The Beginning of History

We all are currently in the middle of key historical events that will be analysed for generations to come. It is unlikely that this analysis will accurately reflect our experience of these events.

At times of key importance, I often find that the world can take the form of literature. Should someone (famous or otherwise) die, my mind highlights all the conversations I have had about that person recently, and find that these all alluded heavily to that persons passing. Perhaps I had taken an interest in a new hobby, and this hobby again would almost certainly be a metaphor for death. If I were reading a summary of these events, without any knowledge of what was to come, it would be obvious to me that this person was not long for this world. The author had signposted it without any subtlety whatsoever.

On the night of 23 June 2016, I went to bed, and just before I had drifted off to deep sleep, I was awoken suddenly by the crash of thunder. What followed was the most violent thunderstorm I have ever experienced. The rain and wind raged against my windows like it was the end of days. The boom of thunder sent vibrations right through to the objects on my shelves. The lightening lit up my apartment like it was the middle of a summer’s day. After a while, I got used to it, and finally did drift off to sleep. When I woke up, the world had changed completely.

On Tuesday 8th and Wednesday 9th of November 2016, temperatures here in Hamburg had plummeted to unseasonably cold levels, and on both of these days the city was covered in a layer of snow that would be more suitable in late January. Winter came early, just as autumn had gained momentum. During this time of the early winter, events unfolded that have stunned the world into a collective depression that has not been seen in my lifetime.

If I was making a movie, or writing a book, about what I was doing during the time of the Brexit decision and the US election, I probably wouldn’t include those weather elements in there, as they are quite heavy-handed. They are a bit obvious, and their lack of subtlety does not respect the audience enough to make up their own minds about what they should be feeling about the unfolding of these events. The fact remains however, that of these two world-changing events that we have all experienced this year, both of them were foreshadowed (in really amateurish fashion) to me through the metaphor of extreme weather.

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Constructing A Narrative

I am the very definition of the elitist, ivory tower-dwelling, liberal idealist that was completely taken by surprise by both the UK’s decision to leave the European Union, and the electing of Donald Trump as president of the United States of America. I understood the issues at hand, and I respected that there were legitimate concerns by the supporters of these two decisions that drove them to desperate measures, but my highly condescending and elitist view was that the angry, poor masses would come to their senses, see that they had given us a big fright, and finally do the right thing and listen to us smart, educated people on election day.

I went to bed on June 23rd and November 8th fully in the belief that my worldview would be upheld. It wasn’t, and I was stunned into disbelief when I awoke from both of these smug, elitist sleeps. Everyone was stunned, and immediately began searching for explanations. From my experience on the days of June 24th and November 9th 2016, I saw that what was unbelievable in the morning, can become obvious by the afternoon. Brexit and UKIP had empowered the forgotten parts of the UK outside London (and Scotland and Northern Ireland), while Donald Trump had (in association with Wikileaks) led a grassroots movement to end the capture of US democracy by the Clinton and Bush dynasties. The world was shocked by the Brexit result, but almost six months later we now see it as an inevitable conclusion to years and years of the British government neglecting their working class. We are still normalising ourselves to the idea of President Trump, but it will not be long until we see it absolutely ludicrous to think that Hillary could have beaten him in the election.

Except, when I went to bed on the nights that the votes in both of those polls were being counted, no one thought it was obvious at all. On June 23rd, I actually went to bed after Nigel Farage had conceded defeat in the referendum. I went to bed after seeing the most vocal Brexiteer admit that they had lost. The next time I saw him, he was smiling like the Chesire Cat and proclaiming that he always knew that Brexit would succeed. Over in the US, Donald Trump in the weeks (and hours) before the election was seen to have a 20% chance of winning. His campaign rhetoric had switched to issuing pre-emptive excuses for his defeat: conspiracies, lying women, voter fraud. It is widely known in US media that he planned to devote his time to his new TV network after the election. Even when he took to the stage on the morning of November 9th to deliver the body blow of news that he had officially won the US presidency, his victory speech was followed by the immediate musical cue of You Can’t Always Get What You Want, by the Rolling Stones. This is not a victory song, by any event of the imagination, and felt very out of place given the circumstances. I truly believe that this song was cued by the organisers of this election night party to follow his concession speech to his supporters. They were so shocked by the result that they forgot to change the playlist.

