In the mail today, from a recent acquaintance, came a link to an excellent, informative, and even-handed article on inequality, social mobility, and the heritability of advantageous traits. The author is an Englishman named Toby Young, and he zeroes in nicely on the serious question one comes to once one has hacked through the thorny ideological thicket surrounding these topics. (The article seems to have been making the rounds; I see it was mentioned also in the latest Radio Derb.)

The question is one of justice: if innate (i.e. genetic and heritable) qualities such as intelligence and behavioral dispositions (the latter including time preference, conscientiousness, etc.) are causative with regard to socioeconomic status, and given that nobody does anything to deserve these inherited advantages, but simply acquires them as if by lottery, then how are the resulting natural inequalities ethically justifiable? If they are not justifiable, then what ought to be done about them?

Note that this is a far subtler question than what usually goes on in Left-Right political debate, in which the assumptions are either that:

A) All social and economic inequalities are arbitrary cultural injustices imposed by the strong upon the weak, and reflect no innate differences whatsoever, just contingent imbalances of power;

B) Such inequalities naturally reflect the differences in life outcomes between those who strive for the classical virtues of industry, thrift, self-discipline, etc., and those who don’t, with the difference being entirely a matter of voluntary choice.

These assumptions, and similar others, are the roots of that “ideological thicket” mentioned above. But it is increasingly clear that both of these blank-slatist viewpoints are largely false, and that how we do in life depends to a great extent upon our genetic inheritance. This is not to say that cultural and environmental factors aren’t important — they most certainly are — but it might be most accurate to say that our innate qualities set the upper limit of our potential, while environment, culture, “nurture”, and other externalities determine how likely we are to fulfill that potential.

Early on, the author offers a brief for meritocracy:

As Friedrich Hayek and others have pointed out, the difficulty with end-state equality is that it can only be achieved at too great a human cost. Left to their own devices, some men will inevitably accumulate more wealth than others, whether through ability or luck, and the only way to “correct” this is through the state’s use of coercive power. If the history of the twentieth century teaches us anything, it is that the dream of creating a socialist utopia often leads to the suppression of free speech, the imprisonment of a significant percentage of the population and, in some extreme cases, state-organised mass murder.

Having said that, I recognise that a lack of social mobility poses a threat to the sustainability of liberal democracies and, in common with many others, believe the solution lies in improving our education systems. There is a consensus among most participants in the debate about education reform that the ideal schools are those that manage to eliminate the attainment gap between the children of the rich and the poor. That is, an education system in which children’s exam results don’t vary according to the neighbourhood they’ve grown up in, the income or education of their parents, or the number of books in the family home. Interestingly, there is a reluctance on the part of many liberal educationalists to accept the corollary of this, which is that attainment in these ideal schools would correspond much more strongly with children’s natural abilities. This is partly because it doesn’t sit well with their egalitarian instincts and partly because they reject the idea that intelligence has a genetic basis. But I’m less troubled by this. I want the clever, hard-working children of those in the bottom half of income distribution to move up, and the less able children of those in the top half to move down.

In other words, I think the answer is more meritocracy. I approve of the principle … because it helps to secure people’s consent to the inequalities that are the inevitable consequence of limited government. It does this by (a) allocating wealth and prestige in a way that appears to be fair; and (b) creating opportunities for those born on the wrong side of the tracks, so if you start with very little that doesn’t mean you’ll end up with very little, or that your children will. If you think a free society is preferable to one dominated by the state, and the unequal distribution of wealth is an inevitable consequence of reining in state power, then you should embrace the principle of meritocracy for making limited government sustainable.

Good so far. But if your success depends upon your genes, and your genes are inherited, how is that any different from inheriting high status directly?

This is an argument against meritocracy made by John Rawls in A Theory of Justice (1971): You’ve done nothing to deserve the talents you’re born with—they’re distributed according to a “natural lottery”—so you don’t deserve what flows from them.

…Now, Rawls’s argument isn’t a knock-down objection to meritocracy. For one thing, it’s too deterministic. Great wealth doesn’t simply “flow” from an abundance of natural gifts. A considerable amount of effort is also involved, and rewarding that effort does seem fair, even if some people are born with stronger willpower and a greater aptitude for hard work than others. Nevertheless, there’s a “gearing” difficulty—because some people are more gifted than others, the same amount of effort will reap different rewards, depending on their natural endowments.

Perhaps, but if attitude is as heritable as aptitude, then Rawls’s objection still stands, it seems to me. Mr. Young understands this too, and so he looks at another angle:

There’s another, more fundamental problem with Rawls’s argument, which is that it conflates desert with entitlement. A person may not deserve his or her wealth in a meritocratic society, but that doesn’t mean they’re not entitled to it. That’s a separate question that turns on how it was accumulated. As Robert Nozick points out in Anarchy, State and Utopia (1974), provided a person’s acquisition of wealth hasn’t involved violating anyone else’s rights, they’re entitled to keep it and bequeath it to their children. The standard that Rawls judges meritocracy by is unrealistically high. Throughout history, people’s status has rarely, if ever, been deserved. Even supposing it was possible to reach agreement about how to measure desert, it would require an all-powerful state to ensure that wealth and prestige were distributed according to that metric and, as with end-state equality, we’d end up paying too high a price in terms of liberty.

Putting aside the issue about whether a meritocratic society is any fairer than the one we live in at present—or fairer than an aristocratic society—it’s hard to argue that it isn’t more efficient. All things being equal, a country’s economy will grow faster, its public services will be run better, its politicians will make smarter decisions, diseases are more likely to be eradicated, if the people at the top possess the most cognitive ability.

Young makes a very good point here: even if we were able to strip away entirely the concept of ‘desert’ (which would be, by the way, completely alien to our nature, and in my opinion would be fatally corrosive to the well-being of any human society), there are still sound and practical reasons to prefer meritocracy.

Next, Young draws our attention to another problem: that a pure meritocracy — that is, a society with free social mobility based entirely on merit — will be susceptible to increasingly rigid stratification, due to assortative mating and the departure of superior genes from the lower to the upper strata. This is exactly the effect I described in a post back in May, in which I discussed the Tulsa race riots of 1921. The point I made then was that prior to the civil-rights era, one reason that black communities were so much less dysfunctional than they are now is that there was nowhere for their best genomes to depart to — whereas now they can, and do, get up and out. This continuous “boiling off” of the genetically advantaged from these poor communities has the unwelcome effect of “concentrating” the underclass in the ghettos they leave behind.

What, then, is to be done? Mr. Young refers to a novel his father wrote in 1958, called The Rise of the Meritocracy:

In the end, the new social order he describes isn’t sustainable because there’s too little mobility in a mature meritocracy. Those at the bottom of the pyramid don’t simply resent having to eke out a living in menial, low-paying jobs, while the elite live in luxury; they resent being told that they deserve their inferior status. They also dislike the fact that their children have very little chance of rising to the top. The upshot is that they join forces with a dissident element in the ruling class and revolt, overthrowing the meritocratic elite in a bloody coup.

Could this happen in the advanced societies of the West? Is it fanciful to detect traces of this beginning to happen already in the “Occupy” movements, with their rhetoric against “the one per cent” and the popularity of insurgent, left-wing political parties in Greece and Spain? Let’s assume for the sake of argument that it could and it would lead to all the unspeakable horrors that most other egalitarian revolutions have resulted in. What can we do to prevent it? How can this shortcoming of meritocratic societies be corrected without straying too far from the principle of limited government?

(I have a feeling Mr. Young’s father may have read a book by Lothrop Stoddard called The Revolt Against Civilization (1922), which describes exactly this process, and quite a lot more.)

But what, then, is to be done? After pausing briefly to float the idea of a guaranteed basic income (something we will surely be hearing more about as AI and robotics displace more and more workers, without any new industries appearing on the horizon for them to join), Mr. Young takes up a topic that was a favorite of the Progressives of Stoddard’s era: eugenics. He gives it a 21st-century spin, however:

I’m more interested in the potential of a technology that hasn’t been invented yet: genetically engineered intelligence.[22] As with so many of the ideas explored in this article, this crops up in my father’s book, where it takes the form of “controlled mutations in the genetic constitution of the unborn … induced by radiation so as to raise the level of intelligence”. This technology is still in its infancy in 2033, with successful experiments only carried out on “the lower animals”, but another version of it may be available sooner in the real world—within the next five or ten years, if the scientists are to be believed.

I’m thinking in particular of the work being done by Stephen Hsu, Vice-President for Research and Professor of Theoretical Physics at Michigan State University. He is a founder of BGI’s Cognitive Genomics Lab. BGI, China’s top bio-tech institute, is working to discover the genetic basis for IQ. Hsu and his collaborators are studying the genomes of thousands of highly intelligent people in pursuit of some of the perhaps 10,000 genetic variants affecting IQ. Hsu believes that within ten years machine learning applied to large genomic datasets will make it possible for parents to screen embryos in vitro and select the most intelligent one to implant.

Geoffrey Miller, an evolutionary psychologist at New York University, describes how the process would work:

Any given couple could potentially have several eggs fertilized in the lab with the dad’s sperm and the mom’s eggs. Then you can test multiple embryos and analyze which one’s going to be the smartest. That kid would belong to that couple as if they had it naturally, but it would be the smartest a couple would be able to produce if they had 100 kids. It’s not genetic engineering or adding new genes, it’s the genes that couples already have.

It’s worth repeating this last point, because it deals with one of the main reservations people will have about this procedure: these couples wouldn’t be creating a super-human in a laboratory, but choosing the smartest child from the range of all the possible children they could have. Nevertheless, this could have a decisive impact. “This might mean the difference between a child who struggles in school, and one who is able to complete a good university degree,” says Hsu.

