Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

I’m old enough to remember when “relativism” was the second-favourite scare word hurled by the Right (after “socialism”, of course). The truth of the matter was that leftist intellectuals had put a lot of effort into analysing the way worldviews are created by and support particular power relations. This seems like good work, in principle, and obviously useful in interrogating the making of history, economics, and social ideologies, and has made important contributions to the philosophy of science. There have been excesses — edging into denial of scientific truth or progress.

The arch-cultural reactionary Dinesh D’Souza in his heyday (before he became completely ridiculousused the then-modish term deconstruction as a catch-all for this iconoclastic posture toward literary and (it is implied, more than actually shown) moral authorities of the past to exemplify the inconsistent application of moral relativism as a political weapon:

Marx, for instance, never seems to be deconstructed, nor does Foucault, or Lacan , or Derrida, or Barthes. Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr, seem to enjoy immunity. There may be an entire gender exception for women.

I’ve never been sufficiently au fait with the humanities and social sciences — “critical theory” — to judge whether these extreme denials of objective truth were ever as central to leftist discourse as some critics would suggest. I think this has been overall very productive intellectually and scientifically. But as a political tactic it was, it seems clear now, tragically short-sighted. The Left made a serious strategic error in trying to shortcut its way out from under the dead hand of the past  by promoting relativism and attacking the authority of science and rational discourse. The right wing were taking notes, and while the older generation — figures like William F. Buckley, John Silber and Allan Bloom — started by ridiculing the anti-rationalist turn, the younger generation saw it as a program to be emulated and developed. Fascists have always had an uncomfortable relationship with objective reality, that seems to be offering only stubborn opposition to the imposition of the authoritarian will.

Nietzsche — the doyen of this kind of analysis, but conflicted in this as in everything else — framed what should have been the core left-wing critique of relativism in Die Fröhliche Wissenschaft [The Gay Science]:

Ein Jude umgekehrt ist, gemäss dem Geschäftskreis und der Vergangenheit seines Volks, gerade daran — dass man ihm glaubt — am wenigsten gewöhnt: man sehe sich darauf die jüdischen Gelehrten an, — sie Alle halten grosse Stücke auf die Logik, das heisst auf das Erzwingen der Zustimmung durch Gründe; sie wissen, dass sie mit ihr siegen müssen, selbst wo Rassen- und Classen-Widerwille gegen sie vorhanden ist, wo man ihnen ungern glaubt. Nichts nämlich ist demokratischer als die Logik: sie kennt kein Ansehn der Person und nimmt auch die krummen Nasen für gerade. (Nebenbei bemerkt: Europa ist gerade in Hinsicht auf Logisirung, auf reinlichere Kopf-Gewohnheiten den Juden nicht wenig Dank schuldig; voran die Deutschen, als eine beklagenswerth deraisonnable Rasse, der man auch heute immer noch zuerst „den Kopf zu waschen“ hat. Ueberall, wo Juden zu Einfluss gekommen sind, haben sie ferner zu scheiden, schärfer zu folgern, heller und sauberer zu schreiben gelehrt: ihre Aufgabe war es immer, ein Volk „zur Raison“ zu bringen.)

On account of his people’s business relations and past, the Jew is not used to being believed. You see this in the way Jewish scholars are obsessed with logic, that is, compelling assent through reasons. They know that they can succeed in this way, even when the prejudice of race and class tell against them, even when one would rather not believe them. Nothing is as democratic as logic: It recognises no personal distinctions, and takes even the crooked nose for straight.(Europe must be grateful to the Jews particularly with respect to logicalising — for clearer habits of thought. Above all the Germans, a pitifully irrational race. Everywhere where the Jews have gained influence, they have taught people to reason more precisely and write more clearly. It has always been their task to bring a people “to its senses”.)

And so we find ourselves in the 21st century with a senior adviser to a Republican president criticising, in 2002, the naivety of what he called the “reality-based community”, stating

That’s not the way the world really works anymore. We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out.

And sure enough, as soon as a new Republican is elected, we have his surrogates even more openly attacking the very notion of objective reality:

 And so one thing that has been interesting this entire campaign season to watch, is that people that say facts are facts—they’re not really facts. Everybody has a way—it’s kind of like looking at ratings, or looking at a glass of half-full water. Everybody has a way of interpreting them to be the truth, or not truth. There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore as facts.

