Month: September 2018

Objectivity: Ford and Kavanaugh

If you prefer to listen rather than read, this blog is available as a podcast here. Or if you want to listen to just this post:

Or download the MP3


I have a friend who teaches Gender Studies at a university back east. As you can imagine we have very different ways of looking at things. So different that when I tried to share a few posts with him, he claimed he couldn’t even talk to me about them without understanding my frame of reference and audience. (Also, he may have been trying to figure out how to call me a Nazi without using the word “Nazi”.) Given these difficulties (and the other various frustrations) after several awkward emails back and forth I decided that we should probably not try to talk about it. I suppose he felt similarly. Though, as it turns out, unlike me, he did manage to get some benefit out of the exchange. I found out last month that he was using some of my posts as examples in the classes he teaches. At the time he didn’t get into the details (and based on my previous resolve I didn’t press him on it) but it was clear that my posts were presented as an example of what not to do. Sort of, “Can you believe how clueless this guy is!” Though when I imagine it, I see him standing in front of his class shaking a printout of my writings and yelling, “This is what the patriarchy looks like!”

Of course, he could be entirely correct, it’s possible I’m just as clueless as he claims. As I have said repeatedly, I could be wrong, about everything. And if there was an area I was going to be wrong about it could definitely be everything I say with respect to the current social justice movement. Certainly there are an awful lot of people who think anyone who’s even remotely conservative is not only wrong about most things but hateful to boot, and I think it’s fair to say I’m at least “remotely conservative”. That said, no one is forcing anyone to read my stuff. (The same cannot be said for the millions of students who are daily forced to read whatever passes for the current progressive manifesto.) And much of what I write is just me thinking out loud, and I guess let he who has never had a bad thought cast the first stone?

As you can imagine all of this is leading up to another post which (if my friend reads it) will probably make it into his next class on feminism, as yet another example of my cluelessness, or my privilege, or something similar. But, if I have done poorly in the past, I am going to attempt to do better, or at least do a better job of considering as many viewpoints as possible. And on that note, I’m going to dive into the current political crisis: the Kavanaugh confirmation and the allegations of sexual assault by Ford and Rodriguez. Though before we begin I need to take a slight detour through my process. I work on my weekly post every morning for a couple of hours. Which means that what I’m writing right now was written on Monday the 24th, and so, by the time I publish this on Saturday the 29th, any number of things might have happened. In particular while Ford will have presumably testified by the time this is published, she hasn’t at the time of this writing. Also at this point the Rodriguez accusations are still pretty fresh, and I guess (now it’s the morning of the 25th) last night Stormy Daniels’ attorney, Michael Avenatti has announced that there’s a third accuser? All of which is to say that some of the things I say may be out of date by the time I get around to actually publishing this.

With all that out of the way let’s talk about Kavanaugh, though I guess yet one more preface is in order before I do. It should be stated that I write from the standpoint of someone with absolutely zero influence on whether he’s confirmed or not. This is enormously comforting. Also, as much as I might try to imagine my mindset if I did have an impact, it’s not the same, which means I will probably be too flippant and too confident. There are obviously things going on in the Senate which I am only dimly aware of. Whatever I say has no power to change the course of this confirmation hearing. I can’t delay it until the FBI investigates, nor can I push it through despite the evidence, but, all those caveats aside, it is my intention to approach things from the standpoint of someone who does have some impact in that matter and needs to decide what to do.

Join with me in imagining that you’re a member of the Judiciary Committee or just a Senator, period, and you’re trying to decide whether to confirm Kavanaugh. Let’s further assume that you were going to confirm him up until the Ford revelations, and you’re now trying to decide whether to change your vote based on those revelations. Ideally it would be nice to just know, with 100% certainty whether they’re true or not, in which case your decision is easy. But 100% certainty is not going to be possible in this case. You’ve got to make an absolute decision one way or the other despite the lack of any absolutes in the evidence. Needless to say, you’re operating under serious uncertainty.

For those who may not have been following it closely here are some things which might incline someone to favor one side or the other. All the things which appear to preclude absolute certainty, particularly for someone with an initial inclination to confirm Kavanaugh. Also, it should be mentioned, there are definitely people following this more closely than I, so I may miss something big. To be clear, these lists are not meant to be exhaustive.

Pro-Kavanaugh

  1. The events involved in the accusations happened a long time ago: It would be nice if everyone had a photographic memory of everything that ever happened to them but we don’t. Memory is fallible, and as much as we would like to believe Ford, you do have to take into account that it was 36 years ago. Also if he was a true predator you would expect more recent accusations.
  2. There are no contemporaneous witnesses: As far as I know there is no one (with either of the accusations) who is willing to come forward and say, I remember Ford telling me about it at the time. Yes, if it happened, not telling anyone at the time is totally forgivable on Ford’s part, but it makes things less certain now.
  3. The 65 women who signed a statement in defense of Kavanaugh: You certainly can’t imagine something similar happening with Weinstein, so I’d be inclined to give it some weight, though I’m not sure how much. (A statement which really applies to all these points.)
  4. The stakes of the whole thing: I’ve talked in the past about how the Supreme Court might be considered the true power in the United States, and given that Kavanaugh is likely to be more conservative than Kennedy, this hearing may be as consequential as a presidential election. And if Roe v. Wade is overturned (I don’t think it will be.) Then it would be more consequential. Lying about sexual assault is a rare and extraordinary act, but this is a rare and extraordinary situation.

Anti-Kavanaugh

  1. The vast majority of sexual assault allegations are true: It’s estimated that false rape allegations make up only 2% to 10% of all allegations. Now that’s rape, not sexual assault, but I assume the numbers (which in any case aren’t incredibly precise) are similar.
  2. Ford has sworn statements from people who say she told them about Kavanaugh’s assault before the nomination: three women and Ford’s husband have signed sworn statements saying they remember her mentioning the assault. The first instance of this was in 2012.
  3. The enormous cost of coming forward: Ford has suffered numerous death threats and had to go into hiding. I imagine (particularly if Kavanaugh is not confirmed) that this vitriol will continue for many years.
  4. Circumstantial evidence: Alcohol and partying seemed to be a big part of Kavanaugh’s life. Lots of people have in particular pointed at his statement in his high school yearbook with all sorts of references to drinking and sex. This apparently continued into college. Finally he was a clerk for Kozinski who was embroiled in his own scandal recently and ended up resigning.

Beyond what I’ve said above there are currently thousands of pages of commentary on each item. To say nothing of the motivations of the various secondary actors. (I haven’t mentioned Judge, or any of the senators.) But this should at least give you a taste of the muddy waters of uncertainty we’re jumping into. And here, approximately halfway through things, we’re finally ready to look at the various ways for approaching this uncertainty.

I’d like to start with a method I hope my friend the gender studies professor would appreciate, though it could just as easily fill him with rage. We’ll call it:

The Folded Paper System: Imagine that you take a piece of paper and you fold it. Now imagine that after it’s been folded for a long time you decide that folding it was bad idea and now you want the paper to lie flat. If you just unfold it and set it down the paper will still bend in the direction it was originally folded. It’s only if you fold it aggressively in the other direction that it will actually lie flat. This can be viewed as a metaphor for past injustice. It’s indisputable that in the past men got away with a lot more sexual harassment than they should have. Or to put it another way, in situations of he said-she said, the “he” was believed a lot more often than the “she”. Or to put it yet another way, the standard of evidence for accusations was tilted against women. All of this is the original fold.

Now we want the paper to lie flat. We want everyone to be believed equally, all evidence weighed equally, and a gender-blind justice to prevail. But in order to get to that point we have to instead fold the paper the other way. We have to give women the benefit of the doubt, in cases of he said/she said we have to believe the “she” more often than the “he”, we have to tilt the standard of evidence in favor of women. That in areas of massive uncertainty, like with the Kavanaugh nomination, we should believe the woman.

I’m sympathetic to this system, and the folded paper metaphor is arresting, but I think it only takes you so far. Culture is not a piece of paper, and when you bend stuff back the other way, you’re implicitly saying that unfairness in one direction is going to make up for unfairness in the other direction when in reality you have just compounded the injustice.

The “What’s going to get me re-elected” System: On the one hand you would hope that this isn’t the system any of the Senators are using and on the other hand it’s probably the system they’re most likely to use. For Republicans my guess is that they’re getting a lot of feedback from their base along the lines of, “Ford is lying and if you’re too stupid to see it or to spineless to push ahead regardless then you won’t be getting my vote in the next election.”  (Possibly with several additional profanities thrown in.) And on the Democratic side of things I assume they’re getting something similar, but in the opposite direction.

As I said I hope this isn’t the primary consideration of any of the Senators, but I’m not naive enough to assume that’s actually the case. And even if, by some extraordinary exercise of ethics it’s not the primary consideration it has to be among the considerations. And unfortunately this is not a bug in our system, this is a feature. A feature that may have unfortunate effects in situations of high emotion and polarization, but we also definitely don’t want the reverse, where our representatives never take our opinions into account.

The Wisdom of the Crowds System: Closely related to the above, we could take a broader sample of things. There are various polls and prediction markets with their own take on the accusations. And insofar as these represent a broader snapshot of public opinion than just listening to the most vocal members of the two parties, it could be argued that they’re preferable. On this count we have the favorability of Kavanaugh on steady decline and places like fivethirtyeight.com advising Republicans that the least bad option is for Kavanaugh to withdraw as soon as possible. On the prediction market side of things I don’t see anyone actually predicting whether Ford is telling the truth, but we do have one for whether Kavanaugh will be confirmed which after surging to over 50% on Tuesday dropped to 40% after the latest accusations (The Avenatti/Swetnick accusations, I’ll get to those, before the end.)

