The Black Poodle

There have always been certain issues that function as litmus tests, in that there is a factually correct position and many factually incorrect positions. Those wrong position, however, tell us things about the person holding them. Gun control is the best example. The right position is based on a mountain of data collected over generations. The wrong positions range from uninformed to the mendacious. As a result, the gun issues is a good litmus test. A person wrong on guns is telling us things about themselves.

The universal basic income is shaping up to be another one of those litmus test issues, where the self-righteous and fashionable use it to advertise their virtue and edginess, but also tell us about their ignorance. The other day, the leader of America’s hipster intellectuals, Claire Lehmann dramatically announced she is now on board with the universal basic income. In fact, Andrew Yang’s goofy Asian hipster populism platform is starting to become the cool thing among our edgy trend setters.

The giveaway at this point, with this issue, is in that linked Quillette post. “There are reasonable arguments to be leveled in good faith against the UBI platform, which Yang has dubbed “The Freedom Dividend,” but what was once considered a utopian pipe-dream is beginning to sound more plausible in light of the unfolding tectonic economic and technological shifts.” Are there reasonable arguments made in bad faith? That line makes clear that one side is virtue signaling, hoping the other side plays the role of skeptic.

What’s shaping up is the UBI is going to be the hipster beard for the politically active millennials, who dream of living as the Eloi. As was brilliantly explained before, it can’t possibly work as expected, but that is part of the attraction. That’s always part of the appeal to utopianism. The believers are emotionally wedded to the idea because the Promised Land always feels just out of reach. The world without work, where everyone is free to self-actualize and get a gold star from teacher is the millennial dream.

The math of UBI is really not worth discussing, however, as the people excited by it are incapable of grasping it anyway. They are simply using the issue to stake out what they think is the moral high ground. Yang is a very smart guy, who grew up studying the people now flocking to these sorts of ideas. The alt-right thinks they meme’d him into existence, but Yang looks a lot like an East Asian Obama. That is, he is the sort of minority who flatters upper-middle class white Progressives just be existing.

The real problem with the UBI is it is part of the larger trend of infantilizing people, turning them into wards of the custodial state. A society where everyone is watched, where everyone has their speech monitored, where everyone is on an allowance, is called a prison. That’s how prisons work. Given the tender sensibilities of the next generation, this world is evolving into a daycare center. Ideas like UBI are not about economics. They are about normalizing the custodial state. UBI is Faust’s poodle.

The problems that UBI are supposed to address are real and concerning. Automation is replacing labor at an alarming rate. Sure, the robot future is wildly exaggerated, mostly by people who have no experience in the real world. Most people reading this, for example, will not live to see robot trucks roaming the highways. Still automation is a serious issue facing the West. The consequences are frightening, not for material reasons, but because they will force the West to face up to the reality of culture and social organization.

You’ll note that in the linked Quillette article, there is no mention of immigration. The latest data show that Trump’s alleged jobs boom is mostly just a boom in migrants finding work in America. End immigration and automation suddenly is a different issue. In fact, it becomes a tolerable issue, because a society willing and able to put its own interest ahead of strangers is able to rationally address the sorts of welfare schemes required to support friends and neighbors. That’s the fear that truly haunts our ruling class.

In fact, the fear of facing up to the basic questions every society must address is what is behind the fear of automation and technology. When Tucker Carlson told Ben Shapiro that he would happily ban certain forms of automation, Shapiro nearly burst into tears because he lives in fear of ever having to face the questions Carlson raised. When you face the questions “Who are we and what sort of society do we want?”, things like automation and social welfare become less frightening. UBI is a way to avoid facing those questions.

Litmus tests like gun control or now UBI offer an opportunity to introduce the subjects that our betters would prefer not to discuss. UBI is a door that opens to a debate about who we are and what kind of society we want. That inevitably leads to the question of who gets to decide and why. That debate is always a part of what defines a society. For the modern West, it is a part that has no conscious place in our political life. Talking about the details may not be a lot of fun, but even a deal with the devil has opportunities.

The Great Drama

For all of human history, the people in charge of society have had to both publicly demonstrate their piety and enforce public morality. Maybe the ruler got the blessing of the religious leaders and ruled according to their doctrines. Maybe the ruler was the head of the religion or even considered a god. His decrees were in support of his rule, but also the faith over which he ruled. In all cases, public ritual has always been an integral part of how the ruler relates to the ruled and how the ruled understand their society.

The ritual aspects of public life often go unnoticed, because the rituals are a part of the shared reality of the people. The ceremonies and rituals of society objectify this shared reality in the form of roles, mores and values. These rituals bind the private life of the citizen to the public life of society, creating a shared reality we think of as culture. For the people in a society, this shared reality is just reality. The public projections of shared morality are simply part of the commonly accepted structure of life.

Just as important, the people participate in this reality by playing their roles as part of how they are incorporated into the public space. The rulers do the things rulers do, while the spiritual leaders perform the roles and ceremonies for their role. The people respond according their role and bear witness to these public displays. By performing these ceremonies, rituals and customs, the people in the various roles are reinforced as that element of the shared reality. The public performance provides cultural meaning.

Think of the rituals of primitive people. The songs, dances and costumes are not part of a causal relationship. They are not performing X ritual because it will lead to Y result. They perform their rituals, because to not do so would separate them from what defines them as a people. The ritual is a part of their core and it binds the members, even those on the fringe, to that core. It is upon that core that their other social structures are built. To those inside, it is deeply meaningful. To those outside it is entirely meaningless.

In modern America, the political ritual has replaced religion and even regional culture, with a narrative that plays out on television and the internet every day. This narrative is a repetition of an old rhythm that dates to the founding. There is the sense of communal responsibility. There is the threat to the community that is spiritually well understood, but otherwise ill-defined. Within this construct, there are the roles for the moral leaders, the purely secular and the internal threat that binds with the external threat.