And so Mr. Trump’s tweet, amongst a certain crowd—a large part of the population—are truth. When he says that millions of people illegally voted, he has some—amongst him and his supporters, and people believe they have facts to back that up. Those that do not like Mr. Trump, they say that those are lies and that there are no facts to back it up.

You may think you’re talking about facts and evidence, but for those on the inside these are just ways of saying whether you “like Mr. Trump”. They tried out their message first on evolution as a matter of “belief”, honed the message on climate science — a harder nut to crack — and finally brought us to where groundless claims that millions of people voted illegally are also matters of belief.

Speaking of Allan Bloom, the University of Chicago philosopher who had a hit book in the mid-1980s The Closing of the American Mind, which was mainly about how the kids today with their crazy rock-and-roll music were having more sex than he had at their age, which was driving him crazy. But I remember one really striking idea that he was pushing was that, just as the Romans conquered the Greeks militarily, but then as a consequence of absorbing the Greek world ended up being dominated by Greek culture and philosophy, so the Anglo-American world conquered Germany militarily, but are now dominated by the German Weltanschauung, and Nietzsche in particular.

From the BBC home page today:


And here I thought racial segregation was a core… oh, never mind.

Burning the Trumpstag

Pretty high up on the list of things I’ve been worried about for the next four years (ordered by importance, not alphabetically) is a Reichstag scenario. Trump gets himself elected by promising a solution to the world in chaos that doesn’t actually exist, and then once in power creates exactly that chaos as a means of justifying and extending his power. This is what the Nazis did with the Reichstag fire one month after they came into power. (Despite the claims of conspiracy theorists, the consensus of historians is that the Dutch Communist van der Lubbe acted alone. The Nazis simply stoked the outrage and took advantage of it after the fact.)

A major symbolically significant terror attack would be just the ticket. And what could be more symbolically powerful than a direct attack on the prestige of the new thin-skinned president? Several people have been pointing out, what I hadn’t thought about before, but now terrifies me: All over the world there are defenceless towers that have the Trump name in big letters, often in countries with active terror movements and significant popular hostility to Trump and/or the US, including Dubai, Saudi Arabia, and India. (I don’t particularly mean to include Chicago among these, though Trump Tower residents there have been worrying about this problem for the past year.) These are now de facto US embassies from the point of view of aggrieved  There’s no way to protect them all. Most of these are only renting the Trump name, so the owners could perhaps protect themselves by renaming the buildings.

The US is just getting used to the idea of a president who will be running an international business marketing his name out of the Oval Office. Political journalists are fooling themselves in supposing that they’re going to have an easy time publicising scandals in the Trump administration. What’s a scandal, when the rulers are shameless? What could you find that would be worse than what has already come out during the campaign? And the mainstream will be pushing their carefully researched and reported evidence of malfeasance at the highest levels against social-network-distributed scandals on the other side, scandals about left-wing figures manufactured by Kremlin operatives or Macedonian teenagers. Of course, the made-up stories will be more piquant than the real ones. They are socially engineered to push every hot button, and so raise the public’s general shock threshold.

It seemed like a good time to repeat a post I wrote last year, about the importance for a healthy democracy to maintain its ability to be shocked: Read the rest of this entry »

According to the NY Times, insurers have been taking advantage of climate-change fears to raise prices for flood insurance. Now that the presidential election has conclusively proved that the greenhouse effect is a Chinese hoax to make Americans look stupid less productive, I think the Congress needs to move beyond minor defensive measures like abandoning the Paris accord, and move instead to aggressively defend Americans’ God-given right to build decadent structures in flood zones: Just as health insurers are now prohibited from inquiring about or taking account of “pre-existing conditions”, flood insurers need to be prohibited from taking account of (hoax) research about “post-existing” (future) climate conditions in determining flood insurance prices. Prices may be based only on past flood records.

This can be combined into a single consumer-rights bill with Mike Pence’s initiative to ban life insurance premiums that discriminate against tobacco users. As Pence wrote in 2000,

Time for a quick reality check. Despite the hysteria from the political class and the media, smoking doesn’t kill… Nine out of ten smokers do not contract lung cancer.

What’s all this hysteria for? Smoking is even safer than Russian Roulette. (Five out of six players don’t get shot!)

Paradoxical times

I remember in my childhood, maybe when I was ten or so, talking with my brother about the weird counterfactual possibility that someone could be elected president without winning a majority of votes. Of course, we imagined the most extreme possibility, a candidate winning by one vote in a minimum collection of states, and getting not a single vote in the rest, so that he could attain the presidency with (we worked out) only about one quarter of the votes.

