Archive for November, 2009

Overpopulation controversies

A response to this article about overpopulation. Here follow some comments.

1. The author is racist, white separatist, ultra-anti-immigration, and heavily involved with the extreme right.

I do not use these terms lightly.

She is tied to the far-right and white-supremacist “Council of Conservative Citizens”. It’s a hate group, which has promulgated ideas of racial superiority, anti-Semitism, homophobia, and so on. In 1998 there was a big scandal that a lot of Republican party politicians in the southern US had close ties to the group. They are denounced by the mainstream right wing in the US, which in my view is extremist and radically regressive enough.

Substantial ties remain to Republican politicians. There is a good summary by the Southern Poverty Law Center here. See also here.

She is also tied to “The Occidental Quarterly”, which describes itself as “devoted to the ethnic, racial, and cultural heritage that forms the foundation of Western Civilization”. The journal is anti-immigration — except from Western nations! — and isolationist. It’s also anti-Semitic: the “Anti-Defamation League”, a Jewish organisation, has an article about it at
http://www.adl.org/main_Extremism/Occidental_Observer.htm . The Anti-Defamation League itself is often quite despicable — they denounce and make life hell not only for anti-Semites, which is fine by me, but also people who criticises policies of the state of Israel, thereby protecting policies of brutal occupation and repression in occupied Palestine. But their evidence regarding this publication seems clear.

Well, a single person is not a far-right hate group or an anti-Semitic journal. But she is on the editorial advisory board of the “Citizens Informer”, their quarterly newspaper. And she is also on the editorial advisory board of “The Occidental Quarterly”. She’s on the national advisory board of the anti-immigrant group “Protect Arizona Now”. So she is hardly on the margins of these groups or an unwitting participant. She’s a willing and knowing part of all this. In fact within the anti-immigration movement she is seen as “the grand dame”.

In her own words: “I owe it to my own and others’ grandchildren to work to maintain the environmental, cultural, and social integrity of the United States, and to hold the federal government accountable for their constitutionally-mandated duty to protect this nation from invasion.” Immigration apparently endangers the nation and threatens its cultural integrity. And she denies being a white supremacist but freely describes herself as “white separatist”. See here.

So, she holds despicable views. Of course, being personally despicable and holding extreme racist and proto-fascist opinions does not disqualify you from talking about anything. She does have a PhD apparently. But this may well be relevant in evaluating what she has to say.

2. The immigration and aid stuff seems to come out of nowhere.

But it is now clear, knowing her background.

Sure, “foreign aid” and “immigration” are in the title, and the purpose of the article seems to be suggesting some government policies. But the immediate motivation for the article seems very different, at least the way it’s written: overpopulation. It’s perfectly legitimate to have a concern with overpopulation, although the author’s motivations may well be a particularly racist form of overpopulation. With this concern, we then try to understand what makes fertility rates vary, which is also perfectly legitimate. We argue that it isn’t so much prosperity/education/health/etc, again perfectly legitimately. We argue that sharp economic changes may make a difference, still legitimate. I will get to this fairly reasonable stuff in a minute.

But then we turn to aid and immigration, and the standard drops
through the floor.

The argument seems to be that foreign aid increases fertility, because it provides a sense of economic opportunity that encourages more child-bearing. That is a hypothesis, and an extremely surprising one: one hardly expects people in the poorest nations to base their family planning decisions, if they are decisions at all, on the existence or levels of foreign grants or loans. Nor would one think that the existence of emigration would affect family planning decisions, although maybe it is marginally more plausible. Either way, one would think there are many more immediate concerns. They are strange directions to take after what looks like a legitimate analysis of fertility rates. Given the author’s racist views, perhaps they are more explicable. But, nonetheless, these are hypotheses. They require some evidence to support them. So let’s consider the evidence given in turn.

(a) The argument regarding foreign aid.

How do we begin this argument? With a religious statement: “giving is a tenet of [US] foreign policy”, the secular US religion that the US is the greatest, most glorious, most generous nation in the world. I’m sure this would come as a surprise to the victims of bombing, repression, terrorism, and murderous governments supported by the US. Moreover as regards foreign aid per capita, US spending is very low among developed nations.

