Eliezer Yudkowsky wants us all to think more rationally, and is involved with various attempts to train people to do so, including the fascinating web site Less Wrong. A pet hypothesis of mine is that rational thinking leads inevitably to a desire for a smaller state. Evidence so far includes the Micklethwaitian observation that if you look around the world you find that people are better off when they are more free: an honest rationalist cannot fail to notice this. Additional evidence is Eliezer Yudkowsky, a man who spends his life trying to be as rational as possible and who apparently wants a smaller state.
Suppose that you happen to be socially liberal, fiscally conservative. Who would you vote for?
Or simplify it further: Suppose that you’re a voter who prefers a smaller, less expensive government – should you vote Republican or Democratic?
That is from his essay The Two-Party Swindle. It starts by noticing how, for probably evolutionary reasons, people like to divide themselves into us and them, which leads to sports team fandom. It goes on to point out that the fans of either team have far more in common with each other than with the players.
Why are professional football players better paid than truck drivers? Because the truck driver divides the world into Favorite-Team and Rival-Team. That’s what motivates him to buy the tickets and wear the T-Shirts. The whole money-making system would fall apart if people started seeing the world in terms of Professional Football Players versus Spectators.
And I’m not even objecting to professional football. Group identification is pretty much the service provided by football players, and since that service can be provided to many people simultaneously, salaries are naturally competitive. Fans pay for tickets voluntarily, and everyone knows the score.
It would be a very different matter if your beloved professional football players held over you the power of taxation and war, prison and death.
Indeed, I LOLed too. Politicians want you to support your favourite team in order that you see the other team, rather than the politicians, as the enemy. In the next essay, The American System and Misleading Labels, Yudkowsky strips away the abstraction of the American political system to identify where the power is, and show that it is very much not with the voters.
When I blur my eyes and look at the American system of democracy, I see that the three branches of government are the executive, the legislative, the judicial, the bureaucracy, the party structure, and the media. In the next tier down are second-ranked powers, such as “the rich” so often demonized by the foolish – the upper-upper class can exert influence, but they have little in the way of direct political control. Similarly with NGOs (non-governmental organizations) such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation, think tanks, traditional special interest groups, “big corporations”, lobbyists, the voters, foreign powers with a carrot or stick to offer the US, and so on.
Since voters have such a small share of the influence pie, Yudkowsky argues that the main benefit of living in a democracy is that in theory, if you got them angry enough, the voters could vote for a third party. It is fear of this hypothetical situation that keeps the politicians “too scared to act like historical kings and slaughter you on a whim”. I do think, though, that those in real power have worked around this somewhat by making changes in unpleasant directions small enough that the voters do not notice, or at least do not get angry enough.
All this is brought together in Stop Voting For Nicompoops, which argues (quoting Douglas Adams on voting for lizards along the way) that you should forget about the rhetoric of wasted votes and just vote for who you like.
Remember that this is not the ancestral environment, and that you won’t die if you aren’t on the winning side. Remember that the threat that voters as a class hold against politicians as a class is more important to democracy than your fights with other voters. Forget all the “game theory” that doesn’t take future incentives into account; real game theory is further-sighted, and besides, if you’re going to look at it that way, you might as well stay home. When you try to be clever, you usually end up playing the Politicians’ game.
Clear your mind of distractions…
And stop voting for nincompoops.
Read the whole thing. And then read everything about politics. And then read everything about everything.
Update: There is a follow-up to this post.
We are the ones, we militants without a strategy of emancipation, who are (and who have been for some time now) the real aphasics! And it is not the sympathetic and unavoidable language of movementist democracy that will save us.
- Professor Alain Badiou, in an article arguing that “We need to rediscover the language of Communism.”
When I was a boy of about sixteen or so, I had a conversation with my godmother, a Canadian lady of great warmth and generosity. She was a Christian and she asked me, having not met me face to face for a year or two, whether I was also. I said: No. She said: Why not? I said: Because it isn’t true. There is no God, Jesus was not his son, there was no virgin birth, and so on. Her answer to my atheistical declarations stuck in my mind, because it seemed then to be and seems still to have been such a very odd one. She said that I might want to consider being a Christian on the grounds that Christianity was, potentially, very comforting. In adversity, it is nice to believe that there is a God who is looking out for you and who is on your side.
