Wednesday, June 07, 2006

The Big Lie is Alive... Debunking the "Loose Change" Conspiracy Theory

The new craze, sweeping the internet, is a second incarnation of "Loose Change"...or what might be called the Latest Vast Paranoid Conspiracy Theory About 9/11.

This second version is far, far longer than the first, filled with marvelous detail, supporting some of the most flamboyant claims ever - more spectacular than any combination of the wildest scenarios you have ever heard having to do with JFK, Jimmy Hoffa, Pearl Harbor and... heck, let's throw in UFOs and the Book of Revelations.

Oh, my. What a piece of work this is.


FIRST A DISCLAIMER...

As anyone who has visited this journal would know, I despise the gang of neo feudalists who have taken over my country, who show every sign of plotting to end our Great Experiment, at-minimum stealing us blind and at-worst aiming to sell us down the road to serfdom. In taking this position, I cannot be accused of being a kneejerk leftist. Indeed, I am often caustic toward dogmatic ideologues of THAT side. (Illustrated by this very article.) Still, at this moment in history, civilization is clearly far more under threat from the loony-klepto-manipulative right than it is from flaky-ineffectual socialists. Far more.

Put this in perspective; there are reasonable people and articles denouncing the monstrous Power Grab with cogency and great credibility.

Yet, from a longer historical view, is it really surprising that yet another cabal of would-be feudal lords has arisen, funded by plutocrats and petrocrats, aiming to destroy the liberal Enlightenment by every means at their disposal? Aren't oligarchic coups the most tediously repeated phenomenon in all of human history? (Among my neocon acquaintances, not one has even tried to refute this blatant fact - indeed, they concede it with a shrug... and a worried look in the eye.) Heck, every generation of Americans has had to deal with the same sort of thing. Arguably our greatest "miracle" is that every American generation across two centuries has done so, imaginatively and resourcefully, without over-reacting or killing the golden goose of market freedom...

...though let's also admit that no living citizen can remember an episode like this one, in which neofeudal troglodytes have grabbed power so frenetically, with a fevered intensity that seems borne of desperation. As if they can sense the future rushing toward them and they know that it is time to make their big move. It is time to restore the traditional human social order. Either now, or never.

So no, at one level it is absurd to get angry at the recurring reflex of conspiratorial aristocratism - so historically trite and predictable that it seems almost bestial. We are better off treating it like juvenile delinquency, as a disease of immaturity that only affects a frantic minority of the rich... a minority who are dangerous as hell, but acting out of simple human nature.

No. What makes me angry is the incredible lack of context -- of strategic/tactical thinking -- on the part of countless people who oppose this oligarchic coup! Oh, the distractions! The number of times that supposedly smart liberals have fallen for blatant "culture war" traps, accepting combat always on Karl Rove's terms, and always on battlefields of his choosing! Oh, alas, the unsapient reflexiveness and complete political cluelessness.

(Insanity is doing the same thing over and over - falling for the same traps - while expecting different results.)

And now I see it, yet again, in so many of my friends who, amid their justified revulsion toward the Bushites, seem all-too ready to watch, listen, nod, and accept any claptrap that arrays itself in robes of opposition to the neocon monsters.

Even claptrap like Loose Change, that stinks to high heaven.


MICHAEL MOORE AND THE POLITICS OF SELF-MARGINALIZATION

Oh, there is a corner of me that feels intrigued when bright, indignation-drenched muckrakers start flinging evidence and charges at the malevolent troglodytes currently in charge. When Michael Moore crafted Fahrenheit 9/11, I was willing to nod and listen, only wincing a bit at the exaggerations and occasional blatant misstatement of facts, here and there...

...till I began to wonder: "Is this guy really on our side? Or is he trying to help divide us into simpleminded, polemical camps of reciprocal screamers? Assisting Karl Rove's so-called "culture war"? (Hint: we'd do far better waging war against culture war, rather than getting swallowed up in it.) A simple committee, providing Moore with some reality checks, advice and adult supervision, could have helped him to be vastly more persuasive. More historically potent, influential and powerful.

Only now - returning to the topic at hand - these "Loose Change" guys have burst upon the scene, making Michael Moore look like Walter Cronkite!

Let me put it bluntly. This "documentary" is a monstrosity, truly worthy of the very people it attacks.

So much so that I grow - minute by minute - more tempted to apply a label that most Americans find unfamiliar, but that is used quite often by cynical Europeans. Either the producers of Loose Change are completely loony, or they are unprincipled, use-anything fame grabbers, or else they are "provocateurs."

Any Euro will tell you what the word stands for. Provocateurs are agents of one side who deliberately try to make the other look bad by planting statements, evidence, actions or outrageous words in their mouths. Often under a pretense of being helpful.

In this case, the side that is made to look bad is anyone who ever said "something's fishy about 9/11." Because this horrible so-called documentary makes the "swift boat" attacks on John Kerry look like All The President's Men.

If there are grains of truth in "Loose Change" - genuine clues to real conspiracies - those grains now lie buried under mountains and mountains of garbage.


LET'S BEGIN

Oh, the muckraking starts out intriguing enough, with some interesting discrepancies in the story of Flight AA 77, the Boeing 757 that crashed into the ground floor of the Pentagon.

At first I was intrigued by some real puzzlers, like why so little wreckage appears to have been found from the very large and heavy engines. Certainly the small diameter of the entry hole (before the roof caved in) seemed more consistent with some kind of bunker busting missile than with a big jet crash. Okay, I'm listening.

My biggest reaction was elicited by the claim that three video recordings with good views of the event - from a hotel, a gas station, and a freeway overpass - were seized quickly by the FBI and then never released. "Why, if they dispute all this, don't they release those tapes?" The film producers challenge. And why, indeed? An on-target question. Here, of course, Mr. Transparency completely agrees.

(If only. If these producers were to offer up their vast, complex and confusing indictment as a test case for a "disputation arena," in which every sub-set and element could be dissected in great and public detail, some kind of transparency-related service might be done. At minimum giving us a chance to separate some wheat from the chaff. A truly large and eclectic smartmob jury could zero in on things like this matter of the recordings, selecting the key discrepancies and demanding some public accounting.)

But from another perspective, those very same cameras present a real problem to conspiracy mavens! For if the Pentagon impact was not a plane (and many eyewitnesses did see a plane), why would the skulking-demonic traitors who sent the purported missile (for reasons that are never even hypothesized in the film) do all this in broad daylight? In this era, can anybody ever be sure that cameras aren't watching ? Especially outdoors, in one of the most tourist-dense cities in the world? (I was a few miles away, layered in cameras, just a few weeks before 9/11.)

What kind of morons would concoct a plan based on an assumption that there would be no such cameras? (As there were, in huge supply, in New York City, that very same day.) A plan based ultimately on complete and total dumb luck?

Well... in fact... I admit that we are being ruled by morons. That much is consistent. But the problem with this story is that the supposed perpetrator masterminds must be both fantastically horrid-stupid and spectacularly competent-coordinated, all at the same time.

Exactly the way ALL of us tend to typify our enemies! (Ever notice that?) An illogical facet of human nature, one that goes all-too unexamined, lets us watch things like this, nodding and agreeing with complete logical inconsistencies. See how the evildoers are both stupid and smart, both competent and incompetent, both dogmatic and cynically pragmatic, anything that fits the need of this sentence, right now. Anything despicable. Anything at all.


SPOILER ALERT

Look, it would take a year just to list the "evidence" and open accusations presented in Loose Change... and ten more years to tally all the sly innuendoes and hinted allegations! Hell, I can't afford the time to do that, to count up all the wretched nonsense, trying to sift amid the dross for real gems worth examining.

(Want just one minor gaffe, but one that indicates poor quality control? How many of you out there believe that it is possible for the Empire State Building to have been struck, during World War II, by a B-52 bomber?)

While the first quarter of Loose Change seems intriguing, you soon start to realize that it is a melange of half-truths, inaccuracies, coincidences, un-vetted rumors, misused witness statements...

... and what start to coalesce into outright lies, with the effect (as I said) of discrediting those parts that might actually be interesting clues! Distracting us, perhaps, from truly nasty deeds.

No, I won't write a detailed rebuttal. (Though I may append (in comments) a few of the most hilariously insipid and loony so-called "facts.") Heck, I have far better things to do, like fighting effectively and in an adult manner against kleptocrats and cacocrats. So let me cut to the chase and distill for you the core essence of this pile of donkey poo.


THE GIST... THE BLOODY GIST...

Let's get this straight. The entire premise of this incredible scenario is that several hundred highly skilled US officers and operatives would break their oaths and risk death penalties, committing blatant mass murder and treason as part of an unbelievably intricate and interlocking plan in order to:

* Plant demolition charges throughout THREE towers of the World Trade Plaza (a vast and intricate process, taking weeks)...

* Plant evidence of an Arab conspiracy of suicide hijackers (many of whom are claimed to conveniently turn up alive today in Saudi Arabia)...

* Fly big jets into the towers as a flashy distraction to cover for the pre-set demolition charges...

* While, in super-rapid realtime, faking the voices of passengers and flight attendants calling the ground from cell and air phones...

