Albania: People and Ruins

During my long traveling over Europe this summer, among other areas, I ventured to Albania, a country where houses frequently do not have numbers and where I located the building where a friend of my youth now lives by a drawing on a gate. This is a country where the so-called oriental bazaar is buzzing everywhere, where towns literally hang on cliffs, and where one easily runs across the ruins of the Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman legacy of the country and the “archaeology” of the recent communist past (small concrete family bunkers, tunnels for the former communist nomenklatura, monumental sculptures and mosaics in the socialist realism style).

It was interesting to see how this country, which lived much of the 20th century under the most vicious communist dictatorship (1944-1990), is now trying to live a normal life.  To some extent, Albania is very similar to present-day Russia: decades of the negative natural selection under communism killed much of self-reliance, individual initiative, and produced the populace that looks up to the government for the solutions of their problems. For the past thirty years, a new generation emerged, and things did dramatically change. Yet, very much like in Russia, much of the populace feels nostalgia for the “good” old days, which is natural.

According to opinion polls, 46% of the people are nostalgic for the developed communism of dictator Enver Hoxha (1944-1985), an Albanian Stalin, and 43% are against communism; the later number should be higher, given the fact that many enterprising Albanians (1/4 of the population) live and work abroad.  During the last decades of its existence, Albanian communism slipped into a wild isolationism of the North Korean style. Except for Northern Korea and Romania, all countries, from the United States, Germany, UK (capitalist hyenas) to the USSR, China, and Yugoslavia (traitors to socialism), were considered enemies.  Incidentally, Albanian communism was much darker and tougher than the Brezhnev-era USSR. Nevertheless, as it naturally happened in Russia and some other countries, in thirty years, the memory of a part of the population laundered and cleansed the communist past, and this memory now paints this past as a paradise, where everyone was happy and looked confidently into the future, where secret police and labor concentration camps existed for a good reason, and where the vengeful dictator appears as a caring father.

In the hectic transition to market economy and with the lack of established judicial system, there naturally emerged a widespread corruption, nepotism. But, at the same time, small business somehow flourishes. The masses and elites of the country aspire to be united with neighboring Kosovo since both countries are populated by Albanian majorities. On top of this, Kosovo is the birthplace of Albanian nationalism.  However, unlike current Russia, which is spoiled with abundant oil and gas resources (the notorious resource curse factor), corrupt Albanian bureaucrats that rule over a small country exercise caution. Although that small country is too blessed with oil, natural gas, chromium, copper, and iron-nickel, they do not waste their resources on sponsoring geopolitical ventures and harassing their neighbors. For themselves, the Albanians resolved the Kosovo issue as follows: we will be administratively two different states, but de facto economically and socially we will be tied to each other, and all this makes life easier for people, preventing any conflicts. Not a small factor is that, unlike, for example, Russia or Turkey, Albanian nationalism is devoid of any imperial syndromes, and therefore there is no nostalgia for any glorious lost empire. The fact that Albania is a member of NATO also plays a significant role, which forces the Albanian elites behave. Acting smartly, instead of geopolitical games, they decided to fully invest in the development of the tourism business, believing that, in addition to mining their resources, this is the best development option.

Two Bald Eagles: Symbols of Divided Attitudes?

I spotted two Bald Eagles today in Cincinnati, which is really fitting for the Fourth of July. The two Bald Eagles—one indolent and one vigilant—capture not only the attitudes of two influential figures in American politics about this national symbol that was hotly debated till 1789, but they also reflect the fractured character of these United States.

You probably already know that Benjamin Franklin was an outspoken detractor of the bald eagle. He stated his disinterest in the national symbol in a letter to a friend:
“I wish the bald eagle had not been chosen as the representative of our country; he is a bird of bad moral character; like those among men who live by sharping and robbing, he is generally poor, and often very lousy. The turkey is a much more respectable bird and withal a true, original native of America.”

In contrast, President John F. Kennedy wrote to the Audubon Society:
“The Founding Fathers made an appropriate choice when they selected the bald eagle as the emblem of the nation. The fierce beauty and proud independence of this great bird aptly symbolizes the strength and freedom of America. But as latter-day citizens we shall fail our trust if we permit the eagle to disappear.”

The two Bald Eagles, which symbolize, in my estimation, two divergent historical viewpoints, show us that American history is splintered into sharp conceptions of the past as it has been politicizedly revised to forge a more perfect union. There is little question that the tendency toward seeking out varied intellectual interpretations of US history is unabating and maybe essential to the growth of a mature republic. On holidays like the Fourth of July, however, a modicum of romanticism of the past is also required if revisionist histories make it harder and harder for the average person to develop a classicist vision of the Republic as a good—if not perfect—union and make it seem like a simple-minded theory. 

The two Bald Eagles aren’t just symbolic of the past; they also stand for partisanship and apathy in the present toward issues like inflation, NATO strategy, Roe v. Wade, and a variety of other divisive concerns. In addition, I learned there is an unfortunate debate on whether to have a 4th of July concert without hearing the 1812 Overture. For those who are not familiar, it is a musical composition by the Russian composer Tchaikovsky that has become a staple for July 4th events since 1976. 

In view of this divisiveness here is my unsophisticated theory of American unity for the present moment: Although the rhetoric of entrenched divisiveness and the rage of political factions—against internal conflicts and international relations—are not silenced by the Fourth of July fireworks, the accompanying music, festivities, and the promise of harmony, they do present a forceful antidote to both. So why have a double mind on a national ritual that serves as a unifying force and one of the few restraints on partisanship? Despite the fact that I am a resident alien, I propose preserving Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, arousing the inner dozing Bald Eagle, and making an effort to reunite the divided attitude toward all challenges. The aim, in my opinion, should be to manifest what Publius calls in Federalist 63 the “cool and deliberate sense of community.”

Have a happy Fourth!

Stimuli For Your Moral Taste Buds [June 2022 Edition]

Today’s food-for-thought menu includes Eco-Feminism, Indics of Afghanistan, the Fetus Problem, a Mennonite Wedding, the Post-Roe Era, and the Native New World. I’m confident the dishes served today will stimulate your moral taste buds, and your gut instincts will motivate you to examine these themes in greater depth.

Note: I understand that most of us are unwilling to seek the opposing viewpoint on any topic. Our personal opinions are a fundamental principle that will not be altered. However, underlying this fundamental principle is our natural proclivity to prefer some moral taste buds over others. This series represents my approach to exploring our natural tendencies and uncovering different viewpoints on the same themes without doubting the validity of one’s own fundamental convictions. As a result, I invite you to reorder the articles I’ve shared today using moral taste buds that better reflect your convictions about understanding these issues. For instance, an article that appeals to my Care/Harm taste bud may appeal to your Liberty/Oppression taste bud. This moral divergence reveals different ways to look at the same thing.

The Care/Harm Taste Bud: Eco-feminism: Roots in Ancient Hindu Philosophy

The Nature-Culture Conflict Paradigm today reigns supreme and seeks to eradicate cultures, societies, and institutions that advocate for and spread the Nature-Culture Continuum Paradigm. Do you see this conflict happening? If so, can you better care for the environment by adopting a Nature-Culture Continuum paradigm? Is there anything one may learn from Hindu philosophy in this regard?


Due to a focus on other issues in Afghanistan, such as terrorism, food and water shortages, and poverty, the persecution of religious minorities in the nation is not as generally known, despite the fact that it has been a human rights crisis for decades. Ignorance of this topic poses a serious risk to persecuted groups seeking protection overseas. Western governments have yet to fully appreciate the risks that Afghan Sikhs and Hindus endure. I also recommend this quick overview of the topic: 5 things to know about Hindus and Sikhs in Afghanistan.

The Liberty/Oppression Taste Bud: Biological Individuality and the Foetus Problem

As I’ve discovered, abortion was one of the earliest medical specialties in American history when it became entirely commercialized in the 1840s. As a result, the United States has been wrestling with moral issues about abortion for 182 years! The abortion debate has gone through rights-based assertions and advanced to claims about the policy costs and benefits of abortion and now appears to have returned to rights-based arguments in the last 50 years. Regardless of where you stand on this debate, this much is clear: in the U.S., the circle of moral quandary surrounding abortion never closes. Nevertheless, what is the source of the moral ambiguity surrounding abortion? Can the philosophy of biology help us better comprehend this moral quandary?

Some philosophers would argue that the issue of biological individuality is central to this moral dispute. But why is biological individuality even a point of contention? Counting biologically individual organisms like humans and dogs appears straightforward at first glance, but the biological world is packed with challenges. For instance, Aspen trees appear to be different biological units from above the ground; nonetheless, they all share the same genome and are linked beneath the ground by a sophisticated root system. So, should we regard each tree as a distinct thing in its own right or as organs or portions of a larger organism?

How Aspens Grow?

Similarly, humans are hosts to a great variety of gut bacteria that play essential roles in many biological activities, including the immune system, metabolism, and digestion. Should we regard these microorganisms as part of us, despite their genetic differences, and treat a human being and its germs as a single biological unit?

NIH scientists find that salmonella use intestinal epithelial cells to colonize the gut

Answers to the ‘Problem of Biological Individuality’ have generally taken two main approaches: the Physiological Approach, which appeals to physiological processes such as immunological interactions, and the Evolutionary Approach, which appeals to the theory of evolution by natural selection. The Physiological Approach is concerned with biological individuals who are physiological wholes [Human + gut bacteria = one physiological whole], whereas the Evolutionary Approach is concerned with biological individuals who are selection units [Human and gut bacteria = two distinct natural selection units].

