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Failure of a Genre, Success of a Book

May 17, 2012 4 comments

The success of “self-help books” for the publishing industry might only be matched by the genre’s failure to provide innovative and beneficial advice. I just started Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America; I eagerly await her to fully confirm what I’ve already assumed by my anecdotal exposure to the success-is-guaranteed-by-a-successful-attitude cult of thought. Yet just because the genre is defined by its failures doesn’t mean it can’t ever have a success. Andreas Kluth, the West Coast correspondent for The Economist and my blogging buddy, has produced a real tonic of a book to counter the success-is-simple snake oil. Readers will know something is different right away: It’s certainly no “self-help book.” Kluth’s Hannibal and Me: What History’s Greatest Military Strategist Can Teach Us About Success and Failure is about how Success and Failure are both “impostors,” as Kipling wrote. The stories in the book aren’t a guide to success but a historical survey and ironic examination of it. Kluth populates his mediation on success and failure with many of humanity’s important characters and archetypes – an Avengers of world history.

The author’s fascination with the one-eyed Carthaginian general pervades (invades?) Hannibal’s story and that excitement carries Kluth’s narrative and provides his most detailed example. By using archetypal figures from history, we’re supposed to see how their successes and failures map onto our own in unique ways, so I felt like I was cheating a bit when I kept thinking of how Hannibal’s military campaigns clarified our modern military campaigns.

After three years of high drama and adrenaline – of Alpine peaks, Etruscan swamps, and three of the bloodiest battles in human history – there now followed thirteen excruciatingly long years of limbo.

[…]

Both Hannibal and Fabius understood that the invincible invader of Italy was now, paradoxically, captive in Italy, as though it were a shrinking prison of success. The fact that Hannibal was still officially successful made it impossible for him to escape this captivity. If he suffered a military disaster of some sort, Hannibal would have had to evacuate Italy. It would have been humiliating, but he would have started over, with a different strategy, and the overall war might have gone in a new direction. But Hannibal was still victorious, and victors don’t flee.

Replace a few names and Kluth might be writing about America’s War on Terror. For approximately 12 years our armed forces have gone from battle to battle without suffering a military defeat and it’s certainly racked up some stunning successes. After all, we have the greatest military the world has ever known! But just as Hannibal’s strategy never led to the Fall of Rome, our endlessly successful wars won’t lead to the End of Terrorism. Our official successes continue to cost us more in treasure, blood, and liberties as we go from victory to victory abroad.

Not all of Kluth’s cast are as compelling as Hannibal. His credulous retelling of the power of an aikido master undermines his wider project of grounding his lessons in history. For generations aikido promoters have sold stories of making enemies “fly through the air without ever being touched” and beating “thirty people” with hardly any martial aggression from this so-called martial art. Evidence for these abilities is as invisible as the ki they use against their opponents. It’s still a good story, but the counter-evidence of the art’s efficacy is concussive. That said, Kluth’s point about using the intentions of your opponents against them is worthwhile. Using the instability of attackers is better exhibited by BJJ, Judo, and wrestling; I’m sure there is an interesting figure somewhere in their histories.

Two characters had me pondering my own career and life trajectory. Instead of examining the art of Picasso and Cezanne, Kluth draws the arcs of their lives and probably has younger readers asking, “which one am I!?” Right now, I feel a bit like the “wanderer” – Paul Cezanne didn’t know what job he’d end up with and often felt pessimistic about his future. With a poor economy and without a specific and set career goal to strategize toward, Cezanne’s biography offers support. Most days I just hope I’m climbing up the arc as Cezanne ended up doing.

Of course, maybe focusing so exclusively on a career is a bit like focusing only on tactics and forgetting strategy. A balance is probably necessary to “fulfill my human potential” and “self-actualize.” But extremely few people ever become totally comfortable with one’s own personality and life despite the obviousness of the objective. One of the book’s better examples of this success is Albert Einstein.

Try to tell me that man isn’t transcendently comfortable. Kluth isn’t a hagiographer for any of his subjects; instead, he spotlights their faults. I was surprised to discover Einstein’s personality defects and professional failures that met him after his glory years. Part of being successful, as we learn, is being able to see the world as it is, “flowing” with disasters, and “not dwelling on flaws.”

Andreas Kluth’s profile of success and failure isn’t perfect. The book ends with conventional catalogue of lessons that he basically apologizes for before listing (although, wisely, they’re actually pretty good summaries of themes laced with new insights rather than just simplified bullet-point regurgitations). Even if you finish without adopting any of the book’s themes or lessons, the history and quality of storytelling make Kluth worth reading. Hannibal and Me may not be perfect from tactic to tactic but it takes risks and transcends the failed genre.

