Ideology is genre

Britain’s Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, is set to reward many of those who helped advance Brexit with seats in the House of Lords (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/aug/01/truly-the-lords-becomes-ever-more-a-house-of-ill-repute ). It’s move that could be described as cynical if it wasn’t for the fact that this dual feature of political ennoblement (a reward and helping cement legislative power) is exactly how the House of Lords is supposed to work. I’m not going to spend time looking at all the ways that the UK’s upper chamber is a broken awful thing because the arguments are obvious. Rather, what has caught my interest in one name in particular: Claire Fox.

At one level Fox being made into a Baroness by Johnson is unremarkable: she was a self-styled libertarian who stood for Nigel Farage’s Brexit party. The remarkable aspect is that Fox was once a member of the Revolutionary Communist Party. That incongruous fact in turn looks less incongruous to anybody who has followed the very strange ideological path that the alumni of the RCP have taken over the years.

The current iteration of the RCP is the online contrarian magazine Sp!ked — a website that 80% of the time reads exactly like other ‘intellectual dark web’ outlets like Quillette but which every so often frames things in terms of Marxism. Reading it is both dull and dizzying: dull because the arguments it uses are the usual cliches about SJWs and cancel culture and dizzying because you would think the whole enterprise would explode from cognitive dissonance. It doesn’t of course because that’s not the ways ideologies work.

Here is Sp!ked reacting to the recent House of Lords appointments:

“Yet now, following the publication of the government’s list of new peers, these same Lords-lovers have decided that the second chamber is a foul, rotten institution, after all. Why? Because the newly ennobled include Tory pals of Boris Johnson, including his brother, former minister Jo Johnson, and, even worse, some Brexiteers. Three of the new peers in particular have rattled the one-time cheerleaders of the second chamber’s plots against democracy – former Labour MPs and Brexit stalwarts Kate Hoey and Gisela Stuart, and former Brexit Party MEP, and friend of spiked, Claire Fox. That’s it, the Remainer elites cry: get rid of the Lords!”

https://www.spiked-online.com/2020/08/03/abolish-the-house-of-lords/

It’s an almost quintessential Sp!ked piece, an overt left-styled radicalism (abolish the Lords!) but actually geared towards defending the actions of a Conservative Prime Minister and supporters of radical-right coup in British politics. The piece opens with the line “The liberal elite in this country has no shame” but shows no embarrassment that one of the new lords is a long time associate of the group.

The journey from cookie-cutter clone of other 1970’s Trotskyist groups (bold slogans and selling newspapers) to ally of the far right and member of the House of Lords is a long one. In the 1980s the RCP used their media-savvy to put better production values into their publications and shifted to a glossier magazine format with “Living Marxism”. The magazine re-christened as LM continued even as the RCP itself atrophied and the ideological stance shifted away from Trotskyist to something else. In the late 1980’s journalist George Monbiot wrote a long analysis of the shift of the group from the left to the right:

“As you wade through back issues of Living Marxism, you can’t help but conclude that the magazine’s title is a poor guide to its contents. LM contains little that would be recognised by other Marxists or, for that matter, by leftists of any description. On one issue after another, there’s a staggering congruence between LM’s agenda and that of the far-right Libertarian Alliance. The two organisations take identical positions, for example, on gun control (it is a misconceived attack on human liberty), child pornography (legal restraint is simply a Trojan horse for the wider censorship of the Internet), alcohol (its dangers have been exaggerated by a new breed of “puritan”), the British National Party (it’s unfair to associate it with the murder of Stephen Lawrence; its activities and publications should not be restricted), the Anti-Nazi League (it is undemocratic and irrelevant), tribal people (celebrating their lives offends humanity’s potential to better itself; the Yanomami Indians are not to be envied but pitied) animal rights (they don’t have any), and global warming (it’s a good thing).”