Robin Hanson (who coincidentally) invented prediction markets, went a step beyond that and posted a poll on his twitter account. The question was:

What fraction of women assaulted by a nominee for Supreme Court in high school would wait to publicly accuse him not just 30 yrs, but after Congress hearings & just before Congress vote?

He gave people the options of:

  1. < 1%
  2. 1-5%
  3. 5-20%
  4. >20%

The most popular response, with 62% of the vote was “<1%”. Of course he also got many responses claiming that he was “pro-rape” for even asking that question. Though being fairly familiar with Robin Hanson (I just finished Age of Em which I’ll talk about sometime in the next few posts, also I we did meet once, briefly) I don’t think that’s what was going on. He claims he genuinely didn’t know what the response would be. And was surprised to see such a huge percentage in the less than 1% category. I believe him on this point, and I also think that something like this should be a valid question.

We all have an opinion on whether something is likely, but perhaps we’re horribly biased on that question in ways we don’t even realize. And being able to ask a large group of people whether it’s just you or if X seems unusual, should be perfectly acceptable, particularly when it’s consequential. Now the appropriateness of asking the question is separate from the utility of the answers. I totally agree that it was appropriate to ask the question, but I also don’t think twitter polls should carry a huge amount of weight, though if I was a Senator and I came across it, I probably wouldn’t give it zero weight either.

A System of Strict Utilitarianism: While all of the systems I already covered have some degree of utilitarianism to them, this system imagines a Senator making his decision entirely based on long term machiavellian calculus that has nothing to do with the actual accusation. Perhaps it’s a Republican senator who feels so strongly that abortion is wrong, that despite believing Ford and her accusations, votes to confirm Kavanaugh anyway based on the chance that he could be instrumental in overturning Roe v. Wade.

On the other hand you might also have a Senator that firmly believes Kavanaugh, but thinks that elevating him to the Supreme Court would fatally undermine the court and by extension the entire nation leading to some future catastrophe. Or that it would create an immediate catastrophe in the form of widespread civil strife.

I either case the utilitarian calculus could move them to vote against their present best guess of the facts in the favor of some greater payoff later.

Antifragility: I talk a lot about antifragility in this space. Which may appear to be another form of long term machiavellian calculus, though with more focus on embracing short term pain and less focus on any kind of future knowledge, than the previous options. Also with a greater focus on long-term norms. So how would an antifragilist vote? What criteria would they use?

Frankly I’m not sure, the whole situation is a giant mess. It’s kind of hard not to feel that things are definitely off the rails, and it’s far too late and there’s far too much momentum for the actions of any one Senator or group of Senators to avoid a large negative outcome. (Speaking of any one Senator, it’s now Friday morning and I just saw where Flake has agreed to vote for Kavanaugh at least at the committee level.)

I do think there have been a lot of decisions which seemed great in the short term but which had long term costs which are only now becoming apparent. The list of things which contributed to the current debacle include, but are not limited to:

  • Merrick Garland
  • Bill Clinton’s various sex scandals and the lack of any consequences
  • Bush v. Gore
  • The Bork Nomination
  • Roe v. Wade

At this point, I think the best we could hope for is a backroom deal where the Republicans agree to withdraw Kavanaugh in exchange for the Democrats agreeing to confirm Amy Coney Barrett even if the Senate changes hands in November. I can’t see such a deal being made at this point, and maybe even this idea would be just another short term bandaid with long term costs.

Beyond what I’ve just discussed, there are, of course, many other systems you might use. And some might in theory be based on the evidence. Perhaps you’re convinced, after listening to Ford and Kavanaugh, that it’s obvious that one of them is lying and the other is telling the truth. Perhaps you think the evidence shows that women never lie about these sorts of things (I don’t think it does, which makes this more of a folded paper system, but that’s just me.) But I think most such, supposedly evidence-based systems, are just covers for one of the systems I mentioned above, and most likely a cover for the “What’s going to get me re-elected” System. You may have noticed that there was really no new evidence of any substance during Thursday’s hearing and yet everyone seemed more convinced of whichever position they had before the hearing started. Meaning whatever system they were using it wasn’t based on the accumulation of evidence.

In conclusion I’d like to offer up a few miscellaneous observations:

Observation 1- As an example of people following their biases rather than the evidence. We’ve reached the point where how you feel about the credibility of an accusation is entirely based on the party of the accused. From the American Conservative:

According to a recent YouGov poll, 53 percent of Democrats consider Ford’s allegations credible, compared to only 4 percent of Republicans. Ah! Yes! Down with the evil, misogynistic GOP—the “party of rape,” as I’ve seen them called on Twitter.

But wait. Meanwhile, in Minnesota, Democratic Congressman Keith Ellison is currently favored to be elected as the state’s next attorney general despite ex-girlfriend Karen Monahan’s allegations of sustained “emotional and physical abuse.” One poll shows that, while 42 percent of Republicans believe Monahan, only 5 percent of Democrats do.

Observation 2- For a long time people have been complaining that worthwhile candidates for high government office are being discouraged from accepting nominations because of the media circus which immediately ensues. This is certainly not limited to just one side or the other, and it’s hard to see how the Kavanaugh hearing won’t make this problem (whatever it’s actual impact) worse.

Observation 3- There has been a push recently to extend or entirely eliminate the statute of limitation on things like rape, sexual assault, attempted rape, etc. I know that sounds like a good idea, and I totally understand why people want to do it that way. But you can apply the same logic to essentially any crime. Why should any criminal be able to get away with it just because enough time has passed. This is one of those long-term norms I’m talking about. Statutes of limitation date back to Roman Times, Now of course the Senate wouldn’t care about the statute of limitation even if there was one, I’m just making a related but not directly applicable observation.

Observation 4- I’m sorry, I’m calling BS on the Avenatti/Swetnick accusation. It just sounds too much like what people imagine happens at a drunken high school party with evil dudebros. Also Avenatti does not have the best track record on this sort of thing. Finally, I would expect this to be the kind of thing that is so outrageous that it should be easy to verify. And given that this is the first we’re hearing of it despite all the attention, I’m declaring, that this, at least, didn’t happen.

As I end, Kavanaugh has made it out of committee, and Flake has called for an FBI investigation before the full vote. I suspect that means we’ll get one. I think that’s a good thing. Certainly not sufficient to calm anyone down, but I think that’s what I probably would have done as well. Though as I said in the beginning, the biggest takeaway here is that I’m glad I’m not the one deciding.


If you think I should do more posts like this of things that are currently controversial right this minute consider donating as an encouragement to do just that. If, on the other hand you hated this post then you should also consider donating. If we can take anything from politics it’s that money equals influence.


The Founders, Civility, and Godzilla

If you prefer to listen rather than read, this blog is available as a podcast here. Or if you want to listen to just this post:

Or download the MP3


Last Friday (the 20th) I went to the 2018 Moral & Ethical Leadership Conference, put on by the BYU Management Society. They had a pretty impressive lineup of speakers, including Senator Jeff Flake from Arizona, or as he liked to joke, the “other senator” from Arizona, given that he has been overshadowed by John McCain the entire time he’s been in the Senate. And as it turns out, this is unlikely to change since Senator Flake has decided not to run for re-election (also McCain died recently.) He didn’t get into his reasons during his speech, but most people agree the biggest was that he was unlikely to win the Republican primary. And why was that? Well despite both of them, in theory, being Republicans, Flake and Trump do not get along, at all. And for good or bad (probably bad) these days it’s difficult to win a Republican primary if you’re anti-Trump. Which Flake definitely is, and, unlike most Republicans, has not been shy about expressing, going so far as to write a book, Conscience of a Conservative, where he declares Trump to be a domestic and international menace.

I picked up a copy of Flake’s book while I was at the conference, though I haven’t a chance to read it yet, so I can only speak to what I heard him say, and his primary theme seemed to boil down to a call for greater civility. In fact I would hazard to say that the need for greater civility was the unofficial theme for the conference as a whole. Given the nation’s current political climate and leadership, this is not exactly surprising. Of course, if Flake’s call for civility was entirely unobjectionable he wouldn’t need to give a speech defending it, let alone write a whole book on the subject. But lately, even this principal is controversial, and under attack. I thought that looking into why might make a good topic for a post.

To start, let’s look at the area Senator Flake presumably knows the most about, congress. What does civility look like in congress? Is it just people saying things like, “I graciously yield my time to the Honorable Senator from Kentucky”? I suppose that this sort of etiquette is a small part of it, but only a very small part. No, I think civility in congress, as Senator Flake described it, is more about people calmly working together despite having very different ideologies.

That does seem to be an admirable goal, but unless all members of congress are saints (which clearly isn’t the case), then in order for this type of civility to be present it has to provide some benefit. In the past it may have been enough that it made them look noble and statesman like. But these days, at least among the base, it does the exact opposite, and makes them look traitorous and cowardly. In the past it might also have been driven by a sense of duty, a duty to put aside differences and work together for the good of the country, but the general concept of duty has been on a long slow decline since the early 1800’s (at least according to the Google Ngram Viewer.)

No, getting members of the two parties to work together, no longer makes them look good, and it’s definitely going to require something a lot more concrete than the fading idea of duty. It’s going to require something like money, money for something they want, something that will make the people back home happy, and which will, in turn, help them get elected. Maybe something in a bill? Something set aside specifically to this purpose? Something… “earmarked”?

