Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Overlooked explorations of the male role, etc.

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After my recent review of “Pride and Prejudice”, I have spent some time thinking on actually and apparently simplistic literature vs. something that has long annoyed me immensely: Common claims from (almost invariably female) “gender theorists” and their ilk that men would spend too little time analyzing the “male role”, that questions of “manhood” or “masculinity” would not be sufficiently explored, and similar. (While the same, apparently, does not apply to women—presumably, courtesy of the same “gender theorists”.)

These claims show a gross ignorance of the type of influences those men who are interested in fiction are exposed to since childhood—and the considerable efforts, conscious or not, spent exploring such topics in fiction, since long before “gender studies” arose as a social construct*. To boot, it severely underestimates the amount of time many men spend privately contemplating related issues, let alone the apparently universal** male question of when one ceases to be boy and becomes a man.

*Two can play that game…

**With reservations for societies where some type of initiation ritual is involved, as well as sub-cultures where it is tied to first having sexual intercourse. (Going by my own experiences, I suspect that the question is raised so commonly mostly because the process is gradual, both in one’s own eyes and in the eyes of the surroundings.)

Take “The Lord of the Rings” and consider the wide variety of characters, character developments, and situations: Take as positive examples Frodo and his heroic march; Sam and his undying loyalty; Merry and Pippin, and the sacrifices they make for friendship; and how all four grew to become so much stronger than they originally were (or proved themselves to be vs. thought that they were). Take as negative examples Boromir committing evil* in an effort to do good; Saruman being corrupted by a wish for power; Theoden falling prey to his personal Iago; or even Frodo, unable to give up the Ring during the deciding moment. (With many other examples to be found.) There are (mentally/morally/whatnot) small men and great men, there are small men growing, there are great men shrinking. There are dilemmas and decisions. There is heroism and cowardliness. There are good ends and means; and there are bad ends and means—even intermingled (cf. Boromir). A particular point of note is the epilogue in the Shire—unlike in so many other stories, defeating the main evil does not ensure that the world is safe and sound, and the work still goes on. (Incidentally, while the text is dominated by male characters, the few women that do occur are by no means house-wives focused on child-rearing. Most notably, Galadriel is a ruling queen, is one of the most powerful beings that appear in the story, and appears to wear the pants in her own family; while Eowyn disguises as a man, rides to battle, and slays one of Sauron’s greatest champions—both much worthier examples** than any of the female characters in “Pride and Prejudice”.)

*And from another perspective, we have the ethical dilemma of when what actions are justifiable, and the opportunity to consider ourselves in different situations (also see another recent text.) Unlike many other instances of evil being done in the name of good (or “the greater good”, as case may have it), the attempted evil was, on the surface, small and the situation one involving the fate of the world, making his actions easier to understand. (The more severe flaw was, likely, that he failed to comprehend the nature of the Ring, and that things would have ended much worse, had he been successful, than they actually did. My last reading being too far back, I do not recall the degree to which his actions were caused by an active influence by the Ring. The interpretation of these actions might need some corresponding adjustment.) Similar concerns about motivations and what-would-the-reader-do-in-the-same-situation apply in other cases too.

**I caught myself originally writing “examples for a young woman”. I immediately stopped to change this, although not unreasonable in this specific context: While their might be some areas where the sex of an example or role-model is relevant, it is almost always better to focus on the admirable characteristics. The feminist insistence that young women be given female role-models for this-and-that is highly misguided and contra-productive. If we want a role-model, we should pick someone suitable in a manner that ignores both our own and the role-models sex (and color, religion, nationality, whatnot).

Take “Hamlet”; take the “Iliad”; take “Le Morte D’Arthur”; take any number of other works by a great number of authors, even (particularly?) in the fantasy and sci-fi genres; take, even, the lives and adventures of Spiderman and the Hulk, in those despised super-hero comics, those heights of male “immaturity”. To a thinking mind, the right work can raise more questions around what it is and takes to be a man, how to be good, what dilemmas and problems can arise in life, whatnot, than the field of “gender studies” does (even discounting problems like ideological bias within that field). Moreover, in my impression, they do so to a far higher degree than does, m.m., the corresponding age-group literature for women, as demonstrated by e.g. “Pride and Prejudice”.*

*I must make the great reservation that I am not overly well-read in this area; however, what works I have read/watched with a similarly “for girls/women” image (as e.g. “The Lord of the Rings” has a “for boys/men” image), have usually fallen similarly short as “Pride and Prejudice”—with questions like “Who gets whom?”, “Does he love me?” (or even “Do I love him?”), “Which of my two suitors should I pick?”, “Do I dare to have that chocolate bar?”, “Should I remain friends with that other woman, even though she is a horrible person?”, and similar shallowness. While some of these questions might, on a personal level, be important, they do not contribute much to personal growth, to developing a sense of ethics, to gaining insights, whatnot. (Note the difference between works written for women and works written by women—the latter can be quite insightful.)

These works often (similar to “Pride and Prejudice”) work with shallower and more unnuanced characters, proving that this, in and by it self, need not be a problem. However, where “Pride and Prejudice” gives the impression of either lack of insight or lack of effort (which, I will not presume to judge), they often do so for deliberate reasons, in order to e.g. make a point more obvious or to be allegorical.* (Also note that my complaint against “Pride and Prejudice” was not lack of character depth, per se, but the compounded lack of almost everything, character depth included.) More generally, many works of fiction can be quite thought-worthy despite having a reputation that goes more towards entertainment literature. For instance, many with only a fleeting familiarity see Terry Pratchett as just a humorist (he was much more); for instance, many see the “Narnia” books as just children’s literature (they have insight even for the adult reader and can be read on several levels). Also see an excursion in the aforementioned review.

*However, many, especially for younger readers, can take this to a point that important insights are lost, most notably the realization that the bad guys usually consider themselves to be the good guys.

Interestingly, questions like those discussed above do not necessarily have any stronger connection with being-a-man-as-opposed-to-a-woman*. Instead, they center on being-a-man-as-opposed-to-a-boy, or, more generically, an-adult-as-opposed-to-a-child; or forego such divisions entirely to focus on e.g. what is right, with no restrictions on who is concerned (being-good-as-opposed-to-bad**, to stick to the pattern). If then, a criticism against one of the sexes should be extended, it would be better directed at women*** for not paying enough attention to the child–adult (or good–bad) division and favoring the female–male division. To some degree, a man is a plain vanilla adult, making issues like a (specifically) male role largely uninteresting; while a woman is a strawberry adult with a scope of cream, chocolate flakes, and a cherry on top, making an investigation of a female role more understandable. (And while I have no objection to women being strawberry instead of vanilla, do they really need all those extras?)

*However, some do, at least in public perception, e.g. in that the demands on a man to take responsibility are larger, ditto to be a provider or protector, ditto to, in a life-or-death situation, give his life to protect his wife’s, etc. Apart from these being unlikely to cause dissatisfaction among feminists, they are also usually of a type that does not require an adjustment of the male self-image or whatnot—if anything, they suggest that women should step up more, that society should to put larger demands on women, and/or that women should revise their image of men.

