The Il/legitimacy of Whacking Shillelaghs

As a red-blooded American of generations stretching to yore (yes, even to the Mayflower, doubly-so. There is even a genealogy published on the Duke surname entitled Double Cousins, relating that relationship on that boat), it makes my teeth grind to work amongst the descendants of the Loyalists who fled from the Shot Heard ‘Round the World to reside in Canada, in defiance of God’s Will for the manifestation to the world, once and for all, of the inalienable rights of Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. Every Fourth of July (a.k.a., Independence Day), I am reminded by many of my close friends who are Royalists that insurrection is illegitimate, and quoting St. Paul, the Apostle to us Gentiles, sent by Christ himself, ungodly.

And so I quote the Declaration of Independence, pausing especially over each item of the list of grievances against The Tyrant, with the implied question underlying that recitation, “Are you really invoking the Holy Apostle against free people under his God to redress wrongs done by such vile and capricious tyrannical behaviour?” (One uses the English spelling in order to concede rhetorical points [a gambit, I know] toward the end of converting the ungodly; all things to all people, as The Apostle says)

It so happens that the lore of my family includes an explanation for the surname: when the Plantagenets were displaced from their rightful claim to the English throne, my ancestors were likewise disenfranchised of their ancestral lands and exiled. Therefore they took the surname Duke in defiance of the usurper Tudors, murderers and rapscallions all. We fought against the horrible consequences of this regicide, that is, the onset of the House of Hanover, invited to the throne because the Tudors had failed in its kingship so miserably for so long, blaspheming God by invoking His name in laying claim to Divine Right, even more so when they abandoned the One True and Holy Catholic Faith for the expediency of adultery (and other crimes against nature), even while eschewing the important reforms demanded by Luther and his followers.

Thus we fought, in the body of Charles Duke, against George III, under the Fleur-de-lis of the Catholic King of France. For which valor we were rewarded by the Constitutional Congress of the United States with lands stretching from Virginia around the Appalachian Mountains into Western Georgia, which we held, as its merchant pioneers until Sherman’s March to the Sea, when we were again disenfranchised, this time for our sins against humanity (which crime I am ashamed to name here).

Therefore, I have an affinity for the Irish, especially with regard to their identity as ever-pugilistic resisters of the English throne. The House of Hanover merely continued the vice of the House of Tudor, which is conscription of its subjects to fight its unjust and tyrannical wars against the free peoples of the earth. My best pals in the Buffalo region are a group of Irish fellas who play Irish folk music with traditional instruments as the band Crikwater. After listening to some of the more rebellious bardic offerings, and fueled with the delicious elixir made by the good folks at Guinness, one is overcome by the desire to reclaim lost ancestral lands by any means necessary.

When that day comes wherein the Plantagenets are restored to the throne of England and my ancestral lands are restored to me, along with my titles and all the rights and privileges pertaining thereunto, I will reconsider the benefits of monarchy. Until that day, I will, every Fourth of July, aim my bottle rockets (which are illegal in New York State) across the Niagara River at the statue of General Brock (who was killed by a plucky bunch of American drunks who were bored one chilly morning), firing them at his memory and in defiance of the usurper Queen of England.

Kings, pawns, and riflemen

Edmond: We are kings or pawns, a man once said.
Luigi: Who told you this?
Edmond: Napolean Bonaparte.
Luigi: Bonaparte? [laughs] Oh, Zatarra, the stories you tell.

An exchange from one of my favorite movies. In the time of Napolean it was probably true as well, but I don’t think so any more. We now live in a democratic age, where men are much more equal in power than kings and pawns on a chess board. Not fully equal – there will always be some with more influence than others, through their charisma, money, or political acumen – but more equal. At the margin, political equality has improved dramatically. And that’s largely thanks to the mass manufacturing of the gun.

The Colt Manufacturing company once used the slogan “Abe Lincoln may have freed all men, but Sam Colt made them equal”, and as slogans go, it’s an accurate one. The days when a knight in armor and his men at arms could inflict violence at will on unarmed peasants, or when Spartan youths could hunt helots for sport, are long gone. Americans have known this for centuries, which is why gun control laws originally targeted blacks only. A black man with a gun could be employed, but not enslaved.

Some people think that the age of the gun’s equality has come to an end, and that the professionalism, heavy armor, and overwhelming firepower of modern armies make the mere rifle an afterthought. This thinking is wrong. If the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have taught us anything, it’s that defeating a military and defeating an armed people are two very different things. A military can be defeated by smashing its armor and disrupting its supply chain, but a populace armed with weapons as “weak” as rifles and improvised explosives can only be bargained with, killed off in act of genocide, or retreated from. The Sunni tribes in Iraq taught the Americans this, and in turn the Kurds of Kobane taught it to the Sunnis. Truly, political power flows from the barrel of the lowly gun.

