The Globe and Mail managed to publish today one of the saddest editorial cartoons I ever saw:
There really is nothing that I can add. The cartoon speaks for itself.
Listening to Donald Trump again and again reminds me of the late days of the Roman Republic, notably Octavius, also known as Augustus, first Roman emperor.
Here are a few interesting, especially relevant passages from the Wikipedia article on Augustus.
Recall the debate about whether or not a sitting president can be indicted? “Octavian had the Senate grant him, his wife, and his sister tribunal immunity.”
Or how about the funding of Trump’s wall? “Octavian made another bold move in 44 BC when, without official permission, he appropriated the annual tribute that had been sent from Rome’s Near Eastern province to Italy.”
Last but not least, all those concerns about the “deep state”, and all those uncanny conspiracy theories promoted mostly by folks who are the most likely to be hurt by, and least likely to benefit from Trump’s authoritarian ambitions: “Many of the political subtleties […] seem to have evaded the comprehension of the Plebeian class, who were Augustus’ greatest supporters and clientele. This caused them to insist upon Augustus’ participation in imperial affairs from time to time. Augustus failed to stand for election as consul in 22 BC, and fears arose once again that he was being forced from power by the aristocratic Senate.”
So there you have it: when the people believe that a dictator protects them against their own representative government, when the people believe that the dictator is above the law, when the people believe that the dictator has legitimate powers to appropriate public funds, democracy is under an existential threat.
Today in the morning news, I heard about an Ottawa bartender was is about to stand trial for criminal negligence because two years ago, some young hockey players who got drunk at her bar ended up dead in a tragic car accident.
Later in the same newscast, I heard about plans by the Ontario government to start selling alcoholic beverages in more supermarkets, big box stores, and convenience stores.
In exactly what insane asylum do these two news items in the same newscast make any sense?
On the one hand, dragging a bartender, one who probably never earned much over minimum wage, to criminal court with the very real prospect of a prison term; on the other hand, making it easier for people to obtain one of the most potent psychoactive drugs known to humanity? Because, you know, the bartender is responsible for what her patrons do after they leave the establishment, but the provincial government bears no responsibility at all for making alcohol more readily available?
The mind boggles.
It was just three days ago that I boldly predicted that either after a successful, orderly Brexit or a cancellation of the Article 50 letter, Theresa May will resign. This prediction just came true, with the announcement that this is indeed Theresa May’s intent.
Here I am, hoping that the rest of my predictions also come true: that there will now be an orderly process one way or another, and that over time, people will come to recognize her efforts to make it happen.
The other day, before the Mueller report came out, I described the political present throughout the Western world by comparing it to “history flashback” chapters in dystopian science-fiction novels.
But then, the next day, I saw someone present a Venn-diagram not unlike this one:
Apparently I am not the only one with this concern.
Then the Mueller report came, exonerating Trump at least on the issue of collusion. Not unexpected. I may have hoped for a different outcome but really, it wasn’t in the cards. Trump wasn’t conspiring to become president: he was conspiring to get a Trump Tower built in Moscow. He is not Putin’s co-conspirator; he’s at best Putin’s pawn.
But that’s the least of America’s problems, when the US Senate is increasingly behaving like another senate two millennia ago: the Senate of the Roman Republic, when it (for various reasons, all having to do with the politics of the day) became the enabler of Gaius Julius Caesar and his successor, Gaius Octavius Thurinus.
As the US Senate basically let Trump get away with usurping their power, allocating funds for his phony wall emergency, a line in the sand was crossed. This is precisely the Roman prescription: Using a variety of real or phony emergencies, the leader of the Republic first acquires and then holds on to an ever increasing number of emergency powers, until one day, he becomes emperor in all but name. Even if he is then assassinated, the new reality becomes normalized, and one of his successors will eventually declare himself ruler for life. The process may take decades, but the outcome is the end of democracy.
Any American who thinks it “cannot happen here” needs to be mindful of the fact that Romans were just as proud of their republican traditions as Americans today.
The crisis goes beyond the United States. Liberal democracy is in trouble throughout the Western world. Take Europe: Brexit, the rise of the far-right on the western side of the continent, the emergence of semi-authoritarian governments on the eastern flanks make one wonder if Europe can both remain united and retain its liberal democratic values.
Meanwhile, back in the United States, Democrats are drawing precisely the wrong lesson. Instead of working to preserve rational, fact-based governance, they decided that their problem has been all along that they are not ideological enough! And sadly, opposition forces throughout the Western world are following suit.