**I use “bad” over “evil” for two reasons: Firstly, it is not necessarily a matter of e.g. ethics or consequences for others, it can also be a matter of e.g. capabilities and consequences for one self. Secondly, even when ethics is concerned, “evil” might push the contrast too far. For instance, in the parable of the good Samaritan, do we really wish to call those just walking by “evil”? Indeed, even “bad” might be too strong a word in at least some contexts.

***Or at least the type of women who tend to be found in areas like “gender studies” and feminism. Still, in my personal impression to date, women often see “being an adult” as the equivalent of “having a family”—while a man might be more focused on “carrying responsibility” or “doing the right thing”.

But here we might have the crux: These efforts deal with topics like right and wrong, good and evil, positive and negative behavior and developments, human strengths and weakness; often contrasting or putting in conflict egoism and altruism, loyalty towards two different things (say, a brother and country), duty and safety/comfortability, whatnot. What they do not do, is ask questions like “Should I wear a skirt to work?”—and why should they? That is a small and mostly irrelevant question, starting with the low probability that a man would want to do so. (The reverse questions around some women can have a greater value, e.g. to move them towards more practical clothing, but are still not truly important.)

True, in the area between these extremes, there are questions that might be worthy of some exploration (and do not obviously fit in the context of an epic fantasy adventure). For instance, we might consider “Is it unmanly to be a stay-at-home dad?”: It could be argued that someone who avoids that role for that reason is lacking in maturity. On the other hand, this constellation is not very common, with more common reasons including a greater drive to accomplish something professionally and a lesser tolerance of children. A typical intelligent and educated man will not fear what his blokes in the pub will say,* but he will have concerns like loosing ground in his career**, earning less, being bored by a less intellectual type of work, being driven up the wall after spending the whole day, week in and week out, with his children,*** etc. In contrast, here duty can come in, and a man who unexpectedly finds himself a single parent, might very well stay at home out of a sense of duty. His friends might give him a minor ribbing, but they would hardly think less of him—they would see a man doing something manly (viz. doing his duty by his children).

*A recurring issue is that “gender theorists” and feminists present a very stereotypical, prejudiced, and often outright incorrect image of men, e.g. through ignoring individual variation and over-focusing on sit-com “proles”—if men are painted as Al Bundy, then we should equally paint women as Peg Bundy. Similarly, if we do not look at the people with some modicum of intelligence, there is no point in discussing the matter: Stupid people will, barring a revolutionary medical break-through, remain stupid, no matter how many treatises are written on their behavior—and if we look at the behavior of stupid women, they are certainly not something for the female sex to be proud of.

**But is not a career drive also something to analyze/problematize/deconstruct/…? That depends on why the drive is there. Believers in the out-dated “tabula rasa” model of the human mind might jump to the conclusion that a career drive is necessarily something artificial, which explains much of their wish for further investigation (but, obviously, only within their own “everything is a construct” frame-work). However, there are strong signs that such differences are largely caused by biology, making a further investigation a low priority—if in doubt, because this drive is mostly beneficial. A major reason behind the continual failure of various modern feminist, PC, Leftist, whatnot attempts to create equality of outcome is simply that they push past the point where inborn characteristics become a deciding factor—they fail to realize that differences in outcome are not ipso-facto proof of differences in opportunity. (Similar arguments apply to other points above.)

***Note that a love of one’s children is not an obstacle to such irritation.

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October 19, 2018 at 5:07 am

Appointment with Death: Human memory and a major plot-twist

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I have just re-read Agatha Christie’s “Appointment with Death”, following a first reading some ten to fifteen years ago.

(spoiler alert)

While the book was as interesting and well-crafted as I remembered, my enjoyment was marred by the knowledge, from my first reading, that there actually had not been a murder—but a malicious suicide.

I read on, probably not paying as much attention to details as I should have, and saw Poirot, in his traditional final summary/round-up/interrogation, eliminate suspect after suspect, often explaining the inconsistencies in witness statements by a deliberate attempt to protect someone else (in turn based on the incorrect belief that this someone else was the murderer), leaving us with … a murder.

This leads me to two sub-topics:

Firstly, memory is a fickle thing. Incidents like these make me question how much of e.g. my own life that I (and others of theirs) might remember in a distorted manner, especially with an eye on the occasional inclusion in my writings. They also raise serious concerns about e.g. the reliability of witnesses*, and strengthen my opinions concerning topics like statutes of limitations.

*Professionals have raised such concerns for a long time. For that matter, Christie has been known to use unreliable witnesses, including an easily manipulated old lady in this book.

My suspicion is that a suicide was my main hypothesis for most of the original reading, and that this hypothesis, through a larger exposure, remained in my memory, while the actual culprit faded away. Indeed, I have repeatedly had similar experiences in the past (although none so harmful to a re-reading), e.g. in that I had a clear childhood recollection of the brave and capable hero of “Leiningen Versus the Ants” ultimately succumbing to a swarm of his enemies; but found that he actually survived and defeated the ants, when I re-read the story as an adult. Indeed, during the re-reading, my faulty recollection had me contemplating an interpretation of the story as symbolic of the futility of human plans and efforts against something too powerful (e.g. nature, God, or a greater mass of people)—an interpretation that did not pan out… That misrecollection was similar in that most of Leiningen’s efforts through-out the story had been futile: He had repeatedly temporarily held off the ants with consecutive lines of defense, but each line was ultimately over-come, and the general tendency of failure dominates the story. To boot, the scene with his last desperate run, and the attacks during it, must have been very strong to a child, leaving a correspondingly strong impression.

Secondly, I am left with the feeling that Christie made an error of judgment in what is otherwise the best of her books that I have read.* Not only was this the perfect opportunity for the twist ending of twist endings,** but it would also have fit with both the character of the victim (Mrs Boynton) and the timing of events: Mrs Boynton was portrayed as an extremely malicious and tyrannical woman, who enjoyed keeping her family down. To boot, she was elderly and sickly, with her death not being truly unexpected. To boot, her grasp over the family was cracking, as she had under her thumb an own daughter, three step-children, and the wife of one of the step-sons—and the latter had declared her intention to leave (even at the cost of losing her husband), the husband was contemplating following her, another step-son was enticed to rebellion by a new romantic interest (Sarah), and he and the step-daughter had contemplated murder to free the family…***

*In a guesstimate about a dozen—which is still only a fraction of her overall works.

**In light of the good fit, I make a minor reservation that Christie might have deliberately tried to mislead the reader into thinking suicide, and using the reversal as the twist. With my second reading, I am faced with the problem that I might have failed to see such attempts, already being convinced of the suicide; while my first reading is too long gone by. Even should this be the case, however, I consider the suicide version to be better (with corresponding alterations to remove any too open hints at suicide.)

