Evolution in the Age of Lying

Nobody asked but …

Yesterday I picked up my two youngest granddaughters after school.  We talked over frosty shakes, slushes, and sodas at a local drive-in.  At some point, it occurred to me to say, “It must be tough for a young person to grow up in a world that is so full of lying,” as though this might be some wisdom available only to an ancient man.  I was most happy to hear, in unison, “We know!  Right?”  Evolution is the friend of the human animal.  Today, I am listening to an EVC podcast from Peter Gray.  In Dr. Gray’s talk, I learned one of the secrets to the discernment that my teenage granddaughters have attained. Survival of the fittest applies.

Children who do not learn, do not survive to have offspring, or their offspring will not have the learning to survive. For ages, children have educated themselves to survive, by learning what to learn. Among other things, smart, competent children develop good BS filters. Even though a child is often taught, in part, by parents, siblings, neighbors, and friends, whose average intelligence brings down the communal average, the child has a built-in BS filter by which to evaluate survival information. The young human needs to know what kind of chaff to separate from the wheat. The young human will thereby develop intelligence above the group average, they will stand on the shoulders of giants who have knowledge made up of the best intelligence from all the resources.

People, who believe in the state, will die out. People, who believe in magic, will die out. People, who heed false scares, will die out. People, who believe in Santa Claus, will wise up.

— Kilgore Forelle

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Thankful in 2019

A political writer’s annual Thanksgiving column can be easy to write, or incredibly difficult to put together. It can also be inspiring or banal. The two are probably connected. It’s always a difficult one for me; its quality is a matter of your opinion. But hey, Turkey Day is just around the corner and it’s time to talk about being thankful. Please bear with me.

Yes, like you, I’m grateful for family, friends, neighbors, the absence of bankruptcy or prison time, yada, yada, yada. All in all it’s been a good year for me, and I hope it’s been a good one for you as well.

On the political end … well, I’m grateful for pretty much everything in my life EXCEPT politics.

I can remember a time when political writers used “fatigue” to describe “this too shall pass” events such as the impeachment of Bill Clinton.

These days, “fatigue” seems to be the one American political constant.

Political campaigns used to start the day after the previous election for candidates and campaign staff, but the rest of us got a break.

Now, every election becomes THE MOST IMPORTANT ELECTION OF OUR LIFETIMES the day after the previous one.

Some of us are tired of waking up every morning wondering what Donald Trump did now.

Some of us are tired of the whole two-and-a-half-year impeachment trail going back to “Russiagate.”

Some of us are tired of year-plus-long presidential clown motorcades full of presidential wannabes, like the 2016 Republican primary field or this cycle’s Democratic pack.

Some of us are worn out from all that and more. And political writers aren’t immune.

Speaking to a crowd of Democratic donors on November 21, former president Barack Obama said “everyone needs to chill out about the candidates, but gin up about the prospect of rallying behind whoever emerges from this process.”

My Thanksgiving advice is to “chill out” entirely over the holiday weekend and set the “ginning up” aside for later.

Yes, we’re really allowed to do that.

We can turn off our televisions, or at least watch something other than “news.”

We can set aside political emails mail for a few days. They’ll wait.

We can talk about sports or movies over our holiday dinners instead of arguing about politics.

For all of which I am indescribably grateful. If it was up to me, politics would play a much smaller part in all our lives, even if that meant I had to find a different line of work.

My Thanksgiving weekend plans involve three days of camping and music with a bunch of hippies, hopefully with minimal political speechifying from the stage.

I wish you as happy a Thanksgiving as I anticipate for myself and mine.

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Jojo Rabbit: A Choice Between Authentic and False Community

“You’re not a Nazi, Jojo. You’re a ten year-old kid who likes dressing up in a funny uniform and wants to be part of a club.”

Jojo Rabbit

“Love is the strongest thing in the world.”

“I think you’ll find that *metal* is the strongest thing in the world, followed closely by dynamite, and then muscles.” 

