Seriously? Yes. Seriously.

— There's a peculiar but interesting interview with Charles Murray in one of the reader reviews of his new book Human Accomplishment. [Scroll down to the Steve Sailer review.]

Here's the concluding exchange:

Q. You found that per capita levels of accomplishment tended to decline from 1850 to 1950. Would you care to speculate on post-1950 trends?

A. I think that the number of novels, songs, and paintings done since 1950 that anyone will still care about 200 years from now is somewhere in the vicinity of zero. Not exactly zero, but close. I find a good way to make this point is to ask anyone who disagrees with me to name a work that will survive — and then ask, “Seriously?” Very few works indeed can defend themselves against the “Seriously?” question.

Ah, nothing like the Scientific Method!

A more interesting, albeit unanswerable, question would be: What works would a cultured person in 1800 cite as likely to last 200 years? And then the followup: Would he have been right?

Murray's question tests the resoluteness of his challenger, not the correctness of the challenger's judgment. (Tyler, I believe, is prepared to say “seriously” of Eminem, and much else.) The difficulty here is that we have to learn how to appreciate great new works. So greatness isn't obvious to us. Greatness can and does pass unnoticed beneath our noses. When we are too close in time to a work of art, it's hard to separate it from the nexus of lesser works it references, or from its relationship to momentarily salient, but ultimately transient, matters of fashion. A work's political, cultural and technical significance at the time of authorship can overshadow deeper and more lasting themes. So who knows what, exactly? I don't. But I'd put solid money on there being something from our time two centuries hence.

And, after all, what does Murray mean by survive? It's all digital. It will all survive. Thirty seven people in 2203 will listen to Kylie Minogue and love it.

Seniors of the World Unite!

— I 'm endlessly amused by this passage from Terry Eagleton's new book, After Theory. (Taken from this spiked-online review.)

There is far too much change around, not too little. Whole ways of life are wiped out almost overnight. Men and women must scramble frantically to acquire new skills or be thrown on the scrapheap. Technology becomes monstrous in its infancy and monstrously swollen corporations threaten to implode. All that is solid – banks, pension schemes, anti-arms treaties, obese newspaper magnates – melts into air. Human identities are shucked off, tried on for size, tilted at a roguish angle and flamboyantly paraded along the catwalks of social life. In the midst of this perpetual agitation, one sound middle-aged reason for being a socialist is to take a breather.

Eagleton clearly avows what's been long apparent: socialism is conservative philosophy for retirees. Socialism has always hidden within its breast a longing for stasis. What happens after the revolution? Nothing, really. It's not a new thought, but its worth revisting the observation that socialism, in its extreme and adamant forms, is a vulgarly secularized Christianity. Socialist salvation is no less boring than Christian salvation. Heaven, whether among clouds and sunbeams, or straddling the rolling Volga, is a paradise of monotony. In the Sunday morning version, it's all harp all the time as we gaze lovingly for eternity upon the creator's unfathomable visage. In the Red version, we're loosed from the chains of want, and free to amuse ourselves with dilettante pursuits, now painting landscapes, now sharpening our backhand, etc., not unlike residents of a money-drenched assisted living facility in Boca Raton. The problem with capitalism is that it's… tiring. After Theory, there is, what? Golf?

Civics Lesson

— Nice little piece on the The Bizarre Math of Elections by physicist Richard Muller.

I think high school kids all ought to learn a bit of social choice theory in high school civics class. Sure, in some sense knowing the truth about democracy can make us a little cynical, but the cynicism is simply a reaction to massively unreasonable expectations created by Rousseauvian myths about the general will. We should know how the electoral rules of the game make some outcomes more likely, and other outcomes–outcomes we might very much like to see–impossible. A lot turns on how we choose the rules of elections. But we have to choose some rules. It's a bit of a paradox is that in order to get the best rules for democratic choice, those rules probably have to be chosen non-democratically.

