Sunday, November 29, 2020

Will Jacob Collier win the Grammy for Best Album? [Oh those kids]

I surely don’t know. He’s already won four Grammies, all for arranging (Wikipedia).

Here’s what he has to say about the nomination, from his Facebook page:

The last 24 hours have turned my world upside down. To find myself Grammy-nominated for Album Of The Year is nearly impossible to wrap my head unthinkable, unspeakable, epic honour. Three years ago, when I set about dreaming up a self-produced quadruple album, I barely imagined it would be possible to create, let alone that it would carry me into such unfathomable territory as this! To be considered alongside such legendary nominees for this award is a bizarre and tremendous privilege. I am forever grateful to Mahalia Music,Ty Dolla $ign, Daniel Caesar, Jessie Reyez, Kiana Ledé ,T-Pain, Kimbra, Tank and the Bangas, Tori Kelly & Rapsody for bringing such magic to the album... to the wonderful Ben Bloomberg, Emily Lazar, and Chris Allgood for helping me shape it sonically... and to all at the Recording Academy who voted for me. This is going to take some time to fathom... but in the meantime, I’m sending so much love to you all from here in London, and looking forward to wherever the path may lead us.

I’m just barely familiar with his music. I’ve seen perhaps a half-dozen to a dozen of his YouTube clips – he got his start on YouTube in 2012. They’re interesting and impressive, and I’ll be watching more. I note that Herbie "Watermelon Man" Hancock thinks he’s a genius and that Quincy "Thriller" Jones has signed on as his manager. I’ve read, and have heard from a friend, that he gives an impressive live show. No doubt.


Here’s his most recent video, an arrangement of Mel Tormé’s “The Christmas Song” (“Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire”), a song I know fairly well and like a lot:

If you’re interested in the musical particulars, here’s a transcription by Jason Fisher:

Impressive? Surely. Tremendous knowledge of music, great skill in execution, and mastery of technology. Very pretty. But compelling music? I’m not sure. Do I like it? Yes.

As I said in an email to a friend:

I’ve listened to between a half and a dozen of his videos. Impressive stuff. But they all seem a bit the same. When you throw all that STUFF at a tune, what emerges is mostly the stuff and all the tunes become racks on which to hang the stuff.

But he’s still young. Not even 30. Maybe he’ll pile up more and more stuff and then figure out how to get rid of most of it. Then we’ll see. I figure I’ll keep tabs on him but I’m not going to buy his albums, not yet. I’d like to hear what he can do with a simple blues. And since he’s a vocalist, I want to hear what he can sang, if you get my drift.

* * * * *

 Collier explains harmony on five levels, from a seven-year old to Herbie Hancock:

Composer David Bruce comments on Collier's microtonal virtuosity:

* * * * *

An interesting article about his background: “I’m the eldest of three children – Sophie and Ella are my two younger sisters and they are amazing, we sing Bach chorales together as family – it’s just so much fun.”

Saturday, November 28, 2020

The dissolution of a comprehensive epistemic regime in America and the world [the center doesn't hold]

David Brooks has an interesting opinion piece, The Rotting of the Republican Mind, NYTimes, Nov. 26, 20. He declines to blame the internet, for "Why would the internet have corrupted Republicans so much more than Democrats, the global right more than the global left?" He goes on to note

... a remarkable essay that Jonathan Rauch wrote for National Affairs in 2018 called “The Constitution of Knowledge.” Rauch pointed out that every society has an epistemic regime, a marketplace of ideas where people collectively hammer out what’s real. In democratic, nontheocratic societies, this regime is a decentralized ecosystem of academics, clergy members, teachers, journalists and others who disagree about a lot but agree on a shared system of rules for weighing evidence and building knowledge.

This ecosystem, Rauch wrote, operates as a funnel. It allows a wide volume of ideas to get floated, but only a narrow group of ideas survive collective scrutiny. “We let alt-truth talk,” Rauch said, “but we don’t let it write textbooks, receive tenure, bypass peer review, set the research agenda, dominate the front pages, give expert testimony or dictate the flow of public dollars.”

