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Knots


Two lovers, forbidden by their families from seeing each other, stood on a featureless hillside beneath the grey, feeling the beginnings of rain spattering on their skin, and waited for the witch.

When she came they felt her as an absence in the wind and noise, a small pocket of calm and silence, draped in wool and rags and black. She listened to their problem, and their wish to be together, and then asked them if they were sure.

Then she handed them a small phial, filled with ground bark and water. “Drink this”, she said. “You will know what to do.”. The man took the glass and held it to the light for the woman to examine it. When they looked down, the witch was gone.

They stayed there on the hill as the wind grew, holding each other fast against it, until in the distance familiar shapes emerged from the fields. They would be found and parted, and that would be an end to the matter.

The man took the woman by the shoulders and she him by his, and as the searchers reached the bottom of the hill they kissed. Brown eyes became brown knots, hair grew into tangles of leaves, skin melded with skin and coarsened to bark, and by the time the first cousin reached the top of the hill all there was left to show they’d been there were the two trunks of a tree, splitting at the roots, wrapped around one another.

Comments Off on Open borders won’t fix declining fertility.

Open borders won’t fix declining fertility.

Global fertility is plummeting, as are sperm counts. The populations of Spain and Japan are set to halve; nearly every country will begin to shrink. Researchers say we will have to totally reorganise society if we are to maintain order through this transition. This is not the introduction to the dystopian thriller ‘Children of Men’; it’s the BBC homepage today.

If you wanted proof of quite how far from normality it’s possible to stray within the bubble, our national broadcaster has decided that “in many ways, falling fertility rates are a success story”; more women in work has led to the self-destruction of society. Hurrah! Better still, it’s great for the environment: “a smaller population would reduce carbon emissions”. So all’s well that ends well.

Well, not quite. We’ll need people to pay tax to cover the health and care bills for a rapidly ageing population, but that’s fine; we can just increase immigration. And if populations are shrinking globally then as Professor Christopher Murray predicts, “we will go from the period where it’s a choice to open borders, or not, to frank competition for migrants”. We’ll just have to compete harder for the few young people out there willing to abandon their ageing parents to care for ours. This might seem morally less than ideal, but who am I to judge?

There are, however, two small flaws in this policy proposal. The first is that we will need massive amounts of immigration to offset the decline in birth rates. This will be available until that decline hits in the countries providing immigrants, at which point we will be left high and dry. We will then find that the core issue of reduced fertility will still need to be addressed.

The second problem is that it is difficult to imagine that such an agenda could be adopted without significant political turmoil. As David Frum writes, “when natives have lots of children of their own, immigrants look like reinforcements. When natives have few children, immigrants look like replacements”. Murray believes that as Africa will be the last continent to reach the transition to declining populations, “we will have many more people of African descent in many more countries”, which will in turn require “global recognition of the challenges around racism”. It’s a noble thought, complicated only slightly by the idea that an explicit policy of replacing the children who would have been born with migrants seems less likely to result in a final rejection of racism than a shift to outright ethnonationalism.

If massive demographic change is likely to be politically unpalatable, heighten existing intergroup tensions, create significant cultural changes, and not actually solve the long run problem, it’s just about possible that it would be better to look at tackling the causes of reduced fertility instead. If we don’t, then eventually there won’t be anyone to care about it anyway.

It’s not as if we face a totally inscrutable and insoluble problem either. The gap between intended and actual fertility — the number of children women want to have and the number of children they actually do have — is growing. In America, it’s reached its highest level in 30 years; women want 2.7 children, but have 1.8. Even in Europe, fertility intentions are safely at replacement level. There would be no problem if women could afford to have the sort of families they want to.

The issue is that they can’t. The reasons young people have fewer children than they wanted in America sounds suspiciously familiar to Europeans; 64% say childcare is too expensive. 49% are worried about the economy. 44% can’t afford more children. 43% waited because of financial instability. 39% didn’t get enough paid family leave, 38% got no paid family leave, 36% struggled with their work life balance, and so on. The top of the distribution was dominated by financial concerns.

There is a sort of blasé liberal response to plummeting fertility that views it as the consequence of women’s freely chosen decisions; liberated from the need to be ‘baby making machines’, they can take control of their own fertility and lead the lives they want to. What seems to be happening in reality is that women have been freed to become GDP making machines, regardless of what they would actually like to do. This is not in any sense to say that ‘women belong at home’ or ‘women shouldn’t work’; it’s saying that we have simply exchanged one restriction on what women can do for another.

In a fundamental clash between the world of work and what humans actually are, it’s inevitable that business interests will look to find a way out of having to change. The constant demand for more immigration is a way to kick the can down the road; 40 hours per week from both sexes on stagnant real wages is a wonderful deal for the bottom line. What’s particularly interesting is that the defence of this deal — one which suits the rich perfectly well — should be so fierce on the part of the left.

Traditionally, the left understood far better than the right that leaving the free market to dictate the terms upon which workers live their lives would result in less than ideal outcomes. We have pretty good evidence that it is the current social and economic order that’s giving rise to these problems. In Korea, poor work life balance, higher educational requirements for employment, and low income are driving delays (which become decreases) in fertility. We can add to those problems the strain within the housing system; higher rents significantly reduce the fertility of those renting. A generation priced out of the stability of homeownership is unlikely to fix a long term decline in fertility. Amusingly, this in turn suggests that short term attempts to plug the gap through migration may actually make the problem worse by propping up house prices.

