David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

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Robert Bork: In Memoriam

bork_robert-19871217036F.2_png_300x373_q85When Richard Nixon died, some op-ed or other bemoaned that his death was used as an occasion to forget, not to forgive. I thought the same when William F. Buckley died, and even Christopher Hitchens (a few people like Katha Pollitt excepted).

With that in mind, here are some Robert Bork quotes not to forget. Many are taken from his book Slouching Towards Gomorrah. This man has had a greater impact on the world than almost any other modern writer I’ve written about.

Be sure to read the last quote on the Port Huron Statement even if you skip those in the middle. It’s the punchline.

Robert Bork on gun control:

As the carnage continues, the public is offered such false panaceas as “midnight basketball” and gun control. Midnight basketball is so obviously a frivolous notion that it need not be discussed. Gun control is no less frivolous.

As law professor Daniel Polsby demonstrates, “the conventional wisdom about guns and violence is mistaken. Guns don’t increase national rates of crime and violence – the continued proliferation of gun control laws almost certainly does.” Gun control shifts the equation in favor of the criminal.

Robert Bork on feminism, choice, and sexuality:

Feminist gatherings within traditional denominations celebrate and pray to pagan goddesses. Witchcraft is undergoing an enormous revival in feminist circles as the antagonist of Christian faith…The feminists within the [Catholic] church engage in neo-pagan ritual magic and the worship of pagan goddesses.

The fact that men, who did not cry ten years ago, now do so indicates that something has gone high and soft in the culture.

Kate O’Beirne, Washington editor of National Review, said, “In the end, our girls are going to have to fight their girls.” True, but after that, some males in the academic world, in the military, and in Congress are going to have to summon up the courage to begin to repair the damage feminism has done.

Radical feminists concede that there are two sexes, but they usually claim there are five genders.  Though the list varies somewhat, a common classification is men, women, lesbians, gays, and bisexuals.

But it is clear, in any event, that the vast majority of all abortions are for convenience. Abortion is seen as a way for women to escape the idea that biology is destiny, and from the tyranny of the family role.

As one might suspect from their hostility to men, marriage, and family, radical feminists are very much in favor of lesbianism. They want not only lawful lesbian marriages but “reproductive rights” for lesbians.  That means the right to bear children through artificial insemination and the right to adopt one’s lesbian partner’s child.  Since sperm is sold freely in the United States, much more freely than in other nations, there are lesbian couples raising children.  It takes little imagination to know how the children will be indoctrinated.

Cornell’s training session for resident advisers featured an X-rated homosexual movie.  Pictures were taken of the advisers’ reactions to detect homophobic squeamishness.

Robert Bork on women in the military:

The armed forces have been intimidated by feminists and their allies in Congress…In physical fitness tests, very few women could do even one pull-up, so the Air Force Academy gave credit for the amount of time they could hang on the bar. During Army basic training, women broke down in tears, particularly on the rifle range.

The Israelis, Soviets, and Germans, when in desperate need of front-line troops, placed women in combat, but later barred them.  Male troops forgot their tactical objectives in order to protect the women from harm or capture, knowing what the enemy would do to female prisoners of war.  In the Gulf War a female American pilot was captured, raped, and sodomized by Iraqi troops.  She declared that this was just part of combat risk.  But can anyone suppose that male pilots will not now divert their efforts to protecting female pilots whenever possible?

Robert Bork on multiculturalism:

Though many Hispanics are white, the law in its impartiality treats them as though they were not. Hispanics, who will outnumber blacks in the United States by the end of the century, often do not regard this country as their own.

Americans of Asian extraction had seemed to be immune to this rejectionist impulse. Yet, perhaps feeling ethnic grievance is necessary to one’s self respect, Asian-American university students are starting to act like an ethnic pressure group.

So far as I know, no multiethnic society has ever been peaceful except when constrained by force. Ethnicity is so powerful that it can overcome rationality. Canada, for example, one of the five richest countries in the world, is torn and may be destroyed by what, to the outsider, look like utterly senseless ethnic animosities. Since the United States has more ethnic groups than any other nation, it will be a miracle if we maintain a high degree of unity and peace.

