31 October 2020

Avoid engaging with rationalizations

 Rationalisation is infinite; you're not.

The stuff under the rationalisations is simple; it's affirming a hierarchy.  The thing wrong with AOC's photo shoot is that it accords AOC the trappings of status, and the people complaining know that AOC cannot have status, so it's wrong, and will rationalise why it's wrong -- they're not good at thinking clearly about the system they're embedded in -- infinitely.  The real problem is that the hierarchy is not functioning correctly.

The hierarchy, the ability to say what is prescriptively normal and derive social power from control of that definition, is the simple core of everything in authoritarian systems.  It's simple; it copies itself effectively.  That's about all it's got going for it.

This is where the disdain for facts comes from; facts are an understanding of a consistent material world.  You can't have facts as an individual; it requires the ongoing collective effort, it requires falsifiability, and it requires discounting feelings.  (If you've put twenty years of career and life and effort into something, and you've just falsified it, you have to tell people.  That's difficult.  It's not what how you feel about it wants you to do.)  If you accept the utility of facts -- facts are useful, enormously so, but you don't have to accept that -- you oblige yourself to accept that "what does this do?" is a more important question than "How do I feel about this?", which is corrosive to the structures of authority.

Eventually -- it takes generations and centuries, but eventually -- it comes down to a core political conflict over "What does this do?  Do we want that?" versus "How do I feel about this?" as the mechanism for reducing public and personal insecurity.

There is no possibility of coexistence when the decrease of insecurity on one side increases it on the other.  You can disagree about barbeque, sportsball, Abrahamic god, or vi vs emacs and co-exist happily, but you can't finesse increasing insecurity.  This does not and cannot end with getting along.

And, yes, it's a little more complicated than that; mammonism as a construction of authority is particularly awful, the end of the Carbon Binge is excessively dread, and there's a whole lot of collapsing imperial power increasing the insecurity of the great.  But underneath it does all come down to whether we're going to take the collective-determination-of-present-understanding-of-facts approach, or the stable-social-hierarchy-derived-from-an-authoritative-declared-prescriptive-norm approach.

I'm a materialist and pro-facts, if that's not obvious.  I'd think it was, but then again I'd think it was plenty obvious what the relative utility of the two systems of social organisation are based on the outcomes of pandemic public health efforts.


AnnaH said...

I find your writings interesting but difficult to understand. Is there anywhere (any country) in the world where the fact-based system is the rule? When I think about different countries I cannot identify any. It seems to me that most countries (societies) are mammonite but have parts where facts are seen as important.

Graydon said...


Sorry for the difficulty! I do what I can with the neurons I've got, but this is sometimes not so much.

Mammonism is functionally the state religion of the American hegemon; it leads to the idea that the only possibility of personal security is to be rich. (which in turn means that anything you do to become rich is excusable as necessary.) That has now become the idea that there is no legitimate security that does not stem from being rich, and that pretty much destroys any concept of public health.

Like every other hegemon's state religion, mammonism has been exported. The consequence is a dissolution of the public sphere; the only acceptable reason to do something is that it makes money for a specific capitalist, not that it keeps people from dying. (decarbonization not happening, whether for strategic stability or climate change or air pollution makes this clear. So does the general collapse of worker protections over the last forty years has already made this clear, but this is the first real general public health challenge in that time.) It's not universal but it is pervasive so it's usually sufficient to prevent decisive action in a crisis.

That the public health responses are in consequence late and insufficient -- a refusal to spend enough on track-and-trace is very common -- sticks to a mammonite moral principle -- never spend money on people who don't have it -- even knowing you're preferring the corpse pile AND breaking the economy when you do this. Thinking, or at least the thinking of those in power in a mammonite system, can't escape the moral stricture to get to "if you'd been willing to spend on public health you wouldn't have the corpses OR the busted economy", because "public spending is wrong, public spending leads to taxes" gets in the way.

I think you can look at the COVID responses and get something like a first approximation of "not controlled by mammonite thinkers"; the winners look like the Vietnam, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, and New Zealand.

New Zealand is in some senses a spoiler; the rest of that list have disastrous failures of public order in, or just edging out of, living memory. They've got recent industrialisation, constant external threats, and (probably) the East Asian cultural trope of respect for education. It leads to an ability to take collective action for the benefit of the whole.

New Zealand seems to have a combination of widespread agricultural knowledge (and thus respect for contagion) and luck; they got a very capable prime minister who was willing to trade the entire tourist economy for a low death rate and carried the consensus on that point.

The rest have enough industrial capacity and social cohesion to say "right, not doing this" and make it stick. (as do the second-tier success, the PRC and Japan.) Nobody in the notional West is demonstrating the social cohesion or any effective policy; there's active, ongoing, conscious refusal to consider effective policy.

I suspect this must have political consequences, but it's far from clear what those shall prove to be.

Moz said...

New Zealand has a long history of foreign contagion, from introduced pest species to the recent measles epidemic in Samoa. We have a never-ending background noise of "what nasty bug came here today", as attested by many visitors who are shocked at the approach customs take at the border... "phone full of porn, tick. Wad of cash, tick. Way too many cameras, tick. AN APPLE! Sir, come with me right now. Bob, cavity search this idiot". (just a point: do not fuck with New Zealand customs. Just because they're polite and friendly compared to the US does not mean you can get away with anything. They will happily fine you $10,000 and put you on a plane back whence you came).

Then we came straight out of measles being all over the news into Covid. So a lot of kiwis, especially government, were both aware in general terms of biological containment, and specifically primed to think about that in the context of killing 0.25% of Samoa's infants last year. So when China was saying "death rate 1%-5%" in Feb/Mar the kiwi epidemiologists went "holy shit, 1% of everyone is fucking unacceptable" and pushed the big red button. The similarly primed politicians went "FUUUUUUUCCCKKK!!!!" and had what were no doubt some very intense meetings.

Aotearoa also has a more civil politics than many countries, and a history of listening to reason. We have referendums that are often civil arguments (recently the cannabis and euthanasia ones), and fact-based at least compared to other countries. And the whole "Saint Jacinda is completely the opposite of Trump" played into that. Her being all reasonable and concerned while at the exact same time Trump was "whatever, it's just the flu" when a good chunk of the country was already saying "whatever he says, the opposite is true"... helped.

Graydon said...

Permit me to find it interesting that you're describing a response with quantified thresholds in it.

That matters; how you feel about it doesn't. Lots of folks out there who can't cope with the notion that how they feel about things is irrelevant.

(The net effect of the media malignancy has been to give huge swathes of the population the attitudes of Ancien Régime aristocrats, that nothing has significance except their opinion. This is not a factually well-supported position to be holding, but it feels like status.)

Moz said...

I kind of disagree because I don't think there's any "unless it's 80% likely to kill more than 0.3%" type analysis, but agree with your underlying point that the kiwi government relied on fact-based analysis and lots of scientific input (granting for the moment that even economists can use scientific approaches at times).

I think there's a clear causal relationship between "willingness to rely on the science" vs "death rate" when you compare different countries.

One of the more fascinating areas is responses in Africa. For all that it's a continent full of poverty and broken governments, most countries took solidly scientific approaches and it seems to have worked. A relatively youthful population helped, but so did explaining to people "we don't have the resources to deal with an epidemic, we have to stop it before that happens". Viz: you don't have to be a rich white country to beat it.