***Here the question of what Mrs Boynton knew is important, with this question partially hinging on when she died. For instance, she was aware of Sarah, but likely never understood how great her effect was: The step-son in question went to take a stand and break free on the very day of her murder, but she is, towards the end, revealed to have already been dead when he reached her. However, since he pretended towards the others that she was still alive, another interpretation is possible for most of the book, that he did tell her off and that she took this as an impulse to act. The situation with the other step-son is quite similar.

Consider now a scenario in which she has the knowledge that her death is not long due, she is faced with this collapse of her petty dominion, and she sees a final way to spite the family—commit suicide and make sure that one or several of the “steps” go down for murder. (This might also, depending on the wills and laws involved, have moved more of her late husbands fortune onto her biological daughter.)

I am uncertain whether this scenario would have fit well enough given the facts presented prior to the summary, but if not, little would have to be changed. The issues around the syringe(s) need not be a problem, assuming e.g. that she had herself stolen one and deliberately left it at the site of the crime (in order to draw attention to the unnatural death); while one of the family members had later removed it, in an attempt to protect another family member (consistent with behavior actually displayed). Contradictory claims of when she was alive and when she must have been dead might be resolvable through an alleged incident with Mrs Boynton’s watch, which had run out and then been rewound and reset by one of the step-sons—possibly, she deliberately let the watch run out in order to somehow trick him into noting the wrong time from some other source.

The actual culprit and the resolution are unsatisfactory, too sudden, and leave the reader in a position where he would be hard-pressed to reach the right conclusion*: Mrs Boynton had once been a wardress in a prison. The murderer, Lady Westholme, had once been an inmate at said prison, Mrs Boynton had recognized her, and was now intending or threatening to use this knowledge to destroy Lady Westholme’s reputation, political career, whatnot.** Poirot’s conclusion of this hinged on statements made by Mrs Boynton directed at Lady Westholme immediately after being given a speech by Sarah, who was not even aware of Lady Westholme’s presence. (Specifically, statements that she never forgot a face and whatnot.) Re-reading the corresponding passages, I can see Poirot’s point (e.g. direction of gaze, surprising formulation); however, resolving the oddity of the statements in context by assuming that they were directed towards a third party forces the introduction of a greater oddity—she must now have left a severe insult to her self-image go entirely unanswered.*** To boot, the formulation was merely surprising, not implausible, with e .g. “I will never forget you or your insults; and one of these days, I am going to get you” being a reasonable interpretation. (Certainly, the effect on Sarah was considerable, pointing to an odd-but-skillful threat.)

*Poirot’s repeated emphasis of the scene might have been clue enough, but (a) I, specifically, was not paying the attention that a Christie story requires, (b) readers, in general, should not have to rely on meta-information, e.g. what the detective’s suspicions are, in order to reach the right conclusion—the point of a good murder mystery is for the reader to try to find the culprit in competition with the detective, not to be led by him. (I have no recollection of whether I managed to get to the right conclusion during my first reading.)

**How seriously such threats were taken by Lady Westholme is further illustrated by there actually being a suicide in the book: Lady Westholme’s, as she realized that the game was up. Notably, Poirot repeatedly emphasizes that he could not necessarily prove anything, and a conviction was likely far from certain, making a “death before dishonor” scenario likelier than despair over a return to prison.

***Unless we assume that she deliberately directed the same set of statements towards two individuals simultaneously, which, while not entirely impossible, is a bit far-fetched. (Or, just possibly, that she deliberately ignored Sarah as a slight in its own right. If so, however, it failed entirely.)

Generally, to my taste, too many of Christie’s work involve various surprise connections from the past, people living under assumed identities, and similar. In one extreme case, I believe “A Murder is Announced”, there are actually two (!) long separated siblings independently using assumed identities. That these surprise connections are not necessarily the culprits, actually makes matters worse: With Lady Westholme, the surprise connection was the reason for the murder—in other cases, we have both a murder and an unrelated surprise connection. (Not to mention the additional coincidence that these murders take place in connection with Poirot or Miss Marple far more often than could be statistically expected. More generally, if a crime-fighter goes on vacation, it appears a fictional necessity that a crime takes place under his nose…)

A related criticism is how often the murderer is someone originally not among the obvious suspects: If the murderer is someone unexpected in a single story, this is not a problem—it might even be good. However, when it happens in story after story, the effect will be ruined by readers who learn to expect the unexpected. Do X, Y, and Z inherit a fortune after the murder? Then X, Y, and Z are likely innocent, so let us focus on A, B, and C instead.

(These criticisms notwithstanding, I consider Christie brilliant.)

Excursion on incongruities:
When looking at fictional detectives, small incongruities are often very important, in that when nine out of ten facts fit a hypothesis, the hypothesis will turn out to be wrong. Sherlock Holmes might have gained less relative the police from his deductive abilities than from his search for small details and insistence that all the details be explained by a single hypothesis. This well matches my experiences from other areas, e.g. in that a minor deviation in a database is often a sign of faulty code—and possibly code that will at some point cause a major deviation. Scientific theories are a great source of examples—if the theory does not explain all that it is supposed to explain, and have all its predictions come true, something needs to be fixed. (My experiences with real-life crime-fighting is extremely limited, but the same almost must hold there, except as far as coincidences need to be taken into account—that cigar ash might have been left by the burglar, but there is also some chance that the butler had taken liberties and failed to clean up the evidence in the excitement after the burglary was discovered.)

Written by michaeleriksson

October 16, 2018 at 12:24 am

Pride and Prejudice

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I have just finished reading “Pride and Prejudice”—and find myself both puzzled and disappointed: While I was well aware that Jane Austen was a “chick-lit” writer, I had expected a work of depth and quality commensurate to its and her reputation. Not so.

The book is not only chick-lit and extremely “high concept”*, but is also void of anything that would raise it above mere entertainment literature.** There are minimal or no attempts to explore questions of ethics, philosophy, personal development (except as below), social criticism, …, and no sign of a “higher” purpose. There is some space given to psychology (in a wide sense), but not much and most is trite, not going much beyond the typical in even entertainment literature. Above all, there was nothing that made me stop to think, showed me something important that I did not already understand, left me an even marginally better person after the reading, …*** For intellectual purposes, I might just as well read a Bond novel—and if I did, I would at least be entertained.

*Specifically, focusing on twists and turns during the process of finding a husband in the then upper-class Britain.

**Which is not to say that there is anything wrong with reading (I often do) or writing entertainment literature. The point is the difference between reputation and reality. (Also see an excursion at the end.)

***A potential lesson is that trying to figure people out without communication is extremely error-prone, including the apparent female habit of trying to deduce a man’s feelings and intentions towards her based on small actions and endless speculation. Ditto understanding a situation after hearing only one side. However, I have understood both since I was a teenager.

The characters are without exception one-dimensional, and most are truly silly and/or unsympathetic people, be it out of stupidity, narrow-mindedness, shallowness, immaturity, or, indeed, “Pride and Prejudice”.* Some lee-way might be given to the teenage or border-line teenage characters acting like teenagers; however, the situation is not that much better when we move up in age, as exemplified by e.g. Mrs. Bennet and Lady de Bourgh. Consider the main character, Elizabeth (“Prejudice”), who builds her entire impression of Darcy (“Pride”) based on hearsay, without any attempt to find out his side of the story—how many twists and turns could have been avoided which just a little bit of common sense and fairness. (While it is true that this failing is very common, it also made it very hard for me to sympathize with her—and even harder to understand that Darcy would be interested in the long-term.)

