The Wizard and the Prophet: On Steven Pinker and Yuval Noah Harari

John Faithful Hamer in Quillette:

In The Wizard and the Prophet (2018), Charles C. Mann maintains that intellectual life in the 21st century is defined by a civil war between Wizards, who believe that technology will save us, and Prophets, who see various kinds of disaster on the horizon: “Prophets look at the world as finite, and people as constrained by their environment. Wizards see possibilities as inexhaustible, and humans as wily managers of the planet. One views growth and development as the lot and blessing of our species; others regard stability and preservation as our future and our goal. Wizards regard Earth as a toolbox, its contents freely available for use; Prophets think of the natural world as embodying an overarching order that should not casually be disturbed.” Steven Pinker, the author of Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (2018), is a Wizard. Yuval Noah Harari, the author of Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (2015), is a Prophet.

At its best, Enlightenment Now reads like one of those gratitude journals self-help authors tell us to keep: “Today I am thankful for . . . .” Pinker reminds us of what we in the chattering classes too often forget: namely, that modernity has for the most part been a major upgrade for humanity: “The story of human progress is truly heroic. It is glorious . . . We live longer, suffer less, learn more, get smarter, and enjoy more small pleasures and rich experiences. Fewer of us are killed, assaulted, enslaved, oppressed, or exploited by the others. From a few oases, the territories with peace and prosperity are growing, and could someday encompass the globe.”

More here.

Due Process

Lewis H. Lapham in Lapham’s Quarterly:

To pick up on almost any story in the news these days—political, financial, sexual, or environmental—is to be informed in the opening monologue that the rule of law is vanished from the face of the American earth. So sayeth President Donald J. Trump, eight or nine times a day to his 47 million followers on Twitter. So sayeth also the plurality of expert witnesses in the court of principled opinion (media pundit, Never Trumper, think-tank sage, hashtag inspector of souls) testifying to the sad loss of America’s democracy, a once upon a time “government of laws and not of men.” The funeral orations make a woeful noise unto the Lord, but it’s not clear the orators know what their words mean or how reliable are their powers of observation. The American earth groans under the weight of legal bureaucracy, the body politic so judiciously enwrapped and embalmed in rules, regulations, requirements, codes, and commandments that it bears comparison to the glorified mummy of a once upon a time great king in Egypt. Senior statesmen and tenured Harvard professors say the rule of law has been missing for three generations, ever since President Richard Nixon’s bagmen removed it from a safe at the Watergate. If so, who can be expected to know what it looks like if and when it shows up with the ambulance at the scene of a crime? Does it come dressed as a man or a woman? Blue eyes and sweet smile riding a white horse? Black uniform, steel helmet, armed with assault rifle? Or maybe the rule of law isn’t lost but misplaced. Left under a chair on Capitol Hill, in a display case at the Smithsonian, scouting locations for Clint Eastwood’s next movie.

…Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980 to restore America to its rightful place “where someone can always get rich,” his attitude and agenda not unlike Donald Trump’s, and by 1984 everywhere in the society, money was seen to be the hero with a thousand faces, greed the creative frenzy from which all blessings flow. What was billed as the Reagan Revolution and the dawn of a new Morning in America united the many and various parties of the right (conservative, neoconservative, libertarian, reactionary, evangelical, the Ku Klux Klan, and the Koch brothers) under one flag of transcendent and absolute truth—money ennobles rich people, making them healthy, wealthy, and wise; money corrupts poor people, making them lazy, ignorant, and sick. The doctrine of enlightened selfishness rebranded as neoliberalism has remained in power in Washington for the past thirty years. The separation of values treasured by a capitalist economy from those cherished by a democratic society has resulted in the accumulation of more laws limiting the freedom of persons, fewer laws restraining the license of property, the letting fall into disrepair of nearly all the infrastructure (roads, schools, rivers) that provides the citizenry with the ways and means of its common enterprise.

More here.