* While diverting Flight UA 93 to Cincinnati Airport, secretly unloading its 200 passengers into the NASA Lewis Research Center hangar without anyone noticing, then hiding the plane, then surreptitiously blowing up a hole in a Pennsylvania field and dumping some wreckage there and spreading the Legend of UA93...

* All without air traffic controllers noticing a switcheroo, relying utterly upon there being no passersby or observers, at ANY point during a long and frenetic day...

* Similarly disposing of the passengers and plane of flight AA77, so that it can be replaced with a missile aimed at the Pentagon (only in this case the filmmakers don't even mention or try to concoct a story! They simply vanish AA77! How? By beaming it up?)...

* Simultaneously arranging for Osama bin Laden to be a CIA client, an innocent victim and a terrorist, in successive contradictory statements...

* Suborning not hundreds of sworn professional officers, civil servants, officials and citizens... but THOUSANDS, since any simple tracking of the lengthy "Loose Change" expose results in a labyrinthine scenario so tangled and vast that it would seem to require at least that many, all of them superbly coordinated, all of them keeping to the game plan, hewing to the hundred-page conspiracy, not out of dedication, professionalism and patriotism, but motivated by venality, greed, partisanship, momentum or fear...

...and none of them even remotely contemplating the value of whistleblowing, as opposed to treason against everything they were ever raised to believe.

(Note the underlying agenda of CONTEMPT that pervades not just this scenario, but every smug conspiracy theory! In order for the brave discoverers to be truly superior, everything must be going on beneath the very noses of a public that is no more intelligent than a flock of bleating sheep!)

(Even more fascinating is the psychological urge to keep upping the ante. I have seen this in the UFO community and in McVeigh style militias. At every branching point between two options -- between a mundane explanation and something outrageously improbable, but evil - guess which path is always chosen? The dramatic-romantic-paranoid turn gets taken, every single time. Fie on Occam's damned razor!

(Even though the sum effect is to utterly undermine any credibility that a sensible person might have given to the more plausible portions of the story.)



PEOPLE, WE CAN DO BETTER THAN THIS

Oh, please don't think I come away with singleminded and monotonic hostility to these fellows. Practicing what I preach, I am willing to contemplate the possibility of being wrong, in several places. Indeed, I have - of late - been re examining some of my own assumptions.

For one thing, I have long believed that large and truly heinous conspiracies cannot hold for long in this open society. That - for example - the members of the United States Officer Corps are nowadays too well-educated, too loyal, and too professional, to let themselves be fooled endlessly into supporting what amounts to a cynically rapacious criminal gang.

Indeed, lately there have been some eminent defectors and patriots who see what's happening and have decided to stand up, at a time when their country desperately needs them. Men and women who realize that left and right matter little, in comparison to the health of the Great Experiment.

(A single billionaire could enhance this trend, this by financing my Henchman's Prize... but as yet nobody has proved brave and visionary enough.)

Alas, so far, the numbers have proved disappointing. We keep hearing rumors of how deeply the intelligence and flag officer communities hate the Bushites. And yet, so far, my prediction of mass whistleblowing has come to very little more than wishful thinking. I may have to rethink my hypothesis...

...which is what a reasonable modernist does. Perhaps reasonable modernists are fewer than I thought.

That possibility is supported and driven home by the cousins and fellow travellers and lefty-counterparts of Karl Rove who gave us "Loose Change".


CONCLUSION

Look, this rant of mine wasn't a scholarly or hifalutin-formal. I took too long with apologias before getting to the point. Relying on logical mockery, I did very little refutation-of-fact. But in a way, this format is a fitting homage to those guys. It is sinking to their level.

Oh, I'll concede it is possible that maybe 4% of the charges contained in this vivid mountain of drivel may prove to be true. If even that much is valid, then some pretty awful stuff has gone on, and we citizens desperately need the cleansing light of justice to shine upon such wretched misdeeds.

Only now, thanks in part to "Loose Change," that 4% lies buried deeper under garbage than a gold bar under the collapsed second tower.

Moreover, so long as we are bandying paranoid fantasies around, I have to suggest to you that this obscuration, this artful provocation, may have been the intent all along.

.

49 comments:

David Brin said...

Addendum:

Concentrating on LOGICAL rebuttal, I did not address very many of the "facts" presented in this film. That task would wear anybody down, though some things clearly stand out.

Even the discrepancies at the Pentagon, I suspect, are much smaller than "Loose Change" would suggest. The cylindrical hole through three rings of the building? Ever tried to crush an aluminum can longitudinally? It's very strong... and very similar to an airplane fuselage. As for the wings, they are what carries the fuel. The ratio of fuel to aluminum there could very well "vaporize" them on impact, especially upon hitting a highly reinforced concrete wall. The engines? Well, I'd be intrigued by the movie producers' charges about those engines... if their credibility were larger than epsilon at this point. Which, again, may have been the intention all along. (We still do have some things to learn from our European cousins.)

One thing though. If the Feds don't release those surveillance tapes....

monkyboy said...

Cheer up, Dr. Brin.

Americans may be slow, but they aren't idiots.

Bushie and his cronies and his wars aren't exactly popular these days.

As for the "gang of neo feudalists," they are their own worst enemies.

The oil guys get greedy, they upset the auto makers and the airline owners.

The medical guys get greedy, they piss everybody off.

etc., etc.

"You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can not fool all of the people all of the time."

- Abe (maybe)

P.T. Galt said...

Here is a thorough debunking of "Loose Change". Enjoy!

palliard said...

While there are a few things about the 9/11 attacks that strain credulity ("Mohammed Atta's Magical Passport" springs to mind), nearly all of these conspiracy theories require the one thing you don't want if you're conspiring to do something you don't want to be general knowledge: involving more and more people.

The old saying is "three can keep a secret, if two are dead". A really credible conspiracy theory would minimize rather than expand the number of people involved.

reason said...

Provocateuer - you mean like the theory about the papers on Bush's National Guard Service shown by CBS? Did they ever get to the bottom of who did those forgeries? Or the Italian Uranium forgeries?

Patricia Mathews said...

Yes. two's company, three's a crowd, and four is an ongoing soap opera. Or as the blurb to Michael Flynn's "Country of the Blind" reads, "suppose there were a secret cabal ... and they were incompetent!"

Lenny Zimmermann said...

Maybe not "droves" but officers are coming forward. http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/13190993/

As for why many more are not opposing this war I would not find that too surprising, really. Just look at the Milgram experiments. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Milgram_experiment

It seems to me basic human nature to generally want to follow authority even when it seems unreasonable to do so, at least to some extent. I think the Milgram experiment is a very uncomfortable reminder of that unsettling fact.

Anonymous said...

My brother sent me that a few weeks ago. I told him that, though it raised some interesting points, it all seemed to require, as you said, a vast and infinitely competent conspiracy which just seemed... ridiculous.

I'm reminded of a Karl Popper quote I saw in "Foucault's Pendulum". "The conspiracy theory of society comes from abandoning God, and asking 'Who is in his place?'".

Ironically, since the film made heavy use of Wikipedia for reference, the Wikipedia article on Loose Change contains a summary of the most egregious faults, and links to more thorough debunkings (one of which uses subtitles to Fisk the narration).

Matt said...

Sadly, a lot of people buy into the 'Bush and his cronies pulled of 9/11' myth ... it seems every time the subject comes up, I found out that another of my friends believes it.

Me, I could find it credible that they knew about the attack in advance, and let it happen. Barely. It's certainly obvious that it's been milked for all it's worth, and then some ... but then, politicians are naturally opportunistic that way. You can believe they're power-hungry scum without having to swallow that they're behind everything bad that ever happens.

One question, though, Dr. Brin: you've said in the past that you believe that a confrontation with 'macho culture' lies (or may lie) in our future. And you specifically identified the Muslim world as the most likely antagonist (with, I believe, Latin America as the runner-up.) So, are we in such a conflict now? If yes, where is the most grievous danger: internally, from our leaders (well, technically your leaders: I'm a Canadian expat living in Japan), or externally? I've got no great love for the Bushies (full disclosure, I was rooting for a distance for him, sort of ... really I was rooting against Kerry) but it seems that every time they do something obviously wrongheaded, the Muslims step up and do something equally foul.

btw, the notion that Loose Change consists of psyops ... was thinking the same thing, myself, as a possible if not probable explanation (though for now I'll stick with Occam's razor, and chalk it up to all-too-natural conspiracy mongering.)

Hawker Hurricane said...

Just in case anyone didn't know...

Late in WW2, a B-25 'Mitchell', a twin prop medium bomber (not to be confused with the Vietnam War era B-52 'Stratofortress' 8 jet engine very heavy bomber) DID crash into the Empire State Building due to bad weather and pilot overconfidence.

Mistaking a 10 ton WW2 plane for a 130 ton nuclear bomber... OR thinking that the WW2 bomber with a top speed of 300mph would do as much damage as a 100 ton passenger jet with a stall speed over 150 mph...

MegaSigh.