*Writing this, I contemplate whether the intention might have been some type of deliberate satire of or comedy based on human absurdity, stupidity, silliness, or similar—possibly, something along the lines of “The Pickwick Papers” or “Three Men in a Boot”. However, if so, it is not very skillfully done, and Austen leaves the impression of taking these people seriously. (On the character level: That some were deliberately written as stupid is clear.)

Now, based on the juxtaposition of “Pride” and “Prejudice”, and looking at the initial developments, we might expect personal growth to be a theme. However, even that is not truly the case. Elizabeth did not come around through learning to disregard prejudice, get both sides of the story, whatnot—she was forced to re-evaluate specific prejudice in light of ever more evidence that she had been wrong. To boot, she took far longer than reasonable to complete her change of mind. Whether she truly learned her lesson is far from clear. Darcy might, depending on interpretation, have developed farther; however, most of his later behavior, e.g. his explanatory letter or his help to Lydia, could also be seen as rooted in continued pride*.

*At least the latter illustrating the question (posed in the book) of whether pride is necessarily something negative. (An deeper exploration of this topic could have made the book more valuable.)

In terms of plot, events, whatnot, there is not much to be found—for most of the book nothing actually happens. Who gets whom is not enough to fill a book this long… The main intrigues could have been contained in one volume (as opposed to the actual two), with considerable margin to spare, with no loss of value, and a considerable improvement in readability. The only point of the book that brings something resembling excitement, roughly three-quarters through, is when Lydia, one of Elizabeth’s sisters, unexpectedly elopes, throwing the family into panic. This caused a few chapters worth of more dynamic story, but the situation was soon resolved, and things went back to “nothing actually happens”. Indeed, I suspect that even this episode was not added for excitement, but more to give Darcy an opportunity to validate himself. (Else it would likely have taken place much earlier.) Many of the events and developments that did take place are too predictable, even hackneyed*, including the Elizabeth–Darcy situation: That a woman has strong negative feelings for a man at the beginning of a story, is a very strong hint that they will be romantically involved by its end…

*At least from today’s point of view: Some of it, in all fairness, might have been more novel at the time.

The length is not undue merely because nothing happens, however: The long-winded (even to me!) prose also extends the length of the text considerably, without adding anything over a more compact formulation. (Admittedly, this is a fairly common problem with works from that time.) I often even found myself drifting off, unable to concentrate on the text, because the amount of information gained from reading a certain passage was too small to keep my brain alert.

Even the romance parts are, at least by modern standards, not that romantic. There is little difference made between love and infatuation. Much of the marriage seeking is merely convenience; and this (even with marriage as truly life-long commitment at the time), is often reduced to “is he/she socially suitable, attractive, and willing”*, without spending sufficient time on examining actual long-term compatibility**—where someone with sense and sensibility might, today, consider asking for a date, marriage is already on the table. And, no, this is not the take of the parents—it is the take of the presumptive spouses. This is the odder with an eye on the example of Mr. and Mrs. Bennet, Elizabeth’s parents, who are stated outright to have married too optimistically and been less than satisfied because of it. I might go as far as comparing parts to pubescent school romance, in terms of both shallowness of criteria and the roundabout approach to determining whether an interest is returned.

*Echoing the famous first line of “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife”.

**Two previous texts of mine ([1], [2]) are highly open to marriages based on reason, and would allow a fairly short period of prior acquaintance. However, this went hand-in-hand with an exploratory process and a great focus on ensuring that both parties would know in detail what to expect.

A partial saving grace is humor: I found myself laughing on several occasions, but the overall amount of humor is simply too small to make up for the weaknesses. A dash of humor in an already enjoyable or valuable work can be the icing on the wedding cake—here, we have the icing on a plain layer of sponge.

Excursion on “popular” and “classic”:
I have long suspected that many of the “classic” works have earned their status more through popularity than quality—that the popular of today is the classic of tomorrow. “Pride and Prejudice” is a likely candidate. (At least some of Dickens’ works, while often having considerably more depth, could also be examples. Similarly, would anyone read “Le Morte d’Arthur” today, had it not contained knights, magic, and whatnots?) This is not necessarily a bad thing; however, when being a classic is automatically seen as a sign of quality, instead of enduring popularity, then caution is needed. The popularity issue is worsened by the lower competition in earlier days, with e.g. far more books being published today than in the 19th century or far more TV shows being broadcast than in the 1950s.

As a counter-point, I have repeatedly encountered books and authors with more depth than their reputation/my expectation. For instance, I recently read a few books by H.G. Wells: I had expected something decidedly pulpy, but found them to be surprisingly intelligent and containing more food for thought than “Pride and Prejudice” did. I have earlier written about “Black Beauty” as a very positive surprise.

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October 15, 2018 at 3:12 am

The 2018 Nobel Prizes: Women and the Nobel Prize

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Time for the yearly Nobel-Prize update:

Unlike 2017, women did reasonable well, with participiations in three out of five categories and putting up a total of three laureates out of twelve.* This even included a share in the Physics Prize—for only the third time, after 1903 and 1963.

*Including the Economy Prize. The Literature Prize is moot (cf. below).

The Literature Prize was not awarded (so far?) for 2018, due to an extremely chaotic situation within the awarding “Swedish Academy”. The situation is worthy of a longer text of its own; however, the information that has reached me through the press over months has been confusing, incomplete, and often looked like a game of mutual blame, which makes me unwilling/unable to write said text.

With this chaos on top of my previous criticism of both the Literature and Peace Prizes, and factoring in their very different character, I will probably ignore both of them in any future updates—I can no longer take either seriously. (And to the degree that they can be taken seriously, they are not that relevant to the original context of my interest.)

Written by michaeleriksson

October 11, 2018 at 2:19 pm

Thoughts around social class: Part I

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Preamble: Recently, I have contemplated differences in outcome and the changes to the lives of different “classes” over time. The below is the first of several texts on related topics.

Once, as a child, I saw a pedagogical demonstration on TV: Of a large group of children, half were put at a table with good food, half on the floor with bread and water. After a few minutes, the second group was also brought to the table and a short speech was given on how this illustrated the need for “social justice” (or something of the kind—this was a long time ago).

The idea is obvious: The children should see that it is unfair that wealth and whatnot is distributed by a one-time random event, and be brought to conclude that wealth should be distributed equally within and between societies.

This repeats a common flaw in Leftist thinking of assuming an either–or situation: Either we have equality of outcome or we have outcomes decided by the circumstances of our birth (e.g. as children of nobility or peasants, Swedes or Ugandans). Indeed, I have since seen similar scenarios posed to adults, with the same flawed either–or: If your own status in life is random, would you rather live in a society where money is unequally divided between the rich and the poor or in one where money is distributed equally?

