Quote(s) of the Day X

November 9, 2016 will be remembered as a momentous occasion. But amidst the celebrations, the despair, the recriminations and the furious punditry over what’s happened and what’s going to happen, I thought it’d also be worthwhile to consider the wisdom of the past.


There is so much tolerance and superiority to petty considerations; such a contempt for all those fine principles we laid down in founding our commonwealth, as when we said that only a very exceptional nature could turn out a good man, if he had not played as a child among things of beauty and given himself only to creditable pursuits. A democracy tramples all such notions under foot; with a magnificent indifference to the sort of life a man has led before he enters politics, it will promote to honour anyone who merely calls himself the people’s friend.

In a democratic country you will be told that liberty is its noblest possession, which makes it the only fit place for a free spirit to live in. … Perhaps the insatiable desire for this good to the neglect of everything else may transform a democracy and lead to a demand for despotism. A democratic state may fall under the influences of unprincipled leaders, ready to minister to its thirst for liberty with too deep draughts of this heady wine; then, if its rulers are not complaisant enough to give it unstinted freedom, they will be arraigned as accursed oligarchs and punished. Law-abiding citizens will be insulted as non-entities who hug their chains; and all praise and honour will be bestowed, both publicly and in private, on rulers who behave like subjects and subjects who behave like rulers

— Plato, The Republic


The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries, which result, gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of Public Liberty.

George Washington, Farewell Address 

 

The Reasons for Trump

If you’re reading this, chances are that you are (i) intelligent, (ii) well-educated and (iii) bemused by what’s going with Donald Trump. If you’re at all into US politics, you have probably seen this video of John Oliver demolishing Trump. It sure feels good to ridicule this outrageous and dangerous public figure. One can also derive some righteous anger from blasting Trump’s supporters for their hypocrisy and short-sightedness.

I can’t help but think that these feelings—superiority, self-righteousness, smugness, and yes, schadenfreude—are just empty calories. The Trump phenomenon is real. Nobody took him seriously, and now he’s on the verge of becoming the Republican candidate for President of the United States. His supporters (albeit only 40-45% of Republican voters so far) are real people, with real grievances.

I think 2016 is a genuine turning point in US history, with monumental implications for at least one side of politics. Instead of ridiculing or dismissing Trump and his supporters, we need to understand what’s going on.

Below are some articles I’ve encountered over the last couple of months that shed light on the Trump phenomenon. Some of them made me feel uncomfortable. I hope you will be able to bear with some discomfort as well—if you’re a liberal reading about a conservative perspective; if you’re an atheist/agnostic reading about a Christian perspective; if you have a pro-immigration stance reading about anti-immigration sentiments; if you have grown up in prosperous, metropolitan environments reading about life on the ground in struggling towns and communities hollowed out by globalisation and outsourcing.

If you have the time, please take a look.

On the favourable environment created by broad changes in media and technology

On the failure of the elites

Among the angry, the voiceless, the dying

Personal testimonies

  • A life-long Republican and conservative writes an open letter explaining why he no longer considers himself part of the conservative movement, as the Trump phenomenon exposes the movement’s past failures and present delusions
  • A Christian author and preacher makes the bad, awful, no good, terrible confession that he likes Trump—Trump is not honest, but he is honest about who he is, and he effectively channels something:

    [T]he rage and desperation of a people who know they don’t matter anymore. Whose lives and wellbeing have become a blight, an embarrassment, who are now disposable. Yes, they have may been a privileged people once, knowing the order of the world arising from the great struggles of the first half of the 20th century was arranged for them, and may be struggling for privilege again, but they also know politics has told them — economically and socially — “lie down and die.” That they are white, and crude, and prone to brutality and violence, frequently not very compassionate or empathetic, all-too-often confused by the world, and that their religion is simplistic and mostly idolatrous, all that makes it hard to sympathize with them. (I find it hard.) But you leave people behind at your peril. You can tell them to “lie down and die,” and some will. But many won’t.

 

A lot of people in America are hurting right now. And rightfully so. Conventional politics have left them—more tax cuts for the rich on the one side, demonisation and dismissal as bigots on the other, and a consensus on more globalisation that, however great it is for humanity in the aggregate, makes their lives objectively worse. In their rage and desperation, they turned to a dangerous figure in Trump.

Things are going to get a lot worse before they get better.

