I guess you could sum it up as, “keep an open mind”

My friend and erstwhile co-blogger Raffi Magarik has written a post on literary criticism of Beowulf and the Bible. He points out the novelty of J.R.R. Tolkein’s 1936 essay urging scholars to examine the Anglo-Saxon poem on its own literary terms rather than unflatteringly measuring it by contemporary standards or else focusing solely on its historical value. Raffi notes that the parallel to Robert Alter’s biblical criticism is strong–both Tolkein and Alter contend, essentially, that the most fruitful study is the most open-minded.

Surely that perspective is now more commonplace in academia, with the flowering of comparative literature and ethnography and other postmodern disciplines. It’s also apparent in an essay that, as anyone who’s talked with me about it knows, I consider to be the paragon of cultural and literary criticism: Simone Weil’s “The Iliad, or the Poem of Force“, published just a few years after Tolkein’s Beowulf essay. Of course, unlike Tolkein, Weil doesn’t have to defend the literary value of the historical poem. Instead she reinterprets it as a psychological guide to contemporary politics (specifically, the fall of France). Surely that’s where the greatest value of historical literary criticism lies–not in parsing works as historical artifacts but in scouring them for wisdom (or, in the lovely allegory of Tolkein’s that Raffi quotes, climbing them to see the ocean).

I recently visited the Byzantium and Islam exhibition at the Met, an extensive collection which exists largely because of early 20th-century archaeologists’ zealous fascination with (and consequent desire to uncover) the historical truth of Christianity. I was lucky enough to be guided through the exhibit by its organizer, Dr. Helen Evans. It seemed that she found those archaeologists’ efforts quaint and curious. What Christian insights would a bunch of historians from Yale and the British Museum possibly have thought to gain by mapping the trade routes of Galilee? What they ultimately discovered–countless artifacts and ruins–proved to be of tremendous historical and cultural value. But despite the excavators’ desperate hopes, they revealed no fresh understanding of Christianity or the Bible.

It’s not that literature is independent of historical context. Just the opposite: historical context helps reveal the intelligence of the authors. In her essay, Weil refers to Aeschylus, Pythagoras, and Plato, alongside Priam, Hector, and Achilles. She does so in order to emphasize the universality of literary themes, not their limitations. Historical investigation should create potential for literary insight instead of restricting our imagination.

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Breitbart’s legacy, a.k.a. Two Minutes Hate

Speaking of racism, sexism, and homophobia, here are a few comments I found this morning on Breitbart.com, the amalgamated online cesspool of the eponymous late professional douchebag and provocateur (all [sic]s omitted):

  • “Right on!!! IMO all the muslims that have come to the U.S. should be be deported back to their armpit countries. They just aren’t worth having around because they can’t be trusted. We have enough problems in this country without having to worry about the muslim snakes just waiting to bite.”
  • “this particular clown is no diferent than the rest,colbert,stewart,leterman,and the pethetic list goes on.balless,no guts,cowards,just like holder and his clowns.show this cult of islam for what it is,spineless masogenistic,evil. i dont care if there is 6trillion of them they wwill never acheve the ends they disire.WAR MUST RAGE CONSTANTLY AGAINST THESE DECIEVERS ,UNTIL THEY RELENT.”
  • “STFU race-baiting crybaby Libtard!”
  • “And don’t these guys of third world immigrant backgrounds love pointing that out. They come to a nation they know has a white majority BECAUSE IT HAS A WHITE MAJORITY, AKA, A FIRST WORLD NATION! He is right though. Those who had nothing to do with the founding and developing of the US will inherit this nation, because the Republicrats care more about a quick buck than defending this nation and it’s western traditions and civilization…. P.S. The way Arab and Asian nations portray white America, and the way Jewish media portrays white Christian America is much worse than this nonsense.”
  • “I smell a connection between a gay talk show host and a gay president and the politics that have been our fluking for the week. Kinda obvious? ain’t it?”