Getting out of the trap set by the modern economy is not something that an individual can do alone. A small number of employers set a norm of the 40 hour week, which in turn becomes the basis for house prices, which become mortgage payments and rents, which are then locked in contractually. Attempting to find both the time and financial stability to raise a family becomes a distinct challenge. If we’re going to find a lasting solution — and I submit that we probably should want to, if we don’t want an awkward and highly embarrassing extinction event to eternally shame our species — then it will have to be one that everyone can coordinate on. And that in turn will probably require government action.

A recent European Commission evaluation of Hungarian family policy suggests a few obvious ways to pick things up. Employment, subsistence, and housing are the most important factors determining fertility. Making homes affordable to families, making sure that work pays a living wage, offering the option of part-time work or reliable childcare are all ways to start making small differences.

France, meanwhile, has managed to attain something close to replacement. While high fertility among immigrants does add something of a bump to these figures, the main driving force is high fertility among French-born women. French policies – generous parental leave in terms of both pay and time, cash bonuses to larger families, free preschool for children over 3, high availability of part-time work. Oh. And the entitlement for both parents to take 36 months off unpaid (with state support) or part-time to raise their child until they hit that preschool age. Alongside time and money, the availability of childcare seems to be one of the biggest factors determining fertility. France ticks all three boxes.

Finding a way to make the population self-sustaining does not have to be an impossible challenge, or a grand re-ordering of the economic system. Generous (but ultimately fairly small) tweaks to the rules governing employment can make things work for us without the political turmoil of near open borders.

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Free speech is not just about the government.

An open letter expressing a generic defence of free speech was published in Harper’s Magazine last Tuesday. By Wednesday morning, two signatories had been hectored into retracting their support, a third had been reported to their employer, and a broad swathe of the activist ecosystem was busy proving the letter’s point that censorship and shaming, rather than debate, were becoming the default tools of political dialogue on the left.

It’s hard to think of a response which could have better illustrated the need to defend our right to think freely and ask dangerous questions. A healthy political culture requires the freedom to disagree with consensus, no matter that we find the thoughts expressed distasteful.

There are any number of justifications for a stance bordering on free-speech fundamentalism, so I’m going to stick to three. The first is that we accept a possibility, no matter how slight, that we might be wrong. As we are constantly reminded, the moral values of today are not the moral values of the past. People held views with utter conviction that we view as abhorrent; it’s an uncomfortable thought that we almost surely hold views that our descendants will view as equally indefensible. Perhaps the family abolition movement will get their way and children in the future will be raised communally, severing parental connections. Such a society would judge us harshly for upholding a system where your parents could determine so much of your future, while we would view it as barbaric.

If the possibility that we’re wrong exists then we should at least be willing to allow people to discuss alternatives; we may find lacunae in our thinking that would otherwise have gone unexamined.

Given that the root cause of the current problem is an excess of moral confidence, I suspect this argument probably won’t sway many. The second and more persuasive justification is the pragmatic; the tacit understanding that while one side might be in the ascendancy today, it may not be tomorrow. Don’t do to them what you wouldn’t have them do to you. Don’t set up systems you wouldn’t have turned against you. And don’t weaken the idea that suppression of speech signals a bad actor in government. Remember, it is because of the protections granted by free speech that your views were able to enter the mainstream in the first place. It’s not beyond the limits of imagination that in the absence of those freedoms they could someday be suppressed.

The response to this might well be that the far right of the political spectrum is unlikely to uphold its end of this bargain; having entered the political mainstream under the shelter of free speech, it will immediately tear it down when in office. This is entirely true. The kicker is that the pragmatist lets them speak anyway, not because they expect this courtesy to be returned, but because defining those unworthy of the right to speech is the sort of process that can quite rapidly get out of hand.

This brings us to the third and final justification, raised by the signatories to the Harper’s letter: “The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away”. The idea that we can best vanquish fascists or communists through rigorous public analysis is a lovely one, but it probably isn’t true. It may well be more effective from a purely partisan view to suppress such views. This is why dictators don’t generally crush opposition by inviting them onstage for a rigorously moderated debate.

What is almost certainly true is that it is better for the health of democracy to beat your opponents by showing that their ideas are flawed. You secure the greatest possible chance of your right to speak freely when the other side is in power. You ensure that your ideas are tested for weaknesses. You learn something about what people believe. And you may even find that you agree with what they have to say.

If you agree with me that free speech is a desirable goal – and if you don’t, that’s your opinion and I respect your right to express it – then the next logical question is to ask where free speech ends.

This can be interpreted in two ways. The first is ‘which types of speech fall outside of the boundaries of protected freedoms.’ For this, I’m happy to run with the answer given in Brandenburg v. Ohio – speech which is intended to produce immediate illegal action and likely to do so. Preserving public order is priceless. For everything else, there’s libel law.

The second interpretation is ‘where is speech protected, and to what degree’. It is a striking oddity that the idea that anything short of government suppression is legitimate has been so gleefully seized upon by the left as it constitutes a significant transfer of power from workers to employers. Within this framework, companies are free to police the thoughts of those working for them; step out of line and express dissent, and you’re gone. Similarly, social consequences arising out of the coordinated action of online activists – so-called ‘cancel culture’ – should be viewed with apprehension.

Discuss this topic at all online and you will at some point be sent a particularly tedious line cartoon declaring that freedom to speak is not freedom from consequence, a mantra which has been gleefully seized on by the left as conservatives find themselves on the wrong side of cultural change after cultural change. Think things through a step further and it becomes clear that those proposing this standard would never dream of adhering to it if they were to find themselves on the other side of the issue: “If a church congregation threatens a teen with ostracization for supporting gay rights, then they aren’t infringing on their rights to believe as they will; they’re merely showing them the door. If your employer fires you for attending a black lives matter rally, then this isn’t curtailment of your freedom of expression; it’s consequences for your behaviour“.