Cold Snap Hits Hell

— Maybe it was a slow day. Nevertheless, I was stunned and delighted by the efficiency of the District of Columbia Department of Motor Vehicles. I stopped in to get a DC driver's license, and, get this, my number was called BEFORE I COULD FINISH FILLING OUT THE FORM! Then the photo guy called my name AS SOON AS I SAT DOWN. I think I waited a total of 45 seconds, surely a record.

Then, I went to get my emissions inspection. Again, I DID NOT WAIT (although Half St. SW is sort of hard to find.) It was done in maybe five minutes. I got my clean bill of automotive health, the sticker on my window, a pat on the ass, and I was on my way.

Here's to you Washington, D.C. Department of Motor Vehicles!

God is Dead, but Don't Tell the Neighbors

— Shadia Drury, Straussian bete noir, is wonderfully articulate in this interview with Danny Postel at OpenDemocray. Although my Straussian friends have tried to disabuse me of this opinion, I think Drury and Laurence Lampert are right about what Strauss's philosophy really amounts to. I always try to communicate that the nice thing about the Nietzschean-God-is-dead-everything-is-permitted- but-don't-tell-the-hoi-polloi interpretation of Strauss is that, although it makes him sound a bit diabolical, it also makes him sound smart! I think this is really interesting position, and has much more truth in it than the norm-saturated-nature-higher-human-dignity-natural-right-blah-blah interpretation. I think the former is a position that the naturalist liberal had better take seriously, and should really try to engage.

I think there may in fact be an important grain of truth in noble lie doctrines, and I'll try to explain why if I get a spare moment this weekend.

Just So Stories and the Future of All we as Americans Hold Dear

— The lord knows I love Julian. And I loved his piece in Reason on the libertarian case for Dean (or whoever the electable Dem is). It's a good argument. Maybe I'll vote for Dean!

Early on in the essay, while farting in Virginia's general direction, Julian speaks of the dichotomizing tribalism saturating political discourse. “You pick your team and root for it, come hell or high water!” Woo hoo! This sort of autopilot gang devotion is beneath the underside of the bottom of contempt for those of us who occupy the clean cool air beyond the reaches of mere ideology. Because he's a man, and not the robot-puppet of the package-dealing propaganda masters, Julian just won't have it. He is not only able to vote for a Democrat, but, despite the short but undistinguished libertarian alliance with Republicans, he is WILLING to actually do it! I heartily applaud his independence of mind.

Now, Julian's argument is almost totally innocent of a certain bad thing, but there was a bit of the taint there, and every time I catch a whiff, I get worried that political commentary is just a very weird form of improvisational sport and not really, you know, serious. Horse race political argument is all like this:

If Dumbledore is elected, then the Grand Parliament will pin him to a hammock, thereby defusing his tendencies toward genocide. If Puffnstuff is elected, the Parliament will root wildly as he authorizes the jackbooted thugs to defile the sacred burial ground. So we should favor Dumbledore and a divided government. Unless Gewurztraminer gets in the race, in which case Puffnstuff doesn't stand a chance in the primaries, Dumbledore will be razed in the general election, and we'll be helpless to avoid collusion between the government and Big Hair in their bid to nationalize the cosmetology industry. Etc., etc., etc….

I'm not complaining. I love just-so stories not only as much as but MORE THAN, the next boy. (The next boy is Nick. Hi Nick!) But as a basis for making an actual realworld decision, it's sort of silly, isn't it? I had no idea Bush would cultivate the regulatory state like a prize pumpkin. And NO ONE ON THIS BLESSED ORB (other than those involved) foresaw the grisly events of September 11, 2001. A fortiori no one foresaw the Patriot Act, the dread ascendancy of Dark Lord Ashcroft, and so forth.

But 9/11's just an instance of a general principle. Huge amounts of bad policy get enacted because some unpredictable event, big or little, rejiggers fickle public sentiment for a month or so. And that's rejiggering enough to open a window of opportunity big enough for some interest group to jump through. It's well nigh impossible to tell what's going to agitate the zeitgeist, which interest group or coalition will leap, how the press will spin it, how the executive will react, and how that reaction will interact with the legislature. Sure, we can ASK candidates what they'd do under various contingencies. But we'll never think of the contingency that turns out to matter most.

