Radical Shill

Brian Thomas Gallagher piles on Fairey today at N+1. Gallagher seems more disturbed by the fact that Fairey makes money from corporate clients than by the fact that he volunteered as a tool for a mainstream American politician. Personally, I find political power scarier than Saks 5th Ave, but it all exposes Fairey’s radical pose for what it is. Most importantly, Gallagher is right that Fairey’s work is boring.  And I liked this bit:

[O]ne fears that in skewering Fairey, one is potentially pinning down who Obama might turn out to be: a mere bundle of associations, linked—inevitably and irretrievably—with movements he did not start, a politics he does not support, and a transformation he cannot possibly represent. In the image, past ideologies and present branding beautifully fuse in a political tableau distant from any actual politics.

The Blogosphere as "Free Speech Zone"

Characterisictally sharp stuff from IOZ:

I both agree and disagree with Will on his assessment of the decreasing reach and effectiveness of manufactured consent. While I agree that disparate and dissenting voices now more effectively find audiences beyond their fellow-traveling compeers, I also suspect that such dissident nattering around the margins of popular opinion and consensus is, and will continue to be, easily coopted into a social narrative of divergent voices and free expression even as any thoughts we may have about alternative modes of being remain just as marginal and popularly discredited as before. The self-named blogosphere seems to me to be the country’s latest free speech zone, with the unusual feature being the large portion of internees willing to hand money through the chain links to the guards beyond (cf. Progressives).

This is what indignant bloggers endlessly complaining about the funded media’s scoffing dismissals of their manners and accuracy fails to understand, that they (we) aren’t outsiders seeking entrance to the informational economy, but are fully part of the staged drama, a motley and strident gang whose motliness and stridency are characteristics that are adopted and amplified in description in order to bolster the reasonableness of so-called mainstream debate. We flatter national pretensions to diversity of opinion and the rhetorical commitment of a society to free speech, even as we effectively declare that the fenced- and barriered-in zone miles from the actual parade grounds is in fact the new locus of political activism.

Don't Grow Up to Be Shepard Fairey

I think it’s bullshit that Shepard Fairey is getting sued for his use of the now-iconic image of Obama. I also think Shepard Fairey personally embodies bullshit. I said below that the fragmentation and democratization of media production has made it harder than ever for a self-selected power elite to control the terms of debate. I do believe it’s true, on net. But I have to say “on net” because of people like Shepard Fairey.

He went from absurdist anarchist vandalism, to a lucrative online business uncreatively ripping off other people’s designs and selling them as his own, to creating powerful and effective political propaganda to help arm a comformist virtuouso of establishment institutions with nuclear weapons. From small-scale guerilla street art to a running dog of the American political establishment in no time flat. How does this happen?

My guess is that, as Fairey aged, he grew tired of impotent gestures of resistance and wanted to “make a difference.” Fringe protest is sexy, in certain circles, but it remains that only the people with power have power. So there is a temptation to rationalize away one’s prior convictions about the corruption of the system, and convince oneself that this guy, he’s screcretly one of us and he’s cleverly infiltrating the power elite, and so it’s OK to shift from satirizing the aesthetics of mass psychology and control to actually producing it in earnest.

If arts scenes, blogs, web video, social networking etc. are largely coopted into producing propaganda for major political parties, then widening access to the means of symbolic production will have failed pathetically to achieve its liberatory potential. In fact, it is all the more insidious when well-equipped citizens use their own time, creativity, and resources simply to consolidate the stultifying terms of Americans politics–to voluntarily join the existing powers in manufacturing consent. That’s why I consider the efflorescence of homespun Obama art and media during the campaign a regrettable failure of American grassroots culture-making, and proof of the the still-firm grip of elite opinion-making on artistic imagination. Obama supporters truly won the war of hip lithographs last year. I’m afraid that many of these artists, who would like to think they are no one’s useful idiot, consider this some kind of victory.

Why Are American Atheists Less Happy and Cooperative?