This history of earmarks is interesting. You can find things which fit the basic criteria going all the way back to 1789, though initially such things were definitely rare. By the end of the 1800’s the practice was common enough that it started to be called pork-barrel politics, but apparently things really took off between 1994 and 2005 (the most memorable example being the Bridge to Nowhere). As you might imagine some people took issue with the practice and in 2010 they were banned (though not for non-profits). And who lead the charge on that? Who was the most ferocious opponent of earmarks? As it turns out, it was Senator Flake. Here’s the relevant section from Wikipedia:

Flake is “known for his ardent opposition to earmarks.”He has been called an “anti-earmark crusader,” and frequently challenges earmarks proposed by other members of Congress. Since May 2006, he has become prominent with the “Flake Hour,” a tradition at the end of spending bill debates in which he asks earmark sponsors to come to the house floor and justify why taxpayers should pay for their “pet projects.” He is credited with prompting House rule changes to require earmark sponsors to identify themselves.

Until September 2010, Flake issued a press release listing an “egregious earmark of the week” every Friday. Usually the earmark will be followed by Flake making a humorous comment; as an example, Rep. Flake once said of Congressman Jose Serrano’s $150,000 earmark to fix plumbing in Italian restaurants, “I would argue this is one cannoli the taxpayer doesn’t want to take a bite of.” The “earmark of the week” releases were ended and replaced with the “So Just How Broke Are We?” series of releases. In March 2010, the House Appropriations Committee implemented rules to ban earmarks to for-profit corporations, a change Flake supported. “This is the best day we’ve had in a while,” he said to the New York Times, which reported that approximately 1,000 such earmarks were authorized in the previous year, worth $1.7 billion.

Senator Flake’s opposition to earmarks is not only easy to understand, it’s laudable. But in retrospect, some people have started wondering whether it might be part of the reason why congress has become so “uncivil”. Their theory is straightforward: Earmarks were one more thing that could be offered as part of the negotiation for a congress member’s vote. One that’s particularly useful when you’re crossing party lines and the member is otherwise opposed to or at least unsure about the bill. You overcome their reluctance by, in essence, offering to “pay” them if it passed. It’s a basic law of economics that you get more of what you pay for and so naturally you ended up with more bipartisan support for bills which contained earmarks. Eliminate earmarks and you have less bipartisan support. And if civility means working together across party lines, that means you have less civility.

Now, I’m not here to say that earmarks are actually good. Or that banning them is solely responsible for the breakdown in civility and working across the aisle. Or to make any insinuation that Flake is a hypocrite, or that he screwed up. Rather, what I want to do is point out how complicated even a simple call for civility ends up being.

As I said, civility seemed to be the unofficial theme of the conference, so what did other people have to say on the subject? Well I just got done asserting that it was complicated, so I guess I should move to the speaker who offered a very simple definition of civility. This was Eric Dowdle, an artist who specializes in drawing very interesting landscapes and cityscapes and then selling them as puzzles. He defined civility as character plus diversity.

You may wonder what qualifies him to make such a definitive proclamation. (Though as a blogger with no especial qualifications myself, I don’t.) Or at least you may wonder what prompted the invitation to speak from BYU Management Society. Well Dowdle, in addition to being an artist, is the founder and chairman of the board for the proposed George Washington Museum of American History. This is an effort to assemble an exhibition of the 250 “Greatest Moments in American History” and then take them on tour of all 50 states in 2026 (the 250th year anniversary of the Declaration of Independence). After which it will have a permanent home in Utah. As you can imagine the Museum has many goals from increasing historical literacy, to a celebration of the Founders, but included in there is a goal to educate people on, what Dowdle feels, are the twin pillars of America: character and diversity. Which, when combined, create civility.

As you can imagine he is also worried about the ills of the nation and the increasing polarization. And he hopes that by educating people about these twin pillars that he will help bring about a return to civility, much like Senator Flake. And, once again, this is another clearly laudable goal, though I’m not sure that his definition entirely captures the full nuance of what civility is. That said, I nevertheless think that it captures something important about what civility means at the present political moment.

I’m a big fan of “character”, but I think it’s place in the equation leads to some weird conclusions. Would he say that people who push diversity, while ignoring civility, must therefore lack character? If so that would be a fairly incendiary claim, and if true would immediately lead to a question of what sort of character do they lack? What aspect of character is not present in their advocacy for diversity? Does character equal a respect for a certain set of ethics? Could it be extended to mean respect for the rule of law? On the other hand, and probably even more inflammatory, are we meant to conclude that people who civilly rail against diversity do it because they have a lot of character? It is interesting to ask what ramifications this equation has if taken to its extreme, but, unfortunately, I think it breaks down pretty quickly.

If we leave aside character, then I still think he makes an important point about the connection between diversity and civility, and the need for increasing civility as society becomes increasingly diverse. (In fact, if we hold character constant then this is certainly one way to read his formula.) And it’s also interesting to draw inspiration, as he clearly is, from the founding of the country. So much of what made it into the Constitution and the Bill of Rights was designed to create civility among diverse groups. In that vein, allow me to offer another equation, one that might have been on the minds of the founders: diversity minus civility equals violence. Before the American Revolution there was a lot of violence generated by ideological diversity, something which would have been on the minds of the founders. I refer you to the European Wars of Religion:

The conflicts began with the Knights’ Revolt (1522), a minor war in the Holy Roman Empire. Warfare intensified after the Catholic Church began the Counter-Reformation in 1545 to counter the growth of Protestantism. The conflicts culminated in the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648), which devastated Germany and killed one-third of its population. The Peace of Westphalia (1648) put an end to the war by recognising three separate Christian traditions in the Holy Roman Empire: Roman Catholicism, Lutheranism, and Calvinism. Although many European leaders were ‘sickened’ by the religious bloodshed by 1648, religious wars continued to be waged in the post-Westphalian period until the 1710s.

I understand the explicitly religious wars were over by the time of the Revolution, but if you draw a graph from “killing one third of the population”, through continued bloodshed up until 1710, and zero it out at the election of JFK, who won despite people wondering if he was going to take orders from the Pope you’ll see that in 1776, things were still pretty heated, and the founders knew that the only way to avoid violence in the diverse republic they were creating was to bake a lot of rules for civility right into the Constitution.

This is not to say that we’ve always been civil, or that there hasn’t been violence, for example you may have heard of a little thing called the Civil War (which, despite its title was very uncivil). Further, this doesn’t mean that the rules the Founders added were perfect, or that they were were always followed. And it most especially doesn’t mean that there weren’t any trade-offs. A subject I’ll be returning to shortly. But, I think if you look back on things, especially relative to other nations at the same point in history. The US did pretty well at accommodating a diversity of nations and peoples and ideologies with a minimum of violence. In fact, it may be argued, we did so well that people no longer see the need for some of the rules the Founders came up with, in particular Freedom of Speech.

I’ve talked about free speech a lot in this space, and while I tend to be pretty vigorous in it’s defense, I can also acknowledge that much like the other two endeavors we’ve considered, defending free speech is laudable, but, particularly in this day and age, can be complicated as well. This also takes me to another of the speakers from the conference, McKay Coppins, a columnist for the Atlantic. I also picked up his book, The Wilderness: Deep Inside the Republican Party’s Combative, Contentious, Chaotic Quest to Take Back the White House, and even had him sign it, though, once again, I haven’t had time to read it.

As a columnist you might imagine he is a strong supporter of free speech and opened his talk with a Thomas Jefferson quote that’s a favorite of journalists everywhere. (Back to the Founders!)

The way to prevent these irregular interpositions of the people is to give them full information of their affairs thro’ the channel of the public papers, & to contrive that those papers should penetrate the whole mass of the people. The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.

As I recall he only recited the last bit, but I think it’s worth quoting the first part, since one of the things which has definitely changed since the time of Jefferson is what “full information” means, what “channel” they get that through, and the way it “penetrates”. Which is to say, would Jefferson be as confident in saying, “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without social media or social media without government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” I suspect he might not.

As I said things have become more complicated, and Coppins did acknowledge that in his speech. In particular he talked about fake news, and the waning power of the larger media outlets. To combat this he urged us all to be individual media outlets. To civilly work to combat misinformation when we see it, and help move the national conversation in the direction of the truth. The Jeffersonian idea that more speech is preferable to less speech and that if we encourage as many people as possible to speak that this will create the “full information” necessary for truth to triumph.

I currently agree with Coppins that this strategy is probably the best way forward, but I also know that when presented with this strategy many people argue that it’s largely a continuation of the status quo and as such will allow those with the biggest microphone to continue to dominate the discussion, and that whatever power imbalance which currently exists will continue to exist. Given the overlap in our proposed strategy I was curious to get Coppins take on it, and asked him about it during the question and answer period. He pointed out that when you’re encouraging more speech you’re also encouraging those who haven’t had much of a voice. In fact, you may even offer them more encouragement, and that hopefully as this process continues it won’t be the same individuals and organizations doing all the talking.

All of this finally takes us to the arguments against civility. As I already mentioned, there are those, traditionally on the left, who feel that civility is just an excuse to continue to silence and oppress those who are already powerless. For example this quote my friend Stuart Parker, who’s running for office in British Columbia:

I read a post by a fellow socialist running for office today and I feel I need to make a point about calls for civility: liberalism is about civility. Socialism is not. Socialism is about meeting people who are being screwed-over by the system and hearing them out. And a crucial part of hearing them out is hearing their anger.

And we, as socialists, should share that anger. A full debate, a debate that encompasses the global extinction event, the affordability crisis and the opioid epidemic is a debate that confronts pain, death and loss. It confronts injustice. Our discourse today should not seek to suppress people’s justified rage but to channel it, to hone it, to express it with precision without losing one iota of the urgency and conviction it contains.

