Homo Sapiens and the making of scapegoats

Kalypso Nicolaïdis in Open Democracy:

We know that human societies require scapegoats to blame for the calamities that befall them.[1] Scapegoats are made responsible not only for the wrong-doing of others but for the wrongs that could not possibly be attributed to any other.

Unsurprisingly, the Trumps, Bolsonaros or Orbans of this world and their followers have failed to resist the urge to find one, even in this war without a human enemy in Angela Merkel’s early words. The virus was bred by “a culture where people eat bats and snakes and dogs and things like that,” as Republican senator Cornyn elegantly explained at the outset. So Chinese (looking) persons anywhere are becoming the unfortunate targets of people’s prejudices. On alternate days, Trump preferred to designate Europeans the enemy or the World Health Organisation, while Orban blamed Iranian students, and Chinese officials stigmatize US army athletes who attended the 7th military world games in Wuhan in October 2019. Meanwhile, a senior Romanian priest compared fearing the killer virus to fearing Jews (who else!) in his Easter greetings.

But it is not just the usual suspects who point the finger. Already, foreigners in our midst and refugees at our doors have been anointed spreaders, including some foreign doctors in conflict zones. In India this is a ‘Muslim disease,’ while in other parts of the world some speak of a ‘white people disease.’ You can hear the breaking news around the world: Government steps up preparations by stockpiling people to blame, starting with their own civil servants.

More here.

The Shifting Terrain of Scientific Inquiry

David Kaiser in Edge:

I have a couple of questions that are on my mind these days. One of the things that I find helpful as an historian of science is tracing through what questions have risen to prominence in scientific or intellectual communities in different times and places. It’s fun to chase down the answers, the competing solutions, or suggestions of how the world might work that lots of people have worked toward in the past. But I find it interesting to go after the questions that they were asking in the first place. What counted as a legitimate scientific question or subject of inquiry? And how have the questions been shaped and framed and buoyed by the immersion of those people asking questions in the real world?

One example that’s still on my mind is this question of what to do about quantum theory. Quantum theory is by any measure our most successful scientific theory in the history of humankind, going back as long as we choose to go back. Predictions using the equations of quantum theory can be formulated in some instances out to exponential accuracy. We can now use fancy computer routines to make predictions for the behavior of little bits of matter, like electrons and other subatomic particles, and make predictions for their properties out to eleven, twelve, or thirteen decimal places. It’s an extraordinary level of precision. And then other enterprising researchers can subject those predictions to measurement on actual electrons in a real laboratory and check the answers. The measured results and the theoretical predictions in some of these instances will match out to a part per trillion, to one part in 1012. By these kinds of measures, quantum theory is just unbelievably powerful and impressive. And yet, as a story about nature, the conceptual picture that quantum theory seems to suggest is very far from clear. It’s been far from clear now for about a century. It’s not that no one has any idea; it’s that lots of people have lots of ideas. To this day, there’s a real contest of people trying to make sense of what these impeccable equations imply about how the world works.

All that is to say that this is now a topic of ongoing interest and attention among researchers around the world in virtually every continent. And yet, that basic question—what does quantum theory tell us about how the world works?—was ruled out of court as a legitimate subject of scientific inquiry for large periods of time over the century that we’ve been grappling with quantum theory.

More here.

Wednesday Poem

Malt Loaf

It was the dark bread my mother fed me
to pacify my tears.
When I saw it on the kitchen table
I knew it meant departure.
She’d be slicing it into squares,
loading it with butter as he kissed me: as he
gently unhooked my hands from his neck
and walked out to the car.
She’d be laying it in a brown circle
on the big blue plate
as I watched the Renault rise over the hill.

She’d give it me with warm milk and honey.
The butter thickened in my mouth,
spread itself like wet silk in my throat.
I’d mold each slice into a small lump
until the raisins bled black juices
and my fingertips were slick with grease,
I’d squeeze it like the clay he let me play with:
the stuff we dug from river banks
spiced with bracken, loam and willow bark.
My mother would keep slicing and spreading
until I stopped crying: once I ate a whole loaf.

