Category Archives: History

About the history of the world.

The Revenge of Geography

the-revenge-of-geography

This book was very tough to slog through, but the ideas were superb, even if most of them came from thinkers from before the 20th century.

Pros:

  • Well organized. There are three distinct sections: (1) an overview of several theories of geography (most of which are old and not politically correct today); (2) case studies of the most important zones in the current world; and (3) a short prophecy of America’s own destiny.
  • Good synthesis of ideas. Mackinder, Spykman, and Mahan are the most referenced.
  • Focuses on relevant regions: Europe, Russia, China, India, Persia/Iran, and Ottoman Empire/Turkey.
  • Makes substantive predictions based on geography. For example, the book (2012) forewarned the recent Ukraine-Crimea-Russia situation.
  • Gives a nuanced view of the role of geography. Kaplan carefully says the determinism is only partial. (I originally had the wrong impression from the title & subtitle that it was going to be more deterministic.)
  • The third section, on America’s fate, is particularly solid. If you could only read 50 pages of the book, it should be the last part.

Cons:

  • Often, the writing is neither clear nor concise.
  • Not that much original content, though still valuable as synthesis. (The exception is the last section, which has a lot more content.)

Not sure that this book replaces Diamond or Huntington, but it is an excellent addition.

Kaplan, Robert D. (2012).The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate.

Can Geometry Be Racist?

I recently stumbled upon this article by the Daily Mail: “Why every world map you’re looking at is WRONG: Africa, China and India are distorted despite access to accurate satellite data.” The article’s main beef is with the Mercator projection, a map which you have definitely seen and which looks like this [from Wikipedia]:

Mercator_projection

Here is a political map in the style of Mercator [source, with watermark]:

MercatorProjection-2

The point of the Mercator projection is to preserve straight lines and compass orientation (i.e. very useful for navigation). For example, Atlanta and Los Angeles have roughly the same latitude, and are separated by 2173 miles. However, if you go up straight north from both cities, the distance starts getting smaller and smaller, until it eventually reaches zero when you’re at the north pole. To account for this change in distance, the Mercator projection exaggerates areas that are far from the equator.

Here’s a visualization of this distance getting smaller as you go further from the equator [source; just focus on the triangle on the globe; the picture was demonstrating non-euclidean geometry where the angles of a triangle don't have to add up to 180 degrees]:

triangle-globe

So what’s the point?

Now that the geometry lesson is out of the way, here is the point of the Daily Mail article. If you look at the Mercator maps, you’ll note that Greenland looks at least as big as Africa, when it is actually 14 times smaller (836,000 sq miles vs 11,670,000 sq miles). It also notes that the Scandinavian countries look bigger than India, when, in fact, India is 3 times larger. These are all great points.

However, one statement sounds strange: “It gives the right shapes of countries but at the cost of distorting sizes in favour of the wealthy lands to the north.” Another statement is, “Much of this is due to technical reasons, said Mr Wan, while other inconsistencies are caused by ideological assumptions that can change the way we see the world.”

“The wealthy lands to the north”? Ideological assumptions?

I’m not sure if the author is just using these phrases sensationally, but there is an issue here. The Mercator projection is not racist or imperialist or north-ist. It is simply a geometric application.

In fact, it is physically and mathematically impossible for a 2-dimensional map to accurately portray the globe.

The author even concedes this point in the article: “The biggest challenge is that it is impossible to portray the reality of the spherical world on a flat map – a problem that has haunted cartographers for centuries.”

Then hasn’t the author figured out the solution to the title? “Why every world map you’re looking at is WRONG: Africa, China and India are distorted despite access to accurate satellite data.” Answer: because of geometry, it is, has always been, and always will be, impossible. The only way to look at the globe truly accurately is via… a globe. Or Google Earth.

So what then is the point of the Mail article? A refresher course on history?