For this reason, we should be cautious when comparing our age to previous times and places. What worked in the past, when the common men could be safely ignored, will not work now. From the American and French Revolutions onward, all successful movements have been mass movements. Technology itself has become democratic, and it’s only getting more so.

Samuel Wilson at Euvoluntary Exchange writes about the problems Defense Distributed is having finding a shipping agent for its Ghost Gunner CNC mill (which really is no different from many other CNC mills on the market, but is marketed for its gun-making skills). It’s really a rather silly problem, which Defense Distributed has created for itself by speaking when they should be quiet. And ultimately, it’s a futile gesture by FedEx (afraid of the ATF and FBI, no doubt) to try to prevent the further democratization of gun ownership. The Ghost Gunner is hardly the only CNC mill that can make guns – they all can. The knowledge for making the gun is in the software that anyone can download to their local CNC machine, not in a particular piece of hardware.

Nonetheless I expect to see this pattern play out in many shapes and forms, as government tries to retain even its weak monopoly on force. As software eats the world, it will also eat into the production of arms and weapons. The drones which Noah Smith thinks means the end of democratic violence are in fact even more democratic than the rifle. A 10-year old girl with a laptop and an X-box controller is more the equal of an adult male in the drone pilot game than the infantryman one. Even kids in wheelchairs can do it. At the margin, equality of violence is still increasing. The Gini of death-dealing is going down. And again the American government knows it, which is why drone control laws are already on the books and targeting the hobbyist market (there’s no firmware-enforced no-fly zone in an Air Force Predator drone, I assure you). But this is just as futile as the Ghost Gunner blockade. Firmware without no-fly restrictions is just a download away.

It’s your BATNA too

As an attorney who spends his days drafting and negotiating contracts (I am not a litigator), one thing I have to keep in mind at all times are my and my counterparty’s BATNAs (Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement). I and my counterpart to a negotiation (usually we’re two lawyers) are trying to get the best deal we can for our client, but we are also trying to make sure the other side doesn’t walk away from the table, as the prospect of a deal has become worse for them than no deal at all.

In a sense, I own both BATNAs. I have to, as a matter of professionalism. If my client would prefer a deal, but my counterpart ends up preferring their BATNA, my client loses the deal and gets his own BATNA, even if that makes him worse off. I have to consider that, or I’d be a bad negotiator. I also counsel my clients on this, as a reminder to them to not be too greedy, and instead by creative about finding deals that work for everyone.

That’s why I have zero patience with complaints from Verizon and Comcast about the new Net Neutrality rules promulgated by the FCC. The internet carriers the United States have today had, by global regulatory standards, unprecedented free reign to invest in their networks, manage them for growth, and innovate on services and delivery. A few of them, such as Google Fiber and Chatanooga, TN’s municipal ISP, used it to deliver real value to consumers – but most did not. The majority of American ISP’s wasted that opportunity thoroughly, by taking the maximum amount of profit for the minimum amount of service, while stifling competition at every opportunity. They worked tirelessly to see to it that the people of America preferred their BATNA to a deal. Now the government, as the agent of the people’s will, have chosen that BATNA, and Verizon, Comcast, and the like own that BATNA just as completely as FCC Commissioner Tom Wheeler.

There are no short-cuts here

Most of us who have spent some time online are at least passably familiar with the protocols that allow the Internet to function. HTML and CSS for web pages, SMTP for email, FTP and Bittorrent for files, and so forth. Recently a new protocol has been proposed by Juan Benet called IPFS, which rather grandiosely means InterPlanetary File System.

IPFS can be thought of as using Bittorrent (and a couple other things) to eradicate the distinction between web clients and web servers. Instead of a web client downloading a Wikipedia article from a server owned and operated by Wikipedia, your computer simply asks “Hey, I want this webpage”, and whichever other computer on the network is closest and had the page in cache provides it. Or a swarm of peers on the network each provide parts of it. Web pages, files, and data are all downloaded like a torrent and assembled for viewing and interacting with in the browser.

The above is a very different model from how the client/server model used by the web now, and there are upsides and downsides. One downside is that a publisher loses control of its data as soon as it is released to the IPFS network, just as surely as a musician loses distribution control over a pirated song, and it’s not clear to me how this would would work with websites like Wikipedia that try to stay current through edits. But the upsides include “broken links” being eliminated as long as one peer somewhere on the network has a copy of the file in cache, denial-of-service attacks becoming impossible, and censorship take-downs are very difficult. The internet would be transformed from a transitory web of links to a more permanent archive of data. As long as you know what you want, and someone on the web has it, you can easily get a copy of the original data long after the original publisher has ceased to provide for its existence.