After religion, we turn to ideology and unsupported supposition on behalf of the developing world: luckily most aid is now in the form of loans, so that the developing world does not think we are for fools, devious, or infinitely rich. The use of aid to support murderous regimes, for geopolitical machinations, to entrap poor nations in debt obligations, to support repressive militaries and paramilitaries, and to create demand for domestic constituencies, of course go unsaid. The only point is the religion, and the ideology — we are too good for ourselves; but we shouldn’t give to them, lucky we lend.

Well, this material is ridiculous but content-free. We then adduce material that worldwide foreign aid runs to the billions, even to the level where it is $20 per capita in Africa. (I’m not sure about what the timeframe is and can’t find her source.) How does this aid affect fertility? Which countries receive more foreign aid, which less, and how do their fertility rates correlate? No evidence is given, whatsoever.

The only argument given is that “Such transfers of wealth cannot but perpetuate trust in one-world rhetoric–a belief that the community of nations can be relied upon to help, just like family. A sense of security grows… Efforts to plan for one’s own future do not thrive in this climate”. That the world consists of one planet is clearly a horrid communist plot, and obviously, feeling good about their place in a humane world free of borders, inequality and material scarcity, people in the developing world, where those properties of the world are most obvious, multiply like rabbits.

That this is seriously considered an argument — and the only argument — for the proposition that foreign aid increases fertility, speaks for itself. It beggars belief.

But it gets better. We have an argument for the converse — that the absence of foreign aid decreases fertility. Two examples are cited: Mao’s China and the Burmese junta. Clearly paradigm control cases. There could not be any other factors present, clearly; no, any difference must be attributed to the absence of foreign aid, which is clearly the defining characteristic of China and Myanmar.

As for China, somehow the absence of foreign aid as a causative factor dwarfs government repression and mandatory regulation of childbirth; or perhaps the absence of foreign aid was what caused the one child policy? The author’s precise reasoning is unclear, but no matter. As for Myanmar, despite the lack of information and uncertainty among professional demographers, the author claims simply to understand everything: “But it is not unclear”. Even if she is right that the cause was “lack of resources” (which seems to be her previous argument), it is not at all clear what effect foreign aid had on those resources.

So, this is astonishingly bad, and the evidence for this hypothesis is basically zero. Given the lack of evidence, one wonders why the author even wrote it. But her racist political views make it clear. One should also take note that the are also perfectly consistent with believing that the recipients of aid, usually not white, are lesser human beings; this is her view in any case.

(b) The argument regarding immigration

Thankfully, regarding immigration the author is more honest: she admits there is no evidence for the proposition. Studies are needed! She has a hypothesis, and is speculating. However, lack of an argument will not stop her arguing that to stop people multiplying we must both impoverish them and shut the door on migration.

By her own argument, fertility is caused by improving economic condition; yet, at least the sort of migration she is thinking of, economic migration from Latin America to the US, one would think, is caused by bad or deteriorating economic conditions. It is a contradiction; perhaps she can twist her way out of it somehow, but she makes no attempt and appears not to realise it.

She has some tables, apparently, of immigration and fertility rate data, but I can’t see them. Apparently in “high-immigration countries” the fertility rates are declining, although she says they are “slow to decline”. I don’t know if such a correlation exists between immigration and fertility from what she says, but even if such a correlation appears, there is no reason to believe it to be causative.

One can imagine that a cause of grinding poverty could lead to both child-bearing (to bring in income for the family, contra her hypothesis) and economic migration (to escape grinding poverty). There are a lot of figures about the scale of undocumented migration to the US. This has almost no bearing on fertility. Perhaps the only, again unsubstantiated, statements are that: overpopulation is a “push factor” for migration; and communities in Latin America dependent on remittances may rationally calculate they should have more children to risk death and deportation crossing the Arizona desert. But again, despite sounding incredible, no evidence is given, and other factors like poverty and unemployment go unmentioned, which are the obvious ones.

Again, it is worth pointing out that, however flimsy the argument, this provides an excuse for racist anti-immigration policies: policies the author supports, on explicitly racist grounds.

3. Some of it is reasonable, and surprising

Before she gets to the anti-aid and anti-immigration business, she seems to cite facts and evidence that do appear surprising, about the “demographic transition”. The essay is therefore an interesting example of how racist ideology can distort an otherwise seemingly intelligent mind.