British Columbians are outraged. And they are seeking candidates to articulate their rage for them. Let’s not let them down.

Instinctively you’ve got to have sympathy for this position. But as he points out, liberalism, particularly classical liberalism, the liberalism of the Founders, does place a high degree of importance on civility, and I don’t think we should casually toss that aside. It’s been a long time since we’ve experienced true incivility, and as I pointed out in a previous post, we imagine that we can tolerate small amounts of incivility, and censorship and it won’t lead to violence or repression. Or that if it does it will be righteous violence and repression of only evil people. But that’s not how it works. Rather once things start it’s less like a righteous cleansing and more like Godzilla trudging back and forth through your city. In other words, once those norms get broken it becomes difficult to draw a line. I think this is the lesson the founders had learned from the several hundred years before the revolution, and it’s the lesson they tried to impart to us.

To be fair, it is not only people on the left that have turned against civility. It’s also happening on the right, particularly the alt-right, who insofar as they have a point, believe that conservatives have very civilly and very politely lost every single battle in the culture war. Whether or not this is true (though I’ve already written about how it’s basically true) it doesn’t necessarily mean that we should abandon civility. (Though, i guess, there’s always a chance it might mean that…) In fact if it means anything I would opine that it means we need to be more civil and less censorious, especially with respect to the typical Trump supporter, lest we inadvertently confirm this exact belief, the idea that there is no point in being civil. Of course, as far as I can tell this is the exact opposite of the direction we’re headed. In fact, I just barely saw that apparently James Woods has been locked out of Twitter. (Though, as usual with stuff that just happened this may turn out later to be incorrect.)

Putting everything I’ve said together I suppose my central point is that the current situation is more complicated than it may at first appear, and that a simple return to civility may be more difficult and less effective than people think. But, that we should push for it anyway, because the alternative has the potential to be much, much worse.


Every week I try to civilly and with humor ask for donations, but perhaps the week I write about civility should be the one week I abandon all that and just say, “GIVE ME MONEY!” Or maybe not.


Is War Necessary?

If you prefer to listen rather than read, this blog is available as a podcast here. Or if you want to listen to just this post:

Or download the MP3


I’d like to start this week by making a point I’ve made over and over again:

It’s probably a mistake to assume that everyone in the past was horribly violent, irredeemably evil or massively ignorant.

Rather, as I have repeatedly pointed out, they probably had a reason for doing whatever it was they did. That reason may no longer exist, the world is a very different place than it was 500 years ago, or even 100 years ago. So we certainly don’t want to automatically assume that it’s a good idea to continue doing things the way we always have, but that hardly seems to be the mistake most people are making. Rather most people seem to be making the opposite mistake, the one I keep pointing out, declaring that all the reasons for how things were done in the past were bad reasons and we can safely ignore them.

If you were going to point out a place where people in the past acted irrationally you might point to the omnipresence of war. Something which, thankfully, seems to have experienced a massive decline since World War II (at least in terms of combat deaths as a percentage of population.) If there’s anything we can all agree is bad, it’s war. Though as it turns out, not everyone does agree with that, or at least a few people have raised some interesting questions.

I talked about one of these people just last week, Robin Hanson, and his assertion that we are engaged in rapid cultural exploration, which carries unknown risks we may not be properly accounting for. In his original post he gives seven examples of risky cultural exploration, including one related to the subject of war:

While the world has become much more peaceful over the last century, this has been accompanied by big declines in cultural support for military action and tolerance for military losses. Is the world now more vulnerable to conquest by a new military power with more local cultural support and tolerance for losses?

Another person to recently question the idea that war is a horrible mistake, is professor Benjamin Ginsberg, who I encountered recently on an episode of the Art of Manliness podcast. (I should say that I’m grateful to frequent commenter Boonton for pointing the episode out to me.) Ginsberg is a political science professor at John Hopkins University and he recently published a book titled The Worth of War. I have not read it, but from what I gather he acknowledges the horrible death toll of war as well as the other associated suffering, but points out that there are some positives to war as well.

To begin with Ginsberg seems reasonably certain that true peace is impossible, that there will be war, and as long as that’s the case we shouldn’t completely demonize it because it will come back to haunt us when war does return. As you can see his thought process is very similar to Hanson’s though I get the sense that Ginsberg is more certain. For my own part it appears that the key question is whether there are cultures with dramatically more support for war and dramatically greater tolerance for losses than our own. And if so, why haven’t they conquered us already?

Off the top of my head it would appear that the Taliban checks both the “cultural support” and the “loss tolerance” box. Which leaves only the question of why haven’t they conquered us already? Well, there are only 34.5 million Afghanis (and not all belong to the Taliban) and there are 326 million Americans. Also Afghanistan’s blue water navy is notoriously underfunded, meaning a direct attack on America is only possible through terrorism. But we can examine our own attempts to conquer them, and as far as I can tell it’s not going well.

Here are a few recent headlines:

Some quotes from the last article.

Even Kabul is not secure. When I’m coming from home and I say hello to my baby and wife, I am thinking sometimes there is no guarantee to be back at home,” says Najibullah Hekmat, a third-generation Afghan surgeon trained and working at the hospital.

ISIS claimed responsibility for Kabul’s latest attack on Wednesday, twin blasts that killed 20 civilians and wounded 70 more.

An escalation in terrorist attacks and fighting between the Taliban and government forces has helped drive the number of civilian deaths this year to its highest point on record — 1,692 civilians killed by June 30, according to the UN.

No one is arguing that the US is in imminent danger of being conquered by the Taliban but despite spending billions and billions of dollars and thousands of lives we’re having a heck of a time conquering them. One would think that our huge advantage in resources and technology would prove to be a decisive advantage, but it has not. Obviously, in part, we’re restrained by humanitarian impulses, which, among other things, restricts indiscriminate killing on a large scale, but even taking that into account, the Taliban obviously have a will to fight, and to suffer hardship and casualties which we don’t.

Is there some future, where the Taliban, or some other nation, pulls even with the US as far as resources and technology, while at the same time maintaining that greater will to fight and sacrifice? This is an important question. As I said I just listened to the podcast, but I get the feeling that Ginsberg’s answer is yes, and that Hanson’s answer is maybe. Personally, I’m on the side of Hanson. It does seem like there might be something about the progress required to get resources and technology, which is inevitably pacifying. That perhaps, when you get to the point where you have a blue water navy and nukes you don’t want to use them. You might argue that the US does, at least, use its navy, but it’s hard to argue we use it in the same way the Taliban would.

Do we have any other examples we can use? On the one hand there is Europe and on the other hand, China. Europe clearly seems like a place which has the technology and resources to be a significant military power, but which also has zero will to fight, and almost as little desire to sacrifice. China has the resources, and is quickly catching up on the tech, and while certainly more aggressive than Europe, it’s unclear when it comes right down to it how warlike they actually are. When was the last time China invaded another country anyway? Does the Sino-Vietnamese War count?

I suppose Russia is also an example, but as with most things, it’s something of an enigma, is their willingness to fight and sacrifice greater now than it was during the Cold War? What about their resources and tech? Their military is certainly smaller than it was during the Soviet era. Though their absolute tech level may have gotten better.  

I guess all of this is to say that if technology has no relationship to a country’s will to fight, then eventually you’re going to have a high tech society (with a blue water navy and nukes and the whole nine yards) who really wants to take over the world, and, if, as Hanson and Ginsberg fear, the US and other developed nations have lost that will, then they’re probably going to lose. (Which, as I pointed out, is kind of already happening in Afghanistan, and it didn’t even require equal resources and technology.)

If, on the other hand, technology and pacifism, are somewhat linked than maybe getting the military necessary to do something like take over the US, automatically means that you’re too “civilized” to actually do it. Perhaps, but to me this seems like a thin premise to bet the future of the nation on.

This idea of preparedness is the first positive Ginsberg points out, that war, or at least a warlike attitude, makes us more likely to emerge victorious when war inevitably arrives. I guess if you’re sure there’s going to be a big game, and if that game is for all the marbles, then it’s pretty silly not to practice. To which, guys like Steven Pinker argue, that there isn’t necessarily going to be another big game, that big games are horrible, and by practicing for them we make them more likely to happen. But this post is not about the likelihood of big games, I have other posts about that. It’s about whether there are any positives to having the occasional big game, so let’s move on to the next one.

Beyond the argument that preparing for war makes it more likely, Pinker and people like him also argue that having a warlike culture has negative effects on the culture itself. Ginsberg argues the exact opposite, and mentions it as a positive. This is another topic I’ve discussed in past posts, but to summarize: Pinker and people like him point out that warlike societies have a much greater risk of death due to violence. Case closed. The argument on the other side is more nuanced, and I’m not sure of the specifics of Ginsberg’s version of the argument, but the best argument I’ve come across is in the book Tribe, by Sebastian Junger. He points out that psychological problems go away and people report being happier during times of war.

The best example of this argument being played out is among the Native American tribes during the colonial period. On the one side, Pinker points out that people in these tribes had an appallingly high chance of dying due to violence. On the other side, Junger points out this quote from french émigré, Hector de Crèvecoeur, who actually was around at the time (unlike Pinker):

Thousands of Europeans are Indians, and we have no examples of even one of those Aborigines having from choice become European.

