May Reading Part 2

 My semester is over and I'm on summer break!  And the weather has been absolutely fantastic, not too hot, so I've been trying to spend a lot of time outside and hiking.  My goal is to do plenty of that this summer.  I've also read quite a bit in the last couple of weeks, and here is some of it, but it doesn't include the Louise Penny binge I went on of three novels in a row; they were good too!

#antisemitism: Coming of Age During the Resurgence of Hate, by Samantha A. Vinokor-Meinrath: A survey and analysis of GenZ Jewish kids and how they feel about their Judaism and the rising incidence of antisemitism.  Most of these kids have GenX parents (like me) who grew up with very little antisemitism in the US, and I was shocked at how it's just common now for GenZ kids to have experienced, at the very least, comments from friends and schoolmates.     







A Place for Everything: The Curious History of Alphabetical Order, by Judith Flanders: It was the cover that got me.  I just love this cover.  And while the subtitle seems to say that this history book is just about why we like to put things in ABC order, in fact it wanders all over the place and is really a history of the organization of knowledge.  People had to invent these things, very slowly, as need arose.  For a long time, people liked to organize things in heirarchies, but you can't do that with everything.  Alphabetical order was considered embarrassingly arbitrary, but it was awfully helpful even though at first it was only done by the first letter, so -- Archimedes, Agricola, Apollo was fine.  We learn about commonplace books, the development of tables of contents, indexing, card catalogs, even early telephone operation.  It's all quite delightful, though possibly mostly to the taste of librarians.  Flanders never met a fun dead-end she didn't like: extraordinary compilation of extracts...beginning cheerfully enough with exempla of famous deaths, ordered by method: suicides, parricides, death by drowning (with a detour to consider bodies of water that had been named after those who had been drowned); those killed by horses (with a subsection on those killed specifically by falling horses), or by snakes, by boars, by lions, by dogs or other animals; those struck by lightning, killed by hanging, by crucifixion, by starvation, or by thirst; by falling off a cliff, or down stairs; or in earthquakes, or by poison or even by "sudden" death.

 A charming, frequently repeated, and possibly even true anecdote tells how the occupation of switchboard operator came to be dominated by women.  Initially, the story runs, these jobs went to the boys who had previously been employed to deliver telegrams.  However, when confined indoors at an exchange they tended to become raucous and play practical jokes on callers.  Women, one report is supposed to have found, "are steadier, and do not drink beer." What is certainly true is the 1886 Boston phone book's warning: "Ladies are employed as operators; we ask for them courteous treatment."

Dictionary compilers in 19th-century Japan based their sorting method on the "Iroha," a poem written sometime between the 9th and 11th centuries.  This poem uses every kana, or character, of the Japanese syllabary just once.  Learning the poem by heart therefore meant learning the kana in a set order, which dictionaries then borrowed...Today, however, modern Japanese dictionaries have for the most part abandoned this elegant literary solution, instead following an order based on the Brahmic scripts that in Japan were used for Buddhist sutras.


The Annotated Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions, by Edwin A. Abbott and Ian Stewart: I've always been fond of the mathematical and literary classic Flatland, which tells the story of a 2-dimensional Square who receives the revelation of three dimensions, only to be considered a madman by his fellows.  Many of the annotations are interesting biographical and historical notes; many more are mathematical in nature and dive deeply into the details of further dimensions.  Those were often above my head, but on the whole it was a worthwhile and fun read.






Euripides' The Trojan Women: A Comic, by Roseanne Bruno, text by Anne Carson: OK so imagine a graphic novel of The Trojan Women -- for the text, you can't fit it all in there so you have to pick and choose, and you might as well get a classical scholar to do the choosing and translating.  That's Anne Carson.  Then Roseanne Bruno gets to imagine her own production of the play, but since it's on paper, she can do whatever she wants; make the Trojan women mostly dogs (Helen is a silver fox in heels), turn Andromache into a beautiful young poplar tree that has been split down the middle, with a seedling for a baby...the Greeks are crows and cats, the gods strange objects (Poseidon is 600 cubic feet of clear seawater, Athena a pair of overalls and an owl mask).  Only Cassandra is a human, and she's off in another dimension.  It all worked for me -- Hecuba's words are as searing as ever.  If you're into Greek tragedies, it's a very interesting take.