 

Crony Capitalism, N+1 Edition

A couple of years ago I read a book by sociologist Arlie Hochschild called the Outsourced Self. The book is an account of Hochschild’s investigation into how the logic of the market—commodification, efficiency, promotion—was creeping into more and more intimate parts of our lives. While I consider some of what she encountered to be problematic but probably a net-positive overall (e.g., online dating, nannies and helpers), there are other things that are genuinely disturbing (e.g., “household consultants”, commercial surrogacy).

Today, I encountered two examples of capitalism encroaching into spheres where it probably shouldn’t, with horrible results for society (and great results for the enriched few).

First, conservative outcast David Frum examined the state of super PACs—organisations that have been blessed by the US Supreme Court to raise (mostly from a few rich donors) and spend vast amounts of money on political campaigns. Frum focused on Jeb Bush’s doomed campaign, whose super PAC astoundingly raised over $100 million. The result was bad enough (and perhaps provides a hopeful counterexample to the notion that money buys political success). However, what’s really fascinating is Frum’s account of those who benefited most—the consultants who feasted off the bonanza while accomplishing nothing for the hapless Bush.

Second, defence attorney Greg Toucette fired off a tweet-storm about defending a young black man (YBM) from a reckless driving charge, and the photo that saved his client from the blatantly false allegation made by the police officer. It was an illustrative example of the horrendously broken criminal justice system in the US. One of the underlying causes: local governments straining under the economic damage inflicted by crony capitalism of the recent past and perversely using the criminal justice system as a revenue source, thereby immiserating thousands (millions?) of mostly young, mostly poor, mostly non-white people.

Sad, but true.

What They Believe

I attended the Festival of Dangerous Ideas (FODI) earlier this month. FODI is an annual event hosted by the Sydney Opera House where leading thinkers around the world are invited to discuss and debate important ideas in the areas of politics, society, technology, philosophy, and more. In this post I want to share my thoughts on one of the panels I saw, “What I Believe”.

The format was a little weird, in that it wasn’t a discussion between participants on stage. Rather, the participants came in one at a time to give a ~10 minute talk on what they believe. Clearly this threw off Peter Doherty (Australian medical researcher and Nobel prize winner), who gave an entertaining but off-topic diatribe against anti-science sentiments. In any case, I came in to this panel with high expectations. Belief—that is, acceptance, trust, faith, confidence—carries special significance for how we live, and I was particularly interested to hear the perspectives of those who are non-religious. For the most part, I came out fairly disappointed.

Frank Brennan, Australian Jesuit priest and human rights lawyer, went first. He was the only speaker who was clearly associated with a religious denomination. However, Brennan was less overt about his own faith, which was a letdown. He mostly played it safe and stuck to moderate talking points. Listening to him talk about the dignity of human people, of Australia’s greatest moral challenge being how we govern our borders, and how notions of common good are as important as self-determination, I’m reminded again of how Christianity speaks to ideas that most secular people would assent to. These ideas got polite applauses from the educated, left-leaning, well-to-do audience.

Adrienne Truscott, a multi-talented American entertainer, was next. Her talk on what she believed was more like anti-belief, as she spent the bulk of it talking about her problems with organised religion. Fair enough. The general position of the audience was made very clear to me by their enthusiastic applause. What I found fascinating was the audience reaction to another speaker, Indigenous journalist and former politician Malarndirri McCarthy. At the beginning of her talk McCarthy recognised Aboriginal custodianship of the land and how the “spirits” of past Aboriginal women were with her at that moment. The audience once again applauded energetically. Just 10 minutes ago they were treated to an acerbic (and what must have been satisfying) takedown of the irrationality and ridiculousness of religion. Now they were clapping for spirits. What gives?

I think the answer lies in the qualifier organised. Truscott, and I suspect the audience (excepting the rabid atheists), does not have antipathy to the particular claims of any belief system. After all, that’s the secular way: “You can believe in whatever you want, as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone.” Rather, I think they have a problem with power, and the real and perceived abuses of that power. Christianity has been an institution for approximately two thousand years. In a nutshell, people and groups associated with Christianity have done really good things and also really bad things. These people and groups often have and sometimes still do exert influence over societies. For secular, educated people today, I think this could influence their thinking in the following non-exhaustive ways:

  • People tend to remember bad stuff more than good stuff, so they tend to view “the church” in a negative light.
  • For left-leaning people who are more sensitive to groups with relatively less power (e.g., minorities, women, etc.), institutions who seemingly have more power are viewed with suspicion
  • For people who just want to live however they want and don’t want to change, it’s useful to justify themselves by pointing to the bad stuff with organised religion.