That's the core of what I find interesting, simply that such an epistemic regime exists. He'll go on to argue that it has broken down. Note that, in acknowledging this regime, Brooks is deep in "the social construction of reality" territory.

Over the past decades the information age has created a lot more people who make their living working with ideas, who are professional members of this epistemic process. The information economy has increasingly rewarded them with money and status. It has increasingly concentrated them in ever more prosperous metro areas.

While these cities have been prospering, places where fewer people have college degrees have been spiraling down: flatter incomes, decimated families, dissolved communities. In 1972, people without college degrees were nearly as happy as those with college degrees. Now those without a degree are far more unhappy about their lives.

People need a secure order to feel safe. Deprived of that, people legitimately feel cynicism and distrust, alienation and anomie. This precarity has created, in nation after nation, intense populist backlashes against the highly educated folks who have migrated to the cities and accrued significant economic, cultural and political power.

And so, Brooks argues, new regimes arise, ones the oppose the dominant regime and provide alternative stories: "Paradoxically, conspiracy theories have become the most effective community bonding mechanisms of the 21st century."

Under Trump, the Republican identity is defined not by a set of policy beliefs but by a paranoid mind-set. He and his media allies simply ignore the rules of the epistemic regime and have set up a rival trolling regime. The internet is an ideal medium for untested information to get around traditional gatekeepers, but it is an accelerant of the paranoia, not its source. Distrust and precarity, caused by economic, cultural and spiritual threat, are the source.

Bergen Arches, double view

Tribalism in the current AI wars, a tweet stream

The rest of the tweet stream:

The intensity of the #AI battles varies depending on many factors.

They can boil around concrete examples of algorithms.

They even can explode when some concrete people either second or criticize them. It's either white or black, it's difficult to find gray tones in between. 2/

In what follows, I'll be adding some examples of what I've been observing in #AI discussions in recent years Down pointing backhand index 3/

Some of the arguments are highly biased, extremely controversial, and tremendously speculative of what #AI "could be" or "will be doing" vs. what it "can actually do."

That ignites the #hype. 4/

Other arguments are well-intended in principle, but they are also ill-formulated or not justified well.

Others are very constructive, but not taken as such by the supposed opponents.

Some are full of hope that we will construct better #AI systems in the future. 5/

See, for example:

When GPT-3 fails or doesn't deliver the correct answer: "Oh, well, that one was not correct."

When it does: "OMG, brilliant! Look at this, it's incredible! Just amazingly awesome! That's #AGI or on the path to it! Long live GPT-3!" 6/

There is a hidden fear to criticize anything related to #AI in general and GPT-3 in particular because "what could 'the cooler guys' think of me if I do it! So better to not say anything about an arguably evident truth because I could risk not being considered 'cool' anymore." 7/

Or the sick propensity for rejecting/downplaying anything that resembles symbolic #AI.

It's repulsive the level of arrogance with which some folks express themselves, elevating sub-symbolic #AI to the highest realms or "only" path on the way to "truly" intelligent artefacts. 8/

I've seen huge inconsistencies when people analyze what #AI, say GPT-3, actually cannot do vs. when they imagine what it "may probably be doing behind the scenes", "attributed behaviours," what it "could supposedly be happening."

Magic bullet powers.

Anthropomorphism, too. 9/

Thursday, November 26, 2020

Population, pandemics, Malthus, and progress

Down in the Arches

Has European politics been asleep at the wheel since WWII?

 Leopost Aschenbrenner, Europe's Political Stupor, For Our Posterity, 23 Nov. 2020:

After WWII, the political was banished from the European Continent. It had caused too much harm in European hands. Lively debate was subdued, and technocratic administrators took charge. Europeans were left to project their fantasies of a real political debate on America. And so a cross-Atlantic homogeneity has taken root, with the American Left’s cultural dominance in the U.S. extending to Europe.

But a homogenous West means a stagnant West. As the ideals of classical liberalism are once-again being challenged, we need new ideas and a diversity of approaches to reinvigorate and reinvent liberalism. It might be time to reassert the political in Europe and wake the Continent from its stupor.