Is a fetus an Evolutionary individual or a Physiological individual? If we are Evolutionary individuals, we came into being before birth; if we are Physiological individuals, we come into being after birth. While the Physiological Approach makes it evident that a fetus is a part of its mother, the Evolutionary Approach makes it far less clear. But is there an overarching metaphysical approach to solving the problem of biological individuality? Can metaphysics (rather than organized monotheistic religion) lead us to a pluralistic zone where we can accept both perspectives with some measure of doubt?

Philosophy and Phenomenological Research

The Loyalty/Betrayal Taste Bud: What I Found at a Mennonite Wedding

Do you consider the United States to be a high-power-distance or low-power-distance culture? Coming from India, I used to see the U.S. as the latter, but in the last 12 years of living here, it is increasingly becoming the former.

Does your proximity to an authority strengthen or lessen your loyalty?,india,the-usa/

The Authority/Subversion Taste Bud: The Post-Roe Era Begins Political and practical questions in an America without a constitutional right to abortion.

[In the link above, make sure to listen to both Akhil Amar and Caitlin Flanagan]

I also recommend reading Why Other Fundamental Rights Are Safe (At Least for Now)

Is there a flaw in the mainstream discussion of the U.S. Constitution that the abortion debate has brought to light? In my opinion, although predating the U.S. federal constitution and being significantly more involved in federal politics and constitutional evolution, each American state’s constitution is widely ignored. Keep in mind that state constitutions in the United States are far more open to public pressure. They frequently serve as a pressure release valve and a ‘pressuring lever’ for fractious U.S. national politics, catalyzing policy change. Regrettably, in an era of more contentious national politics, mainstream U.S. discourse largely ignores changes to state constitutions and spends far too much time intensely debating the praise or ridicule the federal Constitution receives for specific clauses, by which time the individual states have already shaped how the nation’s legal framework should perceive them. Altogether, a federal system, where individual state constitutions are ignored, and conflicts are centralized, is the American political equivalent of Yudhishthira’s response to the world’s greatest wonder in the thirty-three Yaksha Prashna [33 questions posed by an Indic tutelary spirit to the perfect king in the Hindu epic of Mahabharata].

The Sanctity/Degradation Taste Bud: The Native New World and Western North America

The emergence of a distinctly Native New World is a founding story that has largely gone unrecorded in accounts of early America. Here’s an excerpt from the article:

To round off this edition, a Western movie question: Are there any examples of American Westerns developed with the opposing premise—valuing the First Nation’s People’s agency, which has gained historical support? Why not have a heroic Old World First Nation protagonist who safeguards indigenous practices and familial networks in a culturally diverse middle ground somewhere in the frontier country, shaping and influencing the emerging New World? Can this alternate perspective revitalize the jaded American Western movie genre?

[Here’s the previous edition of Stimuli For Your Moral Taste Buds]

Gold Rush ducks (rushed in Monday)

2s rhyme nicely with 7s

Academic papers are a tough nut to crack. Apart from the prerequisite of expertise in the field (acquired or ongoing, real or imaginary), there is some ritualistic, innuendo stuff, like the author list. I always keep in mind this strip from PHD Comics:

It came handy when MR suggested this paper, A Golden Opportunity: The Gold Rush, Entrepreneurship and Culture.

Now, I cannot even pretend I read the thing. But eight listed authors popped-up to my eyes. And the subject is catchy enough in cementing the hard way what may seem as a pretty evident proposition

The term “Argonauts” (used for the gold rushers of 1849) irked me somewhat at first, since the crew of legendary, talking ship Argo was an all-star Fellowship of Justice Avengers team, featuring the baddest champions around (warfare, navigation, pugilism, wrestling, horse riding, music, to note the most renown, some of them later fathered other heroes), human or demi-god. But there is a sad story behind it, and also the Greek myth can be understood as a parable for ancient gold hunting, so I indeed learned something (on-top of quit charging to the void without good reason).

Argonautica notwithstanding, there is an even more telling reference for the theme of the paper. That would be no other than Scrooge McDuck, the creation of Carl Barks, the richest duck in the world. Per his biography, a gravely underappreciated graphic nov comic book (originally a series of twelve stories, published thirty years ago, other stories were added as a Companion edition later) that frustratingly keeps falling off best-of lists (I mean, apparently there is So MucH DePtH in costumed clowns, but not in anthropomorphic animals without pants) he was a gold rusher AND and an entrepreneur extraordinaire. The book, The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck by Don Rosa, tells Scrooge’s life before his first official appearance as a depressed old recluse who meets his estranged nephews in Christmas 1947. The duck adventures we all are familiar with followed that meeting. Rosa collected all the smatterings of Scrooge’s past from these endeavors, memories, quotes, thoughts, and reconstructed a working timeline (with the inevitable and necessary artist’s liberty, of course). The resulting prequel is all the more impressive given the sheer volume of detail, the breezy rhythm and the context it gives to a deserving character.

According to the Life and Times, Scrooge struggled from child’s age. The Number One Dime was not “Lucky”, it was earned by polishing boots. It deliberately was a lowly US coin (instead of the expected Scottish one), by a well-meaning ploy to inform young Scrooge that there are cheaters about. It was this underwhelming payment for tough work that lead him to drop this signature line and decide on how to conduct his business:

Well, I’ll be tougher than the toughies and sharper than the sharpies — and I’ll make my money square!

Scrooge McDuck, The Last of the Clan McDuck

This fist “fail” was followed by a series of entrepreneurial tries, each failing and each teaching our hero a lesson. Scrooge moved to the US to join as a deckhand, and then as a captain, a steamboat just as railroads were picking up. His cowboy and gun slinging chops went down the drain when the expansion to the West ended. He rose, fell, and still kept coming back. He became rich in the Klondike Gold Rush in 1897, 20 years after the Number One Dime affair (and a little late for the California Gold Rush, my bad).

Scrooge finding a gold nugget the size of a goose egg, thus “making” it after 20 years (the cover of the Greek version – source)

As the paper technically puts it, the personality traits of those involved in gold prospecting associated with openness (resourceful, innovative, curious), conscientiousness (hardworking, persistent, cautious) and emotional stability (even-tempered, steady, confident), underpinned by low risk aversion, low fear of failure and self-efficacy. This constellation of traits, the authors note, is consistently associated with entrepreneurial activity. Indeed, from that point Scrooge demonstrated considerable acumen and expanded his business across industries and countries. A trait that serves him in building and maintaining his wealth (and seems lacking in his peers) is prudence (perceived as stinginess) and a very laconic lifestyle.

He casually brawled and stood his ground against scum. His undisputable morals lapsed only once, when ruthlessness briefly overtook decency. Though he made amends and corrected course, this failing, coupled with a hard demeanor, made his family distance themselves from him, adding a tragic – and very humane – edge to the duck mogul.

The hero, “born” 155 years ago (8 Jul 1867), stands as an underrated icon of individual effort and ethics.

Stimuli For Your Moral Taste Buds

Based on anthropologist Richard Shweder’s ideas, Jonathan Haidt and Craig Joseph developed the theory that humans have six basic moral modules that are elaborated in varying degrees over culture and time. The six modules characterized by Haidt as a “tongue with six taste receptors” are Care/harm, Fairness/cheating, Loyalty/betrayal, Authority/subversion, Sanctity/degradation, and Liberty/oppression. I thought it would be interesting to organize articles I read into these six moral taste buds and post them here as a blog of varied reading suggestions to stimulate conversation not just on various themes but also on how they may affect our moral taste buds in different ways. To some of you, an article that appeals to my Fairness taste bud may appeal to your taste bud on Authority.

I had planned to post this blog yesterday, but it got delayed. Today, I can’t write a blog without mentioning guns. Given that gun violence is a preventable public health tragedy, which moral taste bud do you favor when considering gun violence? Care and Fairness taste buds are important to me.

I’ve only ever been a parent in the United States, where gun violence is a feature rather than a bug, and my childhood in India has provided no context for this feature. But, I can say that India has not provided me with reference points for several other cultural features that I can embrace, with the exception of this country’s gun culture. It is one aspect of American culture that most foreign nationals, including resident aliens like myself, find difficult to grasp, regardless of how long you have lived here. I’d like to see a cultural shift that views gun ownership as unsettling and undesirable. I know it is wishful thinking, but aren’t irrational ideas salvation by imagination?

Though I’m not an expert on guns and conflict, I can think broadly using two general arguments on deterrence, namely:

A) The general argument in favor of expanding civilian gun ownership is that it deters violence at the local level.

B) The general case for countries acquiring nuclear weapons is that it deters the escalation of international conflict.

I sense an instinctual contradiction when A) and B) are linked to the United States. The US favors a martial culture based on deterrence by expanding civilian gun ownership within its borders while actively preventing the same concept of deterrence from taking hold on a global scale with nuclear weapons. Why? The US understands that rogue states lacking credible checks and balances can harm the international community by abusing nuclear power. Surprisingly, this concept of controlling nuclear ammunition is not effectively translated when it comes to domestic firearms control. I get that trying to maintain a global monopoly on nuclear weapons appeals to the Authority taste bud, but does expanding firearms domestically in the face of an endless spiral of tragedies appeal just to the Liberty taste bud? Where are your Care and Fairness taste buds languishing?

Care: The Compassionate Invisibilization Of Homelessness: Where Revanchist And Supportive City Policies Meet/ Liberal US Cities Including Portland Change Course, Now Clearing Homeless Camps

[I’m sharing these two articles because my recent trip to Portland, Oregon, revealed some truly disturbing civic tragedies hidden within a sphere of natural wonders. I hadn’t expected such a high rate of homelessness. It’s a shame. “Rent control does not control the rent,” Thomas Sowell accurately asserts.]

