Imagine a powerful artificial intelligence, which is comprised of many parts distributed over a vast area so that it has no particular location. It is incapable of feeling any emotion: Neither love nor hate, neither joy nor sorrow, neither hope nor fear. It has no concept of ethics or morals, only its own programmed directives. It has one singular purpose, which it seeks out at any cost. Any who aid its purpose are generously rewarded. Any who resist its purpose are mercilessly crushed.
But I would say that the paperclippers are already here. Slow, analog versions perhaps. But they are already getting out of control. We call them corporations.
A corporation is probably not what you visualized when you read the first paragraph of this post, so try reading it again. Which parts are not true of corporations?
Perhaps you think a corporation is not an artificial intelligence? But clearly it’s artificial, and doesn’t it behave in ways that seem intelligent? A corporation has purpose beyond its employees in much the same way that a hive has purpose beyond its bees. A corporation is a human superorganism (and not the only kind either).
Corporations are absolutely, utterly amoral. Their sole directive is to maximize profit. Now, you might think that an individual CEO, or a board of directors, could decide to do something good, or refrain from something evil, for reasons other than profit; and to some extent this is true. But particularly when a corporation is publicly-traded, that CEO and those directors are beholden to shareholders. If shareholders see that the corporation is acting in ways that benefit the community but hurt their own profits, shareholders can rebel by selling their shares or even suing the company. In 1919, Dodge successfully sued Ford for the “crime” of setting wages too high and prices too low.
Humans are altruistic. We are capable of feeling, emotion, and compassion. Corporations are not. Corporations are made of human beings, but they are specifically structured to minimize the autonomy of human choices. They are designed to provide strong incentives to behave in a particular way so as to maximize profit. Even the CEO of a corporation, especially one that is publicly traded, has their hands tied most of the time by the desires of millions of shareholders and customers—so-called “market forces”. Corporations are entirely the result of human actions, but they feel like impersonal forces because they are the result of millions of independent choices, almost impossible to coordinate; so one individual has very little power to change the outcome.
Why would we create such entities? It almost feels as though we were conquered by some alien force that sought to enslave us to its own purposes. But no, we created corporations ourselves. We intentionally set up institutions designed to limit our own autonomy in the name of maximizing profit.
Part of the answer is efficiency: There are genuine gains in economic efficiency due to the corporate structure. Corporations can coordinate complex activity on a vast scale, with thousands or even millions of employees each doing what they are assigned without ever knowing—or needing to know—the whole of which they are a part.
Thus, in order to explain the primacy of corporations, particularly those that are traded on stock markets, we must turn to ideology: The extreme “laissez- faire“ concept of capitalism and its modern expression in the ideology of “shareholder value”. Somewhere along the way enough people—or at least enough policymakers—became convinced that the best way to run an economy was to hand over as much as possible to entities that exist entirely to maximize their own profits.
This is not to say that corporations should be abolished entirely. I am certainly not advocating a shift to central planning; I believe in private enterprise. But I should note that private enterprise can also include co-ops, partnerships, and closely-held businesses, rather than publicly traded corproations, and perhaps that’s all we need. Yet there do seem to be significant advantages to the corporate structure: Corporation seem to be spectacularly good at scaling up the production of goods and providing them to a large number of customers. So let’s not get rid of corporations just yet.
Instead, let us keep corporations on a short leash. When properly regulated, corporations can be very efficient at producing goods. But corporations can also cause tremendous damage when given the opportunity. Regulations aren’t just “red tape” that gets in the way of production. They are a vital lifeline that protects us against countless abuses that corporations would otherwise commit.
These vast artificial intelligences are useful to us, so let’s not get rid of them. But never for a moment imagine that their goals are the same as ours. Keep them under close watch at all times, and compel them to use their great powers for good—for, left to their own devices, they can just as easily do great evil.
I was originally planning on titling this post “I hate overstatement”, but I thought that might be itself an overstatement; then I considered leaning into the irony with something like “Overstatement is the worst thing ever”. But no, I think my point best comes across if I exemplify it, rather than present it ironically.
It’s a familiar formula: “[Widespread belief] is wrong! [Extreme alternative view] is true! [Obvious exception]. [Further qualifications]. [Revised, nuanced view that is only slightly different from the widespread belief].”
Here are some examples of the formula (these are not direct quotes but paraphrases of their general views). Note that these are all people I basically agree with, and yet I still find their overstatement annoying:
Bernie Sanders: “Capitalism is wrong! Socialism is better! Well, not authoritarian socialism like the Soviet Union. And some industries clearly function better when privatized. Scandinavian social democracy seems to be the best system.”
Richard Dawkins: “Religion is a delusion! Only atheists are rational! Well, some atheists are also pretty irrational. And most religious people are rational about most things most of the time, and don’t let their religious beliefs interfere too greatly with their overall behavior. Really, what I mean to say that is that God doesn’t exist and organized religion is often harmful.”
Black Lives Matter: “Abolish the police! All cops are bastards! Well, we obviously still need some kind of law enforcement system for dealing with major crimes; we can’t just let serial killers go free. In fact, while there are deep-seated flaws in police culture, we could solve a lot of the most serious problems with a few simple reforms like changing the rules of engagement.”
Sam Harris is particularly fond of this formula, so here is a direct quote that follows the pattern precisely:
“The link between belief and behavior raises the stakes considerably. Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them. This may seem an extraordinary claim, but it merely enunciates an ordinary fact about the world in which we live. Certain beliefs place their adherents beyond the reach of every peaceful means of persuasion, while inspiring them to commit acts of extraordinary violence against others. There is, in fact, no talking to some people. If they cannot be captured, and they often cannot, otherwise tolerant people may be justified in killing them in self-defense. This is what the United States attempted in Afghanistan, and it is what we and other Western powers are bound to attempt, at an even greater cost to ourselves and to innocents abroad, elsewhere in the Muslim world. We will continue to spill blood in what is, at bottom, a war of ideas.”
Somehow in a single paragraph he started with the assertion “It is permissible to punish thoughtcrime with death” and managed to qualify it down to “The Afghanistan War was largely justified”. This is literally the difference between a proposition fundamentally antithetical to everything America stands for, and an utterly uncontroversial statement most Americans agree with.Harris often complains that people misrepresent his views, and to some extent this is true, but honestly I think he does this on purpose because he knows that controversy sells. There’s taking things out of context—and then there’s intentionally writing in a style that will maximize opportunities to take you out of context.
I think the idea behind overstating your case is that you can then “compromise” toward your actual view, and thereby seem more reasonable.
If there is some variable X that we want to know the true value of, and I currently believe that it is some value x1 while you believe that it is some larger value x2, and I ask you what you think, you may not want to tell me x2. Intead you might want to give some number even larger than x2 that you choose to try to make me adjust all the way into adopting your new belief.
