Dream Diary: “1915”

His fate is sealed the moment I accidentally pocket the keys to his truck. I try to prevent two cats from having sex; they attack me, but I am stronger than two cats. It is 1915, and I laugh with some cousins about how transit in 1915 means I rarely get to see them. A woman is shot before she can make it to the Range Rover. I explain to a moviegoer that an entrance and an exit are really the same thing.

The Number of People Who Think We Are Doomed is Somewhat Concerning

I never grew up with Star Trek, but I watched a bit of it in law school and found it very uplifting. I obviously find it agreeable partially because it’s communist (or at least it’s evident that something quite different is going on in their gentle egalitarian spacefaring society). It aligns profoundly with my own aspirations for the human future, which have always been toward the Saganesque. I’ve long felt hopeful for a future in which national borders are erased as we recognize our shared humanity and begin the quest to connect with our sisters and brothers elsewhere in the universe.

But in talking with others about social problems, I’ve discovered that this view puts me on the very fringes of human thought. There seems to be a pretty widespread consensus that nothing but doom stretches out before us. On the right, the view is that “human nature” is violent and lazy and irreparable, and that brutal struggle is an ineradicable part of life. On the left, it’s that environmental catastrophe will soon destroy us all. And even those who share neither of these views seem to believe that we have a maximum of about 100 years before the Silicon Valley capitalist creeps unleash a monstrous form of Artificial Intelligence that will likely devour us all.

These views concern me. I refuse to accept them. I don’t like living as if I’m one of the last human beings before Armageddon. I think that (1) if there’s a chance that’s not true, one should be an optimist, since having the opposite view is more miserable and that (2) this view leads to destructive acts that help fulfill the prophecy. I believe we should act as if we’re going to be around in 500 years. Assuming we’re going to be around in 500 years is exciting, because it means we can set 500-year goals! Everyone I speak to is skeptical of the possibility of eliminating warfare and misery from the Earth. I’m not, though, but not because I think these things are easily solved. Rather, it’s because I have not resigned myself to our inevitable impending doom, so I can think in multi-century increments. Alright, we obviously won’t get rid of guns in 10 years, but 1000? That seems far more plausible, if we actually put our minds to it and stopped believing we had all of human nature and possibility figured out.

I have always been a utopian, albeit of a peculiar sort. (This is why Marxism never had any appeal for me; Marxism explicitly positioned itself in opposition to more utopian socialisms.) I am what I think is a very reasonable utopian, because I do not believe utopias are easily built. In fact, I do not think they are ever built. But I think they could be successfully strived for and gotten closer to, if we were serious. Unfortunately, everyone I talk to seems to either never really think in long time-frames, or believes very strongly we are doomed. They need to stop it, or we’ll get nothing done.

Right Things Can Still Be Wrong Things

A quick point. In recent arguments I had over guns, many among the noisy horde were baffled by my position that the right thing to do can nevertheless be wrong. This arose in the context of using violence to defend a child against harm. I said that while it might be necessary to use violence, and while this might be the right course of action to take, the act itself is still a bad and wrong thing. This made them furious, because they insisted I was contradicting myself. How can the right thing be a wrong thing? Isn’t that definitionally untrue?

No. Here is a hypothetical. A man tells you that if you do not cut off either your husband’s nose or your son’s nose, he will cut off both of their noses. In this situation, it is obvious why someone might find cutting off one of the noses both necessary and the right course of action. But I think many of us would hesitate to say it was a “right thing to do.” It is the sort of situation where it seems like there is no right thing to do, only a series of wrong things that one must choose among. Doing the right thing means selecting the least wrong thing, but that does not thereby make it not a wrong thing. Cutting off a nose doesn’t become good because it was necessary.

I think this is extremely simple and I don’t know why anyone failed to understand it.

Human Nature and the Limits of Possibility

One of the most irritating types of arguments about the problems facing human beings runs along these lines:

Ah yes, we all want to solve Problem X. But Problem X has been with us since time immemorial. You won’t get rid of Problem X without getting rid of human beings. It’s simple human nature.

The reasoning seldom gets any more complex than that; whatever else is added usually consists of a set of historical anecdotes designed to prove that Problem X has indeed been around for a very long time. The slight irony is that this type of bullshit argument has been around for just as long as any of the phenomena under discussion.

The argument is usually applied by some tough-minded cynic against an earnest reformer. I recently had it with a bunch of gun-coddling libertarians, over my position that we should probably try to get rid of unnecessary violent accidental deaths. But I’ve also had it over capitalism, war, poverty, crime, etc. And it never changes. Every single person who has ever tried to get a problem solved has faced a slew of people slinging this same fallacious set of incantations.