But ideology will not solve rising inequality, the stagnation of the middle class, the re-emergence of blatant racism. Excessive political correctness is no solution either. The antidote to rigid ideology is not more, or more rigid, ideology.
Recently I saw someone on Facebook describe the state that the world is in as an “extinction level event” threatening liberal democracy. And that’s precisely what I fear.
Watching the endgame unfold in London and Brussels, I have come to the conclusion that Brexit, first and foremost, represents a complete bankruptcy of British politics. (Yes, I know I am not the only one who had this revelation.)
Think about it. The main complaint about Europe is that it is an unwieldy, inflexible bureaucracy, an ungovernable assembly of 28 (soon 27) sovereign nations with conflicting interests. And the EU has its own internal problems, including the rise of the far right, increasingly authoritarian regimes on its eastern flank, and a weakened political center.
Yet throughout the Brexit process, it was Europe that was able to present a unified front. It was Europe who responded to increasingly desperate British requests with flexibility. And each and every time, Europe showed decisiveness, even when the unanimity of 27 nations was required.
Britain, on the other hand, was unable to make a deal with itself. Never mind that, even Britain’s major political parties demonstrated an utter inability to come to terms with themselves. Both the Tories and Labour remain split, and as a result, Britain has a dysfunctional Parliament: No option has the support of a majority of MPs, but they delegitimized their own inability to act, too, when they voted against a “hard” Brexit.
If this is not a complete bankruptcy of the British political system, I don’t know what it is.
Theresa May may still pull off a miracle. She may yet convince MPs to vote for an orderly Brexit. Or perhaps she will get them to vote to withdraw the Article 50 letter. After all, already more than five million (as of the evening of March 24) Britons signed an online petition to revoke the Article 50 letter and remain in the EU.
Either way, if May pulls off either an orderly Brexit or a cancellation, I suspect that she will promptly resign as prime minister, and quite possibly retire from politics. And for many years, she will be despised by millions and loved by few.
But over the years, she will be recognized as one of the greatest statesmen in British history; the captain who never left the bridge of a sinking ship and (depending on the outcome) either saved the ship against all odds, or at least ensured all the survivors’ safety.
I am hoping, however, that those who created this crisis for no reason other than reckless political adventurism and a sociopath’s willingness to exploit the worst demons of racism and xenophobia in British society will be ultimately remembered among the most reviled figures of modern British history, listed on the same pages as, say, Oswald Mosley.
Almost forgot: There was some incredulity when Michael Cohen mentioned, during his Congressional appearance on Wednesday, that he “started” Trump’s campaign. In response, Cohen mentioned the Web site, shouldtrumprun.org, which he claimed to have created.
It is true. Here is the earliest capture of this site from archive.org (I highlighted the date and Cohen’s name):
Unfortunately for Trump, it appears that Cohen and his associates stopped paying for shouldtrumprun.org, and it has now been taken over by others, who quickly turned it into a parody site. Lots of fun memes there, worth checking it out.
There is a Washington Post article today about the frightening possibility of a new Civil War in the United States.
But this is not new. You could hear such talk from certain conservative circles from years. Their view is that the US already reached the point of no return.
By way of example, here is a quote from an e-mail from an American friend that I received a few months ago: “We are already in […] low grade civil war […] but it is definitely hot. […] If we are really lucky, you will only randomly hear about ‘right wing death squads.’ More likely, it will be total war.”
Though they blame it on the other side, they basically view a government that accepts viewpoints other than their own as corrupt and broken beyond repair. They are not interested in pluralism or fact-based governance. (Just look at the ban on gun-related research funding by the Federal Government, or the politicization of climate change, with ideology put far ahead of the facts.) In other words, these “patriotic Americans” essentially are declaring war on a democratic, republican form of government because it allows viewpoints other than theirs.
And Democrats are quickly sliding down that same slope nowadays, as they elect increasingly outspoken ideologues with increasingly militant attitudes. The folks who rejected Hillary and were proud to support Bernie (with his unrealistic plans that make no fiscal sense, placing ideology ahead of the facts) are increasingly the folks who determine policy.
Still, I don’t think that the result will be civil war, even if there will be violence in the future. Rather, I fear that it will be a rapid erosion of republican values in favor of an imperial presidency, following the example set by the dying days of the Roman Republic over two millennia ago. Blame, in part, the primary system that supports the ultrapartisan polarization of American society; and the switch from a largely unelected Senate to one that is elected, subject to the politics of the day, and thus unable to fulfill the function that Canada’s Founding Fathers once called “the chamber of sober second thought”.