Making History

Hindsight is a marvelous thing. While the world is a dynamic, constantly changing flow of information, major events act as a pause button and allow the static, isolated analysis of a single event in time, concentrating solely on the event and what went before. That not even the central figures in both of these historical events we experienced this year had any idea until very late in the ballot counting process that they would spark major world events must surely make us ask questions about how history is constructed. Your children and grandchildren will read about both of these events, and will be able to explain to you in one sentence what the whole contemporary world did not realise until the event had already happened. They will tell you about the inevitable backlash of downtrodden working class Americans raging against globalisation. You will have forgotten by then that Donald Trump didn’t even believe that until he won Florida.

The thing about history is that it must be a narrative. It must be a linear story of how we got from Situation A to Situation B. You are living through a major period in history right now, and do you really think that it is a simple, linear story? Studying history in high school (I don’t call it high school, but I have a lot of foreign readers, so let it go, Irish people!), what intrigued me most was how underplayed the First World War was, compared to the Second. I am well aware of the reason for this, as the answer to what caused the First World War is a ten page essay, while the causes of the Second can be described in one surname. The origins of the First World War are complex, while its sequel was about good versus evil.

Future generations will have to study a chapter of a history book that gets from the end of the Cold War (also an absolute shock to everyone in 1989, but obvious to us now), through the War on Terror, via the Financial Crisis and make it all lead up to a swing to the political right in the world’s richest countries. It will take up maybe five pages of a history book, and it will make sense. It will make as much sense to them as Germany’s mistreatment at the Treaty of Versailles and subsequent currency inflation during the Great Depression leading to the Third Reich completely explained the rise of Nazism to us history students over the years. I doubt those people in 1930’s Germany saw it that way, but it is too late now, and their story has been explained.

In the modern world, history isn’t written by the winners, it’s written by those who can explain complex and unpredictable events in a simple way. A story has to be created to explain how and why something happened. There are no surprises when reading a history book, there are no twists. Everything is foreshadowed, and the conclusion is obvious, pages before the major events. Everything is connected, and leading inevitably to its conclusion. In doing this, a lot of information has to be jettisoned, and the information that is used to explain major events must be carefully selected. Analysis through hindsight clears away everything that does not directly rationalise an event, and leaves you with a clear, straight path from “Yes We Can!” to “Make America Great Again!”

In this way, the construction of history is not unlike the construction of a conspiracy theory. Both are vastly subjective and oversimplified explanations of complex forces, and both use extreme prejudice in selecting only evidence that support its claim. The writing of history is in itself an art form, making sense from isolated key events and attempting to explain them as if the world was just one big linear narrative. In the decades to come that I will be talking about these events in 2016, I will try to remember how shocked I was, how shocked everyone was, when they occured. I will also include the hackneyed scene-setting device of the thunder and snow. It just makes for a better story.

 

Ideas & Institutions

One of the most debated and controversial economic policies of the 21st Century has been the concept of ‘trickle-down economics’. According to the theory, the unconstrained free-market capitalism of the super-rich will eventually lead to more investment, more entrepreneurship, and more jobs, and that these actions will cause the previously concentrated wealth to ‘trickle down’ to the middle classes and eventually the poorest of society. It argues that the current level of inequality in the world is a good thing, as the money is now concentrated in the hands of a few exceptional individuals who will use their business acumen to make the world a better place, in a way that no government could or should. Trickle-down economics reframes the current wealth gap as merely the starting point of a new age of billionaire-led growth and prosperity, rather than the more obvious analysis that would argue the wealth of the world is being sucked up by a new world economic elite. It is an undeniably attractive argument, backed up by easily understandable logic and explanatory metaphors, and it is no wonder that trickle-down economics has been trumpeted by politicians in the more unequal, capitalist-minded democratic societies such as the USA. Leave the billionaires alone, keep taxes low, and the rich people will shower money on everyone.

The problem is that there isn’t much evidence that trickle-down economics actually works. In fact, leaving the super-rich alone to do their own thing probably increases inequality, as the rich get richer but the money never quite seems to trickle down to the lower socioeconomic levels. The idea of trickle-down economics is perfect and watertight, yet somehow something happens when this idea is applied to the real world. Something gets lost in translation from the ideal of billionaire-led growth to the actual result of richer billionaires and a comparatively worse-off everyone else. This something is the fact that ideas like trickle-down economics are devised in a theoretical, perfect and unconstrained world, while in order to exist here on earth they must be implemented through the very real, very constrained and very imperfect institutions that disseminate and organise ideas to society as a whole. In the case of trickle-down economics, the idea was sound, yet the implementing institution was the complex and far from perfect entity known as “the economy”. The idea didn’t really take into account that very very rich people will do absolutely anything to save even a little bit of money, such as moving operations and factories overseas to save on labour costs rather than staying put and investing locally, yet in the real world institutions of national and international economies, these things are everyday occurrences. The idea was divine, yet the institutional reality was all too imperfectly human.