 The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth, by Jonathan Rauch
:  One of my favorite guys on free speech writes a more thorough defense of the entire idea of classically liberal science -- the system with which we try to look at ideas and winnow through them to come closer to truth.  He imagines a funnel that accepts all ideas, puts them through inquiry, checking, argument, and so on, and lets those that pass out the other end, into the realm of generally accepted knowledge -- which is still subject to constant questioning and subject to revision and new, better knowledge.  It took me far too long to read all of this book, probably because I was reading it on my tablet (where I prefer fluffy mysteries over more difficult reading) and also because I already agreed with practically everything, so it didn't exactly feel urgent.  I marked a truly ridiculous number of quotations...

 ...I came to believe that the framework of Kindly Inquisitors, while it had held up well, could be strengthened by paying more attention to the institutional and communitarian foundations of collective inquiry. The sudden rise of industrial-scale trolling and disinformation made the institutional defense seem urgent.

Today’s challenges to the Constitution of Knowledge are comparatively tame by historical standards. The miracle is how robust free expression and liberal science have proved to be, despite unremitting attacks from every direction over hundreds of years. The idea that obnoxious, misguided, seditious, blasphemous, and bigoted expressions deserve not only to be tolerated but, of all things, protected is the single most counterintuitive social principle in all of human history. Every human instinct cries out against it, and every generation discovers fresh reasons to oppose it. It is saved from the scrapheap of self-evident absurdity only by the fact that it is also the single most successful social principle in all of human history.

Of course, there were breakthroughs and advances before the Industrial Revolution, the American Revolution, and the scientific revolution. What was lacking, though, was a social order capable of generating and then cumulating advances systematically. And systematic social orders require constitutions: formal, political ones, or informal, culturally embodied ones—but, in either case, systems of rules which channel human energies in pro-social directions.

Through our desire for mutual esteem based on our empathetic intuitions, we can align our interests and form social bonds on a basis other than force or domination. True, humans are also greedy and ambitious; yet—here is [Adam] Smith’s most famous insight—a well-structured social order can harness those very traits to promote activity which benefits ourselves by benefiting others. If we get the rules right, millions of people of every imaginable skill and temperament and nationality can cooperate to build a fantastically complex device like a Prius or iPhone, all without the oversight or instruction of any central planner. If we get the rules right.  Smith’s proposition seemed ridiculous, given that human history through his time was soaked in blood and oppression. His claim was redeemed only by the fact that it proved to be true.

Whether formal or not, all three liberal constitutions share a family resemblance. They all organize far-flung cooperation, distribute decision-making across social networks, and exploit network intelligence (where the system knows much more than its constitutive individuals), all with a minimum of centralized authority or control. They all emphasize impersonal rules over personal authority, open-ended processes over fixed outcomes, and consent over coercion. They all take as their starting point that individuals are by nature free and equal, and that freedom and equality are important and valuable. They are all extraordinarily successful, especially compared with the alternatives. Which is not to say they are perfect. Far from it. But they are much better than their competitors at adapting to change and at identifying and correcting mistakes: that is, at self-correcting. And they are much better at averting the destructive social conflict which Hobbes believed was the only alternative to authoritarian government.

The advantage of the reality-based community is not that it catches every error immediately, but that it catches most errors eventually, and many errors very quickly. No other regime can make that claim, or come anywhere close.

In Locke, however, we find pretty much the entire code, embedded for the first time in a worked-out theory. Natural rights, popular sovereignty, and toleration together make up something larger than the sum of the parts. Impersonal rules, neutrally applied; limited government, accountable to the people; pluralism of belief, and government which protects rather than persecutes dissent: the elements of modern liberalism are all there, although elaborating and applying them would be the work of centuries.