Just as the argument is always the same, the fallacy is always the same. The problem with the argument is (has been, will always be) that plenty of things have happened that have never happened before, many of them extremely unexpected. Somehow, the fact that something has not occurred is taken as evidence that it cannot possibly occur. But people make this at every point in history up until the thing occurs. “Oh, women will never have the vote. Women have never had the vote. Like it or not, man’s domination over women is simple human nature, they’ll never get the vote.” “You’ll never have black president. America’s a racist country, we’ve never had a black president.” Of course it happens outside of politics, too. There were no airplanes, and then there were. Anytime anyone has envisioned a possibility that is slightly different from the sum total of all things that people accept as natural, a bunch of dopes start chanting this mantra.

I wouldn’t get so uptight about it if it was just pessimism. But what it really is is arrogance. There is an extremely high level of confidence embedded in these arguments. The speaker asserts that they understand the very fabric of human nature. That means they feel confident making accurate statements not only about human beings as they are, but about every human being that can ever possibly exist. If you make a statement about human nature, you are making a statement about the bounds of all potential human behavior. After all, if you’re not making a statement about all potential humans infinitely into the future, then you’re not really saying Problem X cannot be solved. But if you’re saying there is no way to solve Problem X, you’re saying you know every single thing that human beings could ever come up with or be like, forever. What unbelievable hubris!

I myself try never to make predictions, because I know how little I know about what is “essential” to human beings.  I know how they are today, but I have no way of knowing what we’ll be like in 1000 years. Or 10,000. I don’t make statements about “human nature,” because usually those are just some observed recurring tendencies. The worst part of it is that those tendencies are usually in only a minority of human beings! I’m told human beings are “by nature” violent even though no human being I’ve ever met has ever been violent to me. I’m told they’re inherently selfish, even though I know full well that they need not be, because I’ve met plenty of them who aren’t. So what’s this nonsense about human nature?

There is only way to know that Problem X will never be solved, and it is by embracing the position that Problem X is insoluble. And even though nobody ever has any grounds for concluding this, and even though the people who parrot that argument get proved wrong over and over again as new history happens, this broken record just keeps playing.

The Concept of Race Must Ultimately Be Destroyed

Can we ever have race without having racism? I don’t believe so, but for some reason there seems to be an emerging consensus among people on the left, not just that getting rid of race is impossible, but that it is actually undesirable.

Perhaps that’s the wrong way of stating it. But it does concern me that the concept of post-racialism comes under such heavy fire from the left. Countless commentaries and academic articles and blog posts and thinkpieces heap scorn on the idea. Joel Anderson of The American Prospect says even using the term is harmful, and Jonathan Capehart of The Washington Post called for it to be banished.   

I agree with nearly every argument these writers make. Most of them are concerned with puncturing spurious attempts by conservatives to declare race no longer relevant, and rebutting the inevitable magazine cover-stories that ask “Is America Finally Postracial?” every time there is some small black political advancement. Because race is indeed extremely important, and the idea that it no longer has any social consequences is laughable on its face, this position is completely correct. It would be very dangerous to pretend race doesn’t exist, when it is such a crucial fact of American life and such a main determinant of one’s life chances.

But the anti-postracialism argument sometimes goes further than asserting that race matters. Occassionally, it crosses over into asserting that race ought to matter, that racial classifications are themselves unobjectionable or even good. It denies not just that a postracial society exists or is feasible, but that it should even be aimed for. Here’s an example of this strain of thinking, called “We’ll Never Be A Post-Racial Society—And That Is A Good Thing.” It concludes:

We have embodied race as individuals and as a collective. This need not be a negative thing. If we can take our embodiment as an opportunity to learn, think, grow, and engage, then we’ll recognize that a post racial society is, in fact, an affront to our cultural intelligence.

To be fair to the author, she is not necessarily arguing that racial classifications are what she desires, but rather that we must give up and embrace them because we will never not have them. I understand why those who believe, as I am inclined to myself, that race is at the heart of the American story are cynical about the possibilities of ridding ourselves of it. But it very much concerns me that we would consequently declare race a positive good rather than a necessary evil, and a postracial society actually undesirable.

