Category Archives for Philosophy

Think About Your Goals

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I received the following message over Facebook this afternoon from a loose acquaintance.

At how many tweets per hour of [redacted] who threatened to blackball me from the industry for trump vote about how Hillary Clinton “actually won” and how she’s “so scared” should I dump an industrial sized bag of salt on her wounds by replying?

My first answer: please don’t send me this kind of question. No offense, but as a general rule I don’t care about your personal fights – even if they involve politics, and even if I’m nominally “on your side.” [Aside: I’m not altogether on anybody’s side, because nobody is altogether on my side. Except my wife.] Yes, I just waded into a personal conflict – because it directly touched on my business interests. But as a general rule, I stay out of them.

However, I did find the question interesting. Also, I found this question deeper than it first appears.

Put aside, for the moment, your own political leanings. Imagine the scenario reversed, if you need to.

The obvious answer that most of my real life friends would give is, “no, of course you shouldn’t troll.” On the other hand, the immediate response from most of us would be an intense emotional desire to do exactly that. What should he actually do?

The answer is that it depends, and that’s where nearly everyone fails. Most of us fall into one of two distinct categories. Many would just give into the emotional desire to “get back at” the other person. Others would live by an intense code that doing so is simply wrong. Neither person has stopped to actually think the problem through.

Engage your brain for a moment. The first question is the most important. What is your actual goal? Or, more often, what are your actual goals? Only once you truly understand that can you decide which action leads you closer to that goal.

In this case, I only have partial information. I don’t know the history between the two parties, or their current circumstances. And I don’t know what my acquaintances actual goals are. But I do know a bit.

The person he wishes to troll seems to no longer have the ability to retaliate in a meaningful way. The redacted information makes it clear that she once had financial influence over him, and power over his career. It also makes it clear that this power is now gone. That’s important. If she still had direct power over him, the answer is definitively no. Don’t bite the hand that feeds.

Given that, as a general rule I tend not to troll people unless there’s a purpose. Here we’re talking about Twitter. Will it raise his profile on Twitter, and help him gain publicity? Perhaps a little, with a certain sub group. But probably not much in this case. On the other hand, it probably won’t do him much harm, either.

But from the tone of the message, he probably just wants to rile her up. Sometimes you actually want to do that. An angry opponent makes stupid decisions. But if you’re not actually engaged with someone in a strategic way, what’s the point? If it’s just to get his rocks off, then my advice would be simple: don’t do it. It will just make you look petty.

Dispersion of Force

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There is a principle of force that I teach my students. It’s very simple to grasp, but the implications often take a while to sink in.

If I apply a given amount of force over a small area, I create more pressure than if I apply the same amount of force over a large area.

This is easily expressed in a simple and common law of physics: Pressure = Force / Area (P = F / A).

For those who don’t like formulas, a simple example can help. If I apply a 100 pounds of force over an area of 100 square inches, I’ve applied a pressure of 1 PSI (pound per square inch). If I instead apply that same 100 pounds of force over one square inch, I’ve applied a pressure of 100 PSI.

Even if we don’t do the math for every application of force, the inherent relationship is intuitive. Even small children follow it easily when I explain it to them. And some applications of it are equally simple. When we strike, we want to make our strike contact point as small as possible. Every karateka knows to hit with the two big knuckles when you punch. It does more damage that way. On the flip side, every judoka knows to splay out as much as you can when you breakfall. It spreads the force out and does less damage to your body. These two very different scenarios are simple applications of the same core principle.

But the principle isn’t just physical in nature. It also applies in warfare. Concentrate your forces and hit your enemy in one spot. It’s much harder for him to defend against you that way. It also applies in social situations. Put a lot of pressure on the weak link of a group and the whole group finds it harder to defend. Or apply it to an individual emotionally. Pick at someone’s sore spot and they’ll break far faster than if you pick at everything.

This is an absolutely fundamental principle of the martial arts. Every student of combat must learn it. But it’s also an absolutely fundamental principle of human dynamics in general. Fail to understand it at your own peril.

Automation Is Coming… For Your Job

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As I’ve been warning for some time, automation of everything is coming.