Socially this has upsides and downsides as well. It’s already difficult to remove information from the web once people have it, but data distributed via IPFS would be nearly impossible to remove. That’s probably bad, in situations where someone stole your personal and private information, or spread harmful misinformation. It would also be hard to remedy any cases of libel and slander. And it’s also hard on anyone who makes a living from control over copyrighted works. But the benefits are of course immense, as information will not get lost, web pages won’t die, and maybe Vint Cerf’s concerns will start be mitigated.

Despite these upsides, I suspect that the copyright industries (music, movies, and television in particular) will bring out the heavy guns to fight the deployment of IPFS. The payoffs of IPFS being successful are too asymmetric for it to be otherwise – archival benefits accrue to society, and the loss of control costs accrue to them. In in response to this concern, Juan Benet has given probably the most cogent defense of personal responsibility I have seen from a technology developer:

That’s how the internet works. If people are doing illegal things (like standing up to a totalitarian regime), they take on the risk of repercussion. (We can’t tell a-priori what the information content is reliably).

People shouldn’t accidentally store illegal things they don’t mean to (hence blacklists) but you also don’t want to snuff out freedom of speech of those who understand + are willing to take the risk. The issue is routing access to it is also considered hosting it (dcma takedowns for links on the web).

I think that the best thing is to have the default [Distributed Hash Table] include blacklists that can be updated to handle DMCA requests. Sort of like [the Domain Name System] works today. Definitely something that we’ll have to figure out as time goes on.

Ultimately, it is only our own responsibility to behave virtuously, and distinguish virtue from the law. We cannot rely on technology to a priori know this for us. The world is too messy for that, and ultimately its a judgement call as to whether a particular action should be pursued. Anyone who tells you otherwise is looking for the easy way out and, in their attempts to ban all instances of the illegal, inevitably over-reach and ban much virtue we’d prefer not to live without.

Cowardice, Sausage-Making, and Public-Mindedness

The caller who sicced the cops on Sureshbhai Patel probably didn’t know what the result of his action was going to be. Cowards don’t usually think through the consequences of their chickenshit actions. Instead of taking the time to learn who his neighbors are, risking coming into contact with a stranger, the chickenshit coward decided that the potential of violence, which was realized in this case, was needed in this situation.

How much blame do chickenshit cowards deserve for outsourcing their public mindedness to the state? Where does the arrow of causation point? Is his and many others being chickenshit cowards a reason for the ever more present notion that the only way to deal with suspicious or possibly dangerous behavior is to beg and plead for the agents of the state to intervene, or, simply, a symptom of a general decline and they’re chickenshit cowardice is really just a rational response to a different social and/or legal equilibrium?

It’s easy enough for me to say all of this, of course. I’m just some asshole on the internet. So, how much of this is just internet asshole talk? Would I call the cops because of some skinny black guy I’d never seen before happened to be walking around my neighborhood? Even assuming away that I live in a downtown area of a large city, would I call the cops if I lived in suburbia? Fuck no. I know what cops can do to black people found walking around in white suburbia. But, that’s indicative of a do-no-harm mindset. What do I do though to promote civil society, a civil society that would result in fewer (violent) police-citizen interactions?

I give money to various civil liberties causes and organizations. I record (or, at least, have my phone ready to record) cops when they interact with citizens in dicey situations. I get righteously angry at bad cops doing bad things. While (some of) those are, in my mind, fruitful(even if only by the slimmest of margins), are those just too telescopic? Would I actually go up and chat with a middle-aged Indian man walking around the neighborhood? Maybe. Would I actually talk to my neighbors and invite them over for dinner? Probably not. Would I be willing to trespass to check on an injured child? Fuck no, I know what cops do to brown people found in white people houses.

So, what do I actually accomplish? I don’t rightly know.

I’m probably just a chickenshit coward.

Previous Posts in This Thread:

It’s Better to Regret Something You Have Done Than to Regret Something You Haven’t Done

I recall a February of rain. On the first of the month, the first drops fell. It didn’t let up until March. I idled the whole time warmed by electric heat, entertained by flickering images cast on phosphorous and glass. A full month of rain, and I spent it dry and warm. I used to be annoyed at February. Now it terrifies me.

After the Collapse, after the missiles flew, after the countless billions of lives gently winked out in a brief atomic holler, after the miserable few left over finished their terminal crawl though the radioactive wreckage, it was the ancient tooth and fang of the wild—the gnashing of winter—that hewed to the merciless cull. I’ve been lucky enough to count myself among the fortunate few to escape an icy death at the side of the overgrown highways of this once-mighty nation.