My proposal is this: once this technology becomes available, why not offer it free of charge to parents on low incomes with below-average IQs? Provided there is sufficient take-up, it could help to address the problem of flat-lining inter-generational social mobility and serve as a counterweight to the tendency for the meritocratic elite to become a hereditary elite. It might make all the difference when it comes to the long-term sustainability of advanced meritocratic societies.

Mr. Young continues:

Hsu’s solution is to make it freely available to everyone, but that would only help to prevent it making existing inequalities even worse. After all, if people from all classes used it in exactly the same proportions, all you’d succeed in doing would be to increase the average IQ of each class, thereby preserving the gap between them. Wouldn’t it be better to limit its use to disadvantaged parents with low IQs? That way, it could be used as a tool to reduce inequality.

… In a sense, what I’m suggesting is a form of redistribution, except the commodity being redistributed is above-average intelligence rather than wealth. This is a way of significantly reducing end-state inequality that should be acceptable to conservatives (at least, non-religious conservatives) because it doesn’t involve the use of coercive state power. Participation would be entirely voluntary. Let’s call this policy “g-galitarianism”. (For those unfamiliar with the jargon, “g” is commonly used by psychologists and geneticists to stand for “general factor of cognitive ability” and is often used as a synonym for “IQ”. It was first given this designation by Charles Spearman, a British army officer, at the turn of the last century.)

A lot of the resistance to this idea will come from a visceral dislike of anything that smacks of eugenics, for understandable historical reasons. But the main objection to eugenics, at least in the form it usually takes, is that it involves discriminating against disadvantaged groups, whether minorities or people with disabilities. What I’m proposing is a form of eugenics that would discriminate in favour of the disadvantaged. I’m not suggesting we improve the genetic stock of an entire race, just the least well off. This is a kind of eugenics that should appeal to liberals—progressive eugenics.

Forgive me if I seem, well, dour, but here I must part company with Mr. Young. I have nothing, really, against eugenics — I don’t reflexively recoil from the idea the way all good and thoughtful people do in the postwar era (and as almost none of them did before the war). Mind you, there are moral and immoral ways to go about it, from assortative mating to extermination camps — but the idea itself is not unreasonable, and it’s hard not to see some upside to humans becoming, on average, smarter, stronger, more attractive, less impulsive, more conscientious, and so on. But here are my quibbles with Mr. Young’s idea:

First, the process he imagines involves a) planning to have a child, b) donating sperm and ova, c) waiting patiently while multiple conceptions take place and the resulting embryos are assayed, and finally, d) selecting the “pick of the litter” according to complex criteria. (One pup may be better at spatial perception, another at music, another more inclined to low time-preference, another might have the nicest teeth, hair, and cheekbones, yet another capable of reliably placing a two-seam fastball at the outside edge of the strike-zone, and so on.) But does doing all of this not already involve all of the things we are supposedly trying to select for, such as intelligence, low impulsiveness, future time orientation, and so on? Do we really think the underclass we are trying to improve will sit still for this?

Second, there is still the matter of differential birth-rates. Elites in all of the developed world are now having children at far below replacement levels. While we are busy convincing the teeming masses of the global underclass suddenly to reproduce by appointment, will we focus also on reducing their fecundity?

Third, Mr. Young proposes that the use of this technology be limited to “disadvantaged parents with low IQs”. In other words, there will be a method out there by which parents can improve the quality of their offspring ab initio, before they even begin to pour other resources into the child — and the rich and powerful aren’t going to find a way to take advantage of it? Not in this world, I’m afraid. All you’ll do is create a black market, or a brisk business in foreign countries.

Fourth, it’s nice to reduce inequality, but the idea — to lift the bottom while holding down the top — is the same as focusing educational resources solely upon the slowest learners, at the expense of the gifted. If we are getting into this business at all, don’t we want to elevate the peak of human potential as high as we can? We humans face an awful lot of difficult, perhaps existential problems, and they won’t be solved by those who have been lifted from imbecility to mediocrity, but rather by whatever geniuses and visionaries future generations can manage to produce.

Fifth, there are going to be a great many Americans who will see as inherently immoral the deliberate creation of millions of human lives fated only to be destroyed once they fail to “make the cut”. It’s nothing to some people, but to others it’s mass murder.

Sixth, I think this whole discussion focuses on what will be only a brief and intermediate stage of technical advancement. The field known as “synthetic biology” is advancing exponentially, and what will soon be possible is to skip all the dice-rolling described in this article — creating a litter of embryos at random and then picking the best of the lot — and get right down to designing your little Mozart or Newton, as it were, à la carte. No waste, no muss, no fuss.

Finally, as long as we are looking ahead at the future of genetic engineering, there’s another topic that is, most likely, even more fraught with world-altering potential: aging and mortality. Forget eugenics: what’s going to happen when we unlock the key to immortality? What will happen to the stratification of society once that genie’s out of the bottle?

That’s more than enough for now, I think. “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.”

Read Mr. Young’s article here. It’s well worth your time.

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Trust: Our Strength, Our Fatal Weakness

The indefatigable JK has posted a link, in one of our recent comment threads, to an outstanding article that deserves promotion to the front page: an in-depth look at high- and low-trust societies and how they got that way. Read it here.

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Cassandra’s Blues

In the New York public-transportation system there’s an ad campaign that features the slogan “If you see something, say something!” Its motive is unabashedly conservative: it seeks to make the community sensitive, and responsive, to existential threats. The problem is that such threats can take familiar forms that are easy to overlook, especially in a trusting society.

If you see something, say something: words to live by, if you ask me. I don’t ride the transit system much these days, as I work from home and am away from the city much of the time, so I’m not on the lookout for abandoned backpacks and bulging burqas. But I do pay very close attention to the passing foreign and domestic charivari, and by now I know enough about the past to have a solid baseline for comparison with current trends — and so I see a lot of “somethings”.

In other words, I have the “sensitive” part covered pretty well. What’s harder to get right, apparently, is “responsive”. I have it on good authority — from friends, relatives, readers, correspondents, and commenters — that I am “dour”. This is not to say that I am cheerless — to the contrary, I’m a mighty funny guy, the life of the party, and I enjoy my life immensely — but apparently, when a subject such as politics, culture, foreign affairs, history, climate, race relations, guns, etc., comes up, the things I say seem a little gloomy — and, even worse, entirely out of step with the way I’m expected to be thinking about such things (to the extent that most people really want to think deeply about them at all).

It’s a bit of a pickle. Do you point out the ticking parcel under the railway seat, or that the motorman seems to be asleep, and is running the red signals? But everyone’s so enjoying the ride, merrily chatting away, and imagining all the fun that awaits at their destination. Do you really want to be the one who ruins that jolly mood? You can be sure that nobody’s going to thank you for it.

On the other hand, that parcel really is ticking rather loudly now. How can it be that the others don’t hear it?

Oh dear. One hardly knows what to do.

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Rights For Robots?

In today’s Physorg.com newsletter (which I recommend again to you all), we find a link to the following story:

Incident of drunk man kicking humanoid robot raises legal questions

We read:

A few weeks ago, a drunk man in Japan was arrested for kicking a humanoid robot that was stationed as a greeter at a SoftBank, Corp., store, which develops the robots. According to the police report, the man said he was angry at the attitude of one of the store clerks. The “Pepper robot” now moves more slowly, and its internal computer system may have been damaged.

Under current Japanese law, the man can be charged with damage to property, but not injury, since injury is a charge reserved for humans. Dr. Yueh-Hsuan Weng, who is cofounder of the ROBOLAW.ASIA Initiative at Peking University in China, and former researcher of the Humanoid Robotics Institute at Waseda University in Japan, thinks a better charge lies somewhere in between.

This is, in my opinion, deeply confused, and is an artifact of the novelty, in our evolutionary context, of biological, and especially humanoid, simulacra. The point has been made again and again (see, for example, here, and perhaps most effectively of all, here).

My argument is simple:

1) “Injury”, as opposed to mere “damage”, implies suffering.

2) Suffering requires consciousness.

3) Robots, for now at least, are not conscious.

4) Robots cannot suffer.


5) Robots cannot be “injured”.


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Go Figure

Well, it looks like Hurricane Joaquin is going to give the mainland a miss. That means a remarkable streak will continue: it’s been almost ten years since a major hurricane last struck the continental United States, higher levels of CO2 notwithstanding.

Just sayin’.

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A Plague Of Unicorns

We’ve all been hearing about the scandal at Volkswagen, in which the company installed “cheater” software that restricted emissions only during testing. The CEO, Martin Winterkorn, has resigned in disgrace, reviled by all goodthinkful people.

The software cheat was a crazy move, because it was bound to be discovered sooner or later. Why would the chief executive of a sterling brand like Volkswagen — it would be hard to imagine a more stable and successful manufacturer — risk everything on such a foolhardy gamble?

A recent article from The Week might help us to understand:

Volkswagen has apparently been deliberately and flagrantly cheating on its nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions for years. How the car giant thought it could get away with this scam boggles the mind. There is no way to describe its actions other than stupid, arrogant, and probably criminal.

But here’s the thing: The whole episode should call as much attention to the Environmental Protection Agency’s unrealistic, even crazy, car emissions standards — the toughest in the world — as VW’s flouting of them. Indeed, VW’s scam might be a harbinger of things to come if the EPA itself is not curbed.

When you place people in impossible situations — when you demand that they do what cannot be done, and give them the choice between compliance and survival — they will do desperate, and often criminal, things. (Other automakers may have taken similar measures.)