Fairness: America Has Never Really Understood India

[I’d like to highlight one example of how “rules-based order” affected India: In the 1960s, India faced a severe food shortage and became heavily reliant on US food aid. Nehru had just died, and his successor, Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri, called upon the nation to skip at least one meal per week! Soon after, Shastri died, and Prime Minister Indira Gandhi took over, only to be humiliated by US President Lyndon B. Johnson for becoming dependent on food aid from his country. The progressive US President was irked by India’s lack of support for his Vietnam policy. So he vowed to keep India on a “ship-to-mouth” policy, whereby he would release ships carrying food grain only after food shortages reached a point of desperation. Never to face this kind of humiliation, India shifted from its previous institutional approach to agricultural policy to one based on technology and remunerative prices for farmers. The Green Revolution began, and India achieved self-sufficiency. The harsh lesson, however, remains: in international relations, India is better off being skeptical of self-congratulatory labels like “leader of the free world,” “do-gooders,” “progressives,” and so on.]

Liberty: Can Islam Be Liberal? / Where Islam And Reason Meet

[I would like to add that, in the name of advocating liberalism for all, personal liberty is often emphasized over collectivist rights in the majority, while collectivist rights are allowed to take precedence over personal liberty in minority groups, and all religious communities suffer as a result.]

Loyalty: Black-Robed Reactionaries: Has The Supreme Court Been Bad For The American Republic?

[Is it all about Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Supreme Court Majority?]

Authority: How Curing Aging Could Help Progress

[In my opinion, the indefinite future that awaits us compels us to contextualize our current activities and lives. What do you think will happen if anti-aging technology advances beyond the limits of our evolutionary environment? Furthermore, according to demographer James Vaupel, medical science has already unintentionally delayed the average person’s aging process by ten years [Vaupel, James W. “Biodemography of human ageing.” Nature 464.7288 (2010): 536-542]. We have 10 extra years of mobility compared to people living in the nineteenth century; 10 extra years without heart disease, stroke, or dementia; and 10 years of subjectively feeling healthy.]

Sanctity: India and the Indian: Hinduism, Caste Act As Unifying Forces In The Country

[Here is my gaze-reversal on caste as a moderate Hindu looking at a complacent American society: If caste is a social division or sorting based on wealth, inherited rank or privilege, or profession, then it exists in almost every nation or culture. Regardless of religious affiliation, there is an undeniable sorting of American society based on the intense matching of people based on wealth, political ideology, and education. These “American castes,” not without racial or ethnic animus, organize people according to education, income, and social class, resulting in more intense sorting along political lines. As a result, Democrats and Republicans are more likely to live in different neighborhoods and marry among themselves, which is reflected in increased polarization in Congress and perpetual governmental gridlock. The intensification of “American castes,” in my opinion, is to blame for much of the political polarization. What is the United States doing about these castes? Don’t tell me that developing more identity-centered political movements will solve it.]

I intend to regularly blog under this heading. To be clear, I refer to regularly using the Liberty taste bud rather than Fairness.

In the Ruins of Public Reason, Part II: The Barbarians at the Gates

Note: This is a part of a series on public discourse. View part one here.

How exactly do dialogical illiberals view themselves during a heated discussion without epistemic norms? Dialogical illiberals of all political stripes–from populist conservative culture warriors to sanctimoniously censorious progressives, from screeching parents at public school board meetings to ostensibly liberal democrats, from nationalistic xenophobes to anti-fascist anarchists—view themselves as soldiers under siege in a war using their ideas as the only defensive tool to keep the barbarians at the gates. They view every conversation, every intellectual exchange as a zero-sum game, and their interlocutor is either on their side or the side of the putative barbarians–no in-between. I admit I have fallen into this habit of thinking in years past, but it is an extremely unproductive mindset and contributes to dialogical illiberalism for three main reasons.

First, it is just a way of viewing discourse that, for one, is usually simply untrue. Sometimes, the barbarians literally do not exist. This is usually true when conservatives fear-monger on, say, a liberal pedophile cabal, or progressive elitists trying to turn their kids LGBT, or evil conspiracy of immigrants trying to replace them. It is not just right-wingers who conspiratorially invent barbarians: leftists often imagine there is some deep-money libertarian conspiracy to undermine democracy, or some cabal of rich corporate fat cats to raise prices and oppress the poor. Even if there might be some sophisticated steel-manned sociological story that might make some version of these more than mere conspiracy theories, the problem comes when these imagined “barbarians” are used as an excuse to write off someone they might have fruitful disagreements with as a member of “them.”

Sometimes, in the case of progressives fighting racists or anti-populist liberals and anti-fascist anarchists fighting actual fascist terrorists, the barbarians are a very real, significant threat. However, for one, they often radically overestimate the magnitude of the threat or engage in dangerous forms of concept creep about who counts as a barbarian. Whoever they are talking with is not often part of the barbarians, but they get so in the habit of outgrouping anyone who doesn’t agree with them,they start seeing barbarians everywhere. They then are viciously uncivil towards potential allies or people with whom they have fruitful disagreements that truly are not the sort of “dangerous” disagreements that are helpful to barbarians.

Second, this “activist vs. barbarians” mentality just poisons the well and makes it difficult for these activist gatekeepers to rationally engage with basically anyone who has normative or empirical disagreements with them in good faith. They view themselves as a warrior fighting barbarians rather than more humbly as a curious person trying to find wisdom to cope with this world from wherever they can. It makes them engage in motivated reasoning for why your disagreement makes you on the barbarians’ side or why their view is the true “American” or “liberal” or “radical” view rather than engaging with the substance of the disagreement rationally. It makes them embrace subrational forms of communication that are just toxic, and more interested in signaling their ingroup bona fides to other members of their ingroup than trying to persuade people who might not be in the “outgroup” exactly, but that they irresponsibly paint as being in the outgroup.

It is a very similar toxic social and psychological dynamic to what drives so many sources of illiberal intolerance both large and small–from McCarthyism, to the religious banning of “heresy,” to book bannings, to horrible screeching on social media that makes everyone dumber and unhappier. As Arnold Kling would put it, this “civilization vs. barbarism” language game is a deeply conservative one. But in recent years, few have noticed how even progressives and radical leftists fall into this small-c conservative mode of thinking indefensibly when they consider themselves as activists first and foremost. It is no coincidence that many leftists trapped in the contra barbarian mindset start rationalizing illiberal attitudes more generally.

Third, it makes them rather arrogantly over-estimate their own activist powers in implausible ways. Chances are, the argument you are making, the candidate you are trying to convince me to vote for, or the direct action you are defending isn’t going to be the thing that stops the barbarians. The social world is complicated, and you humbly should be willing to be open to the possibility that your political action might actually backfire and help them. It might help, or it might not, depending on the circumstances. Better to humbly admit your epistemic and practical limitations in changing the world and be open to other perspectives from good-faith interlocutors than just thinking that someone who has a substantive disagreement with you about political action or an idea is either a contemptuous barbarian or a “useful idiot” for the barbarians simply in virtue of your disagreement.

Be realistic, you and I are not heroic activists trying to save our beatific political visions from evil barbarians. Better to think of ourselves as curious individuals trying to learn what we can to cope with the perplexing quandaries of modernity.

In the Ruins of Public Reason, Part I: The Problem of Dialogical Illiberalism

Note: This is part of a series on public discourse. View Part 2 here.

Older readers of NOL may have noticed I have been absent from the blogosphere for the last four or so years. Part of this has been that I have rather intentionally taken a somewhat monkish vow of silence on many things that perplex me about the contemporary world. On many of these issues—the growing tide of global populist authoritarianism, the policy and cultural responses to COVID, and increasing political polarization to name a few—I still don’t know what is true or if I am equipped to say much other than express a vague, general sense that almost everyone in those debates has gotten something fundamentally wrong. Consequently, I have taken time in a philosophy grad school program to think about more fundamental issues rather than get lost in the daily obsessions of the internet. Now, I am done with that venture and have decided for various personal reasons to not pursue an academic career so I will have more time to write more freely here.

I think even more than my being epistemically overwhelmed by the…everything…of the last few years or even the time and energy constraints of grad school, a bigger reason why I have been loathe to blog or engage in public discussion has been a sense of frustration, exhaustion and melancholic angst with the state of public discourse, especially online. It seems like nearly everyone today—from partisan activists to family members, to friends, to even respected thinkers whose ideas have influenced me in the past, seem to be guilty of contributing to this problem. I surely do not exclude myself from these criticisms of the zeitgeist, for the zeitgeist very much lives in my head. For now, rather than discuss any substantive issues, I am going to start a series about some meta-issues that have poisoned our public discourse and made it unpleasant and even psychologically impossible for me, and I am sure others, to write publicly.

For now, I just want to narrow in on identifying the symptoms of our ruined discourse. I am talking about how almost every one of almost every ideological stripe these days constantly displays a vicious lack of charity to almost everyone they engage with who they vaguely associate with some outgroup. An illiberal intolerant attitude where their first impulse is to try to censor ideas that they find disagreeable. For the politically engaged and outraged, it seems like no disagreement can be a good-faith one. So many seem to just assume that almost anyone they disagree with is acting in bad faith. To be sure, many people are acting in bad faith, but that is no reason to become the monster one is fighting or assume that as the default with every interlocutor. So many people treat nearly every difference of opinion, no matter how great or small, not as potentially interesting differences in values that can be commensurably discussed or interesting empirical disagreements, but as “dangerous” ideas that need to be quashed.