The examples of East Africa, Egypt, Sudan, Brazil, Ireland, India, France, and others, are interesting. Surely “mainstream” demographers have considered them as well. These do seem to be counterexamples to the proposition, perhaps a mainstream one — I’m not an expert in the field — that rising wealth leads to lower fertility. Of course they do not contradict that wealthy nations today have low fertility rates, but they have important implications.

On the other hand, again these are only correlations. I am not an expert on these examples. I’m not sure how they fit into the global context.  I would want to see other work and explanations, by other studies. She does mention education, health, contraception, but does not consider other potential factors: women’s rights, role in the workplace, etc.

This stuff is interesting. The racism aside, this gives nuance to the picture of how people have babies. Humans are complicated. They make decisions for all sorts of reasons.

But this article is disappointing because it following all this it becomes so atrociously bad, and probably motivated at least partly by the author’s racism.

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Written by dan

November 25th, 2009 at 12:28 am

The slipperiness of language

I am taking a French class here since my French is so terrible. I can write French fine, thanks to google translate, and also read French fine… thanks also to google translate. (Reading or writing without an internet connection is another matter!)

For speaking French, when I know the word for what I want to say, fine also, but I don’t know the words for what I want to say about 50% of the time. This is probably worse than for most people, since I always like to express things using big words and convoluted grammar. And so I end up most of the time playing the game of expressing my stupid comments with the words I do know. But in the 50% of cases where I know how to say what I mean, people seem to understand me fine.

As for listening to other people speaking French, this is still unbelievably bad. I felt like I improved in the first week here; I can pretty well pick out the sentence structure. And maybe I can understand like 2/3 of the words in any given sentence. Just not the important ones. For any sentence of any reasonable length I’m totally lost by the end of it. Some people seem to be able to get by on this level of understanding, but this requires some intuition about humans. Not so for mathematicians.

It’s a bit different to what I thought, living with a foreign language. It’s not like incomprehension all the time, it’s not totally a matter of aimless staring of incomprehension — though I do, actually, stare aimlessly without comprehending, all the time. (It’s so terrible disappointing people, because I look like i should speak the language, I am white, male, grown-up, in an office, at a university, etc.) It’s more like, you have a vague gist of what people are talking about, you know the general concepts they are talking about, but you cannot be sure of anything at all that anybody said.

French is full of too many false cognates, too many slight variations, too many words which sound the same, too many 1- or 2-syllable words, too many non-pronounced letters. It’s a slippery, slimy, thing… maybe I understood, maybe I didn’t, what exactly did you mean by that, and I know that there is no way for you to express it more precisely without switching to english. For a mathematician especially this is extremely frustrating.

Oh well, this will improve.

Written by dan

November 23rd, 2009 at 10:02 pm

Torture and hypocrisy

Accepting the “after 9/11 was extraordinary” argument for torture would then justify torture in any more dire situation — such as invasion by a foreign army or outright war. It would therefore justify torture (say) of US soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq, or in any war. It would make war crimes, in time of war, legal. It is a contradiction in terms.

There was a good article in the NY Times about foreign policy upholding dictators and murderers. This may sound impossible; but this restriction does not apply to the sins of others. Imagine if one could get this sort of honesty in one’s own country.

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/13/world/africa/13francophone.html

“Woe to you… hypocrites that you are! You clean the outside of the cup and the dish, but inside they are filled with the results of greed and self-indulgence… First clean the inside of the cup and the dish, so that the outside may become clean as well.”
– Matthew 23:25-6

Written by dan

November 13th, 2009 at 9:34 pm

Reflections on history

Given that today is the 20th anniversary of a pivotal event in history, perhaps some reflections on history are in order. But “optimism” is not the right word for it; neither is “pessimism”.