Another example that you may remember: the Atlanta test-scores scandal, in which teachers and school administrators were told that their continued employment depended upon getting their students to meet arbitrary (and non-negotiable) goals on standardized tests. To make such a demand is symptomatic of the fashionable but hallucinatory dogma of absolute human universalism, which assumes that any and every difference in educational outcomes depends entirely on factors exogenous to the students themselves — an assumption that, to anyone not infected by this historically unexampled mind-virus, is obviously false. That it was false was clear enough to Atlanta’s wretched educators, who, unable to spin straw into gold, and faced with the loss of their livelihood as a result, did what you and I might also have done: they cheated. No doubt they knew it was risky, but they were in a bit of a cleft stick, through no fault of their own.

Churchill said: “If you have ten thousand regulations you destroy all respect for the law.” The Federal Register now has upwards of 75,000 pages.

You can read the Volkswagen article here. We note also, from yesterday’s news, that the EPA is at it again.

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Roll, Potomack!

Here’s a tart (and uncharacteristically brief) item by Mencius Moldbug that, despite being several years old, seems apropos.

Natura Abhorret A Vacuo

Big day in the Mideast: now that the Iranian deal is done, Russia is swiftly consolidating its control over Syria, and is demanding that we leave. As reported in the Jerusalem Post, the Russians are busily establishing a secure zone in the eastern Mediterranean. It appears that they are also mounting airstrikes, but not against ISIS. (Russia, of course, doesn’t care two pins about ISIS, except as a threat to its clients’ interests — and as far as the Kremlin is concerned, increasing the flow of migrants into Europe is a welcome lagniappe.)

Clearly this is all a well-planned push to establish, in coordination with Iran, a stable and controlling Russian presence in the region, including defense of the Assad regime. (That would be the same Assad regime that Barack Obama, speaking at the U.N. yesterday, said “had to go”.)

Meanwhile, with the world surely hanging on his words, our Secretary of Defense, Ashton Carter, gave a press conference today. He spoke about budget cuts, and expanding combat roles for women.

More tea, Vicar?

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Here’s another story from the Times, and for me, it’s a mighty sad one:

The Music May Stop at a Storied Manhattan Studio

The facility in question is Avatar Studios, which has for almost forty years been one of the finest recording studios in the world. It is now up for sale, and if history is any guide (and readers of this blog will know that I believe it usually is), it will soon be replaced by luxury apartments. It’s already dodged this bullet once, back in the mid-90’s, and it isn’t likely to be so lucky now.

The news is particularly painful to me because I was a staff engineer there from 1978 until 1987, back when it was still called Power Station. There I learned the record-maker’s craft under the tutelage of some of the greatest engineers of the era — Tony Bongiovi, Neil Dorfsman, Scott Litt, Larry Alexander, Phil Ramone, and the incomparable mixer Bob Clearmountain, whose apprentice I was for more than a year. As exemplars of the art of production I had, as well as the men I’ve just mentioned, Nile Rodgers, Tony Visconti, Jack Douglas, Jim Steinman, Mike Mainieri, Arif Mardin, Manfred Eicher, Roy Thomas Baker, and many, many others. With three or four rooms running at any given time, the place in its heyday was a 24-hour salon for the world’s premier recording artists, and all of us in the engineering staff were fortunate enough to work on many of the most memorable projects of the age. Any one of has stories that would fill a book. (Perhaps I should think about that!)

Power Station had the best of everything: revolutionary acoustic spaces, the best consoles (Neve and SSL) that money could buy, live reverberation chambers, Studer multitracks, hundreds of Neumann and other top-end microphones, and a vast assortment of outboard gear (including, for you audio geeks, 24 channels of Pultec tube equalizers in each control room). The holdings diminished gradually after the place was sold in ’96, but the new owners, the Imamuras, held on to as much of it all as they could for the studio’s second incarnation as Avatar, and to this day Studio A remains the best tracking room in New York, if not anywhere.

I hope against hope that this historic studio will find an angel to buy and preserve it, but I am not optimistic: the economic realities of modern recording, in which acoustic spaces and analog consoles can now be modeled on a laptop, are simply overwhelming this time around, I fear.

Perhaps, Readers, if we all chipped in…

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1529, 1683, 2015

Here’s a headline from the New York Times:

Rise of Austrian Right Lengthens Shadow of Nazi Era

The article comments on the rise in Austria of anti-immigrant sentiment. What is remarkable, although not surprising, is that the entire continuum of political opinion on the question of immigration and and of the ethnic and religious composition of European nations has now been reduced, editorially, to a binary, Manichaean choice: either you signal, proudly and loudly, that you believe these questions should be of no importance to any right-thinking person, or you are, not to put too fine a point on it, a Nazi.

It needn’t have come to this. Had Europe followed a less aggressively xenophilic and oikophobic immigration policy over the past several decades — even along the same lines, but tempered by sensible and cautious moderation — moral virtue might still have been signaled at acceptable levels by the ethnomasochistic and culturally self-abnegating Left, while reactionary elements would have had nothing much to feed on. But the accelerating displacement of European ethnies by Muslim migrants had already got to the point where even ordinary people had started to have misgivings, and nativism had already begun to exert a gathering political influence throughout the Continent — and so this latest wave of “refugees” falls upon a European polity already awakened to its existential peril, and concerned enough to react.

Naturally, this reaction now provokes a counter-reaction by those in charge, using what has been their weapon of choice since the dawn of the Puritan era: public shaming (supported, in modern Europe, by whatever thoughtcrime and “hate-speech” statutes they can bring to bear). But shaming is only effective when the offender feels himself to be one against many; it is most effective of all when the would-be heretic has so internalized the social Panopticon that his heresy is snuffed out before it even rises to the level of speech. All it takes for the system to collapse, though, is for enough people to say what multitudes of others are thinking (and, in many cases, have been thinking for years), and that is exactly what is happening now in Europe. As this tension reaches a crisis, we should naturally expect the shaming-weapon, in desperation, to be switched from “Stun” to “Kill” — and so dissent is now made equal to Nazism, or infinite evil. (Hitler occupies an interesting position in the West’s modern, secular religion: there is no longer any God or Christ to represent infinite Good, but in a roundabout, apophatic way we can still have our sense of the transcendent by using the infinitely evil Hitler as something resembling Christ’s antiparticle.)

The article’s author, with blithe and unintended irony, said this:

The Freedom Party’s strident anti-Islam message seems to have struck a chord in a city whose palaces speak of the bygone glory of a multiethnic European empire, and whose public spaces now attest to increasing diversity and a Muslim population of some 12 percent.

What a thing to say about Vienna, of all places! That “bygone empire” existed only because it was able, twice, to survive besiegement by the very people, and the very religion, that bid fair to overwhelm it now. This fact, though apparently lost on the Times, has not, despite appearances, been forgotten in Europe.

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Well, we’re back. It had been decades since I’d been to Vienna, and I’d forgotten what a lovely city it is. Gracious, orderly, and physically beautiful, it is a perfect embodiment of the sublime cultural achievements of a great civilization at its apex. (That apex is of course long past, but for now the order, the culture, and the beauty remain.)

Istanbul, where we had never been, was fascinating too, of course, and certainly beautiful as well, if not as consistently and as thematically so as Vienna — but perhaps that was inevitable, given that Vienna, for all its astonishing depth, is essentially the product of a single civilization (aside from the bags of coffee-beans left behind by the Turks in 1683), while Istanbul’s extraordinary stew has included far more ingredients, and has been brewing for quite a bit longer. (Order, though, is a casualty there; in Istanbul entropy, which is hardly anywhere to be seen in Vienna, is evident in every direction, and occasionally seems to have the upper hand.)

As for the “refugee” crisis, we saw little evidence of it in either place; but in the upscale and touristy precincts we haunted in both cities — Vienna’s central First District, and the Galata, Beyoğlu, and Sultanahmet neighborhoods of Istanbul — I’d hardly have expected to, yet. (There were certainly rumblings all round, and the issue dominated the local news.)

I’m getting caught up on news, correspondence, and so on. Back with more, shortly.

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Upon A Golden Bough

Having passed a lovely weekend in Vienna, the lovely Nina and I are now in Istanbul. We’ll be back home, and this long-neglected blog will be beginning to get back to normal, early next week.

I must say, there is a certain something about seats of empire. Even when the thing has thoroughly run its course, it stiil gives a place a satisfying kind of heft.

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As I was Saying…

I’ve written several posts about the culture of victimhood and microaggression now hegemonic in academia and eslewhere. Among other points, I’ve noted that such a culture of perceived oppression is actually made possible only by the clemency of the ambient culture:

It is as if the grievance culture is a little ‘virtual machine’ running inside the Western cultural operating system; it is only the smooth functioning of the external OS — peace, prosperity, tolerance, etc. — that makes running the virtual grievance-culture ‘game platform’, with its amusingly inverted status polarities, possible at all.

I’ve also pointed out that in order for the religion of ‘social justice’ to sustain itself, it must always be climbing toward a summit that is in principle unreachable — which means that it must operate with the same urgency at every scale, no matter how much progress has already been achieved:

There’s no limiting principle. And if you watch for a while, you begin to realize that “social injustice” is not only infinite, but fractal. It’s a Julia set of grievances. Zoom in all you like; new affronts will appear at every scale, world without end.

Likewise, I’ve remarked that such a system results in a curious inversion of status:

It’s been said* that “to learn who rules over you, simply find out whom you are not allowed to criticize.” I now offer you Pollack’s Principle of Privilege:

To learn where true privilege lies, simply see how people choose to identify themselves.