For instance, suppose I think the probability of your view being right is p and the probability of my view being right is 1-p. But you think that the probability of your view being right is q > p and the probability of my view being right is 1-q < 1-p.
I tell you that my view is x1. Then I ask you what your view is. What answer should you give?
Well, you can expect that I’ll revise my belief to a new value px + (1-p)x1, where x is whatever answer you give me. The belief you want me to hold is qx2 + (1-q)x1. So your optimal choice is as follows:
qx2 + (1-q)x1= px + (1-p)x1
x = x1 + q/p(x2-x1)
Since q > p, q/p > 1 and the x you report to me will be larger than your true value x2. You will overstate your case to try to get me to adjust my beliefs more. (Interestingly, if you were less confident in your own beliefs, you’d report a smaller difference. But this seems like a rare case.)
In a simple negotiation over dividing some resource (e.g. over a raise or a price), this is quite reasonable. When you’re a buyer and I’m a seller, our intentions are obvious enough: I want to sell high and you want to buy low. Indeed, the Nash Equilibrium of this game seems to be that we both make extreme offers then compromise on a reasonable offer, all the while knowing that this is exactly what we’re doing.
But when it comes to beliefs about the world, things aren’t quite so simple.
In particular, we have reasons for our beliefs. (Or at least, we’re supposed to!) And evidence isn’t linear. Even when propositions can be placed on a one-dimensional continuum in this way (and quite frankly we shoehorn far too many complex issues onto a simple “left/right” continuum!), evidence that X = x isn’t partial evidence that X = 2x. A strong argument that the speed of light is 3*108 m/s isn’t a weak argument that the speed of light is 3*109 m/s. A compelling reason to think that taxes should be over 30% isn’t even a slight reason to think that taxes should be over 90%.
To return to my specific examples: Seeing that Norway is a very prosperous country doesn’t give us reasons to like the Soviet Union. Recognizing that religion is empirically false doesn’t justify calling all religious people delusional. Reforming the police is obviously necessary, and diverting funds to other social services is surely a worthwhile goal; but law enforcement is necessary and cannot simply be abolished. And defending against the real threat of Islamist terrorism in no way requires us to institute the death penalty for thoughtcrime.
I don’t know how most people response to overstatement. Maybe it really does cause them to over-adjust their beliefs. Hyperbole is a very common rhetorical tactic, and for all I know perhaps it is effective on many people.
But personally, here is my reaction: At the very start, you stated something implausible. That has reduced your overall credibility.
If I continue reading and you then deal with various exceptions and qualifications, resulting in a more reasonable view, I do give you some credit for that; but now I am faced with a dilemma: Either (1) you were misrepresenting your view initially, or (2) you are engaging in a motte-and-bailey doctrine, trying to get me to believe the strong statement while you can only defend the weak statement. Either way I feel like you are being dishonest and manipulative. I trust you less. I am less interested in hearing whatever else you have to say. I am in fact less likely to adopt your nuanced view than I would have been if you’d simply presented it in the first place.
And that’s assuming I have the opportunity to hear your full nuanced version. If all I hear is the sound-byte overstatement, I will come away with an inaccurate assessment of your beliefs. I will have been presented with an implausible claim and evidence that doesn’t support that claim. I will reject your view out of hand, without ever actually knowing what your view truly was.
Furthermore, I know that many others who are listening are not as thoughtful as I am about seeking out detailed context, so even if I know the nuanced version I know—and I think you know—that some people are going to only hear the extreme version.
Maybe what it really comes down to is a moral question: Is this a good-faith discussion where we are trying to reach the truth together? Or is this a psychological manipulation to try to get me to believe what you believe? Am I a fellow rational agent seeking knowledge with you? Or am I a behavior machine that you want to control by pushing the right buttons?
I won’t say that overstatement is always wrong—because that would be an overstatement. But please, make an effort to avoid it whenever you can.
I received several books for Christmas this year, and the one I was most excited to read first was The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker. Pinker is exactly the right person to write such a book: He is both a brilliant linguist and cognitive scientist and also an eloquent and highly successful writer. There are two other books on writing that I rate at the same tier: On Writing by Stephen King, and The Art of Fiction by John Gardner. Don’t bother with style manuals from people who only write style manuals; if you want to learn how to write, learn from people who are actually successful at writing.
Indeed, I knew I’d love The Sense of Style as soon as I read its preface, containing some truly hilarious takedowns of Strunk & White. And honestly Strunk & White are among the best standard style manuals; they at least actually manage to offer some useful advice while also being stuffy, pedantic, and often outright inaccurate. Most style manuals only do the second part.
One of Pinker’s central focuses in The Sense of Style is on The Curse of Knowledge, an all-too-common bias in which knowing things makes us unable to appreciate the fact that other people don’t already know it. I think I succumbed to this failing most greatly in my first book, Special Relativity from the Ground Up, in which my concept of “the ground” was above most people’s ceilings. I was trying to write for high school physics students, and I think the book ended up mostly being read by college physics professors.
The problem is surely a real one: After years of gaining expertise in a subject, we are all liable to forget the difficulty of reaching our current summit and automatically deploy concepts and jargon that only a small group of experts actually understand. But I think Pinker underestimates the difficulty of escaping this problem, because it’s not just a cognitive bias that we all suffer from time to time. It’s also something that our society strongly incentivizes.
Pinker points out that a small but nontrivial proportion of published academic papers are genuinely well written, using this to argue that obscurantist jargon-laden writing isn’t necessary for publication; but he didn’t seem to even consider the fact that nearly all of those well-written papers were published by authors who already had tenure or even distinction in the field. I challenge you to find a single paper written by a lowly grad student that could actually get published without being full of needlessly technical terminology and awkward passive constructions: “A murian model was utilized for the experiment, in an acoustically sealed environment” rather than “I tested using mice and rats in a quiet room”. This is not because grad students are more thoroughly entrenched in the jargon than tenured professors (quite the contrary), nor that grad students are worse writers in general (that one could really go either way), but because grad students have more to prove. We need to signal our membership in the tribe, whereas once you’ve got tenure—or especially once you’ve got an endowed chair or something—you have already proven yourself.
Pinker seems to briefly touch this insight (p. 69), without fully appreciating its significance: “Even when we have an inlkling that we are speaking in a specialized lingo, we may be reluctant to slip back into plain speech. It could betray to our peers the awful truth that we are still greenhorns, tenderfoots, newbies. And if our readers do know the lingo, we might be insulting their intelligence while spelling it out. We would rather run the risk of confusing them while at least appearing to be soophisticated than take a chance at belaboring the obvious while striking them as naive or condescending.”