Sunday Poem

anyone lived in a pretty how town
(with up so floating many bells down)
spring summer autumn winter
he sang his didn’t he danced his did.
Women and men(both little and small)
cared for anyone not at all
they sowed their isn’t they reaped their same
sun moon stars rain
children guessed(but only a few
and down they forgot as up they grew
autumn winter spring summer)
that noone loved him more by more
when by now and tree by leaf
she laughed his joy she cried his grief
bird by snow and stir by still
anyone’s any was all to her
someones married their everyones
laughed their cryings and did their dance
(sleep wake hope and then)they
said their nevers they slept their dream
stars rain sun moon
(and only the snow can begin to explain
how children are apt to forget to remember
with up so floating many bells down)
one day anyone died i guess
(and noone stooped to kiss his face)
busy folk buried them side by side
little by little and was by was
all by all and deep by deep
and more by more they dream their sleep
noone and anyone earth by april
wish by spirit and if by yes.
Women and men(both dong and ding)
summer autumn winter spring
reaped their sowing and went their came
sun moon stars rain
by e.e. Cummings,
from 50 Poems
Hawthorn Books, 1940

The Refusal to Make Things Easy for Anyone: On Philip Roth, 1933–2018

Marco Roth in n+1:

LET’S GET THE STUPID BIT about the shared last name out of the way. It affected me. When a young wannabe, I couldn’t read him, not willingly, not without trepidation, certainly I couldn’t read him well. One overwhelming, brilliant father was enough, thank you. Later, a rueful joke: “Yes, like the novelist, not related,” or dismissive, “Roth, like Henry or Joseph.” Distance, denial, mistrust, a touch of unearned condescension, the attitude of so many writers my generation and a little older, both toward the man and the writer, whether we were tri-state Jews or golden midwest goys, like David Foster Wallace. The feeling was mutual, judging by the books. Men roughly my age, that is of a generation who would have been Roth’s children, had he wanted any, began appearing in his novels throughout the late ’90s and mid aughts. We were a bunch of whiny upstarts, puritans, biographers, journalists, “thoughtless opportunists” and “entitled schemers” (Exit Ghost) or already castrated paragons of mushy devotion to our brilliant, sexy girlfriends and the older men who covet them (“he seemed to take pleasure in deferentially calling me ‘Mr. Zuckerman’” is how one such ephebe is first characterized). Or, like Drenka’s son in Sabbath’s Theater, a cop, a character who seems to exist only so he can catch the master puppeteer in various delicta flagrantia atop his mother’s grave and stop the carnal play in the name of the law. Daughters fare worse: the tragedy inside American Pastoral, a reverse-engineered King Lear, is of a child driven to madness by her inability to acknowledge a father’s love—one of the few times in Roth’s fiction that he sympathized his way into seeing things from a parent’s point of view, and he did it by imagining a child turned terrorist.

More here.

Centrists Are the Most Hostile to Democracy, Not Extremists

David Adler in the NYT:

My research suggests that across Europe and North America, centrists are the least supportive of democracy, the least committed to its institutions and the most supportive of authoritarianism.

I examined the data from the most recentWorld Values Survey (2010 to 2014) andEuropean Values Survey (2008), two of the most comprehensive studies of public opinion carried out in over 100 countries. The survey asks respondents to place themselves on a spectrum from far left to center to far right. I then plotted the proportion of each group’s support for key democratic institutions. (A copy of my working paper, with a more detailed analysis of the survey data, can be found here.)

Respondents who put themselves at the center of the political spectrum are the least supportive of democracy, according to several survey measures. These include views of democracy as the “best political system,” and a more general rating of democratic politics. In both, those in the center have the most critical views of democracy.

More here.

How nations stay together

Andreas Wimmer in Aeon:

hy do some countries fall apart, often along their ethnic fault lines, while others have held together over decades and centuries, despite governing a diverse population as well? Why is it, in other words, that nation-building succeeded in some places while it failed in others? The current tragedy in Syria illustrates the possibly murderous consequences of failed nation-building. Outside of the media spotlight, South Sudan and the Central African Republic went through similar experiences in recent years. In some rich and democratic countries in western Europe, such as Spain, Belgium and the United Kingdom, longstanding secessionist movements have regained momentum. Within our lifetimes, they might well succeed in breaking apart these states. On the other hand, there is no secessionist movement among the Cantonese speakers of southern China or among the Tamils of India. And why has no serious politician ever questioned national unity in such diverse countries as Switzerland or Burkina Faso?