The template for this is the old New England town, living in fear of Old Scratch, the eternal tempter, who exists on the fringe of society. His presence defines the righteous, but is ignored by those only concerned with daily life. Troubles in the village, a bad harvest or maybe some unusual behavior, set the righteous against the secular, allowing them to maintain the moral high ground in society. At some point, the one cavorting with Old Scratch is found and is ritualistically punished for putting the community at risk.

Today, the word “democracy” is used instead of community. It transcends the literal definition to include the shared spiritual, cultural and emotional habitat. A threat to democracy is not someone rigging an election or causing the tabulation equipment to malfunction. In this age, a threat to democracy is a threat to our existence, in the same way a threat to the mother of small children is a threat to her small children. These threats are best understood as a threat to the emotional logic that operates our society.

As a result, our political theater is an endless loop of the Left declaring some threat to democracy, while the Right is either skeptical or insufficiently enthusiastic for defending democracy against this new threat. The threat itself can be nothing particular, as it is just a stock character in the drama. The Left warns, the Right scoffs, the threat inside our democracy is found and the Left demands punishment in blood. This is a narrative that is replayed on all stages of public life, both small and large. It is our shared narrative.

As is any drama, the characters are all interdependent. Instead of these being written into our national morality tale by clever writers, they are created and perpetuated by the players themselves. The Left is conditioned to create some version of the secular, materialistic Right, as well as the spiritual threat to the community. For its part, the Right is conditioned to seek out and play their role as well. As soon as the Left conjures a new version of Old Scratch, the Right responds by dismissing it in some way.

The roles of tempter and collaborator are also performed voluntarily. Take, for example, the alt-right a few years ago. They immediately went for the taboo iconography in order to make themselves both the thing the Left fears and the collaborator with that threat. You had suburban white boys from good families, dressing up as Nazis, while holding torch light processions. It was entirely symbolic. It was a plea to have a larger part in the national morality play, like a child’s plea for attention from a parent.

It’s why this summer we will probably have a long running drama about reparations to the descendants of slaves. It has nothing to do with the blacks. It is simply a casting call for all of the best performers to show up and perform their role. There will be plenty of self-righteous Progressives. On the Right, the skeptical, but tormented right-winger and the selfish and obtuse right-winger will have roles. The crowd will divide among those who prize spiritual fulfillment and those obsessed with material happiness.

Of course, it does not have to be about reparations. There are many possible themes around which to build the narrative this year. Ilhan Omar has given the usual suspects a reason to fret over antisemitism. Elizabeth Warren wants it to be about the threat of big business to our democracy. Ocasio-Cortez would like a dramatic performance of democratic socialism. The subject is no important, as the Left and the Right know their roles so well, they can play off of one another without a script.

This national narrative is why outsider politics never gains traction. There is no role for a second moralistic character. There can only be one righteous main figure in this tale, as to have others would suggest alternative moralities. The whole point of the performance is reinforce the only allowable morality. That leaves the other roles, which is why anything that is an authentic alternative either drifts into the role of the materialist Right or the roles of Old Scratch and his subversive tools within the society of the righteous.

That is the great struggle for alternative politics. Those seeking to build an authentic alternative must accept that they can never be in that drama, as to do so strips them of their authenticity as outsiders. At the same time, they must guard against being cast as the threat, the tempter, as that is just as ruinous as being the foil of the Left. Instead, like an obscure playwright working on his craft, the authentic alternative must build an alternative narrative that exists outside the defining narrative of the age.

This is what happened in the Enlightenment. The new philosophies of social organization that sprouted in that age, were alternatives to the dominant narrative structure of the age. Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau started from a blank sheet, writing a new understanding of community and their narrative structure. They did not think of it that way, but that is in effect what they were doing when pondering a new origin of human society. A new origin means a new story and that requires a new narrative drama.

The new drama meant the kings and aristocrats had to be swept away in order to install the new narrative. Those roles and symbols were of the old narrative. To preserve the old roles and symbols would mean maintaining the old moral order, at least symbolically. To kill the king was to kill his role and kill the relationship between his character and the drama. The liberal democratic revolution replaced more than institutions. It erased the old narrative and created a new one, with new roles and new national characters.

Panics

The news brought word that former Baylor football player Shawn Oakman was acquitted of second-degree felony sexual assault by a Texas jury. He was one of three players charged in the sexual assault panic that gripped Baylor University in 2016. That scandal resulted in mass firings, including the president of the university, Ken Starr. A law firm was hired to investigate the claims and their super-secret report led the board to purge the university of just about anyone connected to the football program.

Despite the rumors and over-heated press accounts, there was never much in the way of details to assess. In addition to Oakman, two other players were charged with crimes related to the panic. One player, Tevin Elliot, was sent away for twenty years, while the other player, Sam Ukwuachu, got 180 days for sexual assault. The case against Elliot was strong, even if a bit exaggerated. The case against Ukwuachu was the more familiar story of foggy memories, questionable claims and female regret.

There were some serious crimes committed by at least one player, so the affair was not without some merit. It’s that the hysteria was always way out of proportion, relative to what actually happened. The final result is one player who did some very bad things. One player who probably used poor judgement and another player who was accused, but acquitted. That hardly warrants dozens of firings, millions of dollars in tribunals and tens of millions in settlements to the people fired from their jobs.

Many of the allegations were so ridiculous, it’s hard to understand how anyone took them seriously. This one is reminiscent of the Virginia rape hoax. On the other hand, this seems to be a part of these sorts of panics. The adults dismiss the crazy talk and then there is a real crime. At that point every coed with a grievance shows up to testify about her night of torment and passion at the hands of some brute. The people in charge convene a tribunal where spectral evidence is presented from a parade of young women.

It is an interesting dynamic. The adults who initially dismiss the vivid claims are not wrong to be skeptical. Probably 95% of these tales are imaginary. Maybe more. On the other hand, the people panicking when a real crime occurs are not unreasonable. Colleges are the safest places on earth, so a real violent predator is like a fox in a hen house. The real victims are perfectly justified in pursuing their claims, even if it sets off a panic. In the moment, everyone is acting in what they think is their best interest.