Certainly, if we emphasise the world wars, utopian thinking seems like hopeless naievete. If one is to consider what human nature is capable of, the lower bound is barely imaginable: Holocausts, pogroms, pillages, rape, torture, assassinations, massacres, genocides, and war upon war upon war — these are the fodder of history. It seems to me this is less appreciated than it should be. Among conservatives and capitalists, for instance, we often hear the argument that human nature is so bad that we cannot hope for anything else. But if they really appreciated how bad human nature can be, they would live in perpetual astonishment that we have what we have today. Those who truly understand the horrors of the human species and think they are unavoidable should not be conservative, or capitalist, but Hobbesian, monarchist, or fascist. I would agree that human institutions are established and upheld by fallible and corruptible humans — but more: by murderous, vengeful, aggressive, malicious humans.

On the other hand, the range of freedoms, level of civilization, and social development achieved today would be scarcely imaginable half a century ago — and entirely alien to society a century ago. This is not merely a statement about technology, but about attitudes and general social progress. And so on: the general position a century ago would be unimaginable a couple of centuries before that. For most of human history, any notion of governance other than absolute tyranny would be considered a naive pipe dream; any notion of individual freedom an unattainable and indulgent luxury; and any notion of social equality pure treason to the tribe, or caste, or class, or race, or nation. And more, we see a steady growth in the range of beings considered worthy, or “us”, or worth defending: from the family, or tribe, to the village, the nation or race, to the civilization, to the entire world. Of course there are exceptions — exceptions spelt out in destruction and broken lives — but I find this identifiable.

A generally positive trend of course does not imply that we are approaching utopia. One may easily note that some of the greatest advances follow the greatest catastrophes — the UN after the Holocaust and the second world war; government stabilization of the economy after the Great Depression; socialist revolutions erupting out of war; monarchies overthrown out of hunger; right back to the Persian invasion uniting the ancient Greeks and further. The next catastrophes which, on a sober analysis, seem quite likely to occur — vast global climate change and the end of oil — and those which are still highly possible, like global nuclear war — are of such an order that we barely know if the human race will come out of it with any civilization intact. If we do, I would imagine that an improved social and political order would follow; but this seems to me by no means a likely outcome.

To ask what the human race is capable of, it seems to me not a complete answer to say we are horrible. We are, but we got this far, somehow. I see no reason why we cannot go further. Moreover, it’s trite to point out how fast society changes today, and that society is changing ever more quickly. The only thing we can say about the world a decade or more from now is that it will be vastly, even unimaginably different.

At least as far as economic institutions are concerned, the general pessimism has a clearly identifiable historical cause: indeed today it is the 20th anniversary of it. The horrors of the systems and governments that claimed to be “socialist” and offer the better alternative to capitalism are well known. Their collapse means that no alternative to capitalism appears to exist. (It does, but we have to look harder.) And their (false, in my view) claim to the label of “socialist” means that even to talk about a better system than capitalism is to enter a linguistic, definitional, and substantive political minefield.

The only scientific response we can give (if one were at all possible) to the question of what social systems are compatible with human nature is that we have no idea. We know some lower bounds but have no clue as to upper bounds. It seems clear that human tendencies and potentials may or may not flourish depending upon the environment, the institutions in which they develop — we do not know how far. We can say that human nature is capable of supporting vastly morally and politically better systems than have been thought possible for most of history. Moreover we have multiple previous instances of false announcements of the “end of history”. It would be extraordinary if that were actually the case today.

Can our “collective egoism” be transcended? Of course we all hope so. But we have no idea. All we can say maybe is that the collective of the egoism does seem to be historically broadening in scope — and, probably, largely due to social movements against war and for international solidarity. In truth we have very little evidence as to how human beings would live in a democratic, participatory economy, free of the authority of the boss, of the shareholder, greed, the profit motive, the authoritarianism of property, and all the deadening and infantilizing pressures and incentives that come with a market system. Such a situation has barely ever existed. We have some evidence that it is possible, from a few isolated historical examples, usually crushed by military force at the disposal of power.

And so it does not seem that history has foreclosed on us yet. I would say there is still a light upon the hill.

But still I would say that human history is not necessarily a staircase to utopia. It does not automatically progress; on the contrary. It is made by women and men, who make choices about how they act and how they live their lives. The trajectory of a society can be changed, or perhaps, perturbed from its orbit; existing habits and institutions exercise a stranglehold over much of how people act and think. Marx seems right when he says that “Men [and Women!] make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under circumstances of their own choosing, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.” But they must make it; it is not done for them, and it is their struggle to do so.