Even as a child, I was turned off by this demonstration and this either–or thinking: What if someone is simply more successful than someone else? What if someone is smarter, works harder, takes greater risks*, prioritizes material success higher, …?** Differences in outcome do not automatically imply differences in opportunity, that our fate is determined by who our parents were, or other reasons similar to those implied by the random division of the children into a “table group” and a “floor group”. By all means, where inequality of opportunity exists, remedies might be needed—but why throw the baby out with the bath-water? Indeed, even approximate equality of outcome is only possible by grossly violating one or both of equality of opportunity and personal freedom.

*Risk-takers do not necessarily fair better in life on average; however, the chance of finding them among the unusually successful (and the unusually unsuccessful) is increased. Notably, such effects are not limited to e.g. gambling, speculation, or even investments and founding businesses—they also include who asks for a higher salary at the risk of not getting the job, who holds out for a better employment offer, who trades unpaid over-time for a better shot at a promotion, …

**To which might be added some negatives, e.g. a greater willingness to break the law. I have no objections to suppression of such factors and/or the differences in outcome caused by them.

Exactly this type of baby mistreatment is very common in Leftist thinking and some parts of the Western world, however. For instance, if I work an additional hour, the German state earns more additional money than I do, after all direct and indirect taxes are considered. Some of this money is then spent in a sensible manner, some is wasted on government bureaucracy or otherwise abused—and a significant portion is given to other people in the form of direct or indirect transfer payments. And, no, this is not just payments intended to help those in temporary need to get back on their feet*—it also includes massive systematic attempts at redistribution of wealth.

*To which I have no objection: There is no shame in being temporarily in need of help. (I have been myself, as was my mother as a single, unemployed parent.) Not getting back on one’s feet over time, that is a different matter—as is e.g., without a temporary crisis, (a) living a life permanently based on government help, (b) fattening one’s pockets with unneeded government money, and, at the extreme end, (c) well-fare parasitism. (The (b) case is quite common in Germany, where politicians often try to use money to govern life-choices, e.g. in that married couples are taxed in a more favorable manner than singles—even when the married couples would have lived well without such favoritism.)

**In Sweden’s past this was sometimes extremely blatant. For instance, my first major push towards political interest, likely in the mid or late 1980s, came from a news piece on Swedish taxes: The post-taxes income of a high and a low earner were compared, showing a much smaller difference than before taxes. I was puzzled and dissatisfied by this. An equally dissatisfied reporter then criticized the situation—because the difference were still too large for his taste.

The typical fiction of the Leftist world-view is that these people are in a worse position than others for reasons that they cannot help—they are the victims of circumstance, most notably having had too poor parents, which prevented them from getting the right education and opportunities. Looking at countries like Sweden and Germany, this is only rarely the case.* The main determinants of success (or lack thereof) in life lie with the individual, how intelligent, ambitious, hard-working, …, he is and what decisions he has made in life—and most of these people are where they are because they did not use their opportunities. (As opposed to not having had sufficient opportunities.) Every once in a while, someone has a genuine piece of bad luck,** and these should be given proper concern, but own actions is the much more common explanation.

*The situation in other countries, and in the aforementioned countries in the past, might be different. However, in Western countries, including the much more “economically diverse” U.S., own abilities and efforts are more important than e.g. what socio-economic group the parents belonged to.

**Consider e.g. a recent colleague of mine: Intelligent, educated, hard-working, and presumably earning well (I am not privy to the details). His wife developed severe, unexpected, and long-term health-issues that (a) racked up medical bills beyond insurance coverage, (b) prevented her from working, (c) forced him to take time off to take care of her and the children. This is a type of situation where a government intervention would be easy to justify. (Whether one took place, I do not know.)

Did someone prefer partying to studying? Take every second Monday off to extend the weekend? Have children while unemployed or on minimum wage? If someone makes decisions with no eye on the future, behaves unprofessionally, follows the “pleasure principle”, … it is his business—but he has to live with the consequences.

Did someone study English instead of Medicine? Go into academics instead of the private sector? There is more to life than wealth, and I can greatly sympathize with the choice—but the trade-off, less money, is his responsibility.

Did someone start a business that ultimately failed? Taking risks for a shot at greater success is perfectly legitimate—but if the dice come up the wrong way, the failure is his to bear.

Did someone lack the brains to get through college? The manual skills to learn carpentry? The writing skills to succeed as an author? We are what we are—but we cannot blame others for such problems, nor demand that they pay for an unearned improvement of our standard of living.

My own family provides several interesting illustrations. Consider the socio-economic status of the parents and its purported effect on the children: I and my sister (unsurprisingly) have the same parents,* yet I am extremely well-educated and have supported myself for almost all of my post-college days, while my sister is a high-school drop-out and spent most of her life supported by my mother. My parents ended up at comparable levels of success in life, yet my father had two formally educated and intellectually interested parents with (to the degree that I can judge it) an above-average family income, while my mother’s mother had six years of school and was definitely below average in IQ, my mother’s father lacked higher formal** education, and the family income likely was below average. Of course, I did considerably better than many others with a similar childhood (cf. below)—at least until my early teens, I was one of those that the Swedish Left considers so disadvantaged that a failure in life is society’s fault…

*Looking deeper, she (as the younger) likely had a small net-advantage in socio-economic status, through a higher average income and education level during our respective childhoods, but might have had disadvantages in other areas, e.g. time spent with our father post-divorce.

**From what I have heard and seen after the fact (he died when I was six or seven), I suspect that he was quite intelligent and reasonably well-read outside of formal education—someone who would have done well in college, had he gone. However, typical measures of socio-economic status, especially in the context of the-world-would-be-much-better-if-everyone-went-to-college propaganda, only consider formal education. (How many years of school he had, I do not know.)

Or consider long-term handling of a temporary crisis: Post-divorce, both my parents (my mother with two troublesome children) did their best to find new* jobs, both eventually went to college, and both ultimately built a good life. Especially my mother, had she had less drive and intelligence, could have gone down the path of the perennially unemployed well-fare seekers. She did not. Neither was she satisfied with temping or dead-end/entry-level jobs, like so many others in her situation, but she actually rose to education and a middle-class income.

*They were officers of the Salvation Army prior to the divorce, and staying on was problematic.

Then again, it can be argued that my parents made disputable* choices prior to the divorce, and could have done a lot better* with other choices. As officers in the Salvation Army, they earned very poorly compared to the average, received no education truly useful outside the Salvation Army, and having two children (even absent a divorce) might have been on the optimistic side. If they had skipped the Salvation Army, they could have taken steps in their lives at twenty that they only actually took when around thirty.

*In terms of material and whatnot success: The general career choice was obviously dictated by other reasons, and cannot be compared to someone who has a poor career e.g. through lack of brains or willingness to work hard. Even as things played out, it is conceivable that they considered the time in the Salvation Army a worthwhile investment. (I certainly do—owing my existence to these choices, the Salvation Army included.)

