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Archive for April, 2014

Civilization and the Democratic Impulse, Yes, Part 2

with 3 comments

Yesterday, in the comments, Robert brought up the building of the intercontinental railroad system in the US as a counterexample to things like the Sui building of the Grand Canal–but that’s not a very good example, because it, too, depended heavily on coercion.

The owners of railroads may have hired voluntary workers to do their building instead of pressing unwilling conscripts into service whether those conscripts wanted to work or not, but the system could not have been successfully built if the US government hadn’t been willing to confiscate large tracts of land from very unwilling farmers.

And something similar happened when we built the interstate highway system. 

All such large scale projects seem to require a certain amount of coercion, if only because it only takes a single hold out somewhere to bring the entire thing down. 

I am not saying that this is a good thing, only that, as a matter of historical record, it is a fact.

Democracy–or at least, the 18th century English-Englightenment version of democracy–did not end this practice entirely, although it definitely slowed it up some.

But only some.

The English Enlightenment began with the premise that in a just society, all citizens are assumed to be able to handle their own affairs by themselves and without the “protection” of an aristocracy, and to run their own governments without such protection.

“All men are created equal” may have been defined restrictively in 1776, but it still created the expectation that the lives of ordinary people were supposed to count and to be under their own control, rather than being fodder for whatever the elites wanted to do next.

And the elites always had something they wanted to do next, even though those elites kept changing and their projects kept changing with them.

An awful lot of what elites want is self-serving, even if it is necessarily (in a democratic society) presented as “for your own good.” 

Elites are always interested in expanding their own power, and they’re always helped along by people who desperately want to be “safe.”   It never ceases to shock me how many people are afraid of living–of risk at any level, of the possibility that their fellow citizens will run amok and do damage, at the possibility (and it is always a possibility) that bad luck may happen and sweep away everything they have.

But to say this is not to say that elites are always wrong in what they want to do.

The public health drives that resulted in cleaning up city streets and making sewer systems both available and effective did more to reduce mortality than antibiotics.  Mass vaccinations made polio so rare my sons had only heard of it because it appeared in a Superman comic from the 1930s.  The Interstate highway system is one of the wonders of the world.

Unfortunately, there is nothing to say that elite projects are always the right ones, or that they always do more good than harm. 

And I think, if you took a survey, you’d probably find that most of them do more harm than good, in the long run as well as the short.

What’s more, they tend to erode the principle of self government.  They do this by giving the impression–not only to elites, but to their fellow travelers–that the ordinary citizen is too stupid to know his own good, and therefore should not be allowed to define it for himself.

And once you get started in that direction, there’s a veritable stampede to the position of changing the status of people from citizens to children.  Or, as often in the present day US, patients.

The problem with elite projects and the will to impose them coercively takes two forms.

The first is the obvious one:  most elite projects that demand the ability to coerce are bad ones, wrong in fact and assumptions.  We tend to get amnesia about the wave after wave of “expert opinion” that has flowed over us and then turned out to be absolutely and often harmfully wrong.

The second is that they almost always create an institutionalized presence that is virtually impossible to dislodge even once the projects are proven wrong, or once they become out of date.

None of this, of course, gets out from under the possibility that something may come along that legitimately requires such a project.

The people who concern themselves with climate change would definitely say that climate change is one of these things.   I don’t support them for reasons I outlined a few posts ago.

But the fact is, it is entirely possible that under a government that strictly observed the individual natural rights of its citizens, NO such projects could be carried out, no matter what good they did and no matter how the good would outweigh the bad.

It is also entirely possible that a government that did so observe the individual natural rights of its citizens is only viable once a certain level of progress has already been made–that, in conditions of less technical and infrastructure development, say, such a government would get in its own way and leave its citizens technically free but practially miserable.

The usual way around this is to declare that some practice–not vaccinating your children, or homeschooling them, or whatever–causes “harm,” with “harm” being defined as broadly and flexibly as possible.

And sometimes it entails simply lying.  A lot of people who claim to base their opinions and priorities on “science” buy into math so creative it lets them claim that “second hand smoke” and (now) even “third hand smoke” is “just as damaging” as smoking itself.

I just love the kind of contortions they get themselves into with e cigarettes.

And, of course, mostly we just get a resurgent of the same old argument that people do not know what is good for them, but somebody else does.

In case you’re wondering where I’m going with this, I don’t really know.  It just occurred to me how consistent this has been–that progress, real progress, almost never seems to be entirely voluntary.

But I am still me, and I’d rather see the end of large scale progress than allow government to coerce its citizens and treat them like children, so there’s that.

I’m going to go do some more work and play Paganini while I do it.