The oddness of this comfortingness argument for Christianity is that it suggests that you can decide what you believe, or to put it another way, that you can be comforted by deciding to believe something that you did not believe until that moment. But belief – surely – doesn’t work like that. It doesn’t mean that. What you believe is what you believe. If you do not know what you believe but are curious (perhaps because someone else has asked you), then you face a task of discovery, not a decision. You need to study the claims being made about the alleged truth in question by others. If you already know about these claims, to the point where you are able to identify what you believe about them, then you need to look inside your own head to see what is there. But you don’t decide what is in your head. And you certainly do not decide what you “believe” to be true merely by thinking about what you would be comforted by if you thought it was true, but which you have no other reason to think is true. Truth is one thing. What would be comforting if true is something entirely different.
On a closely related matter, it would be very comforting if the world always rewarded virtue, but most, me included, agree that it does not. So, say some Christians, Christians not unlike that godmother of mine, wouldn’t it be nice to believe that if the world does not reward virtue, God does? Well, it might be, if you really do believe this. But, I don’t, and my reasons for not believing that God rewards virtue are likewise nothing to do with how nice it might be if he did. What a very bleak world you live in, say the Christians. Maybe, say I, but you live in it also. You just don’t realise it.
My central point here does not concern the truth or falsehood of my atheist beliefs, or of Christian beliefs. I believe what I believe and you all believe what you all believe, and no amount of commenting here or anywhere is going to change any of that. Rather, I am making a point about the nature of belief, and it is surely a point that many Christians would agree with me about, because they too often speak of their beliefs having been discovered by them rather than merely decided. I didn’t decide that Jesus is my savour, they say. I realised that he is, and he is. (When people really do believe something, they often omit the bit where they might say “I believe”, because they are dealing with truth itself, their own belief in the truth being a somewhat secondary issue.) I didn’t choose my atheism as if choosing a bag of sweets in a shop, and Christians mostly don’t choose Christianity in that kind of way either.
It would seem, however, that some people at least really can and really do decide what they believe. (I recall a conversation with a religious believer who described having chosen his religion in exactly this sort of way, as if choosing a house.) Others believe what they believe about such things as politics in a similarly decisive way. They really do seem to possess the power of wishful belief, as it were. They really can decide what they believe. To me, this is very odd.
The above – somewhat strange – ruminations began life as an attempted start to a rather different Samizdata piece to this one, about the kinds of things I believe that got me writing for Samizdata in the first place, and about some of the other things I also believe, all of which things I also believe because I believe them, rather than because the truth of them is any great source of comfort to me.
Recently, I’ve seen much hubbub to the effect that the US Republican Party must adopt libertarian views to retain its popularity. For example, see this article which, in spite of its title, mostly discusses why the Republicans will fail if they don’t abandon “conservatism” for libertarianism.
As other examples, NPR had an extended segment on the news with a very similar topic about a day ago, and I’ve seen friends posting on similar themes.
I should like to take a radically orthogonal view.
I honestly don’t care what will or will not “save” either the Republican Party, or any other party for that matter. Political parties generally disgust me, being organized for much the same purpose as a gang of looters or a crime syndicate, and if only they could all go out of business and their members be sent to prison where they belong I would be pleased beyond measure.
What I do know is this, though: just as the Democrats keep talking about things like “civil liberties” while running Guantanamo and a surveillance state, and talk about “peace” while growing the military and intervening around the world, your odds will be excellent if you bet that a GOP that adopts “libertarianism” so it can win elections will give the ideas lip service while implementing entirely non-libertarian policies to serve their real goals: power and money for themselves and their cronies.
Many people will not understand this distinction between rhetoric and action. After all, few seem to notice it right now. If the rebranding is successful and the Republicans start winning elections, I fear that the public will start blaming “libertarianism” for increased government spending, foreign intervention, business regulation, torture, and whatever else they implement under the pretense of spending cuts, non-intervention, deregulation, civil liberties, and the like.