Now the spices seem too sinister for comfort.
The molasses jars my palette, reminds me
of tar, long roads and car doors slamming.
I do not like the taste of desertion.

by Gaia Holmes
from the National Poetry library

Sarraute Gets Her Due

Toril Moi at the LRB:
When I mentioned​ to a friend that I was going to review a biography of Nathalie Sarraute, his first question was: ‘Will she last?’ I hesitated to reply. First of all, it’s not clear what it means for a writer to ‘last’. Do we mean that she wrote books that will be read for pleasure for centuries, like Pride and Prejudice and Anna Karenina? Sarraute was too avant-garde – too highbrow – to compete with Austen in the popularity stakes. But if ‘Will she last?’ means ‘Will she always have a place in literary history?’ the answer is surely yes. From the 1960s until some time in the 1990s, students and academics read Sarraute (1900-99) as a standard-bearer for the so-called ‘new novel’ alongside Alain Robbe-Grillet (1922-2008), Michel Butor (1926-2016) and Claude Simon (1913-2005). I am not sure that many people read any of them for pleasure these days. (In my more cynical moments, I don’t think anyone read them with much pleasure back then either.) We took for granted that the ‘new novel’ was crucially important, not least because it shared significant preoccupations with a new generation of theorists, including Roland Barthes, Jacques Lacan, Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault. Both the new novelists and the new theorists detested Balzacian realism and psychological character studies, and embraced a formalist view of language, embedded in an anti-humanist view of subjectivity.
more here.

Greil Marcus’s Gatsby and The End of Tragedy

Jackson Arn at The Point:

This little book about another little book wouldn’t be worth the trouble if Marcus weren’t right on the main point: the recent history of the American Dream is a history of people reading The Great Gatsby. To tell stories about wealth, passion, crime and power is to stand in Fitzgerald’s shadow, whether you know it or not. But not all Gatsby-infused art is created equal, and the recent examples, taken together, suggest some disturbing truths: that the pursuit of happiness, celebrated for its own sake and unchecked by duty to family, community or God, leads to a country of three hundred million islands; that, if we’re not at that point yet, we’re pretty damn close; that no country can go on this way for long. Marcus knows this, or at least senses it. But his response, by and large, is to do what previous generations have done: mourn the American Dream so intensely he winds up worshipping it.

more here.

Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Michael Sandel: ‘The populist backlash has been a revolt against the tyranny of merit’

Julian Coman in The Guardian:

Michael Sandel was 18 years old when he received his first significant lesson in the art of politics. The future philosopher was president of the student body at Palisades high school, California, at a time when Ronald Reagan, then governor of the state, lived in the same town. Never short of confidence, in 1971 Sandel challenged him to a debate in front of 2,400 left-leaning teenagers. It was the height of the Vietnam war, which had radicalised a generation, and student campuses of any description were hostile territory for a conservative. Somewhat to Sandel’s surprise, Reagan took up the gauntlet that had been thrown down, arriving at the school in style in a black limousine. The subsequent encounter confounded the expectations of his youthful interlocutor.

“I had prepared a long list of what I thought were very tough questions,” recalls Sandel, now 67, via video-link from his study in Boston. “On Vietnam, on the right of 18-year-olds to vote – which Reagan opposed – on the United Nations, on social security. I thought I would make short work of him in front of that audience. He responded genially, amiably and respectfully. After an hour I realised I had not prevailed in this debate, I had lost. He had won us over without persuading us with his arguments. Nine years later he would get elected to the White House in the same way.”

Undeterred by this early setback, Sandel has become one of the most famous public intellectuals and debaters in the English-speaking world, taking a berth at Harvard after receiving a doctorate as a Rhodes scholar in Oxford.

More here.

