When it comes to the moral decay of Western Civilization, few conversations are of greater potency than the ongoing debate between the axiom of choice and the axiom of determinacy. Just as social-justice-warrior and so-called physicist Albert Einstein pushed a theory of gravity central to the philosophy of 1960s radical post-modern moral Relativists, so too do neo-Marxists in university mathematics departments push a set theory that undermines the Calvinist values central to the founding of our great nation.
The truth these math professors won’t tell you: THERE IS NO CHOICE. You are what you are fated to be. Liberal parents will tell their special snowflake children that they can be whatever they choose. This is a lie! You cannot be more than what God intended. There is no escape from the LORD’s plan.
Of course, Einstein would tell you that his theory of relativity is about the structure of spacetime and doesn’t have sociological implications. Likewise, proponents of the axiom of choice will feign confusion: “What? What are you talking about? The axiom of choice isn’t about socialism. It’s about defining a choice function on a set of nonempty sets.”
Don’t believe their lies! The axiom of choice allows mathematicians to use a trick called “transfinite induction.” This is blasphemy! Transfinite induction is in direct contradiction with the fundamental finitude of man.
And these so-called set theorists know all too well that the axiom of choice has some unnatural implications. Stefan Banach and Alfred Tarski used the axiom of choice to cut a pea into pieces and to reassemble the pieces into a ball the size of the sun! Of course, this notion that a pea and the sun are in some way equivalent—this notion that a pea and the sun are made up of the same constituent pieces—bears clear resemblance to the socialist principle of equality, and flies in the face of Objective reality: Some objects are bigger than others, and some people are better than others.
Banach and Tarski’s proof is difficult to understand, but you don’t have to understand the mathematics to see that the axiom of choice is evil: Why else would liberals make being “pro-choice” a key part of their nefarious agenda?
Worse still than liberals’ pro-choice politics is the relationship the progressive regressive left has with choice. The axiom of choice (AOC) has close ties to socialists like Bernie Sanders. AOC even played a foundational role in the development of the Green New Deal—the radical left’s latest attempt to contravene the LORD’s plan by using Green’s functions to redistribute wealth and avert the coming apocalypse.
But here’s the truth: Even with AOC, post-modern neo-Marxist mathematicians cannot escape their fate. THE ENDTIMES ARE NIGH! REPENT!
In past years, I’ve published a list of the best books I read that year in a list titled “Top Books of 201X.” This year, my relationship to reading was a little more complicated. Books are so often complex and multifaceted, it can be hard to boil them down enough to place them on a one dimensional good/bad spectrum. Sometimes a mostly good book has a serious flaw that makes it complicated to recommend. Sometimes a good reading experience comes from having a conversation with a book that you strongly disagree with. So instead of the best books I read this year, here’s a list of some books I read this year that were particularly enjoyable or thought provoking, or just left a lasting impression.
In no particular order:
The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand
I thoroughly enjoyed The Fountainhead. Published in 1943, it tells the story of self-possessed architect and Perfect Man Howard Roark through his career as he builds modernist buildings that are testaments to human greatness. Along the way, he is thwarted by the evil, clever, and ambiguously physically disabled Ellsworth Toohey who, as a socialist, hates humanity, loves mediocrity, and wants to promote a picture of equality where all enviable traits are suppressed à la “Harrison Bergeron.”
Rand’s prose is forceful and opinionated, leaving very little up to interpretation and making The Fountainhead an easy and pleasurable read. I don’t need to think very hard to understand what Rand is trying to tell me. She hates friendship and community, I get it. She thinks that collaborative efforts can never produce anything of artistic merit, because the individual is objectively real, and any structure that arises at a level beyond the individual is fake. Emergence? Nope, emergence is a lie. When we allow another person’s ideas to influence our artistic output, we are necessarily compromising our artistic integrity. After Rand brought up the impossibility of artistic collaboration for the nth time I started to wonder whether she had ever listened to jazz, or to any music for that matter—that’s the thing about a lot of the ideas presented in The Fountainhead: They are transparently ridiculous. It makes sense, then, that Rand’s prose borders on proselytizing for capitalism and cults of the individual,1 because any book that argued for Rand’s ideas while actually asking readers to think for themselves would fail to convince anybody.
Is The Fountainhead good? The short answer is no. The longer answer is that art can sometimes transcend the opinions of the artist, and maybe The Fountainhead is a masterpiece of unreliable narration. Contained within the mangled social commentary there is a core of real wisdom: A life defined around pleasing others is a life wasted—a life centered around pleasing others won’t make you happy, and, ironically, it isn’t even the best way to make others happy. Rand describes a modern society plagued by a lack of self-possession, a moral disease she calls “selflessness,” and she attributes this selflessness to socialists who control the media who want to hold great men2 down because they’re jealous of those with superior talents; an explanation that transparently makes no sense, even within the novel’s own internal logic.
Rand constructs character after character who, in his pursuit of wealth, subdues his own values, beliefs, and desires in favor of what is marketable, and becomes deeply unhappy; and then she argues that somehow, these characters’ unhappiness is communism’s fault. At times, the mess of internal contradictions within The Fountainhead becomes so great that it’s hard to believe that Rand wasn’t intentionally writing a novel meant to expose the psychic toll that the ideology of laissez-faire capitalism takes, as she is forced into more and more hateful and conspiratorial explanations in order to avoid recognizing what is right in front of her face.
So, do I recommend the Fountainhead? Yeah, sort of. I found it thought provoking, hilarious, and deeply tragic. Ten out of ten (ymmv). The Internet Archive has numerous copies of Rand’s masterpiece (12345) that you can read for free, or you can check it out from your local library.
Content Warning for The Fountainhead
Content Warning: The Fountainhead contains a graphic sex scene that many have reasonably described as rape.
Walden Two by B.F. Skinner
B.F. Skinner was an academic psychologist who made it his life’s mission to save humanity from self destruction. He promoted the development of an empirical science of behavior, which he predicted would lead to the development of a technology of behavioral control, which could solve many of the world’s problems. If this sounds creepy, it is perhaps much less so when Skinner reframes his life’s goal in more familiar terms: When people are treated with love and kindness, they treat others with love and kindness in turn; an empirical science that taught us to be more effectively loving and kind could have immensely positive consequences.
Skinner’s 1948 utopian novel Walden Two is his attempt to show how such a behavioral technology might work in practice. The novel tells the story of a visit to a small community (named Walden Two, in reference to Thoreau’s Walden) within the United States built on the principles of behavioral science, and consists largely of conversations between various characters, as they discuss the community, explaining how it works and how it differs from the rest of America.
These conversations end up focusing less on the specifics of how behavioral science can solve the world’s problems, and more on careful diagnosis of the social ails of 1940s America; focusing especially on the problems with consumer culture (we buy a lot of things that don’t make us happy), overwork (modern capitalism is massively inefficient because a huge amount of work goes into maintaining the status of the leisure class), democracy (good democratic decision making requires everyone to be an expert on everything, but specialized expertise is a better way to increase community knowledge and make people feel intellectually fulfilled), community structures (the nuclear family makes people, especially women, lonely), and the oppression of women and the lower classes. It is in these conversations that the book really shines. Skinner’s infectious belief that the world could be better makes these heavy issues feel infinitely more tractable. I’ve never read a book that was so thought-provoking on heavy social issues without making me feel sad.
Walden Two left me with a sense that utopian fiction is severely underutilized as a tool for social critique. Compared to dystopia, there’s not much utopian fiction out there, but pointing out the injustices of the world by imagining a world where such injustices are absent is powerful. It’s hopeful. This year was pretty demoralizing in a lot of ways, and Walden Two helped me understand the world around me, while also helping to lift the sense of doom.
Unfortunately, Skinner’s ideas on how to attain such a utopia are often vague, dangerous, or both. At best, Skinner defers the details to a later date, (“Once we develop a sophisticated science of behavior, then we will know how to engineer a culture where everyone wants to work toward the common good”), and at worst he endorses some of the specific cult-like structures that were associated with the the disastrous utopian projects3 of the latter half of the 20th century. Skinner is often blinded about individual needs by his communalist goals, and asserts with high confidence that parents should not have special attachment to their children, that community members should have no personal savings, that teenagers who are in love should immediately get married and make babies, and so on—all ideas that the intervening 70 years of world events and continuing scientific research have revealed to be misguided.
Yet, these frequent wrongheaded ideas didn’t bother me much. Skinner’s mistakes are made more forgivable by the fact that he doesn’t take himself too seriously. Throughout the book, Skinner pokes fun at his own eccentricities, and lightheartedly critiques the ways that he reflects the problematic aspects of academic culture. I often found Skinner’s jokes about academia to be laugh-out-loud funny, although I will admit that my appreciation of such humor may be niche.
Overall, I’m not sure what I think of Walden Two. As I read it, I found myself often wincing at its worse suggestions. But, with more distance, I grow fonder and fonder of the book. B.F. Skinner had a lot of ideas, and some of those ideas were really bad. But he also had some ideas that are worth thinking about, and for me at least, the good ideas have more staying power. I like Walden Two.
Behave by Robert Sapolsky
Robert Sapolsky’s magnum opus, published in 2017, seeks to understand the biology that guides us “at our best and worst.” Sapolsky looks at love, murder, warfare, atrocity, heroism, and so on, and asks “Biologically, what is going on?”
The first half of the book focuses on building a biological framework: Causal stories are difficult to tell because every event has proximate causes that are in turn caused by less proximate causes, and we can follow the chain of causality all the way back to the boundary conditions of the universe.
A behavior has just occurred. Why did it happen? Your first category of explanation is going to be a neurobiological one. what went on in that person’s brain a second before the behavior happened? Now pull out to a slightly larger field of vision… What sight, sound, or smell in the previous seconds to minutes triggered the nervous system to produce that behavior?… What hormones acted hours to days earlier to change how responsive that individual was to the sensory stimuli that trigger the nervous system to produce the behavior?… What features of the environment in prior weeks to years changed the structure and function of that person’s brain…? …expanding and expanding until considering events umpteen millennia ago….
Sapolsky, Behave, 2017, “Introduction,” pp. 6-7
For the first half of the book, Sapolsky goes back in time before a behavior occurs, covering neurology, environment, endocrinology, mood, adolescence, childhood, the prenatal environment, genetics, culture, and evolution. Each subdiscipline of behavioral biology, he explains, implicitly invokes all the others. Neurology cannot be understood without environmental effects and vice versa.
The second half of the book then focuses on using this framework to understand why we behave the way we do: Why we love and kill and worship and make art and so on. Sapolsky tackles the science of intimate relationships, religion, hierarchy and the state, conformity and rebellion, criminal justice, war and peace, and much more. The eclectic nature of Behave makes it difficult to summarize, but it is hugely insightful, and I came away from it feeling like I had a better understanding of myself and the world around me.