Telling the future is hard enough. But its even harder than that because POLITICIANS LIE! They don't always tell us what they really think. They tell us what they think we want them to think. And even if they tell us what they think, that doesn't tell us what they'll do. Why not? Because like all of us, politicians don't quite know what they're going to do until they actually have to do it. And the circumstances under which they actually have to do it inevitably turn out to be damn different from the scenario they had imagined, and they'll be swayed by considerations that just didn't occur to them while running their little offline imaginative simulation of “what I would do if terrorists attacked us” or whatever. When we actually decide, we're hot. But when we're cool, we think we'll always be cool, even when the heat is on. So we mispredict our own behavior. So Dumbeldore's confident proclamation of his plan of action is likely to be worth less than the vibrations in the air that it's not written on.

So what am I saying? That NOTHING MATTERS!? No! If I thought our proud citizenry in their very limited wisdom might actually elect some fascist Gewurztraminer who would damn us all to a lifetime of bowl cuts (FOR WHICH WE WOULD HAVE TO WAIT IN LINE!) I might get motivated to jump into the fray. But, for the most part, our institutions protect us from ourselves fairly well, and our ambient mytho-ideologies offset one another pretty nicely. So when you've got a system like ours, where the candidates are jockeying like Tobey McGuire on Seabiscuit for that median voter, the winners will be so alike, as far as we can tell, that's there's little point in shedding sweet perspiration over who gets to pretend to be Michael Douglas.

If I was bored enough to vote, I'd vote on some kind of personality-free statistical fact, such as the supposed fact that divided governments grow slower. If that's the case, then who cares which tribe is which, or who gets to be the chief?

Well, say what you will about Dean-leaning libertarians, at least its an ethos.

[Yes, I am happy to take credit for “Dean-leaner” bon mot. ]

Riding the Wave

— It seems Joanne McNeil meant to comment on the horrifying recent rape on 14th and R. But she takes…. how to put it?… an insane turn, and lashes out with stupefying ignorance and incoherence at people who sound remarkably like me and my beloved housemates. Let's look at what Joanne says, bit by bit, after her recap of the crime.

I walk alone around that party [sic] of town, and have done so, even before it housed places like Saint Ex. This news was a wakeup call. No matter how much an apartment just put on the market in Logan Circle costs– sorry, I meant, “Dupont East” — or how many corporate coffee chains flood the neighborhood, recreating a ghetto into a shopping mall won't happen overnight.

So , I live in this part of town. Now, how exactly is a terrifying rape a wake-up call? Is it that the victim is white? Is it that she is a lesbian? Is it because Joanne doesn't expect rapes in “shopping malls”? Is it because she thinks that women aren't raped in DuPont or Foggy Bottom or Cleveland Park or Van Ness? Has she looked at the crime statistics? Did she ever THINK coffee chains were talismans against violence? Is crime outside a homeless shelter a jaw-dropping surprise? Why are we waking up? Who wasn't already awake?

Whereas, people like Zoe and her roommates understood the risks and dangers when they moved in their house a few years ago; the third and fourth-wave gentrifiers are either clueless to it, or even worse– the product of suburban white guilt– find it charming.

OK, now. I feel sure Joanne didn't intend it, because she couldn't be that dumb, but this feels a touch personal. Zoe lives just a few houses down the street from ours, which we inhabited a few months ago. No doubt Zoe and Co. is a band of brave trailblazing pioneers, knowingly risking life and limb by encamping in the midst of such a sturdy enclave of black people. And no doubt we are third or fourth-wave gentrifiers, and the harsh rigors of urban life have been softened by the efforts of the enterprising first-wave gentrifiers who came to tame the colonies. But, why suppose we're “clueless” to the risks of an increasingly integrated neighborhood? Or, worse, why suppose we're products of suburban white guilt, and that we find it all so… charming?

