A beautifully told story with colorful characters out of epic tradition, a tight and complex plot, and solid pacing. -- Booklist, starred review of On the Razor's Edge

Great writing, vivid scenarios, and thoughtful commentary ... the stories will linger after the last page is turned. -- Publisher's Weekly, on Captive Dreams

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Viktor Frankenstein Notices a Wee Problem With His Programme

Science Fiction, Meet Reality; Reality, Science Fiction.

Now shake hands and come out fighting.

The first phase of every Great Programme is What Can Possibly Go Wrong? This is because of a certain confirmation bias in which only the positive consequences of the proposal are considered. The second phase, How Were We Supposed to Know?, occurs when the negative consequences kick in. Among the unexpected side-effects is The Revolution Eats Its Young. Robespierre went to the guillotine. The Old Bolsheviks were shot or trundled off to the gulags. Germaine Greer is denounced as an enemy of feminism.

The burger-making machine! Behold our Master!
You can never do just one thing. Every system is like a Calder mobile: jiggle one piece and the others will start to jiggle, often in unexpected ways.

Suppose you raise the minimum wage. On the one hand, it would be happy indeed if entry-level, unskilled workers were paid more. But on the other hand, if employers must pay more in increased wages (and overhead) than they would obtain in increased productivity, they will naturally hire fewer such workers. So it profiteth a man not if the wage is increased on a job that he loseth the opportunity to gain. There is just as much hardship as before, only now it is less evenly distributed; and it may very well saw off the bottom rung of the ladder of opportunity, and create a permanent class of unemployed youth. A burger-flipping robot has already been invented. Once the wages and burden for burger flippers exceeds the capital costs for installing the robot, we can kiss those bottom-rung jobs goodbye and people will be unemployed from better-paying jobs.

Similarly, the traditional means of dealing with economic recessions was once to cut wages, which is hard cases all around. But Herbert Hoover had a brainstorm to forbid wage reductions after the Market Crash in 1929 and consequently, instead of everyone working for less money and squeaking by, whole enterprises went belly-up and a quarter of the workforce didn't work at all. An ordinary recession was converted thereby into a Great Depression, so hard cases this way, too. The hardship was still there, but again, less evenly distributed.

A Great Idea
A CEO may decide that production volume should be increased, leading to higher revenues, increased wages, and many Happy Faces. But if the increased volume gluts the market, the price may crash, and the enterprise fail, leading to no revenues, no wages, etc. and many fewer Happy Faces.

Examples of unexpected consequences multiply. We don't mean extraneous factors that get in the way of implementation, but the consequences, spins-off, and side-effects of actually implementing the idea. Can you say "New Coke"? We knew you could.

Faithful Reader may recall the Olde Curmudgeon, in which the problem of "we need a bigger storage tank" turned out to be the problem "we're paying too much demurrage." Only when the problem was properly expressed could it be solved. That is, they had confused a possible remedy with the problem. So we might consider whether a problem is best defined as "We need a higher minimum wage" or as "people are making careers out of unskilled, entry-level jobs." Such jobs were originally intended for young folks just entering the workforce and learning basic skills¹, working part-time summer jobs, or retirees looking for supplementary income. TOF once had such a job working as a printer's devil on flatbed letterpress for a munificent $1.60 per hour.²

No one was imagined as raising a family on such an income; but opportunities for advancement may have dried up due to ill-considered corporate or governmental policies stifling GDP growth and gutting good-paying blue-collar employment. Or people have forgotten to defer marriage (i.e., families) until they are financially established.
1. learning basic skills. Like showing up for work. On time.
2. $1.60/hr. That would be $12.08 in today's debased currency.
 Now TOF told you that to tell you this.
Self-control is the control and rightful-ordering of desires and passions by the rational self. Liberation, as promoted by liberals, socialists, and other libertarians, is the setting-free of desires and passions from the command of the rational self, the thraldom of the latter to the former, and the manipulation and control of the desires and passions by outer forces over the vanquished self. This is the “free man” which the libertarians promote: the man without self-control, not a master of his passions, but their thrall in “free expression” — and a thrall also to those who know how to manipulate and control the passions of others.
-- Deogolwulf, WiĆ¾ Endemanndom (9 July 2014)