Most of the attention around automation focuses on how factory robots and self-driving cars may fundamentally change our workforce, potentially eliminating millions of jobs. But AI that can handle knowledge-based, white-collar work are also becoming increasingly competent.

One Japanese insurance company, Fukoku Mutual Life Insurance, is reportedly replacing 34 human insurance claim workers with “IBM Watson Explorer,” starting by January 2017.

Emphasis is mine.

We think of many white collar, knowledge tasks as being the kinds of tasks that computers aren’t good at. Historically that’s been true. That understanding is rapidly becoming obsolete. Computers are becoming very good at these kinds of tasks after all.

We’ve long since relegated blue collar, factory work to robots. The most menial of office tasks have already been delegated to computing hardware. Who has a real personal assistant anymore? Only the richest of the rich. Everyone else uses a electronic device to handle all of the work the human would have once done.

Even the term “computer” itself tells us of a white-collar job replaced by the machine. The word once described a human employee who crunched numbers all day – often for accountants or engineers who oversaw them and told them what math to do. The machines have long since destroyed those jobs in the name of productivity.

Your job isn’t safe, either. It’s only a matter of time. The software keep getting better and better. But the key point is how fast it’s getting better. In the next few years we’re going to see software replace humans in more and more jobs. Some are obvious. Fast food workers are going the way of the dodo – especially in an era of $15 an hour minimum wages. Truck drivers are going away, soon to be replaced by automated vehicles.

This will come much faster than critics like Megan McArdle predict. To be clear, she’s absolutely right about the hurdles the technology faces. What she misses is just how far along the tech already is – and how rapidly it’s advancing. There is one simple factor that will drive rapid adoption of self driving vehicles: deaths. Tens of thousands of Americans die every year on our roads. It’s the fourth highest killer in modern America. Self driving vehicles will virtually eliminate those deaths. The public will clamor for them, with torches and pitchforks if they have to.

But I digress. We all know self driving cars are coming because Google, Apple, Tesla and BMW want to be sure that we know. Don’t think that your job is safe because you happen to do intellectual work. It’s not. Software programming other software? It’s coming. Computers teaching your kids? It’s coming. Programs writing books and scripting movies? They’re already here. The time is rapidly approaching when we can even eliminate the actors.

Seriously, Blogging is Your LONG Game

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I have to admit that this post from The Daytime Renegade got me down more than a bit. I read it before Christmas, but it took me some time to formulate my thoughts in reaction to it. An excerpt:

I know that if you don’t promote or believe in yourself, no one else will but my God man, over the Internet, anybody can say they’re anything! Why should you listen to anyone or swallow advice whole without thinking critically?

There are people who pass the sniff test, of course–professional athletes and trainers, business people and parents–who have a proven record of success, have clearly thought their ideas through, and show themselves, warts and all. Take them more seriously.

And maybe that’s the way forward. My problem with blogging is this: I don’t think I really have any great insights into anything.   

I’m not saying this to get sympathy, because that’s pathetic. I am just being honest and self-reflective.

I harbor no illusions about being particularly good at anything or writing useful “self-improvement” type stuff. I have a very short track record of proven success, and it seems silly writing as though I were THE MAN. 

So what’s next for my little on-line adventures?

I don’t know, but I am going to take a blogging hiatus and really think about what I want to do with this.

First of all, I’m honored and flattered to have been linked on that list as a successful business person. At least I’m good at playing one on the Internet!

However, I think Daytime Renegade is using the wrong metrics to judge himself – as so many others do. And this stems mostly from ignorance of true realities – not just of blogging but of many other factors.

I’ve posted about it before, but it bears repeating: blogging is your long game. And I do mean long. There are a handful of successful bloggers who made the leap to “stardom” very quickly: Instapundit, Andrew Sullivan, James Joyner, Megan McArdle, Markos Moulitsas. Want to know what they all have in common? They got started in the early days of blogging, in the 2000-2005 time frame. Blogging was new, they were early entrants, and they managed to ride the wave.

Very nearly every blogger who made it big after that period has something else in common: they all slugged it out for a very long time. Either that, or they were already famous for something else.