Robert Bork on religion:

Culture’s affecting the churches more than churches are affecting the culture. But you can see how for example, the abortion rate is higher among Catholics than it is among Protestants or Jews. I picked that because the church’s opposition to abortion absolute opposition is well known, but apparently it is not affecting the behavior of the Catholic congregations. And I think similar examples could be drawn from Protestant churches and Jewish synagogues.

It is not helpful that the ideas of salvation and damnation, of sin and virtue, which once played major roles in Christian belief, are now almost never heard of in the mainline churches. The sermons and homilies are now almost exclusively about love, kindness, and eternal life. That may be regarded, particularly by the sentimental, as an improvement in humaneness, indeed in civility, but it also means an alteration in the teaching of Christianity that makes the religion less powerful as a moral force. The carrot alone has never been a wholly adequate incentive to desired behavior

Robert Bork on cultural decline, music, and censorship:

The very fact that we have gone from Elvis to Snoop Doggy Dogg is the heart of the case for censorship.

One evening at a hotel in New York I flipped around the television channels. Suddenly there on the public access channel was a voluptuous young woman, naked, her body oiled, writhing on the floor while fondling herself intimately…. I watched for some time–riveted by the sociological significance of it all.

alt.sex is on the Internet. That’s a category. They have a variety of things under alt.sex, which is alternative sex. Particularly horrifying was this alt.sex.stories. I don’t know how to work the Internet yet, but I did that research. I found it written up.

Irving Kristol was going through Romania back when it was a Communist dictatorship, and he learned that, of course, they banned rock ‘n’ roll on the grounds it was a subversive music. And it is, but not just of Communist dictatorships. It’s subversive of bourgeois culture, too.

Dixieland music had real themes to it, had often a very complex musical form. The music of today, a lot of the stuff we’re talking about rap seems to be nothing but noise and a beat without any complexity or without any I don’t understand why anybody listens to it. Well, rock ‘n’ roll still had some melody and I don’t think it could express a lot of emotions that the music before that could express. But it still had some melody and some distinction. And the melody gradually dropped out until we just have this rap.

A lot of people comfort themselves with the thought that this is confined to the black community, but that’s not true — some of the worst rappers are white, like Nine Inch Nails.

Radical individualism is the handmaiden of collective tyranny.

Robert Bork on science:

The fossil record is proving a major embarrassment to evolutionary theory. Michael Behe has shown that Darwinism cannot explain life as we know it. Scientists at the time of Darwin had no conception of the enormous complexity of bodies and their organs.

Upon fertilization, a single cell results containing forty-six chromosomes, which is all that humans have, including, of course the mother and the father. But the new organism’s forty-six chromosomes are in a different combination from those of either parent; the new organism is unique. It is not an organ of the mother’s body but a different individual. This cell produced specifically human proteins and enzymes from the beginning…It is impossible to say that the killing of the organism at any moment after it is originated is not the killing of a human being.

Physician Heal Thyself  Dept:

The Port Huron Statement is a stupefyingly dull document and full of adolescent self confidence and arrogance about their ability to change the world and their superior wisdom about how to change the world and what it should look like.

Sarah Gellner on Ernest Gellner

In response to Stefan Collini’s article on Ernest Gellner in the London Review of Books, Sarah Gellner wrote a letter detailing personal memories of her father and his opinions. I don’t think this needs any commentary other than to say that her account coheres with my general picture of Gellner Sr., and that it perhaps holds some clues to understanding better the intellectual milieus he both inhabited and fought against, particularly their limitations.

Vol. 33 No. 16 · 25 August 2011

From Sarah Gellner

It was good to read Stefan Collini’s attempt to get a grip on the difficult and contradictory person that was my father, Ernest Gellner; an attempt I’ve been making and failing at all my life (LRB, 2 June). Funny, Dad’s professional reluctance to occupy a ‘field’, the point that everyone makes about him. Actually, ‘field’ in the academic sense was one of his favourite terms. ‘That’s not your field’; ‘What’s his field?’ As a pony-mad girl, I, like Weber apparently, found this mildly amusing, but my father wasn’t being funny.