Once upon a time, people of mixed race did everything they could to “pass” as white. No longer. The mulatto Barack Obama ostentatiously identifies himself as black, while pallid Elizabeth Warren listed herself in the legal and academic community as a “Native American”.

Another sign of this inversion of privilege is that membership in groups considering themselves ‘oppressed’ is as tightly restricted as an exclusive country-club, and for the same reasons. No sooner had the news about Ms. Dolezal came out than she was denounced as a scurrilous pretender to victimhood. But people only defend what has value. In a right-side-up world, no sane person would ever bother fighting to keep others from seeking low status — but they will do whatever it takes to wall off their privileges against unqualified pretenders.

Finally, I’ve observed that relief from all of this injustice is always expected to come from an external authority:

The sought-after remedy is always some act of government: an entitlement or preference of some sort, or some new constraint upon the liberties of others.

In light of all that, I was interested to see that a pair of sociologists have published a substantial paper on this topic. The psychologist Jonathan Haidt has commented extensively on it, with lengthy excerpts. The gist is that we are witnessing the emergence of a new culture that merges, in appalling new ways, the principle characteristics of what Haidt calls ‘honor cultures” and “dignity cultures”. Haidt’s post begins:

I just read the most extraordinary paper by two sociologists — Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning — explaining why concerns about microaggressions have erupted on many American college campuses in just the past few years. In brief: We’re beginning a second transition of moral cultures. The first major transition happened in the 18th and 19th centuries when most Western societies moved away from cultures of honor (where people must earn honor and must therefore avenge insults on their own) to cultures of dignity in which people are assumed to have dignity and don’t need to earn it. They foreswear violence, turn to courts or administrative bodies to respond to major transgressions, and for minor transgressions they either ignore them or attempt to resolve them by social means. There’s no more dueling.

Campbell and Manning describe how this culture of dignity is now giving way to a new culture of victimhood in which people are encouraged to respond to even the slightest unintentional offense, as in an honor culture. But they must not obtain redress on their own; they must appeal for help to powerful others or administrative bodies, to whom they must make the case that they have been victimized. It is the very presence of such administrative bodies, within a culture that is highly egalitarian and diverse (i.e., many college campuses) that gives rise to intense efforts to identify oneself as a fragile and aggrieved victim. This is why we have seen the recent explosion of concerns about microaggressions, combined with demands for trigger warnings and safe spaces, that Greg Lukianoff and I wrote about in The Coddling of the American Mind

The key idea is that the new moral culture of victimhood fosters “moral dependence” and an atrophying of the ability to handle small interpersonal matters on one’s own. At the same time that it weakens individuals, it creates a society of constant and intense moral conflict as people compete for status as victims or as defenders of victims.

It’s all there. The reliance on third parties:

Both individualized and collective conflicts might be brought to the attention of authority figures asked to punish the offender or otherwise handle the case. Small children often bring their complaints to adults, for example, while adults might bring their complaints to the legal system…

Historically, the growth of law has undermined various forms of unilateral social control. In times and places with little or no legal authority to protect property, settle disputes, or punish wrongdoers, people frequently handle such problems on their own through violent aggression – a phenomenon that students of law and social control refer to as “self-help”… Legal authority can potentially supplant other mechanisms of social control, from milder forms of self-help to negotiated compromise and mediation. Insofar as people come to depend on law alone, their willingness or ability to use other forms of conflict management may atrophy, leading to a condition [referred] to as “legal overdependency”… the core of much modern activism, from protest rallies to leaflet campaigns to publicizing offenses on websites, appears to be concerned with rallying enough public support to convince authorities to act.

… and the “virtual machine” that depends on an “operating system” featuring overall social clemency:

Overstratification offenses occur whenever anyone rises above or falls below others in status. [Therefore…] a morality that privileges equality and condemns oppression is most likely to arise precisely in settings that already have relatively high degrees of equality… In modern Western societies, egalitarian ethics have developed alongside actual political and economic equality.

… and the fractal nature of injustice, which manages to maintain the same urgency even as we zoom in to smaller and smaller scales of actual “oppression”:

In other words, as progress is made toward a more equal and humane society, it takes a smaller and smaller offense to trigger a high level of outrage. The goalposts shift, allowing participants to maintain a constant level of anger and constant level of perceived victimization… It is in egalitarian and diverse settings – such as at modern American universities – that equality and diversity are most valued, and it is in these settings that perceived offenses against these values are most deviant. [p.707]. [Again, the paradox: places that make the most progress toward equality and diversity can expect to have the “lowest bar” for what counts as an offense against equality and inclusivity. Some colleges have lowered the bar so far that an innocent question, motivated by curiosity, such as “where are you from” is now branded as an act of aggression.]

The inversion of status within the “virtual machine”:

But why emphasize one’s victimization? Certainly the distinction between offender and victim always has moral significance, lowering the offender’s moral status. In the settings such as those that generate microaggression catalogs, though, where offenders are oppressors and victims are the oppressed, it also raises the moral status of the victims. This only increases the incentive to publicize grievances, and it means aggrieved parties are especially likely to highlight their identity as victims, emphasizing their own suffering and innocence. Their adversaries are privileged and blameworthy, but they themselves are pitiable and blameless… Thus we might call this moral culture a culture of victimhood because the moral status of the victim, at its nadir in honor cultures, has risen to new heights.

… and of course, the withering and destructive effect on civilization:

This is the great tragedy: the culture of victimization rewards people for taking on a personal identity as one who is damaged, weak, and aggrieved. This is a recipe for failure — and constant litigation — after students graduate from college and attempt to enter the workforce.

Spot-on, all round. Inclined as I am to the view that there is a relentless cycle of ascent and decline that proceeds quite naturally in high civilizations, and to the view that such civilizations create institutions — in our case, for example, secularism, multiculturalism, and universally enfranchised democracy — that in turn bring about their own extinction, I’m glad to see such a thorough examination of all this. I’m sure it will be a useful resource.

Read the whole thing here.

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Service Notice, and Open Thread 10

Even though we’ve only just reopened the storefront here, the business may be mostly shuttered again for the next couple of weeks — this weekend we are off to a musical retreat in the Isles of Shoals, and then we’ll be getting a firsthand look at the European situation for the rest of the month. There will probably be few opportunities for posting, but you never know.

Meanwhile, make free use of the soapbox here, browse our ten years’ worth of archived material, or give the Random link a try.

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Dawkins And Diversity

With the migrant crisis in Europe at full boil, immigration is a hot topic. I’ve just had another round with our multiculturalist gadfly in the previous post’s comment thread, but of course we’ve been over all of this before. I invite readers to review, in particular, the long and patient discussion we had here, which ultimately foundered on familiar shoals: a naive and counterfactual faith in human universalism, and the idea that the United States is nothing more than what is called a “proposition nation”.

The error of these beliefs is that they overlook both the origin and importance of culture. To be harmoniously embedded and contextualized in one’s own culture is, as everyone everywhere seems to have understood until the latter half of the last century, the foundation and bedrock of normal human experience, and is generally a precondition for individual happiness and flourishing. Furthermore, the variety of human cultures is not a superficial fact, nor is it a matter of contingent historical accident; cultures do not simply fall from the sky and land, haphazardly, upon whichever human population happens to be passing below. I believe they are best understood, instead, as what Richard Dawkins has called “extended phenotypes“.

The idea is a simple one: a biological organism has both a genotype, which is the sum of its genetic information, and a phenotype, which is the physical result of the expression of the genotype — the term “phenotype” usually being understood to refer to the organism’s body. Dawkins’s fertile insight was that the phenotype extends beyond the body, into the wider world.

For example: a beaver has a beaver genome. This expresses itself in the usual beavery way: big front teeth, webby feet, and a broad, flat tail. But the “extended” phenotype is much more than that: it consists of felled trees, a dam, a lodge, and a pond. In this view, that pond is as much a part of the beaver’s gene-expression as its teeth. Bird’s nests, spiderwebs, and honeycombs — things in the world that themselves contain no genetic information — are as much a manifestation of genomes as wings and stingers.

In H. sapiens, the social animal par excellence, the extended phenotype quite naturally includes culture. And just as we see variation among subspecies for, say, bowerbird nests, we should expect to see that long-isolated human populations, whose genomes have been subject to widely varying selection pressures throughout their history, will create different, often very different, cultures — cultures as distinct as their physical appearance. And so we do.

In an earlier post, Culture and Metaculture, I quoted Lezek Kolakowski on the impossibility of genuine multicultural synthesis, which creates a problem that worsens in proportion both to the number of cultures to be blended, and their dissimilarity. An extended-phenotype model — which understands culture not as something contingently and exogenously grafted onto individuals and populations, but rather as an endogenous, organic, and wholly natural expression of the innate characteristics of a distinct subpopulation — should make even clearer why high levels of “diversity” lead so reliably to faction and strife.

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As The World Burns

Though it’s September, and time to get back to business around here, I haven’t had enough quiet time over the past few days to do any serious writing. (Though you may find it hard to believe, it actually takes me rather a long time to produce a substantial post — and then there’s coming up with a title once the thing’s done.)

There’s certainly no shortage of topics, even if we confine ourselves to current events: the slow death of Hillary Clinton’s political prospects, the surging popularity of Donald Trump, the rapid intensification of what John Derbyshire calls our “cold civil war” (including the recent rash of murdered police officers), and President Obama’s latest efforts to cast global-warming skeptics in the role of Emmanuel Goldstein, to name but a few.