For Christians I think this is both encouraging and discouraging. It is encouraging because I think people can still be receptive to the gospel message, untethered from the politics and practices of imperfect institutions. It is discouraging because secular people have been so engrained to think of Christianity as at best neutral, and frequently some shade of bad, that it is an uphill battle to shift their thinking.

Next up was AC Grayling, a British philosopher and one of the leaders of the New Atheism movement. I had high hopes that he would explain what he believes in an intelligent manner befitting a person of his standing. It would not be an overstatement to say that his talk was a profound disappointment.

Grayling starts off by rehashing what philosophy is about (1. What is the nature of reality, 2. What should we value). He then makes a logical jump (given his time constraints, I’ll give him a pass) that if there is only physical reality, then it is up to us (humans) to determine meaning and purpose. From there, he trots out stock standard utilitarianism, dressed up in fancy cosmic garb: Human consciousness is but a flicker in the history of the universe. If the totality of suffering outweighs the totality of pleasure, then the existence of the universe would have been a bad thing. If vice versa, then it is good. And therefore—and I’m not kidding, this is a direct quote—”It is our responsibility to be nice to one another.”

Really? That’s the best that he could do? OK, I understand he had limited time. But this was frankly so vapid I had to double check that he wasn’t trying to be humorous or ironic (I don’t think he was). “Being nice” is essentially a non-answer. How should I be kind? By what standard? Are there other worthy pursuits for humans other than being kind? If conflicts arise between these other pursuits and being kind, how should we resolve them?

Grayling’s formulation of utilitarianism is also problematic. Put aside the issue of how we measure pleasure and suffering. I think it is enormously unhelpful to think in aggregate terms of total pleasure versus total suffering over human existence. What if 51% had more pleasure on average and 49% had more suffering? Would you really say that this is a good outcome for humanity? What if there was 1% who had super-charged pleasure that outweighed the 99% who had fairly bad suffering on average? By Grayling’s standard this would be a good outcome. However, if we are to use utilitarianism, then I think it is more meaningful and worthwhile to take into account the pleasures and sufferings of individuals. I really expected more from this distinguished philosopher.

Up to this point I was quite unimpressed, with the exception of the entertaining Peter Doherty and his meandering but passionate defence of science. Helen Razer, Australian radio presenter and writer, was up next. She provided a welcome and refreshing change to the stolid fare before her. Razer’s sharp insights matched her strident tone and forceful delivery. She made two main points in her talk:

  1. Doubt is more valuable than any belief. She was careful to distinguish it from denial. Rather, for her doubt means to always question her beliefs, and to aspire to strip herself of beliefs.
  2. The optimistic belief that humans can change the world for the better is useless without action.

The second point in particular stood in marked contrast to previous speakers who, generally speaking, gave sugary platitudes about how they believed in the power of humans to overcome challenges, change the world, etc. It felt good to hear someone call them out on it. All the solidarity and sentimentality in the world will not bring back Aylan Kurdi, whose lifeless body had been recently reprinted and retweeted a million times for all to see. Razer was a contrarian, but not just for its own sake. She aimed to expose the shallowness and laziness of our “good” beliefs, which can disarm and satisfy us even when there is so much good that needs to be done.

Razer also made a point about the banality of good I had never considered before. First coined by Hannah Arendt, the banality of evil is now commonly understood to mean how evil can become normalised and be perpetrated in seemingly unremarkable, ordinary conditions. Razer posits that “the real terror of good is that it is also banal.” As I understand her, she means that doing good is quite unremarkable and does not match the lofty rhetoric of optimistic belief-peddlers—it is hard, repetitive, uninspiring, and difficult to notice. However, if we really want to make the world a better place, we should stop resting on our beliefs and start doing, one small action at a time.

Even for all the disappointment I endured, this was a worthy message to take home.*

* Jon Ronson was the final speaker, but his talk was so different that it’s worth addressing in a separate post.