Freedom of speech is explicitly freedom from consequences to the extent of the protection offered. It’s not enough to focus only on the legal obligation for the government to refrain from interference; we must commit culturally to upholding people’s right to free expression. How free can speech realistically be if the consequence for speaking on the wrong side of an issue is a concerted effort to destroy your life, and one that is increasingly likely to succeed? If the reaction to expressing an unpopular view is activists hunting through every scrap of your life for posts they find offensive to send to employers, friends, and family with accompanying demands that you be cast out from that community, who would run the risk of speaking out against the consensus? These examples do not need to be a guaranteed or even particularly common occurrence to be powerful; organised witch-hunts have a chilling effect that stretches far beyond the individual affected.

If free speech is a meaningful concept then the response to disliked speech cannot be an attempt to unperson an individual through the destruction of their social and economic life. Solving this problem is considerably more challenging than identifying it; the state is not generally in the business of mandating social interaction, and even the end of at-will employment probably wouldn’t stop businesses finding ways to release workers on the wrong end of public opinion. However, it would be a good starting point if we could at least reach consensus on the idea that actively attempting to destroy your ideological opponents is anathema to the deal that underlies our democracy. Tolerance is the basis for a society of this sort, and that means tolerating the presence of people we may detest. That one side is good and the other bad is immaterial; we are bound by the same mutual duties and so long as we fulfil them, we should be free to speak and believe as we will.

That some of those leading the charge against this idea are journalists and academics who earn a living — in their view — by asking questions that are dangerous to the hierarchies of power that they live within is perhaps the strangest part of this whole affair. The idea that the mechanisms they freely endorse would ever be turned against them seems to be a logical step too far; after all, only immoral speech that damages the fabric of society is covered by these rules, and no right-thinking person would ever view articles on the health benefits of pornography or the need to dismantle the nuclear family as falling under such.

It is entirely possible, of course, that caring about freedom of speech is always going to be the cause of the losing side. Free speech is simply a tool one uses to open the door just enough to get ones arguments into the playing field; once your views are in the ascendancy, the game becomes one on shutting the door to changes that might undo your position. I hope that it is not, and that a consensus in support of our freedom to debate and discuss ideas can be found. After all, if it isn’t – I’ll probably get cancelled for this.

Image courtesy of PhillyCAM, used under a Creative Commons Licence.

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Process-oriented politics

One of the traps politics sets for the unwary is the temptation to enter into process-oriented politics. What I mean by this is a politics devoted to upholding the perceived integrity of a particular process rather than devoted to producing a particular outcome. Politics becomes about doing things in the right way rather than getting the right result.

The distinction can be surprisingly subtle and it’s worth drawing it out. Practitioners of process-oriented politics often reason themselves into the mindset over an extended period and with good motivations; a well-defined procedure gives people confidence in a system. It sets the rules of the game clearly so that they know what to expect. So far, so sensible. Where problems begin to arise is when the attitude tips over into one of policing deviation from the principles of the process rather than the actual hard rules of the game. When this snare is sprung, process-oriented people find themselves in the position of accepting outcomes they view as disastrous time and time again so long as the form in which these things are carried out is ‘correct’.

This should not be confused with low discounting utilitarianism, the practice of looking through temporary set-backs to uphold the integrity of a system that you believe will, over the long term, deliver enough victories to offset the short-term defeats. Process-oriented politics values the integrity of a system above the results it actually generates; its proponents will take any number of defeats before they’ll accept a legitimate use of power within a system that they view as being against the principles of its construction.

The problem with this philosophy is that the opponents of the process-oriented generally hold no such qualms, and proceed on these grounds to run rings around them. Proponents of process-oriented politics are left ferociously defending a system that continually delivers the ‘wrong’ result with the hope that in the very long one it might from time to time deliver the right one.

There are two possible responses to realising that you are trapped in this depressing state of affairs, illustrated neatly by two current examples.

The first is the response of British liberals to the uptick in the projected share of the Scottish population who would vote for independence in any future referendum. The ability to grant a second referendum on independence in Scotland belongs to the Westminster parliament. A referendum was granted in 2014, and a result returned. The issue is legally settled for the time being. The SNP, however, would like a do-over. Should a referendum be granted?

The practical answer for a values-oriented unionist is of course ‘no’. But what if you’re worried that the SNP will play off grid, and arrange a non-binding vote of the sort held in Barcelona? Well, the answer is still ‘no’. It would have no legal force, you hold the power here, and you have the ability to be as much as a bastard as you need to be to hold the country together. If a second referendum must be granted in time, then at least hold it at a time and place of your choosing rather than of the Scottish National Party’s.

This line of reasoning is not open to the practitioner of process-oriented politics. There is demand for a referendum, the situation has changed since the first referendum, therefore another vote must be held. In the words of one friend who subscribes to this view, “I’m not willing to push the liberal democratic fabric beyond a certain point to get what I want temporarily“. In other words, in order to uphold what they see as the integrity of the national democratic process, process-oriented unionists are willing to see the total destruction of the Union. Even when the temporary setback would break the system itself, in a question that is effectively about the existence of the nation, defeat must be accepted rather than see the system sullied through engagement with the dark arts of politics.