Obviously premature death due to violence is bad, but apparently not bad enough to make people prefer the less violent culture over the more violent one. Meaning that when actually given a choice between Pinker’s world or Junger’s world people choose the more warlike world of Junger. The reasons why or whether this can be extrapolated into the present or whether there’s some way to get the happiness without the violence are beyond the scope of this post. (If you’re interested the post where I reviewed Tribe does get into it.) But I think at a minimum it points to a more complicated picture of war than what most people entertain these days. Which is Ginsberg’s whole point.

Before leaving our discussion of the societal benefits of war, I want to also draw your attention to another post I did, which you may or may not have read. In this other post I discussed the book The Great Leveler, which argued that mass mobilization war is one of the few things that has ever reduced inequality. Opinions vary on how bad inequality is, but if you’re one of those people who thinks that it will eventually result in some kind of internal civil war or revolution, then there’s certainly an argument to be made that a nation is better off occasionally going to war, than eventually self-destructing in bloody violence. Or to put it more crudely if it takes death to reduce inequality there’s an argument to be made that deaths outside the nation are preferable to deaths inside the nation.

Ginsberg also spent a lot of time (as it seemed to me) talking about all of the technology which has come out of wars. Here, at least, I’m not convinced the benefit is as big a deal as he thinks. I imagine that most of the technology which was developed to help out during wartime would have been developed eventually even without the war. Also, oftentimes the technology being developed is solving a problem which is only significant because of war. Ginsberg mentions the advances in prosthetics which have occured recently. Advances he says we only have because of the recent wars. And it is true, a lot of people have come back from Iraq or Afghanistan with a missing limb, and as a result we’ve gotten a lot better a building artificial limbs, but to be clear these artificial limbs wouldn’t be needed in the first place without the war. I’m not saying there aren’t other people who lose limbs in other ways (or who are born without them). I’m saying when you consider that most of this technology would have been developed eventually, I’m reasonably certain that spending billions of dollars and thousands of lives to hasten it by a few years is not worth it.

To put it another way, however bad you think the government is at directing research priorities. Imagine that instead of going to war they said here’s $5 trillion (one estimate for the total cost of Iraq and Afghanistan) think of all the technology that might be developed in the course of a war, things like battlefield surgery, prosthetics, drones, etc. And see what you can come up with. Imagining this scenario, can you honestly say that we wouldn’t have developed everything that came out of the war and then some? I imagine we could probably do it for a tenth of that money.

That said, there may be a deeper issue, I can see making the more subtle argument that war forces us to focus on certain kinds of technology, technology that’s better at helping us survive rather than technology that’s better at keeping us happy (though “keeping us distracted” seems much closer to the mark.) I’ve talked in the past about the conflict between prioritizing survival and prioritizing happiness, and it could be that the farther you go down one of the roads, the harder it is to pay any attention to the other road. That the more new technology consists of things like Instagram, Twitch and Coffee meets Bagel, that the harder it will be to develop technology which actually contributes to our survival. Once again I think it just makes things take longer, but, on the other hand, there is plenty of science fiction where the whole course of the future was determined by early choices in what to prioritize, leading to technology that could only have been discovered on the exact path that was chosen. Certainly I have warned of the dangers of a long term focus on lotus eating, so maybe we are painting ourselves into a corner.

This does take us to the final and perhaps most compelling point Ginsberg makes about the benefits of war: War is the ultimate test of rationality. The meaning of this observation should be obvious, though I think people have forgotten it. Why? Because since the end of the cold war the US has been so strong militarily that it didn’t matter whether we had the ideal strategy or the perfect tactics, we were going to win regardless. Such was not the case during the Cold War, when there were huge debates about which ideology would provide the decisive edge in the inevitable war. Now we no longer worry about it because no one worries about war against some vastly inferior power, people only worry about a war when it’s going to be close (as most wars are, otherwise they never begin in the first place.)

From this the argument can be made that when a nation is powerful, (like the US is currently) they and their citizens can engage in irrational behavior for a very long time. Particularly if that behavior doesn’t carry the seeds of its own destruction. If your irrationality doesn’t cause you to starve to death or overdose (which it very well might) or something equally fatal, then it has no natural endpoint. This is particularly true given all of the things we’ve implemented to prevent irrationality from being fatal. But everything I’ve said so far applies only to internal destructive tendencies, not external destructive actors. Once those enter the equation, in the form of war, and if the sides are fairly evenly matched, as they generally are, irrationality will be quickly revealed. As Master Sergeant Farell (played by the late, great Bill Paxton in the criminally underrated movie Edge of Tomorrow) said:

Battle is the Great Redeemer. It is the fiery crucible in which true heroes are forged. The one place where all men truly share the same rank, regardless of what kind of parasitic scum they were going in.

I’m mostly interested in the “fiery crucible” part (though I think “parasitic scum” may have some bearing here as well). And the associated idea that if there is anything present in you or your civilization which doesn’t help you survive, it gets burned away. I realize I am once again making survival the primary value, but I think this is one area where it is definitely justified. Not only is survival directly threatened by war, but if your ideas won’t help you survive than there’s a good chance they won’t continue past your death.

We may not know where our irrationality lies until the moment we’re put to the test. But I can think of some candidates. One of the bitterly fought battles of the culture war has been expanding who can serve in combat, and in the military in general. In 2010 “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was repealed allowing LGB’s to serve openly. Then in 2013 the ban on women serving in combat was lifted. And of course just recently we’ve seen the fight over transgender individuals serving. I am not saying that any of these expansions are definitely irrational, though they certainly could be if, when the time comes, they make our military any less effective at its core responsibility of killing the other guy before they can kill us. Or as Hanson alludes to, if it reduces our support for military action and our tolerance for military losses.

What are the odds of that happening? Well there are four possible effects these expansions could have:

  1. They could be a great idea. I could be that if another big war comes our military will fight more effectively than they would have otherwise.
  2. It could be that it doesn’t matter, because we’re done with big, existential-level wars.
  3. It could be that it has no effect either way.
  4. It could be that these policies were irrational, and when put to the test they will have some negative impact on our ability to wage war effectively.

One seems unlikely to me. If it’s a good idea why hasn’t it been done historically? When wars were much more common why did no one arrive at this competitive advantage? Two, kind of seems to be the underlying argument of a lot of people I’ve talked to about this, who seem to consider the expansions more akin to ending job discrimination than anything which impacts military readiness. As far as three, it’s hard for me to imagine that it has zero effect, which leaves only the idea that, if put to the test, it will prove to have been a bad idea.

If it is it won’t be the first bad idea which was only uncovered in the heat of battle. Nor will it probably be the last. But what happens if we no longer have battle to uncover these bad ideas? Hard to say. I hope that we can uncover bad ideas without people dying. That we can decide important issues without the shedding of blood. But I don’t think the trends point in that direction. And this takes me to my concluding point.

As you may have noticed I have a large interest in Fermi’s Paradox. And when Boonton sent me the link to the Art of Manliness podcast he pointed out how it suggested an interesting explanation for the paradox:

War is required to advance civilization, and without it, civilization stalls out. But, once you acquire nukes, war is no longer an option. So either a civilization blows itself up, or it ceases to advance, either way it never ends up expanding outward into space.

As I said at the beginning, people in the past probably had a reason for doing what they did, and one of the things they did a lot of was go to war. Let’s hope that we have progressed past the point where war is necessary, but prepare for the possibility that it still is.


Another example of irrationality (though one which anyone can uncover) would clearly be donating to a marginal blog, specializing in esoteric musings, in an forgotten corner of the internet. Nevertheless I hope you’ll do it anyway.


Burning Man, Dreamtime and Dragons

If you prefer to listen rather than read, this blog is available as a podcast here. Or if you want to listen to just this post:

Or download the MP3


Like many people I went on a short vacation over the Labor Day weekend. Mine took me out to the Bay Area, where I attended the Pleasanton Scottish Festival with my family. I should mention that the festival was gigantic. It’s supposed to be the largest Scottish Festival west of the Mississippi and after being there, I can believe it. But the marvels of caber-tossing, bagpipe competitions, and sheep-dog trials (exclusive to the Pleasanton Scottish Festival as far as I can tell) are not what I want to talk about.

I did not realize, until we were on our way back, that the Labor Day weekend is also when Burning Man ends. My first clue was when we checked into a hotel in Reno on Sunday night, and I overheard someone talking about it, only to then realize that basically the entire lobby was filled with burners, as they’re called. Their presence continued to make itself felt on the drive home on Monday. As we drove east on I-80, I would estimate that half of the cars sharing the road with us were on their way home from Burning Man, so much so that my wife and I made a game of pointing them out. It wasn’t necessarily a hard game, people coming back from “The Burn” are pretty distinctive. If nothing else, there’s the distinctive dust of the playa, the dry lake bed in northern Nevada where Burning Man is held. This dust would generally be covering the entire vehicle, though sometimes just the bikes the person had strapped on to the back of their old RV and sometimes just the wheels, as in the case when my wife identified a burner I had missed.

So, then, Burning Man is what I want to talk about? No, or at least not directly. And before I get any farther, there are probably some of you who have never heard of Burning Man, or if you have heard of it, you’re not sure what it is. Well this is not the place to find out, but I have found that this quote from an old article about the phenomenon from Slate, does a pretty good job of encapsulating the weirdness, while also finally making the connection to the subject I do want to cover:

A good friend who’s been to many Burns but (to his tremendous disappointment) couldn’t make it out to the desert this year insisted that I visit him at his New York apartment to receive some pre-Burn instruction and advice. “Burning Man is an effort to reinvent the culture of Earth,” he told me, in dead serious tones. “If you go, you must surrender to the spirit of the endeavor. You have a duty to participate. You can’t just observe. You’ll bring everybody down.” He then solemnly handed me a white fur vest, a spangly blue cowboy hat, and a pair of ski goggles. I wasn’t sure what I was meant to do with them. He assured me all would become clear soon enough.