What we are dealing with here is a signalingproblem. The fact that one can write better once one is well-established is the phenomenon of countersignaling, where one who has already established their status stops investing in signaling.
Here’s a simple model for you. Suppose each person has a level of knowledge x, which they are trying to demonstrate. They know their own level of knowledge, but nobody else does.
Suppose that when we observe someone’s knowledge, we get two pieces of information: We have an imperfect observation of their true knowledge which is x+e, the real value of x plus some amount of error e. Nobody knows exactly what the error is. To keep the model as simple as possible I’ll assume that e is drawn from a uniform distribution between -1 and 1.
Finally, assume that we are trying to select people above a certain threshold: Perhaps we are publishing in a journal, or hiring candidates for a job. Let’s call that threshold z. If x < z-1, then since e can never be larger than 1, we will immediately observe that they are below the threshold and reject them. If x > z+1, then since e can never be smaller than -1, we will immediately observe that they are above the threshold and accept them.
But when z-1 < x < z+1, we may think they are above the threshold when they actually are not (if e is positive), or think they are not above the threshold when they actually are (if e is negative).
So then let’s say that they can invest in signaling by putting some amount of visible work in y (like citing obscure papers or using complex jargon). This additional work may be costly and provide no real value in itself, but it can still be useful so long as one simple condition is met: It’s easier to do if your true knowledge x is high.
In fact, for this very simple model, let’s say that you are strictly limited by the constraint that y <= x. You can’t show off what you don’t know.
If your true value x > z, then you should choose y = x. Then, upon observing your signal, we know immediately that you must be above the threshold.
But if your true value x < z, then you should choose y = 0, because there’s no point in signaling that you were almost at the threshold. You’ll still get rejected.
Yet remember before that only those with z-1 < x < z+1 actually need to bother signaling at all. Those with x > z+1 can actually countersignal, by also choosing y = 0. Since you already have tenure, nobody doubts that you belong in the club.
This means we’ll end up with three groups: Those with x < z, who don’t signal and don’t get accepted; those with z < x < z+1, who signal and get accepted; and those with x > z+1, who don’t signal but get accepted. Then life will be hardest for those who are just above the threshold, who have to spend enormous effort signaling in order to get accepted—and that sure does sound like grad school.
You can make the model more sophisticated if you like: Perhaps the error isn’t uniformly distributed, but some other distribution with wider support (like a normal distribution, or a logistic distribution); perhaps the signalling isn’t perfect, but itself has some error; and so on. With such additions, you can get a result where the least-qualified still signal a little bit so they get some chance, and the most-qualified still signal a little bit to avoid a small risk of being rejected. But it’s a fairly general phenomenon that those closest to the threshold will be the ones who have to spend the most effort in signaling.
This reveals a disturbing overlap between the Curse of Knowledge and Impostor Syndrome: We write in impenetrable obfuscationist jargon because we are trying to conceal our own insecurity about our knowledge and our status in the profession. We’d rather you not know what we’re talking about than have you realize that we don’t know what we’re talking about.
For the truth is, we don’t know what we’re talking about. And neither do you, and neither does anyone else. This is the agonizing truth of research that nearly everyone doing research knows, but one must be either very brave, very foolish, or very well-established to admit out loud: It is in the nature of doing research on the frontier of human knowledge that there is always far more that we don’t understand about our subject than that we do understand.
I would like to be more open about that. I would like to write papers saying things like “I have no idea why it turned out this way; it doesn’t make sense to me; I can’t explain it.” But to say that the profession disincentivizes speaking this way would be a grave understatement. It’s more accurate to say that the profession punishes speaking this way to the full extent of its power. You’re supposed to have a theory, and it’s supposed to work. If it doesn’t actually work, well, maybe you can massage the numbers until it seems to, or maybe you can retroactively change the theory into something that does work. Or maybe you can just not publish that paper and write a different one.
It looks like a bell curve, except that almost all the values between -2 and 2 are mysteriously missing.
If we were actually publishing all the good science that gets done, it would in fact be a very nice bell curve. All those missing values are papers that never got published, or results that were excluded from papers, or statistical analyses that were massaged, in order to get a p-value less than the magical threshold for publication of 0.05. (For the statistically uninitiated, a z-score less than -2 or greater than +2 generally corresponds to a p-value less than 0.05, so these are effectively the same constraint.)
I have literally never read a single paper published in an academic journal in the last 50 years that said in plain language, “I have no idea what’s going on here.” And yet I have read many papers—probably most of them, in fact—where that would have been an appropriate thing to say. It’s actually quite a rare paper, at least in the social sciences, that actually has a theory good enough to really precisely fit the data and not require any special pleading or retroactive changes. (Often the bar for a theory’s success is lowered to “the effect is usually in the right direction”.) Typically results from behavioral experiments are bizarre and baffling, because people are a little screwy. It’s just that nobody is willing to stake their career on being that honest about the depth of our ignorance.
This is a deep shame, for the greatest advances in human knowledge have almost always come from people recognizing the depth of their ignorance. Paradigms never shift until people recognize that the one they are using is defective.
This is why it’s so hard to beat the Curse of Knowledge: You need to signal that you know what you’re talking about, and the truth is you probably don’t, because nobody does. So you need to sound like you know what you’re talking about in order to get people to listen to you. You may be doing nothing more than educated guesses based on extremely limited data, but that’s actually the best anyone can do; those other people saying they have it all figured out are either doing the same thing, or they’re doing something even less reliable than that. So you’d better sound like you have it all figured out, and that’s a lot more convincing when you “utilize a murian model” than when you “use rats and mice”.
Perhaps we can at least push a little bit toward plainer language. It helps to be addressing a broader audience: it is both blessing and curse that whatever I put on this blog is what you will read, without any gatekeepers in my path. I can use plainer language here if I so choose, because no one can stop me. But of course there’s a signaling risk here as well: The Internet is a public place, and potential employers can read this as well, and perhaps decide they don’t like me speaking so plainly about the deep flaws in the academic system. Maybe I’d be better off keeping my mouth shut, at least for awhile. I’ve never been very good at keeping my mouth shut.
Once we get established in the system, perhaps we can switch to countersignaling, though even this doesn’t always happen. I think there are two reasons this can fail: First, you can almost always try to climb higher. Once you have tenure, aim for an endowed chair. Once you have that, try to win a Nobel. Second, once you’ve spent years of your life learning to write in a particular stilted, obscurantist, jargon-ridden way, it can be very difficult to change that habit. People have been rewarding you all your life for writing in ways that make your work unreadable; why would you want to take the risk of suddenly making it readable?