A prime example is Vox Day. His two blogs this year have hit a combined traffic metric of over four million page views per month. That’s a huge amount of traffic – more than some “major” news outlets get. But he didn’t get there overnight. His blog has been around since roughly 2001. I know. I was reading it very occasionally then – mostly on the occasions that Instapundit linked to it. As I mentioned on my previous post on the topic, his prime blog now has roughly fifteen thousand individual posts on it (maybe more by now). That’s a lot of content for search engines to comb through, for people to link through, for new users to read through, etc.

By comparison, this will be post number 306 on this blog when it goes live. I’ve got a long way to go. I, too, was blogging in the roughly 2001 time frame – and I wish that I had continued that blog through to the present day. I am not as prolific a poster as Vox Day, and I probably wouldn’t have 15,000 posts. But I’d still have several orders of magnitude more content than I have now.

Quantity isn’t the only thing that time and persistence give you, however. They also help you build an audience – regular readers who continue to come back and read your works. Such a readership grows geometrically, not linearly. I’ll go into more details in another post later this week, but my blog traffic is up more than sevenfold from last year. That particular growth rate is somewhat high – but doubling or tripling blog readership year over year is the norm, not the exception. At those growth rates, readership eventually becomes quite high. Remember the old tale of the man who wanted one penny today, two tomorrow, four on the third day, eight on the fourth day, etc. On the 30th day his payment due is over $10 million – or four million page views.

There is another thing that happens over time. You set yourself apart from those who lack persistence. Very few bloggers are still blogging after one year. Even fewer are still blogging after five years. Vox Day has won because he’s still blogging after fifteen years – a feat that puts him in the company of perhaps a few hundred other bloggers worldwide. What special skill did he require to achieve that? None – only persistence.

[To be clear, I’m not claiming that persistence is the only skill that made Vox Day’s blog so popular; many other skills contributed to that feat. Rather, it is the only skill that made his post count so high. As I’ve already explained elsewhere, that does indeed have a massive impact on blog traffic.]

As Christopher Lansdown mentioned when he interviewed me earlier this week, very few highly successful people are young. Most of them don’t achieve true success until their late forties or early fifties. Why? Because success often requires many years of hard slogging, setbacks, persistence, and getting back on your feet.

Blogging is an extremely useful marketing tool. But for most people it’s not a short term one. The short term payoff is almost always low – and usually trivial or negligible. But even low payoff blogging often becomes very useful in the long run.

I would offer three more thoughts to Daytime Renegade as he reconsiders his blogging goals.

First, as with so many other things in life, blogging success follows a power law curve. My 2016 levels of blog traffic are pretty low (I’ve had considerably more traffic in the early years of blogging). Even so, they probably put me in the top 15% or so of all bloggers. At a guess, I would wager that 3,000 to 5,000 page views a month probably put you in the top 10%. 10,000 to 15,000 page views a month probably put you in the top 5%.

What’s the point? Compared to all other bloggers out there, Mr. Daytime Renegade, you are probably far more successful than you realize. In one sense that’s depressing. But in another sense, it should be inspiring. Because you, too, can at least double your blog traffic in 2017. In fact, you can probably increase it by a factor of 5 to 10 – which would move you far further up that chain. Unlike many of the bloggers you’ve already left far behind, you have not yet reached your peak – especially if you remain persistent. You can climb much further up the charts.

Second, you are overrating the value of originality and your own unique insights. You feel like none of your thoughts are new – but this is precisely because of all the time you spend reading: reading books, reading news, reading other blogs. You make the mistake of assuming that your readership is already familiar with all of the ideas you’re familiar with, because of course everyone else has read all the stuff you read. Doesn’t everybody?

In a word, no. Even other highly intelligent, highly educated people haven’t read everything you have. They can’t. There are hundreds of thousands of blogs on the Internet today. Roughly 1,000 new books are published every day on Amazon, with roughly five million already available in their Kindle catalog. Nobody can possibly read all of that, even if they’re independently wealthy and all they ever do is read. As I’ve said before, originality is overrated. To perfectly illustrate the point, even that post wasn’t original – and yet I’ve gotten direct feedback from readers who found it extremely useful and had never thought about it in those terms before.