Consider the case of Germany:

What is the cause of this extraordinary European obsession with American politics? I think it has to do with a underlying, perhaps subconscious, yearning for democracy—not in the nominal sense of having elections, but in the more visceral sense, the sense that the body politic’s destiny lies in the citizen’s hands.

On the surface, German conventional wisdom decries the political divisions in the U.S.; it trumpets the supposed moral superiority of the German way over the American health care system or American foreign policy; it holds German democracy to be infinitely superior to American democracy (which, if you believe German media coverage, is on the verge of collapse and paralleled only by the Weimar Republic in 1933). But what this arrogance masks—and perhaps is deliberately intended to obscure—is the underlying reality of European “politics”: namely, that it is bereft of politics.

For the German voter has basically no say over his country’s fate. Sure, he may cast a vote in an election for parliament. But in the end, the same centrist parties seem to hold a majority in parliament, the same centrist parties form a coalition government, and the same party leaders remain in charge, making policy mostly through backroom deals rubber-stamped by the parliament. Besides relatively minor policy tweaks, the elections don’t seem to matter much.

And for all the German media’s handwringing about a “peaceful transfer of power” in the U.S., most Germans under, say, 30, have never witnessed a transfer of power in Germany! It’s always been Merkel. And really, the guy before her—even though he was from the opposing political camp—wasn’t all that distinguishable. [...]

The contrast to the recent American presidential elections could not be starker. There was a crystal-clear choice offered to voters. And the election was ultimately decided by a fraction of a percent. Every vote really mattered. Voters could reasonably believe that the course of world history was in their hands.

That the citizens had this real choice is the other side of the often-decried political division. Yes, a wide-open, lively politics can yield someone like Trump—but it can also yield someone like Obama. Someone like him, with a father from Kenya and promising hope and change, would likely have no chance of rising the ranks of German politics.

 The price of peace?

Perhaps, then, the Western monoculture is the price we pay for peace. This is worth taking seriously. But the Germany of today is not the Germany of the early 20th century; the Europe of today is not the Europe of the early 20th century. The Continent has been reshaped along liberal lines. It is now a stalwart of the ideals of liberty and peaceful coexistence.

The banishment of the political was intended to subdue the impulses of nationalism and demagoguery. But if the European mainstream continues to deny the citizenry a true democratic debate, that may well pave the way for an authoritarian strongman who promises the citizens renewed control of their nation’s destiny. We already see inklings of this in Poland, Hungary, France, the Brexit vote to “take back control,” and a resurgent far-right in Germany that is blasting open the previously narrow confines of political debate. The Continent is ripe for awakening. If liberalism does not lead this charge, illiberal authoritarianism will. (German politics in particular is open for disruption, in my opinion, a subject which I hope to return to in a later post.)

The end of physics as we have come to know? [And the new physics?]

 Posted at Not Even Wrong, Nov. 24, 2020:

In a remarkable article entitled Contemplating the End of Physics posted today at Quanta magazine, Robbert Dijkgraaf (the director of the IAS) more or less announces the arrival of the scenario that John Horgan predicted for physics back in 1996. Horgan argued that physics was reaching the end of its ability to progress by finding new fundamental laws. Research trying to find new fundamental constituents of the universe and new laws governing them was destined to reach an endpoint where no more progress was possible. This is pretty much how Dijkgraaf now sees the field going forward:

Confronted with the endless number of physical systems we could fabricate out of the currently known fundamental pieces of the universe, I begin to imagine an upside-down view of physics. Instead of studying a natural phenomenon, and subsequently discovering a law of nature, one could first design a new law and then reverse engineer a system that actually displays the phenomena described by the law. For example, physics has moved far beyond the simple phases of matter of high school courses — solid, liquid, gas. Many potential “exotic” phases, made possible by the bizarre consequences of quantum mechanics, have been cataloged in theoretical explorations, and we can now start realizing these possibilities in the lab with specially designed materials.