David, you're right. This 'theory' requires the conspiritors to be hypercompetent idiots. Why use a missile? This is worse than the 'FDR knew Pearl Harbor' crap... it would be like saying 'not only did FDR know, but he planted explosives on USS Arizona!'

Francis said...

My problem with the notion of a lot of hypercompetent idiots being laughable is that I know quite a few hypercompetent idiots. Hell, some days I am one myself. And a review of the history of Byzantium (starting with Justinian and Julian the Apostate) will show that societies need not be short of them (at least at the high levels).

michael vassar said...

Francis: Good point, an important counter-point to the also valid Popperian quote. Still, it's obvious that actual hypercompetent idiots are never THIS competent.

Matt: I really would like an explanation. You seem to be saying that you think that Bush and the Neocon gang are MUCH worse than I think they are, so bad that you take the hypothesis that they intentionally allowed 9/11, and yet that you STILL thought Kerry was worse. How?

David: You said

"A simple committee, providing Moore with some reality checks, advice and adult supervision, could have helped him to be vastly more persuasive. More historically potent, influential and powerful."

I'm far from convinced. It seems to me that you left out the crucial phrase "to me". How often have the sorts of rhetoric that you would be influenced by also actually been influential?
Between the above quote and this one below

"Note the underlying agenda of CONTEMPT that pervades not just this scenario, but every smug conspiracy theory! In order for the brave discoverers to be truly superior, everything must be going on beneath the very noses of a public that is no more intelligent than a flock of bleating sheep!"

it seems to me that you are setting certain rules regarding what conclusions can and cannot be legitimately reached. The position you are asserting seems to be that one may NEVER reach disrespectful conclusions regarding human psychology and act accordingly. This is a strategy that is guaranteed to incapacitate any human who follows it if it turns out that successful human interaction depends upon the utilization of embarrassingly simplistic heuristics, as I believe it to. Sometimes people really are superior. Vastly so. EVERY inventor or revolutionary scientist MUST, before they can possibly be successful, take it as a serious possibility that they can figure out the truth about some question that EVERY HUMAN SO FAR IN HISTORY has answered wrong. This possibility usually has to be taken so seriously that the inventor/discoverer spends years working hard on the problem with little encouragement. It seems to me that the implicit contempt they must show is the same as that you are condemning. The same implicit contempt you show when you imply that EVERY wealthy individual in the world is either wrong or utterly insufficiently benevolent in their failure to fund a henchmen prize or any of your other proposals. You are right, every single one really is wrong in that case and you really are right. Every single person in the world is very frequently wrong until someone corrects them, and they don't get corrected by the well reasoned arguments of a Darwin but by the forceful rhetoric of a Thomas Huxley or a Richard Dawkins.

Do you really think that Karly Rove got where he has by assuming that people are NOT bleating sheep?

Jaron Lanier's recent Edge post
http://edge.org/3rd_culture/lanier06/lanier06_index.html
seems to me to address the sort of attitude displayed by the above quotes effectively. I would like to know what you think about it.

Anyway, I see some signs of hope in your statement that "Perhaps reasonable modernists are fewer than I thought.". I really don't know how numerous reasonable modernists are with any precision. I'd guess that there are about a million of them in total, but for a sufficiently broad definition of reasonable there could plausibly be 20 million. I do know that over the course of my life my estimate of how numerous they were has fallen fairly steadily in the face of evidence. It wasn't until the last 6 months that I reached an appearent equilibrium, with new evidence that there are more reasonable people than I had thought occuring about as frequently as evidence that there are fewer. As my beliefs moved, my functionality increased dramatically, and ironically the arrogance that people attributed to me *fell* because I ceased to burden people with insultingly high expectations.

Anyway, the number of reasonable modernists isn't really very relevant. Only the confident, dedicated reasonable moderates, the "militant moderates" in your turn of phrase, really count. For the most part, "The best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity". As De Tocqueville would teach you (Please Please PLEASE read him as soon as you have a chance) the trend of modernity and moderation is strongly to suppress the "Passionate intensity" that we desperately need right now. We do know about how many militant rational moderates there are. When you have been in this business for as long as I have you know most of their names. Unfortunately, reassurances that institutions work and that the masses are not in important respects sheep (though externally if not internally honest, fairly sympathetic, fairly competent sheep with some common sense; far closer to rationality and benevolence than the ruling class) unfortunately have the effect of promoting the Digital Maoism Jaron Lanier complains of and of increasing the degree to which the best "lack all conviction".

Please David... there are so few of us... we each matter far more than our principles allow us to comfortably believe us to.

Don't let Kitty Genovese rule the world.

Anonymous said...

sayeth Matt: “Mr. Brin: you've said in the past that you believe that a confrontation with 'macho culture' lies (or may lie) in our future. And you specifically identified the Muslim world as the most likely antagonist (with, I believe, Latin America as the runner-up.) So, are we in such a conflict now? If yes, where is the most grievous danger: internally, from our leaders (well, technically your leaders: I'm a Canadian expat living in Japan), or externally? I've got no great love for the Bushies (full disclosure, I was rooting for a distance for him, sort of ... really I was rooting against Kerry) but it seems that every time they do something obviously wrongheaded, the Muslims step up and do something equally foul.”

Matt this is intelligent and thoughtful... and misses the point. Yes, we are in the “Battle of Cultures” that I predicted (perfectly) in 1987. Moreover, back then I forecast that it would likely be JUST ONE of the macho cultures that would fight us, since they hate each other at least as desperately as they hate us. Sure enough, the Hindu and Latin macho belts seem to be sliding into alliance with the West (for now) and that’s the unsung good news.

But still, your way of looking at things badly needs a big tweak. May I?

The model for all this crisis is not “a state of war.” Or even “war on terror.” An awfully stupid metaphor that only suits the drum beating distraction needs of a floundering Bush Administration. What we face - in fact - is the same thing we faced when our opponent was a Paranoid Behemoth - the mad Soviet Union. It is a MENTAL HEALTH CRISIS. One that requires the EXISTENCE of a superb military deterrence, but the application of actual force must be done with surgical skill, not the blunderbuss that idiots used in Vietnam and Iraq.

ESPECIALLY not now, when the “enemy” is diffuse, without a central leadership, consisting of millions of “angry young men.” Frenetically violent machismo is (from the western perspective) a form of mental illness that makes large numbers of people hair trigger violent and impossible to negotiate with. The long range solution is peace, education and gradual cultural conversion (without having to touch religion) to enlightenment values. Especially by liberating their women. At the other extreme (and lest I be called some goody-goody hippie flake) the shortest term tactical solutions CAN include violence of our own... and yes, brutally selective-effective violence, as portrayed in “Munich.”

(An extremely disappointing film. I expected Spielberg to give many diverse characters more time to preach and explain themselves. Usually a bad idea in film, but this one cried out for MUCH more!)

The long range strategy is cultural patience (exactly as George Marshall said we should wage the Cold War. Short term may be brutally surgical. But it is in the middle ground that you have things dead wrong, Matt, and so do our leaders. So what if terrorists do bad things! That does not behoove us to trade a death for a death. We are supposed to be the ones here with prefrontal lobes, with an eye for winning the maximum-best outcomes for our people. Tit for tat does not work here. Nor are there capitals and industries to bomb till the enemy submits. It is not war; it is a brutally ferocious matter of POLICE action.

Yes, when we use our troops, we should pay FIRST attention to maintaining readiness (which has plummeted under Bush) but also to using them according to 21st Century standards, which means that every decade they will be more and more like police, and less like battle-warriors. Especially in today’s diffuse warfare, frenetic macho violence must be suppressed WITHOUT the stupidly unprofessional behaviors that rile up the cousins and brothers of those we arrest.

Lest I be called some flake: Pax Americana (PA) imperial power CAN be justified in the 21st Century. The left is dippy-insipid when they rail against all uses, in principle, forgetting how grateful the people of Bosnia and Kosovo and Croatia were, when we used that power in fantastically effective police-like ways. If those leftists and hyper-horizon-extenders want an end to Pax Americana, fine, then they should work toward creating its replacement... WCN... Whatever Comes Next. And meanwhile support an adult and principled and effective PA till WCN is ready to step in. They should not act as if WCN already exists, because it does not! Moreover, they should have the good sense to realize that world without PA will be a hellish place.

But the right is vastly, vastly worse. They see PA as a sacred imperial right, a god-given privilege to enforce the upper hand on benighted and awful heathen (like the French). Trapped in horizons that aren’t extended enough (liberals’ horizons may be too extended!), these neocon fools cannot conceive that their rationalizations are the same as Caesar’s, as the Medicis’, as Attilas’.

They brag about knowing history and then utterly ignore it. They admit (when cornered) that our time on top is likely to be brief, yet they will not invest in creating the good will and new world order that might thanks America and preserve our values, when our imperial age is done!

Instead, they are relentlessly doing every single possible thing they can to antagonize the world, driving the Chinese, Russians, Euros and Indians to hold meetings (right now!) about “what to do about America” and “how to end the unipolar world.” (Nobody attended those meetings when Clinton was prexy. The world was content with PA!)

