Jersey Shore is better than cat burning.

I met a friend for a chat this evening and we walked down Piedmont avenue having the aristocrat vs commoner argument.  I am not sure I fully understood his position, but it seemed to be that something was lost as the European landed aristocracy was supplanted by democracy.  Sophisticated statescraft honed across centuries was cast aside and replaced with what? (cough – there used to be two new wars a year there, for 600 years)  Democrats are nothing but unwashed merchants and tradesmen with no sense of decorum.  I have had a similar argument at the Less Wrong party before the Singularity Summit.  One fellow there was arguing that democracies have led to a spiritual decay.  I get confused when these hard rationalists start throwing the word “spiritual” around so I asked for clarification.  Another participant supplied this example: Spirituality is the idea that Wagner is in some way superior to Britney Spears.

Ah, these reactionaries, they do strike a chord don’t they?  This recollection recalls to mind the great Moldbug-Hanson debate of Foresight 2010.  Moldbug said bring back the monarchs (Steve Jobs for Dictator!) and Hanson said let the markets rule us.  I guess I have to side with Hanson’s markets though my heart more truly lies with the democrats throughout history who have distributed the decision making power beyond the elites.  But I digress from my digression.

As we walked down Piedmont avenue this evening, the topic turned to Culture.  “Surely no artist today could match the majesty of the Sistine Chapel?” my friend asked.  So we have lost something.  Well I guess that’s true, but the sponsors of this wondrous propaganda piece also gave us the charming Inquisition:

for punishment does not take place primarily and per se for the correction and good of the person punished, but for the public good in order that others may become terrified and weaned away from the evils they would commit

Good stuff.  Besides, I haven’t seen it in person, but that Sistine Chapel art doesn’t really speak to me. I don’t much go for that tacky Italian stuff with panel mushed upon panel and every nook and cranny bursting with cherubs and whatnot.  And I have some reservations about this God fellow that plays a prominent role.   What about us humans down here?  I can’t get into classical music much either, certainly not that overblown Wagner stuff.  I might literally prefer Britney.  I can handle a nice mellow Brahms sonata here and there, but since we can still access classical culture, what have we really lost?

Art should give expression to those things we are feeling but cannot express.  “Are we so stunted emotionally?” asked my friend?  Yes!  Those of us who cannot paint or dance or write literature or play music are all stunted.  We cannot express ourselves in these media, so the artist that shows us something we can relate to in film or music or art has given a new voice to our yearning and suffering and joy.  This is a gift of illumination.  Damn, it makes me want to go look at art or something.

That’s when a bunch of Mills College students butted into the conversation.  Some lamented this loss of culture, others saw a paternalistic threat in this yearning (justified or not.)  One young woman (who I will call the Liberal) brought up the good point that great art is certainly being made now, but we can’t see which of it is timeless until it’s been tested by time.  She did mention Coltrane as a likely candidate.  Certainly some scribblers worthy of note have emerged in this uncouth age.

The Liberal’s sparring partner (the Conservative) countered that we are isolated from one another and distracted by trivialities like “Jersey Shore.”  So we can’t talk to one another and our attention spans have decayed to 140 characters.  The Liberal defended the great pluralism of the USA and pointed out that she saw the Conservative take part in the community of a music show.  I agree with this. At one time no peasant could travel more than 20 miles from their place of birth.  They had no choice but to accept the religion and culture of their village.  But today we have the freedom to go and find our own intentional communities or just Futurist meetups as the case may be.  Sure the old culture offered comfort, and freedom is hard but the old cultures mostly sucked actually.

Take genital mutilation.  That’s cultural.  I place it right along side of the Sistine Chapel as an example of culture.  Most of the Mills Students agreed that we need to take the good and leave the bad behind in regard to the old cultures.  But I wonder how divisible cultural artifacts truly are.  Is the Sistine Chapel integrally linked to oppression and Inquisition?  Can the beauty really be expunged of the horrors that funded it and the message it inheres?  Some things were lost with the passing of Culture.  Some horrible things along with the great.