Trump’s emergency declaration is a dramatic step in this direction. All indications are that he will get away with it. The Senate is unwilling to stop him. The courts might, but they will likely recognize (technically correctly) that it is not up to the courts but up to the President to decide what constitutes an emergency.
And mark my words: I think we will see at least 1-2 more emergency declarations under Trump. And by the time his successor (Democrat or Republican, doesn’t matter) occupies the White House, such emergency declarations will have been normalized, as a standard form of politics. And supporters will cheer whenever a declaration is made in favor of policies they approve.
The next step will take place when a particularly uppity congress shoots one such declaration down with a veto-proof majority. The result of that may very well be a constitutional change that defangs the Senate; e.g., requiring unanimous consent for a veto override.
And when that happens, the transition will have completed in all but name: the President will be Emperor who can rule by decree, with neither Congress nor the Courts serving as effective counterbalance anymore. One more change, elimination of term limits, and there: you will have emperors. And as someone remarked, Trump didn’t even have to spend money on an accelerant to stage a Reichstag fire.
I never thought I would live to see the day when all this turns from speculative fiction into tangible possibility, but here we are: we may yet see a de facto Emperor of America within my lifetime.
Not something I look forward to see, mind you.
What do you do when you are confronted with racism when you least expect it?
No, not the overt kind. That would be easy. Obviously if someone used the N-word to descibe a black person, the K-word to describe a Jew, or similar slurs in my presence, I would tell them in no uncertain terms to get out of my face with that caveman racist attitude.
But what if it is something more subtle, more insidious?
Like, when a close friend explains to you how it is not racism but bad experience that turned them suspicious towards black people. That they used to be color-blind until they were defrauded or otherwise mistreated by black people one too many times.
At first, you think there is hope. You have known this person for a long time. The negative experiences are undoubtedly real. And you know that your friend is, deep inside, a good person. A rational person who can be convinced not to generalize from a few negative experiences and condemn an entire population of human beings on account of the color of their skin. To judge people by their character instead.
You bring up historical examples, pro and con. People from oppressed minorities who demonstrated the strength of their character by the dignified way with which they stood up to oppression, such as Frederick Douglass or Nelson Mandela. Or people who used twisted logic and a false sense of victimhood to justify how they turned from self-professed race-blind innocents into vitriolic racists, such as Adolf Hitler during his years in Vienna.
But then something snaps in you. There comes the moment of realization. It is all pointless. Your moral outrage is ignored or worse, filed away as a hysterical outburst of excessive political correctness, for which you should probably apologize. Your arguments are dismissed because, you know, you were lucky and avoided all those negative experiences and you can afford to remain an idealist unlike your more experienced, more streetwise friend. You try to explain to your friend that adopting a racist attitude means being part of the problem, not part of the solution. To no avail; in fact, you learn that the only reason your friend seemed to favor politicians of a more liberal persuasion is the fear of losing personal benefits. When it comes to race, their views align with the worst.
And it becomes clear at one point that your friend’s dream life is in an affluent, whites-only gated community.
What do you do then? Pretend you haven’t heard anything? Throw away decades of friendship? Or maybe take the easy way out and just turn into a card-carrying Nazi yourself?
I could, of course. I am a tall, middle-aged, white male with (as far as I know) no questionable Mischlingsblut in my veins. I even had some military training. I could click my heels, raise my arm and shout, Sieg Heil!, faster than most semi-literate, drunken Nazis. Jawohl, mein Führer, wir verteidigen die weiße Rasse. And tall as I am, I would look especially impressive in a KKK hood. And then I would have no problems with racism anymore. I could go on and just despise and distrust blacks, Muslims (especially black Muslims, I guess) Asians, Native Americans, Jews, you name it. Anyone who is different from my superior race. Any lesser untermensch. Including, quite possibly, my dear friend.
Trouble is, I still prefer to see a human being, not a monster, staring back at me from the mirror when I brush my teeth in the morning.
So no. Not even from my best, dearest friends. No matter how well-justified they feel in their views. No matter how strongly they feel that they are the victims here.
No, my white friends. You are no more victims of visible minorities than Hitler was a victim of Jews.
And the time to speak up is now. Even if my friends think that I went berserk with political correctness.