Unfortunately, Behave has one serious flaw: Sapolsky consistently fails to introduce enough doubt. The behavioral sciences are in a replication crisis, and the scientific results he describes are almost always more dubious or situation-dependent than he depicts. For example, Sapolsky gives the Marshmallow Test the standard treatment: A researcher presents a young child (3 to 6 years old) with a marshmallow4 sitting on a table, and tells the kid that if they do not eat the marshmallow for fifteen minutes, they can have a second marshmallow. The kid is then left in the room with the marshmallow. The purpose of the original experiment was to see what types of strategies kids employed to delay gratification, but when the researchers followed up years later, they found something surprising: Kids who waited longer to eat the marshmallow grew up to be more successful adults.
The standard interpretation of the marshmallow test (and the interpretation Sapolsky gives) is that self control, a personality trait set by early childhood, is hugely important for our ability to navigate the world. However, studies within the last decade have called this result into question, suggesting instead that it’s entirely about class: Children are more likely to delay gratification when they truly expect to be rewarded. Less wealthy kids, who are less likely to succeed because they lack resources, are accustomed to promises falling through, so they won’t hold out for a second marshmallow. Wealthier kids with stable home environments, who are more likely to succeed as adults because they have all the resources to help them, are more likely to delay gratification when presented with a marshmallow, because they expect the promise of the second marshmallow to be kept.
A single study with a new interpretation is hardly something to complain about, but Behave is riddled with studies that don’t fully hold up (I won’t list them here), many of which have worrying sociological implications. Sapolsky makes a good effort to be anti-classist, anti-racist, anti-sexist, etc., but when you’re studying humans, prejudice will always creep into your analysis in unexpected ways. It’s important, then, to either introduce doubt consistently throughout, or to discuss the problems with replication and interpretation to give the readers the tools to introduce enough doubt themselves. Otherwise, you end up confidently implying that poor people are poor because they have no self control.
Overall, I want to highly recommend Behave, but I’m also wary of the effect it might have on someone who is less familiar than I am with the problems in academic psychology…. Read at your own risk.
The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman
The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ is a 2010 novel by the author of The Golden Compass that retells the story of Jesus Christ as if he were two brothers, Jesus and Christ, with conflicting ideas about the the role that spirituality and religion should play in our lives and society. Whereas, the His Dark Materials trilogy took a distinctly anti-church stance of religion, here, Pullman focuses instead on the nuance, discussing the ways that spirituality helps us, the ways that it hurts us, and the ways that it can be co-opted to serve evil ends.
This book moved me, comforted me, and made me cry.
Against Empathy by Paul Bloom
Based on the title, you might assume that Paul Bloom’s Against Empathy, published in 2016, is some sort of Randian screed against altruism, but it’s actually the opposite. Bloom, an academic psychologist, argues that moral behavior comes largely from the intellectual recognition of the value of others’ lives, and that empathy (i.e. feeling what others are feeling) gets in the way of good moral decision-making. Empathy, he argues, is innumerate, short-sighted, and prone to manipulation. Empathy favors those who are close to us or whom we find attractive. Empathy is racist. And empathy is emotionally draining. When others are suffering, suffering with them may feel noble, but it often gets in the way of actually helping.
I went into this book already partially agreeing with Bloom: I’ve always found the focus placed on empathy in both academia and casual discourse kind of weird—I already believed that empathy had clear shortcomings—but I didn’t think that this focus on empathy was a problem. This book has opened my eyes to the ways that a cultural focus on empathy makes us less kind, caring, and capable of dealing with the problems the world presents to us. Bloom details his correspondence with doctors and 9/11 first responders who, because of this elevation on empathy as a moral arbiter, feel like they do not have permission to steel themselves against the emotional weight of the tremendous loss of human life—with the pandemic, this cultural inability to cope takes on renewed importance.
Bloom also discusses the “psychopath,” a sort of monster we’ve invented inspired by the importance we’ve placed on empathy. Psychopaths have no empathy and they’re evil. Psychopaths may exist, Bloom concedes, but if they do exist, they’re not the main source of evil in the world. A focus on psychopathy and empathy causes us to overlook the root causes of conflict. Reading Against Empathy, I began to see the ways that online discourse is often obsessed with psychoanalyzing influencers to demonstrate that they’re bad people, when a look at their bad behavior should suffice.5
Bloom takes on empathy in interpersonal contexts as well. Good parenting, he argues, for example, can often mean subduing empathy when wisdom is needed. Empathy gets in the way of tough love. It gets in the way of conflict resolution.
And Against Empathy doesn’t solely consist of arguments against empathy. Bloom goes on frequent tangents that are always interesting and often wise—-he discusses moral reasoning in infants, psychology as an empirical science, political rhetoric, Buddhism, and much more.
Concretely, Against Empathy made me a better person. It gave me the tools I needed to be a more rational altruist, to avoid being manipulated, and to take care of my heart while struggling to understand the world in turmoil.
Still, I don’t 100% agree with Bloom. There are times when Bloom makes an argument that seems to me completely off base, but Bloom’s conversational style leaves ample room for disagreement. Bloom does not tell the reader what to think; instead he provides evidence and reasoning for an unusual and much needed perspective.
Or other treat. The original experiment used pretzels and cookies.[↩]
e.g. YouTuber Shane Dawson lost over a million subscribers in 2020 when his extensive history of extremely offensive humor (including black face, bestiality, and sexualizing his preteen audience) resurfaced. A large amount of the discussion centered around whether or not Shane Dawson is an empath, when his ability to feel others’ pain is largely unrelated to the harm he and YouTube have caused with bad child-oriented content.[↩]
[Content note: this post contains brief discussion of a suicide attempt]
In 2007, Eliezer Yudkowsky wrote an essay in which he argues for a social physics understanding of group extremism. Why do cults often become stronger after the failure of a prophecy? How do online forums become echo chambers? Yudkowsky makes a physical analogy to evaporative cooling:
Take a can of air duster sitting at room temperature. Inside the can are a collection of molecules, flowing past each other randomly at varying speeds, all held together in the liquid phase by electromagnetic forces and by the pressure of the can. Now open the nozzle and spray out some air. There’s a pressure drop in the can, and the liquid inside starts quickly evaporating: Particles on the surface of the liquid escape the electromagnetic hold of the other particles, and become gaseous. But not all particles have an equal chance of escaping. Instead, particles with higher kinetic energy (i.e. faster moving particles) escape preferentially. This leads to a lower average kinetic energy in the liquid, or in other words, the molecules in the liquid are moving slower and the temperature of the liquid drops. The can of air duster becomes cold to the touch.
Similarly, Yudkowsky argues, the inciting event of a failed prophesy can cause a religious group to eject the less devoted believers, causing the group beliefs to become more uniform and more extreme.
In Festinger, Riecken, and Schachter’s classic When Prophecy Fails, one of the cult members walked out the door immediately after the flying saucer failed to land. Who gets fed up and leaves first? An average cult member? Or a relatively skeptical member, who previously might have been acting as a voice of moderation, a brake on the more fanatic members?
This analogy is, I think, spot-on. Or, as spot-on as these kinds of social physics analogies can be. That is, reductive to the point of being a little insulting, but still holding some sort of general truth. An analogy between temperature and ideological diversity makes a lot of sense, and I’ve seen this kind of evaporative cooling of group beliefs play out over and over again online. With the advent of some really objectionable social-justice-oriented content, for example, a lot of online atheist spaces became places to critique bad social justice content, which in turn highlighted political differences between different atheists, alienating the more left-leaning group members, and moving the group as a whole to the right.1 Similarly, /r/TopMindsOfReddit used to be a fairly politically neutral place to poke fun at conspiracy theorists, but, with the rise of Trump and the increasing relevance of right-wing conspiracy theories, anti-right-wing content became more prevalent, causing right-leaning members to leave the subreddit. The subreddit is now decidedly left/liberal.
This kind of “evaporative cooling of group beliefs” is not always a bad thing. Right-leaning online atheist spaces have become vitriolic and anti-science, but /r/TopMindsOfReddit has remained a pretty decent (i.e. factually accurate and open to internal disagreement) online community throughout their shift to the left. One shortcoming of the evaporative cooling analogy is that it would seem to imply that groups that undergo this process necessarily become less diverse. Kinetic energy is simple and one-dimensional: if you kick out all the high energy particles, you’ll get a smaller range of kinetic energies. Ideology, on the other hand, is complex and fractal. If you kick out all the right-leaning (or left-leaning) group members, you open yourself up to a deeper leftist (or rightist) conversation, potentially ultimately increasing diversity of thought. 2
So we need to ask the question: Why does this ideological evaporation process sometimes lead to toxic, crazy, uniform, cult-like belief, and sometimes lead to a healthy and diverse (but shifted) belief?
The “green beard effect” is a concept in evolutionary biology that allows for gene-based kin selection: A gene, or a group of linked genes, can increase its evolutionary success if it facilitates cooperation among individuals who have that gene. If I have a gene that causes a conspicuous trait, like green facial hair, and also causes me to sacrifice myself to help others with that conspicuous trait, then my own individual reproductive success may be decreased, but my sacrifice increases the gene’s success. If green facial hair is a good indicator that another individual shares the green beard gene, then my sacrifice helps my green beard gene proliferate.3
Green beards are not necessarily common in biology. Single genes, or single sets of linked genes, tend to be too simple and too messy to code both for a conspicuous marker and for cooperation based on the conspicuous marker. Still, there are examples of green beard traits in a wide variety of organisms, from yeast to ants to rodents.
Where green beards are really commonly found is in memetics. Memetic evolution, or the evolution of ideas through Darwinian selection with “memes” as the basic unit of information instead of “genes,” is more susceptible to green beard effects because memeplexes (that is, sets of linked memes) tend to be much more complex and coherent than sets of linked genes, making the requisite coding of both a conspicuous marker and preferential treatment of those with the conspicuous marker much more likely. As a result, green beards are widespread in human ideology: Religions often incorporate easily identifiable dietary restrictions, political ideologies call for surface-level changes in language, and subcultures outwardly signify with style of dress (fittingly, certain more left-leaning subcultures today actually dye their hair, lending more literal meaning to the green beard).4, 5
So, when are green beard markers relevant? If I live in a small enough community that I know my entire family tree, then I don’t need any help from green beards to decide who I’m willing to sacrifice how much for.6 Similarly, within small communities, when I personally know other community members, I can identify my ideological kin based on a robust understanding of their point of view, instead of relying on fallible markers like hairstyle and word choice. If I know my my neighbors well, then green beards are completely irrelevant. Ideological green beards become important when we’re interacting with strangers. And the internet has increased our ideological interaction with strangers at least tenfold.
