Category: Politics

The Post-Ockham Age: Sometimes we have to multiply motives

The US Attorney General and living cliche Jeff Sessions has ramped up the failed and counter-productive war on drugs: http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2017/05/12/528086525/sessions-tells-prosecutors-to-seek-most-serious-charges-stricter-sentences

There have been many reactions to this but part of the left-leaning reaction has been a competition between two perspectives:

  1.  That this move is Sessions trying to distract from Trump’s and his own entanglement with Russia and the recent sacking of the head of the FBI.
  2. That point 1. is missing the point that this is something Sessions has been wanting to do his whole career and is an example of his overall nastiness and, given the skewed way in which the War on Drugs falls on different communities in the US, his overall racism.

Sure both could be true at the same time without creating a logical contradiction but we really should aim for parsimonious explanations of events. Yet this kind of duplication of interpretations of the Trump regime’s acts makes simple motives hard to pin down. Is policy X because Trump is evil/incompetent/corrupt or is X simply a ‘distraction’ from some previous thing?

Whether by intent or happenstance, the Trump electoral campaign often succeeded in pushing past scandals by simply moving on to some new kind of outrage. As a kind of denial-of-service attack on normal news media processes, Trump could shift the news cycle onto a new topic (I assume often inadvertently) by saying or doing something else that would capture the headlines. So it is reasonable to see such things as Sessions’s new drug enforcement policy as fitting that model: something intended to outrage those who oppose Trump so we’ll be talking about that rather than the growing constitutional crisis.

Unfortunately for parsimony, we have to accept that it is both a distraction and an evil thing in itself. I’ve no doubt that Session will try to get away with as many regressive, racist and authoritarian policies as he can regardless of how it may aid the regime’s management of the news cycle. However, Sessions isn’t an idiot and he (and others in the regime) will continue to use other scandals as cover and as distractions to push their agenda. This is why generic obstruction is a wise tactic: the various people under Trump pushing their own nasty agendas aim to do as much harm as they can as quickly as they can while they still can. Put another way: Sessions always intended to try this move but he can’t be oblivious to the fact that the Comey-sacking scandal is a distraction from his actions and that his actions serve as a distraction to the Comey-sacking scandal.

The difference here from a normal executive is that Trump’s regime is not scandal-averse in a normal way. Any normal government would seek to minimise scandals (often unsuccessfully) in terms of number, length and intensity. Trump now sits at the top of a kind of scandal Ponzi scheme – a pyramid selling model of scandal but with more sustainability due to a substantial supply of neo-Nazis, unreformed Confederates and omnifallacious right-wing policies that have been floating around pseudo-think tanks since the 1990s.

So yes, it’s both and you can’t let it distract from the Russian scandal nor can you let the Russian scandal distract from the genuine harm Sessions will inflict on many, many people and communities with this policy.

OK, that’s a depressing conclusion, particularly for US readers. Sorry. The positive side? Every shitty, nasty move pushes somebody, somewhere from unsure-about-Trump to opposed-to-Trump. Moves like this don’t expand Trump’s base but only inspire the narrow core of his support. I know that is small comfort to the families that will bear the brunt of these policies.

What is a Tyrant?

This arose out of writing up Volume 2 of Notes Ignota (i.e. notes on Seven Surrenders – coming soon) but it seemed so apt to recent events that it is worth quoting in a more lengthy manner.

Those who have read Too Like the Lightning will have already come across the notable Enlightenment writer Denis Diderot (or those who haven’t and just know lots of stuff). He and Jean le Rond d’Alembert were key figures in the writing/compilation of the Encyclopédie – the Wikipedia of the Enlightenment.

Via the University of Michigan here is a translation of how Diderot described the nature of a tyrant (empahis mine). http://hdl.handle.net/2027/spo.did2222.0001.238

Of all of the plagues that afflict humanity, there is none more fatal than that of a tyrant ; occupied solely with the objective of satisfying his passions, and those of the unworthy ministers of his power, he regards his subjects only as vile slaves, as beings of an inferior species, destined only to satisfy his caprices, and toward whom anything seems to him permissible; when pride and flattery have filled him with these ideas, the only laws he knows are those which he imposes; these absurd laws dictated by his interest and his fantasies, are unjust and vary according to his changes of heart. Because of the impossibility of exercising his tyranny on his own, and in order to force the people to submit to the yoke of his dissolute desires, he is forced to consort with corrupt ministers; his choice falls only upon wicked men who know justice only to violate it, virtue to transgress it, and laws to evade them…

…The suspicions, the guilt, and the terror besiege him from all directions; he knows no one worthy of his confidence, he has only accomplices, he has no friends. The people, exhausted, degraded, and demeaned by the tyrant , are insensitive to changes in him, the laws he has violated cannot help him; in vain he again appeals to the fatherland, but is there one where a tyrant reigns?

