Thoughts provoked by a Paul Graham piece about privilege

Paul Graham:

There has been a lot of talk about privilege lately. Although the concept is overused, there is something to it, and in particular to the idea that privilege makes you blind — that you can’t see things that are visible to someone whose life is very different from yours.

But one of the most pervasive examples of this kind of blindness is one that I haven’t seen mentioned explicitly. I’m going to call it orthodox privilege: The more conventional-minded someone is, the more it seems to them that it’s safe for everyone to express their opinions.

It’s safe for them to express their opinions, because the source of their opinions is whatever it’s currently acceptable to believe. So it seems to them that it must be safe for everyone. They literally can’t imagine a true statement that would get them in trouble.

And yet at every point in history, there were true things that would get you in terrible trouble to say. Is ours the first where this isn’t so? What an amazing coincidence that would be.

Surely it should at least be the default assumption that our time is not unique, and that there are true things you can’t say now, just as there have always been. …

This is a particular version of the general tendency to believe that now, finally, this or that age-old problem has been solved. In all previous times, speech was unfree. Now, people can say exactly what they like!

One of my favourite of such intractable problems is the one about how to look after the very poor and very unlucky. When the Attlee welfare state got into its stride, the error of supposing “welfare” to have been sorted was rampant in Britain, although it has abated now, following many bitter welfare state experiences. Looking after the poor has always been and will always remain very hard. How to separate the deserving poor from the undeserving poor? How to provide help without introducing moral hazard? These questions are very hard, have always been hard, and will always be hard.

I am listening to two smug young white people on the radio smugly assuming that their generation has a unique ability to sort out racial problems and unfairnesses, unlike all previous generations, who were either too wicked or too lazy. That they might be introducing new race-related indignities and insults and assumptions does not seem to register. You surely know the sort of dilemmas I am thinking of. Solve racism by assuming everyone is equally qualified! Solve racism by talking about it endlessly and encouraging the downtrodden to blame everything wrong with their lives on racism! Solve racism by never talking about racism and just self-fulfillingly prophesying that, now, it’s not a thing anymore! Solve racism by encouraging the downtrodden to find ways through racism and around racism! All these notions have truths in them, and dangers attached to them.

An equal and opposite error to this sort of temporal arrogance is the belief that the wrongs of our own time are unique to our own time. I regularly hear it assumed that there is something uniquely mediocre and corrupt about our current gang of politicians, uniquely trashy and mendacious about our media, uniquely ugly and ridiculous about our art, uniquely huge about the gap between our very rich and our very poor, uniquely bad about the behaviour of kids these days. Wrong again.

Many things have got much better. Many problems are solvable and have been solved, or will be. Some time around 1780, all the graphs of human comfort and wellbeing stopped being damn near horizontal and switched to being damn near vertical, in a good way. Ever more people since that magic moment have been able to do things for themselves and each other that nobody could do for anyone before it. We in Britain call this event the Industrial Revolution and those of us Brits who know about it are very proud of the part our ancestors played in this dramatic and continuing improvement in human affairs. The greatest form of historical myopia in the world now, certainly my part of it, may well be the unawareness of the fact of this amazing transformation. (Caused by the unique awfulness of our education system. Our teachers are the worst there have ever ever been!)

Patrick Crozier and I will be talking about this Industrial Revolution in our next recorded conversation.

The Babylon Bee’s “Is it racist?” flowchart

One of my favourite insects just now is the Babylon Bee. I especially liked this graphic, from quite a while back now:

Most flowcharts done in this graphic manner are extremely complicated. Lots of questions. Lots of arrows. This one hits its target by being very uncomplicated.

The BB churns out lots of stuff, so there’s a good chance that (a) this amuses you, but (b) you missed it when they first unveiled it, back in June.

James Lindsay talks to and with Joe Rogan

I’ve had my morning deranged by watching and listening to this video of … well, see above. Lots of wisdom in this. Lots.

James Lindsay is a new name to me, and towards the end of this he talked about another new name to me, someone called Derek Bell. I don’t know how to spell Derek, so let’s see if I got it right.

No. Derrick Bell.

I note that the wokists are now saying that nobody really ever really gets cancelled, and I sort of agree with this. I don’t see a world in which any chosen person can be completely silenced. I see a world of unprecedented freedom of expression, but also a huge number of people who really, really do not like this, and are trying to shout down the people they don’t like. But they are not succeeding, or rather, only succeeding somewhat. If the wokists could pick their biggest enemies out and silence the lot of them, this James Lindsay guy would be literally dead now and nobody would even remember him. As it is, he gets to talk to and with Joe Rogan for three hours on end, and I get to watch it, on the other side of a quite big ocean.

As for all those lower-down-the-pundit-pecking-order people who dare not say anything because they want to keep their jobs, well, yes there are still lots of people like that. All effective people have to specialise and there are indeed lots of jobs, and always have been, where you have to keep a lot of what you think to yourself. (My Dad had to keep shtum about being an atheist, because if he hadn’t his job as a big-cheese lawyer might have stalled very badly. Me and my siblings only learned about these heretical opinions of his after he retired. (He couldn’t afford to have us even saying things about what he thought (just like dissidents and their kids in the old USSR))). But, now, you can adopt a pseudonym and say whatever the hell you like on the old www, and there’s a pretty good chance you’ll keep your job.