Anyways, it is an interesting topic to think about; I just thought the implied arguments were severely flawed. Namely,  the statement that “other inconsistencies are caused by ideological assumptions that can change the way we see the world” implies that perhaps the Mercator projection causes us to think more of “big” countries far from the equator, which happen to be richer, and less of “little” countries nearer the equator, which happen to be poorer.

Also, the fact that this pseudo-explanation is even implied seems to weaken the real answer to the question, why every world map is wrong. Look at the phrasing again: “Why every world map you’re looking at is WRONG: Africa, China and India are distorted despite access to accurate satellite data.” The northern racism explanation (latitude-ism?) makes it seem like we can make accurate maps because of accurate satellite data but we don’t because we want to perpetuate northern superiority and oppress the southerners. (Of course, the Mercator projection equally distorts southern countries, but most of Earth’s landmass is in the Northern hemisphere.) Thus, I argue the article is extremely misleading and is another example of taking some of the views of postmodernism too far, while discounting mathematical knowledge.

The objective facts—the impossibility of accurately representing a sphere on a plane—are right there and we even see them, but some of us just choose to ignore them.

Also, the comment section of the Mail article seems to share this sentiment of critique. Plenty of factors contribute to racism, but geometry is not one of them.

A Single Cause For Everything

Our society loves to pin each problem on one cause. The most recent example is Elliot Rodger. Some say he was a misogynist (Huff Post) and others that he was mentally insane (TIME). Others blame the system instead, claiming that he was operating under a grander systematic male privilege (Salon) or that therapists and law enforcement are inadequate to detect signs mental illness (Slate). And here is yet another pair of conflicting reports in the misogyny (Washington Post) vs mental illness (National Review) debate. Despite the variety of voices in the debate, they all seem to agree on one thing: their reason is the only reason.

The title of the TIME article says blatantly, “Misogyny Didn’t Turn Elliot Rodger Into a Killer,” and the first sentence reads, “Yes, Elliot Rodger was a misogynist — but blaming a cultural hatred for women for his actions loses sight of the real reason why isolated, mentally ill young men turn to mass murder.”

Besides this acknowledgement, the articles all present evidence that furthers their own theories while not considering evidence that might support other theories. It’s very difficult to dig up an article that discusses, for instance, with nuance how much of it was caused by misogyny and how much by mental illness, or how the two factors behave in tandem. (Or whether there is a third factor: this article (Salon) talks about the role of race in Rodger’s motives.)

In case you’ve already made your mind on which side of the misogyny vs mental illness debate you fall on, here is a simpler, non-politically-charged example. Suppose we want a theory to predict where there is snow and where there isn’t snow. The first theory I’ll propose is the latitude theory: higher latitudes are colder and should thus have more snow (assuming we’re in the Northern hemisphere).  If this theory were completely true, the snow distribution might look something like this.

latitude-us-map

Everywhere north of the latitude line, there is snow, and everywhere south, there is no snow. Clearly this isn’t true.

Here is another theory: water proximity theory. Snow needs water to freeze, so snow will form near bodies of water. If this theory were completely true, then we should only find snow near water. Clearly this isn’t true either.

Here is an actual picture of snow cover from NASA:

snowcover

And here is an animated gif of world snow cover:

Earth-satellite-snow

As one can see, neither theory is true as an absolute statement. The correct way to think of these theories is as probabilistic theories. That is, the more north you go, the higher the chance you will encounter snow. The same goes for being near bodies of water, to a lesser extent. Even then, snow cover cannot be explained as a combination of these two factors alone: mountainous regions have more snowfall as well.

The debates in our current-day media are akin to one side saying that latitude determines everything and the other side that proximity to water determines everything. Neither side is willing to look rationally at the cold facts around them.

History is another subject where it is more clear that everything has multiple causes. In just less than two months from today, it will have been 100 years since the beginning of World War I. One might argue that the cause of WWI was the assassination of an archduke, but this simplistic explanation misses all the political tensions and alliances at the time. Similarly, one could argue that it was purely due to the political landscape and that war would have broken out regardless of the assassination. Both causes were necessary to an extent. If Franz Ferdinand had been assassinated in a less tense time, war might have been averted. Similarly, if no assassination had occurred, the great powers might not have had a proper excuse to actually go to war.