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Categories: Andreas Kluth

Ernest Hemingway was a Mathematician

May 3, 2011 3 comments

Self-criticism is essential for a good blogger. My previous post could have been written with half the words. I’d achieve more clarity with no loss of nuance. To improve my writing, I’ve decided to relearn math. Mathematical form and good writing share similar qualities. They’re rigorous, logical, and free of embellishment.

For others who would like to cross-train, I recommend Khan Academy. I’d like to thank Andreas Kluth of The Economist and The Hannibal Blog for convincing me to try it out. After I take my math courses, I’ll move on to physics. E=mc2 might be the most beautiful sentence ever written.

A New Insight

January 18, 2011 3 comments

I love challenge. My competitive streak is widely known amongst my friends and I’ve become accustomed to others’ apprehension about playing even trivial games with me. Of course, others enjoy that side of me (if they’re on my team and like winning, for example). But that (honestly, good natured) aspect of me is a microcosm of how I seek much of the pleasure in my life. I seek gratification in attaining professional success, dreaming up novel or strong arguments, looking superficially good, finding a great romantic partner – for the most part, standard goals.

In my quest for strong arguments I find it useful to immerse myself in the arguments of contrary opinion. So I’ve been thinking about attempting a contrary path to pleasure for a while now. I’ve researched a bit on The Insight Mediation Center and am tempted to try it out. It seems so opposite me without being antagonistic to me that I think it might be a healthy new experience.

Honestly, this wasn’t me having an epiphany or me challenging myself by trying out creationism or communism. Among some other people I hugely respect, Sam Harris has been pushing nonbelievers to open themselves up to “spirituality” without the woo. In this otherwise unremarkable Nightline interview with Sam, it is revealed that he’s planning on writing a book on spirituality “devoid of God.” I couldn’t be more excited to read something like that.

Furthermore, in his response to Edge’s latest question, Sam explains how thought is the “primary source of human suffering and confusion.”

I invite you to pay attention to anything — the sight of this text, the sensation of breathing, the feeling of your body resting against your chair — for a mere sixty seconds without getting distracted by discursive thought. It sounds simple enough: Just pay attention. The truth, however, is that you will find the task impossible. If the lives of your children depended on it, you could not focus on anything — even the feeling of a knife at your throat — for more than a few seconds, before your awareness would be submerged again by the flow of thought. This forced plunge into unreality is a problem. In fact, it is the problem from which every other problem in human life appears to be made.

Andreas Kluth also frequently points out the benefits of a “still mind” – he even nominated Patanji, who expressed this notion, as the greatest thinker in history. Blogging demands a mind cleanse every so often as well.

Do any readers have any insights or advice they’d like to share about my search for a new perspective?

Some Thoughts on the Election, 1 Week Out

November 9, 2010 3 comments

Who won?

The question shouldn’t have an obvious answer. If Andreas Kluth taught me anything it’s that success can be found in failure and failure in success – triumph and disaster are two impostors.

The Republicans definitely won big in the electoral battle. But why did they win so big? Many Democrats and people like myself have argued that it can all be boiled down to “the economy is bad, the Democrats were in power, therefore the Democrats lost a lot of seats.” There are also historical and structural reasons to expect big Democratic loses (e.g. They had a big majority so even a 50/50 partisan vote split would result in many lost seats). Here’s a chart showing midterm changes of House seats for the President’s party.

Although the economy and structural factors played the biggest role it appears the Democrats lost a significant number of seats because they supported policies lots of people in the country don’t like (here and here) – especially healthcare. The political scientists at The Monkey Cage find (with all the appropriate caveats that we bloggers often fail to trade in [that’s why I always suggest reading the source]) the big controversial votes (Healthcare/Cap&Trade) may have cost the Democrats around 24 seats and possibly even tipped the scales on who controls the House.

Keep in mind it is always possible that these votes are rationalized after the fact: (h/t The Daily Dish)

Pundits and politicians who are interpreting the midterms as a referendum on Obama’s agenda, however, would be wise to read the forthcoming book of MIT political scientist, Gabriel Lenz.  Lenz convincingly demonstrates that policies subjected to intense public debate rarely become more important determinants of citizens’ vote choices.  Instead, voters will more often first pick a candidate based upon partisan and performance factors and then adopt that politician’s views about high-profile policies. So, for example, voters who decided to vote for Republican candidates in the midterms because of the poor economy would also be more likely to embrace that party’s position on health care reform.

I’m not going to pretend I can settle what is essentially a scientific question, but let’s pretend that we know that the Democrats lost the House because of their votes on unpopular policies. It’s not that far-fetched to think voting to cut $500 Billion in medicare would cost somebody an election. What would the lesson be for the Democrats? Should we answer our first question that the Democrats lost?