You have knowledge of value to your readers, even if it isn’t new and insightful. Most major bloggers aren’t passing on their own major insights – they’re passing on insights they’ve read elsewhere. Occasionally they’ll ad some insight or synthesis of their own, but mostly not. And I don’t mean that disrespectfully to them. True originality and insight is rare. Fortunately, it’s also usually unnecessary.

Finally, but perhaps most relevant… I have followed you on Twitter, Gab, and other social media for months. In that time, we’ve actually interacted quite a lot – and I’ve enjoyed it. Even so, I had no idea you even had a blog until my wife pointed out this particular post to me. I am not alone.

Morgon tires of hearing me say it, but she also knows it’s true: the single largest problem, by far, with all of our small businesses right now is that too many people don’t even know we exist. It is the single biggest problem for this blog as well – and yours. Unless you have the money for a major marketing blitz a la Disney or a major party Presidential campaign, the only cure for that problem is time and persistence. Word of mouth works, and it works well… but it’s agonizingly slow.

Personally, I’m glad to see that there are new posts on your blog already, and that this post doesn’t mean you’re giving up. Here’s to 2017 and beyond, to exponential growth, and to persistence!

“Catholicism” series – Episode 1

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catholicism“Either [Jesus] was who he says he was and purported to be, or he was a bad man.”

I first watched Father (now Bishop) Robert Barron’s epic television series Catholicism in 2011, right around the time of my conversion to the Catholic faith. Father Barron took viewers to locations around the world in a high budget masterpiece explaining both the history and the tenants of the Catholic faith. The series was not responsible at all for my conversion – but it did help cement it and nourish it. I have no doubt that this series did convert at least some viewers, however. It’s powerful. And unlike many religious films, the production quality is extremely high. I’ve begun rewatching the series lately, and decided to share my thoughts. Today my focus is on Episode 1, Amazed and Afraid.

Who do you say “I am?”

The quote I opened with at once displays the profundity of the series and nails the coffin shut on the most popular contemporary view of Jesus. This idea that he was a “good man” and a “great moral teacher” – but nothing beyond that – falls apart completely under examination. In Episode 1 Father Barron thoroughly eviscerates this idea. He reveals Jesus to be a deeply subversive figure – both in the first century and the twenty-first century.

One idea I had in my head in my youth is that Christ himself never claimed divinity. It’s a common modern idea. I didn’t invent it, although I can no longer recall how I acquired this ridiculous notion. It’s also patently false. Father Barron shows us in this episode that Christ claimed his divinity outright on more than one occasion. More than that, however, Christ used his very language to continue this claim. We miss much of this in the modern world because we are deeply ignorant of the Old Testament scriptures. But for the Jews of his day, to whom Jesus taught directly, scripture permeated every aspect of life.

Father Barron shows us how every aspect of the Gospels proclaims Christ as God himself. And then he points what should be obvious. Either Jesus is God himself, among us, as he claims or he’s not a very good man at all. If he’s not God, he’s a blasphemer. If he’s not God, then he’s subverting both temporal and spiritual law. If he’s not God, he’s up to some very serious shenanigans.

What Father Barron doesn’t say, but what also follows, is that if he’s not God, some of the Christian morality that runs through our culture doesn’t make any sense at all. If he’s not God, Jesus is not a good moral teacher. Turn the other cheek? Sure, it works well… in modern, civilized society where people will stop the beatings. It works terribly in first century Roman society where nobody cares about cruelty. It works terribly in parts of the world today that don’t share our morality at all. It works terribly… well, honestly in most of the world for most of history. If Jesus is not God, then his teachings aren’t actually all that good.

The Resurrection

The same modern thought that labels Jesus as merely a great teacher loves to sweep the resurrection under the rug. Clearly this was just a metaphor. No, wait – it’s just those pesky, superstitious first century rubes. They’ll believe anything!

But the resurrection is clearly more than a metaphor. As the series notes, nobody would have listened to Saint Peter if he’d run into the forum of Rome shouting, “I want to proclaim a dead man who’s very inspiring!” They listened to Peter because he ran into the forum shouting, “I want to proclaim the good news of Christ Resurrected!”

