Correspondence bias and communism

Reading Terry Eagleton’s Why Marx was Right I was struck by this relatively banal observation:

In its brief but bloody career, Marxism has involved a hideous amount of violence. Both Stalin and Mao Zedong were mass murderers on an almost unimaginable scale… But what of the crimes of capitalism? What of the atrocious bloodbath known as the First World War, in which the clash of imperial nations hungry for territory sent working-class soldiers to a futile death? The history of capitalism is among other things a story of global warfare, colonial exploitation, genocide and avoidable famines.

Superficially, this looks like dialectical what-about-ism. Whose mass murder was worse? But it occurred to me that there is something here that needs explanation: Given that communism and capitalism both have long charge sheets in the court of history, how can the association with atrocity and tyranny serve so broadly as a knock-down argument against communism?

It made me think of correspondence bias, the psychological tendency of people to interpret their own behaviour as situation-dependent — I didn’t do the reading for the seminar because I had a family crisis and I was exhausted — while someone else’s behaviour is seen as representing their essential nature — too lazy or inconsiderate to do the reading. This also works between groups, as when, for instance, a man’s failure to successfully lead a research team shows that he’s not cut out for that sort of responsibility (or not yet ready for it) while a woman’s failure shows that women aren’t suited to leadership.

So it is with economic systems: Stalin reveals the fundamental nature of communism, its core evil revealed by the Ukrainian famine and the Great Purge; but but Hitler and Pinochet are only incidentally capitalists, and the explanation of their crimes must be found outside the economic sphere. The Great Irish Famine has nothing to do with capitalist ideology, even while merchants were exporting food from starving Ireland to British markets, and American slavery and the Native American genocide are particular historical events that cannot tell us anything about the general implications of capitalism.

Increasingly, climate change makes capitalism look like a global suicide pact.

There is a similar bias at work in the judgement of religious communities: Many Christians attribute violence and brutality to Islam as an essential quality of the religion, proved by selective quotes from the Koran, while dismissing Christian-motivated atrocities to “not real Christians” or special circumstances of people long ago or far away. (We Jews are in an awkward position relative to this: On the one hand, our communal experience does not incline us to trust the good faith of Christians any more than of Muslims or druids or Satanists; on the other hand, Jews have become a particular target of Muslim rage, while many of us are well assimilated in majority-Christian nations. Some are happy to repay the recent good treatment by echoing the local prejudices.)

Don’t ever be the first to stop applauding

US Republican-libertarian senator and unofficial presidential candidate Rand Paul has been castigated by true-blue Zionists for insufficient vigour in applauding Binyamin Netanyahu’s recent address to Congress. “I gave the prime minister 50 standing ovations,” Paul said, and that should really settle the matter.

I was reminded of this passage from The Gulag Archipelago:

A district Party conference was under way in Moscow Province… It was presided over by a new secretary of the District Party Committee, replacing one recently arrested. At the conclusion of the conference, a tribute to Comrade Stalin was called for. Of course, everyone stood up (just as everyone had leaped to his feet during the conference at every mention of his name). The small hall echoed with “stormy applause, rising to an ovation.” For three minutes, four minutes, five minutes, the “stormy applause, rising to an ovation,” continued. But palms were getting sore and raised arms were already aching. And the older people were panting from exhaustion. It was becoming insufferably silly even to those who really adored Stalin. However, who would dare be the first to stop?… After all, NKVD men were standing in the hall applauding and watching to see who quit first! And in that ob- scure, small hall, unknown to the Leader, the applause went on six, seven, eight minutes! They were done for! Their goose was cooked! They couldn’t stop now till they collapsed with heart attacks! … Nine minutes! Ten! . . . Then, after eleven minutes, the director of the paper factory assumed a businesslike expression and sat down in his seat. And, oh, a miracle took place! Where had the universal, uninhibited, indescribable enthusiasm gone? To a man, everyone else stopped dead and sat down. They had been saved!…

That, however, was how they discovered who the independent people were. And that was how they went about eliminating them. That same night the factory director was arrested. They easily pasted ten years on him on the pretext of something quite different. But after he had signed Form 206, the final document of the interrogation, his interrogator reminded him: “Don’t ever be the first to stop applauding!” (And just what are we supposed to do? How are we supposed to stop?)

What would they do with the data?

The Conservatives and the security services are ramping up the propaganda for the digital panopticon, now particularly pressuring US-based social network companies to give up their quaint ideas of privacy. If you’re not with the snoopers you’re with the terrorists and the paedophiles.

