Is Postmodernism Inherently Authoritarian?

This is is an article I wrote for Quillette:

College campuses are ostensibly venues for free and open discussion. All ideas should be given an open hearing, and be judged according to their individual merits. Are they supported by good evidence? Are they internally consistent? Will they produce desirable outcomes? That, in any case, is the ideal. More and more, it seems, there is breed of campus activist that disagrees with this view. At Berkeley, protesters rioted to shut down a speech by the right-wing provocateur, Milo Yiannopoulos. In Middlebury, they shouted down Charles Murray and later assaulted Professor Alison Stanger, who was hosting the talk. At Evergreen State College, they are championing the dismissal of a biology professor who expressed concern over the discriminatory nature of a campus event. Groups like Antifa (short for anti-fascist) adopt curiously jackbooted and signally authoritarian strategies to enforce their political will. They seem to be fighting fascism with something that looks conspicuously like fascism.

Read the rest:

Is Postmodernism Inherently Authoritarian? 

Tradition and Progress

Some have attributed the resurgence of right-wing populism as a reaction to the abrogation of traditional values. It’s easy to see the truth of this. However, it is not immediately obvious that it is distinctly right-wing phenomenon. Modern conservatism traces its intellectual roots to thinkers like Edmund Burke, who assigned traditional values and norms an important role in the maintenance of social order. Around the same time, Jean-Jacques Rousseau was laying down the groundwork for the myth of the noble-savage, romanticizing tribal societies as somehow purer and more natural than those in the intensely hierarchical, increasingly market-oriented West.

In both cases, we see a peculiar reverence for traditional order, just differently construed. For Burke, inter-generational change is worthy of resistance. But for Rousseau, it is Western civilization’s centuries long fall from grace that we ought to eye with suspicion. On the right, you can see these views reflected in elderly men and women who hearken back the idealized simplicity of their childhood or a romanticized picture of the world inhabited by their recent forebears as a model for what society ought to be like. Meanwhile, staunch lefties esteem fantasies about the dietary wisdom and delicate conservationism of indigenous and preindustrial societies. What both views have in common is a fallacious tendency to equate antiquity with efficacy.

Large or small, there has probably always been some segment of every generation eager to see evil and decay in the changes wrought by the next. In some ways, it’s a sympathetic perspective. They did things a certain way and that, at least through the biased lens of hindsight, worked out well for them. Now another generation is doing things differently – sometimes radically so. This can range from the “get off my lawn, you damn kids” mentality of old men barking about changing norms around sexuality and recreational drug use to the concerns that genetically modified foods are somehow dangerous.

There is an argument to be made that an exaggerated reverence for tradition is endemic to the human condition. We may have an evolved propensity to replicate existing norms and traditions, either preferential copying the behaviors that seem most prevalent (frequency-dependent transmission), aping the habits of successful individuals (success biased social transmission), or mimicking the traits of individuals widely revered by others (prestige biased transmission). Given the social landscapes that prevailed throughout most of our evolutionary past, this is unsurprising. On generational scales, much of human history has been marked by relative stasis. Doing things the way your parents did them has often been a reliable heuristic for zeroing in on good ways of getting by. Indeed, this kind of social learning is actually quite widespread in the animal kingdom for precisely this reason. It allows organisms to home in on solutions to problems rapidly, giving them an advantage over organisms that have to rely on the accumulation of fortuitous mutations to meet adaptive challenges.

Things are different now. Since the dawn of the Enlightenment and the onset of the Industrial Revolution, the rate of social and economic change has been accelerating. We have since discovered that some traditional beliefs – the divine rule of monarchs, the segregation of races, virtually every pre-scientific explanation for natural phenomena – were gravely misplaced. Further still, in our embrace of liberalized commerce and the free and open exchange of ideas, we have unleashed the most powerful and unpredictable force for social change the human species has ever known. Populations are growing larger and larger and more and more densely interconnected, creating the conditions for a nearly continuous long-run acceleration of social and technological change. In this, we are forced to recognize that tradition and liberty cannot be equally sacred. However deeply set, this may be one of the many situations in which our evolutionary priming leaves us ill-suited to deal with modern challenges.

The trick lies in recognizing that there’s nothing implicitly good or bad about traditional ways of doing things. Nor is there anything implicitly good or bad about the new ideas that replace them. Any change should be evaluated in terms of principles external to itself: harm, fairness, proportionality, the alleviation of suffering, the improvement of human life, and so forth. More fundamentally, it should be recognized that the engines of change – free speech, open debate and criticism, the processes of scientific discovery – are precious.

Inevitably, change will sometimes be deleterious. Sometimes we come up with new methods of production that are environmentally devastating and sometimes social change encourages tolerance for behaviors an older generation finds strange or anathema. To my mind, only the former is particularly problematic in any practical or ethical sense, but the larger point is that change happens. Any number of perspectives can be deployed to reveal potential problems with its fruits. But, at least in terms of  the grand sweep of recent history, it has tended to be for the best. Diseases have been cured. Global poverty has decreased. The circle of human rights has expanded. Wars have become less frequent and less costly, both in terms of lives lost and treasure wasted. Our scientific understanding of the natural world has grown.  That’s what we call progress. Its existence should serve as a caution to anyone eager to point to the habits of yesterday as the best guideposts for how to live today.