One such Bright Idea was that freedom of speech does not apply to obnoxious speech. No, TOF does not mean speech like ripping down America, which many do find obnoxious, but only speech which the Besserwissers find distressing. He refers to early efforts to curb nasty slurs directed at ethnic groups of one sort or another.¹ Sticks and stones being deployed less often these days, we must now go after the words that hurt. TOF had the odd notion, apparently shared by few, that while one may freely speak his mind, this did not obligate him to do so as obnoxiously as possible. If nothing else, this would impede the speaker's ability to get his point across. Of course, the idea is no longer to get one's point across; it is only to pose for the admiration of one's colleagues and to dog-whistle to one another.² 
1. No, not "micks" or "mackerel snappers."
2. And, no, he does not care to which breed of dog one whistles.
In the Olde Days™, this restraint was called "politeness," but this custom was discarded in the course of another Bright Idea, yclept The Sixties™ when politeness of discourse was regarded as bourgeois and Letting it All Hang Out™ was thought a virtue. It never occurred to them that some things ought not be hung out, if for no other reason than the aesthetic. Nor did it occur to them that if they once broke the custom and normalized words like d***, f*** and s*** in order to shock the bourgeoisie, it would not be long before others would start to use other impolite words to shock them.

Well, we can't have that. But since politesse had been discarded, the Advocates of Free-Speech-for-Us had no recourse except to criminalize bad manners. This required speech codes and other mandates. And so we had the spectacle of some of the same people who had campaigned vociferously for the right to speak their minds offensively now crafting "rules of the game" to prevent others from doing the same. Once upon a time, they had heroically defied authority; now in authority they set about subordinating others to it. This was a conundrum; but they embraced the contradiction with manly disregard for logical consistency.

"But this new, neutralised language does not spell any increase in freedom. When I call your action indecent, I state a fact that can be controverted. When I call it inappropriate, I invoke an institutional context—one [in] which, by implication, I know better than you. ... This is what makes the new idiom so sinister. Calling your action indecent appeals to you as a human being; calling it inappropriate asserts official power."
-- Edward Skidelsky,  "Words that Think for Us" (Prospect Magazine 18 Nov 2009) 

The Revolution Eats Its Young

"Do not be proud of the fact that your grandmother was shocked at something which you are accustomed to seeing or hearing without being shocked. . . . It may mean that your grandmother was an extremely lively and vital animal; and that you are a paralytic."
-- G.K. Chesterton, “On Dialect and Decency,” Avowals and Denials
(New York: Dodd, Mead, & Co., 1935), pp.77-8.

Years ago, a friend of TOF told him that the students at the women's college she attended were constantly pushing against the limits and rules that the nuns imposed. But of course the rules had to be there, she said, because otherwise "how could we know we've broken them?" The purpose of rules, in her view, was to enable young women to break them and still be safe. If once the rules are widened, going past them might involve genuinely dangerous and self-destructive behavior.

Even as the Free Speech Movement was ushering vulgarities into normal discourse, the Hate Speech Movement (if we may call it that) was ushering other words out. Now most of those words had never been permitted in polite society any more than the F-bomb had been; but it had to be made clear that Free Speech meant only the freedom to talk dirty. However, it soon became clear that one could speak offensively without using any of the Forbidden Words.

As late as 2003, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights could state that speech must be 'objectively offensive' before it could be deemed actionable under anti-discrimination statutes. That is, it would have to pass the “reasonable person” test. This worked only so long as most people actually were reasonable. The office wrote that allegedly harassing speech would have to go "beyond the mere expression of views, words, symbols or thoughts that some person finds offensive."

IOW, "man up, cupcake." It's not a crime just because you take offense.

Dastardly crime being detected
Yet within ten years, the Department of "Education" had flipped, and in 2013 broadened the definition to include verbal conduct that is simply "unwelcome." IOW, you are now accountable for crimes you commit inside other people's heads.