I’ve never been to Burning Man, though I have several friends who’ve gone, and I get the impression that the tagline “Reinventing the Culture of the Earth in a White Fur Vest and a Spangly Blue Cowboy Hat” would not be very far from the mark. Alternatively the Slate article also described Burning Man as a collection of “unshowered vegans [and] jet-setting art freaks” which also seems pretty accurate from what I can tell. (If you detect some disdain at this point, it might be due to the fact that a group of very loud burners decided to have a conversation right outside my hotel room at 3:30 am when I was in Reno.) But as I said I’ve never gone, so it’s entirely possible that I’m misrepresenting it. But that line about reinventing the culture of the Earth always stuck with me, and it suggests that there are some people who think that a thousand years from now, “Burning” will be viewed as a movement similar in impact to Christianity or Buddhism. Put me down as someone who thinks this is very unlikely, but I do think that even if Burning Man specifically doesn’t end up deserving a special place in history, that this era more generally will. And here, finally, is what I want to talk about.

If humanity is around in a thousand years (and I certainly hope they are, in one form or another.) What place will this era hold in our history? Well first, it might be interesting to ask how how people of the future will demarcate this era. Will it be the era of American dominance? The era of hedonism?

Will they draw a line after World War II because that will have been the last big war? Will they draw a line at the start of the enlightenment? At the invention of the steam engine? At the fall of the Soviet Union?

I could see a case being made for any of the above, but I would vote for a line drawn after World War II. And not necessarily because it was the last big war (I’m on record as saying that it won’t be) but because it was the era when all the rules changed. Previously democracy was rare, now it’s common. Previously hierarchies were explicit, now equality is expected (if not always realized). Previously war was diplomacy by other means, now war is apocalyptic. Previously someone’s rights were abstract and rarely considered, now they’re central and frequently referred to. Now, obviously, this all didn’t happen instantly at the end of World War II, it was a gradual process, and as I said I can see drawing a line at any number of places, from the Civil War to the French Revolution to the impeachment of Trump (should it happen). But I think World War II was (at least for America) when it became apparent that the road ahead was clear, and it was time to put on the gas.

All of which is to say, even if I’m not sure where they’ll draw the line, I think it’s clear that when people look back they will see our time as a distinct era, and an important one as well. Mostly because of all the changes I just mentioned. Though, saying that this is an important and distinct period is not particularly revolutionary or even noteworthy. The real question I’m curious about is, a thousand years on, what will the impact of this era have been? Will I be wrong and people will call it the “Era of Burning Man?” There are apparently some people who think so, but, as I said I don’t think that’s one of the likely scenarios. And, of course, if I’m speaking of likely scenarios for something a thousand years in the future I can only speak very broadly. But in very broad terms here are a few likely scenarios:

  1. The Beginning of Utopia: Though humans a thousand years from now might not give a place a pride to Burning Man, they may still view this era as the time when humanity passed from brutishness to true enlightenment. When the Long Peace started, the peace that eventually turned into the Forever Peace. When the initial faint promise of Transhumanism and AI turned into the Singularity and humans turned into gods. When all the hate and cruelty and inhumanity was done away with and when the era of tolerance and love, and individual flourishing began. Here, I offer my usual caveat. I would love it if this were the case, but even if I thought it were likely I would still argue that all of the rest of the items on this list are bad enough that we should still spend a significant amount of effort hedging against them.
  2. Large Scale Nuclear War Happens: If this ends up happening then people a thousand years in the future will look back on this era as one of unmitigated folly. As the time when we had developed nuclear weapons but went blithely along, unconcerned by how destructive they were and how certain (in retrospect) their eventual use was. (This also would be a powerful argument for starting the era at the end of World War II.) I assume they would also view it as a time of vast hedonistic excess as well, considering everything we did between developing nukes and the eventual war as the worst trade-off of long-term responsibility for immediate pleasure in the history of humanity.
  3. Some Other Negative Black Swan: I could have included nuclear war in this category as well, but I think it’s special enough that it deserves it’s own section. In this scenario we manage to avoid large scale nuclear war, but there is some other large negative event that we should have seen coming, but didn’t. I’ve talked about this a lot in past posts, including this one from just a few weeks ago, so I won’t go into a huge amount of detail here. Particularly since the list of potential swans is nearly endless, and even if it’s one no one thought of, I imagine that the people of the future, much like ourselves, will not cut us much slack if we overlook our eventual doom, no matter how unlikely it seemed at the time.
  4. Adolescent Idealism: Some people have put forth the theory that humanity is passing through something resembling college or maybe high school. A time when you feel like you know everything and the traditions and rules of your parents (and society in general) seem hopelessly antiquated, needlessly repressive and entirely unimportant in light of all the new knowledge you’ve just gained. Oftentimes this is accompanied by the belief that they’re going to change the world through social justice, equality, and radical redistribution. Sometimes these feelings last, but in general people discover that it’s all a lot harder than they thought. People a thousand years from now might look back on this as just such an era of “youthful” idealism. This view could exist alongside of possibilities two and three, or it could be that we avoid major negative events, and yet still appear hopelessly naive to our descendents.
  5. Dreamtime: Many years ago Robin Hanson wrote an article where he speculated that our descendents would look back on this era as something of a “dreamtime”. He mentions many differences which will probably exist between us and our descendants, but he calls it dreamtime because of one huge difference, “our lives are far more dominated by consequential delusions: wildly false beliefs and non-adaptive values that matter.” Why is that? Well he offers seven reasons in the original article, but all of them basically boil down to the idea that we are adapted to live in a world very different from the one we live in now. For 99.9% of human history we lived in a world with far fewer people, hardly any wealth, and almost no ongoing technological advancement. This difference is something I’ve mentioned many times in the past, and Hansen hits on many of the same things. The part where it gets interesting is when he points out that these are differences which not only existed between us and our ancestors, but which will exist between us and our descendents as well. Something I’d like to dig into a little bit more.

The idea of far fewer people may be where Hanson is on the shakiest ground. It certainly doesn’t feel, at this point, that this is likely to be that different for our descendents. But if you toss in the idea that we will eventually spread to the stars than this assertion makes perfect sense. Right now humanity is as global and connected as it has ever been, and possibly as it ever will be. I could, in theory, drop everything, hop on Skype and talk to anyone in the world. If, in the far future, the average descendent ends up on a planet light years away from Earth or any other planet, then this will obviously no longer be the case. Also whatever planet that is, it’s unlikely to have seven billion people on it. Now whether this will happen in a thousand years or not, I don’t know, but you can see where the tiny, widely separated colonies Hanson envisions for the future will be more similar to the world of yesterday than the world of today.

When someone says there was hardly any wealth in the past, no one is inclined to argue very much, but when Hanson points out that there will be hardly any wealth in the future, there are plenty of people willing to argue. But as I pointed out in a previous post, The current level of growth cannot continue forever, eventually it has to fall back to the level of “barely above zero” it was for most of human history. Hanson says it this way:

If income only doubled every century, in a million years that would be a factor of 103000, which seems impossible to achieve with only the 1070 atoms of our galaxy available by then.

Finally there’s the idea of almost no ongoing technological advancement. This is another area where things can’t continue forever. Or rather if it can continue forever than this era definitely does represent the beginning of utopia, and we can cease to worry about basically anything else. More likely there are still many things to discover, but the pace of discovery will start to slow, and discovering anything truly new will become rarer and rarer, until eventually we reach, a permanent technological plateau. This ends up being one of the key reasons for Hanson’s claim that future generations will view us as delusional.

Our knowledge has been growing so fast, and bringing such radical changes, that many of us see anything as possible, so that nothing can really be labeled a delusion.

So what should we be doing?

As I said, it may be that this era will be viewed by people in the future as the beginning of utopia, and what we should really be doing is rushing towards it as fast as possible. But I also listed four other likely scenarios which indicate that perhaps we should be exercising both more caution and more humility. Now I don’t claim that because there are four bad scenarios and only one good one that this means that the bad scenarios are more likely by a factor of four to one (though they might be, it’s impossible to know.) On the other hand, I think dismissing those scenarios, as so many people are quick to do, is equally, if not more foolish. The argument I’m making is that we live in a unique era, which, above all else, calls for unique caution. And this takes me to another, much more recent article by Robin Hanson.

He theorizes that one of the things that’s unique about this era is that rather than exploring new physical spaces, that we have moved to exploring new cultural spaces:

I want to suggest that Spaceship Earth is in fact a story of a brave crew risking much to explore a strange new territory. But the space we explore is more cultural than physical.

During the industrial era, the world economy has doubled roughly every fifteen years. Each such doubling of output has moved us into new uncharted cultural territory. This growth has put new pressures on our environment, and has resulted in large and rapid changes to our culture and social organization.

This growth results mostly from innovation, and most innovations are small and well tested against local conditions, giving us little reason to doubt their local value. But all these small changes add up to big overall moves that are often entangled with externalities, coordination failures, and other reasons to doubt their net value.

So humanity continues to venture out into new untried and risky cultural spaces, via changes to cultural conditions with which we don’t have much experience, and which thus risk disaster and destruction. The good crew of Spaceship Earth should carefully weigh these risks when considering where and how fast to venture.

This is a great way of framing what I’ve been saying from the very beginning. And when I assert, as the theme of this blog that, “We are not saved.” One of the reasons for making that assertion is that rather than moving cautiously and slowly into this new cultural space, we appear to be moving faster and getting less cautious with each passing year.