As this James Lindsay video illustrates, anyone who wants to dissent in the privacy of their own home, from the (actually ex-) Mainstream Media, and then vote accordingly, can easily do that. And nothing the wokists are doing can change that.

LATER: On the other hand, while freedom of expression in total has, I think, and despite all efforts to suppress this freedom, greatly increased because of the internet, on the other hand, freedom of expression for academics has decreased and is decreasing. If you want more freedom of expression and to be, or to go on being, an academic, you picked a bad time. I believe that the doctrine of academic freedom was originally devised to carve out an enclave of freedom of expression for academics, in a world where freedom of expression of the necessary level for academia to do its job was not generally available. Now, academia needs to catch up with the wider world.

Big subject, obviously.

LATER STILL: Good luck cancelling this guy.

BMNBQotD: William Befort on the bourgeois virtues

William Befort comments on this Instapundit posting, which links to and quotes from this posting by David Thompson.

“Equity” now seems to mean that the bourgeois rewards must be evenly distributed even if the bourgeois virtues aren’t.

Having recently been recently linked to by David Thompson (to this), I can vouch for how well his blog is now doing.

And come to think of it, “They Sell Failure” (the title of Thompson’s posting about all this evil nonsense) is a pretty good quote too. The only problem with “They Sell Failure” being that, on it’s own, it isn’t self-explanatory. But it’s the heading of a blog posting, so all is duly explained. I note that Instapundit started his blog posting with those same words.

Katharine Birbalsingh on the racism of David Starkey and on the nation state as an antidote to racial tribalism

I’m about half way through watching this “interview” on YouTube, done by the two Triggernometry guys (don’t yet know their names) with Katharine Birbalsingh, the quotes being because it doesn’t take much in the way of questioning to get Katharine Birbalsingh onto her soapbox and orating with no further provocation or prompting.

Birbalsingh was explaining that, and exactly how and to what extent, David Starkey is a racist. She quite likes Starkey, agrees with him about a lot of things, agrees that of course he’s not nearly as bad as Hitler, but somewhat worse that then a little old lady walking along the street who is scared when a bunch of black kids comes towards her. That’s her attitude towards him.

I’m only about half way through the whole thing, which lasts a bit more than an hour. But already (around 22 minutes in), one of the Triggernometry guys has put the defence of Starkey which I have been thinking myself. Which is: That Starkey talked about “damn blacks” not because he really thinks blacks should be damned, but because of the vehemence with which he disagreed with the argument he was denouncing, which equates slavery with genocide. I too have been thinking that Starkey made a serious error in using this phrase, but that he wasn’t sounding racist on purpose, he was just getting a bit carried away. (There is often a strong overlap between slavery and genocide. In Hitler’s Germany many thousands of slaves were deliberately worked to death, and killed if they stopped working, for whatever reason. I am sure similar things could be said of the slave trade. Nevertheless, the two concepts are clearly distinguishable.)

Birbalsingh had already said that Starkey actually has a lot of previous in saying things in a decidedly racist manner, and of generally making “mistakes” of this sort. He’s a smart guy. Had he wanted to phrase things more politely, make certain distinctions subtly instead of crassly, he could easily have taken the trouble to acquire this habit. He hasn’t. And that’s because he hasn’t thought that he needed to. In short, he is racist. She doesn’t want Starkey “cancelled”, but she wants him knocked down in the world to the tune of a peg or two.

Birbalsingh was very clear that being rather racist, like Starkey, is not the same as being Hitler. There’s a continuum of racism, a spectrum, with that scared little old lady at one end and Hitler at the other. I strongly agree with that point. (I actually think she was being a little unfair to the little old lady. That kind of racism is, for all sorts of reasons, often very rational, even as it may often be experienced as very insulting to those on the receiving end of it.)

On the Starkey matter, I found Katharine Birbalsingh rather persuasive. She changed my mind about Starkey. I now entertain the possibility that Starkey is indeed, and has long been, somewhat racist, in just the way she described. Which is only appropriate, because Birbalsingh prides herself on her ability to persuade people to change their thinking.

She also put one of the strongest cases I have yet heard for the Nation State. I’m a libertarian of the sort for whom the state is typically the enemy. “The state is not your friend”, and so on. She said that by inculcating a sense of Britishness into all her pupils, of all colours, she makes it far less likely that they will divide into racial tribes, including some racial tribes who consequently feel deeply unwelcome in what ought to be their own country, and which geographically and legally is their own country. My thing is: state/liberty, choose one. Hers: nation state/racial tribalism, choose one. Hers is a good point, I think. I’ve surely heard this argument before, in various forms. For some reason, her way of putting it really hit home.

Now I’m going to go back and listen to the rest of it.