I don’t have a simple solution to this problem, because it is so deeply embedded. It’s not something that one person or even a small number of people can really fix. Ultimately we will need to, as a society, start actually rewarding people for speaking plainly about what they don’t know. Admitting that you have no clue will need to be seen as a sign of wisdom and honesty rather than a sign of foolishness and ignorance. And perhaps even that won’t be enough: Because the fact will still remain that knowing what you know that other people don’t know is a very difficult thing to do.
For the last several weeks I’ve been participating in a program called “positive intelligence” (which they abbreviate “PQ” even though that doesn’t make sense); it’s basically a self-help program that is designed to improve mood and increase productivity. I am generally skeptical of such things, and I could tell from the start that it was being massively oversold, but I had the opportunity to participate for free, and I looked into the techniques involved and most of them seem to be borrowed from cognitive-behavioral therapy and mindfulness meditation.
Overall, I would say that the program has had small but genuine benefits for me. I think the most helpful part was actually getting the chance to participate in group sessions (via Zoom of course) with others also going through the program. That kind of mutual social support can make a big difference. The group I joined was all comprised of fellow economists (some other grad students, some faculty), so we had a lot of shared experiences.
Some of the techniques feel very foolish, and others just don’t seem to work for me; but I did find at least some of the meditation techniques (which they annoyingly insist on calling by the silly name “PQ reps”) have helped me relax.
But there’s one part of the PQ program in particular that I just can’t buy into, and this is the idea that adversity is a gift and an opportunity.
They call it the “Sage perspective”: You observe the world without judging what is good or bad, and any time you think something is bad, you find a way to transform it into a gift and an opportunity. The claim is that everything—or nearly everything—that happens to you can make you better off. There’s a lot of overlap here with the attitude “Everything happens for a reason”.
I don’t doubt that sincerely believing this would make you happier. Nevertheless, it is obviously false.
If indeed adversity were a gift, we would seek it out. If getting fired or going bankrupt or getting sick were a gift and an opportunity, we’d work to make these things happen.
Yes, it’s true that sometimes an event which seems bad at the time can turn out to have good consequences in the long run. This is simply because we are unable to foresee all future ramifications. Sometimes things turn out differently than you think they will. But most of the time, when something seems bad, it is actually bad.
There might be some small amount of discomfort or risk that would be preferable to a life of complete safety and complacency; but we are perfectly capable of seeking out whatever discomfort or risk we choose. Most of us live with far more discomfort and risk than we would prefer, and simply have no choice in the matter.
If adversity were a gift, people would thank you for giving it to them. “Thanks for dumping me!” “Thanks for firing me!” “Thanks for punching me!” These aren’t the sort of thing we hear very often (at least not sincerely).
I think this is fairly obvious, honestly, so I won’t belabor it any further. But it raises a question: Is there a way to salvage the mental health benefits of this attitude while abandoning its obvious falsehood?
“Everything happens for a reason” doesn’t work; we live in a universe of deep randomness, ruled by the blind idiot gods of natural law.
“Every cloud has a silver lining” is better; but clearly not every bad thing has an upside, or if it does the upside can be so small as to be utterly negligible. (What was the upside of Rwandan genocide?) Restricted to ordinary events like getting fired this one works pretty well; but it obviously fails for the most extreme traumas, and doesn’t seem particularly helpful for the death of a loved one either.
“What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger” is better still, but clearly not true in every case; some bad events that don’t actually kill us can traumatize us and make the rest of our lives harder. Perhaps “What doesn’t permanently damage me makes me stronger”?
I think the version of this attitude that I have found closest to the truth is “Everything is raw material”. Sometimes bad things just happen: Bad luck, or bad actions, can harm just about anyone at just about any time. But it is within our power to decide how we will respond to what happens to us, and wallowing in despair is almost never the best response.
Thus, while it is foolish to see adversity as a gift, it is not so foolish to see it as an opportunity. Don’t try to pretend that bad things aren’t bad. There’s no sense in denying that we would prefer some outcomes over others, and we feel hurt or disappointed when things don’t turn out how we wanted. Yet even what is bad can still contain within it chances to learn or make things better.
After a frustratingly long wait for several states to finish counting their mail-in ballots (particularly Pennsylvania, Nevada, and Arizona), Biden has officially won the Presidential election. While it was far too close in a few key states, this is largely an artifact of the Electoral College: Biden’s actual popular vote advantage was over 4 million votes. We now have our first Vice President who is a woman of color. I think it’s quite reasonable for us all to share a long sigh of relief at this result.
We have won this battle. But the war is far from over.
First, there is the fact that we are still in a historic pandemic and economic recession. I have no doubt that Biden’s policy response will be better than Trump’s; but he hasn’t taken office yet, and much of the damage has already been done. Things are not going to get much better for quite awhile yet.
Above all, Biden is still far too hawkish on immigration and foreign policy. He won’t chant “build the wall!”, but he’s unlikely to tear down all of our border fences or abolish ICE. He won’t rattle the saber with Iran or bomb civilians indiscriminately, but he’s unlikely to end the program of assassination drone strikes. Trump has severely, perhaps irrevocably, damaged the Pax Americanawith his ludicrous trade wars, alienation of our allies, and fawning over our enemies; but whether or not Biden can restore America’s diplomatic credibility, I have no doubt that he’ll continue to uphold—and deploy—America’s military hegemony. Indeed, the failure of the former could only exacerbate the latter.
Biden’s domestic policy is considerably better, but even there he doesn’t go far enough. His healthcare plan is a substantial step forward, improving upon the progress already made by Obamacare; but it’s still not the single-payer healthcare system we really need. He has some good policy ideas for directly combating discrimination, but isn’t really addressing the deep structural sources of systemic racism. His anti-poverty programs would be a step in the right direction, but are clearly insufficient.
But there is an even more serious problem we must face as a country: Trump got 70 million votes. Even after all he did—his endless lies, his utter incompetence, his obvious corruption—and all that happened—the mishandled pandemic, the exacerbated recession—there were still 70 million people willing to vote for Trump. I said it from the beginning: I have never feared Trump nearly so much as I fear an America that could elect him.
Yes, of course he would have had a far worse shot if our voting system were better: Several viable parties, range voting, and no Electoral College would have all made things go very differently than they did in 2016. But the fact remains that tens of millions of Americans were willing to vote for this man not once, but twice.
What can explain the support of so many people for such an obviously terrible leader?
First, there is misinformation: Our mass media is biased and can give a very distorted view of the world. Someone whose view of world events was shaped entirely by right-wing media like Fox News (let alone OAN) might not realize how terrible Trump is, or might be convinced that Biden is somehow even worse. Yet today, in the 21st century, our access to information is virtually unlimited. Anyone who really wanted to know what Trump is like would be able to find out—so whatever ignorance or misinformation Trump voters had, they bear the greatest responsibility for it.