My guess is that there are two reasons why this is happening. First, as I just said, if people believe that this is the start of a future utopia, then it makes sense to be rushing towards it as fast as possible. But, as I have argued, not only is this not a given, it may not even be likely. And paradoxically, rushing into it, may make it less likely rather than more. Second there is the inertia of the status quo, which has had a bias towards “progress” for decades if not centuries, a belief that there is no level at which progress becomes bad, and faster progress is always better than slower progress.

This metaphor of the current era as a ship engaged in risky and rapid (cultural) exploration was the primary thing I wanted to pass along from the article, but Hanson does tie it into the culture war (as you might imagine) and gives the usual plea for more reasonable debate:

The most common framing today for such issues is one of cultural war. You ask yourself which side feels right to you, commiserate with your moral allies, then puff yourself up with righteous indignation against those who see things differently, and go to war with them. But we might do better to frame these as reasonable debates on how much to risk as we explore culture space.

This got me to thinking, people always offer up reasonable debate as a potential solution to this problem.  And it does seem eminently sensible, things would probably go better if there was more talking and less war. I have certainly also advocated for this position, particularly in preference to Godzilla trudging back and forth. But I have also pointed out that there were decades of reasonable debates before the current crisis, and yet it had very little effect on the speed of cultural exploration. Also, in a certain sense, the cultural war is a debate, particularly given that, even using very extreme estimates, there have been almost no fatalities in this war (so far). The problem we’re facing is not that we need to have more debates or that the debates need to be more reasonable (though neither would hurt). The problem is that our policies don’t do a very good job of reflecting the uncertainty we are (or at least should be) experiencing.

I have definitely covered many areas where we should be less certain than we are. This is well covered territory (in this blog and a few others, though not much outside that.) But perhaps framing it as the idea of risky exploration, or of a unique era calling for unique caution makes it clear to some people in a way that previous explanations didn’t. Also, once we realize that humanity is engaged in cultural exploration we can go on to realize that this exploration is proceeding at a faster rate than ever.

What does the future hold? How will this era be viewed a thousand years from now? I don’t know, but I think the next few decades could be very consequential to that future view. The old maps used to mark unexplored areas of the world with pictures of dragons, or sea serpents: here be dragons, as they say. As it turns out there weren’t any dragons, but as we explore the space of culture, we may find out, that this time, there are.


Speaking of unexplored spaces, I’m guessing that many reading this blog have not explored the space of donations. It’s actually not as bad as you think. In fact I guarantee there are no dragons.


The Conspiracy Against Gawker: Things Have to Be More Than Just True to Be Newsworthy

If you prefer to listen rather than read, this blog is available as a podcast here. Or if you want to listen to just this post:

Or download the MP3


A couple of posts ago I reviewed (in my own idiosyncratic fashion) Bad Blood by John Carreyrou. This was a book about the many crimes and falsehoods of Theranos, a healthcare startup which got away with the aforementioned crimes and falsehoods for far longer than they should have. They accomplished this mostly through a combination of influencing powerful people and intimidating anyone who tried to expose them. As a country (and a civilization) we take a dim view of this sort of behavior and have set up various failsafes to protect us against it. In the case of Theranos all of our failsafes… failed… (I’m pretty sure that despite the name that’s not what they’re supposed to do.)

Of course, this failure didn’t last forever. Theranos was eventually exposed, by the press. Though even this exposure took a lot longer than it should have, given that Theranos was around for more than a dozen years. Now, it wasn’t the hottest startup in the valley, with a valuation of nine billion dollars for all of those years, but the red flags started appearing as early as 2006 when Elizabeth Holmes (the Theranos Founder) fired the CFO for questioning her ethics. (And if there’s any moral of the Theranos story it’s that Holmes did have questionable ethics.) Also from the very beginning Theranos was claiming to have technology which was entirely too good to be true. It really shouldn’t have taken as long as it did for Theranos to be exposed.

I mentioned in my previous post that Theranos was very liberal with the threat of lawsuits, and that this went a long way towards keeping their various misdeeds secret for so long. Also Silicon Valley is a weird place for news. You have hundreds of startups who want coverage, but probably only a few who actually deserve to be exposed in the way Theranos deserved to be exposed. Given this, I assume it takes a certain amount of specialization to separate the wheat from the chaff so to speak. What was really needed during those years that Theranos was at the height of its wickedness was a Silicon Valley specific publication, with zero fear of being sued.

If only such an outlet existed…

A few days ago I was browsing the Slate Star Codex subreddit, as I sometimes do. And I started reading a post by youcanteatbullets where he mentioned that he had just finished reading Bad Blood (“Much like me,” I thought) and that the book he had read just before that was Conspiracy: Peter Thiel, Hulk Hogan, Gawker, and the Anatomy of Intrigue by Ryan Holiday (“Interesting, that’s the book I’m currently reading,” I thought) and that his big question was if Gawker was so intent on uncovering Silicon Valley gossip that they felt the need to out Peter Thiel, (as gay in case that isn’t clear) which then led to the whole vendetta which eventually lead to the lawsuit that brought down Gawker, how is it that they completely missed the Theranos story? (“That is an a terribly interesting question!” I thought. “One which never occurred to me.” I thought.)

As it turns out such an outlet did exist, it was Gawker. One of the major takeaways from Conspiracy, is that they viewed lawsuits with total disdain, going so far as ignore the explicit orders of judges. As scary as David Boies is, I’m guessing that he wouldn’t have made much headway with Gawker had they decided to publish a Theranos expose. And as part of the Gawker network there was a site, Valleywag, specifically devoted to Silicon Valley news.  Or as youcanteatbullets puts it, a little more directly:

Nick Denton also liked to say that “todays gossip is tomorrows news”. SO WHY THE HELL DIDN’T GAWKER BREAK THE STORY OF THERANOS?! Their dedicated silicon valley beat Valleywag had its ups and downs but was active from 2013-2015; certainly other Gawker properties covered SV as well. The Carreyrou story was published in October 2015. I checked the Gawker site, the only stories I could find on Theranos were after that original WSJ piece. If Gawker played any socially valuable role at all, it would be exposing a company like Theranos.

Nick Denton was, of course, the owner of Gawker (and Valleywag) and a specific target of Thiel’s anger. And to understand things we need to backup a little bit. Particularly if you’re not familiar with all the details surrounding the lawsuit and the vendetta.

It basically all started in 2007 when, as I mentioned, Valleywag/Gawker outed Peter Thiel. You may or may not know who Thiel is, but you’re far more likely to know who he is now than you were to know who he was then. For those that still don’t, Peter Thiel is a billionaire investor who was one of the founders of Paypal, and one of the earliest investors in Facebook. Even now it’s a stretch to call him a public figure, but back then it would have been especially difficult to make that argument. But if there’s one thing you should know about Gawker, such fine distinctions rarely troubled them. Also I know even if he wasn’t a public figure that doesn’t automatically make what Gawker did illegal, I’m just saying, it’s clear from the book, that the question almost certainly never crossed their minds.

Thiel was not especially closeted at the time, but it still annoyed him because he wanted to be known as a great investor, not a great gay investor. (Also if you have followed Thiel at all, you’ll know he’s pretty conservative, which almost certainly plays into it.) But beyond the annoyance he felt at the violation of his personal privacy, he also felt that an organ specifically dedicated to spreading gossip about the valley was bad for the health of the startup ecosystem, and at one point he compared Gawker to terrorists. (I suppose this means he would have been opposed to Gawker using gossip to bring down Theranos. And I’ll get to that.) These feelings hardened until eventually Thiel decided to figure out a way to take Gawker down. Eventually forming the conspiracy from which the title of the book is taken.

After some years of working at it, the conspiracy finally got their chance to strike when Gawker made the ultimately fatal error of publishing the Hulk Hogan sex tape in October of 2012. At this point I should mention that if you’re anything like me, you might have heard that in addition to all of the embarrassment associated with a sex tape, that this was a sex tape involving Hogan (real name: Terry Bollea) and his best friend’s wife. As it turns out, that’s true, but incredibly misleading. His best friend apparently had an open marriage, and the best friend was the one who suggested it, and filmed it. Also Hogan’s wife had, that very day, finally, and irrevocably ended their marriage. This information isn’t necessary to the point I want to make, but I thought it was interesting.

When the tape was posted, Hogan had his attorneys immediately send a cease and desist letter. When Gawker not only ignored the letter, but sent a disdainful response, Hogan said he would sue. Thiel offered to fund the suit. Of course this was a conspiracy, so Thiel didn’t make this offer directly. In fact Hogan doesn’t find out about Thiel’s involvement until after the verdict. Essentially at the same time as everyone else.

The lawsuit drags on for several years before finally going to trial in March of 2016. And in the end the jury delivers a $140 million dollar judgement against Gawker and Denton, which drives both Denton and Gawker into bankruptcy. (Gawker ends up being sold to Univision in the bankruptcy sale.) As part of the bankruptcy proceedings Hogan ends up with $31 million. And Denton actually ends up with $15 million, so it could have been a lot worse. But one assumes, if nothing else, that people are going to be more careful about posting sex tapes. Or outing people as gay.