The alternative approach is illustrated by the ruckus over the future of the conservative legal movement in America. Regardless of what you think about the ends the supporters of the movement chose to pursue, after some thirty years emphasising the virtues of originalism and textualism their response to two sharp setbacks in the last month has reasserted the primacy of ends over process. The original strategy of the movement could be summarised broadly as ‘appoint judges with the right philosophical approach to the law, and the right results will follow’, which resulted in an ever-deepening allegiance to specific methods of legal interpretation. Trust in the process, and participate in it fully in the sure and certain hope of the deliverance of your goals.

The problem for the movement was that it turned out both originalism and textualism were invitations to play word games. Having reasoned themselves into a corner whereby they developed a greater attachment to tools of analysis than to the actual causes they were nominally attempting to further — the process become the cause — they are now looking for new tools to deliver the desired outcomes. Upon realising that the process will deliver the wrong result, they change tactics.

What the conservative legal movement realised — and those still trapped in the process-oriented world did not — is that the alternative to accepting defeat is not to simply destroy the system and start over. Instead, it’s to remember that within the system you work within is a set of restrictions on the tools you can use to deliver your desired results, and one where you are free to change tactics if your current approach doesn’t work.

This tactical freedom is not  an endorsement of continual gamesmanship. There will always be areas in any system of government where a degree of soft consensus is needed — the understanding that although we technically could do something, we won’t — because complete codification of any system flexible enough to realistically handle the demands of government is essentially impossible. There will be a place for norms of behaviour because the alternative is constant rules lawyering, conflict, and unpredictability. There has to be a tacit understanding that judgement will be exercised on both ends.

But when your opponents ignore this, you are under no obligation to fight under Queensbury Rules. If the you offer a once in a generation referendum on independence, and the SNP come back demanding a redo, you are under no obligation to give it to them. If Supreme Court justices freely swap methods of interpretation so long as they can find a legally defensible way to further the cause of liberalism, engaging a ratchet mechanism clearly outside the rules of the system as previously understood, you are under no obligation to meekly accept that this will always occur. You have a choice to make. You can uphold the view that ultimately the process is what matters, or you can get your hands dirty and get the outcomes you want.

Image courtesy of Ged Carroll, used under a Creative Commons Licence.

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Iconoclasm

A rope is tied round the neck and feet of a statue standing on a plinth. Six men standing below heave and pull it to the ground, where it shatters as a riotous crowd smashes windows. Half a century after academics began to publish treatises on the need for deep and lasting change, anger and resentment at injustice and corruption has boiled over. The year is 1566, and the Dutch iconoclasm is in full swing.

The Protestant reformation and its consequences played out over a rather longer period than the riots following the death of George Floyd, but the desire to cleanse the present through the destruction of the past is familiar to a modern audience. As the historian Tom Holland notes, iconoclasm is a common theme wherever people steeped in a Christian heritage experience an upsurge in moral fervour.

Perhaps this is why we find it so discomforting to observe. Not many of the statues falling to the mob are much loved. They sat unheeded over the door to a college or in the centre of a park for decades or centuries. Their quiet removal following a vote would not have attracted international attention. It’s not the loss of the statues themselves so much as what the manner and intent of their removal signals that alarms us.

The defence of vandalism by intellectuals follows predictable lines. Statues are harmful as they celebrate the sins of our forebears before the descendants of the wronged (1). They don’t teach us our history, they merely decorate the public space. They often aren’t even particularly old. In fact, to keep the statues up is to hold history back from happening; is interference not a maintenance of stasis? A man who truly cared for history would simply act and allow others to do so, without thought of preservation.

A man who cares for the future, however, should think twice. Iconoclasm is in one sense an answer to a question about why and how we honour the wishes of the past, the response that the desires of people who are dead and gone cannot override the will of the living. An alternative answer is that we should honour them because in time we will be counted among the ranks of the dead, and the world will be in the hands of those who replace us. Our willingness to work for the betterment of these descendants depends in part on how we believe they will treat our memory.

As I wrote in the Spectator, for those who are motivated to leave bequests or build legacies by the prospect of immortality or fond memory, smashing statues is a sharp reminder that immediate gratification is at least reliable. It is to be expected that the egotist should be concerned with how they are remembered above all else.

For others, it is enough to work for the sake of the people to come. The man who builds a cathedral does so with no hope of seeing it completed because he understands that he occupies a place within a civilisation with both a past and a future; just as those before built for him, he builds for those not yet born. But this altruism still rests on the unspoken assumption that there will be such a continuation; there will be people who think like him in the future to appreciate and benefit from this work, and in doing so justify it. A world that tears down statues, effaces memorials, and decries its ancestors with every shift in values is not one where these incentives are strong. A belief in ancestor worship is simply an extreme manifestation of the understanding that we should be good to our ancestors so that they will be good to us – or rather, so that we will do good for the future.

Part of our motivation to leave a legacy is to give back to a society which made us. A present where we believe we are self-made with a little help from the state is very different to one where we can see tangible evidence of the people who lived, breathed, died, and built the world and culture we live within. The physical, tangible presence of the past is part of this sense of continuity. This link to the past not only motivates a desire to build, it gives it meaning. People without children through no choice of their own can fall into sadness or despair at the thought that their life will end without someone to carry their legacy. How would people respond to a society which systematically erases the elements of its history which stray too far from its present values? How would they live within it?

An understanding of who we were, not just who we are, is essential in creating the narrative of a society as a continued entity that we fit into, and from that narrative a purpose in its replication. The alternative is an endless present with no story more complex than a Manichean division of the past into good and evil, and no future beyond itself.