Outstanding stuff from Yale psychologist Paul Bloom in Slate:

In his new book, Society Without God, Phil Zuckerman looks at the Danes and the Swedes—probably the most godless people on Earth. They don’t go to church or pray in the privacy of their own homes; they don’t believe in God or heaven or hell. But, by any reasonable standard, they’re nice to one another. They have a famously expansive welfare and health care service. They have a strong commitment to social equality. And—even without belief in a God looming over them—they murder and rape one another significantly less frequently than Americans do.

Denmark and Sweden aren’t exceptions. A 2005 study by Gregory Paul looking at 18 democracies found that the more atheist societies tended to have relatively low murder and suicide rates and relatively low incidence of abortion and teen pregnancy.

So, this is a puzzle. If you look within the United States, religion seems to make you a better person. Yet atheist societies do very well—better, in many ways, than devout ones.


The sorry state of American atheists, then, may have nothing to do with their lack of religious belief. It may instead be the result of their outsider status within a highly religious country where many of their fellow citizens … find them immoral and unpatriotic.

America becomes no worse as it becomes more secular. And American atheists would be both happier and more cooperative if we were less marginalized by our culture.  

Also, the fact that non-religious Americans (who don’t lie about it) are basically disqualified from high public office ensures that many of the most rational and intellectually accomplished people in our society cannot participate in electoral politics. For all I know, this is good. It may keep many of our best and brightest focused on productive endeavors, instead of squandering their abilities in wasteful games of political conflict. But it might also lead to a selection effect where political power is left to those with exceptional powers of self-deception, or to those who are willing to simply lie about things that are profoundly important to the people they are supposed to represent. That might not be good. 

I made an argument similar to Bloom’s, here.  


David Brooks' Jihad Against Individualism

On behalf of America, I am staging an intervention. Country first!

David Brooks is evidently infatuated with the idea that individualism is just downright unscientific. It is more than a bit queer that Brooks uses this alleged Fact of Science to argue that American conservatives ought to purge all remaining vestiges of individualism from its thought since, you know, American conservative ideology is engineered entirely along scientific lines. On one understanding of the words, the opposite of “individualism” is “socialism”. So I think it’s safe to say that David Brooks is on a quest to make the Republican Party safe for scientific socialism. And that’s just the sort of surprise that makes David Brooks such a consistently interesting thinker.

Nevertheless, I cannot say I understand what he is talking about. Brooks appears to believe that the discovery that human beings are hypersocial mammals is some kind of earthshattering gamechanger, but it’s hard to grasp why he thinks this. Brooks’ account of the science is fine, but the remainder of the column is a lavish non-sequitur, a richly embroidered but intellectually vulgar instance of the naturalistic fallacy. Indeed, the fact that he tries to get where he does with the science he cites is evidence that he doesn’t understand it so well. Now, Brooks is entirely correct when he writes that

…we are intensely social creatures, deeply interconnected with one another and the idea of the lone individual rationally and willfully steering his own life course is often an illusion.

And it is also true that we are intensely social creatures, deeply connected to one another, and the idea of the lone individual rationally and willfully steering his own life course is often not an illusion. It is least often an illusion when one inhabits a moral culture in which psychological individuation, autonomy, and independence are cultivated and prized. If we have managed to wring a relatively individualistic culture out of the raw materials of our tribal natures, that is a triumph of deanimalizing civilization. Individualism is indeed unnatural — much like other noted mockeries of the natural order, such as equality under the law, vaccination, and the wheel. Brooks might stop to note that improvements on nature are both possible and desirable. The existence of mirror neurons no more debunks individualism than the existence of retinas debunks telescopes.

Americans individualism is a manifestation of human sociality. In our culture, individualist norms are routinely transmitted from one generation to the next through the unique hypersocial-mammalian capacity for cultural transmission. Brooks apparently wants to interfere with further transmission of individualistic norms because they produce a politics he finds insufficiently authoritarian and illiberal. Which is, of course, precisely why we need to double down on a moral culture of individualism.