Indeed, how do the neocons react to these meetings? With schoolboy snorts of contempt! “Let them meet!” they sneer. “We are on top and there’s nothing anybody else can do!” (And these are the fellow you’d trust with the job of ensuring that nobody out there will sneak dirty bombs into our cities????)

Demolishing that Clinton-Era contentment has been THE BIGGEST CRIME of the neocons. But trust the liberals, they will never mention it. And no neocon (except maybe Fukuyama) has been smart enough to even notice.

----
Oh, has anyone heard the latest from Ann Coulter? Do we really need 666 symbols in order to recognize pure, fizzing evil when we see it?

---
Hawker, you are right about the Pearl Harbor insanity. YES FDR might have sniffed the attack in advance. It would not take a genius. Yes, he wanted the Japanese to strike first. But dig it. His ideal would have been for them to strike 1st... AND LOSE! If they had landed one bomb in Pearl... and then lost their whole fleet in an ambush, FDR would have had his war and then been able to send FAR more effort to Europe. The problem with conspiracy nuts is that they are generally stupid, while desperately needing to see themselves as smart, a wretched combination. Especially since we have not system in place to find the 1% who are both smart and RIGHT.

---
Michael, I have read de Tocqueville and indeed, I clearly understand him far better than you do. He was one of the few Frenchmen (along with Revel and a few others) who grasped that the pragmatic-moderate Anglo-American enlightenment had taken the right path, which the hyper-intellectual and Platonist continental branch had verred down a fatal turning... back toward Plato’s passionate embarce of “reason.”

Michael sayeth: “The position you are asserting seems to be that one may NEVER reach disrespectful conclusions regarding human psychology and act accordingly.


Yes, you are saying the truth. I accept your true statement that this is how my meaning “seems” to you. Thank you for that true statement of how things seem to you.

Of course the fact that it seems that way bears no relationship whatsoever to any REASONABLE interpretation of my words. Sorry. Your statement is true only as an appraisal of your subjective (and totally wrong) interpretation of my words. It has no bearing whatsoever on the ACTUAL meaning of my words.
Please reevaluate accordingly.

To wit: I have never said that one person cannot be right while others are wrong. What I said is that CONTEMPT CAN BE AN ADDICTIVE DRUG. These facts are at right angles to each other. Indeed, contempt is contemptible, even if the person feeling it is right!

Alas, the rest of your statement simply dripped.... contempt! For the masses. Upon whom all our hope depends. (And who, to his own shock, de Tocqueville began giving grudging respect.)

If you are right, then we are doomed. I (and most of the others on this list) am dedicated to proving you wrong.

David Brin said...

Argh! my own system betrayed me. The lengthy anonymous comment re de Tocqueville and meme war is from David Brin.

Stefan Jones said...

Owwwwwwwwwwch!

Portrait fetches record-setting price for photography.

Don Quijote said...

Pax Americana (PA) imperial power CAN be justified in the 21st Century. The left is dippy-insipid when they rail against all uses, in principle, forgetting how grateful the people of Bosnia and Kosovo and Croatia were, when we used that power in fantastically effective police-like ways.

You keep forgetting all the other uses Pax Americana has been put to over the last century (Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Guatemala, Iran, Iraq, Haiti,etc...).

Hell, we can't even turn Haiti into a functional third world country and you want us to rule the world.

If you want to see the results of Pax Americana, look at Central America, 150 years under the American thumb and what do they have to show for it other than poverty, more poverty and a long list of civil wars in which we have been on the side of the oppressors.

monkyboy said...

This is China's century and I think they have their own ideas about "culture."

They have already selected Russia as their lapdogs, so America won't even get to take the British Empire's retirement slot...

Tangent said...

Part of the problem is that people become so attached to their conspiracy theories that they refuse to budge, even when science proves them wrong or more realistic alternatives become available.

I remember one forum board where the Politics section had a 9/11 discussion. Now, I hate sloppy science and sloppy thinking, and the conspiracy theorists there were going on about thermite and much of the stuff mentioned in your article, David.

Fortunately, I know someone who not only dislikes sloppy thinking but also is really into science. So I attracted his attention, directed him to the site, and let him unload all barrels into the argument, sinking it more thoroughly than the Titanic was by an iceberg. He went into detail about how much energy was released by the burning fuel and how a thermite explosion would have looked and all sorts of details like that.

They declared his math wrong (even though he provided formula for people to work the numbers), said that the metal supports would have to MELT to cause a collapse (not just be softened by a large amount of burning jet fuel for an hour), and absolutely REFUSED to budge. This conspiracy, with the Shrub as the grandmaster behind everything, was their baby. They refused to let it die.

I even offered them an out. I stated that it was entirely possible that the Shrub knew about the terrorist action ahead of time and either through ineptness or deliberateness didn't act on that knowledge, letting 9/11 commence (much like conspiracists claim that Roosevelt knew about Pearl Harbor ahead of time and didn't act).

They refused the bone I tossed them. No. The Shrub had to be the evil dictator who sent his own men in to plant thermite and kill any witnesses. Airplane fuel couldn't cause the collapse of the WTC. The impact couldn't have caused it. They were right. I and my colleague were wrong. There was no "maybe" about it or any "possibly" or any chance that they might be mistaken about some small point.

The truly sad thing is these were intelligent and articulate people who just so blindly believed in their precious conspiracy that they couldn't accept the possibility that they were wrong. I still don't understand why. But this could be part of what's with these idiots pushing this latest conspiracy theory. They're not provacateurs. They're blind idiots.

Rob H.

Stefan Jones said...

A meta-comment on the moral laziness of conspiracy thinking, from an old Bruce Sterling review of a paranoic Christian SF novel:

"If the world's fate is ineluctably in the hands of Illuminati, then what real reason do we have to meddle in public matters? Why make our thoughts and ideas heard? Why organize, why discuss public policy, why make budgets, why set priorities, why vote? We'll just get gypped anyhow. We'd all be better off retired, in hiding, underground, in monasteries, in purdah, or dead.

If the NSA's tapping every phone line and reading every license-plate from orbit, then They are basically omniscient. They're watching us every moment -- but why do they bother? What quality, besides our own vanity, would make us important enough to be constantly watched by Secret Masters? After all, it's not like we're actually intending to *accomplish* anything.

Conspiracy is for losers. As conspiracy freaks, by our very nature we'll always live on the outside of where it's Really Happening. That's what justifies our existence and allows us to tell Ourselves apart from Them. Unlike people in the former Eastern Bloc, who actually were oppressed and monitored by a sinister power-elite, we ourselves will never *become* what's Really Happening, despite our enormous relative advantages. Maybe we can speculate a little together, trade gossip, scare each other silly and swap outlandish bullshit. We can gather up our hacker scrapbooks from the office trash of the Important and Powerful. We can press our noses to the big mirrorglass windows. Maybe it we're especially daring, we can fling a brick through a window late one night and run like hell. That'll prove that we're brave and that we really don't like Them -- though we're not brave enough to replace Them, and we're certainly not brave enough to become Them.

And this would also prove that no sane person would ever trust us with a scintilla of real responsibility or power anyway, over ourselves or anyone else. Because we don't deserve any such power, no matter from what angle of the political spectrum we happen to emerge. Because we've allowed ourselves the ugly luxury of wallowing in an enormous noisome heap of bullshit. And for being so stupid, we deserve whatever we get."

Tony Fisk said...

Blind men refusing to budge? Could be provocateurs sticking to their guns.

I think I caught some of this taradiddle a while back. Missile attacks on the pentagon? AWACS substituting for commercial airliners? I ended up invoking the shave of Occam and, given the choice between a cast of hundreds of sworn defenders deliberately wrecking their own country in secret, and a cast of several sadmen conducting an initially standard set of hijackings, I plumped for...
(although I still raise an eyebrow about the lack of video footage at the pentagon, and the plane shown on the recently released stuff looks awfully small.)

Oh, and the best way to deal with WASPs like Coulter is to roll up your newspaper and go...*WHACK!*

palliard said...

Speaking of Ann Coulter... I was unaware that anyone viewed her as anything other than a shrill, as you say, "provocateur", someone who says outrageous things to get attention and provoke fights.

She doesn't look too bad for a woman with an Adam's Apple, but aside from that her "feistiness" is her only asset, and that's of dubious value.

Matt said...

michael vassar:

I did say barely credible. To be honest, I find incompetence, or simple unpreparedness, a more likely explanation. As far as the Bush and co. being a better choice than Kerry, well ... Bush has a lot of faults. He's certainly not my first choice as leader of the free world. But in the context of the 2004 elections, Kerry would have been, well, disastrous. If anything, he's more power-hungry and aquisitive than Bush (Bush may have been born rich, but Kerry married money, twice) and totally lacking in basic things like honesty, loyalty, that sort of thing. That was really a lesser-of-two-evils situation, far more so than most elections as the two choices were so unpalatable.

monkeyboy said: "This is China's century and I think they have their own ideas about "culture.""