So why can’t we use scientific or historical reasoning on sociological issues?

Religion is a great example of this single-cause mentality. The honor killing of Pakistani woman Farzana Parveen last week was unanimously condemned in the US, similarly to the Elliot Rodger shooting. However, whenever someone tried to posit a cause that could have contributed to the honor killing, the other side would knock it down, saying it couldn’t be the right cause, and they give examples. For instance, if you go to the comment section of any major news story about this event, you’ll invariably find that someone criticizes Islam for condoning honor killings and promoting misogyny, and then someone else responds by pointing out that honor killings sometimes happen in other cultures (e.g. Hindu) as well.

Both sides make decent points but such conversations are useless since they are both saying true things but ignoring what the other side is saying. Just as “more north = more snow” is not always true, it is also not false. So sure, Islam might not be the only reason that honor killings occur so much in Pakistan, but it’s a pretty strong factor. Just because a cause is not the only cause does not mean that it is not a cause at all.

With religion in general, people very often make absurdly simplistic statements themselves and assume other people’s views of religion are absurdly simplistic (perhaps by projection). This might also be reflected in the general media and American culture as a whole. We love simple answers to complex problems. I’m not advocating that we personally conduct full academic research for every problem we face, but we are clearly too far on the simplistic side. The problem is that we’re thinking too little, not too much.

Elliot Rodger’s event, just like any other event, has a variety of causes. Both misogyny and ill-handling of mental illness are to blame. Snow cover depends on several conditions. World War I had a complex background, as do honor killings and suicide bombings.

Solutions to oversimplification of causes?

  • Prefer depth of news, not breadth. Instead of gaining a superficial understanding of many stories, try to understand one story really well. Read 10 different articles on Elliot Rodger and look at the issue from all sides.
  • Look at the statistics yourself. Numbers don’t oversimplify themselves.
  • Acquire more information. Have an opinion on Russia’s involvement with Ukraine? See if your opinion changes if you read up on past involvements.
  • Read the comments section of the article. While 90% of it may be trash, someone might point out something worthwhile.

5 Historical Documents on Universal Truths

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post criticizing the strong form of moral relativism, namely the idea that nobody, or no culture, is right or wrong. In this post, to continue the objective vs subjective truth discussion, I will look at five historical documents that have explicitly acknowledged universal truths. Moreover, all of these documents proclaim non-empirical truths, i.e. they are not documents of science that can be tested by the scientific method. (I include this caveat because it’s easy for a relativist to acknowledge that science can have universal truths but then claim arbitrarily that other subjects work differently than science and shouldn’t have universal or objective truths. So, I am addressing the claim that nonscientific truths cannot be universal.)

1. Euclid’s Elements (~300 BC)

euclid-elements

The Elements is one of the most influential books of all time, not just in mathematics but in the entire Western way of thinking. For this post, math is considered separate from science, in that math does not operate by the scientific method. It instead operates by a strictly logical method that was largely formalized by Elements. The steps of this deductive method, in contrast with the inductive scientific method, consist of:

  1. Listing axioms, or self-evident truths.
  2. Listing basic assertions, which also should be self-evident.
  3. Combining the axioms and assertions to obtain theorems, which are the end result.

(For a list of the axioms and assertions, see the wiki page.)

In Elements, the first “postulate,” or axiom, is that a straight line can be drawn from one point to any other point. This seems obvious enough. Clearly if we imagine two points, we can also imagine a straight line between them. Another seemingly obvious claim is the last “common notion,” or assertion, which states that the whole is greater than the part.