All of this is part of a much larger shift in the very scope of science, from studying what is to what could be. In the 20th century, scientists sought out the building blocks of reality: the molecules, atoms and elementary particles out of which all matter is made; the cells, proteins and genes that make life possible; the bits, algorithms and networks that form the foundation of information and intelligence, both human and artificial. This century, instead, we will begin to explore all there is to be made with these building blocks.

In brief, as far as physics goes, elementary particle physics is over, from now on it’s pretty much just going to be condensed matter physics, where there at least is an infinity of potential effective field theory models to play with.

Be sure to read the comments for some push-back on Dijkgraaf..

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Tool innovation and childhood

From the article,Toddlers, Tools, and Tech: The Cognitive Ontogenesis of

Highlights: Innovation, trends in Cognitive Sciences, 19 November 2020, by Bruce Rawlings and Christine H. Hegare, Human culture is unparalleled in technological complexity, yet most children fail simple tool innovation challenges.

We explain how multiple cognitive mechanisms, including causal reasoning, problem solving, creativity, executive functions, and social learning work in concert to scaffold the development of tool innovation over childhood.

We describe the role these mechanisms play in three core steps of tool innovation; recognizing the problem, generating solutions, and the social transmission of innovations.

Using commonly used measures of children’s tool innovation as examples, we detail the role each of these mechanisms plays in the development of tool innovation.

We show how understanding the cognitive ontogeny of innovation will help us understand cognitive and cultural evolution.

Introduction: The development of tool innovation presents a paradox. How do humans have such diverse and complex technology, ranging from smartphones to aircraft, and yet young children find even simple tool innovation challenges, such as fashioning a hook to retrieve a basket from a tube, remarkably difficult? We propose that the solution to this paradox is the cognitive ontogenesis of tool innovation. Using a common measure of children’s tool innovation, we describe how multiple cognitive mechanisms work in concert at each step of its process: recognizing the problem, generating appropriate solutions, and the social transmission of innovations. We discuss what the ontogeny of this skill tells us about cognitive and cultural evolution and provide recommendations for future research.

Retreating chairs

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Trump, reality-free politics, and the reinvention of America [?]

Bruno Maçães, How Trump Almost Broke the Bounds of Reality, NYTimes, Nov. 12, 2020.

What Mr. Trump promised was the power to create imaginary worlds and the freedom to unleash a selfish and extravagant fantasy life, free of the constraints of political correctness or even good manners, the limits imposed by climate change and the international rules tying America to the ground. This extreme form of freedom — call it hyperfreedom — appealed to Greenwich, Conn., financiers no less than to West Virginia coal miners. It was also, as we found out in the election, attractive to some minorities.

In the traditional way to think about freedom, we want to limit or even eliminate obstacles to individual choice, but ultimately we must deal with reality. Mr. Trump’s example is to take it an extra step: Why not be free from reality as well? Indeed, this may be the ultimate goal of contemporary America: a society that is pure fantasy life, free from reality.

What Joe Biden seemed to understand before everyone else was that the fantasy was about to collapse, and voters weren’t ready for an alternative liberal fiction. The main binary in American politics now may not be between left and right, but between fiction and reality. At some point, fictions must be revealed as no more than fictions — and they must be switched off. [...]

In this view, Mr. Biden is the kill switch. He promised to remove Mr. Trump and switch the channel to something less risky.

After the election, a verdict is being widely shared: Mr. Trump may leave, but Trumpism is here to stay. This may be true, but it won’t be in the way people think.

What survived the election was not Trumpism as a policy platform but the fantasy politics of the last four years. Those are as powerful and addictive as ever, but they will look very different once the current executive producer has left the job.

The return to reality is but one stage in developing new fantasies. It is a way to wipe clean the canvas before departing again in search of new adventures. The search could well be resumed on the left, where there are also many powerful instincts to fight against the limits imposed by reality.

Compositionality [language notes]

Monday, November 16, 2020

35 years of Moore's Law [chip design]

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Sky, leaves, heron, reflections

The Trump administration's refusal to recognize the vote is an attack on democracy

Writing in Lawfare, Nov. 11, 2020, Benjamin Wittes asks, How Hard is it to Overturn an American Election? He explains that, while the vote count seems secure and definitive, the Trump administration's refusal to concede the result is dangerous. It should not be dismissed as mere sour grapes. It is an attempt to undermine the legitimacy of the democratic process and, ultimately, of the government.