This was discussed in the same kinds of spooky tones that we used to discuss uncanny notions like that someone could be his own grandfather or God could make a stone so heavy that he couldn’t lift it. When grownups on television tried to defend the Electoral College it was generally in terms of turning small vote majorities into decisive Electoral College majorities, thus enhancing the popular credibility of the vote. Now we’ve gotten used to the Electoral College being used to entrench Republican government against Democratic majorities. Given that it was originally designed to enhance the power of slave states, we can say it’s working as planned.

Trump is behaving like a central Asian autocrat, blending his family business with national politics, alternatively threatening and pardoning the opposition according to his whim. One tends to think that it can’t go well for him, but then, we thought that a year ago. Who can call him to account?

My usual baseline emotional reaction to Republican presidents’ scandals and abuses is: Bring ’em on. The more the better, since in the long run they mainly serve to embarrass and distract the administration from carrying out policies that I generally oppose.

My reaction to Trump is very different, which just shows how genuinely different he is from a “normal” Republican. Part of this is his shamelessness and limited attention span. One typically reasons about a leader, “He can’t possibly do X, because the consequences would be Y, and that would be hugely unpopular.” That doesn’t work for Trump. Partly it’s his unshakeable bond to his core supporters — the I-could-shoot-someone-on-Fifth-Avenue phenomenon. But mainly it’s the impression that he is literally incapable of understanding or anticipating any consequences over a time horizon measured in minutes. Maybe this impression is inaccurate, maybe it’s just a bluff. If so, it’s effective, and he’s won this game of Chicken. No rational person would challenge him now under the assumption that he would be dissuaded by the prospect of long-term damage, to himself, to the country, or to the world. This gives him a madman’s freedom, whether or not he is actually mad.

I am existentially frightened of the effect of his administration, which means that I am hoping, not for his success, but for limits to his failure. I am hoping that someone will get his gritting under control before he comes into office, because I worry about him systemically corrupting the US federal government. I am hoping that some sensible people — even extreme right-wingers — will take control of his administration’s foreign policy because I worry that his impulsive leadership will lead to nuclear war or the collapse of peaceful order in Europe.

It’s been two weeks since the election, and the shock has worn off. The fear has, if anything, grown. Before the election, I eagerly awaited the puncturing of the vast Trump ego balloon. (I kind of assumed he was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, being propped up by foreign banks and individuals who would lose interest after the election.) Now, I’d gladly accept him and his family looting hundreds of billions from the US treasury if he’ll leave us in peace.

… because that would be fascism! Instead, we’re likely to get the NHS checking people’s passports and utility bills (for proof of address) before they can get medical treatment.

As I’ve commented before, the British seem obsessed with not having national ID cards — when they came into power one of the first things the Conservatives did was to cancel a Labour programme that had been in the works for about five years to provide ID cards — because carrying an ID card is inimical to Anglo-Saxon freedom. They don’t object to round-the-clock video surveillance, police stopping foreign-looking people on the Tube to ask for proof of right to be in the country, or now checking nationality documents at the hospital.

They just object to providing people with the documents they need to meet the authorities’ demand (given that one in six Britons has no passport, and they cost about £80). Instead, they leave it up to easily falsifiable electric bills to attest their address.

The Trumpkins have announced that his Majesty does not actually intend to have Hillary Clinton prosecuted for bad email management. Implicit in this announcement is the belief that the president should have the right to decide who to prosecute and who not. In other words, it is an implicit threat.

A few weeks ago former and possibly future French president Nicolas Sarkozy proclaimed his allegiance to international right-wing loonidom by ridiculing the scientific consensus on anthropogenic climate change:

Cela fait 4 milliards d’années que le climat change. Le Sahara est devenu un désert, ce n’est pas à cause de l’industrie. Il faut être arrogant comme l’Homme pour penser que c’est nous qui avons changé le climat…

[The climate has been changing for four billion years. The Sahara turned into a desert, and that wasn’t caused by industry. It takes a uniquely human arrogance to believe that we have changed the climate…]

But now, perhaps because Le Pen seems to have the loony right wing anti-science vote locked up, he is threatening to punish the US if it tries to scuttle the Paris accord:

Donald Trump has said – we’ll see if he keeps this promise – that he won’t respect the conclusions of the Paris climate agreement.

Well, I will demand that Europe put in place a carbon tax at its border, a tax of 1-3 per cent, for all products coming from the United States, if the United States doesn’t apply environmental rules that we are imposing on our companies.

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