For example, a one-time colleague of TOF conducting a training seminar in statistics and used the phrase "rule of thumb." Now this is a common expression in engineering and refers to approximations of various sorts. It derives from the ancient inch, which was the length of the human thumb digit. The "rule" in question is like a carpenter's rule, not a rule of law. (In ancient Egypt, it was called a "digit." On the passport of TOF's gr-gr-grandmother, height was listed in "shoes" and "thumbs.") One student, however, had been sold a bill of goods, perhaps in a Studies course, and believed that the phrase was anti-womyn and referred to a supposed law that limited the size of the stick with which a man could beat his wife.¹

The problem with "other people find unwelcome" as an ethical principle is that it was not possible for to know ahead of time what other people will find unwelcome, so it cannot possibly be used as a guide for ethical behavior. Hence, the ever-expanding lists of words and phrases to avoid. Leviticus has nothing on the Late Modern snowflake.
1. rule of thumb. No one has ever actually found such a law, but that is not important. It is merely a "fact" and what is a fact against hurt feelings?
Deprived of targets using genuine hate-speech, the thought police turned their weapons on their own. Recently, a liberal professor discovered that trying to teach correct grammar and usage was "unwelcome" and racist to some. (And this was in a class on how to write dissertations!²) Nor was this the first such incident. Years ago, before even the Internet, a liberal professor had been chastised for saying "Oriental" in reference to an inhabitant of the Orient. While his head was turned, the word had become badthink. Likewise, a Jewish student at Penn rebuked some undergrads making noise below his dorm window while he was trying to write an English paper, calling them "water buffaloes." This was a literal translation of an Israeli word used to characterize loud rowdy people. Unable to process the idea of diversity -- i.e., that people from another culture might express themselves differently -- or perhaps even the notion of someone trying to study -- the students concluded that the Jew had uttered a racial slur. Everyone else had to go along with the gag because -- wait for it -- what mattered is what the women making the noise thought he meant.

More recently, a National Union of Students Women's Conference in the UK requested that audience members use "jazz hands" instead of clapping because applauding created anxiety. No, really. We have come a long way since "I am woman, hear me roar," but it may not have been in the direction the pioneers had hoped. Parody in our not-so-brave new world is rapidly becoming impossible. This belongs in a satire by Sheckley, not in straight news reporting
2. How to write dissertations. Yes. Graduate level college students must now learn how to capitalize and avoid the comma splice and other such high school material.

Milwaukee, '67. Several thousand whites anxious to attack open-
housing supporters. No worries about micro-aggressions here.
The recent trend of discovering racist, sexist, classist, or otherwise ist-ic microaggressions teaches students to focus on small or accidental slights. That's because most of them have very little experience with the real thing and the suffer from something we might call Sixties-envy. They want to think that they, too, are braving the police dogs, fire hoses, and bombs. But since they get little cooperation, they must make do with these slights.

For example, Omar Mahmood, a student employed at the campus newspaper, The [University of] Michigan Daily, wrote a satirical column for the conservative student publication The Michigan Review, that made fun of the tendency to see microaggressions everywhere.
The Daily’s editors said that the way Mahmood had “satirically mocked the experiences of fellow Daily contributors and minority communities on campus … created a conflict of interest.” The Daily terminated Mahmood after he described the incident to two Web sites, The College Fix and The Daily Caller. A group of women later vandalized Mahmood’s doorway with eggs, hot dogs, gum, and notes with messages such as “Everyone hates you, you violent prick.”
People in the reality-based community might regard those who vandalized Mahmood’s doorway with eggs, hot dogs, gum, and notes with messages such as “Everyone hates you, you violent prick" to be better exemplars of hateful, violent, and threatening behavior than a minority student who tries his hand at satire.  

The student government at Ithaca College proposed an "anonymous microaggression-reporting system" so that people could be denounced secretly for their badthink.The Roman Empire had pioneered the use of clandestine informers, as did the Inquisition (though for different reasons). It's a fashion that never goes out of style.

Harvard Professor James Recht advocates an "affirmative consent" standard for speech. "Before engaging in a conversation, both parties should disclose their political leanings and decide whether they are compatible enough for the conversation before they consent to proceed." That is, you first ascertain whether the other person agrees with you before engaging in a discussion or interview. Presumably, that way one need never be exposed to the exquisite torture of a contrary opinion. (Notice the narrative game: an interview is being subtly framed as a potential rape.)