https://www.monbiot.com/1998/11/01/far-left-or-far-right/

The evolution of LM to Sp!ked was precipitated by a major defamation case in which the British news network ITN sued LM after LM had pushed a conspiracy theory that ITN had fabricated evidence of Serbian war crimes in Bosnia. Ironically one of the longest recent analysis of this trial was published last year in Quillette (I say ironically because arguably Sp!ked and Clair Fox’s “Institute of Ideas” created the template for outlets like Quillette, even if Quillette plays the same trick but claiming moderate liberalism as the framing for advancing far-right ideas). The Quillette piece is a two party essay looking at the trial and its ramifications. Part one is here https://quillette.com/2019/11/01/denial-and-defamation-the-itn-lm-libel-trial-revisited-ii/ and here is a relevant quote from part two:

“Hume, and LM’s publishers, Claire Fox and Helene Guldberg, were unrepentant. “We apologise for nothing,” Hume told the press assembled outside the High Court in London immediately after the verdict. “But we will not be appealing. Life is too short, and other issues too important, to waste any more time in the bizarre world of the libel courts.” Facing bankruptcy, Hume and Guldberg shuttered their magazine and immediately relaunched it as Spiked-Online, while Fox became founding co-director of the Academy of Ideas, an LM-associated think-tank initiated before the magazine folded, which continues to operate under Fox’s sole directorship today.”

https://quillette.com/2019/11/01/denial-and-defamation-the-itn-lm-libel-trial-revisited-i/

This is all really just background to a wider point. There is one view of ideology that would find this all as inexplicable. It is the view that imagines ideology as distinct categories but also if it admits any fuzzy edges then they would between close neighbours. In this view ideologies are systems of thought with rationally connected ideas — the ideas maybe wrong headed but only because they arise about false assumptions about the world. In this view, ideologies are of a piece. It’s a peculiar view because really it is taking Marxism as the template for ideologies should be like even thought it is a view of ideology that isn’t particularly Marxist.

For example, Marxism in all its forms is very theory heavy. Marx himself had not just a detailed model of economics but also a view of history and a deep philosophical model. However, this is a very unusual example of an ideology. Beyond Marxism (and even within Marxism if we include all the movements that have called themselves Marxist) it is unusual for ideologies to have all these components. Marxism itself would repudiate the idea that ideologies are defined by combing an economic theory with a philosophical stance. Where we see this template-for-ideologies come take root is really with Ayn Rand’s Objectivism, where she attempts to match those aspects of Marxism with her opposed positions (naive free market capitalism as an economic theory and a confused logic-essentialism for a philosophical stance).

I would contend that ideologies function more like fictional genres. They acquire elements over time and those elements may be in active conflict with each other. They also have cultural and aesthetic components that shape everything from patterns of speech, colour choices and even typography. That idea of ideology as aesthetic is most pronounced within fascism but there are elements of it in all ideologies which makes it possible to cosplay the ideas of one ideology as the ideas of another.

That doesn’t mean that the logic of ideas is irrelevant to ideology. We can connect ideas via the implications they have as well as how they impact with reality. Sooner or later we trip over curbs or run into brick walls. Our imagined worlds bump and scrape against the unimagined one. The stability of an ideology over time and over large numbers of people implies at least some degree of coherence. However, the capacity of individuals to adhere to quite novel combinations of ideas or to rationalise their own interests as high-minded principle is essentially unbounded.


Some other coverage:

https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2000/jul/08/davidpallister.johnvidal1
https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/apr/23/former-communist-claire-fox-standing-as-mep-for-farages-brexit-party
https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2000/jul/08/davidpallister.johnvidal1
https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/aug/01/truly-the-lords-becomes-ever-more-a-house-of-ill-repute
https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/labour-uses-tories-ira-jibe-to-target-lady-brexit-claire-fox-snjc6v23b
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Claire_Fox
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Revolutionary_Communist_Party_(UK,_1978)

