Death + Taxes + … + n

The quote, attributed to Benjamin Franklin, from a letter to Jean-Baptiste Leroy, is:

“Our new Constitution is now established, and has an appearance that promises permanency; but in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”

This is wrong. Other things are certain too. Take, for instance, the Borg-like capacity of the Culture War to take over and assimilate everything. The optimists among us may say it’s all because there’s an election coming, but there’s always an election coming…

On Friday last week, Katherine Mangu-Ward finished her stint guestblogging for Megan McArdle by plugging this month’s Reason cover story, about a tired and self-indulgent, massive neurosomething venture currently going on at a university near you. Nevertheless, of all the mainstream media takes on Jonathan Haidt’s research, Mangu-Ward’s has been the best. The worst has belonged to Nicholas Kristof, who, ringmaster that he is, actually titled his piece in our nation’s most-esteemed paper of record, “Would You Slap Your Father? If So, You’re a Liberal“.

It just so happens that I’ve participated in several psychological tests on Here’s what I thought back then:

When registering for the site, one must assign himself a political-ideological label, which violates almost every standard of experiment.  Political labels are obviously arbitrary: notice that the word “liberal” in the United States and the United Kingdom have almost exact opposite meanings.  Essentially, the work of the database amounts to correlating arbitrary labels with arbitrary labels and reporting obvious tautologies, such as “conservatives are less likely to embrace change” as scientific results to be published in the New York Times alongside the latest Human Genome Project developments.

The experiments – which range from watching a 6-year-old girl sing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” on Britain’s Got Talent and then rating how “happy”, “fearful”, “jealous”, etc. one feels afterwards to matching appropriate shades of gray from a spectrum to arbitrarily assigned “good”, “bad”, and “neutral” words rendered in shades of gray – are followed by explanations of exactly what the researchers hope to acheive by them and remind me of the scene in Donny Darko where Donny calls Patrick Swayze’s character Jim Cunningham the Antichrist.

Further complicating matters is the fact that there are virtually limitless and unaccounted-for mitigating factors in each experiment: in the “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” clip, Simon Cowell’s scowling face is shown throughout: I kept thinking that Cowell was going to trash the cute, little six-year old girl, so afterwards, I had to rate “fearful”, and “concerned” pretty high or else I’d be misreporting my own results.  Are my results interpreted as “Libertarians are aware of Simon Cowell’s personality and history of candid abuse directed towards any and all contestants,” or “Libertarians hate and fear little girls.”?  Another test subject might be disgusted that Britain’s Got Talent is exploiting six-year-olds.

With the shades of gray experiment, I figured (correctly) that the testers would expect respondents to describe “negative” words like “erase” as darker than they actually appeared (even though white is supposedly the color of death, right psychologists?); I accordingly overcompensated, and my test results were that I consistently described negative words as lighter than they actually were.

As news stories are usually reported, they’re necessarily molded into the familiar shape of the Culture War, making them – despite their pretensions to truth – no more than modern forms of haruspicy (the conventions of which process we are all now intimately familiar with). In the case of the research being reported here, this forcing of disparate aspects of reality into prefabricated political molds has already been done for the media, making remarkably easy to cover and just irresistible despite its absurdity. In other words, the forcing of news stories into two arbitrary camps drives the forcing of reality into two arbitrary camps, and there is a constant positive feedback mechanism that has been in place since Madison warned against factions. So what is there to be done? To me, it just seems like people will always find reasons to justify innate, subconscious dislike or distrust of others while unobtrusively gathering allies: we’re just not programmed for universal peace. And until we as a species realize this and adjust structures accordingly we can’t have nice things.

To wit, another certainty is that we are incapable of learning from history. The oldest and most widely-read books of Western Civilization – the very wisdom of the ancients committed to the written word – are centrally and explicitly concerned with the capacity of war to destroy all aspects of society, and yet we continue our useless interventions in various bombed-out global slums while underplanning for more. And we’ll go on prodding and insulting each other, otherizing each other, and creating simple caricatures of people and groups we dislike until we have new Devils before finally striking out at them with violence. With the violence, we’ll create new and exciting unanticipated problems for ourselves, which we’ll unleash upon the world before just getting used to it and doing the same thing all over again.

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7 thoughts on “Death + Taxes + … + n

  1. Consider for example the prohibition was in essence a part of the culture war, against the cities by the small towns and against immigrants who drank, in particular germans (the largest ethnic group in the country at the time) due to WWI, and that they liked to sit around on sunday afternoons and drink beer. The italians of course drank wine which was as bad. Of course then in another sense the movement to abolish slavery was another round of the culture wars, at least from a southern perspective.

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  2. To wit, another certainty is that we are incapable of learning from history.

    Might I suggest that this post is overly pessimistic, particularly the closing paragraph. Taking a longer view, let’s say several decades to four or five centuries, there’s been quite a bit of learning from history. We haven’t seen a great power war in some time, now there’s a huge debate as to the cause: nuclear weapons, USSR-US bipolarity followed by American unipolarity, or international organizations taming the nasty impulses of the nation-state… Whatever the origins of this absence of great power war, we’re still beneficiaries of the fact that conflicts nowadays take a different shape. I hasten to add, the conflicts that remain with us are still very destructive, many civil wars, internal dislocations, and of course the attendant human misery of refugees and internally displaced persons. Not much progress, very destructive to merely destructive, certainly not progress as fast as untold millions would surely like, but nonetheless some progress.