Jojo Rabbit

You know it’s a good movie when you clap spontaneously, laugh like a maniac, and feel your heart torn to shreds in the same two-hour stretch.

Jojo Rabbit is that movie.

Saw it last night and have a lot to say about it. If you haven’t seen this wonderful movie, stop reading, watch the trailer, and get your tix. If you have seen it and want to discuss, keep reading.

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SPOILERS BELOW

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This is a movie about the choices between authentic living and belonging and the false kinds of life and belonging offered in conformity to the mass. In this case, that mass is totalitarian Nazi Germany’s obedience and death cult.

The Default: Belonging to the Mad Collective

The movie starts with young Johannes (Jojo) heading off to summer camp to “become a man,” (despite not being able to tie his own shoes) sprinting away to the delightful tunes of The Beatles “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” in German.

Turns out summer camp is more like a Hitler Youth training camp for 10 year-old soldiers. The sad (and hilarious) absurdity of the Nazi’s doomed experiment is quickly apparent, even though Jojo tries to go along with it all.

But he refuses to do one thing: when ordered to kill a defenseless rabbit, he refuses. That earns him the nickname “Jojo Rabbit” from the older Hitler Youth bullies in one of the first scenes of overt monstrousness. In an attempt to strike back, Jojo decides to double down on the “brave Nazi warrior” thing and wounds himself with a grenade.

We see that Jojo is evidently different. He is gentle. He is sincere (if sincerely brainwashed). And he isn’t exactly fitting in – he has precisely one real friend.

Did I mention his other friend is an imaginary version of Adolf Hitler?

Jojo heads into this story longing for acceptance and belonging in the suicidal death cult that is his culture. It’s hard to imagine that so many other kids shared the same backdrop for growing up, but that’s why this film is so important.

The Choice

We soon learn about one big reason for Jojo’s decent heart.

His mother Rosie (played by Scarlett Johansson) is a woman of kindness, independence, ferocity, humor, and imagination. In other words, she is everything the Nazis are not. Humor and imagination are bulwarks against tyranny in Rosie’s home, and her playful, loving interactions with Jojo are some of the most touching moments in the film.

We also learn that Rosie is part of the German resistance, and (much to Jojo’s horror) she is hiding a young Jewish girl in Jojo’s deceased sister’s bedroom.

Determined to write a book on Jewish people (all the better to defeat them, to his mind) Jojo begins to get to know the young woman, whose name is Elsa. Terror turns into curiosity, curiosity turns into tolerance, and tolerance turns into friendship – and later a serious crush.

As Germany falls apart in the latter days of the war, Jojo experiences a central transformation: from imaginary friendship (with Hitler) to his true friendship with Elsa. He finds true belonging in a human relationship with an unconquered individual with a rich inner life. At the same time, the false sense of belonging in the world of Nazi-dom loses its luster.

Then Rosie is hung for her participation in the resistance, and the Nazi dream (nightmare, rather) of Germany is falling apart all around Jojo’s ears. Kids, civilians, and old German shepherds (actual shepherds, not dogs) are conscripted to defend the city in a last desperate fight. Little boys who stayed in the “club” of the Hitler Youth are used as cannon fodder – a horrifying look at where inauthentic “belonging” ends up.

Authentic Living and Belonging

When the dust settles, Jojo and Rosie have each other. And though Jojo is afraid, he makes the decision to set Rosie free.

Before he does so, a brain-spattered Hitler – once his imaginary friend – warns him that unless he chooses the totalitarian way, he will end up in a “desert of insignificance.” It’s notable how the affable and goofy Hitler of Jojo’s earlier imagination has become something truly worthy of hatred and resistance.

Jojo responds appropriately: he kicks imaginary Hitler out the window with a well-placed foot to Nazi nuts.

In a perfect closing of a loop, he ties one of Elsa’s shoes for her as she prepares to step outside.

And then they dance.

Jojo goes from being his society’s false idea of “being a man” to “doing what he can” (as good a definition of true manhood as any).  Elsa, who had a childhood denied to her, found her imaginative inner life in Jojo and now takes a step into free womanhood in the outside world.

