A New Samizdat

“What if now were the time for a new self-publishing here at home — a new samizdat? The time to create a new, parallel communications network and a fresh system for information sharing? A parallel network and a fresh system owned not by commercial interests — so Twitter, Facebook, Medium, and other seemingly “self-publishing” platforms can’t factor in here — nor by the state or the government, but by the very people who create and maintain them, part of a widening nonprofit, non-commercial ecosystem. Václav Havel spoke of the battle of first and second cultures as an epic contest between “an anonymous, soulless, immobilizing (‘entropic’) power,” on the one hand, and “life, humanity, being, and its mystery,” on the other. [5] Fellow dissidents spoke of samizdat’s second culture as “the only meaningful construction” people could create if they did not want “to remain passive appendices of the political and social structures created by the ruling power.” [6] They signaled each other as they wrote, distributed, and published — from the smallest codes, of the kinds that the Encyclopédistes used, to the largest and, also like the Encyclopédie, most earth-shattering. [7] Solzhenitsyn spoke of the mystical wisdom of a process in which information that is urgent somehow rises to the top. Samizdat, Solzhenitsyn wrote, “knows what is what.” [8]

-Peter B. Kaufman, “Freethinkers Versus the Monsterverse: An Excerpt from ‘The New Enlightenment.'” Los Angeles Review of Books. February 23, 2021

This is one of the motivations behind my use of a blog and stripping out advertising. But, this points to a much fuller conception. Should I be making ‘zines, podcasts, create a video channel? It all sounds very exhausting. But, at minimum, I’m not going to spend my time helping the feudal Internet hit their revenue targets with what passes as my commentary.

Meritocracy, Intelligence & Education

“…we need to dismantle meritocracy.

DeBoer is skeptical of “equality of opportunity”. Even if you solve racism, sexism, poverty, and many other things that DeBoer repeatedly reminds us have not been solved, you’ll just get people succeeding or failing based on natural talent…

…One one level, the titular Cult Of Smart is just the belief that enough education can solve any problem. But more fundamentally it’s also the troubling belief that after we jettison unfair theories of superiority based on skin color, sex, and whatever else, we’re finally left with what really determines your value as a human being – how smart you are. DeBoer recalls hearing an immigrant mother proudly describe her older kid’s achievements in math, science, etc, “and then her younger son ran by, and she said, offhand, ‘This one, he is maybe not so smart.'” DeBoer was originally shocked to hear someone describe her own son that way, then realized that he wouldn’t have thought twice if she’d dismissed him as unathletic, or bad at music. Intelligence is considered such a basic measure of human worth that to dismiss someone as unintelligent seems like consigning them into the outer darkness. So DeBoer describes how early readers of his book were scandalized by the insistence on genetic differences in intelligence – isn’t this denying the equality of Man, declaring some people inherently superior to others? Only if you conflate intelligence with worth, which DeBoer argues our society does constantly. 

-Scott Alexander, “Book Review: The Cult Of Smart
Summary and commentary on The Cult Of Smart by Fredrik DeBoer
.” Astral Codex Ten. February 17, 2021.

There’s a lot going on in this review. I’d highlight that Fredrik’s DeBoer’s blog has an RSS feed, which you can add to your RSS reader. I’m looking forward to reading more of his commentary.

Open Question: Is education an unqualified good?

I recently had an online discussion with someone who, in broad strokes, seems to agree with the above position, i.e., if we only had enough education, we would solve much of society’s problems. I think this is a standard U.S. liberal stance, which positions educational attainment as the means for advancement into the middle class.

Education is the great lie of U.S. liberal politics. Lest you think I’m a conservative trying to own the libs, let me first talk about the great lie of U.S. conservative politics in order to draw parallels.

The great lie of U.S. conservative politics is that you can have a global war-fighting capability and small government. The U.S. conservative lie is easy to grasp. There’s obviously a tension between government size and the ability to fight any war, much less a capability that involves nearly a thousand foreign military bases and nearly a trillion dollars of military spending every year, more if we include the debt servicing for past wars.

