Harvard Classics, Volume 24, Edmund Burke

Edmund Burke was an 18th century English politician who is credited as the founder of conservative politics. The big reason he got to be the father of conservatism is because he was part of the first generation of people to observe ideology first hand, and his opposition to revolutionary politics and defense of an order carefully cultivated over many generations sets him apart from many of the men of his age who remain famous to this day.

Many of his writings have been ordered and this Harvard Classics volume focuses on four works in particular. Two works are aesthetic philosophy and two concern contemporary politics. The first, a short treatise called On Taste, investigates the meaning of taste, how it is cultivated and the difference between good and bad taste. His conclusion is that taste is honed by experience, familiarity, and practice. As a whole, the piece felt extremely dated because many of his discussions on art not only contradict the modern art movements, but also the preceding romantic movement. The trouble is a good framework should provide insight not just to the past but into the future, and I struggled to see how Burke would incorporate luminaries such as Monet and Van Gogh into his theory. Jackson Pollack, of course, would be right out.

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An Easy Way To “Get Out The Vote”

With primary season coming up soon, figuring out how to make an impact. While volunteering for a campaign or some other larger commitment is a great thing to do, you may only be interested in something smaller.

So here’s what anyone can do to to help get out the vote: call up a bunch of people you know who live nearby on election day and ask them: “Have you voted?” and if they haven’t, ask them if they could use a ride or any assistance while they go and vote. The key here is to make it so that person has no excuse for not voting.

That’s a really simple thing to do, but the sad thing is, very few people bother to do it. Every vote helps on election day, and you can help ensure people you know turn out to vote.

Now, there’s obviously some good practice to be used here. You should try and focus on people who are likely to go and vote for your preferred candidates, but obviously don’t make it a prerequisite if someone asks for your help.

In primaries in particular, giving people rides or doing favors for them on election day can do more than mobilize your candidate’s existing base. In a primary, people don’t really know who they should be voting for or why, and they will probably ask you your thoughts. You’ll have a chance to pitch your guy and hopefully that will earn a vote, as much out of gratitude as convincing. Again, it’s not something worth getting belligerent about.

Of course, this can be expanded more widely by targeting organizations likely to have a large majority of voters who lean your way. This gives you more opportunities to help and get out the vote, and can certainly be pitched as non-partisan.

Ancient DNA is Rewriting Human (and Neanderthal) History – The Atlantic

A story in The Atlantic shows the immense changes in our understanding of pre-historical civilizations and human development through the cheap and effective analysis of skeletal remains.

The new DNA analysis methods allow for the understanding of ethnic movements and developments across time and how they relate to modern humans. This is a new frontier in anthropology, and is going to be a source for rewritten histories for decades to come.


Land Confiscation, Could It Happen Here?

On the heels of the South African Parliament’s decision to allow the confiscation of white-owned property without compensation, one question that people ask is: could it happen here in the United States? Even with all of the political and legal hurdles, the fear of this kind of policy strikes at many people. With current political attitudes, such a proposal would have a small, but meaningful base of support that could generate a large amount of agitation. However, I believe several factors make a direct confirmatory scheme unlikely to happen in the United States in the near or long-term. Existing redistribution and affirmative action policies are likely to continue to exist or accelerate, to the detriment of the bottom three-quarters of white Americans, but I do not believe that confiscation is in the cards.

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Harvard Classics, Volume 23, Two Years Before the Mast

Of all of the volumes of the Harvard Classics I have read thusfar, Two Years Before the Mast, by Richard Henry Dana, Jr is probably the most obscure, but also one of the most entertaining reads in the collection. Being written by an American for a general audience less than two hundred years ago certainly helps to make Two Years Before the Mast very readable today.

The book is a memoir of the author’s two year voyage from Boston to California and back in the early 1830s. The author was a student at Harvard and had an eye condition which made him decide to take a leave of absence from college to do something completely different. The author, after his return, went on to become a prominent lawyer of his era, serving as an US Attorney, among other things.

While the book is generally very easy to read, one word of caution is that it does not pull any punches when it comes to sailing lingo. This wasn’t an issue for me because I grew up sailing a few days a week, but the use of terms could be difficult to someone who doesn’t immediately know what a halyard is.