But more importantly, both found what it meant to live authentically and to belong authentically.

This movie shows life’s resilience and beauty despite tremendous evil. Rosie knew that:

“As long as there’s someone alive somewhere then they lose.” 

When evil seems most powerful, we all have to remember to keep our inner lives alive, as Rosie did, as Elsa did, and as Jojo did.

Originally published at JamesWalpole.com.

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Entangling Alliances Make For Forever Wars

In March of 2018, US president Donald Trump promised “we’ll be coming out of Syria, like, very soon.” That December, he issued an order to begin withdrawing US troops. Apparently the order never got executed. Most of a year later, US forces remain.

Now Trump and his opponents are arguing over his decision to move a few dozen of those troops around within Syria, to get them out of the way of a Turkish invasion force massing on the border. Both sides are pretending that a tiny troop movement constitutes the supposed withdrawal he ordered last December.

This minor situation illustrates a major problem  that two early presidents warned us about.

“It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliance with any portion of the foreign world,” George Washington said in his farewell address.

Four years later, Thomas Jefferson called for “peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations — entangling alliances with none” in his inaugural address.

I wonder what Washington and Jefferson would think of the continued presence of US troops in Europe and Japan  75 years after the end of World War Two, or in South Korea 66 years after the ceasefire on that peninsula?

I wonder what they’d have to say about NATO, a multi-country military alliance still operating three decades after the collapse and disappearance of the enemy it was supposedly formed to guard against?

Because Trump failed to follow through on his promise to get out of Syria, he now finds himself caught between two putative allies: NATO member Turkey on one side, the Kurds (an ethnic group which Washington periodically uses in its regional wars then invariably  abandons) on the other.

The Turks and the Kurds have a long and antagonistic shared history.

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan plans to invade Syria to establish a “safe zone,” by which he means a “zone without armed Kurds in it.” He wants US troops out of the way.

The Kurds, having carved out something resembling a small nation-state of their own in northern Syria with US assistance and as a side effect of chasing the Islamic State out of the area,  would rather those US troops stayed so that the Turks won’t have as free a killing hand.

Given the choice between pleasing Turkey (a major regional power and a NATO ally) or pleasing the Kurds (who have no internationally recognized state of their own and depend entirely on the US for the viability of their enclave), I can’t say I blame Trump for caving to Erdogan’s demands.

But if the US hadn’t invaded Syria in the first place (under former president Barack Obama), or if Trump hadn’t escalated the war instead of ending it when he took office, or if he had kept his subsequent promise to withdraw US forces, he wouldn’t have found himself in the current situation.

Like adhesive bandages, entangling alliances cover ugly wounds and seldom come off without pain. But leaving them in place and letting the wounds fester is even worse.

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Letter from a Pakistani Homeschooler

I recently received this email from Pakistani homeschooler Fasih Zulfiqar.  I advised him to seek out econ professors at the nearest universities, but he’d likely appreciate further advice.  Reprinted with his permission.


Hello Prof Bryan, Fasih here. Perhaps Prof Cowen informed you about me, but in case he did not, let me introduce myself.

I’m a student from Pakistan who has self-studied through secondary education. I decided to quit schooling when I was in grade 6, much to the consternation of my relatives. They dinned into me that schooling is the only avenue for success, and that I would certainly fail if I go solo.

There were days when I would come back to home from school – completely exhausted – and ask myself if I truly learned anything. Sure I had friends and all, but school was not serving the purpose it was meant to. Moreover, it wasn’t cheap. My father could hardly afford sending me and my sister to school, let alone pay the prohibitive rent. More and more often, I found myself considering whether it was all even worth it. So in the summer of 2012, I decided it was enough and quit school.

My argument for taking this radical decision was the fact that our schooling system does not teach children anything of actual import. Education, here, is a misnomer. What the schools teach here is rote memorization. Basically, the students are encouraged to memorize the notes of former students (or those written by the teachers themselves), and paste those memorized points verbatim on tests. For instance, a student may know that a rise in interest rate leads to an appreciation of the currency, but (s)he would be absolutely clueless as to how this happens.