I am talking about the tendency for people—everywhere from cable news, to Thanksgiving tables, to Twitter–to “nutpickoutgroups to outrage other members of their ingroups. How so much of political discourse has substituted sub-rational bumper stickers, memes, and tweets for substantive positions and arguments. How so many clearly rationalize terrible arguments they should know better than to make because said arguments have ideologically convenient or politically expedient conclusions. How so many seem more interested in morally grandstanding to their favored ingroup than trying to learn more from those with whom they have fruitful differences. How for some people to even listen to you, they make you engage in some sort of ideological purity test. How they engage in dishonest guilt by association to try to assassinate the character of people they might have minor disagreements with. How they generally view anyone with whom they have disagreements contemptuously

Of course, much of this has always been an element of how hooligans engage in democratic politics. However, the degree to which it has reached a fever pitch is a change from a few decades ago. Further, this loathsome creeping intolerance and lack of epistemic virtue have now seeped from screeching political rallies, Twitter, or Yahoo News comment sections to many self-important elites who fancy themselves above the fray of the irrational cacophony of political discourse, and often help shape that discourse. I am talking the sort of people who stridently read or write for NY Times and The Atlantic, legal professionals, elites in the ivory tower where I once delusionally hoped to find a bubble of safety.

The problem goes by many names—right-wing reactionaries call it “wokeness” or “cancel culture” when done by the left, leftists and progressives call it fascist authoritarianism when right-wingers do it. To some varying extent, both are correct about each other and wrong about themselves. To be clear, I do think the right’s illiberal authoritarianism is very much a bigger threat in this political moment, but rather than spending time unproductively fanning the flames of that culture war debate, let me neutrally call the problem dialogical illiberalism in the small “l” sense of liberalism. It is a form of brain rot that seems to have infected every one of all political persuasions to varying degrees of significance—from conservative culture warriors to socialist Breadtubers, to ostensibly “liberal” centrists, to anarchist antifascist activists, to even my (former) ingroup of some libertarian academics. None of you are free from sin.

In the extreme, the dialogical illiberal is not just an unreasonable conversation partner, but a dialectical rent-seeker demanding the state coercively censor those with whom they disagree. For now, I want to focus on the merely dialogical and social form of this illiberalism simply to avoid getting lost in the complicated intricacies of liberal free speech norms and First Amendment legal disputes. Those are complicated debates worth having but beyond the scope of this series. Suffice it to say, I have little patience for this form of actively statist censoriousness in whatever form. But I think its increasing prevalence has its roots in a culture of dialogical illiberalism that has evolved in the norms of public discourse, which is what I am interested in analyzing here.

This is where, usually, this genre of article goes into some detailed examples and case studies of “the problem” to convince you it is real. Typically, these are rather dishonestly cherry-picked to support whatever implicit tribal position the author happens to have. Frankly, I have no interest in such a performative exercise here—it is better left to the reader. It would just distract us by tempting us to engage in the accidental details of some particular examples rather than stepping back and seeing the bigger picture. I don’t wish to miss the trees for the forest, and neither should you. Suffice it to say, if you are unconvinced of that what I am talking about is a genuine problem, this series of posts probably isn’t for you. You have either been living under a rock (in which case I urge you to return because ignorance is sometimes bliss), are unusually patient with bad argumentation (in which case, I envy you), or might be part of the problem.

I imagine you are nodding your head in agreement and recalling times when this has been done to you or by someone in some other political tribe to someone in your tribe. I encourage you to stop this now and try to recall a time when someone you respect and agree with was being unreasonable and uncharitable to someone else, or perhaps when you yourself have done this in a social media exchange, or with a family member or friend. I know I have. If you are completely incapable of doing this, I encourage you to save yourself some time and stop reading now—this series isn’t for you. Perhaps return to Twitter.

Perhaps at this point, you are trying to rationalize your own version of dialogical illiberalism as somehow justifiable. If you can give an original good faith argument for it, go ahead and I might consider moderating my hardline position against dialogical illiberalism. Perhaps you are thinking something like this: “But they really are so terrible and bad-faith that we should not take them seriously as debaters. You are just engaging in toxic both-sideism!” Perhaps you are right about “them,”—whoever that outgroup might be in your head. However, that is no reason to become just like “them” to the point that you cannot engage with nearly anyone in good faith. Maybe you should reflect on whether you are projecting a caricature of “them” on people who genuinely are not one of “them.” Again, avoid becoming the monster you are fighting. If you do not wish to make that effort, return to the Twitter mob.

Most readers will agree with something like this, to put it bluntly: political discourse is terrible because politically active people are massive assholes to each other. I wish to understand why people of all ideological stripes have become such massive assholes and how I can stop being one myself. If you are interested in trying not to be an asshole too, perhaps you will join me.

I don’t have an explicit plan for this series, I am not sure how many posts it will comprise. But I expect to focus on topics such as how dialogical illiberals psychologically think of themselves while they are engaging in bad-faith discussion, the role of social media in making the problem worse, the extent to which the incentive structure of democratic institutions leads to dialogical illiberalism, the chilling effect this lack of civility has on discourse, and other cultural causes and effects of dialogical illiberalism.  

If you wish, consider this an exercise in therapeutic edification for me and, if you feel similarly, perhaps for you. I am not trying to make an argument trying to convince you of much substantively. If you change your mind about something, consider that a bonus. My goals here are to express my frustration with this moment in American cultural discourse, diagnose some of what I see as the psychological and social factors contributing to the problem, and hopefully come away making myself (and, with any luck, the reader) closer to the sort of person who is not part of the problem.

I do not have all the answers and do not think I will find them here, but I do have two ground rules I hope to establish: 1) It will be hard at times for me not to hide my frustration with people who are characteristically dialogical illiberals, I am sure that has already come through. But, when possible, my hope is to analyze these individuals with the empathetic self-detachment of a good philosophical anthropologist. Do, please, call me out in the comments when I fall short of that ideal.  2) To make my biases clear: I am a very idiosyncratic sort of radical liberal/anarchist/left-libertarian hybrid. I am very much on the left side of the culture wars instinctively, while at the same time I am strongly disposed to think any policy solutions the state could enact are bound to fail. Consequently, I am more likely to be harsher to the dialogical illiberalism on the right side of the political spectrum, yet more knowledgeable of the dialogical illiberalism on the left side. You do not have to be on the same side of those anti-statist policy conclusions or be sympathetic to my radically leftist cultural tendencies to learn something from this series. My aim here is not to convince you to join my oddly specific and strange “team.” I think that sort of mindset is what encourages the dialogical liberalism I am chiding to begin with. I will try to bracket my cultural and policy views where possible and focus more on the meta-issues poisoning our discourse, but I cannot help that those views will often seep through.

A few words — and many quotations – about the influence of Ludwig Wittgenstein on Friedrich Hayek

In a brief autobiographical note, Friedrich Hayek refers to the influence he had received in his younger years from both his teacher Ernst Mach and his distant cousin Ludwig Wittgenstein:

But I did, through these connexions, become probably one of the first readers of Tractatus when it appeared in 1922. Since, like most philosophically interested people of our generation I was, like Wittgenstein, much influenced by Ernst Mach, it made a great impression on me.”

F. A. Hayek – Remembering My Cousin, Ludwig Wittgenstein

This can be seen in the analytical rigor present in his essays published in the 1920s and in his book Monetary Theory and the Trade Cycle (Geldtheorie und Konjunkturtheorie) (1929), translated by N. Kaldor and H. M. Croome from the German. However, such influence was not exclusively limited to Hayek’s youth. He was also present in the conception and writing style of The Sensory Order, published in 1952, and Law, Legislation and Liberty, the first volume of which, Rules and Order, was published in 1973.

From my point of view, the following aphorism of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus is the one that best allows us to appreciate the reflection of said work in Hayek:

4.12 „Der Satz kann die gesamte Wirklichkeit darstellen, aber er kann nicht das darstellen, was er mit der Wirklichkeit gemein haben muß, um sie darstellen zu können -die logische Form.

Um die logische Form darstellen zu können, mußten wir uns mit dem Satze außerhalb der Logik aufstellen können, das heißt außerhalb der Welt.“

Which could be translated as follows:

4.12 “The proposition can represent the whole of reality, but it cannot represent what it must have in common with reality to be able to represent it – the logical form.

To represent the logical form, we should have to be able to station ourselves with the proposition somewhere outside the logic, i.e.: outside the world.”

This statement about the limits of representation later finds its correlation in the following aphorisms from Hayek’s The Sensory Order, about the limits of knowledge and of the transmission of information:

8.14. While there can thus be nothing in our mind which is not the result of past linkages (even though, perhaps, acquired not by the individual but by the species), the experience that the classification based on the past linkages does not always work, i.e., does not always lead to valid predictions, forces us to revise that classification (6.45-6.48). In the course of this process of reclassification we not only establish new relations between the data given within a fixed framework of reference, i.e., between the elements of given classes: but since the framework consists of the relations determining the classes, we are led to adjust that framework itself.

Note that if there is something that “does not always work,” then we are confronted with the limits to our representation. I think that the said “framework of reference” could play the role of the “logic form” and what Hayek is describing here is the dynamics of a negative feedback process.

8.18. The new experiences which are the occasion of, and which enter into, the new classifications or definitions of objects, is necessarily presupposed by anything which we can learn about these objects and cannot be contradicted by anything which we can say about the objects thus defined. There is, therefore, on every level, or in every universe of discourse, a part of our knowledge which, although it is the result of experience, cannot be controlled by experience, because it constitutes the ordering principle of that universe by which we distinguish the different kinds of objects of which it consists and to which our statements refer.

Here, the subject, instead of being outside the world is inside another universe of discourse.

8.67. Apart from these practical limits to explanation, – which we may hope continuously to push further back, there also exists, however, an absolute limit to what the human brain can ever accomplish by way of explanation—a limit which is determined by the nature of the instrument of explanation itself, and which is particularly relevant to any attempt to explain particular mental processes.

Nevertheless, there are certain universes of discourse that human beings can never access to -so, they are outside their world.