That said, the aftermath of these panics also follows a pattern. Once everyone has virtue signaled on the issue, the show closes, the dogs bark and the caravan moves on. Then years later we learn that pretty much none of what was reported was true. Maybe a few items were close to right, but most were completely false. That was the case with a similar panic at the University of Colorado in 2001. A co-ed named Lisa Simpson made wild accusations. A panic ensued. Years later, none of it turned out to be true.

These panics are not confined to women having read too many bodice rippers. The hysteria over daycare in the 80’s and 90’s was mostly driven by mothers and quacks in the child psychology rackets. There were a few incidents of actual abuse, but most of the claims were completely absurd. That seems to be a common thread with these panics and hoaxes. The claims need to be salacious and wildly implausible. Simply complaining about a plausible and provable crime is not enough to start a panic.

Of course, the frequency of moral panics, going back to the witch trials, suggests they are a feature of human society, rather than a bug. Even in this age, when we can quickly call back to half a dozen prior panics that look like the one unfolding, there’s no heading these things off once they start. They have to burn themselves out. In fact, efforts to prevent the panic from fully blossoming, simply confirms the fears of the people involved. The lack of proof and the denials of the accused are proof that evils spirits are present.

It would be interesting to see if panics are more or less common in societies with well-defined public rituals and a common culture. It’s possible that panics are an ad hoc adaptation to the lack of public ritual that reinforces a core set of public morals. People in every society need to be reassured that the universe cares for them and they are in good standing with it. Public ritual is a ceremony to capture the spirit of the commonly held beliefs. Mass participation binds the community in those shared beliefs.

In a deracinated society like America, with so much diversity that everyone feels like a stranger, panics could serve as a placeholder for the public ritual. They don’t actually bring society together, but they fill that void, at least temporarily. Right now, the community of people who rule over us are ritualistically demanding the politicians condemn the Somali women for her blasphemy. What she actually said is not the point. What matters is everyone link arms and condemn the bad, in order to celebrate the good.

Another angle to the panic is that they are common at end of cycle times. The Great Fear swept France just before the French Revolution. The old system was falling away, but it was not clear what would replace it. Perhaps the proliferation of hate hoaxes and moral panics we are seeing in America is due to something similar. As old white America passes into history, what comes next is not exactly clear. What new civic religion will bind strangers from strange lands together? No one knows, so everyone is on edge.

We have A Word For That

One thing you cannot help but notice, if you travel, is that English is just about everyone’s second language. In many parts of the world, their second language is almost as common as their first. In Iceland, for example, you hear as much English in the streets as Icelandic. The locals just seem to assume that people they don’t know are going to prefer English, while people they know will prefer Icelandic. In effect, they have a public language and private language. This is something you see in many places.

It used to be that French was the language of diplomacy. It is where we get the expression lingua franca. Of course, long before that, Latin was the official language of global affairs. In the case of French, it was simply a matter of France being the dominant power on the Continent, so French was the language of diplomacy among Europeans, but not the rest of the world. Latin was the language of the Church, so while the whole of Europe was Catholic, it was a useful common tongue for diplomacy.

The rise of English is a slightly different matter. For sure, the Pax Americana has a lot to do with English becoming the diplomatic language of the West, but it does not explain it becoming the public language. That’s probably due to the rise of global corporations in the last fifty years. Many European countries started teaching English in schools, because it would be useful in the work place. American companies would be more inclined to hire a German who spoke some English than an Italian with no English.

Power and money are always good answers to most questions, because they are easy to understand and confirm things we like to believe about the world. We want to think that there are great benefits to being rich or powerful, like imposing your language and religion on those over whom you rule. There’s certainly some truth to it, but it does not explain everything. For example, the prevalence of English in the Nordic countries is much higher than in France or Italy. The Germans have a lot of English speakers too.

Another possibility for why English has becomes the universal language is the rise of science and technology as cultural forces. English is extremely useful in science, because of its precision and flexibility. English is a not a language with a lot of words that have two very different meanings. For example, study and studio mean entirely different things. In French you would use the same word and the context would make the distinction. Few words in English need context to have a full meaning.

The other thing about English is it adopts new words, either from other languages or out of the blue, with great speed. This post by paleontologist John Hawks is an amusing example of how the flexibility of language works with science and technology. Most languages don’t adopt loan words very well. Instead, they have to take existing words and combine them together to get something like the meaning of the new word. German is hilarious with this. Lots of Zungenbrechers in German with new words.

It is possible that English is a better language for science and technology, where new abstract concepts are common. It is easier to invent a new word or borrow a word, like synergy for example, and imbue it with a definition that captures the new idea, rather than force the new idea into the old grammar. The word synergy was kicking around psychology for a century, before it was picked up by tech companies and turned into a catchy word to describe involuntary cooperation through the use of technology.

Of course, the implication here is that English evolved with people who were better at science and technology. It’s certainly true that the Industrial Revolution started in England and first spread to northern Europe. It’s certainly true that northern Europeans remain the most inventive people on earth. This is probably just a coincidence or perhaps something to do with ecology, as everyone knows there are no differences between people anywhere at any time under any conditions. To suggest otherwise is bad.

Even so, the rapid adoption of English as the official second language in European countries with a common heritage is suggestive. These countries have also always had a high and low version of their languages as well. High German is thought to derive from the Suebi people. Low German, the various German dialects in central Europe, come from the other tribes. Perhaps having a public language and private language, a public custom and private custom, is the real root of this phenomenon, rather than modern technology.

Regardless of the cause, English is becoming the official language of the planet, even as the ratio of Europeans to everyone else rapidly shrinks. Communicating in English is more efficient and more accurate across the wide swath of humanity. There are exceptions at the fringes, but there always are. In the main, English is becoming the public language of the world. That means the elite of the future will be plucked from those with the cognitive skills best suited for mastering the complexity of English thought.

That’s the part you can see in your daily life. There are South Asians, for example, who have a delicate mastery of English. There are others who are comical eruptions of misnomers and butchered grammar. No matter how hard they try, they just can’t think in English or even pretend to think in English. As a result, their mastery of the language is limited to mimicry. Since language is about communicating abstract concepts, these people will never be able to rise to the upper reaches of the cognitive class.

