I just solved our political impasse

I’d like to announce my non-candidacy for a some office either too insubstantial to make any actual difference, or too high-ranking to stand a remote chance of attaining ten votes nationwide. I’m doing so because I believe in feelings and beliefs, and feel that my feelings and beliefs are sufficient to both not win, and to not risk causing any sort of actual change that will improve anyone’s actual life at all.

My platform is really quite simple.

Let us resolve the abortion and gun culture wars by implementing one simple measure once and for all. Allow people to continue owning guns, and allow others to use them in the commission of abortion. Problem solved.

Support folks in building their favored socialist or survivalist utopia within the context of our present economic structure. There are no shortage of co-ops and suburban enclaves, no shortage of gutter punk houses and Amish communities, no shortage of Costcos that will outfit your commune with bulk pickles and entire pallets of toiletries at a low, low price.

Indeed modern capitalism enables a voluntary socialist community to outfit itself at a tax rate of approximately 0.01%, so long as they can endure itchy buttocks and occasional constipation. Substantial amounts of land can be purchased in the backcountry for about $5 per acre, and Amazon.com will soon deliver to these remote areas by drone.

Universal healthcare can be implemented overnight by resorting to inexpensive and well-founded medical products, like crystals and shots of apple cider vinegar. Climate change can be addressed through the clever use of geodesic domes. Income inequality can be curtailed by using a cryptocurrency available at a sharp discount to commune members. College tuition can be eliminated by hosting free local workshops, teaching people to code but also to weld. When people learn that welding will enable them to earn five times as much as a person with a degree in the classics, the people will rise up and choose to weld shit together.

Keeping these innovative and entirely realistic proposals in mind, I hope I won’t earn your vote in the relevant and tedious celebration of our lack of essential liberties that occurs every so often and leaves all of us miserable and disappointed.

Learning other political languages

Lately I’ve been reading The Three Languages of Politics, a fine little book by Arnold Kling that argues there are three primary axes according to which we think politically.

While these axes can be coextensive, and if one is thinking clearly each will come to bear on their political thinking, in practice we often keep to our preferred axis. In so doing, we limit our political imaginations and transform political conversation into a petty feat of demonstrating our allegiance to some political tribe. This is a primary process by which polarization occurs, of course, and is only compounded further by the geographic and social segregation of our political tribes.

So, what are the axes and which is preferred by each tribe?

Kling argues that conservatives tend to frame their views along the civilization-barbarism axis, progressives prefer the oppressor-oppressed axis, and libertarians appeal to the liberty-coercion axis.

One may find this all very simplistic, but that’s part of the point. These are thought to be the primary, not sole, axes by which we render our political judgements (or at least, by which we talk about politics). In practice, almost everyone uses a combination of all axes. Nevertheless, most of us are prone to underweight one or two of these axes in our thinking due to our partisan blinders.

Let’s suppose a person is mugged at gunpoint. This model would hold that a progressive is more likely than others to consider society’s complicity in producing muggers. A conservative is likely to appeal to the mugger’s lack of virtue or self-reliance, in turn a consequence of social degradation. In contrast to these, a libertarian is more likely to focus on the actual instance of coercion by the mugger, and perhaps discount the more distal causes as speculative and unnecessary.

We can disagree about how to weigh the relative importance of these, but all three perspectives (at least) are required to gain insight into mugging. Because we’re often inclined toward the perspective that predominates in our tribe, we should pay special attention to those we’re predisposed to discount, and ask if that’s justified or if our dismissal of another perspective is merely a product of our ideological bias.

Let’s reinforce the distinction with a more controversial issue: abortion.

On this model, when discussing the morality and legality of abortion, a progressive will typically appeal to the oppressive circumstances leading one to choose abortion in the first place, such as poverty. A conservative will tend to argue it’s a question of moral character, or an unwillingness to sacrifice oneself in order to raise the child. A libertarian view emphasizes the autonomy of the woman, her right to a kind of bodily integrity, provided the fetus does not have a similar claim to liberty. Whether it has such a claim is largely shaped by our scientific understanding, and therefore subject to evolve as the science evolves, rather than an a priori (and often speculative) moral principle.

One interesting aspect of this minimal framework is how it can be used to predict how one partisan will respond to another partisan’s view as well.