But to what extent are these axioms really self-evident or universal? On what basis do we have to judge their universality or objectivity? The last axiom, for instance, known as the parallel postulate, is not even true in certain geometries. These are questions that have been debated for centuries

2. The Declaration of Independence (1776)

Trumbull-Declaration-of-independence

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Note that “We hold these truths to be self-evident” sounds like something Euclid would have written two thousand years earlier. In fact, the similarity is likely more than coincidence. Thomas Jefferson was a reader of Euclid, as evidenced in a letter to John Adams: “I have given up newspapers in exchange for Tacitus and Thucydides, for Newton and Euclid; and I find myself much the happier.” Furthermore, the Declaration reads much like a mathematical proof in the style of Euclid:

  1. The introduction (“When in the Course of human events… a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation”) establishes the want for the “dissolution of political bands” and then acknowledges that they need to declare the causes for it, i.e. the need for a proof.
  2. The preamble establishes the self-evident truths.
  3. The indictment contains the various violations by the King of the self-evident truths.
  4. The denunciation gathers the above together and says a “therefore,” showing that the proof has been concluded: “We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.”
  5. The conclusion notes that the proof has been completed; therefore, they will act on the result of the proof: “That these united Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown.”

More can be found in a talk given by Noam Elkies. The interesting thing is to note how universal these self-evident truths are. Is it objectively true, for example, that all men are created equal? Is this view just a Western and/or Enlightenment construction? I would argue it is not (this is for a different post).

3. Pride and Prejudice (1813)

pride-and-prejudice

The reason I have included Pride and Prejudice over any other work of literature is the opening sentence: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”

Yet again, we have a declaration of universal truth, though this time used in fiction to establish the setting for the story. In contrast with its use in the Elements and the Declaration of Independence, universal truth is used by Austen in a more sarcastic manner.

Indeed, literature in general tends to question truths that are universally held. In this context, Pride and Prejudice is special because it acknowledges this explicitly. The statement, of course, is patently false, but it raises the question of whether there are any universal truths in social relations. And what would “universal” even mean? If something applied to a certain group in early 19th century England but not to anyone else, is it still universal?

4. The Communist Manifesto (1848)

Karl_Marx

Back to serious documents, we have the strong claim by Marx and Engels that “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” The signifier is the word “all,” which again proclaims a universal truth, at least universal to a sufficiently large breadth (“hitherto existing society”). By the nature of their argument, it should not be an absolute universal in the sense of applying to all time: success would mean having a classless society, and therefore, class struggles wouldn’t exist.

This example and Austen’s example are both social/historical universals. Marx argues that history can be understood by looking at class struggles, but again, on what basis can we support this? The modern view is that history is complex and can be partially understood through many different means, not just on modes of production.

On the other hand, Euclid’s is a mathematical universal, and Jefferson’s is a moral universal, in acknowledging the rights of man.

5. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948)

Flag_of_the_United_Nations

This United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights is among the most significant documents of the twentieth century, and it is also based on presumed universal truths. Its preamble consists of seven “whereas” clauses to establish several self-evident assertions much like in the introduction to the US Declaration of Independence. These are:

“Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,

Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people,

Whereas it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law,

Whereas it is essential to promote the development of friendly relations between nations,

Whereas the peoples of the United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women and have determined to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom,

Whereas Member States have pledged themselves to achieve, in co-operation with the United Nations, the promotion of universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms,

Whereas a common understanding of these rights and freedoms is of the greatest importance for the full realization of this pledge….”

These set up the basis for the 30 articles, which are the “self-evident” truths or axioms. The first three articles, for example, are:

“Article 1. All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

Article 2. Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty.

Article 3. Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.”

Note that the UN did not feel the need to prove any of these. They were simply obvious or self-evident. The theorems, however, are all implicit. It is implied that if these axioms are violated, the UN has the authority to intervene on behalf of human rights.

We could spend a long time debating which particular articles are true or false, but the big picture question is, Can any of them be objectively true? Is the discussion of them even meaningful? The intuitive answer is yes.