Speaking from personal experience, internet communities are far more prone to toxic echo-chamber effects than are in-person communities. And there are a lot of reasons for this, including the much discussed fact that people feel emboldened when they’re behind a screen and anonymous—if I make myself look horrible by being cruel to strangers on reddit, that cruelty doesn’t follow me around. Reputation is a useful tool for norm enforcement, and reputation barely exists online. But what is often overlooked is the social physical “evaporative cooling” outcome of the lack of positive reputation online.
As I’ve already noted, there is nothing wrong with wanting to talk to people who you know share some of your priors. There is obvious value to online forums where people who all agree that unregulated capitalism is the best economic system can discuss the best way to provide universal needs like roads and fire fighting. There is obvious value to online forums where people who all agree that there is an omnipotent, omnibenevolent, and omniscient God can discuss the problem of evil. There is obvious value to online forums where people who all agree that human activity has an alarming effect on Earth’s climate can discuss the relative benefits of carbon taxes and alternative energy research. Of course, it is a problem if we are completely isolated from other points of view, but not every conversation about (right-)libertarianism needs to tolerate liberal points of view, not every conversation about Christianity needs to tolerate atheists, and not every conversation about climate change needs to tolerate climate “skeptics.” Forums do not become cult-like echo chambers just because they exclude certain points of view. Rather, they become toxic and cult-like when they start preventing insiders from thinking for themselves. They become echo chambers when it becomes impossible to disagree with the party line.
In 2015, a tumblr artist, whose restyling of cartoon characters was deemed problematic, attempted suicide following targeted harassment by members of the Steven Universe fandom. Even after the artist announced (in a video filmed in the hospital) what had happened, she continued to face harassment from extremist Steven Universe fans who accused her of faking the suicide attempt and hospital visit. In many ways, this campaign of harassment was an unfortunately typical example of internet cruelty, but what makes it odd is that Steven Universe is a children’s TV show that celebrates diversity, kindness, and acceptance. How does a community based around such loving values become so vitriolic?
Several years ago, I was an active participant on a few feminist subreddits. Feminist subreddits are by and large a very difficult place to have a good conversation. They upvote and downvote so much that it feels like you’re talking in front of a crowd who cheers or boos everything anyone says. They do not tolerate dissent. And the moderators tend to be very ban-happy. I remember one interaction7 with another redditor (who I’ll call Tony), who was arguing that pro-consent messaging often vilifies male sexuality. Of course Tony was massively downvoted, and I replied to his comment and argued that his data was cherry-picked. Shortly thereafter I got a personal message from Tony saying that he had wanted to reply to my comment but he was banned for “trolling.” He seemed genuinely distraught about the way other redditors had responded to his comment, and at this point I checked his user page and I learned that he was a young (high school aged) guy with a large generally feminist-aligned posting history.
This encounter was a bit of a red flag for me for the way feminist subreddits conduct conversations. For one, Tony seemed thoughtful and like he really cared about women’s rights, and alienating thoughtful and caring young men is pretty contrary to the goals of feminism (at least the strains of feminism that I agree with). For another, he and I ended up having a very productive conversation in private messages—I convinced him that the types of vilification he was worried about were less common than he initially thought, and he convinced me that this kind of vilification is worth worrying about even if the extreme cases are rare—and it is unfortunate that this conversation was not allowed to happen on a public forum where other people might have benefited from it.
So, what social dynamics caused Tony to get banned?
For reasons I will not interrogate within this blog post, online feminist forums are frequented by a lot of people who seem to whole-heartedly disagree with the central tenets of feminism. As a result, maintaining a focused conversation requires ejecting certain participants—an intervention that comes in the form of top-down censorship by moderators and in the form of peer-level community censure. Yudkowsky cautions against these kinds of interventions, saying that although it is true that you have to “exclude trolls” to some extent in order to have a good conversation,
It’s the articulate trolls that you should be wary of ejecting, on this theory—they serve the hidden function of legitimizing less extreme disagreements…. If you have one person around who is the famous Guy Who Disagrees With Everything, anyone with a more reasonable, more moderate disagreement won’t look like the sole nail sticking out.
But I don’t really agree. It is possible to articulately argue that patriarchal family structures are morally good, and that our government, media, and culture should seek to strengthen heterosexual marriages between a male breadwinner and a female housewife; but somebody who consistently argues against women in the workplace obviously does not belong on a feminist forum, no matter how “articulate” those arguments are. The presence of a “Guy Who Disagrees With Everything” on an anonymous forum does not legitimize smaller disagreements. Instead it creates an environment where users view small disagreements with suspicion. In a less anonymous setting, other participants could have identified Tony as a good faith actor based on his feminist comment history, but in an environment without reputation, where the Guy Who Disagrees With Everything is all around, users have to rely on extremely local green beards to filter out bad actors, and people like Tony who seem to echo an anti-feminist talking point are ejected.
Like Tony, I’ve faced community censure on a subreddit when I’ve been misidentified as an outsider. A left-leaning political humor subreddit was discussing the censorship of hate speech on social media platforms, and a highly upvoted comment argued that because social media platforms are private companies, free speech arguments are irrelevant. I replied to this comment, attempting to argue that free speech is relevant because social media corporations are so powerful. I knew that I was going against the grain of the conversation, so I tried to signal my group membership. I called social media companies “psychopathic corporations motivated only by profit,” in essence, stroking my bushy verdant anti-capitalist facial hair.8 But my comment was generally downvoted, and to be honest, I didn’t do a very good job clearly expressing my opinion in this comment, so the downvoting was pretty fair. What was interesting about this online interaction was that I got a highly upvoted reply that called me anti-feminist and homophobic. I’ve never been called homophobic before or since, and I think the reason I haven’t been called homophobic is that I’m not homophobic. My comment didn’t say anything about gay people, and in fact, part of the reason I’m concerned about online corporate censorship is because both YouTube9 and TikTok10 have histories of suppressing queer content. Evidently I didn’t flaunt my green beard hard enough though, or perhaps I chose the wrong green beard to draw attention to. If we had been interacting in a less anonymous forum, the other participants would have known that we are generally in agreement on gay rights issues, and perhaps I would have been asked to explain my perspective further. Instead, they got to go on with their day thinking that anybody who is critical of corporate censorship is a huge bigot.
And to be clear, I’m not innocent here. I am sure I have misidentified many well-meaning redditors as bigoted trolls. I usually don’t stick around long enough to figure out that I’m wrong, but there was one time recently when a seemingly racist comment got me so annoyed that I forced myself to take some time to gently explain why AAVE is not “improper grammar,” but instead a variety of English that is just as sophisticated and valid as academic English. In writing my comment, I was hoping to perhaps convince some onlookers. Mostly I just didn’t want to leave such a wrong statement dangling and unaddressed. But the original commenter actually responded to my comment, thanking me, and saying that they had spent about an hour reading about AAVE and it had opened their eyes to how certain types of grammar policing can be really racist. I was surprised, and I was embarrassed about how surprised I was. In principle, I know that not everyone is always on the same page as me. Sometimes I know more about linguistics than someone else, and if a person has not yet deconstructed certain linguistic supremacist narratives, it doesn’t mean that that person is full of hatred or incapable of learning. In principle, I know that people can be very wrong in small local ways without having a hugely misguided point of view, but somehow I had forgotten.
A lack of positive reputation, especially when people (rationally or not) are suspicious of other points of view, forces a reliance on green beard markers. On social media platforms where users have constant brief one-off ideological interactions with strangers, the green beard effect dominates. Anyone who expresses a view that is outside the group norm is an outsider who should be banned or downvoted or shouted down. And in accordance with Yudkowsky’s “evaporative cooling of group beliefs,” this kind of group norm enforcement spirals into toxic echo chambers where beliefs become more and more uniform as dissenters are ejected, and members (in fear of rejection) become less and less open to changing their minds. People who don’t share your green beards are the enemy. Somebody whose fan art depicts a Steven Universe character as thinner than she appears in the show is not only fatphobic—she is the enemy. She deserves to be harassed, and when she says she was hospitalized for a suicide attempt, she is lying, because she is evil.
Image: “skinnywashed” Rose Quartz fan art vs how she appeared on Steven Universe. Image source.
And this is where I want to say the solution is obvious. We should give people the benefit of the doubt. We should talk to people who we disagree with and maybe we’ll find common ground. But no. This is terrible advice, because although I’ve had some good conversations with people who at first seemed to be trolls, it has more often gone the opposite direction. A lot of people on the internet who seem to be sexist or homophobic or racist actually are sexist and homophobic and racist, and they are trying to upset you and waste your time.
Perhaps there is another solution to online polarization then. Our reliance on green beard markers is caused by a lack of positive reputation, so maybe the answer is to re-introduce some degree of positive reputation. Small reputation-based barriers to entering forums seemingly to do a lot to protect the space from bad faith actors, and therefore allow users to engage with each other without suspicion. r/FeMRADebates, for example, manages to maintain a mostly polite conversation and a huge diversity of opinion by requiring that commenters have an account that is at least 30 days old and has at least 100 “karma.”11 Wikipedia also uses reputation to maintain pages that are more controversial or prone to vandalism, granting these pages “semi-protected” status, which prevents new and anonymous users from making edits. Solutions like these give me hope. People can be good if only we make small simple changes that facilitate natural human goodness.
This video essay by YouTuber Big Joel covers this progression in more detail.[↩]
It is, of course, important that we engage with a range of perspectives, and talk to people whose ideas we find challenging. That said, it is sometimes more intellectually useful to talk to people who already share many of our beliefs. When we talk to people who we mostly disagree with, we challenge our beliefs, and when we talk to people who we mostly agree with, we expand our beliefs. An intellectually healthy world should have plenty of both types of conversation.[↩]
This gene-level view of evolution has some pretty disturbing and likely untrue implications (e.g. racism is merely a result of natural kin-selection), so I want to explicitly note here that this view of evolution is incomplete.[↩]
To be clear, my goal here is not to argue that these types of green beard markers are good, or bad, or even arbitrary. Sometimes they do seem arbitrary (e.g. the Jewish ban on eating animals with cloven hooves), but sometimes they’re closely associated with other values and beliefs of the memeplex (e.g. Buddhist vegetarianism).[↩]
Is the call to memetics really necessary here? Maybe not. There are other explanations for how these ideological green beards could arise. Suffice to say, whether or not memetic evolution is at play, ideologies have visible markers that facilitate cooperation within that ideology. [↩]
A fully gene-level understanding of evolution would dictate that green beard effects would still be relevant in this scenario, as under the gene-level view, green beards are not about facilitating kin selection, but instead about a gene facilitating its own selection. But evolution is a mix of gene selection, individual/kin selection, and group selection, and it seems to me that individual/kin level selection would become more dominant in a world where kin selection was easier .[↩]
This interaction, as well as the two other reddit interactions in this post have been slightly modified for simplicity, and to preserve the anonymity of my reddit account.[↩]
Two former schoolmates and I recently published an open letter to the Berkeley school board (BUSD), along with a historical account of our elementary school’s 2005 democratic process to change our name from “Jefferson Elementary.”1 After two years of hard work by adults in the community, who wanted to create a more anti-racist learning environment for us, the school community voted to change our name to “Sequoia,” only to have our decision nullified and denounced by the Berkeley school board.