If the Democrats had known ahead of time that not passing any of their policies would have allowed them to maintain control of the House and they had therefore not passed any of their signature legislation that’s possibly the definition of success as an impostor. If I may borrow some more from Andreas, the Democrats could go from success to success, winning election after election as Hannibal won battle after battle in Italy. Yet, the purpose of winning battles is to win the war; Italy never completely fell and Hannibal’s Carthage was “razed it to the ground so thoroughly that modern archeologists had quite a time just locating the site.” The purpose of winning elections is to pass legislation.

David Frum tried to warn Republicans.

Republicans may gain political benefit, but Democrats get the policy. In this exchange, it is the Democrats who gain the better end of the deal. Congressional majorities come and go. Entitlement programs last forever.

History is on his side; today we have the GOP scaring seniors because the Democrats are cutting entitlements. There should be no doubt that given enough passage of time this new healthcare entitlement will be seen as just as fundamentally unchallengeable as social security and medicare.

There is plenty to criticize about the Democrats’ policies, but you might not want to argue that they caused the Republicans to “win.” The Republicans won the battle, but the Democrats’ legislative architecture remains. Historians may be just as mystified about major Republican policies as they are about Carthaginian columns.

A Model Argument

September 4, 2010 2 comments

Imagine a series of strongly constructed arguments. Each is on the same topic, each is arguing to the same conclusion, all of them are correct. Now your job is to pick what you believe would be the most persuasive argument to the majority of readers. Now of course, if one argument is clearly better it’d be the easy choice. But let’s stipulate that if we have 100 arguments in our contest they are practically indistinguishable from one another. Everyone has the same task, they have to decide which argument most people think that most others will think that most others will think is the most persuasive. Get that? 


As a judge and reader in this contest would you choose which argument happens to be most persuasive to you personally, even if it’s barely indistinguishable in logical cogency from the other arguments? What would your Treffpunkt (meeting point) be for deciding on what others will decide?


Now imagine that one of the arguments contains a small but noticeable flourish in style. It distracts from the efficiency of the logic – it is unnecessary to the case at hand: in a sense it is a flaw. After all, why would a distraction make an argument  better? But as you may be realizing, if that flaw distinguishes the argument you may be better off choosing it. Assume that if everyone picks the same argument, you all get paid. A deviation from consensus results in empty wallets. 

Does this happen in practice? Well, as far as I know this experiment has never been run. But allow me to extrapolate from Avinash Dixit and Barry Nalebuff in their game theory book, The Art of Strategy. In the chapter on Nash Equilibrium and focal points in games, they recount a beauty contest that used to be run in newspapers. 

The aim becomes not to make any absolute judgement of beauty but to find a focal point of this process of thinking. How do we agree on that? The reader must figure out the realized convention without the benefit of communication. “Pick the most beautiful” might be the stated rule, but that could be significantly more difficult than picking the redhead, or the one with an interesting gap between her two front teeth (Lauren Hutton) or the mole (Cindy Crawford). Anything that distinguishes becomes a focal point and allows people’s expectations to converge. For this reason, we should not be surprised that many of the world’s top models do not have perfect features; rather, they are almost perfect but have some interesting flaw that gives their look a personality and a focal point. (my emphasis)

John Maynard Keynes applied this to the stock market traders; does it apply to editors of opinion columns? They’re looking for arguments that they think will appeal to the most readers after all.

The other day Matthew Yglesias complained about “pitches” in journalism.

This is something I’ve always found problematic about traditional journalism business models. You often find solid information or analysis buried or twisted by the search for neat framing or catchy conceits.

Contrast this with math. In its arguments (e.g. formulas, proofs) no superfluous information is presented. Simplicity is their elegance, not “expensive and cumbersome” mathematical plumage like that on a peacock’s tail. Math might be the most persuasive language of argument, but formulas don’t often distinguish themselves from each other very easily. Opinion editors aren’t often fighting to seduce onto their payrolls the professionals who can make the most persuasive arguments, but those that can make persuasive arguments with distracting peacock tails. Why? John Nash’s math shows them that is the best strategy. 

Certain qualities make arguments stand out more than others. Andreas Kluth over at The Hannibal Blog shares with us one of John Steinbeck’s creative motivators: anger. Kluth also finds that anger focuses and energizes his storytelling. I find that anger often sharpens my writing as well. Human nature seems to have paired anger and argument. Picture a person arguing – you’ve probably pictured them as angry. Notice that many of the most popular opinionators are also the angriest. Anger focuses, but is anger also a focal point (there can be more than one) for argument? Have I distracted from my argument with this discussion of anger? 


(images from wikipedia; here & here)

Is Castrating Males A Good Idea?

July 29, 2010 17 comments

Over at The Hannibal Blog a fun debate took place between me and some other commentators after Andreas posted his thoughts on culture of competition’s effect on violence (which linked my post on Ape/Human violence). One commentator suggested that since testosterone was linked to violence society would be better off if all males were castrated above a certain age. 