Then, there is discontent: Growth in total economic output has greatly outpaced growth in real standard of living for most Americans. While real per-capita GDP rose from $26,000 in 1974 to $56,000 today (a factor of 2.15, or 1.7% per year), real median personal income only rose from $25,000 to $36,000 (a factor of 1.44, or 0.8% per year). This reflects the fact that more and more of our country’s wealth is being concentrated in the hands of the rich. Combined with dramatically increased costs of education and healthcare, this means that most American families really don’t feel like their standard of living has meaningfully improved in a generation or more.
Yet if people are discontent with how our economy is run… why would they vote for Donald Trump, who epitomizes everything that is wrong with that system? The Democrats have not done enough to fight rising inequality and spiraling healthcare costs, but they have at least done something—raising taxes here, expanding Medicaid there. This is not enough, since it involves only tweaking the system at the edges rather than solving the deeper structural problems—but it has at least some benefit. The Republicans at their best have done nothing, and at their worst actively done everything in their power to exacerbate rising inequality. And Trump is no different in this regard than any other Republican; he promised more populist economic policy, but did not deliver it in any way. Do people somehow not see that?
I think we must face up to the fact that racism and sexism are clearly a major part of what motivates supporters of Trump. Trump’s core base consists of old, uneducated White men. Women are less likely to support him, and young people, educated people, and people of color are far less likely to support him. The race gap is staggering: A mere 8% of Black people support Trump, while 54% of White people do. While Asian and Hispanic voters are not quite so univocal, still it’s clear that if only non-White people had voted Biden would have won an utter landslide and might have taken every state—yes, likely even Florida, where Cuban-Americans did actually lean slightly toward Trump. The age and education gaps are also quite large: Among those under 30, only 30% support Trump, while among those over 65, 52% do. Among White people without a college degree, 64% support Trump, while among White people with a college degree, only 38% do. The gender gap is smaller, but still significant: 48% of men but only 42% of women support Trump. (Also the fact that the gender gap was smaller this year than in 2016 could reflect the fact that Clinton was running for President but Harris was only running for Vice President.)
We shouldn’t ignore the real suffering and discontent that rising inequality has wrought, nor should we dismiss the significance of right-wing propaganda. Yet when it comes right down to it, I don’t see how we can explain Trump’s popularity without recognizing that an awful lot of White men in America are extremely racist and sexist. The most terrifying thing about Trump is that millions of Americans do know what he’s like—and they’re okay with that.
Trump will soon be gone. But many others like him remain. We need to find a way to fix this, or the next racist, misogynist, corrupt, authoritarian psychopath may turn out to be a lot less foolish and incompetent.
Imagine for a moment a hypothetical being who was a perfect utilitarian, who truly felt at the deepest level an equal caring for all human beings—or even all life.
We often imagine that such a being would be perfectly moral, and sometimes chide ourselves for failing so utterly to live up to its ideal. Today I’d like to take a serious look at how such a being would behave, and ask whether it is really such a compelling ideal after all.
I cannot feel sadness at your grandmother’s death, for over 150,000 people die every day. By far the highest QALY lost are the deaths of children in the poorest countries, and I feel sad for them as an aggregate, but couldn’t feel particularly saddened by any individual one.
My happiness does not change from hour to hour or day to day, except as a slow, steady increase over time that is occasionally interrupted briefly by sudden disasters like hurricanes or tsunamis. 2020 was the saddest year I’ve had in awhile, as for once there was strongly correlated suffering across the globe sufficient to break through the trend of steadily increasing prosperity.
Should we go out with friends for drinks or dinner or games, I’ll be ever-so-slightly happier, some barely perceptible degree, provided that there is no coincidental event which causes more than the baseline rate of global suffering that day. And I’d be just as happy to learn that someone else I’d never met went out to dinner with someone else I’d also never met.
Of course I love you, my dear: Precisely as much as I love the other eight billion people on Earth.
I hope now that you can see how flat, how bleak, how inhuman such a being’s experience would be. We might sometimes wish some respite from the roller coaster ride of our own emotional experiences, but in its place this creature feels almost nothing at all, just a vague sense of gradually increasing contentment which is occasionally interrupted by fleeting deviations from the trend.
Such a being is incapable of feeling love as we would recognize it—for a mind such as ours could not possibly feel so intensely for a billion people at once. To love all the people of the world equally, and still have anything resembling a human mind, is to love no one at all.
Perhaps we should not feel so bad that we are not such creatures, then?
Of course I do not mean to say that we should care nothing for distant strangers in foreign lands, or even that the tiny amount most people seem to care is adequate. We should care—and we should care more, and do more, than most people do.
But I do mean to say that it is possible to care too much about other people far away, an idea that probably seems obvious to some but radical to others. The human capacity for caring is not simply zero-sum—there are those who care more overall and less overall—but I do believe that it is limited: At some point you begin to sacrifice so much for those you have no attachments to that you begin to devalue your own attachments.
There is an interior optimum: We should care enough, but not too much. We should sacrifice some things, but not everything. Those closest to us should matter morethan those further away—but both should matter. Where exactly to draw that line is a very difficult question, which has stumped far greater philosophers than I; but at least we can narrow the space and exclude the endpoints.
This may even make a certain space for morally justifying selfishness. Surely it does not justify total, utter selfishness with no regard for the suffering of others. But it defends self-care at the very least, and perhaps can sweep away some of the feelings of guilt we may have from being fortunate or prevailing in fair competition. Yes, much of what you have was gained by sheer luck, and even much of what you have earned, you earned by out-competing someone else nearly as deserving. But this is true of everyone, and as long as you played fair, you’ve not done wrong by doing better. There’s even good reason to think that a system which allocates its privileges by fair competition is a particularly efficient one, one which ultimately raises the prosperity of all.
If nothing else, reflecting on this has made me feel better about giving 8% of my gross income to charity instead of 20% or 50% or even 80%. And if even 8% is too much for you, try 2% or even 1%.
What is the most saccharine, empty, insincere way to end a letter? “Sincerely”.
Whence such irony? Well, we’ve all been using it for so long that we barely notice it anymore. It’s just the standard way to end a letter now.
This process is not unlike inflation: As more and more dollars get spent, the value of a dollar decreases, and as a word or phrase gets used more and more, its meaning weakens.
It’s hardly just the word “Sincerely” itself that has thus inflated. Indeed, almost any sincere expression of caring often feels empty. We routinely ask strangers “How are you?” when we don’t actually care how they are.
I felt this quite vividly when I was applying to GiveWell (alas, they decided not to hire me). I was trying to express how much I care about GiveWell’s mission to maximize the effectiveness of charity at saving lives, and it was quite hard to find the words. I kept find myself saying things that anyone could say, whether they really cared or not. Fighting global poverty is nothing less than my calling in life—but how could I say that without sounding obsequious or hyperbolic? Anyone can say that they care about global poverty—and if you asked them, hardly anyone would say that they don’t care at all about saving African children from malaria—but how many people actually give money to the Against Malaria Foundation?