Race was born of hierarchy and its primary function as a classification is to create oppressive social distinctions. The way we assign people races makes very little sense. A person with one black grandparent can be black, a light-skinned black person can be treated as white by black people and black by white people (or white by white people and black by black people!) It’s a disaster of a category, the definitions of which are constantly shifting and nearly impossible to pin down. That’s because it is a social construction, and a messy one, unmoored from any actual essential characteristics and created entirely by perception. A South Asian standing next to a light-skinned black man could be treated as black while the black man is treated as white. And biracial people have one hell of a time trying to navigate our complex web of prejudices. It’s all a monumental tragic human folly.

Because of the way race divides us while creating nothing good, I believe we should strive for a world not just in which racial distinctions don’t make a difference, but in which we don’t make those distinctions at all (except perhaps to recall when they mattered). That seems just inherently desirable to me, since I do not know why we would think about these differences except to divide ourselves from one another. Yet the view that I find self-evidently true seems to be waning on the left, which is coming to embrace the view that our racial identities matter. (As I say, the word “matter” is where a lot of progressive slippage occurs; we go from an is to an ought: they do matter, so they should matter.)

That seems a mistake to me, Note that if we both believe race is a necessary permanent concept and we want racial equality, we have to believe that race can exist without racism. I find this paradoxical, because race is useful as a category only if that category has some inherent social consequence, and racism involves seeing a person’s race as having inherent social consequence.

But what are those qualities of racial identity that have consequence? They are entirely bound up with the differences in status of people of different races. All of the cultural and linguistic and social ties we could think of are not at all coterminous with race, except insofar as they relate to the shared racial experience of oppression. We could say that there is something it means to be Asian in America. But that is not because Asians in America share a culture; they are from many different cultures with countless languages and histories and cultures. No, the experience of being Asian in America, the experience that unifies people under that flag, is the experience of being treated as Asian in America. Similarly, the experience shared by all black people is not some essentialistic nonsense about shared musical traditions, but is entirely that all black people have experienced the moment of realizing that they were blackMeaning not that they realized they existed on some cosmic telepathic plane with other black people, but that they shared the collective set of experiences that come with being defined as black in American society. “People value their racial identities,” I am told in response. Yes, but why? Because of having gone through something together, something unfair that should never have been imposed on them.

What does a black man from Ghana have in common with a black man from Arkansas other than that both do not want to get pulled over by an American cop? If we exclude the shared context of oppression, why should these two be classified together for any purpose? There’s skin tone, but that’s of no import. There is some kind of shared genetic lineage, but this smacks of the very kind of biological essentialism we surely want to rid ourselves of. There was a report today about how waves of new black immigrants to America are reshaping the conventional understanding of what constitutes the “black” demographic, complicating our generalizations. To me, the question is: once we eliminate the shared experience of discrimination that ties the fates of immigrant blacks to U.S.-born blacks, why would we classify these two sets of people as one? I simply don’t see any reason beyond the context of hierarchy why Nigerian Muslims, Mississippi Baptists, and Jamaican Rastafarians would be under an umbrella together.

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Some Controversial Things I Believe

– It is completely, indisputably morally indefensible to be wealthy.

– It is probably morally indefensible to be middle class, though less so.

– Being an “informed” citizen who reads the news is overrated. Most time spent reading the news is a waste. Spend it learning skills.

– There should be no guns whatsoever. For anybody. For the rest of history.

– Los Angeles should be evacuated and flattened, and we should try again.

– It is not that God does not exist, it is that the concept of God is too incoherent to even affirm or deny the existence of.

– There are only two good bands performing today: The Black Keys and Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings.

– It would be desirable to make water-slide transit a regular part of the average American commute.

– We should not talk about “rights.” Rights are an outmoded fiction. Instead we should just have very strict moral codes.

– There is very little difference between killing and letting die, thus we are deeply culpable for all the lives we are failing to save right now.

Death is undesirable and should be prevented.

– Chris Kyle was a serial killer.

All of these people are frauds.

– No nonfiction book should exceed 150 pages.

Kidney donation should be required like jury duty (at least until we get enough voluntary donations).

– No college should ever reject an applicant.

– Muddy Waters ruined the blues.

Alcoholic teachers should not be fired.

– We should be far more concerned with what will happen 500 years from now than with what will happen tomorrow.

The fact that morality is relative in no way entails the necessity to respect other moralities.

– “Blurred Lines” was both an indefensible rape anthem and a really good song.

The concept of race must be destroyed rather than embraced.

– John Rawls was history’s greatest monster.*

– Prison should be a pleasant and edifying experience, or not exist at all.

– Everyone should spend at least one minute thinking about the Holocaust every day.