In the case of those seeking a better economic system, reflecting on the 20th century, and its culmination in the events of 20 years ago today, again to paraphrase Marx, the weight of history hangs like a nightmare over the brains of the living.

Of course we can only be glad at the fall of the authoritarian communist regimes. We are glad they are gone. But today, a day of capitalist triumphalism, relentlessly repeating that greed has conquered the earth, is not a day for optimism. And, on any rational analysis, optimism is hard to find. Rationally speaking, the human race usually appears (and is) headed towards disaster.

But if we do not force ourselves into an optimistic orientation, we guarantee the worst. This is Gramsci’s optimism of the will.

Looked at another way, the potentials are clear. We have the technology to avert catastrophic global warming; we just need to implement it. We have technology progressing beyond our comprehension. We have a world fed up with capitalism, and yearning for something more: everywhere we look, in mainstream thought but even in popular culture, figures of power are demons and their system is leading us to doom. The institutions of global capitalism are no more than a few decades old, they are historically young. We have increasingly unified movements to oppose them, in spite of a vast propaganda apparatus to the contrary. We need a vision of what we want to achieve in this wondrous, still-young world, and then we can go out and build it for all the world.

And if we make it out of this century intact, who knows what we may achieve? It seems to me, therefore, imperative to ensure that we do.

Written by dan

November 10th, 2009 at 1:12 am

Socialism as saintliness

As part of my ongoing efforts to understand humans, I recently read William James’ “The Varieties of Religious Experience”. (Now, if only there were a book “The Varieties of Capitalist Experience”!) As you might expect, I do not share James’ views on most things, but several passages are highly interesting.

Now, some of the following seems clearly wrong: Quakerism for instance seems to me to be perfectly compatible with non-violent resistance. And, it may grate upon the non-religious among you (it did on me a little): I would read “salvation” as something purely ethical, although James means something more.

And, as friends have pointed out, this is a highly exclusive version of socialism. Socialism, if it is anything, is democratic and inclusive, in which all can have their say, not only in the legislative-political but also in the economic realm.

Moreover, as religious friends have pointed out, the “doormat Christianity” of turning the other cheek, as it is usually understood, is not faithful to the original text of the gospels, which preach non-violent resistance, rather than no resistance at all.

BUT in any case, note that at the end he considers utopian socialists as the secular version of this saintliness, as an exemplary, visionary orientation. I would disagree with his unsupported judgment about practicability — indeed he seems to be entirely contemptuous of them — but the general characterisation to me seems valid. Note some of the language is surprisingly modern; this was written in 1901-2, but the “world yet to be born” is straight out of Arundhati Roy, and the “creative social force” and “potentialities for human development” are fairly modern socialist or anarchist formulations, I would say. The vanguard imagery (torch bearers! drops flung ahead of the crest of a wave!) is perfectly overblown, straight out of orthodox Marxism-Leninism — of course this is “vanguardism” in its defensible sense of exemplary moral character, not the apologetics for Leninist authoritarianism with which that word has long been tainted.

The creation of a socialist heaven on earth, regardless of the existence of a heaven per se, of course is much older, as old as socialism itself — an animating vision of all revolutionary and
transformative politics.

And, the “facets of the character-polyhedron” is an awesomely geeky formulation. What is this earth thing you call love?

Passage follows.


[S]aintliness has to face the charge of preserving the unfit, and breeding parasites and beggars. ‘Resist not evil,’ ‘Love your enemies,’ these are saintly maxims of which men of this world find it hard to speak without impatience. Are the men of this world right, or are the saints in possession of the deeper range of truth?

No simple answer is possible…

As there is no worse lie than a truth misunderstood by those who hear it, so reasonable arguments, challenges to magnanimity, and appeals to sympathy or justice, are folly when we are dealing with human crocodiles and boa-constrictors. The saint may simply give the universe into the hands of the enemy by his trustfulness. He may by non-resistance cut off his own survival.

… We must frankly confess, then, using our empirical common sense and ordinary practical prejudices, that in the world that actually is, the virtues of sympathy, charity, and non-resistance may be, and often have been, manifested in excess. The powers of darkness have systematically taken advantage of them. The whole modern scientific organization of charity is a consequence of the failure of simply giving alms. The whole history of constitutional government is a commentary on the excellence of resisting evil, and when one cheek is smitten, of smiting back and not turning the other cheek also.