The main action of the book takes the author aboard a brig called the Pilgrim from Boston, around Cape Horn and to California. The Pilgrim then goes up and down the coast collecting cow hides and depositing them back in San Diego. Eventually, the author is placed in a land job, curing the hides for the journey to Boston. He then trades places with a crewman on another boat, the Alert, as they engage in the same collection of hides. Lucky for the author, the Pilgrim’s voyage had been extended a year, and so by traveling on the Alert, he returned to Boston on schedule. Both ships and the hide-curing house were owned by the same company, which enabled his transfer between these jobs, although not without some drama.

The author’s description of life aboard a humble merchant vessel is a very good primary source for the era, just on the cusp of steam-driven ships becoming popular. His depictions of the arbitrary abuse of power by captains, and the way merchant houses, thousands of miles from legal recourse, took advantage of seamen wound up in major reforms.

The other aspect to the text, the descriptions of California in the 1830s make it a critical primary historical source for the region as well as the best account of the region when the gold rush got underway a little over a decade after his return.

In addition to the historical value, the book is a worthwhile read for its depictions of the human condition in many small ways throughout the journey. Whether isolated on a ship or at a wedding reception, or with people from numerous countries, Two Years Before the Mast gives an account of the common human element.

An interesting thing about the text is the narrator is that while he is from classical Pilgrim stock, an educated reform Christian constantly concerned with the justice given to others and a desire to reform and improve the existing order, he is also someone extremely proud and confident in his people and their culture. On more than one occasion, Dana remarks at how amazingly California would be transformed with American or English colonialism rather than the Criollioes, Castizos and Mestizos that made up the population at the time.

Dana was certainly proven right on this point when he writes about his return to California twenty-four years later. Following the gold rush and much development, California was growing and thriving, with new industry and development.

This book was very popular in its day and the people described in it took a sense of pride at having been a part of it, but it’s relevance has faded with time. For those of you interested in sailing and historical America, it is a first rate book. However, it is not a book of particular artistic merit, nor does is it depict anything of particular historical importance. Two Years Before the Mast is ultimately the story of a sometimes dangerous, often monotonous, and always laborious voyage to a backwater at the far end of the Earth. What makes the memoir stand out is the drama to be found in what was starting to become mundane.

With the end of Two Years Before the Mast, is the end to a long string of volumes dedicated to narrative works. The next two volumes focus on Burke, Carlyle and Mill will finish up the first half of the Harvard Classics and begin marked shift towards compilations of shorter works (The Voyage of the Beagle and The Autobiography of Beneventuo Cellini being the exceptions).

Harvard Classics, Volume 22, The Odyssey

Some of the volumes in the Harvard Classics are such obvious texts to include that there really isn’t much to say about them. The Odyssey is one of the most important texts in human history, and it is worth reading repeatedly.

This was my second time reading The Odyssey, but it was still very worthwhile to have read again. The scenes, emotions and characters are integral parts of how Western man understands himself. Odysseus is both physically and mentally far above the other men that surround him by the story. Tempered by twenty years of hardship and strife, Odysseus is a very different sort of hero than is typical of storytelling today, and that’s what makes The Odyssey stand out so much. Odysseus’ triumph, the infiltration of Troy in the wooden horse, is well in the past. The adventures of Odysseus are recounted in The Odyssey as an extended flashback, but only make up about a quarter of the narrative.

At its core The Odyssey is about a great man struggling through the part of a hero’s journey that is usually portrayed as easy and triumphant. Events home in Ithaca didn’t stay static for twenty years while Odysseus was off adventuring, and a new generation of men rose with the expectation of influence and power. Odysseus’ journey ends with him sneaking into his own kingdom, plotting to get inside his own home, and slaughtering the countrymen that have wronged him in his absence by living off his estate and trying to marry his wife. This resolution immediately threatens to stir up a civil war before Zeus intercedes to close the door on the conflicts first stirred up with Helen’s abduction.