Do individualistic cultures cut across the grain of human nature? Sure  — in a good way! It is a well-confirmed finding of happiness research that individualistic cultures are happier than collectivistic ones. Indeed, this discovery grounds a number of hypotheses about why average wealth correlates with average levels of self-reported life satisfaction. For example, here is Aaron Ahuvia in the Journal of Happiness Studies:

Rather [than increasing happiness directly through increased consumption], economic development increases SWB [subjective well-being] by creating a cultural environment where individuals make choices to maximize their happiness rather than meet social obligations (Coleman, 1990; Galbraith, 1992; Triandis, 1989; Triandis et al., 1990; Veenhoven, 1999; Watkins and Liu, 1996). This cultural transformation away from obligation and toward the pursuit of happiness is part of a broader transition away from collectivism and toward individualist cultural values and forms of social organization.

Got that? Wealth, which produces all sorts of hugely desirable human goods, also weakens orientation toward pre-assigned roles and their obligations and strengthens the orientation toward individual fulfillment, resulting in more fulfillment. Collectivist moral cultures do serve an important function in the typical human condition. But we are lucky when that function has become unnecessary  —  when collectivist values become a vestigial organ of the body politic. Ahuvia puts it nicely:

Collectivism revolves around face, honor, and public reputation. Collectivism is associated with poor countries because it is a cultural survival mechanism born of the necessity for group solidarity. Indeed collectivism is a survival mechanism that is positively correlated with well-being if one looks only at a sub-sample of poor countries (Veenhoven, 1999). Survival mechanisms are serious business. It is not surprising, then, that collectivist societies often rely on social coercion via threats and rewards to one’s public reputation to ensure compliance with group norms, since the stakes for the group are so high.

Does Brooks really want to fight so hard for a morality of poverty? It is true that in straitened circumstances we are forced to close ranks and get with the program, but this is and ought to be repulsive to a free people.

Brooks mentions Edmund Burke and Adam Smith as “conservatives” (WTF?) who really understood social embeddeness. They sure did! So they’re not individualists? Well, in Friedrich Hayek’s brilliant essay, “Individualism: True and False,” he says this:

The true individualism which I shall try to defend began its modern development with John Locke, and particularly with Bernard Mandeville and David Hume, and achieved full stature for the first time in the work of Josiah Tucker, Adam Ferguson, and Adam Smith and in that of their great contemporary, Edmund Burke…

The difference between Brooks and Hayek on this score is that Hayek understands Western political thought, and, more generally, he grasps that sociality is an enabling condition, not the antithesis, of the ethos of individualism that created modern liberty and the wealth of the Western world.

America is reputed to be the world’s most individualistic culture, and has been for a long time. Our individualism is the foundation of the mind-blowing innovation and variety of the American scene. Our individualism is a main source of our world-historical prosperity and high levels of happiness. Yet Brooks, unembarrassed or unaware, wheels out a fallacious appeal to nature specifically to discredit this — the most distinctive and valuable feature of American culture.

It clearly tickles Brooks’ collectivist fancy “when John McCain talks at a forum about national service.” But that is precisely when McCain exposes his martial animosity to the character of his own country. Brooks may wish to join McCain in an effort to efface the separateness of lives, to degrade the dignity of self-creation and self-command by denying its possibility, to cultivate in Americans the docility of subjects ready to kill and die for the state. In Prussia this may have been a “conservative” project. But this is America. And defending American individualism is my one conservative impulse!

So, David Brooks, here’s a line. Paine, Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Garrison, Spooner, Tucker, Twain, Mencken, Hayek, Friedman, Rand, and America are over here on this side. And there’s you over there. You are most welcome to step across and attempt to wrest the individualism from our cold dead fingers. Bring McCain! In fairness, I should say that Emerson is a vicious Indian leg wrestler.

The World Is Not a Zoo

This essay by Kenan Malik is so damn right it almost hurts. Choice bits:

Modern multiculturalism seeks self-consciously to yoke people to their identity for their own good, the good of that culture and the good of society. A clear example is the attempt by the Quebecois authorities to protect French culture. The Quebec government has passed laws which forbid French speakers and immigrants to send their children to English-language schools; compel businesses with more than fifty employees to be run in French; and ban English commercial signs. So, if your ancestors were French you, too, must by government fiat speak French whatever your personal wishes may be. Charles Taylor regards this as acceptable because the flourishing and survival of French culture is a good. ‘It is not just a matter of having the French language available for those who might choose it’, he argues. Quebec is ‘making sure that there is a community of people here in the future that will want to avail itself of the opportunity to use the French language.’ Its policies ‘actively seek to create members of the community… assuring that future generations continue to identify as French-speakers.’