No matter how close a friend or family member you are: If you think your racist views are justified, please just bugger out of my sight.
I like to think of myself as a low-maintenance friend. You don’t have to come over to fix my computer. I don’t ask you to help me move. I don’t demand to be invited to your parties (in fact, I prefer not to be invited at all, being the introvert that I am.) I don’t show up, unannounced, to eat your food, crash on your couch, or borrow your car.
But there is one price for my friendship and that, you must pay. No, not to give lip service to some politically correct doctrine. No, I am not asking you to go all kumbaya with people with whom you feel uncomfortable. I am not asking you to donate all your wealth to people you distrust. The price is that I ask you to think. To imagine what it would be like if it was you who lived in a society that judged you by what others have done, simply because you share a visible characteristic with them. To have no place to go, because prejudice follows you everywhere. To be treated with suspicion at all times.
And then think about your duty as a human being to rise above petty, everyday grievances. To consider, at the very least, the possibility that you, too, bear some responsibility to not make our society worse. And don’t dig your heels in deeper. Don’t wallow in your sense of victimhood. Don’t come up with new justifications for your prejudice.
And for heaven’s sake, do not make your racism worse by calling me a blind idiot. Do not insult my intelligence with the cheapest racist excuse I ever heard, the last refuge of the intellectually incompetent hatemongerer: Do not tell me that I don’t see it the way you do because I have not experienced just how bad it really is where you live. Even if I am inexperienced in these matters, there are plenty of people in your neck of the woods who are not following you down that racist rabbit’s hole.
I am not asking much. I am not asking you to change. I am just asking you to think. And to stop justifying the morally and intellectually unjustifiable. Do the bidding of your inner demons if you must; but don’t try to pretend that they are angels. Not to me, not to yourself.
Can’t do it? Too bad. I will not apologize for this. I will not ask for your forgiveness. This is the price of my friendship. In this day and age, when I am confronted with racism, especially from people closest to my heart, there is one thing I cannot to: I just can’t not speak up.
In the political campaign leading up to the 2018 parliamentary elections in Hungary, an unlikely villain emerged on the election posters of the governing party: the Hungarian-American billionaire George Soros. “Let’s not allow Soros to have the last laugh,” screamed the posters, featuring an unflattering black-and-white photograph of the aging philanthropist.
While there was little doubt that this was all part of a cynically engineered election campaign, now we know exactly how it came to be, thanks to a piece of investigative journalism published in Das Magazin, a weekly supplement to several Swiss newspapers. A review of their article was also featured on 24.hu, a leading Hungarian news portal.
The anti-Soros campaign was the brainchild of George Birnbaum and his mentor, the late Arthur Finkelstein, experts on the technique of negative campaigning. They started working for Viktor Orban in 2008, contributing to his success in the 2010 election campaign. They had an easy task: the then ruling Socialist Party was wildly unpopular and thus easy to target. But after Orban’s second election victory in 2014, the Socialist Party was no longer a useful scapegoat. A new enemy was needed.
One obvious target presented itself: International capital, represented by the IMF and the EU, who dictated the conditions accompanying foreign loans that helped Hungary recover from the financial crisis. But an abstract target is not good enough. As Finkelstein once remarked, Americans fought not National Socialism but Hitler in WW2; not Al-Qaeda but Osama bin Laden in the War on Terror.
The narrative was given. One of the leading ideologues of Orban’s party, Maria Schmidt, director of the “House of Terror”, a museum dedicated to the victims of hardline communist terror in the early 1950s, readily provided it: a Hungary that was always the innocent victim, surrounded by enemies, yet protecting its identity and defending Christianity from adversaries ranging from the Ottoman Empire centuries ago to the investment bankers of the present day. All that was needed was a person who embodies this threat.
According to Das Magazin, Finkelstein and Birnbaum used a telephone survey to determine if Soros was known sufficiently well among would-be voters to serve as the target of a negative campaign. He proved to be the perfect enemy. He qualifies as a liberal, and he represents something hated by conservatives: a successful investor who wants to weaken capitalism. On the other hand, as he is not a politician and doesn’t even live in Hungary, he has no means to fight back.
The 2015 migration crisis was the icing on the cake. An essay Soros once wrote predicting a large number of refugees was relabeled the “Soros-plan”, demonstrating that Soros wanted to flood Hungary, and Europe in general, with Muslim “migrants”. By extension, any NGOs supported by Soros became targeted, as well as the Soros-founded Central European University, which was ultimately driven out of the country altogether, moving its main campus to Vienna.