Looming above them all, though, is the drowning of Europe in a (so far) irresistible flood of alien migrants, which is what I’d most like to comment on, as soon as I have a chance. Europe is suddenly realizing, far too late, that it faces a mortal threat, and it has no idea what to do. (This is probably because the only thing it can do, if it wishes to have any hope of survival as a civilization, is still unthinkable (or at least unsayable) to most European people, and to nearly all of its political and academic elites.)

For tonight, though, just a link — this time to a rather more demanding item than usual. If you take the trouble to read it, I think you will find it worth the effort: a systematic analysis of the genetic and evolutionary implications of mass immigration, by Frank Salter.

Here’s the abstract:

Analyses of the costs and benefits of immigration have not considered the dependence of an ethny’s reproductive fitness on its monopoly of a demarcated territory. Global assays of human genetic variation allow estimation of the genetic losses incurred by a member of a population when random fellow ethnics are replaced by immigrants from different ethnies. This potential loss defines an individual’s ethnic genetic interest as a quantity that varies with the genetic distance of potential immigrants. W. D. Hamilton showed that self-sacrificial altruism is adaptive when it preserves the genetic interests of a population of genetically similar individuals. Ethnic genetic interest can be so large that altruism on behalf of one’s ethny—‘ethnic nepotism’—can be adaptive when it prevents replacement. It follows that ethnies usually have an interest in securing and maintaining a monopoly over a demarcated territory, an idea consonant with the universal nationalism of Bismarck and Woodrow Wilson.

Read the whole thing here.

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Knock Yourself Out

Something I hear a lot, in the ultra-blue precincts I haunt, is that the Second Amendment is a superannuated relic, an eighteenth-century atavism, and has no place in modern America. I hear mutterings about flintlocks and muskets, and become aware of a prevailing sentiment that the thing simply ought to be chucked.

Well, have a go, then! But read this first.

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It’s September, and time to get back in harness. Have I missed anything?

I have nothing prepared for tonight, but the little grey cells should be back in writing order again sometime in the next few days. Meanwhile, here’s a fantastic drum solo, some solid climate heresy, a video clip I find amusing, and some baseball analysis by my boy Nick.

Back soon.

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Lucky Us

To a first approximation, every species that ever was is extinct. It is within a rounding error to say that every ancestral lineage that ever began eventually petered out.

Imagine Nature as a machine-gunner firing into a crowd. The fact that you and I exist means that for four billion years, our personal ancestors have managed to dodge the bullets. This is so exceedingly unlikely that there must be something about us, something in our nature, that made this possible.

You can despise this nature, and wish to alter it — but at the very least you must give it some respect. You certainly shouldn’t pretend it doesn’t exist. And you should pay some attention when it tries to tell you something.

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Open Thread 9

It’s the least I can do.

Service Notice

It’s August, and as I do every year I am going to disconnect from the Internet a bit. It’s necessary therapy — particularly so this year, I think, as I think the quality of recent posts has been noticeably off.

I also need to take some time to think about just what I want to say in these pages. In particular, I am increasingly struck by the extent to which we live in a hallucinatory society, in which up is down, realities are falsehoods, and wishes and mirages are imagined to be realities; in which we must all agree, on pain of commination and social exile, that the things that matter most are the things that matter least; in which the past and future have foreshortened into virtual insignificance — leaving us rootless and aimless, with neither heritage to cherish nor posterity to protect, adrift in a meaningless present. If our past is remembered only to be despised as a litany of sin and error and unwisdom, then we are stewards of nothing; if our existing reality is reduced to a mere, anodyne subjectivity, we have nothing to bequeath. Severed in this way from our root-stock, sliced away above and below until nothing remains but the deracinated individual in the present moment, we are atoms. We are dust.

A story: long ago my late friend Don Grolnick was playing a gig at one of the jazz clubs in Greenwich Village. It was one of those sweltering, steamy July nights in New York City, and Don and some of the others in the band were outside during a break. One of the city’s wandering lunatics, a large and wild-looking man, ran up out of the murk and confronted them.

“DO YOU KNOW I COULD KILL YOU ALL??” he demanded. It was an edgy moment.

Don shrugged, and with characteristic aplomb, replied:

“That may be true. But why bring it up?”

That’s the question I’ll be asking myself over the next few weeks. There may be posts, but probably not many. As always, please feel free to browse our ever-expanding archives, and to try the “Random Post” link at upper right.

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Chuck Bucks

Well, this is interesting: Senator Charles Schumer has decided to oppose the Iran deal. From the New York Times:

Advocates on both sides have strong cases for their point of view that cannot simply be dismissed,” Mr. Schumer, Democrat of New York, said in a lengthy statement. “This has made evaluating the agreement a difficult and deliberate endeavor, and after deep study, careful thought and considerable soul-searching, I have decided I must oppose the agreement and will vote yes on a motion of disapproval.

Mr. Schumer is one of the leaders of the Democratic caucus. For such party loyalist to kick over the traces is no small thing. There are at least three possible reasons:

1) He thinks that the deal is a bad one in terms of U.S. interests.

2) He thinks the deal is a bad one in terms of Israeli interests.

3) He has been so relentlessly pressured by his New York constituency that he feels he must accommodate them.

Of course, it may well be a combination of all three. No doubt politically opinionated types will select among them according to their various viewing angles. For example, I imagine that Patrick Buchanan would share with the academic Left a preference for option 2.

It’s certainly rare that I find myself agreeing with Senator Schumer, but even a stopped clock is, as they say, right once a day. My own three points of objection are:

4) The deal immediately frees up vast sums of money that Iran will use, as even President Obama admits, to project its power in the region, in the usual unsavory ways.

5) Iran will surely cheat, especially given the three-week warning period for inspections. And when it does, the idea that sanctions will “snap back” is a pipe dream.

6) The treaty commits the United States to defend Iran’s nuclear program against sabotage and attack. (This is perhaps the most distasteful condition of all.)

See also some a conversation we had about this treaty earlier, here.

I will say also that President Obama’s remarks yesterday on this topic — in which he likened Iranians chanting “DEATH TO AMERICA” to the Republican caucus, were not helpful.

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535 Days

I don’t often link to WSJ editorials, but their comment here on President Obama’s latest regulatory audacity is worth reading.

The gist: the States should simply refuse to be bullied in this way. The WSJ’s idea is that the Court will, rightly, strike this thing down as a usurpation of the law-making power of Congress — but that is hardly a given, and in Constitutional terms we have come to a mighty sorry pass when the making of law is a tug-of-war between the Executive and the Judiciary. Nevertheless, somebody needs to stand up to this aggression — and for now it is the States that will have to draw the line.

This foolish and hubristic war on carbon-based energy — a religious gesture that Mark Levin has likened, with stinging accuracy, to a “rain dance” — is not only a political and economic outrage, but an ethical one one as well. On that score I refer you to Alex Epstein’s book The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels. And to understand how this latest mission-from-God is simply the newest link in an unbroken, centuries-old chain of New England Protestant zealotry, now in a modern, ostensibly secular, form, you should read The Puritan Origins of American Patriotism, by George McKenna. (Or perhaps you should read this.)

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Things Have Never Been So Awful

The inescapable Neil deGrasse Tyson informs us that scientific illiteracy is “a tragedy of our times”.

Not “the” tragedy of our times, mind you, just “a” tragedy of our times. There are, you see, just so many of them — so many, in fact, that it’s becoming hard to keep track of which ones to grieve for on any given day. And that, I think, is… well, tragic.

What we need, if we are going to get through our stages of grief with anything resembling modern-day efficiency, is some sort of ranking system. I think also that we should break the problem down into chunks of manageable size.

To that end, I think it would be helpful for “our time” to maintain a Tragic Top Ten list. We can then pull tragedies off the top of the stack, working our way through denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance as briskly as possible, with lower entries moving up as our hearts begin to heal.

I’ve assembled, based on a random sampling of the media, what I think are a suitable starting collection. But how to rank them? I think we need some crowdsourcing for that. So I will just list them below, in no particular order, and then you can all get to work on the ordinals.

‣   The male gaze

‣   Inequality

‣   Whiteness

‣   Cisheteronormativity

‣   Racism

‣   Fat-shaming

‣   Confederates

‣   Cecil!

‣   Whiteness

‣   Coal, because “climate” or something

Note to Dr. Tyson: I’m sorry to say that “scientific illiteracy” didn’t make the first cut. I really did try to squeeze it in.

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“I Did Everything Superhumanly Possible”

I’ve just read a book I must recommend to you all — Dear Reader: The Unauthorized Autobiography of Kim Jong Il, by Michael Malice.

The book is extraordinary in that it captures, with frightening accuracy, not only the near-solipsistic narcissism of the fully developed totalitarian dictator, but also the seductiveness of the expertly managed personality cult that surrounds such men. One finds oneself at times almost irresistibly drawn to the Kims, and to the Juche Idea. (Reading the Koran can have the same feeling.)

The author, Michael Malice, has spent some time in North Korea, and probably knows the DPRK as well as any Westerner. I met him recently at a small dinner-and -discussion gathering, where he gave a fascinating talk about the place. There really is no other country like it anywhere on Earth. (He is also the founder of the website Overheard in New York.)

Read this book. And when you are done, read the haunting short story It’s a Good Life, by Jerome Bixby. Then it will all make sense.

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How Frogs Are Boiled

With a hat-tip to our reader and commenter Libertybelle, here’s a strong piece by Mark Steyn on the way things happen.

A Lot Of Us Are Asking The Same Question Right About Now

Here’s a good item, just posted to an aging comment-thread by the indefatigable JK:

Why Does the Republican Party Exist?

For some real political geekdom, read the last link in the article, on the highway-bill’s pension gimmick.