Odysseus doesn’t get a triumphal return. His wife, his son, his father, his dog, Athena, and a few old servants are even happy about his return, while everyone else had moved on with what they presumed was a new status quo.

The Odyssey truly is one of the most important works in our literary canon and it is also one of the most accessible works with numerous high quality translations. This is one that I not only recommend you read, but it is one you must read.

The next volume of the Harvard Classics continues the nautical theme with Two Years Before the Mast by Richard Henry Dana Jr, an account of his voyage as a sailor aboard a trading vessel. Following Dana are some of Burke’s more famous works, then a selection of works from John Stuart Mill and Thomas Carlyle. From there is a collection of Spanish, French and German drama and a two-volume collection of English and American essays.

At this point, the Harvard Classics includes very few remaining ancient or medieval sources. The main focus for the rest of the Harvard Classics is the Western European tradition from 1500-1850. I’m not sure whether this will increase or decrease the rate at which I’ve been working through the volumes. At my current pace of about one volume every three weeks, I should finish in about 18 months.

Harvard Classics, Volume 21: I Promessi Sposi

The most recent volume of the Harvard Classics is the only modern fiction novel included in the set of 50 volumes. While there is a whole set of 20 volumes dubbed the “Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction”, I Promessi Sposi’s inclusion in the original set points to its significance and quality. Alessandro Mazoni’s 1827 work comes in second to Dante as the most important work in the Italian canon, and for good reason. I Promessi Sposi is a masterful historical fiction novel that blends the personal conflicts of lower class Milanese with the backdrop of war, pestilence and famine.

I Promessi Sposi starts with a simple personal conflict. Late at night, a local clergyman is accosted by ruffians, warning him of the dire consequences should he perform the wedding of the two protagonists. This conflict, however, eventually leads to a pageant of personal struggle for both protagonists as they separate and find themselves in a series of ever-escalating predicaments.

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Stochastic Democracy, An Idea Whose Time Has Come

Recently, a member of the Virginia house of delegates was chosen randomly after a tie vote. Commenters have generally taken different positions on this. The first is that its an amusing quirk of the American political system which shows the republican virtues we uphold. The second is that a country where the outcome of a minor election comes down to a coin flip isn’t a serious country.

I take a third approach: that this sort of thing is something we should see more of. I know what you’re thinking: “That’s a crazy idea, flipping coins isn’t the basis for a legitimate government.” You’d be right in saying that, mostly because I’m skeptical of universal sufferage, but also because I think the system should be somewhat more sophisticated than mere coin flips.

I call my system “stochastic democracy”. Stochastic is a word used to describe something that is determined through randomness. This randomness, however, is a reflects the distribution of opinions within the electorate. Rather than a system where the person with 50%+1 votes automatically wins, or the person with a plurality of votes wins, I think that each vote should be an entry into a random lottery. When 60% of the voters support Candidate A, Candidate A has 60% of the opportunities in the lottery.

My big caveat is that I don’t think people should be voting directly on statewide or nationwide offices. Members of the House of Representatives should be the limit of electoral power under any voting scheme, majority-based or stochastic. The United States was founded with appointed Senators and an electoral college. As Americans, we should be voting on local government, state legislature, the House of Representatives and members of the Electoral College. State governors stand at an odd point that I don’t have a definite opinion on, but I just want to make it clear I’m not advocating for the President to be chosen randomly. I’m just advocating the people who choose him to be chosen randomly.

Another common complaint about stochastic democracy will ask about the possibility of electing fringe candidates. In a stochastic democracy, the Libertarians will probably win a few seats in the House of Representatives. Each representative probably won’t hold their seat for more than a term, but there will be a consistent libertarian group in Congress. That’s part of the beauty of a stochastic democracy. Each individual race has a high degree of randomness, but the representative body that results from that randomness will do a better job of representing the shape of the electorate.

As far as the problem of the Mickey Mouse voters, I would simply point you towards my previously mentioned skepticism of universal sufferage.

People who study group choice theory are quick to point out the problems with plurality or run-off voting. Many of these problems are solved with stochastic democracy.

