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.)

The world’s easiest job

In six US states — Arizona, Idaho, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, and South Dakota — pharmacists are permitted to refuse to fill prescriptions to which they have moral or religious objections. In Idaho they can still be required to fill the prescription in life-threatening situations if no one else is available, and in Arizona they must at least return the prescription so they can get it filled from another pharmacist. In the other four, apparently they don’t even have to do that much.

So, I’m thinking, there’s hardly an easier job that Christian Scientists, in the last four states particularly, if they’re looking for easy work should apply to pharmacies. No matter what prescription anyone brings to them they can toss it in the bin and go back to playing solitaire, or reading the works of Mary Baker Eddy.

(You may think they’d have difficulties getting hired, and they may indeed have to acquire some formal qualifications. No lunch is completely free, though presumably they can obtain religious exemptions from most of the requirements of their course. But the drug store can’t refuse to hire them on religious grounds.)

The theosophy of Trump’s valets

“Il existe quelqu’un de pire que le bourreau, c’est son valet.”
— Mirabeau
There is someone more horrible than the hangman, and that is his servant.

For all the epic pathology of the Trump character spewing itself onto the stage of world affairs, one of his undoubted successes has been the ability to find lieutenants who are more depraved than the mad king himself, or are willing to learn to mimic and then exceed his madness. (It was almost amusing, in this regard, to read that White House staff mimic his lapses of grammar, spelling, and logical coherence in writing tweets in his name.
Now we have, after Trump tweeted a gratuitous insult of the Canadian prime minister, this comment by Trump’s trade adviser Peter Navarro:

There’s a special place in hell for any foreign leader that engages in bad faith diplomacy with President Donald J. Trump and then tries to stab him in the back on the way out the door.

The thing is, of all the insane boasts coming out of the White House, this is probably one of the more credible. I believe that there is a special place in Hell expressly for enemies of Donald Trump. At least, he surely has the right connections to get it set up. It probably looks just like any other Trump property, except that… Actually, probably no difference. The Trump Tartarus. Has a nice ring to it.

Brush up your Plato, start quoting him now

… at least, if you want to get recognised as religiously persecuted for your humanism.

This looks like a parody of English pseudo-education mixed with English xenophobia:

A Pakistani man who renounced his Muslim faith and became a humanist has had his application for asylum in the UK rejected after failing to correctly answer questions about ancient Greek philosophers.

The Home Office said Hamza bin Walayat’s failure to identify Plato and Aristotle as humanist philosophers indicated his knowledge of humanism was “rudimentary at best”.

My guess is that he wanted to say he was an atheist, but recognised that that would subject him to discrimination here as well as in Pakistan, so he resorted to the more erudite-sounding term “humanist”, only to run into the buzzsaw of a classicist manqué.

Bearing your cross to Cadbury

The Church of England wants people to know the true meaning of Christian faith, which is, apparently, chocolate eggs. Official church spokesmen have attacked Cadbury’s and the National Trust for conducting “egg hunts” without mentioning Easter. It’s just like when Peter denied his Lord three times, and then left his name off the adverts for his Galilee fish shop.

The chocolate-maker retorts “it clearly used the word Easter on its packaging and in its marketing”, and no greater love hath a man than to use his suffering and death in packaging and marketing. But the Archbishop of York* says that’s not enough:

The Archbishop of York said calling the event the Cadbury Egg Hunt was like “spitting on the grave” of the firm’s Christian founder, John Cadbury… He said if people were to visit Cadbury World in Birmingham “they will discover how Cadbury’s Christian faith influenced his industrial output.”

I think we can all agree that Easter is a time for all Christian believers to reflect on industrial output.

And despite the politically correct marketing gobbledegook of the Cadbury’s representatives — “We invite people from all faiths and none to enjoy our seasonal treats” — it is appropriate to expect that people should think of the Church of England when looking at a hollow shell stuffed with unhealthful, cloyingly sweet goo.

I’m reminded of the stories I heard from East Germany about attempts to rechristen the Christmas tree to Jahresendbaum [end-of-year tree] and the traditional angel on top to Jahresendflügelpuppe [end-of-year winged doll]. Christmas itself was supposed to be called Fest des Friedens [festival of peace]. I’m not sure if these were jokes, or whether they referred to genuine government initiatives — maybe both — but here is one report of these designations actually being used, and even compulsory.

* This statement really should have come from the Archbishop of Cadbury…

“Who would believe this?”

This comment from Trump’s rally to launch his 2020 reelection campaign has gotten a lot of attention:

You look at what’s happening in Germany, you look at what’s happening. Last night in Sweden. Sweden, who would believe this? Sweden. They took in large numbers. They’re having problems like they never thought possible.

(I’ve repunctuated from my source, since “You look at what’s happening last night in Sweden” doesn’t work grammatically.) Narrow-minded commenters have obsessed over the fact that nothing out of the ordinary happened in Sweden. (Not than anyone has presented proof that nothing happened…) But he didn’t say anything unusual happened. All he did was to ask “who would believe this?” They took in large numbers. TRUE! It’s a testimony of faith that “they’re having problems like they never thought possible”. Every day, including last night. Trump is inviting the elect to testify to their belief. “Belief” is considered a good thing in church, why not in politics? John McCain, at least, is on the same page:

“Can Americans be confident that a Republican-controlled Congress can investigate this President thoroughly if necessary?” Chuck Todd asked McCain on NBC News’ “Meet the Press.”