What could possibly be the value of such education, if it can even be called that. The schools here are merely concerned with grades and credentials. This perspective is so pervasive that it has also infected our youth and even their parents. And why wouldn’t it, considering that employees are evaluated here solely on their credentials.

It turns out, rote memorization does ensure that you end up acing your exams; thus, this practice has become so entrenched that people don’t even question it anymore. They do not believe there is anything wrong with it. I remember my teacher was once making us memorize the date Bangladesh seceded from Pakistan, and I asked here if she could explain what gave rise to Bangladesh’s independence. The “why” behind it. Initially, she ignored me. I asked again; she replied it is relevant. I persisted. She blew her gasket and expelled me.

We Pakistanis, along with much of South Asia, hold an extremely myopic view of education. It is all about attaining this or that degree. This is not what education is meant to be. We are wasting our youth, which, I firmly believe, has great potential. This needs to change – urgently. I aspire to make that change, but I do not know how. Someday, perhaps, I will, but, as of now, I’m lost myself.

Homeschooling has been an extremely successful endeavor for me. I have achieved an A* in Economics and an A* in Mathematics as well; I recently got an A in Further Mathematics. These are A-level exams (UK system), more or less equivalent to AP in the US. I also ended up being awarded the highest marks in Economics in Pakistan by the British Council, much to the astonishment of my family.

Having achieved all this, I intend to enroll in a decent University in the US. I had love to major in Economics or a combination of Mathematics and Econ. I absolutely do not wish to pursue my undergraduate studies in Pakistan for the very same reasons I quit schooling. The issue is, I will need a substantial amount of aid. My father makes an income of about only $15k; this certainly qualifies me for aid, but I know that funds are scarce, making my chances of getting aid slim to none.

I recently learned that universities may look down on homeschooled applicants. This makes no sense to me. Considering how much discipline and persistence is required to teach your own self, universities should instead value homeschooling more – much more. Perhaps I’m biased, or perhaps this is not even the case, which is why I’m writing to you.

The crux of the problem is the requirement of letters of recommendation. All the need-blind universities in the US require at least 2. Since I have self-taught myself, I have none. Only my parents know the persistence with which I have worked throughout the last 6 years. Obviously they can not write a letter of recommendation for me: that would be rather biased. What do you think I should do?

I met Prof Cowen yesterday while he was in Karachi. Upon listening to my questions, he mentioned that I should talk to you. He told me you have homeschooled your own children, which came as a shock to me because we Pakistanis consider US schools the epitome of education. Having listened to many podcasts you have been on, and having read many of your posts on Econlib, I do realize that education in the US is not perfect either. Nonetheless, it is far better than in Pakistan. And if I intend to improve my own nation someday, I believe I will ultimately need a decent education.

To recap, I have two questions. First, is there a bias against homeschooled students, and if so, then how much? Second, what should I do about the letters of recommendation?

Thank you for taking the time to read through all this Sir. I look forward to hearing from you.

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Malevolence and Misunderstanding

Lancelot:  Your rage has unbalanced you. You, sir, would fight to the death, against a knight who is not your enemy. Over a stretch of road you could easily ride around.

Arthur:   So be it. To the death!

               —Excalibur

Question #1: How many times in your life have you lost a friend because one of you malevolently decided to hurt the other?

Question #2: How many times in your life have you lost a friend over a misunderstanding?

I am glad to report that I have lost few friends in my life.  But as far as I can tell, all of the rare exceptions were driven by misunderstandings.  Someone spoke rashly, which hurt someone’s feelings, which led to retaliation, which led to more hurt feelings, and so on.  Or, someone acted as they thought proper, but someone else perceived otherwise, which led to offense, which led to counter-offense.  The same goes for all the people I know well.  They’ve lost many friends, but years later they flounder to explain the casus belli.