Sci-fi, Libertarians, Heinlein and other stuff

I got bored with my previous habit of checking on the clumsy articles at Quillette — the online magazine for people who want to be reassured that reactionary ideas are really quite nice if you stand on your head and squint at them for long enough. However, a recent article crossed into multiple aspects of my interests that I really thought I should write about it. Entitled “The Libertarian History of Science Fiction” (https://quillette.com/2020/06/12/the-libertarian-history-of-science-fiction/) it is not a particularly great examination of the topic but not so blisteringly awful as to be funny. In responding to it I appear to have gone off in many directions and have used many words and long run on sentences. So more after the fold…

There really are free lunches

A bad survey about the ‘Intellectual Dark Web’

This is an edited version of three Twitter rants from yesterday. It started as an off-cuff reaction but I was too far into it before I thought that it should be a blog-post rather than Tweets.

Stephen Pinker tweeted out a very weird bit of science theatre created by Michael Shermer.

Pinker has enough critical thinking skills that he should look at it with hefty scepticism…but obviously isn’t. It’s pretend science, using play-acting at science to refute what is obvious and ignores the core issues.

The “survey” by Michael Shermer (which should be a red flag in itself) was sent to 34 notable people associated with the label “Intellectual Dark Web” and asked where they stand on a number of issues. The survey was anonymous, so the views identified in the survey can’t be matched to the individuals asked. https://www.skeptic.com/reading_room/preliminary-empirical-study-shedding-light-on-intellectual-dark-web/

Each and every one of the people surveyed is a public figure who have made multiple public statements about politics and social issues. I don’t need an anonymous survey to find out what Andy Ngo or Sam Harris thinks, I can go and read what they say. And it is what they SAY that matters and what defines the IDW term not what they might privately think. If Sam Harris thinks he has warm & fuzzy liberal beliefs that’s nice but the whole point of the “dark web” label was the contrarian issues he promotes. Maybe Ben Shapiro secretly believes Global Warming is real and climate change is caused by humans. I don’t know but what matters is he propagandises the opposite. If an anonymous survey of the 34 “Intelectual Dark” Webbers reveals that their underlying views are more centrist and mainstream then that is not evidence that the public perception of their public positions is wrong. Rather it confirms a key point about the IDW.

The fundamental issues with the disparate group lumped together as the Intellectual Dark Web is that they are DISINGENUOUS about their politics. It’s not news that Jordan Peterson thinks of himself as moderate and reasonable. We knew that already. It doesn’t change that he (and Harris & Shapiro & Ngo & Quillette) frame and enable a perspective that bolsters the far right. The whole “we are the reasonable ones” is part of the schtick of the IDW. That they’ll boost that in an anonymous survey is, frankly, wank.

Let’s be sceptical as I’m sure Dr Pinker and Shermer would want us to be. Let’s take one conclusion Pinker raises from the survey: The members of the IDW are “concerned w climate” Let’s look at the survey: The survey agrees: “67% strongly agreed that global warming is caused by human actions (no one strongly disagreed)” So their you go! Hoorah! No, no let us be sceptical first. If this was GENUINELY true would it not be easily observed?

To the empircism-mobile! Here’s the output of the Quillete Climate tag https://quillette.com/tag/climate/ zoiks! A hefty TWO article, one concern trolling Greta Thunberg and the other saying people shouldn’t be mean to capitalism. Yes, Quillette is just one source but it is one that connects Steven Pinker on the one hand (who we can observe genuinely does advocate for action on Global Warming) with Andy Ngo on the other hand (who genuinely does have connections with the alt-right and violent far right groups) via Claire Lehmann (Quillette’s founder, fan of Pinker and one time boss of Ngo).

Yes, Steven Pinker himself has a better record on the of global warming but the issue he raised was to look collectively at the IDW and their media-organs. Broadly this is not a group trying to do very much about helping with the issue. And wow, think of the actually good the IDW could achieve given their actual audience. Whatever they may think of themselves, collectively they do have the ear of many on the right – exactly where climate change denial and bad science on the topic is endemic. You’d think these out spoken people might be busy being outspoken on a potential planet wide disaster.