    As for the culture war, ok, so maybe the weather is good in New York and I’m merely playing Dr. Pangloss to your Dr. Doom here, but for the culture war – well, there is a great deal of cordoning off of conflict. Let’s say we disagree strenuously about the 10 Commandments being in front of court buildings, many people go to court for many years, and in the end there’s a SCOTUS decision. More to and fro as the losers denounce the decision as manifestly misguided/unconstitutional, etc., etc. It seems thems the breaks in democracy – we’re in a constant state of trying to figure out how to live together with people who baffle us. But all in all, the matter has been settled in a fairly civilized fashion. One day the losing party may even get the sweet taste of vindication as a later Court overturns the decision. (Ahem, Bowers v. Hardwick, Lawrence v. Texas – no I’m not a neutral party, I too have a team I’m rooting for.)

    Thankfully, we come to blows less often, and less cataclysmically destructively than we have in the past.

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    • I don’t think the post is too pessimistic. From our perspective, certainly things have improved. Our Western Civilization has unified, more or less, as has the global economy, which to me explains more than any other factor why there aren’t any great power wars and probably will not be for some time if not ever. It’s doubtful that Africa or the Middle East or some other regions have seen a similar level of improvement in the same time period.

      And I’ll definitely agree with you that, say, arguing on blogs or contesting something in functioning, neutral courts are superior outlets for natural expressions of distrust or disagreement than war. However, just looking at the last ten years, we’ve destroyed an entire region – an entire civilization even – and we haven’t really even begun to realize the consequences. Now we’re talking about doubling down by attacking the only remaining power in the region. This needs to be called out for the insanity it is and recognized as a dark part of our nature left over from a time when it may have been material to survival.

      Nevertheless, I think a permanent, long-term solution to the central problem of the creation of Devils is tenuous at best. All we can do really, is try and put some structures in place that keep these forces at bay and be aware of our nature to destroy. Material to this is cultivating a culture of healthy respect for nuanced viewpoints that are not our own and creating proper peaceful avenues to resolve disputes. One thing we have repeatedly done is to systematically underestimate the costs of interventions, and currently, I believe this is the greatest threat to world peace, notwithstanding the fact that 2012 is a much better time to be alive than 1944.

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      • I agree that human development index-level improvements have been skewed towards the West, but even in the regions you mention there’s been development. With respect to identifying an Other, exploiting out-groups for political gain, and generating Devils and the like – I’d say one of the most brilliant stories of the recent past is of course Western Europe and the European Union. Even taking the current euro-crisis for its harms and the undercurrent of resentments (tabloid caricatures of German Nazis and Northern European caricatures of lazy citizens of Portugal/Ireland/Italy/Greece), the realization of durable, positive peace between the powers in Europe is an object lesson in the remarkable progress that is possible.

        I guess I’m still rather hopeful about the international institutions that are relatively new on the world politics scene, the International Criminal Court for instance is approaching its tenth birthday. The UN is approaching 70, but in a state system that’s several hundred years its senior, still a relative newcomer to the scene. The African Union, Asean, OAS haven’t reached anywhere near the heights of the EU, but the prototype holds promise.

        I disagree with your assessment of the past ten years. One of the biggest threats to international peace and security has been authoritarian regimes behaving abominably, in ways that can’t conscientiously be ignored or be shielded under the cover of sovereignty. In assigning responsibility, I blame the dictators imagining they have a license to commit crimes against humanity, to commit gross violations of human rights, and then claim we owe some sort of deference because they happen to be criminals who have the apparatus of a state at their disposal. Those enemies of mankind (hostis humani generis) are justly deposed. Is a peace without certain interventions a peace worth having? Bosnia, Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast, Libya. Is it really even worthy of the name peace?

        Iran is a more complicated story about Non-Proliferation Treaty commitments, a potential nuclear arms race, and the regional balance of power. There is some political opportunism, particularly on the part of hardliners in every country involved, but there are also attempts at delicate diplomacy as each side tries to extract concessions and save face.

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        • I definitely agree that dictatorships are bad, but we’ve made both Iraq and Afghanistan worse by our interventions there. We’re well on the way to doing the same with Yemen and Pakistan. Not to mention that quality of life in the United States has deteriorated as a direct result of our interventions of the past ten years. And that’s my point about underestimating the costs of interventions. I’m going to stick to it.

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  3. I think every culture has a more or less unique manner in which tales are told.
    In contemporary America, we seem to have taken a liking to the Culture War.
    I have no idea why.
    A cloudy day means that the misogynistic sun views women as chattel, hatefully depriving them of necessary vitamin D that they have an inherent absolute right to in order to preserve life itself, while a granny lady with a tube of toothpaste on an airplane means that some freedom-hating swarthy person with a terrible accent is plotting against our freedom, being that thing we used to have before we started trying to track down all these freedom-hating swarthy people, etc.

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