Excursion on the anecdotal:
Much of the above is obviously anecdotal, special cases that could underlie a lot of chance, whatnot. However, (a) it is born out by what I have seen among others, (b) it is similar to findings in e.g. twin studies and psychometrics, and (c) the “evidence” provided by the Left that e.g. socio-economic status of the parents would be all-important is equally consist with my preferred explanation—that children tend to inherit various traits from their parents, and that these traits cause the greater part of the difference in outcome. For instance, if fewer from the lower class do not get a higher education, is this really because they are deprived of the chance by their family environment*—or because their parents were members of the lower class due to lack of intelligence, drive, whatnot, and that the children inherited these characteristics? (Note that back-breaking tuition fees is not an issue in either of Sweden and Germany.)

*Indeed, to the degree that the family environment is important, I suspect that the common anti-education, anti-intellectual attitude of many in the lower class is more important than the actual education levels and amount of money available. This, in turn, is hard to correct through “social justice”, but is something that school would be well placed to improve. (Unfortunately, school is more likely to kill the interest than to grow it…)

Excursion on children:
The question of children is tricky, because they have to live with the consequences of their parents actions. On the one hand, they have to be protected from at least the worst situations. On the other, giving them too much help would end up giving the parents a better life that they have earned. Ensuring a reasonable minimum of living conditions, food* quality/quantity, and clothing is justifiable, but going much beyond this will likely do little good. I took no harm from hand-me-downs when I was a child—nor from the absence of brand products and vacations abroad.** What help is given should preferably be in a more direct form than money, so that it cannot be abused for other purposes.

*Here there can be greater issues involved than affordability, e.g. that the children are given candy and junk-food instead of proper meals.

**And should this be an issue today, which is sometimes claimed by the proponents of the misnomer “relative poverty”, it is the attitudes of society that need to change—not the wealth distribution.

Excursion on forms of help:
Most well-fare and whatnot programs seem to be directed at giving money. This is the easy way out for the government, and likely what brings the politicians the more votes, but I cannot see it as a good way: Apart from giving e.g. food-stamps* the preference over money, the better general approach is to “teach a man to fish”. Give people the means and incentives to earn more. Help them to avoid unnecessary debt and move existing high-interest debt somewhere with lower interest. Help them to make a budget. Help them to avoid unnecessary expenditures. Etc. There are people who already have optimized what they can and still lack money, but most are far from that point.

*But then some on the Left will complain that using food-stamps might be humiliating and, therefore, unacceptable.

Written by michaeleriksson

October 9, 2018 at 11:55 pm

Treatment of accusations

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The recent accusations* of sexual assault against U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, and especially the situation around them, is highly troubling.

*Disclaimer concerning the specific accusations: I make no claim about whether the accusations are true or false. (But admit to finding them fishy. Cf. some of the below.) The main point is not whether Kavanaugh, specifically, is guilty or innocent of something, but how various scenarios should be handled in general, including accusations that lack proof, accusations that are raised belatedly, actual events that took place a long time ago, etc.

Again, a mere allegation is used to discredit someone, potentially ruining both a career and a reputation. Worse, now the democratic processes are threatened: If Kavanaugh’s nomination is defeated, then what is next? There are many political fanatics who justify even thoroughly anti-democratic means through their holy end—and if they see that, for instance, Kavanaugh was kicked out based on mere allegations (even truthful allegations), the risk that some of them will raise false allegations against others increases severely.* A justice with the “wrong” opinions is nominated? The “wrong” candidate is leading in the polls? That professor is a registered Republican? Now there is a remedy!

*And, no, in light of many actual, anti-democratic events documented on sites like Minding the Campus, or the very high rate of false accusations in other areas (I have briefly discussed the subject in e.g. [1] and [2]), this is not a hypothetical to just be shrugged off—the risk is very, very real. To boot, albeit with a smaller likelihood, there are at least some cases where such accusations could be used as an extended filibuster, e.g. to block the appointment of anyone to the Supreme Court nominated by the “wrong” President. (The attempts, then by the Republicans, to eliminate Obama by questioning his country of birth is another indication of a faulty attitude.)

In order to reduce such risks, I would suggest the implementation of some or all of the following rules:

  1. An unproved* accusation is void for the purpose of appointments, hiring, firing, … It must** be ignored in the decision-making*** process. Failure to do so amounts to illegal discrimination and considered e.g., in the case of a firing, wrongful dismissal. (This is a special case of the presumption of innocence.)

    *Exactly what level of proof is needed might require further discussion. A formal criminal conviction is certainly enough, but there might be instances where a finding in a civil suit, considerable evidence never presented in court, or e.g. personal knowledge might also suffice. (For an example of the latter, consider a decision maker who personally witnessed a certain event—but not a decision maker who merely is convinced that the accuser is truthful.)

    **Such a ban is doomed to fail when it comes to e.g. voter opinion, but should work reasonably in cases like Kavanaugh’s and very well when it comes to e.g. firings with no other credible support. Similarly, that a judge instructs a jury to ignore a certain statement will not erase the statement from the minds of the jurors—but it is the best he can do. (Assuming that the instruction was justified.)

    ***However, it might legitimately lead to an investigation. Such an investigation can, obviously, provide proof, after which the situation changes. Even so, such investigations should normally be left to the proper authorities, and e.g. the type of kangaroo court used by some U.S. colleges is not defensible.

  2. No accusation is to be considered that was not raised in a sufficiently timely manner. For instance, if Christine Blasey Ford (Kavanaugh’s main accuser) had gone to the police within some reasonable* time after the alleged event, pointing to that accusation today would be a legitimate move on her behalf—but she waited some 36 (!) years before going public.

    *What a reasonable time is, needs further discussion. In the current case, days would have been best, but weeks might have been tolerated if the experience was traumatic or other circumstances made “days” unconscionable. Even months, however, would be very hard to justify. If nothing else, we have to consider the risk of false accusations and the reduced ability of the innocently accused to provide e.g. alibis as time goes by—the rights of the accused are just as important as those of the accuser. A timely report to the police is, obviously, also in the interest of a (truthful) accuser, so that evidence can be gathered in time.

    In addition to arguments in favor of statutes of limitation in general (cf. below), we also have to consider that when an accusation is raised so long after (even a real) event, the memory of the accuser might be too faulty to be trusted. Did the events really take place that way or have they been exaggerated after mulling over them a few dozen times? Were the intents involved interpreted correctly?* Was it really the accused or might it have been his brother? Etc.

    *For instance: Looking at the specific alleged Ford–Kavanaugh situation, Ford seems to frame it as a rape attempt. However, from what is written on Wikipedia, it is not clear that the intentions went beyond molestation (even assuming that the event took place). Such intents even seem unlikely, with two older boys interacting with a girl of fifteen in situation controlled by them. Had this been an actual rape attempt, her chances would not have been great. (Wikipedia on the nomination: “According to Ford, Kavanaugh pinned her to the bed, groped her, ground against her, and tried to pull off her clothes and covered her mouth when she tried to scream.” The one thing potentially pointing to specifically rape is the clothes, but here too much room for interpretation is present, including whether her pants were involved—and what about his pants? To speak of “sexual assault” is justified, but “attempted rape” is, unless vital information has been left out, speculation.)