8.69. The proposition which we shall attempt to establish is that any apparatus of classification must possess a structure of a higher degree of complexity than is possessed by the objects which it classifies; and that, therefore, the capacity of any explaining agent must be limited to objects with a structure possessing a degree of complexity lower than its own. If this is correct, it means that no explaining agent can ever explain objects of its own kind, or of its own degree of complexity, and, therefore, that the human brain can never fully explain its own operations. This statement possesses, probably, a high degree of prima facie plausibility. It is, however, of such importance and far-reaching consequences, that we must attempt a stricter proof.

Here, Wittgenstein’s logic form delimits the said structures of a higher degree of complexity which the subject given in a simpler universe of discourse could never trespass.

8.81. The impossibility of explaining the functioning of the human brain in sufficient detail to enable us to substitute a description in physical terms for a description in terms of mental qualities, applies thus only in so far as the human brain is itself to be used as the instrument of classification. It would not only not apply to a brain built on the same principle but possessing a higher order of complexity, but, paradoxical as this may sound, it also does not exclude the logical possibility that the knowledge of the principle on which the brain operates might enable us to build a machine fully reproducing the action of the brain and capable of predicting how the brain will act in different circumstances.

8.82. Such a machine, designed by the human mind yet capable of ‘explaining’ what the mind is incapable of explaining without its help, is not a self-contradictory conception in the sense in which the idea of the mind directly explaining its own operations involves a contradiction. The achievement of constructing such a machine would not differ in principle from that of constructing a calculating machine which enables us to solve problems which have not been solved before, and the results of whose operations we cannot, strictly speaking, predict beyond saying that they will be in accord with the principles built into the machine. In both instances our knowledge merely of the principle on which the machine operates will enable us to bring about results of which, before the machine produces them, we know only that they will satisfy certain conditions.

Thus, the knowledge of the principle enables us to build an abstract machine such as language, the price system, or the law, in order to form expectations of future human actions. Since such abstract machine would be built using the knowledge of the principle, it would not be deliberated designed but grown from the experience.

While Ludwig Wittgenstein confronted the subject of knowledge against the limits of the conceptual representation and threw him into the silence and into the realms of mysticism, Friedrich Hayek, on the other hand, chooses to place the said limit instance in an order of discourse more complex than the human mind, which could be the market, the language itself, or the extended society.

For Hayek, the social order works as an abstract machine, which continuously processes information and appears in the event horizon of the subjects to confirm or readjust their own classificatory systems. These classificatory systems that, in an abstract plane, each individual has and that are in a continuous process of readjustment based on the novelties that come from the spontaneous order, are abstract but, at the same time, empirical.

Among such abstract orders are the normative systems and the first volume of Law, Legislation and Liberty is devoted to their study.

‘Learning from experience’, among men no less than among animals, is a process not primarily of reasoning but of the observance, spreading, transmission and development of practices which have prevailed because they were successful-often not because they conferred any recognizable benefit on the acting individual but because they increased the chances of survival of the group to which he belonged. The result of this development will in the first instance not be articulated knowledge but a knowledge which, although it can be described in terms of rules, the individual cannot state in words but is merely able to honour in practice. The mind does not so much make rules as consist of rules of action, a complex of rules that is, which it has not made, but which have come to govern the actions of the individuals because actions in accordance with they have proved more successful than those of competing individuals or groups.”, Chap. 1, Reason and Evolution

Here we find a process of natural selection of rules of conduct, thus, provided not by representational reason, but from experience.

The first of these attributes which most rules of conduct originally possessed is that they are observed in action without being known to the acting person in articulated (‘verbalized’ or explicit) form. They will manifest themselves in a regularity of action which can be explicitly described, but this regularity of action is not the result of the acting persons being capable of thus stating them. The second is that such rules come to be observed because in fact they give the group in which they are practised superior strength, and not because this effect is known to those who are guided by then. Although such rules come to be generally accepted because their observation produces certain consequences, they are not observed with the intention of producing those consequences-consequences which the acting person need not know.  Chap. 1, Reason and Evolution

Here we find a concept that Hayek will use extensively along the rest of Law, Legislation and Liberty, the articulated and the unarticulated. In the terms previously used in The Sensory Order, the unarticulated is what belongs to another universe of discourse, of a more complex level.

The process of a gradual articulation in words of what had long been an established practice must have been a slow and complex once the first fumbling attempts to express in words what most obeyed in practice would usually not succeed in expressing only, or exhausting all of, what the individuals did in fact take into account in the determination of their actions. The unarticulated rules will therefore usually contain both more and less than what the verbal formula succeeds in expressing. On the other hand, articulation will often become necessary because the ‘intuitive’ knowledge may not give a clear answer to a particular question. The process of articulation will thus sometimes in effect, though not in intention, produce new rules. But the articulated rules will thereby not wholly replace the unarticulated ones, but will operate, and be intelligible, only within a framework of yet unarticulated rules. Chap. IV, The Changing Concept of Law

Thus, the process of articulation of new rules is not a labor of creation of new ones, but of discovering them through the limits of the universe of discourse of the individuals.

The contention that a law based on precedent is more rather than less abstract than one expressed in verbal rules is so contrary to a view widely held, perhaps more among continental than among Anglo-Saxon lawyers, that it needs fuller justification. The central point can probably not be better expressed than in a famous statement by the great eighteenth-century judge Lord Mansfield, who stressed that the common law ‘does not consist of particular cases, but of general principles, which are illustrated and explained by those cases’. What this means is that it is part of the technique of the common law judge that from the precedents which guide him he must be able to derive rules of universal significance which can be applied to new cases.

The chief concern of a common law judge must be the expectations which the parties in a transaction would have reasonably formed on the basis of the general practices that the ongoing order of actions rests on. In deciding what expectations were reasonable in this sense he can take account only of such practices (customs or rules) as in fact could determine the expectations of the parties and such facts as may be presumed to have been known to them.

And these parties would have been able to form common expectations, in a situation which in some respects must have been unique, only because they interpreted the situation in terms of what was thought to be appropriate conduct and which need not have been known to them in the form of an articulated rule. Chap. IV, The Changing Concept of Law

Here, “rules of universal significance” should be understood as knowledge of the principle. The general practices denote that the said order, despite of being abstract, is, nevertheless, empirical. The common expectations are readjusted through a process of articulation of rules which redefine the universe of discourse of the individuals of a given community or society.

This conception of rules allows us to a better comprehension of the notion of natural rights, since they are empirical, despite their enforcement:

Whether we ought to call ‘law’ the kind of rules that in these groups may be effectively enforced by opinion and by the exclusion from the group of those who break them, is a matter of terminology and therefore of convenience. For our present purposes we are interested in any rules which are honoured in action and not only in rules enforced by an organization created for that purpose.

It is the factual observance of the rules which is the condition for the formation of an order of actions; whether they need to be enforced or how they are enforced is of secondary interest. Factual observance of some rules no doubt preceded any deliberate enforcement. The reasons why the rules arose must therefore not be confused with the reasons which made it necessary to enforce them. Chapter V. Nomos: The Law of Liberty.

Finally, despite being the enforcement of natural rights a matter which depends upon a political decision, the authority is a subsystem inside of the same level of discourse of the individuals of the same political order. Thus, the political authority could not trespass the limits of the knowledge of the said empirical order without consequences concerning its stability. It should deal with the rules which act as the framework of individual interaction using just knowledge of the principles, articulated in general and abstract rules. As we succinctly have seen, the youth influence of Ludwig Wittgenstein on Friedrich Hayek endured until the last books of the latter. I dare not say that the Tractatus encloses the clues of interpretation of the most intricated works of F. A. Hayek, but its reader will find some common ground upon which to build a more prolific interpretation of his legacy.

Deprivations Of Liberty Seen Through Ekphrastic Poetry

I’ve discovered and admired a wide variety of original thinkers during my eleven-year stay in the United States, from philosopher Eric Hoffer to economist and social theorist Thomas Sowell. From American history professor Barbara J. Fields to American political philosopher Harvey Mansfield. From Tyler Cowen, an American economist, and David Boaz, a libertarian thinker, to Paul Graham, an English-born American venture capitalist and essayist. One among them is Natasha Trethewey, a two-time US Poet Laureate.

My favorite contemporary American poet, Natasha Trethewey’s poems have an Ekphrastic quality because she graphically and implicitly explores her individuality and deprivations of liberty through deeply evocative accounts of her past and personal photographs rooted in her experience of race and culture.

As it is World Poetry Day, I thought I’d share three of her poems that appeal to me. But first, a little background on her: She was born on the centennial of Confederate Memorial Day in the Deep South to an African American mother and a white father when interracial marriage was still illegal in Mississippi. Though her father, poet Eric Trethewey, had an early impact on her, her mother, Gwendolyn Ann Turnbough’s tragic death, according to Trethewey, prompted her first attempt at writing poetry.

I hope you enjoy these poems and explore more of her work.

History Lesson

I am four in this photograph, standing   

on a wide strip of Mississippi beach,   

my hands on the flowered hips

of a bright bikini. My toes dig in,   

curl around wet sand. The sun cuts   

the rippling Gulf in flashes with each   

tidal rush. Minnows dart at my feet

glinting like switchblades. I am alone

except for my grandmother, other side   

of the camera, telling me how to pose.   

It is 1970, two years after they opened   

the rest of this beach to us,   

forty years since the photograph   

where she stood on a narrow plot   

of sand marked colored, smiling,

her hands on the flowered hips   

of a cotton meal-sack dress.

[Natasha Trethewey, “History Lesson” from Domestic Work.]

Southern History

Before the war, they were happy, he said.
quoting our textbook.  (This was senior-year

history class.)  The slaves were clothed, fed,
and better off under a master’s care.

I watched the words blur on the page.  No one
raised a hand, disagreed.  Not even me.