If you’re game or interested enough to follow a debate on a topic like that read on. Note to readers: I’ve edited out many comments that aren’t directly relevant to this specific debate. Also I’ve rearranged the order of many comments to make it easier to follow. To read the entire text go to the original post (be aware that the original is not ordered by time so some comments seem out of order).


Phil:

Since violence is almost wholly a male thing, and since it’s testosterone which fuels male violence, a solution to endemic violence would the mandatory castration of all males above a stipulated age.

Dafna

hilarious phil! ;0

basically reduce the men to “sperm donor status”! ouch.

uh, i’m probably the only one laughing?

Andreas

Actually, violence is almost wholly a YOUNG male thing. Has to do with evolutionary biology. Could we just give the 17-year-old lads an estrogen shot or something, to calm them down for a few years? That way, they could keep their jewels for their mellow later years.

Phil:

My suggestion actually is serious. The innately violent male is a luxury our world can no longer afford. His psychology therefore has to change. Since his reading tomes by dead Greek and dead German philosophers won’t likely do this, his being castrated is the better option.

With innate male violence surgically removed through castration, there would, for starters, be no more wars and no more rapes and no more unwanted pregnancies. In this way, and in other undreamed ways, our world would truly be transformed.

There is, of course, the little matter of how the next generation would be produced. This would be looked after by having the male about to undergo castration, have a sperm sample taken, which would be stored under his name in a sperm bank.

Should he subsequently meet the Beloved of his dreams, and wishes her to bear his children, and she says yes, she would be inseminated with his stored sperm.

All this said, I don’t expect my eminently reasonable suggestion to bear fruit soon, if ever, because the male still runs things, and likely always will.

Douglas:

Has it crossed your mind that the problem may not be testosterone? It does not cause all males, or even the majority of them, to behave in a violent manner. It is a factor, not a cause. It is true that a reduction in testosterone also results in a reduction in aggressive behavior. But aggressive behavior is not always a bad thing. It is part of the reason that we take risks. It gives us test pilots, astronauts, entrepreneurs,football players, firemen, policemen, and capable soldiers who risk their lives to protect the rest of us.

Your solution is, to be blunt, too simple. Sort of like that extra chromosome thing that was once thought to be behind criminal behavior. We are complex creatures and there doesn’t seem to be universal answers to any of our possibly inherent problems.

Me:

Did it ever actually occur to you that your “solution” to violence is violence? Leave it to a male to think that is a good idea. Do you think males are just going to willingly agree to be mass castrated? To solve homelessness we could just execute the homeless too or when they freeze we could stack their bodies and build igloos to house other homeless. Jonathan Swift would be “proud” of your modest proposal.

If I were you I’d also consider reading or watching A Clockwork Orange.

Phil:
@ Dan
“…….Did it ever actually occur to you that your ‘solution’ to violence is violence……..?”

Surgically removing testicles is no more violent than surgically removing an appendix.

“……Do you think males are just going to willingly agree to be mass castrated…….?”

No.

However, males are still conscripted into armies despite that they don’t willingly agree to being conscripted.

As it is for conscription, why not also for castration?

“…….To solve homelessness we could just execute the homeless too or when they freeze we could stack their bodies and build igloos to house other homeless……….”

You are painting with too wide a brush.

“…….,If I were you I’d also consider reading or watching A Clockwork Orange……..

I’ve watched the film many times throughout the almost now 40 years since it came out. Beethoven hasn’t been the same for me since.

@ Paul
“…….violence is not reserved to men. Women can be most violent and destructive when they set their minds to it…….”

I don’t doubt this. However, men commit 90% and more of violent crimes.

Me
Surgically removing testicles is no more violent than surgically removing an appendix. 

Umm… the difference seems to be pretty obvious: People agree to have their appendix removed to save their lives; forced castration would be almost the exact opposite.

However, males are still conscripted into armies despite that they don’t willingly agree to being conscripted.
As it is for conscription, why not also for castration?

For one, I’m not a supporter of conscription. You’ll notice the US and many other civilized nations stopped that practice. Also, to conscript someone you have to be willing to commit violence against them if they refuse. What would you do to someone who refused (which would be the sensible thing I might add) castration? Lock them in jail? And if they resisted that because it’d be a morally injust infringement on their human rights – you’d have to violently force them (gun point probably), would you not? Do you really think forcibly castrating men isn’t violent!? Or no more violent than removing an inflamed organ that can cause their death?

On the homeless analogy to illustrate your extreme suggestion; I could make a case that my satirical suggestion is actually less appalling than your actual recommendation. After all, collecting frozen corpses would happen after their death, not while they are living. It’d mitigate future homelessness by providing shelter to the downtrodden. It’s even a green solution! No more environmentally unfriendly building materials – we are cutting down our forests at an unsettling rate after all – also our new “building blocks” are even organic!

