Sunday, May 08, 2016

Stray thoughts on neoreaction

It looks like Philip Sandifer is writing an exploration of the links between neoreaction and rationalism and the various quirky personalities around which they nucleate. This is sort of my territory, but it looks like he will do a far more thorough and entertaining job of it than I could hope to do. So good, maybe I can obsess about something else now. Don՚t know how closely his view matches mine, but his biases seem about right.

The Holocaust was in my thoughts recently, and naturally it colored my thinking on the deepest moral question of our time, whether Mencius Moldbug should get to speak at technical conferences. The controversy has turned into something of an ugly battle within nerddom. Both sides seem driven by a self-righteous outrage which I don՚t share. I find Moldbug՚s views reprehensible but don՚t see much point in shunning him socially or professionally – but neither am I ready to dismiss the feelings of those who want to. In short, on this question I find myself waffling. I՚m not sure why I feel obligated to apologize for not picking a side – as if this were Harlan County where there can be no neutrals. Both sides seem to see it as an absolute moral struggle with very clearly drawn sides, and both are very confident in their moral judgements. They can՚t both be right, but there՚s no reason they can՚t both be wrong.

The issue is framed by his defenders as a simply a matter of a weird, smart, original thinker getting unfairly punished because of his ideas. He՚s just talking, not actually committing any violent acts, and talk is harmless and should be protected. But his opponents do not believe that speech is harmless. Ideas have consequences, and bad ideas can have murderous consequences, and thus bad ideas need to opposed not simply with words.

My indirect personal connection to the Holocaust animates my own feelings on this question; whether that give my opinions any greater weight is for others to decide. But I do feel a moral imperative to oppose such ideas. What the exact method of opposition should be, I don՚t know – banning people who hold them from conferences seems like a crude move to me, I՚d prefer to engage them, and in fact have done so. Freedom of speech is an important value, but not the only one, and I do not admire people who are reflexively defending Moldbug՚s free speech rights without also acknowledging the actual content they are defending.

If you dig deeper into antipolitics, one of the things that seem to underlie it is a fear of some kind of horrific apocalypse on the horizon – in the rationalists case, it՚s a superintelligent AI running roughshod over human values, with the neoreactionaries, it՚s political disorder or just chaos in general. They seem to think that this onslaught of antihuman forces is located somewhere in the future, something to either work desperately to avoid or grimly accept as inevitable.

But it՚s already happened. Civilization and rationality turned on those who thought it was on their side and remoreselessly dehumanized, tortured, and murdered them on an industrial scale. We՚ve already had experience with human-built systems that end up expressing antihuman goals.

Thursday, May 05, 2016

Yom HaShoah

Yom HaShoah – Holocaust Remembrance Day – was today. It՚s sort of an anti-holiday. Holidays are centered around something holy and sacred (even the secular ones); this is around an event that is the opposite of that, the ultimate profanation. Something about the Nazi genocide sets it apart from mere mass murder. Not just the brutality itself, but the systematic, industrialized, and bureaucratic efficiency with which it was carried out. The moral abyss it opened up was blacker and deeper than anyone could have dreamed of, and it still exerts an inexorable gravitational pull on our moral thinking – or mine, anyway.

These events seem unimaginably distant from our present comfortable era, but it was not that long ago. I was born in 1958, 13 years after V-E day and 2 years before the Eichmann trial. Both my parents fled Europe as teenagers, my mother՚s family (from Germany) mostly got out, my father՚s (from Prague), well, nobody knows but it is pretty safe to assume they were murdered. They managed to build lives for themselves in America, but my mother, who loved high German culture (particularly opera, particularly Wagner) I think was messed up by the experience; it՚s not hard to understand why.

If you want to know why I get obsessed over the crypto- and not-so-crypto-fascism that infects our public life these days, this is why. I՚m very aware of the abyss and really feel an obligation to do whatever I can to stop people from being sucked into it. Political flaming on the Internet is almost surely a complete waste of time, but if there is any excuse for it, this is mine.