The first problem stochastic democracy solves is tyranny of the majority. A party that holds a majority can no longer expect to consistently win elections. They have to share power with the minority on occasion, depending on the size of that majority. This conditions both people and politicians to treat turnover and seats changing between parties as natural and a part of the political system, rather than a horrible cataclysm.

Additionally, long-term incumbency would be impossible in stochastic democracy. If you get a 75% majority every election, you will still end up losing the election once every four times. That helps to make political office feel more like a transient state that one serves in for a few years, rather than a career destination.

Likewise, stochastic democracy encourages more potential candidates to run for office in districts that are solidly for one party or another. In a stochastic democracy, a candidate that can summon 30% support has a chance at winning the election. This encourages people to go out and compete for votes, even if they don’t think they can get a majority.

Similarly, stochastic democracy encourages a wide variety of candidates. A fringe party with 5% support is a long-shot in a stochastic democracy, but they have a shot at a term in office nevertheless. This encourages the proliferation of a large set of diverse candidates, all with a long shot at winning.

Stochastic democracy also eliminates the reasons for gerrymandering. Creating districts that have 60% party affiliation doesn’t guarantee seats the way it does in a majority system. In fact, mathematically, stochastic democracy makes district lines irrelevant to the party affiliation of the resulting candidates. Each voter has an equal chance of selecting the winning candidate no matter which district they are in. Taking someone from one district and putting them in another district balances out in probability terms.

Finally, stochastic democracy makes voter fraud much less effective. An additional 100,000 votes for one candidate could have swung many states in the 2016 elections, but in a stochastic democracy, these votes would have merely moved the resulting odds. While unacceptable in either context, stochastic democracy requires the manipulation of relatively large numbers of votes to influence the outcome of a tight race compared to a majority contest, and even then, they would only be changing the odds, not changing the outcome.

All of these reasons lay out a solid case for an impractical idea. Stochastic democracy is an idea that can only be accepted by someone who doesn’t believe in democratic civil myths, and those people ultimately care more about the makeup of the electorate, rather than the electoral system.

Harvard Classics, Volume 20: The Divine Comedy

Usually in these posts I talk about a work, and how it fits into the Western canon, but with Dante that is a little bit different. The Divine Comedy is doesn’t just fit into the Western canon, it defines a large portion of it. Compared to other volumes, I spent significantly more time working through Dante and getting everything I could out of it. A short blog post certainly does not suffice to do more than to hopefully encourage further study by the reader.

The Divine Comedy was written in the early 14th century, and is the most important literary work of a whole millennia of our civilization. The Divine Comedy marks the beginning of an explosion in literature. The world Dante describes is still the Medieval one, with a highly structured and hierarchical universe where things tie together in a way that seems almost allegorical today.

Unless you’re taking a dedicated course in the book, most college courses cover a selection of the 100 Cantos that make up the Divine Comedy. Even though I found the whole experience very valuable, I can understand why colleges run their courses this way. The moments when Dante is transcendent are truly something special. But those instances do not occur in every Canto and as far as I can tell, my own assessment of which Cantos were the most interesting agreed with collegiate opinion.

The Divine Comedy is split into three main components, the Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso. Inferno usually gets the most attention because it is the least interested in theology, and the descriptions of people who do not eventually make it to heaven, especially those near the boundary, are some of the most interesting parts of the book. The common thread that runs through all three books is Love. In Inferno we see the result of putting other emotions ahead of Love. In Purgatorio, people are struggling with misplaced love. At the end of the Paradiso, Dante sees that the source of energy behind the whole of creation is Love. The object of Dante’s love, driving him forward is Beatrice. Dante longs after Beatrice through most of the books until she arrives to help him ascend into heaven, where she is with him almost to Dante’s final meeting with the Trinity.

It really is a silly exercise to try and talk about the depth, beauty and poetry of the Divine Comedy in a limited post. All I can really do is agree with the consensus that it is a sublime work that can be appreciated by from a single reading, but can also occupy the careers of scholars.

But now, with the Divine Comedy finished, we’ve reached a turning point in the Harvard Classics. From here on out, most of the readings are more modern, and there are fewer epic tomes known to everyone who goes to college. The big exception is the Odyssey, which is Volume 22. Before we get there, I’ll be reading the Italian novel I promessi sposi (The Betrothed).

