Sunday, February 20, 2022


I am currently going through another rethink on what to read and discuss on this blog. In the absence of any feedback, I am inclined to just do what I feel like doing. The main problem that I've encountered is finding a type of writing that doesn't become tiresome after a few years. I was already tired of fiction when I began this blog, and I have resigned myself to just dabbling in it occasionally. On the whole, I've had greater success with nonfiction, but while I have hardly exhausted the field, it is still difficult to find good writing in it. The main lesson for me is that if something is a bestseller, the chances of my liking it are nearly zero. I think I've had above-average success with biographies, but have already reached a point where there are few remaining biographical candidates who might interest me. I was stretching it to read about Diderot and Voltaire, and, at the moment, I'm drawing a blank about whose biography I might read next. I considered E.O. Wilson, who died recently, but decided against it. Prior to starting this blog, I read biographies of George Eliot, Mary Wollstonecraft and D.H. Lawrence, which I found informative, but I don't want to return to them. I have considered reading more memoirs, but so far I have found them to be more problematic than biographies. Most people lack the ability to write objectively about themselves, and, in my experience, a good biography usually provides a fuller and more accurate picture of a person – if the author is competent. For example, I now think that I understand Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Charles Darwin and Bertrand Russell far better than I would have if I had relied exclusively on their autobiographies. Also, after reading parts of Simone de Beauvoir's memoirs, I think that she started out extremely well with Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, but that her later memoirs declined significantly. In particular, she needed an impartial biographer to analyze the complexities of her later life. Her explanations of her adult relationships are extremely lacking, in my opinion. To my knowledge, a good biography of her doesn't exist, or I would read that. 

Speaking of biographies, I should mention that I don't read them the same way that many people do. I am not inclined to hero-worship, and I try to imagine what it would be like to be that person or to know him or her intimately. The circumstances of a person's life are evanescent, and it may therefore be pointless to attempt to emulate someone else, especially if they lived in a different era or on a different continent. What I usually notice is the opposite of a "destined for greatness" narrative, because many factors completely beyond the control of an individual determine the actual course of their life. You can see this in every biography that I've read, though it is more conspicuous in some cases than in others. Charles Darwin in particular might have had a completely different life. As I said, under slightly different circumstances, we might now be talking about Wallaceism instead of Darwinism. Although both Wallace and Darwin were quite able, Darwin's social standing gave him a significant advantage: without it, he may never have attended college, sailed on the Beagle or conducted any scientific research. Darwin was also extremely shy, and if he had never found others to perform the extroverted requirements of his career, Thomas Henry Huxley in particular, he could easily have languished in obscurity. While it is true that Darwin had considerable motivation not to be seen as a failure, which was probably due to his father's low opinion of his abilities, it seems very doubtful that he would have succeeded if he had grown up under Wallace's circumstances.

After reading several long books, shorter ones are beginning to look more attractive to me. I thought that Born Knowing: Imprinting and the Origins of Knowledge was very good, and would like to find more books like that. However, in order to locate that one, I had to rummage through several university press websites, which is a haphazard process. I've decided to resubscribe to The Times Literary Supplement, which, though it may not end up being useful, covers a very wide range of topics. I currently have a temporary subscription to the online New York Review of Books, which I don't intend to renew, since I still don't find their articles interesting or like many of their writers. In the current issue, they have articles by Paul Krugman and Martha Nussbaum, two writers whom I prefer to avoid. In any case, I will be trying to read slightly academic essays and short books instead of long biographies, such as Ray Monk's biography of Bertrand Russell, which took over six months to complete and probably brought my readers to tears in more ways than one. It is possible that more biographies, novels and poems will pop up here, but perhaps not often. If you have any preferences or recommendations, feel free to communicate them to me.

Sunday, February 13, 2022

Anarchic Trends in Political Evolution

When I began this blog eight years ago, the impetus was my frustration with online publications and Internet discussion generally. I had noticed that American intellectuals had no influence on domestic or international policy and had merely been scribbling away during the War in Afghanistan, the Iraq War and the Tea Party movement without solving any problems and, quite rightly, being ignored. Since then, with the election of Donald Trump in 2016, the Capitol attack of 2021and the anti-vax movement of today, a much broader failure of traditional media is evident. Not only are American intellectuals irrelevant, but so are most newspapers, magazines and television news programs. This turn of events in the U.S., Canada and much of Europe is making the political order seem more unstable than it has been in decades.