Also just in from JK: this explanation of Donald Trump’s surging popularity.

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Order And Disorder

Here is an article from Vox about a trans-gendered high-school student, with a female body, who wants to use the boy’s bathroom. The title of the piece is:

A federal judge said being transgender is a mental disorder. Here’s why he’s wrong.

The piece relies for its argument on the recent (2013) reclassification, by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), of transgenderism from “gender identity disorder” to “gender dysphoria”:

When the DSM’s medical diagnosis of trans people changed from gender identity disorder to gender dysphoria in 2013, the American Psychiatric Association explained this in explicit terms: “Part of removing stigma is about choosing the right words. Replacing ‘disorder’ with ‘dysphoria’ in the diagnostic label is not only more appropriate and consistent with familiar clinical sexology terminology, it also removes the connotation that the patient is ‘disordered.'”

Under the manual, gender dysphoria is treated as a temporary, treatable condition, not a permanent disorder. If left untreated, it can lead to distress, depression, and suicidal ideation, among other problems.

Most medical experts today, including the American Psychiatric Association and American Medical Association, agree that letting someone transition without social stigma can help treat gender dysphoria. And not all trans people deal with severe dysphoria in the first place. Both of these facts show that psychological distress and disability aren’t inherent to being trans, so being trans doesn’t meet the definition of a mental disorder (a psychological state that causes significant distress and disability).

The idea seems to be that to be a “disorder”, a condition must cause “distress”. Therefore, if we can reorganize the entirety of the external and pre-existing world in such a way as not to impress upon the afflicted person that he or she is in any way out of normal working order, then the distress will vanish, and we can solve any remaining bureaucratic problems simply by redefining the former “disorder” as a mere “dysphoria” (which, despite the downgrade from “disorder”, apparently should not be “left untreated”).

But how is transgenderism not, in fact, a mental disorder? It certainly does cause a good deal of distress, after all; the suicide rate among transgendered persons is nine times the national average. You may argue that this just means we still have “work to do” in getting the whole rest of the world to adjust their attitudes about what is “normal”, but at some point one must face the fact that the existing realities of the world, and of human nature, are not things you can just wish away, no matter how earnestly and righteously you may wish. More importantly: it is disingenuous, to say the least, to insist that all of the distress felt by transgendered people is wholly exogenous, and not due, at least in part, to their intrinsic awareness of a grave inner disharmony.

It is conventional, now, to refer to being transgendered as being born in the “wrong body”. But the issue is really a matter of the relation between mind and body. The normal, correctly ordered, distress-free configuration is for gender identity, biological sex, and the polarity of sexual attraction all to line up congruently, as they do in all but a tiny percentage of the population. To be homosexual or transgendered means that there is disharmony in the relation between some or all of these nodes. The body itself is one corner of the triangle — and is, except in actual hermaphrodites, determinably and unambiguously male or female. Any disharmony, then, is a subjective, inner perception. Why is it wrong to classify this as a mental phenomenon? Why do we insist that in transgenderism, the body is what’s out of order, and the appropriate target of intervention?

You might respond that, because transgendered people are “born that way”, it is not a “mental” issue in the sense of being remediable by conventional psychotherapy. That certainly may be true in many, or even most, cases. But there are plenty of other congenital mental conditions that are classified as disorders — and indeed almost every “mental” trait, from intelligence to the whole spectrum of behavioral dispositions, are highly heritable, and therefore at least partially innate.

None of this is intended to stigmatize or blame those who are, in fact, “born that way”. But we seem to have a bizarre obsession, these days, with the idea that all sorts of handicaps, abnormalities, and disabilities are now to be “celebrated“. At the very least, can we not acknowledge that to have such dissonance in such a fundamental aspect of our inner organization is unfortunate? And that it is, in any important sense, a mental issue? Is it so unreasonable to respond to transgenderism not with celebration, but with sympathy?

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Verb Of The Day

Here’s something I’ll bet you didn’t know about: “anting”.

From Gilbert Waldbauer’s What Good are Bugs?:

The amazing behaviors by which many birds, including some quail and a multitude of perching birds, use or solicit ants to free their bodies of lice and parasitic mites are known as anting, Birds ant in two quite different ways. Many use the active method of anting, picking up ants with their bills — usually crushing them — and wiping them against their plumage to anoint it with ant secretions that are toxic to mites and lice. But a few birds, mainly some crows, thrushes, and finches, use the passive method of anting. They squat or lie on an ant nest and allow the insects to board their bodies and roam, unharmed, through their plumage to search for and destroy external parasites.

In a brief 1947 note in the journal British Birds, W. Condry described passive anting by an inexperienced, hand-reared carrion crow. He placed it on the ground near a large slab of stone under which there was a horde of ants. After he turned over the stone, the crow immediately became obviously excited. It hesitated for a few seconds but then ‘stepped into the middle of the swarming ants … When some of the ants found their way via his legs to his feathers. the bird showed apparent pleasure and slowly settled down among the ants like a brooding hen, with wings outspread and tail fanned.’ Then, in Condry’s words, it acted as if ‘swooning,’ slumping down and lowering its head until it was flat against the ground. Condry concluded that his crow’s behavior was innate, programmed in the genes. After all, it had never before seen an ant or another bird anting.

Active anting coats the plumage with noxious secretions. In fact, birds use only ants that secrete formic acid or other toxic fluids. In an article in the Wilson Bulletin, Leon Kelso and Margaret Nice wrote that, in a little-known article in Russian. Vsevolod Dubinin reported that he found drops of liquid that smelled of formic acid on the feathers of steppe pipits that had been actively anting to rid themselves of mites. The pungency of all substitute substances that birds sometimes smear on their plumage when ants are unavailable leaves little doubt that their purpose is to deter parasites. Among those listed by Lovie Whitaker and other researchers are toxin-oozing millipedes; grasshoppers, which regurgitate a noxious brown liquid; wasps; raw onion; lime fruits; burning matches or tobacco; prepared mustard; vinegar; and mothballs.

A. H. Chisolm vividly described anting by a flock of starlings in Australia:

Each bird snatched up an ant from a gravel path and dabbed it quickly first under one wing and then under the other, after which the insect usually was dropped … All the actions of the Starlings were very rapid. Two birds in particular nearly fell over backward while rearing up smartly and applying ants beneath their tails. I saw no evidence of the insects being eaten. When the birds departed, the path was bespattered with dead and maimed ants, some 50 percent of which had their abdomens burst, while the others were more or less intact. The species was … a type that bites and sprays quickly, which possibly helps to explain the rapidity of the Starlings’ actions.

Some birds, according to K. E. L. Simmons, of the Department of Psychology of the University of Bristol in England, are more sophisticated and use ants with considerable finesse. The Pekin robin holds an ant by its thorax, leaving free the abdomen, which contains the formic acid glands and the mechanism that sprays the acid. Depending upon from which side of the bill the abdomen protrudes, the bird turns its head and applies the ant to the appropriate wing. At first it uses the ant as a ‘bug bomb,’ holding the struggling creature so that it sprays formic acid onto the undersurface of the flight feathers. But eventually the ant dies. Then the bird daubs the fluids that ooze from the ant’s crushed body onto its feathers.

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The EM Drive

OK, this is interesting:

‘Impossible’ rocket drive works and could get to Moon in four hours

Some details here.

And Now For Something Completely Different

Here’s a treat: Dick Cavett interviewing the great Oscar Peterson at the piano.

And when you’re done with that, check this out.

The ‘National Conversation’ Continues

Here’s a good post by Lewis Amselem, a.k.a. ‘Diplomad’, on race relations in the West.

He begins:

Let me be blunt: I find that discussions of race quickly get boring, idiotic, inconclusive, and, often, verbally and even physically violent. Race tells you very little if anything about a person and his or her attributes except, perhaps, for some inconsequential physical ones.

Correct. That there are differences in the statistical distribution of nearly every cognitive and behavioral attribute between long-isolated human groups, and that those differences in distribution can manifest themselves in important ways at the group, and therefore the cultural, level, nevertheless tells you nothing whatsoever about the balance of those traits in any individual. This simple fact should be at the forefront of all consideration of race, but it is stubbornly ignored in favor of false and binary simplifications that either deny any reality to race, or imagine it to be far more important at the individual level than it actually is.

Mr. Amselem continues:

To keep pushing the topic of race can and will force even the most tolerant and open of people (as discussed here, for example) eventually to reach their limit and fight back…

“Conversations” about race in Western countries become one-way progressive harangues deriding white people and their “privilege,” calls for more government action in the name of “social justice,” and, of course, more power for the progressive elites. In our befuddled times, such “conversations” get infused with yet another noxious theme, to wit, “white male patriarchy.” Racism and sexism become one huge pulsating Death Star that requires, you guessed it, more legislation, more government control, more censorship, more repression, and more of all the other hallmarks of progressivism to defeat it.

So, of course, having said that we should not talk about race and its associated sin sexism, I will discuss race and sex, well, mostly I will rant about White Dudes. The contributions of “Pale Dudismo” are considerable, worth recalling, and — dare I say? — defending without shame. That, I will do.

And so he does. Go and read the whole thing.

You may notice the following comment from your humble correspondent:

This is a terribly difficult topic to write about: the electrical potential regarding race is so super-charged that it is almost impossible to raise your hand without being struck by lightning. There are unspeakable truths that nearly everyone knows, nevertheless, to be true; the cognitive dissonance required for our culture to suppress them has reached a point of almost unbearable tension. It is only by speaking them as charitably, and as honestly, as we can, while being as clear as we can that our intention is not to provoke, that we can begin to discharge this dangerous potential without touching off an explosion — an explosion that surely will come if, in fear of the rewards of heresy, we say nothing.