I suppose that is not really something I can help, though. The underlying problem is that people do not yet widely understand that the higher the political office, the more likely it is that the electoral contest is between two sociopathic con men.
Indeed, the US Presidential election is a sort of quadrennial Olympics for con men. The odds of of a randomly selected untrained amateur winning the Olympic 500m race are poor when hundreds or thousands of professionals train for years for the event. The probability of a decent human being winning the White House when competing against hordes of amoral grifters whose skills are honed to a razors edge by years of competition are even lower.
Worse, people do not understand that even if a decent human being by some astounding accident wins high political office, they are almost inevitably both thwarted and corrupted. The system is built to derail reform, not to enable it, and it holds temptations that few normal people can resist. One is faced with (to name but a few things) the powerful financial interests of the Military-Industrial Complex, blackmail by the intelligence community, lobbyists more numerous than locusts, fellow politicians who do not want their sustenance to end, a press almost as interested in preserving the status quo as the pigs at the trough, Sir Humphrey Appleby‘s spiritual kin, constant luxuries from banquets to private jets to soften one’s moral resistance, and an endless series of instances where one might bend the rules just this once, for the common good.
I would not even trust myself with the power of the Presidency — it should be no surprise that I trust no one else with it either.
I have been asked by some, “then what do you propose we should do, if electoral politics will not work? Surely you must work within the system you have, not the one you wish you had.” This viewpoint reminds me of a political cartoon featuring a pair of Aztec priests removing the heart from a victim. One says to the other, “it isn’t the best possible system, but it’s the one we’ve got.”
I think that until one thinks beyond the current system and its failures, one cannot get away from those failures. You cannot become celibate by increasing your frequency of sexual intercourse, shoot your way to nonviolence, gorge your way to weight loss, or vote your way to a system that respects inalienable rights not subject to the whims of the electorate.
The US’s founding fathers conducted an interesting experiment in whether a strong constitution could restrain the worst defects of democracy. (That was literally their intent, as the Federalist Papers reveal.) We would be fools to ignore the result of that experiment. To be sure, it was a partial success for a time, but it did not last. The rot began almost immediately.
(I have acquaintances who are attorneys who believe in a “living constitution.” They laugh at me when I say things like “but the plain intent of the words `Congress shall make no law[...] abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press’ is that Congress isn’t allowed to make laws on that topic.” Apparently a belief that words can have plain meanings is the height of naïveté and shows exactly how stupid I am.)
The only rational way forward I see is to try to build the world I want directly, and to leave the political mechanism, which I wish to see eliminated anyway, behind.
My message, and sadly the best path I have to offer (for it is not an easy one) is this: work on ways to achieve the world you want that do not involve politics, and work on letting others know that this is the only long term path to make the world a better place.
In other words, if you want to see people fed, work on ways to feed them — one Norman Borlaug beats a million “food security activists” begging for stolen money. If you want to see people better able to communicate in privacy or avoid censorship when they wish to speak in public, build computer protocols and software to help them do that regardless of the desires of bureaucrats. (The people who built Tor, PGP and the like did not wait to be given “permission” to do so, they simply built what they felt the world needed. You can, too.) If you want to help people live longer and healthier lives, do medical research or open a clinic.
So, if you want to be free, live as freely as you can right now, and help others to be free as well. Build the institutions and technologies you wish existed to support freedom today, not someday after “they” have given you permission to be free. “They” will never grant their permission, so you will be waiting forever. Besides, waiting for “them” to throw you crumbs of freedom is servile. Not only will the things you build improve your own life here and now, those things will also undermine the power of those who would enslave you. (“They” would prefer that you believe yourself to be powerless and dependent on what “they” choose to do. Ignore “them”.)
Most of all, do not believe the con men, do not join them, and do not aid them. (Try to help other people understand that they should not believe or aid them either.) The con men are not your friends. The last several millennia of experience with elections are not a fluke to be dismissed as mere experimental error. The next politician and the next election will not be different than all their predecessors. The next politician will not usher in “change”, or “hope”. The next politician will, if experience is any guide, care mostly about self-maximization. It doesn’t matter how hard they pander to your prejudices, they don’t care about what you want, they’re in it for what they want. If you want a better world to live in, build it yourself instead.