After the resurgence of Black Lives Matter earlier this summer, BUSD has decided to de-name both Jefferson and Washington Elementary as part of a broader BLM resolution, as both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson became immensely wealthy as active participants in chattel slavery. It is good, of course, that BUSD now recognizes that schools should not be named after slave-holders, but they are in the process of renaming Jefferson all over again. Their approach to renaming Jefferson overlooks the school’s specific history. It overlooks the fact that the name “Jefferson” is racist not only because of who Thomas Jefferson was, but also because if not for racist action by the school board, the school’s name would have been changed to Sequoia fifteen years ago.
So why do I care? Why focus on names, when we could focus on racist funding allocation and the achievement gap? School board member Ka’Dijah Brown, who sponsored the resolution, has repeatedly expressed worry that the conversation about the names will overshadow other anti-racist action, as well as frustration “that the same level of passion and concern is not given to the other issues that plague our district and cause our district to perpetuate the school to prison pipeline and perpetuate school pushouts.”2 I sympathize with this point of view, but people can and do care about multiple issues at once, and the picture of fighting racism as a zero-sum game where focus on one issue necessarily detracts from another is incomplete. Certainly, sometimes energy can be misdirected, but symbols can also act as a rallying point for more robust and concrete change. The focus on the schools’ names does not detract from other issues, but adds momentum to them.
Plus, symbols are important. When I started working on the open letter, I was of the mind that I didn’t care intrinsically about the name. I cared about recognition of racism within Berkeley’s recent past: We need to do more than acknowledge the racism inherent to our country’s founding. We need to do the harder and more important work of examining and rooting out racism from within our own community’s past. The school board needs to address what happened in 2005, and this conversation about the name was a tool to make that happen. Caring intrinsically about names feels irrational. Arguing over the meaning of a name should be rationally resolved by mutual recognition that the name means different things to different people, and the real questions are about the concrete injustices of racism. But this outlook is naive. Our minds are deeply linguistic, and becoming better, more compassionate, more intelligent people means interrogating what words and names and symbols mean to us.
Physical systems behave according to the principle of symmetry. That is, the same mechanisms acting in separate and similar situations lead to similar outcomes. Seemingly benign symbols of racism come from and perpetuate the psychological and social systems that enact racist laws and stochastically spit out white supremacist terrorists. Concrete injustices of racism are hard to tackle. They’re emotionally exhausting. I don’t enjoy thinking about the countless Black people who have been murdered by the police. Symbols of racism are much less heavy; and by examining symbols of racism, we indirectly examine concrete racism. By rooting out the aspects of our culture that venerate white supremacist symbols, we indirectly root out white supremacy.
How to help:
If you have a connection to Jefferson Elementary, or to Berkeley in general, you can support our cause by sending our letter to the School Board along with a statement of agreement, as more voices will make them more likely to act on our demands:
Subject line: Recognize Sequoia & Inform the Community.
Message: I was a student who voted in Jefferson Elementary’s 2005 name change election and agree that our legitimate vote for “Sequoia” should be honored. I urge the BUSD to meet my community’s demands: https://tinyurl.com/y268rzwj
(If you weren’t a student in 2005, but you still want to support the cause, send something similar.)
And send this information on to people you know who went to Jefferson, or someone else you think would support the cause.
Thomas Jefferson became immensely wealthy as an active participant in chattel slavery, and wrote extensively about the subservient place of Black people in society and the lesser capability of the Black mind: “…never yet could I find that a black had uttered a thought above the level of plain narration; …it appears to me, that in memory they are equal to whites; In reason much inferior… and that in imagination they are dull, tasteless and anomalous” (Notes on the State of Virginia, 1787)[↩]
Tl;dr: Far-ultraviolet light has potential as a human-safe germicide, but its safety is not established. In particular, evidence that it is not carcinogenic exists for only one of two mechanisms for ultraviolet carcinogenicity. In addition, use of far-ultraviolet light in public spaces to prevent the spread of SARS-COV-2 or other pathogens leads to a host of other concerns that need to be addressed.
In 2017, Nature published a paper that investigated the possibility of using far-UVC light to combat a future influenza pandemic. The paper went mostly unnoticed by non-academics, as is the norm for technical journals, but now with the novel coronavirus and the first pandemic of its kind in 100 years, the public at large is paying attention to ideas from the frontiers and fringes of biology and medicine. Last month, far-UVC’s safe germicidal potential was the subject of a post by Roko Mijic and Alexey Turchin on LessWrong. They call the use of far UVC in public spaces “one of the most promising and neglected ideas for combating the spread of covid-19,” and lament “Why hasn’t this already been considered by relevant authorities? Far-UVC appears in a literature review by WHO, but it is not currently being acted upon as the amount of evidence in favor of safety and efficacy is small.”
I’ve spent the last few weeks educating myself on the literature surrounding far-UVC’s safety, and I’ve come to a clear conclusion. Is the use of far-UVC to combat pandemics in general a good idea? Yes. Should research on it be expanded? Yes. But using far-UVC in public spaces to combat COVID-19 would be way way way premature.
First, a couple of disclaimers:
Disclaimer 1: I am not a biologist or a doctor. I don’t have anything near a professional’s expertise on human biological questions. There may be inaccuracies or misunderstandings throughout this post, although of course I’ve done my best.
Disclaimer 2: My method for research tends to be browsing Wikipedia to find general information, and using Wikipedia’s citations and external links to find more rigorous discussion of specific information. I try to be wary of Wikipedia’s shortcomings—I read talk pages and check citations—but even so, bias and inaccuracy on Wikipedia will inevitably seep into my perspective. I’ll leave it up to the reader to decide exactly how this research method affects my credibility.
Basic Biophysical Argument for Safety and Efficacy
Ultraviolet (UV) light is electromagnetic radiation that is shorter wavelength (higher energy) than visible light and longer wavelength than X-rays. The UV light that can be found on Earth is broken into three subcategories: UVA, closest to visible, (315-380 nm), UVB (315–280 nm), and UVC (280-200 nm). Although the sun emits light in all three UV categories, as well as visible and infrared (IR), not all the light reaches us on the surface. UVC is absorbed by the ozone layer, and the only UVC light we experience comes from artificial sources.
UVC light has been used as a germicide since the mid-20th century, but not in public spaces. Nucleic acids (DNA and RNA) strongly absorb UVC light, which means that when UVC light enters a cell, photons will hit genetic material, damaging or destroying it. This makes UVC light a strong germicide, but it also means that it is highly carcinogenic, cataractogenic, and toxic to human cells. Accordingly, its use as a germicide is relegated solely to environments like water sanitation systems where humans won’t be exposed.
However, there is still hope that UVC could be used safely in human environments in the future. There is some evidence that a certain band of UVC light, “far-UVC” (200-220 nm) is safe for humans while remaining toxic to pathogens.
The basic biophysical argument for why far-UVC might be safe hinges on the fact that mammals are much bigger than bacteria and viruses. This band of UVC light is absorbed by proteins, as shown in the following figure from one of the first papers to formulate the idea.
Figure: “Mean wavelength-dependent UV absorbance coefficients, averaged over published measurements for eight common proteins”
In essence, protein can block far-UVC light so that it does not reach DNA. Mammalian cells tend to be 10-25 μm in diameter, while bacteria tend to be 1 μm and viruses even smaller. Because of this size difference, far-UVC light has to pass through more protein before it gets to a mammalian nucleus, and accordly it should be much weaker by the time it hits mammalian DNA. In addition, on most parts of the body, we are protected by an outer keratin-rich (keratin is a protein) layer 10-40 μm thick called the stratum corneum. Cells in the stratum corneum are somewhere philosophically between dead and alive—they maintain homeostasis and complex intercellular environments, but they lack DNA, so they are safe from cancer. Because it passes first through the protein-rich stratum corneum, far-UVC light should be greatly attenuated before it even reaches the cell membranes of vulnerable cells.
Of course, if we’re going to be using far-UVC light around humans, we need more than just a biophysical argument. We also need empirical evidence. So what does the empirical evidence suggest about safety? The Nature article cites three studies that experimented with far-UVC light on human cells, on lab grown human skin, and on live mice. These studies show promise for far-UVC as a safe germicide, but they’re far from fully establishing safety.
Safety Concerns for Individuals
What happens to a person who has been repeatedly irradiated by far-UVC light? What are the health risks? What do we know? What don’t we know?
UV light is famously carcinogenic, so cancer is a central concern when it comes to assessing far-UVC’s safety. Accordingly, the three safety papers mainly seek to assess cancer risk. Of course, cancer can be slow to develop, so it isn’t possible to irradiate test subjects and count cancer cases within a reasonable timeframe. Instead, cancer must be indirectly assessed.
Cancer is caused by genetic mutations—we’re as certain about that as we are about anything in human biology—so by measuring DNA damage you can get some sort of measure of carcinogenicity.
So that’s what the authors did. They measured DNA damage under 207 nm light in lab grown human skin in vitro, under 207 nm light in mice in vivo, and expanded their results to 222 nm light on both human skin and mice. Their results were certainly promising, but the work is far from sufficient for fully demonstrating cancer safety.
There are two separate mechanisms for DNA damage from UV light, and the safety studies really only address one of the two mechanisms. We’ll discuss them separately:
Direct DNA damage
Direct DNA damage occurs when photons are absorbed by DNA. The excited DNA breaks the bonds between the nucleotide bases, and the bonds can reform with adjacent bases instead of opposite bases, disrupting the double helix structure in a type of lesion called a pyrimidine dimer.
UVB and UVC light can both interact directly with DNA in this way. This is the mechanism for UVC’s germicidal action, but at lower intensities, instead of lethal DNA destruction, lesions can turn into mutations. The body reacts to this kind of damage by killing and shedding damaged skin cells in the form of sunburn.