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Yet still, when you watch an American news show where trickle-down economics is being debated, you will have conservative commentators touting the ideals of the concept, using metaphors of money raining down on everyone, from rich to poor, and how this is the way to a stable recovery from global crisis. Opponents will attack the concept with evidence from the real world with figures of more people falling into poverty, yet the response will always plead to the side of theory. This phenomenon is not limited to just this issue, but found all across the spectrum of societal debate. In this world, we defend things we like with theoretical ideals, and we attack things we don’t like with criticism of the actions of their institutions. When a politician speaks about democracy, he or she will speak about the ideal of every citizen having a say in who runs the country and having a voice, and not about the institutional and administrative nightmares that conspire to prevent real democracy in nearly every democratic country in the world. Yet when a politician, particularly in the United States, talks about communism, the discussion is about famine, corruption, and poverty: all the institutional failings that occurred in communist countries during the last century. The discussion is completely earthbound, there is no reference to the abstract ideals of Marx and Engels, but limited to simply dirty, human failures. Democracy is defended with ideals, and communism is attacked for its institutions. In a similar way, in the West, capitalism is defended through its ideals of giving everyone a chance to succeed, rather than how the concept is applied through our institutions. Socialism in the US is attacked not through such philosophical debate, but through quoting the high tax rates and entrepreneurship statistics of selected socialist countries. It is clear that we prefer debating the ideals of things we like, and the institutional the reality of things we don’t.

The most glaring expression of this mistranslation of ideas through institutions is probably in religion. When debating religion, care is taken to avoid attacking the beliefs of others, and it is acceptable to attack the actions of the governing religious institutions, while at the same time defending our own beliefs with ideals and abstract concepts. I’m sure there is no global religion that doesn’t have something worthwhile to say about humanity, and whose teachings don’t inspire a person to lead a better life. Setting aside religious mythology and world creation stories, the core ideas of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, even Scientology all give profound guidelines on what it is to be a highly thoughtful, sentient being living in a highly imperfect world, and how to make the best of the experience. How each of these ideas are beamed into reality by the institutions that govern each of these religions is of course something entirely different. Scientologists have organised their religion as a profit-driven Ponzi scheme, Judaism at the highest level is nothing more than a geopolitical bargaining chip, and the interpretation of Islam by certain splinter groups is quite diverse and harmful to the entire world. The institutions of Christianity have not been great either, with the corruption of the papacy and local Churches wielding much political power worldwide throughout the ages, and also the child abuse and paedophilia scandals that have finally ruined the reputation of the Catholic Church in Ireland, the United States and elsewhere. All of these religions started as some sort of moral compass in a world full of morally ambiguous life paths, yet all of them have been translated through human institutions as something harmful, to members and non-members alike.

Ideas are born in heaven, while their implementation down here on earth through imperfect, corrupt institutions is depressingly human. No idea, no matter how simple or innocuous is immune from the harmful effects of institutional mistranslation. Even atheism, with its core belief being an absence of belief, is an ideal that suffers when applied to the real world. Atheism simply rejects the idea of religion, and puts faith in scientific and societal developments as means to lead a good life here on earth, rather than believing in something supernatural that rules us all. Atheism says nothing about becoming a condescending asshole and mocking other people as stupid and unenlightened simply for having beliefs based in other religions, yet this is how atheism has often manifested itself in its (admittedly highly disorganised) institutional form. There is a disconnect there between the ideas and the institutional manifestation of these ideas, just as occurs when any idea is applied to the real world.

All ideas work in theory, all ideas are good in theory, and all ideas can be argued incessantly through theory. The problem with any idea occurs when it has to leave theory behind and become a reality in our complex and imperfect world, and it becomes subject to the petty and morally ambiguous whims of complex political and social institutions. In the same way we rationalise our own personal actions by our intentions while judging the actions of others by their outcomes alone, we champion our favourite ideas through theory, and attack conflicting ideas through their institutional failings. All ideas are perfect, and all institutions are depressingly imperfect. All of us in our lives forgive our favourite ideas for their institutional failings, while simultaneously ignoring the ideals of conflicting ideas and instead focusing on their failures in reality. The compromise position is admitting that no idea, no matter how theoretically perfect, can possibly translate perfectly into our imperfect world, and that institutions simply do the best they can to translate an idea into reality.