    Reasoning that e.g. the “risk” of a high appointment for an unsuitable candidate might justify coming out even after a long time, is flawed, as per several below points and the fact that there are plenty of innocents that might need protection in the life-path of almost everyone—not just of holders of high offices. If someone sees a need to act when a high office is involved, then she willfully exposed smaller groups of people in the past. In the specific case of Ford and Kavanaugh, we also have to consider that this is not his first high office. Why did she not speak up e.g. when he was appointed to the circuit court?*

    *The obvious speculation is that we now have a situation where an accusation, be it truthful or false, has a greater political impact, and a “Republican” Supreme Court can at least be delayed—that it is a matter of mere political expediency, by a Democrat with some history of political activism. (Cf. Wikipedia on Ford.) However, I stress that my knowledge of Ford’s character, history, whatnot, are far too limited to consider this more than speculation.

  3. The relevance of an alleged act/event/whatnot to suitability for a certain position must be considered. In many previous incidents, mostly relating to issues like being non-PC (e.g. [3], [4]), no such relevance has been obvious or even remotely proved. With sexual assault and movie producer, a case for relevance is obvious, because the position gives opportunity for further events, and an effect e.g. on what-young-actress-is-hired-why is plausible. With Kavanaugh and the Supreme Court, the case is far weaker: Not only is there no reason to assume that he would have more opportunity on the Supreme Court than in his current position (if at all*), but he does not have an adult record of such behavior—the alleged incidents that have come to my attention have been in the early 1980s, when Kavanaugh was still a teenager.

    *I am not aware of what opportunities, obstacles, whatnot, might be present, but the rest of the Supreme Court is bound to be safe. There might be some possibilities among assistants and similar, but nothing comparable to the opportunities of a movie producer.

    A possibly relevant angle is that of moral integrity: Someone with a known behavior of questionable ethics, morals, whatnot might be disputable, even when no questions of ability and performance are present. For instance, a top-notch accountant with an embezzlement conviction is not an ideal candidate for treasurer of even the local PTA. Similarly, with high offices, we want people who are likely to not e.g. confuse private and public funds, make favorable decisions in exchange for bribes, change regulations in a manner that benefits them personally (for the sake of that benefit), … While I would tend to err on the side of caution in this area, sexual misbehavior is lesser indication than e.g. financial misbehavior when it comes to public office. (Excepting the vulnerability to extortion; however, here we have a Catch-22: Either the misbehavior is known and not useful for extortion, or it is not known and therefore not a possible criterion.) Further, the judicial branch is likely less susceptible than the executive branch.

  4. Even when accusations were raised in a timely manner, some type of “statute of limitations”* must be present:

    *An older post has some discussion of criminal statutes of limitation.

    Firstly, if an accusation is “escalated”*, or even repeated, after too long a time, the accused is put at a severe disadvantage, because his opportunities to defend himself are worsened. For instance, he might have had a witness that has since forgotten too much, moved, or even died; unknown witnesses that might have come forward after two weeks might not even realize that they are relevant when the event took place two or twenty years earlier; he might have had phone records that are now long gone; he might himself be too uncertain about the details to give a plausible statement; etc. (This is even worse when no prior accusation had taken place, and the innocently accused might not even know what he was doing at what time all those years ago. A prior accusation at least increases the chance that some memories are present and that some preparations were taken.)

    *E.g. in that an accusation is raised in a social circle today and brought to the police two years later, or that the police originally dismissed a charge without deeper investigation and the accusation is repeated in a public forum decades later.

    Secondly, the individual changes over time.* He matures, develops a better feel for what is and is not acceptable, gains greater insights into ethics, becomes better at withstanding peer-pressure, sorts out emotional problems, … In the case of a teenage boy, even the physiological maturation of the brain is not yet complete. When enough time has passed, judging someone over past events is not that much different from judging him over something someone else did. When it comes to extremes such as whether a Presidential candidate, once long ago, actually inhaled marijuana or just smoked it, something is seriously wrong.

    *Here I can give myself as a case in point: While I have never done anything like what Kavanaugh is accused of, I was quite “handsy” in my early teens. Not only have I stopped such behaviors as I grew up, but I cannot even, today, understand what motivated me. My best speculation is that it was more “attention getting” than something truly sexual, combined with a yet undeveloped understanding of issues like personal borders (in turn caused by some mixture of youth, family problems, and “spectrum” issues).

    Thirdly, society and what is considered acceptable also changes over time. If we take an old man and go back to what he did sixty years ago, we might find things considered perfectly normal back then—but condemned whole-sale today. Consider, as extreme examples, the horrifyingly flawed concept of microaggressions or stories of how even asking someone out has been considered sexual harassment. Or consider objections against various pre-abolition U.S. Presidents because they, perfectly normally at the time, owned slaves. Or consider how prostitution was relatively recently legal in Sweden, is now forbidden, and how it can be assumed that any politician caught out having visited a prostitute when it was legal will be severely condemned post-facto. If older events are to be considered at all, they must be considered in the light of the norms at the time they took place.

    As a special case of the above, there might also be some need to consider more “local” norms, e.g. those of a sub- or youth-culture. While such norms should be called upon only with caution, they can often shine a different light on something or make it less severe, especially when all the involved parties belong to the same group, follow the same norms, and have the same expectations.

Excursion on statutes of limitation and the changing individual:
One way to handle this complication would be to say that we are only ever culpable for what we did in the previous third* of our lives. What happened before is beyond the reach of the law, societal condemnation, the ire of a spouse, the complaints of a parent, … A human aged six is only responsible for what he did in the last two years, aged fifteen only for the last five, aged sixty only the last twenty, etc.

*The exact fraction and the exact modalities are open to discussion.

Such a system simultaneously reasonably protects from the sins of our prior selves, ensures a reasonable remainder of culpability, and takes the different rate of change as we age into consideration. There might, however, be some complications to iron out. Consider e.g. someone who commits a crime at twenty and is incarcerated with a multi-year sentence at twenty-nine: Should he be let out when thirty? This would be consistent with the idea, but might lead to problems like some perpetrators not being prosecuted due to pointlessness, effectively shortening the statutes-of-limitation phase below the intent. (A possible compromise might be to set some lower limits or proportions for sentences that are exceptional to the overall system.)

Excursion on the Clintons:
Some of the accusations against Bill might be open to similar arguments, although the shorter time-frame must be considered. The Lewinsky affair* might even be something best considered a private issue between her and the Clintons. Others against Bill and all (?) against Hillary are not or only weakly affected, e.g. because of more-or-less immediate action, delays caused by lack of knowledge, the use of formal investigations instead of public-opinion courts, and the greater relevance to the job.

*Per se: Any ensuing cover-ups and later manipulations are a different matter. (My memory is much too vague to make a definite statement.)