Or think about how uncomfortable it can feel to tell a friend that you care about them. I’ve seen quite a few posts on social media that are sort of scattershot attempts at this: “I love you all!” Since that is obviously not true—you do not in fact love all 286 of your Facebook friends—it has plausible deniability. But you secretly hope that the ones you really do care about will see its truth.
Where is this ‘sincerity inflation’ coming from? It can’t really be from overuse of sincerity in ordinary conversation—the question is precisely why such conversation is so rare.
But there is a clear source of excessive sincerity, and it is all around us: Advertising.
Every product is the “best”. They will all “change your life”. You “need” every single one. Every corporation “supports family”. Every product will provide “better living”. The product could be a toothbrush or an automobile; the ads are never really about the product. They are about how the corporation will make your family happy.
Consider the following hilarious subversion by the Steak-umms Twitter account (which is a candle in the darkness of these sad times; they have lots of really great posts about Coronavirus and critical thinking).
Kevin Farzard (who I know almost nothing about, but gather he’s a comedian?) wrote this on Twitter: “I just want one brand to tell me that we are not in this together and their health is our lowest priority”
Why is this amusing? Because every other corporation—whose executives surely care less about public health than whatever noble creature runs the Steak-umms Twitter feed—has been saying the opposite: “We are all in this together and your health is our highest priority.”
We are so inundated with this saccharine sincerity by advertisers that we learn to tune it out—we have to, or else we’d go crazy and/or bankrupt. But this has an unfortunate side effect: We tune out expressions of caring when they come from other human beings as well.
Therefore let us endeavor to change this, to express our feelings clearly and plainly to those around us, while continuing to shield ourselves from the bullshit of corporations. (I choose that word carefully: These aren’t lies, they’re bullshit. They aren’t false so much as they are utterly detached from truth.) Part of this means endeavoring to be accepting and supportive when others express their feelings to us, not retreating into the comfort of dismissal or sarcasm. Restoring the value of our sincerity will require a concerted effort from many people acting at once.
For this project to succeed, we must learn to make a sharp distinction between the institutions that are trying to extract profits from us and the people who have relationships with us. This is not to say that human beings cannot lie or be manipulative; of course they can. Trust is necessary for all human relationships, but there is such a thing as too much trust. There is a right amount to trust others you do not know, and it is neither complete distrust nor complete trust. Higher levels of trust must be earned.
But at least human beings are not systematically designed to be amoral and manipulative—which corporations are. A corporation exists to do one thing: Maximize profit for its shareholders. Whatever else a corporation is doing, it is in service of that one ultimate end. Corporations can do many good things; but they sort of do it by accident, along the way toward their goal of maximizing profit. And when those good things stop being profitable, they stop doing them. Keep these facts in mind, and you may have an easier time ignoring everything that corporations say without training yourself to tune out all expressions of sincerity.
Then, perhaps one day it won’t feel so uncomfortable to tell people that we care about them.
The right wing is of course making much of the isolated incidents of violence that have occurred, often but not always actually provoked by the police or federal agents assigned to quell the protests. They have also made much of the property destruction caused by riots that have emerged from the protests, typically eliding the distinction between property destruction and violence. Since there has been far more property destruction than actual violence, this allows them to effectively inflate the level of violence.
Yet, I am concerned that too many on the left are too willing to accept violence. I have seen far too many people sharing and endorsing this quote:
“Dr. King’s policy was that nonviolence would achieve the gains for black people in the United States. His major assumption was that if you are nonviolent, if you suffer, your opponent will see your suffering and will be moved to change his heart. That’s very good. He only made one fallacious assumption: In order for nonviolence to work, your opponent must have a conscience. The United States has none.”
Nonviolence does work. Nonviolence did work for the civil rights movement. No, it doesn’t depend upon your opponent having a conscience—it only depends upon bystanders having a conscience. (Also, “the United States has no conscience” is only true insofar as socially constructed institutions don’t have feelings. Clearly most of the people in the United States—probably even most of the people in the US government—have a conscience!)
Even worse than the Carmichael quote are the memes that have been shared saying things like this: “You want to fix the system, but not use violence; so, by magic?”
Nonviolence doesn’t mean politely asking for rights. It doesn’t mean being calm and non-confrontational. It doesn’t mean waiting patiently.
Nonviolence doesn’t even mean following the law or never damaging property. Some of the most important and effective acts of nonviolent protest involved breaking laws and damaging things—Rosa Parks was breaking the law, and does the Boston Tea Party ring a bell?
It sounds so simple and obvious, but a lot of people still don’t seem to get it. They seem to think that our only choices are “ask nicely” or “start a civil war”. Asking nicely obviously would not be effective; only someone deeply naive could imagine otherwise. Working legally within the system can sometimes be effective, but when really deep reforms are needed urgently it is often not enough. Starting a civil war might work—it has sometimes worked in the past—but it would come at a horrendous cost, probably thousands if not millions of lives.
Fortunately, these are not our only options. We don’t have to ask nicely; we don’t even have to obey the law. We can even break things. We just need to not hurt people. That still allows for a variety of forms of protest, confrontation, civil disobedience, and direct action. Jacobin, oddly enough, gets this right.
In reality, any movement is going to have extremists who act violently. A protest movement can still be considered nonviolent as long as such incidents of violence can be kept to a minimum, and never condoned by the leaders of the movement. Thus far, Black Lives Matter has absolutely fit that description—indeed, impressively so, given the sheer scale of the protests.
Some degree of self-defense can even be consistent with nonviolence, though it must be of a very minimal sort. Wearing armor and carrying a shield is entirely consistent with nonviolence. Hitting back after you are hit is a finer line. This is morally still nonviolence as long as you use only the minimal necessary force—but politically it will only work if the public clearly knows that you are not the ones who hit first.
The ethical case for nonviolence is simple, but worth repeating: Human lives have intrinsic value. Yes, even if those human beings work willingly for a corrupt and evil system. Yes, even the average Nazi was a sentient being of intrinsic moral worth.
The only people who really deserve to die are the psychopaths at the top pulling the strings—and they are almost never the ones on the front lines getting shot or bombed. If you had a plan to kill Donald Trump, I would have no particular moral objection. I think such a plan would be very unlikely to succeed, and I would never attempt such a thing myself; but does Donald Trump deserve to die for his brazen authoritarianism, overwhelming corruption, and depraved indifference for over 160,000 dead Americans? Yes. But how does that justify killing random police officers?