The alternative to iconoclasm is not stasis. It is a preference for gradual and natural change to sudden discontinuities. From one perspective the latest bout does not signal a new standard of purity for the public sphere, but merely the latest episode in a long tradition. Whenever we create a new people and a new society – from Catholic to Protestant, from empire to multiculturalism – the values and people we celebrate shift accordingly, and the public space is rewritten to reflect the new story we wish to tell.

If this is the case, and the new iconoclasm reflects such a shifting of narrative rather than a desire for purity, then it should still be resisted. One of the things we owe to ourselves is an honest representation of history as it was, not as we might have wished it to be; these were their values, these were what they stood for, no matter that we find them alien or repulsive. We may wish to raise statues of our own or add context, but cleansing the slate is unwise. What we owe to the past is a future, a respectful treatment of our inheritance. And what we owe to the future is its past.

Image courtesy of Mirko Tobias Schafer, used under a Creative Commons Licence.

Comments Off on Epinephrine, Cortisol, Twitter.

Epinephrine, Cortisol, Twitter.

“If I were in that march, and these racist lunatics were waiving [sic] guns at me, I’d like to think I’d rush them and beat their brains in. And I wouldn’t apologize for it for one goddam second” — Jerry Taylor, President of the Niskanen Center (1)

Think about it for a second. Wouldn’t it feel good? Watching Karen get her comeuppance? She doesn’t even know how to hold a gun, she’s acting like it’s a toy, she knows there won’t be any consequences because she’s rich and white and female. Just once you want to see her get what’s fucking coming. It’s fine, you don’t have to feel bad about it. This violence is justified, it’s righteous, a bloodsport without moral qualms.

Anger is an addiction, and it feels really fucking good. I don’t know what the biological mechanisms at play are – whether it’s the adrenaline and the feeling of invincibility, the way the hormone rush plays on the reward circuitry, or something more subtle – but there is an undeniable thrill to it. The blood is up, you are more convinced than ever that you’re right, and these bad faith pieces of shit are lying to your fucking face, you know they are, they’re – ah. And there we go again.

It’s one thing to be angry with friends or family over something minor, but unless they’ve really fucked up then it’s at best an impure hit. You still care about them and there’s that lingering awareness at the back of the brain that you’ll want them around tomorrow. But some jackass online, or a face in a crowd, or the person in a news story who’s just a name and a crime and a mugshot? Yeah, that’ll do.

Go find a news story about a criminal. It doesn’t matter what they’ve done. Littered a beach, killed a puppy, it’s all the same once the circuits kick in. Go find someone who’s disrespected an icon you hold dear, whether the cenotaph or a black lives matters protest sign or it really doesn’t matter what, just go find it, and then read the comments, and watch as the people howl for the transgressor to be ripped limb from limb so they can shower in their blood.

Nuance is a virtue of the offline world, self-control is something that only matters in person. This is a problem when we’re all locked in our houses interacting with each other as ghosts in the machine, sequences of words and letters provoking you, and it’s also a problem when we’re egging on people who actually encounter these scenarios in person or who might just be unstable enough to go out there and act on it. Not everyone has the self-control to indulge in a burst of hatred online, take a deep breath, and then go sit down to dinner.

But then maybe you don’t either. Maybe you like to stew on it. Keep that low buzz, snap at the people who get in your way – people keep fucking getting in your way – at work or at home or in the streets or the pub or wherever. After all, it feels really good. That’s why you click on this stuff. That’s why you bitch and moan and complain about how toxic social media is, then turn around and all but call for the lynching of some fucking TERF or bigot or Nazi or commie who’s disrespecting the flag, or getting lippy with you, or has the fucking nerve to get up in your mentions and disagree.

Political anger is so much cleaner. You know you’re right. You’re sure you’re right. And it’s sweet because you knew this before you got the hit, which just intensifies that sureness. I’m not sure what a discourse that rewards the angriest among us – the people who can best provoke this sensation, or harness it to produce angry screed after angry screed – says about our society, but I’m pretty sure it won’t be improving it.

It’s fine to be angry sometimes. It has a place. Being angry all the time is not good, either for your health, as an indicator of your degree of emotional self-control – you aren’t an animal so don’t act like one – or for the people around you. And plugging yourself into an anger-generator in the form of the news, social media, the cause – those fucking idiots getting in your way, in the way of justice, in the way of – I’m sorry, I slipped there.

It’s a little like the world of the professional activist. Campaigning is a buzz. Campaign junkies hopping from cause to cause to feel that rush of doing something, of changing the world – or at least, telling people what to do – in a way that quietly doing a job, paying taxes, raising children and repainting the front door will never match. As if you can afford to have children anyway – the rent’s far too high for that, but it’s ok. You’ll think about it when you’re older. For now, there’s the cause, and the buzz of doing something righteous.

Being angry gives you that buzz and so much more. And the best part is you’re in the right, and you know you are. And besides, this is healthy, right? Anger is healthy. It’s expressing your emotions. Far better than bottling them up. Express yourself.

Maybe you think I’m mocking you. Some privileged white guy mocking the anger and pain you feel, smirking at his keyboard, fingers curl into fists, muscles tense, heart speeds up–

Ah, yeah. That’s the good stuff.

Image courtesy of cyphunk ., used under a Creative Commons Licence.

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A letter from Salem

The art of crisis PR is saying as little as possible in as many words as you can. The intent is to obfuscate and blur meaning until all that’s left is a vague sense that something is being done (it isn’t) and that great contrition is felt (ditto). In the event that an employee commits an act of wrongthink in public, the ideal statement should contain a sort of bland cruelty, informing the world through its circumlocutions that the individual in question has been fired and made destitute. Pad out your statement with enough language about emotions, self-reflection — the more navel-gazing you can commit to the better as this precludes actual action — and understanding the harm that the unperson did, and you should be home and dry.