“Terrorists are using the internet to communicate with each other and we must not accept that these communications are beyond the reach of the authorities or the internet companies themselves,” [David Cameron] told MPs after the report was published.

“Their networks are being used to plot murder and mayhem. It is their social responsibility to act on this.”

This refers to the government report on the murder of soldier Lee Rigby by an Islamist extremists Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale, that accuses Facebook (not by name — the name of the company was only leaked to the press, for some reason) of failing to inform the security services that they had been carrying on conversations about plans to murder a soldier on Facebook.

Try this out with regard to telephone service: If criminals were found to have plotted a killing on the telephone — not that such things ever happened before there was Facebook — would that be taken to prove that the telecoms are responsible for monitoring the content of every phone call? What about the post? What if they didn’t use electronic media, but fiendishly took advantage of the fact that there is currently no electronic surveillance in everyone’s bedrooms?

Why aren’t the security services who have been downloading all of our communications, including everything on Facebook, supposedly to protect us from terrorism, responsible for detecting the terrorist chats?

Those who see no problem with the collection of vast quantities of private data by various security services, or who see it as a necessary evil, tend to assume that Western democracies can ensure through legal structures that the information is used in the public interest, in the defence of democracy. Others believe this is naïve. There is nothing about Western democracy that nullifies the basic truths of humanity, and how people respond to the temptations of power.

If you are having difficulty imagining what our wise and good protectors in the security services might get up to if they had access to a complete collection of correspondence, maps of contacts, purchasing history for everyone in the country — indeed, for most of the world — consider this historical affair that has recently been in the news: Continue reading “What would they do with the data?”

Is it better if they spy accurately?

There’s a fascinating article in the Guardian about how Berlin has become a centre for “digital exiles”, people — mainly Americans — whose online activism has put them in the crosshairs of various security services, leading to low-level harassment, or occasionally high-level harassment, such as this frightening story

Anne Roth, a political scientist who’s now a researcher on the German NSA inquiry, tells me perhaps the most chilling story. How she and her husband and their two children – then aged two and four – were caught in a “data mesh”. How an algorithm identified her husband, an academic sociologist who specialises in issues such as gentrification, as a terrorist suspect on the basis of seven words he’d used in various academic papers.

Seven words? “Identification was one. Framework was another. Marxist-Leninist was another, but you know he’s a sociologist… ” It was enough for them to be placed under surveillance for a year. And then, at dawn, one day in 2007, armed police burst into their Berlin home and arrested him on suspicion of carrying out terrorist attacks.

But what was the evidence, I say? And Roth tells me. “It was his metadata. It was who he called. It was the fact that he was a political activist. That he used encryption techniques – this was seen as highly suspicious. That sometimes he would go out and not take his cellphone with him… ”

He was freed three weeks later after an international outcry, but the episode has left its marks. “Even in the bathroom, I’d be wondering: is there a camera in here?”

This highlights a dichotomy that I’ve never seen well formulated, that pertains to many legal questions concerning damage inflicted by publication or withholding of information: Are we worried about true information or false information? Is it more disturbing to think that governments are collecting vast amounts of private and intimate information about our lives, or that much of that information (or the inferences that also count as information) is wrong?

As long as the security services are still in their Keystone Cops phase, and haven’t really figured out how to deploy the information effectively, it’s easier to get aroused by the errors, as in the above. When they have learned to apply the information without conspicuous blunders, then the real damage will be done by the ruthless application of broadly correct knowledge of everyone’s private business, and the crushing certainty everyone has that we have no privacy.

It’s probably a theorem that there is a maximally awful level of inaccuracy. If the information is completely accurate, then at least we avoid the injustice of false accusation. If the information is all bogus, then people will ignore it. Somewhere in between people get used to trusting the information, and will act crushingly on the spurious as well as the accurate indications. What is that level? It’s actually amazing how much tolerance people have for errors in an information source before they will ignore it — cf., tabloid newspapers, astrology, economic forecasts — particularly if it’s a secret source that seems to give them some private inside knowledge.

On a somewhat related note, Chris Bertram at Crooked Timber has given concise expression to a reaction that I think many people have had to the revelations of pervasive electronic espionage by Western democratic governments against their own citizens:

 It isn’t long since the comprehensive surveillance of citizens… was emblematic of how communist states would trample on the inalienable rights of people in pursuit of state security. Today we know that our states do the same. I’m not making the argument that Western liberal democracies are “as bad” as those states were,… but I note that these kinds of violations were not seen back then as being impermissible because those states were so bad in other ways — undemocratic, dirigiste — but rather were portrayed to exemplify exactly why those regimes were unacceptable.