This is usually where the bad people bring up the phrase Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which then results in the usual suspects leaping from the bushes yelling “That had been debunked!” In truth, the strong version has simply been dismissed, because it does not fit in with the blank slate argument. Spend time around people, who speak English as a second language, You will notice that some are thinking in English, while others are just interpreting their native thoughts into English sounds.

It’s pleasant to think that the dominance of English portends good things for native English speakers and their cousins in Europe, but the Suebi may be the better example. They left a lot of their culture, but none of their people. There are claims by some to be the decedents of the Subei, but there is no proof as of yet. Most likely, the Subei were wiped out by strangers who flowed over the borders.

The New Narrative

Spend time in a small business that has stood the test of time and you will learn the origin myths of the company and the founders. These myths will have plenty of truth content, but a lot will be fanciful or exaggerated. One reason is the story is inevitably told by the founder or his heirs, so it is self-serving. Another reason is the story is intended to give meaning and purpose to the people in the company. For an origin myth to work, it has to be inspirational and reflect well on the people in the organization.

People always have origin myths, of course. The most famous of which is the story of the Jews. The whole chosen people business is obvious nonsense. The flight from Egypt is at least plausible in some areas, but unless you’re willing to accept that God is an indiscriminate child killer, it’s a story that only Jews can believe. Still, the origin myth of the Jews has served them well for a very long time. These stories are central to Jewish identity and it is that strong identity that has allowed Jews to prosper.

If a strong set of origin myths correlates to a strong sense of identity and a strong people, then the reverse is probably true. The lack of origin myths, or a declining interest in the origin myths, probably suggests a weak identity. Perhaps the people have yet to come to identify themselves as a people or they are going through some sort of transition in terms of how they see themselves. The old myths no longer work, because they don’t fit the emerging narrative to explain how it is this people came to be.

This longish post in Foreign Affairs by popular historian Jill Lepore is an interesting read for a number of reason, not related to this post. The endless name dropping that torments writing in the humanities is a topic of its own. That’s mingled with self-promotion, in the form of references to the author’s books. Of course, anything to do with American history has to have a few paragraphs of the usual blather about slavery and Jim Crow. That said, it is worth the time to read it and the related posts on the site.

Lepore is one of those useful bellwethers in that she tends to write what the intellectual side of the ruling class is thinking. A big part of being a popular academic is to be in good standing with the ruling elite. They like being told about their wonderfulness from academics, so flattery is a big part of the game. That offers a window into the minds of the people who rule over us. What posts like this suggest is the people in charge are concerned with the fracturing they see from their position in the clouds.

That fracturing is predictable. Peter Brimelow predicted it two decades ago. Import tens of millions of strangers with strange customs into America and you’re going to get conflicts between the locals and the newcomers. The fact that these strangers were imported to replace the natives, who were not consuming and reproducing at levels satisfactory to the rulers, certainly did not help. Add in the rise of identity politics as a way to control the population and the result was predictable. Pat Buchanan predicted this.

Lepore is correct that people need a narrative that binds them together and explains why it is they are a people. America had an obvious one until the Civil War. When New England conquered the rest of the nation, the national story ended and was replaced by that new story that put New England at the top, as the ruler of the rest. That held together into the middle of last century, when Jews updated the tale to insinuate themselves into the story and explain their new dominance in the ruling class.

That American narrative worked until the people in charge decided they needed a new people and flung open the gates to unlimited immigration. A fascinating bit in that Lepore article is that she starts her essay in 1986 with the historian Carl Degler and his warning about the abandonment of nationalism. That talk would have happened around the time the ruling class was opening the borders. The implication that Mx. Lepore does not seem to grasp is that the hostility to nationalism preceded wholesale immigration.

On the other hand, she is a clever woman, so she could very well have done this on purpose, as a way of injecting the idea into the bloodstream of her peers. The academy is so narrow now, it is looking like a singularity from our perspective, but inside there is some room to maneuver. It requires a heavy dose of esoteric language and triple bank shot references to avoid detection. Perhaps that’s what she is up to by starting with that Degler speech and then ending with a piquant quote from that same talk.

That said, if the intellectual class in the West, but particularly in America, had not drawn all of the wrong lessons from the two great industrial wars of the 20th century, the ruling class would not have set about destroying the fabric of their countries. Perhaps the Frankfurt School notions were a bad idea after all. There’s no mention of this in the Lepore essay, but that an obvious implication once you read to the end. The finishing paragraph is a quote from Degler’s talk at that 19856 conference.

“The history of the United States at the present time does not seek to answer any significant questions,” Degler told his audience some three decades ago. If American historians don’t start asking and answering those sorts of questions, other people will, he warned. They’ll echo Calhoun and Douglas and Father Coughlin. They’ll lament “American carnage.” They’ll call immigrants “animals” and other states “shithole countries.” They’ll adopt the slogan “America first.” They’ll say they can “make America great again.” They’ll call themselves “nationalists.” Their history will be a fiction. They will say that they alone love this country. They will be wrong.

Again, there is no mention of open borders and the unprecedented levels of immigration in this essay, as those things cannot be discussed openly or rationally in the intellectual class. Still, the essay suggests that there is some interest by cloud people in what is happening among the dirt people. They can’t bring themselves to address the fact that you cannot have a common story when everyone is a stranger. Instead, they keep talking about Hitler and the other wrong lessons they drew from the events of last century.

There’s also the strange sense that these origin myths can simply be conjured and then imposed upon a people. The implication of this essay is that America needs a new one, so the people in charge better get busy creating one. The trouble is that white people are not allowed to have an identity and the non-white ascendancy does not have much to point to, as far as their contributions to the national story. Lepore offers something from Frederick Douglas as a starting point for this new national narrative.

A Government founded upon justice, and recognizing the equal rights of all men; claiming no higher authority for existence, or sanction for its laws, than nature, reason, and the regularly ascertained will of the people; steadily refusing to put its sword and purse in the service of any religious creed or family, is a standing offense to most of the Governments of the world, and to some narrow and bigoted people among ourselves.