The only major issue to be aware of is the need to defend your process, as it is likely that nowhere near enough time will have elapsed for an actual meaningful investigation into the charges. This haste is entirely sensible as under no circumstances would you want to offer an unbiased process which might produce the wrong conclusions, but it should at least be given a paper-thin layer of credibility for the sake of appearances.

This defence can be accomplished in one of two ways. The first is to simply double down on the intertwined concepts of lived experience, believing accusers, and of perceptions of actions mattering more than intent. If this approach is taken then the outcry that triggered the investigation is sufficient proof that the accused is guilty, and everything is brought to a neat and self-contained conclusion. While this method wins plaudits from those who shout loudest, it does have the unfortunate quality of being (for the moment, at least) legally questionable in some regions. In these places, we suggest simply presenting your investigation as a black box. Throw in some statements about your values and principles and high standards, and if at all possible some dark hints that you found something far worse that you are not disclosing out of compassion for the jettisoned individual.

Things are a little more complex if you yourself have become the target of media ire, as you will then of course need to exonerate yourself of charges without being seen to do so. The key is to accept guilt without accepting the consequences that you would insist should apply to someone else. If you have chosen to apologise, then you will need to talk about doing better, understanding the harm you have perpetrated, and so on.

In both cases, the form is well established and much can be gained from reference to a template letter. I therefore present for your convenience such a template, drawn from the archives of Salem town hall (1).

Dear Fellow Pilgrim,

Recent events in our town continue to drive outrage and calls for action from many of our residents. I, too, am struggling to make sense of these incidents that leave me feeling overcome with sorrow. While we don’t have all the answers, your elders in the Church have resolved to use our compassion and our belief to ensure that we are fostering a culture that acknowledges your feelings, your pain, and your concern about the very real presence of the Devil walking among us. 

To help in this fight, we in the Church know that we need to do more to support safety for the community through our actions. It’s clear that we have more work to do to ensure our systems don’t amplify witchcraft. It is no longer enough merely to avoid iniquitous behaviour, or to pay penance for the small transgressions we make; we must ensure that this is an anti-Witch colony. Now more than ever is the time for us all to strengthen our commitment to faith everywhere.

Don’t pretend there’s not a problem in Massachusetts. Don’t turn your back on magic. Don’t accept innocent lives being taken from us — unless they were accused of witchcraft, in which case this is unfortunate but unavoidable collateral damage. Don’t think this doesn’t affect you. Remember always, to be silent is to be complicit in the works of the horned one. We have a platform, and we have a duty to our congregation, families, children, and Church to speak up. It’s time to be part of the change. It’s time to out the evildoer. When you expose a witch, you stop them from becoming a wife, teacher, or councilman, free to spread further corruption in our colony.

This week, we have put these principles into action. Members of our community are held to a high standard and are expected to live up to the values of the Church. When John Proctor fell short of these values, we took action. It is wrong to say that we simply reacted to the accusations levelled against him; we conducted a thorough investigation lasting at least a day before any decision was made.You may also have heard that Proctor was terminated for reading scholarly works; these rumours are wrong, and you should report any malicious spreader of such false witness to your nearest Church official. Remember; our community was founded on the principles of sola fide and strength in unity, and that has not changed. Out of respect for our community and the family of the terminated, we will not be commenting further on this or any other specific case.

With that said, it is unfortunately true that some of those previously set to the fire were subsequently shown to be persons of good character wrongfully accused. While sad, these cases do not negate the good that can, and hopefully will, come from Salem’s newfound determination to root out witchcraft. Given the failure of the harvest in the region, there is little doubt in my mind that the overall thrust of our efforts will be positive.

I realise that these times may seem dark and frightening to to many. You may want nothing more than a return to normalcy, but that desire itself is a sign of privilege, and of weakness; if you are burned by the light, it is because you have been living in darkness.

I know also that I am not innocent in this. It breaks my heart to know the pain I have caused, and I take full responsibility and accountability for my actions. My initial statement that John may not be a witch lacked awareness, compassion, or empathy, and it is to my eternal regret that those words were as hurtful and divisive as they were, or misled people into believing that somehow I am in league with the Enemy. This could not be further from the truth. My opposition to spectral evidence, on the grounds that dreams and visions may bear false witness, was wrong; I understand now that my words lacked respect for the lived experience of survivors. As a harm doer, I felt it important to set out a process that would result in atonement, and through the grace of the Lord salvation. Unfortunately, as no such salvation can be attained through works I will simply have to continue on as though nothing has happened.

Please don’t burn me.

Reverend Cotton Mather

Cover image courtesy of Thomas Hawk, used under a Creative Commons Licence.

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Infohazard

You can’t not read. That’s the trick of it.

Your eyes see ink arranged into the shape of letters, and your brain descrambles the image, assembles the words, and deciphers their meaning without you even having time to think about it. You can’t stop it if you want to. It is entirely unconscious, automatic, always on; the perfect vector for the perfect weapon.

The McCollough effect is a famous optical illusion; look at a set of coloured bars, and then at a black and white version of the same. The colours from the first carry over, infecting the way you see the world.

This weapon does something similar. You’ll find it embedded in a block of text somewhere, scrawled on a wall in spray paint, posted in a forum, forwarded to you in a message. You won’t notice it. You’ll just read it and move on, like you do with so many other snippets of text every day. Pull. Push. Please wait until passengers have left the train to board. Try our shampoo. Try our soap. And somewhere in that mess, the statement, and once you’ve read it, that’s it. It’s in.