According to this Reuters exclusive entitled “U.S. directs agents to cover up program used to investigate Americans”, the US Drug Enforcement Administration has been running a secret program to cover up the fact that it has been receiving information from the National Security Agency that it has subsequently used in court.
Under this covert program, agents are instructed to fabricate plausible explanations of how the agency uncovered evidence through means that did not involve NSA intercept capabilities in order to hide the true source of the information.
Now, normally, under US common law, such coverups are considered a very, very bad violation of the rights of a defendant, who is entitled to learn the source of information used against them at trial so that they can rebut the evidence presented by the prosecution. Furthermore, under the laws of almost every civilized country, lying in court is considered a crime, to wit, perjury.
I suspect, however, that we will not see any investigations, let alone prosecutions, of government officials for what is clearly a crime. Indeed, I suspect that we are all so conditioned to the idea that government officials are now above the law that no one reading this would even expect such a prosecution.
There’s something rather sad about this state of affairs, isn’t there?
This morning the New York Times, NPR and the BBC have all been discussing details of communications between senior Al Qaeda leaders which form the basis for closing numerous US, UK and other embassies worldwide. A New York Times article on the subject is typical:
The Obama administration’s decision last week to close nearly two dozen diplomatic missions and issue a worldwide travel alert came after the United States intercepted electronic communications in which the head of Al Qaeda ordered the leader of the group’s affiliate in Yemen to carry out an attack as early as this past Sunday, according to American officials.
Additional detail is given later in that article and in dozens of others from numerous news organizations. They know these details only because they were leaked said details by sources inside the Obama administration.
These details are clearly useful to Al Qaeda. They inform the leadership of that organization in no uncertain terms of US intercept capabilities, alerting them to the need to change their communications methods.
Had an Edward Snowden or a Bradley Manning revealed such information, it would be called “treason” by many commentators. Charges would be pressed in court of “aiding the enemy”.
When the leak is official and far more damaging, no one mentions treason. Instead, this is simply business as usual.
News headlines do not focus on questions about the identity of the suspected leaker. The leaker or leakers will not have to flee to foreign countries to evade prosecution, even though the Obama administration has prosecuted more whistleblowers than all previous administrations combined. That is because the leak is clearly authorized at the highest levels, never mind that it may have just “burned” a vital intelligence source in the process.
One may wonder why the Obama administration has chosen to leak such information to the press. That is an open secret. The New York Times first article on the subject some days ago has, buried within it, the following paragraph, a paragraph that should by all rights be the lead:
Some analysts and Congressional officials suggested Friday that emphasizing a terrorist threat now was a good way to divert attention from the uproar over the N.S.A.’s data-collection programs, and that if it showed the intercepts had uncovered a possible plot, even better.
In other words, aiding the enemy is fine provided it is in the service of fighting the actual joint enemy of Al Qaeda and the Obama administration, to wit, the general public.
George Bernard Shaw was a playwright. He was also a supporter of Stalin. Therefore, it’s always amusing to see people poking fun at him. Here is one Charles Mercier responding to Shaw shortly after Emily Davison was trampled to death at the Derby:
The Times, 4 July 1913 p4 (right click to see original)
If I understand Mr Bernard Shaw aright, his contentions are two – first, that a martyr is a person who seals his belief with his blood; and, second, that if a person seals his belief in his blood, we ought at once to adopt that belief, or at least act as if it were true. “Sealing one’s belief with one’s blood” is a picturesque expression which has always hitherto been understood to mean choosing the alternative of death when we are compelled to choose between death and abandoning, or pretending to abandon, a belief. No one offered this choice to Miss Davison, and in this sense she certainly did not seal her belief with her blood, and was not a martyr. Mr Shaw would extend the expression to the act of committing suicide in order to demonstrate the truth of a belief; and his opinion seems to be that, if a person offers this proof of the truth of any belief, we ought to act as if the belief were true. There seems to me to be a flaw in his reasoning, and the practice would be inconvenient.