Before answering these questions, it is necessary to define nation-building more precisely. It goes beyond the mere existence of an independent country with a flag, an anthem and an army. Some old countries (such as Belgium) haven’t come together as a nation, while other more recently founded states (such as India) have done so. There are two sides to the nation-building coin: the extension of political alliances across the terrain of a country, and the identification with and loyalty to the institutions of the state, independent of who currently governs. The former is the political-integration aspect, the latter the political-identity aspect of nation-building. To foster both, political ties between citizens and the state should reach across ethnic divides.

More here.

Stephanie Kelton Has The Biggest Idea In Washington

Zach Carter in The Huffington Post:

Kelton’s core idea ― that the government can’t run out of money or go bankrupt, no matter how much it spends ― hasn’t really changed since the days when Buiter and Krugman were trashing her thinking. But it seems the world has. Today she is a full-fledged member of the American power elite, juggling television bookings with MSNBC’s Chris Hayes and Bloomberg TV’s Joe Weisenthal, writing op-eds for The New York Times and being quoted in The Wall Street Journal.

Pod Save America and Financial Times want her on their podcasts. She’s got a book deal with Public Affairs, and Bloomberg View has signed her up as its newest columnist ― but she isn’t sure that gig is worth the time, given her packed speaking schedule. In May alone, she’s being flown to Las Vegas to debate a former International Monetary Fund chief economist before heading to Monaco to moderate a panel on artificial intelligence. After that, the House of Lords in London.

Everybody wants a piece of Kelton these days because a simple, radical idea she has been workshopping her entire career is the next big thing in Democratic Party politics. She calls it the job guarantee ― a federal program offering a decent job to every American who wants to work, in every county in the country, at any phase of the business cycle.

It’s a practical expression of her monetary thinking.

More here.

Saturday Poem


… Up ahead, in the twilight, the endless yes
that never can be reached.
……………………………………. “Yessss!”
…………………………………………………. And the light,
intensified, calling me . . .

It wasn’t from the sea . . . Reaching
the mouths of light that spoke it
infinitely drawn out,
it vibrates, yet again, immensely faint
in a distance that the soul knows is high
and wants to believe is distant, only distant.

by Juan Ramón Jimenéz
from The Poet & the Sea
White Pine Press 2009


Delante, en el ocaso, el si infinito
al que nunca se llega.
…………………………… “Siiiii!”
……………………………………… Y la luz,
se agudiza, llamándome…

No era del mar … Llegados
a las bocas de luz que lo decían
con largor infinito,
vibra, otra vez, inmensamente débil

en un lejos que el alma sabe alto
y quiere creer lejos, sólo lejos…

Philip Roth: ‘the kind of satirical genius that comes along once in a generation’

Martin Amis in The Guardian:

Writers of genuine originality are always divisive. Roth alienated not just the occasional reader but entire communities, reviled, first, by world Jewry, and later by world feminism. This choric hostility was in both cases essentially socio-cultural, and not literary. You can understand the historical uneasiness, but World Jewry got it wrong about Roth, a proud Jew as well as a proud American. And the feminist objection is impetuously sweeping; it detects no distance between Roth and his (often deplorable) narrators. Besides, if you outlaw misogyny as a subject, then you outlaw King Lear, and much else.

My subjective impression is that Portnoy’s Complaint is still the diamond in the crown. Here the Jewish-American Novel is narrowed down to one idea: gentile girls, shiksas (“detested things”), where ancient laws of purity come up against American womanhood, and the inevitability of material America. In Portnoy all the great themes are there (all except mortality): fathers, mothers, children, the male libido, suffering, and Israel. Roth torches this bonfire with the kind of satirical genius that comes along, if we’re lucky, perhaps once in every generation.

More here.