Your Pug is An Otherworldy Monstrosity and You Should Be Ashamed for Loving It

Now, for your enjoyment, a substantial deviation from routine:

This is an open letter to a friend – a dispatch from heart, if I might be so trite – precipitated by my revulsion at the breathing (is that breathing?) distillation of animal suffering you’ve been keeping in your house.

Allow me to explain.

Look at your pug’s hideous face. Search its bulging eyes. Listen to its labored breathing. This creature is a twisted abomination, a Frankenstein’s monster sculpted to the perverse and decadent tastes of ancient Chinese autocrats, spared from the gaping maw of extinction by dissipated European aristocrats. It’s an obsolete status symbol with a heartbeat, an avatar of depravity.

Consider your love for this malformed beast in light of your lofty social concerns. You are suspicious of genetically modified organisms. Strains of corn tweaked to persevere through droughts or resist pestilence strike fear in the very marrow of your bones. Balking at the moral effrontery of rapacious shareholders and their geneticist lackeys – who dare turn a profit by splicing the genes of innocuous soil bacteria into the sacred genome of corn – you recoil and plead for the intervention of some higher power, be it goddess or government. No one’s been able to point to any demonstrable harm caused by this unholy union of microbes and maize, but it sounds dangerous. Meddling with nature to satisfy human impulses ought to be forbidden.

Yet cradled in the folds of that miniaturized cable-knit sweater is a brachiocephalic horror, wheezing and coughing at the slightest excitement. It can’t thermoregulate properly and its eyes pop too easily from their sockets – inevitable consequences of living with the skull of a spontaneously aborted sheep fetus. Supplement these ills with massively elevated rates of hip dysplasia and parasitic infection, garnish with an erection that slips desperately from its sheath like wilted lipstick at the slimmest hint of affection, and you’ve a recipe for a pug.

These awful afflictions are side effects of a brutal and macabre regimen of selective breeding, primitive genetic engineering tuned to the cruel indulgence of men whose numerous character flaws included an inability to bear the grave absent a coterie of dead slaves. Your pug – a seething hive of malady – is what happens when dangerous recessive genes are deliberately teased from the shadows, carefully cultivated to sate a sadistic predilection toward extravagant showmanship.

And the emperor spoke: “Behold what I have wrought and tremble!”

“Yes, yes,” you say. “The pug is a crystallization of degenerate animal dependency, brought low from its proud canine roots and shackled to the yoke of humanity. But it exists and someone must care for it. I shall take up that mantle.”

Yes, yes indeed. But the pug doesn’t have to exist. Stifle your gasps! I’m not advocating some kind of cold animal genocide – I’m not a monster. I’ve a more subtle suggestion in mind. Think of your distrust of markets, your wise suspicion of those spurious capitalist mantras about the efficiency of free enterprise and the righteousness of the profit motive. Your pinko sympathies are onto something here.

Many a poisonous edifice has been erected and maintained in tribute to the all-mighty dollar. The military-industrial complex, for instance. Or your pug. A chimera of physiological dysfunction, cobbled together from the evolutionary scrap heap, your pug exists because deranged aficionados of arbitrary biological agony have consistently demanded it, beckoning it forth from the depths of history every time a breeder is paid upwards of $900 to extract a new pug from a stagnant, festering puddle of genetic information. You want that wheezing, choking, structurally misshapen parasite magnet and the market – ever indiscriminate – is happy to oblige. Absent the incessant tinkering of the invisible hand, that vacant-eyed monstrosity waddling across your kitchen floor wouldn’t exist.

In summary, allow me to be blunt: your compassion for an animal painstakingly crafted to stimulate revulsion in healthier minds inadvertently increases the quotient of suffering in an already indifferent world. It is the callow human thirst for gratification given form, a ghastly marionette, precariously perched on the perpetual brink of death as a demonstration of human dominion over nature. An emblem of conspicuous consumption with a metabolism

Take a moment to compose yourself. I’m sure this has been tough to read. Few people are likely to be cheered by learning that they bear such a frightening affinity with foregone warlords and the wife of Napoleon Bonaparte. Does that make you basically the same as these vicious tyrants and puerile elites? Who’s to say? But don’t despair. Love your current pug, if you must. Sadly, I fear, you’ve little other choice.

Hold fast and look to the future, friend.   Endure the shame exacted by the eyes of strangers as you tow that diminutive eyesore about the streets. You’re not beyond hope, for you can erase the sins of your history of dissolute self-indulgence by changing your ways.

Here’s how: One day, that designer mutant’s tortured existence will come to an end. When it’s time comes, exercise a bit of self control and don’t replace it with another vile fugitive of Hades. Instead, let the pug join the towering heap of failed forms, forever consigned to the vague reaches of history and the fossil record.

Of course, you’ll still have to satisfy the warped tastes that led you to the pug in the first place. So, the next time you’ve a hankering for the company of some hellish excrescence, charitably bestow your affections on something more humane. Perhaps a naked mole rat or a giant isopod. Maybe even something as pedestrian as a lobster. Think about it – you can satisfy your feral hunger for something hideous with the added assurance that your new friend’s unsavory appearance has been sculpted by the cruel dance of natural selection into a healthy, functional animal. Instead of the product of any ancient despot’s depraved whims, you’ll be steward to a product of good old fashioned biological evolution.

And when it comes to knitting sweaters for naked mole rats, you’ll save a bundle on yarn.