The Soros-project was so successful, it was exported to other “markets”: anti-Soros voices were heard from Columbia to Kenya, from Israel to Australia. Even Donald Trump once asserted that the “caravan” heading towards America’s borders is funded by Soros.
The antisemitic overtone of the campaign is unmistakeable. Ironically, Finkelstein and Birnbaum are both Jewish. Birnbaum denied that the campaign had anything to do with antisemitism. He even claimed, rather improbably, that he did now know that Soros himself was Jewish. But Das Magazin reminds us that Finkelstein has not refrained in the past from supporting a candidate with known antisemitic views and that despite being gay, he also supported anti-gay politicians in the US.
Theresa May lost the Brexit vote in Britain’s parliament. This means that still nothing has been decided when it comes to Brexit. Will it be a hard crash? Will Britain withdraw its Article 50 letter? Is there still room for compromise?
I know, I know, it’s not my country and I probably know a lot less about British politics than I should in order to voice a coherent opinion but still… what is about to happen will affect all of us, even outside of Britain, and may have a crucial impact on global stability as the world of 2019 is becoming ever more chaotic.
Many blame Theresa May for this uncertainty. Some call her incompetent. I do not believe that to be true. On the contrary, Theresa May tried to pull off the impossible and she almost succeeded. She was able to negotiate a Brexit plan that the EU accepted, and yet which minimized the negative impact on the British economy.
In other words, she managed to respect the will of the majority while at the same time protecting them from the worst consequences of their stupidity. In the process, she achieved a better deal than I expected under any reasonable set of circumstances.
As to who the true incompetents are… Perhaps incompetent is the wrong word when it comes to characterizing those callously opportunistic British politicians who plunged their country into this crisis in the first place, or the sometimes misguided, sometimes outright xenophobic voters who fell for the siren call to “Make Britain Great Again”.
Theresa May tried the impossible and she almost managed to make it happen. Despite originally supporting the “remain” option, May diligently worked on obtaining a decent separation deal. Still, it was not good enough. May’s political tragedy is that she sought compromise where no compromise was possible. Those who voted against Brexit were unlikely to cheer for any Brexit deal, no matter how sweetened. Those who voted for separation see any compromise as a betrayal of the will of the people; in fact, many are openly in favor of a “hard” Brexit, oblivious or indifferent with regards to the likely consequences.
When Jeremy Corbyn accused her of placing her party’s interests ahead of her nation’s, cameras showed May as she vehemently shook her head. And I think I understand why.
I first read about this in George Takei’s Twitter feed. Then I checked it on Snopes, and it is true.
There really was a 1958 episode of a television Western (an episode titled The End of the World, of the series Trackdown), in which a character named Trump, a con artist, proposes to build an impenetrable wall to protect a town’s inhabitants.
This editorial cartoon from the New York Daily News is not new; it seems to be from 2016, drawn by Bill Bramhall. I only just saw it though, in the feed of a Facebook friend.
Yet I think it is even more appropriate today, now that we have seen two years of the Trump presidency.
It of course is a reference to one of the scariest scenes from the 1979 movie Alien. I don’t know if the caption (those words were uttered by Ash, the film’s robot antagonist who is willing to sacrifice the spacecraft’s human crew in order to return the alien to his corporate masters ) was part of the original version of the cartoon, but it is this caption that makes the cartoon especially poignant these days.
So here is what I expect from 2019.
There are probably a few more things that I could add to this list, but these are at least some of the reasons why thinking about 2019 fills me with a sense of foreboding.
On a happier note, here is what I ask from Santa, come Christmas 2019: I want to be proven wrong on all of the above points. I desperately want to be wrong, foolishly wrong on all of the above points. Feel free to ridicule me on December 31 if none of my dire predictions come true. Nothing would make me happier.
Today, I answered a question on Quora about the nature of \(c\), the speed of light, as it appears in the one equation everyone knows, \(E=mc^2.\)
I explained that it is best viewed as a conversion factor between our units of length and time. These units are accidents of history. There is nothing fundamental in Nature about one ten millionth the distance from the poles to the equator of the Earth (the original definition of the meter) or about one 86,400th the length of the Earth’s mean solar day. These units are what they are, in part, because we learned to measure length and time long before we learned that they are aspects of the same thing, spacetime.