The Decline of Diplomacy

Daniel Kurtz-Phelan in The New York Times:

In 2010, just before Thanksgiving, American foreign-policy makers flew into a panic. The United States government had gotten word that an outfit called WikiLeaks was preparing to release an enormous cache of secret diplomatic cables, in coordination with teams of journalists from this and other newspapers. At the time, I was a policy hand in the State Department. It fell to me and my colleagues to dutifully craft apologies on behalf of our bosses, whose sensitive communications and private insults — speculation about, say, a foreign leader’s mental aptitude or mysterious wealth — were about to become public. They, meanwhile, confronted weightier concerns, scrambling to anticipate the coming fallout. Would missions and sources be compromised? Would activists be exposed to persecution? Would anyone ever talk to American officials again? Almost no one, however, anticipated what would prove to be one of the more lasting consequences of the leak: surprised admiration for American diplomats. “My personal opinion of the State Department has gone up several notches,” the British historian and journalist Timothy Garton Ash wrote. He compared one veteran ambassador’s prose to Evelyn Waugh’s, and deemed other analyses “astute,” “unsentimental” and “hilarious.” Beneath their “dandruffy” exteriors, he concluded after browsing the classified offerings, these diplomats were sharper, and funnier, than they looked.

Ronan Farrow aims to achieve a similar effect in “War on Peace.” At a time when the Trump administration has called for gutting the State Department’s budget and filled foreign-policy jobs with military officers, Farrow draws on both government experience and fresh reporting to offer a lament for the plight of America’s diplomats — and an argument for why it matters. “Classic, old-school diplomacy,” he observes, is “frustrating” and involves “a lot of jet lag.” Yet his wry voice and storytelling take work that is often grueling and dull and make it seem, if not always exciting, at least vividly human. A Foreign Service officer’s hairstyle is “diplomat’s mullet: peace in the front, war in the back”; an Afghan strongman’s choice of décor is “warlord chic,” with “leatherette La-Z-Boy recliners” and “a giant tank full of sharks.”

More here.

Two new books explore how psychedelics can change your life

Charlotte Shane at Bookforum:

TAO LIN’S EIGHTH BOOK, Trip, is his best yet, and it’s all thanks to drugs. Well, perhaps not entirely thanks to drugs. With exercise comes mastery, or at least competence, and Lin has been practicing his idiosyncratic craft for over a decade. His first book was published in 2006, when he was twenty-three; improvement during the intervening years may have been inevitable. But Lin—whose authorial voice, notoriously, is so assiduously literal that it sometimes seems transcribed from a robot failing a Turing test—has never been more creative, precise, or inspired than when he details psychedelics-begotten behavior and theories. The behavior is mostly his own, while the theories are often borrowed from Terence McKenna, the late psilocybin advocate whose YouTube videos started Lin down the path to revitalization. While studying McKenna, Lin began to make radical adjustments to his daily drug routines, which in turn radically affected his mind-set.

more here.

The Truth About Animals

Zoe Lescaze at The NY Times:

Humans have long trapped animals in cages, nets and snares, but the tangled webs of vanity, curiosity, cruelty and fear we cast over other creatures may be even more perilous. We see our virtues and vices reflected in animals — hardworking beavers, indolent sloths, innocent lambs, greedy vultures — through a glass darkly. But these well-worn clichés blind us to a world far more dazzling and varied, according to Lucy Cooke, the acclaimed zoology-trained author and documentary filmmaker, in her new book, “The Truth About Animals.” As she writes, “Painting the animal kingdom with our artificial ethical brush denies us the astonishing diversity of life, in all of its blood-drinking, sibling-eating, corpse-shagging glory.” (Yes, corpse shagging. The penguin portion is not for the faint of heart.)

more here.

Bullshit Jobs and the myth of capitalist efficiency

Elaine Glaser at The Guardian:

As well as documenting personal misery, this book is a portrait of a society that has forgotten what it is for. Our economies have become “vast engines for producing nonsense”. Utopian ideals have been abandoned on all sides, replaced by praise for “hardworking families”. The rightwing injunction to “get a job!” is mirrored by the leftwing demand for “more jobs!”