Once you’re exposed it starts to work, rebuilding the way you see the world. What was once black and white becomes coloured, and what was coloured becomes black and white. Eventually this process will move beyond the subconscious, but by the time you start to wonder if something’s changed it’s already done its job; everything that follows will feel like your own idea. There will come a moment where you begin to question things you thought you knew. Things you always knew. Up is down, and right is wrong, and shouldn’t you tell people this?

Like any good memetic agent, it spreads itself.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. I haven’t even told you what it’s for yet. All this talk about reframing the world, colouring it in — what does that actually mean?

Well, that would be giving the game away. It won’t work if you notice it.

Image courtesy of AB.Ç, used under a Creative Commons Licence.

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Negative definition

Newspapers across the United States are tying themselves into knots justifying the decision to capitalise ‘Black’ while keeping ‘white’ lowercase. The Chicago Sun-Times provides a useful illustration; its new approach capitalises ‘Black’ and ‘Brown’ but retains ‘white’ in lower case as “a wider descriptor of people of numerous origins”, resulting in the curious conclusion that the Sun-Times believes there is more cultural variation within Europe than there is between South America, Asia, and Africa combined.

The closest we’ve come to an explicit statement of the thought process behind these decisions was in the Associated Press statement that “we are continuing to discuss within the U.S. and internationally whether to capitalize the term white. Considerations are many and include any implications that doing so might have outside the United States”. It doesn’t take a major leap of logic to guess at what those unintended consequences might be.

The current social consensus goes something like this: ‘The majority holds a great deal of political power and will generally make rules to suit it. Some of these rules will heavily disadvantage smaller minority groups. When this happens, we will sometimes be able to rely on the dynamics of public choice to alleviate the problem; policies which confer a small benefit on many and a large cost on a few may cause the few to push back with sufficient force to overturn them. For others, a degree of organised lobbying will be required, with the lobby largely defined by ethnic grouping; identity politics, or a soft ethnocentrism, is a necessary evil in a pluralistic state.

However, these same tools employed by the majority may result in even greater oppression of minority groups. In order for society to function, a gentleman’s agreement is required: the majority decides not to use for itself the tools of ethnocentric rhetoric, and not to pursue its interests as a group, acting instead as individuals. In this way, it will generally get most of what it wants, minority groups will be better treated, and there is no risk of an explicitly hostile majority.’

As Kwame Appiah notes, ‘White’ has often been the manner in which white identitarians refer to themselves. Media organisations may well be nervous of unintentionally validating this view of a unified White people standing in opposition to assorted others, or at least of encouraging white people to view themselves as a homogeneous grouping with defined political interests. In other words, don’t speak into being something you don’t wish to see. Don’t undermine the gentleman’s agreement.

The problem with this logic is that it doesn’t really matter whether you decide to capitalise a word or not, because that’s not what’s going to habituate people to thinking in terms of ethnic interests. The problem is not typographical convention, the problem is the entire framework in which every political issue becomes one to be examined through the lens of identity.

In mathematical logic a set is a collection of objects. We define a set by setting up rules that detail what’s in and what’s out; the set of MPs, for instance, is defined as “everyone elected to Parliament”. But we can also group things together in the negative by reference to another set; looking at its complement. The complement of the set of MPs is everyone who is not an MP.

This holds for rhetoric just as well as it does for mathematical theory; we can recognise when something is defined by its negative. When you define every group other than ‘white’ and enumerate their explicit interests, you end up with a hard-edged definition of what’s left behind regardless, and the question of precisely what interests that group holds. If you want to avoid this, the answer isn’t selective capitalisation; it’s avoiding provoking it into existence through excessive focus on race as a determinant of people’s interests.

Image courtesy of Thomas Hawk, used under a Creative Commons Licence.

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Financing abolition

The debate about the appropriate way to handle the 19th century compensation of slave-owners is likely to rumble on for a while, so I thought it would be useful to put together a quick post pulling together the main facts in the debate: how much was paid to end slavery, when it was paid, who it was paid by, why it was paid, and some of the consequences of these payments.

One of the first things brought up in this sort of conversation is that Britain didn’t finish paying off the debt from compensating slave-owners until 2015. This is one of those things that’s based in truth but abstracts away from quite a lot of complexity.

The money that financed the abolition of slavery was initially borrowed in 1835 (1). These bonds sat in the national debt until 1927, when the government decided to refinance. This process involved buying out old bonds and issuing new ones, which were undated. An undated bond is pretty much what it sounds like: the government makes an interest payment each year until it decides to pay back the sum borrowed (redeem the debt), but has no obligation to actually redeem it on any particular date.

How many of the new bonds were related to debt from the abolition of slavery is a total mystery. When the debt was refinanced, bond owners could choose to redeem bonds rather than convert them, and these decisions weren’t recorded. How much we were paying for the abolition of slavery in 2014 is unknown.

We can however be pretty sure that we weren’t still compensating the descendants of slave-owners. This is partly because bonds can be bought and sold and 180 years is a long time, but mostly because the interest payments on the debt by definition were made (originally) to the people who lent the sum rather than the people who received it. In other words, we would have been paying the descendents of the people who funded abolition (2).

The long duration of repayment wasn’t because the sums involved were so vast. The government didn’t pay off these bonds until 2015 because it wasn’t worth doing. From a net present value standpoint, the payments on these bonds were low relative to current interest rates. When that changed, the government redeemed the bonds, financing this as part of the usual debt sales programme (3).