In one of the less theological parts of the series, yet one I found more interesting, Father Barron goes on to describe the use of Christian imagery to specifically subvert the Roman empire. The cross – the symbol, literally, of Roman terror and dominance – becomes the symbol of its own subversion. But it’s more than that, it’s also in the language. Iesus Kyrios, “Jesus the Lord,” directly co-opts Roman coinage, where the phrase Caesar Kyrios can be found. Evangelion, the Greek word for Gospel, is a direct rip-off of the term used to announce Imperial victories. These are but a few examples. The subversion runs deep.

Where is the successor of Caesar?

Finally, Father Barron discusses the longevity of the Church itself. Jesus wasn’t just some cult figurehead. There were plenty of great rabbis, plenty of great moral teachers, even plenty of faith healers wandering around the holy land in the first century. Yet nobody remembers them two thousand years later. Yet something about Christ still inspires people today. I found this part particularly compelling because had been a huge part of my own journey to the faith.

Father Barron gives us a great anecdote about the late Cardinal Francis George, and it seems a fitting place to end my thoughts on Episode 1.

Saint Peter, like ten of the other eleven apostles, was martyred for his faith. Specifically, he was crucified upside down in Rome. Cardinal George had the fortune to stand at the side of Benedict XVI as he was anointed pope in 2005. He is rumored to have thought at that moment, as he looked out over Rome at the ancient palaces of Caeser, “Where is the successor of Caeser?” He answered himself, “Who cares? But the successor of Saint Peter is right there.

Why I No Longer Consider Myself A Libertarian

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libertariansDavid Henderson shares the following anecdote on EconLog. I hope he will forgive me for quoting it in its entirety. The context, however, is crucial for the point I’m about to make.

As such, those on the left or the right of America’s political spectrum may regard the proposals I offered in this book as an incoherent hodgepodge. Following my son’s advice, I totally deny that and instead make a counteraccusation: many on the right and left have made a fetish of what is nothing more than a problem of engineering: sometimes government is the right tool for the job, and sometimes it isn’t.My own thinking on this issue was strongly influenced by occasional debates I have had with two of my colleagues at the Naval Postgraduate School–Francois Melese and David Henderson. Francois and David are what you could loosely characterize as “libertarian” in their world view, and we often argue about the role of government in society. One particular “clash” stands out in my mind, because it helped me crystalize my thinking on this matter. So we were talking while eating lunch at the Taco Bell in downtown Monterey of all places. Suddenly David, a man in his sixties, excused himself, got up, and ran outside. What had happened was that he had seen several young men bullying and roughing up another young man, and David had gone to intervene.

In thinking about what David had done, I finally understood how he and other libertarians could see their vision of limited government as a viable means of running a society. Such a society would be entirely workable if most people behaved like David! And I realized then that no answer would ever emerge from ideological debates over the size of government because it was the wrong question to ask in the first place.

This is from the recently published book by my Naval Postgraduate School colleague Jonathan Lipow. The book is titled Survival: The Economic Foundations of American National Security. It was recently published by Lexington Press.Whenever Jonathan and I talk about economic policy or defense policy, we find ourselves disagreeing. But the conversation is always pleasant. You can see why from the above quote.

I don’t think, though, that most people would have to behave like me for a limited government to work. I think the number is well below half. And the main bullies we would have to focus on restraining are the ones in government.

For most of my life I have considered myself strongly libertarian. The story illustrated above highlights exactly the problem with libertarianism, although Mr. Henderson doesn’t realize it. I that the number of people who must behave as described is well below half. I’ve also been fortunate enough to know quite a few people who behave in that manner. I have some truly great friends. Now that I’m out of public schools, I seldom witness the kind of bullying described. When I do, I too try to behave as described. I leave it to others to decide whether I succeed or not.

Even so, the problem with libertarianism as a philosophy is exactly this. It’s not so much that it requires too many people to act this way. It’s that some parts of the libertarian philosophy itself actively reduce the number of people who will act this way. This kind of behavior is socially and culturally bred. The western world, and indeed the anglosphere in particular, developed a culture over the course of centuries that led to this kind of behavior. When you grow up and live your life surrounded by it, it’s easy to think that it’s universal to the human race.