Update: see also this Daily Beast article, by John McWhorter, on antiracism as religion. (Hat tip: JK.) As I’ve mentioned often, all of this — environmentalism, antiracism, radical egalitarianism, etc. — are just the latest forms of the same energetic Puritanism that grew up in New England four centuries ago. It has been stripped of its linkage to anything that transcends the mundane world (i.e God and the sacred), but not its zeal, or its sense of being a community on a mission from God. Here, for example, is a writer for The United States Democratic Review, commenting on New England’s abolitionist fervor in 1855:

“Neither the Puritan nor the Abolitionist is content with the enjoyment of his own freedom of opinion unless he can impose it on others. His only idea of toleration is dictation; and what he means by liberty of speech and thought is universal acquiescence in his own dogmas.”

I excerpt a couple of notable passages from Mr. McWhorter’s essay. First, this (my emphasis):

The Right quite readily questions Antiracism’s tenets. Key, however, is that among Antiracism adherents, those questions are tartly dismissed as inappropriate and often, predictably, as racist themselves. The questions are received with indignation that one would even ask them, with a running implication that their having been asked is a symptom of, yes, racism’s persistence.

Yes, that’s some catch. Also:

Finally, Antiracism is all about a Judgment Day, in a sense equally mesmerizing and mythical. Antiracist scripture includes a ritual reference to, as it were, the Great Day when America “owns up to” or “comes to terms with” structural racism—note that “acknowledge” is a term just as appropriate—and finally, well, fixes it somehow. But how would a country as massive, heterogenous, and politically fractured as this one ever arrive at so conclusive and overarching a policy as “fixing” racism, either psychologically or structurally?

This is a very important point, and one that the late Lawrence Auster used to bring up: What’s the exit strategy in this war on racism? When racism is finally eliminated, how will we know? At what point, and under what conditions, can the warriors fighting for social justice end, at long last, the slaughter of the enemy, because the battle has been won?

Update 2: From the comment-thread at Diplomad’s post, a link to this item by Fred Reed on “white supremacy”. Mr. Reed makes rather a strong case.

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Time Preference

On presentism:

One of the characteristic mental disorders of our period is an easy contempt for the past. It’s not just that we are taught to hate the past, for one can respect and still detest an enemy. It’s that we despise it. We observe it with an easy, swaggering and thoroughly unquestioned contempt. We are presentists with all the arrogance of the cartoon plantation racist.

Which leads us into many faults of the intellect, some of them comic. But our worst fault is the belief that history, somehow, is easy. Of course it’s easy to know what happened in the Civil War! Every fifth-grader knows the story. Heck, my four-year-old daughter knows the story. She read about it in her Magic Treehouse books (which, by the way, are racist). “Oh, I know about the Civil War,” she said. Indeed she does – she knows about it the way everyone in 2013 does. If a little less.

Imagine the poor bastards who actually had to live in the past, being understood by a four-year-old. Of course, it is no more possible for Sibyl to understand the Civil War than to fly to the moon. She’s a bright girl, but still.

Curtis Yarvin

And Mark Twain:

If the Eiffel tower were now representing the world’s age, the skin of paint on the pinnacle-knob at its summit would represent man’s share of that age; & anybody would perceive that that skin was what the tower was built for. I reckon they would. I dunno.

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Four Concentric Circles

This is just the damnedest thing I’ve ever seen. I can hardly focus my eyes on it.


It’s On

High political drama in the Senate today: a blistering speech by Ted Cruz. The blisteree: Mitch McConnell. You’ll be hearing more about this.



Stop me if you’ve heard this one:

A biology professor and two of his graduate students are doing field-work in the jungle. Suddenly they are surrounded by tribal warriors brandishing spears and clubs. They are quickly subdued and taken to a village a few miles away.

The Chief appears. He glowers at them and says:

“You have violated our sacred lands, and so you will be punished. You have two choices: death, or Bongo-Bongo.”

He glares at the first of the two younger men. “Well? Which will it be?”

The graduate student, a slightly built young man, is trembling with fear.

“I – I choose Bongo-Bongo, whatever that is.”

The warriors grab him and bend him double over an enormous fallen log. They take turns raping and sodomizing him until they have all had their way.

The chief looks at the next graduate student. “Your turn now. What is your choice?”

The young man is horrified, but even more afraid to die.

“Bongo-Bongo,” he says, shivering in terror.

The warriors remove the previous victim, now unconscious, from the log, and the second student takes his place. Soon his desperate cries echo through the village.

At last the Chief turns to the professor, a sturdy, middle-aged man who is also an old Army veteran. “What have you chosen?” he demands.

The professor spits at the Chief, and says “You can go to hell. I’d rather die than submit to such perversion. I choose death.”

“Very well!” says the Chief. “You have chosen death, and so death it shall be.”

He pauses.

Death — by BONGO-BONGO!!

In a related item from CNN, we learn that Hillary Clinton, at a recent campaign stop, said the following thing:

Hillary Clinton is touting her potential to make history as the nation’s first female president as “one of the merits” behind her campaign.

She played up her gender during a stop in West Columbia, South Carolina on Thursday. When a man told Clinton that his 10-year-old daughter told him, “You guys have had it long enough,” Clinton seized the moment.

“Clearly, I’m not asking people to vote for me simply because I’m a woman. I’m asking people to vote for me on the merits,” Clinton said.

Then she directly addressed gender, adding: “I think one of the merits is I am a woman. And I can bring those views and perspectives to the White House.

I’ve written often about the cognitive dissonance required to hold in one’s mind the ideology of the Left, and here we have another instructive example. As we know, it is today a matter of incontrovertible social dogma that all human groups, as categorized by race, ethnicity, or sex, are exactly alike in all cognitive and behavioral qualities, and that to discriminate, whether affirmatively or negatively, on the basis of such categorizations is the darkest imaginable sin. (If, for example, I were to campaign on the special qualities that I, as a white male of northern-European extraction, would bring to public office, I would be banished from polite society, and if possible reduced to beggary.) Yet here is Hillary Clinton doing exactly that — and what’s more, this reptilian woman is confident enough in the envenomation and paralysis of her audience’s faculty of reason that she can reject sexual bias, and then advocate it, in two consecutive sentences.

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The New RINO

It appears that the intellectual and philosophical conclave known as ‘neo-reaction’, or the ‘Dark Enlightenment’, has just made its first memetic inroad into the broader political culture, with the derogatory neologism ‘cuckservative’.

The term refers to ‘conservatives’, generally white and male, who, cowed and ensorcelled by the hegemonic multiculturalism and relativism of what neo-reactionaries calls the ‘Cathedral’, actually seek to conserve very little — and are complicit in the sacking of the traditional American nation by mass Third-World immigration (legal or otherwise), totalitarian subjectivism, radical feminism, militant secularism, sexual anarchy, cultural Marxism, extremist egalitarianism, and so on.

It derives from the word ‘cuckold’, for obvious reasons. The coiner of the term is unknown. But suddenly it is all over social media, and popping up elsewhere as well. Clearly it resonates — a resonance that, properly understood, might go a long way toward explain the surging popularity of the current Republican front-runner.

Update: See also this.

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Nothing Outside The State

For God’s sake, please, please, just leave us alone.

Ship Of Fools


Also: Bob Corker, who led the Senate’s disgraceful abrogation of its Constitutional treaty power with regard to the Iran deal, is suddenly upset that the President rushed the deal to the U.N. before Congress could complete its 60-day ‘review’ of the treaty — a deal that by the Senate’s own actions had already been rendered completely meaningless.

What’s the mot juste here? It’s right on the tip of my tongue…

Ah yes: bathos.

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A Respectful Whistle

This may ring a bell:

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane, he had to fly them. If he flew them, he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to, he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.

“That’s some catch, that Catch-22,” he observed.

“It’s the best there is,” Doc Daneeka agreed.

Here is an item that’s been going around over the past couple of days: an essay by Paul Sperry describing the Obama administration’s latest race-leveling operation.

The idea is to fish for “disparate impact” violations, wherever they can be found — in housing, lending, school discipline, academic performance, enrollment in gifted-student programs, etc. — and to use the coercive power of the State to flatten outcomes.

The Left has a secret weapon here, and in the current cultural climate, it’s a beaut. Here’s how it works:

1) If you go looking for disparate outcomes by racial groups (or by sex), you’ll certainly find them. They are real, and persistent. (See, for example, just how persistent they can be, here.)

2) When such disparate outcomes occur, there are only two possible causes: either they are due to an external obstacle, or something intrinsic to the group itself.

3) If all racial groups are assumed, as by current social convention they must be, to have exactly identical distributions of every cognitive and behavioral trait, then any variation in outcome that disparately affects a particular racial group must be evidence of some external obstacle. This can only be due to racism and injustice, and therefore it is just and proper for the State to detect and remove it, by whatever means necessary.

4) If however, you suggest that disparities under neutral policies may be due, even in part, to innate differences in the distribution of cognitive and behavioral characteristics in different racial groups, then you are a racist. (If you present actual evidence of such differences, you’re a “scientific” racist.) Moreover, the fact that you are even thinking such things is evidence of the persistence and prevalence of racism in general, which in turns confirms the assumption that disparate outcomes are the result of pervasive and intractable racism, and not innate differences. This is what justifies redoubled efforts on the part of the State to bring every aspect of our lives under racial scrutiny, and impose corrective measures wherever disparate outcomes are found.