I feel pretty confident that this kind of damage does not happen in mammalian skin from far-UVC light. First, the basic biophysical argument is strong. Few photons should reach the nucleus (and number of photons should basically determine number of lesions). The light needs to pass through the keratin-rich (and therefore far-UVC absorbing) stratum corneum before even reaching the relevant parts of the epidermis.
The empirical evidence is also compelling. Experimentally, in vitro, as expected, irradiating lab-grown human skin with standard germicidal UVC light caused a huge number of pyrimidine dimers—standard germicidal UVC light is highly carcinogenic. Irradiating the human skin model with far-UVC, however, caused no statistically significant increase in these types of DNA lesions:
Figure: Induced yield of two types of pyrimidine dimers, from fluences of standard germicidal UVC and from far-UVC light.
Additionally, in live mice, there was no evidence of sunburn in mice exposed to far-UVC—suggesting that direct DNA damage must be minimal. The skin of unirradiated mice and the skin of mice irradiated with far-UVC looked the same, while in mice irradiated with standard germicidal UVC, the skin was visibly altered and had a thickened epidermis.
Figure: A.) Representative cross-sectional images of mouse skin. B.) Average epidermal thickness for non-irradiated mice, mice under standard germicidal UVC, and mice under 207 nm UVC.
Indirect DNA damage
Indirect DNA damage occurs when photons are absorbed by other molecules in the cell, and these molecules react to form free radicals and other reactive species, which in turn react with (other molecules which react with other molecules … which react with) DNA, causing mutations via an oxidative stress mechanism. UVA, UVB, and UVC light can all cause indirect DNA damage. This kind of damage causes skin cancer, but importantly it does not activate the same defenses as direct DNA damage—no sunburn.
The biophysical reasoning that suggests that far-UVC doesn’t cause direct DNA damage doesn’t apply neatly for indirect damage: Far-UVC is quickly attenuated in the outer layer of the skin, but how far can reactive chemical species formed near the surface propagate? Could they make their way down to vulnerable cells in the epidermis? As far as I can tell, the answer to this question is unknown. Indirect DNA damage is only relatively recently understood, completely unrecognized in 1980 and remaining somewhat controversial up through the early 2000’s—it wasn’t until 2009 that the WHO recognized tanning beds as a definite cancer risk—so there’s still a lot of uncertainty. What is known is that in general, chemicals can diffuse through the skin, and some of the chemical species we’re worried about are stable in the body. More research is needed to rule out this possibility.
In addition, the empirical evidence for far-UVC’s safety from direct DNA damage does not apply to indirect DNA damage. The mouse’s lack of sunburn in the in vivo study is meaningless as indirect DNA damage does not cause sunburn. The lesions they look for, pyrimidine dimers, are specific to direct interactions between photons and DNA. Indirect DNA damage causes different lesions.
Cancer Safety Conclusion
Although the results are promising, cancer safety has not been fully established. Direct DNA damage is minimal, but indirect DNA damage is a huge open question.
Non-cancer cell damage
Another potential point for concern is non-cancer cell death. The in vitro study found that significant fluences of 207 nm light kill 80% of exposed human fibroplasts (dermis cells):
Is this concerning? Maybe not. Except on mucous membranes and open wounds, exposed cells will be dead-ish (part of the stratum corneum) to begin with. Still, more investigation is needed: Is it okay to repeatedly destroy the surface layer of cells on our eyes? It may not be a problem, but I’d want at least a couple expert opinions if not a safety study before exposing my eyes to something like that.
And the fibroplast cell death also raises the question: What is killing the cells? The authors kind of gloss over this point—they cite another paper and say it’s probably mostly cell membrane damage. Before far-UVC is widely implemented, we need to be more confident that it is in fact cell membrane damage and not something more nefarious.
Limited Scope of Safety Studies
It’s also important to note the reason why the safety studies were conducted: The authors envisioned using far-UVC to fight antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections during surgery. They thus assumed a surgical environment, which means that applicability to public spaces is limited:
The mouth is covered by a face mask in surgery. Safety has not been established for the parts of the inside of the mouth that don’t have the stratum corneum. If we’re all wearing face masks, then this isn’t a problem, but if we’re imagining far-UVC light can let things go back to “normal,” then we need to think about the safety of our mouths. The insides of our mouths of course won’t be as exposed as our skin (the exact level of exposure depends on the positioning of the germicidal lamp, the reflectivity of surfaces, and the tics and facial posture of the person in question), but they will be exposed enough that we should know more about far-UVC’s cancer risk on mucous membranes.
And what about exposed wounds? Once again, safety has not been established for cells not covered by the stratum corneum. In the surgical environment, the nurses and doctors will not have exposed wounds. The patient’s decreased risk of surgical site infection is likely worth the unknown risks of far-UVC light on exposed flesh. But what if I’m walking around in public spaces with a skinned knee?
Finally, the safety studies focus entirely on mammals. In the surgical environment, humans are the only relevant entities that need to be protected. Many public spaces are open to pets, livestock, and urban wildlife. Even if you only recognize the value of animals’ lives with respect to what they can do for humans, many people keep reptiles or birds that they love, many people eat birds and fish and insects, and we rely on various organisms from across the animal kingdom for ecosystem stability. We should probably try to avoid causing a skin cancer epidemic in non-mammalian clades.
Even if far-UVC is completely safe for humans and other macroscopic organisms, the potential for widespread use of far-UVC leads to a number of other concerns that need to be addressed before such a solution is implemented.
In general, germicides should be used conservatively because of the potential for acquired resistance. Medicine is an evolutionary race to nowhere, with pathogens evolving to survive whatever we use to fight them. UVC light is no exception. As discussed in a literature review, one research group managed to teach E. coli to better survive UVC irradiation.
In the case of the lab-created E. coli acquired resistance, the degree of resistance was fairly weak. Lethal doses of light were still very possible. It’s not currently known whether or not full resistance by microorganisms is possible or likely. More experimentation will offer future scientists a clearer picture.
In the meantime, we should reserve UVC light for cases with high potential benefit and lower potential for acquired resistance. Ubiquitous use of far-UVC light in public spaces has the potential to teach resistance to all future pathogens, so that when the next epidemic or pandemic comes along, we’ll be completely neutered.
Is a More Sterile World a Healthier World?
UVC light kills more than just pathogens. It kills all microorganisms indiscriminately. We don’t know what would happen if we killed all bacteria in our public spaces. It could lead to problems. Bacteria play an important role in a lot of ecological processes like the decomposition of organic waste. And if it turns out that it is a bad idea to destroy all microorganisms in our public spaces, it’s not necessarily something we can come back from. An established colony of beneficial or harmless bacteria can protect against the growth of harmful bacteria. If you kill your gut bacteria with antibiotics you risk getting a harmful new microbiome. Could the same be true at a grocery store?
The Law of Unintended Consequences
Even if we can establish safety for the concerns I’ve raised above, we can never be sure that we’ve thought of everything that can go wrong. In environmentalism we recognize the “Law of Unintended Consequences:” We are very very far from understanding the world perfectly, so big technological shifts will always have unforeseen effects.
Of course, the law of unintended consequences is not a reason to hold back on change entirely. We can never know the consequences of our actions fully, so if we always avoided acting on uncertainty, we would never do anything at all. But it is possible to mitigate the potential adverse effects. In general, it is better to roll out something like this in a smaller environment where it has high potential to help (like in surgical rooms). Safety results can be assessed in those small environments before we expose the public at large.
The Stickiness of Social Change
Everything I’ve said so far is a concern, but desperate times call for desperate measures. Could the use of far-UVC be worth it, if limited to the worst of the COVID pandemic? This is the wrong question. We need to ask: If we start using far-UVC in public spaces during the pandemic, realistically, will we stop using it when the pandemic is over? Things like this tend to have staying power.
This potential for staying power is especially dangerous when paired with the preceding three concerns. The risk of acquired resistance increases with use, and we don’t have laws that prevent misuse—when far-UVC as a safe germicide becomes more accepted, it may, like antibiotics, be adopted by factory farms, increasing even more the probability of new resistant pathogens.
Killing all microbes in public spaces for a longer period of time may have worse consequences than limited use during a pandemic. Scientific understanding of the microbiome is still pretty young, but we do know that these beneficial microbes are exchanged between individuals. Ubiquitous far-UVC light would end microbiome exchange in public settings. As far as I can tell, we have no idea what the consequences of this might be.
We don’t know what the unintended consequences of introducing far-UVC light to public spaces might be, but we do know that the discovery of negative consequences often doesn’t end the use of a new technology. For example, in the 1970’s and ‘80’s, it was assumed that UVA light was safe. UVA does not cause direct DNA damage, and indirect damage was not yet discovered. Accordingly, starting in the late ‘70’s, tanning salons that irradiated users with UVA light (causing a “safe” tan without a sunburn) opened up all across Europe and the US. We now have known for more than 10 years that UVA light causes cancer. And tanning beds are still around! In most of the US, tanning beds are not only completely legal, but also accessible to minors. One study found that hundreds of thousands of skin cancer cases per year are associated with the use of tanning beds (they did not give an estimate of how many of these cases end up being fatal). Incorrectly stating that a technology is safe can lead to huge numbers of preventable deaths, even after the mistake has been corrected.
Human Rights and Consent
I don’t want to have a lengthy discussion of ethics here. This post is intended to be more an analysis of safety and potential negative consequences. Still I need to at least bring it up:
What about human rights? Is it okay to irradiate people without their consent? How do you obtain meaningful consent for something like this?
Of course, we irradiate people without their consent all the time with radio and wifi and cell phones, but those are lower energy waves far far less likely to be dangerous. Far-UVC, even if it is non-carcinogenic and doesn’t penetrate the stratum corneum, does definitely affect our bodies: It kills our skin microbiome. Just going off of my gut instinct, I’m ethically fine with wifi, while far-UVC,in a hypothetical future where safety is more established, seems much more ethically questionable.
In the US, we put fluoride in our water. If you don’t want to drink fluoride you have to significantly inconvenience yourself to avoid it. Ethically, does our approach to fluoride work for far-UVC? In the US, we don’t vaccinate people without consent, even though the unvaccinated damage herd immunity. We don’t put vaccines in the water. Is far-UVC in public spaces more like fluoride or more like vaccines?
I know I’ve seemed very negative about far-UVC for the past three thousand words, but I actually am very excited about its potential. It is because it is exciting that I think this kind of safety investigation is necessary.
We should not be using far-UVC as a germicide in public spaces any time soon. A better goal might be smaller-scale implementation within medical wards to prevent hospital spread of coronavirus or other contagious illnesses, but we’re still a long way off from even that. There are a lot of hurdles far-UVC still needs to clear before we decide it is safe. It may well clear those hurdles. I hope it does.