Rather than directing our frustration at the system itself, we let it curdle into resentment towards workers with less bullshit jobs. Thus the hated “liberal elite” are those who get paid to indulge in such compelling and glamorous activities that many people would undertake them for free. Yet even members of that dwindling caste dutifully take on more and more paperwork, in a gesture of warped solidarity with their colleagues in admin. The problem of bullshit jobs has a lot to do with the problem of bureaucracy, the subject of Graeber’s previous book The Utopia of Rules.

more here.

Time to abandon grand ethical theories?

Julian Baggini in the Times Literary Supplement:

Ethics today is in a curious state. There is no shortage of people telling us that Western civilization is facing a moral crisis, that the old foundation of Christianity has been removed but nothing has been put in its place. Christian writers such as Alister McGrath and Nick Spencer have warned that we’re running on the moral capital of a religion we’ve long abandoned. It’s only a matter of time before, like Wile E. Coyote, we realize we’ve run off a moral cliff, impossibly suspended in mid-air only as long as we fail to realize there’s nothing under our feet.

One supposed sign of this malaise is that scepticism about morality has never been higher. University philosophy lecturers consistently report that their new undergraduates tend to arrive assuming that all thinking people are moral relativists who believe that what’s right for some is wrong for others and that’s all there is to be said for it. Psychology has fuelled this scepticism, with researchers like Joshua Greene arguing that most moral judgements come straight from the “hot” amygdala, not the “cool” prefrontal cortex. On this account, moral principles are post-facto rationalizations of emotional reactions.

Yet for such a sickly beast, ethics is energetically at work everywhere. You may doubt the sincerity of corporate social responsibility but the very fact that every reasonably sized company feels the need to demonstrate it says something about public expectations.

More here.

NASA’s EM-drive is a magnetic WTF-thruster

Chris Lee in Ars Technica:

It was bound to happen eventually. A group of researchers that may actually be competent and well-funded is investigating alternative thrust concepts. This includes our favorite, the WTF-thrusterEM-drive, as well as something called a Mach-Effect thruster. The results, presented at Space Propulsion 2018, are pretty much as expected: a big fat meh.

The key motivation behind all of this is that rocket technology largely sucks for getting people around the Solar System. And it sucks even worse as soon as you consider the problem of interstellar travel. The result is that good people spend a lot of time eliminating even the most far-fetched ideas. The EM-drive is a case in point. It’s basically a truncated hollow copper cone that you feed electromagnetic radiation into. The radiation bounces around in the cone. And, by some physics-defying magic, unicorns materialize to push you through space.

Well, that explanation is at least as plausible as any of the others. There is no physics explaining how this could work, but some people at NASA have claimed that it does.

More here.  [Thanks to Sean Carroll.]

My Preferred Pronouns?

Justin E. H. Smith in his blog:

I was at an academic conference last week, somewhere in America, where we were invited by our hosts to place a ‘preferred pronoun’ sticker on our nametags. “If you could pick one of those up during the next break, we’d appreciate it.” The options were, ‘He’, ‘She’, ‘They’, ‘Ask Me’, and one with a blank space for a write-in. Coming from my adoptive France, I had heard of this new practice in my country of origin, but somehow I had convinced myself that it was mostly mythical. Yet there were the stickers, and there were all my fellow participants, wearing them with straight faces.

I did not pick one up. As is my practice at these events, I do not even wear the nametag that has been provided for me, so there would have been nothing to put the sticker on. But if there had been any direct and explicit pressure on me to wear one, rather than just a general announcement, I would have been constrained to explicitly refuse to do what was being asked of me. I would have been a conscientious objector.

In the future I will avoid meetings at which I know in advance, or I have a reasonable expectation, that there will be such stickers. I am strongly opposed to this convention, I think it is ridiculous and offensive, and I am only thankful that, for now, it is only a convention and not a compulsion. But the line is not so clear. It is not a compulsion for me to wear a sticker, because I am privileged and basically indifferent as to whether I ever get invited to an academic event again. The quality of my life is enhanced by not going to academic events, and reduced by going to them. If I can’t go because social pressure would require me to wear a sticker, well, tant mieux. But this is not the case for younger scholars who are precariously employed. It is in part for their sake that I feel the need to make explicit my opposition to this practice.

More here.