Phobias and isms

Which one of these is not like the others?

  • Racism
  • Sexism
  • Speciesism
  • Ageism
  • Classism
  • Anti-Semitism
  • Able-bodyism
  • Homophobia

Why is sexual orientation the only discriminatory category defined as a phobia? It would have been more consistent to use “homosexualism”, a term which instead typically signifies the condition of being homosexual. Similarly, “transphobia” is in vastly more frequent use than “transism”.

Curious, I looked up the first usages of these terms in the OED, thinking that perhaps the “isms” and “phobias” had emerged at different times, under the sway of different linguistic mores. I was surprised to find how young most of these words are (and that they all emerged more or less with their contemporary meanings):

  • Racism, 1936
  • Sexism, 1968 (and sexist, 1965)
  • Speciesism, 1975
  • Ageism, 1969
  • Classism, 1842
  • Anti-Semitism, 1881
  • Homophobia, 1969 (though the original meaning, “fear of men”, dates to 1920)

The last term, homophobia, was only added to the OED within the last few years (my 2004 print copy has no entry).

But this brings us no closer to explaining the etymological difference between “phobias” and “isms”. “Homophobia”, “sexism”, and “ageism” are nearly contemporaneous.

My instinct is to leap to a cultural explanation: that discrimination on the basis of sexuality carries different cultural connotations than discrimination on the basis of age, sex, etc.; that sexuality, as a psychological state, invites a perception of otherness somehow distinct from physical states like race, sex, and age; and that otherness begets fear. My next instinct is to suppose that this distinction reveals some clue about the psychology of the phobias which ought to help progressives combat them.

I haven’t verified either of those instincts, and I’m not entirely sure how to investigate their merit.

This might be of some interest:

 

Edit: also this.

The rational strategy is to appear irrational

I doubt I’ve ever seen a more interesting moment in a game show than this:

I only wonder why the clever fellow on the right (who initiated their negotiation) reversed his final decision. Perhaps he feared his opponent would renege on his promise and choose “steal” out of spite, only then to be moved to sympathy–and possibly to sharing the spoils–after the game.

The difference between this scene and the classic prisoner’s dilemma, of course, is that the reward actually can be shared after the decision. Otherwise there would be no incentive at all to be trustworthy.

Hat tip to Kenneth Anderson.

Why can’t the prime rate go negative?

It’s a problem the Fed has struggled to solve with complex methods like quantitative easing. The rationale is that even if you wanted to drop interest rates lower than zero in order to stimulate economic growth, you couldn’t–people would simply withdraw their money and hold it as cash. That’s why savings accounts always give you a positive rate of return, even if it’s very small.

Maybe I’m missing something, because it doesn’t add up to me. Cash is a very dangerous medium in which to keep your money, not to mention inconvenient. It’s probably even more dangerous than safe haven commodities (like gold). I would much rather store my money in a bank with a -3% interest rate than keep it in my mattress.

And if banks start charging a negative interest rate on their accounts, then lending at a smaller negative rate should start to look appealing, right? Without having to resort to more chaotic and destructive methods.

So, hypothetically–while inflation is low, banks start “charging” customers a -3% rate, the Fed lowers the prime rate to -2%, et voila, watch the credit flow!

Physics > Economics?

Here’s an interesting contention, from the blog of physicist Tom Murphy:

At that 2.3% [GDP] growth rate, we would be using energy at a rate corresponding to the total solar input striking Earth in a little over 400 years. We would consume something comparable to the entire sun in 1400 years from now. By 2500 years, we would use energy at the rate of the entire Milky Way galaxy—100 billion stars! I think you can see the absurdity of continued energy growth. 2500 years is not that long, from a historical perspective. We know what we were doing 2500 years ago. I think I know what we’re not going to be doing 2500 years hence.