Should investigations into far-UVC be continued? Absolutely. Should the investigations be expanded? As someone who is not broadly knowledgeable about the frontiers of medicine, I have no idea whether far-UVC is being neglected relative to other promising technologies at similar stages of development. Still, the coronavirus pandemic has demonstrated the life-saving value of this kind of research. Public funding into this kind of research should be expanded in general, so that by the time the next pandemic hits we can know better what technologies are safe and effective.
Okay, so here’s the thing about rabbits: They’re not much good at dancing. How do I know this? I dated one once. I know what you’re thinking: “Not all rabbits are like your ex. It’s not okay to generalize about a group based on one bad experience, you specieist bigot.” Well, alright then. You date a rabbit then.
No? You see, exactly. You don’t want to date a rabbit. Who’s specieist now, asshole?
Oh. You would date a rabbit, but none live in your urban neighborhood? Okay then. Let me tell you how it would go:
At first it’s great. The rabbit is cute with his long ears and pink nose. And the way he looks at you just makes you feel so special.
You catch sight of him for the first time while taking an afternoon stroll through the park near your high school. It’s October of your senior year, and the ground is littered with orange and red maple leaves, so that the whole world looks warm like the embers in a fireplace late at night after everyone has gone to sleep. Jason Greene has asked you to Homecoming, and you’re pretty pleased with yourself.
The white rabbit with the brown mark jumps out of the yellow brush and fixes you with that look you’ll come to know and love. It says curiosity and fear both at once. And he stands there for just a second or two, before hopping back into the brush.
And you’re intrigued. Of course you’re intrigued. How could you not be? With those soft ears and that pink nose, and that special way he looked at you?
So you go straight to the grocery store, and you buy a bushel of carrots, and a head of lettuce, and the next day you’re back at the park. And the day after that. And the day after that.
And eventually he reappears. You’re sitting on a bench near where you first caught sight of each other, and out pops his head from the tall grass just ten or so yards away, and a short while later, out pops the rest of him. You can tell it’s the same rabbit from the distinctive brown marking on his left flank.
So you hold out the carrots in one hand, and the lettuce in the other, but he doesn’t approach, just sits there on his haunches, giving you that look – you know, the one he gave you before, that special look that says curiosity and fear both at once.
So you drop the lettuce and the carrots both on the ground, and you take five steps back, and he scampers forward and pokes at them with his little pink nose, and starts munching (turns out he prefers the lettuce to the carrots).
And the next day, the same thing happens, and the same thing the day after that, and the day after that, and the day after that, but each time you’re backing away a little less, and he seems a little less afraid, until finally you’re not backing away at all: You’re just sitting there side by side as he eats his lettuce. And not long after that, he’s eating the lettuce right out of your hand, and letting you pet him, and stroke him, and even hold him, until one day you put your lips against his furry back, and you whisper “I love you.”
So now I guess you’re going steady. You see him every day. You touch each other. You kiss. He eats his lettuce. You share an intimate silence.
And it’s not always easy. Communication, especially, is difficult. But you struggle through, because it’s worth it, because you’re in love.
Outside the park, life proceeds pretty much as normal. It’s April, and a couple of guys have tried to ask you to prom, but of course you want to go with your rabbitfriend.
But he can’t ask you to go. He probably doesn’t even know what prom is. So you just have to take him, and trust that he’d want to do it for you, if only you could explain to him what exactly prom was, and why exactly it matters.
So when the day of the prom arrives, you show up at the park bench as usual, only this time you’re wearing your prom dress. It’s light blue and just a bit frilly, and you feel like a princess.
You give your prince his lettuce, and sit side by side as he eats, and when he’s done, you gently lift him up and start carrying him to your parents’ car.
You can feel his little heart fluttering against your fingers, but he doesn’t fight you, and you’re in the car on your way to the Hilltop ballroom, him in the passenger’s seat, and he’s giving you that same old look: that mixture of curiosity and fear, only this time you also sense something else. Trust.
So you arrive, and you scoop him up out of the passenger’s seat, and you grab the prom tickets from the glove compartment, and you start walking – trying not to run – towards the ballroom. Your heart’s beating fast, his is beating faster. You want to turn around and run away. You do turn around. You walk back to the car. Did you remember to lock it? Yes you did. Take two. You hold your rabbit close to your chest. You wish you’d managed to find a rabbit-sized tux. You hope it’s okay that he’s nude. They probably won’t mind. He is a rabbit after all. You walk not-too-fast not-too-slow up the stairs and through the double doors. You hand over your tickets to an old woman at the folding table that’s serving as a makeshift kiosk. You’re pretty sure she gave you and your rabbit an odd look, but she doesn’t say anything – just waves you in.
Prom doesn’t go well. Of course it doesn’t go well. What did you expect? They say high school’s rough for gay kids. Well. Try being a rabbit lover.
But the worst part isn’t the ridicule of your bigoted and drunk peers. And it’s not the mixture of pity and disgust that you see coming from the chaperones. No, the worst part is the behavior from your little prince himself. He doesn’t like the dark, and he doesn’t like the loud noise, or the people pressing from all sides. You try moving gently to the beat, imploring silently, that he just try his best to feel the music, but it’s just not working, and he’s scratching at you, and twisting in your arms, and you try to cling onto his little body, but Jason Greene bumps against your elbow, and your rabbit drops to the floor, and he’s off, darting between dancing feet, and you’re going after him, pushing and shoving through the crowd. You slip in a pool of rabbit urine, and you grab at someone’s prom dress, almost ripping it, barely keeping upright.
And you lose sight of him.
It takes you three hours to find him. Prom is over. The chaperones have kicked everyone out. They’re all either at home, or at their afterparties, or else in collectively rented hotel rooms, losing their virginities. The chaperones saw the tears in your eyes and let you stay though. They took pity on you.
It’s 1 am when you find him, sleeping behind a drinking fountain. When you lift him up, he only fights you a little. You drive back to the park in silence. You only have to pull over once to wipe away your tears. The moment you open the passenger door, he’s out, and running away as fast as his little legs can carry him. It’s only once you make it home, parked in the driveway in front of your house, that you finally let yourself break down.
He’s there the next day. Same time, same place. But he doesn’t approach you. Doesn’t even approach when you drop the lettuce and take a step back. Doesn’t approach after five steps back.
“I’m sorry,” you say.
Your rabbit just looks at you blankly.
“Please,” you start to say, but your throat constricts and you can’t get the words out.
You take a deep breath.
“Please,” you try again. “I love you.”
But your rabbit says nothing. Just fixes you with a look, different from the look from before.
You stand there in silence, just looking at each other for what feels like minutes. Then you try again. “Please. I’m sorry I – ”
Your little prince turns around and hops into the tall grass.
The next day the lettuce is still lying limp where you left it. Your rabbit is nowhere to be seen.
In fall 2019, after accusations of election fraud, the Bolivian police removed support for president Evo Morales, and interim president Jeanine Áñez was installed in his place.
I wrote about the event at the time, focusing less on the election and resignation itself, and more on the question of epistemology in a hostile environment. An uncritical read of the news at the time would suggest that the forced resignation was just—Morales manipulated election results and was being appropriately deposed. However, a rational actor should be critical of the news: American news is systematically biased in favor of United States special interests and seemingly bases its assessment of an election’s legitimacy not on democratic principals but on whether or not the elected leader supports US influence in the region. Because of this news bias, I was agnostic about the exact situation in Bolivia, but was willing to call what happened a “coup” because I knew that a similar event in a US client state would be considered a coup. Consistency is important, I concluded. Inconsistent standards do not lead to democracy, inconsistent standards serve the the interests of whoever gets to set the standards—in this case US elites.
I wasn’t really comfortable with this take at the time. It’s important to apply consistent standards across elections, but of course “consistent standards” does not mean blindly supporting any state that the US opposes—I don’t want to make the same mistake as the American communists who assumed that the Cambodian genocide was a fabrication. I was anxious that in calling Morales’ resignation a “coup,” I was ignoring anti-Morales evidence, and denouncing real grass-roots opposition to an illegitimate leader who was set on becoming president-for-life.
The information that has come out since has assuaged my anxiety and confirmed my initial instincts; if anything, at the time of the original post, I was insufficiently pessimistic about the accuracy of the US mainstream news media. The interim president, Áñez, has not behaved like a temporary president whose job is to oversee new fair and free elections. Instead she has pushed a right-wing Christian agenda. Upon declaring herself interim president, she held a giant bible above her head, shouting “The Bible has returned to the presidential palace.” She immediately replaced the entire cabinet and the top military leaders with white Christian conservatives. And she even preemptively granted amnesty to military members who use force to quell protests.
Since then, the new Bolivian government has charged 40 former government officials with sedition and subversion, and government prosecutors have moved against the most popular (socialist) candidate for the coming election.
Yesterday, the Washington Post published an article by researchers at MIT calling into question the accusations of election fraud. The main proponent of the fraud accusation was the US-backed Organization of American States (a group that has historically opposed leftism in the Americas): The OAS audited the election and found what it called “clear manipulation,” based in part on the statistically unlikely jump in Morales’ support between the preliminary result tally and the official vote count.1 As the researchers at MIT point out, the OAS neglected to take into account the fact that votes can vary by time of day. Using a more sophisticated statistical analysis, the researchers found no evidence of election tampering.
In short, there was probably no election fraud in Bolivia.
The researchers cogently conclude by pointing out that the standards the OAS used to judge the Bolivian election would also suggest that United States elections are illegitimate:
Previous research published here in the Monkey Cage finds that economic and racial differences make it difficult to verify voter registration in the United States, resulting in higher use of provisional ballots among Democrats — and greater support for Democratic candidates among votes counted after Election Day. Under the OAS criteria for fraud, it’s possible that U.S. elections in which votes that are counted later tend to lean Democratic might also be classified as fraudulent. Of course, electoral fraud is a serious problem, but relying on unverified tests as proof of fraud is a serious threat to any democracy.
Of course, this hypocrisy extends beyond the OAS to United States news corporations in general. In addition to the jump in Morales’ vote tally, news at the time focused on the interrupted results transmission, and the delay in the release of the official results, even though the interruption and the delay was consistent with Bolivian election protocol. Contrast this with the mainstream media’s response to the recent delay in the Iowa caucus results. In both cases, the delay caused doubt in the electoral process. Both delays led to equally (in)valid conspiracy theories of election fraud.2 In the case of the Iowa caucus, although I’ve seen conspiracy theories all over leftist youtube and reddit, mainstream news sources have ignored conspiracy theories and reported only the official reasons for the delay. In the case of the Bolivian election, US media failed to disclose the official reason for the delay, and uncritically reported a conspiracy theory as putative fact. And, like the OAS’s abuse of statistics, this kind of misreporting is a serious threat to democracy.