Liberal science is the greatest of all social networks. Only the global economy can challenge its scope and organizational capability, but capitalism has more defects and downsides. As for today’s ballyhooed digital social networks, their organizational competence and productive output are piddling next to liberal science’s. Or so I maintain. But when I praise liberal science so enthusiastically, by what standards do I judge it? A fair question, which deserves an explicit answer.
An epistemic regime—that is, a public system for adjudicating differences of belief and perception and for developing shared and warranted conclusions about truth—should provide three public goods. [These are knowledge, freedom, and peace.]

...the reality-based community, by its very nature, is much too large, too decentralized, and too fluid to be shaped or controlled. “You can kill or mutilate the advance of science,” wrote Polanyi, in “The Republic of Science,” but “you cannot shape it. For it can advance only by essentially unpredictable steps, pursuing problems of its own.” In fact, anyone who calls for particular viewpoints to be privileged or for particular ideas to be censored is, by definition, not doing science. Moreover, as the reality-based community organizes more researchers and more teams across more countries—as developing countries and new recruits join the network—controlling and dominating the community only becomes harder.

Pluralism. The reality-based community not only accepts viewpoint diversity, it positively depends upon viewpoint diversity. The big end of the funnel requires maximum freedom to propose, to critique, to challenge, to defend; otherwise confirmation bias and conformity bias reign supreme. Which is not to say that individuals in the community always welcome competing ideas; if they did, they would not be human. But it is to say that they accept the legitimacy of competing ideas. “Shut up,” they understand, is never an explanation...

I am not claiming that every good scholar or journalist needs to believe she possesses the truth, or even needs to believe that objective truth exists. (Some serious thinkers have argued powerfully against objectivity.) I am saying there are ways she should and should not behave in public interactions with others. Truth, as Karl Popper said, is a regulative principle. Like north, it is a direction, an orientation, not a destination.

Both are fundamentally liberal inasmuch as they specify a process, not an outcome. Thomas Jefferson favored a small, limited government suited to an agrarian republic of small landholders; Alexander Hamilton favored a larger, more ambitious government, suited to a globally trading commercial republic. Who won the argument? James Madison, who pitted Jefferson and Hamilton against each other. In his Constitution, Jefferson’s and Hamilton’s visions continually contend, and the outcome on any day matters less than that the argument should never be finally settled, ensuring that the system remains dynamic and adaptive. Similarly, the Constitution of Knowledge allows for no resting point, no stasis, no fixed definition of its boundaries or methods. It allows only for constant negotiation across the network, a process of contestation and resolution, leading to new questions and controversies as older ones are settled.

The reality-based community is explicitly based on self-correction. Though the system makes plenty of mistakes, it is much less likely to get stuck with them for a long time than is any competitor.

America’s founding generation feared sociopathic demagoguery as much as they did anarchy, and they understood that the two abet each other. In the Federalist Papers, Alexander Hamilton warned of the dangers posed by men with “talents for low intrigue and the little arts of popularity”—men who commence as demagogues and end as tyrants. Later, in a letter to President Washington, Hamilton warned that the “only path to a subversion of the republican system of the country” is by way of the ruthless demagogue who uses fear and flattery to “throw things into confusion [so] that he may ‘ride the storm and direct the whirlwind.’ ” prior democracy, Madison knew, had sustainably met that challenge; in time, some faction would rob or oppress the rest of the population.  Characteristically, Madison came up with a counterintuitive solution. There must be a lot of factions, and they must differ from each other. Small, homogeneous republics, like the ones Rousseau called for, were prone to factional capture. Instead, a large, pluralistic republic would ensure plenty of factional diversity, and diversity would ensure that no one faction could prevail.

 Together, Mill’s arguments nod in the direction later taken by Charles Sanders Peirce and Karl Popper: knowledge is a social phenomenon. It is a product of human interactions, not just individual reason. It requires comparing viewpoints. Wherever there is only one person or opinion, fact and faith become undistinguishable. “In an imperfect state of the human mind,” wrote Mill, “the interests of truth require a diversity of opinions.”...Somewhat surprisingly to Americans today, Mill held that the most dire threat to freedom comes not from state repression but from social conformity...

Psychology and sociology affirm what epistemology predicts: if a community falls prey to intellectual conformity, it descends down a kind of epistemic rabbit hole, a “spiral of silence.”