The simple truth is that it isn’t universal at all. Outside of the western world, this kind of behavior isn’t developed and encouraged at all. Even within the western world, it’s strongest in the nations colonized by Britain.

That doesn’t mean you won’t find this kind of behavior at all outside the western world. You most definitely will find it. But not in anything like the numbers needed to sustain anything like a libertarian society. There’s a reason that libertarianism as a philosophy developed in the English speaking world, and a reason that it hasn’t spread much outside of that world. It requires cultural norms that simply don’t exist.

Beyond that, libertarianism leads to its own downfall through its insistence on open borders. If you import too many people who don’t act as Mr. Henderson, eventually you can no longer sustain your libertarianism.

To be completely clear, I personally still greatly prefer to live in a more libertarian world. I thrive in it. My friends and family thrive in it. But a perfect libertarian world must necessarily lead to its own downfall. The only way to maintain a libertarian-ish world is to maintain a culture that can support it. That’s why these days I consider myself not a libertarian but rather a Christian nationalist libertarian (in that order). The first two are an absolute necessity in order for the third to function.

Free Will is Real

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candlesI received the following tragic e-mail from a friend and former co-worker this morning:

My 9 month old nephew just died and it brought up thoughts about destiny versus free will.  So many people have beliefs that Daniel Dennett calls “good tricks”.  My mom died when I was 2 and I was told she was in heaven just as many believe my nephew is in heaven… I like to believe that too.  And a destiny versus free will conversation doesn’t change that “good trick” belief.

People who believe this was all part of God’s plan get to be ignorant of human mistakes.  That can be very alleviating for people.

So I encourage you to share a writing about destiny and free will with this event in mind.  Consider the good tricks – in that a belief can be helpful without being true.

First, the same response I gave him in e-mail: my thoughts and prayers are with the young child and the family. There is no doubt this is a terrible tragedy.

What my friend refers to in the final paragraph is a longstanding debate we’ve had about free will. As a Catholic, I firmly believe in it. My friend’s beliefs lean toward a strange, relaxed sort of Calvinism. In discussions past, he has indicated that he doesn’t believe in it.

One argument in particular that I’ve made to him in the past, however, did strike home. It’s worth repeating here, especially since he requested it.

Even if free will is an illusion, we must act as if it’s real.

The plain and simple reality is that if we begin acting as if we don’t believe in it, society breaks down – and rapidly. When we don’t hold people accountable for their actions – “because they don’t have free will” – then people become unaccountable. Again, whether or not free will is real, we know this to be the way humans respond. Free Will is one of those things we must believe in, or else it all falls apart.

Since my friend also asks for tricks of the mind to help him through this, I leave him with one last bit of thought. If I may be so bold as to brutally summarize William James’ excellent essay, “The Will to Believe” in one sentence, it is this: religion is worth believing in because even if it is wrong, it makes your life measurably better in the here and now. I encourage him, and all of you, to read the whole thing.

I began by a reference to Fitz James Stephen; let me end by a quotation from him. ” What do you think of yourself? What do you think of the world? . . . These are questions with which all must deal as it seems good to them. They are riddles of the Sphinx, and in some way or other we must deal with them. . . . In all important transactions of life we have to take a leap in the dark…. If wc decide to leave the riddles unanswered, that is a choice; if we waver in our answer, that, too, is a choice: but whatever choice we make, we make it at our peril. If a man chooses to turn his back altogether on God and the future, no one can prevent him; no one can show beyond reasonable doubt that he is mistaken. If a man thinks otherwise and acts as he thinks, I do not see that any one can prove that he is mistaken. Each must act as he thinks best; and if he is wrong, so much the worse for him. We stand on a mountain pass in the midst of whirling snow and blinding mist through which we get glimpses now and then of paths which may be deceptive. If we stand still we shall be frozen to death. If we take the wrong road we shall be dashed to pieces. We do not certainly know whether there is any right one. What must we do? ‘ Be strong and of a good courage.’ Act for the best, hope for the best, and take what comes. . . . If death ends all, we cannot meet death better.”

Violence Always Escalates

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violenceLast week I mentioned a saying that my sensei used to drill into us at the dojo. “Violence always escalates,” he said. Once violence begins, it doesn’t stop on its own. Violence only ends for three reasons.