And so it has come to this: the president of the United States is trying to overturn the results of a national election he unambiguously lost with a combination of petulant whining, spiteful and flailing executive action, and magic.

No, it’s not ultimately going to work, at least not if working is defined as allowing President Trump to maintain power in the face of expressed voter will.

But it is working better than I would have believed possible: in undermining confidence in American democratic processes, in damaging President-elect Joe Biden’s ability to govern in the short term, and in raising questions in the minds of the faithful as to whether Trump’s defeat was real.

Wittes concludes:

In short, the harm here is almost certainly not the threat to the fact of the transition of power. Every day that goes by, more votes come in, and states get closer to certification of results that have their own logic and momentum and will lead to Biden’s taking the oath of office on January 20.

The harm here, rather, has several dimensions.

First, it is a harm to the orderly transition of power. Merely raising the spectre of not honoring the results of an election, merely inducing democratic anxiety such that as serious-minded a person as Bill Kristol could write a piece like the one quoted above, is a democratic harm. Denying information to the Biden transition makes it harder to govern coming in. Conveying uncertainty to foreign actors is dangerous; it invites misunderstanding, and misunderstanding can be deadly.

Second, like so many aspects of Trump’s presidency, Trump’s response to the election has unsettled public expectations of what it means to lose a presidential election in the United States, what a patriotic transition looks like and what an outgoing president owes to his successor—and to the public. This is that old, pesky issue of norms. And once again, Trump is showing that presidential behaviors taken for granted are actually voluntary acts on the part of successive holders of the office—things that presidents do because they’re the things presidents have always done. [...]

Third, the president’s behavior will undermine trust among many people in the integrity of the election. It already has. An astonishing 70 percent of Republicans polled by Morning Consult report not believing the election was free and fair. Sustained campaigns to undermine trust run by entire political movements tend to work. And Biden will suffer from a lost perception of legitimacy among a major segment of the electorate as a result of this one.

Finally, fourth, there’s the chance that I’m wrong that Biden’s prevailing in the election’s aftermath—that the automatic processes I have described are just a little bit less automatic than I think they are. There’s the chance that Republicans, having dug themselves into the Trump hole, don’t stop digging when the results are certified, that they don’t quite know how to back down. There’s the chance that state legislatures are little more aggressively partisan than I imagine, or that a few courts go off the deep end.

There’s a chance, in other words, that things spin out of control.

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Artefacts of a lost civilization

Pennsylvania politics and culture [Trump in 2016, Biden in 2020]

James Carville once remarked that “Between Paoli and Penn Hills, Pennsylvania is Alabama.” I grew up in Alabama part, Johnstown to be specific. I say a bit about that in my current piece for 3 Quarks Daily, Some vignettes in the wake of a historic election [16 tons, where are we now?]. Ed Simon says a few words in praise of Pennsylvania in The Keystone State is Ringing, Belt Magaine, Nov. 12, 2020.

Publications like the New York Times have spent the past four years trafficking in the most jaundiced of stereotypes, pretending its readers need to care about the opinions of voters who disguise their bigotry as economic insecurity. That was always a bogus narrative anyhow—the working class didn’t elect Trump, the white upper middle class (and white voters generally) did. And it was a coalition of Black and brown voters in Philadelphia, Allegheny, Erie, Northampton, and Lehigh counties who helped evict him. But this year, Biden also outperformed Hilary Clinton in every single county of the state, so the silent Democratic voter in Elk and Fayette and Washington and Westmoreland and Luzerne counties also had a hand in the process—truly a multiracial and multiethnic coalition of the working class, the marginalized and disenfranchised, young people, and, I suspect, the just-plain-fed-up.