– Marxism is nonsense and capitalism is indefensible.

– People who use the word “hermeneutics” should be forced to pay a fine.

– Ringo Starr’s abilities as a drummer are underrated.

– There is no such thing as America.

– All governments should be slowly done away with.

*in one sense, not all.

Anti-Death Politics

I am extremely anti-death. In fact, I’d like to think I am as anti-death as you can be. I firmly believe that death is bad. But when I tell people this, they always reply the same way: “Nathan, everyone is anti-death. Obviously death is bad. Who thinks otherwise?”

Nearly everyone thinks otherwise, actually. Most people are perfectly fine with death. In fact, so many people are so fine with death that I end up having to spend half my time convincing people of the proposition that supposedly everyone already believes, namely that death is bad.

For example, recently I wrote an article saying that it’s sad when children are killed by guns, and pointing out that people who like guns don’t really have a way to stop children from being killed by guns. I got a lot of furious responses from gun-people. But in every single argument they made, they accepted these deaths as perfectly fine. They would say things like “A lot of people drown in pools, too.” Or “Accidents happen, what can you do?” Now, note first that this acknowledges the full truth of my argument, namely that they don’t have any ideas for what to do about these accidents. But also, it’s weirdly tolerant of death. Personally, I don’t like death. I want to do everything possible to stop children drowning in pools, and being crunched by tractors, and shot by handguns, and having their bones ground up to make bread. But these people, who think we should just sit back and accept death, are totally uninterested in trying to stop these things. Accidents happen. They do indeed, and we must stop them immediately! How can you accept them as tolerable, given what a precious thing it is to be alive?

(I also had to argue with these people about a premise I think is inarguable: that a world with zero guns is preferable to a world with guns. Wouldn’t we all ideally want to live in a world where there is no weaponry? Leave aside the question of feasability. Wouldn’t it be nice if there were no need for guns? Alas, no. Hardly anyone would even agree to this.)

Another example: my nemesis Peter Thiel has been funding life-extension research. Many people are upset by this for reasons I cannot possibly fathom. Many “scientists and ethicists” apparently oppose research into how to extend human lives. They believe it is unnatural to live forever. Now, leave aside the bizarre conflation of the “natural” and the good by smart people who ought to know better. The real question is, why do these people like death? Why do they want people to die? There is no way to escape the conclusion that they believe death is desirable. This position is actually common, and is usually stated thusly: death is a natural part of life, it is good for lives to be of a limited duration. Alright, fine, but don’t tell me you’re anti-death, because you are in fact pro-death, you believe it has a positive function and is therefore good. I, myself, am differently inclined. I am anti-death. I think death is bad. In the context of life-extension research, this position is in the minority, and yet somehow people tell me my anti-death politics are universally shared!

Here is my position on death: I do not want an infinite lifespan. What I want is to have free choice about my lifespan. Death is the most complete possible destruction of a person’s freedom. I believe that people should be as free as possible, and so I believe people should be freed from the necessity of death to the greatest degree possible. Personally, I would like to live for as long as it takes me to complete all of the projects I would like to do, and have all the experiences I would like to have.  Unfortunately, currently I cannot make this choice, because these projects would absolutely take longer than the longest presently-possible human lifespan. My life will at some point be revoked against my will.

The prodeath crowd carefully dance around the issue with poetic phrases about how we should humbly accept our essential mortality. “Radical life extension smacks of an intemperate claim to have unlocked the fundamental mystery of life,” said Roger Cohen of The New York Times. But say what you mean, Roger! In practice, what you mean is that given a choice between massive quantities of death and zero death you would take the former, because of some nonsense poetry about temperance. I find this position a bloodthirsty kind of madness, and I resent Roger Cohen for wanting me to die.

I am a strong believer in the right to life. I believe we should all have as much life as we possibly can. And so the idea of opposing life extension research, in fact, of not seeing life-extension research as a top human priority, is to me pro-death. I see it as an essential issue for human freedom, perhaps the essential issue. Billions of people have lost their lives when they would not have chosen to. Because life is the most precious thing we have, we must do everything to make sure that future people do have this choice, that they can have as much life as they please. I believe in maximizing human capability and the control we have over our own destinies. Thus I cannot accept the fundamental absence of this control represented by death.

I am very strongly anti-death. Why isn’t anybody else?