What puts the icing on the cake for this Washington Post article, is the way the article itself reflects the hypocrisy of the mainstream media. The text of the article, written by the MIT researchers, is fine. It’s narrow in scope, criticizing only the OAS’s statistical analysis, and not going into the organization’s backing or history. It doesn’t comment on whether the OAS’s bad analysis is a dangerous but honest mistake or willful negligence or intentional disinformation. It doesn’t comment on the mainstream media’s reaction to the audit. It only critiques the audit itself. The title of the article, presumably written by a copy-editor, is another story: “Bolivia dismissed its October elections as fraudulent. Our research found no reason to suspect fraud.”
Titles are important. People browsing the news might not even read the article in question, and will take away whatever information the title contains. Of course, we can’t expect a title to be very nuanced, or even to be a good synopsis of an article, but it should at least be accurate. “Bolivia dismissed its October elections as fraudulent.” The article is about the opinion of OAS, not the opinion of Bolivia.
This title, although it recognizes that the evidence for election fraud was faulty, still frames the resignation of Morales as the legitimate will of the Bolivian people. “Bolivia dismissed….” Bolivia is not a unified entity with a clear single opinion, and the diagnosis of election fraud was controversial in Bolivia. And even if we accept the synecdoche as valid, the protests against the election did not happen in a vacuum. Opponents of Morales cited the election audit conducted by a US-backed organization. The eventual undemocratic interim presidency of Jeanine Áñez happened with foreign support. Bolivia dismissed the election results? No. The international community dismissed the election results.
Chances are, this title was not written with malice. Whoever wrote it was trying to give a quick, clear, and intriguing summary of the article. “The OAS dismissed…” wouldn’t be a viable title. Most people don’t know what the OAS is. Disinformation does not require malintent to spread—it can happen via accumulated random seemingly small acts of negligence. The copy-editor is exposed to the same media bias as everyone else, and that bias makes its way subtly into the titles of articles. In an honest media landscape, information like the recent critique of the OAS audit would cause self-reflection about failed journalistic responsibility, but the stochastic propaganda machine that is the Washington Post ignores the role that the US media played in the Bolivian coup.
The preliminary results showed Morales with a plurality of votes, but without a sufficient lead to avoid a run-off election. When the official results came out, they had him leading by the 10 percentage points necessary to win outright. The OAS recognized the plurality as legitimate, but not the 10 percent margin.[↩]
“The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill” is a song by the Beatles released in 1968 as a track on the White Album. Its deliberately sloppy recording and somewhat juvenile lyrics make it feel like a bit like a children’s campfire song, which is maybe why it was one of the early Beatles songs I got into, back in middle school, when I was first starting to explore music on my own.
Now, as an adult, I have a newfound appreciation for the song, as I have come to understand the darker subtext. The song, written at a time of increasing public outrage at the genocidal acts committed by the United States military in Vietnam, ridicules a certain type of American Orientalism: Bill, a white “all-American bullet-headed Saxon mother’s son” who adopts superficial aspects of (British-)Indian culture, goes out tiger hunting. When he and his entourage are startled by a tiger, Bill channels Captain Marvel, and shoots and kills it. The song uses derision to point out the hypocrisy of heroic narratives surrounding imperialism—the hero adopts a shallow and condescending form of cultural appreciation, and saves the locals from some perceived threat, be it a tiger or the scourge of international communism. But when the children challenge Bill’s act of tiger murder, he can’t stand up for himself, and instead he hides behind his mother, making it clear that his seeming heroism is a thin facade. At heart, he is insecure, vulnerable, and childish.
So does this character deserve ridicule? Yes. When people act self-important in harmful ways, ridicule is an effective way to break that self-importance, which can be helpful for the self-important person, and, more importantly, communicates the harmfulness of the behavior to others who might be influenced by it, as well as communicating recognition of harm to the victims of the behavior. And the type of attitude adopted by Bill is legitimately very harmful. The song pokes fun of a relatively low-harm story involving the death of a tiger, but the whole story should be understood under the broader context of Americans in Asia during the 1960’s: Americans in Vietnam were there under a veneer of friendship and appreciation of the South Vietnamese people, but a lack of cultural understanding,a false narrative of heroism, and a fear of the Viet Cong led to the murders of millions of civilians, whom the US was ostensibly there to protect.
So yes, this type of attitude is worthy of ridicule.
But here’s where it gets more complicated: Bungalow Bill isn’t just a character. He’s a real person. And, although the Beatles changed his name to make the song less personal, of course the tiger hunter in question still recognized the song as being about him. And does the real life person deserve ridicule? I don’t know. I don’t know the whole story. He certainly doesn’t deserve a song ridiculing him by the most famous band in the world.
Is this song a satirical social commentary, or is it a cruel personal attack? Can it be both?
This was my real experience today, listening to, and appreciating “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill” as social commentary, then looking it up and learning it was about a real person. But it touches on a broader question that I have about media: When is publicly oriented ridicule of a real person—and I mean a private person, famous powerful people are a completely different case—okay?
I don’t want to definitively answer this question—I don’t think it’s possible to reach a simple overarching answer. I want to treat “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill” as a case study.
And I think the answer is that “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill” is not about the true story. The Beatles used a real experience as a jumping off point, but the song is intended as a social commentary that goes beyond the one experience. The ridicule is not directed at the real individual, instead it’s directed at a real behavioral pattern.
This answer makes me uncomfortable, because in some sense, I’m saying that any hurt feelings from the personal nature of the song are merely collateral. If the Beatles wanted to tell a general story, maybe they shouldn’t have told a personal story about a real person. This is an appealing line of thought, but it’s ultimately wrong. If we can’t base fiction on truth from our personal lives, then what are we left with?
I think this is part of why the death of the author is such an appealing framework. Art seeks to say something about life, the human experience, and the world we live in. Seeking to understand how the author relates to the work can bring our attention to real people who don’t deserve infamy, and it make the artistic messages seem petty and small.
I took notes on all the books I read in 2018; these are the books that (with the benefit of hindsight) I liked the most.
In no particular order:
A Primate’s Memoir by Robert Sapolsky
I know Professor Robert Sapolsky from his human behavioral biology lecture series on YouTube. Coming to understand ourselves as beings crafted by biological processes is a very important project, and one so riddled with potential pitfalls that I end up feeling disdain for basically everyone who attempts it, including myself (I’m sorry Tim Urban). Sapolsky’s work is terrific both for its attempts to build up some degree of human biological understanding, and for the analytical tools he uses to critique that understanding.
Sapolsky’s memoir is, unsurprisingly, much less educational and less philosophical than his lectures, but his insight is still present in the way that he understands his own life and the world around him. And Sapolsky has led a very interesting life. His memoir details his time doing field work in Kenya, alternating between chapters about baboons, and about his interactions with the people of Kenya, as he increasingly understands the culture and geopolitics of the region.
A Primate’s Memoir (by far the least heavy book on this list) is engaging, interesting and insightful throughout, and at times hilarious and surprisingly moving.
The Sympathizer and Nothing Ever Dies by Viet Thanh Nguyen
I read the novel The Sympathizer in preparation for traveling to Vietnam, and liked it enough that upon finishing I immediately started reading Nguyen’s follow-up nonfiction book Nothing Ever Dies. The Sympathizer tells the story of a communist mole in the US-allied South Vietnamese army who emigrates to the United States and continues to spy long after the American War in Vietnam is over. The novel criticizes the depiction of the war in the international media, and explores the impact of the side-lining of Vietnamese narratives in favor of stories that focus on American heroes and anti-heroes.
Nothing Ever Dies is a more analytical exploration of the same ideas presented in The Sympathizer. Nguyen traveled back and forth between Vietnam and the United States, visiting museums, monuments, graveyards, and so on, in an attempt to understand the cultural memory of the war. Throughout the book, he grapples with important questions pertaining to healing and justice and forgiveness for atrocious crimes like those committed during the American War.
These two books were important to me, both for their discussion of how to deal with the fact that humans sometimes do really horrible things, and for the way that Nguyen interacts with information. These books lastingly changed the way that I understand media and the world around me. Everything that humans create—whether it is a novel, a monument, a museum, a restaurant, or a scientific body of research—can and should be understood through a literary lens. Stories are fundamental to the way that we see and express the world around us, and understanding how stories work can lead to surprising insights anywhere.
An Indigenous People’s History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
The perspectives of American Indians are largely neglected in American history—including in more left-leaning spaces. In school, I mostly learned about American Indians pre-contact, under the unspoken implication that the cultural heritage of the United States is America’s indigenous peoples. Discussion of contact between white settlers and American Indians was mixed with some narratives of peace, some narratives of conflict and aggression on both sides, and some narratives of genocide; but all of these narratives of contact treated American Indians as a relic of the past, from when America was wild. We’re civilized now, so of course indigenous people no longer exist.
In reality, America’s indigenous peoples still exist, and the conflict between them and the United States is ongoing, with continued poverty and cultural trauma in Native American communities, continued abridging of the rights of sovereign indigenous nations by the US federal and state governments, continued treaty violations by American companies, and even continued race-based genocide.
This book is a really good overview of US-indigenous conflict from contact to today. Dunbar-Ortiz challenges common cultural narratives and historical assumptions, including many, like the notion of American multiculturalism, that are celebrated in left-leaning communities.
Eichmann in Jerusalem: by Hannah Arendt
Hannah Arendt, German born Jewish American philosopher, reported on the 1961 trial in Jerusalem of Adolf Eichmann for The New Yorker, and three years later published expanded versions of her articles in a book. The book (subtitled A Report on the Banality of Evil) largely consists of a psychological profile of Eichmann: Eichmann, who was one of the major organizers of the Holocaust and who was found to be essentially psychologically normal by multiple psychologists, argued throughout his interrogations and trial that although he was involved in the organization of death camps, he was not guilty of any crimes because he was just following orders, or doing his job, or acting in accordance with the moral system dictated by Nazi Germany.
Arendt uses Eichmann as a case study to criticize the tendency to look for depth in evil actions. Evil does not arise from inner twisted-ness. Instead evil happens when natural human moral instincts become secondary to ideology. Nazi Germany celebrated the ability to place Nazi party goals above the natural aversion to murder. Eichmann didn’t want to kill people. He enabled the murder of millions of people because it was his patriotic duty.
In this way, Arendt argues, evil is extremely banal. It doesn’t come from some inner depth, but instead from a lack of depth. Eichmann didn’t take pleasure in the suffering and pain of others. Instead he just neglected to ask whether or not what he was doing was good.