So: notwithstanding that race, as we are told, is a “social construct” with no basis in reality, the government will spare no effort to group people by race, and to scour vast collections of intrusively gathered data to find inequalities in social and economic outcomes — not on any individual basis, but by race. But despite race being real enough, apparently, to justify making such racial categorizations, race can have no deeper reality as regards any shared characteristics that might contribute to such inequalities. Race is, in other words, real, but only real enough to serve, somehow, as a marker for defining groups, and thereby to serve as the basis of racism, without having any other actual properties. Moreover (and this is what makes the whole thing work so beautifully): if you disagree with any of this, you are yourself a racist — and you have thereby just demonstrated that persistent racism is indeed the problem.

Thanks to this secret weapon, we have moved beyond — far beyond — the idea that particular differences in outcomes may be due to specific and remediable instances of conscious and intentional racism. As we go Forward, we have a new paradigm: differences in outcomes simply ARE racism, now and forever.

That’s some catch!

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Service Notice, and Open Thread 8

Busy few days coming up. Back soon.

Nothing Is Real

Here is an excellent piece on why putting women in combat is such a bad idea. I’d post an excerpt, but you really should read the whole thing.

See also this older item by Fred Reed.

Throughout history, wise societies have realized that women, as the source of, and natural limit to, future generations, are a people’s single most precious resource. They are what armies, traditionally, fight to protect.

We no longer live in a wise society.

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Done Deal

Former Spook ‘Nate Hale’ comments, here.

Remains Of The Day

Here’s a nice item: an undercover video showing Planned Parenthood’s Senior Director of Medical Services, Deborah Nucatola, discussing availability and prices of aborted body parts.

I expect you will be hearing more about this. In particular, it will be of interest to hear from Hillary Clinton, who in 2009 received Planned Parenthood’s Margaret Sanger Award. In her acceptance speech on that occasion, Ms. Clinton said “I admire Margaret Sanger enormously, her courage, her tenacity, her vision.”

Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, held some views that would, I think, be somewhat out of fashion today, but that doesn’t seem to have affected her popularity over on the Left. Some quotes from her:

“The third group [of society] are those irresponsible and reckless ones having little regard for the consequences of their acts, or whose religious scruples prevent their exercising control over their numbers. Many of this group are diseased, feeble-minded, and are of the pauper element dependent upon the normal and fit members of society for their support. There is no doubt in the minds of all thinking people that the procreation of this group should be stopped.”

“As an advocate of birth control I wish … to point out that the unbalance between the birth rate of the ‘unfit’ and the ‘fit,’ admittedly the greatest present menace to civilization, can never be rectified by the inauguration of a cradle competition between these two classes. In this matter, the example of the inferior classes, the fertility of the feeble-minded, the mentally defective, the poverty-stricken classes, should not be held up for emulation…. On the contrary, the most urgent problem today is how to limit and discourage the over-fertility of the mentally and physically defective.”

The main objects of the Population Congress would be […] to give certain dysgenic groups in our population their choice of segregation or sterilization.

In fairness, I’ll admit it’s hard to rebut Ms. Sanger on purely practical terms (and I don’t recall her ever expressing an opinion on trafficking in human corpses). After all, it’s not as if she were a Southerner or something.

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Science, Unsettled


May I also recommend to you an excellent book: The Neglected Sun, which makes a persuasive case that the effect on the Sun on Earth’s climate is significantly underestimated in mainstream climate models and the IPCC’s reports and predictions.

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America’s Jacobins: Feeling Their Avoine

Recently a commenter scoffed at suggestions that, given the sudden anathematization of all things Confederate, statues honoring Confederate heroes might soon be removed. Fast forward a week, and we’re already moving past anything so tame as that — to the actual disinterment of the dead.

No announcement yet as to which lamp-post will display the remains.


Rage and frenzy will pull down more in half an hour than prudence, deliberation, and foresight can build up in a hundred years. The errors and defects of old establishments are visible and palpable. It calls for little ability to point them out; and where absolute power is given, it requires but a word wholly to abolish the vice and the establishment together. The same lazy, but restless disposition, which loves sloth and hates quiet, directs these politicians, when they come to work for supplying the place of what they have destroyed. To make everything the reverse of what they have seen is quite as easy as to destroy. No difficulties occur in what has never been tried. Criticism is almost baffled in discovering the defects of what has not existed; and eager enthusiasm and cheating hope have all the wide field of imagination, in which they may expatiate with little or no opposition.


It is impossible not to observe, that … these pretended citizens treat France exactly like a country of conquest. Acting as conquerors, they have imitated the policy of the harshest of that harsh race. The policy of such barbarous victors, who contemn a subdued people, and insult their feelings, has ever been, as much as in them lay, to destroy all vestiges of the ancient country, in religion, in polity, in laws, and in manners; to confound all territorial limits; to produce a general poverty; to put up their properties to auction; to crush their princes, nobles, and pontiffs; to lay low everything which had lifted its head above the level, or which could serve to combine or rally, in their distresses, the disbanded people, under the standard of old opinion.

Reflections on the Revolution In France, 1790

We note that Edmund Burke, who died in 1797, asked that his own body be buried secretly, lest his corpse be desecrated should the Jacobins come to power in England.

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Open Thread 7

All yours, folks.

Oh, And By The Way

Do you like your little town just the way it is? Does it seem appropriate to you that, as free Americans, our communities ought to enjoy local control of zoning, schools, and other civic concerns?

Well, enjoy it while it lasts, you racist, because the Transformer-In-Chief has other plans.

Things are moving awfully fast these days, no?

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The Culture War: Dispatch From The Front

The other day, in the context of the gagging and grinding-into-the-dust of a dissenting Oregonian baker, I mentioned Tom Nichols’ observation about the difference between authoritarians and totalitarians: that the former only cares about what you do, while the latter must also control what you think. Totalitarians demand not only obedience, but conversion.

Mr. Nichols has since condensed his thoughts into a brief post, which is now making the rounds on the Right. An excerpt:

It is not enough for these Americans to say: “I have had my day in court and prevailed.” In effect, they now add: “You do not have the right to hold a different opinion, even if you lose in the public arena. You may not hold on to your belief as a minority view, or even as a private thought. And if you persist and still disagree, I will attack you without quarter and set others on you to deprive you of your status in your profession, of your standing in your community, and even of your livelihood.”

…This attitude promises social warfare without end, because there is no peace to be had until the opposing side offers a sincere and unconditional surrender… For the new totalitarians, prevailing in the courts or at the ballot boxes isn’t enough if there’s still a suspicion that anyone, anywhere, might still be committing thoughtcrime.

We see this attitude in the remark made by BuzzFeed’s editor, Ben Smith, on the Supreme Court’s homosexual-marriage ruling:

“We firmly believe that for a number of issues, including civil rights, women’s rights, anti-racism, and LGBT equality, there are not two sides.”

We see the same attitude toward climate-change dissidents, whose letters and comments are now blocked by various mainstream media outlets (even as yet another distinguished scientist joins their ranks), and in the opportunistic pogrom against all symbols of the Confederacy, and against those Southerners who honor their Civil War dead. We saw it in the ruination of Brendan Eich and Jason Richwine, and we see it today in the ongoing effort to destroy Donald Trump for his willingness to speak frankly about illegal immigration.

(To his credit, Mr. Trump has not backed down at all — and his obduracy has won him grudging admiration from many, including me, who have always seen him as nothing more than a braggart, fop, and buffoon. He remains, of course, all of those things and more, but here he is saying what many scores of millions of Americans are thinking. The traditional American nation is dying by mass Third World immigration — no, make that “being murdered”, because the effect is intentional — and everybody knows it. Now, in the wake of a spate of horrifying crimes by sheltered illegal aliens, Mr. Trump’s remarks — as well as Ann Coulter’s impressively well-researched book on the topic — seem suddenly to have tapped into a reservoir of resentment among ordinary Americans at having been ignored by their own government for decades on this issue.)

Among the Zinn-soaked vanguard of this campaign, the belief that the nation itself is irremediably tainted by its wicked racial and economic history seems increasingly prevalent. Here, for example, is Vox’s Dylan Matthews (who is not, as far as I know, a crypto-reactionary monarchist) arguing that it would have been better all round if the American Revolution hadn’t happened at all. Perhaps we will soon see calls to ban not only the Battle Flag of the South, but the Stars and Stripes as well.

As Richard Fernandez wrote last week:

“We are now living through a great period of extinction, through an epoch of idea-death. Christianity, the nuclear family, individual initiative, the notion of country, the very idea of gender, even the primacy of survival are in the process being declared surplus to requirements. A thousand ideas, the bloom of the forest, are being bulldozed into the soil by those all too certain of themselves.”

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May Cause Flashbacks

Making the rounds today is a neural-network project from Google called DeepDream. It’s an open-source effort to train neural networks to recognize images (for you programmers, the code is here). I haven’t had any time to give this a close look, but if I understand correctly, when the system is presented with an unfamiliar image it tries to make sense of it in terms of images it has already seen — breaking down the new image and mapping known image fragments onto it wherever it can.

What’s attracting attention is the psychedelic imagery this thing produces. Some of it is eerily beautiful, while other images and animations are, I think, profoundly disturbing. It resembles very closely the visual effects produced by hallucinogenic drugs — a constant “filling-in” of every part of the visual field with half-formed and tentative patterns in continuous motion.

At this webpage, for example, is what the DeepDream code did when applied to a scene from the movie Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. (This animated GIF shows you how unsettling the effect can be.) Here is a video clip that shows what the software can do with a man’s face. Here is a page with more images, and links to other sites that will run the DeepDream process on pictures you upload. There is also a Reddit page.

I’m going to download this thing and see if I can get it running.

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