“Tyrant.” The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d’Alembert Collaborative Translation Project. Translated by Thomas Zemanek. Ann Arbor: Michigan Publishing, University of Michigan Library, 2009. Web. [fill in today’s date in the form 18 Apr. 2009 and remove square brackets]. <http://hdl.handle.net/2027/spo.did2222.0001.238&gt;. Trans. of “Tyran,” Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, vol. 16. Paris, 1765.

Seems suddenly very familiar.

Your Blood Group is Determined by Biology and is a Social Construct

I doubt this is original but it is worth going through because strange right-leaning people keep shouting about biology at me. Oddly though, I was prompted to write not by an argument about nature v nurture but a different argument about invention v discovery in mathematics. I’m not an expert on blood groups (which is sort of the point) so apologies for any biological errors.  Note also this is a description of one specific relationship between a social construct and biology. Others may have things in common but that doesn’t mean they are the same or have the same relationship between a biological aspect and the associated things that a society may construct around it [i.e. neither the social constructs of gender nor ‘race’ is directly analogous to blood group]. Anyway, here we go.

You probably know your blood group. Once upon a time I regularly gave blood and felt a moral obligation to do so. I’m O negative, which is a handy default blood type for donation as it contains neither A, B or Rh factors and hence shouldn’t trigger an immune reaction in most people of other blood types.

But ABO and Rh are just two blood typing systems and even with those two systems, there are variations. Group A can be further subdivided into approx 20 subgroups of which A1 and A2 account for most type-A people. In terms of inheritance, there are also exceptions to the commonly understood rules – CisAB (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cis_AB ). More generally there are tens of other blood typing systems that categorise other factors that can exist in human blood and which can potentially complicate blood transfusion.

The ABO/Rh system is a very effective simplification of a set of much messier, more organic categories. Yes, it is determined by your biology (you don’t get to pick) but the significance of whether you are “A” or “AB negative” etc depends very much on the existence and practicalities of a blood donation system. That system also has practical constraints but it is effectively something societies choose to do and requires political and social support as well as the existence of hospitals and an infrastructure to support them.

I also said that I used to give blood. I’m not allowed to currently because I lived in the UK during the height of the BSE/Mad cow disease outbreak. Concerns about the transmission of a prion disease via blood transfusion have meant that many countries place restrictions on blood donations. That rationale makes some sense given the extent to which prions are not well understood. What makes less sense is the restrictions imposed on men who have sex with other men (phrased that way to match the eligibility questions). Rules on blood donation to prevent the spread of HIV prevent people who have engaged in ‘at risk’ sexual behaviours (e.g. http://www.donateblood.com.au/faq/sexual-activity ). Such rules prevent many gay men in long-term monogamous relationships donating blood. The rules arise out of medical and practical considerations but such rules also have a social impact and arise because of social aspects (from international travel to personal and sexual relationships).

You should note another trick I employed above: I said ‘type-A people’. Once we have categories that can be applied to aspects of ourselves it is easy to see them as categories of people. I’m O negative, well no, no *I* am not, not really – my blood is O negative for the purpose of blood donation, it really isn’t much of a thing about who I am beyond that. The notion of me being O negative only really makes sense in the context of donating blood or receiving a blood transfusion (or a few other related circumstance). Prior to the development of safe blood transfusion and large scale blood donation, your blood group is not something people would know or care about. Even that history is entwined with complex social factors including the development of modern healthcare infrastructure but also the development of modern warfare.

Blood groups have also generated their own pseudosciences and racist theories – a kind of inevitable consequence of any system that allows a categorisation of people entails a dark desire to identify that categorization with other aspects including personality or as a means of identifying some inherent purity. Suffice to say there is little evidence of blood group actually determining anything other than the most likely blood needed in a blood transfusion (and as we’ve seen even that is a simplification – although a very effective one).

In most developed countries blood donation is voluntary but even such a primarily altruistic system has social implications. It isn’t had to imagine a situation in which blood donation was more heavily required or in which there were more significant socio-economic implications to donating blood. In such a situation the layers of social significance to blood type would be greater both in a direct sense and in the sense in which any social division generates its own myths and stereotypes. A world in which blood transfusions had to be more common and was connected to economic status, would with a capitalist-style economy lead to more weird (and unpredictable without knowing more details) stratifications by blood group.