The progressive might suggest the conservative is uncaring and ignorant to social injustices, at best, or actively seeking to dominate women’s bodies at worst. Talk of moral character is perceived as evidence of the conservative’s oppressor nature, seeking to impose their values onto others. This is in line with the regular mailings I receive from Planned Parenthood’s political front, claiming that pro-lifers are waging war on women. (A strange view, given roughly half of women are pro-life, and the sexes hold just about the same views on the topic. In my view, the rhetoric is on a par with that of the “Abortion Holocaust” people.)

The conservative may claim the progressive holds callous views with respect to human life, and are evidence of society’s moral degradation. They may acknowledge the unfortunate circumstances of the pregnant woman, while insisting on the importance of self-sacrifice. They may champion the possibility of giving the child up for adoption, or similar alternatives that they find more morally prudent.

The libertarian will tend to discount these background matters and focus on the act itself. They will perhaps argue that scientific understanding is paramount, helping us to assess whether the fetus can feel pain, or otherwise has characteristics that may lead us to recognize it as an entity with natural rights. That somewhere between conception and eight months twenty-nine days, the entity becomes a person, and that science can help inform us when that roughly takes place. Otherwise, the entity should be regarded as a form of private property, and the woman’s liberty to choose abortion must be defended.

Naturally, these axes can be applied to most any political or social question. It is most constructive – to the ends of persuading others, and enhancing our own understanding – when we accept the (at least partial) relevance and validity of each axis, and aim to synthesize the axes we’re instinctively apt to disregard into our understanding.

For the mugger, we can accept their lack of moral character, while also maintaining that their circumstances played some role in this. We can hold these conclusions, while also finding them a bit speculative. As a result, we may seek to weigh more heavily the essential fact that the mugged person was violated, and that the mugger is likely to harm others.

If one is conservative and hopes to make inroads with a progressive, they may validate the concern about the mugger’s upbringing and impoverished circumstances, while emphasizing that many virtuous people come from miserable conditions, and that ultimately we are defined by our decisions. A progressive hoping to make inroads with a conservative on this topic may concede that we are responsible for these decisions, but argue that the range of possible decisions is narrowed when one is subject to adverse circumstances.

Similarly, even with highly contentious matters as abortion, it is possible – indeed vital to our understanding – to synthesize these perspectives accordingly.

We can respect the woman’s claim to exercising control over her body, while finding it unsettling and abstractly even a bit degrading to terminate potential human life. We can help address this tension by determining what factors lead us to attribute rights to some entity, and decide when an entity deserves protection, as informed by our scientific understanding. If we have a strong moral view, we can advocate for a sort of “harm reduction”, advocating for conditions that enable women to choose to give birth if it’s what they desire. These concerns or views are not fundamentally incompatible, and there’s plenty of room for productive compromise.

For virtually any political or social question, each axis should play some role in our thinking, and it is likely that we all underweight the axes that other tribes follow. When we do not correct for this, we participate in toxic polarization, reinforce and deepen it, and allow our minds to be colonized by the loudest partisans.

That is a tragedy for our understanding, for finding productive compromise, and for our relationships with those who think differently and have something to teach us.

Toxic garbage dumpsters

Katie Herzog argues that call-out culture is a toxic garbage dumpster fire of trash:

There’s a name for this behavior: witch hunts. Someone is accused, judged, and condemned for an alleged or apparent transgression, and the townspeople on Facebook and Twitter grab their pitchforks and rush to the burn pile. There may be little evidence to support the prevailing narrative, but that hardly matters. […]

In a recent Wired piece, techno-sociologist Zeynep Tufekci wrote about contemporary censorship, which comes not from governments but from our own social networks. “The most effective forms of censorship today involve meddling with trust and attention, not muzzling speech itself,” she wrote. “As a result, they don’t look much like the old forms of censorship at all. They look like viral or coordinated harassment campaigns, which harness the dynamics of viral outrage to impose an unbearable and disproportionate cost on the act of speaking out.”

Marginalize the university, revive the café

David Adler asks if it’s time to return universities to their proper cultural place:

It is time for a better approach, with the university returning to more of a supporting – rather than domineering – economic and cultural role. Reining in universities’ cultural hegemony has many advantages. Consider: What is the contemporary version of “academic art” (and literature)? What are its concerns, its vision, its impact?