As I've often said, it is appalling that Donald Trump was elected president. Of course, this was merely symptomatic of deeper social ills which have since then more clearly manifested themselves. First, it was greedy small business owners and disenfranchised blue-collar workers, and now it's also truck drivers and poorly-educated people in general. It has been dispiriting to observe the stodgy, pro-business Republican Party of 1950 evolve into an unhinged far-right organization that openly suppresses the democratic process and is supporting dishonest opportunists in order to gain political power. To be clear, I am not primarily in favor of democracy, and my preference is for rational laws based on the concepts of equality, human wellbeing and the preservation of the environment, along with the impartial enforcement of these laws. At heart, I'm a law-and-order advocate, and to me it is simply a matter of having the right laws and enforcing them. Currently, in the U.S. we are witnessing both the absence of necessary laws and a reduced emphasis on supporting the public good.

I am almost old enough to remember the privations that people suffered in England during and after World War II. When there were food shortages, people accepted rationing and grew their own vegetables when possible, without making a fuss. In the U.S. during the Great Depression, people met with privations far more severe than they have in recent years, and there was little sign of a revolt. This has caused me to think of modern Westerners as whiny spoiled brats. The phenomenon is currently showing up in the anti-vax movement. It is difficult for me to imagine a convincing justification for their actions. We have a situation in which a pandemic is killing people and adversely affecting world economies, and people are facing greater economic hardship. There are free vaccines that have been proven effective and are available to everyone. The anti-vaxers are both encouraging the spread of the coronavirus and disrupting their economies, and they are not offering an intelligible rationale for their behavior. In my view, the anti-vaxers who riot and block bridges ought to be arrested, because they are acting against the public interest without any mitigating circumstances.

Actually, in a sense I am an advocate of totalitarian regimes, and, for me, we are going through an interesting period in which we have an opportunity to compare and assess the efficacy of both totalitarian and democratic regimes. In the West, I think that the Internet, along with ineffectual political leadership, have already seriously damaged a system that was once capable of sustaining and protecting the inhabitants. The Internet itself is rather innocuous, and the difficulties that it has created result mainly from the fact that it transmits multiple ideologies and worldviews, which have not been filtered or edited, resulting in a large assortment of incompatible worldviews within the population of each country. When you consider that humans are fundamentally irrational, this is a perfect scenario for the breakdown of society into cult-like groups which understand neither themselves nor other groups and may even inhabit fantasy worlds (see "Pizzagate"). The existing totalitarian regimes now have a significant advantage if they can both sidestep democratic processes and filter alternate worldviews from their Internet services, while also meeting the needs of their citizens.

Although I'm obviously not an expert on Russia, I don't think that its political model is sustainable. Vladimir Putin is essentially a dictator backed up by a powerful group of oligarchs. Russia's economy is not diverse compared to that of Europe, which means that it can never generate comparable wealth. Add to this the fact that Putin and the oligarchs are probably hoarding much of the wealth, and that the Internet also works against them, Putin's days seem numbered. At the moment, he is reflexively bullying his neighbors because of political weakness in both Europe and the U.S., but he has no discernible end game and no suitable replacement for himself. If he doesn't trigger a nuclear war, history will see him as an insignificant Cold War carryover.

I am also not a sinologist, but I think that the outcome in China will be far more consequential. Xi Jinping resembles a dictator, but he is operating in a political system that is quite different from that of Russia. If he is corrupt at all, it is at a much lower level than that of Vladimir Putin. He has also led a campaign to root out corruption. As I said earlier, I don't think that Western individualism ever caught on in China, and it is possible that Xi is actually working for the good of the people. Westerners collectively get upset about China's treatment of the Uyghurs, but Xi's strategy for dealing with them may be justifiable. In China "the people" is a meaningful concept, unlike the U.S., where it has never been more than part of convenient political slogans. I'll allow that Xi and his government may be overreacting to the problems that Islamic groups have caused elsewhere over the last few decades. In any case, the main advantage of totalitarian regimes is that they can use brute force and take immediate actions to correct perceived risks. The question is whether an action is appropriate and whether it entails corruption of any kind. My view is that "the people" are paramount, and that it is the duty of the government to protect them, even when that requires the curtailment of a minority group. Also, I might note that the Uyghurs as a group are not universally discriminated against in China; we know a Chinese Uyghur who is a student at Middlebury College and whose father is a successful executive in the oil industry. 