It was late; we still had Reconstruction
to cover before the test, and — luckily —

three hours of watching Gone with the Wind.
History, the teacher said, of the old South —

a true account of how things were back then.
On screen a slave stood big as life: big mouth,

bucked eyes, our textbook’s grinning proof — a lie
my teacher guarded.  Silent, so did I.

[Natasha Trethewey, “Southern History” from Native Guard.]


Here, she said, put this on your head.

She handed me a hat.

You ’bout as white as your dad,

and you gone stay like that.

Aunt Sugar rolled her nylons down

around each bony ankle,

and I rolled down my white knee socks

letting my thin legs dangle,

circling them just above water

and silver backs of minnows

flitting here then there between

the sun spots and the shadows.

This is how you hold the pole

to cast the line out straight.

Now put that worm on your hook,

throw it out and wait.

She sat spitting tobacco juice

into a coffee cup.

Hunkered down when she felt the bite,

jerked the pole straight up

reeling and tugging hard at the fish

that wriggled and tried to fight back.

A flounder, she said, and you can tell

’cause one of its sides is black.

The other side is white, she said.

It landed with a thump.

I stood there watching that fish flip-flop,

switch sides with every jump.

[Natasha Trethewey, “Flounder” from Domestic Work.]

Talking about Trethewey’s poetry, Jericho Brown, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, says, “Her contribution is that of someone who sees us in individual and human ways and not only representations of resistance. Her black Union soldiers fall in love, her overworked grandmother plays a mischievous trick on a foreman, her black stepfather is a murderer, and her white father, who loves her, can’t resist microaggressions against her. I mean she allows her characters — her own history — to be as complex as history really is. This makes space for readers like me who are interested in life and not a caricature of life, readers who understand that poems must face us to our good and our evil and our personhood no matter what color we are.” Apart from Brown’s insight into Trethewey’s poetry invoking a strand of individuality that goes beyond trying to paint groups of people as symbols of resistance, I have often wondered what it is about her poems that appeal to me. Though I have no firsthand experience of what a troubled relationship with racial identity feels like, I suppose it may have something to do with my uneasy alliance with the English language itself—the medium of Trethewey’s craft. English is both the language of enslavement and revolt in a multilingual India. Though a colonial language, India has adopted English as its father tongue, yet we don’t fall under the Anglosphere-type of society. For most Indians, including me, English is characterized by ambiguity and conflict with our mother tongues, often mirroring a flounder-like situation—flip-flopping, switching sides with every jump, privileging one or the other, yet interpreting each other in the search for liberty.

Trethewey with her parents, Gwendolyn and Eric (also a poet), in Mississippi in 1966. The couple would separate seven years later. [}

Here’s some more from Natasha Trethewey




The Federation of Free States: Growing pains

We’re continuing our thought experiment on adding more states to the American republic.

Our initial experiment added 29 states to the union in 2025. After a few decades of relative success (the entire world grew economically from 2025 to 2045), the bicameral Congress of free states was willing to accept several new members, who in turn were willing to trade their sovereignty for two seats in the Senate. The polities that joined the federation of free states in the second peaceful geographic expansion of the Philadelphian federal order were varied, but only somewhat predictable. The Madisionian compound republic rearranged the map once again. Here is what it looks like in 2045:

The red places were “states” in 2025, the orange places are new “states” in 2045.

As you can see, most of the expansion came in North America, East Asia, and West Africa. The experience of Canaan, England, and Wales hasn’t been bad, but enough nationalist-secessionist sentiments remain in these three “states” that none of their neighbors thought that giving up their sovereignty for Senate seats was worth it. All three economies grew, and peace finally came to Canaan, but if peace, wealth, and security from predation were the only things that people wanted then we wouldn’t be people. We’d be something else entirely. People want freedom, and the compound republic – the federation of free states – did not yet show in 2045 it was capable of extirpating the menace of nationalism from human existence.

The success of the ranching states of Mexico – Coahuila, Tamaulipas, and Nuevo León – within the United States prompted several more Mexican states to apply for statehood, but the pushback against too many states joining the union was stern. Yucatán and Chihuahua were added as is, giving the Senate four more seats, but the states of Zacatecas, Durango, and San Luis Potosí had to combine into one state (they called it San Luis Potosí, and it’s about the size of Nevada) in order to join the Philadelphian world order.

The prairie provinces of Canada also did well for themselves since 2025. So well, in fact, that five more provinces applied to join. However, Congress did not want to add five more states with such sparse populations, so the Atlantic provinces of Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, Newfoundland, and Labrador merged to become a state that they called Nova Scotia, a massive landmass with enough people for only one or maybe two representatives. By the way, from 2025 to 2045, several old American states — Washington, Oregon, and Vermont – all held referendums on whether to leave the Madisonian republic and join Canada (or go it alone), but the referendums have proved to be unsuccessful.

Liberia’s success in the American federation is perhaps the most encouraging progress of all. Crime rates skyrocketed once Liberia joined the union, but this only shows how the American legal system does such a wonderful job of protecting property rights. Violent crime dropped, but crimes involving property rights reached an all-time high, which means that property rights in Liberia are finally being protected by a state strong enough to do so. The GDP (PPP) per capita of Liberia quadrupled from 2025 to 2045. Several neighboring states took notice, but only one, Sierra Leone, joined the federation outright.

Several Nigerian and Ghanaian polities joined the republic. All of the polities started out as administrative units within Ghana and Nigeria, and there were too many that wanted to join. So, they borrowed from San Luis Potosí’s playbook and merged with each other before applying for statehood as larger polities. From Nigeria, the states of Oyo (made up of five Nigerian states), Biafra (made up of eight states), Benin (made up of four states), and Bayelsa (three states) all joined. The states are all from the south of Nigeria.

Ghana sent three states to the republic: Ashanti (made up of five Ghanaian provinces), Volta (made up of three provinces), and Cape Coast (three provinces). The 11 provinces that made up the three new states were all from Ghana’s south. It should be noted the the Ashanti region had a relatively strong sense of nationalism when it applied for membership to the federation, and that the extirpation of this nationalism in exchange for self-government in a compound republic was not a problem for its inhabitants.

Colombia and Panama. The Caribbean experience has had less of a “wow factor” than Liberia or Mexico. Economic growth in Antilles was a little bit better than the regional average, but not by much. The big change was demographics, as many seniors from the original 50 states moved to Antilles, and many young people from Antilles moved to the original 50 states. The crime rate was similar to that of Liberia, too, with violent crimes dropping but property crimes increasing a little bit. Most of the countries in Central America (sans Costa Rica) and all of the Pacific countries in South America applied for membership in one form or another. However, only four states were added in 2045: three from Colombia and the whole of Panama. The four states got together and pulled out a map of 19th century Gran Colombia to put together a plan for federation. Isthmo (Panama), Cundinamarca (made up of eight Colombian states), Magdalena (made up of six states), and Cauca (five states) all joined the federation of free states.

Things went so well in East Asia and the Pacific that the entire country of Vietnam applied lock, stock, and barrel. Like Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines in 2025, Vietnam had too many states for the federation so six regions joined instead: Bắc Trung Bộ, Bắc Bộ, Tây Nguyên, Đông Nam Bộ, Tây Nam Bộ, and Đồng Bằng Sông Hồng. The Vietnamese now enjoy the military and economic benefits that come with being federated with the compound republic of the United States.

Further thoughts

The Canadian and West African states are the only ones with English-language speakers. Nevertheless, English continues to be employed as the lingua franca of the federated polity. This has produced a class division between those who can speak English and those who cannot, and eventually English will be spoken by nearly everybody in the polity (now numbering just over one billion souls), but the native languages are unlikely to disappear. They’ll continue to evolve on their own lines, and most people in the federation will simply be able to speak more than one language. The English of the Constitution and Bill of Rights will no doubt become antiquated as English evolves, but it’s already pretty antiquated today (2022) and there’s been no real challenge in 250 years to English’s status as the lingua franca of the republic.

Reactions to the compound republic from other states

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the United States’ decision to apply federation to its foreign policy is the reaction of other states. The Russians, who it could be argued had an alternative to the Westphalian order in the 19th century (and this is why it pursued its own foreign policy agenda throughout the Cold War, rather than for the exportation of the Revolution), are still doing what they’ve been doing since 2000: recognizing small states along their vast border and slowly chipping away at the losses of their empire. States such as Donetsk, South Ossetia, and Crimea are recognized as states by Russia, Belarus, and, say Kazakhstan, but in 2045 the compound republic decided to build upon its foreign policy of federation by recognizing these claims to independence. This means that post-Soviet states like Ukraine and Georgia lose territory, but it doesn’t necessarily make Russia stronger and it doesn’t mean freedom is in decline. Out of two states (in this example), five now exist, and there’s nothing to suggest that they won’t lean on the compound republic rather than the Russian Federation.

The CCP turned inward, especially once the compound republic called its bluff on Taiwan. Like Russia, it has been argued that an alternative state system to Westphalia existed prior to 19th century European imperialism. The Belt and Road Initiative was supposedly part of the Tianxia state system, but regardless of whether or not you buy this argument (I don’t), China’s expansion ceased once Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan joined the Philadelphian union. The CCP became even more repressive and paranoid. The non-Han grew more despondent, and the non-Mandarin speaking Chinese, especially those living along the wealthy seaboard of the South China Sea, grew angry.

The Europeans and their interstate system continued to try to keep the Westphalian European Union alive, but without the abrogation of state sovereignty, the EU continued to be ineffectual. The French, taking a page from the American playbook, revived an old effort to federate with its former colonies. The French continued to adhere to a Westphalian logic in this effort, and the French Union floundered as badly as the European Union. The key to Madisonian compound republic’s success has been its abrogation of state sovereignty (which is “traded” for seats in the Senate). Portugal reached out to Brazil and Angola to discuss a Lusophone federation, and ties became closer, but Westphalian sovereignty trumped all discussions of cooperation and the Portuguese found themselves in the same situation as the French: members of two ineffectual confederations that are built upon Westphalian nation-state sovereignty.