Sargon’s Sophomoric Principles

YouTuber Sargon of Akkad, a pseudonym for British man Carl Benjamin, has written a set of principles to describe the political philosophy he espouses, which so far can only be described by the adjective “liberalist”. Whether there is or will be a noun form for the set of liberalist ideas is unknown at this time. Unfortunately for linguists everywhere, liberalistism seems to the be most reasonable option to name the ideas with a noun. As such, I will do my best to torture my own prose in order to avoid ever typing the word liberalistism again.

The current set of liberalist principles are described here, which Sargon shared on Minds and are presumably written by him. I had to use an archive because they’ve changed since they were first published, and if they are to ever be worthwhile, they will change again. Sadly, these are not in a complete enough form to criticize in a meaningful sense. The lack of definitions, inconsistent language and terseness makes legitimate criticism impossible. Should my legitimate criticisms of what exists be heard, I am likely to find the sands of definition shifting so that no criticism needs to be addressed. The tools left to my disposal to examine this piece are therefore limited to pointing out structural problems and teasing.

Overall the set of liberalist principles as described here is consistent with my impression of Sargon and his followers: people whose opinion is that the status quo of 2018 is more or less optimal, and that the Wikiquote page of 17th century English philosopher John Locke in combination with their own conventional wisdom is all that is necessary to support that view. It is very fortunate for Sargon and his followers that they happened to be born into the moment when the optimal ideals for political organization are also the conventional civic virtues they were taught in middle school.

Individual Rights
All political rights must be universally shared by all adult citizens,  enforced by a state that is accountable to the people. Groups may not have rights that violate the rights of individuals.
Each person’s rights must remain sacrosanct. This is the primary protection all people in society must enjoy to ensure justice and there can be no extra-legal justification to violate an individual’s rights.

The first sentence of these principles already yields problems. “All political rights must be universally shared by all adult citizens,  enforced by a state that is accountable to the people.” Nowhere does Sargon care to tell us what a political right is. Is it different from the term natural right Locke uses? Are political rights the only kind of rights or are they part of a vast undefined tapestry of rights? The audience is left to guess what this means. Similarly, state, accountability and people are equally ill-defined terms. Unlike his favorite philosopher, Sargon seems to think that governments and states just fall out of the sky and have people assigned to them. Accountability is a strange term as well. Caligula was held accountable for his actions in government, but I don’t think that’s the sort of government Sargon had in mind. Of course, Sargon later goes on to say that only democratic governments are legitimate, so I think that overrides all sorts of accountability except for the ballot-box type of accountability.

Moving on from the first sentence doesn’t make things much better. Apparently groups have rights, whose source and function are left as an exercise to the reader, that may not interfere with individual rights. Why the rights of a group differ from the rights of an individuals acting in concert is kind of bizarre. In the next sentence Sargon describes individual rights as sacrosanct, which seems like an odd word choice in a document which excludes religion from the organization of government.

All legal adults must be franchised with the right to have a direct method of exerting influence over their government. This is usually a representative democracy with the state as the servant of the people, dedicated to protecting their property rights and interfering with their lives as little as possible.

In the second section, Sargon moves into sheer Jacobin territory by declaring democracy the only legitimate form of government. Locke, in his Second Treatise on Government, marks himself against the concept of divine right, but not against Kings who reign with the consent of the governed. The belief that democracy is the only possible legitimate form of government is either a Jacobin or Trotskyist concept, both of which encourage the revolution to be spread by force around the world.

That isn’t even the worst bit of the second section. Sargon says that all adults should be granted the vote. Does he mean naturalized citizens here? Does he include incarcerated felons? Is living within a state sufficient to be granted a vote for its government? It is hard to tell what are hidden extremist positions and what is simple intellectual laziness on Sargon’s part.

Economic Freedom
Property rights begin with personal self-ownership and extend to any property an individual has legally acquired. The individual must be, as much as possible, in control of their own economic destiny. This includes the right to own property, engage in trade, to sell one’s own labour or to engage in collective economic activities.