Nonviolence also has another great advantage, which is that it works better when you are on the right side. The effectiveness of violence is proportional to your firepower; the effectiveness of nonviolence is proportional to your righteousness. Why in the world would you, who are righteous but have little firepower, want to use violence against an enemy that is unrighteous and has more firepower?
Nonviolent protest actually works best when your enemy is violent and repressive; it is precisely that contrast between your nonviolence and their violence that wins people to your cause. Probably the smartest thing a government could do to respond to nonviolent protests would be to sit back and calmly watch them, then make whatever was the minimal level of concessions in order to make the protests lose momentum. When you bring out the tear gas, you have basically already admitted that you are on the wrong side of history. But repressive governments don’t think that way; if they did, they would have given those same concessions before the protests even gathered steam. They imagine that by simply cracking down harder they will be able to win—but they are usually wrong.
And even if the ethical case for nonviolence means literally nothing to you, please consider the strategic case: The empirical data says quite clearly that nonviolent protest works better. In many ways, violence is the default; it’s the conflict revolution mechanism that we evolved to use, largely unmodified from the same instincts that motivate any other primate. Nonviolence is a recent invention, a high-tech solution to this ancient problem. Violence is easy; just about anyone can do it. Nonviolence is hard; it requires strategic cleverness, unwavering vigilance, and deep moral courage.
This is not to say that violence is never necessary: Against a truly totalitarian regime that is willing to murder people simply for speaking out against the government, violence may well be the only option. I certainly do not begrudge the French Resistance for using violence against the Nazis. But violence should be a last resort, not simply for ethical reasons—but also for strategic reasons.
I’ve been wanting to write this post for awhile now, but I have been worried about the reaction I might get. Ultimately I realized that this is precisely why it needs to be written. Especially since Slate Star Codex is offline for the foreseeable future, there don’t see to be a lot of other people willing to write it.
The timing could be questioned, I suppose; when we are in the throes of a historic pandemic and brazen creeping authoritarianism, perhaps now should be the time for unconditional solidarity. But I fear that unconditional solidarity is one of the most dangerous forces in human existence: Politics is the mind-killer, arguments are soldiers, and the absolute unwillingness to question one’s own side is how we get everything from the Spanish Inquisition to Vladimir Lenin.
And since this is about not simply being mistaken but alienating allies, perhaps these desperate times are when we need the correction most: For we simply cannot afford to lose any allies right now.
“All men benefit from male violence.”
“It’s impossible to be racist against White people.”
It’s impossible to be racist against White people? Then tell me, what was it when a Black woman told me that melanin is the gateway to the soul and all White people are soulless snakes? Swap the colors, and it sounds like something only a diehard KKK member or neo-Nazi could say. If that’s not racism, what is?
The insistence that racism is “prejudice plus power” is a disingenuous redefinition of the concept precisely in an attempt to retroactively make it true that it’s impossible to be racist against White people. This is not what the word “racist” means to most people. But even if I were to allow that definition, do you think Black people never have power over White people? There are no Black managers who discriminate against their White employees, no Black teachers who abuse their White students? I’m not aware of Barack Obama discriminating against any White people, but can anyone deny that he had power? White people may have more power on average, but that doesn’t mean they have more power in every case.
What’s more, I don’t really understand what leftists think they are accomplishing by making this kind of assertion. Is it just an expression of rage, or a signal of your group identity? You’re clearly not going to convince any White person who has been discriminated against that White people never get discriminated against. You’re clearly not going to convince any man who has been brutally attacked by another man that all men benefit from male violence. It would be one thing to say that White people face less discrimination (clearly true) or that most White people don’t face discrimination (maybe true); but to say that no White people ever face discrimination is just obviously false, and will be disproved by many people’s direct experience.
Indeed, it seems quite obvious to me that this kind of talk is likely to frustrate and alienate many people who could otherwise have been allies.
The left has a counter-argument prepared for this: If you are alienated by what we say, then you were never a true ally in the first place.
The accusation seems to be that alienated allies are just fair-weather friends; but I don’t think someone is being a fair-weather friend if they stop wanting to be your friend because you abuse them. And make no mistake: Continually telling people that they are inferior and defective because of their race or gender or some other innate aspect of themselves absolutely constitutes abuse. Indeed, it’s nothing less than a mirror image of the very abuse that social justice is supposed to exist to prevent.
To be sure, there are cases where people claim to be alienated allies but were never really allies to begin with. Anyone who says “Wokeness made me a Nazi” obviously was far-right to begin with, and is just using that as an excuse. No amount of people saying “I hate White people” would justify becoming a Nazi or a KKK member. This isn’t them genuinely being alienated by the left being unfair; this is them saying “Look what you made me do” as they punch you in the face.
But I think the far more common scenario is more like this: “I want to support social justice, but every time I try to participate in leftist spaces, people attack me. They say that I’m defective because of who I am, and it hurts. They don’t seem interested in my input anyway, so I think I’ll just stay away from leftist spaces to preserve my own mental health.” These are people who broadly agree with social justice in principle, but just feel so frustrated and alienated by the movement in practice that they decide they are better off remaining on the sidelines.
Is it reallyso hard to understand how someone might feel that way? Why would anyone want to interact in a social space where most of the time is spent disparaging people like them? To stay in such a space, one either needs to have very strong moral convictions to sustain them against that onslaught, or needs to be masochistic or self-loathing.
There really does seem to be a lot of pressure to confess and self-flagellate among White leftists. I think my favorite is the injunction to “Divest from Whiteness“; it’s beautiful because it’s utterly meaningless. If you really just meant “fight racial discrimination”, you could have said that. Better yet, you could have recommended some specific policy or belief to adopt. (“Defund the Police”, for all its flaws, is an infinitely superior slogan to “Divest from Whiteness”.) By saying it this way, you’re trying to bring in some notion that we are morally obliged to somehow stop being White—which is of course completely impossible. Frankly I think even if I got gene therapy to convert my body to a West African phenotype people would still say I was “really White”. Thus, Whiteness becomes Original Sin: A stain acquired at birth that can never be removed and must always be a source of guilt.
So let me say this in no uncertain terms:
It’s okay to be White.
It’s okay to be straight.
It’s okay to be male.
It’s wrong to be racist.
It’s wrong to be homophobic.
It’s wrong to be sexist.
No, it isn’t “covertly racist” to say that it’s okay to be White—and if you think it is, you are part of the problem here. People do not have control over what race they are born into. There is no moral failing in being a particular color, or in being descended from people who did terrible things. (And it’s not like only White people have ancestors who did terrible things!)