Look I almost never throw out the Nazi card. But this is literally a policy the Nazis used. Except that they used it EVEN LESS universally than you are suggesting.

I’ll put down my broad brush if you put down your capacious scalpel.

Douglas:
@Phil
Surgically removing testicles is no more violent than surgically removing an appendix.

Except that one is voluntary, the other is forced. And “forced” is always “violent.”

However, males are still conscripted into armies despite that they don’t willingly agree to being conscripted.

As it is for conscription, why not also for castration?

This bit of inanity ignores the protests and riots over the US draft in the late 60′s, not to mention the draft riots of the Civil War era and the numbers who fled to Canada or dodged the draft in the aforementioned 60′s.

I thought you were being facetious when you first suggested this, now I am a bit appalled at the fascism inherent in the suggestion.

Richard:

Setting aside, for convenience, enquiry into the link between testosterone and violence, female violence and conscription, would you agree, Dan and Douglas that the victims, say, of Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Dresden, Berlin and London were neither consulted nor gave their consent?

And Andreas, do you say that sublimation eliminates raw human violence?

Douglas:
@Richard

I am not sure what you are trying to say here. Victims of violence rarely give their consent.

As to the particular victims you mention, tacit consent is thought to be given by vote (Germany – election of Hitler and the NAZI party) or tradition (Japan – following the Emperor). We all are subject to the consequences of the actions of our governments. That, of course, is also the justification used by al Qaeda for attacking civilian targets, as well as by terrorists since the late 60′s.

Richard

If, Douglas, it is permissible to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki without the consent of those who live there, why is it not permissible to castrate without consent? Similarly, if it is permissible to bomb European cities without consent in the supposed furtherance or defence of civilisation, why is it not permissible to castrate for a like cause? The nature of consent is a separate question.

Douglas
@Richard
If, Douglas, it is permissible to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki without the consent of those who live there, why is it not permissible to castrate without consent?

Well, first you would need to recognize what made bombing the cities mentioned “permissible” (as you call it). It is called “war” and targeting of non-combatants (i.e. civilians) is not permissible under the Geneva convention. What made the bombings permissible was the military industries in those cities and the inability at that time to make surgical strikes.

Second, individuals were not targeted by the bombings. They would be in a castration plan.

Third, the efficacy of a wholesale castration program is highly questionable because testosterone is NOT the trigger factor for violence, it is merely ONE factor in the violence equation.

Phil:

I didn’t expect that my suggestion that all males be mandatorily castrated to bring about a violence-free world would be debated as seriously and thoughtfully as it has been in the above comments.

The issues raised may therefore deserve of wider currency.

So, Andreas, how about you suggesting to your employers at the Economist that this topic be the subject of one of those future on-line debates which the Economist periodically stages?

Me:

I can foresee all the people jumping at the chance to advocate universal forced castration now! Sorry Phil, not sure The Economist would be able to find someone serious enough for their platform who’s had their sense of morality sterilized.I have to ask, why haven’t you (I’m know I’m making a bit of a presumption right now) had yourself sterilized/castrated? We have the technology to freeze your sperm as you brought to our attention before. I’m seriously interested in these answers – feel free to have a go at my previous arguments as well. Forgive my rhetorical shots, as you seem to have noticed, I and others are seriously considering your modest proposal and I really do find it ethically extreme and abhorrent, but I’d like to pry into your thought processes a bit. Oh, and have you considered the tailor-made-for-you phrase: “The Ends Don’t Justify The Means”?

Andreas:

I’m happy to suggest it. Can’t guarantee it’ll happen. 😉 

Phil:

@ Dan

“…….Sorry Phil, not sure The Economist would be able to find someone serious enough for their platform who’s had their sense of morality sterilized…….”
Does the Economist know this?
“……I have to ask, why haven’t you (I’m know I’m making a bit of a presumption right now) had yourself sterilized/castrated……..?”
That’s for me to know and for you to find out.
“…..I and others are seriously considering your modest proposal……”
I’m glad to learn this.
“……..I really do find it ethically extreme and abhorrent……..”
It’s difficult to please everybody.
“…….I’d like to pry into your thought processes a bit……”

You’d find it boring. 


Me

Without getting into the morality of specific bombings, battles, or wars – we don’t need the consent of those we’re fighting to use force to stop them from committing crimes against humanity. In a morally justified act of war, we’re not targeting innocent civilians (when we are or when we have: that would be morally wrong). Collateral damage is a can of worms I don’t want to get into now and doesn’t really seem germane to the discussion anyway.  

 Universal male forced sterilization would be purposeful targeting of innocents. Not every male is a violent problem after all. It’s also ridiculous to punish people for the potential to commit crime, isn’t it? Not even the intent – the mere potential. Where does that end? Eugenics at best, probably. Disturbing. 