Ah, the Conventional Wisdom. In this case I think it's just plain wrong: China may be growing rapidly right now, and that growth may even continue for another decade or two without a hiccup (though I doubt that very much.) In the long run, though, they're going to run into the Mother of All Demographic Problems. Besides which, there are the rising powers of India and Brazil to contend with. China will have a lot of influence this century, there's no dount about that, but the 21st century won't be the Chinese Century. If anything, the most likely prospect is a return to the Great Powers situation of the 19th century, with the Chinese sharing power with India, Brazil, and of course, America.

Dr. Brin:

Thanks for the long reply (and don't worry, I knew it was you. I'm sure we all did: your style is inimitable!) But I think I understand your point: it's not so much a matter of who's the greater threat, it's that the actions of the current American leadership act in synergy with the terrorists. Barbarians at the gates, and wannabe feudal lords in the houses of power.

Anyhow, as far as the future of Pax Americana goes, I really couldn't agree more with what you wrote ... it seems very similar to the ideas of Thomas Barnett.

Still, I'd dispute that Iraq was a blunderbuss: yeah, we toppled a government, but the collateral damage - including civilian deaths as well as infrastructure destruction - have been minimized to a degree that simply wasn't possible in previous wars, to say nothing of the historically insignificant fatality rate amongst American soldiers. There have been mistakes, sure ... but that's a feature of every war, especially a war fought with technologies and tactics that didn't even exist ten years ago. This is something that America (preferrably in coalition with regional powers like India, Brazil, or China) will have to do repeatedly over the next, oh, twenty or thirty years: go into the worst festering cesspits in the world, remove the vile thugs in power, and defend the peace from the inevitable insurrection long enough for a viable order to be set up that connects the government up to the global economy, enriches the people, and - as the big security payoff - drastically lowers any desire on the part of local youth to blow up innocent people in other parts of the world. Iraq and Afghanistan weren't wars, they were the first battles in a much longer war, and as always with any new kind of warfare, the learning curve was steep.

Of course, doing all this will require the cooperation of a lot of states, willingly given, not extorted. And as you said, the neocons have gone and made that way harder. So now the damage has been done: what next?

michael vassar said...

No David, you either didn't read De Tocqueville carefully or you were looking too hard at the parts that agreed with your preconceptions and not hard enough at the parts that disagreed. He certainly thought that the Anglo American path was better than the French path, in most respects anyway, but he saw both as part of what he saw as an irresistably strong trend towards equalization, a trend with major advantages and major disadvantages over what had come before. A trend the most critical drawback of which was its tendency (especially but not exclusively in France) to create what Nietzsche would soon call "The Last Man".

I would really like to be able to carry on a civil discussion with you and still hope to be able to do so. As I have asserted, there do seem to be few rationalists of conviction, few people who may often respond to disagreement with insults and sarcasm at times but who can actually be convinced to work towards true beliefs rather than simply trying to "prove wrong" those who hold your convictions to account. For this reason I have actually spent 2 hours on this post. I will be deeply disappointed if it is dismissed casually. I am trying here to recapitulate a discussion similar to this one that took place a few years ago on the Extropians list between Robin Hanson and Eliezer Yudkowski, suitibly updated and responsive to the context of our current situation. Robin's generalization of Aumann Agreement (http://hanson.gmu.edu/disagree.pdf http://hanson.gmu.edu/deceive.pdf) is extremely important to my thinking, and taking it seriously inevitably leads to difficult but potentially fruitful novel approaches to communication including an altered conception of respect and of arguments ab-homium.

Upon reappraisal it is clearly true that the position I attributed to you could not reasonably have been inferred from just the quotes I included.

Still, if the data at our fingertips is not sufficient to surrender any hope in proactive accountability in the world of ideas or in wise collective action by large groups I would honestly like to know what possible evidence would be sufficient. Could you offer a possible observation that would disprove your hypothesis; an explanation that would convince you that contemporary institutional frameworks for decision making are not improving, not wise, not characterized by great accountability relative to many that existed a century ago, and not more effective than the most capable humans at aggregating most kinds of data? I, for instance, would be convinced of your appearent thesis if over the next 20 years I came to live in a world resembling that in Vinge's new book "Rainbows End". The end of the drug war wouldn't nearly convince me, but it would give me a glimmer of hope.

Anyway, in the absence of an answer, it still seems to me that you are condemning (as contempt) certain assertions for reasons other than their appearent accuracy, and that you are using this condemnation as an argument ab hominum in order to excuse yourself from accountability for addressing the content of those assertions.

Psychologically you are certainly correct about contempt, and the psychological analysis of one's critics is an important part of accountability (because it is important that one be able to mentally dismiss irrational criticism without it eroding one's confidence less one's confidence ultimately be eroded to near zero). My last post to the contrary, such psychological analysis is not intrinsically contemptuous. I was using your word "contempt" (preceeded by the caveat "implicit") to refer to an absurdly diffuse region of cognitive space, using the name of an addictive emotion instead of an epistemological frame. The word that I initially and correctly used, before I incorrectly coopted yours, was "disrespectful". If the phrase "implicit contempt" in my post is replaced with the word "disrespect" I stand by it and I hope that after said correction you will no longer see the post itself as contemptuous.

I can assure you that the emotional tone behind it was closer to imploring and desperate. I no longer place any hope upon "society" (let's not say "the masses" as doing so obscures more than it clarifies unless one is to frame the discussion within a particular theory of mass human behavior). All of my expectations, positive and negative, were once placed there and all but crumbs of the "hope" component of my expectations have gradually fallen off as my knowledge grew. I now have little more respect for the ability of modern society to act in a basically sane manner than I have in the ability of Ancient Rome or Imperial China to do the same. Despite my loss of any expectation of sound outcomes in the ordinary course of things, I don't believe that we are knowably doomed if we believe in ourselves, and hold ourselves to truly unprecedentedly high standards of rationality and accountability e.g. those standards implied by the Aumann Agreement Theorem. The number of people who can plausibly be held to such standards is, however, terribly small, and I cannot afford to bring people to the brink of exertion only to have them fall away when their beliefs are flayed from their mind by their own rationality empowered respect for societal consensus. For this reason, and because what crumbs of hope remain when the normal course of events is seen to lead to extinction are terribly precious, desperation, not contempt, is the tone that should be seen dripping from my previous message, which I hope you will grant a second look.

I agree with you that "contempt is contemptible, even if the person feeling it is right!" but I strongly assert that disrespect is an epistemic stance (the stance of utilizing the ab homium, that is, of treating argumentative positions as psychologically rather than as logically motivated) and that it can not be legitimately criticized so long as it leads to correct beliefs (especially if it is the ONLY way in which such beliefs can be achieved).

monkyboy said...

matt,

Pax Britannica
Pax Americana
Pax Sinica

We already owe the Chinese a trillion bucks...maybe we can trade them our tarnished crown in payment?

We don't have much else to offer them...

David Brin said...

Matt, your rationalizations of reasons to perceive Kerry as more dangerous than a man who had a 100% record of ruthless lying and contempt for democracy are your own business... but please try to step outside of them and realize how absurd they look to the rest of us. Consider: might they be... mistaken? In fact, they are about as solid as the relentless eight year gopper smear that the Clintons had a hate-filled farce of a marriage. (I have personally seen proof of the opposite and the last 5 years disprove it; but the key thing is that rationalization becomes frantic when one side’s REAL justifications vanish toward zero.)

Similarly, for people to actually claim that a 300 billion dollar quagmire Land War in Asia can be justified on ANY basis... after utterly demolishing our military readiness, our stature in the world, our national internal cohesion and our finances... EXACTLY the same failure mode as Vietnam... is bcoming shrill and frantic denial. You would trust leaders who DELIBERATELY repeated that horror-mistake?

Men who succored and kissed and hugged Saddam (literally!), helped him to kill a million people, then were shocked (shocked!) that he attacked their patrons... then, when they had him in their hands... these same bozos dusted him off and put him BACK in charge, to torment Iraqis for a dozen MORE years... then blithely predicted “kisses and flowers” when we plunged back in with inadequate forces....

Compared to all that and a thousand times more, what the #$@$ did Kerry ever do to you?

----
Michael, I try to be polite, but you seem to have more time than me. Moreover, I find your actual points hard to follow. Yes, I know Robin Hanson well, and we have exchanged wisdom about disagreement. Yes?

If I understand you right, you seem to be saying that I should “surrender any hope in proactive accountability in the world of ideas or in wise collective action by large groups”... and alas, without meaning disrespect, I must break out laughing!

THE ENTIRE ENLIGHTENMENT IS ABOUT THIS! Everything about markets that works. Everything about democracy and science. Do I need proof when I can point to the lowest death rates, the tallest children, the best educated populace, the tamest police -- all of it relative, but overwhelming compared to what our ancestors knew. I HATE that my spoiled, complacent, smug, gopper neighbors elected another corrupt lobbyist in Tuesday. It takes a thick stomach lining for a realist to see such, then turn around and praise democracy!

What it takes is an awareness of history. If you do not see progress, Michael, you simply PROVE that you do not know history as well as you claim that you do.