No True Godsman: A Simple Model of Morality and Exclusion

Facebook statuses aren’t really known for lingering on in the memory, yet a few days ago I saw one that really stuck with me and has been bouncing around my head ever since. The status was about a friend of mine who was sick of religious people who constantly updated the definition of their own community through a perpetual rejection and exclusion of members who could sully the good name of their group. Or, in simpler terms:

I was unfortunate enough to be a part of a conversation today about sexual assault committed by followers of a religion (not just Catholicism). Somebody threw out the familiar line “Oh, they can’t have been real [insert religion here]”. Regardless of your faith/lack thereof, I ask you all to stop saying this. Don’t push all your shitty people on me and my non-religious friends. Instead, imagine for a second that they ARE [insert religion here], they’re just bad at it and, moreover, are just shitty people. Shitty people exist in every community, yours included.

– My friends Facebook status

Now, I have never heard of this kind of argument from a religious point of view, yet I am very familiar with the thought process behind it, as it is pretty famous in philosophical circles. What my friend had come up against was a classic logical fallacy known as the “No True Scotsman”. The fallacy’s name comes from the prime example used to explain the concept.

Person A: “No Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge.”

Person B: “But my uncle Angus likes sugar with his porridge.”

Person A: “Ah yes, but no true Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge.”

– I stole this from Wikipedia

So you can see, this discussion could go on forever, and Person A will always be right, because their argument is based on some subjective opinion of what a Scotsman is, that they can update at will, and exclude from the reference group any counterexamples. Person A is not just moving the goalposts, he won’t even tell Person B where the goalposts are.

If we think about it hard enough you could probably all think of a time when you were frustrated with this type of argument (or more than likely we have all done it ourselves), and there is nothing new about formally explaining something that you probably will now say you have known all your life. Yet my friends experience with religious people using this argument above stuck with me, as it introduced the concept of morality into the equation, and the desire that certain groups define, and indeed pride themselves on comprising solely of universally moral and good people. What I am going to try and (quite literally) prove to you here is that this idea makes things very interesting indeed.

A Simple Model of Morality and Exclusion

Let’s say a group Y exists. The group contains n members, where n is some number above zero. It could be 10, it could be 20, it could be 3 million: it doesn’t matter. Each of the n individuals is represented by {{x}_{i}}, where i=1,2,....,n-1,n. A group is not much more than the sum of the attributes of its members, so we can express the value of this group in the expression below:

Y=\sum\limits_{i=1}^{n}{{{x}_{i}}}

That’s the formal mathematical notification, but we can expand this to get rid of the Greek letters and have this, which means exactly the same thing:

Y=\sum\limits_{i=1}^{n}{{{x}_{i}}}=({{x}_{1}}+{{x}_{2}}+{{x}_{3}}+....+{{x}_{n-1}}+{{x}_{n}})

So we have an expression for the total value of group Y. Now let’s assume that this group values one thing above all else: moral goodness. They pride themselves on how good they are, and believe that every other person in the group has a similar level of goodness to them, making the group whole. We will represent the goodness of an individual {{x}_{i}} with {{g}_{i}}, where {{g}_{i}} is a value between -1 and 1 (-1\le g\le 1), where the closer the individual {{x}_{i}} is to 1, the better the person that individual is. Conversely, the closer that persons is to -1, the worse a person is.

{{x}_{i}}={{g}_{i}}

This represents the goodness of individual i. So we can now rewrite the value of Y based on the moral goodness of its members

Y={{g}_{1}}+{{g}_{2}}+....+{{g}_{n-1}}+{{g}_{n}}

For the sake of simplicity let’s say that all members of this group are assumed to have the same level of g, {{g}^{*}}>0 which might be the goodness level achieved just by living life according to their prescribed rules etc. If we assume this, then we can simplify further.

{{Y}^{*}}={{g}^{*}}+{{g}^{*}}+....{{g}^{*}}+{{g}^{*}}

{{Y}^{*}}=n{{g}^{*}}

The value of {{Y}^{*}} simplifies to two expressions: the number of its members multiplied by their theoretical constant level of moral goodness.

The funny thing about moral goodness is that it cannot actually be observed directly. We cannot for certain say that the individual {{x}_{i}} is a good person, all we can say is that all the information we have about him up to that point indicates that this is the case. Therefore we can assume that {{x}_{i}} is a good member of the group and should continue as a member. There can only be a theoretical level of moral goodness {{Y}^{*}}, and faith must be maintained within the group about the true nature of each other member, that {{g}_{i}}={{g}^{*}} .