For once, Sargon writes too many words in the section on economic freedom. Rather than stick to broad platitudes, he adds in caveats to make sure he has room to justify encroachments by the status quo on his banal principles that come later in the short list.

Freedom of speech
All people should enjoy the right to voice political ideas, no matter how controversial, without suffering penalties via state imposed fines, exclusion from the political system, incarceration or any other form of punishment.
No political idea can ever be considered as incitement, abuse or harassment in and of itself.
No speech should be compelled.

His description of freedom of speech is typically short, so the fact it is missing necessary details shouldn’t come as a surprise at this point. I do find it interesting that like rights, he chooses the adjective political to describe speech. It raises the question if non-political ideas are subject to suppression and incarceration for a liberalist.

People should be judged by the content of their character. Promotion  should be on the basis of achievement and should not be unduly inhibited by innate characteristics.
Nobody is entitled to receive benefits they did not earn or to which they are not already entitled by being a citizen.
This is not to be misinterpreted as declaration against social safety nets or healthcare, but against individuals or groups claiming unearned benefits, whether social or material, that they otherwise do not deserve.

When it comes to meritocracy, the opening statement about people being judged by the “content of their character” seems out of place. While obviously an unattributed reference to Martin Luther King Jr., judging people by the content of their character isn’t meritocratic in the slightest under common definitions. An otherwise bad person who is an effective employee should be promoted according to Sargon’s achievement criterion in the second sentence, but not when the content of his character is used to judge. In just two sentences, Sargon manages to provide contradictory statements on how a meritocracy should operate.

Moving on in meritocracy we find more problems. The first is that I don’t know if the use of citizen is supposed to mean something different from the word adult used previously. Sargon then says that people aren’t entitled to benefits, except for the ones he thinks they are entitled to. The two statements here also contradict the earlier statement about people being in control of their own economic destiny. Of course, Sargon added a caveat to that statement, so he likewise doesn’t have to follow it when he doesn’t want to.

Blind Justice
Each individual will be governed by the same laws as their peers, whether applicable or not, without exception.
Each person will be presumed innocent until proven guilty and guaranteed the right to a fair trial.

Sargon has very little to say about justice, except that laws should be applied consistently, that innocence is presumed, and that there should be fair trials. This extreme terseness on such a vital subject, one much more important than freedom of speech or meritocracy is telling. The laziness displayed here just seems to be Sargon not particularly caring about the topic, but feeling like it needed to be included.

There must be a strict separation between religion and state. Religious institutions must not be able to exert political power on the state for the goal of promoting religious beliefs.
All people must be allowed to worship privately or publicly (or not at all) as long as their religious beliefs do not interfere with the rights of others. This includes the ability to establish religious institutions and proselytise their faith.
Nobody is free to impose their beliefs on others.

Finally we get to the last section of this silly set of principles, on the separation of religion and state. The word choice here is once again telling because he means something fundamentally different than the American church and state. Sargon wants worship of self to be enshrined in government, and for other modes of belief to be tossed aside. For someone who believes only in the self, this is a very good arrangement as it puts their religion that doesn’t seem like a religion in the position of a state church.

All and all, Sargon has laid out a set of principles so vague that at a passing glance, any American or Brit who doesn’t think much about politics, would not only have agreed with them, but probably wrote something similar and of similar quality in a high school civics course, even if they actually disagreed with the views Sargon promotes. Liberalistism, in this form, is indistinguishable from a dozen other dopey political brands like reformicons, or conservatarians. Nothing makes it stand out from boring consensus politics. At least consensus politics has the excuse of trying to find common ground between people without strict adherence to principle. Sargon is trying to make a statement about a coherent set of views, and fails at every conceivable level. As I’ve said, I didn’t even bother criticizing the actual ideas in this piece, just their poor construction, their contradictions, and the obvious caveats Sargon has to use as excuses for not following his stated principles. There is plenty to say about the ideas, and when the day comes that Sargon is able to articulate those ideas in a sufficient amount of explanation with a sufficient amount of specificity, I will be happy to engage with the ideas. Until then, this will have to suffice.