Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The more things change, the more they stay insane

Richard Hofstadter, The Pseudo-Conservative Revolt, 1955 (via)
...the new dissent not only has no respect for non-conformism, but is based upon a relentless demand for conformity. It can most accurately be called pseudo-conservative...because its exponents, although they believe themselves to be conservatives and usually employ the rhetoric of conservatism, show signs of a serious and restless dissatisfaction with American life, traditions and institutions. They have little in common with the temperate and compromising spirit of true conservatism in the classical sense of the word....Their political reactions express rather a profound if largely unconscious hatred of our society and its ways...The pseudo-conservative, Adorno writes, shows "conventionality and authoritarian submissiveness" in his conscious thinking and "violence, anarchic impulses, an choatic destructiveness in the unconscious sphere...The pseudo-conservative is a man who, in the name of upholding traditional American values and institutions and defending them against more or less fictitious dangers, consciously or unconsciously aims at their abolition".

The ideology of pseudo-conservatism can be characterized but not defined, because the pseudo-conservative tends to be more than ordinarily incoherent about politics. The lady who, when General Eisenhower's victory over Senator Taft had finally become official, stalked out of the Hilton Hotel declaiming, "This means eight more years of socialism" was probably a fairly good representative of the pseudo-conservative mentality.
In defense of the 1950s John Birchers described here, they at least had actual existential threats, actual enemies, and actual subversives to sustain their mood. Their present-day inheritors don't have those excuses, so their paranoia seems ginned up out of whole cloth. Of course, the media engines for doing this are also more powerful than they were back then. It's really easy to see the machinery inflating al Qaeda or Van Jones into figures of fear.

More. This really seems to capture the adolescent pseudo-libertarian streak that runs through modern conservatism (and I say this acknowledging that I have some authority issues of my own, which shade my politics):
For pseudo-conservatism is among other things a disorder in relation to authority, characterized by an inability to find other modes for human relationship than those of more or less complete domination or submission. The pseudo-conservative always imagines himself to be dominated and imposed upon because he feels that he is not dominant, and knows of no other way of interpreting his position. He imagines that his own government and own leadership are engaged in a more or less continuous conspiracy against him because he has come to think of authority only as something that aims to manipulate and deprive him.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Libertardianism

People are beating up on Bryan Caplan for some extra-stupid remarks he made lately that I guess are part of a major discussion about libtertarianism and if we are more or less free now than in the late 19th century. Apparently Caplan thinks women in the 1880s were freer than they are now because they didn't have to pay income tax, or something like that.

It's an excuse for me to link to some of my earlier jibes at Caplan, at this blog and his own, where he was seriously entertaining the idea that the Earth could support a population in the trillions.

I know, twitting libertarians is a waste of time, but this guy is an actual tenured professor of economics at an actual university. Damn. His home page has got to be seen to be believed. [[update: oh darn, it's been updated to not look like it was done by a 14-year-old on ecstasy -- here's the archive.org version of the good one]]

In fairness, there are some non-crazy libertarian types writing on this as well, and there's even some interesting talk about liberal/libertarian fusion. But I'm not in a fair mood.

[[Update: Caplan, not satisfied with being the blogosphere's whipping boy for a week, outdoes himself in creepy blockheadedness. This guy really puts the Ass in Asperger's.]]

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Two talks on trust

[[update below with a review of the Ostrom talk]]

I made the mistake of getting Stanford's event calendar piped into mine, now I am constantly reminded of all the fascinating talks going on right next door, most of which I don't have time to go see (not that going to talks is a very good way of learning things). Here are two this week that are tempting me. This blog is already a declared Elinor Ostrom fan. The other one looks like it's more intellectually edgy. I wonder why it's at 7am? Maybe they're trying to ensure no actual gangsters attend?

[[edit: times are wrong, Stanford is confused about its time zone. Add 7 hours.]]