Anyone likely to read this will already know The One Crazy Trick To Surviving The Merciless Embrace Of Unforgiving February, but I’ll share anyway, since I want to relate a tale. The trick is fellowship. There’s a biological imperative to gathering food and fuel to last out the howling winds and piling snow, so unless you’ve lost your elementary animal instincts, you’ve already stocked up for Persephone’s sojourn. The choice then is to spend it alone or with others. I’ve done both, and my new null hypothesis is that loneliness and isolation will kill you just as dead as ice and wind. It might take a little longer, but dead is dead, and better to end it quick than to have to contend with the long yawn of the void at the center of all things first.

So it was that I found myself among a small huddle of pilgrims this shortest of months, braced against the insistent gale, feeding our hearth out of smutty, unseasoned stock. Below the smoke and the gathering creosote we swapped stories of mankind’s broken faith and of how clear-eyed rationalism took hold. One story lingered with me more than the others. Its teller was a wisp of a girl, no more than fifteen, though a life in the bracken heaped years on her thin shoulders that I can’t help believe wouldn’t have set on her in a suburban home, going to high school, gossiping about boys, using telephones. She told an old tale. I’ll let her speak.

Once upon a time, in a kingdom far far away, a princess pricked her finger on an enchanted spindle and the whole castle fell into a deep sleep. The evil sorceress had put a thousand-year curse on the land. Thorns covered the fertile lands and a vicious dragon with jet-black scales and fiery breath so hot it could melt stone guarded the keep.

I held my tongue. As everyone knows, black dragons have acid as their primary breath weapon. Of the chief chromatic dragons, only the reds have fire breath. Still, I know when to interrupt a tale, and this wasn’t the time.

So for hundreds of years, countless princes born of neighboring kingdoms would don their armor, strap a broadsword to their hips, mount their steeds, and ride out to slash through the thorns, slay the fell beast, and rescue the princess from her slumber. One after the other fell dead, slain by the magical thorns that always seemed to go for the eyes first, or burned up in a dragon belch, or sunk in the swamp. For literally HUNDREDS of years this went on, and no prince was ever even able to get past the barbecue.

She meant “barbican.” A barbican is a fortified gatehouse leading into a walled city or castle. “Barbecue” is something we can still get when we hunt the pig and kill the pig and cook the pig. Again, I let it slide.

Then one day, a prince who had been groomed his whole life for the heroic task laid down his shield and broadsword. He took off his armor and unsaddled his trusty steed. When his mother and father the queen and the king asked him why he refused to don the mantle of his birth, he looked them straight in the eye and said, “Your Majesties, for hundreds of years princes from lands near and far have rushed to near certain death to claim the promise of vast riches hidden in that locked-up kingdom. How many more would you see slain? How many more of the fallen must litter that impassible road? Yes, the rewards are great: wealth untold, but the risks are final. Mother, father, if I go I will surely die. If I stay, perhaps I can help our kingdom grow more prosperous, maybe marry modestly, raise a family of my own, tend to the needs of our subjects. Instead of playing at the fantasy of hero, I can be the best I can be here and now.” His parents heard him and never again asked him to take up his arms and armor for a silly suicide mission. And the tormented kingdom encircled by thorns and guarded by a fierce dragon was never again challenged by foolhardy heroes. The castle, the thorns, and the dragon could not defeat the implacable hand of time and it all eventually crumbled to dust, ignored and forgotten.

The longer I wander in this barren land, the more seldom I hear storytellers end their tales with “happily ever after,” but in this case it would have been appropriate. The prince who hung up his arms and armor… he was us. We stopped lying to each other and it led to faith collapsing in our political institutions, yes. But we also stopped lying to ourselves. We stopped lying to ourselves about the limitations of our own abilities. It’s not that we gave up, it’s that we took the brakes off our prudence. There was a what, 75% chance of a business venture failing in the first 5 years of operation? And that’s even if you pour your whole life into it, working yourself ragged with 140 hour workweeks and no vacations the whole time. We stopped grabbing for the brass ring.

And the carousel ground to a halt.

And now we crowd around a sputtering fire telling each other dismal stories to fend off the shadows and the ennui. The entrepreneurs are fertilizer in our rotting orchards. The lies were the system, the lies we told ourselves just as much as the lies we told each other.

Previous posts in this series
The Truth Shall Set You Free
Gentle Death
Aspirational Politics

Related reading
Why People Fail to Recognize Their Own Incompetence (Dunning & al)

Michael Oakeshott, Critical Theorist

Michael Oakeshott is often cast as the representative conservative philosopher. I think this is a mistake, one I blame on Oakeshott himself. Taking Oakeshott and his admirers at their word, Jason took a look at Oakeshott’s version of conservatism and came away wondering what was going on there. The description of conservatism that Oakeshott offers is so broad and generic that, as Jason points out, you could fit just about anyone in there—including Karl Marx.