And nothing stops us from using units such as light-seconds and seconds to measure space and time; in such units, the value of the speed of light would be just 1, and consequently, it could be dropped from equations altogether. This is precisely what theoretical physicists often do.
But then… I commented that something very similar takes place in aviation, where different units are used to measure horizontal distance (nautical miles, nmi) and altitude (feet, ft). So if you were to calculate the kinetic energy of an airplane (measuring its speed in nmi/s) and its potential energy (measuring the altitude, as well as the gravitational acceleration, in ft) you would need the ft/nmi conversion factor of 6076.12, squared, to convert between the two resulting units of energy.
As I was writing this answer, though, I stumbled upon a blog entry that discussed the crazy, mixed up units of measure still in use worldwide in aviation. Furlongs per fortnight may pretty much be the only unit that is not used, as just about every other unit of measure pops up, confusing poor pilots everywhere: Meters, feet, kilometers, nautical miles, statute miles, kilograms, pounds, millibars, hectopascals, inches of mercury… you name it, it’s there.
Part of the reason, of course, is the fact that America, alone among industrialized nations, managed to stick to its archaic system of measurements. Which is another historical accident, really. A lot had to do with the timing: metric transition was supposed to take place in the 1970s, governed by a presidential executive order signed by Gerald Ford. But the American economy was in a downturn, many Americans felt the nation under siege, the customary units worked well, and there was a conservative-populist pushback against the metric system… so by 1982, Ronald Reagan disbanded the Metric Board and the transition to metric was officially over. (Or not. The metric system continues to gain ground, whether it is used to measure bullets or Aspirin, soft drinks or street drugs.)
Yet another example similar to the metric system is the historical accident that created the employer-funded healthcare system in the United States that American continue to cling to, even as most (all?) other advanced industrial nations transitioned to something more modern, some variant of a single-payer universal healthcare system. It happened in the 1920s, when a Texas hospital managed to strike a deal with public school teachers in Dallas: For 50 cents a month, the hospital picked up the tab of their hospital visits. This arrangement became very popular during the Great Depression when hospitals lost patients who could not afford their hospital care anymore. The idea came to be known as Blue Cross. And that’s how the modern American healthcare system was born.
As I was reading this chain of Web articles, taking me on a tour from Einstein’s \(E=mc^2\) to employer-funded healthcare in America, I was reminded of a 40-year old British TV series, Connections, created by science historian James Burke. Burke found similar, often uncanny connections between seemingly unrelated topics in history, particularly the history of science and technology.
The news came a few days ago: Former Canadian diplomat Michael Kovrig has been arrested in China, in apparent retaliation for the arrest of Huawei’s CFO Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver.
Michael WHAT, I asked? Kovrig? As in, K-O-V-R-I-G?
You see, Kovrig is not at all a common surname. And it so happens that my stepfather’s last name is Kovrig.
Not just that but… we know another Kovrig (no relation, none that we know anyway). My parents came to know this Kovrig as a result of a chance encounter, but ultimately, they helped him purchase an apartment in the same building where they live. So this Kovrig lives two floors above my Mom and my stepfather, in Budapest.
And Michael Kovrig, former Canadian diplomat, is his nephew.
A few years ago, I was about to be offered an opportunity to take part in a Chinese research effort. My participation would have involved access to data that Chinese authorities might have viewed as military secrets. I backed out for this very reason. The last thing I needed in my life was the possibility, however remote, that I would end up in Chinese custody, accused of espionage. Later, I was wondering if I simply made a fool of myself; Was there any real danger that I might get into trouble, or was I simply pretentious?
Kovrig’s arrest is a wake-up call. This time, lightning struck uncomfortably close. Much as I regret not taking part in that very interesting and promising piece of research (and it would have been an honor to be invited) I am glad I backed out.
I hope Kovrig is released soon. I hope his arrest helps others realize that beneath the spectacular economic growth and the undeniable successes, China is still fundamentally a communist police state, whose methods of choice are bullying and violence.
One hundred years ago today, at 11 AM Paris time (the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month), the War to End All Wars itself ended.
We know what happened in the century that followed. Communism. Fascism. Totalitarianism. Another World War. The Holocaust. Invasion and civil war in China. Nuclear bombs dropped in anger. The Cold War. Korea. Colonial and post-colonial wars like Vietnam.