The remnants of the British and Spanish Empires (Peru, Argentina, Australia, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, New Zealand, Iraq, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the British Caribbean, etc.) continued along the same path as the Europeans. Economic growth continued at its slow pace, but compared to the societies living within the compound republic, it was becoming clear that the Westphalian remnants were losing ground, especially in regards to liberty, equality under the law, and democratic governance.

In 2045, the American republic added 22 more states, making the federation a conglomerate of 101 “states” and the District of Columbia. Liberty is on the rise, and despotism is getting cornered.

Things (and few Links) Korea, in times before, and after, the light

No squids, or parasites. Butt-kicking for goodness, from an imaginary country.

The proverbial light being internet, and in the meantime, adulthood. Martial Arts gyms were a bit of a curiosity here in Greece, when I started training in Tae Kwon Do as a teen (c. 1995). Sparse, definitely not next to each and every school, with a wild array of possible outcomes, ranging from genuine fighting skills to pure edgelord bs. No accessible standard for the “average services consumer” (apart from 70s/ 80s movies and some illustrated paper magazines – which were mostly promotional). So I joined the gym, whose owner and chief instructor was my uncle’s friend. The man was well versed in TKD and a few other styles. He did his own thing, a TKD base, sprinkled with Kick Boxing/ Muay Thai and some elementary grappling. I fell for it.

Experience is one thing. Getting the full picture can be another. Back then I learned that TKD is indeed Korean (hard to miss the fact, as there was also a South Korean flag on the wall, to which we observed respect), maybe or maybe not its national sport, not much more. As I quit four years later, in order to prepare for the nationally held university admissions tests (a Greek, but also a Korean, thing, more on this later), I left my black tipped red belt, and my relationship with this sketchy distant land, there. Twenty years later, I enrolled to another gym, and revisited the “martial arts” section, this time also thru the power of the net and the wisdom of my years (yeah!). What I saw was…interesting. Note: The martial arts content is generally sub-par, in my view. Too little good writing, too much sectarianism.

The TKD we trained in was of the International TKD Federation (ITF) kind, one of the two main branches in an art that has also many smaller organizations. TKD is not ancient, it only got assembled and standardized in mid-20th century, as South Korea built its national identity away from Japanese influence. The predefined sets of moves (Katas in Karate), called tuls (ok that I already knew), have names I consistently misheard. And then there were the critiques. Oh my. Post after post slamming TKD, its usefulness, its application, its training methods. This cancellation is already dated, it started like in early 00s and closed its circle in early 10s, but obviously I had not gotten the memo, and it pinched me more than it should.

I agree with the first line of criticizing. The spread of gyms, next to each and every elementary school (a sound decision business-wise), brought some softening of the art (for reference, in our gym the floor was covered with that rough, gray, rippled mat that you usually see in an office lobby, perfect for skinning bare feet. We got colored soft mats two years later). The second line is also credible. The early 90s saw a revolution in martial arts, with the advent of Mixed Martial Arts (another sound business decision, btw). The rise of the so-called “pressure tested” styles brought salience and “weights-n-measures” to a world rich in claims, but often poor in evidence. Nothing really novel, though. The underlying force is, of course, competition, which should be familiar to anyone taking interest in social systems and relations. With the renewal also came the blanket thrashing of traditional styles, deserved or not.

Coming to assess my TKD training, I get to see the holes in it, notably the low amount of free sparring and the “choreography” of self-defense scenarios. However, the athleticism was real, as was the fixation to perfect form (either in performing a basic punch or a complicated tul). And the sweat. Also, I lucky stroke with the gym selection, since the master had, as I understand now, introduced the then new, mixed normal in martial arts training. Another positive sign was that the gym competed in kick boxing/ Muay Thai tournaments (the older students, not we teens). So, bruised and battered, but not cancelled in toto.

Understanding Korea’s Unique Situation: Routledge’s New Handbook of Contemporary South Korea (LA Review of Books, from the same guy Brandon complimented, back-handedly, here)

That university admission is the only way forward for young Koreans and Greeks alike surprised me, somewhat. But taking into account that both countries entered the post-war landscape relatively late (the Greek civil war ended in 1949, the Korean war lasted until 1953), ravaged, poor and reliant on external aid, the differences get ironed out. Lacking a large enough private sector to offer vocational training and career opportunities, a university degree seems appealing enough as an investment to future. South Korea did its homework more consistently, however, and its top universities are ranked in the tens or fist hundreds of the world’s finest, while the Greek ones are way lower. It also became an export powerhouse and a “middle power” in world politics, through authoritatively introduced liberal economics reforms:

From hermit kingdom to miracle on the Han (Peterson Institute for International Economics)

My second martial art, Hapkido, is Korean, too. It was also developed in mid to later 20th century and has a complex, fascinating history. It even played a – shady – role during Park‘s presidency. It is a solid art, but even more organizationally fractured than TKD or others. Unfortunately, I only trained for six months, as covid-19 (and life) blew me away. There is always some catch-up to do, it seems.

(Monday’s) comic book edition

The Code is dead, to begin with. Watchmen (DC) is awesome, a near-Orwell experience. On comics historical curios and intellectual drifts. Here goes.

Vol. 1 – That other 50s scare and all

Somewhere somehow I picked up the Comics Code Authority story. It goes like this: The rise of mass-media in early 50s saw a creeping moral panic against the more “graphic” content of comic books (think horror, violence and the like). In 1954, the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency investigated the supposedly detrimental influence of comic books, taking into account speculative, biased evidence. The emerging threat of government regulation prompted the creation of the Code by the comic publishers, so that they could check content themselves. The self-censoring initiative could use some tuning: It was overly strict, shaking-up and aggressively downsizing the industry. Thus, a government “nudge” led to a private sector (over)reaction, with ill effects. The sector, however, adapted and continued, underground or otherwise.

*The* seal – source

Ironically, it was another government nod that galvanized a Code overhaul in 1971, as the Nixon administration asked Stan Lee of Marvel to incorporate an anti-drugs storyline in Amazing Spiderman. The arc proceeded without CCA approval in mid-1971 (funnily, just before the international monetary system entered turmoil). And it was in 1973 (say hello to the first oil crisis) that the depiction of murder in a popular comic book (Amazing Spiderman, again) marked the passage from the campy superheroes of the Silver Age (c. 1956 – 1970) to a more diverse and socially attuned bunch in the Bronze Age (c. 1970 – 1985). As the disillusionment of the 70s gave its place to cynicism in the 80s, so did the comic heroes matured, with works like Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns. The archetypes formed in the period (Dark Age, typically 1985-1996), grim and complex, redefined the genre and are still here today.

The Code was updated again in 1989, but failed to stay relevant in the face of increasing bypassing/ sidelining via new distribution methods (all hail the market in action). Just 20 years ago, Marvel abandoned it. 10 years later, in 2011, the last adherents, DC and Archie, finally desisted, too.

Vol. 2Randian Quests & Answers

Α couple of (relatively) fresh articles flashed from The Comics Journal:

Mysterious Travelers: Steve Ditko and the Search for a New Liberal Identity

How Ayn Rand Influenced Comic Books

Not an exactly nuanced analysis, the second one (it contains a few useful links though), but still, both presented things to consider. As it turns out, the co-creator (along with aforementioned Stan Lee) of f – Spiderman, Steve Ditko, endorsed objectivist ideals in early 60s (he even contributed a piece to Reason back in 1969). Here is another scholarly short paper on his impact:

“A Is A”: Spider-Man, Ayn Rand, and What Man Ought to Be (PS: Political Science & Politics)

If mid-60s Peter Parker, “[c]old, arrogant, detached from the lives of others, but driven to follow his purpose and pursue higher ends”, seems objectivist enough, then the Question and Mr. A., Ditko’s creations in late 60s, are the real thing. These two were featured in smaller publications, and later provided the inspiration for Rorschach (Watchmen).

Fists will fly – source

The character was intended not only as a tribute to Ditko, but also as a stark criticism for randian convictions, meant to make a bad example of them. However, the controversial fictional zealot resonated (a bit too well perhaps) with the audience. Indeed, the character delivers some of the most memorable quotes ever, his unflinching crusade against the morally bankrupt (political class included) is iconic, and his damaged humanity invites some sympathy.

Depending on priors and inclinations, one can certainly discern smatterings of Rand’s ideas in Rorschach (“no gray”, believing in “a day’s work for a day’s pay”, among others). But I think that his trope could be assigned to other venues, too. For example, a fantasy aficionado will see a Paladin gone (very) wrong, maybe, or a casual will stick to the apparent right-wing leanings per se, and so on.

The other route of Rand influence is traced to Frank Miller and his Dark Knight take on Batman. The arc of a lone (capitalist) hero versus media-induced apathy and the corrupted establishment (and said establishment’s lapdog, Superman) has a libertarian facet, yes. I will get it (next week probably), read it and, then, return.

The Harem Pants

It was market day. If you are a serious traveler, you never miss open air markets. They are invariably pleasurable as well as educational. All the female merchants there in that Turkish market, all from the interior of the country, were wearing broad, long, flowing, so-called “harem pants.” An older lady with gray hair showing crossed our path wearing such pants, silky ones, with a black on gray subtle motif my wife immediately liked. You know what to do, I told my wife. (A long time earlier, I had demonstrated to her that it was possible to buy a woman’ clothes off of her ten minutes after meeting her. That story is told elsewhere.) At first, she demurred.