Most people who encounter Oakeshott do so through his most popular collection, Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays. People like Jason and myself who are more familiar with Hayek are likely to react well to the titular essay. It seems, at first reading, to boil down to something very Hayekian—modern politics is excessively rationalistic and reductionist, but reason is only a tool that works in a context defined by an enormous, non-rational background. By tradition. And Oakeshott even takes a swipe at Hayek; of The Road to Serfdom he remarks “A plan to resist all planning may be better than its opposite, but it belongs to the same style of politics.” More Hayekian than Hayek!

But if you actually read the whole collection (at 600 pages this is a rarity) it slowly becomes evident that something else is going on. The section on Hobbes seems like a contradiction to the sections on rationalism—who is more rationalist than Hobbes? The man gave us the myths of the social contract and the state of nature.

A couple of years ago I finally did read the whole collection, and I was so intrigued that I did some secondary reading. Turns out that Oakeshott came of intellectual age inside the British idealist school, an offshoot of the German idealists. I don’t want to get into all of that and I’m sure I couldn’t do it justice, but suffice to say that pegging Oakeshott as “the conservative with the criticism of rationalism” is not really doing him or his project justice.


Custom and Rhetoric

I think that Oakeshott is best understood as a critical theorist. Only not the sort who believe that they can stand outside of ideology and convention in order to deconstruct those things and make them anew. Oakeshott, like McCloskey (who has read him and references him frequently), understands that you can’t criticize anything unless you’re already inside a community of rhetoric of some sort.

If you want to begin to understand Oakeshott, my advice is to go past the beginning of Rationalism in Politics, which everyone has read, and instead go straight to the back. The last two essays, “The Tower of Babel” and “The Voice of Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind,” are much more representative of what Oakeshott is all about.

The former is not so drastic a deviation from what one would expect from the author of “Rationalism in Politics.” In “The Tower of Babel” he distinguishes between two idealized versions of moral orders, one which unreflectively follows established customs, and one which is self-conscious and critical. He describes the customs-based order as follows:

The current situations of a normal life are met, not by consciously applying to ourselves a rule of behaviour, nor by conduct recognized as the expression of a moral ideal, but by acting in accordance with a certain habit of behaviour. The moral life in this form does not spring from the consciousness of possible alternative ways of behaving and a choice, determined by an opinion, a rule or an ideal, from among these alternatives; conduct is as nearly as possible without reflection. And consequently, most of the current situations of life do not appear as occasions calling for judgment, or as problems requiring solutions; there is no weighing up of alternatives or reflection on consequences, no uncertainty, no battle of scruples. There is, on the occasion, nothing more than the unreflective following of a tradition of conduct in which we have been brought up.

The second order is fundamentally self-conscious.

The second form of the moral life we are to consider may be regarded as in many respects the opposite of the first. In it activity is determined, not by a habit of behaviour, but by the reflective application of a moral criterion. It appears in two common varieties: as the selfconscious pursuit of moral ideals, and as the reflective observance of moral rules.

He continues:

Normally the rule or the ideal is determined first and in the abstract; that is, the first task in constructing an art of behaviour in this form is to express moral aspirations in words-in a rule of life or in a system of abstract ideals. This task of verbal expression need not begin with a moral de omnibus dubitandum; but its aim is not only to set out the desirable ends of conduct, but also to set them out clearly and unambiguously and to reveal their relations to one another.  Secondly, a man who would enjoy this form of the moral life must be certain of his ability to defend these formulated aspirations against criticism. For, having been brought into the open, they will henceforth be liable to attack. His third task will be to translate them into behaviour, to apply them to the current situations of life as they arise. In this form of the moral life, then, action will spring from a judgment concerning the rule or end to be applied and the determination to apply it. The situations of living should, ideally, appear as problems to be solved, for it is only in this form that they will receive the attention they call for. And there will be a resistance to the urgency of action; it will appear more important to have the right moral ideal, than to act.

The essay is not intended to pit each of these styles against the other; instead, Oakeshott believes that each has its strength and the best moral orders are a combination of both. Reason and rationality are not to be done away with entirely because of the inherent superiority of unarticulated knowledge and custom. Rather, reason and critical reflection have their value only when they are properly situated within the much broader context of tradition. The first type of moral order provides flexibility and responsiveness to a far broader range of scenarios; the second type allows for self-conscious reconstruction towards specific ideals that the first order may drift away from over time.