Written by janeh

April 7th, 2014 at 7:52 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Civilization and the Democratic Impulse (Possibly Part 1)

with 4 comments

So it is Sunday, and I have had what I think of as a very good Sunday morning:  Mozart’s 40 and 41 (the Jupiter), and a great big book.

I’ve also had that thing I wanted to talk about last week–remember the Sui dynasty and the Grand Canal?–and I came up with a connection I hadn’t thought of before.

So let me start with the connection, and go from there.

There is a short story out there called “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” by Ursula K. LeGuin.

I know this short story because it was included among the readings in a book we used for several years for teaching composition.  That book had almost no fiction of any kind, so any fiction that was included in it was noticeable just for being there.

The little biographical sketch of LeGuin called her a science fiction writer, and after I’d used the story a couple of times I saw her referred to that way again in several other places. 

I have no idea whether science fiction writers and fans would agree with that assessment, and I’ll leave it to you.

It’s the story I was to talk about and the way it connects with the Grand Canal, and Athens in the time of Socrates and and company.

The story is relatively simple: there is a country that is the most wonderful place to live.  Its citizens are happy and prosperous and content.  No other place anywhere affords its citizens greater freedom, greater prosperity, greater spiritual satisfaction.

If you are born a citizen of Omelas, you need to do only one thing to keep that citizenship.  In your early adolescence, you must be taken down to a deep place.  There, you will find a small child in excruciating pain and misery, with no hope of ever escaping his fate.

You will be informed that the great happiness and prosperity of the citizens of Omelas depends on the misery of this child.  If Omelas is to continue in happiness and prosperity, then this child and others like him to come must hurt, day after day, year after year, without any hope of release, until he dies.

Most of the citizens of Omelas who see this spectacle go back to their everyday lives and think nothing more about it.   If this is the price of their happiness, then it is.  And since they have no intention of giving that up, there’s no more to be said about it.

Every once in a while, though, there is someone who will not accept this state of affairs, who refuses to be happy and prosperous at the cost of this pain. 

Those are the people who walk away from Omelas, who leave and take their chances in the harsher world outside.

This story used to annoy me a little when I was teaching it, because the symbolism was so hamfisted, and because I suspected that the writer was doing an anti-Capitalism rag.  Knowing what I know now about Le Guin’s politics, I’d expect this was true.

But over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been reading Susan Wise Bauer’s The History of the Medieval World: From the Conversion of Constantine to the First Crusade, and something keeps coming up.

It is remarkable how often civilization everywhere–not just in the West, but everywhere–is a story of Omelas.

Which is how we get to the Grand Canal.  In China.

Somewhere in the late sixth to early seventh century, the emperor Sui Wendi had constructed what was called the Grand Canal, which was actually a series of canals connecting two rivers in the middle of the Sui territory.

This construction brought many benefits to the Sui empire–greater agricultural production, more efficient trade routes between parts of the empire.  I could go on at length.

The only problem was that the Grand Canal could only be constructed by coercion.  Sui Wendi drafted tens of thousands of ordinary people into the construction.  Working conditions were brutal and mortality was very high.  Many thousands of people died and even more were broken in health by the time they were released from their sentence in the project.

For the many millions more who were not drafted into the project, though, life was demonstrably better. 

And what’s more, life was also demonstrably better for their descendants, and for the descendants of the people who had died or been broken in the project, too.

And Sui Wendi was hardly alone.  You can find similar stories concerning kings in the South Asian peninsula, about the pre-Conquest (and post-Conquest, for that matter) South American civilizations, about…just about anybody.

Even the Greek city-states had their versions.  Athens, most notoriously, was only able to have a golden age because the wealth of the city was being hewed out of silver mines by a slave class that was whipped and starved and who died by the score to bring the metal out of the ground.

Civilization is spread by conquest, and it’s also spread by coercion.

All the time.

We have, of course, come to a place where we find such conquest and conversion unacceptable, and where brutality on that scale is rarely necessary.

But the question remains that we only got to this place–where such brutality is rarely necessary for progress to happen–because when it was necessary, rulers decided to go ahead with the coercion.

These days, people are less informed than the people of Omelas.  They don’t worry about their own complicity in a history of conquest and coercion because they largely don’t know about it.

For them, conquest and coercion started with “capitalism,” and only continues because capitalism continues.

And in the cases where they are happy to apply coercion, the coercion is of a kind that seems so different they think it ought to be classed entirely separately from Sui Wendi’s drafting farmers or Athens brutalizing its slaves in the silver mines.

Most of them know nothing at all about the human costs of five year plans or great leap forwards.