Richard:

Please explain your implied assertion this is a discussion about specific bombings, collateral damage and a just war, Dan.



Are you able to define a crime against humanity in a way that separates warfare from other kinds of violence?Please explain your implied assertion that this is a discussion about international law, Douglas, and enlarge upon why individuals are not targeted, either intentionally or necessarily, in bombings.

Douglas:
Please explain your implied assertion that this is a discussion about international law, Douglas, and enlarge upon why individuals are not targeted, either intentionally or necessarily, in bombings.

Because (a) you brought up the bombings of extra-national cities and (b) read the Geneva Convention.

I really don’t like “red herrings”. You brought these issues up. I should have called you on the red herrings but didn’t, thinking you did it innocently enough.We, in the US, have something called “due process” which is mentioned in the 4th Amendment of our Constitution. We can’t even castrate sexual predators without their consent because it would be seen as “cruel or unusual” punishment which we are also protected from by our Constitution. These two things would seem to make a mass castration plan illegal in the US. Further musing on this, I think a Congress enacting such a plan would result in a revolt. Now, could we go back to rational and reasonable debate about violence in society?

Me:

Please explain your implied assertion this is a discussion about specific bombings, collateral damage and a just war, Dan.
Are you serious!? Thank you Douglas for already answering; this apparently needs to be hammered in a bit. (1) I specifically said this IS NOT a discussion about those things.
“Without getting into the morality of specific bombings, battles, or wars” “Collateral damage is a can of worms I don’t want to get into now and doesn’t really seem germane to the discussion anyway.” Honestly, did you even read what I wrote? (2) I only brought those things up because YOU started talking about them. I was trying to respond to your ridiculous comparison. “If, Douglas, it is permissible to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki without the consent of those who live there, why is it not permissible to castrate without consent? Similarly, if it is permissible to bomb European cities without consent in the supposed furtherance or defence of civilisation, why is it not permissible to castrate for a like cause? ” Honestly, did you even read what you wrote? I’m not even going to respond to the other question. As you noticed, it just isn’t relevant. Phil has decided to stop making productive comments.
“That’s for me to know and for you to find out.” “It’s difficult to please everybody.” “You’d find it boring.” I assume (or maybe “hope” is the word) that Phil realized his position is utterly indefensible so he’s ducking any responsibility to respond to my interrogation of his reasoning. I’ll hold out some faith that he’ll just admit his advocation of such a horrific policy was immoral and wrong. Can you at least concede that the policy would be violent, as I originally sought to point out? “Did it ever actually occur to you that your “solution” to violence is violence?”
Phil, it isn’t a bad thing to recognize that your idea, which you probably just tossed out off the cuff, isn’t as moral or peaceful as you first estimated.
Richard:
I do admit, Dan, that I was hoping later to justify my comments, but in the immediate context I was seeking, politely, to redirect your focus on to the issue of consent. Never mind.




Richard:

Since, Dan, we have not examined to a conclusion the relation of Phil’s proposal and consent, perhaps you will allow me to proceed direct to the object of that enquiry. That object is to ask you to say, if you will, why you align Phil’s proposal in particular with Nazism, ethical extreme and abhorrence and my consideration of it in general with support of eugenics.

Me:

I suppose this is why I didn’t even want to bring up the Nazi example – another tangent. But I thought I was pretty clear: I linked to wikipedia explaining that Nazis forcibly castrated people. Is that really that difficult to make a jump between forced castration of particular groups to forcing castration of all males? Isn’t it actually more extreme? It’s not like the Nazis didn’t think they were acting toward a higher goal – they didn’t think they were evil. They just were. You may think forcing castration on all males is a good thing to prevent future violence, but as I’ve tried to argue: that is evil (or at the very least: violent – that was my original point, which I don’t see how that is in dispute).

“By the end of World War II, over 400,000 individuals were sterilized under the German law and its revisions, most within its first four years of being enacted.”

The connection with eugenics is clear (for one, that’s why the Nazis did it). Also, I was extending the logic of taking action against someone for the potential to do something. i.e. stopping males potential for violence before they have even committed any violent acts. Eugenics prevents the potential to pass on “abnormal” genes. The Nazis and other eugenics supporters wanted to “purify” humanity’s genetic makeup. Phil wants to “purify” male’s inherent nature by altering its “inherently violent” hormonal makeup.

Richard:

Have I yet expressed support or opposition to Phil’s proposal, Dan?  

Me:

Did I say you have? I’m pretty sure I just directly answered your questions. If you’re confusing my “you may think” for saying “you think,” understand that I was making a rhetorical point. Reread the context. The “may” is the key word there. Feel free to substitute “one” for “you” if that makes it clearer for you.

Richard:

Thank you. 