“Rationalism in Politics,” properly understood, is not a screed against reason or rationalism per se, but an argument that we have gone way too far in one direction. Oakeshott implores us to move towards a better balance, to recognize the value of the tacit and the contingent over the articulated and the universal. But notice what he’s doing: the very act of talking about the tacit involves self-consciously constructing an ideal form. Oakeshott could not ask us to get rid of self-consciousness entirely, because the very act of doing so requires that very self-consciousness.

And earlier in the collection, in “Political Education,” Oakeshott spoke of the “ideological style” of politics, which maps perfectly to the self-conscious moral order. Here’s how he describes John Locke, whom he places within the ideological style:

[C]onsider Locke’s Second Treatise of Civil Government, read in America and in France in the eighteenth century as a statement of abstract principles to be put into practice, regarded there as a preface to political activity. But so far from being a preface, it has all the marks of a postscript, and its power to guide derived from its roots in actual political experience. Here, set down in abstract terms, is a brief conspectus of the manner in which Englishmen were accustomed to go about the business of attending to their arrangements-a brilliant abridgment of the political habits of Englishmen.

Ideology—and political philosophy—merely abridge a living tradition, rendering it more accessible and possibly more transmittable. But something is lost in the abridging, and so too—therefore—in the transmission. Nothing beats the real thing, but the real thing takes a very long time to grow, and there’s no guarantee about what a given tradition is going to grow into. This context makes coherent Oakeshott’s partiality for Hobbes, which seems so confusing after just finishing “Rationalism in Politics.” Hobbes, like Locke, is abridging tradition. In his introduction to Leviathan, he says:

Leviathan is a myth. the transposition of an abstract argument into the world of the imagination. In it we are made aware at a glance of the fixed and simple centre of a universe of complex and changing relationships. The argument may not be the better for this transposition, and what it gains in vividness it may pay for in illusion. But it is an accomplishment of art that Hobbes, in the history of political philosophy, shares only with Plato.

Where you really see Oakeshott in his element—and where most of the readers who read the front of the book but not the back are likely to be out of their element, myself included—is in the last essay, “The Voice of Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind.” Of all his essays, it’s the one I feel I have to most to learn from and the hardest time understanding. But my reading, including the supplemental book I mentioned above, is that Oakeshott felt that pragmatists and logical positivists had excessively narrowed the scope of public conversation.

To simplify to an unjust extent, I would summarize Oakeshott’s “voices” as follows:

  • The practical voice is concerned with effectiveness based satisfying the self’s desires.
  • The voice of science is concerned with “the world understood in respect of its independence of our hopes and desires, preferences and ambitions”; with rational systems we construct in the quest to gain that understanding.
  • The voice of poetry, which is concerned with delight and contemplation for its own sake.

But what is the conversation?

What I have called the conversation of mankind is, then, the meeting-place of various modes of imagining; and in this conversation there is, therefore, no voice without an idiom of its own: the voices are not divergences from some ideal, non-idiomatic manner of speaking, they diverge only from one another. Consequently, to specify the idiom of one is to discern how it is distinguished from, and how it is related to the others.

His concern is that poetry has been marginalized despite being an important and enriching part of what makes us human. Moreover, he feels the conversation has become too narrow and too stagnant in general. Now, rereading this essay after having read some McCloskey and discussed Habermas a little with our Sam Hammond, this line jumps out at me:

To rescue the conversation from the bog into which it has fallen and to restore to it some of its lost freedom of movement would require a philosophy more profound than anything I have to offer.

This seems—with my admittedly very limited understanding of it—to be as clear a statement of purpose for critical theory as one could hope for.


Empty Conservatism from Burke on Down

Jason accused Oakeshott’s conservatism of being “empty“. I think this is true, and that Oakeshott’s attempt to appropriate the word was misguided. Oakeshott has a tendency to deconstruct things down to such generic pieces that it takes a lot of building back up to get anywhere meaningful again. For instance, look at how he starts to talk about the voice of poetry:

By ‘poetry’ I mean the activity of making images of a certain kind and moving about among them in a manner appropriate to their character.

OK…and that means what, exactly? In this case, he goes on to build it up into something quite meaningful. In the case of conservatism, Jason’s criticism rings true—you could put just about anyone in there. Not his best work.

In fact this is a problem with many of the thinkers who position themselves as traditionalism, but present tradition as a sort of black box. Edmund Burke is the poster boy for traditionalism, which drives Alasdair MacIntyre crazy because Burke’s substantive positions were in fact exceedingly liberal for his day. He believed in the American republic. He was an advocate of property, trade, and commerce just as much as his contemporary, Adam Smith. All of this was not exactly traditional, even in England. He was very much a man of his moment.