I, for instance, have a settled and profound conviction that Aristotle’s logic is utterly erroneous, and that my own system is immeasurably superior to it, but if I cut my throat in order to seal this belief with my blood, and thereby compel the University of Oxford to supersede Aristotelian logic with my own, what is to prevent the eminent Waynflete Professor of Logic from blowing out his brains, and demonstrating that Aristotle is right, and I am wrong? In such a case ought the University to revert to Aristotelian logic, or ought it to suspend its judgement until Professor Schiller, who agrees with me, drowns himself in the Cherwell? It seems to me that if Mr Bernard Shaw’s doctrines are carried into practice they will lead to the sacrifice of many useful lives with but little compensating advantage. If, however, he really holds these opinions with the fervour that his expression of them seems to indicate, he has himself shown the proper way to impress them on the community, a way that I hesitate to commend to him, lest I should find myself in the unpleasant position of an accessory before the fact to a felony.
In those days suicide was a crime.
Much as this is amusing there is a flaw: George Bernard Shaw didn’t actually say it.
Before being overwhelmed by phone-induced homicidal rage the other day, I had intended to discuss a subject that has been interesting me lately, namely how difficult it is to specify in advance rules for social interaction. More specifically, I was pondering how hard it is to lay down rules for dealing with unwanted contact. Cold calling is one form of that; what are traditionally described as “unwanted advances” are another.
The problem is that word “unwanted”. To say, as the organisational psychologist quoted in this article does, that “An unwanted advance is a form of injustice”, strikes me as unfair. We are not telepaths. Quite often the only way one can find out that unwanted contact is unwanted is to ask, that is, to initiate unwanted contact. On the other hand while we may not have telepathy, we most of us do have empathy to help us guess in advance when advances might be unwelcome. Phone sales companies know to the fifth decimal place exactly how likely their calls are to be welcome. They know that the first four of those decimal places are filled by zeros, scumbags that they are. Few men asking a woman out have quite such a large database of prior results upon which to draw. I’m glad I’m not a guy! That last breath before you open your mouth to begin the sentence that might get you rejected cruelly or rejected kindly must be painful.
So I pondered, and while pondering hopped from link to link, as one does, and I came across a really interesting article in Gawker from July 7th which encapsulated several relevant issues. It describes a bitter row in the community of atheist activists. Given that I was out of sympathy with both the parties to the row when it came to politics (both of them are left wing progressives, one I already knew to advocate coercion reaching quite deeply into private lives and the other is a radical feminist) and religion, I was better able to think about the issues rather than the individuals.
Then a nagging feeling that I had read about something very similar a couple of years ago led me to finally notice that the post was not from July 7th 2013 but from July 7th 2011.
Then I slapped myself round the side of the head and said, “what does the fact that these events happened two years and a few days ago rather than a few days ago matter?”
You are now commanded to read the article that I linked to above by the then-editor of Gawker, Remy Stern, on pain of not understanding what on earth I am on about. It puts the case for “Skepchick” (real name Rebecca Watson) in her “Elevatorgate” dispute against Richard Dawkins well if a little one-sidedly.
You are also commanded (on pain of only getting one side of the story) to read post by Alison Smith called “Take back the elevator” which was the most persuasive argument against Skepchick’s position that I read, particularly where she talks about “Leap of Logic Number Two”.
The reason why many people, particularly women, immediately sympathised with Skepchick in the incident is described by commenter “Ivriniel” to Remy Stern’s Gawker article:
To anyone who doesn’t understand why Rebecca Watson was uncomfortable, let’s put it another way.
It’s late at night, and you get into an elevator alone, oh, let’s say in a parking garage. A stranger gets on with you. As soon as the door closes, the stranger asks you for money. You’re now in a confided space with a stranger who wants something from you. You do not know how they will respond if you turn them down. It’s different than being asked for money on the street, because at least on the street there are other people around, and you have the choice to walk away, or even run away if things become threatening. You’ve had that option taken away from you.
Yes, there are buttons in the elevator you can press for help, however, if things get violent, the stranger will do everything they can to keep you away from the buttons.