But, how is education like war? Isn’t education an unqualified good? The similarity is that just as small government caps one’s ability to fight wars, there is a demand limit on education. Most education is vocational instruction. People go to school in order to get a credential that gives them a better chance of getting a job. The education is, in large part, a secondary effect to the real demand for better employment opportunities.

It’s also possible to juice this demand. For example, I know of one university, and I imagine it is a feature of most universities, where jobs that used to employ people straight out of high school now require a university degree. The university, by implementing this requirement, increases demand for its product. But, does being an administrative assistant in the university organization really require this level of training? Does one need a Bachelor’s degree in communication, business, English, etc. in order to answer the telephone, write a Word document or navigate an Excel spreadsheet? Aren’t these skills acquired in the high school curriculum these days (and if not, shouldn’t they be)?

And you can see this happening at a broader scale as university administration has become professionalized. Instead of professors running university business in addition to their teaching, professors teach and the university business has been outsourced to administrators.

And, it’s not just universities. The same phenomena is happening across industries. It’s true of every level of government. It’s true of most industries, but particularly those that are tied closely to government. Look through the top industries by GDP in the United States: healthcare, durable goods manufacturing, food & travel, retail, etc. Almost everywhere you look, advancement implies management.

So, people go to school to learn a vocation. You get in the door, and then, in order to advance, no matter what industry you are in, you need to get into management. Leaving us to wonder, what exactly is vocational education for? Further, how large is the real need for managers, as opposed to front-line workers?

If you think it through, it is obviously a con, no different in its contradictions than talking about small government and global war. Management, by definition, has to be small. So, no amount of education is going to improve the lot of people getting educated to qualify for those relatively few positions. The only way that education works is if there are paths of advancement that actually require an education and aren’t management.

For example, if Dragon Naturally Speaking has taken over all the transcriptionist jobs, if Level 5 artificial intelligence has taken over from the teamsters, if 3D printing technologies have reduced the number of people working at construction sites, if fast food can become a largely automated process, etc., what will become of those people doing those jobs?

The most likely outcome is that there will be a compression of people into low skill jobs, driving down wages for everyone. There will be some people that will move into positions of managing machines. Someone will have to check on the artificial intelligence drivers, to make sure the results are as intended and to intervene when it starts to become very Sorcerer’s apprentice. But, the net is less jobs for people and more jobs for machines.

And, this is where the education argument starts to look plausible. People can be trained and are needed to supervise and inspecting the work of machines. In some ways, we are already preparing for that world, where people in low skill jobs are treated as if they are machines. For example, see some of the discussion about the conditions in Amazon warehouses and how that is breathing new life into the labor movement.

But, in the end, there is limited demand for education. Most people go through the process of getting an education credential for the vocational dividends that pays. But, it is clear that the university model and the push for education doesn’t deliver on its promise. And, when people are sitting on a mountain of debt and cannot find work, are they going to sell the educational dream to their children?

Another detail worth consideration, did the COVID-19 pandemic finally show that the promise of MOOCs are not something that can be delivered using the university model and university price points? At the very least, the focus on education and how it is delivered needs to be completely rethought. And, as DeBoer points to a deeper problem, our society’s focus on intelligence and expanding it through education is a fundamentally flawed project, as bad as small government and global war-fighting.

Life is a Beautiful Dare

Carefully discern the cost and the calling. 
Then, commit for life, if you are able.
If you can't be X all day, much less for life,
try being X for the next second, minute, or hour.
Failure will never stand in your way,
unless you fail to learn, the true failure.
What you say and do, it matters.
How you survive, it matters.
You don't have to screw people
to live, as long as living is enough.
Make the effort, focus, watch your mind.
For your mind, your ideas about the world
are like trying to capture being alive
with a camera, a microphone, or a word.
It makes objects of moments. Moments
are life, succulent and raw, a ripe fruit
better tasted and felt than captured and told.
Reach for grace, weave it through your life
and the lives of others, in community. Together,
we can build a life of shared experience,
of deep connection and intimacy. Beauty
is everywhere, we only need to strive to see
through our own senses and those of others
to dip into the richness of our lived experience.
Knowing, ain't doing, my friends. I know enough,
to write this, but I also know that I am too frequently
sucking on the stone pit, the abstraction better
thrown away that prevents us from eating good fruit.
And all fruit is best, when it is shared with love.