To be continued…

The Better Angels of Our Nature

The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, by Steven Pinker, is definitely the most thought-provoking book I’ve read this year. Then again, it’s still January, so we’ll see.

better-angels-of-our-nature

First, the question of why violence has declined presupposes that it has declined, a shocking idea to many. From the preface:

“This book is about what may be the most important thing that has ever happened in human history. Believe it or not—and I know that most people do not—violence has declined over long stretches of time, and today we may be living in the most peaceable era of our species’ existence…. It is an unmistakable development, visible on scales from millennia to years, from the waging of wars to the spanking of children.”

There are numerous reviews of this book already in existence, both professional and nonprofessional. So, I’ll focus on what I found to be the most interesting part.

The Violence Delusion

When I surveyed perceptions of violence in an Internet questionnaire, people guessed that 20th-century England was about 14 percent more violent than 14th-century England. In fact it was 95 percent less violent. (61)

The first chapters of the book show that violence has actually declined. But it might also be worth pointing out why many people (including myself) would have thought the opposite. Pinker does discuss these reasons, but the discussion is sporadic, accompanying each individual section, rather than being presented at once with a big-picture view. I present a summary of these scattered points here:

  • Memory pacification: “A woman donning a cross seldom reflects that this instrument of torture was a common punishment in the ancient world; nor does a person who speaks of a whipping boy ponder the old practice of flogging an innocent child in place of a misbehaving prince” (1). Pinker also notes that when witches are mentioned, the thoughts that come to mind are of fairy tales and fantasy, not of drowning trials, hanging, or burning at the stake. We react to the Colosseum with awe at the architecture and the glory of the to-the-death fights, not with horror at the endorsed murders that took place (imagine if Auschwitz were toured in the same manner as the Colosseum). Overall, this makes it more difficult to remember how cruel the past was.
  • Publicization of relatively small events: We have a full-day press that competes to put out news stories and keep your attention. Thus, every time a homicide or multiple homicide occurs, we are reminded of the dangerous violence in our current society. Newtown was tragic, yes. Was it a very significant event relative to other things that go on in the 21st century United States? Yes. But that is the point—we live in an age where 28 deaths is considered a national tragedy. An isolated event involving 28 deaths, common in medieval times given the feuding states, would hardly affect a medieval peasant’s perception of how violent their country was.
  • Change in mentality: Pinker notes that, as horrendous as we would view it today, torture was not seen as wrong in the Middle Ages. “[T]he sporadic, clandestine, and universally decried eruptions of torture in recent times cannot be equated with the centuries of institutionalized sadism in medieval Europe. Torture in the Middle Ages was not hidden, denied, or euphemized. It was not just a tactic by which brutal regimes intimidated their political enemies or moderate regimes extracted information from suspected terrorists. It did not erupt from a frenzied crowd stirred up in hatred against a dehumanized enemy. No, torture was woven into the fabric of public life. It was a form of punishment that was cultivated and celebrated, an outlet for artistic and technological creativity. Many of the instruments of torture were beautifully crafted and ornamented. They were designed to inflict not just physical pain, as would a beating, but visceral horrors, such as penetrating sensitive orifices, violating the bodily envelope, displaying the victim in humiliating postures, or putting them in positions where their own flagging stamina would increase their pain and lead to disfigurement or death. Torturers were the era’s foremost experts in anatomy and physiology, using their knowledge to maximize agony, avoid nerve damage that might deaden the pain, and prolong consciousness for as long as possible before death” (130). Pinker then goes on to point out that while we today would condemn an act of torture because torture is inhumane, medieval criticisms of torture focused on the wrongful targets of torture—the act of torture itself was fine, it just mattered whom it was being used against. It’s difficult to perceive your time as violent when atrocious actions like these are not viewed as violent.
  • Rise in awareness: “Well into the 1970s marital rape was not a crime in any state, and the legal system underweighted the interests of women in other rapes. Legal scholars who have studied jury proceedings have discovered that jurors must be disabused of the folk theory that women can be negligently liable for their own rapes…” (395). Stats from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics show that the annual rate of rape from 1973 to 2008 had fallen by 80%. Pinker notes, “In fact, the decline may be even greater than that, because women have almost certainly been more willing to report being raped in recent years, when rape has been recognized as a serious crime, than they were in earlier years, when rape was often hidden and trivialized” (402). Thus a decline by a factor of five in reported cases could and probably does mean an even greater decline in actual cases. On the flipside, since awareness of rape is up so much, people generally perceive it as a greater threat today than it was decades ago.
  • More available data towards the present time. “Remember Tuchman’s ‘private wars’ of the 14th century, the ones that knights fought with furious gusto and a single strategy, namely killing as many of another knight’s peasants as possible? Many of these massacres were never dubbed The War of Such-and-Such and immortalized in the history books. An undercounting of conflicts below the military horizon could, in theory, throw off the body count for the period as a whole” (199). Basically, an availability bias.
  • Population and proportionality. Using a chart compiled by Matthew White, Pinker lists the 21 events in human history with the highest human-caused death tolls. Indeed, World War II tops the list with 55 million, the 16th century French Wars of Religion are at the bottom with 3 million, and the other 19 events are in between those. Some of the things I had never heard of, such as the An Lushan Revolt, which apparently happened in the 8th century and caused a death toll of 36 million (from White’s data). Surprisingly to many, 14 out of 21 of the worst human-caused events in history happened prior to the 20th century, and this is based on absolute numbers. When the death tolls for these events are adjusted by population size, only one 20th century event makes the top 10 (which was World War II in 9th position).
  • Political sentiments: The 21st century started with 9/11 and Iraq. But these are almost trivial compared to the violence and wars of the past. In the section “The Long Peace,” Pinker notes, “Zero is the number of developed countries that have expanded their territory since the late 1940s by conquering another country. No more Poland getting wiped off the map, or Britain adding India to its empire or Austria helping itself to the odd Balkan nation…. [T]wo entire categories of war—the imperial war to acquire colonies, and the colonial war to keep them—no longer exist” (251).