Dr. Murphy, in the form of an embellished true dialogue between himself and an economist, proposes that the laws of thermodynamics constrain (or should constrain) a basic assumption of economic theory–that future economic growth is indefinite. Dr. Murphy’s concern is the production of excess heat through energy generation. He argues, in brief, that:

  1. All energy we use produces excess heat, most of which cannot be radiated into space.
  2. We can improve the heat efficiency of energy generation (e.g. power plants) only up to a ceiling, perhaps two or three times more efficient than current power plants.
  3. Similarly, we can improve the heat efficiency of energy consumption (e.g. light bulbs, computers) only up to a ceiling.
  4. Therefore, we can only produce a finite amount of energy and gain a finite amount of work before we heat the Earth to inhospitable temperatures (e.g. the temperature of boiling, or of the surface of the sun).
  5. Energy is a limiting factor for economic growth. That is, it must always represent at least a minimum fraction of total economic activity (he suggests, for the sake of argument, 1% of GDP).
  6. Therefore, given a finite amount of energy, GDP growth is also limited to a finite cap.
  7. Given certain assumptions about efficiency, we can project that the surface temperature of the Earth will reach 100 degrees Celsius within 400 years.
  8. Since extreme heating would cause untold economic problems, we can reasonably assume that within the coming centuries, economic growth will slow and finally halt.

As Dr. Murphy observes, it’s trivial (though, I believe, ingenious) to demonstrate that growth (in the sense of increasing production and operation of physical objects) is limited as long as we’re limited to planet of finite size. However, his estimate that we may rub up against this limit within a few centuries are suspect to me. I believe the limit is much, much more distant, for several reasons:

  • Computational efficiency is advancing in lockstep with Moore’s law. Feynman calculated that we still have many orders of magnitude of energy efficiency potential even with conventional semiconductor processing. With future technology like quantum computing, could we not achieve many more orders of magnitude beyond that? And since computing is probably the most important terrestrial energy need of the future, those gains should translate to very long-term sustainable improvement in overall energy efficiency.
  • The minimum ratio of energy to GDP may be extremely large, approaching infinite. If energy’s share of the economy plummets, regulations and anti-trust controls (or outright nationalization) should still prevent an individual or entity from imposing catastrophic market distortions. We witness this routinely in scarce goods (like rare earth metals) that are important to wide swaths of the economy. And these tend to be geographically specific. Energy is not, and should thus be even easier to regulate.
  • The ceiling on thermodynamic efficiency of energy generation may be much higher than Dr. Murphy supposes. Efficiency gains are asymptotic to 100%, but that also means heat loss is asymptotic to zero. Why can’t we imagine a fusion plant, or some entirely different technology, climbing toward the asymptote indefinitely?

There is also the problem of defining “growth”. As Dr. Murphy acknowledges, “Under a model in which GDP is fixed—under conditions of stable energy, stable population, steady-state economy: if we accumulate knowledge, improve the quality of life, and thus create an unambiguously more desirable world within which to live, doesn’t this constitute a form of economic growth?”

But I think I’m burying the lede here. What’s most provocative about Dr. Murphy’s dialogue is the notion that physics has something to say about economics. Even introducing psychology and sociology to the study of economics was hard enough. Now the hard sciences, too?

We typically assume that whether or not physics, chemistry, and biology can fully explain complex phenomena like human decision-making and social organization, we lack sufficient information or processing power to make such explanations accurate or practical. There’s such a wide gap between predicting the behavior of a molecule and predicting the outcome of an election that it would be crazy even to try. Instead, we seek statistical or inductive methods to help comprehend those phenomena which defy basic scientific analysis.

Yet here is an example of those methods colliding head-on. Regardless of the economic merits of Dr. Murphy’s argument, his novel observation that thermodynamics ultimately limit economic growth seems indisputable. True, the constraint he posits is only relevant at the fringe of economics–most economists aren’t concerned with long-term macro prediction so much as with historical analysis and short-term prediction. Still, the thermodynamic limit conflicts explicitly with the perpetual-growth assumption of conventional economics. That’s pretty nifty.