My impression of China is that it is more amenable to a cooperative mindset than most Western countries. This is partly the result of ancient social conditioning and partly the result of exposure to decades of communist propaganda. As in the West, China is vulnerable to ideological intrusions from the Internet, but there is little sign, except in Hong Kong, that protest is widespread. The potential problem for Xi Jinping would be to make missteps that cause dissent in pockets of Chinese society. At this stage, protest is hardly evident, and Xi could be given credit for controlling the COVID-19 outbreak better than any Western country. If Xi is also able to maintain economic stability over the next few years, he could become more respected than any Western leaders have been since World War II. I am a little suspicious of his current alliance with Vladimir Putin, but it is possible that it is merely a case of short-term political expediency. As a new phase in my interest in governance by artificial general intelligence, I am imagining Xi as a robot that is controlled by AGI and becomes the world leader without anyone suspecting that it isn't human.

Regardless of my speculations on China, I think that the political situation in the West is beginning to look dire. Political leaders here are increasingly forced to solicit campaign money from corporations, which don't generally act in the public interest, while at the same time soliciting votes from an uninformed public that is being barraged with misinformation. It is possible that Western governments will address the divisive effects of the Internet, but it seems unlikely that that will occur soon, because, in the U.S., Congress currently can barely even agree to continue funding the government. 

Sunday, February 6, 2022


We're having a more normal Vermont winter this year, which is what I prefer. If there isn't at least a foot of snow on the ground and the temperature never hits -20, something feels wrong. The only problem is that, with COVID-19, you get sort of a double-cabin-fever effect. Fortunately, we are able to socialize a little and had someone over for dinner last night. COVID is declining rapidly here, and it looks as if this spring will be similar to last spring, with activities widening again. The winter is a problem for William, though. He doesn't spend much time outdoors hunting when the snow is deep and, because he is wilder than most cats, he gets restless indoors. He doesn't lounge around, look at birds through the window or play with cat toys. He eats too much and gets fat. The first winter that we had him, he was incautious and spent so much time outdoors that his ears froze, but now he is more careful. He has to be locked in the basement for much of the day because he can be a real pest. I've cleared away the snow from his cat exit, and he goes out on his own when he likes. I don't think he's caught a mouse since November or December, whereas he often catches two or three a day during the summer. They are still out there, and you can see their tracks in the snow.

Over the last few winters I've usually had longer books to read. Now that I'm finished with Voltaire, I'm also getting tired of the Enlightenment. When you look closely at the past, you can clearly see how historians have oversimplified and idealized it: they like to create national myths with heroic figures and, especially in the U.S., to congratulate their forebears on their wisdom. A more thorough investigation usually indicates that there was actually little wisdom to be found, and, if there was any, it may already have been forgotten. This is why I have always found it difficult to take historians seriously. The French Revolution occurred not because the philosophes enlightened the public, but because the monarchy and the Catholic Church governed very poorly. The problem of poor governance has never been solved, and many of the same risks exist today. While the separation of church and state is still technically holding up in some countries, if you broaden the definition of "church" to "baseless ideology," practically nothing has changed in three hundred years. France was like a medieval kingdom until 1789, and, though I often prefer French culture to English culture, at least the English were able to remove both the monarchy and the church with less violence. What we are witnessing now are overpopulation, climate change and increased wealth inequality, and, among the competing ideologies, there is no frontrunner. There are still monarchies, theocracies, dictatorships and oligarchies, and although some of the democracies are wealthy, wealth inequality is causing political instability. I find it embarrassing to live in a country led by an inarticulate Catholic president, with a demonstrably corrupt and incompetent figure dominating the other major political party. If this were a rational country, presidents would never attend church services and Donald Trump would be in jail. Meanwhile, the masters of the universe in high-tech industries are either getting divorces, making ridiculous plans to colonize Mars or creating products for consumers to live in fantasy worlds full-time.

I have some books on hand to read, but at the moment most of them don't appeal to me. I just started on The Collected Stories of Katherine Mansfield, because I still like her writing a lot. This book includes The Garden Party and Other Stories, which I read and discussed earlier, and I may discuss other stories after I've read them.