No, things are not perfect now.  I am not thrilled that half the world still lives on less than $1,225 a year.  Call me a Whig, but I am with Pinker on the whole progress thing.  Sure Jersey Shore plays on our primate need to determine the status of others, but it’s a hell of a lot better than burning cats for entertainment.

Stephen Pinker at the Long Now

I went to see Pinker’s talk at the Long Now this evening.  He is promoting his latest book “The Better Angels of our Nature” in which he proposes that many forms of violence have declined over time.  His previous TED talk on this topic caused “Sex at Dawn” author Christopher Ryan to criticize his characterization of hunter gatherer society as violent.  But Pinker’s talk this evening focused mostly on the last 500 years and stayed away from prehistoric man.

I liked it when Pinker pointed out that when people say that the 20th century was the most violent in history, they never mention any other centuries to compare it to.  He had data that showed that even World War II was only the 9th most deadly event in human history on a per capita basis.  I do agree with his view that per capita violence is the only intelligent way to measure it.

When evaluating causes of this great decline in violence, Pinker asserts that literacy played a greater role than wealth. English wealth was fairly flat during a great decline in murder and capital punishment, but efficiency of book production and literacy greatly increased.  He posits that reading allows us to be in the mind of others to some extent and naturally increases empathy.  It also supposedly decreases ignorance and superstition which may lead to violence.

Another cause of this decrease is alleged to be cosmopolitanism.  As humans rub shoulders with one another in cities, it forces them to share ideas and develop some tolerance of others.  Our allegiances expand outward from family and tribe to include our entire nationstate and on to other races, sexes, and children.

Pinker says that there is a propensity for genocidal totalitarians to push anti-city, back to nature ideologies.  Pol Pot’s Year Zero, Mao’s Cultural Revolution, and even Hitler’s Lebensraum all focused on pushing urban populations into rural areas.  Stewart Brand commented on the fact that many of his contemporaries had followed suit and went out into the countryside only to become bored and returning to the cities.  Brand regrets that more of his friends don’t acknowledge the failure of this experiment.

Several times during the closing discussion with Brand, Pinker said that he was excited by social network science.  He mentioned the study of how social norms arise from individuals exchanging ideas explored in the work of Nicolas Christakis, Duncan Watts, James Fowler, Michael Macey.  I was deeply impressed by Connected by Christakis, so I will definitely be checking out these other researchers as well.

Overall, I enjoyed this talk.  I sense that Pinker is trying to defend the narrative of progress and the virtues of Western Civilization that are so maligned in this post-modernist era.  More power to him.

Comfort vs. Freedom

A friend recently sent me an essay attacking social media that contained the following quote:

Consumerism promises that magical transformations are easy, available on demand, and that a self understood in terms of lifestyles and personality experiments—rather than in terms of communal tradition, meaningful work, or the continuity of life experience—can be a worthy expression of individual freedom.

This run-on sentence jumped out at me because I have long struggled with the trade-offs between traditional life and modernity.   I tend to prefer the modern to the traditional.  I hate to see the sorts of constraints placed on people from traditional cultures.  Women are cattle, queers are hung, and innovators are set on fire.  On the other hand, I recognize that modern life leaves us isolated and adrift.  It’s comforting to know your place and purpose in the universe as provided by faith and tradition.

Any group (or intersubjective identity for you post-modernists) provides some amount of constraint and comfort as opposed to the freedom and isolation of  the individual.  Baseball fans watching a game together exert peer pressure to prevent any member from switching the channel to the Home Shopping Network, but they have a lot of fun.  It’s just better for self-realization to have choices about the groups that we become part of.  We have always had complex identities that changed with the context: friend, family member, hunter/gatherer.  Our very mind seems to be a shifting competition between semi-autonomous urges, interests, and styles.    Modern life gives us the opportunity to more fully explore our composite natures.  It’s just isn’t easy.