But that’s something else, isn’t it–sometimes conquest and coercion brings tangible benefits, and sometimes it’s just wrongheaded, and all that carnage is for nothing.

But I think I’ll leave that, and the kind of coercion that is requiring all children to attend school whether their parents want it or not, and other things like that, to another day.

I’m making a pile of Greek food for dinner.

Written by janeh

April 6th, 2014 at 9:34 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Social “Science” Research

with 16 comments

Before I get started on this short note, I want to point out one thing–I don’t moderate this blog.

But although I don’t moderate it, the program does, and what the program seems to especially dislike is links.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t post links. Links can be useful and informative, and the program doesn’t actually hate all of them.

I’m just saying that if you find your comment in “moderation,” what’s happening is the program is refusing to let you post until I check out your links, which I do eventually.  It can just take a little time, especially since we’re not all on the same time schedule, never mind time zone.

That having been said–the scare quotes around the word “science” above are deliberate.

I’ve gotten to the point where I’ve been burned too many times by social “science” “studies” that turn out to be anything but science–so much so, in fact, that I tend to hold them guilty of fudging until proven innocent.

Too much of what calls itself “social science” consists of  starting with conclusions and picking and choosing the supposed “evidence” to make them look like they’re supported. 

Even the “studies” that are honestly done too often emply inadequate protocols, unrepresentative samples, flawed methodologies (see self-reports), and correlations presented as causation in whatever direction the researcher wants them to go.

This doesn’t mean I won’t read the studies if you post them.  I will, once I’ve got a little time to see if I can look into them and find the research design and other information I need to know if what they’re saying is worth paying attention to.

I’m especially hinky about studies purporting to show the effectives of Idea A in a country other than my own, because countries are very different in a lot of different ways. 

Okay, that was a horrible sentence.

But you know what I mean. Countries and populations have temperaments just like people do, and what will work for largely monocultural Scandanavia may not work so well in very multicultural Brooklyn.

Hell, what works well in one monocultural society may work badly in another monocultural society.

I get especially annoyed at three things:

1) the tendency of lots of these studies to use college students as their research population, as if there is no significant difference between an Art History major at William and Mary and a coal miner in Appalachia.

2) the tendency of lots of these studies to use self reports, which seem to me obviously completely worthless.  People say lots of things.  They may or may not be telling the truth.

3) the tendency to use correlation as causation in the direction the researchers want it to go.  It may be the case that having guns in an area makes that area more violent.  But it may also be the case that in more violent areas, more people want to have guns.

I wish at least one of these gun studies would acknowledge the time factors involved–if you have one school shooting every 15 years, the fact that you don’t have any school shootings in the five years after you passed your gun laws doesn’t mean your gun laws have had any effect on school shootings.

And I would point out something else–if the old assault weapons ban had been in place at the time of the Newtown shooting, it would have done NOTHING to prevent it.  None of the guns Lanza used were covered by that law, and none of them were covered by the far stricter Connecticut gun laws that WERE in place at the time of the massacre. 

Then, of course, we get to the “mental health” thing, which, in a world where virtually everything is labeled a “disorder,” suggests a vast expansion of government power on a par with–well, lots of places you wouldn’t like to live.

But even on “mental health” grounds, nothing Lanza had ever been suspected of having would have predicted his violence, and none of it would have prevented him from buying a gun if he wanted to.

Unless we’re going to start depriving people of their rights and their status as citizens because they’re subject to “anxiety” or “depression”–which I’d fight to my last breath–we’re not getting anywhere in that direction either.

So I’ll stick to my conclusions in the last post, and go check out Michael’s links.


Written by janeh

April 4th, 2014 at 6:43 am

Posted in Uncategorized


with 9 comments

I’ve been having a long and stressful week.  First, and most important, the copyedited manuscript of the new Gregor, called Fighting Chance, was due in yesterday.  In order to get it done, I had to spend a lot of time with papers strewn out over the living room in little stacks with Post It notes on them.  The Post It notes were mine.  I was trying to keep track of two different sets of questions.

The other thing was the fall out from midterm grades, which were posted where students could see them just as we started back up from spring break.  There was a wailing and a gnashing of teeth.

In the midst of all that, I’ve been thinking for some time about writing a post about the Sui dynasty in China and the building of the Grand Canal, but just as I thought I was in a place where that was possible, the second Fort Hood shooting happened.

I’m not going to write about the Ford Hood shooting here, at least not now.  The cable stations are doing a valiant job of blathering nonstop with no real evidence to inform anything they’re saying, and I’d do no better.

 No, what’s been striking me over the last few hours is what I think of as the bounce back phenomenon–in no time at all,  FB posting and blog opinion started to circle around this case as another example of why we should impose much stricter gun control, or even get rid of all the guns.