So what’s my point if it isn’t a point about gender or race? The point is very much NOT that other social construct work the same way as blood group might in a fictional society. However, a broader point remains true. Critics of the term ‘social construct’ treat it as if a person is saying ‘wholly arbitrary’ or ‘completely made up’ or ‘fictional’. Treating the term like that makes it an easy strawman to knock down. No society exists in a vacuum*, so the things that our societies construct** are things that have practical limits and which are influenced by the environment that is constructed in INCLUDING the existence of other constructs. But the physical, ‘real’ influences on how a social construct has evolved over time do not mean that the categories, stereotypes or social expectations that arise apply in a deterministic way to individuals – some elements might (e.g. O- blood is safe for me to receive), others less so (e.g. whether there is a greater moral imperative for ‘O- people’ to donate blood) and others not at all (e.g. pseudoscience blood-group personality types).

tl;dr Societies and social attitudes are shaped by ‘real’ things including biology, but that does not imply that biology (or physics or chemistry) somehow validates them, makes them somehow extra true, or makes departure from them (either as an individual or as a direction for society) some kind of revolt against reality or science.

*[OK maybe there is a society of space squid, plying the void between the stars but that is a separate issue.]

**[You’d think that was obvious from the term ‘constructs’. Anything we physically construct has physical limits and depends on physical rules but can still be a work of creativity in which arbitrary, non-determined choices are made.]

Review: Great Britain

The latest plot twist in the long-running series called “Great Britain” is a General Election https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2017/apr/18/theresa-may-uk-general-election-8-june

This bizarre fantasy series set on a large island “just off the coast of France” imagines a European nation that is somehow also part of the anglosphere. While the deeply amoral but wonderfully costumed historical series of “Great Britain” won huge ratings in the past, critics have claimed that this was “largely due to a hugely powerful navy forcing us to watch”. The exciting World War 2 season of the series managed to recast the protagonist as a more conventionally heroic character, while scaling back on the now tired “Empire” story arc.

Later seasons have shown major ratings drops, as the focus shifted to a more introspective drama with a more diverse cast. Some have blamed the loss of viewers on that diversity, while others have pointed out that there are just so many other countries available to watch these days.

For reasons known only to the script writers, the current season appears to be trying to repeat a minor ratings hit from the late 1970s/early 80s. Viewers will remember that season as a transition from a politically divided country with rising far-right violence, the “Scottish” branch aiming for its own spin-off series (would definitely watch) and a sense of political malaise, to a country run by a right-wing authoritarian woman with a penchant for starting wars.

This twenty-teens riff on that earlier storyline is not playing with quite the same knife-edge drama. Instead of a taught political drama, the current season is a giant game of idiot-ball. The ruling “Conservative” party (could they not have thought of a less obvious name?) is portrayed as cartoonishly evil and incompetent. It simply isn’t plausible that these people who are both overtly unlikable and bumbling idiots would get any votes from anybody. The script writers are forced therefore to make the opposition party equally as bumbling.

While the theme of the “Labour Party” being prone to circular firing squads is a long running one (used repeatedly for dramatic effect in the “twentieth century” DVD box set), this time it feels like a lazy rehash. The left wing leader is written as having almost no capacity to build a broad political coalition on the left, while Labour’s technocratic wing are supposed to be both arch-schemers and also incapable of organising a coup and/or a piss-up at the Labour Party Conference bar.

Critics have suggested that the showrunners painted themselves into a corner when some hack in the writer’s room suggested: “why not let the Euroskeptics win?” Certainly, the “Brexit” story line was poorly written and made little sense as a plot development. The rising tension and the surprise reveal on the day was exciting but it left the story with nowhere to go but a bureaucratic muddle. Nobody wants to see idiots bumbling about unless it is a comedy. Yes, yes rival show “USA” is currently a rating hit with its very dark comedy about a low-IQ psychotic fraudster who somehow becomes the supreme leader of a nuclear superpower, but that is intended to be comedy (surely?) and the whole premise of that current season is driven by one OTT character replete with comedy catchphrases and clown make-up.

As for the big-bad that both “Great Britain” and “USA” are employing in what promises to be a cross-over event (seriously? That never works for Marvel and it won’t work for these shows), the idea of recycling both “Russia” and “Nazis” doesn’t count as a new idea even if you mash them together. It would be like Doctor Who deciding to run a whole season in which the Cybermen were secretly funding wannabe Daleks but in a really obvious way so that the VIEWERS can all see that it is actually Daleks but none of the main characters can. Just how can we take this seriously? And if we aren’t supposed to take it seriously then why aren’t the jokes funny?

Any hope for this series? Well, the “Scotland” spin-off currently under discussion has the advantage of an engaging, young cast and charismatic characters. However, if those characters leave the main series for their own show then what is the main show left with? Cheaper versions of 1980s characters with half the charisma and weaker dialogue.