Is my corner of the world unusually free of sheer evil?  Probably.  Still, I doubt my experience is unusual.  I bet that most readers have lost at least five times as many friends to misunderstandings as they have to malevolence.

How can you tell the difference between malevolence and misunderstanding?  Try this a helpful thought experiment.  Imagine both sides calmly describe what they saw with their own eyes and heard with their own ears to a neutral outsider.  If the outsider would tell both sides to forget the dispute and stay friends, you had a misunderstanding.  If the outsider would say, “This is a bad match,” you still had a misunderstanding; just one that’s likely to recur.  But if the outsider would tell one of you, “Get away from this toxic person,” you saw – or were – malevolence.*

Why appeal to “neutral outsiders”?  Well, the main reason misunderstandings arise is because most human beings rush to assume malevolence.  Indeed, this is built into the very concept of the “misunderstanding”!  Sure, I sometimes speak rashly.  Sure, I’m no mind reader.  When my friends speak rashly to me, or fail to understand my feelings, however, the default explanation is not that they spoke hastily or failed to see the world from my perspective.  The default explanation is that they consciously decided to make me suffer.

Yes, it’s childish to think this way.  But what can I say?  People are childish.

Small example: Friday I was shopping with my sons.  My back was hurting, so they were pushing the cart.  When I got in line, a women immediately pulled up her cart behind me.  By this point, my sons were ten feet away.  When I asked her to make room for our cart, she grew angry: “Well that’s strange!”  Even my highly visible back brace was not enough to make her wonder about my situation.  When I meekly got out of the way and offered to let her go ahead of me, she huffed and moved to the next lane.  To me, this was a textbook example of a misunderstanding.  Still, I suspect she went home and told her family about how awful I was.  I made the effort to understand where she was coming from, but somehow she gazed into the heart of a total stranger and saw malevolence.

You could object, “Yours is hardly an original point.  Parents and teachers routinely alert children to the risk of misunderstandings.”  Fair enough.  My claim, however, is that this lesson rarely sinks in.  Adults remain prone to misinterpret mere misunderstandings as malevolence.  Indeed, there are mighty social and political movements that angrily strive to amplify this error – to ascribe malevolence recklessly, and demean those to ask us to mimic the perspective of a neutral outsider when conflict arises.

These days, the Me Too movement is the highest-profile example.  When you carefully listen to the public accusations, their severity varies tremendously.  The case of Bill Cosby is light-years from the cases of Louie C.K. or Aziz Ansari.  Is it possible that the latter two celebrities were involved in misunderstandings that bizarrely became national crises?  Entirely possible.  But most Me Too activists don’t just gloss over this possibility; they view those who muse, “Maybe it’s all a big misunderstanding” with hostility.  At risk of creating a new misunderstanding, my reaction to most Me Too scandals is precisely, “Maybe it’s all a big misunderstanding.”  Indeed, I maintain that we should presume that conflicts are misunderstandings in the absence of strong evidence to the contrary.

How far should we apply this insight?  Far indeed.  Even tiny slights, uncharitably interpreted, often spiral out of control.  So let us assess behavior with perspective and charity.  Much conflict between Democrats and Republicans rests on misunderstandings.  Much of the conflict between Black Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter conflict rests on misunderstandings.  So does much of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  Indeed, part of the reason why I’m a pacifist that so many international conflicts are plainly rooted in misunderstandings.  (If you can’t wait to scoff, “So the Nazis just had a big misunderstanding with the rest of Europe?,” you are fostering a misunderstanding between us.  Over a stretch of road you could easily ride around).

If we fully accepted the prevalence of misunderstandings, couldn’t a malevolent person take advantage of us?  I’m afraid so.  Fortunately, that’s a minor danger compared to the opposite mistake.  Remember: When you lose a friend over a misunderstanding, you don’t merely mistreat a friend.  You deprive yourself of friendship in a lonely world.

* A worse, but still tolerably good rule of thumb: If your own complaints against your former friend seem less compelling to you years later, you probably had a misunderstanding.  If your complaints actually seem more compelling years later, malevolence is more plausible.

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