Yes, the guy who approached Watson in the elevator was harmless. But she had no way of knowning that. Not everyone has the luxury of going through life assuming that everyone’s intentions are benign.
On the other hand, the lift wasn’t in a parking garage, it was in an atheist convention in a hotel in Dublin. I have never been to an atheist convention, but I have been to many science fiction conventions full of the same sort of clever but dorky guys. Indeed, while taking the lift to bed in the wee small hours at one SF convention I recall being invited round to someone’s hotel room for talk and coffee. That memory is why this story caught my eye. In my case the invitation came from two guys, one of them moderately famous, and I did not doubt that coffee meant coffee. (I politely declined because it was late and I was exhausted.) In the context of an event whose main purpose is talk the probability that a request for a talk means what it says is higher than in other situations. And even if it was a coded request for sex, that is neither a crime nor a threat, and the overtone of menace because it happened at 4 a.m. is much reduced since conventions tend to be nocturnal anyway. Having said that, the elevator man would still have shown more tact to have approached Ms Watson somewhere else and some other time. I won’t go on layering “buts” and “on the other hands” because there are a lot of layers there. You see what I mean about the difficulty of specifying rules that cover all situations?
Below is another comment to that thread, this time forcefully supporting Dawkins, from Joel Rubin. My eye was struck by the line ” Just because you’re a “feminist” doesn’t mean people have to let you have the elevator to themselves, doesn’t mean you have the right to completely avoid human interaction on a personal level.” Some commenters to my earlier post, Rob Fisher, Joebob and Ben, made a similar point that having a front door or a phone, or in this case going to a convention in a public place, is to some extent giving permission for others to peacefully initiate contact, so long as it is not pursued if demonstrably unwelcome. Mr Rubin wrote:
Okay, Dawkins went overboard with the hyperbole, yes, but everyone else did too.
Here’s where the flaw lies: Rebecca Watson. Yes, you. Don’t go online an publicly disparage a person who respectfully and politely asked you for coffee. I don’t care that you were in an elevator, I don’t care that you were alone, I don’t care that you just finished up a feminist speech—none of that matters.
What matters is this: The man asked you for coffee, and you declined. That was it. He did ABSOLUTELY NOTHING WRONG. But you decided to use a public forum to act like an asshole about it, and someone else called you out.
I don’t give a fuck if you “felt offended” by basic human interaction—that just makes you hypersensitive. Nothing in what you told us he said “sexualized” you in any way. And then responding to Dawkins with this nugget: “[To] have my concerns—and more so the concerns of other women who have survived rape and sexual assault—dismissed…” was absolute bullshit.
He wasn’t talking about rape, or sexual assault, he was talking about the fact that you overreacted and belittled a person who, by all accounts, was respectful and direct in asking you to coffee. YOU BLEW IT UP to something it shouldn’t have been.
Just because you’re a “feminist” doesn’t mean people have to let you have the elevator to themselves, doesn’t mean you have the right to completely avoid human interaction on a personal level. Just because he asked you for coffee and conversation doesn’t mean you were hit on, propositioned, or had to “survive rape and sexual assault”—it means you were asked for coffee.
You, dear, give humans in general, and feminists in particular, a bad name. Because you know what? It was insensitive for Dawkins to use the oppression of some women in the way he did—it was trollish and overboard. But HE MAKES A SOLID POINT, one that I probably would have made myself—you are flailing for attention and belittling a person for no reason.
The problem began not when a person talked to you in an elevator, or when another person used excessive hyperbole to prove a point—the problem began when you sensationalized and mocked a person who didn’t deserve it in a popular forum. It was arrogant, and rude.
I take issue with the part where Mr Rubin says, ” I don’t care that you just finished up a feminist speech—none of that matters.” The speech to which he refers was not just generally feminist. In it Ms Watson specifically said she did not like having passes made at her at these conventions. The man who asked her for coffee in the elevator was in the audience for that speech. That does matter, actually. He should have listened. Even if he did not intend to make a pass, it should have been obvious that his approach was likely to be read as one. She had just asked people not to do that.