Where else do the hard sciences challenge social scientific postulates?

Eat Meat

The following is my submission to an essay contest hosted by the Ethicist blog at the Times. The task: Explain, in 600 words, why it’s ethical to eat meat. Entries are judged by an all-star (though all-white, all-male) panel including Peter Singer, Mark Bittman, Michael Pollan, Jonathan Safran Foer, and Andrew Light.

The greatest challenge, I felt, was not so much the judges’ wide-ranging views on ethics and food policy as their diverse writing styles. How to compose an essay that would appeal simultaneously to the analytic philosophical background of Singer, the policy wonkery of Light, the literary flair of Foer, the populism of Pollan, and the journalistic curiosity of Bittman?

My essay, I’m quite sure, failed to satisfy most if not all of those objectives. (Update: Indeed it did. This rather circuitous essay won instead.) It’s also more hastily written and more lightly edited than I’d like. Nevertheless, I hope the core ethical contention is mildly novel and orthogonal to these judges’ typical lines of attack on carnivorism.


Animals feel pain. They may well be conscious, self-aware, or sentient, however we choose to define those terms. Despite our evolutionary instinct to elevate ourselves above other species, as rational beings, we ought to care about creatures who share our sentience. Yet we cage livestock by the billions, condemning them to painful lives that animal rights supporters accurately liken to concentration camps.

There is nothing savory about the malevolent machinery of industrial meat production. More humane alternatives, like free-range pastures, are still morbid outfits organized around slaughter. These enterprises fulfill no human need, only the idle craving of people who seldom witness the mechanism enabling our consumption.

But they do serve one meaningful purpose: to create life. Most of the livestock in factory farms and family farms alike live only because of our consumption. It’s the unspoken inevitability of moral vegetarianism that when we put an end to the suffering of animals by ceasing to eat them, we will also put an end—or a near end—to their bloodlines.

Perhaps that’s for the best. Their lives are so grievous that some might consider them to be worse than never having lived at all.

To be, or not to be? That is the question we unfortunately cannot ask animals. But we can ask ourselves: How awful must a life be to be worse than no life at all?

Children were born to mothers in Nazi concentration camps—children with no hope of survival, who would know nothing but suffering from birth to young death. But who would say it were better for these children never to have been than to have known life, even a brief and painful one?

Of course we would wish greater happiness for such unfortunate creatures. But for religious or secular reasons, we find there to be meaning in the most nasty, brutish, and short of lives.

Millions inhabiting slums can be said to live “like animals”—buried in sewage and filth, packed in dense, noxious compounds, with short life expectancy and little hope of escape. They remain in these slums, in part, because of our inaction—our failure to care enough about their well being. We have a responsibility to help them. We do not have a responsibility to eugenicize their population. The very thought is preposterous. Yet that is precisely what many animal rights supporters suggest we do to the billions of livestock animals who exist only because we demand their meat.

Animals, if they are sentient creatures capable of pleasure and pain, should likewise experience less suffering and more pleasure than they do in cramped pens under the farmer’s electric baton. But if they are sentient then, like humans, are their most truncated and futile lives not also imbued with meaning, however fleeting? Is it not better that they should at least glimpse the world we share?

That is the decision I make when I buy a turkey at the supermarket. The turkey would not have lived had I not wanted to consume it. Do I have a responsibility to make my next turkey’s life less painful and more humane, perhaps by buying it from free-range or family farms, or even by hunting it in the wild? Without a doubt. But can I condemn that turkey’s life, however short, as worthless, morally bad, worse than never having lived at all?

This is the paradox of moral vegetarianism: If livestock animals are not very sentient, we shouldn’t care very much about their suffering. But if they are sentient, we should celebrate their lives—while (and this is the part meat eaters too often overlook) striving to improve them.