“I hope so and I have to believe so,” McCain said. “More hope than belief.”

We have to believe! We believe in congressional action unseen. Just because you’re in the Senate does not mean that you are responsible for causing the action to occur. It will happen. We just have to believe.

Don Quixote on sampling bias

Continuing my series on modern themes that were already thoroughly treated in Don Quixote, here is the passage where Don Quixote and Sancho Panza discuss whether it is better to be a knight errant or a monk:

“Señor, it is better to be an humble little friar of no matter what order, than a valiant knight-errant; with God a couple of dozen of penance lashings are of more avail than two thousand lance-thrusts, be they given to giants, or monsters, or dragons.”

“All that is true,” returned Don Quixote, “but we cannot all be friars, and many are the ways by which God takes his own to heaven; chivalry is a religion, there are sainted knights in glory.”

“Yes,” said Sancho, “but I have heard say that there are more friars in heaven than knights-errant.”

“That,” said Don Quixote, “is because those in religious orders are more numerous than knights.”

Cervantes on objectification of women

For those inclined to be too optimistic about the pace of progress in recognising the validity of female perspectives — the way an objectifying male perspective has been perniciously treated as a default and inherently valid — I note that Cervantes in Don Quixote made this point more than four centuries ago. In satirising the tradition of courtly pickup artists who stalk their fair damsels remorselessly, Cervantes allows a woman to speak at the funeral of a man whose friends furiously attribute his death to her “cruelty” in rejecting his advances:

Heaven has made me, so you say, beautiful, and so much so that in spite of yourselves my beauty leads you to love me; and for the love you show me you say, and even urge, that I am bound to love you. By that natural understanding which God has given me I know that everything beautiful attracts love, but I cannot see how, by reason of being loved, that which is loved for its beauty is bound to love that which loves it; besides, it may happen that the lover of that which is beautiful may be ugly, and ugliness being detestable, it is very absurd to say, “I love thee because thou art beautiful, thou must love me though I be ugly.” But supposing the beauty equal on both sides, it does not follow that the inclinations must be therefore alike, for it is not every beauty that excites love, some but pleasing the eye without winning the affection; and if every sort of beauty excited love and won the heart, the will would wander vaguely to and fro unable to make choice of any; for as there is an infinity of beautiful objects there must be an infinity of inclinations, and true love, I have heard it said, is indivisible, and must be voluntary and not compelled. If this be so, as I believe it to be, why do you desire me to bend my will by force, for no other reason but that you say you love me? Nay–tell me–had Heaven made me ugly, as it has made me beautiful, could I with justice complain of you for not loving me?

I am reminded of the joke about the holy warrior who is struck down at last after many grim battles. He arrives in the afterlife and is ushered into a room where waits a plain woman who proceeds to abuse him verbally and physically. “Lord,” he shouts out, “I expected, for all my service, that I would be rewarded with a beautiful virgin when I was carried off to heaven.” And the woman says, “Heaven? You’re not in Heaven. I’m in Hell.”

Backgrounds

A British politician gave a brave speech a few days ago, defying political correctness to name a pressing problem of British society that most would rather ignore. He said,

There is a danger in some of our communities that you can go your whole life and have little to do with people from other… backgrounds.

The prime minister’s response to this attack on his isolated Etonian upbringing was… no, wait, that was the prime minister himself who said it. And the words I left out — “other faiths and backgrounds” — make clear that he’s talking about Muslims. (He could also be talking about the insular Hasidic communities of London, but he’s probably not.) Those are the people in need of integration.

Sikh and ye shall find

… a primary school place.

Apparently the government’s decision to wipe out new school construction and put huge amounts of the remaining schools budget into independently run “free schools” has led to some unexpected consequences:

More than 20 pupils have been allocated places at a Sikh-ethos free school in Leeds that they did not choose, amid a shortage of school places.

The school is not a faith school, but it is run with a Sikh ethos.

As someone with a child who had little option but to attend a Church of England school, that really was a “faith school” — secular options were much further away, even if they did have places — I wonder what the fuss was about.

On its website, the Khalsa Free School stresses it is not a faith school, adding: “We are firmly committed to developing our pupils’ understanding and appreciation of the diverse world in which they live.” It says: “We welcome all children regardless of their backgrounds or faiths and we aim to help all our children develop a lifelong love of learning, which will support them throughout their academic careers and beyond.” 
“For Sikhs, education not only prepares students for work and life in society but also supports spiritual growth. Education is understood by Sikhs to raise aspirations and personal standards, encourage self-awareness and humility, and inspire all to seek a greater purpose in life.”

Humility! Purpose! No wonder parents are outraged. What impact will self-awareness have on lifetime earnings? How will humility help them get in to Cambridge? Where is the acknowledgement of the divine imperative to maximise test scores?