In 2016 I knew, to my increasing alarm, that Pennsylvania would go for Trump, and this year I knew that it would break with him. Call it something wooey or mystical, but I know my state. I’m flummoxed by media surprise regarding those results (in either direction), but I think they speak to the fact that America has never really grappled with this odd stepchild, Pennsylvania—a place of contradiction that I can’t always apologize for, but which has always harbored a radical and beautiful counternarrative underneath.

This is the Pennsylvania that I see right now: the Pennsylvania of Benjamin Lay, the eighteenth-century Quaker who declared that “All Slave-keepers that keep the Innocent in Bondage [are] Apostates”; of his contemporary, the apocalyptic preacher Herman Husband, who imagined a communist utopia spreading forth through the Alleghenies; of the secret society of nineteenth-century Irish miners known as the Molly Maguires, who, with anarchic precision, fought for workers’ rights in Carbon and Lackawanna Counties; of the father of Black nationalism, Martin Delany, who agitated for abolition from his medical practice in Pittsburgh’s Hill District and commanded a battalion against the Confederate traitors in the Civil War; of the muckracking progressive journalist Ida Tarbell, whose reporting led to the downfall of Standard Oil’s monopoly; and of Thaddeus Stevens, who thundered on the floor of Congress, “I will be satisfied if my epitaph shall be written thus: ‘Here lies one who never rose to any eminence, who only courted the low ambition to have it said that he striven to ameliorate the condition of the poor, the lowly, the downtrodden of every race and language and color.’”

Monday, November 9, 2020

The gig economy is a disaster [California's Prop 22]

A NYTimes oped on Proposition 22.

On the value of literary fiction

Friday, November 6, 2020

"Hope lies in *understanding* reality" [Zeynep Tufekci]

Does the brain easily become over-fitted to reality and fiction a way of making creating slack?

Friday Fotos: Longwood Gardes

Wednesday, November 4, 2020

If he accomplishes nothing else, Biden should be able to rebuild the executive branch. [stop the craziness]

Assuming Biden manages to eke out a victory, there's still the Senate. Even if the Democates manage a majority, which doesn't seem likely, it would be the narrowest possible majority, and so getting things done will be difficult. Still and all, the underlying constitution of the electorate seems to have remained unchanged.

But the final moments of this post-election discussion are worth listening to, as is much of the rest of it.

Ben Wittes, starting very near the end:

To everyone who thinks, like if the last four years stand for anything, it stands for the proposition that it really matters who's President. It really really matters who's President. And so if Joe Biden does nothing more than stop the craziness, he will be in the top few percentiles of Presidents in the history of the country. If all he does is rebuild the executive branch in a sane fashion.

Can he work with Mitch McConnell? I don't know. Will they work together on the things that have to get done? Yes, because they're both pros. Don't underestimate that. Mitch Connell is a nasty fellow, but he's a professional. I just what to say, it matters who's President. What Donald Trump has shown is in a negative sense how much a President can do. All of that can be undone.

I don't want to underestimate at all the importance of lancing this particular boil. I wish we'd lanced a couple of others along the way. At the end of the day, this country is in much better shape today than it was 24 hours ago. ... Be optimistic, be of good cheer. And, yes, I'm dissatisfied with the results. But do not ever wonder if this result is a galactically good thing or not. It is.

Writing on the wall

Tim Burke's reflections on the fragility of left-liberalism and of the nation-state

Tim Burke, There's Got to Be a Morning After, Easily Distracted, Nov. 4, 2020.

His opening shot: "The liberal-left coalition is not just weak in the United States, it is weak globally (in various different local meanings and configurations of left-liberal)." It is up against a largely working class movement that "visible everywhere around the planet in various forms" and

is socially coherent because it is territorially contiguous (whereas the left-liberal alliance is dispersed, even in its centers of power, and has no sense of material proximity except in sites of consumption and in evanescent public gatherings) and because its resentments are well-founded. I do not say just or fair or morally right. But I can agree that people in deindustrialized cities, materially decomposing suburbs, in lower-managerial positions bossed or owned by pedigreed professionals, running small businesses that depend on the culturally protean consuming largesse of educated elites, in rural communities that produce food and boredom in equal measure, have some coherently connected reasons to resent their situation. And hence, even if they are not a clear majority of the inhabitants of a given national territory, are often able to mobilize a political response that either lets them capture the nation-state or lets them block the political will of the much more socially and ideologically fractured opposing alliance. And this reaction has no devotion to democracy, equality or liberalism. It will, if it seizes any system or structure that allows the use of violence and domination, gladly deploy them with little concern even for collateral damage to its own social redoubts.