Chartism & Skepticism

Chartism: …Policymakers fall somewhere on the spectrum of pro-chart and anti-chart. Pro-chartists think that data can explain the world, and the more we have the better. But anti-chartists think that relentless data accumulation is misguided because it offers false certainty and misses the big picture interpretation. As the saying goes: “More fiction is written in Excel than Word.”

-David Perell, “Friday Finds (1/29/[21 sic])” Friday Finds. January 29, 2021.

David Perell references Thomas Carlyle’s Chartism as the origin of this idea. It’s interesting, but I think it is largely a false dichotomy. Obviously, data can help explain the world and help us to make better decisions. However, equally obviously, Sturgeon’s Law applies to data, just as it does to anything else, and a lot of data is crap. Or, it is worse than crap because it gives us confidence in ideas, decisions, etc. that we should not be confident in. However, there is a solution to this problem: philosophical skepticism.

It is easy to get lost in the weeds in that Stanford article of belief, justification, and so forth about skepticism. But, the main idea is that everything you know could be wrong. On one level, none of us knows enough to be completely wrong about anything. On another, you could say that we aren’t even wrong because we don’t even know what the basic framework of being right should be. It’s a bit confusing, but skepticism is easier to understand if you tackle it using a specific problem: the problem of induction, which was originally formulated by David Hume in A Treatise on Human Nature in 1739 .

At base, the problem of induction is that our past experiences aren’t really predictive and don’t constitute knowledge. Take an easy example: will the sun rise tomorrow? It has risen all the previous days for billions of years, so it seems we could say that we know it will rise tomorrow too. However, we just know history. Something could change tomorrow. There could be some detail about stars that would make tomorrow’s reality different from our expectation.

In terms of Chartism, we have a lot of data points about the sun’s daily rising. We’ve been able to predict, successfully, the sun’s rise in the past. We may even have some ideas about star formation and other details that would inform our expectations. But do we know that the sun is going to rise tomorrow? No, we don’t.

And once you are willing to question the sun’s rise, you’re on your way. Everything is up for grabs. You can still go about your day thinking certain things will happen. But, you also know that there’s uncertainty there that you were not aware of before. It is one of the principle problems of humanity that we believe that we know things that we don’t. With skepticism, we introduce a little intellectual humility, a quality that never hurt anyone.

Grovertruk

All you really need to know is that someone decided to document a van life buildout that features a firepit. The fact that this was inspired by Groverhaus, which was a dangerous and crazy decision a guy named Grover and his wife decided to build an add-on to his home without professional help, is interesting backstory.

If you like this kind of thing, then try subscribing to Garbage Day. It’s the cream of notable weird on the Internet without actually having to use sites like Something Awful. Win/win.

Bonus: Check out “the the Fieri Frames blog, which takes screenshots from Diners, Drive-Ins, And Dives and puts weird and unsettling captions on them,” as another example of what Garbage Day gives you, this time from Tumblr.

Fascists in Need of a Punch

“Fascism: a political philosophy, movement, or regime (such as that of the Fascisti) that exalts nation and often race above the individual and that stands for a centralized autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader, severe economic and social regimentation, and forcible suppression of opposition

—Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, s.v. “fascism,” accessed January 24, 2021, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/fascism.

When I think of fascism, I think of uniforms and the threat of violence. Want to wear a Hawaiian shirt with tactical gear and carry a gun? Into wearing a white hood and burning a cross on someone’s yard you don’t like? You might be a fascist.

In the United States, there are fascist elements baked in. We have ideas that “America” is exceptional. After the Capitol riot of 2021, there was a great deal of talk about the Capitol building being “sacred”. Sacred can mean dedicated to a specific use. But, the more common use implies religion and a deity. What religion is the Capitol building dedicated to? The religion of America.

It is understood that America is white, Anglo-Saxon, and Protestant. America might be a melting pot, but there’s no question what the dominate flavor should be, at least among the fascists.

Then, we have a system of government that has concentrated much of its power into the hands of the President, putting the “sacred” functions of government into the hands of one person. There are even ideas like the unitary executive theory that argue that the President has complete authority over executive functions.