  1. Violence ends when one party loses the ability to continue.
  2. Violence ends when one party loses the will to continue.
  3. Violence ends when one party makes a conscious effort to deescalate it and the other party is amenable to deescalation.

That’s it. Violence never ends for any other reason. Even one party achieving its objectives can’t end the violence on its own. If the other party still has the will and ability to fight, conflict will continue. Worse, as my sensei noted, it will escalate.

Retaliation is never equal. It is always greater. In the immortal words of Sean Connery, “They pull a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue.”

If it seems like 2016 is going off the rails, that’s because it is. There are many ongoing conflicts in the world today: Palestinians vs Israelis,ISIS vs the west, Black Lives Matters vs Blue Lives Matter, Russia vs Europe, the US vs… well, everyone it seems like. All of these conflicts are escalating. At times we’ve had leaders willing to make a conscious effort to deescalate. At times we’ve had leaders on the other sides amenable to deescalation. We’ve never quite managed to have both at once. Given that, escalation is inevitable.

Contrary to popular opinion, there is nothing special about the modern age. We like to believe that we have evolved, but we have not left conflict behind us. There is no right side of history. History is riddled with pockets of peace as long as the one we’ve recently enjoyed. Some have been even longer. They inevitably end and conflict returns, as it is now. And when it comes, it always comes faster than people believe possible.

All of the conflicts I’ve listed are going to get worse before they get better – because violence always escalates.

All Modern, Western, Secular Ideologies Are Actually Christian Heresies

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Don’t let the title of this post throw you off. This is the day when I take off my Catholic Christian hat and return to my undergraduate roots. I’m putting on my philosopher’s hat. Even so, I’m going to make a strong claim that many secularists will take issue with. You see, we can best understand all of the major ideologies of the modern secular world as heresies of the Christian faith. This isn’t a theological claim. It’s a historical claim.

Christian heresies all follow the same general pattern. They either take a general tenant of Christian theology or dogma and overly simplify it or they take a single Christian virtue and elevate it above the others. Take for example the ancient heresies. Arianism, for example, overly simplified the doctrine of the Trinity by claiming that God and Christ were not consubstantial. Gnostic Christianity (distinct from but heavily influenced by the raw gnosticism that predated Christianity) claimed that the material world was fully evil. The claim is far simpler than Christian doctrine that the material world is fallen yet inherently good. Heresy begins as an attempt to simplify, but becomes heresy when it oversimplifies.

Or, as Ross Douthat put it in his most excellent book Bad Religion: How We Became A Nation of Heretics:

The goal is always progress: a belief system that’s simpler or more reasonable, more authentic or more up-to-date. Yet the results often vindicate the older Christian synthesis. Heresy sets out to be simpler and more appealing and more rational, but it often ends up being more extreme.

The major modern western ideologies have all managed the exact same kinds of oversimplification. In many ways, they are mirror images of each other.

  • Socialism and Communism (in all of their forms, and across their whole spectrum) elevates the Christian virtue of charity above all else.
  • Libertarianism elevates the Christian virtue of dignity of the individual above all else.
  • Environmentalism elevates the Christian teaching that men are the stewards of the Earth above all else.
  • Feminism elevates the Christian teaching that women should be respected and well treated above all else.
  • Progressivism elevates the Christian virtue of tolerance above all else.
  • Capitalism elevates the Christian work ethic above all else.
  • Globalism elevates the Christian conception of community above all else.
  • Liberalism elevates the Christian concept of equality above all else.

In each and every case, the movements behind the ideologies were historically founded by Christian communities. No other communities could have founded them. The virtues at their base are not to be found in the same ways in other major world religions. Even Judaism, from which Christianity evolved, does not view these virtues in quite the same way. Without that base view there is no intellectual foundation upon which to build these ideologies.

And yet each and every one of these ideologies also warped the Christian virtues upon which they were founded. In the end they have distorted the virtues so badly that it’s difficult for an outsider to even recognize them. Socialism looks like theft. Libertarianism can’t shake the appearance of hedonism. Progressivism morphs into something grotesque and intolerant in its own right. Capitalism looks for all the world like raw greed. In the end, oversimplification brings all of these ideologies to their knees.