In the end I incline to Skepchick’s side of this particular argument about this particular incident, by a degree or two. Remember that her initial video did not denounce the lift guy, it just advised men in general “don’t do this”. I would second that advice. But the scales are almost even. I am not convinced of Ms Watson’s general reasonableness, which is relevant. Judging from her internet profile, either she has had the remarkable ill fortune to be repeatedly taken in by apparent friends and allies who in the end turned out to be misogynists, or she has a hair trigger.
Screeching sound! Skid marks! Smell of burnt rubber! I am letting myself get pulled away from the point, which is not how nice anyone in the story is but how very difficult it is to specify whether it is right for one human being to ask another human being for something when the request itself might be offensive.
Is it better to just hang them or should we draw and quarter first?
Planetary Resources is raising some of the money for a small space telescope via a Kickstarter and are close to their minimum goal of $1M. That such sums of money can be raised for worthy projects and in such short timescales strikes me as interesting in another way: might we be in the early days of a new way to deal with ‘the commons’? Could technology be delivering us a way to replace much of coercive government funding with true voluntarism?
And by the way, support these guys. I know several of them, and it is a way to push New Space forward in the public perception.
One of the most shocking things about the brutal attack in Woolwich yesterday was the arrogance with which one of the bloodied knifemen claimed to be acting on behalf of all Muslims. In what sounded like a South London accent, this British-seeming, casually dressed young man bizarrely spoke as if he were a representative of the ummah. He talked about “our lands and what “our people” have to go through every day. He presumably meant Iraqis and Afghanis, or perhaps the broader global “Muslim family”.
How can a couple of men so thoroughly convince themselves that they speak for all Muslims, to the extent that they seriously believe their savage and psychotic attack on a man in the street is some kind of glorious act of Islamic resistance? Perhaps because they live in a country in which claiming to speak “on behalf of” a community, even if you’ve never been elected by or even seriously talked to that community, is taken seriously. A country where one’s identity, one’s racial or religious or cultural make-up, now counts for everything, certainly for more than what one does or what one believes. A country in which the politics of identity, the narrow and deeply divisive communal politics of shared cultural traits, has been privileged over all other kinds of politics.
- Brendan O’Neill
He was writing in the aftermath of the murder of a young soldier in London this week.
There are many reasons how this state of affairs came about, and I am sure commenters have their views on this. I would point to what has happened in our own education system and the climate of ideas in the West for the past few decades. While Western society is, by some measures, more “individualistic” than it used to be – and that is a good thing – in some ways tribal mentalities remain strong. Maybe part of that has to do with post-modernism and the whole challenge to the idea that there is such a thing as objective truth, and that there are universal, shared qualities that all humans have, most importantly, the capacity for long-term, rational action, coupled with notions of taking responsibility for one’s actions, linked as that is to the idea that humans have free will.
As those notions have been challenged, or even mocked – consider how it is fashionable these days to say we are all driven by “unseen” motives and urges that come from Darwinian evolution – then people are more susceptible to collectivism, to group-think, with its consequent view of people as either “belonging” to this or that group. Throw in the features of Islam as it is today as described by the likes of Bernard Lewis, and this fusion of religious fundamentalism, craven Western self-abasement, victimology, and post-modernist moral relativism, then it is not hard to see why these thugs can claim to speak for a whole chunk of humanity.
“If, as I believe, the distinctive distance from our organic nature, we should rejoice in the expression of changing human possibility in ever-advancing technology. After all, the organic world is one in which life is nasty, brutish and short and dominated by experiences that are inhumanly unpleasant. Human technology is less alien to us than nature (compare bitter cold with central heating; being lost without GPS and being found with it; dying of parasitic infestation versus vermicides or spraying with pesticides) and the material of that part of nature that we are: our inhuman, or at least impersonal bodies. Anyone who considers the new technologies as inhuman, or a threat to our humanity, should consider this. Better still, they should spend five uninterrupted minutes imagining the impact of a major stroke, severe Parkinson’s disease or Alzheimer’s disease on their ability to express their humanity…..Self transformation is the essence of humanity and our humanity is defined by our ever-widening distance from the material and organic world of which we are a part and from which we are apart.”
- Raymond Tallis. In Defence of Wonder, page 200.