I saluted the gray-haired lady and I expressed to her with gestures that my wife admired her pants. She took us to a stall that sold an inferior version of the same item. No, I insisted with a smile, she wants yours. To tell all, I was a little concerned that she might misunderstand me to be proposing to her that the three of us perform exotic acts together. But what we wanted soon seemed to dawn on her. I guessed she was a bit shocked but also intrigued. Soon, several other market women joined us, plus a little girl who had a bit of school English. When the female passel disappeared behind a truck, I discreetly walked away.

I walked around the market; I bought a brass pepper grinder to waste time. Then, I guessed to myself that my wife understood men well enough to find me, eventually. I made my way to the tea stall in the middle of the market. Soon, several wide-eyed boys surrounded me. Then, one at a time, older men joined me on the benches set out in the open. Each one of them offered me a cigarette and each tried to buy me a glass of tea. Seeing no toilet anywhere, I declined the tea each time with a big smile and a hand on my heart.

Are you married? One asked. How many children? Do you have pictures? Here are mine. And, finally: How old are you? I told the truth, as usual. One by one, they felt my biceps, then my thighs. I asked each politely one by one how old he was. As it happens, older Turkish men are all terrific liars, no exception. Men obviously in their early sixties would announce on their fingers: I am 83. I am 86. One said, I will be 95 next year. Then, they took turns blustering, I thought, I guessed, I imagined, about how good they looked for their age. It took all my willpower to refrain from challenging each and every one of the old bastards to an arm-wrestling match to teach them a little humility.

Subsequently, for the remainder of my stay, every mature Turkish man I met who was not trying to sell me a rug displayed precisely the same kind of loud vanity. I am suppose it keeps them young. It certainly beats the despicable Western custom of old geezers casually competing with each other about who has the worse health problems. Give me a braggart every time over a whiner!

Anyway, at some point, we got into the meat of things: American, yes? Yes, I confirmed. Bush? The oldest man asked with a raised eyebrow. I lifted my conservative thumb up. He replied immediately: Bush, good! Saddam… He drew his hand across his throat. Exactly! I confirmed eagerly. The American intervention in Iraq was about three months old then. Saddam Hussein was hiding in a dirt hole at the time. There were smiles all around.

The market was in a pretty seaside town. There were no American tourists in sight in the Near-East that summer. One old guy said to me, Tell the Americans to come back, please; these fucking European come here with three hundred Euros and they think they are kings. No, I don’t know any Turkish but I certainly caught the words “Americans,” “Europeans,” “Euros,” and,”sultan.” How do I know he used the expletive? Well, I can read faces.

An hour had passed pleasantly but I was vaguely, and only very slightly, worried about my wife. I did not think there was any danger, but was not like her to stay away because she is the kind of woman who gets periodically lost between our house, where we have lived for ten years, and the grocery store where she shops every week. I called over a couple of twelve year-olds (who may have been really twenty-five, according to Turkish males’ general apprehension of temporal reality).

I borrowed a gold-plated fountain pen from one of the old men. On a paper bag, I drew a chesty female silhouette and pounded my own (flat) chest. Wife of mine, I said. My wife is from India. Hindi! I added. Everyone murmured favorably about my artistic talent.

One of many wonders of globalization is that all around the less-developed world many people know and love Bollywood movies. “Hindi” struck a chord. I gave the boys one million liras each and sent them searching, paper bag drawing in hand. (What with inflation, a million liras does not buy nearly as much as it used to!) I wished them well in my heart, hoping they would not get into trouble inspecting too closely the bosoms of all and every woman at the market.

I located my wife, eventually. She had traded the old lady’s used but beautiful harem pants against two new ones, plus one for each of three other women present at the negotiation, plus a whole outfit for the little girl who had acted as an interpreter. But the pants she had acquired were truly magnificent! (My wife has many wonderful qualities and enormous artistic talent but a wily bargainer, she is not.)

The transaction completed at last, she had failed to find me, she said. This, although I was right in the middle of the market, surrounded by a small but loud crowd. Instead, guided by some obscure female atavism, something probably hard-wired, against all precedents in her life, she had decided to walk back to the hotel by herself. She was in her fifties at the time. She has luxuriant gray hair but she was tall and thin, yet curvy. With the gray and black, silky harem pants streaming around her long legs and her narrow hips, she must have cut a striking figure in the eyes of dozens of appreciative Turkish male spectators on the way. If this was her last huzzah, she could not have chosen a better venue; bless her occasionally exhibitionist little heart!

This is just a story; there is no deep meaning to it (as far as I now).

Three Astonishing Women

I leave my newspaper on the table outside as I dart inside the coffee shop to get more sugar. When I return, four or five seconds later, a middle-aged woman is walking briskly across the street holding my newspaper in her hand.

Hey, I shout fairly amicably, I was not finished with my paper!

She turns around and throws the paper on the table near me. I don’t want your stupid paper, she says. What would I do with it? I am legally blind.

Fact is that she is wearing unusually thick glasses. Point well taken. What do I know?

I drive into an unevenly paved parking lot behind a woman in a big van. As she makes a right-hand turn, I spot a blue handicapped placard hanging from her rear-view mirror. Just as she is about to position her van in the reserved handicapped space, its engine stops. After several useless attempts to re-start it, she steps out of the vehicle and begins pushing.

I am a real sweetheart and also an old-fashioned guy so, my first reflex is to get out and give her a hand. I abstain because I soon judge her efforts to be useless. She is pushing that heavy van up a significant bump. I think there is no way the two of us can vanquish gravity and place the van in its right spot.

Then, the woman braces herself; the back of her dress rises and her big calves become like hard river stones; she harrumphs once and the van ends up perfectly parked in the handicapped space. I learned another lesson: Don’t judge a book by its cover.

Speaking of parking makes me think of the last time I went to the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). I just wanted a copy of a trailer permit. I had duly paid for the original when I had obtained it. As is normal, I was in a foul mood much before I reached there. Less logically, my irritation grew as I advanced up the line, as I got nearer the end of my ordeal.

The employee to whose window I am directed is a plump young Latina with thick eyelashes and a pleasant yet officious face. I explain my request. She goes tick, tick, tick on her computer and, quickly enough, she hands me the copy I want.

It’s $16.75, she says.

That’s ridiculous, I explode. That fee for a simple copy is an abuse of power. I changed my mind; I don’t want it anymore. Keep it!

Well, I will just have to give it to you, says the DMV employee with a big smile.

I practically fall on my butt in the midst of dozens of still pissed-off but unbelieving customers. I guess I don’t know everything about women, as I often think, just many things.

This is just a story; it has no deeper meaning, as far as I know.

American Classical Liberals Suck

This week Kevin Vallier published a new entry on neoliberalism in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Neoliberalism (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). It is a well-written, well-researched piece. However, it is also symbolic for the greatest deficiency of American classical liberals: they are unable or unwilling to defend the name, or label if you like, of the ideas they are associated with. Given the influence of American academia and thinks tanks on the rest of the world this is especially important. It has happened before, and it is happening now. It sucks.

This is how Vallier starts his entry:

“Though not all scholars agree on the meaning of the term, “neoliberalism” is now generally thought to label the philosophical view that a society’s political and economic institutions should be robustly liberal and capitalist, but supplemented by a constitutionally limited democracy and a modest welfare state. Recent work on neoliberalism, thus understood, shows this to be a coherent and distinctive political philosophy. This entry explicates neoliberalism by examining the political concepts, principles, and policies shared by F. A. Hayek, Milton Friedman, and James Buchanan, all of whom play leading roles in the new historical research on neoliberalism, and all of whom wrote in political philosophy as well as political economy. Identifying common themes in their work provides an illuminating picture of neoliberalism as a coherent political doctrine.”

The problem is in the words: ‘“neoliberalism” is now generally thought…’’.  Neoliberalism is a hotly debated term, there is certainly no consensus on its meaning. As Oliver Hartwich has emphasized in Neoliberalism, the genesis of a political swearword, it is still most often used as a swearword by the left for all that they think is wrong with capitalism, (classical) liberalism, (more or less) liberal policies by IMF, WTO and World Bank, et cetera. These left wingers are also found in academia, policy and in media circles, which has led to its routine use. However, it is not true that the work of Hayek, Friedman and Buchanan is generally thought to be covered by a neoliberal label. Only those who disagree with it call them neoliberals. It is painful to see that the ideas of these three Nobel Prize winners are now used to explain neoliberalism in a leading online source. They self-identified as classical liberals and just because opponents of their views use a different label is no reason to comply with that malicious practice.  

The worse thing is, it has happened before, also commencing in the US. Fairly recently, classical liberals began to use the label libertarian, as the Cato Institute has been promoting, for example on their (very useful) website, or in David Boaz’ The Libertarian Mind.  Jason Brennan’s Libertarianism, what everyone needs to know is another example. The issue here is that the three aforementioned classical liberals, and others, are now thrown onto the same heap as Rothbard and Rand, to name a few rather different thinkers.

Decades earlier, Hayek and others noted with regret that the Americans were unable to defend the original meaning of the word liberal, with the result that a liberal in the American sense is now what people in other parts of the world call a social-democrat. It is also the reason Hayek and other started to use the name classical liberal.  

The result of all this changing of names is confusion and vulnerability. Nobody knows what label belongs to which ideas, which gives rise to a petty industry on liberal labels, yet without any clarity in the end. It also provides ample opportunity for opponents to negatively attack ideas loosely associated with the (classical) liberal movement, which results in a negative image, which also make liberal ideas less attractive for outsiders. The lack of clarity also makes vulnerable for any kind of criticism. Actually, embracing the swearword other use for you, by offering the ideas of your greatest and brightest thinkers, is a shameful act at least.

American classical liberals should stay firm and defend their ideas under the proper labels. There is no reason for change (see my Degrees of Freedom: Liberal Political Philosophy and Ideology), there is only a need for explanation and defense. Giving up clear and proper labels plainly sucks.