Universal basic income

Andrew Flowers of Five Thirty Eight on universal basic income:

The idea is as simple as it is radical: Rather than concern itself with managing myriad social welfare and unemployment insurance programs, the government would instead regularly cut a no-strings-attached check to each citizen. No conditions. No questions. Everyone, rich or poor, employed or out of work would get the same amount of money. This arrangement would provide a path toward a new way of living: If people no longer had to worry about making ends meet, they could pursue the lives they want to live.


Basic income has attracted a motley crew of supporters, spanning the ideological spectrum. Efficiency-minded libertarians like the idea of streamlining the bureaucracy of the welfare state. Silicon Valley techies hope a guaranteed income would cushion the blow as automation replaces human jobs. Those with a more utopian bent, such as the organizers of the Swiss referendum, want to open up more options, to let people create art and free the world of … “bullshit jobs.”

Via Matt.

Dangerous knowledge

Paul Goodman reflecting1 on a group of campus hecklers in 1967:

I realized that they did not believe there was a nature of things. [To them] there was no knowledge but only the sociology of knowledge. They had learned so well that physical and sociological research is subsidized and conducted for the benefit of the ruling class that they were doubtful that there was such a thing as simple truth, for instance that the table was made of wood—maybe it was plastic imitation.

To be required to know something was a trap by which the young were put down and co-opted. Then I knew my guests and I could not get through to them. I had imagined that the worldwide student protest had to do with changing political and moral institutions, and I was sympathetic to this. But I now saw that we had to do with a religious crisis. Not only all institutions but all learning had been corrupted by the Whore of Babylon…

  1. From New Reformation, p. 70-71

On conversation

James Radcliffe on conversation:

At its best the act of conversation can be many things; connection, communion, truth-finding, enlightenment, inspiration, a healing…  I do not overstate when I say that I have participated in conversations that have bordered on spiritual awakenings.  […]

The thing that I love about a great conversation is the same thing that I love about being part of a great gig, about making love, or participating in the creative process.  All these things are capable of rendering up jewels of light.  This is the truly good stuff; this is what makes life worth living; this is what balances the chaotic fury of flying blind thru the ever-storm of a darkening experience.

I’ve thought something of the sort recently. How my very favorite thing in the world might just be conversation, and how seldom we might consider this a possible answer.

Ideology is the enemy

In the course of answering how philosophy can make itself more relevant, Nancy Bauer writes:

Good philosophy of all stripes fosters in the practitioner the virtue of epistemic humility.

The best philosophy teachers are the ones who are able to model this virtue. They show their students, à la Socrates in at least the early Platonic dialogues, how the right kind of conversation can bring to consciousness the utter preposterousness of something that one has always taken for granted and then how to survive finding oneself turned around in one’s shoes. Epistemic humility sometimes takes the form of humbleness, but not always. It can be intensely empowering for people who have always assumed that the systematically poor way the world treats them is fundamentally the way they deserve to be treated.

The worst enemy of the best philosophy is ideology in all its forms. Philosophy at its best evinces deep skepticism about the stories powerful people and institutions tell about How Things Are. It models the virtues of not knowing what one thought one knew. The natural home of philosophy is in the agora, not the ivory tower. The question is whether the academy can bear to confront that truth.

Our understanding of human nature

Noam Chomsky on our implicit understanding of human nature1:

[A]ny stance that one takes with regard to social issues … assuming that it has any moral basis at all and is not simply based on personal self-interest, is ultimately based on some conception of human nature. That is, if you suggest things should be reformed in this or that fashion and there’s a moral basis for it, you are in effect saying: “Human beings are so constituted that this change is to their benefit. It somehow relates to their essential human needs.”

The underlying concept of human nature is rarely articulated. It’s more or less passive and implicit and nobody thinks about it very much. But if the study of humans were ever to reach the point of a discipline with significant intellectual content (and we’re very far from this), this concept would have to be understood and articulated.

If we search our souls we find that we do have a concept, and it’s probably based on some ideas about the underlying and essential human need for freedom from external arbitrary constraints and controls, a concept of human dignity which would regard it as an infringement of fundamental human rights to be enslaved, owned by others, in my view even to be rented by others, as in capitalist societies, and so on.

  1. From Language and Politics, 2004.

You can drink on your porch

In a moment of clarity — or pronouncing the obvious — the Iowa Supreme Court overturns a lower court decision, and affirms one’s right to drink on their porch:

If the front stairs of a family home were always considered a public place, it would create “absurd results” and make it a “crime to sit there calmly on a breezy summer day and sip a mojito” or even grill with “bourbon-infused barbecue sauce”.