In retrospect it’s easy to look at things and point out all of the mistakes Gawker made. Many of them driven by pure arrogance on their part. But if you peel away all the arrogance, there’s an argument to be made that Gawker fought for a somewhat noble and idealistic reason.They fought because they had a philosophy that the “truth” was an absolute defense. Of course as it turns out, it wasn’t, and Conspiracy is mostly a story of the limits of that ideology. Though, I can certainly see its attraction. It’s clean, easy to understand, and the first priority of Superman! It’s hard to imagine prioritizing something above the truth, and I confess, particularly when I was younger that I probably held a very similar ideology to Denton, but as I’ve gotten older, and as Holiday points out, I’ve realized things are more complicated.

This kind of purity is childish, the domain of people who live in the realm of theory and words and recoil from the real world where someone can punch you in the face if you say the wrong words to the wrong person. There is always a defense necessary; discretion is the responsibility of freedom, the obligation that comes along with rights. If not in court, then in life. If not to other people, then to yourself. But that’s only part of it—Nick was the leader. He had allowed that to happen. He had allowed them to proceed closer and closer to trial without really bothering to think through these hard issues, without facing the hard truths about his company. Even the hard truths about how other people would see his company.

If truth isn’t an absolute standard, what should the standard be? I plan to spend most of the space remaining to me examining that question. (To be clear, I’m not sure I have an answer.) But, before I do, I’d like to go on a brief tangent.

When one reads about Thiel’s conspiracy, the obvious question is why don’t more people conspire in this fashion? Thiel is certainly not the only individual with money and power. Nor does he come across as particularly machiavellian. (Though Machiavelli is referenced a lot in the book.) There have to be people more conniving than him. Leading to the obvious question, is Thiel an outlier for engaging in a conspiracy? Or is he only an outlier for having his conspiracy exposed? When you think about it, Thiel’s conspiracy was (comparatively) legal and benign, and while the people involved did take steps to keep things a secret, you got the feeling they could have done more. The stakes if they were found out weren’t enormous, i.e. they weren’t going to go to jail or anything like that. You would imagine that if conspiracies are common that the stakes for most of them are a lot higher, and consequently the incentive to keep things secret is much greater as well. This line of thought inclines me to believe that Thiel is more likely an outlier for having been exposed, than for having done it in the first place.

Of course there are people who see conspiracies everywhere. We call them conspiracy theorists. And I happen to know a few of them. I was talking to one just the other day, and he said that he wasn’t necessarily sure of anything, but that, preceding from the idea that you can’t trust the government, and that people do conspire, you would expect there to be government conspiracies, and further you would expect word of them to leak out. I don’t see any obvious weaknesses in any of these assertions, though also, I should hasten to add, I’m not a conspiracy theorist, and would have a hard time offering up a “conspiracy” that I thought had a greater than single digit chance of being true.

The reason I am not a conspiracy theorist is Hanlon’s Razor:

Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.

I prefer to replace the word stupidity with the word incompetence, and I also like the theory that Hanlon is a corruption of Heinlein, who had one of his character’s say, “You have attributed conditions to villainy that simply result from stupidity.” In any event, when I mentioned this, the conspiracy theorist admitted that was a pretty strong rebuttal (though one he had heard) but that he detects more malice, perhaps, than I do in the world. And perhaps the story of Thiel and his conspiracy should lead me to update my own assessment of the probability that certain conspiracy theories are true.

The existence of conspiracy theories was a tangent, but it also gets back to this idea of what should be our standard for saying something, or more accurately publishing something? As I’ve mentioned I don’t think we can rely on a pure standard of “anything that’s true”. (In addition to everything I’ve already mentioned there are significant difficulties in even determining what is true.) Instead it appears the courts have, in part, pivoted instead to a standard of newsworthiness.

I should make it clear up front that this isn’t a horrible standard, I know how hard it is to come up with standards in the first place, and as standards go this is not bad. That said, it has some definite weaknesses. First it’s mostly only applicable to news making organizations. It doesn’t help very much with the current crisis, which seems to largely concern big companies kicking individuals off of their platforms. I’m not necessarily saying that a company should never be able to kick someone off their platform, I’m saying that I don’t think applying a standard of newsworthiness helps very much in making the determination of who should stay and who should go.

Second, newsworthiness can easily devolve into a tyranny of the majority or of money. If ten million people want to see something does that automatically make it newsworthy? Gawker seemed to be advocating for essentially exactly this position. And both Bad Blood and Conspiracy illustrate that with enough money you can make something not newsworthy. To be clear I’m far more sympathetic to Thiel than I am to Holmes and Theranos. Also, while Thiel probably changed the definition of newsworthy going forward, it’s difficult to say exactly how. Further, I assume that the inverse, making something newsworthy through money is probably even easier.

Finally, newsworthiness let’s us know what we can cover, but I’m not sure it does a very good job of telling us what we should cover. This is of course part of the reason it devolves into a popularity contest or an auction. Those both seem to be telling us what we should cover, but I think at best it’s a skewed signal, and at worst it may lead us in completely the opposite direction, which takes us back to the story of Gawker and Theranos.

Imagine for the moment that there are things which it would be beneficial for the public to know. (Perhaps this is the definition of newsworthiness?) But the public isn’t aware of them. Someone has to uncover them, probably an organization we would think of as “The Press”. I would argue that Theranos is a perfect example of this, but beyond that I’m sure there are other things being done by big corporations or especially the government, which also fit this criteria. (Watergate is the classic example of this, and I’m sure many people would argue that the current president is doing things which also fit this criteria.) As we consider this we need to ask two questions.

First, are there more of these things now than there were in the past? Are corporations and governments doing more things which need to be revealed, the same amount or less? My sense is that they’re probably doing more. Government is bigger. Corporations are bigger. There’s also simply more people, period. On the opposite side, it may be that these things are harder to hide and easier to expose, but this takes us to the second question.

Are we better at finding out about these things now than we used to be? Or are we worse? This question is both harder to answer, but also more important. I’m not sure what the answer is, but  part of the reason why Gawker completely missing the Theranos fraud is so interesting is that it’s one large data point in favor of the argument that we’re worse at it. Gawker was the quintessential new media company. They were a news organization built for the internet. If “The Press” was going to be more effective when moved to the internet than Gawker should be the number one example of this increased effectiveness, and yet what important news did they end up breaking? Their motto was that today’s gossip is tomorrow’s news. And in the book it mentions that this was sometimes the case, but unless I missed it, it never provided an actual example of this transition. I’m sure if you talked to Denton, he would have a list, but I also assume if there was something of the level of Watergate or Spotlight or Theranos, that it would have been mentioned prominently in the book. If there was such a thing I missed it.

All of this is to say that Gawker certainly used a newsworthiness standard (a very, very broad one) in terms of what they could cover. But appeared to have a skewed view of newsworthiness when it came to what they should cover. In fact the book makes the point, repeatedly, that Gawker was almost exclusively driven by page views. (The Hogan sex tape ultimately racked up seven million.) And I think we can all agree that whatever the definition of newsworthiness (or whether it should even be our primary criteria) that it is not a concept which can be directly exchanged for page views.

Of course, what Gawker was really optimizing for was even worse. They were optimizing for page views/hour of effort. And salacious, but ultimately unimportant gossip ends up being very high on that measure. Which is why they missed the one piece of Theranos gossip which would have been right up their alley. The fact that Elizabeth Holmes and the Theranos President Sunny Balwani were in a secret relationship, despite the fact that he was 20 years her senior. Would this have broken open the story by itself? Probably not, but it does illustrate that they weren’t driven to get gossip per se. They were only interested in gossip that required very little effort to get. (Recall that the post that started it all, outing Thiel, was a revelation of something a lot of people already knew.)

The biggest example of Gawker’s weakness was that they were unable to uncover the conspiracy to destroy them. A story that held existential importance for them.

I think the lesson we can draw here is that if we do want to be better at uncovering things that are actually newsworthy, then the centralized, page-view driven model of Gawker is the wrong way to do it. Obviously we can’t put the genie of the internet back in the bottle, we can only work with the wishes we’ve already been granted. One of which is the sheer number and diversity of voices on the internet. (Arguably the opposite of Gawker’s emphasis.)

I said earlier that it’s naive to use the fact that something is true as an absolute standard for what can and can’t be said. I also mentioned that Gawker missed the most important story at all. Perhaps newsworthiness is truth, combined with importance. And on both measures I think that by encouraging a diversity of opinion we stand the greatest chance of encountering both those things. Does this mean we allow people to post (seemingly) crazy conspiracy theories? Well let’s look at those for a second through the lens of importance. Does it matter at all that Hulk Hogan had sex with his best friend’s wife? Not really. Not to anybody beyond the few dozen people directly involved. Does it matter if Theranos was giving out wildly inaccurate test results? Yeah, it does. It doesn’t imperil the country, but it’s important to the thousands of people who did blood tests using their technology. Does it matter if the government was behind 9/11 and Osama Bin Laden had nothing to do with it? Definitely. It matters a huge amount. It might be the most important story of the century. Now, for reasons I already explained, I give that a very, very low chance of being true. And I certainly don’t agree with any associated harassment. But if they just want a forum to make their case, I kind of think they should have it.

Now, to be clear, I don’t have a dog in this fight. I also think people should be given a space to air their seemingly outrageous theories about Trump’s crimes as well.  (Though, honestly, I think we are in less danger of any censorship there.) All of which is to say, I understand there are trade-offs, and I understand most people aren’t trying to optimize for newsworthiness or truth or importance. But, if you take nothing else from this post, remember, in theory Gawker was trying to do all three, and, as far as I can tell, they kind of sucked at it, and it might be important, if we want to understand where things are going, if we figure out why.


Long time readers will know that sucking at something is no impediment to doing it repeatedly, every week even. If you want to encourage this ongoing experiment in… suckiness? Consider donating.