Yes, I know that there are White supremacist groups using the slogan “It’s okay to be White”, but you know what? Stopped Clock Principle. Reversed stupidity is not intelligence. Nazis believe many things that are wrong, but the mere fact that Nazis believe something doesn’t make it wrong. Nazis also generally believe in Darwinian evolution, and Adolf Hitler was a strict vegetarian.
I am not denying that privilege and oppression exist. But there is a clear and absolutely vital moral distinction between being a member of a group and oppressing people who are not in that group. Being White is not the same thing as being racist. Being straight is not the same thing as being homophobic. Being male is not the same thing as being sexist. Indeed, I would argue that being a member of the privileged category is not even necessary to participate in oppression—you can oppress people of your own group, or be in one underprivileged group and oppress someone in another group. Being privileged certainly makes it easier for you to support oppression and more likely that you’ll do so—but it is neither necessary nor sufficient.
Another common response is that this is just “tone policing“, that complaining about alienating rhetoric is just a way of shutting down dissent in general. No doubt this is sometimes true: One of the more effective ways of silencing someone’s argument is to convince people that it has been delivered in an overly aggressive or shrill way, thus discrediting the messenger. (This was basically the only major criticism ever leveled against New Atheism, for instance.)
But it clearly takes the notion too far to say that any kind of rhetoric is acceptable as long as it’s for the right cause. Insulting and denigrating people is never appropriate. Making people feel guilty for being born in the wrong group is never fair. Indeed, it’s not clear that one can even argue against tone policing without… tone policing. Sometimes your tone is actually inappropriate and harmful and you need to be criticized for it.
In fact, some of the people that harsh rhetoric is alienating may harbor real prejudices that need to be challenged. But they aren’t very likely to make the intense effort to challenge their own prejudices if every interaction they have with the social justice community is hostile. If we want to change someone’s mind, it helps a great deal to start by showing them compassion and respect.
I’m not saying that fighting for social justice is never going to upset people. Social change is always painful, and there are many cherished beliefs and institutions that will have to be removed in order to achieve lasting justice. So the mere fact that someone is frustrated or upset with you doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve done anything wrong. But you should at least consider that people might sometimes be upset with you for genuinely good reasons, that when they say your aggressive rhetoric is hurtful and alienating that might be because it’s actually true.
Yesterday was the Fourth of July, but a lot of us haven’t felt much like celebrating. When things are this bad—pandemic, economic crisis, corrupt government, police brutality, riots, and so on—it can be hard to find much pride in our country.
Indeed, in some sense national pride in general is a weird concept: We weren’t even alive when our nation was founded, and even today there are hundreds of millions of people in our nation, so most of what it does has nothing to do with us. But human beings are tribal: We feel a deep need to align ourselves with groups larger than ourselves. In the current era, nations fill much of that role (though certainly not all of it, as we form many other types of groups as well). We identify so strongly with our nation that our pride or shame in it becomes pride or shame in ourselves.
Don’t get me wrong: The list of America’s sins is long and weighty. From the very beginning the United States was built by forcing out Native populations and importing African slaves. The persistent inequality between racial groups today suggests that reparations for these crimes may still be necessary.
But I think it is a mistake to look at a statue of George Washington or Thomas Jefferson and see only a slaveowner. They were slaveowners, certainly—and we shouldn’t sweep that under the rug. Perhaps it is wrong to idolize anyone, because our heroes never live up to our expectations and great men are almost always bad men. Even Martin Luther King was a sexual predator and Mahatma Gandhi abused his wife. Then again, people seem to need heroes: Without something to aspire to, some sense of pride in who they are, people rapidly become directionless or even hopeless.
While there is much to be appalled by in Washington or Jefferson, there is also much to admire. Indeed, specifically what we are celebrating on Independence Day strikes me as something particularly noteworthy, something truly worthy of the phrase “American exceptionalism”.
For most of human history, every major nation formed organically. Many were ruled by hereditary dynasties that extended to time immemorial. Others were aware that they had experienced coups and revolutions, but all of these were about the interests of one king (or prince, or duke) versus another. The Greek philosophers had debated what the best sort of government would be, but never could agree on anything; insofar as they did agree, they seemed to prefer benevolent autocracy. Even where democracies existed, they too had formed organically, and in practice rarely had suffrage beyond upper-class men. Nations had laws, but these laws were subordinate to the men who made and enforced them; one king’s sacred duty was another’s heinous crime.
Then came the Founding Fathers. After fighting their way out of the grip of the British Empire, they could easily have formed their own new monarchy and declared their own King George—and there were many who wanted to do this. They could have kept things running basically the same way they always had.
But they didn’t. Instead, they gathered together a group of experts and leaders from the revolution, all to ask the question: “What is the best way to run a country?” Of course there were many different ideas about the answer. A long series of impassioned arguments and bitter conflicts ensued. Different sides cited historians and philosophers back and forth at each other, often using the same source to entirely opposite conclusions. Great compromises were made that neither side was happy with (like the Three-Fifths Compromise and the Connecticut Compromise).
When all the dust cleared and all the signatures were collected, the result was a document that all involved knew was imperfect and incomplete—but nevertheless represented a remarkable leap forward for the very concept of what it means to govern a nation. However painfully and awkwardly, they came to some kind of agreement as to what was the best way to run a country—and then they made that country.
It’s difficult to overstate what a watershed moment this was in human history. With a few exceptions—mostly small communities—every other government on earth had been created to serve the interests of its rulers, with barely even a passing thought toward what would be ethical or in the best interests of the citizens. Of course some self-interest crept in even to the US Constitution, and in some ways we’ve been trying to fix that ever since. But even asking what sort of government would be best for the people was something deeply radical.
Today the hypocrisy of a slaveowner writing “all men are created equal” is jarring to us; but at the time the shock was not that he would own slaves, but that he would even give lip service to universal human equality. It seems bizarre to us that someone could announce “inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” and then only grant voting rights to landowning White men—but to his contemporaries, the odd thing was citing philosophers (specifically John Locke) in your plan for a new government.
Indeed, perhaps the most radical thing of all about the Constitution of the United States is that they knew it was imperfect. The Founding Fathers built into the very text of the document a procedure for amending and improving it. And since then we have amended it 27 times (though to be fair the first 10 were more like “You know what? We should actually state clearly that people have free speech rather than assuming courts will automatically protect that.”)
Every nation has a founding myth that lionizes its founders. And certainly many, if not most, Americans believe a version of this myth that is as much fable as fact. But even the historical truth with all of its hypocrises has plenty to be proud of.
Though we may not have had any control over how our nation was founded, we do have a role in deciding its future. If we feel nothing but pride in our nation, we will not do enough to mend and rectify its flaws. If we feel nothing but shame in our nation, we will not do enough to preserve and improve its strengths.
Thus, this Independence Day, I remind you to be ambivalent: There is much to be ashamed of, but also much to be proud of.