I never got on with him. I believed he never liked me, never admired anything I did, made me feel constantly inadequate and disappointing, if not downright embarrassing. Perhaps the problem was due simply to my being a certain type of woman. Whatever else he was, Ernest Gellner was not a feminist. Anyone familiar with his work would agree that the absence of interest in gender in his anthropological and sociological output is striking given that, as Collini says, he wasn’t a man to let his own ignorance on any subject hold him back. I think that, sensing his own instincts here were out of place, he never found anything acceptable to say on the subject. Many of his favourite jokes were frankly unacceptable. ‘Rape, rape, rape, all summer long’ was one. But that didn’t hold him back in private.

So although most of what Collini writes is spot on, as far as I can judge, I think he is wrong to call him a sexual liberal. If there was one thing Dad disliked more than feminists, it was homosexual men. He was not happy to receive a request in the 1980s, asking for him to support the lowering of the gay age of consent to 16. I remember being baffled by his appeal to me on quasi-feminist grounds: that this would make young men vulnerable in just the same way I claimed young women already were. ‘So you think the age of consent for girls should be raised to 21?’ I asked. He just walked away. Perhaps this is all part of the elusive unlikeability Collini is looking for. I think so. My father was frank and honest to a fault about many things, but not about everything, and not always about himself.

Politically, he and I were on opposite sides in the 1980s. He was enamoured of Margaret Thatcher, just when my left-wing fervour was at its peak. He also hated the Guardian. His closest friends then, and later, were conservatives; Ken Minogue, Oliver Letwin’s mother, Shirley. He had long since fallen out with Ralph Miliband, I believe on political grounds. In earlier decades he might have voted Liberal, but never Labour, in the deep Tory countryside where I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s. Labour was nowhere there; all the daring bohemian types voted Liberal. My father loved it there, in the English Tory heartland; they were the happiest days of his life.

Sarah Gellner
London SE11

In general I enjoy Ernest Gellner’s writing even when I find him to be too dismissive of speculative theorizing, but I do think that details like the ones Sarah Gellner provides are integral to his intellectual stance, and not irrelevant personal peccadilloes.

(See also Cosma Shalizi’s overview of Gellner.)

Albert O. Hirschman: The Rhetoric of Reaction

Albert Hirschman was an amazing writer and his three slim books written for a general readership make their points with incredible efficiency. Exit, Voice, and Loyalty is incisive about the individual’s relationship and loyalty to a provider or employer. The Passions and the Interests is an excellent history of why capitalism seemed like such a savior when Adam Smith and others were promoting it, and how those arguments have persisted and mutated.

The Rhetoric of Reaction is a bit more diffuse and abstract than those books. It is at its best when most concrete. Hirschman, an admitted progressive, examines reactionary and conservative arguments of three types:

  • According to the perversity thesis, any purposive action to improve some feature of the political, social, or economic order only serves to exacerbate the condition one wishes to remedy.
  • The futility thesis holds that attempts at social transformation will be unavailing, that they will simply fail to “make a dent.”
  • Finally, the jeopardy thesis argues that the cost of the proposed change or reform is too high as it endangers some previous, precious accomplishment.

(These do map uncannily onto my own Three Versions of Conservatism. The mapping is Elitist Conservative : futility :: Sentimental Conservative : jeopardy :: Cynical Conservative : perversity.)

I think the three theses do not in fact cleave as cleanly as Hirschman wants them to. Futility is something of a lesser version of the other two, as any action that is useless can then easily be portrayed as wasteful or dangerous. Futility often exists as a fallback position: “Well, if welfare won’t make people more poor, and if it isn’t in fact a huge waste of money…it still won’t do any good!” Hirschman points out that switching rhetorical strategies, no matter how incoherent, is extremely common.

Hirschman pronounces the Perversity thesis “the single most popular and effective weapon in the annals of reactionary rhetoric.” I agree, and it dominates the book as well. I think Hirschman misses one significant reason why it is more successful than jeopardy. (Futility is less hyperbolic and scary than the other two and so easily loses out.) Jeopardy is multidimensional, while perversity is monodimensional. Jeopardy requires one to think about trade-offs between two or more separate but interdependent axes of goods and values, while perversity simply argues that we will go the wrong way along a single axis.