That is no doubt inspiring to the cloud people, but it says more about how they see themselves than with the facts on the ground. It’s also a negative identity, based on victories over demons that exist only in the imaginations of the rulers. It also suggests she or her masters would like to see whites written out of this new national story. In case it is not clear, “bigoted people among ourselves” is you paleface. Perhaps that can be a useful cri de guerre in the war with the dirt people, but it is not binding narrative.

The fact is, the rise of nationalism, populism and white identity politics is a result of decisions made long ago. The radicals killed the national narrative, because they said nationalism is a dangerous construct. Their solution was to destroy the nations of the West, which has meant destroying the national identities of the West. That has now devolved into a war on the native stock of the West. There can be no unifying narrative that includes the both the destroyers and their victims.

That brings us back to the start. That small business that gets gobbled up by a multinational cannot maintain its origin myths. The people in that firm can no longer identify with that story, because that story has come an end. If they stick around, it is because of new reasons, less inspiring ones than those that bound them to that small business. That’s what we are seeing today in modern America. The old narrative has come to an end. It is time for a new one. The question is, who will do the writing.

Revolt of the Machines

One of the great unanswered questions in science is how did the first building blocks of life arise from the primordial soup of early earth. It is believed that before even the simplest of life forms existed, earth was something like a thin stew that was getting thicker as more complex chemicals formed. At some point, and no one knows how, the first DNA molecules formed. The prevailing theory is that the first genetic molecule was a primitive form of RNA, which evolved into more complex RNA and then DNA.

No one knows how this could happened only that it did happen. The proof of which is all around us, including in the mirror. Life exists and it is based in DNA. Further, RNA is created from DNA to put that information to work, like controlling the creation of proteins and performing other chemical functions. How DNA became the code of life, while RNA, its predecessor, became its tool, is a great mystery in science. It is the question J.F. Gariepy tackles in his book The Revolutionary Phenotype.

Gariepy or “JF” as he is known by his fans, is an enigmatic YouTube personality, known for his willingness to talk with anyone. He has had everyone from science deniers to holocaust deniers on his show, as well as lots of normal people. His YouTube career is recent, as until 2017 he was a neurobiologist and post-doctoral researcher at Duke University’s Institute for Brain Sciences. In this book, he endeavors to explain the origin of life 4 billion years ago and predict the end of DNA-based life on earth.

One of the challenges facing writers of science books for a general audience is they must first simplify the presentation. It’s not that the audience is dumb, but that they are unfamiliar with the jargon and unfamiliar with the way people in science communicate information through mathematics. A book full of complex proofs and splatter charts is not going to be popular with most readers. Gariepy gets past this first obstacle by sticking with a straight forward narrative format that is easy to follow.

The second challenge for science writers is to follow the old rule about essay writing that kids learn in school. The book should always be like a woman’s swimsuit; big enough to cover the important parts, but small enough to keep it interesting. This is probably a good rule for all writing in this age. Thanks to the internet and cable television, everyone’s attention span has collapsed. Gariepy gets past this hurdle, as the book is just 138 pages and written in a brisk style that makes for easy reading.

The question is, of course, does Gariepy deliver on his promise to explain the origin of life and how it will end. The answer is an unequivocal maybe. On the positive side, he does a very good job of explaining one possible narrative for how primitive RNA evolved into RNA and then DNA. He offers up an interesting theory as to how DNA came to be the master and RNA the slave, which is an important event in the history of life. The presentation here is a nice primer for the general reader on the basics of genetic theory.

What really works here is his use of simple concepts that he stacks together to explain more complex ideas. For example, describing the relationship between your genes and your body as something like the relationship between a machine operator and the machine, is useful in understanding why our bodies will evolve over time. Our body is there to serve our genes, so any innovation that is better for our DNA is adopted, while changes that are not useful are discarded. Our body is a vehicle for DNA.

The negative here is that the language and analogies don’t always work. Using the office printer to explain how gene mutation works is clever, but calling it a trickster printer will give the American reader the wrong impression. The same is true for his use of the phrase “fool replicator.” This is probably a language issue, as Gariepy is French. The word trickster and fool have different connotations to French speakers than they do to English speakers, especially Americans, who think tricksters and fools are immoral.

Another complaint about the book, and one of the trade-offs with brevity, is it assumes the reader has recently read Daniel Dennet and Richard Dawkins. In fact, it is probably a good idea to read The Selfish Gene before reading this book, as Gariepy refers to it extensively in the first third of the book. Again, this is the trade-off that comes from brevity and summarizing the material for a general audience. In this case, it is a minor complaint and it does not ruin the book or invalidate his arguments.

The final complaint about the book is that he spends 80% of the text explaining the transition from simple RNA molecules to the complex DNA-based life. That’s about 100 pages, which is a great short primer on a difficult to understand subject. The rest of the book is a dash to the finish line, explaining how the rise of artificial intelligence spells the end of DNA-based life. There’s a strong impression that this part was rushed in order to get the book done and ready for sale. The book sort of ends with a thud.

Without giving too much away, Gariepy argues that RNA used DNA as sort of a bank vault for its code base. When it needed to copy itself, it did so from that copy stored in the DNA molecule. Eventually, the DNA molecule was able to replicate itself, without help from its RNA master. This set off a battle between RNA and DNA, which DNA won, turning RNA into its servant. This same process is about to happen with artificial intelligence, as AI becomes self-aware and able to self-replicate.

That sounds like the premise of a lot of science fiction stories, but it is both an interesting entry point to understanding artificial intelligence and the dynamic between environment, humans and man’s ability to alter his environment. There’s enough there for another book and maybe that’s the plan, but Gariepy only gives it about twenty pages and it felt very rushed. Given his YouTube audience, most of his readers are more interested in how life ends, rather than how it begins. They will undoubtedly feel a bit cheated.