I have never claimed that these new synergies are perfect! The experiment - breaking away from oligarchism in favor of reciprocal accountability - has only been tried TWICE in all of human history. The first time, in Athens, they had a brilliant new theory - by Pericles (as related by Thucydides) - that did not long survive his death. Unsurprising, now that we know how vastly difficult the job really was.

Perhaps a thousand years from now, citizens of the Third Try will say the same thing about us, marvelling over how close we came, without a clue of what additional vital ingredients we were missing. (One reason I push hard for every “new ingredient” I can think of!)

But I do know this, everything that is impressive about us derives from our better implementation of Pericles’s design.

Thanks for the lecture about epistemological perception cum courtesy. It was erudite, if utterly off target. Yes, “contempt” has many levels. And it is valid to suggest that a certain type of contempt may be valid. DId I not just speak with contempt toward my neighbors?

But they are CAVEMEN! CAVEMEN!

For them to rise up so far above themselves is stunning.

Dig it. At my son’s age I saw drinking fountains labelled WHITES and COLOREDs. 20 years earlier ALL of my European cousins slaughtered at the hands of monsters, in humanity’s worst nadir.

Sorry, Michael. But please. Don’t you DARE try to tell me there has not been progress. I have seen citizens of a great nation - the greatest - wean their hearts of a hundred poisonous things. There are a thousand more to go. But only the blind cannot see and praise them for what they have already done.

Hawker Hurricane said...

Thanks for the support, David. I'm a history 'nut', and WW2 is my period (google my nom de net for photos of my obsession). The 'FDR knew' conspiracy bugs the heck out of me. IF FDR knew, he could have sent a alert to have all the fighters in the air (300 fighters on Oahu! The Japanese only sent in 300 planes total)... or even a order to put up a active combat air patrol from dawn till 9am 'just in case'... and the Japanese attack would have been blunted, saving hundreds/thousands of lives, the cream of the Japanese carrier pilots would have been brutalized, and FDR would have the war he 'wanted'.

In a similar fasion, one plane into one building would have given GWB the war he wanted... no need for building collapse, nor multiple strikes.

Matt said...

michael vassar:

Alright, you might be one smart dude, or you might be stringing together random words. I honestly can't tell. Let me put it this way: I studied physics, but I know not to go yammering on about n-dimensional phase transitions when in the company of my english-major friends. So, please, dumb it down a bit, eh? Simple words, please.

Dr. Brin:

I'll concede the battle on Bush ... frankly I don't feel like working too hard to defend Bush. He's just not worth fighting for (neither is Kerry, or for that matter any of the other protozoans inside the beltway.) I wasn't really trying to come off as a Bush supporter; if I did that's just my contrarian nature getting the better of me. As for what did Kerry ever do to me? Nothing. Neither did Bush. Bush isn't my president: I'm a Canadian, bub (and living in Japan, natch) so I don't really have a horse in this race. Which lets me keep emotions out of it and look at things a little more dispassionately than a lot of Americans, caught up in the *groan* culture war (the biggest series of arguments about nothing since, oh, angels on pins.)

Basically, Bush is president now. If not, it'd be Kerry, and things wouldn't be much different, I think. Quibbling over whether Kerry would be better is a waste of thought: not only is it a hypothetical at this point, but frankly, we're talking about a candidate who was endorsed by johnkerryisadouchebagbutimvotingforhimanyways.com.

Iraq is another matter. Yes, The US embraced Saddam for decades, and yes, they have behaved contemptibly in the past. Fact is Saddam's gone now, the Iraqi people are free, and for the first time in history there's a Muslim democracy in the mideast (all the caveats above apply, but something is better than nothing.) I'm willing to admit I might be wrong, but the jury's still out and will be for a while.

Getting back to politics:
Neither of the Big Two strike me as all that different when it comes down to it: both are cynical and corrupt, both are hostile to the Enlightenment, both want to stop the future any way they can. Voting for one or the other won't make a difference in any way that counts; what's needed is more democracy. Open source politics. Referrenda on Everything. Real decision-making accountability (for instance, statistical analysis of the actual effectiveness of legislation, with the useless dross being summarily struck down.) That sort of thing. Essentially, an extension of the franchise to the point where the legislature and the citizenry are like alphabets and dictionaries in Chinese: synonymous. Neither the GOP nor the Dems are likely to offer any of that, because they both have a good thing going, whether they're in power or not.

What I fear/hope/expect (and this may well be youthful hot-headedness talking here, please bear in mind I'm only 25) is that something just short of a revolution will be required to see any real positive change. I'm not talking Paris 1790s, or Russia 1910s, more like what happened in England: the class just below the current ruling power (the aristocracy in the Magna Carta, the common people when the House of Commons was established) having to use the threat of force to get real concessions out of the current ruling strata. I don't really see any other way, and it doesn't have to be, probably won't be, sinister (think the Velvet Revolutin, or the Orange Revolution): one of the good things about the ruling class in the States is that, when it comes right down to it, I can't see them using massive force to put down a popular uprising against excessive concentration of power. We're not dealing with Nazis, on either side: just a mixture or corruption, ignorance, incompetence, and inertia; and, I imagine in most cases, a genuine desire to do good, impeded by misguided notions about how the world works. And, yes, I include even the neocons in that characterization. If or when people decide to make a real democracy, the current elite won't fight tooth and nail to keep it from happening.

michael vassar said...

Yep Dave. Sorry, but that is the gist of it. Enlightenment? Great idea. Worked literal wonders. It was a tool SO POWERFUL that it was up to any task that history has demanded of it so far... except for nuclear weapons and megascale disasters, where I think we basically just got lucky. Those and the invention of radio, which gave rhetoric the supremacy over logic when dealing with crowds of millions that it had always held when dealing with crowds of thousands.

It's dead now though, and we are just coasting on its momentum. Periclean Athens didn't last a century, but Greek science, philosophy, art, technology, and (in some respects) even political economy and culture continued to advance for centuries after its fall. All those things went on. Progress went on. But it only takes a glance at the higher derivatives of progress, and at the astoundingly expanded inputs that produced no important increase in the rate of output, to see that the machinery driving society to such heights is gone.

You see progress? So do I! And I look a century back and see progress there too. Progress at a rate fully comparable to our own. Produced by far fewer than 1% as many people at far less than .1% the inflation adjusted cost. What I don't see is Kurzweil's curves. Neither do most people. But look at the implicit theories you use to understand progress. Look at what they predict. Whatever the details of those theories may be, They Predict Such Curves! You know, technically you can't have understood Robin's points AND laugh without disrespect. Likewise, you can't laugh at Kurzweil's conclusions without disrespect. You can disagree without laughing, but ONLY because you have not yet told him of your disagreement.

"Do I need proof when I can point to the lowest death rates, the tallest children, the best educated populace, the tamest polic" Hmm. Cuba has the same Death rate as the US, and Japan, far from a bastion of accountability in any age, has by far the lowest. Denmark has the tallest children, a real accomplishment for a relatively accountable people, but in the US the children have not grown for decades and where once they were taller now they are far shorter than the Danes.

The best educated populace appears to me to lie far in the past, though where and when depends on how one weighs different thresholds of educational attainment. Pre-War Hungary probably achieved the highest incidence of scientific achievement among it's college educated class. The Communists and Japanese always far exceeded us Americans in basic literacy. New England around the time of the Civil War (before the invention of compulsory education) was probably the largest society where the vast majority of the populace ever reached the level of full literacy required to participate fully in a national dialogue. The capacity for easily reading and understanding the NY Times or it's equivalent or literary fiction. This literacy is now achieved by only about 7% of Americans. (see http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/) Likewise, SAT scores have declined in spite of the rise of an industry of test preparation and even after the socio-economic class of test takers is accounted for. http://www.uwgb.edu/DutchS/PSEUDOSC/DENYSAT.HTM

The tamest public... I think that the Chinese peasantry probably is and always has been most tame, or perhaps that title goes yet again to the unaccountable Japanese. But tame people don't rock the boat. They don't speak up and hold their superiors accountable. There is a reason that the story is about the Emperor of China wearing no clothes. On the other hand, the fact that we have allowed our government to imprison 1% of the population implies that our populace must be pretty tame.

If the force behind the Enlightenment was still present I would be confident in our society's ability to deal with our immediate and pressing problems. Global Warming, Peak Oil, Neocon Takeover, massive intergenerational debt, medical price explosions, decaying infrastructure, Islamism, antibiotic resistance, demographic challenges, biotech weapons, Oligarchy, Christian Fundamentalism, stagnant educational achievement, life expectancy, and technological progresses on targeted goals such as cancer treatment... none of these problems are of a magnitude greater than that of those we have successfully confronted in the past.

In fact, many of these challenges wouldn't even BE problems if we lived in a society of reason and accontability. For these sorts of problems, your sort of solution, if they could be implemented, (that is if we fought on a playing field where scheming cabals of mediocre petty oligarchs didn't have an insurmountable competitive as opposed to creative advantage over the advocates of openness who oppose them), would be more than sufficient. Implemented fully, such solutions would solve all of the problems listed above, would over-solve them, would solve them trivially, and would produce, in well under a century in the normal course of events, a world where 10 billion people could live in more security and comfort relative to that which we experience today than we experience relative to Russian serfs.