Libertarian Socialism, Succinctly

This is a beautiful little statement that captures why I believe “libertarian socialism,” far from being self-contradictory, is in fact the only non-contradictory form of both libertarianism and socialism:

To be a true libertarian requires you to support workers’ control otherwise you support authoritarian social relationships. To support workers’ control, by necessity, means that you must ensure that the producers own (and so control) the means of producing and distributing the goods they create (i.e. they must own/control what they use to produce goods). Without ownership, they cannot truly control their own activity or the product of their labour. The situation where workers possess the means of producing and distributing goods is socialism. Thus to be a true libertarian requires you to be a socialist.

Similarly, a true socialist must also support individual liberty of thought and action, otherwise the producers “possess” the means of production and distribution in name only. If the state owns the means of life, then the producers do not and so are in no position to manage their own activity. As the experience of Russia under Lenin shows, state ownership soon produces state control and the creation of a bureaucratic class which exploits and oppresses the workers even more so than their old bosses. Since it is an essential principle of socialism that inequalities between people must be abolished in order to ensure liberty, it makes no sense for a genuine socialist to support any institution based on inequalities of power… The state is just such an institution. To oppose inequality and not extend that opposition to inequalities in power, especially political power, suggests a lack of clear thinking. Thus to be a true socialist requires you to be a libertarian, to be for individual liberty and opposed to inequalities of power which restrict that liberty.

from An Anarchist FAQ

Dream Diary: Sea Turtle

Nabisco is the first company to colonize space. The talk show host makes an excellent joke about CharlieCards, which I am comforted by because my CharlieCard malfunctions at the very instant the joke is told. Two women offend a sea turtle by tossing it back into the water and remarking that there is no life on this beach. A woman thinks she is extremely funny when she says “My position on the St. Vitus’s Dance is a bit shaky.” We are shown an incredible series of painted ceilings that make many of us orgasm.

Is there a principled difference between having a gun and just having a button that when pressed kills the person standing in front of you?

Here is a question that I think is important to the debate on guns:

Is there a principled difference between having a gun and just having a button that when pressed kills the person standing in front of you?

I have a hard time thinking of one. And yet for some reason, to talk of each person’s individual right to the possession of a kill-button sounds  at the very least extremely worrisome. If it was kill-buttons we were discussing instead of firearms, which have a rich heritage but basically-indistinguishable capability, I think we would see vastly greater numbers of people admit concerns about universal possession.

Imagine an app designed to kill anyone standing within 50 feet of you. It’s very simple: swipe left to let live, swipe right to strike dead. Would you be comfortable with people possessing this app? Would anyone be comfortable with the existence of this terrible thing? No, it’s a dystopian horror. But what difference is there between that and a killing-stick which fires a bullet? Certainly, there are superficial differences. It’s harder to make principled distinctions, though. A gun has a less percentage chance of killing the target? Okay, but then what about an app that killed them 50% of the time?

One thing that has always been so frightening to me about guns is that the act actually required in order to end a human life is as simple as the pressing of a button. With knives and other kinds of weaponry, a person has a somewhat closer relationship with the damage inflicted. If I attack you with an enormous pike, I must be willing to use the force of my body to drive an object into yours. A gun allows me to inflict the same level of bloodshed at the touch of a button. There is a level of violence in a knife attack that is more muted in the pointing of a gun. In the knife attack, the act I commit (plunging the knife) is itself the thing that destroys the body; in firing the gun, the act I commit (pulling a trigger) is more mundane. Divorcing the act necessary to commit violence from the violence itself strikes me as a worrying change, which is one of the reasons I think gun rights proponents are wrong to suggest there’s no difference between killing someone with a gun and killing someone with a knife. The concept of the app exposes this difference. No, your capacity to harm doesn’t change. But the act required to commit the harm certainly does, in a most disturbing way. Many people do not see this as a relevant quality for determining rights, but I do not know how they would explain their discomfort with the app.

The only distinctions I can see are ones of historical and social context. The Second Amendment was not designed to protect such devices, they are not “arms” for its purposes. Well, that may be true, but why should we make that distinction? I think most defenders of the Second Amendment would like to believe that it can be defended rationally instead of merely historically. Otherwise the right is arbitrary.

Anyone who believes we should allow the gun and prohibit the app must answer the question of where our rights should end and why. Sketching the outer limits of the 2nd Amendment right is an area I think gun rights proponents are weak on. Very few of them would be comfortable vesting a single individual with the ability to, say, end all human life on earth. They don’t want individuals having nuclear weapons. But as soon as someone admits this, the question is where our boundary is. The right must exist on a spectrum. But how much firepower exactly is the individual entitled to? I have yet to see a satisfactory answer to this question.