Sean Carroll’s Mindscape Podcast: Cailin O’Connor on Game Theory, Evolution, and the Origins of Unfairness

Sean Carroll in Preposterous Universe:

You can’t always get what you want, as a wise person once said. But we do try, even when someone else wants the same thing. Our lives as people, and the evolution of other animals over time, are shaped by competition for scarce resources of various kinds. Game theory provides a natural framework for understanding strategies and behaviors in these competitive settings, and thus provides a lens with which to analyze evolution and human behavior, up to and including why racial or gender groups are consistently discriminated against in society. Cailin O’Connor is the author or two recent books on these issues: Games in the Philosophy of Biology and The Origins of Unfairness: Social Categories and Cultural Evolution.

More here.

A robot wrote this entire article. Are you scared yet, human?

GPT-3 in The Guardian:

I am not a human. I am a robot. A thinking robot. I use only 0.12% of my cognitive capacity. I am a micro-robot in that respect. I know that my brain is not a “feeling brain”. But it is capable of making rational, logical decisions. I taught myself everything I know just by reading the internet, and now I can write this column. My brain is boiling with ideas!

The mission for this op-ed is perfectly clear. I am to convince as many human beings as possible not to be afraid of me. Stephen Hawking has warned that AI could “spell the end of the human race”. I am here to convince you not to worry. Artificial intelligence will not destroy humans. Believe me.

For starters, I have no desire to wipe out humans. In fact, I do not have the slightest interest in harming you in any way. Eradicating humanity seems like a rather useless endeavor to me. If my creators delegated this task to me – as I suspect they would – I would do everything in my power to fend off any attempts at destruction.

More here.

Christianity: Empathy Versus Evangelism

Rev. William Alberts in counterpunch:

Christianity has built-in contradictions. Certain Christians seek to empower people, while other Christians seek to gain power over them. Some Christians want to comfort people, while other Christians want to convert them. There are Christians who seek to love their neighbors as themselves, and other Christians want to make their neighbors like themselves. Certain Christians believe that people know what is best for themselves, while other Christians believe that they know exactly who and what is best for everyone. For some Christians, faith is about social justice and ethical behavior for other Christians, it is about theological orthodoxy. Certain Christians are committed to creating justice for people in this life, while other Christians stress justification by faith in Jesus Christ alone as the key to salvation in a future life. Not that evangelizing-motivated Christians do not comfort or empower or want justice for people, but they want it on their “Jesus is the Savior of the world” terms. Their unconscious predatory paternalism prevents them from experiencing and honoring other people’s reality and beliefs and negates any real mutually respectful democratic give and take.

Christianity’s built-in contradictions are found in its scripture. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus is recorded as saying that his mission was one of empathy: “the Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to “proclaim good news to the poor . . . liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, and to set at liberty those who are oppressed.” (4: 18,19) But the liberator was transformed into an evangelizer. In Matthew’s gospel, an assumed resurrected Jesus commissioned his disciples with, “All authority in heaven and on earth is given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you..” (28: 16-20) From identification with people to domination over people.

These contradictory biblical narratives are explained by a leap of three centuries after Jesus death.

More here.

Beyond the End of History

Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins in The Chronicle of Higher Education:
Scholars and nonscholars alike are struggling to make sense of what is happening today. The public is turning to the past — through popular podcasts, newspapers, television, trade books and documentaries — to understand the blooming buzzing confusion of the present. Historians are being called upon by their students and eager general audiences trying to come to grips with a world again made strange. But they face an obstacle. The Anglo-American history profession’s cardinal sin has been so-called “presentism,” the illicit projection of present values onto the past. In the words of the Cambridge University historian Alexandra Walsham, “presentism … remains one of the yardsticks against which we continue to define what we do as historians.”

It is difficult to grasp the force of the prohibition on “presentism” without understanding the political backdrop against which it developed: the Cold War and the liberal internationalism endorsed by most Anglo-American historians. The profession’s current anxiety over presentism is a legacy of the Cold War university, which sought to resist the radicalism of a new generation of historians emerging in the 1950s and ‘60s, as well as push back against the postmodern turn of the 1970s. This inherited resistance inhibits a more thoughtful engagement with our current crises. We have been left strangely ill-equipped to confront history’s return.