Yet the virtues they are founded on are good virtues. We should care about them – and most of us do, even if we call ourselves “secular” instead of “Christian.” We fail only when we forget that all of the other virtues are also, well, virtuous.

It is time to put my Catholic Christian hat back on. We fail because we have turned to heresies in the modern age. We would be far better served if we returned to the source.

 

There is no “Right Side of History”

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historyThere is no right side of history. There never was, and there never will be.

The biggest reason this isn’t immediately and painfully obvious is because modern westerners are so horrendously ignorant of history. This was not always the case. Westerners – and Americans in particular – have a long history of actually being relatively well self-educated on the subject. And I don’t mean “long history” in the sense of “back in my day.” I mean that going back to pre-revolutionary days, Americans knew their history. Yes, somehow they managed to have a good knowledge of it despite (or is that because of?) their lack of schooling.

But the last fifty years have seen a steady erosion of historical knowledge. We can pretty much lay the fault of that squarely on our “deteriorating” (working as designed) schools. But whatever the fault, the ignorance is growing.

“Right side of history” is not a logical phrase. It’s a rhetorical device. It’s intentionally designed not to further discussion but to shut it down. It’s designed to foster two thoughts in your mind. First, that history is “progressing” toward a particular end. And second, that this is somehow a moral good.

It’s wrong on both counts. Let’s work backwards, though. In order to accept the phrase, you must first accept the idea of “right.” It’s a moral statement. But by whose morals? The phrase is intentionally left vague. It’s a rhetorical technique called “assuming the sale.” By agreeing to the phrase itself, you’re implicitly accepting the morality chosen by the speaker. But should you? Christian morality is slightly different from Jewish morality. Both are quite a bit more different from Islamic morality. None of them are really all that close to Hindu or pagan morality. Buddhist morality is in a weird zone all of its own that kind of overlaps with all of the above but never quite matches any of them. And modern secular morality is a beast all of its own.

So which one should you accept? In this case, the phrase was coined by the progressive movement – and coined for a specific purpose. The progressive movement has a specific ideology of it’s own – the idea that history is “progressing.” Historical ignorance is the only reason we don’t see this for the utterly absurd concept that it is. Anybody with any actual knowledge of history can debunk this idea in about five seconds. There is no linear progression of history.

First, in order to define progress itself you have to pick a metric. But what metric? Pick any metric you like and then plot it over time. There is no linear progression toward improvement. It does not matter which metric you pick. History doesn’t move that way. It’s ups and downs and ups and downs. There is no long term trend.

The idea that there is one is a peculiarly western – indeed, almost a peculiarly American – idea. It’s largely an artifact of the last 300 years of material improvement, due largely to the industrial revolution. But the industrial revolution itself – and that material improvement – brought a lot of other issues with it. And that’s where we see the second issue. Progress in one area almost always means regress in another. Material progress in the western world has been huge since the industrial revolution began – but it brought huge social costs with it. We’re still fighting through many of those issues, and we still will be in another hundred years.

But the third issue is almost tautological. There can’t be a right side of history when history has no sides. History itself is a harsh master. It doesn’t care one whit about your morality – or mine, for that matter. History simply is.

The idea that there is a “right side” of history necessitates concepts that many of those who use the phrase would find themselves very uncomfortable with. The concept itself requires an objective standard of reality. What those who use it don’t realize is that the idea itself is Christian in origin (if heretical), and it shows in the statement itself. The phrase was deliberately designed to invoke the feeling of “the right side of God” – only that word was deliberately changed to be more amenable to the less religious. Yet it should always be remembered that those who coined the phrase believed it as my re-phrasing.

When you drop the idea of God, however, the statement itself falls apart. Who chooses the “right side?” Without God in the picture, the phrase forces us to imagine that all of humanity is moving toward a shared goal. If you actually believe that is happening, then you’re simply not familiar enough with the way people actually behave in the real world. Also, I have a bridge for sale. E-mail me and we’ll work out a deal.

There is no right side of history. Anybody who tries to tell you that there is has lost interest in rational debate – they are instead trying to shut you down. Don’t let them. Force them to actually debate the issues on their merits.

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