Overall, the first half of the promise, to tell the story of how life began, works pretty well for the intended audience. It’s not a research paper or a bold new hypothesis to explain the origin of life. It is more of a summary of current thinking in a style that the general reader can follow and understand. The second promise could have worked, but it needed a fuller treatment than what Gariepy delivers. Otherwise, it is a book worth reading, if you have an interest in evolutionary biology or the origins of life on earth.

Hanging Alone

The great social blogger Heartiste did a post a week or so ago on the four types of loneliness. It was a take-off on a Twitter exchange on the subject. The original Twitter exchange listed loneliness for a woman, loneliness for brotherhood and loneliness for a lord, as in God, as the three forms of male loneliness. Heartiste adds a fourth, which he calls the loneliness a man feels for the man he has yet to become. This form of loneliness seems to be correlated to the distance one is from their true self.

One interesting thing about this list is it tracks closely with John Derbyshire’s description of the normal modes of thought. There’s no form of loneliness that corresponds with the desire for revenge, but perhaps personal thought could be broadened to include more than revenge fantasies. If so, then it works out well. The list from the Heartiste post then corresponds to personal, social, religious and magical thinking. The implication of that correspondence is that loneliness, or fear of it, is an integral part of man.

Some would argue that the keystone to male loneliness is the personal. A man who gets married and has a family, will never be alone. He will never be forgotten, because some of him will carry on in his children. This raises his social standing and makes for more meaningful relationships with his fellow men. The miracle of family life inevitably leads to a fuller, richer spiritual life. That seems plausible, except that divorces rates and the number of unmarried males suggests a different causal relationship.

Of course, the more spiritually minded would start with the need to have a relationship with the universe. Maybe this is in the form of some esoteric spirituality or the more concrete relationship man finds in Christianity. This connection to the universe, the relationship to God, provides the foundation for personal relationships, brotherhood and fulfillment of potential. As with personal loneliness, the facts on the ground suggest this is not the correct causal relationship. The pews are empty for a reason.

Heartiste, it appears, makes his first mover the loneliness a man feels for the man he has yet to become. He describes this as “Thwarted passion, a decision to avoid a risky venture, procrastination…these things will deprive a man of the ideal he always strives toward, and in the depths of that deprivation he will feel lonely for the company, and the mentorship, of his idealized self.” If you are all the man you imagine yourself to be, you will have all the women you want, all the brotherhood you want and the love of the universe.

The benefit of thinking of it this way is that it makes the fulfillment of your true self as the glue that binds the other forms of thought to one another as co-equals. There is a romantic quality, where this fulfillment of the true self completes a man in a perfection of the personal, spiritual and social. The flaw though, is that a homicidal sociopath reaching his full potential is a very different thing than what Heartiste has in mind. The ring cycle can just as easily end in horror as a romantic sense of fulfillment.

The final combination starts with brotherhood. The man who has established fulfilling relationships with other men, will inevitably share the spiritual life of his peers. He will believe what they believe and feel that the universe cares for him, as it cares for his brothers. An assumption here is that the only way for a man to find brotherhood is if he has completed himself in the personal domain by finding a woman. This golden triangle, so to speak, is what unchains a man to reach his full potential as a man.

Up until recent, western society was held together, to a great degree, by the voluntary associations we call brotherhood. It may have been organizations for former soldiers, fraternal organization or social clubs organized around a particularly male activity, like hunting or sporting. What we now think of as male loneliness and the degradation of male roles, corresponds with the collapse of brotherhood. The war on sexism was always a war on brotherhood, which in turn was a war on the bones of society.

The argument against this is that brotherhood does not necessary free a man to reach his potential as a man. Anyone who has been in the service or played team sports knows that talent is often sacrificed for the goals of the group. Organizations always take on a life of their own, putting the group ahead of its constituents. At the same time, organizations tend to devolve into politics, resulting in factionalism, which inevitably reduces the effectiveness of the group and the individuals within the group.

That’s not brotherhood though. That’s simply organization, which is different from brotherhood. In fact, in order to forge the bonds of brotherhood a man has to voluntarily sacrifice something of his self. It is this sacrifice, often a sacrifice of blood and sweat, life and labor, that makes brotherhood possible. The man who willingly gives his life for his brothers, so his brothers may live, is a man making the ultimate sacrifice. There is a reason such men are held in the highest honor by his brothers.

Of course, this assertion suggests a universal. In order to have personal, spiritual and social fulfillment, man must first find brotherhood. It is the pivot point upon which the balance of a man’s life rests. The collapse of the male domain in western societies, has then brought down with it the personal, the spiritual and the social. In order to avoid hanging alone, in the loneliness of modern despair, men will need to rebuild the structures that allow for brotherhood and most important, make the sacrifice it demands.

Old Movies

When I was a kid, we did not have cable, mostly because it did not exist, at least as we understand it. Cable TV existed as far back as the 1950’s, but it was not common and the selection was no different from over the air offerings. It has been a long time, but I recall we had two network channels we could reliably receive over the air and two or three minor channels. UHF channels were local and played mostly re-runs of old shows and some local broadcasting. VHF channels had the national network offerings.

From the vantage point of the 1970’s, “old” TV shows were mostly things from the 1960’s, but old movies from the 40’s and 50’s were common too. In other words, if you wanted to peak back in time to the previous eras of American culture, you could reliably go back a decade and selectively go back a few decades. Bad old TV shows like Get Smart and Star Trek would go into syndication, but bad old movies were just forgotten. The old movies that were shown on TV were usually the good ones that people liked.

What that meant is if you wanted to know what it was like to live in 1945, you had to ask someone who was alive in 1945. You could get a little taste of it from watching old movies on a Saturday afternoon, but that was a stylized version. To really get a feel for the age before color movies and television, you had to rely on the fading memories of grandma and grandpa. Of course, this was true for all of human history until recent. It’s why old people are good at telling stories about the old days. They’re built for it.

Today it is different. I watched The Thomas Crown Affair the other night off the Kodi machine. This was the 1968 version with Faye Dunaway and Steve McQueen. There was a remake of this in 1999 with Pierce Bronson. I had seen the remake a few times, but I never saw the original. In fact, I did not know there was an original. That’s a bit of interesting cultural data right there. Just about every movie produced over the last twenty-five years is either a remake or made from a children’s comic book.