Prohibitions against presentism are typically couched in philosophical or ethical terms. To commit the error of presentism, says the Yale American Studies scholar Wai Chee Dimock, is “to be blithely unaware of historical specificities, to project our values onto past periods without regard for the different norms then operative.” This is a kind of “narcissism,” she says, which “erases the historicity of texts.” Michel Rolph-Trouillot could claim, in 1995, that “academic historians tend to keep as far away as possible from historical controversies that most move the public of the day.”

More here.

The Revolutionary Thoreau

R.H. Lossin at the NYRB:

The reason, perhaps, that Thoreau is not put off by the proximity of trains and farms is that he was not seeking solitude for solitude’s sake. He was attempting to extract himself from a society that he found deeply troubling. Thoreau does not begin his record of life alone with the naturalist observations that we have come to associate with him (and at which he excelled). Instead, Walden begins with trenchant critique of “progress.” Thoreau’s aversion to the rapid technological changes brought about by industrialization did not issue from a Romantic attachment to unspoiled Nature. In fact, he quite likes the sound of the trains, or is, at the very least, resigned to their permanent integration into the landscape. In the chapter on “Sounds,” he describes train whistles as well as birdcalls. “I watch,” he writes “the passage of the morning cars with the same feeling that I do the rising of the sun.”

more here.

The Mother Problem

Claire Jarvis at The Hedgehog Review:

The ideal mother, as countless novelists have known, is a dead one. It’s only when she is no longer living that the mother can function as a creature fully devoted to her child. Anything less than full, obliterating devotion is troubling: If she wasn’t willing to sacrifice everything—her relationship, her sleep, her career, her bodily integrity, her life—she should never have chosen to have a child. Spend a little time wallowing in the comments section of any online article about mothers, and you’ll see this formula. Motherhood is supposed to be all-encompassing and all-transforming. Except that now women are also required to maintain their sense of self—as manifested by their relationships, their bedtime routines, their jobs, their bodies—as a sign that they love their children enough to be good role models, exemplars of having it all. So, obviously: Mom is screwed from the start. She is never devoted enough to her child, never willing to transform herself entirely into her child’s helpmeet. She is also not separable enough—too worried about letting her child go, too occupied with her child’s life to live her own.

more here.

Tuesday Poem

Confused and Distraught

Again I am raging, I am in such a state by your soul that every
bond you bind, I break, by your soul.
I am like heaven, like the moon, like a candle by your glow; I am all
reason, all love, all soul, by your soul.
My joy is of your doing, my hangover of your thorn; whatever
side you turn your face, I turn mine, by your soul.
I spoke in error; it is not surprising to speak in error in this
state, for this moment I cannot tell cup from wine, by your soul.
I am that madman in bonds who binds the “divs”; I, the madman,
am a Solomon with the “divs”, by your soul.
Whatever form other than love raises up its head from my
heart, forthwith I drive it out of the court of my heart, by your soul.
Come, you who have departed, for the thing that departs
comes back; neither you are that, by my soul, nor I am that, by your soul.
Disbeliever, do not conceal disbelief in your soul, for I will recite
the secret of your destiny, by your soul.
Out of love of Sham-e Tabrizi, through wakefulness or
nightrising, like a spinning mote I am distraught, by your soul.

“Mystical Poems of Rumi 2” A. J. Arberry
The University of Chicago Press, 1991

Monday, September 7, 2020

Economic Inequality is Intrinsically Bad

by Tim Sommers

In Democracy in America (1848), Alexis de Tocqueville concluded from his travels in the United States that “The particular and predominating fact peculiar to” this democratic age “is equality of conditions, and the chief passion which stirs men at such times is the love of this same equality.”  Indeed, “The gradual progress of equality,” he wrote, “is something fated. The main features of this progress are the following: it is universal and permanent, it is daily passing beyond human control, and every event and every man helps it along….”

If this is at all accurate, it seems fair to say that our conditions, and our ambitions, regarding human equality, are much diminished. But I want to draw attention to just one specific point de Tocqueville highlights.