Well, the National Review may be expected to view such things with a gimlet eye; but even magazines like the New Yorker have started to notice:
[Following the resignation of the University of Missouri's president and chancellor] Tim Tai, a University of Missouri student, got a freelance assignment from ESPN to photograph the reaction of victorious activists at the tent city they set up in a public area of campus. As a matter of law, he had an indisputable First Amendment right to photograph events transpiring outdoors on public property.
But student activists did not want their tent city or the people in it photographed, and forcibly prevented him from taking pictures. “We ask for no media in the parameters so the place where people live, fellowship, and sleep can be protected from twisted insincere narratives,” a Twitter account associated with the activists later declared, adding that “it’s typically white media who don’t understand the importance of respecting black spaces.” 
There are several horrors here. First, the quoted individual does not know what a "parameter" is and he thinks an Asian-American like Mr. Tai is "white." He also thinks "fellowship" is a verb. These are supposed to be college students. However, the most horrific thing is that he believes the activists must be protected from "twisted insincere narratives."  You gotta look out for those narratives; worse than German shepherds, fire hoses, rubber bullets, and lynch mobs.
 In the video of Tim Tai trying to carry out his ESPN assignment, you can see one lone student surrounded by rowdies who forcibly prevent him from exercising a civil right. They intimidate him, push him. "But all the while, they are operating on the premise, or carrying on the pretense, that he is making them unsafe." 
George Orwell, where are you now that we really need you?

What John Lukacs writes in another context entirely is apposite:
[I]n Philadelphia the cult of respectability is inseparable from the cult of safety. That is, at least in part, the Quaker inheritance: the desire for safety, sometimes so rigid as to be uncomfortable. ... One of the reasons for this is the Philadelphian custom of refraining from discussing (and, more than often, from thinking about) unpleasant things. That is a habit that sometimes leads to regrettable consequences, when the excessive wish to keep safe is oddly, or perhaps not so oddly, allied to the reluctance to exercise more than customary foresight.  --- A Thread of Years, "1901"
There is something about this comment regarding 1901 Philadelphia that seems much in tune with the campus-media obsessions in 2015. And the connection with a lack of foresight may also be important. Lukacs' book chronicles the decline of the cult of the gentleman.

So why is it that liberals seem so often the targets of tactics with which they themselves are in agreement? (Conservatives are more often simply boo'ed or driven off by direct threats.) The answer may lie in that self-same agreement. After all, you cannot shame someone into submission for an act that he does not view as wrong. So while people like Mahmood or the would-be interviewer of Professor Recht can be fired or the interview terminated, folks like the President of Mizzou can be taught to grovel and submit.

Whether all this is a result of or a cause of the infantilizing of the modern mind is an interesting question, but not one that TOF will engage today. 
Late Modern college student. photo: The Atlantic

"One of the great truths taught by Buddhism (and Stoicism, Hinduism, and many other traditions¹) is that you can never achieve happiness by making the world conform to your desires. But you can master your desires and habits of thought."
--  Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt. "The Coddling of the American Mind,"
1. other traditions. TOF wonders what some of these "other traditions" might be. Anyone? Bueller?

Reading Matter

  1. Friedersdorf, Conor, "Campus Activists Weaponize ‘Safe Space." The Atlantic (Nov 10, 2015)
  2. Kabbany, Jennifer. "‘Affirmative Consent’ Is in Control Now." National Review (August 8, 2015)
  3. Keohane, Joe. "Politically Correct 'Lord of the Flies'" The New Yorker (September 9, 2015)
  4. Lukianoff, Greg and Jonathan Haidt. "The Coddling of the American Mind," The Atlantic (September, 2015)


  1. Is "microagression" an SI unit?

  2. Heck, a conservative might make fun of you!

  3. "One of the great truths taught by Buddhism (and Stoicism, Hinduism, and many other traditions¹) is that you can never achieve happiness by making the world conform to your desires. But you can master your desires and habits of thought."

    But isn't "tradition" becoming another one of those badthink words? After all, tradition is something transmitted from generation to generation, which means it necessarily comes to us from the past. And as every Late Modern knows, people of the past were not as Enlightened as we are now. Therefore, they have nothing to teach us.

    Also, "great truths"? But "truth" will inevitably become yet another badthink word, since every Late Modern knows that truth is relative. Your truth is not necessarily my truth. There is no truth as such. Thus, there is no objective world or reality that I need to make conform to my desires, since my desires just are my world and my reality, no more or less valid than any other.

  4. I say Tai Tim makes s**t up and publishes it, and when the Mizzou snowflakes call him on it he says he tried to get their 'narrative' but they wouldn't provide it.