With all this in mind, the fog can be cast aside. This brief summary is not from the book itself, but from the website: “Tribal warfare was nine times as deadly as war and genocide in the 20th century. The murder rate of Medieval Europe was more than thirty times what it is today. Slavery, sadistic punishments, and frivolous executions were unexceptionable features of life for millennia, then suddenly were targeted for abolition.  Wars between developed countries have vanished, and even in the developing world, wars kill a fraction of the people they did a few decades ago. Rape, battering, hate crimes, deadly riots, child abuse, cruelty to animals—all substantially down.”

Overall Comments

I thought the discussions of the Enlightenment and Counter-Enlightenment were interesting. Pinker shows the Enlightenment as one of the principal motivators in the humanitarian reforms of the 18th and 19th centuries. It was an age people began seriously questioning things whether torture, witch-burning, slavery, sexism, racism, or homophobia were actually justified, and rules started to be edited or written anew (the Declaration of Independence’s assertion that all men are created equal was one giant leap at the time). On the other hand, Counter-Enlightenment values generally countered (for lack of a better word) the Enlightenment ones. Perhaps something that will cause/is causing/has caused much uproar is Pinker’s link between the Counter-Enlightenment and some of the deadly experiences of the 20th century like the World Wars, Nazism, and Communism. I feel like these are generally associated by the public with Enlightenment values, but that’s another topic. As for the modern day:

“Reason appears to have fallen on hard times. Popular culture is plumbing new depths of dumbth, and American political discourse has become a race to the bottom. We are living in an era of scientific creationism, New Age flimflam, 9/11 conspiracy theories, psychic hotlines, and resurgent religious fundamentalism.” (642)

Pinker makes sure to address the issue of violence from multiple angles. It’s commonly believed, for instance, that a nation’s economy has a significant impact on its violence rates. However, this often seems to be correlation rather than causation. Poor countries in unstable regions are politically… unstable, and politically unstable regions tend to have higher rates of violence. On the other hand, if economy (say by GDP or per capita GDP) were a strong measure of rates of violence, we should expect US violence rates to cycle up and down in response to expansions and recessions, which they do not. Nor, for instance, was Britain’s rise in personal wealth resulting from the Industrial Revolution the reason for a decrease in violence—the decline of violence in Britain had already begun centuries before, but up until the Industrial Revolution, average real wage was flat.