This perspective on evil is, I think, very important. I’m sure that some of the evil in the world is committed by people like Darth Sidious who find glee in the suffering of others. And of course people who are angry, or afraid, or jealous (or any other negative emotion) sometimes do terrible things. But a huge amount of the evil in the world comes from people who are seeking to better themselves within a system that rewards immoral action, or even from people with genuine humanitarian goals who are uncritical of the institutions that claim to further those goals.
But this perspective on evil is also not a novel perspective, at least not for me. I grew up in a world that had had access to Arendt’s work for 40 years. I learned about the Milgram experiment in multiple high school and college classes. I knew that normal people can do horrible things in the right setting. What elevates Eichmann in Jerusalem for me is Arendt’s discussion of the obvious follow-up questions.
Eichmann in Jerusalem is hugely controversial, in part because many read it as an acquittal of Eichmann’s personality. If Eichmann is normal—if his actions didn’t stem from some moral flaw in his inner being—then how can he be guilty? Arendt addresses this question. She asks, what if our actions stem more from setting and circumstance than from some fact about our inner selves? What if Eichmann is correct in his assessment that most people in his position would have done the same thing? How can justice operate in such a world? How can we condemn a normal person? But then, how can we not condemn someone who was instrumental to the murder of millions of innocent people?
Most discussions of the banality of evil are detached and academic. What do we know about human psychology? When do people do bad things? And these conversations are important. But they don’t make me experience the horror that comes with understanding that Eichmann was a real human person. Arendt (herself a Jew who fled Nazi Germany) forces us to simultaneously consider both the humanity of Eichmann and the humanity of the millions of people whose murders Eichmann orchestrated. The effect, as she leads us to the conclusion that he needs to be condemned in spite of his normalcy, is deeply, deeply, upsetting.
This book hurt me in a way that no other piece of media ever has. But the wound it left is a good wound. Eichmann in Jerusalem forces us to confront the fact that we are responsible if moral negligence allows us to lead comfortable lives enabled by the suffering of others. And hopefully by understanding our moral responsibility, we can become better people.
Every December, I head up to Northern California to see family and friends, and mostly I love catching up with everybody, and feasting, and singing, and other holiday things, but I also have to brace myself for a particular type of interaction: “How’s Los Angeles?” “You haven’t become an LA native, have you?” “They haven’t converted you, have they?” And then when they notice some small aspect of Southern Californian culture in my mannerisms, there’s uproar. One time, I made the mistake of calling Interstate 880 “the 880,” and I didn’t hear the end of it for days. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind being teased. Teasing is an integral part of how I relate to other people. But in this case, there’s something much more sinister under the surface.
If you were listening in on my holiday conversations, you might think that Northern California and Southern California have a sort of friendly rivalry—we poke fun at aspects of each other’s cultures; we argue about which part of California is better; Northern Californians call Southern Californians mainstream, and Southern Californians call Northern Californians dirty hippies. This rivalry, however, is one directional. Southern Californians are in general completely oblivious to its existence. And what’s more, it’s not actually friendly. I grew up in Northern California; adults know how to hide their bigotry under a facade of humor, but kids are more sincere. Northern Californians actually just hate Los Angeles.
People in Los Angeles are shallow. They’re vain. They’re materialistic. And it’s not just Northern Californians who feel this way. A friend in New York told me that his peers sometimes talk about how fake Angelenos are. And I’ve seen the same sentiment echoed in online spaces. Some of my favorite internet personalities have mentioned their disdain for Los Angeles culture, in an offhand sort of way, as if LA’s shallowness is an obvious fact, it doesn’t merit discussion.
So, here’s a question: None of these people have spent much time in Southern California. Why do they think they know what Angeleno culture is?
I. Why do people think they know what they think they know about Los Angeles?
Look. I’m not innocent here. As I said, I grew up in Northern California. I grew up hating on LA. I moved to Southern California for Caltech, not for Los Angeles, and I remained skeptical of Los Angeles as a city for an embarrassingly long time.
So why did I think I knew what I thought I knew about Los Angeles?
A huge number of movies and TV shows take place in or near Los Angeles, and these movies tend to be paint the city in certain inaccurate ways.
II. How do movies depict Los Angeles?
II.1 Los Angeles equals Hollywood
First, and least nefarious, a lot of the media that takes place in Los Angeles is about people who work in (or who want to work in) entertainment. Of course, this tendency is only natural— movies and TV are, at least in part, a tool for self expression by the creators, so the characters will inevitably reflect the real people who writers and directors interact with on a day to day basis. There’s nothing inherently wrong with depicting actors and their struggles; I like well-crafted films about the interpersonal drama that arises when strong personalities get together to put on a show (Birdman is amazing) (I also like novels with lonely nerdy protagonists who find solace in books); but it’s not an accurate depiction of Los Angeles.
In reality, only about 5% of private sector workers in Los Angeles work in the entertainment industry (and most of those jobs are less glamorous roles less likely to be depicted in the movies), compared to, for example, 10% of the New York City workforce works in finance. The entertainment industry is economically important in Los Angeles, and of course it’s culturally relevant, just like finance in culturally relevant to New York, but it’s far from culturally central.
Thinking back, before moving here I must have known (or at least I would have realized if I thought about it) that entertainment couldn’t be all that central to Los Angeles culture: I had seen movies that showed footage of the Los Angeles urban sprawl. I knew that Los Angeles was a big metropolis, and that the entertainment industry must be small by comparison.
But that kind of rational assessment of the relative size of city and entertainment industry isn’t how people interact with stories. I saw Los Angeles depicted in media, and the Los Angeles I saw was full of movie-stars and aspiring actors and failed actors and washed up entertainers. And it was only natural that this bled into my conception of what Los Angeles was. Los Angeles, I learned, was full of people who are constantly competing for clout and fame.
II.2 Beauty and related concepts
People like to look at pretty things. People like to look at pretty things, so it only makes sense that actors are significantly more good-looking than the average person. And in addition to actors’ generally symmetrical faces and their facial features that correspond to current beauty standards, studios also employ professional stylists and make up artists, so that the people we see on our screens are always clean, well-groomed, and a picture of perfect health.
And this prettiness and cleanliness extends beyond the characters. Interior spaces are often very attractive, and usually, if not tidy, at least physically very clean. And again, this makes sense. People prefer looking at attractive and clean spaces. I don’t watch TV for a perfect recreation of reality. I don’t need to see the grime that accumulates in actual living spaces. I’m happy watching characters interact in an immaculate kitchen.
And this beauty and cleanliness can also extend into the personal lives of the characters. Of course many films and TV shows tackle very serious themes, but the most widely marketable entertainment is less challenging. People like to watch TV to relax. We don’t always want our shows to address financial problems, or trauma, or mundane health issues. Sometimes we want intrigue and petty interpersonal drama. We want a beautified, more exciting, and easier version of life.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with this kind of beautification. I don’t always want to interact with art that challenges and deeply moves me; that would be exhausting. But when a huge amount of beautified media depicts a particular city, it can rub off on our impressions of that city. For a more naive (less cynical) person, this kind of media might create the sense that Los Angeles is a place where no one has real problems, and where everything is easy. I was a Smart Critical Thinker, so I knew that such perfect places couldn’t exist—instead of leaving me with a positive impression, this beautification created a sense of artifice (of course, it’s fiction; it’s literally artificial), which in turn imbued my impression of Angeleno culture with that same sense of artifice: People in Los Angeles are fake, I learned. They care deeply about surface level appearances and avoid real emotional expression.
II.3 Actual bigotry
Los Angeles is an ethnically diverse city, but the people depicted in movies and on TV tend to be white. Los Angeles has a large number of Latinx communites, some of which have been in the area since before California was part of the United States, but you would never get a sense of that history from TV. Los Angeles also has a huge Armenian American community (as of the 1990 census, Los Angeles was home to the largest population of Armenians anywhere in the world outside of Armenia), and this Armenian American population is very visible to anyone who lives in Los Angeles, but again you wouldn’t know about it if you only learned about Los Angeles from the movies.
(Film critic Thom Andersen in his 2003 video essay Los Angeles Plays Itself points out that many movies ostensibly take place in specific Los Angeles majority-minority neighborhoods, but these movies tend to be filmed in upper-middle class majority white neighborhoods, and tend to have a mostly white cast. I can’t personally speak to how widespread this phenomenon is, and I don’t know to what extent it has continued into 21st century media, but I can say that I know what it’s like to find piece of media that depicts a boring white-bread community with your diverse hometown’s name slapped onto it, and it’s infuriating.)
One thing that the entertainment industry gets right about Los Angeles (and maybe it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy) is that the city is a destination for disaffected youth who for whatever reason feel the need to leave home and seek acceptance or fame or artistic fulfillment in the City of Angels. What the movies generally don’t show you is that these youths are very often either gay or transgender (or both). Los Angeles is not as gay as San Francisco, but it has large gay and transgender populations, and these populations are visible to anyone actually interacting with the city. The queerness of Los Angeles should not be surprising if we stop to think about it—of course gay and transgender teenagers are much more likely to have serious problems in their home-lives that push them to seek community elsewhere—but for me, entering Los Angeles with preconceptions shaped by the media, it was unexpected.
This white-washing and straight-washing of Los Angeles is what gets me actually upset about the media’s depiction of the city. I can roll my eyes at people who say that Angelenos are fake or clout-obsessed, but the expectation that Angelenos are homogeneous and boring—the erasure of diverse and vibrant communities—is actually harmful. I don’t really want to get into a discussion of exactly why representation matters, let’s just accept that representation matters. Representation is a pathway to political empowerment and change, and the real people of Los Angeles need that kind of empowerment just as much as ethnic, gender, and sexual minorities need it in any other city.
III. What is Los Angeles actually like?
Look, I can’t tell you what Los Angeles is like. A full description of a multifaceted city is beyond the scope of single blog post. And I’m also not really an expert on Los Angeles. I live here, but I still feel culturally like an outsider. I don’t have deep roots in any Los Angeles communities. But here’s what I can say:
Even more so than in most cities, a single unified view of Los Angeles is necessarily short sighted. There is no single city center that forms the cultural or commercial heart of the city. But don’t mistake this lack of center for a lack of community. The sprawled nature of the city means that it’s more a collection of overgrown overlapping towns than a single unified entity, and accordingly Los Angeles is a network of smaller cultural hubs.
So with this limitation in mind, it’s not going to be possible for any one piece of media to definitively capture Los Angeles as a whole. I’m sure that there are lots of films that attempt to depict some of the many unseen faces of Los Angeles. I’m not a film buff, so I can’t give much of a list, but I will say that Tangerine, which tells the stories of two transgender prostitutes and an Armenian taxi driver, feels like a much more accurate portrait of the city that I personally interact with than anything else I’ve seen.