It gets worse. The actual sample was only 18 not 34 people. Nearly half of the 34 didn’t answer. So when the survey says “67%” (the percentage favouring gun control and which believes global warming is real) actually means “12 people” That’s actually both more plausible and more wretched. Even if we accept that 12 of those IDWs think climate change is real, it says almost nothing about the group. Any one member of the original 34 people is a hefty 3% of the population being sampled and hence missing any one of them can have a large impact on the results. This is particularly true given that we already know that the label of “Intellectual Dark Web” is being attached to a group with a very broad range of views on many topics.

Shermer is assuming non-response to the survey is random across the traits being surveyed (i.e the 18 is a random sample of the 34). There is no reason to believe that and really anybody who is wants to seriously call themselves a sceptic should dismiss any general conclusion from the survey without substantial additional supporting evidence.

Indeed there’s good reason to assume that the 18 who responded is not a good random sample of the 34, just on the nature of the numbers. It is very hard with small numbers in a survey for the sample to be representative because one person makes a big difference. Shermer hides that by quoting percentages rather than raw totals but with small number percentages hide how few people he’s talking about. It’s not invalid to look at proportions with small sample sizes, sometimes that is all you have but there’s a point where 12 out of 18 is more informative than 67%.

We can illustrate the issue with the women who were surveyed. Of the 34 named people in survey associated with the “Intellectual Dark Web” 8 (24%) are women. In the survey 3 (17%) are women. So are the IDW 17% women (generalising from survey) or 24%? Obviously 24% is the correct figure but 17% is the equivalent of the the kind of survey conclusions Shermer presents. In fact any one woman listed is 13% of the IDW women, so one more woman answering makes a huge different to sub-sample of women. Any one person is 6% of the whole sample of 18 people!

Circling back to 67% claim. Again assuming everybody who responded is being honest (which I doubt) the survey actually found that 12 people of the 34 who were asked believed in gun control and the same number believed that global warming was real (which I’ll add isn’t saying much, some prominent sceptics will say global warming is real, just as many anti-vaccination campaigners will say they support vaccinations – it is the ‘but’ that follows where the issues lie). That might mean 67% or there about of 34 believe in gun control but a safer conclusion is no less than 35% do (12/34) and no more than 82% (28/34). Given how granular this data is, hoping the estimate is in the middle isn’t supported.

This is why I call it theatre. It is the wrong methodology applied badly. It illustrates methodological snobbery. Synthesising the complex views of a small group of people is exactly where qualitative methods work better. It is a domain where you need to put on your humanities hat and apply those humanities skills. Shermer is using sciencey film-flam by presenting a pointlessly anonymous survey and presenting the results as percentages as if there were proportions of the whole group.

Don’t get me wrong I absolutely LOVE applying basic quantitive methods to things and place where they don’t always make sense. It’s very much my hobby but even on this less than 100% serious blog I’d throw more caveats at better numbers than Shermer is using.

Cat psychology

A reader asks me:

“Hi Cam,
You are lucky that your cat can talk and is so ready to share his views. I never know what my cat is thinking. Can you share some of your experience with Timothy and give us all some insights into the inner lives of our cats?”

I’m always happy to help and I’ve compiled this chart to help you match your cat’s facial expression to their thought process. Obviously this is based on Timothy and your own cat maybe different.

The Right would rather men died than admit any flaws in masculinity

I shouldn’t read Quillette. For those unfamiliar with the Australian/International online magazine, it is part of that genre of modern political thought that could be called anti-left contrarianism, that covers various soughs from Steven Pinker to Jordan Peterson. Its stock style of article is shallowness dressed up as depth, utilizing the same style of misrepresentation of issues as the tabloid press but with longer sentences and a broader vocabulary.