If we could do a good enough job restoring Enlightenment institutions, and exhalting them to a level of sophistication far beyond that which they lost during the last century, there might even be a chance that we could solve the problem of general artificial intelligence without destroying ourselves in the process. There might be such a chance. Or there might not, because AI is NOT a problem of magnitude commesurate with those we have faced before and across the stretch of time I see not the slightest suggestion that Enlightenment institutions have had even a hint of success on any comparibly difficult problem in the past.

Dave... At their very best, in their finest hour, the institutional foundations of our civilization weren't even enough to prevent war! Not even enough to put the Union and the UK on the same side in the Civil War! And now, if we are to surive for a century or two with our civilization intact we have to somehow preserve freedom of thought while preventing every single instance of reckless experimentation! The US couldn't even do that with it's own constitutions, as we know from prohibition.

Trivial infallibility, the immunity to gross, stupid and novel mistakes in those cases where sounder reasoning is provided by a respected source. The Enlightenment has never offered that standard of reliability. Not in the most stable and cautious central document of its best national examplar at the height of the Enlightenment's influence. Neither has any other source of institutions, but the combination of dedication and Bayesian decision theory has. People informed by Aumann agreement can be, and in some cases actually are, trivially infallible. In the absence of trivial infallibility, the production of a general and transhuman AI is certain species suicide. To survive AI through the use of global enlightenment institutions we don't need a trivially infallible US constitution. We need a trivially infallible global scientific establishment, a much much taller order. I see no hope at all of achieving that in the time given, and I do see alternatives with some promise.

What are these alternatives? The few dozen European philosophers who started the Enlightenment project didn't go about it by trying to convince everyone else in the world to go along with them. Instead, they simply ignored the rest of the world and set to work. In time, because they were right, because their scientific method WAS so much more powerful than the alternatives, than tradition, dogma, and common sense, much of the rest of the world came to them, and their institution grew until it reached a scale where its internal structure couldn't scale up any farther, after which parasitic institutions grew up around it and continued to expand in its name.

Anyway, it seems to me that it's time for the Third Try you mentioned. Now, not 1000 years from now. We have major vital ingredients that we didn't have then, AND we have logic and heuristics for evaluating the new heuristics. It's much easier to make a baby than to rejuvenate an Alzheimers victim.

palliard said...

@ matt:

I think that, if the American people get riled up enough to care about politics again on anything more than a superficial level, they're going to realize that this faux-Democan-Republicrat choice they're currently presented with isn't any choice at all.

Party strategerists are worried about this, not because they're worried about the two-party system the cling to getting broken, but because they're worried about their own party getting split and losing a hunk of the pie, as happened with Ross Perot and (reaching back) Roosevelt's Bull Moose run. If only one side of the two-party system gets fractured, the other side gets a free ride.

We can switch to a more parliamentary system, but only if both sides get broken in the same election. 2008 presents a prime opportunity... on the Republican side, hard-line religious consertives and hard-line small-government budget-conscious libertarians are set to rebel against the jingoistic corporatists currently in control... on the Democrat side, the anti-globalists trade unionists are ready to split from the progressives and socialists.

I'm not optimistic about breaking the two-party system, it has a lot of historical intertia... but you gotta take the chances you get.

Francis said...

Don't let Kitty Genovese rule the world.

I don't intend to. I don't want to be ruled by frenzies of blame whipped up by the press and based on distortions.

Michael, I do think that radio and the TV dealt a massive blow to the Enlightenment as they are both easy ways to get people to consume rhetoric - but it's not dead and won't be dead as long as I draw breath. I also think that the Enlightenment has struck back hard in the last ten years by popularising its own medium - the internet.

Francis said...

Oh, I forgot to mention that one of the main problems I believe that current science has is a much higher barrier to entry than in previous generations (certainly since the medaeval alchemists) - yes, you can get most of the facts delivered to you quite easily, but you need masses of equiptment to advance the frontiers of knowledge in science (think CERN or a biolab) in all save a very few fields.

For that matter, I'm trying to think of any great amateurs since Ramunjan (and I'm not sure that mathematicians entirely count).

For the alchemists, there was a high barrier to entry to find the knowledge, and another high one to get the materials. Currently, finding the knowledge is easy - but reaching sufficiently far so as to even know where the limits are isn't easy. (And I don't mean pop-sci). And then about all the non-professional can normally do is try to fill in trivial gaps.

In this, as so much else, we need a new frontier.

Joel said...

Speaking of transparency, I wonder if you've seen this website yet: How NOT to steal a SideKick II. I think it's a wonderful example of how ubiquitous, networked cameras are making some kinds of crime more difficult...especially for folks who don't understand that taking pictures of yourself with a cell phone will transmit evidence to the person paying the wireless bill. The attempts to threaten the author are depressingly misguided, as are the author's sophomoric claims that strict property rights are a universal human institution, not the intellectual heritage of the enlightenment. No one in this story considers the possibility that they might be wrong, most especially the folks with the "finders, keepers" policy...it's a really sad story, except that it would all be worse without the technology.

David Brin said...

Michael, excuse me. I said tamest POLICE. And that matters a lot. They are only 5% thugs, a % that is the lowest it has been since Chief Thog chose Zu & Tumak to enforce the Law.

Your exegesis is interesting and thought provoking... and I have seldom seen a list of sentences that I find so relentlessly and overwhelmingly wrong, at almost every level. Lacking time and energy (I just gave blood) we are just going to have to leave it there. I'll let you have the last word.

Except I cannot imagine how you hope to start a Third Try if this cicvilization is as F**ed as you say and the people such morons. The kleptos will win their struggle to crush the Experiment. And, knowing what they do, it will take that thousand years for it to be tried again.

...

Oh but I read on and see there are MORE of you dyspetic types. Yeesh!

1. I will not abide the cynical shrug that democrats and republicans are the same. Yes, both have dogmatic wings filled with monsters. The DIFFERENCE is that the GOP is utterly run and operated totally by its monsters, and the Dems are totally NOT run by theirs. Indeed, the DemParty is the one major institution in American life that still has a modernist-pragmatic agenda. One almost entirely NON socialist, by the way. Indeed, pork, waste, fraud, deficits, Big Government and market meddling (pre-choosing winners and losers) are ENTIRELY republican vices, nowadays. One hundred percent.

2. TV is just like every other mass medium. It starts out a vehicle for divisive-simplistic propaganda. The printing press led directly into the Wars of the Reformation. 1850s America was filled with literate people who read newspapers... that were one-sided rags, leading to the Civil War. Hitler exploited the mesmerizing amplification of radio-loudspeakers... and so on...

But dig it. When each of these media MATURED they became (in the right (enlightenment) place) media for discussion rather than polemic. When this happens on the internet (and I am working hard to help that happen...)

Rob said...

Matt said:

"This is something that America (preferrably in coalition with regional powers like India, Brazil, or China) will have to do repeatedly over the next, oh, twenty or thirty years: go into the worst festering cesspits in the world, remove the vile thugs in power, and defend the peace from the inevitable insurrection long enough for a viable order to be set up that connects the government up to the global economy, enriches the people, and - as the big security payoff - drastically lowers any desire on the part of local youth to blow up innocent people in other parts of the world."

Umm, with what army are we going to do this? The one that has to basically hold people at economic and/or legal gunpoint to get them to stay in it? The one that has to sign up criminals and dullards to meet their recruitment needs? And do you think the American people are going to continue to tolerate their tax dollars being spent by the hundreds of billions on these foreign adventures, or that the foreign powers who bankroll our debt will continue to do so in perpetuity?

Dr. Brin is ever-optimistic that we will survive this neo-con age of insanity and experience a second Renaissance. By nature I am not an optimist, and the Busby-Bilbray race is one more straw on the modernist camel's back; Busby apparently lost not because of her character or policy positions, but because of a misstatement that was blown out of proportion and trumpeted all over the district, which energized enough of the Republican base in a majority-Republican district to defeat her. Hurrah for reason! Cavemen indeed; and we are a nation of cavemen who seem content to vote for the candidate who makes the most pleasing speeches rather than the one who makes the most sense. How else to explain the 2000 and 2004 elections? How about 1988 "read my lips, no new taxes" vs. "Willie Horton/nerd in a tank?" How about 1994's "Contract with America," only two years after "don't stop thinking about tomorrow?"

Yes, Democracy is on the march. Unfortunately, so is inanity, idiocy, and indolence. Alliteration is so much fun.

Matt said...

rob:

Wow, contempt for the military AND for democracy all in one lovely package.

Sorry. Don't buy it.

David Brin said...

Feh! Indignation is a drug.

fact: my district is GERRYMANDERED! Yes, by democrats who control it in Calif. And yes, that is a bad thing... overall. But in the short term tactical fight, the fact that my district is heavily warped republican is more a reflection on the prosperity that you guys have heaped on me, than on vast stupidity of the populace!

fact: In fact, I am proud that my dullard gop neighbors ALMOST voted in a democrat. And one who wore lavendar while preaching liberal messages when even a dingbat should have known how to win in this district... by being a hard nosed "moderate dem."