Perversity’s simplicity is its strength. Far more efficient to argue that welfare will make people poor, that affirmative action will disenfranchise minorities, that antitrust will destroy competition. Simple, elegant, and utterly specious.

Consequently, the Jeopardy thesis is more intellectually interesting, even if it’s been less ubiquitous. Hirschman has some great quotes from the 19th and 18th centuries arguing that giving people the right to vote would endanger people’s liberty. The same neocons who tell us how we should be aping Athenian democracy today are reversing the same pattern used by Fustel de Coulanges in 1864, who said that the democracy of Athens was only possible through a complete absence of what we call liberty.  Now, according to Kagan and Smith and Hanson, democracy is only possible through an increasing absence of liberty. For Fustel, Greece was a scary bogeyman; now it’s an unreachable ideal. Same rhetoric.

And through this handy chart that Hirschman gives, we see that some of the neocons and racial “scientists” of today are the same people who were arguing against welfare decades ago, using the same rhetoric:

Hirschman also critiques progressive rhetoric for having too sunny a view, but despite his claims of even-handedness, he seems to be a lot harder on the reactionaries. Maybe this is just my own bias: optimism about bringing liberty, suffrage, and welfare to those lacking it seems far less offensive than attempts to prevent those efforts.

Still, while Hirschman treats Tocqueville and Scheler with some respect, the others come in for well-deserved contempt. It is always good to be reminded of what a horrible person Pareto was (Mussolini supporter, anti-democratic, draconian Social Darwinist); isn’t Pareto-optimality just another statement of the Jeopardy thesis?

Hirschman seems to agree, but he does point out the danger of the progressive/radical “desperate predicament” strategy, which rhetorically argues that things are so bad that any cost is justifiable as long as it brings about change. The more conservatives argue the danger, the more they argue that there are never legitimate grounds for change, the more it pushes radicals to say that the danger is necessary and justified.

Hirschman concludes that Burkean arguments actually radicalized progressives in the 19th century, inducing them to portray current conditions as more hopeless and more desperate than they would have otherwise. I don’t know if the link is quite so direct. I think that the French Revolution itself did force progressives to look at the potential costs of revolution more closely, and that itself may have helped to radicalize the rhetoric.

Yet ultimately it is the bad faith of the reactionaries that dominates, and Hirschman quotes Charles de Rémusat’s devastating critique of Burke’s blind worship of tradition to show just how empty such rhetoric is:

If the events, in their fatality, have been such that a people does not find, or does not know how to find, its own entitlements in its annals, if no epoch of its history has left behind a good national memory, then all the morals and all the archeology one can mobilize will not be able to endow that people with the faith it lacks nor with the attitudes this faith might have forged . . . If to be free a people must have been so in the past, if it must have had a good government to be able to aspire to one today or if at least it must be able to imagine having had these two things, then such a people is immobilized by its own past, its future is foreclosed; and there are nations that are condemned to dwell forever in despair.

Profiles in Type L: Some Engineer at Microsoft

(Original typology in Battle Lines: Type L are the free-market technocrats and Type C are the conservative old boys in American society. Once more, I don’t identify with either of them.)

The always-intriguing corporate-insider blog Mini-Microsoft is the venting place for many of the R+D people dissatisfied with the state of affairs at that company. One anonymous commenter effectively summarizes the Type L’s case against the Type C, much as Paul Van Riper did. The parallels in content and attitude are very striking. I don’t get some of the terminology in the comment either, but this person’s point comes across anyway.

There are some geniuses over in Microsoft Research; somebody needs to set them free to productize.

It isn’t a lack of IC [individual contributor] talent. Although that is rapidly changing. it’s the decline of technical talent and integrity at almost all levels of management.

With “trios”, no individual is charged with cross-discipline technical oversight until GM or VP level. This is no the job of a GM or VP. It *was* the job of the now-extinct Product Unit Manager. Doubtless trios was sold as a way to commoditize skills by narrowing the remit of individuals along discipline lines. Unfortuately, those with broad skill sets that can envision how to actually make a prodcut (rather than a document or a nice report) have been pushed out. It is the age of the bureaucrat.