But he spoke of the “general bank and capital of nations and of ages,” meaning tradition, and so he is called a traditionalist. But neither he nor Oakeshott are traditionalists in any more meaningful sense than post-modernists who believe in hermeneutic circles and the like. Burke opposed the French Revolution, and Oakeshott (I assume) voted Tory, and so we don’t tend to lump them in with that lot, who historically have been either Marxist or some watered down post-Marxist. But there really isn’t anything inherently conservative about their “traditionalist” philosophies.

I don’t want to exaggerate the extent to which they can be lumped with your garden variety post-modernist. Oakeshott is much more in the tradition of Protagoras of Abdera than the tradition of Heidegger.

In any case I concede to Jason’s point—which he intended as a barb—that Oakeshott’s take on conservatism doesn’t really leave much behind that anyone would recognize.

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Experimentation and Taboo

We live in a golden age of experimentation. Experimentation in technology, in business models, in ideas, in lifestyles; the long tail of each has grown very long indeed and continues to grow. If Deirdre McCloskey is right, it was the very fact that we were inspired to tinker, that old taboos were beaten back for a time, which is responsible for our present enrichment.

There is no denying, however, that experimentation has risks. Marie Curie ended up giving her life for the knowledge she was willing to acquire first-hand. The sexual revolution forced many to learn hard lessons about sexually transmitted diseases. The 20th century experiments in vast social engineering projects gave us the greatest mass murderers and mass famines in history.

Nassim Taleb is among those who believes that public morality, especially the very old and institutionalized sort, developed as a kind of risk management mechanism. In a nonlinear system, very small changes can make the difference between stability and catastrophe, just as the one last step over the edge of a cliff results in a sudden and drastic change in velocity. By Taleb’s reckoning, taboos develop to warn people away from the proverbial cliffs—cliffs which, in social and biological areas, are not visible to the naked eye the way actual cliffs are.

Some taboos categorically should not be crossed because there really are cliffs on the other side. Others can be approached, and even crossed somewhat, in exchange for a bit of knowledge—a peek into what makes them wise. Still others deserve the progressive’s scorn as mere superstition, perhaps relevant in some earlier era when the topography was different, but either way best done away with.

Here’s the trillion-dollar question: how do you tell which is which?

Take David’s latest musings for example:

On the one hand, on the free market of exchange, we learn very quickly what is prudent and what is not prudent. On the other hand, the expense for learning prudence can be very high for the individuals who become teaching moments for the rest of us, that is, contracting diseases, dying accidentally, unwanted pregnancy, etc., to speak nothing of the vast emotional world opened up in sexual activity.

I see this post as being about the middle scenario—taboos that have to be wrestled with to a certain extent before you can internalize their wisdom.

Virtue itself is like this. All of us have to find it for ourselves, to a greater or lesser extent. This unavoidably involves trial and error in the choices we make and the moral frames we operate within. Trial and error within certain parameters is almost guaranteed to be fruitful. Taboo places bounds on that process, or is supposed to. The middle-type taboos are softer bounds than the more categorical ones.

Softer because breaching them involves risk, but not certain catastrophe. Most people do not travel very far into these boundaries. As David says, some fraction of our fellow travelers into the forests of taboo are damaged by it, taking the scars with them for the rest of their lives, their bad luck serving as “teaching moments” for the rest of us.

Some venture too deep into the forest and are much less likely to come back again.

And yet others become prophets for us, blazing a trail towards real moral or material progress.

But since taboo is what provides the boundaries, it is very hard—perhaps impossible—to tell beforehand who is the prophet and who the fool or madman, who is in the funhouse and who is confronting “the historically given moral ideals of your community” in order to “wrestle with them honestly, without selfishness, in the context” of a life and the lives of those around them. Where should we seek to find wisdom and where are we likely to encounter nothing but trash?

Answering those questions, and making the answers your own, is the responsibility that comes with moral adulthood. The great virtue of an open society is that it allows more people to seek moral adulthood in their own way, a discovery process from which all of us can benefit. The great pitfall is that it leaves us vulnerable to far more cliffs.

Which side of that risk-reward equation you focus on, and whether you see both sides at all, goes a long way towards determining your political and moral predilections.

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Some Seeds Planted Never Bear Fruit

It is the 25th anniversary of the release of Reading, Writing And Arithmetic by The Sundays, one of my favorite records (absence of the Oxford Comma notwithstanding). I will not make the case that it is one of the greatest records ever produced because I am well-aware that I was a tender lad of seventeen years when the record was released, and I had just met a very fair lass who was very tall and lithe and had very straight brown hair. She was also the premier DJ at the local teen dance club, where I was not allowed to go because the roads were too icy but she liked me anyway and we started dating and working together at the YWCA, and oh!