You will agree to this in general, for in spite of the Gospel, in spite of Quakerism, in spite of Tolstoi, you believe in fighting fire with fire, in shooting down usurpers, locking up thieves, and freezing out vagabonds and swindlers.

And yet you are sure, as I am sure, that were the world confined to these hard-headed, hard-hearted, and hard-fisted methods exclusively, were there no one prompt to help a brother first, and find out afterwards whether he were worthy; no one willing to drown his private wrongs in pity for the wronger’s person; no one ready to be duped many a time rather than live always on suspicion; no one glad to treat individuals passionately and impulsively rather than by general rules of prudence; the world would be an infinitely worse place than it is now to live in. The tender grace, not of a day that is dead, but of a day yet to be born somehow, with the golden rule grown natural, would be cut out from the perspective of our imaginations.

The saints, existing in this way, may, with their extravagances of human tenderness, be prophetic. Nay, innumerable times they have proved themselves prophetic. Treating those whom they met, in spite of the past, in spite of all appearances, as worthy, they have stimulated them to be worthy, miraculously transformed them by radiant example and by the challenge of their expectation.

From this point of view we may admit the human charity which we find in all saints, and the great excess of it which we find in some saints, to be a genuinely creative social force, tending to make real a degree of virtue which it alone is ready to assume as possible. The saints are authors, auctores, increasers, of goodness. The potentialities of development in human souls are unfathomable. So many who seemed irretrievably hardened have in point of fact been softened, converted, regenerated, in ways that amazed the subjects even more than they surprised the spectators, that we never can be sure in advance of any man that his salvation by the way of love is hopeless. We have no right to speak of human crocodiles and boa-constrictors as of fixedly incurable beings. We know not the complexities of personality, the smouldering emotional fires, the other facets of the character-polyhedron, the resources of the subliminal region… The saints, with their extravagance of human tenderness, are the great torch-bearers of this belief, the tip of the wedge, the clearers of the darkness. Like the single drops which sparkle in the sun as they are flung far ahead of the advancing edge of a wavecrest or of a flood, they show the way and are forerunners. The world is not yet with them, so they often seem in the midst of the world’s affairs to be preposterous. Yet they are impregnators of the world, vivifiers and animaters of potentialities of goodness which but for them would lie forever dormant. It is not possible to be quite as mean as we naturally are, when they have passed before us. One fire kindles another; and without that over-trust in human worth which they show, the rest of us would lie in spiritual stagnancy.

… If things are ever to move upward, some one must be ready to take the first step, and assume the risk of it. No one who is not willing to try charity, to try non-resistance as the saint is always willing, can tell whether these methods will or will not succeed. When they do succeed, they are far more powerfully successful than force or worldly prudence. Force destroys enemies; and the best that can be said of prudence is that it keeps what we already have in safety. But non-resistance, when successful, turns enemies into friends; and charity regenerates its objects. … [G]enuine saints find in the elevated excitement with which their faith endows them an authority and impressiveness which makes them irresistible in situations where men of shallower nature cannot get on at all without the use of worldly prudence. This practical proof that worldly wisdom may be safely transcended is the saint’s magic gift to mankind. Not only does his vision of a better world console us for the generally prevailing prose and barrenness; but even when on the whole we have to confess him ill adapted, he makes some converts…

In this respect the Utopian dreams of social justice in which many contemporary socialists and anarchists indulge are, in spite of their impracticability and non-adaptation to present environmental conditions, analogous to the saint’s belief in an existent kingdom of
heaven. They help to break the edge of the general reign of hardness, and are slow leavens of a better order.

— William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, p. 355-60

Written by dan

November 8th, 2009 at 8:43 pm

An appropriate orientation

“implacable to the whole system of official values: the ignobility of fashionable life; the infamies of empire; the spuriousness of the church, the vain conceit of the professions; the meannesses and cruelties that go with great success; and every other pompous crime and lying institution of this world.”

— William James, on Tolstoy

Written by dan

November 1st, 2009 at 2:26 am