The Return of the Ampelmännchen

I’m in Berlin now, for the first time in ten years. I lived here for much of the 1990s, and much has changed since then. But the change that I found most striking is in the Ampelmännchen, the anthropomorphic red and green traffic signals that tell you to walk or not walk. When I was first in Berlin, the backlash against Western triumphalism was just starting. With the unification of Germany, all kinds of things that had been standardised within each of the former countries now needed to be standardised between them. In principle, this would have involved some sort of consultation and compromise between the two sides. In practice, the East was treated like a colony, and the western standards were simply imposed. (I wrote a long essay at the time about my perceptions of the resentment in East Berlin.)

The resistance converged on the Ampelmännchen. The East had sort of jaunty 1950s-era conspicuously male figures, while the West had sleek, modern, gender-neutral figures. They looked like this:


By the time I arrived, quite a few signals had already been changed in East Berlin, and the Rettet die Ampelmännchen campaign (“Save the  Ampelmännchen“) was fighting to stop the losses. They distributed stickers with images of the Eastern Ampelmännchen, and hoped to slow their destruction. It was an inspired choice, since these Eastern Ampelmännchen are just so adorable. The arguments for the others — in particular, gender neutrality — may be convincing, but it is hard to contemplate their utter extinction without a pang.

Now, 20 years after the struggle broke out, I find that the Ost Ampelmännchen are everywhere in Berlin, even in the West. So, something has been saved. The rulers of the GDR vowed to create a Neuen Menschen (new man), but their only enduring success was the creation of a Neues Ampelmännchen.


Reading Anne Applebaum’s Gulag: A History, I was struck by her formulation of a question that I had wondered about myself, and never seen explicitly stated:

Why the Soviet secret police were so obsessed with confession remains a matter for debate…

What is the motivation to force a prisoner to “confess”? Even if the interrogator believes the charge to be true, why is it important for the prisoner to say it? Surely a confession under duress is not going to convince anyone else. Of course, you may want to use a confession extracted under torture to deceive someone else into thinking this was a confession freely offered, but it is hard to see how that can be relevant to system where torture is standard.

Furthermore, in the pre-video era, it’s hard to see why anyone would go to the trouble of manufacturing a deception by torturing the prisoner to put his own signature on the confession, rather than simply forging the signature. And yet it was important enough for interrogators to spend months attempting to extract the “genuine” confession, and for prisoners to submit themselves to agonies to resist.

The officer investigating Vladimir Tchernavin, a scientist accused of “wrecking” and sabotage, threatened him with death if he refused to confess. At another point, he told him he would get a more “lenient” camp sentence if he confessed. Eventually, he actually begged Tchernavin to give a false confession. “We, the examining officers, are also often forced to lie, we also say things which cannot be entered into the record, and to which we would never sign our names,” his interrogator told him, pleadingly.

In the context of the Inquisition, at least, it is possible to believe in a certain sort of twisted altruism: Being convinced of the truth of the accusation, the inquisitor believes the unrepentant sinner’s soul to be forfeit to Hell. His life is of no account, but the soul can be rescued, if only said sinner can be moved to whole-hearted penitence. In this context, the confession has its own value, and it is clear why it must come from the heretic’s own lips.

Continue reading “Confessions”

The age of victimhood

I recently read Timothy Snyder’s book Bloodlands, a synoptic account of the Nazi and Soviet terror in Eastern Europe in the 1930s and 1940s. Overall, the book disappointed me somewhat. I was expecting something more profoundly original than it actually was. Most of what he had to say would be familiar to anyone who has read the separate histories of the Nazi terror and the Soviet terror. Where comparisons were made, they ofter reminded me of the dadaist antijoke that exists in many forms — all of them fairly arbitrary — going something like “How is the Pope like an orange? Answer: They’re both round, except for the Pope.”

Again and again I felt like Snyder was trying to say, “Look at how similar the Stalinist and Hitler genocides were… They were both racially motivated, except for Stalin. They were both devoted to extracting economic value from the bodies of enemies of the state, except for Hitler.” And so on. At other points he seems committed to pointing out how completely different the two were… except that then he has to admit that they weren’t all that different, and in many respects you can’t even separate them in time and space, or in motivation, as they clearly learned from each other, and in some cases intentionally or unintentionally collaborated.