Scholars have known for a long time that nations and nationalism are much less distinct from empires than it might seem. To some extent, they are empires that performed a level of political and cultural integration in the 19th and 20th Centuries that concealed their remaining, continuously reproduced forms of territorial difference and divergence. Western intellectuals in the late 20th Century liked to talk high-handedly of postcolonial states as divided by ethnic or religious rivalries that were a result of badly constructed boundaries drawn by colonial rulers and uncorrected by postcolonial inheritors. But I think now we are seeing those nation-states were not a defective variant of the main form: we are seeing that everywhere the nation is not what it seems and nowhere does loyalty to the nation create a fellowship that transcends other forms of territorial, economic and cultural affinity and alliance. And contrary to some of the sentimental weepiness in American public life this morning, it never really did. This is not a world we have lost, it is an illusion that has been popped like the soap bubble it has always been.

What a left-liberal alliance needs to go forward into some form of reproducible command over territorial sovereignty is a coherent foundational politics that does not depend upon viewing “explainers” on social media or does not require paternalizing sermons by the woke. It needs a politics that is felt in the bone and arises out of persistent affinities, that is made manifest and visible in every moment of our daily lives–a politics that can be spoken out of experience by anyone who subscribes to it and that has some hope even of circulating into some of the spaces of resentment that make our enemies, that fracture some of their coherence, perhaps by addressing at least some of what they resent or fear about the futures that the rest of us stand (often uneasily) with.

To rebuild the country [alienation and hopelessness], start at the local level

Yuval observes that, for the most part, "our deepest problems aren’t really amenable to resolution by a president" and goes on to suggest, "we now need to ask ourselves how to deal with hopelessness and hostility, because they undermine the preconditions for a functional politics." Those can be dealt with locally.

At the heart of our pervasive crisis of alienation are widespread failures of responsibility, deep-seated cultural divisions and a deadly dearth of solidarity. Such challenges can seem impossibly immense when we look at our country from the top down. No president could resolve them, no Congress could address them. But from the bottom up, there are more opportunities to take them on.

That’s not because there is some magic to local action. It’s because what has broken down is fundamentally communal and institutional, so that a recovery of the ethos required for our national politics to function is likely to happen closer to the interpersonal level.

It can begin with a simple question, asked in little moments of decision: “Given my role here, what should I be doing?” As a parent or a neighbor, a pastor or a congregant, an employer or an employee, a teacher or a student, a legislator or a citizen, how should I act in this situation? We ask that question to recover relational responsibility.

A failure to ask that question — and so to accept the obligations that come with whatever positions and privileges we have in our lives — is behind many of the most significant problems we face. It’s why so many of our fellow Americans have been left feeling that our institutions have failed to treat them like human beings.


We tend to look at forms of breakdown in our society in terms of what they produce: anger, cynicism, a rejection of tradition. But we would be wise to also consider what they implicitly demand and yearn for: responsibility, integrity and, above all, solidarity.

Tuesday, November 3, 2020

Two photos for election day, one patriotic and one partisan

Regardless of who wins the election, Trump “has attacked the independent, nonpartisan nature of the modern bureaucratic state” and we’re in for a long struggle

Thomas Edsall has an excellent, and fairly long, opinion piece in the NYTimes today, Be Ready for a Lengthy, Vicious Struggle (Nov. 3, 2020). The deck: “The Trump-Biden matchup has ramifications far beyond those of an ordinary presidential election.” It is mostly a survey of what various experts, mostly journalists, academics, and think-tankers, have to say.

Here’s a sample:

I asked a number of experts the question, “What is at stake this year?”