In all, The Better Angels of Our Nature was an extraordinary read. Even though we face tough issues in our time, there are many ancient atrocities that we no longer have to worry about on an institutional scale: “…abduction into sexual slavery, divinely commanded genocide, lethal circuses and tournaments, punishment on the cross, rack, wheel, stake, or strappado for holding unpopular beliefs, decapitation for not bearing a son, disembowelment for having dated a royal, pistol duels to defend their honor…” (30). Those wanting to do away with the decadent present and instead live in the idyllic, peaceful past might be surprised, for if their dreams were to become reality, they would face unspeakable rates of violence and death.

More on Pride in Race, and Social Revolutions

US Capitol

This is a followup to my earlier post “Pride in Things Out of Your Control“. In that article, I argued that it does not make sense to be proud of anything that is purely random, such as your race. An even more important argument is that race should not a factor when judging anyone, since no one chose their own race. More strongly, and perhaps, race should not be a factor when making laws.

For the same reason as before, namely that no one actually chose their own race, it is strange for laws to target certain racial groups. Is that not the very definition of racial discrimination, or shall I say, racism? Now, from a utilitarian perspective, it is possible to justify temporary measures that target specific race groups in order to increase the total social utility, namely affirmative action. However, the real difference to bridge in these cases is usually not so much race as it is socioeconomic conditions. Affirmative action is defined in terms of race rather than socioeconomic status because it is easier for the common person to understand and easier to enforce.

With affirmative action aside, even though its true motivation is only indirectly related to race, there are very few possible justifications for using race in law. And while the Zimmerman case should not have been related to race, the public perception of it certainly seemed like it. The law argued in court and the racism argued outside of it were out of sync.

Yes, in my last post, I wrote about how little this case mattered, but the more time that time goes by, the more I see people talking about it, and often with completely wrong accounts.

The question is, who has failed? Are the people so ignorant of the court system and brainwashed by the media that they have no clue what the trial was actually about? Or is the court system so disconnected from reality that it failed to serve justice?

A Historical Tangent: Changing the Mindset of Other Groups

It is important to keep in mind that when groups do agitate for rights, their practical purpose is to convince whomever is in charge to give them rights. Just looking at American history, we see that every time there is a major social revolution granting rights to a previously discriminated group, the government itself contained extremely few, if any, members of that group.

Abraham Lincoln was white, and so was the rest of the US government when the Civil War occurred. When Congress granted women the right to vote, there were no women in Congress. And when the LGBT community first agitated for rights, no member of Congress of such an orientation had openly declared it.

While this is not directly related to the main topic, I wished to remind you of what protests are actually for. A discriminated group MUST convince fellow citizens who are not of that discriminated group that something must be changed. This in turn will, after a number of years, cause a change in public sentiment which will be reflected in the election, and in turn into law.

In this respect the LGBT movement is sort of a model modern movement, in that it successfully convinced a majority of straight people to accept LGBT people as equal.

So to the public who thinks that the result of the Zimmerman trial was unjust and that racism or the self-defense law should be changed, you must try to convince people who disagree with you of your position. The reason I point this out, when it seems completely obvious, is that it is not easy to do in the current world.

Yes you can announce your ideas to hundreds if not thousands of people with social media, but social media is also highly self-clustering, in that on a given social issue, discussion between the two groups is far more rare than among one group. That is, you may think that you champion good causes on Facebook, but your good intent may be useless because the only people listening are the ones who already agree with you anyway. This is especially true if you are not highly aggressive or confrontational in your posts. Unless you explicitly provoke the other side, your posts and resulting discussions will be nothing more than friendly groupthink, and which will only increase confirmation bias. An argument between people who disagree is far more useful than an argument between people who agree.