Bad behaviour, on the other hand, is completely observable, particularly when an individual, which we will designate as {{x}_{b}} performs some despicable act such that he can no longer be referred to as a morally good person. Once this act is committed, the individual has revealed himself to be a false {{g}^{*}}, as his actual value of {g} is not more than zero, and has in fact a negative value of {g}, where g<0. We will designate this negative value of g as {{g}_{\psi }}.

Because of this revelation, our group goodness value has changed:

Y=(n-1){{g}^{*}}+{{g}_{\psi }}

Everyone else still has their constant level of goodness {{g}^{*}}>0, while our bad person {{x}_{b}} has been separated out because he is of a different moral integrity  {{g}_{\psi }}. I’ll remind you here that  {{g}_{\psi }} is negative and will therefore drag the groups goodness down. Obviously in a group that values moral goodness above all else, the individual {{x}_{b}} must be removed and excluded from the group, as he is No True Godsman. Therefore our updated value for the groups morality is

\tilde{Y}=(n-1){{g}^{*}}

Discussion

Let’s now compare the different values for Y we have had so far.

{{Y}^{*}}=n{{g}^{*}}

Y=(n-1){{g}^{*}}+{{g}_{\psi }}

\tilde{Y}=(n-1){{g}^{*}}

It’s clear that {{Y}^{*}} is the highest value of all our Y’s, and that after all the revelations of wickedness, we are left with a group goodness level that is below our originally perceived theoretical level

{{Y}^{*}}>\tilde{Y}

We must not forget however that the individual who was removed from the group was always a bad person, we just did not realise it at the time, and Y* never actually existed, and all we had before the unpleasantness was Y, the second of our three Y values given above. Think about this and compare it to our new value {\tilde{Y}}. Since {{g}_{\psi }} is negative, this means that \tilde{Y}  will always be greater than Y.

Y<\tilde{Y}

The groups goodness has actually increased as a result of the expulsion of a member who revealed himself to be bad. Further, this will always be the case, as any further hidden non-{{g}^{*}}’s who are revealed as such will be removed and therefore increase the moral goodness of the group as a whole. This might sound like quite an obvious and innocent statement, but think about how someone can actually reveal themselves to be a bad person. They will never reveal it voluntarily, but only through bad behavior and acts. If a group values the unobservable moral integrity of it’s members above all else, it will always be good for the group if it’s secretly bad members perform an act so depraved that it reveals them as what they are: a non-{{g}^{*}}. It is only through horrible acts that the group can actually edge closer to what they truly want: maximising their Y, and therefore their moral goodness.

Conclusion

So, to use these stylised facts on the situation that offended my friend and prompted his Facebook status, he could have argued that this ‘[insert religion here]’ who performed a sexual assault actually did [insert religion here] a favour by telling all the ‘true’ [insert religion here] that the assaulter was no [insert religion here] at all, and that this was good for the [insert religion here] community as a whole. That sexual deviant was living amongst the [insert religion here], passing as a [insert religion here], and now because he revealed his true nature, [insert religion here] is all the better for it. Therefore anyone in that religion should be happy that it occurred. The application of logic to a logical fallacy will always reveal its true nature, and what I hope anyone who read this far gets from this is that it can lead to interesting results, and will more than likely end up backing the offender into a tight, (hopefully) logically sound corner.

Anty-Existentialism

Since the World Cup started a few weeks ago, I have been spending more time at home in my apartment than I usually do. During the group stage, if I didn’t go out to a bar to watch the games, this would involve staying on my couch in front of the TV from 6pm-2am in order to experience as much as possible of the most-sacred quadrennial spectacle. Staying in my apartment for this amount of time means that I am eating and cooking in my kitchen more than usual, and this brings issues. It’s June/July, so it’s hot outside. I am also not the tidiest or most careful of people, particularly when living alone. Add this to the fact that I live on the ground floor of an old building, and it is no surprise that every year I have problems with ants. As I explained, I am home more this year so it is a bit worse than I remember. I make something in my kitchen, constantly turning to see what is happening in the game, drop a piece of something on the floor, forget about it, and come back an hour later to see a few dozen ants working away on taking it back to the colony. So I spray them with whatever disinfectant spray substance I have handy, and then try and eliminate their trail back to wherever they got into the kitchen in the first place. Continue reading