Isabel V. Sawhill, a senior fellow at Brookings, replied by email:

This is an election less about policy and more about the character of the candidates and the character of the country, with one being a reflection of the other. Should Trump win, it would be a signal that our cultural divisions have gone past the point of no return, that demographic and cultural change has come too fast for many people to handle, that a backlash has reached hurricane proportions.

Politics “is now close to a religion,” Sawhill continued:

In short, people are no longer voting based on economic self-interest or the policies they favor as much as on the basis of their cultural values, the kind of society in which they want to live, and the kind of person they believe they are.

Ryan Enos, a political scientist at Harvard, also expressed a sense that we are in an Armageddon-like battle: “Our democracy as we know it is at stake.” Trump, Enos argues, has

ruled in the exact way of leaders in other countries who dismantled democracies. In addition, he has attacked the independent, nonpartisan nature of the modern bureaucratic state — the kind of people who allow us to know if our water is clean, fairly administer our elections, and decide whether to prosecute criminals — in other words, the people who ensure stability and quality of life in a modern state.

Enos makes the case that the threat to democracy lies not only in Trump but in the willingness of the Republican Party to ratify his actions:

Trump has stoked partisan and racial animus, deepening divisions and raising tensions to a dangerous level. That a leader might do these things is not what puts our democracy at stake but that, once his party fell in line with him, the capacity of other leaders to check him through means like impeachment proved so futile.

It’s the attack on “the independent, nonpartisan nature of the modern bureaucratic state” that got my attention. For that is akin to making a strict distinction between ones personal preferences and obligations and one’s duty to an organization. I’ve commented on that distinction in a number of posts:

There’s much more in Edsall’s piece. His final paragraphs:

Over the next 24 to 36 hours, we will learn whether Trump goes beyond rhetoric to formally initiate an assault on election results, the infrastructure underpinning American democracy.

That would go beyond politics as normal, approaching electoral Armageddon. No one knows to what lengths Trump will go — we can only see that all the pieces are in place for a lengthy, vicious struggle.

The country has never before had a president in the Trump mold and the endgame scenarios are many, including the possibility that Trump would try to bargain a frictionless departure from the White House in return for a pass on state criminal liabilities, on the assumption that he takes care of any potential federal liability by pardoning himself, itself a questionable move. In the end, if Biden wins big, perhaps Trump’s evident fear of humiliation will play a role in the transition. After all, he won’t want to be frog-marched out of the White House.

Glenn Loury has an excellent discussion about Obama Democrats who went for Trump in 2016

The good stuff, about honor culture, starts at about 19:16 and continues to the end.

Glenn Loury talks with Jon Shields, co-author, with Stephanie Muravchik, of Trump's Democrats, Brookings Institute Press, 2020. From the publisher's blurb:

Looking for answers, Muravchik and Shields lived in three such “flipped” blue communities, finding that these voters still like the Democratic Party, but it’s not the party many of this book’s readers will recognize.

In these communities, some of the most beloved and longest-serving Democratic leaders are themselves Trumpian—grandiose, combative, thin-skinned, nepotistic. Indifferent to ideology, they promise to take care of “their people” by cutting deals—and corners if needed. Stressing loyalty, they often turn to family to fill critical political roles. Trump strikes a familiar figure to these communities, resembling an old-style Democratic boss.

Although Trump’s Democrats have often been pictured as racists, Muravchik and Shields find that their primary political allegiances are to their town or county—not racial identity. They will spend an extra dollar to patronize local businesses, and they think local jobs should go to their neighbors, not “foreigners” from neighboring counties—who are just as likely to be white and native-born.

When these citizens turn their attention to the nation and their place in it, their thinking is informed by their sense of belonging in their town. Thus, “America first” nationalism is largely localism writ large.

For another look at this kind of culture, see the Netflix series The Ranch, which I recently blogged about. In terms of the ranks-theory of long-term cultural evolution that David Hays and I have developed, honor culture is basically a Rank 2 formation. It's not something specifically discussed in anything I've posted here at New Savanna or in anything we've published, either individually or jointly, but this post on political organization and legitimacy should give you a feel; note, in particular, the early remarks on  corruption.

Monday, November 2, 2020