So go ahead and discuss, debate, and disagree.

Pride in Things Out of Your Control

The topic for today is: Can you be proud of something that is out of your control?

I started thinking about this last week, when someone claimed to be proud of belonging to a particular house at Harvard University. This seemed quite reasonable, and perhaps rational, until he admitted the following caveat: the house assignments were entirely random.

In any normal situation I would let this go, but in our internship there is a strong emphasis on thinking rationally, and I was chatting with people I consider to be highly rational. So I raised the issue and we discussed it briefly, but it was not really resolved. I am continuing my thoughts on it here.

Pride in Luck

Imagine a game where you roll a fair 6-sided die. If it lands on a 6, you gain $10; otherwise, you lose $10. The expected value of this game is negative (on average you lose $6 per game), so one would be a fool to play it. But suppose you did play the game once, and it landed a 6, netting you $10.

Can you be proud of rolling a 6?

I would argue that you cannot be proud of rolling the 6, as there is nothing you did that affected the chance of rolling it. (Even further, I would argue that you cannot even be proud of choosing to play the game, as it has negative expectancy with a significant chance of loss.) It is irrational to be proud of something that happened by chance.

Biological and Geographical Luck

Similarly, can you really be proud to be a member of whatever race you belong to? Personally, I would answer no: I happen to be Chinese, but I have never felt proud of being Chinese, simply because I had no choice whatsoever in being born Chinese. In fact, I would far more strongly identify as “American” rather than “Chinese,” since there are some things I actually can make decisions between, e.g. Eastern vs. Western philosophy, cultural values, and freedom of speech; and in each case I agree more with the American side.

The key difference is that nationality is something I could theoretically change. Had I the inclination, I could feasibly move to some other country than the US. Yet no matter how much I might want to be of some other race, I can’t revoke being Chinese. Thus I cannot be proud of being Chinese in race, but I can be proud of being American in nationality.

Because of this way of thought, I have never understood the point of racial clubs and organizations. I won’t speak out about other racial groups in America due to lack of knowledge, but I will say that Chinese organizations I have encountered in the US seem useless, cultish, and indoctrinating, to the point of being as bad as religious organizations. Every Sunday for a while, I had to go to a completely useless, mind-numbingly boring, tradition-ladden “school” which, of course, cost my parents quite some money. But I’ll save that rant for another day.

Elsewhere in geography, many people are proud of football or basketball teams—of the city in which they grew up or are currently living. Unless you specifically moved to some city for the sole purpose of being with its sports team(s), it is irrational to be proud of a local sports team just because you happen to share, by luck, some geographical vicinity.

In a similar way to geographical luck, biological luck defines us all more than it should. Survived some disease? Good for you, you happened to have had certain beneficial genetic mutations and proper health care. Tall? Again, a matching assortment of genes and nutrition. Hair or eye color? Genes. Male or female? Just a difference between XY and XX. It is just nonsensical for someone to be proud of being these.

Pride in History?

American Flag

So now, having established that I am proud to be an American, the question remains as to whether I can be proud of something that happened earlier in its history. After all, I have no control over the events of the American Revolution, just as I have no control over the roll of dice. However, the difference is that the American Revolution and its leaders were not an accident—they were forged from the values of the Enlightenment.

Then what makes it rational to be proud of the Enlightenment? I think the reasons listed above, for why it is justified for me to be proud of being American but not of being Chinese, provide the answer: one can and should be proud of philosophical and cultural values (though not necessarily of the culture in which one was born). Even now, the path of independence and freedom from tyranny is a slow and hard-fought process. Events like the American Revolution, even though they are long into the past, are then indeed something to be proud of. Happy Independence Day!

Edit (7/21/13): I wrote a follow-up.