It’s worth digging into this a little because it’s often used as a rhetorical device in arguments about the degree to which British wealth rests upon slavery (see my Spectator article for a general rebuttal), and in calls for reparations. Understanding the actual numbers involved is useful for keeping these debates grounded in a degree of reality.

There are two sets of numbers usually used to explain why the debt took so long to pay off. The first is the share of the government budget, generally stated that the bill for abolition came to 40% of government spending in 1833. As far as I can tell this is a misconception; the abolition act was passed in 1833, but the loan organised by Nathaniel Rothschild and Moses Montefiore which financed the compensation of slave-owners wasn’t finalised until 1835, with payments beginning in September of that year. In that year, £20 million is equivalent to ~30% of the budget.

It’s also important to understand what this meant in practical terms. At that point in history, the purpose of the budget was to either fund your latest war against France, or pay off the debts from the last one. When you aren’t spending much, any lump sum is a larger share of the total (4).

The graph below shows what proportion of government spending abolition (valued at an addition of £20 million to that year’s spend) would have constituted in each year from 1800 to January of 1854, compared with spending on servicing the government debt. (5).

In cash terms, the sums sound quite large. Prices are ~100 times higher now than they were then, so £20 million in 1835 is worth about £2.5 billion today. Unsurprisingly, people receiving this money invested it and a number of businesses can trace back a line to at least some of the compensation bill. Describing this as a transfer of wealth from the Caribbean to Britain as some have done is a misconception; this was the use of funds raised inside the United Kingdom to effectively buy the liberty of slaves overseas, an internal reallocation rather than an extraction from one region to another. In turn, arguing that compensation payments were a way in which slavery contributed to development is also based on a misunderstanding. Public debt was raised to make these payments,  squeezing out other economic activity (6).

Another figure used from time to time is £20 billion. The earliest variant of this figure I can find is a 2013 reference to a UCL study reaching £16.5 billion, and this includes the interesting term ‘wage values’. If you inflate this figure with the Bank of England’s Composite Average Weekly Earnings series, you’ll reach figures of a similar size.

The problem with this is it’s not really the correct concept. The idea of adjusting for inflation is to give a sum in terms of a constant amount of spending power; £20 million in 1835 buys you £2.5 billion worth of goods today. If you adjust for wages, you’re building in productivity growth. You’re asking something closer to “what would the amount of work needed to earn £20 million in 1835 earn today”, which isn’t quite as useful (7).

Regardless, £2 billion is a lot of money. It’s still a number that needs some context; it’s equivalent to 0.3% of government spending this year, or somewhere in the region of 4% of the final cost of High Speed 2 (£65 billion). Modern government involves large numbers because the economy is so much larger.

It’s worth mentioning at least in passing how this bill was reached. Going back through the records of the debate, there are a number of biting criticisms levelled by abolitionists at the ‘West India interest’, effectively implying that the compensation is far above the income actually lost. It is also worth remembering that the country as a whole generously subsidised these plantations into profitability, leading Adam Smith to describe the colonies as being “to the great body of the people, mere loss instead of profit” — a view later confirmed by economic historians (8).

And this is where we really reach the crux of the matter; whether Britain should have compensated slaveholders. This is not a question about the moral principle of abolishing the institution of slavery, which is entirely clear, but how politicians went about doing it.

Let’s say you’re an abolitionist in Parliament in 1833. Last year the Reform Act finally weakened the West Indian lobby to the point where abolition may now be plausible. Against you, you have a large vested interest that wishes to maintain slavery. As a measure of the political power of the ‘Sugar Interest‘, remember that the viability of the plantations effectively rested on heavy government subsidies in the form of tariffs on competitors, administration, and military protection.

While you feel that “if any persons are entitled to compensation, it is the slaves themselves”, you also know that compensation will probably be a necessary evil if emancipation is to be won; you need the West India lobby to concede, and the Caribbean to comply. The conclusion the abolitionists reached (9) was that this was worth it, even though they may strongly oppose the principle (10). It may even be the case that you have to concede ‘compensation’ far above the actual value of the plantations, and the continuation of forced labour under an ‘apprenticeship’ (11)

None of these things please you. You view them as morally abominable. You speak out against them, but it is also clear that this is the price of compromise in order to abolish slavery today.

Do you take this less than perfect abolition after 18 years of work, or do you keep up the fight until a total victory can be found?

Looking back from the comfort of the 21st century, it’s easy to say that no compensation should have been made; instead of paying, we should simply have mandated release. But that was not the choice that was offered; the question is not “did slave-owners deserve compensation” so much as  “should the abolition movement have waited until a complete victory was available”. To me, the answer is very clearly ‘no’ to both (12).

Conflating these questions may partly be why recent journalism has tended to reject nuance. The criticism of the “whiff of self-congratulation” around British slavery is in a way its own national myth, particularly when it focuses on the outrage of “government bailouts” for slave-owners. The option of waiting was there, but the people of the country were willing to pay in order to get abolition done; to wish that things had been otherwise is almost to indicate a preference for a more extended period of suffering so that we can feel better about the moral purity of the way slavery ended.

And here perhaps it’s worth dwelling for a moment on the contribution of the British public to abolition. The profitability of the colonies in the first place was maintained by placing upon the taxpayer the burden of tariffs, defence, and administration necessary to make the plantations viable. When the time came to abolish them, the taxpayer paid again. At that point in time, the government budget was financed largely through indirect taxation (13), which in turn fell disproportionately on the poorer members of society. In other words, the wealthy benefited from slavery, received compensation for its abolition, and throughout it all the poor paid (14).

Image courtesy of Can Pac Swire, used under a Creative Commons Licence.

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