An identity has become a bit like a private club. Once you join up, you have to abide by the rules. But unlike the Groucho or the Garrick it’s a private club you must join. Being black or gay, the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah suggests, requires one to follow certain ‘life-scripts’ because ‘Demanding respect for people as blacks and gays can go along with notably rigid strictures as to how one is to be an African American or a person with same-sex desires.’ There will be ‘proper modes of being black and gay: there will be demands that are made; expectations to be met; battle lines to be drawn.’ It is at this point, Appiah suggests, that ‘someone who takes autonomy seriously may worry whether we have replaced one kind of tyranny with another.’ An identity is supposed to be an expression of an individual’s authentic self. But it can too often seem like the denial of individual agency in the name of cultural authenticity.


A century ago intellectuals worried about the degeneration of the race. Today we fear cultural decay. Is the notion of cultural decay any more coherent than that of racial degeneration? Cultures certainly change and develop. But what does it mean for a culture to decay? Or for an identity to be lost? Will Kymlicka draws a distinction between the ‘existence of a culture’ and ‘its “character” at any given moment’… So, in making the distinction between character and existence, Kymlicka seems to be suggesting that Jewish, Navajo or French culture is not defined by what Jewish, Navajo or French people are actually doing. For if Jewish culture is simply that which Jewish people do or French culture is simply that which French people do, then cultures could never decay or perish – they would always exist in the activities of people.


The logic of the preservationist argument is that every culture has a pristine form, its original state. It decays when it is not longer in that form. Like racial scientists with their idea of racial type, some modern multiculturalists appear to hold a belief in cultural type.

So the multicultural left and the racist right converge. If you get your head straight, you see what matters are certain values and institutions, and those are not trapped in particular essentialized cultures like flies in amber. If these values and institutions are really worthwhile, if they create conditions that are really appealing to human beings in a deep, more-than-accidental way, then it is possible to defend and preserve them as the cultures in which they originated inevitably recombine with others and evolve.

Drezner on Alan Wolfe's Incomptence

Alan Wolfe’s prolix review essay of Bruno Frey and Dan Ariely’s recent books had a few nice insights, but my overwhelming judgment was that he simply doesn’t know enough about the subject to write a competent review. Dan Drezner picks up on a couple of Wolfe’s forehead-slappers. In a nuthsell, Wolfe thinks Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek are “marginal and somewhat bizarre thinkers,” which betrays either stunning ignorance or an appalling lack of judgment. And he seems to think Steve Levitt is a behavioral economist, when in fact Levitt is an old-school Chicago rat choice guy good at fancy statistics who is very skeptical of behavioral economics. Dan’s got it right when he says “Whoever assigns and edits Alan Wolfe at The New Republic should really be taken out to the back of the woodshed today.”

I haven’t read Frey’s book yet, but, setting aside my more critical approach to the data, I expect to like it a great deal. Frey is one of the only social scientists working in the happiness field who fully grasps the great 20th century developments in constitutional political economy and institutional economics. Most of his papers have an agreeable institutionalist view that is keenly aware of the fallacy of thinking about a politics of happiness as a politics of centralized scientific administration. Indeed, decentralization is a theme of Frey’s work, and I’m looking forward to his book.

On the other hand, I found Dan Ariely’s book to be a jocular disaster. Here’s what I said about it on Free Exchange way back in February. I’m glad to see Herb Gintis, one of my favorite thinkers in psychologically-informed economics, had a similar reaction:

Ariely is a creative experimenter with zero capacity to deal with economic theory. By accepting the behavioral paradigm (“people are not logical, they are psychological”), he makes it in principle impossible to explain his experimental results.

What does it tell you when the big-ideas review essays in prestige publications are completely blown away by free Amazon reviews? I wonder what Wolfe’s per-word rate was? Gintis does a hell of a lot better for free. Sooner or later everyone in the know will realize they’re supposed to be paying attention to Herb Gintis’ Amazon reviews (among other things), and that the back of TNR just doesn’t matter all that much.

[Thanks to James Chalmers for the pointer.]