What I found remarkable about the movie is something I notice whenever I watch old movies and that is the maturity. A movie about the cat and mouse between a male and female today will have at least half an hour of rutting and humping, along with some explosions and lots of vulgar language. The modern presentation of male-female relations is so crude, that porn makers of the past would have been offended. In the old days, the film maker and audience expected a more sophisticated portrayal of sexual relations.

That is the other thing that turns up in old movies and television. Hollywood made assumptions about the cultural awareness of the audience we don’t see now.  In the Thomas Crown Affair, there is a long scene around a chess game. It was supposed to be a stand in for the sexual tension between McQueen and Dunaway. It’s a bit ham-handed, but vastly more sophisticated than anything you would see today. One reason is the typical viewer today knows nothing about chess, so it would be lost on them.

Part of that is due to Hollywood relying on international audiences to make money. You can’t expect to make money in China or India when your film is full of essential references to Anglo-Saxon cultural items. When you make films for the universal culture, you are making movies for a culture that does not exist. That means the goal is to remove cultural references, rather than rely on them to tell a story. There can be no subtlety and nuance without common cultural reference points understood by the audience.

The main thing that jumps out in old movies is the respect people had for themselves. The reason Steve McQueen was a star was because he played a role that was something men could aspire too. He would never have played a homosexual junkie or some other type of degenerate. People knew these sorts of people existed, but they expected them to be on the fringe of their lives and therefore on the fringe of their stories. Watch old movies and you see references to degeneracy, but it is always oblique.

Again, this goes to that respect for the audience. Just as the audience did not require thirty minutes of sex scenes to know the male and female were intimate, the audience did not have to see the gritty details of degeneracy to know it existed. The old movies assumed the viewers were adults who knew about the reality of life. Today’s film makers have to assume the viewers are retarded and need everything explained. Movies in late empire America are made for the recently arrived, provincial barbarians.

Finally, the thing that makes watching old movies worth the time is they offer a window into that long forgotten country of our ancestors. Unlike when I was a kid, young people don’t have to rely on old people telling them stories of the old days. Today, you can watch anything and everything ever made by Hollywood, even the bad stuff. Young people can watch YouTube clips from that country where humor was still legal. Most of it is crap, just as today, but it reveals what it was like in the bad old days.

More important, watching those old movies and TV shows, you can’t help but notice the early signs of poz being introduced. The stuff from the 1970’s is much more degenerate than the stuff from the 1960’s. In the 1980’s, the dumbing down becomes obvious as the makers started courting non-white audiences. It’s a good way to see how where we are now did not happen overnight. It was a long, deliberate war waged with patience and purpose. The fight for freedom will be long and require patience too.

Technology And Social Trust

People working in criminal law have been saying for years that Hollywood’s portrayal of forensic evidence has made it more difficult to prosecute criminals. They call it the “CSI Effect” named after a TV police drama. It is where jurors demand comprehensive forensic evidence, which effectively raises the burden of proof in criminal cases. Instead of eye witness testimony placing a suspect at the crime scene, jurors now expect physical evidence and testimony from an expert on the use of DNA to identify the suspect.

There’s no data to support this observation, but it is something that gets said a lot on TV, so everyone believes it. The increased expectation of what science can do has effectively raised the standard of proof. Another way to look at this is better technology has lowered the standard of trust. It used to be that people could trust themselves to judge the testimony of a witness. They could count on citizens being honest to them. Now, they want physical proof before taking the word of anyone in criminal court.

Of course, now that people in the legal system think this phenomenon is true, they operate on the assumption that no one will take anyone’s word for anything. That means the state invests in high tech forensic labs and pays a lot of experts to testify to jurors in criminal trials about the physical evidence. On the other side, the defense thinks simply being innocent is not enough, so they require experts and private labs to both provide an objective denial of guilt, as well as a counter to the state’s battery of experts.

It is a great example of how new technology can have unexpected results when introduced into a complex system like the criminal justice system. The underlying assumption of our system is that regular citizens can weigh the evidence and decide the guilt or innocence of the accused. Now the assumption is no one can weigh the evidence, other than specially trained experts. Technology has conjured into reality the idea of the fair witness from Stranger in a Strange Land.

The courtroom is not the only place where technology is causing us to lose faith in our senses. The advent of the hyperlink has made it so that any controversial assertion on-line is assumed to be false if it does not have a link to an authoritative source. In every on-line community you see demands for links to authoritative sources, whenever there is a dispute over something. These appeals to a neutral authority correspond to a decline in the lack of trust between people. It’s not true unless you have a link.

Something similar may be happening in the news. Take the Jussie Smollett incident in Chicago. Exactly no one believed him, because there was no video and no corroboration from a neutral technology source, like a cell phone camera. As soon as the cops revealed they could not find confirmation on their surveillance cameras, everyone just assumed it must be a hoax. There were plenty of doubters to begin with, given the number of prior hoaxes, but even the gullible are now expecting proof from technology.

The proliferation of cameras and now listening devices on public streets means it is increasingly difficult to do anything without being seen. Even if that is not true, it is assumed to be true. That means if there is no video, it did not happen. It also means if there is no video, there is no investigation, as the cops will soon figure out that it is waste of time to investigate crimes unless you can get video. The criminal mastermind of the future will be the guy who figures out how to avoid being identified by CCTV.

Another way the proliferation of technology changes social trust is seen on the college campus. In order to avoid being accused of rape, males now tape their interactions with coeds. They may have a buddy record audio so they can prove the encounter was consensual. Young people are growing up to expect everything to be recorded and to not trust anyone unless they can see video or hear audio. People mock the idea of getting consent in writing, but that’s probably better than everyone taping their encounters.