With trios, the notion of “product team” has vanished. A product team comprised all disciplines, and (usually) et weekly, with their PUM. This has been replaced by layers of tripartite committees based around the arbitrary notion of Dev, Test, PM. The meetings required have grown exponentially. A product team may only get together at a divisional all-hands.

BY GM/VP level, reporting on product state has been so sanitized that the majority of issues are never even surfaced. Yes, there is of course a category of issues that should never require a VPs intervention, but this goes way beyond that. “No bad news, ever”, is the rule. Anyone who rocks the boat is one of those negative, non-team-player 10%ers who will shortly be gone.

More senior ICs are, by definition, supposed to raise broad issues by dint of their level and years of experience. The existing culture makes this a very dangerous thing to do. That’s why I left in January after 10+ years.

The various disasters/missed opportunities over the last 10 years were well known to engineers at the front line… but due to a viciously-enforced policy of “no bad news, ever”, those who might have taken corrective action don’t find out until its too late.

There is a clear pattern of failure to execute… and it is not the doing of engineers. It’s a culture that rewards the suppression of “bad news”. It’s the lack of spine in the management chain to unpromise things that were promised, and blame their “underperforming” ICs when the crap hits the fan. Those with a spine soon find their prospects blighted.

Changing VPs won’t help much. They rely on their generals amd below to garner a picture of the situation. If those generals don’t provide truthful reporting, it simply isn’t possible to execute effectively. It’ll take an IBM/GE/HP/Honeywell (etc) sttyle intervention to fix this problem – it won’t get fixed by those who benefit (hugely) from it.

It’s like watching the third season of The Wire!

Profiles in Type L: General Paul Van Riper

A few months back, in Battle Lines, I talked about the divide between the free-market technocrats and the conservative old boys in American society, dubbing them Type L and Type C respectively. To review:

  • Type L: libertarian, technocratic, meritocratic, pro-business, anti-government, laissez faire,  pro-science, positivist, secular, elitist, progress-driven, Whiggish, optimistic. “The best should have the power.”
  • Type C: tradition-oriented, pro-status quo, nationalistic, protectionist, isolationist, xenophobic, social conservative, pro-business, pro-government (at least in regards to furthering other goals), pro-religion, cronyistic, chauvinistic. “The powerful should have the power.”

(Remember, I don’t identify with either of them! They’re just all we have.)

I had no trouble coming up with big-name examples of Type C (see: nearly our entire political system and corporate overlords), but had a harder time thinking of big-name Type L’s who weren’t associated with technology or economics. Part of this is that these are probably the only relevant places in society where Type L’s can thrive without being utterly annihilated by cronyism. The space for someone like Arnheim in Musil’s The Man Without Qualities doesn’t really exist, and I’m not sure if it ever did. Musil had to contrive a situation for brilliant (but oh so wrong) thinkers to be in positions of political power, and while the voices of the time speak through his characters, I suspect his characters may be improvements on their models, no matter how much he damns them.

Perhaps some CIA wonks might qualify, along the lines of George Smiley, but somehow I doubt it.

Alec Guinness as George Smiley - Insert Star Wars Reference Here

But tonight I thought of someone in the military who fits the bill: Paul K. Van Riper.


Paul K. Van Riper

Van Riper first came to notice when he very publicly failed to give the military the results that they wanted in their Millennium Challenge 2002 (note corporate brand). The war game was supposed to prove the validity of Rumsfeld’s super new strategies of high-tech, low personnel forces, and Van Riper took on the “Red Force,” some unnamed Middle Eastern player.

Hellbent on showing Rumsfeld how stupid he was, Van Riper used all sorts of clever gambits to render the high-tech stuff useless. In exchange, the Army cheated, ignoring his orders, handicapping him and resurrecting US forces to ensure the US won against Red Force. Van Riper, already retired, went public:

Van Riper said this approach ran counter to his notion of how an experiment should function. “You don’t come to a conclusion beforehand and then work your way to that conclusion. You see how the thing plays out,” he said. [Type C never says this.]