Autocratic control by a dictatorial leader is a feature of the U.S. system. It only requires someone to use it that way with sufficient cooperation from the other branches of government to make it a reality. The 45th President demonstrates the point.

Once you have autocratic government, then severe economic and social regimentation and forcible suppression of the opposition is not far behind. Who is the opposition? It can be some specific group: Jews, immigrants, Muslims, Mexicans, aborigines, Germans, Arabs, Igbo, etc. Or it can be a group fabricated whole cloth, a catch-all term indicating an ideology or an imaginary distinction: Jacobians, anarchists, socialists, communists, terrorists, or antifa.

Every age has its opposition to the status quo, whether it’s anarchists organizing for an eight hour work day; the American Taliban, pushing for the return of a white, Christian orthodoxy; American revolutionaries and/or reformers fighting George III, Lincoln or Jim Crow; etc. All are dangerous to the established order. Whether you think the danger is good or not depends on your values. However, fascist values, with an authoritarian leader and a strong state subordinating the individual or individual states, are also American values. The United States has had its fair share of cult of personality leaders, and in some ways, great man (or woman) narratives tie into the individualist streak of our culture.

Labeling opposition as socialists or neonazis is standard in every kind of politics. It is a time-honored way of reducing nuance and creating The Other that can serve as a catalyst for cohesive action. The target of these labels largely doesn’t matter. They just have to be The Other and someone that opposes, or could oppose, the political project. Fascists do have a unique advantage that such thinking is built into their philosophy of authoritarian control and a national culture.

At the level of the nation, there is little an individual can do. You can only hope in institutions and in good people.

However, the process described above also happens in microcosm at the interpersonal and local levels. Local chapters of Proud Boys, booj and other fascist groups precede the appearance of those ideas on a national stage.

Look for the uniforms. It could be as simple as a color, an article of clothing, etc. Of course, these are also signs of tribalism. The key questions are whether these groups use violence and how.

Neo-nazis may have bad ideas. But, you cannot kill ideas, even bad ones. You can kill and arrest people, however. Sometimes, this is necessary, out of a sense of self-defense of the body politic.

Targeting people raise the stakes on violence. Generally, non-violent resistance raises the moral stakes. It reaches good people by creating opportunities to engage their conscious. But, again, there are individuals that do not respond to this approach. Some people aren’t in touch with their goodness or their conscious. Some people only understand the language of social censure and/or violence.

Violence is a dangerous tool. It is often self-perpetuating. But, it sometimes cannot be avoided. Some fascists, the violent ones trying to dominate a local space who don’t heed non-violent resistance, simply need to be punched. You need to speak to people in languages that they can understand, whether they be moral, violent or other.

The Market of Truth & Faction

“Fooling people only requires telling them what they want to hear, over and over again. People love to hear how right they are.”

—Stan Beeman, in The Americans.

The market for truth is a small one. On the scale of the universe, it is true that we are insignificant. On that level, we don’t factor into truth at all.

But, this is true of truth more generally. The truth is that on every level above the personal, the immediate environments of our day-to-day existence, our lives are of no consequence.

But, we want to believe we matter. We want to be powerful, famous and wealthy. We want agency in a world where most of what we think or do is irrelevant and worthless.

The only way to achieve that goal of relevance and worth is to believe in anything other than the truth. Our ego wants to place itself as the center of the universe, like the earth in Medieval times, and believe that the music of the spheres is playing for us. But, it’s a lullaby, lulling us into a sleep of self.

Fractions of the truth, leads to fragmented minds and to faction. The Other becomes a defining factor in maintaining significance, despite the truth. Faction is integral to dissatisfaction. But, it’s all an illusion built on the desire for significance, which is built on someone else’s insignificance.

All of it is a temple of suffering, the cornerstone of which is our rejection of our own insignificance. What would happen if we were able to accept this truth?

The Dreamer & The Judge

The dreamer is in no position to judge what is real or who is awake. The first task of the dreamer is to awaken and of the judge is to make sure the evidence is admissible. Everything else is a kangaroo court of suffering.