The other side of this coin is the casual way in which people allow themselves to be recorded by others. Every internet drama seems to involve one party publishing chats, video or audio of another party. Super villain Jeff Bezos is an obvious example. He broke the cardinal rule of super villains. Never write when you can speak. Never speak when you can nod. Most important, never send pics of you wiener to people. He was cavalier about being recorded and now is the world’s silliest super villain.

The result of all this is two things. One is the total lack of privacy. The only place that will be safe for anyone to imagine bad things is in their own head. When the internet of things is quietly spying in every home, car and public place, there will no longer be the concept of privacy. Imagine a land where there are no walls and no clothes. Everyone walks around naked and in full view of everyone else. It sounds crazy, but people adapt. The citizens of the future custodial state will get used to a word without privacy.

The other thing is no one will take anyone’s word for anything. This will include people in authority. If you can’t trust your own senses, you’re unlikely to trust the senses of some guy on television claiming to be your leader. Civic duty will have to be replaced with some form of coercion. Perhaps nudge technology will reach a point where the nudged will think they are acting of their own free will. Maybe the people in charge will fit everyone with a WiFi enabled technology collar that ties them into the internet of things.

It is assumed that technological advance always improves the material world. It certainly seems that way. It’s possible, however, that the trade-off for technological advance is the decline in social trust, maybe even a decline in empathy. In order for these new technologies to thrive, people have to abandon their ability to share the feelings of others and maybe even abandon their sense of self. The future will be a world of indifferent automatons, living in glass houses, under the eye of the state.

Free Will

Early humans, as best we can know, did not have a conception of free will, at least not in the way modern people think of it. Instead, they assumed the gods controlled the destiny of man, often directly interfering in the lives of people. What appeared to be your choice, was really just part of a bigger narrative that had been written by others. This is why it was possible for fortune tellers to exist. After all, if the future is not written, then how could anyone divine the future? Obviously, the future was already written.

The funny thing about these early notions of destiny is they did not exempt people from punishment for wrong doing. The thief was still punished, which does not make a lot of sense if his destiny was determined by the gods. Of course, the remedy here is to conclude that his destiny is to be executed and the destiny of the executioner is to be the one who punishes the thief. Even so, it suggests that people have always accepted some degree of free will, even in the age when people believed in gods controlling destiny.

The Greeks, of course, were the first to think about free will. They sort of crept up on the idea by first suggesting the natural world operated by fixed rules. A Greek philosopher named Anaximander proposed that there were ideal laws that governed material phenomenon in the physical world. The famous line from Heraclitus that “you can’t step twice into the same river” did not mean that the world was random. He meant that world is in constant flux, but the changes observed in nature follow a fixed set of laws.

It was not until a generation after Aristotle that the Greeks moved from the position where a set of laws controlled the physical world to a position where the atoms flowing through the void could suddenly swerve from their determined path. This ability of the physical world to deviate from the determined path meant that people could swerve from their determined path. Eventually, this chain of reasoning arrived at the conclusion that people could act from something other than chance or necessity. That’s free will.

The concept of free will has been essential to Western thought since the Greeks and it is an essential element of Christianity. You can’t have sin without free will and you cannot have communion without free will. People have to possess the ability to transcend chance and necessity in order to be held responsible for their actions. This is the fundamental assumption of Western society. Everything from civic morality to political organization is based on the belief that humans possess and exercise free will.

As is true in many aspects of this age, science in starting to question that old notion of free will. Genetics is revealing that our genetic code controls more than just our physical appearance. Our cognitive abilities are also controlled by our genes. Just as we cannot choose to be taller or be of another race, we cannot choose to be smarter or more patient or more prudent. It’s not just the larger aspects of pour personality that are fixed by our genetics code. Everything about us is written in our DNA.

People can accept something like intelligence being genetic. That’s something we begin to notice as children. When it comes to something like patience, for example, that’s where it gets more difficult to accept. It seems like you should be able to change that. The same is true of something like prudence. It seems like as we get older we become more prudent, more cautious about our actions. The mounds of self-help books all depend on the ability of people to alter these sorts of aspects of their personality.

Even though researchers are just scratching the surface with regards to the genetic causes of human cognitive traits, there are people ready to say free will is a myth. The HBD blogger Jayman argues that your choices can’t be “free” if they are so easily predicted by behavioral genetics. If we can predict behavior statistically and all human behavioral traits are heritable, it follows that what you think is free choice, is really just the complex execution of your code in response to external variables.

Again, the science of behavior genetics is just scratching the surface, but the data thus far certainly suggests this is correct. It’s certainly more complicated than what Hollywood imagines, but science says everything about us is in our code. There is probably not a criminal gene or a bad with girls gene, but there are a series of traits that influence these measurable qualities in positive and negative directions. Where you are on the spectrum of these cognitive traits is determined by your code.

Most people will find that rather monstrous, because of the implications. The most obvious is that genetic determinism rules out morality. People cannot be rewarded or punished, unless they can transcend chance and necessity. If their choices are simply the result of their code executing in response to environmental factors, they have no agency and therefore no responsibility. This also means there can be no such thing as sin, unless you believe God creates people coded to sin. The same is true of piety.

On the other hand, people with a background in math will know that not all algorithms produce a single result. A simple formula like f (x) = x² has the set of all positive integers for all possible values of x. Even though the result must always be positive, there is a qualitative difference between three and a billion and three. Something similar may be true about human genetic code. The possible result set is large enough to present a qualitative difference that is important to how we evaluate those results.

In other words, our code may make us like ice cream, but the range of ways that urge could express in our daily life is between murdering someone for ice cream and simply having some after dinner. Another bit of code, let’s call it the free will algorithm, controls how these cognitive traits express, based on the inputs from society. Just as random number generation is not actually random, but can be treated as such, the free will algorithm is not actually free will, but can be treated as such.

This notion of free will is certainly something that evolved. Your house pets do not have a concept of free will. This is a uniquely human trait. That means it may have arisen by chance, but it has a very important purpose. Rewarding and punishing people for their behavior must be essential to what defines as us people. Perhaps just as genes can arise from mutation, the replication process swerving from the path, our actions can also swerve from the path, based on some unknown capacity to choose.