I suppose I could fulminate here about how such outbreaks are opportunistic and morally wrong, but I won’t, because I don’t actually feel that way.  If there is some issue you care passionately about and an event occurs that seems to provide proof that your position is the right one, I thought you ought to use it as part of your argument.

My problem is not with the use of the issue, but with something that makes me considerably more nervous, and that is this:

To the extent that the people using the second Fort Hood shooting as an example of why we should get rid of the guns are sincere–and I think most of them are sincere–they’re asking for something that never has been, never will be, and never can be.

It’s not just that gun control laws as they have been devised up until now haven’t had the effect of reducing guns in private hands to anything near zero, it’s that no gun control legislation ever devised could do that no matter what it said.

The problem is structural in a way that cannot be changed no matter what we do or how we do it.

We could wipe out all the guns in the Northeast and California and everyplace else with even a mild cluster of population density.  We could end gun manufacturing and seal off the borders so that no unauthorized guns got in from outside.

But you see that “unauthorized” thing? That’s in recognition of the fact that we have places in this country like Wyoming and Idaho and Montana where people live on ranches and farms many thousands of acres in extent, and where the nearest law enforcement is a good hour to an hour and a half away.

Those people need guns.  They cannot rely on law enforcement to come to their aid if they’re robbed or raped or in danger of being murdered.  They need to keep wild animals out of their livestock pens. 

And unless you’re ready to install internal travel controls between states–and I’ll bet none of the gun control people actually would–then guns in those places means guns are going to reach all the places with the super duper gun control.

This is not to say that I’m happy with all kinds of very unsuitable people having guns.  It’s just to say that if you’re going to do something about the gun violence problem, you’ve got to deal with reality and not with a fantasy less likely to occur in real life than a Sharknado.

Granted, I also wouldn’t put up with the non-solution of giving the social services people more power to declare more people at-risk and therefore locking up or forcibly medicating people who have committed no crime and whom the psychological profession is not in fact capable of identifying as real threats–but the constant ideological skew of the gun control debate has driven all discussion of ACTUAL approaches to the problem off the field, and left us with these two.

The other area in which fantasy is trumping reality is the climate change debate, and I’m NOT talking about the fact of climate change itself.

For the purposes of this discussion, let’s stipulate that climate change is happening, the world is getting warmer, and man made actions are a large part of the cause of all this.

Because of all this, lots of people are jumping up and down demanding that we reverse this by doing all kinds of things, like lowering carbon footprints and eating less beef and a hundred other things.

I have no idea if all these measures would work if the world as a whole committed itself to meeting them–but it doesn’t matter.

Because the world as a whole is not going to commit itself to meeting them.

The whole “what to do about climate change” argument is an exercise in ethnocentrism so profound, I find it sometimes hard to credit.

Even if the climate change people could get everybody in the US and the EU and the scattered other countries (Australia and New Zealand, say) to do everything exactly as they proscribe, they’d still be stuck with India and China.

India and China are the two most populous countries in the world, and although one or the other of them sometimes makes noises about being concerned with global warming, neither one has any intention of doing anything about it that would slow down their growing economies.

China goes farther than that. On several occasions, when pushed too hard by the rest of us on carbon emissions, it’s made itself perfectly clear:  global warming is a fiction invented by the West to stunt and destroy China’s march to becoming the greatest economy in the world.

If China and India are not on board with doing things to reverse global warming, then nothing the rest of us do to reverse it will do much good at all.  If any.

And China and India are not on board.  China is even perfectly willing to allow near lethal levels of pollution in its own cities, affecting its own people, rather than reduce the rate at which those people buy and use cars.

All the actually possible, realistic answers to these problems are politically unworkable.  I suppose we COULD invade China and try to take it over and impose our will on it, but we won’t.  We don’t even want to.

We are not going to reverse the effects of global warming.  It can’t be done.

Which means we ought to be concentrating on how to adapt to it–but we’re not doing that, either.  

Climate change has become an ideological question, and ideological questions tend to break free of reality rather quickly.  We therefore don’t do what can be done to ameliorate problems, and each side goes home smug in the conviction that THEY’RE the true and virtuous ones.

I’ve picked on two mostly left-leaning questions for this post, but there are certainly issues on the other side.  My favorite one is “abstinence,” whose proponents seem to believe that with the right kind of sex education (“abstinence only”)  they can stop teenagers from having sex.

Hell, there are countries on this planet that will execute teenagers for having sex, and teenagers still have sex.

Somebody once said that the best is the enemy of the good. 

I think the ideological is the enemy of the possible.

Written by janeh

April 3rd, 2014 at 8:38 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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