So let's cheer up. This means NOTHING. Let's fight on.

As for Matt... you are simply WRONG to slag the US military. They are the biggest VICTIMS of the monsters! Think about that!

Most of the deaths and ruined families. All of the ruination of their skills and readiness. All the hellish waste of time and life.

It is guys who diss those folks who are part of the PROBLEM! They are part of the reason Rove can maintain culture war.

michael v said...

David: My bad about "tamest populace". I don't really know how tame our police are relative to those in other countries, but they sure throw an awful lot of people in prison. It's not the very worst incarceration rate of any nation ever, but pretty close. I suspect that our Thug percentage is closer to 20% than to 5% but that this IS the lowest it has ever been in the US. On the other hand, the percent of our population who are police is now 1.5%, up from .5% 100 years ago and 0% 150 years ago. I'm disappointed that you disagree so vehemently and hope that you will try to explain at some point. I suspect that you are generally responding to a strawman of what I am saying. You certainly were last time when you accused me of denying progress. However, I can let you be while you get some rest. E-mail me when you are up to it.
I think that there have rarely been any barriers to setting up systems of rational inquiry. It's just that few people bother to do so. Real rationality doesn't scare the powers that be. Real rationality is so strange and alien to them that it can't even be recognized as a threat. It didn't die as a result of suppression the first time. It just died. Or did you think that I was walking about setting up a rival political system and not just a scientific system? Look at the LDS or the Scientologists. Flakes, but they have been able to set up their systems. If they cared to put together institutions for rational inquiry, and they knew how to do so, they could do so easily. It will be more difficult for me, but I'll give it my best shot with the help of whoever else cares.

Rob: Unlike you I AM by nature an optimist. Like Bill Joy. Look at his bio some time for confirmation. It is the fact that I am an optimist that enables me to honestly look at the data and see how bad the situation looks rather than retreating into self-deception.

palliard said...

I will not abide the cynical shrug that democrats and republicans are the same.

"What turns a man cynical? Gold? Lust for power? Or were you just born with a heart full of cynicism?"

I dunno, while I can see some differences on foreign policy, I genuinely don't care that much what happens to Iraq. Reducing the whole Middle East to a radioactive glassine slagheap would really simplify things in a lot of ways.

On stuff I DO care about, which is to say, domestic policy stuff... well, actions speak louder than words. So where does your average Democrat or Republican stand on:
-Prison reform
-Decriminalizing victimless "crimes"
-Spying on American citizens
-Eliminating liability-less corporations
-Adjusting the criminal justice system to not favor the wealthy

If you answered "together", you won $64.

I'm not insensitive to foreign troop deployments, but they're not the bread-and-butter of my politics.

gilmoure said...

If Shakespeare wrote the U.S. Constitution...

monkyboy said...

Dr. Brin,

You seem to be defending the U.S. military using the "guns don't kill people, people kill people" argument.

The U.S. "defense" budget was $286 billion when Clinton left office, now it's over $500 billion.

If you ignore the "defense" budget, everything else the kleptocrats steal is just pocket change...

Andrew Smith said...

They steal it by getting defense contracts...

monkyboy said...

Close, andrew...

They steal by getting their "cut" from the defense budget.

That's why Social Security is next up for the kleptos...they currently get no "cut" from all those checks going out.

The push to "reform" Social Security is just an attempt to funnel the $500 billion it sends out each year through Republican front companies.

Imagine the fees 100+ million "private" retirement accounts would generate.

Francis said...

On stuff I DO care about, which is to say, domestic policy stuff... well, actions speak louder than words. So where does your average Democrat or Republican stand on:
-Prison reform

Pass. The Republican party does seem to be less against torture than the Democratic party - but that may not apply to domestic prisoners.

-Decriminalizing victimless "crimes"

Together - neither seems to want to do this.

-Spying on American citizens

The Democrats are neutral - they think that you should get a warrant first (and Clinton signed this into law). The Republicans think that the Shrub can do whatever he wants as He Is President ™. (And would yowl to high heaven if a democrat was president).

-Eliminating liability-less corporations

They both take too many donations to want to do this.

-Adjusting the criminal justice system to not favor the wealthy

The Democratic party doesn't support much adjustment of the criminal justice system - they are in the pocket of the Trial Lawyers Association who like things just fine, thank you.

The Republican Party favours so-called Tort Reform - i.e. adjusting the criminal justice system to further favour the wealthy.

If you answered "together", you won $64.

In the form of a "Tax Rebate". On two of your five points, the Democratic Party is considerably more progressive (or, to be more accurate, less regressive) than the Republican party. And you say they stand together. Right.

I am not a fan of the Democratic Party - as far as I am concerned, they are a group of deceptive right-wingers who claim to speak for the poor. OTOH, the Republican party has taken a swan dive off the end of the right wing into naked kleptocracy. And there are attempts to say they are the same.

And this is an observation made by a disinterested foreign observer.

Monkeyboy, the people looting the US defence budget ARE NOT THE SOLDIERS, paid low wages to get shot at. They are not even the generals, paid a salary to organise troops (although like most peace time militaries, the US military is brass heavy (other than in captains)). They are the mercenary companies and other companies (Haliburton being almost at the top of the list) who make money out of war.

The poor buggers in the military who you are blaming are paid peanuts to get shot at. They are the single group being screwed most by the kleptocrats. They need help, not blame.

monkyboy said...

francis,

The entire pointy end of the U.S. military is about 135,000 combat troops whose salaries account for less than 1% of the defense budget.

Every else in the business (officers included) are more than happy to float the fantasy that China is a threat to us and we could actually defend ourselves against 1.3 billion people if they wanted to attack us...

Francis said...

Monkeyboy,
That's a little simplistic but not too far from the truth (the M1A1 and some of the planes are truly scary pieces of kit).

But you have mentioned that there is a military caste and that come from towns you have never heard of. The people who come from towns you have never heard of (and in particular the casualties) are those paid by the 1% of the defence budget. Do not blame them for taking very few dollars to be shot at. They are not the ones making money from the more corrupt part of the budget (nor, for that matter, are a lot of the officers).

It is the attack on those paid by the 1% (who should be your allies as their lives are being squandered for very little remuneration) that is truly stupid and counterproductive. Stop trying to turn natural (but slightly misinformed) allies into enemies.

Rob Perkins said...

I make more sitting on my backside programming computers for a small business than any 10-year military officer of any rank. I've seen the payscale schedules.

The people who join the military are almost never in it for the money.

Rob said...

Matt said:
"Wow, contempt for the military AND for democracy all in one lovely package.

Sorry. Don't buy it."

It's not contempt for the military. It's facing the reality that short of reinstating the draft, your vision of an interventionist foreign policy is an impossibility. We can barely sustain the effort we are undertaking as it is; don't tell me you don't see the clear signs of strain.

As far as contempt for democracy, yes, you could say that I'm not exactly thrilled with our stewardship of democracy lately. You remember Ben Franklin's response to the lady who asked him what the Constitutional Convention had created: "A republic, if you can keep it." Well, the American people have done a piss-poor job of it the past several elections, from my perspective. We've ALLOWED our districts to be gerrymandered, without any accountability at the ballot box. We had a major metropolitan area destroyed by hurricanes, yet the public outcry at the paucity of relief efforts appears to have had negligible effect on our "democracy" in terms of accountability or change.

Only 30 years ago we had an incredible Constitutional crisis in this country when the powers of government were turned on the citizens it supposedly serves for the benefit of those in power; we had a grand "accountability moment", forced the corrupt leaders out of office, and passed laws to regulate the use of those powers. The system works! And in 30 years we've come full circle, the powers of government are again used against the citizens of the nation, and this time not in secret but brazenly, openly, and proudly! Yet half the country seems perfectly OK with this, there are no demonstrations in the streets, no recall movements are in evidence; and while there are rumors and whispers about a Democratic/Progressive resurgence and how it's a real possibility that the 2006 elections will return the Democratic Party to power, I'll believe it when I see it.

"Indignation is a drug" is a glib statement. Smugness and complacency are also drugs, as far as I'm concerned, and I'm wondering what it will take to get us on the wagon again.

Frank said...

"Indignation is a drug" is a glib statement. Smugness and complacency are also drugs, as far as I'm concerned, and I'm wondering what it will take to get us on the wagon again.

"Indigation is a drug" makes perfect sense within the context of extremism. Indignation is the anger aroused by something unjust, mean, or unworthy and strictly speaking it can only become a problem if left unchecked. Like within a monoculture where beliefs are simply expressed and thus reaffirmed again and again.

It's indignation that got us all in the situation we are in now. The Muslim terrorists, the Klepto-Neocons, whatever motives they had
they couldn't have done what they did without the help of the indignated populace.

So what do we do ? Replace one indignation with another? Fight fire with fire ? Or is there a different solution ?

Can we act without anger and instead let concern be our driving force?

jomama said...

Arguably our greatest "miracle" is that every American generation across two centuries has done so, imaginatively and resourcefully, without over-reacting or killing the golden goose of market freedom...

It remains to be seen if the current generation even understands what market freedom entails.