On Non-Democratic Progress

There’s been a number of articles lately that critically examine a crop of tech companies arising out of Silicon Valley that are disrupting (in multiple senses of the word) the industries and communities in which they operate. A chief complaint is that these “Sharing Economy” companies — Uber and Airbnb being the exemplars — are flouting local laws and regulations.

The reason why these companies are moving so aggressively is simple. As savvy businesspeople and hungry investors well know, the key to success is not just profitability, but market dominance. As Peter Thiel succinctly put it: “Competition is for losers.” This is why Uber fights. Given the winner-takes-all dynamic, they will cross and even repeatedly violate the legal and ethical boundaries to gain market share. This means generating bad blood. You’ve probably seen headlines of protests against Uber in major cities around the world. I witnessed this opposition first hand when earlier this month I passed by what I later learnt was the Uber HQ in London, with the entire neighbourhood block brought to a standstill by protesting black cabs.

I am sympathetic to the critics of Sharing Economy companies. I am especially receptive to arguments that highlight the companies’ shoddy ethics and poor privacy practices. On the other hand, we need to look at the bigger picture. These companies are not (just) big bullies who are orchestrating a corporate takeover of modern day life. They are creating and meeting consumer demand. We want to use these companies! Their services are better on at least one vector, and often more: price, convenience, experience, delight, etc. Again, I experienced this first hand. On my European trip I stayed with Airbnb hosts in London and Paris, and both experiences were fantastic.

Now, you may nevertheless find it problematic that these companies are flouting the law. Perhaps on a deeper level you find it sad that people are so blithely allowing such things to happen, and also giving away their privacy, all for seemingly fleeting and trivial benefits. But you have to acknowledge that as a society we are all complicit in making Sharing Economy companies as influential as they are.

Thinking about all this has got me to reflect on another place I’ve been to recently, where progress is occurring at breakneck pace in a non-democratic fashion: China. I went on a short trip to Nanjing in late July to visit my extended family. On my last trip two years ago, there was a lot of construction going on as the city prepared itself for the 2014 Youth Olympic Games. This time around the big hole in the ground near my uncle’s apartment has turned into a gleaming (and mostly empty) underground shopping centre and above-ground leisure park. Three new subway lines have been completed, bringing the total to six since 2005.

On an epically grander scale, the Chinese Government is in the middle of a project to transform Beijing and its surrounding area into a supercity of 130 million people, with high-speed rail as the connective tissue that makes it all possible. This is probably the most gaudy example of progress barrelling ahead at a pace that is unthinkable in democratic countries.

Just as Uber fanatically expands its market in order to set a foundation for the future and justify its massive valuation, the Chinese Government is embarking on projects of unfathomable scale to increase the economic prosperity of its citizens and justify its own legitimacy. And just like Uber, the pace of progress in China has resulted in collateral damage — homes seized, environments despoiled, dissent crushed — even as we must acknowledge that hundreds of millions of lives have been lifted from poverty.

The pursuit of technological and material progress (and profits) is outpacing the machinery of democratic lawmaking. In the aftermath of the GFC, I see Western democratic countries  outperformed externally by more autocratic countries like China, and also disrupted internally by companies leveraging technologies that undermine existing laws. In many ways people are reaping the rewards, but I wonder what the long-term implications are of a disregard for the democratic process. Much to ponder about.

Quote(s) of the Day IX

March has thrown up a multitude of articles on the prickly subject of free speech versus protection on US college campuses. By protection, I mean the ability to be safe from upsetting or damaging speech/conduct, in particular as it revolves around sexual dynamics, politics and identity. The New York Times has a good summation of the hubbub.

There was one passage from an account of anti-rape activists protesting against an objectionable essay that caught my eye:

It’s easy to sympathize with the young feminists’ desire to combine maximal sexual freedom with maximal sexual safety. Yet there are contradictions between a feminism that emphasizes women’s erotic agency and desire to have sex on equal terms with men, and a feminism that stresses their erotic vulnerability and need to be shielded from even the subtlest forms of coercion. The politics of liberation are an uneasy fit with the politics of protection. A rigid new set of taboos has emerged to paper over this tension, often expressed in a therapeutic language of trauma and triggers that everyone is obliged to at least pretend to take seriously.

I’m troubled by the proponents of boycotts and safe zones on the grounds of free speech and stifling political correctness. But putting aside the question of whether it is justifiable or not, there is an inherent contradiction at play. I wonder whether and to what extent they are aware of this.