 The Constitution of Knowledge acknowledges that ideas and words can be subjectively hurtful. To help us cope and mitigate the harm, it pushes us to interact civilly, depersonalize our disagreements, listen attentively, substantiate our claims, and wage our controversies through mediated channels like edited journals. It also recognizes that certain kinds of speech—true threats and targeted personal harassment, for example—are off limits. (U.S. First Amendment jurisprudence defines and delimits those exceptional cases.)  And it understands that going out of one’s way to be empathetic and spare individuals from unnecessary indignities is ordinary decency. In general, it does a good job of encouraging civility—certainly better than any authoritarian system can manage.
But it also recognizes that criticism, by its very nature, can be painful and humiliating. Even in the hard sciences, as we have seen, debates can become angry, personal, and emotionally wounding. In response, the Constitution of Knowledge offers tough love. It requires us to accept a certain amount of emotional bruising. It asks us to be thick-skinned. It reminds us that speech alone has no magical powers to harm, and that we can reframe it and choose how we interpret it, which is not true of bullets.

Emotional safetyism patronizes minorities. It assumes that we want to be “safe” from words or ideas; that we will wilt in the heat of an argument; that we need protection from “assaultive” words and should run to the authorities to get it. Homosexuals were stereotyped as weak (“pansy,” “limp-wrist,” “sissy,” “fairy”), African Americans as childish, women as delicate. Gay people and other minorities fought for legal equality by joining arguments and winning them, and we fought for cultural equality by defeating the stereotype of weakness. The last thing we need is to resuscitate it. Thanks, but keep your emotional “protection.”

Emotional safetyism undermines pluralism. Diversity is inherently uncomfortable and sometimes emotionally unsafe. The genius of the Constitution of Knowledge is that it forces us—in a systematic, organized, and usually civilized way—to confront unfamiliar and unwelcome ideas, to contend with them, to compare them with our own. Physical safety is assuredly a civil right; but a right to feel safe from words or ideas is a right to criminalize giving offense.

The biggest breakthrough for gay equality was not the Stonewall riot of 1969; it was the Supreme Court’s ruling in 1958, more than a decade earlier, that the government’s censorship of ONE was illegal. That decision gave Frank Kameny and other homosexuals the weapon they needed: their voice.

Cancel campaigns may be legal under the U.S. Constitution, but they violate the Constitution of Knowledge. That they occur in the name of protecting vulnerable minorities is an especially ironic twist. Social justice activists who support censorship and social coercion invariably imagine themselves doing the censoring and coercing. Usually, that is a wishful assumption. Given everything the past couple of millennia have taught about the abuses committed by well-intentioned speech police, social-justice activists’ confidence that they can be trusted to decide what others can say and hear is a sad display of ignorance and hubris.
Even more heartbreaking is that so many activists, in responding to what they claim is oppressive or unsafe expression, deploy exactly the same socially coercive tactics which were used so devastatingly against homosexuals and other minorities. We gay people are very, very well acquainted with canceling. Coercive conformity was weaponized, deployed, and perfected against us. We were denounced for our non-conformism, which was “unsafe” for the country and children and ourselves. We were shamed, and made ashamed, for who we loved and what we thought. We were made unemployable and socially untouchable. We were browbeaten to keep silent and stay in the closet. Anyone who stood up for us was also ostracized. (“Are you a faggot, too?”) Oh, yes, we know something about canceling. We did not spend the last half century and more fighting against it so that we could turn the tables and make pariahs of others.
The society we fought for is a place of toleration and diversity, a place where all people, not just homosexuals, can express their truest selves and live openly as their conscience dictates, consistent with the rights which every person shares and under laws which treat all equally. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, civil rights are a single garment, and you cannot coherently defend your own without also defending those of your opponents. Coerced conformity has no place in a movement for liberty and equality. My activist friends should be fighting for the speech rights of those who maintain that homosexuality is wrong, that marriage is between a man and a woman, that gender is irrevocable from birth. They should be defending intellectual diversity even (actually, especially) when it offends them.



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