Van Riper said the blame for rigging the exercise lay not with any one officer, but with the culture at Joint Forces Command. “It’s an institutional problem,” he said. “It’s embedded in the institution.” [Who is he, David Simon?]

He was highly critical of the command’s concepts, such as “effects-based operations” and “rapid, decisive operations,” which he derided as little more than “slogans.” [Type C never ever says this.]

“There’s very little intellectual activity,” Van Riper said about Joint Forces Command. “What happens is a number of people are put into a room, given some sort of a slogan and told to write to the slogan. That’s not the way to generate new ideas.”

Van Riper’s single-mindedness can sometimes rub other experiment participants the wrong way, said a retired Army officer who has played in several war games with the Marine. “What he’s done is he’s made himself an expert in playing Red, and he’s real obnoxious about it,” the retired officer said. “He will insist on being able to play Red as freely as possible and as imaginatively and creatively within the bounds of the framework of the game and the technology horizons and all that as possible.

“He can be a real pain in the ass, but that’s good. But a lot of people don’t like to sign up for that sort of agitation. But he’s a great guy, and he’s a great patriot and he’s doing all those things for the right reasons.”

Van Riper is probably about ten miles to my right on all sorts of issues, but his very visible break with the US military and civilian leadership in this exercise and again shortly after the start of the Iraq war sets him aside from the military leadership as a type. So in a Frontline interview, while he praises Colin Powell even as he trashes McNamara and Rumsfeld, he also says anti-cronyistic things like this:

I see inside the United States Army the germs of a second intellectual renaissance that’s approaching these problems. And they’re not caught up in the sloganeering that most of the Joint community’s caught up in. They really are studying; they’re having conferences. The conferences aren’t love fests, where they put out some idea and try to get people to sign up to it. It’s a real debate, real argument, trying to synthesize some new knowledge out of it.

Is there anything in the current Defense Department that would lead you to believe those ideas will flourish?

I see nothing from the highest levels of the Pentagon that would lead to this. What I see is a support of the Joint Forces command by edict being told to be innovative. You cannot demand innovation. You can’t simply say to an organization, as Mr. Rumsfeld apparently did to the Army: “Be more innovative. You’re not innovative enough. Service Chief, you’re out of here.” That’s not the way to do it.

This is, of course, exactly what so many non-technical executives say to their R+D people, and this is exactly the response that the R+D people always have, right down to the ridicule of love fests. Type C’s have love fests because they are celebrating all being rich white guys; how can they not have love fests when they get together? They certainly would not let ideas get in the way. They say stuff like this:

Gen. William “Buck” Kernan, head of Joint Forces Command, told Pentagon reporters July 18 that Millennium Challenge was nothing less than “the key to military transformation.”

Van Riper would not use the phrase “the key to military transformation,” and I bet he never had a nickname like “Buck.” (He’s clearly more Sterling Hayden than George C. Scott in the Buck/Rip(p)er dichotomy.) And I bet he hates William “Buck” Kernan. We have an apparently near-perfect recreation of that sort of love fest Type C in David Rasche’s Rumsfeld/Bolton character from Armando Iannucci’s In the Loop:

These sorts do not like to lose wargames, ever. Reality must shift to accommodate them.

[This may be why I am more sympathetic to the analytic philosophy community than a lot of bloggers out there. The only thing worse than a room of people fighting over abstract issues and shutting each other down is a room of people all agreeing with the most powerful one there, be it Rumsfeld or Derrida. This is an oversimplification, obviously, but I don’t think I’m too far off the mark.]

Van Riper, who has been retired for many years, was last heard from in 2006 calling for Donald Rumsfeld’s resignation. What took him so long? Though I share some of Gary Brecher’s respect for his cleverness in U Sank My Carrier, my intention is not to praise Van Riper. I suspect he adheres to a form of realpolitik that I would find morally repugnant. I suspect he has his own sort of obsessive myopia indicated by tidbits like this: “General Van Riper would spend his chow break by issuing speeding tickets all across MCB Quantico.” I suspect I would find him rather scary. But if you are looking for the counterweight to the current ruling class of CEOs and politicians, people like Van Riper are probably the best you can do.

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