is why pollution happens: people are willing to destroy their environment to gain a competitive advantage over their neighbors, even though they all have to live together in the same destroyed environment (note that “competitive advantage” is the actual term used in business). But that’s not all. This is also why global warming is going to get worse before it gets worse.

Everyone assumes that once really bad things starts happening, we’ll all get serious and start doing something about it. But if we aren’t doing anything now, why would we start once it gets harder to do so? Indeed, the opposite is true: as the overall situation worsens, there will be more to gain from minor competitive advantages; fossil fuels will become more valuable in a situation where fewer people have access to them. Ergo, people will keep burning them, and things will keep getting worse. And that will be humanity’s epitaph: we chose to be rulers of a wasteland rather than citizens of a decent society.

And Sanders isn’t going to do anything about this either. Here he is playing coy in Rolling Stone:

. . . His [Eugene V. Debs’] vision is a vision that I share.

Including an “overthrow of the capitalist system”?
No, no, no. Now you’re being provocative. If you follow my campaign, have you heard me talk about overthrowing the capitalist economic system?

I mean, obviously. The guy is running for President of Capitalism. What else is he going to say?

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve been consistently impressed by Sanders (excluding his position on gun control). I wouldn’t have thought the Democratic Party was capable of fielding this good of a candidate [update: in the least surprising turn of events ever, it turns out they’re not]. But in this case, “good” isn’t good enough, because “overthrowing the capitalist economic system” is the one and only thing that can stop global warming.

This is old news by now, but the amount of oil that is currently owned is about five times more than enough to push us over the brink. In order to avoid catastrophe, this oil must not be burned. But for the owners, this is equivalent to burning the amount of money that the oil is worth. This will never happen. This is also why “clean energy” isn’t going to do shit: the oil is already owned, so burning it in addition to using clean energy sources will still provide a competitive advantage, so it will still happen even in an ideal situation where there’s enough solar power to provide free energy for everyone. And, as mentioned, as things get worse, the incentives to use these resources will only increase. The only solution is for the government (that is, all the governments) to buy up or otherwise appropriate all of this oil and keep it in the ground.

And of course, this isn’t a one time thing. Even if some miracle invention fixes global warming (n.b. not happening), the incentives that caused the problem will still be in place. There will eventually be some other technology that destabilizes our environment in the same way, and the same thing will happen again.

It’s usually a sort of saving grace that our ruling class is totally incompetent. As Machiavelli pointed out when he wrote The Prince, just because someone happens to meet the current criteria for being a member of the ruling class doesn’t mean they actually know shit about ruling. And this is great, because the fact that there’s no master plan is what allows the rest of us to make our own lives in the cracks of the system. A competent ruling class would have already undermined us all so thoroughly that I wouldn’t even be able to conceive of any of the stuff in this post. In this case, though, it might be worth the tradeoff.