Phil:
To compare what I propose, to that which the Nazis did, is to compare chalk with cheese.
The Nazis castrated selected groups of men whom they saw as totally different to themselves, and whom they did not like. I propose castrating people (men) who, as men, are not different to ourselves, and whom we don’t totally not like.
Also, the intent of the Nazis was that they intended that the men they castrated not father any more children. What I propose contains the opposite – that men, by donating sperm before castration, can father children.
These are huge differences, I’m sure you’ll agree.
Douglas:

@Phil
Your proposal takes away the opportunity for enjoyment, momentary though it may be, of the fathering process.

I wonder, have you volunteered for the procedure?


Jenny:

I just now picked up on the sublime/sublimate connection. Doh.

Richard:

This fascinating debate was leading to an examination of the nature of aggression and an enquiry into why an advanced civilisation suddenly resorts to primitive brute force. Unfortunately, it has descended to pejorative. Your intervention is soothing, very feminine and welcome. I weary a little and will take my leave.

Phil:

I surmise that chimpanzees jumping up and down and screeching furiously at each other are saying the same sorts of things to each other in their chimp language as were said in sadly all too many of the above comments.

Given that well-nigh all the comments appeared to come from males allegedly human, they were as good an example as any of innate male irrationality and stupidity.

I too am weary and will take my leave.

Me:

I can’t help but assume that you two consider my comments part of the screeching chimp “irrationality and stupidity” that has “descended to pejorative.” I won’t spend my time focusing on the hypocrisy contained in that sentiment. But can someone please point out (if it applies to me) my “primitive brute force,” my “screeching,” and my “irrationality and stupidity?” I honestly thought I was just seriously engaging in your actual proposal to forcibly castrate all males. If strong language can’t be used to discuss a topic such as that I’m afraid you may be more interested in the lack of critical scrutiny than true debate.

Was it the Nazi reference? Is it really “pejorative” to point out a direct connection to a policy if I actually believe it is comparable? I’m not calling you a Nazi; I’m pointing out the policy you advocate is a policy that Nazis used (even if for a different rationale). Anyone is welcome to refute that and I’ll happily recant.

I didn’t spend the time to engage each of your arguments line-by-line in order to make frivolous personal remarks. Phil, how did you go from believing your suggestion was being “debated as seriously and thoughtfully” to believing the conversation was more primal shouting than honest consideration laced with a bit of humor? Most of my strongest comments even came before you acknowledged it was being debated with sobriety even if with vigor. What changed?

I apologize if I gave anyone the impression I wasn’t commenting with the highest intentions for genuine discussion. I enjoy a good barb but always wrap it around an earnest argument; didn’t mean to sting anyone’s integrity. I thought we were being Greek. All the best.

Andreas:

How bizarre. I’m with Dan on this: Following your debate with enormous interest, I also assumed that you were all “being Greek”.

In fact, I still think you were. That was good debate. have more of them.

Richard:

Well, there it is. We all part from this friends. 

Me:

Glad to hear. May we meet in this Andreas’s rhetorical assembly again.

Richard:

I fear you cut straight through a fragile thread which led to treasure, Dan. 

Me:

I do my best 😉 

(image from Wikipedia: testosterone structure

Nietzsche and The Will To Inquire

July 8, 2010 1 comment

Over at the Hannibal Blog an interesting discussion is going on over Nietzsche’s message on the nature of truth. Andreas Kluth sets the stage with a letter from 19 year old Fritz to his sister. 


Nietzsche challenges his sister’s notion that it is easier to not believe in God. Doing so I think he illuminates how I try to approach blogging and knowledge in my general life.

On the other hand, is it really so difficult simply to accept as true everything we have been taught, and which has gradually taken firm root in us, and is thought true by the circle of our relatives and many good people, and which, moreover, really does comfort and elevate men? Is that more difficult than to venture on new paths, at odds with custom, in the insecurity that attends independence, experiencing many mood-swings and even troubles of conscience, often disconsolate, but always with the true, the beautiful and the good as our goal?

 […]

Here the ways of men divide: if you wish to strive for peace of soul and happiness, then believe; if you wish to be a disciple of truth, then inquire.

In others words, it is easy to take for granted accepted wisdom and propositions that don’t challenge one’s own opinions and bias. Nietzsche understands that it is not comfortable to have to follow truth wherever it leads, so to speak. I think Sam Harris explains this idea well in his debate with Nature writer Philip Ball. 

A person cannot (or least should not be able to) believe something because it “makes him feel better.” The fact that people occasionally do manage such contortions is what renders phrases like “self-deception,” “wishful thinking,” “experimenter bias,” etc., so important to keep on hand.  Please notice that these phrases describe how it looks from the outside when people believe a proposition because “it makes them feel better.” Please also notice that this frame of mind represents a failure of cognition and reasoning that all sane people decry in every area of serious discourse but one. 