Elinor Ostrom (recipient of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Economics / Political Science, Indiana University)

Thu Apr 8 12:30pm – Thu Apr 8 1:30pm

Annenberg Auditorium, 435 Lasuen Mall

Understanding Social Ecological Systems

Elinor Ostrom is the Arthur F. Bentley Professor of Professor of Political Science at Indiana University. She is also the Founding Director of the Center for the Study of Institutional Diversity at Arizona State University. Ostrom is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the National Academy of Sciences, and the American Philosophical Society. She is the recipient of many distinguished awards and has authored (and/or co-authored) numerous books including "Trust and Reciprocity: Interdisciplinary Lessons from Experimental Research (2003); The Commons in the New Millennium: Challenges and Adaptations (2003); The Samaritan's Dilemma: The Political Economy of Development Aid" (2005); "Understanding Institutional Diversity" (2005); and "Understanding Knowledge as a Commons: From Theory to Practice" (2007).

This is event is co-sponsored by the Woods Institute for the Environment and the Department of Economics.
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Codes of the Underworld: Trust, Honesty, and Symbolic Communication

Fri Apr 9 7am – Fri Apr 9 8am

ENVIRONMENT & ENERGY BUILDING Room 101

Diego Gambetta, a Visiting Scholar at the Stanford Humanities Center this spring, will be presenting some of his work from Codes of the Underworld: How Criminals Communicate (Princeton University press, 2009). With him will be three discussants exploring his work and connections with their own: Gerry Mackie (UCSD, Political Science), Brian Skyrms (UC Irvine & Stanford, Philosophy), Rebecca Bird (Stanford, Anthropology), and David Laitin (Stanford, Political Science). These scholars are all part of a large interdisciplinary group working towards a better understanding of trust, signaling, communication, and cooperation. This symposium will serve as a venue for a discussion of the interplay between the work of these five scholars and the wider disciplines that they represent.

[[Ostrom talk review: Ostrom is an engaging speaker with a touch of academic drone, and I mean that in a good way -- her Nobel Prize did not seem to go to her head, and she's doing the same sort of work she's been doing for decades. Her talk was on her research on how social communities form rules to manage communal resources, and the various factors that go into making that successful (she had a list of a couple of dozen, such as size and mobility of the community, how bounded the resource is, and amount of communication between members. Her term for what she's studying is Social-Ecological Systems (SES) which emphasize the active role of social rules in managing natural resources. This talk didn't have anything at all about Knowledge Commons, which have a completely different set of dynamics and constraints.

I didn't get any really deep new insights, because so much of what she said just seemed like common sense to me (with some actual data to back it up, and a useful taxonomy of rule types). Unfortunately it's not common sense in the field of economics and policy, so her work is somewhat revolutionary and, with her newfound fame, may actually make a big difference for the better in how the world is run.

Another review

another Ostrom talk on video]]

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Emancipate Yourself

It's Pesach, time to think about what the hell freedom might mean. For my shul's Social Action Committee, I put together a flyer about modern-day slavery. An odd project for me, I don't usually write things for the collective voice, let alone a prayer. Most of the text was cobbled together from activist sites, but I added some of my own language and tightened it up.

When the committee was discussing this, there was some tension between people who wanted to focus on literal slavery (which is quite real but rather remote from the daily life of most of us), and those who wanted to connect it to wage slavery, "mental slavery", people close at hand with various physical or social disabilities that limited their scope of action. I was in the former camp, if only for reasons of focus. But now I'm not so sure I was right. What is the purpose of religion, the thing it can do that nothing else can do, if not to point a way to individual freedom, a concept that makes no sense from a materialist point of view? And where else can it start but with an individual unshackling themselves from various unseen, internal, insidious forms of self-enslavement?

My relation to religion is complex and I have trouble articulating my feelings about it...but among its functions, it seems to be an institutional home for a wide variety of values, ideas, activities, etc that are central to life and don't have any other place to live. Freedom is one of them. It collapses to nothing in the secular world, or at best to a sort of market-based form of choice, where freedom consists of the ability to buy granola or Wheaties, drive a Ford or a Lexus, where you are as free as your bank balance permits. Yet obviously freedom is important, too important to not have a way to talk about it.

We are, objectively, material creatures whose behavior is just as ruled by the causal structure of our nervous systems and the environment as a beetle, just as much caused by physics as the waves in the ocean. Freedom makes no sense, and that's why we need religion in order to think about it.