Over the past few days it has published a couple of pieces on the American Psychological Associations Guidelines for Psychological Practice for Men and Boys. Now you would think that the stalwart defenders of innate gender differences would be happy that an influential body like the APA would be overtly recognising that men and boys have distinct psychological needs that require special advice for practitioners. After all, is this not the ‘moderate’ criticism of the rise of feminism? That somehow, men’s needs and men’s issues have been sidelined? Ha, ha, who am I kidding 🙂 The APA guidelines were characterised by MRAs, conservatives and the so-called “Intellectual dark web” as a direct attack on masculinity.

Here is one particularly stupid piece at Quillette that reflects the harrumphing style of response: https://quillette.com/2019/01/23/thank-you-apa/ The writer (a professor of psychology at North Dakota State University) either haven’t read the guidelines or is actively misrepresenting them.

However, a second piece is what actually caught my attention. It’s better written but also is attacking a strawman version of the guidelines: https://quillette.com/2019/01/23/how-my-toxic-stoicism-helped-me-cope-with-brain-cancer/

The writer describes how his stocial attitude helped him through a diagnosis & treatment for brain cancer and uses that to lambast the APA’s (apparent) criticism of stoicism in its guidelines. I, perhaps foolishly, left a comment on the piece. What follows is an edited version of my comment.

The piece is basically a strawman argument. It misrepresents what the APA guidelines say to imply that the guidelines have blanket disapproval for people acting stoically. e.g. Take the APA’s own article on the guidelines:

“It’s also important to encourage pro-social aspects of masculinity, says McDermott. In certain circumstances, traits like stoicism and self-sacrifice can be absolutely crucial, he says”

https://www.apa.org/monitor/2019/01/ce-corner.aspx

In the guidelines themselves, the word “stoicism” appears only twice and in neither case is a blanket condemnation of it. Once is in relation to difficulties SOME men have forming emotional bonds with other men:

“Psychologists can discuss with boys and men the messages they have received about withholding affection from other males to help them understand how components of traditional masculinity such as emotional stoicism, homophobia, not showing vulnerability, self-reliance, and competitiveness might deter them from forming close relationships with male peers”

American Psychological Association, Boys and Men Guidelines Group. (2018).
APA guidelines for psychological practice with boys and men

And the other connects with a broader health issue of men not seeking care that they may need:

“Psychologists also strive to reduce mental health stigma for men by acknowledging and challenging socialized messages related to men’s mental health stigma (e.g., male stoicism, self-reliance). “

American Psychological Association, Boys and Men Guidelines Group. (2018).
APA guidelines for psychological practice with boys and men

Neither example relates to be being stoical in the face of medical diagnosis but rather social pressures that mean some men (no, not ALL men) don’t seek care that they need (including for physical ailments) because of a misguided belief that they have to battle through by themselves.

The writer’s example is NOT an example of the case the APA guidelines were addressing. The writer sought out medical care, received a diagnosis and stuck with treatment. The writer self-described actions are the OPPOSITE of what the guidelines are discussing — they show a man taking their health seriously and SEEKING HELP. That’s good and healthy but many men aren’t doing that and as a consequence are dying of treatable diseases

As guideline 8 points out:

“For most leading causes of death in the United States and in every age group, males have higher death rates than females”

American Psychological Association, Boys and Men Guidelines Group. (2018).
APA guidelines for psychological practice with boys and men

At least some of this is due men not seeking out healthcare they need:

“Between 2011 and 2013, men’s mortality rates for colorectal cancer, a generally preventable disease with regular screenings, were significantly higher than women’s, suggesting that many men do not engage in preventative care (American Cancer Society, 2015).”

American Psychological Association, Boys and Men Guidelines Group. (2018).
APA guidelines for psychological practice with boys and men

A stoical attitude need not be toxic but when misapplied/misunderstood or adopted out of a feeling of social obligation, it can take on a harmful form of thinking that you shouldn’t seek out help. I’m glad the writer’s stoicism was of the positive kind but the writer should perhaps also take greater care in researching what the APA guidelines had actually said.


To put not too fine a point on it: toxic aspects of masculinity kills men. There is nothing pro-man about it. Nobody is actually sticking up for men by pushing back against the APA guidelines.