Written by michaeleriksson

October 6, 2018 at 7:19 pm

What the PC movement gains from silencing Dead White Men

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A very dangerous aspect of some modern excesses of political correctness is the almost whole-sale rejection of anything “Western”, “traditional”, “classical”, … The danger is not* because of typical Conservative counter-arguments about having a common frame of reference or cultural understanding, knowing where we came from, … No: The two much worse, overlapping problems are the following:

*While I do not consider such arguments without merit, they are, with reservations for history, a lot less relevant today, with changing norms and societies, rapidly changing cultural (in senses like fiction and who-is-who) frames of reference, heavy migration, whatnot. For instance, my native Sweden and adopted Germany have very different sets of authors that one “should” know about—and to have a discussion with a modern German teenager, I might be better off knowing something about “Game of Thrones” or Kanye West than about Goethe and Schiller…

Firstly, there are enormous amounts of insight to be found in older works—and, unlike modern works, they have typically been strongly pre-filtered for quality and long-term relevance.* It is neigh on impossible to come up with a thought so truly original than no-one else has published it in the past. Many are even so old and established that they are anonymous adages.** Similarly, more or less any event of today can find at least an approximate parallel in history, making a solid knowledge of history an immensely valuable tool for understanding the current world, including seeing potential dangers. A related issue is that ignorance of history makes it impossible to view historical events, persons, ideologies, whatnot in a reasonable light, especially compared to other events, persons, ideologies, whatnot of the same or another era (including today). Those who denigrate old thoughts, the teaching of history, whatnot, just “because it is old” (“[…] Western”, “[…] by Dead White Men”) slow their own intellectual growth, hinder their understanding of (even) modern society, and are often unable to understand the past in a reasonable context.

*Similarly, that the music of a few decades back appears to be much better than today, is partially a result of the weaker music of then having been filtered out much more strongly over the intervening years than has the weaker music of today.

**A common problem, independent of the PC crowd, is that these are often viewed the wrong way: A proponent might try to “prove” a point merely by citing an adage; an opponent might denigrate them indiscriminately, seeing that they often focus on only one aspect of an issue or a special case. The best gain, however, is when they are seen as “food for thought”, as pointers to some aspect of an issue that we might have overlooked or not considered sufficiently. Generally, the point of exposure to others ideas is not to adopt these ideas—but to use them as stimulation for the development of an own web of ideas.

Secondly, this rejection is a vital part of the survival of the PC movement: People who are well-read in the “forbidden knowledge” are much more likely to see the dangers and errors of the PC crowd than others. A particularly interesting aspect is repeated warnings against censorship, poor reasoning, intellectual dishonesty, and similar. For instance, this text was prompted by encountering a statement by Goethe:

Gegner glauben uns zu widerlegen, wenn sie ihre Meinung wiederholen und auf die unsrige nicht achten.

Translation: Opponents believe that they refute us, when they reiterate their own opinion and ignore* ours.

*Depending on exact intent, especially with “achten” not being a likely modern formulation, I am hesitant in the exact translation. Possibly, e.g. “do not pay attention to” or “do not respect” comes closer to the original intent. The overall sentiment remains the same, however.

This so well matches so many encounters I have had, especially with Feminists, who (a) appear to consider it more important to suppress dissenting opinions* than to give arguments against them and in favor of their own, (b) often argue by mere assertion (or mere slogan), (c) seem to believe that a lie repeated often enough is the truth. Large parts of the German Left appear to believe that the best way to push an opinion is to march along the street and scream it at the top of one’s voice. Excesses in U.S. colleges include systematic disturbances and sabotage of speeches given by not-sufficiently-kosher guest lecturers, including such absurdities as circumventing a ban on disturbances in the lecture hall by using strong loud-speakers immediately outside the same…

*In a parallel to the contents of this text, I have often noted that even perfectly factual statements run a severe risk of being censored on e.g. Feminist blogs, for no other discernible reason than mere dissent. Factual arguments, statistics, etc., appear to increase the risk of censorship.

What if these people stopped for a minute to think about the above quote, draw appropriate conclusion, and adapted their behavior correspondingly? Clearly, it is better for the success of such movements to prevent exposure to such thoughts—or to discredit them by Goethe (or whatever author) being a Dead White Man.

Or consider history: It is so much easier to be on the far Left, when all one knows is the atrocities of Hitler—but not those of Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot. It is so much easier to paint Blacks as disadvantaged and slavery as a White-on-Black atrocity, when comparing the U.S. Blacks of 1840 with modern society instead of the Whites at other times in history, when not making comparison to other historically disadvantaged groups (notably the Jews), and when not being aware of the greater history of slavery (be it concerning Blacks or generally). It is so much easier to propose censorship, restrictions on occupations, indoctrination, whatnot, without having to make comparisons to e.g the McCarthy-era or any number of dictatorships (not to mention “Nineteen Eighty-Four”, moving on to literature by Dead White Men).

The simple truth is this: If people are exposed to “heretical” ideas, allowed to read “dangerous” books, take the time to think for themselves, …, a certain type of movement will be very hard to sustain. Examples include large swaths of the Leftist and PC movements in e.g. the current U.S., Sweden, and Germany; various (past or current) dictatorships, notably the Marx-inspired ones; various religious organizations and sects; …

Excursion on alternatives:
Could not the same insights be gained from other sources? Often they can; however, why go looking for something that is already under our noses? Especially, when that already available will in most cases be objectively superior to the replacement? For instance, when we already have a certain college course, taught for decades and based on an even longer academic history, why throw it out? If we have a literature requirement, is it not natural to focus on those works actually available natively and in the local language?* If we want to draw general lessons from history, why not look to countries** where historians have gathered detailed knowledge covering a long period of time? Etc.

*Not only will the availability of material in the local language be far larger where local authors are concerned, but we also have to consider that even a good translation is invariably different from the original, that even a good translation will leave issues of prerequisite cultural/societal/whatnot knowledge, that even a good translation is usually inferior to the original, and that most translations are not good… To boot, leaving the Western world, most countries have weaker or considerably weaker literary traditions.

**In addition, it is usually preferable to have a stronger focus on the local country, seeing that the local history will often contain information more useful in understanding the current local society. (Benefits from being local will, obviously, require different choices from country to country, from area to area, from cultural sphere to cultural sphere—and are only a pro-something-Western in the case of a Western country.)

If it turns out that this-or-that other source provides some alternative insights, there is nothing wrong with using it in addition. If it turns out to be better, it might even be used instead—I do not advocate a focus on the Western for the sake of having something Western, and a study of e.g Chinese history, literature, philosophy, …, might give equal benefits*. However, the same cannot be said when we look to e.g. Nigeria. Moreover, this is nowhere near what many of these extremists suggest: They appear to start with the assumption that anything related to Dead White Men is evil, and see its abolishment from e.g. school curricula as an end in it self, giving preference to untested and very likely inferior alternatives.

*Barring pragmatical issues, e.g. the aforementioned translations, or local relevance.

Written by michaeleriksson

October 3, 2018 at 11:27 pm