But one remark impressed me: He pointed out that both Stalin and Hitler obsessively portrayed themselves as victims of their victims. Claiming the mantle of victimhood has become so pervasive as a political strategy — both in domestic affairs within western democracies and in international relations — that it’s hard to remember that it was once considered disgraceful, the last refuge of the pusillanimous. At least, that’s my impression. It would be interesting to see an academic treatise on the history of the victimhood stance.

Hitler famously accused the Jews of dragging an unwilling Germany into war. Stalin accused the starving Ukrainians of anti-Soviet propaganda by blatantly starving. The Germans dressed up prisoners as Polish soldiers (and shot them) to show that the obvious German aggression was really a response to an attack. Of course, the need to play at “just war” has been with us since the advent of Christendom. It’s hard to imagine Alexander the Great caring much about showing that Thracian soldiers had crossed the border first and hurled the first spear. But it’s also hard to imagine Bismarck feeling the need to dress up corpses in French uniforms.

And it wasn’t just the great tyrants. One of the most chilling passages that Snyder quotes comes from a German officer writing to his wife about the difficulties he had slaughtering Jewish children, who “flew in great arcs, and we shot them to pieces in the air”. But then he thought of his own children, and that perversely steeled his nerves: “I kept in mind that I have two infants at home, whom these hordes would treat just the same, if not ten times worse.”

If there is any application of this principle to contemporary events in any lands that formerly rhymed with Calamine, I can’t imagine what it might be. I remember, when we were living in Canada, reading an article in the newspaper about a recommendation by a panel of Quebec historians that the teaching of Quebec history in schools should be rethought to be more positive, less emphasis on the quebecois as perennial losers. I thought that was a great move, and would bode well for Quebec and for Canada as a whole if it were adopted. In the long term. There’s power in being a victim, until there isn’t, until the moment when it suddenly tips over into being pathetic.

How long is forever? Capitalist and Communist perspectives

I was struck by a comment in Kalefa Sanneh’s fascinating review of several new books on the economics of the entertainment industry. Discussing Anita Elberse’s book Blockbusters: Hit-making, Risk-taking, and the Big Business of Entertainment, and the argument that the obsession with finding isolated major hits rather than the profits to be made in the “Long Tail”,  Sanneh writes

In the seventies and eighties the hit men worried mainly about each other, but the rise of digital delivery means that their modern-day successors must also contend with a more existential threat… Betting on blockbusters might be a defensive strategy: a way for established entertainment companies to stall the larger forces eroding their “channel power”, at least for a while. Unlike the old hit men, Elberse’s executives can’t assume that their industries will be around forever.

This got me to marvelling, once again, at how short a time forever is, in human experience. (This was a major theme of one of my small excursuses into academic literary criticism, the essay Kafka’s Geometry.) The “old hit men” are only 30 years or so in the past. I suppose “around forever” could mean here “around until the end of their careers”, and this would just about be right. But it seems logically inevitable that if workers toiling in the modern entertainment industry have reason to doubt that it will be around forever, then those of 30 years ago were simply deluded to think that their industry’s future was assured. It’s the same future. It makes as much sense as it would to explain ones teenage behaviour by saying, “Back then I was going to live forever.” You might say this, but only as a joke, or as an expression of amazement at your earlier delusion. (Speaking for myself, I was never immortal, and I doubt that anyone was. It looks to me as though teenagers may not care about the consequences of their actions, for reasons good and bad, and they may have difficulty inhibiting their impulses if they do care, but the research I am aware of does not suggest that they actually feel invulnerable.) Continue reading “How long is forever? Capitalist and Communist perspectives”

East-west school gap in Germany

I’ll admit it. When I saw the Spiegel headline warning of an “alarming performance gap in maths and science between pupils in East and West”, I assumed this was just another one of those depressing reports on the economic failure of the poor Ossis. But no:

The East has the top pupils: Saxony and Thüringen lead in the national school comparison in maths and science. The losers are the city-states [Bremen, Hamburg, and Berlin] and North-Rhine Westfalia [the largest state, in the West]. Pupils there are as much as 2 years behind.

[Der Osten hat die Musterschüler: Sachsen und Thüringen führen beim bundesweiten Schulvergleich in Mathematik und Naturwissenschaften. Schlusslichter sind die Stadtstaaten und NRW. Dort liegen Schüler um bis zu zwei Jahre zurück.]

The five states comprising the former East Germany are the five leaders (out of 16) in biology, chemistry, and physics, and are among the top six on the mathematics test (with only Bavaria sneaking in to third place.

So, nearly 25 years after reunification, can it be that we’re seeing the continuing cultural effect of the positive Russian and East European influence on East German education, in particular their cultivation of and respect for mathematics?