Now, it's true. I have lived in suburbs. I am white. And I've plenty to be guilty for. And frankly, I do find our neighborhood charming. But I find it charming in large part because I have cosmopolitan tastes, and I consider it civilized and socially desirable for people of different backgrounds, skin colors, and income brackets to live side by side. It would come to me as a massive unwelcome surprise to find that my tastes are false consciousness, and that liberal indoctrination has deposited me in harm's way.

For every homeless person, there's some Gap-clad white girl who out of obnoxious naivate [sic] tries to befriend him. Because all the disadvantaged need is a little TLC, right? And like, just because all the residents on a street are black, doesn't mean a place is unsafe! There are like, plenty of places to go in Anacostia that are really neat!

Oh, for the love of God. Does Joanne actually know Gap-clad white girls who believe that the solution to homelessness or deprivation is friendship from Gap-clad white girls? And, like, AHEM!, just because all the residents on a street are black DOESN'T mean a place is unsafe. And there ARE plenty of places to go in Anacostia that are really neat. Joanne, you don't really mean to dispute this, do you? You don't really think black people are, ipso facto, dangerous? You don't really believe the hundred thousand or so people who choose to live in Anacostia are just willfully stupid, and wouldn't think to have neat places? It has never before occurred to me that perhaps mandatory sensitivity training courses DO serve a purpose. Christ.

OK. So she gets back to the rape….

But the victim wasn't even one of them [Gap-clad naif]. She was street smart, and told the homeless guys to fuck off, rather than extending a “helping hand.” But they didn't.

This is, just perhaps, a data point relevant to judging the success of homeless-management strategies.

And that is DC life. The crime is a reality, and not just some garnish to your banal yuppie lifestyle.

Really, Joanne, who ARE you talking to? Is your point that people–third and fourth wave gentrifiers for instance–move into certain neighborhoods BECAUSE rather than despite the crime. That is, that some folks choose to consume close proximity to rape and murder in order to spice up their otherwise intolerably prosaic whitebread lives? What kind of sick fucks ARE we!? Here we are, wearing Gap, reading InStyle, thinking we had some kind of cognizance of our surroundings and some kind of grip on our motives. No doubt we have a lot to learn.

Voters ARE Stupid… Even When They Agree With Me

— Matt Welch reports on the horrified lefty reactions to the Schwarzenagger election. To sum it up, voters are stupid. Now, Matt's right to imply that there's almost certainly some level of hypocrisy here. When the majority agrees with you, you'll tend to wax enthusiastic about the “mandate” for change established by the unimpeachable legitimacy of the “general will.” On the other hand, when the majority disagrees, then it's just that voters are stupid, and we all need to be VERY VERY worried about voter ignorance and their susceptibility to manipulation.

I think the latter position is ALWAYS CORRECT!

Some democracy fetishist political theorists like to trumpet Condorcet's theorem, which states that if voters in general are more likely than not to make the right choice, then the greater the number of voters, the greater the chance the election will deliver right answer. In fact, given a smart electorate, the probability that they'll get it right approaches certainty when you get a voting population as big as California's. What democracy fetishists don't so often point out is that the downside is exactly as nasty as the upside is nice. If voters in general are more likely than not to make the wrong choice, then the probablitity that they'll make the right choice quickly approaches zero as the number voters increases.

So, the question is: are voters smart or stupid? Answer: They are very very stupid!

Almost no one has or even can have the relevant information. And even if they CAN have the relevant information, it will be an immense waste of their scarce time and energy to get it, so they WON'T get it. The evidence points to stupid voters. (I am not impressed with models that argue that following the lead of parties, interest groups, and so forth is a low-cost trick that improves the quality of voter decisions. Parties and interest groups are stupid too!)

So my conclusion about Schwarzennegger is that he was almost certainly the wrong choice, or if he was they right choice, almost everybody voted for him for the WRONG REASON. But this is not unique to Schwarzenegger. The point is perfectly general. Winning an election with incredibly high turnout is about the best possible evidence that you shouldn't have won!

Yes, I'm being a bit flip. But only a bit!