 A world in which people believe propositions merely because these propositions “make them feel better” is a world gone utterly mad. It is a world of private and irreconcilable epistemologies. It is a world where communication, even on the most important issues—perhaps especially on the most important issues—is guaranteed to fail. Of course, you have tried to arrest your slide into the abyss in your parenthetical remark about evolution and blood transfusions—but one can draw no such boundary unless one draws it based on some deeper principle. You cannot say that a person’s reason for believing in the virgin birth is “good” just so long as this belief has no negative consequences on his behavior. Whether a belief is well founded or not has nothing to do with its consequences.

Nietzsche and Harris argue that something should only accepted as true only if it “has really occurred or is actually the case” (to take the definition of fact from the OED). This notion undergirds all of science with healthy philosophical doubt – making scientists natural skeptics which leads to ever expanding inquiry.  
I’ll take two cases to illustrate how this guides my approach here. In case 1 I hear something that doesn’t fit with my established understanding, but recognize it is still important to inquire about it – maybe I’m wrong or maybe I’m right but knowing why is useful regardless. Frankly, I really wanted to show why what I heard was wrong (it would be uncomfortable if it was true). Case 2 is more difficult, I deliberately seek out contrary arguments to my political position. 

Case 1:  I happened to be watching Glenn Beck (not a frequent occurrence) and he was discussing the role of prayer in school and the wider topic of separation of church and state. In the course of his discussion he flashed some graphs made by David Barton which purported to show declining SAT scores and rising crime rates with the removal of prayer and religion from our public schools and state. The most relevant bit starts around the 4:00 mark.


After seeing that I was immediately skeptical of those graphs. I certainly didn’t remember reading that in the research on rising crimes rates presented in Freakonomics! First I did a simple google search of David Barton and his graphs and discovered, surprise, that he’s a “pseudo-historian” that plays loose with quotations and facts. Here’s Barton on those graphs in question:


The Real Reason American Education Has Slipped – David BartonThe funniest movie is here. Find it


Again, I didn’t want to just take another source’s word (one that I’m sympathetic too) for it, so I emailed Steven Levitt on the actual research. Unfortunately, I haven’t yet received a reply (will post when/if possible). Since that avenue hasn’t opened up yet, I had to do a bit more of the dirty work myself – in short, with my admittedly basic understanding of statistics, it became clear that Barton was setting somewhat arbitrary dates of vague events to imprecise moments on his SAT and crime graphs. Mostly, he was just confusing correlation with causation.

Case 2: I’ve been a fairly consistent proponent of reforming our tax code to introduce a VAT, but I’ve tried to continue to highlight challenges to and deficiencies of a value added tax. In my personal inquiry into a VAT’s effects I came across a strong argument against its introduction in the United States. Randall Holcombe of George Mason University finds that a VAT would have high administrative costs, slow economic growth, and not raise as much revenue as expected. He also notes that replacing the income tax with a consumption tax like a VAT would double tax those caught in the intergenerational transition years. That is certainly a valid concern and no doubt is unfair, but also is a recipe for inertia. 
Economists tend to favor a VAT because of its relatively low deadweight loss compared to other forms of taxation. Holcombe explains why in the United States a VAT’s deadweight loss wouldn’t be as low.

In the EU the VAT was designed as a replacement for other transaction-based consumption taxes like the sales tax, whereas if one were to be introduced into the US it would be added to the existing sales taxes collected by states. 

[…]

An appendix to this study illustrates, using a supply and demand framework that will be familiar to students of economics, that the welfare loss of a VAT placed on top of state sales taxes would result in a substantially higher excess burden of taxation than a VAT of the same rate in a tax system without state sales taxes. The analysis in the appendix arrives at two conclusions important when considering levying a VAT in the US, where states already use a sales tax to tax the same tax base. First, even if the initial VAT rate is modest, once imposed, both state governments, with their sales tax rates, and the federal government, with its VAT, will have the tendency to raise rates so that the combined sales tax plus VAT rate will be larger than would be optimal. 

[…]

The second important conclusion is that a federal VAT would lower state sales tax collections in any event, so state revenues would suffer if a federal VAT were imposed. The reason for this is that all taxes reduce the economic activities they tax. Adding a VAT on top of state sales taxes would reduce the sales tax base states now rely on for a substantial amount of their revenues.

Holcombe suggests the optimal strategy is to cut spending (maybe true but not persuasive because of political realities), but if one must increase tax revenues it should be done by broadening the income tax base. 


The important lesson I want to stress is that all systems have flaws and recognizing so isn’t a sign of a weak argument but of acknowledging reality. It won’t necessarily make my advocacy of a VAT easier or more comfortable but the will to inquire will ensure I’m a disciple of truth not dogma.


(photo: Nietzsche 1864)
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