Records were still awesome in 1990, just before digital storage swallowed analog whole, with music still designed and produced for two sides, five songs a side, maybe a sixth on side 2 (I preferred side 2 to side B because B-sides were for singles, and I had consciously rejected pop music for the haute couture of LPs). When I spied the curious black and white cover featuring what looked to be fossils, with the simple print “The Sundays” on it, I bought it, put it on my turntable, and began to participate in the baring of a young woman’s soul for the very first time.

David Gavurin’s austere arpeggio-style guitar accompaniment is reminiscent of early R.E.M. records, but the tones he chooses are a mellow medium for Harriet Wheeler’s pen and ink vocal stylings, which wander up and down, in and out, lighting and darkening things of the female spirit beforehand unknown to me, and it was just in time for help in understanding this fragile little girl whom everyone loved and bounced around and wanted to play their favorite dance song. She’d oblige if it was Throwing Muses or Pet Shop Boys, or, later, Cocteau Twins. You know, all the greats. Yes, I bought all those records, and they are beautiful to me because of her.

I was raised steeped in the ideology that men and women were, except for obvious biological characteristics, indistinguishable in attributes. It was taught to me in school (I swear this is true and not a metaphor) that the differences in the times of the 100-meter dash between men and women were a correlating measurement to the oppression of women. For example, a nation’s women who ran the 100-meter dash one second slower than their men were living in a nation less oppressive than a nation’s women who ran the 100-meter dash two seconds slower than their men. Soon, and very soon, all oppression would be overcome, and women and men would run the 100-meter dash together (cf. G.I. Jane).

To hear Harriet Wheeler plaintively ask me if I know that desire is a terrible thing, the worst she can find, but she relies on hers, framing it as a particularly female experience with “I kicked a boy till he cried,” was liberating. To hear it supported by a man accompanying so attentively was inspiring. This thing men and women have is mostly inexpressible, passionate, wild, and unbridled, which means that we create pain in our midst, and the pain wants expression, adding another layer to the inexpressible fires, till she climaxes.

The thing about vinyl records on a turntable is the ending. “Joy,” right after “My Finest Hour,” is followed by a moment of that wonderful vinyl sound, which is almost indescribable, then a bump, the mechanical wizardry engaging the gears of the turntable, lifting the needle from the turntable to return whence it came, heard aurally through the same speakers as were, moments ago, the rhythms of her joy, surrounding us in warm, vibrant tones. It is a much more satisfying denouement following our climaxing with her in joy than the clanking of a CD changer within a metal box over there on the shelf or the strict digital silence of file storage devices.

Reading, Writing And Arithmetic achieves climax. Unfortunately, the following productions, although good, do not bear the fruit hoped for by the planting of this first record. Who knows why? Sometimes seeds planted do not bear fruit, no matter how magical they are.


Where Two Or Three Are Gathered

Where two or three are gathered together, there is public morality. It was an interesting assertion, which I will hereby declare to be a tacit fact, when, over at Euvoluntary Exchange, Samuel Wilson wrote concerning the amateur practice of BDSM (with relation to 50 Shades of Grey, of course), “…expert spanking advice for consenting adults” [emphasis added].

Our laws have not caught up to our public morality, such as it is. There are still swaths of our society fighting to maintain certain moral institutions, especially those governing human sexuality, but the writing is on the wall. We get it: morality is a social construct, and you can’t impose your morality on me. Never truer words, etc.

Let’s draw some lines, shall we, just to stretch a little bit. Let’s say the age of consent is 25 years old; artificially high, I know, but even so, with respect to sex, are we willing to give over public morality entirely to them who are merely old enough to consent with each other that the exchange which is about to occur between the two or three of them is approaching euvoluntary? In practice, yes, we most certainly are; is it wise to do so? Those who are a little older, and a little worse for the wear, might chafe a little, rubbing some callused sores which might be useful toward the instruction of the young. That is, one might be exchanging enduring personal happiness in the long run for a brief, hot blast of happiness in the moment. Risks, rewards.

On the one hand, on the free market of exchange, we learn very quickly what is prudent and what is not prudent. On the other hand, the expense for learning prudence can be very high for the individuals who become teaching moments for the rest of us, that is, contracting diseases, dying accidentally, unwanted pregnancy, etc., to speak nothing of the vast emotional world opened up in sexual activity.

I’ll make an assertion, then quickly back away from it: public morality, though discriminatory, is intended to be for the public good. I suppose that the overseers of public morality have a habit of not only discriminating against classes of human beings, but also robbing them of dignity in the process of doing so.

Perhaps public morality is best left to private institutions, as long as they are allowed to participate in the agora, calling out wisdom in the marketplace with sweet talk, beckoning market-goers in an invitation to find rest and comfort in age-old wisdom behind their doors, coddled by discipline, instructed by canon toward the goal of long-lasting happiness and bliss.

Otherwise, let freedom spank.