Yet there is hope that we are becoming wiser. The world as a whole has been largely peaceful for 73 years. No more world wars, no more wars between major powers. Nuclear weapons, so far, proved to be peacemakers instead of annihilating civilization. More people live in peace, have their basic rights respected, have access to a basic education, safe drinking water, basic health care and sufficient nutrition than ever before.
But… When I was in my 20s, politicians in power were all leaders who have seen war. Leaders who were less interested in winning wars than in avoiding them. Put the likes of Kennedy or Khrushchev, Nixon or Brezhnev, even Stalin in a room, and while they might have disagreed on just about everything, they would have agreed on this one.
Not anymore. Our fearless leaders today have not experienced war. Therefore, they may no longer consider avoiding major war a supreme imperative. And when I listen to the rhetoric of Trump, Putin, even French President Macron when he speaks in favor of a joint European army, I realize that for these leaders, war is no longer something they fear, but rather, something they are confident they can win.
Which is why it is especially important to celebrate November 11, 1918, for what it really is: The end of a nightmare. A nightmare in which even the victors weren’t truly victorious, as they all lost a lot and gained very little. A nightmare that ended decades of peace and prosperity and plunged the world into decades of darkness. For the peace that followed was an uneasy one: instead of a safer world, communism was born and the seeds of fascism were sown in 1917-18.
The other day, a conservative friend of mine sent me a link. It was to a paper purportedly demonstrating that conservatives were more ideologically diverse than their liberal counterparts.
I found this result surprising, rather striking to be honest, and contrary to my own experience.
The study, as it appears, has not been published yet but it is available in an online manuscript archive. It certainly appears thorough. So how could it come to its striking conclusions?
I think I figured out the answer when I looked at the appendices, which provide details on how the research was conducted. Here is a set of questions that were used in two of the four studies discussed in the paper:
When I look at this list, it is clear to me that questions 1, 2, 4, 8 and 11 are standard “liberal” pushbutton items, whereas the rest are “conservative” in nature.
But look more closely. Items 1, 2, 4, 8 and 11 are, insofar as liberal views are concerned, very mild and mainstream. Closing the income gap? Taxing income? (Not even a mention of progressive taxation.) Social programs? I know of no liberal who would disagree with these broad concepts. In fact, I can think of many conservatives who would readily subscribe at least to some of these ideas.
Now look at the conservative questionnaire items. Flag burning? A great many conservatives in the US believe firmly that this right is strongly protected by the First Amendment. Gay marriage? Sure, it’s an issue for some, but for many conservatives, it’s either something that they are neutral about (or may even support it) or often, it’s an issue that comes up more as a matter of states’ rights vs. the federal government, without a priori opposing the idea.
In short, when I looked closely I realized that whereas the “liberal” questions accurately reflect the liberal mainstream, the “conservative” questions are more representative of a liberal caricature of what conservatives are thought to be. By way of example, the “liberal” analog of some of these “conservative” questions would be something like, “Research that demonstrates differences on the basis of gender or race should be banned”, or some similar conservative caricature of liberal “identity politics” or “social justice warriors”.
The results, therefore, are not surprising after all. Since most liberals agree on mainstream liberal ideas, the liberal side comes across as ideologically monolithic; and since many conservatives take issue with narrowly defined, often religiously motivated line items, they come across as more diverse, more heterogeneous.
Ironically, then, the liberal bias of the researchers resulted in a paper that, contrary to their expectations, appeared to show that the conservative side is more ideologically tolerant than their liberal counterparts. In reality, though, I think the paper merely demonstrates the garbage-in-garbage-out principle that is so well known in computer science: when your research is flawed, your results will be just as flawed.
Allow me to preface this post with the following: I despise Donald J. Trump, the infantile, narcissistic, racist, misogynist “leader of the free world” who is quite possibly a traitor and may never have become president without help from his Russian buddy Putin. Also, when it comes to matters that I consider important, I am a small-l liberal; I support, for instance, LGBTQ rights, the right to have an abortion, or the legalization of cannabis, to name a few examples. I celebrate the courage of #MeToo victims. I reject racism and misogyny in all forms, open or covert.
Yet I am appalled by some of the things that happened lately in academic circles, sadly justifying the use of the pejorative term “SJW” (social justice warrior) that is so popular on the political right. A few specific cases:
But CERN went a lot further. They retroactively removed Strumia’s presentation altogether from the conference archive, and have since administratively sanctioned him, putting his future career as a physicist in question. When this response was questioned by some, there came the retroactive justification that his one slide containing the three names constitutes a “personal attack”, violating CERN policy.