Best move for the writers? Ditch the current story line. Yes, that requires a somewhat rapidly implausible set of events: Labour gets its act together, wins the general election, reverses Brexit, fights the Nazis, uncovers the Russian plot and sorts out whatever is going on with the Great British Bake Off (I don’t watch it but the cat does). Can they really pull all those plot lines together in less than a month? I hope so but it seems unlikely – in which case the show will descend into a kind of ethical entropy: somewhat nasty people with low competence bumbling around nastily for no good reason and with no direction. Who wants to watch that?

Details: “Great Britain: Season 482” available on Netflix, HBO, CNN, BBC and most encyclopaedias. Two stars.

The US in Syria

Trump has upped the ante in Syria http://www.smh.com.au/world/live-us-launches-missiles-on-syria-what-we-know-so-far-20170407-gvfs3i.html

What to make of that given the unambiguously appalling nature of the Assad regime? This is bad news.

Way back at the start of this decade, when the drumbeats for war against Iraq were growing, there were multiple arguments about the merits of deposing dictators and regime change. Some were from neo-conservatives but many were from people in the centre or the centre-left of politics. Such debates do matter but I’m not going to rehash them. Simply put ALL such arguments rely on an assumption of COMPETENCE.

I hate the X is a cancer and we need to surgically remove X style arguments for oh, so many reasons, not least of which is that it’s a bad analogy and cancer survivors have enough on their plate without being dragged into bad geopolitics analogies. However, it does illustrate one point: even if the analogy was right/appropriate it IMPLIES THAT YOU NEED A VERY GOOD SURGEON. Applying this logic it was obvious wayyyyy back, that even if arguments for regime change in Iraq were sound on principle, that George W. Bush was a simple refutation of each of them.*

If you are attempting something both dangerous and difficult and which has a very poor record of success then you need somebody VERY competent organising it.**

Now, arguably, the US military has gained more experience of how to handle these kinds of conflicts by virtue of long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq but, BUT, the actual executive branch of the US government is at a level of competence that makes George W look like a genius.

For those who may have felt they should support interventionist actions by Clinton or Obama or even supported George W Bush’s Iraq adventure, there is NO hypocrisy in not wanting Trump to engage more deeply in Syria. The man is a dangerous incompetent and the checks and balances on him are weak in this arena.

*[I suspect Tony Blair actually followed similar reasoning but ended up in a different place i.e. Bush was going to do this anyway and mess things up so Blair felt he had to step in and help. This demonstrates how clever thoughtful people can perpetuate dangerous stupidity.]

**[Putting ethics, geopolitics and military aside – which in itself is a bad idea]

Some responses to that Nazi piece

Chris Chupik mentions this piece in the comment section at Sarah Hoyt’s blog.

Coyote Gravity by Christopher M. Chupik

Oddly he says this:

Christopher M. Chupik March 26, 2017 at 12:09 pm
If you believe the commenters, I’m an American Christian Conservative Trump-supporter.

News to me.

Except…well nobody (i.e. zero people) call him either an American, Christian or a Trump supporter. I expect non-sequiturs and claims of persecution but I’m actually a bit baffled by this. Naturally, he doesn’t quote anybody but wow, talk about people running in mid-air with no ground below them.

Hoyt also adds, counterfactually:

 accordingtohoyt | March 26, 2017 at 2:03 pm | Reply

Oh, we all are. In fact I was going to do a post on this. They don’t understand quite a number of us are not Christian, not straight, not cis anything. They divide by conformist group, so the only reason we don’t belong to them must be our unacceptably characteristics and being members of the establishment they imagine (which hasn’t existed for at least 100 years.) The scientific name for them is “Asshats.”

Huh? Is it the quip about modern conservatives thinking demons are real and nazis are imaginary that annoyed them? Because Hoyt just appended her comment to a piece that complains about witches and which disputes the existence of Nazis. The comment relates not to what I think conservatives ARE but as to how conservatives PORTRAY themselves, as amply documented by fellow pups in recent weeks.

Are conservatives all kinds of people? I assume so, because I’ve never met a group of people that wasn’t diverse at least on some dimensions. Do modern right wing conservatives/libertarians let straight Christian men call the shots and control the debate? Hmmm, yup. Indeed we all saw how that dynamic played out in the Puppy-debacles.

Ho hum.

Weird Internet ideas: Are modern nazis imaginary? (spoiler: no, they’re real)

We’ve been busy watching Rabid shenanigans with books covers, but meanwhile over in Sad Puppy domains, Chris Chupik has decided that modern Nazis are largely imaginary. Chupik, for those who don’t know, is notable mainly as a regular commenter on Puppy blogs but sometimes he guest-posts at According to Hoyt. https://accordingtohoyt.com/2017/03/25/coyote-gravity-by-christopher-m-chupik/

[This get’s long so more below the fold…also ‘Spencer‘ is usually an external link but each time to a different article rather than peppering this piece with quotes]

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