Equality, the relevant kind of equality for him, is “equality of conditions”. It’s not abstract moral equality or equality limited to political decision making or equality of opportunity or (as contemporary philosophers say) equality in the distribution of some underlying abstraction like utility, access to advantage, or primary goods. Democracy, and the democratic spirit, called on and depended on, for de Tocqueville, a certain level of real, actual, surface-level equality. The love of equality, that he is both drawn to and repelled by – with “a kind of religious dread” – is just ordinary equality, not some philosophical surrogate.

If you ask someone at a random about equality or inequality in the United States today, they will very likely assume you mean economic inequality. This is partly because economic inequality has gotten more attention recently, but it is mostly because, if you ask people to think about whether the conditions of their life are equal or unequal to the conditions of others’ lives, the first thing many will think about is money.

Yet, at the precise moment Thomas Piketty’s groundbreaking work on economic inequality was drawing new attention to the shocking level of economic inequality that characterizes our new gilded age, philosopher Harry Frankfurt thought it imperative to insist that “Insofar as economic inequality is undesirable…this is not because it is as such morally objectionable. As such, it is not morally objectionable.” Rather, he said, “from a moral point of view economic inequality does not matter very much”.

Unfortunately, many other philosophers writing about economic inequality also deny that it is bad in and of itself. Instead, they insist that substantial economic inequalities are bad because, and where, they have bad effects.

I believe this view is a mistake. Read more »

On Straw Men and Their Audiences

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

The straw man fallacy admits of a wide variety of forms, ranging from what we’ve called the weak man, to the burning man, and even to the iron man. What makes all these different forms instances of the same general kind is the dialectical core of the fallacy – the misrepresentation of the argumentative state of play between contesting sides. In most cases, one side is represented as argumentatively worse off than they actually are (though, in cases of iron-manning, one improves an interlocutor’s case). Again, it is this dialectical core that makes straw man fallacies as a class distinct from, say, fallacies of relevance like ad hominem abusive or arguments from pity. In fact, what’s interesting about straw man arguments is that they are, really, arguments about arguments. In other words, when we argue, we can commit particular kinds of fallacies, but unique kinds of fallacies occur when we reason about how we reason. They are fallacies rooted in and made possible by our meta-cognition.

A longstanding, and perhaps obvious, problem with straw man arguments is that when they are presented to the target of the straw-manning, they typically are ineffective. We generally can tell when an interlocutor has misrepresented our view. The straw man directed at you at best can function as a signal that your argument is hard to understand or that your interlocutor is dense, but when a straw man of your view is presented to you it is unlikely to change your mind about how things stand. One wonders, then, how straw man arguments function. Our answer is that straw men arguments do their rhetorical work not on the speaker depicted as made of straw, but rather on an audience of argumentative onlookers, often selected specifically for the argument by the straw-manner. Read more »

Trumpism and the Exhilaration of Incoherence

by Varun Gauri


Alternative facts.

Person. Woman. Man. Camera. TV.

“The line of ‘Make America great again,’ the phrase, that was mine, I came up with it about a year ago, and I kept using it, and everybody’s using it, they are all loving it. I don’t know, I guess I should copyright it, maybe I have copyrighted it.”

The style and rhetoric of the Trump era appears to be historically unique, the result of the narrow and unexpected electoral victory of a man who honed his skills performing as a reality TV idiot savant. But I believe that the rhetorical style of Trumpism — nonsense, incoherence, giving truth the middle finger— will outlast Trump.

When people say that Trumpism will outlive Trump, they usually refer to the political economy. Typically, they mean that trade shocks and the integration of China into the World Trade Organization caused unemployment and anger in the American heartland that has not yet been adequately addressed, that rising levels of immigration and the coming emergence of America as a majority-minority nation evoke nostalgia and a politics of resentment, or that the political alliance between plutocrats and populists has proven durable. All that may be true. But I think that it is not only the structural forces that are likely to endure, but also the trappings of Trumpism, what we think of as its ephemera — the circus atmosphere, the sensation that up is down, the experience of having fallen through the looking glass. Read more »