I don’t agree with Strumia. I don’t like him or respect his research. But I have to ask: If he is not allowed to offer his views at a conference dedicated to “high-energy physics and gender” without fear of severe repercussions, where can he?
Now you might ask why he should be given a platform at all. Because this is (supposedly) science. And science thrives on criticism and controversial views. If we only permit views that preach to the choir, so to speak, science dies. I’d much rather risk getting offended by clowns like Strumia from time to time.
Unlike Strumia, Hill does not appear to have a personal agenda. The stated goal of the paper was neither to promote nor to refute the idea but to see whether a simple mathematical basis might exist that explains it. After being rejected (even following initial acceptance) by other journals, it was finally published in the New York Journal of Mathematics, only to be taken down (its page number and identifier assigned to a completely different paper) three days later after the editors received a complaint and a threat of losing support.
One of the justifications for this paper’s removal (and for these types of actions in general) is that such material may discourage young women from STEM fields. Apart from the intellectual dishonesty of removing an already published paper due to political pressure, I think this is also the ultimate form of covert sexism. The message to young women who are aspiring engineers and scientists is, “You, womenfolk, are too weak, too innocent to be able to think critically and reject ideological bias masquerading as science. So let us come and defend you, by ensuring that you are not exposed to vile ideas that your fragile little minds cannot handle.”
I call these incidents “irritants” when it comes to free speech.
On the one hand, publications dedicated to social science and education publish even the most outrageously bogus research so long as it kowtows to the prevailing sociopolitical agenda.
On the other hand, obscure research is thrust into the spotlight by intolerant “SJW”-s who seek to administratively suppress ideas that they find offensive. While this goal is technically accomplished (Strumia’s presentation and Hill’s paper were both successfully “unpublished”), in reality they achieve the exact opposite: they expose these authors to a much greater audience than they otherwise would have enjoyed. The message, meantime, to those they purportedly protect (e.g., women, minorities) is one of condescension: these groups apparently lack the ability to think critically and must be protected from harmful thoughts by their benevolent superiors.
Beyond all that, these actions also have negative consequences on academic life overall. In addition to suppressing controversial research, they may also lead to self-censorship. Indeed, I am left to wonder: Would I have the courage to write this blog entry if I myself had an academic career to worry about?
Last but not least, all this is oil on the fire. Those on the right, fans of Jordan Peterson and others, who are already convinced that the left is dominated by intolerant “SJW”-s, see their worst fears confirmed by these irritants, and thus their hostility increases towards the scientific establishment (including climate science, political economics, genuine social science research on refugees and migration, health, sexual education, etc.) with devastating consequences for all of us living on this planet.
If we truly believe in our small-l liberal values, it includes defending free speech even when it is vile speech. It also includes respecting others, including women and minorities, not misguidedly protecting them from hurtful ideas that they are supposedly too weak and fragile to handle. And it includes defending the freedom of scientific inquiry even if it is misused by self-absorbed losers. After all, if we can publish the nonsensical writings of Gutiérrez, surely the world won’t come to an end if Hill’s paper is published or if Strumia’s presentation remains available on the CERN workshop archive.
I admit that until today, I have not even heard of gab.com. Or if I have, it escaped my attention.
Today, I visited the site, and I was taken aback by the amount of vile hate, white supremacist and anti-Semitic garbage, lunatic right-wing conspiracy theories, falsified history, and yes, even calls for violence.
Unfortunately, gab.com shares the fate of vixra.org, the uncensored/unmoderated alternative to the Internet physics manuscript archive arxiv.org: instead of a credible, balanced alternative, it became a fringe magnet.
That said, the imminent shutdown of gab.com is precisely the wrong response, for way too many reasons to count. First, free speech is worthless if we don’t tolerate speech that offends us. Second, it plays right into the hands of the lunatic right-wing fringe, confirming their worst conspiracy theories and affirming their views of leftist intolerance. Third, in the era of the Internet, it is really not possible to shut a site or a service down (witness sci-hub, by way of example.) At best, it’s a whack-a-mole game.
If we don’t stand up to support gab.com’s right to exist today, we give up a very important right. Those who think censorship is the answer will not stop here. Martin Niemöller’s poem (First they came…) applies. They will come for others, in the name of all that’s good and decent, until the only voices that remain are those bland, compliant ones that the powers-that-be consider acceptable.